The Danville and San Ramon Library foundations wrapped up their CityReads program with a presentation and signing by national bestselling author Aimee Bender, whose book "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake" brought joy to Tri-Valley readers this fall.

Nearly 80 people gathered Nov. 7 at the Dougherty Valley Performing Arts Center to engage with Bender in a lively Q-and-A during which members of the audience expressed their gratitude for her work.

Danville Senior Community Library Manager Seng Lovan, in remarks the following day, remembered the comments of one reader whose family experienced healing through their reading of Bender's novel.

"The book resonated with her and her daughter, a pastry chef, because food and desserts were used as a vehicle for the character's development," Lovan said. "One of the great successes of this year's program is that it sparked a lot of discussion."

The thanksgiving sentiment was mutual, as Bender made clear in an interview a week before the celebration.

"It's fantastic! It's a writer's dream. To nurture conversations about books creates an immediate point of contact. I've heard of cities doing this and have always longed to be chosen," she said.

Greeting readers through the veil of fiction means a relationship has formed and a bond has been created, Bender claimed. And connection, even when filled with frustration or a lack of understanding, is her primary preoccupation as a writer.

"I'm a little obsessed with the ways people connect or don't connect," she laughed.

Her award-winning book, about Rose, a young girl able to taste the emotions of other people through the food they create, takes connection into a supernatural realm.

A central character "disappears" into a folding chair and Rose's unsettling capacity to experience sadness, envy, bitterness and contentment through food, remains largely a mystery.

"Some people find it sad, others, comforting," Bender said. "I hear all manner of reactions, but I do object to the idea that madness is one step from imagination. We all have access to wonderfully wild imaginations that are very sane. Imagination is the sensitive way to live in the world. Mental illness is sensitivity that has gone way out of whack because of a chemistry issue."

Bender mentions the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde as a particular influence.

"They're sincere and sad. I learn from him the care in his imagery. I respond to it viscerally, on a gut level. I feel so charmed by him and with his 'The Picture of Dorian Gray,' I admire how he's unafraid of a dark tale," she said.

Bender's earliest memory of reading is foggy, but she believes it revolved around a collection of poems she read with her mother.

"There was one about two raindrops at the top of the window, racing to get to the bottom," she recalled.

In elementary school, her first stories were about kangaroos, bats and unicorns.

"That was me--and nine million other little girls," she joked. "The kangaroo and bat were friends and would go on adventures. The unicorn kissed someone, and that was taboo. I hid that one in my drawer."

Writing is best if it comes in "a spurt," Bender said. "But the spurt runs out: I can't sustain that. The next day, I'm rewriting a lot. I really enjoy the shaping, the cutting."

An English professor at USC Dornsife, Bender encourages her students to revise only when they are drawn back to the work. With "Lemon Cake," she heard "a rumbling" underneath the story of Rose and felt "a pull, like a fish on the end of a line" when she discovered the family dynamic that feeds its way into the novel.

"It took me six months to find it, " she said. "It's a pleasure when you get a tug!"

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