Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with his dogs. I particularly enjoyed his collected columns, which are published in Fun Run and Other Oxymorons and Bedside Lovers (and other goats), and he's also written a couple of enjoyable travel books covering New Zealand and the UK.
Where Underpants Come from: From Checkout to Cotton Field - Travels Through the New China starts with the author buying a five-pack of 'Made in China' underpants, along with a sixth pair for "special occasions", in his local New Zealand branch of The Warehouse for just $8.59. This prompts him to wonder how anyone could be making a profit on a product that has had to travel half way around the world to get to him. To learn more, he decides to track back his new pants to their source and embarks on trips to China and Thailand to try to trace the manufacturing process of these pants.
As well as visiting, and describing, several factories in China, he also covers some of the history that has helped the country become a world economic superpower. This did help to place the journey Joe was taking into economic context however also made this book feel a bit different to his usual work. Whilst interesting there was not as much gentle observational skill and humour in this book as I have found in his previous ones.
This book was at its best when he is describing the people he meets, the views he is seeing and his (very amusing) experiences of ordering food and attempting to master chopsticks. Joe Bennett comes across in his columns as having a very keen eye for human foibles and is able to handle writing about genuine emotion with great skill. Where this comes through in this book (if you've read it, I am thinking about his trip to Thailand here) it's an absolute delight to share his journey with him however when he switched to "teacher mode" his personality got lost and that's a shame.
I was delighted to track down the photos featuring Joe in his pants in a Chinese cotton field, as demanded by his publishers and humorously described in his book and, if you are feeling up to it, you can see them here and here!