Book Review: The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson

Book Review: The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson

The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, from Samurai to Supermarket (now evidently retitled The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice

Dom read this book recently and told about me bits and pieces as he read. We both love sushi and it sounded like a fascinating book. Right after I picked it up off the shelf, he pointed out to me that I’d probably start craving sushi as I read the book—problematic as I’m pregnant right now. He was right, I’m desperate for a nice piece of raw tuna; but since we don’t even know of a good sushi restaurant in our new neighborhood, I’m not going to risk it. I guess I’ll just have to wait for July. Maybe he’ll bring me sushi in the hospital as he did after Bella’s birth.

Anyway, the book was even better than I’d thought it would be. Trevor Corson’s thought about non fiction pretty much follows my own. He writes:

Personally, I don�t learn well from textbooks, or from dry treatises that don�t involve at least some element of human drama. I learn best�as both a reader and a writer�when I can relate to a story about human beings whose lives embody the subject in question.

His narrative follows a group of students—with one student, Kate as the protagonist and the others as supporting characters—through a 12 week class at the California Sushi Academy in Las Angeles. Their stories and the stories of their instructors form the backbone of the book.

There is plenty of human drama as the students struggle to learn the difficult art of sushi making. Corson never makes an appearance in the narrative, a unique approach in my (admittedly limited) experience of non-fiction narrative. Rather he takes on a sort of omniscient narrator voice, often attempting to get into the heads of the people whose stories he chronicles, to portray their experiences from their perspective as much as possible.

Corson says that he chose to follow students at an American school of sushi rather than building on his fluency in Japanese and on his personal experience from living in Japan to follow Japanese chefs because he wanted to engage the American reader by recounting the American experience of sushi. He also rejects the notion of merely following a Japanese chef in America because he really wants to tell the story of Americans making sushi into a distinctively American cultural phenomenon. In addition to the warts and all story of a group of students and teachers at the California Sushi Academy, Corson also tells the story of sushi coming to America. At the same time, he doesn’t neglect the historical and cultural background of sushi’s origins in Japan. His extensive research comes through in a secondary narrative that weaves itself skillfully into the story of the American students.

He also includes a great wealth of information about the development of Japanese culture and cuisine. And many wonderful digressions into biology as he traces the natural history of the various ingredients that go into the different foods the students learn to prepare. I learned about soy sauce and rice, seaweed, as well as many kinds of sea creatures. Corson is a meticulous researcher and during his time at the Academy he filled several notebooks a week—some 40 notebooks in all, about 700 pages of single space text when transcribed—with notes on dialogue and action, and that just for the main narrative. He also interviewed many individuals in the various industries affiliated with sushi, and did much documentary research by Corson and several research assistants both in Japanese and English—another 2000 pages of single spaced text!

The result is a fascinating narrative, rather like a novel, documentary, or reality television show than a textbook presentation that is still amazingly full of information. Very readable, highly entertaining, and very educational.

And a great bonus to the book is Corson’s website with extra behind the scenes information about the people and places—lots of photos!—as well as a peek into his research techniques.

Next on my reading list: Trevor Corson’s first book: The Secret Life of Lobsters

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