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Monday, January 01, 2007

Otis' 2007 Reading List and Mini Book Reviews

While you may not care so much what I'm reading in 2007, I do. My time to read has been cut back quite a bit in recent years, so I'm sticking with stuff that's either been recommended to me or I already know to be good. This list will be updated as the year goes along.

In the can

Kitchen Confidential
Anthony Bourdain

I'll admit, as a guy who spent more of his time at the Broadway Diner than the local five star joints, I found Bourdain by way of "No Reservations" on the Travel Channel. I quickly became an addict and often remarked to the wife how good the writing was. Go figure. Not only is Bourdain an accomplished chef and world traveler, he's also a novelist and writes one helluva good memoir. Even more, the guy writes the way I like to write--the way I want to write. Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant, eaten in a restaurant, or walked by a restaurant should read this book. It's a culinary version of the best sex, drugs, and rock and roll party you remember. [With thanks to Absinthe for the recommendation.]

The Making of a Chef
Michael Ruhlman

After reading Anthony Bourdain, the switch to Ruhlman was a bit of a jar. That said, while Ruhlman lacks the grit and sexiness that Bourdain offers, he makes up for it with great prose and a keen writer's ear for detail. I'm a huge fan of participatory journalism and Ruhlman has a real talent for it. Where Bourdain's kitchen tales are a memoir, Rulhman simply reports the story from within. After I read Bourdain, I said, "I'll never own a restaurant." After reading Rulhman, I said, "I'll never go to cooking school." This isn't because either are bad choices. However, both writers showed me it takes more than a love of food to be a success in either endeavor.

The best thing about this book is that, while reporting on what could be a very dry subject, Ruhlman found a way to impart some serious life philosophy. There were four or five times in the book in which I stopped and thought, "Damn, that is what life is all about."

One particular sentence in the book pretty much sums up the whole thing: "To know a mountain, you don't take a helicopter to the top and look down at it; you start at the bottom and climb up..." That is not only what participatory journalism is all about. That is what most of life is about. [With thanks to Absinthe for the recommendation...and the book.]

Arthur Nersesian

I know a lot of people in New York. Only one of them has taken me on a tour of 12 bars in the Village and kept notes so we would remember where we'd been. This book was a Christmas gift from that man, Pauly. "Dogrun" is probably not a book I would've picked up for myself, but it's one I enjoyed regardless. Set in the East Village, it's told through the the eyes of a wanna-be writer/slacker woman named Mary Bellanova. The book is equally absurd, depressing, and hilarious. In short, it's based on the premise that Bellanova comes home to find her slacker boyfriend dead in front of the TV. What she ends up learning about him and herself is enough to make you wonder why you bother trusting people, and conversely, why you don't let people love you despite your inability to trust. Thanks for the read, Doc.

George Saunders

My copy of this book, a gift from Absinthe, is peppered with blurbs of praise. The reviewers used up every word for good in the thesaurus. I've been working to come up with a superlative of my own to adequately praise this book of stories. I can't do it. I can only say this: Imagine if someone recorded your every private thought, from the mundane to the fantastical and then printed it out for everyone to read. Saunders is so in touch with the human condition, it makes his stories really fucking funny, really fucking sad, and sometimes--because they hit close to home--really fucking hard to read (put that on a dust jacket, marketing guy). Saunders understands one thing better than most people--real life is boring, but that's where we all live. It's drama we understand. You may be entertained by other writers, but they will not be able to make you feel like Saunders can. Because, mostly, he's writing about you, me, and everybody else we know.

Jeremy Scahill

This book was a mid-list addition to the reading line-up for the year. Jeremy Scahill, a writer for the Nation, tells story of the rise of one of America's biggest security companies. And by "security companies," I mean mercenary firms and war profiteers. Blackwater was a small firm with big connections among the neoconservative movement. With the help of high-ranking members of the Republican establishment, Blackwater turned itself into a multi-national firm with the ability to secure huge no-bid contracts in Iraq and the surrounding area. Scahill hits on a subject about which we should all be very concerned--the formation of a huge civilian army inside America's borders...one that has actually deployed on American soil. While the book was interesting and informative, it suffers from the same problem as a lot of left-leaning books and documentaries. It spends too much time going after the easily-targeted Bush administration. This look at Blackwater could've been an easy indictment of all that's wrong with America right now. And for people who already hate the Bushies, it will be just that. However, with a blurb on the dust jacket from Michael Moore, Blackwater going to alienate the people who really need to know these stories. Someday the hard-left will realize that it needs to spend less time preaching to the choir and start figuring out ways to bring more people inside the tent. I walked in willingly and have chosen to stay. However, there are a lot of people (me included, actually) who see Michael Moore on the marquee and just sigh. Still, if you've spent the past four years thinking "private contractors in Iraq" are people building oil pipelines, you need to read this book or one like it. It is, in a word, scary.

Sick Puppy
Carl Hiaasen

Whenever I'm feeling like my reading has gotten a little heavy or I need a dose of the absurd, I turn to Carl Hiaasen. I actually discovered the misfit environmentalist later that everybody else in the reading world. So, I've been going backward over the years, starting with Skinny Dip and hopscotching backward. For some reason, I had avoided Sick Puppy (I think it had something to do with my dog being sick at the time I first thought about picking up the book). Regardless, this book is a must for any Hiaasen fan and includes many of the characters you'll see in later books. Next time you're headed for the airport or the beach, pick this one up for a couple laughs.

Bigger Deal
Anthony Holden

I've read just about every poker book ever written, or, at least, all the good ones and most of the bad ones. "Bigger Deal" is Anthony Holden's follow-up to his timeless poker narrative "Big Deal." That book made me want to write about poker for a living. Since I entered the poker world, I've been fortunate enough to meet Holden. After a back-room game, a couple of meals, and many a table-side conversation with him, I feel comfortable calling him Tony now. Although you won't find me in the book, I played an ever-so-small role in Holden's adventures as he compiled the stories for this book. Holden was part of the old poker world and knew when the Texas Hold'em revolution took place in 2003, it was due time for him to update his first book. The result was much better than he or I thought it would be. If you know anything about poker and want to see how the new poker world operates, you should given Holden's newest book a read.

Richard Bachman (Stephen King)

I figure Stephen King was the guy responsible for turning me into a reader. I wanted to be a writer before I started reading seriously. After I picked up "Carrie," I never stopped reading King. Although literary types never give King much credit for his work, there are few people who can tell such a good story and paint such great pictures without turning into high-minded literary types. I think there are maybe two or three King books I haven't read. Those came out in the past few years when my interests were elsewhere. Still, family members know that buying the latest King book for me will always be appreciated. I didn't even know King was releasing "Blaze." It was an old manuscript he'd written back during his Richard Bachman days. He pulled it out and toyed with it a little bit and then gave it to us. It's a really quick read about a couple of con men and a scheme to kidnap the baby of a rich family. I won't claim it was anywhere close to my favorite King or Bachman work, but it was entertaining. Don't make it the first book you pick up this summer, but if you have the time and like King, you will enjoy getting a look at King's writing mind before he became the master of horror he is today.

Nasty Bits
Anthony Bourdain

Damn, I love Tony Bourdain. Apart from the one-time heroin addiction (his, not mine) we share a list of interests that is long and sloppy. "Nasty Bits" is a collection of magazine pieces and such that Bourdain has collected since "Kitchen Confidential" and "No Reservations" made him famous. If there's any problem with Bourdain is that he used to be a renegade and now it's cool to call yourself a fan. So, I was late to the party, which is a damned shame, because Bourdain is one helluva writer. He eschews celebrity and would be much happier drinking in a dive bar than being on TV. It's not an act, near as I can tell. He seems to write honestly and appreciates his talent. I've said it before, an I'll say it again. If I could be Bourdain, I probably would be. As for "Nasty Bits," it was going to be hard for Bourdain to top "Kitchen Confidential." I don't think he or anybody else expected "Nasty Bits" to be the next "KC." Instead, it's just some short, honest, varied essays, with some sometimes absolutely brilliant writing. Don't start here if you've never read Bourdain, but if you're a fan, be sure to pick it up.

Looking For Jake
China Mieville

The last in a batch of holiday gifts from Absinthe, Looking for Jake is the type of book that makes you long for the days when the Cold War was a little chillier. That is, back in the days when the end didn't seem so close and the ugliness that surrounds it didn't seem so much like a real possibility. Mieville is one scary SOB when it comes to writing about the darker recesses of our imagination. Few writers can so well put you in a place that doesn't exist and make you believe it's real. While I hadn't read Perdido Street Station and some of the references were lost on me, this book of short tales is downright spooky in its storylines and beautiful in the construction. If someday I write half as well as Mieville, I'll be happy.

A Dirty Job: A Novel
Christopher Moore

Who makes death funny? Chistopher Moore, that's who. If you are among the six or seven people who hasn't started reading Moore yet, do yourself a favor and start today. Ready his entire library, then start over from the beginning. Even if you're like me and not a big fantasy nut, you'll appreciate how perfecly Moore weaves life's greater themes into his one-of-kind comedy. In this book, an antiques dealer up and finds he is the Grim Reaper. Or at least what he thinks at first. Trying to figure out exactly what his duties are is tough, even when you don't consider he is a new father with a very unique child. Set in San Francisco, this book quickly became one of my favorite Moore books. Sweet, sad, hilarious, and sometimes a little scary. If you want his best, check out Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal.

On Deck

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Kitchen Confidential; it made me almost wish I would have paid attention to the (very) short-lived television show of the same name. And you're right - Bourdain is one hell of a writer - although his follow-up - The Nasty Bits is very much a mixed bag.

I think you'll really enjoy The Making of a Chef as well. Not as gritty as Kitchen Confidential, but it's an interesting look at where a writer stops merely covering the story and actually becomes a part of it.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Irritable Male Syndrome said...

Weird- I just read(less than 5 minutes ago) Bourdain's take on the Food Network via Ruhlman's blog.

2:35 PM  

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