Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Language of Baklava

I'm always on the lookout for memoirs that use clear, evocative prose to tell fascinating stories of ordinary people. I also seek out books about food (including pie cookbooks, mystery stories set in donut shops, or children's books about budding cupcake enthusiasts) because I like to engage my taste buds' imagination, as well as my brain's. But best of all, I love to read well-written memoirs that use food as a way to convey a narrator's culture, values, and perceptions. And Diana Abu-Jaber's The Language of Baklava perfectly accomplishes that feat.

The Language of Baklava introduces us to a girl who lives with one foot in the United States (her mother's country) and one foot in Jordan (her father's country). The book is constructed as a series of vignettes, each chapter its own story, each story supplemented with recipes that relate to the chapter's themes: tabbouleh, pita bread, Arabic ice cream, and more--including, of course, baklava. Not only do the recipes perfectly coincide with the contents of each chapter, but each word is masterfully chosen, each sentence flawlessly constructed. Abu-Jaber writes about the contrast between stinky elementary school cafeteria food and her homemade bag lunches of spinach pies and grape leaves; about the painful discovery that, in the United States, family barbecues are held in the backyard rather than the front yard; about her father's thwarted attempts to open his own restaurant; about returning to Jordan as an adult and reconnecting with the relatives and the heritage that have helped to shape her. This book begs to be savored, just like a luscious piece of baklava.

~Queen of Books

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