Cover Story continued

A look at what the Weekly staff is reading these days, whether published last year or last century.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

Jennifer 8. Lee

Twelve, 2008, 320 pages, $24.99

The name might initially remind you of the countless number of voyeuristic Chinese food-porn books that speak to an audience ignorant of the cuisine and that attempt to expound the exotic nature of shrimp dumplings and shark’s fin soup. This book, however, is no junk of that variety. Author and New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee just speaks and speaks well. She definitely speaks to two of my obsessions: Asian diaspora and food. Lee conducts a thorough, thoughtful, perceptive and humorous study of the origins of Chinese food and all of its facets in America, taking you on a madwoman journey through the U.S. and China.

If you ever wondered why, even in the most remote areas of the world, no matter the ethnic make-up of an area, why there is almost always a Chinese restaurant–Lee tells you. The evolution of Chinese food to fit the Western palette–like the addition of thick sweet sauces, deep-frying bits of white meat and the addition of broccoli to almost any dish–are explained. You can find the origins of the fortune cookie, the oddly symbiotic relationship between Jews and Chinese food and the explanation of the ubiquitous Chinese take-out delivery boys.

Not only does Lee utilize her savvy journalistic skills to craft a disciplined and absorbing read, but also allows us in on what the experiences and insights her second-generation Chinese American eyes bring to the exploration. Her knowledge of authentic Chinese cooking from her parents’ native region of Jinmen gave her an impetus to exploring the discrepancies between that cuisine and Americanized Chinese food. Her fluency in Mandarin and Chinese appearance gave her more access to sources she found in China.

The book reminds me of various regional versions of Chinese food I’ve also had, such as the wet fries with beef and hardboiled eggs in Macau, the tomato beef chow mein tossed with black bean sauce in Boston and the crispy gau gee min here in Hawai’i. And let’s not to forget the The Worst Chinese Food Ever in Glasgow: the lemon chicken that had a glowing yellow jelly-like sauce that tasted of Windex and left such a strong MSG aftertaste that a liter of water and one hour wasn’t enough to get rid of the poisonous residue.

Even if you’re not a fan of fatty sweet and sour pork, you will find yourself oddly craving the crunch of General Tso’s chicken while reading Lee’s descriptive accounts of various versions of Chinese dishes. Lee’s accessible anthropological study of an all-American institution is a timely addition to the cache of multi-cultural and transnational identities that Chinese (and non-Chinese) have carved out for themselves. Through our stomachs. –Margot Seeto

The Little Prince

Antoine De Saint-Exupery

Heritage 107 pages, $15.99

I gave this book to a guy I loved several years ago because I thought he could use the advice that “once you tame someone, something, you are responsible for them.” This advice is contained in the sweet, poignant, quietly humorous book, The Little Prince, the entertaining and imaginative story of a pilot who grounds out on an African desert, at which time a little person has just arrived from Asteroid B-612.

The little person (the Little Prince) is a charming, wise being, one puzzled about the denseness of adults and their beliefs. As a result of extensive research, the little prince believes grownups were not very smart.

Antoine De Saint-Exupery wrote this story, with lovely illustrations of his own, about his own plane crash in the African desert, and for the most part it hits totally and thought-provokingly home.

After his time and travels, the stars align again and the Little Prince leaves our pilot in the desert just as the pilot has repaired his plane. Our pilot is sad, but commemorates this event with a beautiful little book.

Widely touted as a kid’s book, this one has potential for adults as well. And at just 112 pages in paperback, it’s a quick one–an easy, but profound, read. –Avery Keatly

King Dork

Frank Portman

Delacorte Press, 344 pages, $8.99

The story of how first-time author Frank Portman got his book made is a fascinating one. As legend has it, Portman’s longtime pop-punk Bay Area based band The Mr. T. Experience had a loyal fan who repeatedly told Portman (who uses the stage name Dr. Frank) how much he admired his lyrics, saying the singer/songwriter should consider writing a novel. Portman dismissed the notion, and eventually the fan stopped coming to shows. A few years passed and Mr. T. Experience reconnected with their lost fan, who again stated that Portman should write a novel. Only now, the fan was a literary agent. Portman wrote a skeleton outline, “like a demo,” he said in USAToday, and found his young adult novel King Dork on the New York Times bestseller list. Will Ferrell’s production company has picked up the film rights. It’s a shame, then, that the novel isn’t as charming as the story behind it. Sophomore high school kid Tom Henderson has few friends, a dead father, a penchant for conspiracy theories and an encyclopedic knowledge of musicians. He spends his time trying to avoid getting beat up and decoding what he’s sure are cryptic messages left by his father in a box of old books including Brighton Rock and The Catcher in the Rye. And of course, he’d like to do some fooling around with the opposite sex. At times King Dork brings comparisons to C.D. Payne’s hilarious book Youth in Revolt, and there are several moments of sheer brilliance. As the book progresses, however, it begins to feel that many of the stories surrounding Henderson are as inconsequential as his never-ending renaming of his band. It’s still well worth a look, and Portman should be watched in the future to see if he can turn his snot-nosed punk style into a full rock opera. –Dean Carrico

The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th-Century Science

Alan Lightman

Vintage Books, 2005, 526 pages, $16.95

It is curious, physicist and writer Alan Lightman points out, that students of political science pore over the U.S. Constitution, students of literature tackle Finnegans Wake and young philosophers work through Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, while scientists in academia aren’t required to read the original papers outlining the theories and equations that are the basis of and driving force for modern science.

On one hand, it mirrors the scientific need to pare down information into what’s essential, precise and ultimately useful. Indeed, any of the truly great ideas in 20th-century science weren’t fully formed when they were first written. Many of them still aren’t. But Lightman argues that ignoring these works in turn neglects the value in attempting to more closely access what drove those rare and exquisite minds to their discoveries. Even essays that have since been widely revised, refigured and expanded are engrossing–if complex–in their originally-published form. They highlight not only a particular moment in time and an astounding spread of scientific genius, but also the passion for discovering.

It was in that spirit that Lightman took on the difficult job of tracking down and selecting two dozen of what he considers to be among the most important discoveries in 20th-century science. He does an impressive job of simplifying each topic–from special relativity and the expansion of the universe to nuclear fission and the structure of DNA–into terms that scientists and non-scientists alike can understand and appreciate, and gives the biographical and historical context out of which each discovery emerged. His essays are followed by portions–and sometimes complete versions where space permits–of the original papers that accompanied these discoveries. These are essays that he had to scrounge up from foreign collections, distant libraries and cobwebbed archives across the world. He includes the work of Fleming, Watson and Crick, Bohr, McClintock, Meitner and Frisch, Einstein, Heisenberg, among others, and shows us not just what they discovered but who they were.

We already know some of the anecdotes–that Albert Einstein didn’t speak until he was 4 years old and that Alexander Fleming, whose messiness led to the accidental discovery of antibiotic agents, was known to chide his colleagues for being too tidy as piles of bacteria-festered test tubes cluttered his desk–but Lightman’s fluid descriptions and the way he captures the spirit behind the scientific pursuits that spanned lifetimes and ultimately shaped our understanding of the very nature of the universe are as beautiful as the best of his writing.

The collection is also interspersed with pages of photographs of the scientists. We see Hans Krebs’ kind smile, Edwin Hubble smoking a pipe at his desk, Perutz standing by a model of hemoglobin wearing a sweater vest and an expression that’s both boyish and grandfatherly, Francis Crick’s awkward deferential smile and, at his side, James Watson’s skinny frame and wild head of hair. A 1928 photograph shows Werner Heisenberg, Enrico Fermi and Wolfgang Pauli looking like the three amigos. There’s a young, dark-haired Einstein with a patchy mustache and a smiling Lise Meitner next to Otto Hahn in the basement of a laboratory at the Chemical Institute of the University of Berlin in 1909.

Throughout The Discoveries are delightful glimpses of real people, so that readers may begin to sense what is truly remarkable: that often a simple approach–like that of Einstein, who said he only sought to explain the beauty of unity in nature–can lead to something extraordinary and often unexpected.

Lightman offers the example of Perutz, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for discovering the three-dimensional structure of hemoglobin, but still didn’t know how the nature of the structure served hemoglobin’s oxygen-carrying function. Haunted by this uncertainty, he apologized in his acceptance speech for presenting incomplete results, saying, “Please forgive me for presenting, on such a great occasion, results which are still in the making. But the glaring sunlight of certain knowledge is dull and one feels most exhilarated by the twilight and expectancy of the dawn.” –Adrienne LaFrance