Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Jennifer 8. Lee

Jennifer 8. Lee is a metropolitan reporter at the New York Times, where she has worked for many years.

She harbors a deep obsession for Chinese food, the product of which is The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, a book that explores how Chinese food is all-American, due out in March 2008.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
There are two genres I swing between:

- non-fiction of a sociological or current affairs nature and

- fiction by authors who are one or more of the following: 1) alive 2) female 3) "diverse" (all three would definitely catch my attention).

As a journalist, I also get sent a lot of galleys, that I will often at least look at, if not skim or read entirely. Sometimes the pitches are kind of random (young adult novels) but I like getting books.

On the non-fiction side, I just read Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, about why some ideas thrive while others die. It is in the genre (both style and content) of The Tipping Point and The Wisdom of Crowds. I also read The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. Those two books, I hope will help me distill the kinds of ideas and memes that will help newspapers determine new business model for the digital future.

In my bag currently, I have The Heartless Stone by Tom Zoellner, which just came out in paperback. It is about the myths of the diamond industry — diamonds, which have limited industrial use, have little value other than what humans socially ascribe to them. It's a really well-written book that spans every continent except Antarctica. I was interested in it because I had asked him how to do the endnotes for my book.

I was also passed an advanced manuscript of Starbucked by Taylor Clark, out in January 2008, because I am always interested in food social issues, which I also read in one sitting.

On the fiction front, I just read Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee, in one fell swoop. It's (a huge book) about Ivy League-educated Korean Americans in New York City. I stayed up until 4 a.m. because it is a subtle page-turner about race and class and privilege. Every sentence and paragraph is there for a reason, so you cannot just skim. I am enthusiastically recommending it to my friends, many of whom are Asian-American.

I also picked up Granta's Best of Young American Novelists 2 ("Now even younger!") at the Book Expo America a few weeks ago, mostly because it had a number of people I know through various means (friends of friends) listed on the back. In it, there was a poignant short story on a Jewish soldier during the American civil war by a classmate, Dara Horn. Since most Jewish immigrants arrived in New York between 1880 and 1920, it was interesting to see the perception of Jews in a society before that period.

Compilations of short stories/excerpts are great. They are like dim sum. You can get a little taste of a lot of things and are not obligated to try the things you don't want.
Read recent and archived news articles by Lee in the New York Times.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is currently being edited, so excerpts are not yet available. Lee has this placeholder paragraph until the excerpts are online:
I can tell you that the current draft has chapters on General Tso’s chicken (I meet his family in China!), chop suey (with a new theory on who invented it and why, it’s not the historically bantered-about theory), fortune cookies (surprises galore here), how delivery got started in New York City, why Jews love Chinese food (or as I like to say “Why is chow mein the chosen food of the chosen people?), and the hunt for the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world outside Greater China.
Visit the website for The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.

--Marshal Zeringue