Well, I finally quit trying to read Devil In The White City. I probably should have stuck with it and charged through, but there was just something about that book that didn’t hook me into coming back for more. I liked what I read, but I kept thinking about finishing this Ambitious Reading List and even starting the next one and just couldn’t sync with it. So, I put it to the side, knowing I’ll return to it some day, and then moved onto Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake, a book I really loved by an author I have a little bit of experience with. You know what that means, story time!
When I was in college at Ohio Wesleyan University, I was part of the English board (or whatever it was called). I think I got involved because my creative writing professor, Robert Olmstead, asked me if I’d be interested so I went with it. I don’t know if it was an election or what, but there I was. We had various authors come to OWU, do readings and sometimes even sit in on our workshop classes. Aimee Bender was one of those authors. For whatever reason Professor Olmstead asked me to write and do an introduction for her, which made me nervous because I get all kinds of anxious when I have to speak in front of a crowd, even if it’s just a handful of my fellow classmates. Anyway, I did my research (I think this was pre-Wikipedia, so I had to go to more than one website), gave the intro and Bender said it was one of the best ones she’d ever heard. I don’t know if she was just being nice, but it was nice and I appreciated it.
I can’t remember if we read any of Bender’s work for my workshop class or if I just listened pretty well during her reading, but I was drawn to her style. It’s very introspective and colorful and usually involves some fantastical elements inserted into normal life (at least the two novels of hers that I read). At the time it was also really inspiring because I felt like I was working towards a style similar to hers. A few years back I finally read her first novel, An Invisible Sign Of My Own, which I remember liking, but don’t remember many details of. Back when all the Borders closed down, I was at one and happened to see her latest novel The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake and had to buy it. Man, I’m glad I did. I had a wonderful experience reading this book.
The idea here is that, a young girl named Rose realizes she has the ability to taste the feelings of people making her food, but it’s really more about Rose, how she deals with this ability while also growing up the world AND dealing with her normal-on-the-surface-but-not-really family. See, Rose’s dad wanted a normal family, likes lists and wants everything simple and normal, but that’s not how life really is, especially the lives of the people in his house. Rose’s mom has this deep longing to find herself and deflects many of those feelings by loving her children intensely. Meanwhile, Rose’s brother is pretty shut off from the world, burying himself in books and science, but also has something odd going on that I won’t spoil, but turns out to be pretty crazy.
The book also deals with normal things like growing to understand the adult world, first loves gone bad and the responsibility many children feel to their parents. The beauty of Bender’s writing is that she can so seamlessly infuse these normal, relateable human moments with some pretty crazy elements. Being a comic book fan, I think I might have been a little more primed for this kind of book which shares a basic premise with John Layman and Rob Guillory’s Chew. I’d be curious to find out if people not in that camp would be able to get into the slightly off kilter world of this book.
Reading this book was a little like looking at a series of mirrors for me. I could relate to pretty much every character in this book on a very personal level that surprised me. It might just be a matter of happenstance, that the fears, insecurities, hopes and dreams running around in my head were so well represented in this book, but it’s there. One character’s desire to just fade away, another’s desire to tackle the world, the mom’s desire to find something outside of her family that fulfills her and even Rose’s appreciation for a simple dishwashing job. All those things are bouncing around my head at any given day, so it was a pleasure to see these things on the page.
I can’t recommend Bender’s work enough. As I mentioned when I wrote about Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, there are a lot of similarities in styles between these two women. It’s funny, while reading Bones I noted that Sebold’s style reminded me of Bender’s and this time, while reading Cake, Bender reminded me of Sebold. If you’re looking for an author who looks at things from a different perspective and explains them deftly with an expert use of language and sense memory, give The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake a read.
With Bender’s book crossed off the list, I’ve now moved on to Please Kill Me and am about 150 pages into this 430 page beast. I’m learning all kinds of stuff, some pretty crazy things and keeping track of records I want to check out. What a wild time. And after that? Well, I’ve already got my next Ambitious Reading List read to roll. It’s another dozen books of all different shapes, sizes and topics. I’m pretty excited, should be fun.