Jennifer 8. Lee, the New York Times metro reporter with the numerical middle name, has written a funny, informative book about a subject likely to be near and dear to the hearts of most of the people who are reading these words. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food (Twelve, 308 pp., $24.99) is a pop history of what should really be called Chinese-American cuisine, since it bears only a glancing resemblance to the style of cooking practiced in China and in the homes of Chinese immigrants. It is not, however, a clip job: Ms. Lee, as befits a reporter, has done an awesome amount of legwork, both here and abroad, in order to track down the hazy and oft-disputed origins of chop suey, General Tso’s chicken, and the fortune cookie.
Written in a breezy manner that grates only occasionally, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles really does tell you just about everything you could possibly want to know about how Chinese cooking was modified for American palates and marketed in such a way as to become the most ubiquitous of ethnic cuisines—and yes, it even contains a chapter called “Why Chow Mein is the Chosen Food of the Chosen People.” I commend it to your attention.
• A.J. Liebling, who was generously represented in the Library of America’s Reporting World War II, now has a volume of his own. World War II Writings (Library of America, 1089 pp., $40), edited by Pete Hamill, contains the complete texts of The Road Back to Paris (1944) and Mollie and Other War Pieces (1964), the two books of wartime reportage assembled by Liebling during his lifetime, plus Normandy Revisited, the uncommonly elegant 1958 memoir in which he weaves together present- and past-tense accounts of his wartime and postwar visits to Normandy. Also included are 28 uncollected pieces about World War II, most of which originally appeared in The New Yorker, and two excerpts from The Republic of Silence, Liebling’s 1947 anthology of articles from the French resistance press.
If all this sounds a bit dry, allow me to disabuse you of any such notion. Liebling’s wartime dispatches to The New Yorker were the finest work of their kind to be published by any American journalist during World War II. Ernie Pyle was his only rival, and Pyle was a very different sort of writer, unadorned and homespun where Liebling was ornate and self-revealing—though never self-regarding. He portrayed himself as a character in his own pieces, an out-of-place urbanite who somehow ended up in the middle of great events, and the humor with which he describes them does not diminish in the least the immense gravity underlying his writing. The chapters of The Road Back to Paris in which he describes the fall of
Many of Liebling’s most memorable dispatches are included in Reporting World War II, but by no means all of them, and those whose copies of the cheaply bound 1981 omnibus anthology Liebling At War are now falling to pieces will be delighted to replace it with this compact, handsomely printed collection. “Of all the specifically literary American journalism to come out of World War II, A.J. Liebling’s was by a long shot the very best,” I wrote on another occasion. Nothing in World War II Writings has made me change my mind.