Nicole Mones. The Last Chinese Chef. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 2008.
A savoury little find. Yard sales pay off. No mystery here, simply a sweet story of Maggie who is grieving the sudden death of her husband Matt and undertaking, reluctantly, an urgent trip to China. Well, there is a basic question involved and we have to wait for the answer. As a widow, Maggie is about to face her husband's devastating secret. As a magazine food writer, she is about to discover some therapeutic benefits in Chinese cuisine. More than a culinary tour, the novel touches on customs and culture of China both historical and modern. A local chef becomes her accidental but complaisant guide.
Maggie's encounters with Chinese families include their experiences of serving the Dowager Empress and the tragic days of the "Cultural Revolution," among others. A kept woman muses on her future that is spiralling downward. Also the author of Lost in Translation, Mones is a very engaging and sensitive writer. The ribs and the tofu with thirty-crab sauce are not to be missed!
The end is nigh:
He knew what was coming even though they did not tell him. Huh, old Dr. Shen, he was a fool if he thought Xie could not grasp his euphemisms and decode his glances to Wang Ling. Actually, it wasn't so bad. The pain he had felt in his limbs for so long was gone, replaced by numbness. His body was failing, spiraling away from him, his hands quivering when he could raise them at all. Yet he was clear. Steel cables sang in his mind. He remembered everything about his life. And while he could feel the next world, feel its sounds and urges and movements beyond the veil, at the same time he knew he had never been sharper or more astute about this one. He saw everyone and everything, not the surface but what was true inside. Most of what he saw made him content. (96)
Then she heard Sam's footfall on the stairs. Strange that she knew his step already. ...
"Do you want to take a shower? And then we'll have breakfast."
Of course, she thought, another meal. "Does someone else need to use the bathroom?"
"Not now. They're Chinese. They bathe at night. You slept through it."
The sisters got up and trickled out, sly, smiling, as if now was the time for Maggie and Sam to be alone.
"They like you," he said. "They told me so."
"They think we're together."
"No," he said. "I told them we're just friends."
"Well, I'm sorry. I took your room."
"Not in the end," he said. (158)
Gao Lan's family:
I was born in the same year as our nation , a fact that gave me great pride and also my name, Guolin, the country's Welcome Rain. This was my generation. Later we were termed the Lost Ones because we had lost our educations, but I always bristled at that. Being lost was a state of mind. On the contrary, we showed we had the fierceness for anything. When we were sent to the countryside in 1970 we endured privations such as even our mothers and fathers never did. I went two years without oil and salt. That is something most people today cannot imagine. Yet those ten years of chaos did not break us. The one thing that did break us had already happened, might in fact have made the Cultural Revolution possible, and that was the famine. Looking back, I have thought that only people who were starved as children could do the things we young people did. (106-107)
Annie Proulx. That Old Ace in the Hole. New York: Scribner, 2002.
Annie! Annie Proulx! As a huge fan of The Shipping News and Accordion Crimes (she also wrote Brokeback Mountain) I can't believe I missed this one. Proulx has transferred her bewitching humour to the Texas panhandle, wonderfully capturing the life and idioms of a fiercely proud rural society. Woolybucket County is experiencing the modern dilemmas of independent ranchers v. corporate farming and the oil business. Young and naive Bob Dollar comes to town, employed by a giant of the hog industry, to scout the area for a new site. Bob is not excellent at his job. But he devours tales of the old cowboys and the home cooking at the Old Dog Cafe. The twang accents and hilarious clichés of the natives don't conceal their canny practicality that defeats every desperate ploy Bob comes up with. Howsomever, they affectionately adopt him ... most of them. Except for the one or two who want to kill him.
The concocted place names (Roughbug, Slickfork, Struggle, Cowboy Rose, more) and personal names (Ribeye Cluke, Tater Crouch, Parch Wilpin, Freda Beautyrooms, Jim Skin, LaVon Fronk, Bromo Redpoll, and more) are only the tip of the iceberg, the introduction, to endlessly inventive anecdotes of these characters and the old days. I defy you not to laugh out loud in delight during the Cain and Abel quilting bee, or Bob's wasp sting, or his hapless run-ins with Sheriff Dough. Proulx's ability to get into the skin of her characters seems effortless and infinite. The word charm applies here unreservedly. Best advice: read slowly to appreciate every line. Annie rules!
Words that need sounding out loud so you catch the drift of the context:
barbwar (also bobwire)
graindaddy as in your ma's pa
awl as in Standard Awl pumping millions of barls a day
waf as in the female you married
prior as in what you do at church (or to win the rodeo)
small as in the opposite of frown
flar is what a pansy is
Every pie got its own piecrust. (69)
Couldn't hit an elephant's ass with a banjo. (80)
No sir, there ain't no corn on that cob. (240)
The ghosts come up out a this place ever night like a flock a bats. (241)
Jesus Christ, I just as soon put a funnel in my mouth and run against the wind. (313)
"Oh, we was poor," said Methiel Huff. "Seems like at the end a the month all we had a eat was beans and more beans. Red-letter day when we got a little salt pork to perk them up. Mother used a keep the salt pork in a crock, lid on it and a big stone on the lid, but someway Dad's old hound dog pushed the stone off and got in there and eat ever bit of it up. Ma said then the only thing we had to flavor the beans was windmill grease. That old relief truck would come around and we'd get rice, beans, prunes and powdered milk." (107)
The Struggle cemetery:
[Jim has a condition that forces him to cough―Wagh!―every so often]
"When my deddy died they buried him in―Wagh!―Struggle. He is buried in the lightbulb cemetery―Wagh!―up there where a man's worth is spelled out by the watts a the lightbulbs set in the ground around the grave. Know what old Susie picked for him? Three burned-out refrigerator bulbs. She said he didn't deserve no more. Wagh! Wagh! Wagh! I always felt bad about that. I always told myself I'd go up there and put in bigger bulbs for him." (231 and 241)
Admitted to a cockfight:
Bob stayed for nearly two hours watching match after match until he began sneezing from the chickeny dust and feather effluvium mixed with smoke. There was something mesmerizing and terrible about the birds, the rank and sweaty crowd. Gradually he had understood that the cocks represented their owners, that the grossest lout, the skinniest Asian, mingled his psychological identification with that of the sleek, beautiful and dangerous birds. He said good-bye to the fat man and eased out. In the parking lot a heavy farmer was pissing on a tire. He glanced up at Bob.
"Lost me nine hunderd bucks in there," he said.
"Sorry to hear it."
"Not half so sorry as I am. I believe my waf will kill me."
Bob drove back to the Busted Star feeling he had been present at some dark blood sacrifice older than civilization, a combat with sexual overtones rooted in the deepest trench of the panhandle psyche. (236)