The Ramen King and I — Andy Raskin


In his new memoir The Ramen King and I, Andy Raskin connects sex, desire, Japanese culture, and instant noodles in an often funny, sometimes poignant, and ultimately redemptive narrative that memoir-enthusiasts (and Japanese food fans) will enjoy. Raskin’s narrative works along several tracks that eventually intertwine. The book begins with Raskin’s obsession over Momofuku Ando, inventor of instant ramen (and gifted inspirational author, to boot), backtracking in time to slowly reveal just how a kid from Long Island got to be so wound up in the writings and philosophy of an ancient Japanese businessman. Raskin balances a straightforward, chronological narrative with intensely personal letters (supposedly) written to Momofuku. These letters often read like diary entries and help to expose the core of Raskin’s dilemma: in short, he’s an emotionally detached womanizer with extreme fears of commitment (in some of the memoir’s skeevier sections, we’re treated to Raskin’s descriptions of making “dates” via Craigslist). Raskin relates his life as a tech and business writer, and his frequent trips to Japan. Eventually, after a chance encounter in a sushi bar, Raskin enters the strange world of ramen, a world that eventually leads him to Momofuku, whose zen writings in turn lead Raskin to a transcendental breakthrough.

Raskin lets his audience get to know Momofuku too, both through the narrative proper and also through short, scattered sections titled “A Very Brief History of Momofuku.” Each part delivers another pithy bit of wisdom from the ramen master (who, strangely enough, invented instant noodles in a wood shack in his back yard). It’s easy to see why Raskin admires Momofuku, especially when we’re treated to a koan like “In a line, you can see the desires of the world” (to clarify, Momofuku is referring to a queue). Raskin’s descriptions actually make readers want to pick up Mr. Ando’s books–who could resist a chapter title like “I Am a Salad Bar Man,” from Momofuku’s collection of food essays Praise the Appetite. Indeed, the best parts of The Ramen King and I center around food and Japanese culture. Raskin is particularly passionate when describing his favorite semi-secret sushi spot (in one of the book’s saddest moments, he’s banned–this only helps to facilitate that redemptive arc, though, folks); the book also shines when Raskin details the rigmarole of the ordering ritual at Ramen Jiro–a Tokyo ramen shop complete with its own shaming ceremonies. Raskin’s evocations of sushi and ramen manga also fascinates. I lived in Tokyo long enough myself to know that the Japanese have comic books about everything, but I must admit I was still surprised by the range of sushi comics Raskin describes. He also takes one of the books major thematic cues from a Japanese game show called Go Forth, where the young hosts blurt out “I wanna _____!” and fill in that blank with a random phrase; they then go attempt to fulfill their task.

On the other hand, the parts of The Ramen King and I which center on Raskin’s relationships with women often drag, or at least blur into each other. Raskin seems to understand his “ex-girl to the next-girl” mentality is detrimental to his mental health, but he’s rarely reflective about it in a meaningful way, and he certainly doesn’t attempt to plumb its roots. However, he often admits as much, pointing out that the details he remembers from relationships–even long term ones–tend to be pretty ephemeral (and, not coincidentally, attached to food). On the whole though, Raskin’s book reads at a quick, easily digestible pace without resorting to the clichés or stock phrasing that often plague memoirs. Sure, the book follows a pretty predictable pattern of fall and redemption, but it does so in a manner that enlightens without being didactic. Memoir fans, foodies, and anyone interested in contemporary Japanese culture will likely enjoy The Ramen King and I. Recommended.

The Ramen King and I is available May 7th, 2009 from Gotham/Penguin.

To the Castle and Back — Vaclav Havel

Václav Havel’s latest memoir To the Castle and Back plays as a strange series of paradoxes. It’s elliptical and fragmentary yet thorough and exhaustive; it’s personal and introspective yet political and social; it presents a total picture of Czechoslovakia’s 1989 Velvet Revolution and the subsequent dissolution of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, yet it repeatedly admits to being unable to convey the full story. The narrative of the Velvet Revolution is fascinating even for those who aren’t political junkies. Make no mistake though–To the Castle in Back will be most enjoyed by people who can’t get enough of world politics. The book is larded with dry political details, and Havel the poet and playwright, Havel Lou Reed’s buddy, Havel the Zappa enthusiast–in short Havel as hipster–is largely absent from this text. Instead, we get journalistic accounts of Havel as politician and speech maker interwoven with Havel’s own commentary and even interoffice memos. At times the level of detail is almost excruciating, but Havel seems to understand this. His preface to the book actually serves as the best review (and guide) possible:

If you occasionally feel like putting the book aside because it seems to skirt some of the world-shaking events that I lived through, or to burrow too deeply into exclusively Czech or Czechoslovak matters, I urge you to skip ahead. It’s easy to do because the book is divided not only into chapters but into short sequences, separated by horizontal lines.

Late in the memoir, Havel writes that for all of his life, he’d “longed to write a brutally honest diary, something in the style of Henry Miller, Charles Bukoswki, [or] Anaïs Nin.” And while To the Castle and Back hardly approaches the rough and scandalous material of that mid-century triad, it does contain something just as honest perhaps: an unglamorous, unromanticized accounting of the past told at all times with the caveat that this story is not history writ large, but rather the perspective of someone who lived through it and acted upon it. Honest, moving, often humorous, and, yes, occasionally dull, To the Castle and Back is probably not a book for everyone, but for those interested in the man and the events of the Velvet Revolution it makes a competent introduction.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Hip-Hop’s Daisy Age

Earlier this week, The Root published a fantastic excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent memoir The Beautiful Struggle. In “Hip-Hop’s Daisy Age,” Coates contextualizes a Golden Age–the arcadian summer of ’88–when a new “consciousness” movement in hip-hop brought together both the discordant militarism of Chuck D’s Public enemy and the neo-hippie soul of De La Soul. Although Coates grew up African-American in an economically-depressed Baltimore and I am white, and was living in Dunedin, New Zealand in the summer of ’88, we are roughly the same age. When he writes, “I was all X-Men, polyhedral dice, and Greek myths,” it’s not hard for me to imagine that we actually probably have at least a few things in common. And while I was clearly in a different cultural place, I owned and cherished most of the albums that Coates cites in his piece. I played them repeatedly, furtively listening in secret to the alien sounds on my Sony Walkman. I can’t help thinking of 3 Feet High and Rising without a warm tinge of nostalgia coupled with a sadness that something so fresh and vital and just plain different probably won’t come out of mainstream hip-hop again–or at least any time soon. Perhaps this is hip-hop’s legacy–20 years after its Golden Age, it’s earned the right to be as shitty, conformist, and downright stupid as any other commercial genre. But I’ve digressed. Coates’s piece is no lament. Instead, it’s a loving tribute to a particular moment, which, for him at least, seemed to transcend the space he was in and extend into all “the ghettos of the world, with their merchant vultures, wig stores, sidewalk sales, sub shops, fake gold, bastard boys, and wandering girls.” In the summer of ’88, I was living comfortably in a lovely harbor town, but the sentiment Coates expresses reached me nonetheless. As corny as it sounds, hip-hop in ’88 provided a cultural education for me, not just about the African-American experience specifically, but, more generally, as an expatriate, hip-hop told me something about what was new and fresh and vital in America. Now I realize that my own early love for hip-hop simply preceded the eventual mainstreaming, commercialization, and consequent dumbing-down of hip-hop. And honestly, I could never have the same spiritual attachment that Coates describes:

“…the rhyme-pad was a spell-book, it summoned asphalt elementals, elder gods, and weeping ancestors, all of whom had your back. That summer, I beheld the greatest lesson of 88, that when under the aegis of hip-hop, you never lived alone, you never walked alone.”

Where Coates experienced soul music, I heard punk rock. But for each of us, the hip-hop in ’88 was a new kind of rebel music. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed. When I get home tonight, I’ll listen to EPMD’s Strictly Business and try to forget about Soulja Boy for 45 minutes.

The Art of Modern Memory

From conscientious reader Dave C. ((very) minor editorial changes by the Biblioklept):

“The NY Times posted an article about an author who was outed as a fraud for writing a memoir about her life as a half-Native American, half-white gangbanger from South Central Los Angeles who escaped to the University of Oregon when she was really just an activist who at one point worked with gangs and created the characters in her memoir based on real people she had met in her real/fake life.The Times actually reviewed the book just last week and praised it.

I’ve just been pissed ever since that James Frey controversy about the idea that a supposed memoir has to be true. Does the fact that she made up portions of this book make her accomplishment any less significant? Isn’t a moving work of fiction a greater accomplishment than a moving autobiography? Are people really so concerned with whether someone actually did something that they are willing to ignore a touching, well-written narrative?

That James Frey novel, what I’ve read of it, was a tad overcooked, but about 10 people told me I had to read it because it was sooooo good. After Oprah (who made a gazillion dollars promoting his work) sold him down the river, he became a literary pariah.

Is the phrase “based on a true story” important in the appreciation of a story at all?”

I wrote a blog a few weeks ago about a few run-ins I had at an AP workshop, specifically related to teaching the canon. Anyway, that aside, during that workshop, this question came up. The mediator/instructor had the room show, by hands, their opinion on the issue. It was roughly a 70-30 split, with the majority favoring “authenticity” in their memoirs. I was, of course, in the minority.

Like Dave, I was steamed over the James Frey thing, not because I cared about the book–it looked like trash, frankly–but because he became a strange acid test for what America now thinks it needs from a memoir.

If we start from the assumption that genres impose a functional structure that inheres within the reading of a book, we’ve already made a strange, silly, and ultimately illusory set of distinctions to guide our reading. All one has to do is look at the travel literature of the sixteenth century or a science text book from the 1920s to see how quickly “validity” melts under context.

But even if we grant that genre has a meaningful or necessary purpose, and we work from this assumption, I think it’s a huge mistake to believe that “memoir” is the same as “nonfiction.” There are several simple reasons for this.

For one, to tell an effective and affecting story requires a manipulation of events–editing, hyperbole, recoloring, touch-ups, and so on. Events in life don’t necessarily unfold in a “readable” way. And I think that many, if not most readers go into a memoir understanding that the tale they read may be compressed or somehow aestheticized.

But I think a more fundamental reason that memoir shouldn’t be held to the strictest ideals of verity follows from the simple fact that memory is in no way perfect, absolute, or unchanging. We cannot perfectly record our memories, nor do they stay stable to us. Memories are always volatile, swirling; we forge our identity in every moment by reinterpreting and reimagining our past.

Any memoirist must literally reimagine their memories in order to write, and if they choose not to reimagine, but to instead imagine (invent and create) memories, what does it say about our expectations and needs as readers to judge their writing based solely on adherence to structural genre?

In the preface to Dave Eggers’s What is the What, Valentino Achak Deng foregrounds these problems. He says that the book–his “autobiography,” written by Dave Eggers (and hence not his autobiography)–must be considered a novel, as he was very, very young when many of the events recorded in the book happened. Similarly, Eggers’s own memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, repeatedly references its own flights of fiction, acknowledges its own need to invent a new imagined version of memories that never happened in order to better explain what really did happen. The Autobiography of Malcolm X was written by Alex Haley; The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano is rife with distortions, inaccuracies and completely fabricated events; in crafting A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man–which may or may not be a memoir (although it is certainly a book…)–James Joyce wholly lifted entire passages of contemporary religious tracts.

James Weldon Johnson’s novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, illustrates how easily notions of genre–just like notions of race and stable identity–can be deconstructed. Johnson anonymously published the “autobiography” in 1912, and it was received as the true life story of an extraordinary “Negro” who shockingly was able to “pass” as a white man, to the extent that he (gasp!) married a white woman and became a major property owner. The book initiated a minor racial panic, causing some critics to insist that it must be fake because no black man could effectively “pass” as the unnamed narrator claimed to do. JWJ’s deconstruction of race and identity could not have worked in the same way had he presented it within the limits of a “true” memoir. It took fiction (masquerading as fact) to reveal a more profound reality.

A good writer makes stuff up and writes it down in a way that makes us want to read it and not put it down and keep reading it until we’ve read it all and want to read it again. If finding out the circumstances of the writing of the book do not match a set of expectations we had going into reading the book, we need to re-evaluate those expectations.