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.

We're introduced to Avis feeding her children cookies that she has made along with the lesson that a cookie is like a soul. Except these cookies have rosewater; that is the kind of person and baker that Avis is. Felice's favorite cookie is gingembre en cristal, a fancy twinkling cookie she likes more for the way they look, beauty over taste. Stanley likes the good ol' Toll House cookies. These tidbits are totally a cookie-based lesson in "show, don't tell".

Felice's chapters are the most vibrant and engaging for the vivid descriptions of Miami and adventures of a headstrong teenage runaway. Her chapters feature a lack of food, given her living situation and, as an intermittent model, an environment of eating disorders. Felice eventually finds her footing with the help of another runaway, Emerson, who not only tends to wolf down his food but has enough hunger within to see a future ahead. Felice catches on to this, as she comes of age and the reader begins to understand that the reasons driving her behavior were never simple thoughtlessness but a tormented (still inconsiderate) self-deprivation.

Through Stanley, we get a great bit of food politics commentary about the complexities of relationships in the food system, questioning how we can change for the better without pushing someone further to the bottom, of how we arrive at what is right, if that can even exist, when the local farmer's seed is owned by a giant and the farmworkers can't afford to eat what they harvest. "Who says the world is fair?" Stanley questions. "You have to pick your loyalties and your causes." Stanley finds his compass in the community at the organic grocery store he starts right out of high school. He gives up on the lofty goals of his youth of social justice for the world and comes to realize the worth of being kind in his own realm, being generous to his employees and caring to his girlfriend.

While her pastry work was an outlet after Felice left, Avis starts to have a crisis of confidence, wondering whether there's any point to making expensive sugary creations in this world of trouble. You start to realize that much of the description of Avis's fancy desserts and her thought process around them are visual. And then Abu-Jaber delivers what is one of my favorite scenes toward the end of the book, where after Hurricane Katrina hits, she and Brian make cookies, the humble, homely kind — chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, molasses, peanut butter, butterscotch. On the way to bring them to a chef friend cooking up his freezer's contents for the community, the couple hands out the cookies to people cleaning up after the storm. "A man in a sweat-stained T-shirt drops his garden hose and accepts the cookie, looking as if he might cry."

Around this time, Avis realizes that she's proud that her pastries provide a moment of relief for people, a small but moving way to lift spirits and keep going in this unfair world. But thankfully the book itself provides much more than that, more than the enjoyment of a dessert-y quick read. There's such a richness and kind of slow-burning beauty to Birds of Paradise that I found it rather marrowy. (Awesome, just found out that's a real word!) Read it, and bon appetit.

Check out Abu-Jaber's How to Write About a Baker for Gilt Taste, in which she talks about the creation of Avis.

Finally catching up to the NYT mag food issue and saw this tidbit on What's the best novel about food?. Gotta get my hands on some Zola!

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