Sunday, February 14, 2010

Stealing Buddha's Dinner

Hostess: Jennifer
Book: Stealing Buddha's Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen
Food: Hummous, Rice Almond Salad, fantastic fancy pastries
Best Wine of Night: Pepperwood Grove Cabernet $5.99

Jennifer picked the book, Stealing Buddha's Dinner, by Bich Minh Nguyen, which on the surface is a memoir of Nguyen's childhood as a Vietnamese immigrant growing up in Grand Rapids in the 1980s, and how she fixated on American junk foods as the gateway to becoming a true American.

Maybe it was because I grew up in a small town in Michigan during the 1980s, and I remembered all the food that Nguyen coveted, but I the parts of the memoir which focused on Nguyen's grandmother, and the traditional Vietnamese food she prepared much more interesting. I found myself wishing that the author would talk more about these classic foods of her homeland, rather than red Pringles in a can, or Twinkies. I understand that was not the focus of the book though, and that Nguyen latched onto American junk food as her entree to becoming her ideal of a true American citizen, that if she ate like everyone around her, she would be one of them.

I loved the idea that school lunches were a source of status to students- maybe it is because I remember being envious of my classmates who had hostess cupcakes in their lunches too, since my mom didn't buy those for me either. I also remember the kids who brought soup in with their lunches in tupperware containers- I always wanted to do that too.

I could also relate to the authors memories of being in libraries, of the library as a sanctuary; when I was younger, I felt the library was a place of calm, somewhere quiet and cool in the summer, warm in the winter. I still am in love with libraries, maybe that is why I work in one now. But I read and loved all the books that Nguyen discusses - Little House on the Prairie was my favorite and I still reread them every year, but I also wanted to be Harriet the Spy and carry around a notebook filled with my observations about the people around me.

I felt like the memoir had good intentions, but often stalled out on the mega long descriptions of food packaging and the food itself. These were the hardest, slowest bits for me- to be honest, I often skipped over them. I did not want to read three pages dedicated to a pringles can or Kraft macaroni and cheese boxes. I wanted to know more about Nguyen's grandmother and stepmom and mother (who seemed thrust into the book like an afterthough). I hungered for a little more than I received. This aside, I really did enjoy the book. It was an interesting glimpse into a life unlike mine, a life on the other side of the lunchbox.

Check out the Penguin reading guides write up about Stealing Buddha's dinner, followed by an interview with author Bich Minh Nguyen.

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