Sunday, June 03, 2007

Pg. 99: Dylan Schaffer's "Life, Death & Bialys"

The current feature at the Page 99 Test: Dylan Schaffer's Life, Death & Bialys: A Father/Son Baking Story.

About the book, from the author's website:
Als drait zich arum broit un toit
It all comes down to bread and death

--Yiddish proverb

In November of 2002 my father, whose nickname was Flip, invited me to take an intensive baking class with him at the French Culinary Institute in New York, seven months later. I said yes in the way a parent says yes when a five-year-old asks if he can drive the living room couch to the moon. Flip had end-stage lung and bladder cancer. The doctors figured he’d be gone in weeks. There was no way he was going to survive to take the class. I didn’t think there was any risk I’d actually have to go to NY, so I said sure, why not, let’s bake.

What I didn’t know was that my father had a plan and he wasn’t about to let death get in his way. Roughly, the plan involved surviving for seven months notwithstanding expert predictions, dragging me across the country, and finally telling me the truth about why he left my mother. Haunted by memories of his own mother’s death, for which he held himself responsible, and racked by guilt over having abandoned his children to be raised by a suicidal depressive, he decided to make amends.

He survived, so I had no choice but to meet him in New York. We baked, we laughed, we talked, we walked around his old neighborhoods, we lived in a ratty Bowery hotel, we drove each other crazy. He said he was sorry for leaving. I told him I forgave him, though I remained furious at him for allowing me and my siblings to be raised by a crazy woman. A few weeks after the class the cancer spread to his bones and kidneys. I flew to his home in South Carolina and we continued the conversation we’d begun in New York. And then he died.

A year later I looked through my notes from the class and listened to hours of tape-recorded interviews with Flip, both in New York and South Carolina, and it struck me that something had happened between us. I decided to try to figure out what the something was the only way I know how: I wrote a book.

In the tradition of David Sedaris, Anne Lamott and Ruth Reichl, Life, Death & Bialys is about how an imperfect father said goodbye to his son and to his city, how a reluctant son discovered the essence of forgiveness, and how we both learned that baking a decent baguette is much, much harder than it looks.
Among the praise for Life, Death & Bialys:

"Life, Death, and Bialys is two stories: that most simple and complicated of relationships, father and son; and that most simple and complex of alchemies, flour, water, and yeast. Growth, and death, and the inner pressures of fermentation; pleasure, and work, and a final act. This is a book as magical as the process of breadmaking, as mysterious as life and death."
--Laurie King, New York Times bestselling author of The Art of Detection

"Dylan Schaffer writes with remarkable humor about that most painful of subjects -- family. Anyone who has ever been driven over the edge by a maddening parent (and who of us hasn't?) will delight in this book."
--Aylet Waldman, author of Love and Other Impossible Pursuits

"[E]xceptionally well-written.... [S]hould be required reading in any classroom in which one writer is trying to teach another what good memoir writing demands...."
--Minneapolis StarTribune

"Schaffer ... writes here about the complex relationships between fathers and sons with more delicacy than it takes to fold a croissant. His insightful and improbably humorous look at baking in the face of death is a spot-on depiction of the way our families — more than anyone else in the world — can cause us simultaneous pleasure and pain." Read the full review

"[Schaffer] is on to something big.... Schaffer brings to bear the fiction writer's tool kit he showcased in his well-regarded legal thrillers, crafting his father into a compelling, easy-to-love protagonist, even as he's revealing the man's greatest flaws.... [E]ven readers who have a limited interest in the surprisingly complicated mechanics of baking will find a lot to love about Schaffer's chronicle of two cooking neophytes.... What is most brilliant about "Life, Death & Bialys" is Schaffer's ability to impose a fiction writer's sense of plot and pacing onto the material of his poignant memoir.... [T]he author is far too keen a craftsman to trap himself into a tidy, cookie-cutter ending that puts a glossy, revisionist spin on his childhood. Crafting a memoir, just like baking, is an exacting science, and no matter how you slice it, it is a genre Dylan Schaffer has mastered."
--San Francisco Chronicle

Dylan Schaffer's other works include the acclaimed Misdemeanor Man Mysteries.

Visit Schaffer's website, and read an excerpt from Life, Death & Bialys.

The Page 99 Test: Life, Death & Bialys.

--Marshal Zeringue