An eclectic roundup of books that have crossed our desk this year.
The Last Chinese Chef: A Novel
Houghton Mifflin (May 4, 2007); 288 pages; $24.00
The procuring, preparation, presentation, and enjoyment of food provide an excellent introduction to cuisine as a mirror of modern China. Tension between reverence for past traditions and the brashness of an expanding consumer class can play out on a Beijing menu as much as on a city street clogged with bicycles and SUVs. Amidst the improbable mid-life situations of the protagonists and the novel’s strained plot, the strongest character, China’s complex cuisine, stands out. From crisp yet spongy jelly-fish to lotus root with sausage and pungent celery, nuanced textures and flavors carry on the real dialogue.
The House of Mondavi
The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty
Julia Flynn Siler
Gotham (June 21, 2007); 464 pages; $28.00
Take the classic immigrant saga: hard work, strife, success…and more success. Set this drama in California, the ultimate American dreamscape. Give the plot and subplots, like the very vineyards that provided Cesare Mondavi and his descendants with their livelihoods, decades to develop.
Add the seemingly inevitable elements of sibling rivalry and hubris; bring in the lawyers and accountants. It’s the tale of another family businesss whose growth and influence surpassed the visions of its founders… But if that’s not enough, change the names and repeat the cycle of superlative achievements and suspicion with the next generation.
Speed-dial the attorneys and the TV news crews. Finally, allow Julia Flynn Siler from the Wall St. Journal to put the whole show together as a business thriller.
The Year of Eating Dangerously
A Global Adventure in Search of Culinary Extremes
Tom Parker Bowles
St. Martin’s Press (September 4, 2007); 400 pages; $24.95
You know that Tom Parker-Bowles wants to be Anthony Bourdain rather than a gentleman who knows better. Being the thirty-something son of the Duchess of Cornwall and, thus, the step-son of Prince Charles can hardly be considered an occupational handicap unless one wants to be taken seriously as one more enfant terrible de cuisine.
If we thought that we might be pushing the author over the brink and into inconsolable depression, we wouldn’t say that we were disappointed in his book. But we think he’s probably quite well-balanced, so we’ll take him to task for wasting his talents; he is an adroit writer. Maybe you can take the boy out of Eton, but you can’t take Eton out of the boy… Like many schoolboys, he’s willing to try almost anything to get attention. Whether it’s incendiary, illegal, endangered, smelly, treacherously hard to harvest, or still wriggling, our boy wants to eat it.
And we quickly realize, he’s simply testing the limits of tolerance—of both himself and his readers. Tom Parker-Bowles ingests hot chillies, insect eggs, dog soup, and things both live or seriously decomposing. Although he’s capable of some trenchant reflection (on the cultures he experiences or how meat animals are raised and slaughtered) most of the book confirms that he’s opening his mouth at the table so he can boast of his exploits later. His vagabond year was one of extreme sport (and, in some instances, extreme expense). We hope he’s gotten this out of his system.
Disclosure: The publishers of these books have sent them to us for review.