Reflections on My First #24hourbookclub Experience

Yesterday was my first time participating in 24hourbookclub, reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. I wasn’t too familiar with the title choice, but I was thankful for the excuse to read fiction for the day as a break from my thesis reading. Surrounded by piles of theory and ambitious Zotero lists, a deep sense of reading guilt normally prevents me from even entertaining the possibility of cracking the spine (or file, as it were) on a work of fiction, but I’ve been feeling a bit more zen about those lists, and I jumped at the prospect of refreshing fiction and the opportunity to participate in the virtual book club experience. What follows is more personal reflection than review, but feels like an appropriate compliment to Rose’s special talent for tasting emotions in a slice of cake.

The #24hourbookclub Experience

starting off #24hourbookclub with the particular happiness of homemade scones and clotted cream

starting off #24hourbookclub with the particular happiness of homemade scones and clotted cream via Instagram

I started the day slowly, enjoying tea and scones and clotted cream for breakfast and thinking that homemade baked goods paired nicely with the start of a novel so focused on their emotional complexity. I spent the day reading  leisurely, first from the comfort of my sunny Sunday bed, then later from the couch after the sun had made its way to that side of the house. I took a short break for a nap, and then a long walk by the Thames. I stopped at chapter breaks here and there to see what people were posting to the #24hourbookclub hashtag; for a while I was on my own in British Summer Time, but my breaks slowed me down a bit so I finished up along with some of the East Coasters. I tweeted a couple of my favorite quotes along the way, but I held off as I neared the end of the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed participating in the simultaneous virtual reading experience, particularly when I could catch up on what others had to say about the prose and the character and plot development from section to section. But most of all, I was happy to partake in the pet project of someone who never ceases to inspire me, Ms. Diana Kimball. I’ve only actually met Diana a few times in person through mutual friends, but I count her as one of my internet favorites and we have become fast Twitter/Facebook/Instagram friends through our mutual love of the internet, literature, and writing. Diana is an incredibly thoughtful, nurturing, and positive voice on the internet, and I felt like I got to know her even better through this virtual flashmob reading experience for which she can be credited. Reading somehow felt a little more immediate, higher stakes, while I was reading as this community coalesced around this particular day and this particular book for a few hours together. I immediately thought of Diana when I read these lines:

"Once, a year or so before, he’d been at our house and he’d pulled out a lock of his hair and used it to teach me about eddies and helixes. It’s a circular current into a central station, he’d explained, giving me one to hold. I pulled on the spring. Nature is full of the same shapes, he said, taking me to the bathroom sink and spinning on the tap and pointing out the way the water swirled down the drain. Taking me to the bookshelf and flipping open a book on weather and showing me a cyclone. Then a spiral galaxy. Pulling me back to the bathroom sink, to my glass jar of collected seashells, and pointing out the same curl in a miniature conch. See? he said, holding the seashell up to his hair. Yes! I clapped. His eyes were warm with teaching pleasure. It’s galactic hair, he said, smiling."

And receiving her tweet-pings of encouragement added to the experience:

Thank you, Diana!

What I Tasted in the Book

Like Rose’s mother, I can’t help but look for signs in the things I read, and I found more than I had even expected to. For one, I really enjoyed George’s considered treatment of Rose’s gift/affliction because it reminded me of a Quantified Self experiment: “Take subject out of environment and re-test, he said, making quote fingers with his hands.” I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Quantified Self practices and the N=1 scientific method in my thesis research about personal data. Rose’s particular affliction captures so much of what I find interesting and problematic about QStracking the subjective and qualitative experience of mood, emotions, and tastes through scientific methods and hard data (in this case, cookies). It’s somehow reassuring to find traces of our preoccupations in places we do not expect to find them.

I also found myself thinking a lot about family relationships through food. Until this book, I don’t think I had ever put all the pieces together to see food as a medium through which families work out their issues. I also think that’s what made this story so relatable for many of my fellow #24hourbookclub membersfamily issues as manifest through food are seem to be universal.

As we’ve begun to define what our own version of family looks like, my husband and I have made food, and the process of cooking together, an important part of our domestic life. We measure quality of living in our series of apartments based on the size, set up, and specs of their kitchens. But I hadn’t thought so synthetically about why we care so much about our cooking: it turns out our respective extended families have very mixed relationships with food. Nick is a great cook, as guided by his mother’s years of experience cooking for her younger siblings. I’m the baker, born out of weekend muffin-making ritual with my mother. But aside from these obvious direct maternal influences, I’ve become more aware of the more subtle pulls: a grandmother’s reliance on store-bought canned goods, another’s stubborn determination for canning against all odds; a father’s penchant for indulgence in sweets, and resultant diabetes; my mother’s chicken-caesar-salad-with-the-dressing-on-the-side shtick, tied to her lifelong goal of Keeping Off Pounds Sensibly (but perhaps not adventurously); my brother’s miraculous subsistence on an exclusive pizza, pasta, and peanut butter diet. Our families have food issues, but reading this made me realize,whether its about socioeconomics, control issues, or body issues, food invariably reflects family dynamics.

I related to the idea that baked goods were the most intense sensory experience for Rose. Baked goods have been at the center of my food-related concerns for some time. I’ve been disappointed by the unfulfilled promise of comfort in baked goods: between our fickle dorm convection oven, and the complete lack thereof in Chongqing, baking has been a challenge as of late. Even in our nice kitchen here in the UK, I’ve discovered following US customary recipes with imperial measuring cups that the two standards are not, in fact, interchangeable. And since the recent onset of my egg allergy, I’ve been forced to take dessert into my own hands. Nearly every confection on a menu (with the exception of the occasional panna cotta or berry crumble) contains egg as a main ingredient. Even ice cream has about a fifty/fifty chance of being custard-based. (Scones, by the way, generally don’t use egg, hence my love affair with cream tea here in England.) So I’ve acquired a Kitchen Aid and eggless baking cookbooks and set forth on my own experimental project. My challenge, as my patient guineapig Nick can attest, is to find an adequate eggless brownie recipe. In baking, eggs are responsible for everything from moisture, to density, and are primarily responsible for rising action, all of which are important for optimal brownie texture. The eggless recipes I’ve tried have ended up on the cakey or even crumbly side of the spectrum, miles away from the desired candy-glazed squares with chewy, fudgy insides. For a process that’s meant to be comforting, every failed eggless baking attempt feels all the more disappointing.

Thankfully, the egg allergy (or intolerance, to be more precise), isn’t nearly as bad as when it first cropped up. When I’ve gone through a long enough spell without any trouble, I start itching to test if I’ve grown out of my symptoms. I start with something really worth the trouble: a warm chocolate chip cookie or a glorious blueberry muffin. On my recent trip to Italy, I made it through without asking once whether the fresh pasta had eggs (it almost certainly did) and didn’t have much trouble aside from eating far too much the entire trip. But back to reality and my normal eating habits, eating things with eggs continues to make me feel bloated and generally yucky. Maybe it’s psychosomatic, maybe it’s weird protein chemistry; whatever it is, I’m avoiding eggs where I can, which means pressing on with the eggless baking trial and error.

"Baked goods were the most potent, having been built for the longest time from the smallest of parts, so I did best with a combination of the highly processed—gummy fish, peanut-butter crackers, potato chips—made by no one, plus occasional fast-food burgers, compiled by machines and made, often, by no one, and fruits and vegetables that hadn’t been cooked."

In The Particular Sadness, I was also captivated by the treatment of the food as a technology, and the sideways critique of the food industrial complex. My favorite passage centered around Rose’s class presentation on Doritos, her pick for something in “modern society that we valued that was not around in the time of our grandparents:”

"What is good about a Dorito, I said, in full voice, is that I’m not supposed to pay attention to it. As soon as I do, it tastes like every other ordinary chip. But if I stop paying attention, it becomes the most delicious thing in the world…

"Exactly, I said. That good dust stuff.

"What I taste, I said, reading from my page, is what I remember from my last Dorito, plus the chemicals that are kind of like that taste, and then my zoned-out mind that doesn’t really care what it actually tastes like. Remembering, chemicals, zoning. It is a magical combo. All these parts form together to make a flavor sensation trick that makes me want to eat the whole bag and then maybe another bag…

"In conclusion, I said, a Dorito asks nothing of you, which is its great gift. It only asks that you are not there."

I liked this passage for its guilty pleasure. As Nick’s preferred sandwich accompaniment  Doritos hold a special place in my household. Doritos,  fake-cheesy cousins, cheese doodles, epitomize the height of junk food, but I love them all the same.

Having researched enterprise systems and supply chain management technology, I’ve imagined (fancifully) a complete food provenance system based on RFID tags, that follows all the steps from farm to table, even in the most complex processed foods. Imagine an app that could the narrative that Rose tastes in her mother’s pie: “the whole kitchen smelled of hometown America, of Atlanta’s orchards and Oregon’s berry bushes, of England’s pie legacy, packed with the Puritans over the Mayflower.” Maybe that level of detail is extreme, but movements towards eating local, organic, slow etc. seem to suggest that we’re reacting against the industrial pattern that has separated us from the preparation and consumption of our food. Rose needs the separation at first to survive, but when she tastes the passion and attention to the ingredients in the French restaurant and throughout her culinary tour of LA, she’s brought closer to the pure tastes in food, rather than the conditions of its production.

As for the writing itself, I found the similes were often sloppy, the short sentences a little stilted, and the narrator suspiciously observant for her age, but I didn’t let these blemishes get in the way of my fictional reading pleasure. I guess it was like Rose, tasting the pastry chef’s hurry in the pie crust and yet still enjoying the quiche. And given my problem with eggs, fictional is the only kind of quiche I get to enjoy.