I've read some incredible books with this group, books I'd have never read on my own. And I've had my experience of any given book greatly enhanced in discussion.
This month we're reading The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones. She also wrote Lost In Translation. (By the way, years after the movie garnered the acclaim it did, I finally saw it. I'm afraid I was rather...underwhelmed. But I don't hold her responsible for that.)
There's a new twist to our August meeting, however. Mones is a Portland resident. And, she will take groups that read her book to a Chinese restaurant in town, and she will do the ordering, and "facilitate" the meal while we discuss her book.
When the possibility for this option was proposed, I'll admit I was a little resistant. This was when I wasn't working and I had a feeling it might be pretty expensive.
As I read the book, I slap my forehead and wonder what I was thinking when I hesitated.
I've never read descriptions of food like this. She's awakened--no, she's inspired--longings I never knew existed for flavors and textures I've only read about. Cravings have opened like holes that only specific shapes can fill. I wonder if she's up to the challenge of fulfilling them. I cannot wait for this meal.
This book explores the theme that food is about far more than eating. It's almost like tantric sex, a gateway through the senses to enlightenment. In addition to being a path to the divine, it's also a language in which subtleties such as rank and favor are communicated. There are literary connections slyly conveyed, and a great chef can be the inspiration for great works of art.
So it piques my interest. I wonder how many other aspects of ourselves might be engaged in this meal. Should I look for hidden messages, obscure connections?
But what if I'm not so crazy about the story itself? Can we really have an honest discussion with the author right there?
Problem for me is...the book has some flaws. They're small, yet erode the fundamentals of my willingness to believe. We have Maggie, a recent (one year) widow who is a food writer who has to go to China to address a paternity claim against her deceased husband. Of course it's a shock to her memory of her beloved husband, and her belief in who they had been as a couple. To confirm the suit's legitimacy she has to take a DNA kit to the child and obtain a sample. Her editor asks ("since you're going to be there anyway") if she'll take an assignment of profiling a restaurant that will be opening in Beijing, with a young American-Chinese chef who cooks exclusively in the classical Chinese tradition. In tandem with the restaurant's opening is the publication of a book written by his grandfather, "The Last Chinese Chef." When Maggie arrives the funding source for the opening has just dried up; his chef 'uncles' who've taught him all he knows through brutal "tough-love" urge him to enter a cooking contest for the Cultural Olympics as a means toward finding more capital. Maggie pivots to focus her story on the competition. The time-frames for verification of her departed husband's culpability and the cooking competition roughly coincide.
I guess my quarrel is it's so predictable that the two will fall in love. And the story just doesn't have much depth--push against its two-dimensionality and it will fall right down. I like to lean into a story and have it support me. This one's too flimsy. Not a bad read, not a great one.
I can forgive this by rationalizing that the romance really isn't the point. It's merely an artifice to celebrate Chinese cuisine--its history, language, symbolism, cultural significance. The food writing truly titillates, and it's clear from her acknowledgments page that this is where she put the bulk of her efforts. Her research includes Chinese cooking/food books hundreds, and thousands of years old. There's depth to burn behind all writing concerning food. No problems with substance there.
So what happens if I'm honest about my experience of her story? Will she order something 'special' for me?
I think I may just keep my mouth shut...except to eat.
(And I'm going to read Lost In Translation, too, to take a second look at her fiction.)