Brief reviews of recent releases: 'Soy Sauce for Beginners,' by Kirstin Chen, and 'The Days of Anna Madrigal,' by Armistead Maupin.
SOY SAUCE FOR BEGINNERS
By Kirstin Chen. (Amazon, 250 pages, $24.)
The book jacket says that Gretchen Lin “struggles with the tension between personal ambition and filial duty” regarding her father’s artisanal soy sauce business. Readers labor under no such tension. Of course she’s going to end up joining the family business! Should I have said “spoiler alert?” Mmmmm, no.
That said, Chen’s debut novel still provides some compelling moments in this story of a young woman coming home to Singapore after her marriage blows up in San Francisco. She intends to return to the U.S., but her father hopes otherwise, partly to keep a profiteering cousin from abandoning the ancient art of making soy sauce in great clay urns and instead cutting corners with fiberglass vats.
Foodies who expect a novel that delves as much into artisan craftsmanship as drunken flirting will be disappointed. Chen does succeed in using Oprah as inspiration for a fictional TV host worshiped by all. She also has a nice take on how college friendships change when real-world experiences tip the balance of power between girlfriends. In fact, the relationship between Gretchen and her old roommate Frankie is where the book’s tensions actually reside, and they feel true.
KIM ODE, staff writer
THE DAYS OF ANNA MADRIGAL
By Armistead Maupin. (Harper, 288 pages, $26.99.)
If we are to believe that the latest installment of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” series is to be its last, then the San Francisco-centric author is going out on a high note.
In “The Days of Anna Madrigal,” much of the story line — which unfolds via flashbacks and a road trip to Winnemucca, Nev. — is devoted to Maupin’s most enduring character. Now a frail but sharp-witted 92-year-old — and a transgendered folk hero — Anna comes to terms with a life-altering episode from her past as the son of a Depression-era madam.
Most of the familiar “Tales” crew meanders through this entertaining and touching romp. Michael Tolliver is grappling with impending retirement and his May-December marriage. Best buddy Brian Hawkins has a wisecracking new wife, and his daughter Shawna, a sex-blogger-turned-novelist, gets her share of ink. Mary Ann Singleton, the title character of 2010’s book No. 8, makes due with little more than a cameo. An amusing one, naturally.
That everyone winds up at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert is a quintessential Maupin plot device. After all, he’s been breezily if not downright implausibly taking these beloved characters through one well-observed pop-culture phenomenon after another since conjuring “Tales” into existence in 1976 as a Dickens-style serial in the San Francisco Chronicle.
The biggest shocker is found in the last line of the book jacket’s author biography, which begins with, “He lives in Santa Fe.” If that doesn’t spell the end of the “Tales” series, nothing does.
RICK NELSON, staff writer