It seems like everybody and her brother has read and reviewed this memoir, but I only completed it last week, and it left me charged enough to want to write about it here, so that, in and of itself, makes it more successful than my first book of the year, Richard Russo’s Straight Man, which, while clever, very little actually seems to happen.
I nearly forgot to pack a book for my trip early last week, and right before S. had to drive me to the airport I found myself examining my shelves, trying to discern what I was in the mood to read. S. grabbed Bourdain’s book and shoved it in my hands. “It’s an easy plane read,” he said. “And it’s very fun.” Good enough for me. He was right – I completed the book during my two day trip, and I found it utterly readable and entertaining. As I noted above, it left me with a lot to say, so I think for the sake of some organization I’m just going to bullet-point the rest of this review:
* On Memoir – I spent a LOT of time in graduate school discussing the various merits of memoir – who should write one, does good language transcend story-telling, is memoir a valid literary form, how do we keep from coming across as self-indulgent if we want to write memoir, etc. etc. I also spent a LOT of time reading memoirs, and in my opinion Kitchen Confidential is one of the most successful memoirs I’ve read. It deals primarily with Bourdain’s experiences in kitchens throughout his life, working through one particular prism. The woman at the airport last week who wanted to know about his wife? Well, maybe that’s for ANOTHER memoir, but Nancy had little place in this book. Bourdain sticks closely to his subject matter, shows the reader a glimpse of a life and lifestyle they know little about, and he educates his reader on a subject matter while doing so. Bam, successful memoir.
* On Language – While much of the memoir is made up of cursing, Bourdain writes some truly beautiful passages. One of my favorites comes in the chapter entitled “The Level Of Discourse” where Bourdain reflects on why he so loves the hodge-podge language of the kitchen. This paragraph, in particular, moved me:
I wallow in it. Just like all the other sounds in my life: the hiss and clatter and sprayof the dishwasher, the sizzle as a fillet of fish hits a hot pan, the loud, yelping noise – almost a shriek- as a glowing sizzle-platter is droped into a full pot sink, the pounding of the meat mallet on a cote de boeuf, the smack as finished plates hit the “window.” The goads, curses, insultts and taunts of my wildy profane crew are likepoetry to me, beautiful at times, each tiny variation on a classic theme like some Beat-era jazz riff…
*On educating the reader: I will never ever ever in my wildest dreams ever order swordfish or hollandaise sauce (even if A. tells me it’s safe). As much as possible, I will restrict my dining to Tuesday-Thursday. I want to one a chef’s knife. I never have ordered my beef anything but medium rare, so I’m okay there, I think. I will never order off a special menu again (although my brother says his restaurant doesn’t work in this manner,and coming up with specials in his kitchen is a point of pride, having everything to do with the excitement of creating a new menu and nothing to do with trying to get rid of old food, so I will order specials at his restaurant). I’m a little disgusted, though, that taking a sick day is seen as so horrible, because while I understand the kitchen can’t function if one person goes missing, it’s sort of gross to think of all those sick people around food. I feel like a fool for adoring Sunday brunch as I do, but as with the disgusting story about mussels, I don’t think I will forsake it. For some things, life is too short.
*On empathy – My brother co-owns an Italian restaurant in Pittsburgh. While Bourdain’s book makes relentless fun of owners, I think he would approve of my brother’s style of management, which is to be there ALL OF THE TIME. Last week I told him while I always knew he worked hard, I didn’t really GET his job until I read this book – didn’t fully understand why he forced the hours he put in. I never not respected my brother – I adore him – but I understand him more, after reading this book.
* On the Hemingway factor – I don’t necessarily think Bourdain tries to glamorize his drug use, although it can’t help but come across that way in places, but the one thing that struck me most about this book is how it captures the spirit of writers like Thompson and Hemingway – that free-spirited, adventure-seeking, come-what-may spirit. In graduate school, at least, in graduate school for writing, one comes across many many male writers who desperately want to not only write like Hemingway, but become him. Hemingway seems to have somehow captured the imaginations of every writer that has come since and it can be infuriating, sometimes, to sit in a class and read yet another reference to white elephants, but I admit in my twenties I much too hastily dismissed his influence over writers. I’m not sure if this is a gender thing or not, but I can say this: while I admire Bourdain’s book, there is not one single aspect of his life that I covet – not one. I prefer safety and order and following the rules and I honestly don’t think I could live Bourdain’s life for one day. BUT. His lifestyle certainly appealed to the men I spoke with at the airport – and it certainly appealed to other men I know….the traveling, the eating, the drinking, the smoking, the company of other men who are traveling, eating, drinking, smoking and swearing with you – well, there’s something there.
Yesterday I spent some time after my writing group perusing the bookstore in search of my new read. I looked for Joe Hill’s Heart Shaped Box but couldn’t find it anywhere. I then considered Alice McDermott’s That Night, but it seemed too slender for what I was looking to read. I finally settled on Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and even after the first couple chapters I can tell I’m going to love it. Just the way he uses language is remarkable, but even without that already there is a dead body and an insomniac policeman. Good stuff.