The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

March 28, 2008

Book review: Bourdain has ‘No Reservations’ when it comes to travel book

‘No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach’

By Anthony Bourdain

I’ve long admired Anthony Bourdain. Sure, he smokes way too much, he drinks to excess, and he swears constantly. But he is who he is, and he doesn’t apologize for it. And who he is, is ever-evolving.

He first found success as a respected chef in New York City. Then came fame as a writer; his first best-seller, “Kitchen Confidential,” provided a hilarious, shocking and sometimes stomach-turning insider’s view of the restaurant business. These days, he’s known for his wildly entertaining Travel Channel show, “No Reservations.”

Bourdain’s latest literary offering, “No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach,” isn’t a companion book to the series in the traditional sense. Rather, in a very personal way, it revisits the places that left the strongest impressions — good and bad — on him.

As with any good travel book, the pictures are plentiful and beautiful. However, they aren’t lifted from video footage. Instead, they’re behind-the-scenes photos taken by everyone on the “No Reservations” crew.

Although the photographs could speak for themselves, Bourdain introduces each section, detailing what he and his crew experienced in places ranging from Uzbekistan to Cleveland. He’s a skilled, observant writer. He looks beyond the clichés that litter so many travel books and aims to impart what a country and its people, food and culture are truly like. He can be as snarky as he is empathetic, sometimes in the same paragraph.

The captions are where it’s at, though. There Bourdain cuts loose and really speaks his mind. He’s not above getting in a dig at his former employer, the Food Network, either: “Traditional Icelandic holiday treats. Testicle terrine — marinated in lactic acid. Blood sausage — marinated in lactic acid. Rotten shark. Marinated in lactic acid. The smell alone could drop a charging rhino (or Rachael Ray) in its tracks from fifty yards.”

There are quiet times among the comedy, though: “Outside Jaisalmer: I remember this moment. I was listening to a sad song on my iPod, and looking out at the desert while the crew shot B-roll footage of camels and landscape. I lay down and closed my eyes for a few seconds, thinking about how strange my life had become, how far I was from my old life, how distant from my old friends, how difficult it had become to connect with anyone who didn’t do what I did, hadn’t seen what I was seeing.” When he sits up and opens his eyes, he finds three cameras trained on him. “I laughed at the bittersweet freakshow my life had become. And then thought, ‘These are my friends now.’”

The longest, most moving section in the book is simply entitled “Beirut.”

Bourdain and his crew had scarcely arrived in the city before Israel and Hezbollah began exchanging rocket fire. Within hours, the airport had been destroyed and a naval blockade set up, trapping them in what had become a war zone. For nearly a week they waited out the airstrikes at a hotel. And they watched as a city that had worked so hard to rebuild itself was destroyed, along with the hopes and dreams and lives of its citizens. The Marines of the USS Nashville finally arrived to evacuate the hotel’s American occupants to Cyprus. Bourdain was deeply touched by their hospitality and kindness, but he remained troubled. The final Beirut photo is of the somber-looking television host. The caption reads: “On the plane home from Cyprus after ten days in Beirut. I was thoroughly discouraged, filled with shame, and didn’t have much hope left for the world.”

The remainder of the book is less serious, however. The final chapters cover subjects such as “Indigenous Beverages” and “Bathrooms Around the World.” Bourdain offers tips on how to travel off the beaten path and where to eat. He even manages one last jab at the Food Network’s top cutie-pie: “Rachael Ray ate here — and it doesn’t suck!”

“No Reservations” does what a great travel book should. Aside from giving you access to people and places both near and far, it inspires a desire to travel beyond your personal comfort zone. There is life beyond your back yard. It’s big and it’s messy and it’s colorful. And it’s well worth the trip.

Lisa E. Brown is the administrative assistant at the Joplin Public Library.