Tracy Morgan is the New Black

Just finished the audiobook of Tracy Morgan’s I Am the New Black. You would think it’s a funny book, if you knew his work on SNL or 30 Rock or elsewhere. But you’d be wrong.

I Am the New Black is kind of a stream-of-consciousness narration of thoughts, lessons, and stories from Tracy Morgans life. To get an idea of what the book is like, check out this interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. And there is an excerpt from the first page there as well.

Don’t read it if you don’t know who Tracy Morgan is or if you just kind-of like him. If you are a fan, it’s worth it, especially if you do the audiobook. Listening to him narrate it is a lot more fun than (I would imagine) reading it. Compare the NPR interview with the excerpt on that page— it works better coming from his mouth.

Kitchen Confidential

Kitchen ConfidentialTwo things are changing the way I eat, or at the very least, changing the way I think about food.

The first thing was the documentary Food, Inc. which we watched on new year’s eve. I’m not one for new year’s resolutions, but this movie will help you come up with half a dozen. From simple ones like “Eat food” (as opposed to gook), to more challenging ones, like “eat healthy, cheap, local, green, fair and wise”. Five out of six is good enough too.

The other thing that changed the way I think about food– specifically restaurant food– is Anthony Bourdain’s excellent book Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain has worked his way up from the most unseemly corners of the restaurant industry to the… most unseemly corners of the restaurant industry. To hear him tell it, all the corners are unseemly, and so is everything in between.

This is not a story about the horrors of hygiene around food, though there is some of that. It’s about the characters that the restaurant industry attracts, the traits needed to make it in the business, and war stories from behind enemy lines. To hear him tell it, the restaurant kitchen is a pirate ship, with all manner of highly-skilled, foul mouthed, burly thugs, who can give abuse in six languages and take it in nine. As long as they’re some variant of Spanish.

Bourdain is at his best when he’s exploding myths and letting us in on insider secrets, and directing his highly opinionated attacks at himself or restaurant industry standards. Or when he walks us through the day in a life of a high volume, high priced kitchen. The biographical bits are not the best part, but they do provide context to the rest of the story.

I did this one as an audio-book, and it pays off. Anthony Bourdain’s own words benefit from his delivery, especially in the chapters on a day in the life of his kitchen or the parts about the language.

The Moviegoer

Walker Percy’s book The Moviegoer is a personal favorite. It is a book about the search. What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. I’ll tell you more about it. Maybe some other time. I can’t tell you why it’s a personal favorite, except to draw your attention to paragraphs like this one (“In the evenings I usually…“), which I could have written, only with more words and worse: Continue reading

Sudhir and Barack Go to Chicago

I had not planned it this way, but these past couple of weeks I was listening to the good president Obama narrate Dreams From My Father during my commute, and reading Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gangleader For a Day as I fell asleep.

I recommend both books– especially Dreams to understand the incredibleness of what we’ve wrought here by electing Barack Obama president. Talk about the audacity of hope. And hearing him narrate it is quite a pleasure, doing voices, Kenyan accents, f’words and all.

If you’ve read Freakonomics, you’ve read Sudhir Venkatesh‘s work. The chapter about why drug dealers live with their mothers was based on his research. This guy is a son of Indian immigrants, raised in protected suburbs of California, studying sociology in the worst neighborhoods of Chicago the only way that seems logical to him. By hanging out with the drug dealers, the hustlers, the prostitutes and average folk in the Robert Taylor Homes, projects in the south side of Chicago. By hanging out with them for more than half a decade.

It is quite a story, and it smashes all kinds of stereotypes about people who live in these circumstances.

And it was chance that I was reading both of these books at the same time, but they have a common thread. Poor black communities in Chicago, their communities, community leadership, the futility and the hopefulness.

Obama was there in the mid-80s (in this book, obviously he comes back to Chicago later in life), working as a community organizer to help people. Venkatesh was there in the early ’90s, seeing things from the other side, among the poor, the hustled, the hustlers. Where Obama is hopeful, Venkatesh starts out naive and ends up cynical. To be fair, in the time-frames that these books cover, Venkatesh has actually spent more time among the poor black community than Obama.

But I wonder if their paths ever crossed? Venkatesh was a graduate student in the University of Chicago while he was hanging out in Robert Taylor. Obama was a professor there at the same time. There are only two references I can find. The first is that Obama is in Venkatesh’s documentary Transformation. And this Forbes article:

(Venkatesh) heartily approves of the proposal by Barack Obama–a fellow pickup basketball player at the University of Chicago when Venkatesh studied there–to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit to give a bigger break to low-income parents.

So did they play basketball with each other, or did they both happen to play basketball in the same university around the same time? It’s like saying I played basketball in Chicago when Jordan played for the Bulls. I did. In a suburban driveway.

The governor of my state, Deval Patrick, lived in the Robert Taylor Homes. So did Mr. T. I wonder if their paths ever crossed?

The Graveyard Book

Yes, it’s still Neil Gaiman week.

Neil Gaiman‘s latest book, loosely based on The Jungle Book, is a wonderful thing. Where Kipling’s Jungle Book had a human child raised by animals in a jungle, Gaiman’s Graveyard Book has him raised by ghosts in a graveyard. There are a few other parallels, in characters and in passages, but this book is its own beast.

The Graveyard book

This was my third audiobook (I’m going to stop keeping count now), and Gaiman himself reads. He does an excellent job, doing the voices of all types of creatures, keeping it just as spooky and mysterious as it needs to be.

There might be a Graveyard Book movie. Can we have Henry Selick animation again? No, it seems like we’ll be getting Neil Jordan and live action.

A Very Old Ping Pong Game of Ideas

Christopher Lydon’s Radio Open Source, channeling Suketu Mehta (author of Maximum City, highly recommended), mentions something that I’ve been thinking about for a while now:

a deep ping-pong game of ideas runs long and strong under the US-India connection: from Thoreau’s ecstatic reading of the Bhagavad Gita to Gandhi’s reading of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, from Martin Luther King Jr.’s reading of Gandhi to Barack Obama’s reading of Gandhi through King and his White House embrace of Prime Minister Singh last week.

I’ve lived all but one year of my life in three states: Obama’s, Gandhi’s and Thoreau’s. Though Hawai’i, Kansas, Indonesia, and Kenya claim Obama as their own. Which says a lot.