I tend to like and lean towards creative things made by womenfolk—perhaps it has to do with being handed a Cibo Matto mixtape at a crucial point of adolescence or deciding to major in post-1945 yonic-ceramic-art-history in college (yes! I really did this!); yellow-wallpapered observations are always my default reads. But this year, I found myself reading almost exclusively female writers–and more specifically, their collections of short stories. As Lorrie Moore puts it (best, always best), I have entered “that awful stage of life between twenty-six to and thirty-seven known as stupidity,” and the best way I’ve found to navigate—or at least subsist within—it are these compact little morsels of ladywriting, with beginnings, middles, and ends. I blame the Internet and Saturn’s return.
My favorite discovery this year was Canadian bookseller Deborah Willis, whose debut collection Vanishing and Other Stories really floored me. Willis has this airy, almost giggly writing voice that sounds like a Valley Girl gifted with an Oxford education (example: “What I did understand, later but still way before Claudia did, was that it was impossible. That we could never break free. No matter what we did, we could never separate them from us. Our bodies were built by the lentils and flax they’d fed us. Their bone structure lingered in our faces.”) The title story in her collection is told by a woman whose neurotic author father mysteriously left his attic office one day and just never returned—the narrator is still stunned by it after so many years, this spectral longing, this losing a person due to the fact that they simply do not wish to be found. If you have time to read one more short story this year, consider making that one it.
Willis’ work reminded me a bit, but not too much, of Aimee Bender’s wonderful, casual magical realism, which I am (utterly, blushingly) ashamed to say was a 2010 revelation. Her latest novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake–about people who eat their feelings in every literal way–was one of my favorite long reads this year, but I found myself gravitating more often in quiet moments to her debut story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, which contains one of the best descriptions of losing love I’ve found. A woman’s lover experiences “reverse evolution,” becoming a monkey, then a salamander-like primitive creature that she must let out to sea. “Sometimes I think he’ll wash up on shore,” she writes. “A naked man with a startled look. Who has been to history and back.” And isn’t that what we all want from past loves? Bewilderment and a sudden return to our stoop. Point: Bender.
Last cold front, I dove headfirst in the Mary Gaitskill oeuvre after seeing her read at the Center for Fiction early in the year, gobbling down Don’t Cry and Bad Behavior (again, deep shame of not getting there sooner). I also found and courted and decided to settle in with Amy Bloom, particularly Come to Me—which was the winner in the “story openings I wish I’d written” category: “I wasn’t surprised to find myself in the back of Mr. Klein’s store, wearing only my undershirt and panties, surrounded by sable.”
The last woman-penned story collection I read was Michele Latiolais’ forthcoming Widow, which is weird and sad and compulsive and continues to stick to my ribs. Latiolais writes about grief in such a raw way—she joins the general pantheon of No-More-Husband literature (high priestess: J-Did), but her style is so unique as to be another genre altogether.
And also! Danielle Evans’ Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, which nails so much in so little space.
There are many ways to measure a year, but the reader is likely to measure it in books. There was the novel that felt as fresh and full of promise as the new year in January, the memoir read on the bus to and from work through the grey days of March, the creased paperback fished from a pocket in the park in May, the stacks of books thumbed through and sandy-paged, passed around at the beach in August, the old favorite read by light coming in the window in October, and the many books in between. And when we each look back at our own years in reading, we are almost sure to find that ours was exactly like no other reader’s.
The end of another year brings the usual frothy and arbitrary accounting of the “best” this and the “most” that. But might it also be an opportunity to look back, reflect, and share? We hope so, and so, for a seventh year, The Millions has reached out to some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2011 a fruitful one.
As we have in prior years, the names of our 2010 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Fiona Maazel, author of Last Last Chance.
John Banville, author of The Sea, The Infinities, and many other books.
Al Jaffee, legendary Mad Magazine writer and cartoonist.
Lionel Shriver, author of So Much for That and several other books.
Emma Rathbone, author of The Patterns of Paper Monsters.
Joshua Cohen, author of Witz.
Jonathan Dee, author of The Privileges and several other books.
Jennifer Gilmore, author of Something Red.
Stephen Elliott, editor of The Rumpus and author of The Adderall Diaries.
Dan Kois, author of Facing Future.
Bill Morris, Millions staff writer and author of Motor City.
Mark Sarvas, author of Harry, Revised, proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Emma Donoghue, author of Room and several other books.
Margaret Atwood, author of Year of the Flood and many other books.
Lynne Tillman, author of American Genius and several other books.
Hamilton Leithauser, of The Walkmen.
Padgett Powell, author of The Interrogative Mood and other books.
Anthony Doerr, author of Memory Wall and other books.
Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Tom Rachman, author of The Imperfectionists.
Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and several other books.
Philip Lopate, author of Notes on Sontag and several other books.
Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask and other books.
Julie Orringer, author of The Invisible Bridge.
Joseph McElroy, author of Women and Men and several other books.
Alexander Theroux, author of Laura Warholic and several other books.
Laura van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.
Emily St. John Mandel, Millions staff writer and author of Last Night In Montreal and The Singer’s Gun.
John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass.
Edan Lepucki, Millions staff writer, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Ed Champion, proprietor of edrants.com and The Bat Segundo Show.
Maud Newton, proprietor of maudnewton.com.
Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review.
Tom McCarthy, author of C and Remainder.
Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men and founding editor of n+1.
Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There and co-founder of The Morning News.
Paul Harding, author of Tinkers.
Sigrid Nunez, author of Salvation City and several other books.
Matt Weiland, editor of The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup and State by State.
Allegra Goodman, author of The Cookbook Collector and several other books.
Adam Levin, author of The Instructions and several other books.
Michael Cunningham, author of By Nightfall, The Hours and several other books.
Sam Anderson, book critic, New York magazine.
Richard Nash, of Cursor and Red Lemonade.
Seth Mnookin, author of Hard News and The Panic Virus.
Joanna Smith Rakoff, author of A Fortunate Age.
Marisa Silver, author of The God of War and other books.
David Gutowski, of Largehearted Boy.
Emily Colette Wilkinson, Millions staff writer.
Jenny Davidson, author of Invisible Things and other books.
Scott Esposito, proprietor of Conversational Reading and editor of The Quarterly Conversation.
Carolyn Kellogg, LA Times staff writer.
Anne K. Yoder of The Millions.
Marjorie Kehe, book editor at the Christian Science Monitor.
Neal Pollack, author of Stretch: The Unlikely Making Of A Yoga Dude and other books.
Danielle Evans, author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.
Allen Barra writes for the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Beast.
Dorothea Lasky, author of Black Life and AWE.
Avi Steinberg, author of Running the Books, The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.
Stephanie Deutsch, critic and historian.
Lydia Kiesling, Millions staff writer.
Lorraine Adams, author of The Room and the Chair.
Rachel Syme, NPR.com books editor.
Garth Risk Hallberg, Millions staff writer and author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
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Several years ago I took a weekend workshop with Aimee Bender at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House. The class was called “Writing Outside Realism,” and it was an excellent reminder of why writing fiction is fun. (I don’t know about you, but I need a lot of reminding.) We invented opposites (What’s the opposite of a three-legged dog in a field? A mansion on fire. What’s the opposite of the Moonlight Sonata Prom, Chicago? Mobsterville, Long Island). We drew from a deck of optical illusion cards to create relationships between characters. Bender offered advice on writing non-realist fiction that isn’t a cop-out. No alarm clocks at the end of the story, waking readers up from the fictional dream, and no mini alarm clocks either, buzzing us out of bizarre moments. Also, no “they’re all cows stories,” by which she meant something like no cheap tricks. Writing stories with a conventional beginning, middle, and end bored her, she said. Her daily guide for how a story is coming along is to ask herself, Am I still interested in this?
I’m always interested in Bender-style fun, and so when I heard she had a new novel on the way, I asked for an advance copy. Like Eryn Loeb here at The Millions, I devoured The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and enjoyed its sweet, melancholy flavors. If I hadn’t read Bender’s superb story collections, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures, I would have felt satiated: a delightful, imaginative, affecting novel—an ample serving of literary entertainment. Because if reading Bender’s stories was like creeping downstairs in the middle of the night to eat all the leftover cake with my hands — that much better for the darkness, for the raw, guilty lust — this new novel is summer afternoon, garden party fare.
In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Rose discovers that she can taste her mother’s unhappiness in her ninth birthday cake. Sickened by this unfortunate magical power, Rose seeks out food from vending machines, from boxes and cans—food that tastes of the blandness of factories, not the pungency of human emotions. Rose’s family exudes quirkiness and harbors secrets; they are intriguing, idiosyncratic characters. But as we follow them through the novel, we become accustomed to their eccentricities. Their weirdness and loneliness come to seem less weird and less lonely.
Though Rose’s daily struggles to connect with her family and to eat a meal without ingesting the suffering of others are engaging, her story doesn’t feel urgent. Still, the tenderness of the language consistently enchants, and Bender skillfully captures the way that people in families, though they may all live in the same house, can be fundamentally mysterious to each other. About her brother, Rose wonders: “what he knew about the family; what he didn’t know. What family he lived in.” The height of intimacy between Rose and her dad is sitting on the couch together watching a medical drama on TV. The fantastical conceit of the book—Rose’s ability to taste people’s emotions in the food they’ve prepared—is easily translated as the dilemma of a perceptive kid among willfully oblivious adults. The kid feels smarter than the adults, and that’s kind of interesting, but it’s also disconcerting. Nevertheless, she grows up and finds ways to cope. Though the lemon cake tastes bitter to Rose, it’s still lemon cake.
Bender’s first novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, does for numbers what The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake does for food. It invests them with emotional power, as sources of magic, obsession, and anxiety in a young woman’s life. Mona teaches math to elementary school students, and her innovative methods are part of the book’s unsettling fun. In her Numbers and Materials sessions, second graders bring number-shaped materials to class to practice subtraction. Danny, whose father lost an arm, brings in the arm (encased in glass) to represent a one. Lisa, whose mother is dying of cancer, presents an I.V. tube for a zero. Mona herself contributes an axe as a seven. Violence and disease lurk in this town, where the most notable site is the twelve-story hospital built entirely of blue glass. Despite the gloomy milieu, the overall tone here is whimsical. Bender’s inventive details entertain, and the voices of the characters are fresh and poignant, particularly those of the children, who could have been overly cute in the hands of a lesser writer. The novel captures the experience of a beginning teacher who can relate to her class because she’s childlike herself, in both appealing and crippling ways. She is strong-willed, imaginative, and alert to adult phoniness. She’s also afraid of adult desire (in the form of a cute science teacher who teaches about health by having kids act out the symptoms of various diseases) and terrified of what she doesn’t understand about her own parents.
The best part of the book—and here again I’ll betray my preference for Bender in her sharp, succinct mode—is the story that frames it. The Prologue gives us the tale of a kingdom where everyone lived forever. Then one day, because of overcrowding, the king orders everyone to sacrifice a family member. One family’s solution is to each sacrifice body parts—a leg, an arm, an ear, a foot, a head of hair, a nose—and so they live on, dismembered but together. The Prologue closes with Mona’s revelation that her father told her this story on her tenth birthday, setting off the feelings of alienation from family and self that plague her for the next ten years. At the end of the novel, Lisa — she of the I.V. for a zero, the dying mother — asks Mona for a math story. Mona tells her a version of her father’s story, about a pirate kingdom where “there were no glass hospitals and red wigs and I.V.’s,” where “[c]ancer was not a big deal.” The king, an astute mathematician, calculates that each household must choose one pirate to die. But this time, rather than see her family mutilated, the daughter decides to move to another, mortal, town, despite their warning that “Once you die, you won’t get to hear or walk or use your hands or comb your hair at all.” This mournful tale illuminates Mona’s struggle to separate from her family, as well as her capacity to reach out to this little girl who is about to lose her mother. It’s beautiful how the two versions of the story act as metaphors for the journey Mona takes in the novel. It’s also striking how much Bender can convey in the small space of a bittersweet fairytale.
Bender was asked in an interview, collected in Conversations with American Women Writers, “What draws you to the fairy tale method of storytelling,” and she replied, “Everything. The imagination, the brevity, the violence, the sexuality, the humor, the great weird simple laden images like glass coffins, the melting feeling of being told a story. All of it.” Bender’s collections offer us all of this, story after story. In “End of the Line,” from Willful Creatures, Bender creates one of her wonderful fables. A man goes to a pet store and buys a little man in a cage. He likes the little man’s stories, and he also gets a kick out of torturing him. “His little body was so small it was hard to imagine it hurt that much.” But of course it does hurt, and finally the man unlocks the door of his captive’s cage. When the little man heads toward home, the big man follows him. Shut out of the tiny village, he picks up a hat the size of his thumb. A little girl watches “the giant outside put her hat on his enormous head and could not understand the size of the pity that kept unbuckling in her heart.” The story is rich with metaphorical possibility, and thanks to the great precision and idiosyncrasy of the details, you never feel that it’s operating on an easily translatable (and thus crude) symbolic level. Bender’s favorite quote is from André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto: “Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roads that leads to everything.” About Breton’s directive, she told The New York Times, “I love it, but I don’t know if I exactly understand it.” Her stories understand it.
“Motherfucker,” another story in Willful Creatures, charmingly defines the personage of its title not as a consummate jerk, but as a man who romantically pursues mothers. His latest conquest is a movie star, loved by all and deeply sad, though only the motherfucker can see this. “Desire is a house. Desire needs closed space,” he tells her, and their lovemaking is “a house of desire the exact size and shape of her.” It doesn’t work out between them—she has her career, he has so many other single mothers to service—and we feel that this is how it should be, these two souls left with the loneliness of their desire.
Reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, I craved the harshness of the stories, in which the characters are often unkind and reckless, their motives rash and self-destructive. They can be deceitful in ways that are cruel, but funny. The promiscuous narrator in “Fell This Girl” from The Girl in a Flammable Skirt relies on her depressed, overweight sister Eleanor to make her feel better about herself. “I love to go shopping with Eleanor because in contrast I look so great in everything,” she says. In “Fugue,” an “ugly child,” who had been “an ugly teenager” and is now “an ugly adult,” takes a job at a factory where he deliberately puts pills in the wrong bottles. Before that he had a job teaching English to immigrants, and he taught them that “pussy means woman and asshole means friend.” The pleasure of these stories about not very nice people lies in the acerbity of their thoughts, the deviousness of their actions. And the pleasure of the stories about surreal people—a family of pumpkinheads, a woman with potato babies, a girl with a hand of fire, a boy with fingers shaped like keys—lies in their surprising otherness, which is simultaneously inaccessible and moving.
Bender’s novels and her stories, then, feed somewhat different desires. Rose and Mona of the novels are endearing, realistic figures. We like and trust them and hope they will learn to resolve the challenges that life has presented them. We affect the position of a sympathetic observer, cheering on our heroine, trying to understand her struggles. The stories, on the other hand, offer creeping-downstairs-in-the-middle-of-the-night fun. Arousing our many appetites, they lead us out of our houses, our small towns, ourselves—and down one of the saddest roads to everything.
At one point as I was reading Aimee Bender’s remarkable new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, I was eating the food that is, to me, more delicious and comforting than almost anything else in the world: shredded cheddar-jack cheese melted on Tostitos tortilla chips. I stick a pan of them under the broiler and let the cheese bubble and harden a bit; the chips get just a little burnt so the whole thing is a crunchy, salty miracle. That same week, I devoured the very first lobster roll I’ve ever had, crisp buttery bread butting up against the cool, liberally spiced meat. Later, there was a batch of sangria made to salvage an overly sweet bottle of red wine, saved by some fresh lemon juice, tart nectarines and the strawberries that have just come into season. There were frozen pierogies. There were overcooked eggs cloaked with Kraft singles.
What I ate while absorbed in the pages of this book seemed to matter more than with most others, because Bender’s latest is really about the intimate experience of food. Her protagonist, Rose Edelstein, has an excruciatingly sensitive palate. When her mother bakes her the titular lemon cake (with chocolate frosting) for her ninth birthday, Rose realizes she has the burdensome ability to taste people’s feelings in the food they cook. Behind her mother’s whirling energy and loving gestures, Rose tastes her emptiness, so bitter she can barely choke it down:
[T]he 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 taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary…
On the surface, it’s a natural premise for an author whose odd, twisty stories have featured a man with a giant hole in his stomach, people who have pumpkins for heads, and a husband who returns home from war without his lips. But it seemed to me at first more like the seed of one of those fantastical tales than a premise that could sustain a longer narrative. But actually, it does even more than that: Attached to a gorgeous, devastating coming-of-age story, Bender’s descriptions of how feelings and flavors mingle manages to be some of the most sumptuous, original—and really, personal—food writing I’ve ever read.
Ultimately, it was food writing—mouth-watering restaurant reviews, travelogues, narrative recipes, profiles of dishes and the chefs responsible for them—along with (somewhat embarrassingly) the televised insistence of Anthony Bourdain, that made me reverse thirteen years of vegetarianism last summer. I’m still not used to looking over a menu and understanding that the whole thing is open to me. I didn’t change my diet as part of any kind of manifesto or major ethical shift; I did it because I got addicted to reading and learning about food, and I wanted to know what it was like to eat an oyster. I wanted to taste the foods whose aromas that taunted me. Having grown up in a kosher home before I cut out meat entirely, there was a long list of things I’d never even tried. Changing my rules changed my sense of the world, and of my place in it.
So maybe I was particularly good audience for a story so invested in the secret life of food. But as so many of us become obsessed with the story and singularity of what’s on our plates, the literalness of Rose’s tastes really speaks to the complicated life of a human appetite. Read with a certain mindset, the book can seem to portray a sort of locavore dystopia, subtly pointing out that we might not really want to know everything about everything we put in our mouths. Thankfully, Bender only hints at this ethical dimension of Rose’s abilities. She’s also not really interested in the rather fascinating implications of what could be understood as an eating disorder, barely describing the state of Rose’s body, or the character’s own sense of it. Instead, Bender cares about how we live with food, and through it: the subtle dramas behind a toasted bagel overwhelmed by cream cheese, the mind-bending Neapolitan pizza from the swanky new restaurant, a stale bag of chips, a berry crisp warm from the oven.
I couldn’t help thinking: If I was like Rose, the juicy earthiness of the organic heirloom tomatoes I excitedly bought at the farmer’s market would matter less than the fact that they ended up tossed in some pasta thrown together by a frazzled, underemployed writer. I’m happy not to know the precise taste of disillusionment, but weeks after reading this novel, I’m finding Bender’s rendering of the possibility hard to shake.
While I’m obsessed with food, I don’t really cook. For years, I didn’t even have a working oven. I love the idea of cooking: I bookmark recipes regularly and with optimism, and whenever I get it together to actually make something—peanut butter brownies for my boyfriend’s birthday, gnocchi with summer vegetables, a simple sauce made from cream, vegetable stock, lemon zest and capers—I’m overly impressed with myself. Mostly I eat overpriced takeout, and otherwise rely on jarred sauce, frozen burritos from Trader Joe’s, Indian food that comes in a little silver pouch and like magic, needs only two minutes in the microwave. While I eat, I watch the Food Network. I read the articles and passionate blogs about how cooking is so easy—and so worth the pay-off!—and I nod my head in agreement. I mean to do it. I aspire to do it. And then I order Thai.
To avoid ingesting insights along with her meals, Rose learns to get by mostly on vending machine food, snacks produced on mechanized assembly lines and “made by no one.” But her powerful taste buds can still suss out the distinct essences imbued by different factories. As for produce, “[B]y the time I was twelve, I could distinguish an orange slice from California from an orange slice from Florida in under five seconds because California’s was rounder-tasting.” A few minor characters in the novel recognize Rose’s usefulness: a conniving high school pal has her over to taste things she cooks, in the hopes that Rose can decode feelings she can’t identify for herself (mostly, she wants to know if her affection for a particular boy is the real thing). Later, a woman offers to hire her to decipher the emotions of troubled children. But Rose isn’t interested in parlaying her skill into a career as some kind of food psychic, handy as that might be. She doesn’t feel superior or special; mostly, she’s just jealous of other people’s obliviousness.
The food that tastes good to Rose has less to do with perfection than honesty. One cafeteria worker at her school makes pizza she can tolerate: “She was sad, true, but the sadness was so real and so known in it that I found the tomato sauce and the melted cheese highly edible, even good.” After she graduates high school, Rose starts eating with more focus, searching beyond quality for what can only be called authenticity. At an Iranian restaurant, she finds “such a rich grief in the lamb shank” that it “was like having a good cry, the clearing of the air after weight has been held.” A dim-sum place “knew its rage in a real way, and I ate bao after bao and left that one tanked up and energized.” And terrifically, “An Ethiopian place on Fairfax near Olympic made me laugh, like the chef had a private joke with the food, one that had something to do with trains, and baldness. I didn’t even get the joke, but the waitress kept refilling my water and asking if I was okay.” It’s not until late in the book that she confronts her fear of eating food she’s made herself—and when she does, her life begins to change.
Certainly, despite her expertise in these pages, Bender doesn’t have the final word on which emotions translate to food and why. You can argue with the range of Rose’s perceptions: Why, for instance, does she taste people’s feelings, but not those of the animals she eats? When it comes to flavor, why is there such a difference between authentic sadness and superficial misery? But perhaps the most striking thing about Rose’s relationship to food is that it is intensely, almost unbearably, current. She tastes the way people are feeling in the moment, the sentiments absorbed by what their hands touch. Meanwhile, in the world outside the book, the emotion of food is mostly related to memories, and to the past: moments and people and whole seasons can be conjured by the taste of pancakes, chicken soup, or even just a thin film of blueberry jam on toast.
Soon after I finished the book, I went to Toronto for my grandmother’s unveiling. At my aunt’s house after we returned from the cemetery, people milled around a table covered with platters of cookies and cakes and fruit, and drank icy pink lemonade of an unnervingly electric shade. As I stood next to my mother and talked to family and friends who were still in shock from my grandmother’s sudden death last summer, I picked at a slice of moist blueberry coffee cake my mother had made in a spate of focused, likely fraught baking for this gathering. In at least that case, I didn’t need to taste what went into the cake to know what did.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan drops today. Our review. Also out recently are Walks With Men, a novella by Ann Beattie, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, a novel from Aimee Bender. This week also sees the long-awaited posthumous publication of Henry Roth’s An American Type. Another recent posthumous publication: Robert Walser’s mysterious Microscripts.