Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Nonfiction Novels* of Place

Mom gave me The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls last year because it largely takes place in the state where I now live, the title includes my maiden name, and, perhaps most importantly, because Mom found it well-written and interesting. She immediately told me the book reflected poorly on my state and was depressing and, because I live here and deal with many students in poverty and from malfunctioning families, I would find it more so. Mom's book recommendations are sometimes like this.** I then avoided reading The Glass Castle until I was already blue for other reasons and rather liked it, just as Mom thought I would. My main reactions were, "How can she write these things about her family?" and "How could her family do that?" I'm not sure I recommend it for anyone, but certainly think it was worth reading and provides a good testimonial for the power of good teachers and knowing ones words.
Kitchen Confidential shares with The Glass Castle a love of New York City and a narrator of questionable character. Anthony Bourdain fascinates me because he is a jerk and he comes across as a jerk. He's annoying and his stories are annoying, yet his tales of life in the kitchen are enjoyable largely because he's an annoying jerk. Having heard about it for ten years, having worked with people who have been trained chefs and having heard Anthony Bourdain spout off in other forums, I did not find Kitchen Confidential to be a shocking expose. I'm not surprised that restaurants re-use bread or use old seafood in brunch dishes.
What I like about Bourdain is that he is unapologetically forthcoming about his jerkiness. I have a feeling that Jeanette Walls is not someone I would want to hang out with, but she spends her book trying to explain how she got to be this way (as most writers of memoirs do). Bourdain tells you in the introduction that he's a jerk and that it's his fault and gets on with the story. I also find it hard to resist a man who clearly thinks he is good at his craft who declares, without any apparent bitterness, that he doesn't have what it takes to be great and never could have. Bourdain's current problem is that he must maintain this straight-talking hard-drinking bad boy jerk of the kitchen via many different media outlets. As I suspect that he really isn't that big of a jerk, it's becoming tougher with time. If you haven't been overexposed to Bourdain's smokin' drinkin' and knockin' vegetarians through other media, Kitchen Confidential is a good read.

Kitchen Confidential also made me long for a food trip to New York City, and a $1000 food budget when I go. I pulled out Cooking for Mr. Latte and Garlic and Sapphires to compare restaurant lists. Someday . . .

*I know these are both technically memoir and not nonfiction novels. Having grown up post In Cold Blood, I've never understood the defining elements of the "nonfiction novel".

**I can laugh at my mother for inappropriate book giving, yet must recall that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was in the same batch of books from my mother. I had it packed for Ecuador when Happy Cricket broke her ankle. When she was cooped up in the hospital, I gave Happy Cricket my copy of Snow Flower because someone hospitalized for ankle surgery surely wants to read about foot binding.

Why didn't the Mister and I have a glass castle on our wedding cake, like this one available from thinkwedding.com?


Amateur Reader said...

Nonfiction novel = marketing gimmick

janet said...

yeah, that was a little intense, but i could really feel her pain! thanks for loaning me that book!