The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee

12 Jan
I picked this up from my dad’s bookshelf this past weekend, and it wasn’t until I got home that I realized that I had bought it for him for Christmas a year or two ago. First of all, I say good job to the marketing folks at Twelve Books – the cover is adorable, with its little packet of soy sauce. How cool does this publisher sound? They only publish twelve books a year, focusing all their attention on a singular book per month. I love that; it makes me feel like they’re really careful and invested in their authors, rather than just pumping out as many books as possible and as cheaply as possible.

Jennifer 8. Lee (fun fact: her middle name is an “8” to signify prosperity in Chinese) is a journalist and a child of immigrant parents. It’s clear that the immigrant pathway and all that comes along with it are important to her and have shaped the way she views the world. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles revolves around the mystery of the Powerball lottery in 2005, in which an unprecedented 110 winners picked the winning numbers for an $84 million jackpot. The winners were scattered throughout the states and had bought their tickets from different vendors. Tying them together though was the discovery that all the winners had chosen their numbers, rather than letting the computer pick for them. While suspected of some kind of fraud, eventually it came out that all the winners had gotten their numbers from Chinese fortune cookies. The Fortune Cookie Chonicles is the story of Lee’s unraveling of this mystery, but also an examination of the Chinese American culture and the popularity of Americanized Chinese food.

This was a light, fun read, perfect for reading in short intervals, as each chapter delves into a new topic. At times, I did feel a little disconnected from the overall theme of the book. One minute, I’m reading about the interconnection of Jewish American culture and Chinese food, then I’m reading about a horrific passage across the ocean in a human smuggling operation. Not that everything wasn’t interesting on its own, but at times I felt tossed around from one topic to the other with little understanding of why. This book should come with a warning though: Will Make You Crave Chinese Food. I mean, how am I supposed to handle paragraphs like this:

General Tso’s chicken is probably the most popular Chinese chef’s special in America. What’s there not to like? Succulent, crispy fried chicken is drenched in a tangy, spicy sauce and sauteed with garlic, ginger, and chili peppers until it bursts with flavor. Each bite is a rapturous gastronomic journey, beginning with a pleasant crunch that gives way to the tender dark meat, all while your tongue experiences the simultaneous ecstasy of sweetness paired with the kick from the chili peppers.

Lee has a casual, chatty way about her writing, keeping each topic punchy and light, even when talking about human smuggling. Those were the times I felt uncertain about the aim of the book – was this an exploration into Chinese cuisine? A serious meditation on the assimilation of the immigrant into American culture? – but I did like the narrative when I just let Lee take me where she would. I liked finding out the political and social significance of going to a Chinese restaurant and ordering some chow mein. Looking at her website, Lee sounds like she’s got a lot of irons in the fire – I’m especially interested in watching her interview with Stephen Colbert.

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