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"Kitchens of the Great Midwest" by J. Ryan Stradal
Each chapter tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity.
Despite its length the book is a page turner and you will go through it in a flash. While the prose is the clear straightforward one of NYT bestsellers (eg Ken Follett) so nothing fancy and in consequence the emotional content is lost on occasion when major things happen or are revealed, the attraction of the novel is not in its literary qualities but in the events seen through the eyes of the two main characters in alternating chunks of pages, with some convergence towards the end.
Starting in a provincial Chinese town in 1965, our main heroes - Weilin/William and Yuezhu/Margaret are 8 year olds that meet and become best friends (and feel the first stirrings of attraction without of course knowing what is it) at the town pool.
Weilin is from an "intellectual" family and his dad is a math professor at the local college, while they have books, vinyl records and other trappings of the educated of the time and place and the boy, only child, is very handsome, bright and quite interested in math and reading.
Yuezhu is from a politically correct family - her father is an army officer of peasant stock and firm revolutionary principles though even in the People's Army, careers rise and fall depending on whose commander's commander is ascending or descending. Yuezhu is beautiful, loves dancing and music and while she is not that interested in math she likes being around with Weilin and they keep meeting despite being at different schools; however Yuezhu is also in awe of her older half brother, a rebellious teen who becomes a main leader of the Red Guards when the Cultural Revolution is unleashed soon after.Read more ›
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In a recent Radio Derb segment John Derbyshire was talking about Tiananmen Square and told listeners that if they wanted to know about that subject, they should go to Amazon.com and download his book "Fire From the Sun." I did that and discovered one of the best novels I've read in the past 25 years.
The story starts in China in the early 1960s and is told through the experiences of two main characters: a boy named Weilin, who later takes the English name William, and a girl named Yuezhu, who later takes the name Margaret. The two have a childhood crush on one another but that soon ends. These children come of age through Mao's reign of terror known as the Cultural Revolution, which has a devastating effect on William.
William's parents are deemed to be bourgeois and counter-revolutionary by the young radicals known as the Red Guards, and the parents suffer terribly for that reason. Margaret's father is an army officer, which puts her in good stead with the Red Guards. She in fact becomes a Little Red Guard and in her own small and childish way, helps, or thinks she is helping, to persecute William's father. William develops a life-long hatred for her that prevails into their adulthood and drives some of the primary action in the book.
Margaret grows up to be a beautiful woman who has a talent for singing, and she eventually becomes an opera star. I fell in love with Margaret the same as I did with Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Scarlett O'Hara. In fact this novel is so well written, the reader will undoubtedly have strong feelings either for or against all the major characters and more than a few of the minor ones.
I know of John Derbyshire mostly from his opinion journalism; there's been a spot of bother about that recently, when an article of his offended a lot of people. I like him anyway. If asked what sort of fiction he would write; I might have predicted much of the subject matter, but not the style in which it is written. For such a long work (the print edition runs to about 1100 pages over three volumes) it keeps moving remarkably well, as some lengthy novels do. I've spent most of my spare time over the past three days reading it on the Kindle apps for my Mac and iPhone.
The other reviewers have already given a good enough idea of the plot; if you need more detail, read the book. It was interesting to watch the author take some of the interests which he has written about in his non-fiction, Chinese history and culture, mathematics, opera, and Wall Street, and incorporate them into a gripping story with plenty of human interest, and a few serious points to make. I was reminded of James Clavell's books, such as "Tai Pan", but Derbyshire's book has it's own unique flavor. It doesn't seem to have found much of a market in its expensive self-published print edition, but it's well worth the Kindle price.
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Derbyshire has woven an excellent story about two people, both Chinese, that gives more than a glimpse of the frustrations of life and love spanning decades from the cultural revolution almost to the present. The striking thing for me was the detail about life in China including the absurdities that are part of the unending struggle to maneuver within the bureaucracy - and how the bureaucracy itself is an outgrowth of thousands of years of cultural development. The struggle for freedom that, no doubt, many Chinese face everyday, even in the later period of openness. I was struck by the abject cruelty that seems acceptable to so many Chinese, and the quiet reserve of those who resist it. I can't verify the veracity of the description of the Tianimin Square uprising, but it was compelling, if long. I can however, verify that Derb did his opera homework. The descriptions of opera and a singer building a voice and career are uncannily accurate. Even the protagonist William's homosexuality and the results of his lifestyle were interestingly woven into the story.
In short, this book, though long, was well worth the effort. Bravo Derb.
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