June 6, 2011

The Books of Diana Abu-Jaber

A few months back, an acquaintance asked me what I get out of reading fiction.  First, let me say that the breadth of the question kind of left me flabbergasted -- I mean, really?  She asked in such a way that implied that IF I gave her the right answer, she just might want to start reading some fiction, herself. The pressure was on for little-'ol-me to justify the existence of libraries crammed full of made-up shit. 

Well.  I guess she asked me because I do declare myself a bookworm, and thus am supposed to know things about books and reading and  such. And I do.  Lots and lots of things. Really!  However, I am famously inarticulate about talking about these things.  When someone asks me what I like to read, I draw a blank: white noise and static fill my head, and I say, "um...literary fiction?" And then draw another blank on naming just one such "literary" book or author.  Jeeps.

The answer to why I read and love fiction is as basic as any of those cute posters pinned up in the children's sections of libraries.  It's the whole "discover new worlds" thing, of course. Travelling without leaving your couch, etc. etc.  And (most of all, probably) being reassured, over and over again, that I am not alone in my weirdness.  (It occurs to me that you can do these things by reading quality non-fiction, too.  So I guess a better reply still needs to be dredged up regarding "why fiction?"  A quick answer is the intimacy to characters.)

Recently I read the first three books by Diana Abu-Jaber, and what I "got out of them" was pretty much what I listed above: the chance to visit other places, peek inside other homes, and be assured yet again that humans are weird, in so many fantastically unique and specific ways.

I read her first novel Arabian Jazz.  
A sort of coming-of-age story, about two grown women still living at home with their widowed father. The father and his extended family are from Jordan, and the family has all kinds of plans for marrying off these sisters to eligible strangers from the home country.  It's a little too long, a little messy in the plotting, but I liked it -- maybe for those very reasons.  I also liked the clandestine affair between the protagonist and the greasy loner who works at the gas station -- a romance with descriptions ripped right out of about five Bruce Springsteen songs.

Reading about the family dynamics and the specifically Arab culture that Abu-Jaber describes in her first book made me want to know more about her, so I was glad to find her memoir, The Language of Baklava.  It details her mixed race childhood growing up in upstate New York and the pressures put on the family by her very emotional, traditional father.  For about a year, the family moves to Jordan, and it was fascinating to experience the shift from American suburbia to an apartment in a dusty Jordanian village, surrounded by a close-knit Arab family.  And the food! Lots and lots of descriptions of food (there's lots of food and eating in Arabian Jazz, also).  I've never been that interested in Middle Eastern cuisine (except baklava, which I thought was solely Greek), but reading these books made me very interested in trying lamb kabobs and stuffed grape leaves.  The descriptions of a Bedouin feast under a tent in the desert, and a hot summer night's drive to the coast of the Dead Sea were wonderful and vivid.

Finally, I read her second novel, Crescent. (Finally, because even though it's a few years old, the book was always checked out of my local library.)  Crescent is again the story of an Arab-American young woman, working as a chef in a restaurant on the westside of Los Angeles.  Like her first novel, Crescent is a little messy, a little too long, but again, I didn't mind.  This plot is a love story, but there's also some world & gender politics thrown into the mix. And again with the food!  People are always eating in all three of these books, and they're the type of people who always have interesting, good food on hand.  Unlike me, who reads the meal descriptions and gets hungry and rummages around in the kitchen, only to come up with Triscuits and low-fat string cheese.

With summer upon us, hopefully you have some fun vacation plans. Road trip? Amusement parks?  The beach?  But if you don't have the means or desire to go anywhere soon, I advise one of Diana Abu-Jaber's books.  For me, they were a great trip away from my white-bread suburban scene, and a little taste of the exotic. (Although I imagine the author probably cringes at that word.) And after reading them, I remembered my acquaintance and her  "why fiction?" question, and thought to myself: yeah, THAT.  Like, duh.

'Cause I have a graduate English degree and am all articulate and stuff.

Oh, by the way, I've also read Abu-Jaber's most recent novel, Origin, which is probably her least autobiographical work, and could also count as "staycation" reading --  because freezing winters in Buffalo are pretty damn exotic to this California girl.  I briefly mention Origin in this old post.

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