Parts Unknown, No Reservations…and The Layover

Being a person whose TV consumption is largely beholden to Netflix, I am always excited when new episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s TV shows are added and doubly so when it adds new seasons of “Parts Unknown”, his CNN show. Junkie that I am, I watched all the episodes of “The Layover,” his second Travel Channel show. The premise of “The Layover” is that Bourdain lays out the types of things he would do if he had 36 to 48 hours in a city, how he would get around, where he would stay, and what he would eat. Instead of copious B-roll, there are also brief clips of interviews with locals to get their impression of the town and where to go and what to eat. Bourdain serves as a sort of specialized travel guide.

“The Layover” is not particularly good T.V., but I did watch every episode available to me. Some of the problems stem from the appearance that Bourdain mailed in a lot of the episodes and his demeanor, usually cranky and sarcastic, but still usually gracious and good-natured, became bitter and caustic. Nor did the compressed time frame, giving it the helter-skelter appearance that travelers are all too familiar with, help the aesthetic of the show. Further, the determination to lay out options for, say, getting from the airport to a hotel based on both time and money and a variety of hotels based on cost laid the groundwork for a show to revolve around how much this layover excursion is going to cost. Add these things together and it is the perfect storm for Bourdain to invariably take the more expensive option, all the while noting it is on someone else’s dime, and breaking up his rundown of great gastronomic experiences in order to find any bar in the city that has Pappy van Winkle.

Given the format and focus of the show, I can’t blame Bourdain, either. It just doesn’t make for great TV. Despite these complaints, the bigger (semi-related) problem is that “The Layover” is unbearably repetitive, with the same formula and concerns in each episode.

If “No Reservations” or “Parts Unknown” were strictly shows about food or cooking I would not be nearly as interested in watching. I enjoy how the shows focus on food, the people who make the food, and the relationship between food and life, but, frankly, Bourdain is not great at describing what he is eating aside from his dedication to muffled declarations of appreciation. What he does do well is describe the ingredients of a dish and discussing how it is made and the crew of the show does a great job of complementing this sort of description with beautiful shots of both the food being prepared and the final product. This sort of camera and production work then bleeds over into the rest of the show. They use an enormous amount of B-roll, for the food, the people, and the places and then edit it together into a beautiful episode.

This style is not an accident, but a feature of the show. When he was on the Nerdist podcast (if I remember the interview correctly), Bourdain discussed some of the artistic decisions in making episodes and particularly how they have a tendency to model episodes on classic films and to spend their prep time reading books, including a lot of literature, about their destination. The idea was both to get a sense for the aesthetic sensibility of the place and to capture something elemental about the people and culture there. Bourdain gets to do and eat some things that most people would never have the opportunity to because of resources and connections that are not readily available to most people and some of these likely cost a great deal, but still other things shown are street food options that probably cost less than eating at McDonalds. The price of these things is not the point and to focus on the cost would diminish the whole enterprise. There are restrictions on what can be done, of course, and there is an overarching celebration of people and places that remains constant throughout, but each episode is its own thing–and rarely is there a shot of the hotel or hotel room, let alone the taxi ride between the hotel and the airport. “The Layover” felt like work–pleasant enough work, but work nonetheless. “Parts Unknown” is art.

A takeaway from Matthew McConaghey’s UH Commencement Address

I happen to like Matthew McConaughey quite a lot, even in his goofy, cheesy roles. To be honest, I haven’t even seen his latest Renaissance as a serious actor and a lot of my affection comes from his days as a naked-bongo-playing marijuana aficionado and interviews he did about life philosophy and fitness in those halcyon days. He came across then as a down-to-earth guy, an outdoor nut whose modus operandi was to be open, friendly, and active. From the little I’ve read about him recently, including his recent University of Houston commencement address, many of the same descriptors hold true.

A link containing a set of takeaways from McConaughey’s UH commencement address came across Twitter yesterday. The takeaways corresponded to the McConaughey persona, including one where he said that the things motivating him did not include money. The article notes that McConaughey is a very wealthy man and I fully believe him when he says that money does not motivate him, even while noting that he is privileged enough to not need to worry about where meals or rent is coming from. In fact, it is a noble sentiment to aspire to goals that are not just about money and the things money can buy. That is a privilege and the world may be a better place if more super-wealthy people internalized that worldview. What’s more, it is a noble sentiment to preach at a commencement, whether said as a warning to young men and women who may make a lot of money or as words of comfort to the soon-to-be underemployed.

Yet, in this instance, coming from a speaker I like, who I believe was being honest, and being delivered in an appropriate forum, I did not like the message.

McConaughey, as the article notes, is a very wealthy man. I don’t want to take anything away from him or say that he didn’t work for his money, but to point out the fact. He is wealthy. He was also reportedly paid in excess of 140 thousand dollars for his speech at the UH commencement.

I know next to nothing about the finances at the University of Houston and a quick google search appears to indicate that the average salary for assistant professors at UH run higher than many other institutions, at 92K, though that figure is skewed by some starting salaries at 206k. Full professors average 115k, but with a lower ceiling than assistant professors. Nor do these figures include contingent faculty members, post-docs, researchers, etc, and various trends in terms of cut faculty positions and operating budgets for the university. But, for the sake of argument, we can just look at the basic average salary for professors and assume that UH is an anomaly and has overflowing coffers. The fact remains that they paid more for one day of McConaughey than for a year of labor from an average professor. To have that be the case and then be told that there is more to life than money rings false and is tone deaf given the current state of funding for higher education.

It would not have been my choice to spend that money for Matthew McConaughey as commencement speaker, but if that is his speaking fee and one is adamant that he must speak, then that is that. I also have no problem with McConaughey charging that fee. It is his right as he is both famous and, I can only assume, busy. My problem is that he both took the money and told people money isn’t the point. It would have been more praiseworthy to me had he kept the bit about money, but also donated a significant portion of the fee back to the scholarship fund, or to the library, or the theater program, or to Nepal relief efforts. Anything that put his money where his mouth is.

The Skin, Curzio Malaparte

I love the NYRB Classics series of books, both for the eclectic selection of English-language works and translations and for the (usually) reliable introductory essays that accompany the texts. My preference is usually to skip directly to the main text and to return to the introduction afterward so that I can appreciate the introduction as I digest what I just read. Usually this is a leisurely process of gaining new appreciation for the depth of the novel or for the author; sometimes it is a necessary confirmation that I indeed understood the absurd, shocking, grotesque thing that had just unfolded. The latter was my experience with The Skin.

Jimmy Wren, of Cleveland, Ohio…was, like the great majority of the officers and men of the American army, a good fellow. When an American is good, there is no better man in the world. It was not Jimmy’s fault if the people of Naples suffered. That spectacle of grief and misery offended neither his eyes nor his heart. Jimmy’s conscience was at rest. Like all Americans, by that contradiction which characterizes all materialistic civilizations, he was an idealist. To evil, misery, hunger and physical suffering he ascribed a moral character. He did not appreciate their remote historical and economic causes, but only the seemingly moral reasons for their existence…

Jimmy had certainly not achieved an understanding of the moral and religious considerations which let him to feel partly responsible for the suffering of others… It was not even to be expected that he should know certain essential facts about modern civilization–for instance, that a capitalist society (if one disregards Christian pity, and weariness of and disgust with Christian pity, which are sentiments peculiar to the modern world) is the most feasible expression of Christianity; that without the existence of evil there can be no Christ; that capitalist society is founded on the conviction that in the absence of beings who suffer a man cannot enjoy to the full his possessions and his happiness; and that without the alibi of Christianity capitalism would not prevail.

–pp. 62-3

It is 1943. Naples has been liberated. Our narrator, Curzio Malaparte, is a liaison officer in the Free Italian armed forces accompanying American officers and watching the newly-free city rot from the inside. The Skin is composed of vignettes about life in liberated Naples, Capri, and the subsequent campaign northward to Rome, interwoven with observations and imaginations of the narrator. The suffering and depravity were real, but in Malaparte’s hands the situation turns into a nightmarishly surreal comedy.

The Skin is not an easy book to sum up, in large part because the lurid details–whether of the plague, the last virgin in Naples, the triumphant entry into Rome, the eruption of Vesuvius, or the preparation of the marine life from the Naples Aquarium for a banquet– are, to a great extent, the point. In fact, the quote included above is itself misleading. It is an example of Malaparte’s style where he picks up on a point or an observation and teases it out as far as it will go. Malaparte’s Naples is a pre-Christian relict, infused with pagan mysteries, where “your tanks run the risk of being swallowed up in the black slime of antiquity.” Malaparte’s Americans despise the Europeans for having caused their own problems, and “believe that a conquered nation is a nation of criminals, that defeat is a moral stigma, an expression of divine justice.” Malaparte’s Neapolitans are scrapping to save their own skin at any cost, prostituting and abasing themselves. The shining light within this grim vision is Jack Hamilton, an optimistic American officer, an Olympian who speaks French and reads Pindar. Hamilton represents the best America has to offer, one untouched by the blight of the old-world, but appreciative of its deep antiquity.

Curzio Malaparte–the nom de plum of Kurt Eric Suckert, and a name chosen as an inversion of “Bonaparte”–was a correspondent on the eastern front during World War 2 before returning to Italy and assisting the American forces in Italy. He was criticized for his similarly surreal account of the war in the east (published in his book Kaputt), and was a supporter of the Italian fascist movement, but served a stint in prison after publishing a manual under the title The Technique of the Coup d’Etat. As the introduction to The Skin noted, there are parallels to nearly everything Malaparte included in this book, but his presence at every turn, even where he could not have been, blurrs the line between reporting and reimagining. Malaparte is elusive throughout. By turns he despises, pities, and mocks those around him. He is an acute observer, but bitter, frustrated, and convinced of his own superiority. Not his own morality since he seems to locate himself more in the deep antiquity–an heir to Pindar, at times [note: I was reading Pindar in Greek when I started reading this book]–than in the contemporary moment, more with paganism than with Christianity, but in his own superior intelligence and ability. I am not rushing out to do so, but I was intrigued enough by this that I will at some point read Kaputt, but Malaparte also convinced me that I need to also read books that are a little less morbid from time to time.

Since finishing The Skin, I also finished Master and Commander, the first in Patrick O’Brian’s historical fiction series. It was a mostly enjoyable read and I’m going to read at least the first few books, but I wasn’t so smitten that I’ll commit to all twenty just yet. Even well-done Horatio Nelson fan-fic only does so much for me. Now I am in the middle of Augusto Roa Bastos’ I, the Supreme, which stitches together multiple narratives give a portrait of the dictator José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, who ruled Paraguay from when he was elected in 1814 until 1840. At a third of the way through, this is one of the densest books I have yet read. The Supreme coyly asks “Don’t you think that I could be made into a fabulous story?” If you check out the Wikipedia page, the answer is yes, but Bastos takes those features that beg for a titillating historical story and asks much deeper and more meaningful questions. A fuller review will probably follow when I finish reading it.

Book Reviews

I like writing book reviews, for both fiction and non-fiction books, though the rewards for each move in divergent directions. I read a lot but, despite a few ideas for original stories and the occasional essay sent off [not to mention The Dissertation], I don’t produce much of my own writing for public consumption. As such, I wanted to take a moment to consider why I like writing about books and, to a lesser extent, TV shows and movies.

The short version: original writing is hard.

The longer version has three distinct parts: direction, digestion, and safety.

First and foremost, reviewing books offers a built-in writing prompt, and a clear subject about which to write. Successful reviews include many of the same elements, including a summary of what the book offers, evaluation, and judgement. Within these parameters there is room for creativity and any good review is going to be injected with the author’s voice and opinions, but having this basic structure is something that makes writing easier.

Second, reviewing books is a great way to digest what was just read since it requires one to form and articulate an opinion about the book. This necessarily entails grappling with text, subtext, and importance of the book. This is also the first point at which the rewards diverge between reviewing fiction and non-fiction because the content of the critiques are different. I don’t care enough about every novel I read to dedicate time to write a review and, frankly, I have limited training when it comes to judging certain technical parts of books. I hardly even know how to identify those parts (characterization, structure, etc), and only know what I like when I read it. For these reasons, a lot of the books I read that I don’t like get lumped into my monthly reading recaps with a brief explanation instead of a full review. It isn’t that the books aren’t worthy of a full review. I just don’t have the time, energy, or interest in writing reviews of books that didn’t in some way capture my interest. This also means that for a certain percentage of the novels I read, I am not motivated to do a deeper dive in terms of thinking about the book.

The third, safety, is the point that is both most personal and most misleading. The perils of the internet for aspiring academics run above and beyond the dangers inherent to the medium, particularly in the debates over academic freedom and free speech–and to what extent those things apply to contingent faculty, graduate students, and anyone who consider applying for academic jobs. My twin concerns in this regard are that some of the posts hosted here are immature from an academic perspective and that I have an aversion to some political topics. On the former, I considered deleting the posts I don’t fully stand behind, but decided against it because they represent me and my work at a given time–namely before I started graduate school and in the early years of the same. On the latter, it has been the cause of some of my silences on Twitter and also why I have avoided some topics here, particularly when those comments could be seen as being critical of an institution such as, say, the University of Missouri. Studied neutrality appears to be the prudent course.

Reviews are not without their own dangers and some journals specifically refuse to allow graduate students to review books because of the possibility of retaliation. Reviews of literature, at least those that are not being published on commission, are significantly safer, but both types of reviews feel safer to me and that feeling of safety makes it easier to write.

April Reading Recap

April is always a busy month in the academic calendar and the first few weeks of May ramp up, if anything. And yet this is the best time of year for sitting in the outside and reading. I only finished three books this month, but summer is coming.

The Professor and the Siren, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
My first foray into Lampedusa’s work, this slim volume contains three short pieces–the eponymous story, a parable called “Joy and the Law,” and “The Blind Kittens,” which was originally conceived of as the opening chapter to a novel that he never completed. My favorite of these three of was “The Blind Kittens,” which just sets the stage for a story about familial land competition in Sicily. “The Professor and the Siren” was interesting, but at its core was a tale about how the impetus for great scholarship (or art) is the combination of a blaze of eroticism in youth (as though to prove vitality) and monastic deprivation thereafter. There is more to this story than that bare narrative, but I don’t like the basic trope.

The Postmortal, Drew Magary
An epistolary what-if novel. What scientists discovered a cure for aging? Not a cure for diseases (including cancer) or against a violent death or to reverse aging that has already happened, but one that freezes the process of aging exactly where it is when the injection takes place. What would the public debate around legalizing such a thing look like? Would there be death cultists who launch campaigns of terror against the postmortals? People who deliberately maim these people who will live for a very, very long time? What happens to marriages that now run the risk of permanently binding people together? Will some deranged mothers give the cure for aging to their infants to keep their babies forever? Will some world governments ban the cure? Will the government eventually introduce euthanasia programs? Will there be a collapse?

These are many of the questions that Magary asks in this clever novel. Magary has a recognizable voice as an author, honed through years of writing things like a long series of “Hater’s Guide to xxx,” but while aspects of it come across as goofy commentary or twists, the medium is supposed to be unpublished blog posts, curated by unnamed individuals sometime after the narrator ceased writing. The form works and many of the ludicrous, tongue-in-cheek, satirical developments are frighteningly plausible.

Desert, J.M.G. Le Clézio
Reviewed here, a sprawling story about the interaction between North African children and the Western Civilization that seeks to oppress them. It is possible to debate the “children” tag, since the common reading seems to link North African freedom and servitude of colonialism, but I find it notable that both narrators are children. This changes the reading in a couple of ways, but the fact that there are multiple adult characters leads me to believe that it is not simply an equation of the colonial subjects with children, as was a part of colonial propaganda.

The Postmortal was my favorite from last month. I’m now working through Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin, which is a grotesque comedy about Naples after it was liberated by the allies during World War 2.