Midnight at the
Dragon Café

Judy Fong Bates
Remember that book Life in a Chinese Fortune-Cookie Factory? It probably was no sweat compared to life in the Dragon Café. Dirty dishes, the smell of cooking oil, stuff stored on the stairs (they live above the restaurant), Canadian winters (they live in Ontario), snow and slush, cold. And a touch of incest in the back room.

Annie is also known as Su-Jen. Her family comes from China, has moved to Irvine, not California but Canada. There is father, and mother, Annie (ten or so), and half-brother Lee-Kung (almost thirty). There are also Canadians who refer to them as "chinks."

The fireworks come when mother takes up with step-son, and they start acting like "lo fons" --- gringos --- sneaking off to make fortune cookies in the back while dad tends the cash-register.

But then everything falls apart when mother gets heavy with child. Her pregnancy causes tongues to wag, since dad looks like he can barely get it out of the till, much less up the stairs to the bedroom. All this comes to pass at the same moment that Lee-Kung's mail-order bride, Mai-Yee, arrives on the scene fresh from China.

§     §     §

You know me ... I'm not one to read the publicity mumbo-jumbo that comes with these books until I get through it all and am trying to figure how to write a review that won't make me look ignorant by, for instance, getting all the leading characters' names wrong. So I missed the word "novel" in the publicity poop and took this as Judy Fong Bates life story.

Which I guess is about par for the course for a first novel. Bates certainly knows the restaurant biz, and some of the dinners she or rather Annie cooks up with the help of Lee-Kung are so mouth-watering that we want to pop onto a plane and get to Irvine or wherever she lives and invite her to invite us to dinner,

    whole fish steamed with garlic, ginger, and green scallions, crispy-skin chicken, stir-fried greens and red peppers with cloud-ear mushrooms, and fuzzy melon soup made from a broth of pork bones, carrots, and sliced ginger.

"Cloud-ear." "Fuzzy melon." Yum. That's the last dinner that Lee-Kung makes for pregnant mum's last dinner just after the mail-order bride arrives on the scene.

You remember the ancient concept of "Oriental Clam;" the word, evidently, according to dad, is hek fuh. Maybe that's what makes Midnight at the Dragon Café feel so ... well ... so contained, so lackadaisical --- so that when mum prepares to drop her latest tyke, the reader wants to drop the pages from the sheer evenhandedness of it all. Annie's mother is shacking up with her half-brother, her best friend Charlotte drowns while dancing about on an icy lake north of town, and Annie casts her eyes down and goes on with life in school so that we want to reach out there and shake her and tell her to do something, anything rather than sit there like a bump on the log.

It's all very Oriental, but we'd think a temper-tantrum --- or maybe a fire-breathing dragon --- wouldn't be out of place somewhere there in the old Oedipus complex.

--- Lolita Lark

Fats Waller:
The Cheerful Little Earful
Alyn Shipton
Well, he may have been "A Cheerful Little Earful," but (1) he wasn't little --- he weighed in at 285 pounds, 5'10" --- and (2) there was an edge to his songs that might be characterized as "sardonic," not cheerful.

Shipton has created more of a collector's selection than a biography of the great piano/organ player. There are many facts: that Fats got kicked out of his preacher's father's home because of his tendency to hang out at bar, strip joints, and "rent parties;" that he carried pints of gin around, and could down several in a day; that he was not only a musician with a flair but one with a subtle and fine grasp of "stride" piano; that he was always being pestered by debt collectors but was so rich in musical ideas that he could create enough in a day to sell to the producers who dealt in such commodities; that he suffered from the usual gross prejudice that haunted most blacks in America at the time; that he died at age thirty-nine from high living and too much drink; that there are "more books devoted to the life and works of Fats Waller than almost any other figure in the history of jazz." So why another?

I give up, because this is less a biography than a chronology of Fats --- and those who knew him --- in "The Musical Theatre," "The Rhythm and the Big Band," "Films," "Fats in Europe," and "The Records."

Shipton is hardly a facile writer. There are names, more than you could ever want --- but few that help to develop a picture of one who went on quickly in his short life to make so much music as one of the greats. More to the point, Fats' talent is never really unveiled: how did he get to be so good so soon --- suddenly appearing, "rent party" master, soloist, accompanist to films in the silent era. All happening when he was but a child (in short pants).

--- Benjamin Daley

My True Story
Mende Nazer
(Public Affairs)
Mende Nazer grew up in the Nuba Mountains in northeast Sudan in what she tells us was a near idyllic life. But when she was twelve, she and several others were kidnapped by Arab raiders, taken to Khartoum, and sold as slaves to Arab families. When she was nineteen, she was shipped off to London as slave for relatives of her "family." It was there she finally escaped captivity.

Mende is a practicing Muslim, as was the family that bought her (for, they tell us, a considerable sum). She indicates that her religion may have saved her from despair. Not only was she raped after being taken from her original home, she was beaten and starved while imprisoned by these wealthy Muslims in Khartoum.

Her owner Rahab would regularly excoriate her, using the word "yebit" ("girl worthy of no name" she translates for us). Once she burned Mende with scalding cookware; another time she pushed her down, almost severing her leg.

It's a harrowing tale, filled with memories of a happy childhood in her tribe, the Karkos. Those that bought her forced her to work all day and much of the night, with no respite, and certainly no pay, for seven long years.

§     §     §

It is, as I say, a harrowing tale, powerful, with the simple narrative style. But there are a couple of caveats I must throw in here. Throughout the book, her previous Nuban life (my dictionary --- and ever-faithful Google --- tell me I should write it as "Nubian," but I adopt the author's chosen spelling) is seen as idyllic. But Mende's circumcision, forced on her by her mother, her father, and women of the village, suggests a less-than-noble-savage way of life in the mountains of the Northern Sudan. More than any of the other graphic descriptions of the indignities handed out to her, the chapter devoted to the operation --- done without anesthesia, with her relatives holding her down --- made this reader hurry over the pages to get to something more reader-friendly.

There is another thought that could make one a little restive with Slave. It is the endless repetition of the fact that she was bought, sold, transported, raped, and forced into slavery by Arabs. "All my oppressors are Muslims," she says.

For the most part, Arab men, women and children get bad press here. I know I know ... there are scoundrels and monsters in every culture, every religion, every ethnic group. But there comes a time when Mende's story borders on the wicked-stepmother fairy-tale routine.

Such as the time when she happens to be looking out the window where she is held virtually as a prisoner in Khartoum and happens to spot a girl from her tiny Nuban village and they manage somehow to get together out on the street to talk, even though for 200 pages Mende has convinced us that there is no possible way she could ever slip out into the street, even for a moment, much less be allowed to chat with an old friend.

And it just so happens that this girl has information that Mende's family is still alive; which information --- coming from a village with no telephones nor electricity --- is notionally, if not technologically, charged.

One wants to believe that Slave is true from start to finish. Perhaps it is. But given the present parlous state of the world, the knowledge that we are involved in what some people are beginning to think of as a "Holy War," involving certain elements of the Middle East (often identified as "Arabs" or "Muslims" in the popular press) --- one could be tempted to question some of the darker elements of Middle Eastern life portrayed here.

Which doesn't stop one from compulsively reading on. The style is simple, even electrifying. The description of the mental state of a slave (blank out the mind, trust no one, expect nothing, do everything you are told, exactly as you are told) rings true, if nothing else. Indeed Nazar's moment of freedom in London --- she escaped from the house long enough to find a fellow Nuban working in a nearby tire-repair shop --- is more than exhilarating, something that she and the reader have been praying for ... for a long time.

--- Al Hefid
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