I hate to admit it, but I’d never heard about this page 99 business before. I mean, I’ve read a little Ford Madox Ford, but his advice about turning to page 99 to find the essence of a book stuck me, initially, as a little weird. Then I tried it with my latest book, a memoir about how me and my dying father baked our way to truth and reconciliation, called Life, Death & Bialys: A Father/Son Baking Story. And let me tell you, FMF turns out to have been a freaking genius. Here’s a bit from my page 99, which takes place outside the world’s best bialy shop, a place called Kossar’s on New York’s lower east side:Visit Dylan Schaffer's website, and read an excerpt from Life, Death & Bialys.
“We walk outside and stand in front of the store eating. Cream cheese would be nice, but I can see how eating it dry is a purer bialy experience.
We hear someone with an English accent say to her friends, ‘It’s just like a bagel, but without the hole.’
Flip [my father] steps over and corrects her, though he’s gentle about it and doesn’t make me want to hide. With his mouth full, he shakes his head a few times and says, ‘Not a bagel, darling. Totally different animal. Baked, not boiled. You see the onions in the middle?’
A few seconds later Flip is part of the gang, telling them how he used to come for bialys sixty years ago, asking about their travels around the country. I stand by, silently, savoring my first Kossar’s bialy, and wondering how a person so close to death can be so cheerful.”
Life, Death & Bialys, as you may have gathered, is about life, death, and bialys. Page 99 nicely (it’s slightly spooky just how nicely) offers a glimpse on each of those topics. The book tells the story of how, just a few weeks before my father died, we took an intensive baking class in New York City. My father left my mom when I was five and we’d spent very little time together over the next thirty years. Flip hoped the class would give us a chance to come to something like terms.
Page 99 offers a nice preview. It demonstrates what a strange and funny and weird and bialy-obsessed person my father was. It shows that, like my dad, bialys are rare, inimitable, and widely misunderstood. And, finally, it suggests that during our week learning to bake in New York, and in the few weeks before Flip died, I stood by watching, wondering, and marveling and how strong life can be, even at the very end.