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Book Review: Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States by Andrew Coe (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

August 17, 2013 4 comments

Light blue bakcground image with the picture of a white, Asian-style take-out container on it.  The title of the book "Chop Suey A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States" is printed on it in a mix of red and black letters.Summary:
American Chinese food is different from Chinese Chinese food.  This is a well-known fact.  Coe tells the history of how Chinese food came to America and changed and adapted to the cuisine we know today.  Along the way, some of the stories of Chinese immigrants to America and Chinese-Americans are told as well.

Review:
I love food, and I love history, so a book telling the history of a specific cuisine totally appealed to me.  Unfortunately, this book missed the mark for what could have been an enticing history of American style Chinese food.  Instead, it gets hung up in the early history of both Chinese food in China and Chinese food in America in the 1800s then hops, skips, and jumps over how it changed through the 1900s up to present.  While this information is interesting, it is not the history of American Chinese food it is presented as.

The main issue with the book is it spends almost 1/4 of its time exploring the history of Chinese food in China.  While I learned some interesting facts, such as that tofu was invented in the Han Dynasty (page 80), this information is not necessary to convey how Chinese food came to America and changed.  A much briefer introduction to where Chinese food was at before coming to America would have sufficed.  The best part of the book is when it discusses Chinese food in America in the 1800s and explores how US-born Americans’ embracing of Chinese food or not depended on many factors such as the current rates of xenophobia, job markets, and prices.  Viewing the history of the American west coast through the perspective of Chinese immigration and Chinese restaurants was truly fascinating.  One of the more fascinating things that I learned in this section was a detail of the history of the racist perception of Asian men as not masculine.  In that time period, when Chinese immigrants were competing with white Americans and Irish immigrants for railroad and other jobs, the backlash was that since Chinese men “didn’t need” to eat meat to work long hours they could afford to take a lower rate of pay.  Articles attacked the Chinese diet as a sign that Chinese men are less masculine since they “don’t need” meat the way white American and Irish-American men do.  One article title from this time period cited in the book is “Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion. Meat vs. Rice. American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism. Which Shall Survive?” by Samuel Gompers (page 141).  As a vegetarian, I found it fascinating that the sexist perception of a less meat-centric diet (the Chinese did indeed eat meat, just less than American men), has both such a far-reaching history and was used to fuel xenophobia and racism against immigrant workers.  It is clear to me after reading this that a large part of the work for vegetarians is to get rid of the faulty correlation between meat and masculinity.  I could see fixing this having other positive outcomes as well, such as fighting against misperceptions of the masculinity of other cultures.

Unfortunately, the wonderful details found in the chapters on the 1800s gradually cease to exist as the book moves up through time.  While the 1920s get some special attention, such as touching on the fact that Chinese restaurants survived Prohibition well because they had never served alcohol anyway (page 189), slowly these details fall away until we get nothing but the bare bones of how Chinese restaurants functioned and interacted with American history in the rest of the 20th century up to present.  There is even one rather aggravating long aside exploring President Nixon’s visit to China.  While his visit to China definitely gave a resurgence of interest in Chinese food in the US, it was again unnecessary to give such incredible details on Nixon’s visit.  It could have been simply stated, instead, that Nixon visited China, bringing Chinese food to the forefront of American thought again and giving a resurgence of interest in Chinese cuisine.  The book has a tendency to lollygag on topics that are not actually what the book is supposed to be about.  While these topics can be interesting and Coe explores them well, they are not what the book supposedly is about.  It would be better to present the book with a different title or edit the focus back to simply Chinese-American cuisine.

One other factor that made me enjoy the book less is that Coe shows a clear bias toward Chinese culture.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying Chinese culture, but Coe says some things that if he had said them in reverse would be considered completely unacceptable to say.  He frequently presents the Chinese people as more civilized, their way of doing things as more logical and simply better, and even scoffs at the level of advancement of European countries compared to China at one point (page 94).  Lack of bias and simply presenting the facts is the strength of historical nonfiction works.  It would have been nice to see that level of professionalism in this book, regardless of Coe’s personal views.

Overall then, while I learned some new facts about both Chinese-American cuisine and Chinese-American history, the book wanders significantly through Chinese history and Chinese cuisine as well.  Interesting, but not what the title implies the book is about.  Coe also shows some bias that should not be present in a history book.  These are easily skimmed over, however, and thankfully do not come up very often.  Recommended to those with an interest in both Chinese-American and Chinese history in addition to the history of American style Chinese cuisine, as all three are covered rather equally.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: The Department of Magic by Rod Kierkegaard, Jr.

June 30, 2012 4 comments

Image of woman holding a cross-bow.Summary:
Di Angelo and Farah thought they were getting a typical, boring DC government job.  But it turns out they have been assigned to the Department of Magic, and whether they like it or not, their horogaunt boss is having them face down demons, shifters, and more in repeated robberies to gather the pieces of George Washington in the hopes to bring him back to life to fight off the ancient Mexican gods who were stirred out of slumber by all the talk of the ancient Mayan prophecy of the end of the world in 2012.

Review:
I have not hated a book this much since finishing Anne Rice’s The Wolf Gift in February (review).  On the plus side, this means you all get to enjoy an angry Amanda take-down style review.  On the minus side, I had to suffer through this horrible thing.  But this is what book reviewers do.  We suffer through things and tell you about them so you don’t have to.

This book has a triple-whammy of awful.  It has so many grammar and spelling mistakes that I can’t believe it ever made it through an editor (oh but it did!).  The plot is confusing and ill-paced.  Finally, and most importantly, it is so prejudiced I had to double-check that this wasn’t a pen-name for Ann Coulter.  Too often I’ve made these assertions in the past but been unable to truly show them to you since it was a library book or some such.  Enter: the kindle.  But first let me quickly explain the plot/structure/pacing issues.

So Farah and Di Angelo aka Rocky are hired by this mysterious department in the US government.  There is a lot that makes zero sense about the department.  First, it appears to only consist of Rocky, Farah, and their boss Crawley (a horogaunt).  Anyone who has worked in the US government *raises hand* knows that they do not underhire. They overhire.  So this just makes the author look like he knows nothing about government.

Throughout the book, Farah and Rocky have this problem of carrying out covert operations for the department and almost getting arrested and wanted for murder and blah blah blah.  Um, excuse me. This is the motherfuckin government.  If they want George Washington’s sword they “borrow” it.  If they can’t “borrow” it, they send in government agents and protect them from prosecution because, I reiterate, this is the motherfuckin government.  A department that supposedly exists to keep America aligned with the goddess America and protected from demons and vampires and what-have-you that no one else knows about would probably be a Big Deal on the inside. So this plot point makes no sense.

Then there’s the pacing issues.  The pacing goes up and down and up and down and the reader keeps prepping for a climax only to get none.  I think you see the analogy I am going for here. And it sucks.

Moving right along, let’s get to just a few of the more egregious grammar, spelling, and other writing I caught in this *laughs hysterically* edited book.

rung off. (location 385)

Americans hang up. No one in this book is British. The narrator is not British. This is stupid.

He could feel her hot breath, fetid as a zoo animal’s gorged on fresh meat. (location 752)

This is a bad analogy, as any high school student can tell you, because the vast majority of people don’t KNOW what a zoo animal’s breath smells like.  An analogy is supposed to help a reader connect an unknown thing to a known thing.

Kabbala (location 858)

This is not how you spell Kabbalah.

Then she pulled both of their caps off and bit him on the mouth. (location 1889)

No, this is not a scene between one of our heroes and a demon. This is supposed to be Farah romantically kissing Rocky. Was that the image you got from that? Didn’t think so.

The most terrifying form devils or demons can take.  No one has lived to describe them. (location 1889)

This comes from the federal book on beasts and demons that our heroes read and start every chapter with an excerpt from. Question. If no one has ever lived to describe these demons then a) how do you know they exist and b) how the hell are you describing them in this book?!

Her face was beautiful, appearing radiantly soft-cheeked and virginal in one instant, a rotting grinning skull, a death-mask in the next. (location 3922)

If you are writing a sentence comparing something from one instant to the next, you can’t compare three things! Two. Two is your limit.

Ok, but obviously I wouldn’t hate a book this hard for bad plot and some (ok a lot of) writing problems.  I’d give advice and encouragement. The hating on the book comes from the prejudice hitting me left and right. It was like running the obstacle course in Wipe-Out!  I can’t and won’t support or recommend a book to someone else as not for me but maybe for them when it’s this painfully prejudiced throughout.  Let’s begin, shall we?

Look, hon, you know you’ve got zero will-power.  Honestly you’re like a lesbian.  You go out with this guy a couple times, you’ll move in together on your third date.  I see him all day, every day.  I don’t want him underfoot when I come home too.  Plus he’s too poor for you. (location 741)

Oh look! Homophobia!  The sad part is you can tell that Kierkegaard thinks he’s being funny when he’s just flat-out offensive.  To top off this delightful bit of dialogue, we’ve got classism.  And I feel I should mention the man they are talking about is an Iraq War vet.  But he’s poor. And clearly that is what matters in dating.  Homophobia is not quite this blatant throughout the rest of the book, although we do have a *delightful* scene in which Bobbi (a girl) shows up to seduce Rocky, who she thinks is gay, since Farah spread a rumor that Rocky is gay to keep her fiancee from being upset that she’s working with a man. Yeah. That happened.

There is more blatant classism, though.

Baltimore is the blue-collar ugly step-sister of the white-collar Washington DC metropolitan area. (location 1250)

Noooo, comparing hardworking people with blue collar jobs to the ugly stepsisters in Cinderella is not offensive at all.

*sighs*

Also, pretty much every demon “disguises” themself as a homeless person. This means almost every homeless person our heroes run into is a demon. Seriously.

And what about women?

The reason I’m so into Nineteenth Century romantic literature, I guess, is because I love anything that reminds me of growing up with my mom and my sisters and gets me inside women’s heads. (location 1214)

Yes! Let’s just go ahead and say that Jane fucking Austen represents every woman’s head everywhere in the 21st century. That’s just awesome.

Speaking of women, I will say this. Farah is the more talented of the duo in climbing, which is nice.  However, she and every other woman are presented as shallow and obsessed with fashion.  Also, a baby is born, and Farah turns overnight into a doting mother-figure when she was a sorority-sister type girl mere hours before.  Meanwhile, the actual mother fails at parenting, and the only explanation for this utter lack of ability with babies is that she is a vampire.

I’m not sure what the precise word is for it….xenophobia perhaps?  But Kierkegaard makes it abundantly clear that only Protestants have the whole religion thing right.

White or “good” magic, he told her, already had a name.  It was called “prayer.” And even prayer, unless directly addressed to God the Creator, is in essence a Luciferian transaction, because it relies on the intercession of intermediaries, such as saints or boddhis, and inevitably involved some sort of quid pro quo. (location 1545)

Speaking of religion, no hateful book would be complete without some anti-semitism tossed in there, would it?

Freemasons–A Lucifer-worshipping conspiracy cult dedicated to Zionist one-world government, heirs of the Christ-murdering Pharisees and the Knights Templar. (location 1596)

Christ. Murdering. Pharisees. He actually went there. And not only are they the Christ killers but! They also secretly run the world through a Satan-worshipping secret organization!

I would have thrown the book across the room at this point, but it was on my kindle, and I love my kindle.

And finally. To round it all out. We’ve got some good, old-fashioned American racism.

First we have the black man who spoke entirely normally until this sentence:

You got any questions you need to axe me, you know where I live. (location 1193)

Then we have the Asian-American man who can’t pronounce his own name:

There they consecutively picked up a squat red-faced Asian named Robert, which he pronounced as “Robot,” and a noisy and vituperative older black man in a water-sodden daishiki named Walkie-Talkie. (location 3225)

Beyond these blatant examples there’s the fact that every person of color is either actually a demon in disguise or working for the seedy underground of some sort of organization.  The exception to this is Farah, who is Lebanese-American, but Kierkegaard takes extreme care to point out that she is NOT Muslim. She’s one of the Christian Lebanese-Americans.  She also basically acts just like a white sorority girl but with an exotic look!!

See? See? I just. *sighs*  The only people who might not be horribly offended by this book are the type of people I don’t really want to recommend books to anyway, except to be like “Here, read this book that might make you realize what a douchebag you are being, like say some classics of black literature or books on how hard it is to be gay in an evangelical family or maybe read about the real history of the Bible.”  You see my point.

The only people who would enjoy this book are people who have this same prejudiced world-view against basically everyone who isn’t a white, straight, Protestant, American male. So, I guess, if that’s you, have at it?  But it’s riddled with spelling, grammar, and plot problems, so you won’t enjoy it anyway. So hah.

1 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Heinrich Himmler: The Sinister Life of the Head of the S.S. and Gestapo by Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel

July 20, 2011 7 comments

Nazi flag and photo of Himmler.Summary:
Manvell and Fraenkel conducted years of meticulous research both with primary documents and those who actually knew Himmler to bring about a biography of the man infamous for being in charge of the S.S., Gestapo, and concentration camps that made the terror of Hitler’s reign possible.  They seek to provide a well-rounded look at Himmler’s entire life for those with some familiarity with the events of World War II.

Review:
This was a fascinating and difficult book to read, not because of the writing style or the atrocities recounted, but because the authors succeeded in putting a human face on Heinrich Himmler.  In the intro to the book, the authors state:

The Nazi leaders cannot be voided from human society simply because it is pleasanter or more convenient to regard them now as outside the pale of humanity. (location 31)

In other words, the easy thing to do is pretend the Nazi leaders or anyone who commits atrocities is something other than human.  That they are monsters.  When in fact, they really are still people like you and me, and that should frighten us far more than any monster story.  What leads people to do horrible things to other people?  What makes them bury their conscience and humanity and commit acts of evil?  This biography thus does not say “here is a monster,” but instead says, “Here is this young boy who became a man who committed himself to a cause and proceeded to order acts of evil upon others.  What forces came together to mold him into someone who would do these things?”

One of the more fascinating things brought to light in this book is that Himmler was never actually fit into the ideal of a top-notch Aryan male he himself advocated.  In fact throughout his life he was sickly, pale, and scholarly.  He tried in school to fit in with the athletic boys but never succeeded in anything for any length of time except fencing.  Instead of accepting who he was, he continually pushed his sickly body past its limits throughout his life, trying to force it to fit into his ideals of what it should be.  He actually enlisted his own personal healer, a masseuse trained by a talented Chinese doctor, throughout the war.  This masseuse, Kersten, was working as a spy for the Allies and was instrumental in convincing Himmler to release various people from concentration camps throughout the war.  His sickly body then not only opened him up to the Allies for a convenient spy, but also was key in how he related to the world.  He projected his own insecurities about the ideal body onto everyone else.

Himmler’s anxiety to destroy the Jews and Slavs and place himself at the head of a Nordic Europe brash with health was a compensation for the weakly body, the sloping shoulders, the poor sight and the knock-knees to which he was tied. (location 2189)

This physical weakness and obsession does not mean he was a weak man, however.  He was profoundly intelligent and detail-oriented.  He easily became obsessed with ideas he came up with and would search for proof of them excluding any and all evidence to the contrary.  Those of us who went to liberal, private colleges where we were taught to adjust our worldview for new, challenging ideas may be surprised to learn that Himmler read obsessively.  The fact though is that Himmler sought out in his reading sources that would simply support his previously established, prejudicial worldview.

Like Hitler, he [Himmler] used books only to confirm and develop his particular prejudices. Reading was for him a narrowing, not a widening experience. (location 2547)

Thus we cannot depend on reading alone to prevent close-mindedness.

As the Nazi regime continued on, Himmler grew more and more committed to his obsessions.  Those who knew him well described the frenzy and meticulousness with which he worked over every detail toward his final goal of the “Aryan race” being in control of Europe.

Himmler’s need to rid himself of the Jews became an obsession. The ghosts of those still living haunted him more than the ghosts of those now dead; there were Jews everywhere around him, in the north, in the west, in the south, in the areas where his power to reach them was at its weakest. (location 2074)

The information on Himmler at this time period certainly sound like a man suffering from intense paranoia.  Think of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind and how he firmly believed government agents were all around him persecuting him.  The difference is that this physically weak, close-minded, paranoid man was given immense power over the lives of millions instead of simply being a professor. It is easy after reading this book to see how Himmler could easily have been that crazy neighbor worried that the people across the street were watching him all the time instead of the engineer behind genocide.  All it took was placing near total power and trust in his hands to turn him into the organizer of a genocide.

There will always exist human beings who, once they are given a similar power over others and have similar convictions of superiority, may be tempted to act as he [Himmler] did. (location 592)

The lesson the authors send home repeatedly then is that Himmler was just a man overcompensating for a physically weak body who grasped onto the idea that he was actually superior to others simply because of his ancestors with a tendency toward paranoia who was given a dangerous amount of power.  It is easy to imagine how the entire situation could have worked out differently if some sort of intervention had happened earlier in his life.  If he was taught that everyone was valuable for different reasons that have nothing to do with their physical abilities or ancestry.  If he had initially read books that weren’t racist and xenophobic.  If he was never swept into the Nazi Party mania in the 1930s.  If he had been maintained as an office worker in the Nazi party instead of being given so much power.  It’s a lot of if’s, I know, but it’s important to think about all the ways to prevent something like this from ever happening again.  Although the authors’ primary point is “be careful who you allow to have power,” I would also add “intervene when they are young to prevent the development of a xenophobic, paranoid personality to start with.”  With both precautions in place, perhaps we humans as a group can avoid such atrocities in the future.

Readers should note that this book is written by Europeans and not “translated” into American English.  Additionally, periodically the authors sway from the strict chronological method of a biography to follow one thought or event through to its conclusion then back-track.  This was a bit distracting, but absolutely did not prevent me from learning much about Himmler, WWII, and the Holocaust that I did not previously know.

Overall, I highly recommend this to those with an interest in WWII in particular, but also to anyone interested in the prevention of future genocides.  It offers great insight into how these atrocities came to be.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon (See all Third Reich History Books)

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