Thursday, September 22, 2011

And Now For Something Completely Different--Musing on Diana Abu-Jaber's Enchanting "Birds of Paradise." Yes, I'm Writing About an Author Who is Not Coming to Boswell.

As you all know by now, the American Booksellers Association put together the Indie Next list every month, highlighting 20 new books that booksellers have deemed of merit.  We vote with recommendations.  You've got to be on top of these things--the votes are due two months before the book comes out.

In this age where people are pretty suspicious of recommendations, particularly when so many individuals and companies are, so to speak, stuffing the ballot box, we're fiercely honest when it comes to recs.
1. No recs on books we haven't finished.
2. No bookseller is ever forced to write a rec for a book he or she didn't like.

I will say if we liked a book with caveats, we're willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and champion what we did like about it.  If you took one of us aside privately, we might mention a shortcoming or two. But I have learned from experience that there's little to be gained by a bookseller publicly complaining about a book or author.  Instead, we'll usually just keep quiet.

We're not represented with titles on the October Indie Next list, but rumor has it that we've got two recommendations in November.  You'll hear about those in short order, but I think it's time to talk about our September recommendation.  It's for Birds of Paradise, by Diana Abu-Jaber, and hooray, it's one of mine.

"Avis Muir is an architect in the kitchen, who builds acclaimed pastries from flours and fondants and candied decorations. Her husband, Brian, is a lawyer for one of the most respected developers in Miami, who helps create a new international hub of wealth and opulence. So why have they had so much trouble constructing a nuclear family? Abu-Jaber's novel of family dysfunction, cultural adaptation, and human resilience in the face of tragedy ponders the joys and limitations of family, friendship, and career with powerful results."--Daniel Goldin, Boswell Book Company. The original was longer but how much space do you think they have?

As you know, I do like family dysfunction novels and enjoy distinct settings, so I was predisposed to like this Miami-tastic novel. One of the things I've noticed about books of this type is that they often have a tight structure.  Both Joe Meno's The Great Perhaps and Eric Puchner's Model Home come to mind.  Both also have strong sense of place--perhaps this is another reason why I like books of this sort so much.

On top of all the structural rigors of the characters, the novel is also a balancing act. Abu-Jaber had to create a 2005 that had some but not too much technology, and was just at the point of Miaimi's real estate heights. The city had reinvented itself as an international capital, South Beach had grown up from a neighborhood of dilapidated hotels and synagogues to a modeling heaven, giving Felice a way to survive while homeless, which she might not have been able to do in any other city on her terms without say, prostitution or theft. I suspect Abu-Jaber meant to write the book during Miami's boom, and everything else fell into place, but I wonder, could she have written this novel in any other time period?

Of this aspect, the novel reminds me of Real Estate, by Jane DeLynn, and Adam Langer's Ellington Boulevard, set in New York, but during two different housing bubbles.

Speaking of balancing acts, one of the toughest was Stanley's age (Stanley is Felice's brother) during the bulk of the story. He had to be young enough to have an intense bond with Felice and also to have still been hurt by the lack of attention when Felice disappeared, but old enough to have a functioning market that if not financially successful, had some cache, all by the time she was 18. I imagined what it would have like had Stanley been 10 years older than her instead of 5. He would have been old enough to have his ownership of the market be more likely. He still had his own baggage with Avis (she didn't really want him to bake) and could have had a particularly intense bond with Felice, being that his mom would have most likely left her in his care a lot, the way my mom had my nine-years-older sister babysit me when she went back to school. But then he might have been old enough that Felice's disappearance might not have affected him. So maybe five was the right number.

Regarding Stanley, I wonder why his voice is so muted compared to others in the family. Was he also downsized from the original draft? I guess we will never know.

One thing I noticed was that Abu-Jaber seemed tenuous about letting her characters truly fail. It seemed she loved them too much for Brian to lose the family money or have an affair, for Felice to be raped, for Avis's or Stanley's businesses to collapse, for Avis to reject Solange before she disappeared, the way Felice did Hannah. Obviously the beauty of whether a novel is dark or light, comedy or tragedy, is where you end it. That said, in the end, the family is able to skirt family with their reputations intact, and in that sense, the story is almost a comedy. I'm not saying their had to be terrible things that destroyed them--we know Felice has had a hard life on the streets, but there's really only one terrible incident in the book, and she is saved by her perhaps true love Emerson, and what were the odds of that? Coincidence is another hallmark of comedy. But...there is a clear decision to skirt the worst that could happen. It would have been a different book. In the end, you can say that the ending, much like the recent Ann Patchett, was Dickensian.

I remember years ago, Shelby Hearon, a literary obsession of mine for some time, would tell of fighting with her editor. "You know, Shelby, this character is supposed to die." And Shelby would say something like, "Oh, I know, but I like him too much to let him go."  It's always a tough call.

As an aside, I noticed was that Abu-Jaber left glimpses of her culture in the character of Hannah, and there's also a hint that Avis is part Arabic, with the reference to Turkish coffee made by one of her grandmothers. One felt like the story of Hannah and her family could have been a novel on its own, surrounding the family that Americanizes its names and moves around the country searching for acceptance. It's a story that could also be comic or tragic, and one day, I'd like to read it.

Birds of Paradise is very traditional in a sense that I think it favors family and true love over friendship, very different from all those friends are just as important or moreso novels. (Jamesland comes to mind). Every character is either friendless or is ultimately hurt by their friends. Who comes through for you in the end? Your spouse or spousal equivalent. There's never any question that the loyalties of Felice's friends Reynoldo and Berry are fickle at best, and the high school friendships are one betrayal after another. I think you'd say Avis is betrayed by Solange--she disappears, and unlike family (Felice), she never comes back. I guess the closest to a good friend you get who sort of comes through for you is Javier, though even he has some issues.In the end, like many novels of family dysfunction, the family fractures apart and then is at least somewhat glued back together again.  In the case of Birds of Paradise, the bond is a little stronger than I sometimes find.  Perhaps it's the extra honey added to the mix. 

This is what it's all about--a novel that keeps you contemplating for days afterward.  Days? I read this book in June and I'm still thinking about it.  Deadlines, you know.
Diana Abu-Jaber is not coming to Milwaukee but it looks like she's going to be at the Madison Book Festival on October 20.  I won't be going, alas, as Boswell is hosting another of my favorite fall books, Stuart Nadler's The Book of LifeHere's a list of her other tour cities.

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