Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Language of Baklava: A Book Review

The Language of Baklava: A Memoir, by Diana Abu-Jaber (NY: Pantheon, 2005).

"The Language of Baklava" is the second book pick for the new foodie book club, Cook the Books, that a couple of blogger friends and I have organized. What a fantastic book on so many levels. It is a book full of food memories and recipes, a devastatingly funny collection of crazy family scenes and dialogue, and a writer's memoir, full of interesting
remembrances about how keenly she observed and sensed things throughout her unique childhood. She perfectly captures the buzzing level of energy I remember having as a child and the easy acceptance most children have of new friends and situations.

It is also a funny and perceptive lens on the American immigrant experience of her Jordanian-born father, "Bud" (originally Ghassan), whom we learn is the descendant of Bedouin sheiks and has at least four other wild and crazy brothers who joined him in trading their desert homeland for the Syracuse area of upstate New York. Arid desert winds are swapped for six months of snow and wind that no longer stings from sand but from ice.

Bud was raised Syrian-Orthodox but turned into a "mild" Muslim when he was an adult and struggles with being a gregarious immigrant with high hopes in an American culture that fools and disappoints him often. He marries a tall, American goddess, Abu-Jaber's quiet teacher mother, a retiring figure in the book that quietly accepts moves back to dusty Jordanian compounds when Diana is a pre-schooler and then gets ready for another move when she is a rebellious adolescent. She seems to mutter and slowly fold her objections down inward with each of Bud's new schemes or impromptu dinner parties and I kept wondering why she was so retiring and such a surprisingly minor character in this book. I understand why she was attracted to Bud, a larger-than-life host who can even charm nuns with his spicy special rice and pontifications about religion and philosophy, but I wonder why she never voices any misgivings or argues. She is a very passive character and yet I sense hidden passions and strength.

We learn more about Diana's maternal grandmother, a disdainer of men, in a hilarious Chinese restaurant scene. Never has self-confidence (Gram) and acute adolescent self-anguish (Diana) clashed so mightily as when Gram blunders her way through a conversation with a highly cultured Chinese waiter about the "Chinese opera" she had just taken Diana to see (it was actually Madama Butterfly, a Puccini opera about a Japanese heroine).

Gram's a larger-than-life match for Bud's personality as well. After enduring a bossy father, a scalawag husband that abandons her, and the Great Depression ("brought about by men"), she tries to stanch the burgeoning romance between her daughter and Bud by inviting him over for a bright pink and glistening ham (Muslim taboo), followed by a second dinner of shrimp which Bud thinks are giant insects. Abu-Jaber further defines the difference between them in terms of their cooking styles:

"The problem seems obvious to me: Gram is a baker, Bud's a cook. Cooks are dashing, improvisational, wayward, intuitive; bakers are measured, careful, rational, precise. Gram can follow a recipe, but the drama for spice isn't in her bones. "Oh, rosemary," she says to me dismissively as we discuss a chicken recipe. "Rosemary is for show-offs."

Bud is a restless figure, always wondering whether he should move his family of three daughters back to Jordan to keep them as "good Arab girls" and switching them from suburban to rural real estate around Syracuse as restaurant dreams ebb and flow. As a result, young Diana has to "re-create" herself with all these moves to fit in with new circles of friends. I was especially interested in her comment that American food tasted of "sugar, stone, and chemicals" when she returned from an extended stay in Jordan.

Then, there are the recipes! They sweeten the end of each chapter and I have already tried two of them, Magical Muhammara ("a dip or spread for when you want everyone to quit running around and come to the table") and "Start the Party" Hummus, and can say that they are as sumptuous as Abu-Jaber's writing.

I read Abu-Jaber's second novel, "Crescent", last year and was delighted when "The Language of Baklava" was selected as the second Cook the Books title. It is a book that I can't wait to read it all over again soon.

This book is also the first book read for my portion of the Books about Food challenge, which is headquartered here.

1 comment:

Arlene Delloro said...

As a former English teacher, I give your review an A+. I, too, loved Gram and the scene in the Chinese restaurant. I wonder if Abu-Jaber will ever write about her mother in greater detail. Like you, I sense hidden depths.