Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Book reviews: Two books about Chinese places and things

A while ago I was on a roll reading things about China, from Chinese food in the US to Chinese history and culture. Ever since I saw the old Marco Polo TV-series as a young teenager I have been fascinated with this country, and I would love to visit, but now it feels like it might be too late to see the old cultural China and its nature. What we mostly hear about now is about environmental pollution, uncontrolled industrial development, and the lack of human rights and natural conservation. It is sad.

The two books I read a while ago are of very different sorts. The first one, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles - Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8. Lee (yes, there is the number 8 in there), is a book of mixed feelings and mixed contents. She sets out to find where the fortune cookies come from, a common dessert addition in American-Chinese restaurants but never seen in China. After she figures that out through interviews and some fact digging in California, she switches subjects to the history of take-away food, Chinese restaurant owners, illegal immigration, the best Chinese restaurant in the world, the true origin of General Tso's chicken, etc. The book is well-written, very well researched with many trips over the world, but I just couldn't find it that interesting because it was so scattered in its topics. It felt like she put everything she could in there, like a quilt with too many colors. based on the reviews on Amazon, most people liked it a lot better than I did. But after reading Fuchsia Dunlop's book on Chinese food and culture, I am spoiled, I know.

And now for something completely different. Peter Hessler has written about his years as an English teacher working for the Peace Corps in the remote Chinese town of Fuling along the Yangtze River in a book called River Town: Two years on the Yangtze. This was before Westerners were common in China, and in fact, he was one of only four Western people in the whole town of a hundreds of thousands of people. He writes about the everyday struggles with the Chinese language and culture, how he teaches his students Shakespeare with a Chinese twist, how Communist party bureaucrazy gets in the way sometimes, and vividsly describes the landscapes, rivers, people, and villages he meets. It is a wonderful book, but slightly too long. The writing is great, it is just the long descriptions some of this thoughts that become a bit too long-winding sometimes. The town of Fuling is half drowned now because of the Seven Gorges Dam. They moved the down up along the hills as part of the flooding of the Yangtze River upstream from the Dam. It is sad to read about how many Chinese leave old history behind and is all for progress, progress, progress (=more money, more things, more production). I think this book was the most detailed and honest book I have read so far about China.

Next up on my Chinese literature track is Marco Polo's stories I think.


PP said...

though many of your books reviews go by without a comment I do read them all, and appreciate that you take the time to do them. Most of the books I will never read so its good to hear a bit about something I would not have otherwise!

Olle said...

It is certainly not too late to both see and enjoy the Chinese landscape and the historical heritage. China is a very big country but you have to leave the vast urban areas and get a bit off track. Which is quite possible - in contrast to what it was say twenty years ago. Sure - the environment is suffering all over part of the Asian continent but still...

LS said...


That is great to know. I might have the opportunity to visit China in the next couple of years, and I am looking forward to getting a taste of this very different culture.