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THE LAST CHINESE CHEF

American food writer has a dual assignment in Beijing: cover a chef competition and deal with a paternity claim against her late husband.

Maggie, 40, lives on a boat in L.A., adjusting to widowhood after her world-traveling lawyer husband Matt is hit by an errant motorist in San Francisco. She writes a peripatetic column about culinary Americana, but now Matt’s former colleague Carey has summoned her to Beijing: Grandparents are claiming Matt fathered their five-year-old granddaughter Shuying, and litigation looms under the (fictitious, alas) Children’s Rights Treaty. (Matt did have a brief fling with Shuying’s mother, Gao Lan, whom he met in a Beijing club.) Maggie’s editor assigns her to profile a Beijing-based Eurasian chef named Sam, scion of the illustrious Laing clan. Sam’s grandsire Liang Wei wrote The Last Chinese Chef, the definitive treatise on cuisine based on centuries-old dining traditions at the Forbidden City, where the Liangs wielded woks. Sam’s father Liang Yeh fled China for Ohio during the Cultural Revolution. Now Sam has returned to carry on the family tradition under the tutelage of elderly mentors Jiang, Tan and Xie. Sam’s Imperial-style ancestral restaurant lost financing, but he is a contender in an upcoming culinary Olympic trial. If he wins a coveted spot on the Chinese team, celebrity chefdom is guaranteed. When Maggie journeys to the south to take a DNA swab from Shuying, Sam tags along to visit dying Xie, who alone can impart sufficient refinement to Sam’s wok chops. Maggie learns that another man is most likely the father, but after meeting Gao Lan, now a kept woman whose parents think the money she sends home derives from a career in “Logistics,” she resolves to help her anyway. As Sam’s audition banquet approaches, Maggie is increasingly drawn to him. Mones (A Cup of Light, 2002, etc.) has a subtle touch when portraying growing affection between genuinely nice people. Meticulously researched gastronomy will entice foodies, even those whose familiarity with Chinese food is limited to takeout.

Warning: Avoid reading while hungry.

Pub Date: May 4, 2007

ISBN: 0-618-61966-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2007

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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