For travel lovers, art fans and fervid foodies, three new memoirs fascinate. Their authors, who’ve all called themselves New Yorkers, unfurl feisty first-person narratives about fantastical journeys, behind-the-scenes escapades and surprising secrets. If you’re looking for an engaging book to tote on summer vacation or to readily transport you elsewhere while cocooned at home, these bright eye-openers are portals to wider horizons.
Leap into Escape Clauses: Getting Away With a Travel Writing Life (Bob Carries On Media) by Bob Payne, who has touched down in 142 countries. This rollicking 264-page romp, which brims with humor and charm, spotlights a remarkable career during which Payne has relished staying at five-star resorts and ramshackle huts. Ever questing for a great story to share, his penchant for encountering fresh places, people and cultures is unbounded. Sometimes trips didn’t go as planned, yet he reaped compelling insights. This award-winning correspondent was a long-time contributor to Condé Nast Traveler, while living in the Empire State; his work has also been published in other popular magazines, including Bon Appétit, Brides, Outside and Men’s Journal, Payne’s self-reflection—about his choices and chances, triumphs and one regret—are also exposed. Among the many destinations that he showcases in this book are Antarctica, Bali, Brazil, Costa Rica, French Polynesia, Greece, Greenland, Guatemala, Guyana, Panama, Seychelles and Zanzibar. His range of motion is breathtaking. Payne describes scuba-diving in the Pacific Ocean’s Marshall Islands, where he descended to an atomic graveyard at the bottom of the Bikini Atoll Lagoon, a site forbidden to travelers for more than half-a-century due its risk of radiation exposure from post- World War II atomic testing by the USA He reports on Robinson Crusoe Island, 416 miles off the coast of Santiago, Chile, where from 1704 to 1709 Scottish ship-wrecked sailor Alexander Selkirk was marooned; The survival challenges of that castaway are thought to have been the partial spark for author Daniel Defoe’s famous 1719 novel, featuring a fictional Crusoe on a Caribbean isle. Payne sails 2,200 miles nonstop aboard a 54-foot boat from the Indian Ocean’s Maldives to the North African nation of Djibouti. Savors Mount Gay rum aplenty in Martinique, an overseas territory of France, in the eastern Caribbean Sea. Parties on far-far-far northern ice and then, wearing only shorts, jumps into frigid water at the North Pole, swimming a dozen yards near the nuclear-powered, ice-breaker ship that had carried him to the top of Earth. Rides a camel for days across the dunes of the Sahara Desert, accompanied by Bedouins. And press-pass waves a path backstage at Jamaica’s Reggae Sunsplash Festival, held that year at Montego Bay’s Bob Marley Performing Arts Center, with his oldest son, who, at the time, fashioned his blond hair into dreadlocks that hung to his waist. As intriguing chapter titles such as “Headhunters Laughed at What I Paid for My Wife,” “Stoned in Egypt, but Not in a Good Way” and “Life, Death, and Rejection on The Amazon” foreshadow, funnyman Payne paints colorful landscapes and characters. “When people ask me how you got started as a travel writer, I often tell them that running away from home at fifteen and hitch-hiking alone around America is what worked for me,” he writes. Payne now lives in Arizona. His itinerant curiosity, supple interviewing skills and deft writing chops make this an inspiring on-the-go page-turner.
Peer deep inside the intricate modus operandi and magnificent wonders of the Big Apple’s vast masterpiece collections via the 226-page All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me (Simon & Schuster) by Patrick Bringley, who tags new meaning to the study of art appreciation. Working as a Met museum guard for a decade, Bringley sought that specific job as a lifeline. In the grief of coping with his 27-year-old brother’s death from cancer, Bringley quit his glam career at The New Yorker, where he was told by management that he was “going places,” in order to slow the swirl and seek solace, grace and renewed spirit within one of the world’s preeminent institutions. His sincere writing and unique vantage point unveil interesting goings-on in areas of the two-million-square-foot fortress that typical visitors do not see, such as the labyrinths beneath the galleries and the private collaborations that orchestrate new exhibitions, as well as gently examines the power of art to sustain, teach and uplift. His work refuge, set like a jewel within 843-acre Central Park, surrounded him with incredible artistry and became a source of inner strength. He also discovered a supportive and eclectic camaraderie with museum colleagues. Art aficionados will especially thrill to his descriptive passages about art history. Over the years, Bringley wore out nine Met-issued pairs of shoes patrolling its grand and intimate rooms. They were transformative steps in the right direction. “Art often derives from those moments when we would wish the world to stand still,” writes Bringley. “We perceive something so beautiful, or true, or majestic, or sad, that we cannot simply take it in stride…. Art is about both the plainness and the mystery, reminding us of the obvious, exploring the overlooked. For all the hours I’ve spent in art’s presence, I am grateful…. When I took up my post ten years ago there were things I didn’t understand. Sometimes, life can be about simplicity and stillness, in the vein of a watchful guard amid shimmering works of art. But it is also about the head-down work of living and struggling and growing and creating. All the beauty in the world will stir readers to view art in restorative ways.
Kitchen strategies, dining room brouhaha and under-the-table shenanigans are served in ample scoops in Your Table Is Ready: Tales of a New York City Maître D’ (St. Martin’s Press) by Michael Cecchi-Azzolina. With more than 35 years in the food biz, this energetic buzz-maker, known for his graceful ability to keep calm betwixt chaos, has penned an entertaining 287-page gaze at how restaurants soar and fail, what boosts and drains the bottom line, and why oft-overworked staff and occasionally demanding clientele do the things that they do, The drama! The hoopla! The personalities! Celebs, royalty, heads of state, politicians, society mavens, actors, artists, models, finance whizzes, bon vivants, media notables, frequent-flying travelers and regular folks flocked to the iconic and trendy adrenaline-fueled New York City restaurants that Cecchi-Azzolina, as gatekeeper, helped run. Among them: Raoul’s in Soho with its epic who’s-who bar scene, Keith McNally’s see-and-be-seen Minetta Tavern in Greenwich Village, Stephen Starr and Daniel Rose’s chic ooh-la-la Le Coucou in Nolita, as well as the swanky The River Café and The Water Club, docked on the East River. Cecchi-Azzolina’s affection for many fellow restaurant workers is moving; his admiration for many customers is palpable. His maître d’ maneuvering, what he calls curating the room, is elucidating. Cecchi-Azzolina kicks off his memoir with fatherless childhood flashbacks to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn — a neighborhood teeming at the time with Southern Italian immigrants largely from Sicily and Naples. His single mother solely raised him; he was a latchkey kid from first grade onward. On Sunday mornings, she awoke to the scent of garlic and meat searing in her big cast-iron skillet. She always left him three meatballs on the side of the stove for when he returned from church, where he was an altar boy. His love of those early eat-treat memories portended his food-centric future. A Harvard Master of Fine Arts degree and pursuit of a film-acting career directed his young adult trajectory and desires for a while, before he switched to hospitality. Layered with scores of prominent diners’ names (among them: Paula Abdul, Warren Beatty, Johnny Carson, Bob Dylan, Dustin Hoffman, Mick Jagger, Billy Joel, Diane Keaton, Robert de Niro, Brooke Shields, Sonia Sotomayor, Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, Justin Timberlake) and anecdotes galore, Your table is ready dishes up zest and zingers: juicy conversations, exhilarating successes, dizzying pressures, uncomfortable truths, paparazzi dilemmas, mafia threats, James Beard Award hurrahs, sharp knives and forkfuls of joy. As Anthony Bourdain’s shocking and beloved classic, Kitchen Confidentialrousingly tore open restaurants’ backdoors, Your table is ready divulges front-of-house swoops, swats and swoons.