Fortune Cookie Chronicles: What Happened To General Tso?

I was on a train last year reading a review copy of Boomsday by Christopher Buckley, which was not yet out in stores. The guy next to me noticed it, and told me “My friend’s book is coming out from the same publisher next year.” His friend turned out to be Jennifer 8. Lee, whose amusing name I’d occasionally noticed in New York Times bylines. Her first book was going to be about the history of Chinese food in America.

I had a long talk with the fellow, a writer for Psychology Today magazine. We talked about publisher Jon Karp’s unique business model for Twelve (they publish exactly twelve books a year, apparently skipping all the mediocrities and aiming for a single success each month), and he told me all about Lee’s book, which was called The Long March of General Tso. I liked the idea immediately, and I told him so. It’s history, it’s immigration, it’s sociology … The Long March of General Tso just sounded to me like a real corker in every way. Hilarious title, too.

Imagine my surprise when I saw this ad in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review:

One woman.

One consuming obsession.

Forty thousand restaurants.


Author Jennifer 8. Lee has
taken a remarkable journey
into the secret world
of Chinese restaurants:
a cultural phenomenon with
far greater influence and
intrigue than we realize.

“An addictive dim sun of
fact, fun, quirkiness, and pathos.
It’s Anthony Bourdain meets
Calvin Trillin.”
— Mary Roach, author
of “Stiff” and “Spook”

What the … what happened to our history book? The Fortune Cookie Chronicles sounds like the kind of cutesy, chatty fluff I’d never read. I wouldn’t even notice a book like this. I’m expecting Mark Kurlansky and I get … Emeril.

Is this what happens when a publishing company needs every book it publishes to be a power seller? Well, I notice Lee says so directly when she writes about the title change on her blog:

Many people are sad about this, I among them. This brilliant title was conceived by my colleague Michael Luo. But the logic by my editor was this: If you already know the book is on Chinese food, then you will think it is incredibly witty. But if you saw it in a book store though, would you think it’s about Qing dynasty military strategy?

I also see that Gawker had a good time with this (“Jennifer 8. Lee Gets Blog, Immediately Adorably Overshares”). Pretty funny. Well, if I were Jennifer 8. Lee I would have stuck up for the better title. Is it really a publisher’s valid role to dumb down a good book in a bid for bigger sales? If so, I don’t think Jennifer 8. Lee got a great deal with this arrangement.

Well, for all I know Fortune Cookie Chronicles may be a good book — I haven’t seen it yet, just the ad. I’ll let you know, or you can let me know if you know.

2. Sarah Weinman on the debut of, an upscale “books” webcast. It’s hard to improve on Sarah’s analysis, except to offer the observation that Charles Bock deserves some kind of points for showing up decked out like a backup dancer in the video of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl“. I don’t really get it, but it’s kinda cool.

3. My dad (the cartoonist) on William F. Buckley.

4. A much-written-about early collaboration between Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs called And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks is surfacing. Honestly, I can’t say I’m expecting much, but we’ll see. I am more excited about two upcoming Beat Generation films: Corso: The Last Beat (it’s about time we saw a film biography of Gregory Corso) and One Fast Move Or I’m Gone, about Jack Kerouac in Big Sur, featuring David Amram, John Ventimiglia, Michael McClure, Patti Smith, Sam Shepard, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Carolyn and John Cassady.

5. The new Quarterly Conversation is out!

5 Responses

  1. “The Fortune Coookie
    “The Fortune Coookie Chronicles” got a rather lengthy review in yesterday’s Newsday, and there was no mention of the working title. Heller McAlpin, the reviewer, pretty much called the book “jumbled and overwhelming”. Here’s the last paragraph of the review in its entirety — it kind of says it all:
    “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” offers a rich medley of flavors that would be more delicious had the chef exercised some restraint: A clearer chronology and narrative line would allow each ingredient to sing. As it stands, Lee’s concoction, although tasty, smacks at times of chop suey — that catchall dish that translates from Cantonese as “odds and ends.”.

    And many thanks for mentioning and linking to my heartfelt Buckley tribute.


  2. Any title with Long March in
    Any title with Long March in it is pretty nastily offensive. That title would be like calling a book about German Beer Beck’s Beer Hall Putsch. Or Apple Strudle’s Night of Long Knives. Or German Chocolate Uber Alles.

    Amazing that Hippos is coming out.

  3. Thanks for the Newsday quote.
    Thanks for the Newsday quote. I still hope I’ll like the book (which would require it to be a lot better than Newsday makes it sound).

    TKG, I see your point about “Long March” being offensive. On the other hand, I think having the Olympics in China (still a totalitarian nation, still oppressing Tibet, etc.) in 2008 is even more offensive!

  4. Hi Levi,

    I agree except I
    Hi Levi,

    I agree except I don’t think it is another hand I think it is the same hand.

    On another common issue, a book, well reviewed recently in the NY Times was seen to be, guess what, a non-fiction autobio that was in fact a hoax.

    Love and Consequences – a made up story about growing up in gang life which did not happen and the author is not who she says she is.

    Deja vu all over again.

  5. I honestly do not understand
    I honestly do not understand the respect that Buckley gets. Just his voice alone is grating and pompous in the extreme. In my opinion this was a man very far removed from the basic reality of society (any society). Just check out his “interview” with Noam Chomsky on Youtube, to see the true nature of this man. A wealthy man with every advantage, he devoted his adult life to doing nothing but protecting the status quo. Rush may weep at his passing, I do not.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!