three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
28-May-June-2007
user_rating: 
0

A-Stealing Buddha’s DinnerIn Bich Minh Nguyen’s memoir of growing up Vietnamese in white, Christian, and conservative Grand Rapids, Michigan, true assimilation (as she saw it as a young girl) could only be found in American cuisine. After fleeing Saigon with her family in 1975, when she was just eight months old, Nguyen attempts to become a "real" American by eating real American food—McDonald’s Happy Meals, Pringles, Cheetos, and Toll House Cookies. Such whimsy flies in the face of her grandmother’s splendid traditional fare; the steel trap her stepmother Rosa, a Mexican-American, hopes to keep around the family; and her envy for her older, more beautiful sister, Anh.
Viking. 257 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0670038326

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"The humorous anecdotes are interwoven with more serious themes of war, displacement and the mystery of Nguyen’s missing birth mother . … She’s a sensuous writer—colors and textures weave together in her work to create a living fabric." Emily Carter Roiphe

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Nguyen is a gifted storyteller who doles out humor and hurt in equal portions as she fleshes out the plight of the immigrant. … Eventually Nguyen’s twin themes of rejection and insecurity wear a bit thin." Marjorie Kehe

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While Nguyen titles each chapter with a food item, from ‘Pringles’ and ‘Toll House Cookies’ to ‘Green Sticky Rice Cakes’ and ‘Cha Gio,’ her growing pains have less to do with what she eats … than with how she copes with sibling envy, schoolmate rivalries, authoritarian figures, youthful insecurities and a nagging mystery that is another sort of ‘missingness.’" Ben Fong-Torres

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As Bich Minh Nguyen relates in her bittersweet first book … food becomes part of her yearning for Americanness, for normalcy. … It’s this premise that makes the book relevant not only to anyone who’s ever lusted after the perfect snack, but anyone who’s ever felt different." Michael Rose

Chicago Tribune 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[Nguyen] understands the evocative possibilities of language, is fearless in asserting the specificities of memories culled from early childhood and is, herself, an appealing character on the page. … [She] moves back and forth across people and events in a way that I found confusing and decelerating." Beth Kephart

Critical Summary

Bich Minh Nguyen’s humorous coming-of-age tale mines themes of loss and identity by cleverly retelling anecdotes in chapters dealing with—or gleefully obsessing over?—particular American foods. Her prose is engaging, and half the fun is reliving with her the pop culture of the 1980s. Rosa’s role as "mom"/tyrant/activist is rich and resonating, but critics were split over the effect of Nguyen’s birth mother, whose fleeting appearance is powerful but unexplained. The novel’s chronology also caused some confusion. Still, this impressive book, Nguyen’s first, won the PEN/Jerard Award and sets the stage for a much-anticipated follow-up from this professor of literature and creative writing at Purdue.