Two-for-One Review: “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” and “Lost on Planet China”

October 9, 2008 at 5:06 pm | Posted in Nonfiction, Two-for-One Review | Leave a comment

While I was sick last week, I read two great nonfiction books about China: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, by Jennifer 8. Lee, and Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid by J. Maarten Troost.  I definitely recommend either or both as funny, fascinating, and impossible to put down, even when one is lying there nearly comatose with some virus.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles focuses on Chinese food in America and why we love it so much, even though it bears pretty much no resemblance to the food people actually eat in China.  Along the way, Lee permanently lays to rest the mystery of who invented fortune cookies.  I have to say that if you read this book, you must not do it at a time when you can’t actually get and eat some Chinese food!  The descriptions of various dishes will incite some major cravings, or at least they did for me, far out of range of any Chinese restaurant with delivery service.  But The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is not just a book for foodies and history buffs.  Lee also talks about human trafficking and the personal aspect of working in the restaurant industry in a foreign country.  This is a very well-rounded book, carefully structured and riveting.

Lost on Planet China is Troost’s third travel narrative.  He decides it might be fun to move his family to China, so he spends a few months traveling around the country scouting out a good place to settle.  What he sees turns out to be a bit different than he had expected.  There are laugh-out-loud hilarious episodes in this book.  Troost’s writing is excellent, so excellent that I put him up there in the exalted ranks of those whose work I would drop everything to read, no matter what it was.  I was impressed that, despite his skill as a humorist, he included sensitive political issues that did not find their way into Lee’s book.

Get your head around these two books about China: one by a Chinese-speaking Chinese-American writing about America’s absorption of Chinese culture, the other by a Dutch-Canadian writing about China’s absorption of Western culture.  Somewhere between the two we may have seen the real China.

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