Sunday, October 16, 2011

birds of paradise

Sigh, so I took some notes after finishing Diana Abu-Jaber's latest, Birds of Paradise, oh some three weeks ago, fully meaning to write an entry, oh some three weeks ago. But I'm determined not to let this one get pulled into the horrendous gravity of that black hole where my draft posts go to die. Usually, I open these drafts months later to see some now-nonsensical sentences/notes. Example - draft from Sept. 13th: "my future? chips". That's it. What? My future is like potato chips? Crunchy and delicious? I wish! So, on with an attempt to escape the gravity of disappearing.

Diana Abu-Jaber wrote one of my favorite food memoirs, Language of Baklava, about her Jordanian American childhood. She's cooked in restaurants and done a turn as a food journalist, and it's clear, as discussed in this great Guernica interview, that for Abu-Jaber (oh, and so many of us), food is inextricable from who we are. One thing that I loved about Birds was the role that food played in showing her characters and their relationships. Food is such a signifier that can show a culture, a power dynamic (let them eat cake!), a personality, down to just how you're feeling in a moment or a memory (helloooo madeleine), that I'm surprised I can't remember more recent works of fiction where food was a narrative tool in the author's toolbox. In Birds, the process of making pastries and baked goods, told with a cookbook's level of detail, is just as seductive as a TV cooking show but is enriched by context. You can find this in the best of cookbooks and foodie nonfiction but it's rather thrilling to see outside those genres.

The story is told, in turns, from the perspective of each family member, but revolves around the fact that Felice Muir ran away from home at 16. Her mother, the demanding Avis, is a baking artiste while her husband Brian, a real estate lawyer, grapples with the morals of, well, real estate and law. Felice's brother Stanley has grown up in the shadow of Felice's beauty and then her disappearance, never to be quite the apple of his family's eye. The unexplained running away of a child can cause the loss of any family's center, and everyone here is trying to find their way while all there appears to hold on to is ephemeral sugar creations and carnivorous-sounding real estate deals. Abu-Jaber's prose can be really lovely in the many moments of solitary-thought narration but what makes this book for me is the way she builds this family's story and their struggle to move forward.