Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Writing the manual as you go

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs

Picture it: a girl, a woman, growing up in a home with at least three heritages: Jordanian Arab Christian, Catholic, Muslim…where nobody knows what they want to be when they grow up! Life Without a Recipe is not the first memoir by Diana Abu-Jaber, but the second. In the confusion of a house truly divided against itself, yet filled with love (and food!), young Diana wrote to escape, wrote to focus her heart, wrote to create worlds that were hers and hers alone, not somebody else's.

I really don't know how to review a book such as this. She writes in bits and pieces—and perhaps this is witting—and just sort of drops the reader into the confusion of the life she experienced, as she experienced it. At least, in the first portion of the book, the necessary background (Even if one has written an earlier memoir, one cannot assume a reader has any inkling of its existence). The vignettes turn to more rounded and more extended pictures once the author has presented "life before baby".

For this is the story of Diana making her way, or perhaps, muddling her way through, to a marriage that works (her third), adopting a child in her forties (one presumes her husband is somewhere close to the same age), and, by the time little Gracie is four, losing both her father-in-law and her father to cancers.

It is also a story of the various food traditions she learned, from rather demanding cooks. I was appalled at the story of nine-year-old Diana making a special dish for her beloved grandmother Grace: upon the first taste, Grace wept, saying it wasn't the same.  Well, of course it wasn't; how could it be when Grace herself never made it the same as the time before? Diana soon learned it wasn't worth trying to please them, not her parents, not her grandmother, nor a gaggle of aunts, though she never overcame the urge to try.

Near the end of the last chapter, on making knafeh late into the night, almost to sunrise, her aunt Aya sums it up: "You learn food by feel, not on a paper." That reminded me immediately of a very aged family friend, famous for her chicken-and-dumplings. The proper making of the dumplings, according to my mother, depended on her instinct with her particular kitchen faucet, under which she would hold a fistful of flour and baking soda mix, and "turn the water on and right off again" before kneading up a perfect dumpling to throw in the boiling pot. I infer a succession of less-than-perfect dumplings in her past as she calibrated her twisting wrist.

And so it is with good cooks everywhere. Is it so with good lives everywhere? I suspect so. As a favorite proverb has it, "Good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement." Diana the successful novelist and memoirist may have a closet full of imperfect "dumplings", but the ones that came out well are a joy to read, to feel, to experience, to taste.

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