This Week’s Hot Reads: March 17, 2014

From a portrait of an upscale New York City kitchen and its motley crew to a spy thriller set during the Chinese Communist Revolution.

Sous Chef

by Michael Gibney

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America once told me that Gordon Ramsay is the only chef on television who acts like someone she’d find in an actual restaurant kitchen. Food Network and other channels have made the cooking industry seem family-friendly and, in doing so, are apparently committing a gross disservice to reality. It seems Ramsay’s coarse demeanor and fiery personality, complete with cursing and bawdy humor, reveal more about the field than can any bubbly acronym with which Rachel Ray abuses us. But in spite of their more approachable nature on screen, Anthony Bourdain, Bobby Flay, Mario Batali and numerous other hardened chefs still possess an air suggesting they might cause you great bodily harm should you make a mess in their kitchens. And if you can’t perform your duties as their second-in-command, take any death threats rather seriously.

This is the impression Michael Gibney gives in his sizzling and informative debut. Written entirely in the second person through the eyes of a sous chef (a position which Gibney, former executive sous chef at Tavern on the Green, knows intimately), the book details a day’s work in an upscale New York City kitchen. Gibney portrays the kitchen and its crew as both intimidating and captivating, like a surgeon’s operating room run by a troupe of acrobats with their minds in the gutter. The choice of perspective pushes us through the text at breakneck speed, a subtle yet skillfully employed narrative move that also sets the stakes high for the reader. We even profit from off-hand cooking tips as well as one of the most helpful and comprehensive glossaries I’ve encountered in recent memory. Though the prose weakens a bit when dipping into the characters’ personal lives, such culinary experience paired with linguistic panache is a rarity. Portion it out over numerous sittings for no other reason than prolonging its enjoyment.

The Muslims are Coming!

by Arun Kundnani

Comedienne Sarah Silverman recently asserted that we should “stop telling girls they can be anything they want when they grow up … not because they can’t, but because it would’ve never occurred to them they couldn’t.” Though couched in humor, this point reveals a larger truth about how power functions and the way in which many ideas and actions arise not from the desires of the oppressed but from discourses codified by the oppressors. Extending far beyond feminist issues, such structural violence occurs with equal intensity in the treatment of Muslims today.

Only an extremely small percentage of individuals resort to terrorism, period. But many governments ignore this fact and instead continuously enforce the paranoid belief that all Muslims could easily turn violent, claiming either that a quality inherent to Islam makes this inevitable or that a group of “fringe” clerics preach what non-Muslim liberals have unilaterally defined as “good Islam.” Such myopic and uninformed positions, supported in one form or another across party lines, put Muslims perpetually on the defensive. All those practicing Islam (under no less than the protection of the First Amendment in America) are now forced to defend their innocence regarding any potential for committing crimes that otherwise would never cross their minds.

“Neoconservatism invented the terror war, but Obama liberalism normalized it,” Arun Kundnani observes in his easily digestible critique of these conditions in which Muslims currently find themselves, particularly in Britain and America. One of his overarching arguments is that the discourse of “terrorism,” “radicalization,” and the “war on terror” (perpetuated by Fox News and MSNBC alike) produces the very antagonists from which our governments purportedly protect us. It is not original, but the fact that little is changing makes his project increasingly necessary. “The Cold War theory of totalitarianism” has been redeployed, he deftly argues, only now a fictive monolithic ideology dubbed “Islamism” is cast as the new “root cause of political violence.” Kundnani convincingly shows that by accepting this theory, we ignore the political and social circumstances that make many Muslims feel politically impotent. Within this community that cannot criticize American foreign policy without fear of being persecuted, a minority sees terrorism as their only viable political option. Allowing our governments to continue functioning in this way traps us in a self-fulfilling prophecy of perpetual war, and this book provides sensible alternatives that could lead toward actual peace.


by Mai Jia

A spy thriller about cryptography set in part during the Chinese Communist Revolution puts most readers (myself included) in unfamiliar territory. So floundering halfway through Decoded, unsure as to why certain characters suddenly leave the story and what exactly the fragmented structure is trying to achieve, I seriously asked myself whether I had lost track of the narrative. But after proceeding with even greater concentration, it became glaringly clear that the novel never had control of itself in the first place.

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Mai Jia, winner of China’s most prestigious literary award (the Mao Dun Literature Prize), has not previously been translated into English. A notoriously private man, he worked in a top-secret intelligence unit for 17 years before using these experiences as inspiration for a string of bestsellers. Decoded (first published in 2002) features Rong Jinzhen, born into a family of renowned mathematicians, who is forcefully recruited by Zheng the Gimp (don’t ask) to the mysterious Unit 701. While Rong lacks seemingly all social intelligence, his analytical prowess is unsurpassed, and by cracking the cipher PURPLE, he distinguishes himself as a code-breaking genius. But immersion in this realm of secrets and deception comes at a steep price, for both the protagonist and reader.

“In the history of human endeavor, the majority of geniuses have been buried within the borders of cryptography,” a character states in one of many “interview transcription” passages written for no explicable reason other than the author’s sheer aversion to well-crafted dialogue. This statement and its numerous iterations throughout the novel are phrased in a manner that strongly suggests Mai’s own reverence for these often troubled figures. Yet his attempt at merging form and content in order to create a story as complex as the world of espionage fails drastically. Overly detailed sections on mathematics, bits of dream interpretation, and quotations from Ecclesiastes will never in and of themselves serve any narrative purpose, and in this novel, they do little more than complicate an already unnuanced plot. A devotee of Borges, Mai may have misunderstood the former’s work, because crypticness for its own sake does not provide a foundation for satisfying literature.