Archive for the Category ◊ Book Reviews ◊

• Friday, October 28th, 2022

Nicole Mones was born in the USA in 1952. After finishing school, she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. Mones went to China for the first time in 1977, six weeks after the cultural revolution ended. She worked as a textile broker between the USA and the People’s Republic of China for eighteen years.

She also worked as an interpreter and a freelance. She has written non-fiction articles on China in the New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. She is a member of the National Committee on USA and China Relations.

Mones’ books have been translated into several languages. Her four novels to date are mainly set in China. She has received several prizes for her writing. The Last Chinese Chef, her third novel, published in 2007, won first prize in the United States and third worldwide. She is a novelist and a food writer who has written about Chinese cuisine for Gourmet Magazine. Presently she lives in Portland, Oregon.

In The Last Chinese Chef, Nicole Mones elaborates on the significance of Chinese culinary tradition and what meals mean to the indigenous, who consider them to echo their ancient history and “guanxi” philosophy. Mones says: “Chinese cuisine has its own philosophy, sensibility, and inner erudition. It’s so much more than merely food.”

The author emphasises the importance of Chinese people eating together and sharing their meals which builds a community bond. Mones goes into minute descriptions of various dishes and the methods behind their preparation to back up her theory juxtaposing it with how meals are eaten in the west.

The novel describes the richness of Chinese food and how people appreciate it, entwined with Chinese history and a love story in Beijing between an American food critic, the recently widowed middle-aged Maggie McElroy, and a half-American, half-Chinese bachelor chef Sam Liang.

Maggie left Los Angeles for Beijing to investigate a paternity claim by his Chinese mistress on her late husband Matt’s estate. When Maggie asked for some time off work, her editor, Sarah, suggested she writes a report for their Table magazine on the promising chef Sam Liang. Sam hopes to enter the national cooking team for the “Olympic competition of culture” in Beijing.

With the help of his father, Sam translated his grandfather Liang Wei’s 1925 big classic book on food called: The Last Chinese Chef (fictional) into English, from which the Mones inserts a beautiful short paragraph at the beginning of each chapter. Sam’s grandfather was a chef who cooked for the Chinese Emperor from the Qing dynasty, and Sam, born from a long line of renowned Chinese chefs, nurtured the ambition of opening a restaurant in Beijing serving traditional Chinese food. He wanted to demonstrate how classic Chinese recipes are alive and delicious and are not likely to disappear.

Nicole Mones might be a good food critic who likes and appreciates quality food, but nevertheless, her characters are bland. Another weakness of the novel is the predictability of a stereotypical vengeance of a deeply mourning wife who stops mourning and liberates herself by falling in love with the first comer after the shock of discovering her unfaithful husband’s affair with a Chinese woman.

Nonetheless, it is an enjoyable read, illustrating the author’s food writing skills and mouth-watering vivid descriptions of different Chinese dishes for Chinese food lovers and others, and what eating means to the indigenous. It offers a good insight into Chinese history and culture, going back several centuries.

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• Friday, September 30th, 2022

Delia Owens was born in southern Georgia in 1949. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology from the University of Georgia and a PhD in Animal Behaviour from the University of California at Davis.

Owens has been published in several journals, including Nature, Journal Of Mammalogy, The African Journal Of Ecology and International Wildlife and she won the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing. She presently lives in the mountains of North Carolina.

Delia and her former husband, Mark Owens, were involved in a disturbing court case concerning the alleged killing of a poacher caught on camera in Zambia during their scientific studies of animals and their preservation. Delia Owens is still wanted in Zambia for questioning about this 1995 murder case.

Where The Crawdads Sing, published in 2018, is Owens’ first novel. It was also released as a feature film in the summer of 2022 and received mixed reviews. The story, set in the lush Carolina coastal marshes, starts in 1952 when the protagonist, Kya, is six years old and ends with her 2009 death at the age of sixty-four as a barren wife to her childhood friend, Tate.

The six-year-old Kya is forsaken by her mother, brothers and sisters and her father. She ends up alone in the family’s decrepit shack at the edge of the town of Barkley Cove in the marshes of the North Carolina coast. She has no choice but to fight for survival in the wilderness on her own and eventually becomes known in her community as the wild “Marsh Girl”.

The story goes back and forth between 1952 with Kya Clark’s courageous, adventurous childhood and 1969 with the handsome Chase Andrews’ mysterious death investigation and court case accusing Kya of murder. The story continues until Kya’s demise in 2009, with a twist in the last few pages. Two parallel stories intertwine with the two timelines.

Kya discovers that the popularly admired Chase she is in love with has his way with people and with her. She abhors him for lying to her with his false marriage promises, taking sexual advantage of her loneliness, and her yearning to be loved. Chase had always intended to marry another young woman called Pearl while he was Kya’s lover.

She is bitterly deceived when she reads the newspaper’s announcement of his engagement to Pearl. Kya rejects him and refuses to see him anymore. Despite being shunned, Chase keeps harassing her and even tries, unsuccessfully, to rape her despite her warning to kill him if he ever tries to see her again.

By baiting Chase to the old abandoned fire tower at night and pushing him from the top of the tall tower causing his “deserved” death, Kya applied what she read in her ethology book. Female fireflies lure the male and dupe him by using a specific flashing light as an attraction before mating with him and eating him afterwards. As for the female mantis, she decoys the male and starts eating his head and thorax while they are still copulating.

Where The Crawdads Sing is a sombre novel. Nonetheless, it is an ode to wild nature, written by a connoisseur in the field and a writer who seems to prefer nature and animals’ company to people, akin to her protagonist Kya, thus making nature in all its beauty the real protagonist of the story.

The book includes other themes, like the extraordinary challenges faced by some humans even at an early stage of their lives and their struggle and resourcefulness for self-preservation against all odds in harsh surroundings. There is the growing into womanhood and its implications, the need for human contact, love and attention. Furthermore, another facet of the story is the Whodunnit suspense, with a twist that the author added to spice up the story.

Nevertheless, the characters lack some depth and the story drags tediously in a disorderly way without apparent reason, like the poems swarming the novel or the lengthy court case. As for Kya only being able to read and write by the late age of fourteen and yet becoming a successful poet, biologist and accomplished artist publishing successful books, all this appears contrived and nonsensical. After all, a story has to have some credibility.

The novel’s title implies that the crawdads sing while the crayfish are incapable of singing – it is a misleading title – the choice of title was inspired by the author’s mother, who encouraged her to be curious by telling her as a young girl to explore the marshes, saying: “Go as far as you can – way out yonder where the crawdads sing”.