Sunday, September 21, 2014

"Kitchen Confidential" -- Tasty but Not Quite Fresh

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary UnderbellyKitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When "Kitchen Confidential" came out in 2000, bad-boy chef Anthony Bourdain scandalized the restaurant-going public with his revelations about what it's really like to cook for a living. These days, with Bourdain a familiar presence on television and his most shocking claims now common knowledge, it's a little harder to see what all the hype was about.

Bourdain can certainly write with verve. His voice is very engaging: snarky and vivid, sometimes hyperbolic, sometimes self-deprecating. But the book is weirdly organized. Partly, it's a memoir (loosely but not strictly chronological) of Bourdain's personal experiences as a chef. And partly, it's a series of short essays about different aspects of the restaurant life: lists of kitchen slang, advice for aspiring chefs, etc. I tended to find the "essay" chapters more interesting than the "memoir" chapters -- I didn't always care about Bourdain's crazy escapades, but I do care about why restaurant sauces always taste better than the sauces I make at home (hint: they use a lot of butter).

One of Bourdain's most quoted pieces of advice is not to order the fish special on a Monday, because that fish is probably several days old and past its prime. And that seems to me an apt metaphor for "Kitchen Confidential," fourteen years since its original publication. Dished up by a talented chef, parts of it are pretty tasty. But it isn't quite fresh.

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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"To Say Nothing of the Dog" -- Catnip in Book Form

Does anyone else find it odd that Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love and Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog -- two works that both make several allusions to Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat -- came out within one year of one another, in 1997 and 1998, respectively? What was going on in the space-time continuum in the late '90s to make that happen?

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh my goodness, this book is wonderful. It reads like Tom Stoppard and A.S. Byatt had a love child and then brought that baby up on a diet of classic screwball comedies (including Bringing Up Baby). It’s a time-travel story whose romantic elements are sweet and charming, rather than tragically tear-jerking. It will even appeal to both cat-lovers and dog-lovers.

I read To Say Nothing of the Dog during a difficult and stressful time in my life, and I couldn’t imagine a more congenial companion. The mystery is absorbing, but the overall tone is lighthearted. I could tell that nothing really bad would happen to the characters and that there’d be a happy ending, even if I couldn’t predict how all the threads would come together.

And there are a lot of threads: Victorian decor; literary allusions; discussions of historical causality; the Nazi fire-bombing of Coventry Cathedral; human and animal behavior; the stability, or lack thereof, of the space-time continuum; and plenty of comic hijinks and wry asides. The protagonist, time-traveling historian Ned Henry, is a likable fellow who nonetheless makes for an amusingly unreliable narrator, at least when he’s suffering from “time-lag” in the first part of the book.

To Say Nothing of the Dog tends to be shelved in the sci-fi section of the bookstore, and the paperback boasts ugly, incomprehensible cover art. Which means there’s a chance that readers who don’t consider themselves “sci-fi fans” may overlook this book, and that’s a shame. If you’re a nerdy Anglophile who appreciates obscure history and wishes you had a time machine so you could go back to the past and look around – something that describes many of my friends – you will love this book.

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