When a True Genius Appears in the World

When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.
— Jonathan Swift

Those are the opening lines of one of the best books I’ve read in a while– John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, a grand tale of eccentrics and borderline loony characters in ’60s New Orleans.

Toole wrote it in the ’60s and then promptly killed himself. A decade later, his mother sent a smeared carbon copy of the novel to Walker Percy (author of that other New Orleans tale, the story of my life, The Moviegoer). His mother insisted it was a masterpiece. Percy read it on a whim, and agreed. It was a masterpiece.

It is a masterpiece.

Percy published it, and it won a Pulitzer Prize. Continue reading

The Mad Tea Party

The biggest influences on my sense of humor are PG Wodehouse and Douglas Adams. But there were a few other things growing up that taught me new ways of being funny, one of which is the the Mad Tea Party from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The wordplay, logical deadlocks, literary nonsense and the frustration of always being just on the verge of understanding what they’re talking about.
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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