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Holiday Reading 2003 : Fun Stuff
By David Pitt

Here, for fun lovers everywhere, is a pile of books just for them.

Behind Bars (St. Martin's Press), by Ty Wenzel, is far deeper, far more involving, than you might think it's going to be. At first glance it appears to be another one of those tell-all books written by someone who needs money in a hurry. But Wenzel, who spent ten years behind the bar at a New York City restaurant, isn't one of those writers. She's smart, engaging, and, clearly, a writer possessed of a certain narrative style. Sure, the book's got the things you expect to find -- behind-the-scenes escapades, gossip, tricks of the bartending trade -- but, in addition to all that, there's a lot of serious stuff. Wenzel's theme is important: just because someone's a bartender, she tells us, it doesn't mean you're free to treat them like servants. Respect them, she says. They deserve to be treated with dignity. Ultimately it's a book about the golden rule: do unto others, etc. Much more than the sum of its parts.

Apparently Iain Levinson isn't too good at a lot of things, but at least we know he can write well. A Working Stiff's Manifesto (Random House), subtitled 'A Memoir of Thirty Jobs I Quite, Nine That Fired Me, and Three I Can't Remember,' is the very funny tale of an English major, $40,000 in debt, and his quest for a steady paycheck. The quest leads him to Alaska (as a fish processor), New York (movie-set gofer), Tennessee (trucker), the Bering Sea (crab fisherman), and Philadelphia (oil deliveryman) -- and that's only a partial list. It's a good-natured book: Levinson relates his tales of humiliation and incompetence with a smile and a chuckle, and we laugh along with him. Loads of fun.

So, too, is Karaoke Nation: Or, How I Spent a Year in Search of Glamour, Fulfillment, and a Million Dollars (Free Press), by noted magazine journalist Steve Fishman. It's his account of his pursuit of the American Dream: money, that is, and lots of it. He figured the time (1999) was right to take advantage of the country's 'rollicking new business culture' (otherwise known as the dot-com boom) that let anyone with an idea, no matter how crazy of foolish it was, take a shot at a piece of the pie. Fishman's idea: Internet karaoke. Internet hip-hop karaoke, to be precise. Needless to say, he didn't make a million bucks. On the other hand, he did get a very entertaining book out of the adventure.

Then there's Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs (Scribner), a 'low culture manifesto' by Chuck Klosterman. A broad -- and broadly comic -- examination of contemporary popular culture, the book discusses, with equal weight, breakfast cereal, pop music, pornography, reality TV, the Star Wars movies, the Internet, and dozens of other cultural staples. Klosterman calls this an 'evening book,' written 'in those fleeting evening moments just before I fall asleep,' and that's exactly what it feels like. You get the sense that there are connections being made here, but just what they are is not quite coherent. The book's analyses of, for example, Saved by the Bell and the cultural significance of Pamela Anderson seem like they might be making a larger point ... but just what that point is, is unclear. In almost any other book these would be drawbacks (you normally expect a book to be clear about what it's about), but, in this one, they're not. Klosterman perfectly captures, on paper, the kind of mental rambling we all indulge in, and it's quite enjoyable.

For all the gamblers in the crowd, here's American Roulette (St. Martin's Press), the confessions of professional casino cheater Richard Marcus. From Vegas to London to Monte Carlo, and many points in between, the book takes us on a twenty-five-year odyssey. Marcus, who claims he's putting his transgressions on the record because 'I could no longer resist telling you my story,' reveals how, and why, he became one of the world's most successful casino cheaters. He reveals some of the tricks of the trade -- not to educate us, he says, but merely to entertain us -- and introduces us to an assortment of colourful characters. What I especially liked was Marcus's honesty: unlike many similar books, this one contains not a trace of false contrition, of I'm-pretending-I'm-sorry-for-what-I-did. He was a con man, a professional scammer; he found something he was good at, and made a good living at it. An excellent book.

The gamblers on your list will also like Bringing Down the House (Free Press), Ben Mezrich's story of six university students whose system for winning at blackjack netted them millions of dollars at casinos around the world. It, too, is very good, although its even-handed, reportorial style sometimes fails to capture the excitement of the moment.

Martin Booth's Cannabis: A History (Doubleday) is the truly wonderful story of the notoriously addictive plant. Probably first cultivated in Asia somewhere around 10,000 BC (the historical record is a little spotty), where it was used to make cloth and cord, its medicinal properties soon made it a staple of shamans. How it progressed from 'magical plant' and medicine to controlled substance is a complicated tale of politics, religion, and science. Like it or not, the evolution of cannabis was integral to the evolution of human culture, and Booth, whose Opium: A History is widely respected, offers us a whole new perspective on this much-maligned plant.

For the food lovers out there, we have California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution (Free Press), by veteran chef and food writer Jeremiah Tower. Never heard of the 'American culinary revolution'? No need to panic. Tower will explain. This isn't a history of American cuisine; it's a history of Tower, beginning with his early days in San Francisco, where, in the early 1970s, he revolutionized the idea of fine dining by preparing meals using local ingredients prepared without all the usual culinary bells and whistles. Simplicity was the watchword, and, while that may seem obvious enough these days, it was, in its day, an idea of near-earthshattering importance. While the book is a little off-putting in places -- the author seems pretty full of himself, to tell you the truth -- as a record of the last three decades of culinary evolution it's pretty important.

Last, but not least, a couple of books for those who like games. The Game Makers (Harvard Business School Press), by Philip E. Orbanes, is, like its subtitle says, 'The Story of Parker Brothers from Tiddledy Winks to Trivial Pursuit.' Orbanes was an executive at the company for a number of years, and this book, sanctioned by Parker Brothers, is absorbing, entertaining, and, from time to time, surprising (who knew the company was so instrumental in the evolution of Ping-Pong?). If you're a fan of board games, and who isn't, you've gotta have this one.

Fans of chess will love The Turk (Berkley), Tom Standage's delightful story of the (once upon a time) world famous chess-playing automaton whose eighty-five year career took it to Europe and America, where it performed for such notables as Benjamin Franklin, Charles Babbage, and Edgar Allan Poe. The Turk was a chess-playing marvel, but it was also the subject of a great deal of speculation. Was it really a machine capable of thinking out its moves, or was it simply a shell, with a human chess player concealed within? There were many theories, but no solutions to the mystery -- until now, of course. This is the third time I've read this excellent book, and the third time I've recommended it in a review. Which should give you some idea how highly I regard it.

Editor's Note: This is one of a series on for holiday gifts and holiday reading. Find more suggestions in our Holiday Columns.
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