Book Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant

number one chinese restaurantNumber One Chinese Restaurant
by Lillian Li
Contemporary Fiction/Family Drama
288 pages
Published June 2018

I don’t tend to read a lot of contemporary fiction, but I had several on my beach read/summer reading list, and this one is set in Rockville, Maryland, which is pretty close to where I live. Having read it finally, I wouldn’t call it a beach read, though!

Number One Chinese Restaurant follows the owners and staff of The Beijing Duck House before and after a devastating fire. There’s a lot of chinese culture revealed in the book, from familial obligation to amending names with an Ah- prefix, to the immigration process to America, to knowing what region someone is from by their accent and forming opinions of them based on that. (Although I suppose we do that in the US, too – that last one might be universal.)

We start with the two brothers, Jimmy and Johnny. Jimmy is the current owner of the Duck House, while Johnny is out of the country for the first part of the book. The two brothers are opposites in most ways, with Jimmy being the back-of-house hardliner and Johnny being the diplomatic schmoozer.

(Speaking of back-of-house, this book PEGGED restaurant life. I’ve worked in food service quite a lot, and from the chaos of rushes to the drug and alcohol abuse, to the confusion between front and back of house but at the same time feeling like you’re all in it together – yeah. This book NAILS it.)

From Jimmy and Johnny, we have their strong-willed mother, Feng, and her cousin, “Uncle” Pang, who has mysterious connections and can get things done but isn’t exactly benevolent about it. The last member of the immediate family is Annie, Johnny’s daughter. There is a staff chart in the inside cover of the book to help keep everyone straight, and it’s quite handy, because then we get into the staff. There’s really two main plotlines going, though they revolve around each other and intertwine in places. There’s Johnny’s efforts to open a new restaurant, and then there’s Nan and Ah-Jack.

Nan and Ah-Jack have both been working at the Duck House for thirty years, and have married other people but have always adored each other. As the restaurant enters crisis, so do their personal lives, and things get messy.

In order for me to like contemporary fiction, there have to be personal hooks that interest me, and this book hit food service, minorities, and the local area. That was more than enough to make it an enjoyable read.

From the cover of Number One Chinese Restaurant:

The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, is not only a go-to solution for hunger pangs and a beloved setting for celebrations; it is its own world, inhabited by waiters and kitchen staff who have been fighting, loving, and aging within its walls for decades. When disaster strikes, this working family’s controlled chaos is set loose, forcing each of them to confront the conflicts that fast-paced restaurant life has kept at bay.

Owner Jimmy Han hopes to leave his late father’s homespun establishment for a fancier one. Jimmy’s older brother, Johnny, and Johnny’s daughter, Annie, ache to return to a time before a father’s absence and a teenager’s silence pushed them apart. Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, are tempted to turn their thirty-year friendship into something else, even as Nan’s son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble. And when Pat and Annie, caught in a mix of youthful lust and boredom, find themselves in a dangerous game that implicates them in the Duck House tragedy, their families must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice to help their children.

Generous in spirit, unaffected in its intelligence, multivoiced, poignant, and darkly funny, Number One Chinese Restaurant looks beyond red tablecloths and silk-screen murals to share an unforgettable story about youth and aging, parents and children, and all the ways that our families destroy us while also keeping us grounded and alive.

Book Review: Walking Baltimore

 

WalkingBaltimoreWalking Baltimore
by Evan Balkan
280 pages
Published 2013
Nonfiction – Guidebook

So the first book I want to talk about is a series of walking tours of Baltimore. I’ve only been on two of these walks so far, but I plan to take many more of them. It’s just been SO. HOT. And I’m not a person who likes walking much to begin with! But there’s a new game out that’s made walking so much more fun – yes, I’m talking about Pokemon Go. (Go Team Mystic!) That little bit of motivation of “well, I’ll walk to that Pokestop. Alright, there’s another Pokestop two blocks away, I can make it to that one. Maybe a little further to that next Pokestop. OOoo there’s a Tangela nearby!” It makes it just enough fun that I walk a lot more before I’ve even realized it.

Walking Baltimore gives me general guides for walks so I’m not just wandering Pokestop to Pokestop until I get lost! It has very detailed instructions – turn left at this corner, cross the street here so you can see this monument, then look up at the architecture in front of you – it’s really well done. My only wish is that there was an appendix that rated the walks in order of difficulty – each walk has a rating, from easy to moderate to strenuous – but there’s no way to see all of the difficulties side by side. With 33 walks all over Baltimore, with all levels of difficulty and lengths, there’s definitely something here for everyone, and the history and points of interest covered by the walks are fascinating.

The two that I’ve actually walked are half of #4, Inner Harbor Promenade, and #11, The Civil War Trail: Path of the War’s First Bloodshed. Both are mostly on the Inner Harbor, where my husband works, so I hitched a ride down with him, walked, and caught Pokemon until he got off work and we came home. (We live outside Baltimore City limits.) I’d been down in the area many times, but had no idea the Civil War’s first bloodshed occurred when a mob waylaid Union troops travelling through Baltimore! There are medallions laid in the sidewalks commemorating some of the events of the Civil War march, and most of those are Pokestops too.

Currently I have this book out from the library, but I think this is one I’ll be adding to my personal library soon. I want the walking guides! The author has also written 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Baltimore and Best in Tent Camping: Maryland. So he knows his stuff.

From the back of Walking Baltimore:

BALTIMORE – famous for spectacular harbor views, myriad historical monuments and landmarks, and important cultural institutions. But it’s also much more – a patchwork of small, unique neighborhoods with terrific bars and restaurants, and more recreation and green space than most people realize. All of this combines to make Baltimore one of America’s most fascinating and walkable cities. 

In Walking Baltimore, longtime insider Evan Balkan leads you on 33 self-guided tours from Fells Point to the Inner Harbor, Mount Vernon to Mount Washington, and all the diverse neighborhoods in between. This book will show locals and visitors alike how and why Baltimore was an essential player in the country’s early history and continues to be influential today. You’ll soak up Charm City’s incredible history, culture, architectural trivia, and quirky vibe. Plus, you’ll find tips on where to dine or have a drink. Clear neighborhood maps and vital public transportation and parking details make exploring easy. Whether you’re looking for an afternoon stroll or full-day’s entertainment, grab this book, step outside, and walk Baltimore!