Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Off the Menu by Christine Son (with author guest post and giveaway)

They smiled at each other, the kind of empathetic smile third graders and mature women alike gave when they felt bonded to each other. They didn't have any answers, and they hadn't experienced any epiphanies, yet Whitney felt as though her yoke had been lifted. If anything, Audrey was bracing the other end, and for now, that was good enough.

(from Off the Menu, page 178)

I'm not going to beat around the bush. I loved this book. I had a feeling I would love it, and I was right. When I opened Off the Menu, I thought I was going to love it for the similarities to Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club (which is among my all-time favorite books). I've always been drawn to stories about immigrants and clashes with their American-born children, as I witnessed such conflict between my grandmother and my mother, who came to the U.S. from Germany when she was just 3 years old. But what really hooked me was Christine Son's honest portrayal of long-time friendships.

In Off the Menu, Son tells the story of three Asian-American women who have been friends since high school. Whitney Lee is a lawyer who'd rather pursue a music career, but her parents' expectations keep her from attempting to fulfill her dream. Audrey Henley is expected to maintain a certain image as the adopted daughter of the billionaire owner of a petroleum company, but all she wants is to become an English professor and marry her boyfriend, who is content in his job as a teacher. And Hercules Huang is a famous chef and restaurant owner who is loud and obnoxious, but only to hide her loneliness and hostile feelings toward her father.

Until they take a road trip to Audrey's parents' home in Austin, Texas, the three don't really confide in one another about their troubles, worried about what the others will think. This aspect of their friendship felt real to me, as no one wants to feel like a failure around someone they perceive to be extremely successful. But the joys of friendship come when you break down the walls and bear your vulnerable souls.

While all three women were likable, my favorite character was Jimmy Fujimoto, an artist Audrey meets at a coffee shop who travels with them on their road trip. His character is so full of life and so entertaining, and his scenes liven things up when the women are feeling down.

Son's writing pulls you in from the beginning, and she does a great job adding a bit of humor to complicated relationships. If you've been following the Off the Menu tour and reading Christine's guest posts and interviews, you'll understand when I say she's funny and sounds like someone you'd love to have as a friend. If you haven't followed the tour, you're in luck because I have the pleasure of welcoming Christine to Diary of an Eccentric for a humorous guest post about writing and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by, Christine!

What Are You Looking at? Are You Writing About Me?

by Christine Son

The other day, a group of my friends and I went to lunch, and at the table next to us, a woman was sitting alone, looking around the restaurant. She dug furiously into her bag, checked her cell phone, clearly agitated, looked around again, checked her phone, looked, checked, looked. My friends may have noticed her, but if they did, they didn’t comment on her behavior. They were too busy talking about the drunken weekends they had all had. But I kept sneaking glances at our neighbor. What was she doing? Was she waiting for someone? If so, who? Her husband? Were they in the middle of a nasty divorce and his tardiness was the reason for their relational demise? Was she about to be interviewed for a new job while taking a lunch break from her current one? Was she the first to show up to a blind date? Why was she so angry? Was she just an unpleasant shrew? Or did she have reason to be upset? To anyone else, she might have just been a harried patron, starved to hypoglycemic irritation. But to me, she was a story, a character with hidden motivations and goals, which were clearly being stymied. And as I turned to my friends and added my own snarky comments about debauched parties and office politics, I realized that I did the same thing with them as I did the woman. I noticed their inflections, their tilts of the head, the way they used their hands to emphasize the funnier parts of their stories. I absorbed the way they laughed or snorted, how their eyes sparkled or reflected prismatic colors in the sunlight. I took in what they were wearing, how one kept adjusting the collar of her shirt and how another scrunched her never-will-be-wavy hair. And I listened to their stories, the content and details of what had transpired on their Saturday nights, but perhaps with less ridiculousness than the version they were then giving.

As a person, I’m naturally perceptive, I think. I’m quick to pick up on someone’s mood, on the fleeting looks she might give another to relay her dismay or bewilderment. I’m also fairly introspective, and will keep events and conversations in mind for a long time, often rolling them through my head repeatedly like movie scenes so that I can layer them with my observations. I linger over these things because relationships—human interactions in all their levity and curiosities—arrest me. What goes on inside a person’s head fascinates me. It’s because of these interests that I write character-driven fiction instead of mysteries or horror (and also because I spook too easily to write those genres). And when I’m in the middle of a draft, I find that these qualities kick into high gear, sometimes rendering me hypersensitive. Or at least I feel as though I’m overanalyzing everything, not just in my writing, but in life in general. I don’t know if other writers experience the same heightening of his or her senses, if a horror novelist starts to see evil lurking in the mundane. At some point, I have to stop myself from thinking that every comment or email or silence is indicative of anything more than the face value of it. That sometimes, a statement is merely the product of impulse, that unresponsiveness is the result of distraction. Why do I do attribute meaning to everything when clearly not everything carries it? It may be because in a book, there are no wasted scenes. Or insignificant dialogue. Or haphazard action. Novels are the grand distillations of life, the collection of conversations and events placed specifically to move the story forward. And through these lenses, everything in the world garners import, deserved or not. Some people call that insight. Others may call it obsessive-compulsive disorder. But it’s where I draw my inspiration, the myriad possibilities why a person acts the way she does, why she says certain things, why she looks the way she does. And so I watch. And listen. And try not to look like a freakish stalker as I absorb the kernels of the everyday that may ultimately drive an entire book.

So there you have it. Yes, I may very well be looking at you, and yes, I may be writing about you, too. But it’s because you are endlessly fascinating, a relentless source of inspiration and potential that feeds my imagination. And at the end of the day, there’s nothing more a writer can ask for.

Would you like to read Off the Menu? Christine would love to give a copy to one lucky reader (international entrants welcome)!

All you have to do is leave a comment here AND tell me a funny or interesting story about your best friend. (Or you can tell me your favorite book about friendship.)

Deadline to enter is midnight EST on Wed. Dec. 3. Good luck!

I'd like to thank the wonderful ladies at TLC Book Tours for this wonderful opportunity!

Check out the rest of the Off the Menu stops here!

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of Off the Menu from the publisher for review purposes.


Jeannie said...

Hi Anna! I'd love the chance to win this book. I wonder if I have any luck left.

It sounds sappy, but my best friend is my husband. When we first got married, he used to really hate that I could predict the things he'd say or the actions he would do. Now though we both find a comfort in knowing each another so well. He and I are very different, though we tend to agree on the important things in life. We fit like pieces to a puzzle- without each other, we don't make much sense, but together, we create a pretty picture.

Anna said...

Jeannie: Hi there! I think that's great that you and your hubby are best friends!

Teddy Rose said...

No need to enter me in this one Anna. I just wanted you to know that I blogged about your giveaway here:

Anna said...

Teddy Rose: Thanks so much!!

Alyce said...

I would love to win a copy of this book.

My best girlfriend would have to be my sister. No funny stories are coming to mind right now. I of course am great friends with my husband, and before we were dating we were best friends. He was my best friend through two (long distance relationship) boyfriends in college. Right before we started dating, he went shopping for a gag gift for me for my birthday in the toy section of a local store. He was playing with the toys so enthusiastically that he was disturbing the other customers and got thrown out. He eventually went back and got me a slinky and those expandable sponge animals that grow in water. I think (hope) that the only time he's ever gotten asked to leave a place of business.
akreese (at) hotmail (dot) com

Anonymous said...

I love immigrant stories, too. I think it's because my mother's parents immigrated to this country and my mother has lots of stories about what it was like to grow up as the child of immigrants. This book looks so good.

Theresa N. said...

The Joy Luck Club is one of my favorites too, also Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes and the Ya-Ya books.
theresa N

teabird said...

I love books about friendship amongst women - Joy Luck was one of my favorites ever. My best friend - aside from my husband - is Janet, whom I first me through letters and e-mail. Now we've met in person twice, and we're still amazed and grateful and happy to be best friends!

teabird 17 at yahoo dot com

Anonymous said...

I liked the little story that led to the story.

My best friend and I grew up together. Literally. Our moms were best friends since they were kids. One of my favourite childhood stories that I don't personally remember has been told to us by our parents. We even have a video of it. It was my best friend's 3rd birthday party and all the parents told her to hug me. So she ran at me.. and basically knocked me down. =) I always use it against her now for fun. It's good to have a friend who's been there through your entire lifetime. =)

Carmen T

LisaMM said...

What a great guest post! I'm a major people watcher too but not necessarily for the same reason.

My best friend and I met in a baby music class when our now 11 year olds were nearly 2 years old. We email each other multiple times a day, work out together 5 times a week. My husband thinks we're nuts but whenever anything happens we have to immediately tell the other, as in "OMG I have to call Carrie!" I realize it's sort of high schoolish, and we're in our 40's- but it's great to have a friend like this that I can share everything with. She is amazing. She knows the best way to do everything. She is a better person than I am, and I always say I want to be like her when I grow up :-)

Serena said...

no need to enter me in this one since I was also on the tour...but this book was fantastic and I told you that you'd like Jimmy!

I loved her hypersensitivity and I are always doing that. Heck we even talk about the people we see aloud...hopefully no one overhears us.

Anonymous said...

The more I read about Christine Son the more I am intrigued by her and her writing. Thanks for this review and post, Anna. It's been quite an impressive tour overall as well!

Keyo said...

Hey Anna, thanks for the giveaway. surely sounds like a nice book. Count me in.

my story is short but the essence is sweet. My best friend used to come over to my house from school and open the fridge and take out whatever she wanted. She would chat non-stop to my mom and sometimes i would wonder if she was my friend or my mom's. I on the other hand was too shy to even move an inch from where i was sitting if i went over to her house. But its just that she felt (and my mom helped in this feeling) so comfortable in my house that she felt she was one of "us". this is how real friends are!! no formalities, no please and thank you's! Direct and simple! :)

Anonymous said...

hey anna! don't need to enter me since i was also on this tour..:) but it was fun to read christine's post..:) i am a people-watcher too.. maybe i should try writing sometime:)

Jo-Jo said...

I would love a chance to win this book! My favorite book about friendship would be Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons by Lorna Landvik. That is the book that actually inspired the beginning of my book club.

Anonymous said...

Wanted to drop in and wish you a Happy Thanksgiving! :)

Anna said...

Alyce: Thanks for sharing that story about your hubby. Sounds like my hubby turning on all those singing Christmas dolls at the same time!

Bermudaonion: Sounds like you might've heard stories like I heard from my mom...

Theresa: I almost forgot about the Ya-Yas!!

Teabird: Isn't it amazing the great people you can meet without actually meeting them in person (at least not right away). I'm very thankful for my online friends!

Carmen T: What a great story. I moved around a lot until junior high, so my longest friendship began in 8th grade.

Lisa: Sounds like you've got a great friend there! I tend to call Serena right away when something happens because it can't wait until I see her the next day. LOL I must really annoy her sometimes. ;)

Serena: You were SOOO right about Jimmy. I just loved him.

Marvin: I agree. This was a great tour!!

Keyomi: In high school, I was over my best friend's house all the time. I think I spent an hour or so each time talking to her mom. I went through some rough times with my family, and her mom understood that I needed those talks. I hardly ever see them these days since we live so far apart from one another. :(

Ramya: I also people watch, and sometimes I do jot down what I see and use the notes to create characters later on.

Jo-Jo: I LOVED LOVED that book!!!!!

J. Kaye: Happy Thanksgiving to you, too!!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Nope, nope, this isn't one of those 'enter me" comments. (nor is it well punctuated, but whatever. I'm too lazy to fix it.)

This is a request that you keep an eye on my main blog, the Meet and Greet, for a few days... You'll like it.

Anna said...

Susan: Will do!

Shana said...

Anna, I'm really glad you enjoyed this book. Great review. Didn't those food descriptions just make your mouth water???


Anonymous said...

This is an awesome book. and Anna, I have read this post so many times... [ that esay I mean] and entered to win her book so so so many times... but **sigh** not won yet!

I hope you will enter me-- with some lucky charm ;) and I win this time LOL!

I loved your review.. and I really thank you for this giveaway!

Unknown said...

Well I dont now if anyone would think this is interesting but I do haha! My best friend I actually met when she was a foreign exchange student here (she's from russia) which is where my family is from, so maybe thats why we clicked instantly and we've been best friends ever since (despite the long distance!, we talk daily though) Thanks for entering me, this sounds like a really good book!

Wrighty said...

I've been following this tour and think the book and the author sound awesome! I love books about friendship. I have a great group of friends who I grew up with. We have done everything together, had slumber parties, went to college, been in each others weddings, babysat each others kids who are all graduating now and will learn how to be empty-nesters together. We've been there for good times and bad and I am lucky to have them. In fact, I should write some letters and make some phone calls to remind them all of that! Thanks for your contest and I'm adding this to my blog.

Becca said...

I've read so many great reviews about this book, I'd love to read it!

I first met my best friend when I was just starting out as a piano accompanist and was playing for several of her voice students. She was a well known teacher in the area, and I was really quite afraid of her, I had so much respect for her.
Now, we laugh about that when we're on vacation together, sitting around the pool drinking wine!

Anna said...

Thanks everyone who's entered so far! I really enjoy reading your best friend stories.

Shana: The book constantly made me hungry!! LOL

Julie said...

I would love to win this book, I love books about women & friendship. I am lucky, I have several really good friends. I have lots of good stories, but most wouldn't belong on a public forum!!! I wouldn't have those lovely friends anymore:):) A favorite book about friendship would be The Friday Night Knitting Club-loved it!
julyso@grandecom DOT net

Marie said...

Great giveaway. Please enter me! I hope I win.

My favourite book has already been mentioned: "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe" by Fannie Flagg. I remember crying my eyes out. I love that book.

kalea_kane said...

Hi Anna! I would totally love a chance at this book! My best friend next to my wonderful husband is my bestest, Brianna. Brianna and I met when we were both working as cocktail servers in a casino. We were like to halves of the same coin, and I could tell many stories about our adventures. This one is silly, but it is also kind of wild. Bri, me and several of our guy friends went to Vegas to celebrate my 39th birthday. We thought it would be fun to play brides and grooms so Bri and I bought fake engagement rings, little veils, and buttons saying here comes the bride. We went out one night sporting our attire, and told the guys we met (guys do not seem to care if one is wearing wedding veils) that we were getting married the following weekend and were celebrating this weekend. We even had fake names for our future husbands. Here is the weird part...a year later we were back in Vegas for my actual wedding (I wasn't even engaged when we first went to Vegas nor did I have a boyfriend).

Thanks for the chance to win.


Gwendolyn B. said...

I've been following this tour and I would love to read OFF THE MENU. Thanks for the chance to win it!
My sister is my best friend. Even though we are separated by 12 years, we are so close, that we often say the same thing at the same time. It freaks people out. The other day, we were driving around and she and I AND her 8-year-old son all started to say the same thing at the same time. Maybe you had to be there, but it was pretty funny!

windycindy said...

Great interview, wonderful book and I would love to be entered in your book giveaway drawing! My story about my best friend isn't funny, but I am happy for her. Since both of her sons are either out of college or in college, she and her husband bought some property in the next state out in the middle of nowhere. They have built a small cabin type building and now are beginning a small vineyard. Her husband loves to make wine. It is an adventure for them and they spend almost every weekend there. Thanks, Cindi

Luck Happens said...

This book sounds great...I'd read it and then pass it on to my avid reader Mom. As for a friendship story, I just reconnected with my best high school friend within the past 30 days after 20+ years with no communication. It has been a blast sharing old memories, and catching up. It's amazing how time melts away, and strong friendships are so easy to rekindle. Thanks for the giveaway!

kellifrobinson2 AT gmail DOT com

darbyscloset said...

I keep seeing this book around and when books start to follow me, then I must read them!!
Friendship story is that a girlfriend from High School contacted me (she called my folks and got my number) and when we talked it was like nothing had changed despite all the years!
She was a lot of fun in HS and she still is now! : )
drabyscloset at yahoo dot com