The right book can instantly transport you to anywhere — and anytime — in the world. Every Thursday, we recommend one of our favorite books with a strong sense of place so you can see the sights, meet remarkable people, go on exciting adventures, and feel big feelings. Bonus: You don't even have to put on pants.
This post is part of our 'Weekend Getaway' series.
Friday 12 February 2021 is the Chinese (or Lunar) New Year, marking the end of winter and the approach of spring. In China, the house is thoroughly cleaned — to prepare for the new year and make room for incoming good luck — then the family gathers for a banquet built around 10 traditional dishes meant to bring prosperity along with a full stomach.
In this captivating novel, you’ll meet the Han family, owners of an old school Chinese restaurant on the brink of dramatic change. The action centers around the heat of the kitchen and the relationships among the family and staff. It’s darkly funny and guaranteed to have you craving Chinese delivery.
Nothing has changed at the family-owned Beijing Duck restaurant for decades, including the menu (fried rice and Peking duck precisely cut into 28 slices) and the borderline-tacky decor of red upholstered chairs, floral carpet, and tasseled lamps.
Owner Jimmy Han is eager to ditch his father’s traditional approach for a more modern, sophisticated restaurant. But his brother and the customers like things just as they are. The situation is complicated by their domineering mother, the long shadow of their deceased father, and a sketchy, almost-gangster known as Uncle Pang.
Made foolishly bold by his ambition, Jimmy strikes a losing deal with Pang. Soon, tensions and grievances come to a boiling point — and the ensuing act of violence has a profound impact on everyone: the Han brothers, their families, and the staff, who’ve worked at the restaurant for decades.
The restaurant staff is its own kind of family with the intimacy born of long-time contact and the friction that results from cherished resentments. There are romances, shifting allegiances, and genuine affection, all played out against the backdrop of the daily grind of serving their loyal customers. The staff interactions — harsh words in the kitchen, quiet confessions in the cooler, wise-cracking at the end of a shift — all sizzle with authenticity.
The plot surges with plenty of action, and the sensory experience of the restaurant are vividly rendered. The dining room is imbued with the ‘smell of mirin, sake, and sesame oil, the holy trinity of fragrance’ and in the kitchen, ‘flames whooshed up to embrace giant woks, each cook casually stir-frying as fire sprang, volcanic, from the deep, blackened burners.’
This darkly funny and moving novel was an NPR Best Book of 2018 and was longlisted for The Women’s Prize and The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize.
Word to the wise: Put your favorite Chinese restaurant on speed-dial because you’ll be craving delivery from page one.
Psst… The restaurant pictured at the top of this post is the Peking Restaurant, opened by Chuon Ming Lo in Washington, DC, in 1947. He was among the first restaurateurs in the US to offer Peking-style dishes, including moo shu pork and Peking duck. According to legend, the Kennedy White House sometimes ordered take-out meals from his kitchen. More photos here.
The main room’s long, rectangular shape made it too narrow for the number of tables they’d managed to squeeze inside. The gaudy, overstuffed décor didn’t help. A deep, matte red colored everything, from the upholstered chairs to the floral carpet to the Chinese knots hanging off the lantern lighting, their tassels low enough to graze the heads of taller customers. Framed photos of famous clientele protruded from the walls. — Lillian Li
This family story (304 pages) was published in June of 2018 by Henry Holt and Company. The book takes you to an old-school Chinese restaurant in Maryland. Melissa read Number One Chinese Restaurant and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.
Bookshop.org is an online bookstore with a mission to financially support independent bookstores and give back to the book community.
Top image courtesy of StreetsofWashington/Flickr.
Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!
Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.
Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.
This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.
We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.
This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.
Content on this site is ©2023 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.