Category Archives: memoir

Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw

I listened to two Anthony Bourdain books this year, both read by the author. The first one was Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook and the second was Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

As you probably know, Kitchen Confidential was the book that made Bourdain famous and the one that was probably the most shocking. Of the two, I liked it less.

I didn’t dislike it because of the content – the content was just fine. It was Bourdain reading it. He sounded monotone and kind of bored, and you think that maybe he recorded this book back before he’d really mastered his public persona. He does a 180 in Medium Raw, during which he sounds lively, funny, and engaged in what he’s reading.

A lot of people don’t like Anthony Bourdain. A lot of people see him as one of those guys who never grew out of the smart ass, teenage bad boy thing. He acts like he’s a badass but you don’t really believe him. They say he’s angry, and he can be vulgar and brutal. I always just thought he was being honest.

I’ve always liked his style. He’s gruff and says some wacky stuff from time to time, but Bourdain, to me, is very cool, and he’s cool because he doesn’t care what you think. He doesn’t care if he’s cool, if you think he’s cool, or what you think about him either way. He is what he is and he does what he does, and that kind of honesty and self-assuredness, is the coolest thing anyone can possibly achieve.

Both books are similar – stories of Bourdain’s time in kitchens, how the industry worked, in Medium Raw he talks about what’s changed about the industry since he wrote Kitchen Confidential, etc…

I found both books funny, but Medium Raw funnier, because Bourdain’s sense of humor about himself is on full display. He did it in Kitchen Confidential, too, but it was different. It’s easy to make fun of yourself as a goofy kid just out of college who thinks he’s really cool. It’s much harder to make fun of yourself as an adult who is supposed to be taking himself and his career very seriously.

Medium Raw also torches the Food TV industrial complex that has emerged in the last 20 or so years. That book actually came out in 2010, so Bourdain was criticizing actual chefs who had never worked in restaurants. As someone who really used to enjoy watching those chefs Bourdain made fun of on Food Network, I have to say that in 2018, Food Network kinda sucks now. They used to have actual TV personality chefs making things for most of their programming. Now we mostly watch food based reality TV shows, which are kind of interesting sometimes but mostly bore me to tears. I used to love turning Food Network on during the holidays and see what people used to make their own holidays special. Now it’s just, like, sad people competing to see who can build the biggest most structurally sound gingerbread house.

Sorry, tangent. My point is, I get where Bourdain is coming from even if he caught a lot of shit for it (and he DID catch a lot of shit for it).

I found Bourdain’s stream-of-consciousness style both endearing and conversational, writing the way most of us talk (although without maybe using so many F-bombs). I liked the stories. I know from these books that I could never work in a kitchen, so that is one regret I don’t have to suffer.

Plus, I’m a fairly adventurous eater. I’m not Bourdain’s level of adventurous (I enjoy his TV shows as well, although I don’t watch them often), but it’s nice to hear about food from someone who knows about food. If it wasn’t for him, I probably never would have tried oysters (which I now love) because I just didn’t know what to do with them.

The bottom line is that both books were enjoyable food-centric memoirs. And who doesn’t love food-centric stuff?

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Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story

I don’t remember where I picked up Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story. Probably at Barnes & Noble. But I do remember why I picked it up. Our intelligence agencies have been under attack, particularly by Donald Trump, since before he was elected president. And I wanted to have a better idea of what happened at the CIA and got the opportunity.

The author, Jack Devine, worked for the CIA from the 1960s through the 1990s and now runs some kind of “security” company – which sounds like a fancy spy agency, when he describes what his new company does. He says that although he retired in 1999, he could probably have a tail on somebody faster than just about anyone else in the world. I thought this was slightly outlandish, but now I believe him.

Devine started as someone who worked in the CIA equivalent of the mail room and who rose through the ranks to become a high ranking executive. Among other things, he ran covert ops on at least three continents, lived abroad with his wife and children, and knew Aldrich Ames, one of the biggest traitors in the history of the CIA and in modern American history.

The book was fascinating. I read this one. It took me about a month because of wedding planning, but it isn’t a very long book and should be considered a must read of contemporary American history.

Devine recounts for readers how the CIA worked while he was there, and his recipes for “good hunting” – running successful spy operations that endanger as few people as possible while also gathering the most useful possible information from the most reliable sources possible. Devine details how he built relationships with his informants, how the agency operated during his time there, and what he viewed as his and his colleagues’ successes and failures during his career.

Devine also goes into what he believes are problems with the agency now, the biggest being that the emphasis of gathering intelligence has been placed on the backburner and that the CIA is involved in too many paramilitary operations and the jobs that they used to do – meeting people, gathering information and cultivating reliable sources – have been given to the military, who don’t do as good a job because they aren’t trained to do that job. The CIA has also been ensnared bureaucracy and, of late, has been highly politicized.

As interesting as the book was, I had to read it with some grains of salt. Devine worked for the CIA, and still thinks quite highly of it. Everything he says could be lies and considering it’s his legacy, he has plenty of reasons to lie.

That said, I don’t think he’s lying. I think he may sanitize some of the harsher truths and the role he played in some of the stuff that went on, but I don’t think he’s lying outright. I could be entirely wrong, of course, but he strikes me as a man of integrity. He never once calls himself a patriot, but I would call him one. He does call his colleagues patriots, and with few exceptions, thinks very highly of them, even when he disagreed with them either politically or with the actions they chose doing their jobs. It was very refreshing not to hear someone trashing their colleagues left, right, and sideways for attention.

Lastly, some of the good writing in this book is clearly attributed to cowriter Vernon Loeb, who is a professional writer. Props for that.

I highly recommend Good Hunting. Part memoir, part history lesson, I thought it was a well written, highly educational, and very enjoyable read for anyone interested in the inner-workings of the CIA.

On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the most interesting, well spoken men I’ve heard in our time, so when I saw On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance in the audiobook library, I realized that this interesting, well spoken man had a book that combined some of my favorite things:

+ his interesting, well spoken point of view
+ New York City
+ the Jazz Age
+ jazz itself
+ art & culture

And so, naturally, I checked it out and started listening.

This was a particularly enjoyable hybrid book. Part memoir and part history book, Jabbar took us on his journey as a kid, born Lew Alcindor, to fit in, and find himself through the prior work of other African Americans.

One of my favorite parts of the Harlem Renaissance is jazz. It was a pleasure listening to Jabbar go through the clubs in Harlem, the music, the musicians, and the dancing of the time period.  I wish I could have heard Duke Ellington and Lena Horne at The Cotton Club, and while I find the ‘whites only’ restriction of the era absolutely repulsive, exploiting the talent of black Americans for money by catering only to white American audiences, to hear that kind of talent? What an amazing opportunity.

Jabbar also spoke about Zora Neale Hurston (author of, most notably, Their Eyes Were Watching God), Langston Hughes (one of my favorite poets and one of the poets I studied during a project in high school), Louis Armstrong, and the Harlem Globetrotters, among others. I loved hearing especially about Hughes.

Also: Jabbar gets into how blacks ended up in Harlem in the first place (hint: they were forced out of other areas of the city), so yes, he also went into politics and legal issues black Americans faced during the time period (which makes sense, since it was the height of Jim Crow).

He also tracked his personal journey, discovering these artists, how his mentors helped him, how they helped him become a better kid, a better basketball player, and eventually a better man.

The coolest thing about Kareem is that he is so much more than a basketball player, and he contributes so much more to our culture than just basketball – although he has no problem talking basketball with fans and seems to enjoy using basketball as a key to unlocking other people’s other interests.

“If the pinnacle of my influence as a human being was perfecting the sky hook, I would not feel very satisfied.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

I loved this contribution to our cultural understanding. It was informative, interesting, and fun. I highly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of Kareem’s and basketball, but also to fans of jazz, history, art, New York, and any other number of things that intersect in the Harlem Renaissance. It was a really enjoyable book.

 

Image result for on the shoulders of giants quote

Yes Please

Amy Poehler wrote and read her book, Yes Please, which I borrowed and listened to at work.

There were some very funny parts, although pieces could be dull. I did come away really wanting to watch Parks and Recreation, Poehler’s critical darling comedy that was apparently on life support for much of its tenure but survived six seasons.

My favorite thing about listening to female comedians is that they usually give pretty good advice and, as someone who is told frequently they should try stand up, I took away from Poehler’s book is that if I want to try it (I go back and forth on it, and not just stand up, anything), I really just should. Do as much as you can, as often as you can. Say yes as often as you possibly can.

That said, I loved listening to Poehler’s stories about her family because they did remind me a lot of my family, and you know, childhoods mess people up so it’s always fun to hear about how other people are just like you but different.

I also really admired about this book the way Poehler seems to admit and own the fact that she isn’t – and can’t be – funny all the time. As someone who works hard to be funny (as not my job), I really, really appreciate that. She says some other stuff too that I really appreciated hearing as well, including that there are benefits to getting older and getting towards/entering into middle age, one of the biggest being that you become so much more comfortable with yourself.

I am already comfortable with myself but if I could get more comfortable? I am on board.

Anyway, Yes Please wasn’t some super deep read/listen so you can probably get either done in a couple of days. Great beach read. I like Poehler’s voice and she comes off as funny and relatable.

Dad Is Fat

Dad Is Fat is one of several books by comedians I’ve read over the last few years. This is also one of the ones I used to forget how disappointing I found the New York Islanders in the second round of the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs.

I was a bit hesitant to listen to this one. I am not one of those people who loves children. I find children tend to make most people a lot less interesting because people seem to think 1) I deeply care about everything their child does 2) they don’t need to have anything else to talk about except their children I barely care about anyway.

Conversations tend to go like this:

Me: Seen any movies lately?

Friend: I saw a video my significant other took of our child! Want to watch?

Me: Sure.

*3 Hours Later*

Friend: And THIS is a video of our child taking a dump on the bathroom floor AFTER getting off the potty!

Me: Oh is that so? *quietly removes friend’s contact information from phone*

Anyway, in spite of my initial reluctance, I enjoyed this book a lot, mainly for the reasons that 1. I find Jim Gaffigan’s comedy funny and 2. Jim Gaffigan’s stories about parenting his children are basically the stories my parents told me about parenting me and my sister.

Jim and his wife have 5 children in a small New York City apartment. That’s basically all you need to know going in, and his ongoing theme is basically “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

My parents also had no idea what they were doing, and have told me so on several occasions now.

But Gaffigan’s descriptions of children’s music, books, television, interaction with each other and strangers, and all of that? My parents told me those stories, and they’re a hundred times funnier here.

This was one of the many audiobooks I listened to at work, and I highly recommend experiencing Dad Is Fat as an audiobook. Gaffigan reads it himself, which makes it very enjoyable. I’m finding most books done by funny people are best when you hear them read by the author rather than read on your own. The author is able to give the best delivery of the material.

A lot of comedians repeat their standup material in their books, but Gaffigan doesn’t do that here. There’s a little recycle material, but not much. Definitely worth the read/listen. It’s a quick listen and a quick, easy read and I highly recommend it, even as someone who has no children and doesn’t typically enjoy hearing about other people’s children.

2016: The Year of David Sedaris

Some time in 2016 I decided that I needed to switch from history to something funny. I think it was around the time the New York Islanders were knocked out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

So! I decided to give David Sedaris another shot. I originally read When You Are Engulfed In Flames by Sedaris back in 2010. I didn’t find it that funny at the time, but I said, “Maybe I’m missing something,” and the comedy selection on Overdrive leaves a bit to be desired. Unless I’m a big Stephanie Plum fan, there wasn’t as much choice as I would have hoped, so I gave Sedaris another go.

I’m glad I did. Listening to Sedaris read his own stories made a huge difference to me. They were witty, sharp, dark, and that’s kind of my style, so I got a lot of mileage out of them.

I listened to five books by David Sedaris in 2016:

1. Holidays on Ice
2. When You Are Engulfed in Flames
3. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk
4. Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls
5. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

And one book edited by David Sedaris:

Children Playing Before A Statue of Hercules.

Forget about Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. It was an abridged production, it wasn’t that funny, and I only remember one of the essays which featured a (strained?) relationship between two sisters that I related to a little too well.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Sedaris writes essays about things in his everyday life and they frequently feature his life partner, Hugh, and his family. The aforementioned essays are frequently humorous but sometimes serious and usually dark, which doesn’t always bother me until you realize these are real people he’s talking about and you hope that Sedaris is taking a bit of dramatic license.

Long story short, Sedaris writes essays. All the books had their particularly bright spots, but Holidays on Ice was probably my favorite of these books, and my favorite essay in it was “The SantaLand Diaries” where Sedaris chronicles his time playing an elf in SantaLand in Macy’s Department Store one Christmas season. Having worked in retail over Christmas, it was striking how similar Sedaris’s recollections were to my own, minus the elf costume. It seems people are awful everywhere, which is sort of a comfort. It’s not just happening to YOU, it’s happening to EVERYONE.

Other highlights from Holidays on Ice included “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!” (chronicling Mrs. Dunbar’s descent into madness brought on by, among other things, her husband’s infidelity, the prostitute stepdaughter she is forced to take in, and her own drug addicted daughter’s pregnancy out of wedlock) and “Dinah The Christmas Whore” (in which Sedaris goes with his sister, Lisa, to rescue an abused prostitute from domestic violence on Christmas Eve).

My favorite essay, however, did not appear in Holidays on Ice but in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and was called “Six to Eight Black Men,” which was about Santa in the Dutch traditions (and other cultural differences).

I don’t really do it justice here because, well, I can’t. It made me laugh til I cried. So I’ll let Sedaris read you the story himself.

Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History

Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History is an autobiographical memoir by Tony Mendez and Matt Baglio, and was adapted by Ben Affleck into an Academy Award winning film of the same name. It was originally an article for Wired magazine, and was expanded after declassification of documents into a much more detailed story.

I go through phases periodically where I watch a bunch of movies and read their source material. In this case, it was was the other way around, where I audiobooked the source material first and then watched the film.

Mendez was a CIA technical operations officer in the 1970s, decorated and widely recognized for his work in evacuating 6 American diplomats during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Called “The Canadian Caper,” the effort took the cooperation of the CIA, the Canadian government, and several Hollywood professionals, including makeup artists John Chambers and Robert Sidell, and Sidell’s wife, Joan.

Spoiler alert: they get the stranded Americans out of Iran. That wasn’t the most interesting part of this story.

The most interesting part of this memoir was finding out 1. how the CIA operated at the time and 2. how the whole thing sounded like amateur hour.

IIRC, Mendez was hired into the CIA as an artist. He copied stuff, did forgeries, etc… if the CIA had any kind of super advanced tech it wasn’t in this book, or it’s so dated to 2016 that I didn’t realize it was considered advanced tech at the time.

Originally an artist, it was clear Mendez’s role grew by the time the Iranian Hostage Crisis took place. Mendez’s main job was getting the American hostages to believe their cover stories enough to get them out of Iran, which was no easy feat. The key to being a convincing liar was believing the lie, and it was difficult to get the scared Americans to believe what they were saying about themselves, which was total BS.

It was an incredibly dangerous operation, because if they had been discovered there was a good chance they’d be executed. But again, what was really fascinating to me was how incredibly low tech it was. It was drawing up passports that passed inspection and coming up with a solid cover story – the cover story being they were Canadians scouting film locations in Iran for a science fiction film, called “Argo.” (Duh, right?)

The film that came from Mendez’s memoir is a very good film but it didn’t do a good job with 2 things. It took a loooot of dramatic license. There were a lot fewer imminent danger scenarios than depicted in the film, however, this was a film and you have to keep an audience engaged.

The other thing was the film seriously downplayed the role of the Canadian government in the rescue of the hostages. The Canadian Ambassador and Embassy played crucial roles in rescuing the Americans. Mendez gives this credit, the film doesn’t. The film also makes it look as the British and New Zealand embassies turned the American hostages away – this isn’t what happened. The British, in particular, took a great risk taking in the hostages, only moving them because it was deemed too dangerous for them to stay there. The British Embassy, IIRC, was the target of attacks itself. New Zealand had organized a place for the Americans to stay if they needed to change locations and drove the Americans to the airport when it was time to leave Tehran.

It’s understandable why a lot of this was changed for film purposes – it would have been a 4 hour film – but it was hurtful to these countries anyway. Affleck tried to smooth things over but it wasn’t much help. President Carter even commented (paraphrasing), “This was mostly a Canadian achievement. Ken Taylor (the Canadian ambassador) is the real hero of the story.”

Anyway, flawed film aside, Argo was a really interesting “inner workings of the CIA” book, which I highly recommend if you’re interested in contemporary world history.

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