Monday, February 11, 2008

No Reservations (Anthony Bourdain)

Anthony Bourdain does not have kind words for vegetarians. Yet I like him. I think that says a lot about him (or maybe it says a lot about me). He can explain his rationale clearly: Most of the world does not have the option to eat a vegetarian diet, and when visiting these people, you will disgrace your guests by refusing the food they, who are often very poor, have prepared in your honor. (He has the same argument when it comes to the local liquor of choice.) Food unites people.

Bourdain's life has changed immensely since he first published Kitchen Confidential, which many considered to be an expose of the restaurant world. Since then, he has written many other books, and now has his second television show, No Reservations, which is on the Travel Channel. (He does not have the kindest of words for the Food Network, which was the home of his first show, A Cook's Tour.) He loves his job, and rightfully so. No Reservations goes where he wants. It's a small production crew (only five at most working on a shoot), and if a planned scene goes bad, they ditch it and see what else they can find. He does not have to take a bite of food and smile through his teeth for the camera if he doesn't like it. He does, however, often get invited to dance by the locals, something I'm sure the production crew loves because it always provides good television. (He hates dancing, looks incredibly awkward, and has on his sheepish smile the entire time.)

Bourdain's book No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach is a nice supplement to the television series. Bourdain's quick to point out in the introduction that he's "done [his] very best not to make this some cynical, cheap-ass 'companion' book to the series, filled---as those things so often are--with excerpts from voice-over scripts, a few maps, and a bunch of blurry photos taken from the show." The photographs featured are taken by the production crew on location for the Travel Channel website.

If you've watched the series, the book will remind you of some of the show's greatest moments. Each country's section has an introductory text, providing background information on the logistics of the shoot, followed by beautiful photographs. If you haven't seen the show but are a Bourdain fan, this will probably get you started watching. It's a good book to have around, for guests to flip through (though you may want to put the book on a shelf around dinnertime if you have guests who prefer not to see photographs of dead animals waiting to become dinner).

Bourdain is known to have quite the mouth. He's had words for the Food Network, for Emeril, for Rachael Ray, among others. But what I really like about him is that while he speaks his mind, he's also the first to point out when he's wrong or when his opinions have changed (e.g., Emeril can actually cook, Bourdain has noted, and is really a nice guy). Even though many people may find him abrasive, what you see is honestly what he is, and that rings true in this book.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Like You'd Understand, Anyway (Jim Shepard)

I do love me some Jim Shepard. Batting Against Castro and Love and Hydrogen (which also includes nine of the fourteen stories from the now out-of-print Batting Against Castro) are two of my favorite story collections, period, and I ordered Like You’d Understand, Anyway pretty much as soon as I heard about it. If you haven’t read him before, here’s as good a place to start as any. You won’t be disappointed.

Short stories aren’t usually known for being research-intensive, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Shepard: in his acknowledgments, he lists about sixty articles and books as research sources for these eleven stories. He’s always been drawn to historical material and fictional representations of real people or real events from the past—“Batting Against Castro,” about two journeyman American baseball players in Cuba in 1951; “Nosferatu” (later expanded into Nosferatu), F. W. Murnau’s diary of making his most famous film; “Love and Hydrogen,” about two men trying to hide their homosexuality on board the Hindenburg; and what his agent evidently refers to as his Libel Cycle, including stories told from the point of view of John Ashcroft and John Entwhistle, just to name a few—and Like You’d Understand expands on that fascination. Stories here (all first person) are narrated variously by Boris Prushinsky, the chief engineer at Chernobyl; an ineffectual Roman soldier stationed at Hadrian’s Wall; Ernst Schäfer, a German zoologist ostensibly exploring Tibet to further Nazi understanding of the Aryan race while really pursuing a quixotic quest for the yeti; a relentless British explorer of the nineteenth-century Australian outback; a middle-aged Aeschylus preparing to take up arms at the Battle of Marathon; Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space; and Charles-Henri Sanson, the chief executioner of Paris during the Reign of Terror. (Several stories from Love and Hydrogen would have fit seamlessly here—“Descent into Perpetual Night,” for example, told by William Beebe, a naturalist who made the first manned deep-sea exploration in a bathysphere.) It also includes a few more straightforward stories: domestic strife in “Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian,” two star high-school football players in “Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak” (which called to mind the adrenaline-fueled jet pilot of “Who We Are, What We’re Doing” in Batting Against Castro), a teenager at summer camp in “Courtesy for Beginners.”

Given all the research that went into them, the stories naturally have a great breadth and depth of detail to them, but it’s the humanity of the voices that makes them sing—characters striving to live up to their fathers’ expectations, to navigate the complex obligations of family, to make sense of the precarious worlds they find themselves in, to understand their own hearts and the hearts of others. In that sense, the historicity is almost beside the point: these are stories of unusual people in extraordinary circumstances, but also rooted in profoundly ordinary human yearnings.

P.S. Memo to Knopf marketing department: I’m glad this was a National Book Award finalist, and I hope the round, shiny stickers you put on here help sell more copies of this excellent collection. However, I don’t like round, shiny stickers on my books. So it would be good if, in the future, you could use stickers that don’t leave behind a sticky residue that, when you try to clean it off, ends up taking part of the cover off with it. Boooo.