CategoryBender Aimee

A selection of 2011 favourites

Wherever you are, I hope you’re enjoying the festive season. Now it’s time for my annual look back on my favourite reads of the year. I’m going to split 2011’s list in two: six books from this year, six published in previous years. The lists are in alphabetical order of author surname, and all links will take you to my reviews.

Without further ado, then, here are six of my favourite books that received their first UK publication in 2011:

Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

I love fantasy with structural elegance, and this book has it: it’s the tale of a girl who can taste the feelings of whoever made her food (and hence detects trouble in her family’s relationships); what I like most is that it works equally as well whether you read the protagonist’s ability literally or metaphorically.

Stuart Evers, Ten Stories About Smoking

Certainly the best-designed book I read in 2011 (it comes in a flip-top box made to resemble a packet of cigarettes, this is also a fine set of stories which use smoking as a metaphor in various ways; I look forward eagerly to Evers’ debut novel next year.

Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox

Variations on the tale of Bluebeard, embedded in the broader narrative of a writer and his muse, who is rather less imaginary than she appears. The sheer range of Mr Fox is impressive, but it’s a great read to boot.

Nat Segnit, Pub Walks in Underhill Country

The idea of a novel written as a ramblers’ guide might seem gimmicky, but what makes this book work is the way Segnit uses the structure as a means of characterisation: the protagonist’s wife has left him, and the walking-guide format is set against a more novelistic style as the narrator tries to keep a hold on his world.

Conrad Williams, Loss of Separation

A fascinating psychological portrait of a pilot who’s recovered from an air crash, only to find that his girlfriend has disappeared.  Williams brilliantly plays creeping personal fears of decline and loss against grander horrors, and asks which is truly the most frightening.

Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys

A superb portrait of a divergent England ruled by the Church, where members of the Secular Movement have been exiled to a nearby island. Wood creates a vivid sense of place and character, and a subtle sense of how isolation has changed the Islanders’ ideas about faith.

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And now half a dozen from previous years:

Chris Beckett, The Holy Machine

A translator in the world’s only atheist city-state falls in love with one of the city’s lifelike robots; when a new law raises the possibility that the android’s personality will be erased, the pair are forced to flee. Becektt’s complex examination of science, religion, and what it means to be human makes an interesting comparison with The Godless Boys, which I read in tandem with this.

Joe Moran, On Roads: a Hidden History

A wide-ranging and perceptive history of the British post-war road system. If that sounds dry, I can only emphasise that it’s quite the opposite, as Moran spins gold from such an everyday topic.

Sarah Salway, Leading the Dance

Another book which turns the ordinary into something more, this time in the form of short stories which reveal the significance of ostensibly mundane events to the people involved in them.

Robert Shearman, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical

The single best book of short stories I read in 2011. Shearman combines the unremarkable and the fantastic to brilliant effect in a collection whose main subject is love, seen from various angles.

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The story of how cancer cells taken from a poor African American woman played a vital part in modern medicine, though for twenty years her family didn’t even know a sample had been taken. Though this is a fascinating tale in its own right, Skloot’s orchestration of her material makes it all the more so.

Mike Thomas, Pocket Notebook

I didn’t know what to expect from this story of a police officer going off the rails, and it utterly blew me away. One of the best written books I’ve read all year, one of the sharpest character-portraits… I can’t wait to see what Thomas writes next.

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So that’s my dozen picks from the reading year. What books have you most enjoyed?

Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010)

I’ve known of Aimee Bender’s name for a while, but couldn’t have told you where I first heard it, or anything much about her writing. However, I’m always interested in books where the fantastic intrudes on the everyday, and how could I not want to read a novel with such a brilliant title as The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake? So I read it and, happily, was not disappointed.

Rose Edelstein is just about to turn nine years old when she tries a piece of the birthday cake her mother has made and discovers that, underneath the flavours of lemon and chocolate, it tastes hollow: ‘My mother’s able hands had made the cake…but she was not there, in it.’ This is Rose’s first experience of her talent: when she eats something, she can detect the feelings of the person who made it; which is how she knows that her mother is troubled, and how, years later, she can tell that her mother is having an affair.

There are tensions within Rose’s family – her mother and father are not in love as they were; her brother Joseph absorbs himself in school and college work, thereby distancing himself from the others – and the girl’s new ability lays the roots of some of those tensions bare for her. This leads to Rose’s having a troubled relationship with food – at one point, she even wishes that she could have her mouth removed, and takes refuge in factory-made foods, which don’t taste so personal – and this is what makes Bender’s novel so elegant: that its fantastic elements work both literally and metaphorically at the same time.

For example, interpret Rose’s talent literally, and she doesn’t want to eat her mother’s cooking because she can’t bear to taste the sadness with which it was made – and the rest of her eating habits are similarly shaped by this magical ability. But another way of looking at Rose’s situation is to say that she has an eating disorder, and that her attitude to food is how she responds to the tensions at home – the effects on Rose’s relationships with other people are much the same either way. Similarly, Joseph gains the ability to vanish and reappear at will; and this can also be taken at face value, or read as a boy withdrawing into his own little world as a coping mechanism.

This theme of abilities and actions having both literal and representational roles extends beyond the supernatural into the more mundane aspects of Bender’s narrative.  Rose’s grandmother is a distant figure whose relationship to her family is represented in the novel by the parcels she sends to Rose’s household, which are less gifts than cast-offs (‘mailing her life away’, as Rose puts it). Another example is the hobby of carpentry that Rose’s mother takes up: she meets Larry, the man with whom she has an affair, at her carpentry group; and so the hobby becomes both a constant in her life and a symbol of the Edelstein family’s problems. This, perhaps, is why Rose is so keen to hang on to the tatty old footstool that brought her parents together, because to accept a new one made by her mother would be tantamount to approving the affair.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a carefully detailed and nuanced portrait of a family in crisis and a girl trying to come to terms with her situation. It uses fantasy to wonderful effect, making it both tangential and central at the same time. Magical stuff, in more ways than one.

Links
Aimee Bender’s website
An excerpt and interview at Leite’s Culinaria
Chris Kammerud reviews the book for Strange Horizons

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