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.
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.
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?
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.
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 Life. Here's a list of her other tour cities.