Life, Death, & Bialys: A Father/Son Baking Story

Psychological revelations and a little something about baking bread

By Dylan Schaffer

Bloomsbury (September) ($24.95)

You've heard the one about unhappy families being unhappy in their own ways. Oakland lawyer (and writer of legal thrillers) Dylan Schaffer grew up in a doozy: When he was 5, his father Flip left him and his three siblings (one of whom was 6 months old) in the care of their bitter, depressed, and unstable mother. Father and son had intermittent contact, but Dylan never forgave Flip. Then, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer in his 70s, Flip proposes that the two of them attend a weeklong artisanal baking course at the French Culinary Institute in New York. There's a reason that problems are often resolved during a meal (aka breaking bread), but this story isn't as predictable as that. Despite decades of bile to go through, family stories to recount, and various unreliable memories to describe (did Pete Seeger really announce the imminent birth of Dylan's baby brother Guthrie from the stage, causing Dylan and Flip to leave the concert?), Schaffer never gets all warm and fuzzy on us: "And the realization that my father has dragged me across the country to ask my forgiveness for something I think is totally unforgivable enrages me." He's so enraged, in fact, that he captures in this memoir none of the charm that others find in his father: He describes his dad as ugly, unpleasant to watch eating, smelly, and maddeningly opaque, if not actually a lying bastard (as Schaffer later thinks of him in a moment of elation). It's not an easy read, but it is a rewarding one; in addition to the psychological revelations, you also learn something about baking bread. Meredith Brody

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