A Particular Sadness

Our book club picked The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake for this month, a book that I had heard or seen little of, except for the bright but simple cover that delectably captures the first chapter of the book.  In the opening pages, we meet the narrator – a nine-year old overly sensitive girl, and her family of four.  Her mother makes her a lemon cake, then moves onto other hobbies inside and outside of the house.  The girl takes one bite and can taste everything about the person, leading to pages exposing families secrets.  The brother and father remain on the outskirts, literally disappearing and reappearing in various stages of emotional connection.

Other readers characterize this book as magical realism, and for the most part it is easy to follow, until about three-quarters of the way through, when it takes a turn for the peculiar and by the end has fallen fully into literary abandon.  The untraditional narrative quickly skips through the years of the narrators life, and the author decides not to use quotation marks to designate conversation.  The characters’ words to one another are indistinguishable from those to reader, which is interesting and perplexing at the same time.  It allows the reader to become further immersed in the senses of the narrator.

The author, Aimee Bender, writes appropriately in a style that relies on the senses, from the way certain foods tastes to the way that worn money feels like cloth.  Her descriptions are both extraordinary and common, seamlessly woven into the narrative to give it a homey feel, but in a fairy tale sort of way.  Unfortunately, I don’t agree with where she takes the book in the end.  The protagonist goes in a direction that she should have chosen all along, but the other characters fade into the woodwork.  I would have written a different ending, which isn’t to say that it would have been better, but less fantastical.

So even if this book isn’t my piece of cake, it has inspired me to consider writing my own novel, aptly during National Novel Writing Month when I am already working on a new 50,000 word collection of short stories.  I’ve participated for two years in the past, penning boring tomes about college towns and young love, trying to write in a way that makes the ordinary extraordinary, succeeding in some way less than this other Aimee, who has been published.  But if this book can make it, it makes me think that perhaps my book will be reality one day as well.

The Zoo – Round Two

Entrance to the National Zoo

A friend convinced me to give the National Zoo a second chance.  I first walked through the outdoor Smithsonian exhibit just before summer, in May, on a morning that felt like it could have been in the middle of summer.  At that time, the animals appeared lethargic, if they appeared at all, and I left the place feeling gypped in some way, though the zoo is free, so I couldn’t complain too much.  I took a few photos of tigers lying in the sun, of birds standing still in their enclosures, and the highlight of the day – the orangutan crossing the O-line that rises above the main path.

Lions at the National Zoo

Lions at the National Zoo

On this trip, we missed the time for the O-line, but timed it perfectly for seeing the other animals in action.  The male lion roared in his exhibit, pacing from end to end of the half circle, and we joined several dozen humans and four female members of his pride to watch him.  The younger lions played with burlap blankets and frolicked in fall leaves that they might never see in their natural habitat.  The nearby tigers, separated into separate habitats talked to one another over the concrete wall and paced around the doors, as if waiting for their dinner. We never saw the food, but 2 p.m. was the prime time for big cat action. The bears were out for viewing as well (to continue the Wizard of Oz theme), in an exhibit that is only open on weekends. The inhabitants include a family of four spectacled bears.

In between these outdoor exhibits, we ventured into the warmth of Amazonia, where the monkeys that we had seen earlier in glass enclosures roamed freely above our heads in a living tropical forest.  We stopped by both the Think Tank, which was empty at the time, and the great ape house, which provided instructions for kids to make friends with their nearest animal ancestors.  Zookeepers played hide and seek with the younger apes and feed the others, creating a playground indoors for the children who ran up and down between to the two levels.  We discovered reptiles in the aptly named reptile discovery center, which was less scary than expected, and found oceanic and other invertebrates in the exhibit by that name.  Expertly curated, the indoor exhibit ends with somewhat disturbing spiders, whose webs are within arms length and not enclosed, opening to a peaceful butterfly garden.

The zoos famous pandas took some time to find, given the options of a upper, lower, and indoor viewing area.  By 3:30 in the afternoon, they lounged indoors, eating bamboo.  The elephants stayed at far end of their exhibit, and the animals along the Asian Trail once again stayed largely in hiding, although the Asian otters made an appearance.  The American counterpart exhibit was closed for construction, leaving part of the main path devoid of open exhibits. The zoo counteracts this span with isolated exhibits for the emu and prairie dogs, and adds the occasionally American squirrel in its natural habitat to the delight of some of the children, who seemed as excited to see this creature as any of the more foreign ones.

Slow Sunday

With time changing today back to standard time, we cherished the extra hour, which seemed to extend throughout the day.  Waking up, I had a few extra minutes of sleep, first looking at my alarm clock reading seven-ten a.m. and then turning it back so that I was wide-awake at just after six a.m.  I savored the fresh pot of coffee a few minutes longer and turned on the TV before the Today show had started.  I left for the farmer’s market before it officially opened at 9 a.m. and secured the first pastries and a hard-to-find container of pumpkin soup. I watched the Sunday morning show, feeling like I should be eating lunch by the end, and then caught up on sleep with an afternoon nap.  We extended the afternoon sun as long as we could, running a few miles on a part of the trail that I otherwise never made it too.  Warmed the soup for dinner and found the news on at its now normal time, with the clocks in agreement that the night had set in.

Instrumental to a College Education

One of the benefits of living in a college town, or in a college city for that matter, is the available of  inexpensive concerts, particularly those by the college choral ensemble – even better when it’s sans instrumental accompaniment.  I am mesmerized by the vocal unison, the lack of instruments, the range of notes and sounds.  During the DC a cappella fest, each group had its own style, from the t-shirts and jeans of the Capital Gs to the tuxedos of the guest group the Yale Whiffenpoofs, who joked that they had been making audiences feel underdressed since 1909.  Having seen the later group perform on The Sing Off a year ago and my favorite show Gilmore Girls, I had to see them in person.  Georgetown’s Gaston Hall was the perfect venue.  The hosting Grace Notes started the show in neon sneakers and glittered in gold by the end.  Between their sets, the Saxatones, Phantoms, and University of Delaware Deltones (also from the Sing Off) performed.

Before the show and during intermission, we learned about the history of the hall and the school from the alumni family that sat next to use in the balcony.  With each song, I would see how many notes it took to recognize it, wait to see who stepped into the soloist spot, and end up focusing on a member of the group that stood separated from the group in some way.  In one of the groups, a boy harmonizes with the lead so perfectly, that it’s hard to believe he hasn’t been singing it the whole time.  His hands met at his chest, almost in prayer, and that’s how intently he pushes out the words, leaning them upward towards heaven and the balcony where we sat.

Their color-coordinated ensembles allow room for personalization, from the vests and ties the guys where to the short black skirts and shiny heels of the girls. One tall blonde, pairs her black skirt with scuffed biker boots, belaying her height even more by slouching when she sings. Her long hair reaches her waist like this, though it would have several inches to go if she stood up straight.  She angles her arms in at her waist, like a Catholic choir singer would do to link her hands in a proper formation, but they remain disconnected and unhinged. And that’s the beauty of the a cappella renditions of the songs, how they resemble the originals but have a personality of their own, a superhuman personality, like the combined powers that make up Captain Planet, and make the sum of the sound greater than its individual parts.