Author On the Bookcase: Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

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Author On the Bookcase

Aimee Bender

Aimee BernderWelcome, Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake! Aimee tell us about her book group of over 10 years. The first book discussion was Thomas Pynchon’s book Gravity’s Rainbow. Now, that's a heavy book, both in weight and subject! Learn how her book group broke down the 700+ page book. They definitely had a theme -- they went dancing in Gravity's Rainbow t-shirts! Through the years, Aimee relates how the "discussions of language and reading aloud and free association that includes talking about other books, our lives, specific passages, old TV programs, music," enhances the book conversation. Just like book groups everywhere -- finding the relevance to our world in the book! 

Take it away, Aimee!

My Book Group

"There was a very funny article in The Onion a bunch of years ago about a book group that after twenty minutes dissolved into a two hour discussion of Oscar contenders. So, I’ve had that book group experience, yes. I, too, have lots of opinions about Oscar contenders. But on the whole: I’m a fan of the concept. I’m very glad they exist.  I also appreciate the common combo of book group and delicious meal.

I’ve been a part of a book group for over ten years now, one made up of friends largely from my MFA time. Sometimes I find reading so private I don’t actually want to hear a lot of different opinions about what I just read for awhile—I want to stew on it on my own first-- but there are books I want to read that I am certain I will not, and cannot, read alone. Years ago, I’d heard talk of Thomas Pynchon’s book Gravity’s Rainbow, but when I picked it up on a shelf at a bookstore, by the end of page one I thought: there is no possible way I can read this by myself. A friend and teacher at UC Irvine, writer Michelle Latiolais, had once mentioned she’d love to put together a Gravity’s Rainbow class taught by both writers and physicists. Her idea stuck with me, and a year or so later, I made some calls and put an ad in the Cal Tech newsletter, asking interested parties to come join a new book group.  (And as I write this I am realizing that this does relate to my new book, as Cal Tech plays a small role there, and it’s a school I find very beautiful, with jacaranda trees lining the campus, and turtle ponds, containing real turtles.)

I was living in West Hollywood at the time, in a small one bedroom, and I got a lot of calls from Cal Tech students (this was 1999) and interest from some writer-type friends, and I told everyone to read chapter one, cleaned up my apartment, and stood at the door on the first afternoon, wondering who in the world might come.

Strangers and friends climbed the whitewashed stairs, stood by the cheese tray, chatted. ‘I saw the ad,’ explained the scientists, and it was like early internet dating, for book compatibility. By twenty minutes in, about twenty people had shown up: around ten physicists, and ten literary types: poets, fiction writers, a few lit crit people. We squished into my living room, sitting on the floor because I had nowhere near enough chairs, and went around the room and introduced ourselves: hi I’m Jane, I write sestinas, Hi, I’m Tom, I work with robots. It was like travel, like finding oneself in a new country hearing a new language.

Gravity’s Rainbow has a lot of rocket science in it, as Pynchon used to study physics himself, and worked for Boeing as a technical writer, and it was immediately helpful to have the scientists explaining that realm. We planned to meet weekly, on Sunday evenings.

The thing is, Gravity’s Rainbow is long, 700 plus pages, and I couldn’t read more than 30 pages a week, and even that felt challenging to me, so it took almost a year for us to finish the book, which we completed by designing a t-shirt (with five zeroes on the front and a great rocket drawing on the back, which we made a big effort to try to get to Pynchon though I don’t think we ever did) and going out dancing. A couple scientists wore capes.

Book group attrition was high, and by the end, what had once been a mighty twenty had become seven or eight, but those seven or eight read carefully, and enthusiastically, and I have lines and lines of carefully inscribed margin notes in my copy of the book. On the whole, it was a great experience. It was just that: an experience.

One science/literary couple did form, but after we finished, new activities cropped up for everyone and I lost touch with most of the people. A small version of the rest of the group plowed on, taking on Tristram Shandy next, (all of this helping to fill in the major, major gaps I have in my reading) and we continue to read books none of us might willingly tackle solo, and the best discussions have come from intricate discussions of language and reading aloud and free association that includes talking about other books, our lives, specific passages, old TV programs, music, the works. Whatever we can grab onto that gets us closer to the book. It’s a great way to see friends, a tremendous potluck, and I love it."

The Particular Sadness of Lemon CakeThanks so much, Aimee, for sharing your book group experiences with us. Check out The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Great discussible topics -- family, food, coming of age, with a little bit of magic!

See more on Aimee's website.

Have you had a large book that your group needed more than one month to read and discuss? Tell us your story.

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Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is such an interesting concept. I wonder what sparked this idea.