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Bich Minh Nguyen

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A bright red can of Pringles becomes magical in Bich Minh Nguyen's graceful new memoir, Stealing Buddha's Dinner (Viking/Penguin), about growing up in a refugee family in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Like everything else American, the chips are exotic to young Nguyen and her sister. "The Pringles glowed by window light, their fine curvatures nearly translucent," she writes. "So delicate, breaking into salty shards on our tongues." If only they can chomp enough American food, they might become as normal as their blond Dutch Reformed neighbors and schoolmates. The book recounts her family's escape from Saigon in 1975 on the day the city fell (she was an infant) and their subsequent assimilation in this most homogeneous small city "before ethnic was cool." Each chapter relates to food, from the Toll House cookies baked by the perfect housewife next door to the green sticky rice cakes steamed in banana leaves by Grandmother Noi, the most stable presence in Nguyen's life. In the title chapter, she steals a plum set out by her grandmother for Buddha, then realizes there would be no retribution: Buddha "had no wrath. He granted no miracles or wishes. He asked me to prove nothing," which makes him different from the Jesus her friends are trying to get her to accept. In "Salt Pork" Nguyen examines her girlhood heroines, including Laura Ingalls, Jo March, and Harriet "the Spy" Welsch, and her early bookworm tendencies hint at the writer she is to become. a Tue 2/6, 7 PM, Borders, 830 N. Michigan, 312-573-0564.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Porter Shreve.

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