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Know Thy Shelf

Meghan Thomassen | Wednesday, October 24, 2012

 

“I always wanted to be a novelist. I just never wanted to write a novel.”

So said Kathleen Parker when she visited campus Oct. 2 to talk about journalism in the age of “Twitterature.” With those words she gave a voice to the moral dilemma my inner Jane Austen wrestled with for years. I had all the right ingredients: an insatiable appetite for books, an inordinate vocabulary and an insane obsession with used bookstores, not to mention a major in English. 

But when it came to whipping out a “Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” every idea fell flat. I would spend random afternoons crafting characters and plotlines in my head, only to have them fall apart on the rare occasion I tried to put them on the page. Eking out word after word was like carving into a chalkboard. Every sentence sounded painful and forced, and once composed, seemed irreversible.

Eventually I gave up, crammed my half-filled notebooks into the bottom of my bookshelf, and tried to accept my fate. I was never going to write a novel. 

It wasn’t until last week, however, that I realized I was doing it wrong. Over fall break, I went to West Virginia as a part of the Center for Social Concern’s Appalachia program. The trip was awesome, my group was wonderful and I will never forget some of the things we saw or did. One of the goals of the program was to change preconceptions about poverty, the environment and social responsibility. At Nazareth Farm, the staff encouraged us to put away our phones when with friends, spend daily quiet time with God and be better stewards of our environment. So far, these habits have stuck with me. Granted, it’s been less than a week, but I’m hopeful these changes are long-lasting.

One of the changes was truly unexpected. During one of our precious downtime periods, one of the volunteers from another college started telling me about how much he loves to write. At first I thought he had just another run-of-the-mill blog about life or politics or how much he loves the Packers. But I could not have been more wrong. To demonstrate his point, he reached into his backpack and pulled out a stack of manuscripts, covered in the red ink of his own comments. 

This kid actually wrote a 200-page novel on his own accord, all while juggling the responsibilities of a student. He said his writing process consisted of sitting down and just doing a little bit each day. It sounded hard, but he was able to write something substantial just because he felt like it. For him, writing was more of a habit than an inspired, earth-shattering revelation. He also said he didn’t worry too much about getting each sentence perfect – he could spend forever being nitpicky about diction and structure. 

I found a strange amount of comfort in his dedication, as well as a challenge. There are few things I can commit to doing every day. But to see his reward of a fascinating and personal body of work showed how it’s the daily habit that makes the novelist.

 

Contact  Meghan Thomassen at mthomass@nd.edu 

The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. 

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The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.

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Know Thy Shelf

Meghan Thomassen | Wednesday, October 3, 2012

 

If I could swap lives with anyone in the world, I’d switch with Anthony Bourdain.

This guy has it all. He earned his culinary cred in the oyster shacks of Provincetown and worked his way up from Hell’s Kitchen the executive chef spot at Brasserie Les Halles, where he gathered a vocabulary worse than a sailor and a palate comparable to Eric Ripert’s. He started his own restaurant and succeeded, which is a statistical miracle. He did this for 20-odd years, and decided to attempt another near-impossible feat: Write a successful book. True to his style, he has written 10.

Bourdain is best known for his unstoppable drinking problem, questionable choices as a youth and flagrant disrespect for “celebrity chefs” such as Bobby Flay and Paula Dean. His dry cynicism makes him an impeccably critical chef, but it also makes him a great writer, as seen in his many books, my favorite so far being “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” (2000). 

In this underground exploration of the restaurant world, Bourdain unleashes his withering sarcasm on the restaurant business that made me laugh and cringe at the same time. (One of the most important things I learned: Never order the fish on Monday.) There is something charming about the way Bourdain can break down his own lifestyle and industry. Despite his best efforts to self-deprecate and thereby disillusion any aspiring chefs, Bourdain wisecracks himself to a god-like status. He writes, he cooks, he eats, and he has an ear piercing, wears leather jackets, and smokes like a Frenchman. And after his wildly successful first book, he went on to write more books, innumerable essays for the New York Times, The New Yorker, and Gourmet. What more could he ask for?

Answer: a phenomenal, international television series based solely on his culinary whims and biting wit. “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel is a delicious double entendre that perfectly portrays Bourdain’s contradictory social irreverence and devotion to good food. The episodes set in exotic cities, such as Tokyo, Dublin, Berlin or Chicago, distill the best from the chaff and the traditional from the sensational. 

Many of his episodes are plagued with a sort of old man’s nostalgia for “the good old days,” before chain restaurants had invaded Times Square or any of the boroughs. But Bourdain perseveres and hits the streets, his cameraman a few steps behind, and eats whatever his hosts puts in front of him. This includes Moroccan moonshine, Thai squid and Chinese grasshoppers. The food isn’t always mouthwatering, but the conversations Bourdain has with cooks, bakers, farmers, brewers, fishermen and baristas are riveting. Thanks to Bourdain, we can see how the rest of the world lives through one of the essentials of life: local, traditional, life-blood food. Bourdain has circumnavigated the globe, searching for the best food served by some of the strangest people you will ever see outside of the Discovery Channel. 

Perhaps the reason why I idolize Bourdain so much (I spent an entire day last summer in New York searching for his favorite Gray’s Papaya hot dog stand) is because he has found something that captivates, challenges, explains and fulfills him in more ways that just a career. Bourdain doesn’t just cook – he breathes the culinary culture, seeks the essence of each culture every time he tries a new cuisine, delves into the successes and failures of his favorite chefs and analyzes the virtues and vices of the business. Now, Bourdain plans to start a travel show on CNN, write a graphic novel for DC Comics/Vertigo and publish his own line of books with Ecco Press at HarperCollins

Food is Bourdain’s religion, and not only does he make his living off it, he’s really good at it. He chose a part of life that allows him to peel the layers of the human experience as far back as possible. Food is not only the man’s fuel, but also the glue that holds together his history, his family, his culture and his memories. And the fact that Bourdain has cooked and written about food says to me that he truly understands it, and understands it intimately enough to explain it well to his audiences, through books on the stands and conversations on his show. 

 

Contact  Meghan Thomassen at mthomass@nd.edu 

The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.