2006 Readin’ in the Rain

Diana Abu-Jaber revisits Eugene.

Crescent, a novel by Diana Abu-Jaber. W.W. Norton, 2004. Paperback, $13.95.

I reviewed Diana Abu-Jaber’s second novel, Crescent (EW archives, 12/9/04) and Arabian Jazz, her first novel. Her new memoir, The Language of Baklava (Anchor Books), was a 2006 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association award-winner.

This year’s community-wide selection for Readin’ in the Rain, Crescent, is set in a neighborhood of Los Angeles dubbed “Teherangles” by those who live there. Abu-Jaber grew up with a Jordanian father who was a storyteller, and in Crescent, 39-year old Sirine lives with her uncle, a university teacher who tells her the ongoing “moralless” tall tale of his “cousin,” Abdelrahman Salahadin. These wild tales contain a lesson on “what it takes to overcome great obstacles when you really, truly love someone,” Abu-Jaber said in a recent telephone interview. At readings, she sometimes reads the early sections where Abdelraham sells himself into slavery.

Abu-Jaber said she included these fanciful adventures in Crescent because she wanted to see if she could capture “the quality of the spoken story” her father had as a storyteller. In the book, Uncle calls the story “a form of love story in disguise.” Once when Sirine becomes impatient with him, Uncle says to her: “You have to let the story come to you, you cannot fling yourself upon it.” Later he confides that “a trip to the Nile” means “you will wait forever and a day for what you want.”

Good advice for Sirine, the chef at Nadia’s Café who falls in love with Hanif Al Eyad, an Iraqi teaching Near Eastern Studies at the university. Uncle’s tall tale wraps itself around their love story, which in turn encompasses community life at the café, and that life centers on food. The delicious scents of cardamom, turmeric and Arab coffee fill the air while Sirine cooks, which attracts popular teachers such as Hanif and gifted students such as the romantic poet Aziz.

“Story holds and compels us,” Abu-Jaber said from Miami, where she is teaching. “I love being read to, and it is a great privilege to read to others.” She will give a free public reading at 7 pm on Feb. 23 in the Hult Center, and will sign books at 2 pm on Feb. 25 at Tsunami Books. A benefit dinner hosted by Café Soriah from 7:30-9:30 pm on Feb. 25 at 5th Street Public Market goes to support Readin’ in the Rain. Tickets ($15) are available in advance at UO Bookstore and Tsunami Books.

Opening celebration for Readin’ in the Rain begins this week, at 6:30 pm on Friday, Feb. 3 at the Eugene Public Library. International bellydancer Astryd deMichele performs to live Arabic and Turkic music by the band Ala Nar. At 7:30 pm, Beth Aydelott will speak on “The Flavors of Crescent: Feeding the Exile.” And at 7 pm on Feb. 9 in UO Bookstore, a book discussion about Crescent is open to everyone.

Food is a topic Abu-Jaber is comfortable with, growing up in what she called “a food-obsessed family.” She said simply, “Food gives me hope. It transcends national boundaries. You can’t argue about well-prepared lamb shanks. Food builds unity. It touches on our inherent humanity. Cooking is the original oral tradition, the school under the trees. It shows were we came from. It was how my dad taught us who he was in Jordan.”

The fresh food of the Northwest is one of the many things Abu-Jaber said she loved about living in Eugene when she taught at the UO. “The Saturday Farmers Market is astounding: fresh, beautiful, organically-grown foods readily available.” You take it for granted when you live there, she said, but later you learn such food is not available everywhere.

“I loved the personality of the people of Eugene,” Abu-Jaber said. “It’s so energizing, progressive, fresh and vital.” She related a story of a student who heard her speak in Miami. The young Cuban woman displayed a UO student ID she still carries. “People there are so beautiful,” the student told her. Abu-Jaber also said she enjoyed the Oregon Country Fair, the Eugene Celebration parade and the Slug Queen.

Right now Abu-Jaber is pondering the differences between writing fiction and writing non-fiction. Recently memoirist James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) said he made up some events in his Oprah-selected, best-selling memoir. Au-Jaber said she wrote her memoir as stories. She crafted the arc of the stories and included recipes in each chapter. “What is the truth in a memoir?” is the question she asks people. What is their expectation between truth and life stories? “In my family, you expected things to be kind of magical,” she noted. I understand. I like a good story myself.

Book Notes (Jan. 26- Feb. 9): In addition to Diana Abu-Jaber, 2006 PNBA Book Awards go to Kurt Cyrus (Eugene) for Hotel Deep: Light Verse from Dark Water; to John Daniel (Elmira) for Rogue River Journal: A Winter Alone; to Jim Lynch (Olympia, WA) for The Highest Tide; to Floyd Skloot (Amity) for Approximately Paradise; and to Garth Stein (Seattle) for How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets. Congratulations to all. …Michael McCloskey (In the Thick of It: My Life in the Sierra Club) speaks about 40 years in the political hotseat at 7 pm on Jan. 26 in 173 Knight Law School, UO campus. …Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sakyong Mipham (Turning the Mind into an Ally) speaks to the public and signs books at 7:30 pm on Jan. 27 at First Congregational Church, 1126 SW Park Ave, Portland. $12 advance, $15 door. …Gresham writer Barry Ozeroff (Sniper Shot) signs books at 1 pm on Jan. 28 at Barnes & Noble. …William Stafford’s birthday commemorative reading starts at 4 pm on Jan. 29 in Tsunami Books. Bring a poem to share: Stafford’s or your own, …Donate used paperbacks to support U.S. troops overseas to Operation Paperback between Jan. 29-Feb. 15 at Tsunami Books. …Poet Dorianne Laux (Facts About the Moon) reads from her new collection at 8 pm on Feb. 2 in the Knight Library Browsing Room, UO. …Bruce Holland Rogers speaks on “Shapes of the Short Story” at 6:30 pm on Feb. 2 in Baker Building, 975 High Street. Mid-Valley Willamette Writers free, non-members $5. …Joseph Lieberman (Shooting Game) reads at 7 pm on Feb. 7 in Knight Library Browsing Room, UO. …Australian paleoanthropologist Peter Brown speaks on “A Revolution in Evolution: Discovery, Story, and Implications of Homo floresiensis
— The Hobbits” at 7:30 pm on Feb. 8 in 180 PLC, UO. …Literary Arts (503 227-2583) presents Kaye Gibbons at 7:30 pm on Feb. 8 at Congregational Church, Portland.