Friday, January 7, 2011

The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber — 352 pgs


Book CoverIn this culinary memoir, Diana Abu-Jaber shares a candid and hilarious snapshot of her life amid her loving and maniacal Jordanian family. From her earliest recollections, Diana lives under the shadow of her father, the irrepressible and comical Bud, whose multiple dreams for the future clash uproariously. Bud longs to open a restaurant and is very tired of working at jobs that he feels are beneath his potential. He also longs return to Jordan to live amongst his multitude of crazy brothers, who goad each other and egg each other on into heightening feats of absurdity. Being the oldest of Bud's three daughters, Diana is the child who tests the waters. Though Bud is strict and militant about the opposite sex and schooling, Diana gives him a run for his money, pitting her fiery temper against his own. As Diana grows to adolescence under Bud's scrutiny, she travels from Jordan to America and back again, spending part of her life as a normal American girl living in the suburbs and part of her life among the many uncles, the strange Bedouin aunts and the myriad of street children who make up her Jordanian family. Peppered throughout Diana's life story are the recipes that both Bud and other family members have shared with her over the years, giving this very entertaining memoir a flavorful edge. Both uproariously funny and startlingly thought-provoking, The Language of Baklava is one woman's interpretation of the immigrant experience shared with flavor, love and gusto.

This was a book club selection. I thought it would be interesting to choose from a few food memoirs and see what we came up with. This book was the unanimous choice, and after I began reading it, I knew that I was in for one heck of a story. Aside from the interesting and delicious sounding meals described within the text, I noticed immediately how ridiculously funny the book was. I love foodie literature and will read almost anything that fits this description, but when I find a book that's as all-encompassing and playful as this one was, I really begin to get excited and greedily scoop all I can out of it.

Diana is a middle class American girl. But not really. Though she looks and acts like an American and her mother is a long-legged American beauty, Diana is really half Jordanian, a fact that Bud never lets her forget. From the time she's a little girl, the table is always heaped with delicious Jordanian foods and surrounded by a bevy of crazy uncles who seem to make it their life's mission to fly back and forth between Jordan and America. The brothers are all loud and boisterous, and Bud is the king of them all. They've come to America to make their fortunes yet when they get together, all they do is lament the fact that they are not in Jordan. Meanwhile, Diana is going to school and making friends with other American children and becoming the kind of child that gets under Bud's skin: a very American child who is sassy to her parents and doesn't want to eat the food he prepares for her. When Bud decides the family is moving back to Jordan, Diana and her sisters are in for some big changes.

Living in Jordan, the family is besieged by the uncles and Bud begins his hijinks in earnest. Fighting and carousing with the brothers and attempting to capture the dreams that eluded him in America, Bud finds that things in Jordan aren't what he thought they would be. Meanwhile, Diana is making new friends and new routines, and despite the fact that Jordanian ice cream bears no resemblance in taste nor appearance to its western cousin, she's happy and free to enjoy a life filled with games, children and laughter. Though there are some squabbles, everything seems to fit perfectly in place, until the day Bud comes home angry with his employment situation and decides that the family should move back to America.

When the family returns to America, things are much like they were in the past, but now Diana is a teenager and begins to torment Bud about boys and school, like any other American teen might. Though she likes being back in America, something has changed in Diana and now she can relate to Bud's ever-growing restlessness for his home in Jordan. Bud and his group of brothers are still lamenting the fact that they are not in Jordan, but Diana ignores this until the day when, as an adult, she travels there to finish her second novel. This time she feels that she has finally come home, and Bud, who has traveled along with her, is in top form, recklessly agreeing to buy a restaurant from one of his more swindly brothers. As Diana gets to know Jordan as an adult, she meets some of her more maniacal and ridiculous relatives, and learns how the seeds of Bud's personality were planted.

Not only was this a worthy memoir, but the inclusion of recipes made this book a superior read for me. I had a really enjoyable time learning about Diana and her family and quickly developed a soft spot for the ever-outrageous Bud. There are a lot of memoirs out there right now but this is one I think will stand out. Not only because of the story it tells, but because of the no-nonsense way it's rendered. Diana seems to be saying, "My family is nuts, take them or leave them, that's they way they are." I loved the unapologetic take on the lives of this Jordanian crew and will be interested in reading some of Abu-Jaber's fictional work as well. Recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

23 comments:

Jenny said...

I can't imagine moving back and forth to another country as an adolescent!! That part of the book would probably have really gotten to me since I'm half- a different ethnicity too and have a strong opinion about that kind of stuff. But it does sound like a good read otherwise! ;)

rhapsodyinbooks said...

This sounds like a fun book. And I loved your comment "Peppered throughout Diana's life story are the recipes..."

TheBookGirl said...

I'm with you on the foodie literature...I will read pretty much anything, novels, memoirs, cookbooks, losing/gaining weight stories, as long as there's a food connection. Not sure what that says about me, other than if I didn't read so much about food, I'd probably eat more, so I guess it's not a bad thing :)

This sounds like a great read. I love the descriptions of her family, and I find it very interesting that she felt the pull home to Jordan as an adult.

Great review Heather! By the way, was it a hit with your book club in general?

Sustenance Scout said...

Hi Heather, I just followed you over from Beth Fish Reads. Thanks so much for this post; all of Diana Abu Jaber's books are on my reading list; I've just moved this one up!

bermudaonion said...

A memoir with food, humor, and a foreign setting sounds like the perfect book for me!

Sandy Nawrot said...

I love books (whether they are memoirs or not) about big, wacky families. Makes you feel good that you are not the only one! And the recipes are just the cherry on top. This one sounds wonderful! Bravo to the book club!

Suko said...

Delicious review (sorry, couldn't resist), Zibilee! If there's a good recipe for Baklava in this book I will have to get it. :)

Melissa M said...

I love food memoirs and will have to look for this one. I always mark the recipes I want to make, but never do...

Erin said...

A former coworker recommended this book to me, and I'd completely forgotten about it until now! Your description is much more thorough than hers was, and this definitely sounds like a book I'd enjoy. Thanks so much!

Vasilly said...

This sounds like a really interesting book. The fact that it's so humorous is a big plus. I'll add this to my list!

Trisha said...

I have never read a foodie-type book, but I keep seeing really positive reviews around the blogosphere. Perhaps I should give them a try.

softdrink said...

I've read a couple of her novels, and really enjoyed them, so I expect I'd like this one, too.

Jenny said...

Oo, there are recipes? I hate cooking but if there's a good baklava recipe that looks even halfway doable, I really want to try it. I love baklava so much. It's all sweet and nutty and delicious.

Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

I've only read a select few food memoirs, but they've been really enjoyable. I think I'll keep my eye open for this one, it sounds great.

Beth F said...

Wow. A foodie memoir! A book written for me. If you'd like, you might consider linking this review up to Weekend Cooking today (on my blog) -- it's a perfect match.

Amy said...

Sounds like a really fantastic book! Did you try any of the recipes?

Darlene said...

This sounds like the perfect read for me. I love foodie type memoirs and ones set in a foreign place are all the better. I'm glad you enjoyed it so much.

Marie said...

this sounds like a great book. i love books about the middle east and have found myself reading several in the past few months. this one looks great and i like the cross-cultural aspect as well.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Oh WOW! and this is a new title for me. It sounds perfect for this time in my life. Thanks Heather.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

I'll echo the "food + books = winning combo" thoughts I've seen on some of the other comments ... especially food from another culture.

Pass the Baklava, I'll take a serving, please!

Jenners said...

I think I have one of her fiction books floating around here somewhere!

Literary Feline said...

I admit that I would normally not give a book like this a second chance, being that I'm not a cook nor do I care for foodie type books, generally. It does sound like this book has a lot going for it despite that though. So, who knows, I might like it anyway!

Swapna said...

I loved Abu-Jaber's book Origin, but didn't realize she had a foodie memoir - I love those! I'll definitely be picking this book up.

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