What I’ve Been Reading – November 2008

For a few years, we didn’t have cable. It wasn’t a huge loss, actually. We read a lot more, and fell in love with certain network television shows. We watched new episodes of Law and Order instead of reruns. We enjoyed each other’s company. We grew fond of the ideology of going cable-less.

Books acquired:

FreeDarko Presents the Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac – FreeDarko

R.E.M.: Murmur (33 1/3) – J. Niimi

Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (33 1/3) – Mark Polizzotti

The Pixies: Doolittle (33 1/3) – Ben Sisario

Beastie Boys: Paul’s Boutique (33 1/3) – Dan LeRoy

Books read:

Deadwood – Pete Dexter

FreeDarko Presents the Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac – FreeDarko

Heat – Bill Buford

Then we moved our television into the basement. We no longer received our channels as clearly as we used to. We lost PBS. We priced out an HD antenna, knowing we’d eventually need to go that route, and found that it would cost upwards of $200 just to have it installed.

We succumbed. With Sierra on the way, we needed a more passive form of entertainment. And cable was brought back into the house.

During my time with cable television over the past five years (both before and after the disconnect) there have been three constants – three undeniable can’t miss entertainment options that would always be recorded or, at least, considered appointment television: HBO’s Deadwood, Bravo’s Top Chef, and NBA basketball.

Lo and behold: my month’s reading list.

As if conceding that I’d never get back to reading until I could somehow bridge the path from my sad television addiction to my love for the written word, I found myself reading the exact combination of subjects that forced me into television’s warm womb in the first place. Amazingly, it was all though pure coincidence.

Let’s start with Dexter’s Deadwood, my annual South Dakota Festival of Books Pete Dexter purchase. Every year, without fail, I see him speak at the festival and every year, also without fail, I seem to gravitate toward his “aw shucks” mentality – a New York attitude with South Dakota sensibilities, tough enough to hold grudges but smart enough to let them pass.

This year he spent a considerable amount of time talking about his screenplays. One of these screenplays was for a film based off of Deadwood, his historically based fictional recount of Wild Bill Hickok and Charley Utter as they arrived in South Dakota’s most legendary city. He hinted that this screenplay ended up being the basis of HBO’s television series of the same name.

Very similar characters. Same setting. It all seemed very familiar to Dexter, though HBO denied ever seeing the original screenplay or even consulting the novel. Dexter was left out in the cold – his idea essentially stolen and made into one of the most successful HBO dramas not called The Sopranos. There was no point in suing, as the rewards would be less than the attorney fees. We were all left wondering what the real story was.

Regardless, as a fan of the television show, the book was welcome reminder of the power of the characters involved. While Sheriff Bullock takes a smaller role, and some of Swearengen’s best developed cronies failed to even show up, the partnership between Utter and Wild Bill was just as you imagined it – complicated, honoreable and filled with envy. Even the friction between Utter and Calamity Jane was reminiscent of the television show.

However, as is the case with most “to-screen fiction,” Dexter’s Deadwood serves as a more emotional and deep look at the time and the people than HBO’s Deadwood ever could. Chalk it up as another case of the book being better than the video production. I’ll just assume that it’s a kind of karmic payback for Dexter losing his idea in the first place.

On the trip from Wild West emotion to kitchen etiquette, you might think something would get lost. But if there’s any place left in America that harkens back to the mindset of the gunslinging, fight-for-your-place, Wild West culture, it’s the professional American kitchen. And it’s this turmoil- and adrenaline-fueled environment that Bill Buford, author of Among the Thugs (an amazing insider view of the soccer hooligan phenomenon) sought to encroach upon.

Using celebrity chef Mario Batali as his muse, Buford makes his way through the seedy underbelly of the modern American professional kitchen, learning its tricks the way a child learns to walk: by falling on his face. Constantly. It’s a brutal battle for Buford – he’s both slightly unqualified and slightly despised as a celebrity journalist in the middle of a hotly contested kitchen. He’s in the way. He’s naïve. Most of all, he’s astutely able to show just how difficult it can be.

From two seasons worth of Top Chef and several seasons worth of other behind-the-scenes cooking shows and books, including Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, I understand the difficulty of cooking in a restaurant setting. I sure as hell know I couldn’t do it. Look at those people. Just look at them!

This is what separates Heat from the rest – instead of a professional talking about his or her rise, or a series of talented chefs working their way through a contest, we’re looking at a complete amateur trying to learn the craft in an abbreviated amount of time. Not just the craft in general, but a very specific and very beloved section of that craft – Italian cooking.

It’s a thrill if you love learning about this kind of thing – for me, a lower-tier cook even at the amateur level, there’s a feeling of vicariousness, as if Buford is working the long hours and sustaining the horrid burns in order to bring this level of the craft to us in a way we can understand. His failures and discoveries become ours. His love for Italian cooking becomes ours.

But even a gastronomical revelation couldn’t keep me from an even truer love – pro basketball, the last frontier of athletics in a football-dominated country. And when The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac was released, I fell in love even more with what I still consider the most beautiful game in the world.

I was excited when this book was announced. The Web site alone sold me – and when I was able to cash in a handful of Discover Cash Back Awards, I instantly thought of this book. It arrived (adorned with several 33 1/3 books I ordered for research on a proposal) and I stopped everything. The book became my life. It was finished in just three days.

Written in what at times seems like a constant state of hyperbole, FreeDarko’s tome is a testament to two things: the superstar as savior and the book as a work of art. First, we’re given a short assessment of some of the league’s most recognizable players, from unquestionable floor leaders like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant to the game’s biggest cancers (think Stephon Marbury and Ron Artest.) In the middle, we’re given some of the coolest illustrations and design I’ve seen in any book.

Then, we’re treated to the stunning beauty of a well-bound and illustrated book. If McSweeney’s ever branched out and released a basketball book, this would be it. Come to think of it, it’s no coincidence that FreeDarko was a regular contributor to the McSweeney’s blog several years ago. The two go hand in hand – intelligence with an eye for beauty, looking for hidden truths in the cold confines of numbers and statistics.

Would you like a player-by-player description of the monumentally bad 2000 draft (listed in the “Cancers” section)? Would you like to see a graphic representation of how most “Euro” players aren’t really European? Would you enjoy learning to love Kobe for his drive, or suspecting LeBron for his cold, calculated way of attaining success? This isn’t your typical message board prose – this is well-thought-out, intelligently written and perfectly articulated basketball talk. The kind you would expect to see in Sports Illustrated, if that magazine had the balls to do something original once in a while.

More than anything, the FreeDarko tome allowed me to better see the complexity of basketball. Just as Heat illustrated the difficulty (and, in turn, the jaw dropping ability needed) in cooking professional cooking, and just as Deadwood illustrated the deeper emotions in living a Wild West lifestyle.

It took the sanitized, time-shortened and over-produced nature of the television shows I love and allowed me to peek inside, to see the inner workings of each concept. In doing so, it also reintroduced me to an interesting concept: reading as both learning and entertainment, treating my bookshelf as if it was a remote control, with hundreds of different stories at my fingers.

It reminded me of what I was missing all those months, routinely reading the same type of book over and over again, getting stuck in a rut, forever wondering why I kept forcing my way through something I wasn’t fully into.

I’m back on the saddle, friends. I’m ready to be the reader I was always meant to be.

This was lovingly handwritten on December 4th, 2008