When the President of the United States travels outside the country, he brings his own car with him. Moments after Air Force One landed at the Hanoi airport last May, President Barack Obama ducked into an eighteen-foot, armor-plated limousine—a bomb shelter masquerading as a Cadillac—that was equipped with a secure link to the Pentagon and with emergency supplies of blood, and was known as the Beast. Hanoi’s broad avenues are crowded with honking cars, storefront venders, street peddlers, and some five million scooters and motorbikes, which rush in and out of the intersections like floodwaters. It was Obama’s first trip to Vietnam, but he encountered this pageant mostly through a five-inch pane of bulletproof glass. He might as well have watched it on TV.
Obama was scheduled to meet with President Trần Đại Quang, and with the new head of Vietnam’s national assembly. On his second night in Hanoi, however, he kept an unusual appointment: dinner with Anthony Bourdain, the peripatetic chef turned writer who hosts the Emmy-winning travel show “Parts Unknown,” on CNN.
You might have learned in school that there are three phases of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. That is a useful simplification for young students, but there are in fact many, many more. In the past century or so, we’ve discovered that there are hundreds of distinct solid phases—some of which are used to build the silicon chips that run your computer. In addition, there are dozens of liquid crystal phases—some of which create the images on your laptop screen. And that’s before we even get to the really exotic stuff: quantum phases like superfluids, quark-gluon plasma, Bose-Einstein condensates, and the so-called “topological phases.”
But before we get to that, let’s step back and discuss what we mean by the word “phase.”
It’s a recurring theme in “The Refugees” that the traumatized individual must make his way slowly, word by word. Nguyen’s narrative style—restrained, spare, avoiding metaphor or the syntactical virtuosity on display in every paragraph of “The Sympathizer”—is well suited for portraying tentative states. His characters are emotional convalescents, groping their way to an understanding of their woundedness. “Writing was entering into fog, feeling my way for a route from this world to the unearthly world of words, a route easier to find on some days than on others,” the narrator observes, in “Black-Eyed Women.”
Darwin’s first American trial was far more interesting. On the Origin of Species quietly crossed the Atlantic as a single book, thistle-green and gilded with two golden pyramids. The author had mailed it to his Harvard colleague Asa Gray, the premier botanist of his age. Gray in turn lent the book to his cousin-in-law Charles Loring Brace, the father of modern foster care. Brace then passed the book among his transcendentalist friends in Concord, Massachusetts — Amos Bronson Alcott, Franklin Sanborn, and Henry David Thoreau. These five men were among Darwin’s first American readers, and his book impacted each of them deeply and differently. Its American reception wasn’t a trial at all, but a seed planted into varied brains and a shared historical atmosphere, sprouting into lovely and prickly varieties of colors and shapes.
Food writing gets a bad rap for being fluffy and bougie, which isn’t quite fair since food is such an essential part of our existence. Outside of the establishment of bona fide culinary writers, many fiction writers have touched on the sensory and emotional aspects of food, from Marcel Proust to Nora Ephron, but no one has tapped into its prosaic humanity quite like the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. This is not lost on Murakami fans, and there are a few blogs devoted to the food his characters prepare, like What I Talk About When I Talk About Cooking. Murakami writes intricate plots with an extremely high level of emotional intelligence, but no matter how fantastical his stories are, his characters remain relatable, and food provides the balance between surrealism and normalcy. He weaves food into his stories in a mundane way that communicates the deep-seated reasons of why, how, and what we eat.
Miniatures are the most concentrated form of extravagance I know, a decadent combination of ontological and visceral attraction. There is wickedness to it, a pleasant brand of self-disgust. The masochistic ecstasy of seeing myself as a monster when next to a miniature is unshakeable.