Sterling Nonfiction Books

Sterling’s writing is like spitfire, foursquare and jazzy with crackle, and his behavior is just scary enough to make you glad you’re not approaching a touchy border crossing in his company. —  Kirkus Reviews

 

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BOOK REVIEW

The Fire Never Dies by Richard Sterling

Several months ago, in a review of a book that has absolutely nothing to do with The Fire Never Dies, I suggested that no man worthy of being called “masculine” would ever deign to whip up a salad. Richard Sterling has proven me wrong. Well more or less.

Sterling is an adventurer, an aesthete and globe-trotting gourmand whose taste buds know no fear. He has written books about travel, books about food and books about food-related travel, but here he digs a little deeper, exploring the philosophical implications of personal boundary-pushing, whether the boundaries in question are dietary or geographical. The titular fire, of course, is passion — for life, for adventure, for love, and even for the belly-searing heat of Sterling’s favorite exotic seasonings.

The concept is explored in a series of stories culled from the last thirty-odd years of Sterling’s life — from his years in the Navy and his experiences at the end of the Vietnam war to his modern-day quests for obscure chili peppers and camel meat. They are memorable and often meaningful tales, pairing life-affirming revelations with gustatory derring-do — but also exploring the idea that the simplest tastes can be the most satisfying.

Like Sterling’s travels, The Fire Never Dies rarely follows a predictable course. It’s not a structured narrative, which may annoy some readers; rather than arrange his tales by geographical region, or chronologically, Sterling moves haphazardly around the globe, shifting backward and forward through time as his whims dictate. The “lust for life/hunger for food/thirst for adventure” troika makes a grand concept for a book, but it doesn’t suggest an obvious dramatic path — and because Sterling doesn’t really change — not significantly, at least — over the course of his adventures, there’s not much point in retracing his steps in order. As such, The Fire Never Dies is best approached as a series of thematically linked short stories that happen to be true .

As a storyteller, Sterling excels; he reels off his tales with the pulp-fiction flair of a fireside storyteller, taking sincere pleasure in the richness of the English language. You’ll quickly picture him as a sort of grizzled, know-it-all uncle type — his arrogance is annoying at first, until you realize that he really does know what he’s talking about, and draws his opinions from experience rather than idle boasting.

Naturally, he’s the main character in all of his stories: a swaggering, self-aware, suitably pompous, politically incorrect amalgam of Indiana Jones and Frasier Crane. He’s always ready with a bon mot, invariably knows just what to say to befriend the locals, and often attracts the attention of beautiful women. He’s a guy who baits pickpockets for sport in Saigon, drinks warm beer with the locals in Nairobi, shares a meal with a murderer in Baja California and will, by all accounts, eat anything that walks, crawls, flies, swims, lopes, hops, scuttles or slithers — even the icky bits.

He’s also a man who freely quotes Kipling at places of historical interest, drives around in a “modified” SUV called the Argo, and in one notable scene, whips up a dinner of chicken and pasta (though not pasta salad) in the back of a Willys jeep stranded in the middle of a storm on the Sea of Cortez. It’s a patently ridiculous scene, but true to Sterling’s old-fashioned, man’s man character: trapped in a dust storm, miles from civilization, he nonetheless has Dijon mustard, scallions and sour cream, and can treat his friends to a better meal than most people I know eat for dinner. The whole story is oddly jarring, rather like going to a Pampered Chef party at the Marlboro Man’s house.

Sterling is at his worst when he fails to acknowledge the patent absurdity of the situations he encounters, instead churning out purple prose that reads like a J. Peterman catalog with delusions of grandeur. So why isn’t Sterling utterly intolerable? It’s partly because we know he isn’t infallible; just when we think he’s getting a little too big for his britches, he shares an acutely embarrassing moment or a bittersweet romantic failure. We experience his loneliness during his travels, sense his need for companionship, and in one of the book’s most emotional chapters, we witness his doomed romance with a beautiful Malaysian…uhh…lady of the evening.

To his credit, Sterling doesn’t try to justify or qualify the sexual escapades of his Navy days; they’re dealt with matter-of-factly, and it’s clear that he’s not ashamed of his past. Indeed, Sterling is so secure in his masculinity that he shares a tale few heterosexual men would ever tell — and you’ve got to respect the brass cojones it takes to tell, let alone publish, it. In “All At Sea”, Sterling takes a slow boat trip across the South China Sea, and ignites a romance with a Philippine woman named Luz. I don’t want to spoil one of the book’s most entertaining surprises, but suffice it to say that after reading this chapter, you can’t help but feel respect — grudging or otherwise — for Richard Sterling. When he feasts on camel meat, swallows potato bugs like jalapeno poppers, snacks on chicken feet and seasons his food with red ants, you’ll remember the Luz story, and you’ll be far more willing to believe the things he says.

Parts of The Fire Never Dies are flat-out, hands-down, mouthful-of-beverage-spurting-out-the-nostrils hilarious. At one point, Sterling convinces an unsuspecting Australian friend to taste cooked rooster testicles, and doesn’t identify the snack until he starts chewing:

Rob asked, “So how do you like the sperm packet, Leon?”

Leon continued to chew, but almost imperceptibly slowly, as though weighing his options. Rob reached across the table and took a morsel from the dish, chewed experimentally, and pronounced, “It tastes just like giahlic.”

“That’s because you just ate a clove of garlic,” I said. “Here.” And I served him the genuine article. He boldly chewed, swallowed, then reached for another gonad, saying, “This puts me in mind of how they ‘nad sheep in the outback. The old timers just pick up the little boy lambs by the hind legs and chomp off their balls with their teeth.”

I looked at Leon, who was now still more indecisive. “Come on, Leon,” I prodded. “Just think of it as a rooster coming in your mouth.”

Okay, maybe you had to be there. And you probably have to be the sort of person, most likely male, who takes gleeful pleasure in sophomoric grossness. But it’s moments like these — as well as the admission that, upon returning to the US, Sterling craves not frou-frou gourmet food but “a cheeseburger, French fries, and a draft beer served in a sawdust bar and grill where the jukebox plays Elvis, Chuck Berry, or Hank Williams Sr.” — that make The Fire Never Dies so appealing, despite its scattershot presentation.

Like all the best travel books, it ignites an answering wanderlust in all who embrace it; you might not want to explore the Burmese jungle and chow down on potato bugs, but you’ll probably have a strong urge to take a trip somewhere you’ve never been, or to commandeer a booth at your favorite Thai restaurant and order one of everything you’ve never tried before.

by George Zahora– Splendid Ezine

 

The Fire Never Dies is a spicy retelling of some of the author’s most memorable voyages.” —Tri-Valley Herald

 

“Richard shares his most compelling stories from a lifetime of travel and adventure.” —Houston Tribune

 

“In [Richard Sterling’s] latest book readers won’t find themselves lolling in a sunkissed olive orchard or shopping at a provincial French market. To read Sterling’s “literature of gusto,” a phrase coined by the former Navy officer and engineer, you need to be ready for anything…This isn’t to say that the writer isn’t gourmet savvy. Sterling’s book chronicles his love of exotic cuisine…” —Diablo Magazine

 

“Perfect for curling up in front of a fireplace on a long winter’s night or to stick into your carry-on bag during your next extended flight, here’s escapism you can taste. Richard Sterling lives up to his title as the gifted storyteller serving as tour guide who takes the reader through a series of sassy escapades along roads less traveled…Sterling’s macho-gastro-comical adventures tinged with equal parts of pathos, earthy humor and just a pinch of malarkey may be just the right recipe to kick start jaded taste buds to new heights.” —Frequent Flyer Online

 

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