I have written about The Last Chinese Chef before. In fact, you can click right here to see what I thought about it the first time around. It was 2009, and I cannot really remember a thing about that year. Oh, I know, if I thought hard I might be able to. I could look at my cv or I could try hard to trace my steps by searching through emails or . . . .
I do not want to. And, I am not re-reading the review itself. You can -- if you choose to.
The point is that I did re-read Nicole Mones' book The Last Chinese Chef. I read it over a few days which means, I think, that I both liked it and did not want to leave the wonderful world that the author created. The novel brings together an American widow and a complicated American ex pat in China. Each has a professional relationship to food -- on the one hand, a widow (I assume white but I may be wrong) whose profession has been writing for a magazine about American food and, on the other hand, a first generation Chinese American chef, who has "returned" to China to learn to cook. Both are entangled with their pasts -- the widow with her husband's death (and SPOILER ALERT) possible infidelity and the chef with his father's refusal to return to the China of his oppression and with his lineage as a grandchild of a great Chinese (imperial) chef. In building their relationship, there is a sense that each comes to terms with mourning and loss, with the making of something new out of something old, and much more. In reading the book -- perhaps in re-reading the book -- the ways history, the present, and an imagined future are entwined capture the heart.
Mines' descriptions of the ways food is both cultural and bodily are impressive. And, the careful distinguishing between Chinese American food and . . Chinese foods of various regions and goals -- is also impressive. But, perhaps, the most crucial thing is the way the book requires you to immerse yourself and listen -- or, and again I hesitate, to both feel and think one's way into the novel.
I am tempted to reflect a bit on re-reading as a thing. I have been doing a lot of it lately. It is, often, an academic skill -- re-reading works one finds influential, defining classics as works we read and re-read, and thinking through them in new and challenging ways each time. These days, I am re-reading some of the academic works that I care about. But, I am also re-reading works that I would characterize as literature (The Last Chinese Chef is most definitely literature) and formula fiction. It is interesting how often I discover that I have no memory of the first time I read the book -- and as interesting when I can actually recall the words, the plot, the characters and more. I do not quite know what it means to re-read, but I do recommend it.
Mones is well known for her earlier book Lost in Translation, and the film made from it. I have neither read that novel nor (I think) seen the film. I have no interest in doing so. I do think, though, I might go out and find her newer (2015) book Night in Shanghai which is apparently about African American jazz in Shanghai and the "winds of war." If she can make the music sing the way she made me feel like I was encountering food (and much much more) in The Last Chinese Chef, I will be happy.