"A Tiger in the Kitchen" by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan (Hyperion Press, $14.99)
After losing a prized newspaper job at the Wall Street Journal due to the great downturn of '09, Cheryl Tan took a year off to return to her native Singapore and the comfort food of her youth. After meeting with her briefly, I am not surprised that she chose a difficult time to write a book, using her misfortune brilliantly. Reasons for her dexterity became evident once I got to know her family in "A Tiger in the Kitchen."
Although Tan, a capable, goal-oriented type A, seamlessly negotiated the transition to America, could she do the same in reverse? Especially when she had largely rejected cooking for family, viewing a life in the kitchen as cut off from the larger world and lacking in power. Now, after 16 years in America, Tan must finally contend with the ladies and earn her place in the kitchen.
Slowly she learns to abandon the American obsession for precise measurements, formulas and procedures and begins to navigate complex recipes that often exist only in the sharp and exacting memory of one of her aunts. When she asks how much sugar to add or how long the duck should cook, she is often met with the words "agak, agak," loosely translated as "just enough" or "until it is done."
But over time spent with her aunties and mother, in the many hours it takes to properly prepare the cookery that fuses Malay, Indonesian and Chinese roots, Tan begins to see these women more clearly. She claims that although she has encountered tough and capable women in America, including driven CEOs and editors, nobody scared her more than these women in their Singaporan kitchens.
Over the course of chopping, peeling, dicing and boiling, stories begin to unfold, as appetizing as the dishes themselves. Memories are offered up that would never have surfaced otherwise. Divorce, opium addiction, love and abandonment, the stuff that families are made of are handed to Tan as a gift for genuinely participating in the family legacy.
Although I am not ordinarily fond of memoir cookery books, this one masterfully segues from kitchen to chronicle with natural cadence. I feel I know these characters, the aunts and the uncles, the father and mother and grandmother on their own terms. When I actually attempted her recipe for mandoo (a Chinese dumpling), I felt many eyes upon me, looking over my shoulder, silently letting me know that I could be quicker and the pleats in the dumplings neater and I could have used less filling to be tidy. And at the same time, I am convinced that they want me only to do my best -- I really want to please them!
"Tiger" is both a frothy cocktail and a delicate family tale that shifts from continent to continent, past to present and culture to culture with an intuitive grasp of the precise moment to move on. Tan's journalism background comes to the fore with clear, detailed writing, bringing us to a tempting table laden with exotic treats. It neither veers into an overly sentimental journey or a hard-nosed dissection of the shortcomings of either culture.
I met Cheryl Tan, an artist-in-residence at The Studios of Key West, on the deck and when I left her after our short meeting, she left me with star anise, a small bag of her own taco seasonings, Serrano chilies and a thick Singapore soy sauce. I have seen the leavings of other residents: the shameful empty wrappers, frozen dinners and remnants of gas-station chicken. Yes, she really does love to cook.
And by the way, the mandoo was delicious.
by Jessica Argyle
"Complex 90" by Mickey Spillane (Collins, 22.99)
When Laura Knapp blew her brains out in the finale of Mickey Spillane's "The Girl Hunters" (1962), everyone figured that was the end of the Commie ring threatening our treasured American way of life. Little did they know that uber-villain Comrade Gorlin, whom Mike Hammer left with his hand nailed to a table waiting to be picked up by Art Rickerby's Federal "agents" would survive to revisit our shores two years later. And therein lies the crux of "Complex 90," a Cold War novel begun by Spillane, who fully intended to complete his story of the insidious Communist conspiracy to take over America but for some reason had set it aside.
When Spillane died in 2006, all his notes and partial manuscripts were delivered to longtime friend and collaborator Max Allan Collins, who has since been on track to complete every Mike Hammer novel that Spillane had begun. "Complex 90" is the latest to see the light of day.
The year is 1964. During the previous three years, the U.S .has gone through the Bay of Pigs invasion, the erection of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis and the JFK assassination. The Cold War can't get any colder. That is, until Mike Hammer is summoned to a top-secret meeting deep in the bowels of the Pentagon.
Present are various military and espionage types, all of them demanding answers. Seems Mike accompanied a U.S. Senator as a bodyguard on a fact-finding visit to the USSR several months earlier, during which time he was arrested by Soviet authorities under mysterious circumstances. The senator was unable to free him, so Mike escaped and blazed a three-month-long trail of death across the Soviet Union, killing 45 men before he crossed the border into Turkey and stowed away aboard a U.S.-bound Air Force cargo plane. Needless to say, the Commies want him back.
Trouble is, the Americans are about ready to agree to it. A big international incident is brewing over this and the last thing the U.S. wants is egg on its face during our decades-long staredown with the Soviets, who, it turns out, are planning to rub Mike out in New York if the U.S. doesn't give him up. Mike promises to capture a KGB agent on American soil in return for getting his life back, and the game begins.
Hammer has to tread carefully through this book, as treachery awaits at every turn. Who's a Commie and who's a loyal American? Velda and Pat Chambers are around to help but it's really Hammer's battle all the way. He has to fight not only the slimy Reds but spineless American authorities inclined to send him back to the Soviet Union. Throw in a supersecret scientific formula and the fate of the world hinges in the balance.
Once again, Collins has woven his own writing around Spillane's partial manuscript so there are no real tip-offs as to who wrote what. The pushy writing style and Hammer's forceful character never let up throughout and the reader gets the feeling it could have been Mickey's book all the way, especially the Hammeresque ending that seems to come from the darkest extremities of Spillane's soul. As with many other Hammer novels, there are enough Commies to fill up a Mayday parade, each of them lusting for conquest over the American capitalist dogs. Filled with action and tight, relentless tension, "Complex 90" is easily one of the best Hammer Cold War tales. You will want to turn the page every time.
by Mike Dennis