Arabian plights 

Just when I thought I never again wanted to read about a writer's misty, water-colored memories of childhood foods, Diana Abu-Jaber publishes a memoir on the subject so lyrical, I'm already longing to reread it.

The Language of Baklava (Pantheon, $23 hardback) navigates Abu-Jaber's biracial, Arab-American upbringing beginning from age 6, when she clearly understands that "we are Arab at home and American on the streets." Her father, nicknamed Bud, is a boisterous immigrant who can't reconcile either his love for his homeland or his desire to achieve the slippery American dream.

He moves his family to Jordan, where young Diana's Americanisms wane in her Arab surroundings. But just as she finds footing in her new home, Bud yanks his brood back to America. Abu-Jaber closely observes her recollections: "America is a cold breeze that snaps us awake. We've been gone for a year, but once we're back, I keep recognizing types of trees, stores, buildings, and blurting out, 'Oh yeah!'"

In her adolescence, Diana and her father begin what she calls the "Long War," as Diana struggles to forge an identity not soley defined by her heritage.

Abu-Jaber used to write restaurant reviews for the Oregonian, and she knows how to romance juicy descriptions of meals. Inhale this Bedouin meal in Jordan: "I smell onions and nutty rice, as well as the rich field-and-dust scent of the cotton robe on the man standing in front of me, and mingled with all this is a teasing thread of spices -- ginger, nutmeg, pepper. The goat melts into the rice melts into the sauce, and I cannot separate the eat from the food itself."

A book that weaves a compelling tale and makes you hungry? Include this one on your holiday wish list.


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