How are prayer, poetry, and food preparation related? Sufism, Arabic literature, and the culinary arts all contribute to the backdrop of Diana Abu-Jaber’s multifaceted second novel. As I was drawn into Abu-Jaber’s masterfully crafted world, I found myself increasingly aware of the art in the everyday circumstances of life.
Abu-Jaber’s poetic prose evokes the reverence and rhythms of a chef absorbed in her work, the magic of a master storyteller, the mesmerizing dance of dervishes. The crafting of a pan of baklava becomes a courtship dance, and the sharing of a basket of apples becomes an act of betrayal. But Crescent is more than engaging composition. The suspenseful plot kept us reading hour after hour. At the center of it is an Iraqi-American woman who has lived her whole life in Southern California. She is the chef at a Lebanese restaurant in a university community. She has grown up with her paternal uncle, as her parents were killed as aid workers in Africa when she was a child. Her peaceful world is disrupted when the introduction of an Iraqi professor of Arabic literature launches her into romance and an identity quest.
Crescent is populated with warm, witty, and charismatic characters. Its almost fairy-tale quality is enhanced by installments from a fantastic tale that appear at the opening of each chapter. Although I did not find these as captivating as the “real-life” story, they heightened sense of being in a different world, under the author’s spell. After reading Crescent, I sampled Abu-Jaber’s first novel, Arabian Jazz, and found it disappointing. Perhaps I read too little of the latter to substantiate a claim that Crescent represents progress in Abu-Jaber’s authorial abilities, but it is certainly more to my taste. Maybe Jazz was too prosaic and insufficiently “magical” for me.
I found The Language of Baklava much more engaging than Jazz. As a memoir, it is, of course, different from Crescent, and I prefer the novel for pure pleasure of reading. But Baklava is enjoyable, too, and provides a revealing glimpse of the writer behind Abu-Jaber’s Middle Eastern-American heroines. Abu-Jaber’s skill as a story teller enables her to take everyday happenstances and turn them into adventure tales. The centrality of food and community to life becomes explicit in Baklava; Abu-Jaber intersperses the narrative with relevant mouthwatering recipes. We didn’t get to try them, as we had to return the book to the library, but they were almost enough to induce us to buy it. Good marketing technique!
Crescent was the city of Eugene’s 2006 Readin’ in the Rain selection; I got to attend a writing workshop with Abu-Jaber and an author’s presentation, and we both enjoyed a Middle Eastern dinner, all connected with the event. What a treat! Abu-Jaber was as gracious in person as her prose is in print. My husband says part of the appeal of both books is their personal feel, as the author takes us deep inside the thoughts of the main character, whether Sirine in Crescent or herself in Baklava. Meeting Abu-Jaber, he says, was almost like encountering someone he already knew.
We are looking forward to the June 25 release of Abu-Jaber’s Origin. It appears to be yet another entirely different sort of work. View Abu-Jaber’s blog (which, like her books, displays her personal style and wit), articles, and speaking schedule here: Diana Abu-Jaber online
*Note: This post altered August 5, 2007.