Bread for the soul
Dylan Schaffer knows how to hook a reader. Not really a surprise, given that his previous two books were mysteries. But his latest book, Life, Death & Bialys: A Father/Son Baking Story, is a departure from the legal thriller genre; it is instead a memoir focused on dysfunctional parents, midlife reconciliations and making crusty artisan bread.
Schaffer sets up his premise quickly, in a three-page prologue: His dad, who walked out on Schaffer and his mom 30 years ago, calls him and proposes that the two attend a week-long bread-making class at a top New York culinary school. What is never mentioned during the phone call is that his father has end-stage lung and bladder cancer and "according to the doctors, long before [my dad] can discover the secrets of baking beautiful and distinctive artisan breads, he will be dead."
Amazingly, Schaffer's father, Flip, survives to attend the class at the French Culinary Institute. The book tracks their seven days of learning the intricacies of yeast, starters, kneading, shaping and baking. It also documents their nights together eating, walking the city and attempting to come to terms with their pasts. Schaffer is clearly on a mission to gain information from his father, mainly an explanation for how his father could abandon him to the care of his mother, who was mentally unwell. Flip is also on a mission, to say goodbye to his son, as well as finally learn to make his favorite bialy.
Schaffer's lively writing and sense of humor (often black) keep Life, Death & Bialys from becoming maudlin. But the second half of the book bogs down when he abandons the framing device of the baking class and focuses almost entirely on the psychological underpinnings of his relationship with his parents. Most of the classmates so colorfully described in the beginning of the book, as well as the baking instruction, are pushed to the back burner as Dylan's anger and barbed wit take over. Although uncomfortable to read at times, this is a book that offers a realistic glimpse at coming to terms with a parent's death.
Lisa Waddle is a pastry baker in Nashville who knows her bialys from her bagels.