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Book Reviews: Anthony Bourdain, Robert H. Davies, Howard Marks, Kevin Sampson

by anna battista

Anthony Bourdain, A Cook's Tour (Bloomsbury)

"I wanted the perfect meal I wanted to be one of those debauched heroes and villains out of Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, Francis Coppola, and Michael Cimino I wanted adventures," here's how Anthony Bourdain's main aim in writing this book can be summarised. Chef Bourdain, author of the best selling classic Kitchen Confidential and of a couple of intriguing kitchen'n'mafia novels, Bone in the Throat and Gone Bamboo, must have been really very bored and totally in love with food when he decided to set on a mad journey across various countries and continents in search of the perfect meal. An adventure follows another, with Bourdain going to France to try and capture the lost magic of his childhood days when he first ate an oyster or travelling to Morocco to feast on roasted lamb in the desert with a group of Tuareg and then directing his wandering steps to Russia, to mess around with local gangsters and drink a lot of vodka. Spicy noodle soup, churros, sushi, the heart of a cobra, tofu, haggis, you name it, Bourdain eats it with nonchalance and almost pretending that he's enjoying even the most disgusting morsel. The best adventures take place in Vietnam and Cambodia, two places that the author truly loves and describes so well that you'll even smell food getting cooked in a kitchen or just lying on a market stall. Right, there are heavy bits in the book wherever the author lingers on how a cobra is practically skinned alive or a pig killed and other ordinary animal abuses, but, luckily, comic relief intervenes when Bourdain remembers the reader to mention one thing: during his trips he was followed around by a TV crew shooting a food programme. This ensures that a camera will always be there, ready to shoot some footage while he's tossing and turning in his bed, suffering the severe pains of food poisoning. Will Bourdain find the perfect meal in Portugal or in Japan where, dressed like a Samurai, he'll pretend to be a feudal lord and eat dubious food like natto? Read the book and discover it.

Robert H. Davies, Perfection She Dances (Mainstream Publishing)

In 1939, Margaret Goldsmith wrote a book entitled The Trail of Opium in which she recounted a detailed history of opium, of the Chinese opium trade and of how the various opium wars took place. There's one and only recent book which gets into the belly of the dragon, that dares to describe China like Margaret Goldsmith's did so many years ago, it's Robert H. Davies' Perfection She Dances. The only difference between Goldsmith's book and this one is that the latter describes the dope smuggling business in the Asian continent and the Chinese prison system. In this chronicle of his life, Davies tells his readers how, after having visited Pakistan, he goes to China, driven by the curiosity that characterises all the ordinary tourists and by his passion for the local culture. Once in Kashgar, he falls in love with the place and with a local Uighur woman, Sharapet. Their love is only interrupted by brief stints in Hong Kong and Manila where Davies goes to sell dope to earn some money and go back to Kashgar to marry Sharapet. Their odyssey seem to come to an end when they finally manage to obtain the licence to marry, but Davies, grassed by a couple of tourists, is suddenly arrested, being mistaken for a proper drug baron and brought to Shangai number one prison, Tilan Qiau, after having been sentenced and condemned to more than eight years for dealing drugs. Seven years and a half will pass before Davies will be able to see the light and his wife once again, seven years in which he will have to learn by heart the infinite rules that govern the prison system, will learn Chinese and will have to try and survive the prison life. With a foreword by Mr Nice Howard Marks, this is one of the best books about China you'll ever read, with enchanting descriptions of Asia and of the Chinese culture and not that enchanting parts about the local prison system. A compelling read.

Howard Marks, The Howard Marks Book of Dope Stories (Vintage)

Luckily for his readers and fans, Howard Marks, author of the best seller Mr Nice, has decided not to sell his soul to the publishing business and write Mr Nice II. Instead, after reading practically the ninety per cent of the books about drugs, he has decided to release an anthology, The Book of Dope Stories, which contains extracts taken from all his favourite books about drugs. Divided in seven chapters, 'Into It', 'Out Of It', 'Legalise It', 'Commodify It', 'Criminalise It', 'With It' and the revealing 'It', each introduced by Marks' articles, the book is a compendium of drug literature for all tastes: there are a few extracts from William Burroughs for those who want to read about drug madness; Alexander & Ann Shulgin's writings follow for those who want to get technical about drugs and for those who want to get classical, well, there are quite a few extracts from Alesteir Crowley or rare bits from Mordecai Cooke and James M. Campbell. It would be practically impossible to list all the different authors contained in the anthology, but you can be sure that it contains tales from the opium dens, stories about the hashishins, experiences of people getting off their tits, the odd narration of ordinary scams and long lists of regulations and laws. In the Iliad, Homer refers to Agamede "who all the virtues knew of each medical herb the wide world grows": surely, Howard Marks' Book of Dope Stories won't make you a proper expert in drug matters, but it's the ultimate experience through the world of drugs.

Kevin Sampson, Outlaws (Jonathan Cape)

There was a song from The Farm which told tales of "plastic gangsters and two bit hoods/heading for the nineties in their kid gloves", it was called "Hearts & Minds" and it stated that for some people "money's the root of all crime." And a story of urban gangsters looking for money is Kevin Sampson's latest novel, Outlaws. Set in a Liverpool gone mad for guns and drugs, a city in which criminality has gone berserk, Outlaws deals with the lives of three friends, Ged, Roby and Ratter, who have apparently found the final scam which will set them for a while. The problem is that Ged hasn't planned any betrayal from his buddies and in particular from Ratter, who is at present too busy dealing drugs all on his own to stick with his mates. For those who think that Sampson has finally abandoned the world of soccer fans he was so fond of in his first novel, Awaydays, well, let us allow to tell you that you're wrong as there are quite a few pages about the usual trip to see the main characters' dream team away, with the typical adventures and misadventures that follow. The best thing of the novel, a novel that will leave you holding your breath to the very last page, is the fact that it is divided in short chapters that allow each of the characters to speak in their distinctive voice. Is this a return to form for Kevin Sampson? Who said that he had lost it?

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