(And when I say "worry," I mean that literally. What if I don't like what I've brought? I need to choose backups. But what if I don't like them? More backups to choose, and then I don't have room in my suitcase for essentials, like clothes.)
This trip, she had two by Nicole Mones for me: "The Last Chinese Chef," and "A Cup of Light." Both are set in China and feature American women protagonists who are experts in their fields – one a food writer and the other a porcelain appraiser – and who are facing personal and professional challenges. The stories also give a glimpse into some of the other (mostly Chinese) character's personal lives.
In "The Last Chinese Chef," our recently widowed food writer is investigating a devastating but dubious claim against her late husband. Her editor gives her the opportunity to expense the trip by writing about an up and coming Chinese-American chef who plans to open a restaurant in Beijing featuring the classic imperial cuisine. He also is experiencing a personal crisis. The book chronicles how they wrestle with their demons separately, and how they manage to find common ground through their love of food. You get some Chinese history, some lessons in cooking, and a sweet story of a blossoming friendship.
In "A Cup of Light" the porcelain expert is tasked by her auction house with assessing a collection of imperial pieces that have recently surfaced. They are also national treasures that are destined to be smuggled out of the country. Our expert is also almost deaf (she wears powerful hearing aids), has a supersensitive tactile sense and an amazing ability to memorize details, all of which help her in examining the priceless collection. Mixed with her story are those of the smugglers, middlemen and officials pursuing the porcelains, as well as those of ancient and modern artisans, and one wayward American ex-pat our expert encounters along the way. Again, there's a generous dose of Chinese history mixed in, and the story of breaking down personal walls and forming new friendships.
I enjoyed "The Last Chinese Chef" more, in part because of all the food (of course!) and it felt more personal. "A Cup of Light" was engaging and made me more interested in Chinese ceramics, but also a little uncomfortable because of the smugglers' greed and the unfortunate truths about China's loss of its cultural heritage; i.e. it was a little less escapist than I wanted just then; my fault, not the book's.
But I recommend both!