Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

The publication page of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, reads: “1. Taste—Fiction. 2. Family Secrets—Fiction.” Normally, I rarely look at this page before reading a novel, but, while searching for my next read after a couple of complicated novels, I stumbled on the page and immediately decided to try Bender out.

The premise is as interesting as the Sears’ Subject Headings librarians use to categorize books into neat compartments. Rosie is about to turn eight, and her mother, Lane, bakes her favorite cake. Rosie spies the finished cake and a bowl of icing nearby, while her mother naps, waiting for the cake to cool. Rosie helps herself to a chunk and slathers icing on it. Bender writes,

“To be clear: the bite I ate was delicious. Warm citrus-baked batter lightness enfolded by cool deep dark swirled sugar.

“But the day was darkening outside, and as I finished that first bite, as the first impression faded, I felt a subtle shift inside me, an unexpected reaction. As if a sensor, so far buried deep inside me, raised its scope to scan around, alerting my mouth to something new. Because the goodness of the ingredients – the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons – seemed like a cover over something larger and darker, and the taste of what was underneath was beginning to push up from the bite. I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a crowded sense of her thinking, a spiral, like I could almost even taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary, a white dotted line of them in a row on the nightstand like an ellipsis to her comment: ‘I’m just going to lie down.” (9-10)

This really long, absorbing sentence captures the gift – or the curse – Rosie must learn to live with for quite a few years.

Rosie’s brother, Joseph, also has a mysterious gift, but in an entirely different direction. Her reclusive grandmother also has some secret. In fact, all the members of the Edelstein family harbor strange, inner fantasies, which reveal themselves in odd behavior.

Joseph has plans for a brilliant career in physics; however, his friend George receives an acceptance to CalTech, but Joseph is rejected and ends up unhappily in a small local college. Bender describes Joseph as, “brilliant, adults often said as they shuttled out of the house, shaking their heads at the precise drawing he’d made on sketch paper of planets yet to be discovered, complete with atmosphere thicknesses and moons. Our mother lowered her eyes, pleased. I was often admired for being friendly.” (40)

To the consternation of Rosie and her parents, from time to time he disappears without a trace, then, just as suddenly, reappears. Rosie has a crush on George, especially after he believes her claim of “tasting the emotions of people who make the food she eats.” Lane tells Rosie, “Such a sweet supporter you are. Much nicer than your father.” (42) Paul, Rosie’s Dad, a moderately successful attorney on the other hand, describes himself as “without any special skills” (108 et al).

Rosie reduces herself to eating “factory” food, made strictly by machines. However, she does do some cooking of her own, and tastes, “Sadness, rage, tanks, holes, hope, guilt, tantrums. Nostalgia, like rotting flowers. A factory, cold.” (222)

In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Bender has put together a story with prose which runs like a quiet stream in the coolness of a fall afternoon. I could hardly admire her and her work any more than I do. 5 stars

--Chiron, 10/31/12

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Winter King by Thomas Penn

During my days at LaSalle University in Philly back in the 60s, I took a bunch of history classes, because I was always fascinated with the subject. I reveled in a couple on the ancient Greeks and Romans, but my heart fell in a class on Tudor England.

Since then, I have been consumed with the Tudor dynasty, which began in 1485 after Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field, thus ending the War of the Roses between the Royal Houses of Lancaster (red rose) and York (white rose). The family reign ended with the death of Elizabeth I in 1603.

Over the years, I have collected biographies of every major figure in the Tudor family – all the kings and queens, all six of Henry VIII’s wives, and a number of other peripheral figures around the court. However, I lacked one important piece of the puzzle – King Henry VII, the founder of the dynasty. Late last year, I discovered a new biography of Henry by Thomas Penn, who holds a PhD in early Tudor history from Cambridge University.

One of the fascinations I have with history revolves around the amazing discovery that history repeats itself over and over. Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England amply proves the truth of that statement once again.

Following the defeat of Richard at Bosworth Field, Henry became King of England. Many people in England resented his crown, and numerous plots to dethrone him popped up over the next 20 years. Numerous factions, especially those with connections to the defeated York family, complained that Henry illegitimately claimed the crown.

The corruption, back-stabbing, spying, treachery, and extortion, which were the hallmarks of the Tudor family throughout its existence leaves me gasping in fascination. In the “Introduction,” Penn quotes Francis Bacon, who wrote, “Henry VII was ‘infinitely suspicious’ and he was right to be so, for his times were ‘full of secret conspiracies and troubles’. Perhaps the most telling verdict of all,” Penn writes, “is that Shakespeare, omits Henry VII altogether from his sequence of history plays – not for want of material, but, one suspects, because the reign was simply too uncomfortable to deal with” ( xxv-xxvi).

Penn tells us, the idea of Henry VII as a “time of transition, one in which the violent feuds of the previous decades gave way to a glorious age of renaissance and reformation … was a myth the Tudors themselves built” (xxv). Most scholars now see him as “the unifier of a war-torn land, a wise king who brought justice and stability, and who set the crown on a sound financial footing. Nonetheless they were unable to eradicate the lingering sense of a reign that degenerated into oppression, extortion and a kind of terror, at its core a Machiavellian king who inspired not love but fear” (xxv). Bacon, his first biographer, referred to Henry as a “dark prince” (xxv).

A splendid biography for anyone interested in the history of one of the most famous – and infamous – families in English history. 5 stars

--Chiron, 10/26/12