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Kitchen Confidential

By Anthony Bourdain

My introduction to Anthony Bourdain came on a trip to visit my mom and stepdad, who are fans of his show, No Reservations. We watched several episodes on that trip, and something about the combination of exotic locales, sardonic humor, and a deep love of food caught me, and Juliette and I were hooked for several months afterward. It was just a matter of time before I picked up the book that first brought him to fame: his memoir, Kitchen Confidential.

Like a lot of people, I spent a part of my youth working in restaurants, first as a busboy, then a waiter, then a bartender. The experience left me with the solid understanding that I'm not cut out for that sort of work. Still, despite the fact that it was a difficult and mostly thankless (from the customers, at least) job, and despite the fact that I hope never to have to do it again, there's something alluring, almost romantic about that time in my memory. And talking to other ex-waiters, it seems this is a pretty common thing.

What I loved most about Kitchen Confidential was the authenticity. Granted, I've never worked in a restaurant kitchen--indeed, in most restaurants, the floor staff and kitchen staff are not only separate, they're at least a little antagonistic toward each other--and the two kitchens I came to know were nowhere near as profane as what Bourdain describes. Nonetheless, there was so much in the book that I recognized. It really took me back.

Everything I love about the show, too, is present in the book. Bourdain has a really distinctive voice, and by that I don't just mean his writing style, but also his actual speaking voice. And more than any other book I can think of, I found it really easy to imagine it being spoken by the author. I can't think of anybody else who manages to come off as both sarcastically arrogant and genuinely self-effacing, not the way he does.

Anyway, if you've ever worked in a restaurant--or are thinking about working in one--I highly recommend this book.


Started: 6/1/2009 | Finished: 6/19/2009

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Star Trek

Juliette and I finally got a chance to go see a movie this weekend for the first time in almost five months. As you might imagine, since we hadn't been to one in a while and probably won't get to go to another for a while, we wanted to make sure that we saw the one that was really pulling at us. Actually, it turned out that Juliette didn't have any that she was dying to see, which meant that I got to satisfy my inner geek and go see Star Trek. As it happened, not only was it a successful outing for me, but Juliette also really enjoyed it.

Now, the fact that I'm a big Star Trek geek might make you think I'm biased, but the truth is that sci-fi fans--especially Trek fans--are notoriously difficult to please. A movie like this has to walk a fine line between innovation and nostalgia. Too far in one direction and the fans will be outraged at having their cherished memories violated. Too far in the other and the film will be nothing more than a stale rehash of stuff we've already seen. I think that director J. J. Abrams managed to pull it off. There were enough references to satisfy a veteran fan like me but it also stood on its own legs enough that someone like Juliette--who I'm not sure has ever actually seen an episode of any of the shows--had no trouble following along. The characters were all familiar and recognizable, but the film's premise required them to also be a little different from the ones I knew, and the contrast was fun to see. The cast was, overall, pretty good. I particularly liked Karl Urban, whose Dr. McCoy was just spot-on. Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine as Spock and Kirk were also good, and Simon Pegg's take on Scotty was fun.

That's not to say that the movie was perfect. There were some pretty big plot holes, and some of the action scenes got a little repetitive. And some long-time fans may be disappointed at the fact that it's a pretty straight-ahead adventure story with little in the way of unexpected twists and turns. For me, though, that's not really a problem--as far as I'm concerned, Trek has always been about adventure, especially the original series. Certainly some of the later shows added some depth of concept or character development that's beyond what you'll find here, but I think that Abram's Star Trek captures the spirit of Roddenberry's original show quite well.

I'm definitely planning to buy this one when it comes out on DVD. Probably the highest praise, though, comes from Juliette: watching this movie made her want to try out the show.


Viewed: 5/30/2009 | Released: 5/8/2009 | Score: A-

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Perdido Street Station

By China MiƩville

If I had to come up with one word to describe my experience of reading this book it would be "dirty." And I don't mean that in the sense of "erotic" or "immoral" or "forbidden"--though perhaps I should mention that there are several scenes that could easily be described as perverse. But, no, I literally mean it as "covered in filth." China Miéville has created a setting--the city of New Crobuzon--that is squalid and grimy. His vision of urban life in this fantastic world is bleak and alienating. New Crobuzon is full of downtrodden poor, corrupt politicians, self-serving criminals, all grubbing in the muck of their environment. Reading Perdido Street Station I felt like I was crawling through sewage much of the time.

Nonetheless, it was compelling. Despite the setting and the prose that was, at times, overblown and almost cheesy, I had trouble putting this book down.

But perhaps I should back up a bit and explain the book some. I had a hard time getting my arms around Perdido Street Station at first--the entry is a little jarring and there weren't the usual genre pointers to help me get my bearings. To give you a little start there, Perdido Street Station is part horror and part fantasy, set in a world where magic mixes with steampunk technology. It's weird. Of course I mean "weird" in the way we normally use the word these days, but also in the older sense, the kind that invokes that eerie feeling you get where you know something is wrong, but can't quite figure out what. The story centers around a brilliant but sloppy scientist named Isaac, who, at the beginning of the book, is approached by a half-man, half-bird creature that has lost its wings and wants to fly again. About the first third to half of the book is spent showing you the city and its denizens, and setting up the action that explodes in the rest of the book. You meet Isaac's part-insect artist girlfriend, Lin, and several of his friends and associates--things move a little slowly, but everything steadily and kind of creepily builds before terror explodes into the plot about halfway through. The climax and the action leading to it is harrowing, and the eventual resolution is well done, even if it also leaves a taste like ashes in your mouth.

I think my problem with this book is its negativity, its darkness. Mind you, I'm not looking for sunshine and rainbows in my fiction--I loved Glen Cook's Black Company novels, for example--but Miéville's story is willfully, even oppressively dark, like he's throwing it in your face. Reading a bit about him, I learned that he's in Michael Moorcock's philosophical camp of fantasy writers, disdaining the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien for comforting his readers instead of challenging them. Yet, for all that reading this book made me want to take a shower, I didn't find it challenging, exactly. It didn't present any new ideas or push me to see familiar things in new ways. Rather, it reminded me of a high school kid from the suburbs with piercings, painted nails, and all-black clothes, rebellious for rebellion's sake.

Still, don't get me wrong, it's a well-crafted story. It took a little while, but I did connect with the characters, and the bittersweet ending definitely affected me. I think I'd even say I liked it. This sounds like pretty thin praise, I suppose, but given how unpleasant the setting was, I think the fact that I'd say I liked it at all speaks to how good it was. If you like your fantasy dark, I'd say this book very well may be for you.


Started: 5/12/2009 | Finished: 5/22/2009

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Ilium

By Dan Simmons

After finishing my second series by Dan Simmons, I seem to be noticing a pattern. The first book has an interesting premise, is tightly plotted, and seems to be going somewhere good, but ultimately the series ends up being kind of disappointing. That was true of the Hyperion series, and I think it's even more true of Ilium and Olympos.

This duology is set a few thousand years in the future, when some humans have engineered themselves into god-like beings, others are living a life of ease and ignorance, and there are sentient robots living among the asteroids and gas giants of the outer solar system. There are a number of intertwining storylines--one involving a 20th-century classics scholar who is resurrected by what appear to be Greek gods who task him with observing their recreation of the Trojan war, another involving a group of the post-civilized humans on Earth questioning their existence, and a third involving a group of robots from Jupiter setting out on a mission to find out what's going on back on Earth and Mars. It sounds confusing, and it kind of is, but it starts off really well. And it's really smart when it starts, too, with both oblique and explicit references to literature from the Iliad to Shakespeare to Proust to Nabokov.

Unfortunately, the second book doesn't deliver on the promise of the first. It's just kind of all over the place--a bunch of stuff happens, but it all feels unfocused and scattered, like Simmons had loaded a bunch of ideas into a shotgun and let it spray. Every chapter ends in a cliffhanger, only to leave you to go back to a different plotline. It got kind of aggravating after a while, and the resolution left a lot to be desired.

I think that this is probably worth reading for the first book, but try not to let your hopes ride too high as you go into the second.


Started: 3/13/2009 | Finished: 4/3/2009

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Brokedown Palace

By Steven Brust

It seems like usually when an author continues to write story after story set in the same world, things get stale after a while. Steven Brust appears to be an exception to that rule, though. I've read ten of his Vlad Taltos books, two of the Khaavren Romances, and now this one, and the more I read about Dragaera, the more I want to read.

Unlike most of the rest of Brust's novels set in this world, Brokedown Palace isn't set in the Empire--the focus is on one of the Eastern Kingdoms. (Familiar readers will recognize the setting as Vlad Taltos's ancestral homeland.) The tone is also markedly different from both of the other series. The original series is told in a straightforward, sometimes sarcastic voice. The Khaavren books are modeled after Dumas. This one reads more like a fairy tale--in fact, it appears to be explicitly modeled after a certain oral tradition, which I can only assume is Hungarian as that is Brust's background. As fables go, I found this one to be quite well-written--tight, well-paced, and with a really nice overall structure. I was reminded a little bit of Tolkien's Silmarillion, except this was more fun to read.

The only thing that detracted from the experience for me was the title, which was taken from a Grateful Dead song and is shared with a movie that starred Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale, neither of which have anything to do with this book. But, anyway, overall I have to say I very much enjoyed this one.


Started: 3/9/2009 | Finished: 3/12/2009

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Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs

By Chuck Klosterman

If you're at all like me, you have occasionally pondered the cultural significance of things like video games, movies, bands, and other pop culture phenomena. You may have even thought about writing down these ideas you've had, perhaps in a blog or book. If you're like me, well, reading this book may make you despair a little, since Chuck Klosterman does so much better a job with this sort of thinking and writing than I do.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is a collection of essays delving into such topics as what paying the video game The Sims tells us about ourselves, or the impact of MTV's The Real World on the personalities of young people today, or why Billy Joel is important despite the fact that he's not cool. It's sharp, funny, and, for the most part, spot-on in its analysis of American pop culture. The only drawback may be that Klosterman's touchstones are not universal--people below a certain age range were too young to be aware of these things when they happened, and people above that age range likely didn't care. So, if you're not between the ages of about 25 and 40, this book may completely miss you. If you are close to my age, though, I'd say this book is probably worth checking out.


Started: 2/13/2009 | Finished: 3/2/2009

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King's Shield

By Sherwood Smith

As you may know from my previous reviews, I loved the first two books in this series, Inda and The Fox. As luck would have it, my copy of King's Shield arrived in the mail the very same day that I finished The Fox, and I was very excited to dive into the next book. Unfortunately, something changed between the two books and I found myself not liking this one quite as much. Don't get me wrong, King's Shield is still pretty good. But I just wasn't captivated by it in the same way that I was by the first two installments.

I'm not sure exactly what it was about this one that didn't do it for me. The characters are still complex and they've grown in ways that make sense. The writing hasn't changed, and the pacing is still good, with action happening in all the right places. Maybe it was the change in focus. The first two books are very much about the principal characters growing up. This one is much more about political intrigue and war. I guess I also didn't really like the way the character Sponge changed--the changes are plausible, but I found that I didn't really care for the adult he became.

Whatever it was that rubbed me the wrong way about book three, I'm still very much looking forward to Treason's Shore, the fourth and, I believe, final episode of the series.


Started: 1/31/2009 | Finished: 2/11/2009

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Slumdog Millionaire

This year, our best friends gave me and Juliette gift certificates for a night at the movies for Christmas, along with a promise to babysit while we were out. As you might have guessed from the steep drop-off in movie reviews over the last six months, this was a real treat for us. What with the Oscars coming up and all of the attendant buzz, the choice of what to see was a little daunting, but we were able to narrow it down pretty quickly to either The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Slumdog Millionaire. Benjamin Button being over two and a half hours long, we opted for Slumdog. Well, I don't know how Benjamin Button would have been, but this was a fantastic choice for our night out.

On the off chance you haven't heard of this one--it won four Golden Globes and got ten Oscar nominations, so people have been talking about it a lot--Slumdog Millionaire is the story of a young man, Jamal, who makes it onto the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? At the opening of the film Jamal is one question shy of winning the top prize of twenty million rupees but has been arrested on suspicion of cheating because of the incredulity of an uneducated kid from the Mumbai slums being able to correctly answer so many trivia questions. Much of the rest of the story is told in flashback, showing scenes from Jamal's life that explain how he knew the answers to the specific questions he was asked.

I have to say, I loved this movie. The look it gave into life in the Mumbai slums was gut-wrenching, but there were also laughs and love. None of the performances really stood out as particularly amazing--though I did appreciate Irfan Khan's turn as the police inspector who interrogates Jamal--but everyone was competent, and the story was so compelling, and both Juliette and I left the theater feeling good.

A final note: Slumdog won the Golden Globe for best score, and is nominated for the Oscar in the same category, and I heartily agree with both. The music in this film was just great, and I plan on getting the soundtrack as soon as I have some spare cash.


Viewed: 1/31/2009 | Released: 11/12/2008 | Score: A

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The Fox

By Sherwood Smith

Whew. Seven hundred seventy-four pages in four days should tell you something about how much I liked this book. Picking up right where the first book left off, The Fox had everything I liked about Inda but moreso.

The first book gave us a glimpse at a very rich and interesting world, but most of the major characters are all from the same country, and even when we later get introduced to the wider world through Inda's sea travels, most of his time is spent aboard ship, so all we get of the rest of the world is through bits of dialogue here and there. By contrast, in The Fox, Smith brings us to all kinds of new places, each one with a strongly developed history and flavor, each with plausible national interests and goals. Smith presents them in such a way that you get an idea of the individual culture of each place, but she does it without resorting to the kind of flat stereotyping you so often see in big fantasy worlds.  (You know, where everybody from this country is a greedy merchant and everybody from that country is a strong, savage warrior.) The characters and personal relationships introduced at every new place seem genuine and relatable.

The strong character development in the first novel continues in the second, especially in the protagonist. His transition to adulthood is handled very skillfully--you recognize both the child you first met and the ways in which his life has shaped him in the man he becomes. And, as before, you get to see so much of the inner workings of even relatively minor characters that they all come to life in a really compelling way.

Further, for a relatively long book, it's very well paced. Events are neither drawn out nor rushed, but everything seems to happen right when it should. I was certainly never bored--I could hardly put the book down!

In fact, the only problem I had was that I was so into this book that I had trouble keeping up with the other stuff I wanted to do--the hard drive on my Tivo, for example, is getting pretty full. I thought I might get a little break after this book, but, to both my delight and chagrin, the Amazon shipment containing the next installment, King's Shield, arrived on the same day I finished The Fox. So, it looks like I'm going to stay busy for a while. The fourth book isn't scheduled to come out until August, so on the one hand I'll have a little time to catch up on the rest of my life, but on the other hand I know the waiting is going to bug me.


Started: 1/26/2009 | Finished: 1/30/2009

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Inda

By Sherwood Smith

I have to say, I'm a little surprised by how much I liked Inda. The story is fairly commonplace--a talented young man trains to become a military commander, and in the process he gets swept up into the world-shaking events of his time, destined to become a hero. I've certainly read that one several times before, and I'm sure I will again. What's more, the writing isn't all that great. The author, Sherwood Smith, has this strange tendency to shift perspectives from one character to another abruptly and without warning, which is often jarring.

Despite that, though, I was absolutely riveted, and when the book came to its abrupt ending I was upset that I didn't already have the sequels. (Indeed, the fourth book isn't even coming out until August.) I have, of course, always been a sucker for a coming-of-age story, but, more than that, the world and characters of Inda were quite compelling. The cavalry-based military culture of the Marlovans combined with their language (several words of which you're introduced to throughout the book) evoke images of the Mongols and the Germanic tribes of medieval Europe. But there's more than that. Much of the history of this world is lost to the characters, but a huge backstory is hinted at that seems really interesting--magic, other races, fallen kingdoms, and so on--and perhaps important in later books.

I mentioned changes in point-of-view before, which are odd and often annoying. But they are also a big part of what make the characters so interesting. By seeing so much of each character's internal thoughts, each one is invested with a depth you don't normally see in minor characters. The only problem is that I wound up getting attached to a few characters who didn't end up making it through the book.

It's rare that I read two books in a row that I enjoy so thoroughly, and since I have a good chunk left in both this series and the Black Company series, it looks like I may have a hard time deciding what to read next. Which, when you come down to it, isn't such a bad problem to have.


Started: 1/13/2009 | Finished: 1/20/2009

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