In thirty-odd years of opening books, not once have pearls, dragons, chocolates, space ships or World War I fighter planes fallen out of the pages. However, and oddly, bookmarks, sand, grass, fingernail clippings, wool, hair, shopping receipts and photos have – and that’s just out of library books I’ve borrowed.
Quotes and turns of phrase have wafted out of books, finding their way into my C: drive, or a dented folder full of scrap paper and scrawl. Characters, too, have sometimes lingered, read snatches of conversation wafting through my memory half tied to a title or two bringing a smile or sigh, the silent wish that a specific character could come hang out in my kitchen with me because we’d be instant friends.
The place that I went, the place that I still go, was the warm, hollowed-out center of a Bundt cake. It is usually gingerbread, though sometimes that changes. Sometimes it’s gingerbread crowned in a ring of poached pears. The walls that surround me are high and soft, but as they go up they curve back, open up to the light, so I feel protected by the cake but never trapped by it. There are a few loose crumbs around my feet, clinging to my hair, and the smell! The ginger and butter, the lingering subtlety of vanilla…I press my cheek against the cake, which is soft as eiderdown and still warm. This isn’t a fantasy about food exactly, at least not insofar as I want to eat my way through a cake that’s taller than I am. It’s about being inside of cake, being part of something that I find to be profoundly comforting. The instructor told us to take another deep breath, and all around me I heard the smooth shush of air going in, waiting, coming out. I thought I might never open my eyes.
I’ve found myself begin to reference something a friend said, only to realise it was something I read in a work of fiction. In such a situation, I normally grin and relate the relevant morsel regardless because it’s fantastic, and admit it’s from a book, and wish again my literally literary friends could knock on my door for real…
Cakes have gotten a bad rap. People equate virtue with turning down dessert. There is always one person at the table who holds up her hand when I serve the cake. No, really, I couldn’t, she says, and then gives her flat stomach a conspiratorial little pat. Everyone who is pressing a fork into the first tender layer looks at the person who declined the plate, and they all think, That person is better than I am. That person has discipline. But that isn’t a person with discipline, that is a person who has completely lost touch with joy. A slice of cake never make anybody fat. You don’t eat the whole cake. You don’t eat a cake every day of your life. You take the cake when it is offered because the cake is delicious. You have a slice of cake and what it reminds you of is someplace that’s safe, uncomplicated, without stress. A cake is a party, a birthday, a wedding. A cake is what’s served on the happiest day of your life.
This is a story of how my life was saved by cake, so, of course, if sides are to be taken, I will always take the side of cake.
But when it comes to reading resonance, the biggest impact is from ideas: ideas have crashed out of books, thunking straight through my eyeballs to leave my ears ringing and the world staggering a little as I gape unseeing at the pages, adjusting to the heft and ballast now settling in and making itself comfortable in my head.
As I have written about previously, one passage from a book helped me see forgiveness in a different way, simply by changing definitions. That idea lead to action, which I repeated for years, which then gave me a tiny, crumbly ledge to balance on as I faced a much greater difficulty. I have no idea how I would have dealt with such heart-wrecking pain if it hadn’t been for one little paragraph to start the whole adventure.
The truth of the matter is that I didn’t bear my father any particular ill will. I had for a short time when I was young. I thought he was a terrible man. But as I got older it occurred to me that just because someone isn’t cut out to be a husband or a father doesn’t make him terrible, only terribly disappointing.
Ask to be told about a story, a book, and you’ll get a different answer and blurb from every person you ask. Some will say it’s one star “because it said everyone goes to bed at 9pm in Iowa”, another will say that the interplay between magical realism and feministic themes is deftly handled. It’s about dessert. It’s about family. Its narrator is death, and you’ll need a box of tissues to read it. I still have no idea what it’s about but I can’t stop thinking about it. It has some guy called Atticus and a wardrobe in it. It’s a mystery. It’s historical. It was amazing. It was okay. I bought my own copy. I didn’t finish it. It ate me alive and took me far, far away.
The idea of a French teacher who had never been to France struck me as the saddest thing in the world when I was fifteen, and that’s when I set out to make madeleines. When I gave them to her, tears welled up in her eyes. “Everything began with a madeleine in Proust,” she said to me. Further proof that cake could take you places you might not be able to get to on your own.
Books kidnap me, slap me, dance and breathe heavily against my neck. Stories are friends, fellow explorers, the addresses of dear friends. Stories are more than words, and their resonance continues booming belly and brain deep years, disasters, galaxies later.
Note: all quotes are from Eat Cake, by Jeanne Ray, copyright 1988. My edition is the Pocket Books 2003 edition, with quotes (in given order) from pages 2, 3, 54 and 128.
- People with an appreciation for cake or baked goods
- People who like realistic female leads (especially those characters being over 30)
- Anyone who would like to read of committed, loving married couple (who do not have rose-coloured glasses)
- Did I mention people who like cake?
Not recommended for:
- Those who don’t eat cake ever
- Hard-core “sci-fi/fantasy only” readers
- Anyone who doesn’t like family conflict or baking
Rated: PG 15+ (Family dynamics and conflict, impact of divorce, ageing parents, repeated scenes involving creaming of butter and breaking of eggs.)
Which story or book has knocked you off-centre with its impact or resonance? Which characters do you wish would come and hang out in your kitchen? Do you save quotes from or underline favourite bits in books?