Friday, August 31, 2018
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When you think about disgusting behavior you also often start to think about risky behavior. By eating or drinking things that might be contaminated or by risking social ostracism through the flouting of the polite rules of society, you are putting yourself on the line, you are risking serious illness or excommunication from your group. But if you can take such risks and survive them, you are showing others that you have special qualities.
Bourdain is a very clever and fluent writer and his vivid prose style alternates between confessional narrative and an industry commentary, providing insight along with humorous anecdotes on the cooking trade, from his years of experience in the industry.
The books life actually began as an article in The New Yorker entitled 'Don't Eat Before Reading This', which served as the foundation for Kitchen Confidential and catapulted the brash Bourdain to celebrity status, spawning a 2005 Fox series starring Bradley Cooper and two long-running cable series hosted by the real Bourdain: Travel Channel's No Reservations (2005-12) and CNN's Parts Unknown, which began in 2013.
When Kitchen Confidential was first published, The Times gave it a rave review, saying that “Bourdain gleefully rips through the scenery to reveal private backstage horrors little dreamed of by the trusting public” and describing his style as a mishmash of Hunter S. Thompson, Iggy Pop and Jonathan Swift.
But what really makes Bourdain's writing sing for me is his complete understanding that food is not a subject for aesthetes. It's a belly thing, not a head thing.
Bourdain also has a tender side to him, and it peeks through his rough exterior and the wall of four-letter words he constructs, and elevates the book to something more than a blustery memoir.
One of the best jobs I ever had was working as a short order cook in a local diner. Not because it paid well or because it was glamorous, but because I genuinely enjoyed it. It was fun. I loved the pace, the food, the smells, even the arguments with the staff. I felt alive while I was there and I can tell you with certainty that everything Bourdain describes is true: every sordid, scandalous, wonderful, funny, creative, and amazing bit of it. It's the kind of life that leaves you with literal and figurative scars that will never heal. The grill instilled in me some painfully, loaded, duplicitous lessons. Lessons which I myself am still finding useful to this day.
This is the culinary life. The life you choose, the life you love. It doesn't matter if you’re white, black, yellow, gay, or straight, a man or a woman. The only thing that matters in the kitchen is if you can pull your own weight.
Tuesday, August 21, 2018
A Short History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America by Mark Caldwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Beware the moralists of manners, the self-appointed defenders of civility who offer to regulate every day behavior with the authority of a lawgiver. Behind it, however well it may be meant, lurks the urge to control, to punish, to make ourselves part of the “good” class and to brand anyone who fails to conform as a brute.
Values are always somebody’s values and modern politesse has more to do with schmoozing and perceived social status than fretting over which fork to use at dinner.
These type of rules have nothing to do with good or bad behavior - they are essentially just "class indicators.”
But there is a big difference, in my opinion, between these “class” indicators and rudeness, a very important difference.
Just because someone is lacking in manners doesn't mean that they've been rude. For example, someone who buys you a wedding gift that isn’t on your registry, may be violating some rule of etiquette, but rude is showing up to the wedding empty-handed and making a loud announcement that since you're likely to be divorced within a year the attendant didn't bother to buy you anything at all.
So in this vein the book isn't really about rudeness as much as it's about class, or rather class systems that are still at play in America and how different classes of people interact with one another and the rules that govern those interactions.
Debates about manners have always acted as a good excuse for indulging our eternal obsession with class, while pretending to be talking about something else.
Etymologically, “etiquette” means “ticket” and people have always tried to use etiquette as a forged passport to worlds they didn’t belong in.
But there is no social mobility any longer. We experience the sensation of social movement only because the system of classes itself is unstable, perpetually realigning itself beneath us.
Class of some kind is the very mold in which civility is cast and etiquette represents the very essence of caste, since the prestige of a superior always involves the respect of an inferior.
Bosses, for example, can be seen as rulers; workers, however deftly soothed, are inferiors. Bosses may behave considerately, but when they do, workers owe them deferential gratitude. We call this manners or etiquette, but what is it really?
We need to look no further than ourselves for the cause of confusion over manners. For we ourselves haven’t fully decided whether civility is true liberation or genteel slavery.
People also seem to think that the deepest essence of rudeness is somehow epitomized in their latest brush with it, and brusquely dismiss competing definitions of what rudeness even consists of.
Chuck Klosterman writing in, I Wear the Black Hat, summarizes our situation succinctly, “Most of what we classify as “niceness” is effortlessly fake. When I walk into a convenience store and give the kid behind the counter two dollars for a $1.50 bottle of Gatorade, I say thanks when he gives me my change. But what am I thankful for? He’s just doing his job, and the money he returns is mine. The kid behind the counter likewise says thanks to me, but I have done nothing to warrant his gratitude; I wanted something in the store and paid him exactly what it cost. It’s not like he brewed the Gatorade or invented the brand. I didn’t select his particular store for any reason beyond proximity, and he doesn’t own the building or the franchise. From either perspective, the relationship is no different from that of a human and a vending machine. We only say “thank you” to be seen as nice. We secretly know that being seen as nice is the same as being nice in actuality. If you present yourself as a nice person, that becomes the prism for how your other actions are judged. The deeper motives that drive you can only be questioned by those who know you exceptionally well, and (most of the time) not even by them. If you act nice, you’re nice. That’s the whole equation. Nobody cares why you say thank you. Nobody is supposed to care; weirdly, this is something we’re never supposed to question. It’s impractical to incessantly interrogate the veracity of every stranger who seems like a blandly nice citizen. It’s rude. Until proven otherwise, we just accept goodness at face value.”
Good manners are related to morals, just not in the way we generally think. The link is far more deceptive, sinuous, and complicated than is usually admitted by those who yearn to restore some hypothetical lost bond between civility and ethics.
In short, I like the idea behind the book much more than it’s execution. The pace was slow and the writing was dry and lifeless. More attention was paid to style than substance, and the extensive vocabulary that Caldwell deploys, whilst it often fits, sometimes feels forced, especially when there are plenty of perfectly suitable, better known alternatives available. In this way it would seem he didn’t really know whom his target audience was or in fact should be. I’m not actually sure either. It did pick up a little towards the end but the rest seemed to be at pains to gradually get me to return it to the shelf.
Sunday, August 19, 2018
What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire by Charles Bukowski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There is very little left original to say about Charles Bukowski anymore.
Bukowski is that type of writer who takes you deep into the raw, wild vein of writing and for me, one who exists at the intersection between the touching and the haunting.
He is one of the most influential and imitated poets America has ever produced and his poems are executed with all the boldness and audacity of a German expressionist painter.
You don't even really need to be intimately familiar with his world of seedy bars, vulgar whores, sketchy hotels, and the harsh Los Angeles sun to know where he is coming from. His poems are permeated with such sheer, exacting, even frightening, beauty, that anyone can relate to them. Such as the heartbreaking poem “no title" featured here in its entirety:
shot to hell,
all these small faces
beautiful and believing;
I wish to weep
but sorrow is stupid.
I wish to believe
but belief is a
we have narrowed it down to
the butcherknife and the
The very essence of his poetry derives from his aims at chronicling nothing more than the impulse to make poetry. It’s gestation made visible, the often awkward attempt to have something exist and exist uniquely.
Sunday, August 12, 2018
Sorority by Genevieve Sly Crane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It’s easy to blame younger generations for not being adults in the way they are supposed to be.
You’re supposed to have become something by the time you leave college. It’s one of the only reasons people still enroll. There’s a promise attached to the end of a degree.
But a university, for all its wonder, has become an anachronism, with many jagged edges grinding against each other at all times, while students try and maneuver through the gaps.
So in this way Sorority offers us a strange sort of deliverance, one that’s bursting with sharp insight, all the while unearthing the contradictions of our western cultural narratives.
Sorority doesn’t have a conventional plot or structure. It’s been described by other reviewers as a “stand alone story collection” but really it’s a series of variations on a theme. That theme being one of tragedy, or rather the bleakness of tragedy as it’s foisted upon a lost generation, consequently my generation.
In every Greek myth, tragedy was unavoidable which made it one of the most important genres of all the Greek dramas.
Tragedy dealt with the big themes of love, loss, pride, the abuse of power and the fraught relationships between men and gods. Typically the main protagonist of a tragedy commits some terrible crime without realizing how foolish and arrogant he has been. Then, as he slowly realizes his error, the world crumbles around him.
Margot’s death serves that purpose. Her death fractures the consciousness of an entire community into a before and an after. Which is how we remember, or rather how we structure, the narratives of our lives. All the major events in our lives, death, marriage, even losing our virginity, are broken up into a before and an after, and each sister seems to meditate upon this structure. This is what makes Sorority so poignant and important. It isn’t the tackling of issues that we would normally expect to find on a college campus but rather the unflinching look at the way each sister views their own transition into adulthood, that makes the book so important.
However, when you come to the end of Sorority you will not find a happy ending, or really, any ending. What you will find is the sudden urge to dive in and read it all over again, because stories like these get under your skin and never quite leave you alone again, resonating from a place that’s often left unarticulated.
What this book seems to suggest is that maturity, as we understand it, is about looking at the things that give our lives meaning and then simply having the courage to stand behind them, even though they are in fact empty. Each individual getting to decide what story to tell themselves, or whether they will even tell one at all.