Vacation Books

“I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves.”

– E.M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy, 1951

Buenos Aires – One of the things I like about vacationing by myself is that in between the various bits of sightseeing, I can catch up on reading. There are too many distractions at home to read as much as I’d like. While out and about, I can read while I eat, I can read in my hotel/b&b room, whatever strikes my fancy. So, beyond a couple of magazines that I just took along for entertainment value and to get them off my reading stack, I took two books with me.

The Last Chinese ChefFirst up was the reading for total pleasure. I’d run across references to the book The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones, in various spots on the internet – I think I even used a quote from the book as part of one of my posts not that long ago. It sounded completely intriguing, and then a couple of food biz friends recommended it highly. I do the same. By turns a romance, a food book (and I’m already tracking down recipes to try out, some of which the author provides on her website), a personal narrative from several perspectives, and even a touch of suspense, the book is well crafted, an enjoyable read – not a completely light, easy reading book, but not overly intellectual either. Initially I thought it was a little… fluffy… when it started out – the narrative part, at times, does have a sort of harlequin romance character to it – but it quickly becomes clear this is intentional and meant to reflect the proponent’s personality more than anything else – sections that are narrated from the point of view of other characters take on an entirely different style, tone and quality of writing – it’s clear that Ms. Mones can write well, and chooses simply to use a lighter style of writing for the first character introduced. I never read her other book for which she is famous – Lost in Translation – I hated the movie, but then, never judge a book by its movie… you know? Highly recommended reading material for anyone who likes food and cooking.

BottomfeederMy other book was a bit more on the serious side. Bottomfeeder: How to eat ethically in a world of vanishing seafood by Taras Grescoe, has been sitting on my reading stack for months now. Like other books of the genre – the more prominent recent ones being what seems a slew by Michael Pollan, it’s a grim picture of what we’ve done to our food supply, what’s going to happen if we continue the way we are, and suggestions for what we can do about it. Unlike Pollan, Grescoe tackles the theme with a bit of a sense of humor, and a bit of self-deprecation – in his quest for information, detail, and some of the whys and wherefores, he finds himself, by conscious choice, eating his way through a selection of seafood that he already knows, based on his thesis, he oughtn’t to be. He excuses himself with “this will be the last time I ever…” sort of reasoning, which doesn’t really excuse it, but is the same reasoning that most of us use when confronted with ideas of the sort that we have some responsibility for the planet and our bodies in our choices of what we eat. The old “it’s already been caught, so if I don’t eat it, someone else will or it will go to waste” is a specious argument – lowering demand, in the long run, can only help towards a change in the approach of restaurants’, fishmongers’ and fisheries’ attitudes. One bite at a time. The book does not end on any sort of upbeat or hopeful note – Grescoe seems to have concluded that it’s unlikely change will come in time – one hopes he doesn’t actually believe that, as, if so, the only reason for having written the book would have been self-promotion and greed – and I don’t think that’s the case, I think he just doesn’t sum things up in a way that is as likely to lead towards change as he could have – he’s presented his case, he’s basically stated what he’s going to do about it, and he leaves it up to the individual reader to decide what he or she is going to do. The case statement was powerful, the summation to the jury of his peers could have used more punch. Still, overall it’s well worth a read – not to mention taking some action.


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