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July 2010

The great fiction reading adventure of 2010: Part 2.

I love, love, LOVE Anthony Bourdain's nonfiction. I loved him when I read his first foul-mouthed memoir Kitchen Confidential, and I loved him even more when I read his essay collection The Nasty Bits, in which he told the story of accepting some food award and telling a roomful of NYC foodie notables that none of them would have any food to eat or restaurant staffing to speak of without immigrants, illegal or otherwise. I can't wait to read his new collection, Medium Raw, although I haven't heard great things about it.

Bone I still remember browsing one day, long ago, in Barnes and Noble, and coming across a novel by Bourdain titled Bone in the Throat. Huh, I thought. He writes novels too! (It was actually published before Kitchen Confidential) And although that was years ago, I'd always vaguely thought about getting the book from the library. And now I finally got around to it!

It's a pretty standard mystery/mafia novel, in which Bourdain's main character Tommy is a sous chef who comes from a "connected" family, but who would rather cook than learn the family business. And he's almost out of it, too, until his uncle (more of a father figure, really, since Tommy's father "disappeared" when he was small) asks him for one small favor. Tommy is to let his uncle and two other men into the restaurant where he works, after hours, for what Tommy thinks will just be a little chat.

Some fairly graphic details of jobs you should NOT use your good kitchen knives for follow.

I wouldn't say this was a caper novel, or particularly light-hearted, but I found it to be a quick and enjoyable read, with a pretty satisfying ending and good characterization. And the descriptions of the food and cooking? Pure Bourdain, by which I mean, spectacular.

Today's fiction lesson: Like Bourdain's nonfiction? You'll probably like his novels as well.

The great fiction reading adventure of 2010: Part 1.

Earlier this summer, I thought, what would be even more useless a career skill than knowing a lot about nonfiction books? And the answer, of course, was knowing a lot more about genre fiction than I used to.* I jest, of course. I am lucky enough to use my small store of knowledge about books and grammar to cobble together something resembling a living (for which I am VERY grateful). But you'll have to forgive me--lately I have just been very pessimistic about our economy and the state of reading and knowledge in general, figuring that some day in the near future I will have to do what my Grandma always wanted me to do, go to school for nursing, and find some job security that way.

Although I really, REALLY, don't want to stick needles into people. Does anyone know? What level of nurse training has job openings but doesn't require that basic skill?

But I digress. When I took a break this summer, I did so at least partly to open up some time for fiction, primarily genre, reading. And most of the books I read were okay; they kept me reading until the end, although I've now, only a couple of weeks after the fact, pretty much completely forgotten what they were about. I have this problem with fiction. With nonfiction I can just look at a title and it seems to stick with me for years (pushing out, I can only assume, other valuable knowledge like my spouse's social security number, where I put the extra filters for my Brita water pitcher, and family members' birthdays), but with fiction, I read it and forget it. Very frustrating.

Westlake One book I will not be forgetting was my favorite in the bunch: a classic caper novel, from 1970, titled The Hot Rock, by Donald Westlake. I'd long heard Westlake was kind of a funny crime writer, and this title, the first in the "Dortmunder" series, seems to bear that out. When Dortmunder gets out of jail, he intends to stay clean for all of two minutes...until an old friend picks him up and convinces him to head a jewel heist operation. The heist goes wrong, many times over, and hilarity ensues. I loved everything about this book. I loved the writing:

"...when Dortmunder finally started to walk off along the sidewalk, Kelp started the engine and steered the long black car slowly down the street after him.

It was a pretty good car, a Cadillac with side curtains, Venetian blinds across the back window, air conditioning, a gizmo that would keep the car moving at any desired speed without having your foot on the gas, a gizmo that would switch down your high beams at night when another car was coming, all sorts of labor-saving devices. Kelp had picked it up last night down in New York...he'd gone shopping for a car last night, and he'd found this one on East 67th Street. It had MD plates and he always automatically checked those, because doctors tend to leave the keys in the car, and once again the medical profession had not disappointed him."**

I loved that it smelled old, and had library stamps in it from September 1985 (all the way up to a handwritten 2-19-09). I loved that it was a caper novel without computers or cell phones. I loved Dortmunder, and his entire crew. I loved that Mr. CR blew through it too and seemed to enjoy it as well.

Today's fiction lesson? Donald Westlake rocks.

*To add to my other one skill, my encyclopedic knowledge of BBC programs, as well as of BBC stars and who they're all married to. Congratulations to James McAvoy and Anne-Marie Duff (two of my favorite Scot/Brit actors), by the way, on the birth of their first son earlier this summer.

**My inherent dislike of doctors dictated that I find this paragraph extremely amusing.

Soul searching in the cyber age.

Well, I'd be lying if I said I was completely ready to come back to blogging. It's been lovely, somewhat, to get up in the morning and not worry if I have a post ready; likewise, although this doesn't seem like a good thing, I've been reading a little bit less than usual. It has been a good thing, at least for a little while. I worked on a lot of jobs I wasn't particularly in the mood for, and actually polished some off, because I knew I wouldn't be able to not read very much for long.

If that makes any kind of sense.

So, what HAVE I been doing over here? Well, not as much as one might hope. Still. I did clean the house a bit. I spent a bit more time cooking and baking. I watched a couple of episodes of "Hell's Kitchen," even though I should know better. I also spent some time thinking about this site, and what I want to do with it. And I did decide a few things: 1. Fuck advertising, and all that jazz. I know other people use their blogs to receive freebies and/or gain sponsorships and revenue through ad links, but I'm just never going to have the energy or desire to pursue that. Plus, I really don't like being "sold to" constantly and it's worth my peace of mind (on this subject at least) not to sell to others. 2. A slight caveat to number 1 is that I may work in some more links to projects or writing I'm doing, and I may investigate the possibility of becoming a Powell's "partner," as I link to their site's books anyway. But then I have to put a little notice on every post that I accept kickback in the form of slight sales commissions (check out Bookshelves of Doom for an example of what I'm talking about). So we'll see.

And what else have I been doing? Well, reading nonfiction, of course, but a bit more slowly than usual. No kidding, I've been working on one book now for four weeks, and it's been kind of a delicious thrill to read it a few pages at a time. I've also been reading a load of fiction, which you'll hear more about later. And, I ordered a new computer, which I'm hoping will be much faster and will help my efficiency (after an initial period, when it first arrives, of screwing my productivity, while I try to set it up). Man, do I hate shopping for computers, setting up computers, and, well, let's face it, for anything more complicated than typing, using computers. Further bulletins as events warrant.

I don't know that I'll be back at five-days-a-week strength just yet, but I've missed old CR, and I've missed you.

Free beer!

Now there's a headline guaranteed to raise some interest.

Now, normally, you know I don't much care for shilling for books or advertisers or much of anything. But on rare occasions, the opportunity to shill for someone who does great work comes along, and I like to take those opportunities.

Beer So just a short post today to let you know that my friend Kevin Revolinski's updated Wisconsin's Best Beer Guide is now available! It's a lovely little travel book, listing breweries and brew pubs in Wisconsin, and with a handy little "history of beer" essay in the front that's way more readable than most of the front matter you typically find in guide books.

Each brewery entry contains business information (address, phone, web site, annual production), a list of staple and seasonal beers produced, tour information, the best time to visit, whether or not they serve food, directions, a short informational essay, and a list of other eating and drinking establishments within "stumbling distance." A lot of the breweries also participated in the book's "special offers": at the Great Dane Pub and Brewery in Madison, for example, all you have to do is show them the book (they'll sign it on a handy list in the back, meaning you've received your freebie) and you get a free 10 oz. beer!

It's a very handy reference guide (especially this week, when it's 88 degrees and sticky in Wisconsin, and nothing would be nicer than to hit a local brew pub for a cold brew), and Revolinski's writing style is a lot of fun. This bit of self-revelation comes in the Introduction:

"When I took on this project back in 2006, I didn't even like beer. I can already hear the collective gasp of horror, but let me explain: beer was social lubricant, something you sipped at with friends at a cookout, bought for the cute woman at the other end of the bar, or beer-bonged on occasion. I didn't even like the taste so much and--oh the humanity--often didn't even finish them. I killed many a houseplant at parties and have gotten hordes of bees drunk at picnics with the remains of a bottle of Something-or-Other Light." (p. 2.)

If you live near Madison, Wisconsin, consider coming out to buy a copy of the book and meet Revolinski at the Capital Brewery Bier Garten in Middleton on Friday night, July 16, from 4 to 7 p.m. He's a lot of fun and the Capital Brewery is a great place to sit around outside and enjoy a beer. For more information, please visit his web site at (He's also the author of a ton of other great travel guides about the great state of Wisconsin, including the soon-to-be-available Insider's Guide to Madison, so if you're a local do check out his page.)