The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Moines | I just finished this for a book club and really enjoyed it, despite a hastened and, at times, contrived plot. Moines does a very compelling job documenting Chinese haute cuisine and uncovering some of the mystery that shrouds the ancient Chinese methods of food preparation. I was consistently enlightened by her eloquent descriptions of the Chinese culture's reverent, poetic, and yet industrious approach to food. Like I referenced though, I found the plot to be a bit weak. Moines frames her study of Chinese cooking traditions with a love story between her protagonist Maggie--a widowed Americana food writer--and Sam--a half-Chinese chef mastering the old culinary art of haute Chinese cuisine. The love story is simultaneously hastened and dragged out. But, if you can excuse an indulgent love story and love to read about food, I recommend picking up this one. It would make a terrific pool-side read. Quick tip: don't read this book while hungry, especially if you live in a small town where no such food is available. We're not talkin' microwavable egg rolls and take-out here!
Brideshead Revisted by Evelyn Waugh | I am grossly under-qualified to write a review on what many consider one of the greatest 20th Century British novels. But since I recently picked up this classic, I'll offer my very meager thoughts. Waugh's novel is set in aristocratic England in the years following WWII. Quick plot summary: he tells the story of Oxford student Charles Ryder and his concurrently peculiar, consuming, and dysfunctional relationship with the wealthy Sebastian Marchmain and the Marchmain family. I usually much prefer American novels to British ones, so I started this as an obligatory read--something I should have added to my literary catalog years ago. Is it sad that I still pick titles out of guilt? In this case, no. I did almost give up during the preface, as I thought I was embarking on a war novel (not my genre!). But honestly, it didn't take long for me to become captivated by Waugh's rich prose and the characters' long-gone aristocratic world. The novel beautifully communicates God's relentless pursuit of an undeserving, disinterested humanity. I highly recommend this, but perhaps not as your light, summer beach read.
The Professor's House by Willa Cather | Though I'm equally as under-qualified to write this review as the last one, I've got to include one by my favorite novelist. I just finished this last night and am still digesting it, but here are my initial thoughts. Cather's plots are relatively easy to read and follow, as is this one. That's not to say that this novel is simple, however. Cather tells the story of Godfrey St. Peter, a successful, middle-aged history professor who has hit an existential crisis of sorts. Within his story is Tom Outland, his late academic progeny who represents a purer, less philistine civilization and era. Cather paints a novel full of contrasts, complex personal crises, and questions about the proverbial purpose of life and will to live. I love Cather for her conflicted protagonists and her beautiful portraits of American landscapes, both of which are present in this beautiful novel. While this novel didn't knock Death Comes for the Archbishop out of its place as my favorite, it certainly didn't disappoint. I recommend it highly.
Sarah's Key directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner | I'm including this movie because I rarely see one I think is worth my time--I don't mean to sound arrogant; I'm just not a huge movie fan. This film tells a harrowing story about Vel d'Hiv Roundup (when Parisian police arrested almost 14,000 Jews and imprisoned them in a large stadium with inhumane conditions before shipping them off to Auschwitz). Based on the novel, it beautifully weaves together the story of a modern-day journalist uncovering a family secret and the haunting story of Sarah, a courageous French Jewish girl who is torn from her family and tortured by guilt. I would not say this film is enjoyable to watch; quite the contrary, actually. Because the film flashes back and forth between the two protagonists, the sorrow is not unrelenting. Still, while I don't typically cry much during movies, I sobbed while watching this one. The film takes several agonizing turns, but ends with redemption and a sad sort of beauty.