Anthony Bourdain Saved my Thanksgiving

As Thanksgiving approaches my mind tends to wander to the topic of food.  I think about mashed potatoes frequently.  My mother’s stuffing is a close second.  I think about people sitting down for the Thanksgiving meal and the people who cook those meals.  Then my mind wanders to those who work during the holiday in the food industry, the food truck deliverymen, the restaurant managers, the chefs and servers.  While most of us are celebrating with our families these guys are running one of the most, if not the most, important industries in our world: the industry of food, food logistics, food preparation, and food consumption.

So it was not a real stretch for me to immerse myself into Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw, A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and People who Cook as a pre-Thanksgiving nod to those who keep my belly full and my appetite satiated.  Medium Raw works well as a follow-up to Bourdain’s now infamous, Kitchen Confidential.  In Confidential, Bourdain opens up the swinging doors to the restaurant kitchens of his past to give the reader a glimpse into what it is really like to work in the service industry.  His tell-all made heroes and villains of chefs, managers and line cooks alike.  His book dove into the depths of restaurant culture to show how extremely hard it really is to put together the perfect plate.

In his follow-up, Medium Raw Bourdain revisits the characters of his past, sets the record straight and frankly, made my mouth water.  He admits to his naivety during the writing of his first book and proceeds to explain his mistakes throughout the rest of Medium Raw.  He writes about what happened in his life between Kitchen Confidential and the present, like the dissolution of his first marriage, appearances on Top Chef, fatherhood, and his Emmy award winning show No Reservations.  However, the best part of Bourdain’s writing is the way he writes about food.   Mouth-watering food concoctions marinate almost every page.  “Seared langoustine with a ‘salad’ of mâche and wild mushroom with shaved foie gras and white balsamic vinaigrette…” and “crispy black bass with braised celery and parsnip custard in an Iberico-ham-and green-peppercorn sauce” are just a taste of the food treats Bourdain explores.  Do not read this book with an empty stomach. 

So let us remember those who slave over the stoves this Thanksgiving. The men and women who chop, dice, sauté, and create the beautiful plates that we, without hesitation, devour before crashing on the couch to watch the big game. Let us remember how blessed we really are to live in a country where food is not only sustenance but also a conversation. Keep talking to me Mr. Bourdain.

 Kathryn L. Arnold

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Viva la Beatles!

“Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles” opened in Austin last night at the Long Center. The show transports its audience back in time—to a time some of them still remember—the 1960s. Two large screens buttress the stage. A mimic of Ed Sullivan appears larger than life to introduce the Beatles, just as he did when they performed live in 1964. As the curtain draws up, the “Beatles” begin playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Though the audience is not packed with screaming and fainting teenagers, applause rumbles and then roars through the packed auditorium.

The band mimics the Fab Four perfectly. When “Paul” and “John” speak, you have to remind yourself it’s not real. Even then, the momentum of the show takes over, and you become certain you are attending every Beatles concert they ever played. Between concerts, the screens show vintage commercials such as the Flintstones lighting up Winston cigarettes. Every detail of the show reinforces the time-machine effect.

The Ed Sullivan performance is followed by the Shea Stadium concert: the band switches costumes, screens fill with video clips of hysterical girls sporting bouffant hairdos, and the backdrop replicates the stadium. I got goosebumps listening to the clamor of the 1965 fans and following the panoramic images of the stadium. As “Lennon” starts playing “Twist and Shout,” sixty-year-old men and women leap from their seats to dance with one another. Soon the whole place is filled with twisting and shouting audience members.

Though they take their seats for the ballads, the audience claps to the beat as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band plays “I am the Walrus.” They sing along with “When I’m 64” while psychedelic images move across the screens, lights flash various colors, and fog rises around the decked-out band members. No one is needing an intermission.

When the second half starts, everyone is anticipating their favorite Beatles’ numbers. The band is now outfitted to coordinate with the “Abbey Road” album cover. Just a few bars of “Come Together” inspire applause, and people jump up when they play “Get Back” and “Revolution.” As though attending a real concert, everyone stays standing and clapping at the end of the show, begging for an encore. Though audience members sit and sway as “Paul” plays “Let it Be,” he jokingly insists they stand for the final number. On their feet, the whole room sings the chorus of “Hey Jude”, men and women taking turns chanting “Na na na…”

Although nothing can replace the Beatles, for those of us who missed the worldwide phenomenon and were not lucky enough to be fans in the 60s, “Rain” revitalizes the legends. “Tribute” is not a strong enough word; movies like “Across the Universe” and shows like Cirque de Soleil’s “Love” are tributes. What “Rain” offers is reverence for the uniqueness of those musicians and their talents. The show does not merely celebrate the music, it brings the Beatles back to life.

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Summer Reading List

When I walked into a used bookstore located near Wilmington beach, I asked the helpful cashier to point me towards “light reading.” The overenthusiastic staff member tried to press Wharton and Twain on me. I explained that I’m a literature professor, but I was looking for something–I was about to use the phrase my students throw at me all the time–brainless. If my students read, this is the adjective that determines their choice of book. Since I try to guide them towards books that offer pleasure and edification, the summer-version of myself feels a little hypocritical when I reach for cheap paperbacks.

In full, embarrassing disclosure, I was seeking Twilight or The Hunger Games that day in the bookstore. After purchasing Age of Innocence and Humorous Stories out of chagrin, I attempted to read the last in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn, and without exaggeration, I can say it is the worst book I have ever picked up. I will not recommend it. However, Suzanne Collins’ teen series, The Hunger Games, is a step up: all three books are entertaining (perfect for the beach or by the pool or as audiobooks for summer road trips) and surprisingly thought provoking, especially for anyone who has never read a dystopia novel such as 1984 or Oryx and Crake.

I love summer reading because there are no demands upon my list. I don’t have to re-read Hopkins’s sonnets before Tuesday or trudge through Harriet Jacobs’s diary and wonder again why I assigned a book I hadn’t read yet. Instead, I get to read anything—from economics or chemistry books, biographies, teen fiction, political satires. I have a longer book wish list on Amazon than my queue in Netflix, and that is saying something. People sometimes hesitate to recommend books to me because they’re afraid that, as a professor, I have an elitist stance towards books. True, reading is like drinking wine—you must develop your palate. Yet, while I will never pass up a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, I occasionally reach for a Shiner. Both have their time and place, and, for me, summer is the time for Shiner reading.

Travelling from library to library this summer, I sojourned at various friends’ and families’ homes, which means I added more books to my reading list. Out in California, a colleague told me I should pick up Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, that was the third time the book had been recommended to me—once by a stranger in an Austin bookstore who had just finished it in a book club and another time by a graduate student who was reading it for a fun summer read. So far, the book is intriguing, though a few medical passages have me twitching.

In Columbia, a friend at USC was in the middle of reading The Man Who Ate Everything, a collection of worldwide culinary adventures by a Vogue food critic, and she could not stop praising it. In the introduction he confesses his food biases and then delineates a step-by-step program for learning to like Greek food and olives. After enjoying this book, I picked up Foer’s Eating Animals, Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. I cannot get enough of books on food, blogs on food, articles on food.

When I visited my aunt in Greenville, she filled my passenger seat with a handful of novels she had recently finished, including The Help, The Paris Wife, and Unbroken. Though I have not picked up Hillenbrand’s novel about World War II, I’ve already had a chance to read the first two novels. With the movie coming out this August, I was anxious to read The Help. The story is moving; it makes you want to do the right thing, to listen to your gut and act with gumption. But, more than that, the various voices are relatable, humorous, and poignantly real. I hope the film can capture the joy of the novel. I read McLain’s The Paris Wife in one night. It reminded me of Austen’s Persuasion— probably because neither novel could I put down once I started—but also because it’s a love story told within a larger community. The story is from the point of view of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. Not only do you get to know Hemingway and see inside the life of a renowned writer, but also you meet Paris in the 1920s and she’s a lost gem. The Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and others make unforgettable cameos in the narrative.

As the countdown is on to the end of summer, I begin listing how many fun-reads I’ll be able to fit in before an academic semester starts. Of course, as a friend remarked the other night at dinner, my job is basically “professional reader.” Even when I may have to limit my reading of Travels in Siberia to ten minutes a night, the rest of my hours are cuddled up in a recliner reading Paradise Lost and The Sound and the Fury and calling it work.

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Louder than a Bomb

You watch “Louder than a Bomb” and you want to change the world. You are suddenly in awe of the talents you’ve been given, and you wonder if you are using them all, if you are working hard enough, if you are giving enough to those around you, if you are near as inspiring in living your own life as are those young poets on stage.

The documentary focuses on four students as they prepare for the annual poetry slam contest in Chicago. The students are in high school and are using their afternoons to write and rehearse poetry. Like a twenty-first version of Lewis and Tolkien reading aloud to each other in the Bird and Baby pub, the kids congregate in McDonald’s to share their works in progress. Several of them have difficult home lives, coming from parents with former drug addictions or struggling with a mentally disabled sibling or absent father. Yet they transform their sufferings into inspirational lyrics.

Each of the students has a distinct gift for language as well as performance. Nova Venerable credits poetry slam with converting her character. Her ability to embody emotions, to give image to the unimaginable is mesmerizing. Within the film, she works on her craft, exhibiting her desire not just to create but to perfect. Adam Gottlieb receives an award for bettering all those with whom he comes into contact and his goodness is felt through the film. When he performs, “Breathe Now,” the audience will sit breathless in expectant wonder at the truths he exhales. Nate Marshall, who wants to be either a professor or professional rapper, concludes the film with his “Langston huge” talent, giving thanks to the forum for helping him deal with the loss of his grandmothers, his father’s abandonment, and the rage he used to feel. Finally, the Steinmenauts steal the show—their performance of “Counting Graves” will give you goose bumps. I have watched it over and over again: the words will not leave me.

Documentaries often act as Toto who pulls back the curtain on the Wizard, revealing the impotent man behind the false show of power. When “Louder than a Bomb” withdraws the curtain, you see more power and more possibility. We often lament that the teenagers of this generation are lazy and apathetic, but this documentary reveals the kindling is there and apparently, poetry can still ignite.

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Common Readers and The Uncommon Reader

How do you choose only five books that every American should read? At least 100 would be a beginning, but five! On Facebook occasionally a list gets passed around of the books everyone should have read and people highlight how many they’ve actually read. The list is unbelievably arbitrary and includes the Harry Potter series (which I love but would never include on any recommended reading list).  In substitution for this list, I’ve posted Mortimer Adler’s list from How to Read a Book, with the addition of a few female writers that the unintentional misogynist neglected or whom he preceded, such as Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, and Marilynne Robinson.

To finish this list of the five books every American should read, I have the problem of too many choices. People have sent me their picks: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye… But I only get to choose one. Because I have to limit myself to five, I’ve been narrowing my choices to American authors and novels. I haven’t even pondered the canonically great books such as The Divine Comedy or the American Modern Library’s 20th century bestsellers such as The Brothers Karamazov. Nor have I ventured into poetry, prose, or drama recommendations, though Dickinson, Emerson, and Williams would make that list.  Instead, I have limited myself, and I have progressed chronologically from nineteenth century to now.

Yet, with one choice left, I wanted a work that would somehow encapsulate all other works, that would be a starting point for those who have yet to understand the importance of reading for the development of character, and, let’s be realistic, a work that was short enough for the average American reader.

So, to echo Monty Python, “and now, for something completely different”: my final recommendation is Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, a recent novella by British playwright published (on my birthday of all irrelevant coincidences) in London. The book is hilarious and uplifting and a wonderful initiator into reading. With or without knowing it (not being a Bennett scholar, I will not make statements of authorial intention), Bennett has embodied C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism in this playful tale.

The story follows the new obsession of Queen Elizabeth II with reading. Her reading causes quite a commotion among her cabinet members, family, and her subjects. At the beginning of the tale, she is not much of a reader, for “liking books was something she left to other people.” However, reading transforms her, making the monarchist into somewhat of a…democrat. For any more information than that, I recommend reading the book—it’s too short to give too much away.

This past year I attended a presentation by Yann Martel, the author of Life of Pi (another book I’d highly recommend), who admitted that he sends book recommendations to the Prime Minister of Canada for the leader’s edification. At first I laughed—how funny for an author to recommend novels to his political representative! Then I reconsidered—how audacious, how fitting, how absurd. I’ve concluded that I side with Martel, who is enacting what Bennett satirizes in The Uncommon Reader, the need for those in power to be reading fiction. However, I think it substantially more important for the citizens to be reading literature, especially in a country where the government should be of, by, and for the people.

In 1958 Ezra Pound wrote a poem “Cantico del Sole,” in which he wonders what “America would be like/ If the Classics had a wide circulation.” I think fifty years later, the question is, what would America be like if any books had a wide circulation? What would America be like if teenage boys enjoyed reading The Odyssey or mothers spent their free time reading Augustine’s Confessions? What would America be like if we were all common readers?

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Beloved: Remembering Lost Things

I put off reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved for a long time, mostly because I had been horrified by her novel Song of Solomon when I was fourteen (not a book geared for teenagers: among other terrors, it includes a woman attempting an abortion with a knitting needle). For my first upper-level English course, I assigned the book as a way to force myself to read it. I had to reread the first chapter at least six or seven times to catch on to the rhythm; it reminded me of the first time I encountered War and Peace and could not latch on to the names, vocabulary, or style of Tolstoy.

Morrison’s work is often called lyrical; it reads like poetry. The novel begins with confusion: fragments, ambiguous nouns, contrasting images, and repetitions: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.” The sounds of the words play off one another like a building beat, but it’s unfamiliar and initially thwarting. After a few efforts reading it, I chose to purchase the audiobook read by Morrison. She reads the novel as though singing it, and I highly recommend reading and listening together to understand the lyricism that critics rave about.

Recently a student came over to my house to sit out on the porch and discuss her summer reading list. Her boyfriend is an African-American student who is attempting to teach her about his culture and asked her to read Beloved; she was rightly haunted by it. Literally, she confessed to having nightmares about the book. The plot itself is full of ghosts, including the title character Beloved. Although the story occurs in post-Civil War Ohio, the main characters bring the antebellum South to the forefront, remembering the suffering they endured under slavery. Their memories make the tales of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs look Disney-worthy.

My favorite character is dead before the end of the first paragraph, but she is resurrected a quarter of a way through in a memory and preaches a sermon that outdoes Melville’s or Hawthorne’s preachers, at least aesthetically. As she sits on a large (literal and figurative) rock, Baby Suggs shouts to a congregation of former slaves in a clearing in the woods: “Let the children come; “Let your mothers hear you laugh;” “Let the grown men come.” Her authority is resolute, and the outcast children of God respond. She preaches the immanence of God found in their flesh: “Yonder they do not love your flesh. …You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved.” It’s beautiful how she claims the right to be loved for a people tragically and wrongly despised. The passage should be read aloud, preached as a healing word to those who have been persecuted.

In A.S. Byatt’s introduction to the novel, she quotes T.S. Eliot: “[E]very new work of literature altered the literature of the past—in a sense reread that literature. Beloved enacts this alteration more forcefully than most classics.” In choosing the great works that every American should read, I’m choosing a twentieth-century novel that rereads the greatest literature in our canon from The Odyssey to the Bible to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In Beloved Morrison somehow sings an old and new song.

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The Moviegoer, Quintessentially American

Harold Bloom calls The Moviegoer “a permanent American book,” placing the novel in the tradition of Mark Twain. He describes the protagonist Binx Bolling as “a kind of grown-up, ruefully respectable New Orleans version of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn”—leave it to Harold Bloom to get to an idea before me. When I was deciding on the second book that every American should read, I waivered between those two. While Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is canonical, Percy’s first novel is just as quintessentially American, expressing who we have been, who we are, and who we are becoming. It received the National Book Award in 1962, and in 1998 the Modern Library ranked the novel number 60 out of 100 best 20th century English-language novels.

The twentieth-century Huck Finn, Binx, is also on a quest, what he describes as “the search.” Binx defines the search thus: “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. …To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be on to something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair” (13). With all their freedom, Americans now struggle with what to do with that freedom. Ironically, a nation founded on the pursuit of happiness is populated by people largely in despair.

Binx’s “cousin” Kate (the stepdaughter of his Aunt) suffers from such despair, or “malaise,” as Percy terms it. After an attempt to commit suicide, she realizes that life is a choice. She enjoys what Percy calls in Lost in the Cosmos the life of an “ex-suicide:” “The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive.” Once you realize that you have a choice to live, life becomes something to value. Both Percy’s father and grandfather committed suicide, so Percy understood that choice well.

The novel ends with an affirmation of life that most people, including Bloom, either ignore or debunk. Binx and Kate end up together and their marriage signifies a change in Binx; the existentialist wanderer has made a commitment to love and to community. Moreover, Percy intended the epilogue to be a tribute to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Though it concludes with the death of Binx’s young brother, Percy emphasizes the resurrection.

Walker Percy was a Catholic convert. He moved from agnosticism to faith and simultaneously made a move from science to fiction. A recent documentary by Win Riley ( shows this transition. In an interview in First Things, Riley says, “In the making of the film, I felt as if I had an obligation to fully explain Percy’s faith. Finally, I came to realize that it couldn’t ever be fully explained.” Percy would have wanted it that way. For Percy, faith was a gift; he would spend his life searching to understand it.

In Aliens in America: The Strange Truth About Our Souls, Peter Lawler attempts to ascertain why the average American, who currently inhabits a national utopia “may be less happy, may experience themselves as more lonely and displaced, than ever” (x). He takes his title from Percy, who asserts that we are all aliens in this world, meant for another world. Yet, fifty years after Percy diagnosed the feeling of displacement, Americans are still searching.

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