The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Every time I pick up a book with a simplistic, comic-book cover, I do what most people do: I expect a simplistic story, one that won’t stick with me longer than it takes to read it. When the book turns out to be deep, with layers of meaning that I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come, I feel a sense of sadness for the author. She or he has put months or years into creating a literary work of art, only to have a publisher put a cover on it that will cause it to be picked up only by people looking for a quick beach read or something to pass time at the doctor’s office or on a plane. Those people will grow tired of it quickly because it’s not what they wanted, while people who might be looking for something more substantial won’t pick it up at all.

The cover of THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE by Aimee Bender is a flat, three-color rendition of a slice of chocolate-frosted yellow cake with a single birthday candle. I expected froth and recipes. But the novel is a daring story that gracefully traverses the area between fantasy and fiction, occasionally dipping into moments of horror all the more terrible because the settings are so ordinary. Basically, the story exposes a normal family that isn’t normal at all. A father who for a secret reason can’t bring himself to enter a hospital even when his wife is inside giving birth to his children, a wife who isn’t nearly as long-suffering and patient as she appears, a teenaged son who uses his genius to remove himself — literally — from life, and a young girl who discovers on her ninth birthday that she can taste the emotions of the cook in everything she eats. Sometimes she cannot bear to hold their despair on her tongue, but when she tries to confide her secret to the school nurse she’s suspected of being anorexic. Only she knows the secrets all the others hold, only she catches her brother in the act of disappearing.

THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE by Aimee Bender is a beautiful book. Don’t be put off by the cover. And if you read it and then find yourself halfway expecting to taste emotions in the next food you eat, maybe you will.

Please Look After Mom

Whether your experience with motherhood is being married to one, being one, or having one, you’ll find plenty to make you cringe with guilty recognition in PLEASE LOOK AFTER MOM by the Korean writer Kyung-Sook Shin. The story is simple enough: an elderly woman is left behind when the subway train doors close in Seoul. Her husband, who has always walked ahead of her and ignored her pleas for him to walk more slowly, doesn’t realize she’s not with him until it’s too late. At the next stop, he gets off and walks back to the previous station, but she’s gone.

The couple are from the country and have come to Seoul to visit their grown children. In past visits, one of the children has always met them at the station, so their mother has no experience navigating the crowded streets by herself. As they frantically search for her and put out flyers asking for information about her, they each remember their unique relationship with her, the secret sacrifices she made for each one, the promises they made to her about what they would do for her when they grew up. The promises they never kept. The husband remembers too, how he had taken all she did for granted and how he had not insisted that she go to the hospital even when her headaches had worsened so much she couldn’t bear even to cry with pain.

The mother has her own memories, some secrets that her family has never suspected. Told in four points of view, the result is an intricately woven pattern of a family’s love, loyalty, betrayals, secrets, forgiveness, and emotional transcendence. It’s a story that will stay with me for a long time. Most of all, it made me wish I could spend just one hour with my own mother and beg her forgiveness for some of the thoughtless things I did and said when she was alive. 

Cutting for Stone

I haven’t slept well for the last several days, mostly because I was up until way too late reading Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese. The book has been a best-seller for several weeks, so I’m certainly not the first person to love it. But in a literary landscape where a glut of titles involve vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts, time-travelers, or people who commune with the dead, Cutting for Stone is a welcome story about people who are fascinating for what they do in the real world with nothing but human minds and bodies. Characters are drawn with such skill that every person seems to step off the page.

Verghese is a magical writer with the soul of a poet, and the story he tells is one of a kind. Identical twins whose birth itself is improbable grow up in a hospital in Ethopia during the reign of Ras Tefari, who came to be revered and then feared as Haile Selassie. One twin ends up a skilled surgeon in the United States, the other twin remains in Ethopia to found a hospital devoted to women who suffer from a terrible gynecological condition all too common among the poor and medically neglected. But when one twin’s life is in danger, the two are reunited as only identical twins can be, with an awareness that they are truly one. This is a book I’ll read more than once.

The Cat Master

As a rule, I’m not crazy about stories in which animals talk, but I just finished The Cat Master, a lovely book by Bonnie Pemberton, and I’ll never look at a feral cat in the same way again. According to the promotional material, it’s for ages 10 and up, but up is the significant word. Like Watership Down, it’s a story about animals in a well-established culture with its own rules and rituals and mythology. Indoor cats yearn for the freedom enjoyed by outdoor cats, while outdoor cats sometimes huddle miserably in the cold and dream of a warm hearth and a bowl of food. Each looks down on the other as inferior, and at the same time each is jealous of the other.

Two male cats each claim the title of Cat Master, and every cat who is able journeys to the meeting place where the two cats will have a final showdown. The story follows the journey of four of those cats — it might have been more effective if there’d been one less cat to remember — and the dog, possum, mockingbird, and lizard who help them. Only one cat can be Master of the feline world, and that cat will have to kill the other. By the time the showdown comes, you know the back story of every character, the vicious and the gentle, and you know that a little compassion from a human would have changed the personalities of the killers. But this isn’t a story in which all the humans are old meanies, either. Cats are rescued and fed, they are taken to vets and healed, they are loved. Some cats who are given the choice between outside freedom and living with humans gladly choose to stay inside.

It was a cold night when I finished the book, and the story had made me especially mindful of all the outside cats trying to find a warm place. As I drifted to sleep, I sent a mental image of warm cocoons wrapped around every outside cat. I’ve done it every night since. When a book has that much effect on a reader, it’s a good book!

Poetry and the God Within

Kim Rosen is a performance poet, a calling I’d never heard of until I read one of her books, Saved By A Poem. She came to Sarasota last weekend and conducted a workshop that was inspiring, energizing, comforting, and magical. I was particularly struck by the quiet power of a woman who’s using her unique talents in a way she’s carved out for herself.

I don’t imagine it’s been easy. Americans as a society don’t value poetry except as the lyrics of popular music or rap. Even then, we don’t honor its transformative power the way people in some other societies do. To Kim, it is both healing and entheogenic, a word I’d never heard of until I heard her use it. Its dictionary meaning is “creates god within.” I think Kim means it in the sense of making you aware of God within, of awakening the holy and pure in yourself.

Through Kim, I’ve learned that a poem has to be read over and over to get its full meaning, that it has to be repeated aloud and carried around with you and thought about to get it in your bones. The beautiful lines are easy. Think, for example, about this incredible line from a David Whyte poem, “The Lightest Touch”:

In the silence that follows
a great line
you can feel Lazarus
deep inside
even the laziest, most deathly afraid
part of you
lift up his hands and walk toward the light.

But beautiful lines may not teach you as much as the lines you reject. The parts that bore you or annoy you have to be considered and questioned. Why does that particular line bother you? Why does it make you sneer or yawn? What does it touch in you that you want to keep hidden from yourself?

Those are the questions I’m asking myself since Kim’s workshop. If you get a chance to experience Kim in person, jump at it. It’s truly a entheogenic experience.

Do Your Books Define You?

What’s on your bookshelf? If a stranger came in your house and read the titles of the books you have lying around, would the titles define you?

In my case, the stranger would have to spend a long time reading those titles because books fill an entire floor-to-ceiling wall of one room, take up a tall bookcase in another room, and are lined up, stacked, and spilled on every table and chest in the house. As I write this, I remember a sprawl of books on a couch in my little library and another on a chaise in the living room. The genres are all over the place too. Biographies, histories, memoirs, novels, poetry, short stories, mysteries, fantasy, plays, Greek classics, humor, psychology, health, gardening, cooking, you name it, I’ve got it. If my choice of books defines me, then I’m a multiple personality. I doubt that I’m unique in that. I think people who love books have broad tastes. I like that about us.

Most recently, I read Per Petterson’s I Curse The River of Time. Petterson is a Norwegian author whose stories seem to be about one thing on the surface but are really about something else. The writing is so dense that half the time I don’t know what’s going on but at the same time I do without knowing how I do. The stories loop in time without giving any clues as to when a scene is taking place, or who the characters in the scene are, but somehow when the books end you have absorbed a sequential story spanning generations and places even though the words haven’t been there. That book will be added to the wall of books that absolutely are not to be loaned to anybody or given away, and I will return to it again and again.

But don’t define me by that book. Before it, I read Mockingjay, the final book in 
Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. And before that a Tess Gerritsen paperback, The Surgeon. And before that Bob Morris’ latest, Baja Florida. I loved them all. I am them all.

Saved By A Poem

Every time I think I’ve learned as much as I can learn, grown as much as I can grow, evolved as much as I can evolve, I find myself teetering on the edge of another precipice, forced to spread my invisible wings and flap hard to move to a slightly higher place. Those flying lessons always come in the midst of times when I’ve been forced by some gritty circumstance to pay close attention to the here and now.

The latest nudge to flap my puny wings arrived as a gift of a book by Kim Rosen titled SAVED BY A POEM (Hay House, 2009). We’re never presented with a new lesson until we’re ready, so I suppose I must have been ready for Rosen, even though reading a book about poetry was the last thing in the world I would have consciously chosen to do. I read it almost as a duty, because the book had been a gift.

I’ve never been a poem person. My need to understand has always gotten in the way of hearing poetry the way it should be heard. I’ve always tried to find meaning in the lines of poetry, and if meaning wasn’t immediately forthcoming, I’d grow quickly bored with it. And I definitely didn’t have time for the the soft squishy Hallmark kind of poetry about flowers and sunsets. The only poetry I’d committed to memory had been foisted on me in school, lines that seemed comical because an entire generation had been forced to learn them, and because educators failed to realize that lines like “A tree whose hungry mouth is prest/against the earth’s sweet flowing breast” was bound to elicit giggles rather than awe in twelve-year-olds.

But I learned from Rosen’s book how to absorb lines of poetry into my flesh and bones, to feel the power of the words and let them work their magic. I learned that, like music, the rhythms and sounds of spoken poetry cause measurable changes in the human body.

The book has a CD in the back of various people reciting their favorite poem and speaking a bit about what the poem means to them. I’ve listened to it several times, pulled out all my books of poetry, found a CD of the poet David Whyte speaking some of his own poems — another gift I’ve had for a long time and now listen to with new ears. I find myself feeling starved for poetry, as if I’ve been deprived of something vital for a long time. SAVED BY A POEM may not have saved me, but it certainly changed me.

Roy Blount, Jr.

I may as well admit it. I’m in love with Roy Blount, Jr. I’ve never met the man, but I love him helplessly. When he speaks on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” in that rumbling gravelly voice, I get a grin on my face like little kids get when they hear the jingling music of an ice cream truck. Roy — I call him Roy as if we were old friends — is also the president of the Author’s Guild, which just goes to show how selfless he is in wanting to help other writers. And that’s not even including the fact that he’s a fantastic writer. His monthly columns in the Oxford American were so good I wanted to go out and buttonhole people and say, “You have to read this!” He has a way of summing up human beings like nobody since Mark Twain. He knows how to get the most out of words, playing with them but with a little bite that lets you know there’s a keen mind in the background that eats stupid people for breakfast.

Not to worry, Roy, you won’t see me outside your window stalking you. I’ll just be a virtual groupie, swooning over the way you tame wild words and make them purr. Right now I’m reading Alphabet Juice, which should be on every writer’s bedside table. Sometimes I read it for stretches of time, sometimes I dip into it during TV commercials. I learn something every time about words and how to use them. I am also reminded that some of the most brilliant minds live amongst us in very nice, humble people.

No Women on Publisher’s Weekly Top Ten

Publisher’s Weekly has announced its pick of the 10 best fiction and nonfiction books published in 2009. As in most “best of” literary lists, no female authors were included. I’m sure some of PW‘s picks were outstanding by anybody’s standards, but the ones I’ve read are all at this moment in a bag of books to be donated to my local library’s book store. I found them too boring to pass along to friends.

I don’t know if it’s a general coarsening of sensitivity in the human psyche or simply a persistent androcentric approach to literature, but when a middle-aged male writer pens a novel in which a middle-aged man finds himself cast into a real-life version of  adolescent male fantasies, middle-aged male critics swoon in ecstatic awe at the story’s truthfulness, its edginess, its gritty courage. Sometimes that’s just plain funny, and a little pathetic, but it also glorifies hackneyed porn just because it’s written with big words.

One of the books PW named as a top 10 is a plodding, episodic tale of a man who finds great romantic pleasure when a woman he’s known a few hours urinates on his hand. But wait, his name is Atman, and the second half of the book takes place in India, and Atman is the Hindu name of the ultimate godhead, so this must really be a spiritual allegory, right? Not quite. If a woman had written that drek, it wouldn’t have even been considered. Nor should it have been.

For a long time I’ve suspected that a lot of literary critics read the first and last two chapters of a book and skip the middle. That’s the only explanation I can find for some of the rave reviews for books that begin and end with big bangs but have hollow insides.

And no, I’m not writing in a pique of jealousy. I don’t for one minute place myself in the company of the world’s greatest writers. But I know good writing when I read it, and a lot of it is done by women. I wish the reviewing world would stop thinking it’s always done by men.

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna

Once in a blue moon, I finish a book with such awed wonder that I feel compelled to contact the author and say, “My God, what a majestic work you’ve done!” That’s how I felt when I put down Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, The Lacuna. There were times, reading it, that I found the tension of the plot almost unbearable, not only because any one of the story’s multiple layers of meaning can break my heart, but because the surface story itself magnificently explores the many faces of love and loyalty. I’ve seen some reviews expressing disappointment in The Lacuna because it isn’t The Poisonwood Bible. If you read The Lacuna, you’ll see how ironic those reviews are. If she reads them, Kingsolver must have some grim laughs at the way life imitates art.