The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
  • March 17, 2011

    Opening Round

  • Commentary by

    Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

  • Today’s Winner:

    2The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake


Kevin: You will look hard before you find a bigger sports fan than me. I come from a baseball family and spent a few seasons after college working in the media relations departments of two Major League Baseball teams. This week, with the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament tipping off (and my alma mater a no. 2 seed), and the Bulls near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, and the Blackhawks chasing a playoff spot, and spring training underway, I am positively giddy with sports love. And now that I’m a novelist, I am constantly asked if I will ever set one of my books in that world. And I always wince and have to say, “No. I don’t think so.” Because there’s already so much written about sports. And the events themselves are so packed with drama that fiction about sports just seems gratuitous to me most of the time.

(My previous comments about horse racing represent an exception. And I am not averse to writing about people who write about sports, thus exempting Richard Ford’s magnificent The Sportswriter.)

And I feel the same way about food. My wife is an excellent cook, a fact that will be confirmed by anyone who still remembers my premarital, six-foot-one, 170-pound frame. I love to eat. But I don’t love reading about food. Or about cooking. Or eating. I often feel writing about eating is a lot like writing about sex. Because both experiences are unique they are also resistant to metaphor and whenever a writer tries to tell me that screwing is like something else, I’m usually thinking, “No it isn’t.” Which is why it’s so easy to make fun of most sex writing, even from talented authors, and foodie lit occupies a similar place for me.

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So when I first heard of this novel about a girl who can taste what people are feeling I was not really all that excited. But a lot of people I know loved Lemon Cake and I was moved to give it a try and I have to say I really enjoyed it.

Aimee Bender is a terrific writer. Judge George (who beat out a crush of ToB readers to be the a tournament judge and who by the way did a marvelous job) cites a couple of counterexamples but she rightly points out that there’s not a lot of showing off in Bender’s prose. Much of this book is almost written in a whisper, which I hope sounds like a compliment because it’s meant to be.

John: I first became acquainted with Aimee Bender right around the release of her first book, a collection of stories called Girl in the Flammable Skirt. The stories in that book are, for lack of a better word, “crazy-ass,” which I also mean as a compliment. In one, a librarian decides she’s going to have sex with every person who comes into the library. In another, a man comes home from war without lips, which are replaced with a kind of bizarre prosthesis.

I associate Aimee Bender’s work with another writer who has become a favorite of mine (and many others), George Saunders, mostly because I discovered them both around the same time and because their books were like a balm to my troubled writer soul.

I had just finished with my graduate studies and had grown frustrated trying to achieve a Carver-esque mimesis with my own work, which always felt like I was trying to put a tuxedo (pants and all) on a monkey. It looked vaguely human, but wasn’t really convincing anybody and when you weren’t looking threw a handful of feces at you. I knew I loved the kinds of emotional notes that Carver or Ann Beattie or Bobbie Ann Mason or Andre Dubus could hit, but I wasn’t capable of reaching them, and Bender and Saunders (among others) lit the way out of the gloom. For me, they’d solved something, a way to achieve those small, good epiphanies while being true to a world that seemed too strange to be real. Their realities are obviously exaggerated, but still recognizable as the world we live in. Saunders is often comic, while much of Bender’s early work is overtly sexual, but each feels emotionally true to me in their own ways.

It’s a tough thing to pull off these bold conceits, and the short story seems sort of ideally suited to this kind of writing, where a certain amount of surface quirk doesn’t run the risk of wearing thin. Saunders never has cracked the novel form (at least not for public consumption), and I was impressed with how well Bender has adapted her native talents to the novel. The conceit informs the main character instead of overwhelming her, and the restraint you and Judge George identify is admirable.

Kevin: This is the first Aimee Bender I’ve read and based on it I wouldn’t think to put her in the same jar as Saunders, whom you know I love. I will definitely check out her stories.

I am not finished with Bloodroot, I’m sorry to say. I can’t exactly disagree with anything Judge George says, but I am enjoying it more than her. I like these rural Faulknerian, multiple POV stories, maybe because I grew up in a similar setting. I remember going to visit a friend of mine once. He was really poor, but he’d invited me to his trailer for lunch. And we sat at this picnic table in his yard with a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter and I remember looking out past his mobile home into this beautiful, pristine valley and the easy hills beyond it and thinking how much rich people pay for a similar view out their window. Bloodroot just reminded me of moments like that. There is this constant tension between ignorance and wisdom and beauty and ugliness, like bloodroot itself, a plant that can allegedly sometimes cure cancer and also kill a horse.

So this is much more of a toss-up for me (actually I guess it was for her, too, but I liked both of these books more than she does). Still I give all credit to Judge George’s decision. Well done.

Lemon Cake moves on, but Bloodroot is a terrific debut with plenty of champions. We’ll see where it shows up in the Zombie polling, but either way I hope there are people who will check it out because of the tourney.

John: Bloodroot is the one book in the entire tourney that I never started, though it’s nothing personal. The list of books I want to read but can’t grows longer by the day and Bloodroot has to remain on it for the time being.

That’s the opening round, folks, and it’s been a fun one. Don’t forget to tune in tomorrow when our very own Tournament of Books Statistician Andrew Seal will step into the ring, and Kevin and I will offer an opening round recap and quarterfinals preview, with some thoughts on reader comments, as well as an exclusive interview with one of this year’s competitors.

Kevin Guilfoile is the author of two acclaimed novels, Cast of Shadows and The Thousand, which have been translated into more than 20 languages.

John Warner’s novel, The Funny Man, will be released late September of this year by Soho Press. For the time being, he teaches at Clemson University.

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