Shelf Improvement: Books to Improve Your Life and Library: Quintessential Wiseguys Edition

Shelf Improvement is a column highlighting books guaranteed to improve your library and your life. From literary fiction, young adult, and humor, to spirituality, autobiography, and more, no genre is off limits. The only requirement of the selections featured here is they must be transformative and page-turning. If you’re hoping to build a better bookshelf, Shelf Improvement can help you on your odyssey. The theme of this installment is “Quintessential Wiseguys.”

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, by Anthony Bourdain
Love him or hate him, Anthony Bourdain is indeed a wise guy AND a wiseguy—the culinary world’s irreverent, sarcastic, and brilliant iconoclast. Once the executive chef at the renowned Les Halles, Bourdain is now a globe-trotting, f-bomb-dropping television personality best known for traveling to lesser-known locales and consuming their most obscure concoctions, such as seal eyeballs, living cobras, insects, and testicles, not to mention gallons of regional hooch. 

A connoisseur of punk rock and hard drugs, Bourdain has his blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, is a champion of both Julia Child and America’s immigrant cooks, and absolutely despises ABBA, celebrity chefs, Chicken McNuggets, and vegans. All that said, this former two-pack-a-day smoker is perhaps as adept at writing as he is at cooking and offending. He’s written eight literary wonders, published countless articles, and now oversees his own publishing line at HarperCollins, which acquires a few eccentric titles each year. 

However, the jewel in this bad boy’s cockeyed crown is arguably his riveting Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. First published in 2000, this literary knockout holds no punches as it lays bare the real, raw, and riotous story of the restaurant world. From rampant substance abuse and disgusting sanitation practices to bacchanalian times in Tokyo and unapologetic industry backstabbing, this insanely funny (and surprisingly self-effacing) masterpiece is equal parts foul and fetching. You can’t help but adore its macho ruthlessness and loosely veiled sentimentality.

The book begins somewhat tenderly with Bourdain’s first introduction to “real food” (when he discovers vichyssoise on a family trip to France), but by the second chapter—titled “Food is Sex”—things quickly devolve into the raunchy, spellbinding side of a budding chef’s life. And good luck putting the book down after that. With chapter titles like “Inside the CIA,” “Bigfoot,” “I Make My Bones,” and “What I Know About Meat,” you can rest assured Bourdain is here to entertain you straight through to the afterword. 

Kitchen Confidential is particularly unique in its reach; I can think of no other book so expressly written for those deep within an industry’s trenches that is simultaneously so accessible to the layman. If you possess an ounce of curiosity about the people who cook your food and what makes them tick, this book is a must-read-in-one-day. (Some advice from someone who learned the hard way: buy several copies; those close to you would rather read it themselves than have you quote the entire thing aloud.)

Born Standing Upby Steve Martin
Steve Martin is best known for his distinctive standup comedy style and stellar acting career, while also revered for his Bluegrass banjo playing, for which he has acquired two Grammys. But Martin is also a wry and elegant writer, whose body of work includes humor pieces for The New Yorker, several plays, and the funny, poignant novellas Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company

However, Martin is at his most honest (achingly and charmingly so) in his autobiography, Born Standing Up. This touching and candid life story chronicles his standup years—how he got started, what made him a singular sensation, and why he ultimately walked away from all of it, even though, by 1978, he was considered the biggest concert draw in the history of stage comedy. 

Born Standing Up begins with Martin’s first job, at the age of 10, at Disneyland, where he sold guidebooks and perfected a variety of classic magic tricks. Readers soon learn of his strained relationship with his father, his struggles with hypochondria and anxiety, and his desire to study and dissect philosophy in college—a passion that eventually underscored all of his comedy routines. In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine Martin once described how he wondered in one of his psychology classes, “What if there were no punchlines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometimes. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punchline, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation.”

This philosophical approach to comedy ultimately made Martin’s routine not only completely authentic but utterly groundbreaking. It was both weird and genius, and because of that, his audiences could not get enough of it…or him. This unexpected pressure to consistently perform, interact with adoring fans, and somehow handle fame though truly a closet introvert—combined with his dedication to perfection—explain why Martin eventually bid it all farewell for quieter, and less public, pursuits. 

If you’re interested in the private world of comedy’s original wild and crazy guy, Born Standing Up is a quietly epic memoir meant for your shelf. And there’s no better time to reconnect with this classic wiseguy; in March his first musical, Bright Star, debuts on Broadway, proving there’s still nothing he can’t do.

Naked, by David Sedaris
By now everyone everywhere knows who David Sedaris is, right? I mean, how could you be reading this and not be familiar with the unparalleled wit and weirdness of this charming, Greek Orthodox, gay humor writer from Raleigh, North Carolina, who dropped out of Kent State and rose to fame after he wrote of his experience working as a Macy’s Christmas Elf in New York City? Surely you haven’t missed out on all THAT.

So, as predictable as it may seem to put Sedaris on a must-read list for quintessential wiseguys, there’s no way he doesn’t make the cut. And in my opinion, of all of his laugh-until-you-cry tour de forces, Naked holds up as his finest collection of genius to date—partly because it features the unbelievable essay “C.O.G.” and partly because it’s one of his longest books. Trust me: you never want them to end.

Naked gives readers 17 whip-smart essays that are equally hysterical and poignant, ridiculous and dark. There’s the one about his childhood Tourette’s and OCD. The one about kicking his grandmother out of the house and into a nursing home. The one about the pornographic book that circulates though his family. And the one where his father blinds someone. Of course, there are also the ones about his sister’s menstruation, the Christmas whore, the handicapped dormitory, and the nudist colony. To say nothing of the one where his mother dies.

And then there’s “C.O.G.” Oh, “C.O.G.” If you need to have your literary mind blown, if you need to have the heartiest laugh you will ever have, you must read “C.O.G.” In this essay (which has since been made into a movie by the same name), Sedaris describes a profanity-laden cross-country bus trip that results in hilarious and horrific work as an apple picker, a dodged sexual encounter in a trailer with a man named Curly, and an outrageous meet-up with a born-again Christian double amputee who makes jade clocks in the shape of Oregon. As you can imagine, these escapades culminate in one exceptionally original and outlandish tale—one that offers a darkly humorous and ultimately moving look at America’s most pitiful weirdos.

If this overview of just one of the 17 essays doesn’t pique your interest, I’m afraid nothing will, but you should have Naked in your library anyway. All exaggeration aside, it is easily one of—if not the—greatest collections of comedy writing ever.

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