Celebrity Memoir

I was flipping channels one night and came across the most delightful episode of a television show. I didn’t know whose it was or what was happening, but I was mesmerized and stayed with it until the end. The setting was the Philippines, at Christmas, and there were cover bands and office parties and booze and the loveliest people you would ever want to meet and right in the middle of it all was this tall white dude calling himself Bob from accounting. That’s how I came to know and be charmed by Anthony Bourdain.

I knew who he was, of course. I knew he was a chef and had a few TV shows and I kind of thought he traveled the world and ate weird stuff like a couple of other television shows that I refused to watch. They seemed to be gross for the sake of being gross. I took a hard pass and hadn’t given poor Tony a chance until I happened upon the above-mentioned episode of Parts Unknown and then I was hooked. I delighted in his smarts and his dark humor, but also in his compassion and his insightful storytelling. He did eat weird stuff, but it wasn’t the focus of the show. He shared his love of food with people around the globe and they, in turn, shared their souls.

At some point, I discovered Bourdain had risen to fame after the publication of Kitchen Confidential, a book that looked behind the curtain and under the tables of the restaurant industry. While it had been on my radar to read at some point, it jumped to the top of the list after Bourdain’s tragic suicide just last week. What else could I find out about this fascinating man who left us way too soon? Celebrity memoirs are a dime a dozen; some shallow, some deep, some inspirational, some funny. Considering Bourdain wasn’t yet a celebrity when the book was published, this choice seemed unique in the genre and would give me some insight to where his journey began.

Kitchen Confidential came into being after the publication of Bourdain’s article, Don’t Eat Before Reading This, was published in The New Yorker. He sent the article unsolicited, and it was published anyway. It’s an eye-opener and has made me rethink every meal I’ve ever ordered! Interest in the article spawned the book and a reluctant star was born. In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain gives us his earliest memory that starts his love of food and it’s not a shabby one. He and his family were on a trans-Atlantic voyage on the Queen Mary to his father’s home country, France, and a young Bourdain, fresh out of fourth grade, ate vichyssoise. According to Bourdain, it was the first food he “really noticed.” He also recounts the story of a neighbor, once they arrived in France, who took the whole family out in his little boat. Monsieur Saint-Jour, an oyster fisherman, reached into the water and brought up oysters for the family. Bourdain was the only one who, defiantly, would eat a raw oyster, much to his family’s disgust.

This is where Bourdain thinks the spark of his adult persona started all those years ago. “I frequently look back at my life, searching for that fork in the road, trying to figure out where, exactly, I went bad and became a thrill-seeking, pleasure-hungry sensualist, always looking to shock, amuse, terrify and manipulate, seeking to fill that empty spot in my soul with something new. I like to think it was Monsieur Saint-Jour’s fault. But of course, it was me all along.”

From that trip, Bourdain guides us through his early years and to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he had his first job in a restaurant. The rivalries were fierce, the drinking was hard, and the sex and drugs were plentiful. This was the 70s, after all. Just after the Age of Aquarius and anything goes. His first summer in a restaurant was exhilarating and he was eager to come back again the next year, puffed up with a little experience and a lot of hubris. He was smacked down hard by the new owner and crew at his old restaurant and decided to go to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) to exact his revenge, to become better and faster and more skilled than these guys in a Provincetown seafood house. We’re all the better for it. Imagine Anthony Bourdain as a Vassar student, wearing nunchucks in a holster around his hip; at the CIA taking advantage of the naïveté of his younger fellow students in card games and drug deals; a CIA graduate with “…field experience, a vocabulary, and a criminal mind”; a young entrepreneur basing his catering prices in relation to the going price for cocaine. It’s all there, every glorious, scurrilous detail.

I’m sorry I waited so long for this one. The writing is fresh and realistic and makes me want to drop everything and join the pirate ships that are restaurant kitchens. Bourdain’s journey is a crooked, blurry line and he takes us through restaurant after restaurant and character after character until the end of the book. It’s a wild ride and, as Bourdain says, “…I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

You can watch several seasons of Parts Unknown on Netflix for an extended run. (The Christmas Philippines episode remains my favorite. Watch it for yourself – it will change your life!)

Blogger’s note:

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the haunting mental illness behind the suicides of Bourdain and designer Kate Spade in the same week. I suffer from mental illness, many people I know suffer from mental illness, and probably many more people I know suffer as well but are too afraid or ashamed to mention it. The battle is real and it’s uphill all the way. It’s a tough illness to face and the demons are hard to back down, no matter your lot in life. I can’t give you advice on how to fight your war, but I can assure you that you have allies. You just have to keep looking until you find them. Furthermore, if you know people who have a mental illness, help them find help. Listen to them, don’t shrug it off and tell them to toughen up. We would if we could and, hear me when I say this, depression does not discriminate. Get help or be help. That’s all.

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Self-Published Book

Did you play Dungeons & Dragons in high school? Maybe you’ve seen Stranger Things and watched those boys play in the basement? Or you or someone you know has played Pathfinder or any of the numerous other role-playing games out in the tabletop gamer-verse? You and your friends take on the persona of a wizard or a fighter or some other hero, roll a bunch of dice, and do battle with any number of foes in an imaginary theater of the mind. The game is directed by a Game Master (GM) who tells the story, comments on what happens when, and tries to make the playing experience as realistic as possible. You go on quests, gather gold, and sometimes wreak havoc in imaginary towns with imaginary people. When you’re done, you take your dice and go home, leaving the NPCs behind, never giving them another thought until the next time you play.

What are NPCs, you ask? Allow me to explain. Non-player characters or NPCs are key to any good role-playing game but they’re always relegated to the background; not really key to the story but they provide goods and services and the occasional bit of information that helps move a story along. Think of them as extras in a movie or the residents (and old West bad guys) in Westworld. NPCs are the tavern keepers, the merchants, the gate guards, the port workers, the bandits, the stable boys – you get the idea. You interact with them as you need to throughout the story, usually just to get whatever supplies or information you need, and then move on to the next big adventure. The NPCs just kind of … disappear. Or do they? Here’s where we find out!

So, a few guys get together for some gaming one night, don’t listen to the big clues they get from the GM, and end up dead. Really quickly. They die in a tavern from accidentally poisoning themselves. The characters as a group are slumped over the bar, dead. No reviving, no spells to cast – just dead. Did I mention how dead they are? Time to roll new characters and start a new adventure, leaving this scenario behind.

Meanwhile, in the tavern, the bartender, a local guard, the mayor’s daughter, and the tavern owner are stuck with four dead bodies. What to do? These inexperienced adventurers are coming through the town all the blasted time, making a mess, getting killed – when will they learn and what are these four NPCs supposed to do with the bodies? How rude!

That’s where the plot of NPCs takes us. Not with the players, but with the game. The players have moved on, but the NPCs have to clean up the mess. While searching the bodies, the foursome realizes the the dead dudes were on a quest for the king (barely started, but still). Afraid of taking the blame for the inept dead adventurers and incurring the wrath of the king, the four NPCs decide to take up the quest and, at the very least, move the suspicious deaths away from their small village. After all, the writ is for a rogue, a paladin, a wizard, and a barbarian. Nobody has actually met or even knows the names of the dead, so subs can easily be put in place. And so the adventure begins!

*Modest spoilers ahead about things that happen very early on in the story!*

Meet Thistle, a gnome and the tavern owner, who decides to be the rogue because he’s used to making shady deals; Grumph, the half-orc, who bartends and intimidates with his brawn and is so obvious to fill the role of barbarian; Eric, the human guard and the son of a deceased Paladin who takes on that role now; and Gabrielle, a human and the daughter of the mayor who is highly educated and agrees to be the wizard. However, when the first big fight ensues, the devout Thistle sends up a quick prayer to his god as he uses his weapon; Eric, the Paladin, is more clever and agile in fighting without his uncomfortable armor; the brawny half-orc is able to cast spells from a found spell book; and Gabrielle rages into the midst of the battle swinging a mighty axe. Stop, rewind, switch places and our crew fits more comfortably into new roles they never knew they could fill.

I liked the twist on the NPCs starting out in obvious roles but then changing places with each other into roles you wouldn’t normally expect them to play. It happens fairly early in the book, so it’s not a big spoiler. I don’t think people who haven’t played role-playing games will be lost in the story and people who do play will enjoy this immensely. One of the best early gags is that Gabrielle is kidnapped so frequently by goblins as a plot point for adventurers that she has become friends with the kidnappers. They’ve taught her to speak goblin and to hunt and track; they let her bring books along when it’s time to kidnap her again; and they have a particular horse they let her use every time they kidnap her. She looks forward to the “kidnappings” as mini-vacations from her ordinary life! Hilarious!

Again, the part of the book I described is very early on, and there is plenty of additional adventure for our crew. Who knows? It might even spark an interest for your own gaming! Drew Hayes, the author, has quite a few irons in the fire as you can read for yourself on his website. There are more books in the NPCs series, as well as some other works, podcasts, videos, etc. I’ve included an interview with Hayes here on a show called Nerdrotic that I found on YouTube and another interview on a broadcast about Sci-Fi and Fantasy marketing here. Enjoy!

Book About Death or Grief

This is one of those categories which I consider to be an interpretive category. If you want to delve into a nonfiction work on actual death and grieving, there are plenty of books out there. If you want a fiction book about death, go find the latest Nicholas Sparks. For me, I didn’t want either of those options. I mean, this book is kind of about death and grief. Ghosts and spirits who communicate from the other side, right? And those who communicate with them and pass on messages to loved ones? That counts. So says me.

Jenniffer Weigel of I’m Spiritual, Dammit fame has collected a series of interviews with some of the most noteworthy names currently in the field of spiritual beliefs. You can find out more about her at her website here.

Weigel interviews the cream of the current crop in the medium and psychic field: Rebecca Rosen, Caroline Myss, Linda Howe, Thomas John, Echo Bodine, Michael Bodine, Maureen Hancock, Concetta Bertolucci, Paul Selig, Margie Hughes, Denise Guzzardo, and Jorianne The Coffee Pyschic (really!). These folks deal in channeling spirits, ghost hunting, readings, psychic connections, and almost any other niche in this subject matter that you can think of. They are authors, speakers, teachers, and considered experts in their respective fields.

Each of the interviews is interesting and unique in its own way. Rather than ask the same series of questions to each person, the interviews have taken place on the podcast at different times or at an event where there is audience interaction. The interviewees talk about a variety of topics related to their specialty, including how some of them started out on this path. It makes for an interesting listen. I’m part skeptic but part wannabe believer, and many of the interviewees are very well-spoken and thoughtful in their answers. They get that people scoff at their work and often agree that it may not be for everyone. I’m not saying their aren’t a few eye-rolling moments in the interviews, but many of them communicate a belief in a higher power or the laws of attraction thinking where the energy you put out feeds the energy that’s is attracted to you (and whatever form that energy may take is another matter).

Death plays a big part in this type of work, right? Spirits can’t communicate with you unless they are … spirits. Am I right? Depending on your personal belief system about an afterlife, it may be comforting to you to know that your dearly departed can send messages or look after you and your family, that these spirits can guide you through life and are waiting for you when you cross over. But even if you are a skeptic, you might give this a listen, even if it’s only a few of the interviews. There are good points made about positivity and the kind treatment of others and other positive messages that are good for anyone to hear. Personally, death is a big question mark. What happens to the soul? Will I really be able to see my loved ones restored to a happy, healthy version of themselves? Or, do they die and that’s it, the spark that made them a human being is just gone, never to be seen again? I don’t like that scenario and I choose to think that, in some form of an afterlife, that I will be reunited with them. Therefore, I’m curious about all viewpoints on the matter and am drawn to subjects like this. I don’t want to know about the stages of dying or read a tear-jerker about someone’s death. I want to explore the pseudo-science and hope for more.

This is available in book form, but I listened to the audio version. I don’t know how the book reads, but, since we’re talking about interviews, the audio format was my preference. It’s like listening to a series of podcasts and a great choice for a quick fix on your daily commute.

There is an interview here with Weigel about this book and Weigel’s interview with psychic medium Susan Rowlan (not included in the book) here.

Book You Haven’t Read By An Author You Love

I guess I’m in a mood for legends and lore lately. What with Song of Achilles, Beowulf, Gospel of Loki, and now this one – what’s a girl to do but indulge herself! There’s definitely something to be said for all of these larger than life heroes and heroines and the way they inspired the human race through the years. Aside from storytelling, it’s easy to forget just how much the gods have trickled down into our daily lives. After all, every Thursday is Thor’s Day!

Anyway, Gaiman’s version covers no new ground. It’s very old ground, to be honest, but his rehashing is just as good as anyone else’s. He takes us from creation to Ragnarok and all of the side trips in between. There are always differences in somebody’s version of familiar tales. Tomato, tomahto. Same stories, different days. I don’t have a lot to say about the actual content. All of the usual suspects are here: Odin, Thor, Freya, and Loki, to name a few. Unlike American Gods where Gaiman put old gods (of all kinds), in new, modern adventures and took creative liberty with how they would fit into the 21st century, Norse Mythology is pretty straight forward in the retelling of the Norse legends. Gaiman is entertaining nonetheless. He uses the character commonalities found in other versions to comedic effect in his storytelling – Freya is narcissistic (see what I did there?), Thor is not the brightest bulb on the porch, and Loki is still the conniving trickster everybody loves to hate.

It was an interesting listen, especially right after listening to The Gospel of Loki. You have a point of view from Loki, an unreliable narrator, in one, and, in Norse Mythology, you have Gaiman’s lyrical storytelling from a more neutral POV. Plus, if you listen to the audio, Gaiman reads the text and the experience is sublime!

Gaiman has an intro where he talks about his love for Norse mythology and how it influenced his early years as a reader. He cites Kevin Crossley-Holland, Snorri Sturluson, and Rudolf Simek as his preferred resources for inspiration although he does say he has many, many Norse tales that he loves. Interestingly, Gaiman unwittingly sparked a debate about who actually has final authority in retelling myths since there is difficulty in finding an authentic source for Norse tales in particular. This article from The Atlantic is insightful. The Washington Post article here reviews both Gaiman’s book and The Norse Myths by Carolyne Larrington, sort of a compare and contrast piece. NPR also has an interview with Gaiman here and a more personal interview about other writings and life topics here (from 2015).

This book is a great primer if you’re unfamiliar with the Norse god origins and a refresher for the things you may have forgotten.

Thriller

Ellie Mack is an average 15-year-old girl in a British upper-middle class family, the youngest of three children and a perfect child according to her mom, Laurel. But, one day, Ellie goes missing and her family falls apart. Laurel is hit especially hard, and she ends up losing her marriage and is painfully distant from her remaining son and daughter. Ten years pass by and a clue finally turns up in Ellie’s disappearance and the Mack family gets the closure they’ve needed. Or do they?

Laurel, finally knowing Ellie is truly dead and not a runaway as the police suspected, has a sort of closure and begins to slowly pull herself out of her deep depression. She becomes more aware of letting her life slip away these past ten years and, one day, by chance, meets a man in a cafe. This man is charming and fun and Laurel slowly begins to date and to live and to start making things right in her own life. This man, though, has a daughter who, at times, looks exactly like…her dead daughter, Ellie. She also finds some other oddities and parallels between her life and her new boyfriend. Things that make you go hmmmmmm…

I’ll leave you with that for the moment, but there may be semi-spoilers in some of the text ahead. I would say this book is good. Not great, but really, solidly good. Fairly early in the book, you can start to suspect what transpires. However, I was interested enough in the characters that I didn’t mind knowing how I thought it would end. I just wanted to see how it would get there. I do think that’s the author’s intent because the clues she leaves are big ones. It’s not designed to be a twisty-turny plotted book and that’s okay. Not everything needs to be. It’s still a good read and a something that keeps you interested throughout the book even as you start to put the pieces together. A few plot twists happen, but those are more related to the personal lives of the family members and not the overall whodunnit of the novel.

Things that made me go hmmmmmm about this book:

  • Laurel keeps dating a dude she thinks may have some connection to her daughter’s death, no matter how vague or innocent? Not just dating, but sleeping with him, spending the night, getting closer to his children – y’all, yuck.
  • When she starts to have these suspicions, she doesn’t bring anybody else in on it? She at least texts someone about where she’s going towards the end of the book, but still. You have these growing suspicions and you don’t phone a friend, your ex-husband, the police? Even in a fictional world, characters know bad things happen and Laurel knows this all too well. It didn’t jive with me.
  • A little awkwardly, about half-way through the book, you start getting a POV from another character. It sounds as if it’s a letter or a journal, definitely a confession, but nothing every really comes of it except that the reader is let in on what actually happened to Ellie. It would have been nice for that to be a document that came to light at some point. As it was, it interrupted the story some for me and left a gap that needed to be filled.
  • It seemed like Ellie could have overpowered her captor at some point in the story; she wasn’t tied up or restrained for the majority of her time, although she was locked in a rom (with a window). I didn’t fully buy into that. You’ve got a young, healthy girl who can’t get past someone who doesn’t seem to be more powerful than her. There needed to be more psychological oomph or an explanation of the captor’s strength/control. It made me not as sympathetic with Ellie at that part of the story – not that she deserved to be where she was, mind you. We’ve all seen those horrific and inexcusable real-life stories of young women held in captivity by a variety of means. I’m just saying that the author kind of glazed over the emotional/psychological/physical control issue as to why Ellie seemed so complacent. We also have an unreliable narrator for this portion and only a partial glimpse of Ellie’s POV, so maybe something was lost in translation.
  • There are people in this book who shouldn’t be smart enough to get away with these crimes, but do. There’s very little in this book about police procedure and more about how Ellie’s disappearance affected her mom and the subsequent breakdown of the family. The police mostly seem to focus on Ellie as a runaway, so we don’t get much of a sense of how the initial investigation was handled and whether they should have picked up on clues or whether they were thorough and just couldn’t have known the full set of circumstances as sometimes happens. The guilty are not exactly criminal masterminds, but are definite creepy as hell.
  • The end is satisfactory on all of the loose ends; however, you still don’t get the police -style follow up you do in some thrillers. The focus is still very much on the family, which is fine, but I would have liked a little more on the police or public reaction to the big reveal. Instead, we get a soft wrap-up and only allusions to the aftermath.

All in all, it was a good tale. I would recommend this for an “in-between books” book, a quick summer read, or something middle-of-the-road for a book club. If you’ve read it, I would love to hear your thoughts on the plot points I mentioned above! I’m including a review from Kirkus Books and an interview with author Lisa Jewell.

Book You Haven’t Read By An Author You Love

“I know a tale, o sons of earth.

I speak it as I must.

Of how nine trees gave life to Worlds

That giants held in trust.”

Do you remember the romance and the drama behind the Norse myths and the heroic deeds of Odin and Thor and the rest of the family? The beauty, the strength, the deceit of that one among them who was brought into the family by Odin? Loki, who brought tragedy to them all. Or did he?

Ah, Loki. Bless his heart. He can’t understand why he gets no love or respect from the rest of the Norse gods and he continuously undermines every relationship he has and surrounds himself with people who are deceitful and untrustworthy. He can’t win for losing and he can’t resist the easy mark, the quick scheme, the thrill of getting by with something. His chaotic persona never tires and there truly is no rest for the wicked when it comes to Loki.

But, maybe you don’t know dear Loki, adopted kin of Odin and Thor? The miscreant, the trickster, the wildfire, the sharp-tongued meanie with a witty remark perpetually on his lips? If ever Chaos was personified, Loki is that one. The Gospel of Loki attempts to right the wrongs that tarnish the legend.

The pervasiveness of the Marvel Avengers franchise has given us a certain impression of Loki. They aren’t wrong. However, Loki wants to tell his own story and give the “real” version of his story versus history. Loki recounts how he was plucked from Chaos by Odin himself to be Odin’s adopted brother and weaves his tale all the way to Ragnarok, the final bloody battle of the Norse gods. Of course, Loki never quite fits in with Odin and his crew, despite Odin swearing his loyalty to Loki. He is betrayed and is the betrayer, living up to every bad thought the other gods (aka “the popular crowd”) think of him. Loki, our “humble narrator,” explains that the versions of these stories we’ve heard before were nothing but “spin and metaphor,” forced on the rest of us by Odin and his pride – a skewed look, just like any other history that’s written by the victor.

This version of Norse mythology is bitingly funny and has several laugh out loud moments. Loki describes the other gods in modern terms, saying of Freya, she “will sleep with practically anyone as long as jewelry is involved,” or how Thor “likes hitting things,” or Gullveig-Heid, the sorceress, who is “Greedy, clever and spiteful. All my favourite qualities…” There is a great recounting of how the golden apples of Asgard are lost and the gods start to show some wear and age before they are returned. Loki likes to rub that in! When the perp who stole the apples finally falls back into the hands of the gods, the poor creature is described by Loki as being “killed by a gang of old-age pensioners.” Odin and Thor and the gang as old-age pensioners. Hilarious! The tale turns darker, of course, as Ragnarok nears and Asgard falls, and the tragedy of mistrust and treachery comes back to bite all of them in the end, making way for the next wave of gods to rule the world of man.

Joanne Harris is the sublime voice behind Chocolat and, my favorite of hers, Holy Fools, among many other titles. A book like this about Norse gods was not what I expected from her and it was a very entertaining read. There is a link here to Harris’s website where she talks more in-depth about her interest in Norse myths. There are other books by her that are tied together in a loose series and a sequel of sorts, The Testament of Loki, was just published this month. There’s a great interview with Joanne Harris at the Edinburgh International Book Festival here, where The Gospel of Loki is discussed at length.

Poem

If you think you don’t like poetry, you’re not doing it right. Especially if you’re trying to get guys (or tomboyish girls) to like poetry that they envision to be sappy, sweet love junk – fuhgeddaboudit! But, there is poetry and then there is poetry – long, epic, story-telling poetic verse that catches you up in the telling of it and transforms everything you thought you knew about the genre.

Now, we turn to Beowulf, that old English hero who has inspired so many other tales through the years. If you don’t have a love of blood and gore and violence in your tales, then you may think Beowulf is not for you. Hold your disdain, though, because you won’t find a more lovely description of gnashing and killing in the whole of the English language.

To recap (Cliff Notes version here), if you’ve forgotten the tale or (gasp!) never read it, Beowulf is a hero of the Geats (modern day southern Sweden) who comes to the aid of Hrothgar, King of the Danes. Hrothgar’s hall has been terrorized by the villain, Grendel, who has been killing and eating the Danes and generally creating bloody chaos. As part of the poem reads, Grendel attacks one of the warriors and “tore him fiercely asunder, the bone-frame bit, drank blood in streams, swallowed him piecemeal: swiftly this the lifeless corse was clear devoured…” How can you not love that?!?

Beowulf and his squad lie in wait for Grendel and Beowulf kills him with his bare hands. Grendel’s mother comes for revenge, and Beowulf kills her with the sword of a giant that he finds in her lair. In glory, Beowulf returns home and eventually becomes King of the Geats. His last great act is to slay a dragon that terrorizes his land, but Beowulf is mortally wounded in the fight and dies. He is cremated and given the highest honors of his people.

And, from one of my favorite commentators on books of all kinds:

https://youtu.be/Xh8akuq-MDI

For this “reading,” I actually listened to the audio version. It’s an abridgement, but the abridged version is compiled by Seamus Heaney, the late, great poet/playwright/translator whose translation of Beowulf is widely popular. Heaney also reads the audio version, so you have the joy of listening to the tale with Heaney’s Irish lilt and bold voice bringing Beowulf to life. Beowulf is believed to have been largely an oral recitation, and it really makes a difference in the hearing of it, much like Shakespeare’s works are different when read or spoken aloud.

My favorite of the Beowulf retellings is Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton. It’s based on a real, unfinished manuscript of an Arab man, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who travels north and lives with and makes observations about the Vikings. The book reads like an ongoing journal as the Arab and the group of Vikings embark on a similar journey to help a King fight off a particularly nasty villain. The book was made into a movie that I also enjoyed quite a bit, The 13th Warrior with Antonio Banderas. The book and movie make great supplements to the original hero’s tale and do justice to the mighty legend of Beowulf.

I’ve included a list of other famous epic poems including familiar stories like The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Paradise Lost. Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon with a post on the sappy love junk, too!