Top positive review
A reminder of his greatness that we all needed
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on May 9, 2021
When Anthony Bourdain died in June 2018, he joined the ever-expanding list of artists and personalities (Prince, Bowie, Petty) whose recent deaths have hit me particularly hard, thrusting me into a mode of deep reflection about life, death, and everything in between. The difference between Bourdain and those others though is that the others were all associated with my youth. With them, there was the element of nostalgia, of aligning their mortality with my own because they’d been with me the majority of my life. Bourdain was different though. I had been a fan of his for at least a decade by the time he died, but his presence in my life was relatively short-lived. More importantly, what he represented to me was different, not a reminder of my youthful idealism, but one of what I desire and idealize in the present, as a middle-aged man, and what I want to be now and in the future. He didn’t just present a show about world travel, which is one the things I love most in my life, but he also lived the tough idealism of it, the way real in-depth travel can make you and the world better and teach us to be more tolerant of each other. And then throw in the food. Throw in the opinionated, irreverent approach to politics and life in general. Yeah, I miss him. I miss him a lot.
So of course I was excited to receive this book in the post and crack it open.
The co-author Laurie Woolever, who was Bourdain’s assistant explains the evolution of this book in the introduction. She had only one conversation with Bourdain about it, in which he sketched his vision for the book, but with lots of gaps and ambiguous thinking that they intended to get back to after Woolever put together a few sample chapters. The purpose was clear though: it was intended to be “an atlas of the world through his eyes”. He left her with a “blueprint” and a recording of their conversation. But, sadly, they never had a follow-up meeting. That means much of the decisions about the book’s form and how to bring to life Bourdain’s vision rested on Woolever’s shoulders, with just these general concepts and hours of video from his shows to guide her. So what do we get here?
This is not a guide in the purest sense; perhaps that is why it’s called an “irreverent” guide. This is not a book you’ll be lugging with you on your next trip, exploring with it in your hands. Its form is simple: chapter after chapter about the countries he’s traveled to, appearing in alphabetical order. Each country chapter includes the primary cities and some practical information upon arrival in those cities (airport, how to get into town and get around once you’re there) just like any other guidebook. Besides the selection of countries, Bourdain’s presence is added through the handful of hotels, restaurants, and other establishments that were chosen to be included. His comments about these places, culled by Woolever from Bourdain’s own words on his various TV shows, are liberally spread throughout, and serve as the primary vehicle for Bourdain’s voice itself. All this information is certainly interesting if you’re a fan of Bourdain, but it’s of very little use in helping to plan a trip, other than to maybe help you select one or more of the places he recommends. The practical information at the beginning of each chapter can be obtained from any other guidebook, one of which you will have to purchase anyway since this book doesn’t have enough info to serve as a primary guidebook. So it effectively lacks a real purpose save one: to experience Bourdain’s words again.
And that could be enough for some of us. Woolever knows this is targeted at fans of Bourdain and tries to inject as much of him as possible. Interspersed throughout the book are essays written by friends of Bourdain’s who write about what he meant to them. Many of them are good, and some very touching; however, once I read in the introduction that it was originally intended for Bourdain himself to write these essays about the many people and places that moved him, the knowledge that we missed out on those made me feel less for the ones we got.
But it’s probably unfair to judge this book based on the disappointment that it’s not exactly as it would have been. I began to imagine all the different ways this book could have been better if he had just lived to publish it (for example, I think the chapters would have been better designed if they had been informed more by the “Perfect Day” pieces they have on the Parts Unknown website…of course I have no idea he would have wanted to present them that way if he had lived). But that’s of no use. The book we have here is still a valuable look into his views on the many different places in the world that he wanted us to know about. This probably isn’t a book we’ll want to bring on trips with us, but there is enough here to inspire us to travel, and to guide us a little in Bourdain’s voice—a crude facsimile of what we had, but unfortunately, the best version we’re going to get. For those days when we don’t have time to stream one of his shows, this can serve as a resource to dip into now and again when we want or need that inspiration. This will never replace what could have been, but if you loved the guy, you may still think this is something great.