Friday, August 18, 2017

2017 #8: The Story of Sushi (Corson)

The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, from Samurai to Supermarket (P.S.)The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, from Samurai to Supermarket by Trevor Corson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm sure that Kate Murray is a lovely and intelligent woman. It is unfortunate that Corson's attempt to interweave personal documentary and history is such a miserable failure. I enjoyed half of this book--the part that really did seem to be "the story of sushi" rather than the "misogynist story of Kate the sushi chef."

First, let me address the writing. A good portion of the narrative is written in "See Spot run" style. I'm not sure if that was supposed to be charming, but I don't pick up a history of sushi and expect a nostalgic look at my primary school reader. Not only did this lack of syntactical variety make the book a bore to read (in places), but it really infantilized Kate (in addition to far more egregious errors). I had no respect for her as a "character" in the "story" of sushi. This is how Corson believes we will connect to Kate's story:

"Kate was reasonably happy until partway into her senior year, when she broke her index finger. The injury prevented her from playing soccer. Without soccer, Kate got depressed. She stopped going to school. Then she got sick."

Kate got depressed. Huh. We go on to learn that "She lost a lot of weight" and it was sushi that set her on the road back to health. Seems like a good narrative arc, until the rest of the book spends time on Kate's fear of gross fish guts, sharp knives, and a preference for Monster Energy drinks over Red Bull (just one instance of gratuitous detail, page 197).

There are more interesting characters at the California Sushi Academy! We get a reasonable glimpse of Zoran, the instructor and source of Kate's fear and trembling. Takumi and Marcos make token appearances so that we can remember there are other members of the class, but doubtless they would not have provided the narrative opportunities that Kate did. Witness:

"When she'd finished, she changed into tight jeans and a tank top..." (212)
"The top of her pink thong underwear showed above the waistline of her pants." (212)
"She sailed off to the ladies' room and slipped out of her uniform into a pair of pants and a tight shirt." (269)

But Corson's fixation on Kate's apparel isn't the only problem. Pages 281-2 seem to make a point that sushi chefs are perverts, with discussions of female customers with "ample bosom[s]"...Toshi tells us that "Working at the sushi bar really is the ideal angle for viewing breasts." The discussion of breasts fills up a page. This section is completely gratuitous and serves absolutely no purpose except to show that Toshi likes to oggle and objectify women. Super--I'm glad I learned that as part of "The story of SUSHI."

What frustrates me is that I'd love to keep roughly half the book as a reference. There's a lot of good stuff there, and Corson's actual FOOD and history writing is far more fluid and interesting than his portrayal of the humans in the story. If I'm being charitable, I think he bit off too much (pun intended) here--the history and sociology of food are enough without the soap opera. Corson makes several references to Jiro Ono, the master sushi chef made famous in the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It is a shame that this book predates the documentary, because Corson no doubt would have learned a lot about how to honor a documentary subject without sensationalizing.

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