After getting my tenderfoot badge as a fledgling reviewer, the powers that be (or in this case, the powers that were) decided to take a chance on me with some one-off weird stuff, in addition to the one-book-per-month regular assignment. One time I remember well, my editor approached me and asked if I did any cooking. Not much, I allowed. “Good,” she said. “That’s just what we’re looking for. We have some cookbooks here and we want fifteen hundred words on how easy they are for a novice to understand and to use.” Well, I certainly qualified as a novice. BookPage ponied up some money to buy supplies, and we made the arrangements for me to stop by to pick up the books. It turned out that there were rather more than the five or six books I was expecting, something on the order of sixty more, as it turned out—two large post office bulk mail boxes full. Cookbooks for delectable cuisines from the four corners of the earth: Brazil, Burma, Portugal, Sweden, Mexico, Morocco, to name but a few. I settled on a Malaysian dish for my first outing, a pork tenderloin in a coconut milk, lime, chilli and cilantro sauce, served over jasmine rice (I could have done a taco salad, but I thought I might as well go for the brass ring). It would have been a smashing success but for one unanticipated consequence: after arriving home on the evening of my culinary debut and smelling the pungent aroma of the roasting pork, Cyndi said, “Okay, from now on, you’re the cook; I am officially retired!” Even now, that batch of cookbooks makes up the core of my cookbook collection, and I use them almost daily (check the pages for remnants of tomato sauce, vanilla extract, olive oil and other more arcane foodstuff remnants).
Three or four times a year, I would get one of these “extra” assignments. Another time it was a home improvement column, where I got to play Bruce “The Tool Man” Tierney, a pale imitation of humorist Tim Allen, although equally inept regarding all things tool. I perused and reviewed a large group of do-it-yourself books on subjects ranging from plumbing to deck construction. Fortunately, there was no budget allotted for my attempts to assemble, disassemble or repair anything around the house, which was just as well. Best to leave these things to the professionals.
Now firmly ensconced as clean-up batter, the one who could be relied upon to take on the oddball projects (to the best of my recollection, I never turned one down), I somehow became the go-to guy for reviewing travel guides and travel literature as well. For a journey junkie it is the best and the worst assignment ever: you get to read about exotic destinations the world over, but you are stuck in your office chair in Nashville. As you might imagine, this was another situation where no budget was allotted for research. I thought it would be kind of cool if BookPage had said, “Bruce, here’s a round trip ticket to (say) Denpasar. Would you take the Rough Guide to Bali with you, and see if it proves useful, and let your readers know how it compares to Lonely Planet and Frommer’s?” Didn’t happen. On the up side, when I was headed off to Bermuda, Turkey, Guatemala or wherever, I always put in an early request for books on those destinations, and then used them as the basis for reviews when the next travel “roundup” came due.
Stay tuned for part three: the Dawn of Whodunit