Kate's Queen City Notes

Blundering through Cincinnati, laughing all the way

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100 Books While 40: OUT OF AFRICA

Author: Isak Dinesen
Published: 1937

When I try to imagine interacting with a foreigner who acts and speaks in a way that lays bare their assumed ownership of my homeland and my unending indentured servitude to them I simply cannot. This is so far from my lived reality that I simply cannot put myself in that space. And that is my privilege.

This book is soaked in colonialism and entitlement. The entire continent of Africa, including all of its people is just a thing for the consumption of wealthy, affected Europeans looking to tell their peers of their exotic adventures. All the genuinely affectionate and beautiful prose dedicated to the beauty of the country and its people is soured because I cannot forget for even a moment how the continent’s present has been shaped by its past exploitation.

I’m sure my awareness was driven by my recent listening to Seeing White, a series on the Scene on Radio podcast. I cannot recommend this podcast enough, but be prepared to feel unsettled. At it’s core, that podcast made me confront what the real legacy of whiteness is. And in short it’s exploitation, theft, and power. And the only reason we can pretend that’s not the case is because we wrote history and cast ourselves in the hero role.

I am struck now by how desperate we, and by we I mean white people, are to hold on to that hero role. White men are clinging to their armories even in the face of their children dying because it furthers their hero fantasies. What an incredible thing. We love our stories more than our kids.

I was so relieved when I reached the last page of this book. You don’t need to read this book. The same delusions in the book are still acting on us today.

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100 Books While 40: Kitchen Confidential

Book: Kitchen Confidential
Author: Anthony Bourdain
Published: 2000

I miss the predictable rhythms of the restaurant business and the way they are made new by human quirks and foibles. Each dinner rush is the same plot just carried out by a new cast of characters. The peculiar composition of the waitstaff and the customers combine in endless ways to make each night have its own degree of efficiency and tone.

My first serving experience wrenched open my eyes to this world in unceremonious fashion. On my first day at The Old Spaghetti Factory, I got my apron, my first server book, and my first look at people, the kitchen staff to be specific, doing lines of coke. After inviting me into his office, the walk in, for my first interview, the chef invited me to have a line and to stay the fuck out of his way.

At a wide-eyed twenty, I was terrified and fascinated. And although I didn’t yet know it, that introduction to the service industry was most appropriate. Later in the evening I would have all of my family lineage insulted in a kaleidoscope of four-letter words capable of peeling the grease soaked beige paint over the grill as I learned what getting in his way meant.

The rest of the wait staff was only slightly less abusive. One of the servers appraised me one eyebrow slightly raised and flatly gave me a week and started organizing bets. In that same service I watched this same server make one of the other new hires cry over her failure to accomplish a task as basic as brewing coffee. That hire lasted until exactly that moment causing a shuffling of cash between the staff.

In that first week, I had only dreams of basic survival and reworking my budget in some way to give me time to look for a new job. But rent was due and I had no alternatives. So I did my best to work hard and avoid attracting attention.

It was somewhere in week three or four that the waitstaff bothered to learn my name. And although I initially assumed this was part of the hazing, I learned with experience that it’s more a reflection of how quickly people get and lose service jobs. At least half of the new hires would not last out their first month. With a staff of 60 people who are always in flux, it’s just a matter of economy to wait the newbies out until they’ve self sorted.

And in another month I would be thinking the rest of the staff part of my family, a weird boozy, occasionally abusive family. They would turn into the people I would call to bail me out or pick me up from the hospital. They would at once hug me fiercely and refuse to suffer a spec of my bullshit. And together we would survive the most asinine and generous extremes of customer behavior.

Kitchen Confidential had me reliving every insane, beautiful moment. I loved it. Bourdain refers to his kitchen staff as a band of pirates, this is the most apt description I have ever encountered for the weirdos who are attracted to restaurant work. They are people who for various reasons are not cut out for cubicles.

Some of them are ex-cons and don’t have access to the white collar world. Others are night owls and the discontented who eschew the confines of the nine to five. Still more are following a poorly paying passion and find waiting the most efficient way to supplement their income. Still more are steeped in gin, tattooed, and just too odd to be day walkers.

I miss that alternate reality. This book let me feel at home there once more. It reminded me that although I like what my nine to five affords me my heart belongs with the pirates.

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100 Books by 40: HOLES

Book: Holes
Author: Louis Sachar
Published: 1997

I borrowed this from the library. I could see that I requested sound media. I expected an audiobook on CDs. Instead, I got this doodad.

Picture of a mp3 player with one audiobook on it

It’s like a baby MP3 player only with one book on it. I guess this gets people mobile with a book without supplying their own MP3 player.

The doodad worked fine, except that it randomly shut down a few times losing my place in the book. It was a mild inconvenience. I had no idea such a thing exists, but I am happy that folks without access to an MP3 player have some options.

I often don’t research books before I read them. Because this little doodad had virtually no writing on it, I didn’t benefit from any of the information the book cover typically imparts. After some minutes of listening, it was discomforting that I was unsure if the book was a young adult novel. I noticed that the prose was pretty simple. But the subject matter was a bit heavy. Yet subject matter is a poor barometer of a book’s category.

This mystery drove me to distraction for the entire experience. I learned that the book is a young adult title after finishing it. So, note to self, when I don’t have a book jacket to peruse, I should look up the book to at least assess the category it’s in. Wondering about it diminishes from the experience of the book.

The book itself is unremarkable. The story is of a boy coming of age in a labor camp. Unwittingly, he solves some family mysteries and resolves an outstanding family debt. The plot is a little too precious for me, but I would happily recommend this book to any young adult.

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100 Books by 40: A Town Like Alice

I’ve been on this 100 books by 40 mission for a little over a year. At the outset, I wanted this effort to drive me to read more. If that is the only measure of success, this has been very successful. There have been other unintended consequences.

I like writing. I am doubtful that my writing is of interest to most other people, but I am satisfied with the effect the process has on my mood and thoughts. I’ve noticed through the year that my thoughts are getting easier and easier to type. I’ve picked up editing habits that yield ever better results. My posts now go though multiple draft readings across days prior to posting. Plus, rereading my year of posts helps me spot grammatical issues across time. I noticed that I have a problem mixing my metaphors. Metaphors will get extra attention in my edits from now on.

In addition to establishing better writing patterns, this year has made me a different reader. I recall in the not terribly distant past, I struggled with reading Dickens. The variations on English proved challenging. With Austen, Hardy, Eliot, Dickens, and the Bronte sisters behind me, I don’t struggle anymore. Seventeenth century British Literature feels easily in my grasp. I’m still pretty certain that I’m missing some nuance in these novels, but I easily follow plots and conversations.

These changes are positive, but I’ve noticed one effect that I’m ambivalent about. Reading these novels is making me more sensitive to technically good prose. I was gazing longingly at my unedited copy of On the Road, and I thought how exciting it will be to pick that up. It’s number 90 in my list, and it’s my favorite book. What a great way to celebrate wrapping up this adventure. Then I thought about how pedestrian recent novels feel to me now, fresh off Hardy and Eliot. What if I get to my favorite book and only find disappointment? What if I don’t enjoy David Foster Wallace anymore?

I can’t explain how sad this makes me feel. My favorite authors reach into my deepest thoughts and emotions and come back giving voice to things that I cannot find words for. Their voices resonate deeply, and make me feel less alone. But still, I’m too curious to deviate from this adventure. Now that I’ve started I must know if my most cherished books can withstand the changes that have been wrought in me.

So, all of that has nothing to do with A Town Like Alice. As mentioned in past posts, the 30’s are the land of 1000 page books, but A Town Like Alice broke from that trend with a mere 300 pages. The book is basically a war romance. The character development is good, and the true events that inspired part of the plot were fascinating. The female lead gets marched around Malaya with a group of British women for miles and miles. The Japanese didn’t have an appropriate camp to house them, so military leaders just kept sending them to different outposts without purpose. More than half of the women and children died.

I found all of the historical information in this book really interesting. It gave me a great sense of what Australia was like after World War 2. Otherwise, I found this book unremarkable.

Welcome to the 30's of the BBC's 100 best books list, also known as the land of 1000-page books.

Welcome to the 30’s of the BBC’s 100 best books list, also known as the land of 1000-page books.


100 Book by 40: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

My book quest has made it into my dreams. Typically my dreams are about anxiety or mundane activities with a little weird thrown in. I spent many years bartending and waiting tables; my anxiety dreams for nearly a decade involved some form of me being in the weeds. If you aren’t familiar with the phrase “in the weeds”, it’s a service industry phrase to describe getting overwhelmed by your tables/customers. There are many causes for a good server to be in the weeds, but they normally stem from a particularly needy table or poor seating timing. My mundane dreams typically involve something that I would do in my waking hours. A few weeks ago, I had a dream that I was required to converse with other people using only PHP (server-side web programming language) statements and methods. I woke up laughing.

So, my book dream, I was with Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder and not Johnny Depp).  He was giving me a tour of my high school cafeteria. My classmates were at various tables acting out assorted Disney movies. I’m not sure why or how the cafeteria transformed into the set for Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but it did. Willy Wonka seemed to take this morphing as an obvious transition and proceeded the tour in our new location. This is where I woke up.

I’ve seen the 1971 edition of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory several times, although the last sitting was years and years ago. I’ve not seen the 2005 version. Here’s the first thing that struck me about the book in contrast to the movies. Willy Wonka isn’t as weird in the book as he is portrayed to be in either of the movies, but particularly the 2005 release.

As a kid, I found Willy Wonka terrifying, and the oompa loompas doubly so. Full disclosure, I am completely freaked out by little people. I am ashamed that I feel that way, as I know they are people and should be treated with respect. They freak me out in the same way that an unleashed dog nearing me freaks me out. I was bitten by an Irish Setter when I was 5, and unfamiliar dogs still make that lizard part of my brain light up with the fight or flight response. I feel the same when confronted by a little person, although I was not bitten one. Still the same fight or flight physical response happens.

After the first few chapters of the book, I was put at ease by a number of things. First, Willy Wonka was peculiar, but not to the extent that I was expecting given both the movies. And the oompa loompas were described as being knee-height, bearing more in common with Tinkerbell than the orange-faced terrors in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Once the uncomfortably weird aspects of the movie were purged from my mind, I really enjoyed the book. The book was less dark than either of the movies. With one exception, the uncertain fates of the naughty children are pretty heavy. They imply that Augustus Gloop could be mashed into raspberry cream. Veruca Salt along with her parents could be incinerated. Although the book seems to pass this off as less scary than it seems as I write it now.

In short, I really liked this book. I liked it more than either of the movies, and I am a Gene Wilder fan. Because Willy Wonka is less frightening, the ending with Charlie and his family moving into the factory is far more sensible. Finally as a vehicle for teaching morality to children, I thought it wasn’t as heavy handed as some of my other reads on this list. Now, only to get over my irrational issues with little people…

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100 Books by 40: Corelli’s Mandolin

This book was cute. It was cute about familial relationships. It was cute about love. It was cute about conflict. It was cute about war. If a book can be cute about World War II, what can’t it be cute about? Nothing. The answer is nothing. For the first quarter of the book, I found this pithy dialog endearing. The feeling shifted to irritation quickly.

The book was set in World War II on a small Greek island. Imagine if you applied the comedic tone from My Big Fat Greek wedding in a book about war? That’s what this book is. I can’t tell if this light-hearted treatment is peculiar to Greek culture or just this author. I just know that beside Gone With The Wind this seems like a children’s book.

The book did have some stellar quotes though.

“I am not a cynic, but I do know that history is the propaganda of the victors.”
“We should care for each other more than we care for ideas, or else we will end up killing each other.”

I don’t suggest reading Corelli’s Mandolin. If you want to read books in war settings Birdsong and Catch-22 were far better reads. Hell Catch-22 should just be required reading for all Americans.

I was traveling around the west coast while I was reading this book. I will leave you with a gorgeous picture of Crater Lake.

Crater Lake Panorama

This is at Crater Lake park in Oregon. The water is really that color. There was no picture editing software or filters in use for this shot.

Still gorgeous, but with some app filters applied.

Still gorgeous, but with some app filters applied.

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100 Book by 40: Gone With The Wind or Love/Hate Paula Deen

I’ve noticed something peculiar. People seem to have pretty extreme reactions to the Paula Deen scandal. On one end of the spectrum, I have friends who are boycotting all of Deen’s sponsors who dropped her. On the other end, I have friends who are boycotting Paula Deen and her shows and products. The one thing these two groups have in common is that they are all pretty vocal about their thoughts.

Personally, I can’t get very excited about Deen, neither her offenses nor the aftermath. It’s people’s strong reactions that got me interested in the affair. After some thought, I realized that Paula Deen’s schtick revolves around romanticizing antebellum southern culture. Her comments inflamed many people because, at some subcousious level most non-southerners believe that racism lays just out of sight in that romance.

The Slate Culture Gabfest does a good job of dissecting this phenomena. Jump to it here.

Gone with the Wind was awash in plantations. It was soaked in racism; the kind that would quite naturally and shamelessly compare a young slaves to animals like bucks and tigers. The comparison was thoughtless and completely unconscious. The slaves aren’t considered to have dreams or volition. Margaret Mitchell lays out how kind her characters were to the slaves. They would care for their health. There were so kind as to purchase their children or spouses. Ah, the kind, kind plantation owners getting rich off the free labor of slaves. They work so hard and spend some of their precious wealth on their slaves. Oh the generosity! Her attitude is patronizing and insulting.

Race issues aside, Scarlett O’Hara is a selfish ass. Gone with the Wind is a very long book to dislike the main character. I’m sure Scarlett’s racism prevented me from feeling any ounce of sympathy for her. In fact, I failed to find sympathy for any of the wealthy plantation owners who found themselves in poverty after The Civil War. Their wealth came off the backs of others. Regardless, the characters are so entitled.

I thought this book would help me find appreciation for southern culture. It did not. Enter Paula Deen’s big mouth. Given my recent reading, any sympathy I might have had for Deen is now gone with the wind. She said something offensive. She faced repercussions for saying it. She’s a wealthly woman who might be a little less wealthy.

Summary: If this book were considerably shorter, I would suggest it for a read. But given that’s very long, I don’t recommend it.

Quotes that I like: “There was no one to tell Scarlett that her own personality, frighteningly vital though it was, was more attractive than any masquerade she might adopt. Had she been told, she would have been pleased but unbelieving. And the civilization of which she was a part would have been unbelieving too, for at no time, before or since, had so low a premium been placed on feminine naturalness.”

“Life’s under no obligation to give us what we expect. We take what we get and are thankful it’s no worse than it is.”