Tuesday 31 May 2011

Holiday Reading

Sadly, I don't have any imminent holidays on the horizon. But a recent article in the travel section of The Sydney Morning Herald got me to thinking about selecting holiday reading. An important activity for every reader.

Last year I took a magnificent trip to Singapore, Dublin, Paris and Luxembourg. Naturally, I fretted about my holiday reading for weeks. Particularly difficult because I was taking actual books, not files on an e-reader- but I'm certainly starting to see the allure.

I was even planning themed reading, which I don't often do. I selected James Joyce's The Dubliners for Dublin, and Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris to take as my major reads. I planned to fill my eyes with visions of the city during the day, and fill my mind with visions of its literature at night. Which is a fabulous plan. It just didn't work.

I was reading Michael Ende's The Never Ending Story when I set out from Australia. I expected to finish it on the plane to Singapore. I didn't. Then I thought I'd finish it during my week in Singapore. I didn't. I didn't even manage to finish it during my week in Dublin. And it was only as the final days of our fortnight in Paris were drawing to a close that I managed to finish it. Why? It wasn't a bad book by any stretch. In fact I quite enjoyed it. But busy schedules and jet lag meant that I didn't actually have that much time for reading.

Progress measured in single pages- I kept falling asleep and dropping the book open

I did read the first story of The Dubliners. And whilst it didn't make all that much sense to me, it was actually readable, which was more than I was expecting from my first brush with Joyce.

Notre Dame de Paris remains unopened, waiting from my next trip to the City of Light.

Sunday 29 May 2011

A Full Moon and a Bad Photographer

When you're trying to take a photo of the moon, but you don't know what setting you should use, and the real photographer is asleep, you get quite a range of results.

sometimes it looks really cool

sometimes not

Saturday 28 May 2011

A Paris Christmas, and some more gratuitous Paris snaps

Christmas 2010 is but a mere memory for most of us, but my Christmas reading extended on into the new year (not quite this far into the year it must be said, but someone apears to be dragging the blogging chain). And what  a finale this was! An impulse book picked up at a fabulous $5 book sale that had been running in my town since early December- where I spent quite a bit of money I suspect (the first visit I needed a box to be able to carry my purchases to the car- I've never done that before), and where I  was to spend more money before it closed. Some books I agonised over. Putting them down, picking them back up again on several visits. Some I just lunged at and didn't put down. A Paris Christmas was one of those. Absolutely no thought went into the purchase of this book. I saw it and had to have it. Even though I'd never heard of it or the author before. The title and the cover was enough.

I love Paris, and have been lucky enough to visit in both the spring and the summer, but I'm being increasingly drawn to the notion of spending a winter and specifically a Christmas in Paris. All those Paris blogs that I read, endless images of Paris in her stark winter beauty with chocolat chaud the perfect warming potion, and hearty seasonal treats in abundance. Who couldn't help but be entranced? Well John Baxter let's it rip from the first page- spending the whole preface dissuading silly, romantics like me from visiting Paris at Christmas. Shops and restaurants are closed. The streets are deserted. The ATMs will remain empty for days as the people who refill them refuse to work over Christmas. "At certain times of year, the spirit of Paris moves elsewhere. It's soul migrates, and this most beautiful of cities briefly falls empty."

Of course Paris falls empty because the French are so busy celebrating Christmas. "Think of that sense of family solidarity, reconciliation, and homecoming that characterizes the U.S. Thanksgiving. Combine it with the affirmation of shared values found in a nationalist festival like Russia's May Day or Australia's Anzac Day. Toss in the eating and drinking that distinguishes a German beer festival. Now you have some idea of a French Christmas."

One Christmas Baxter is preparing the dessert for Christmas Day, and is keeping it a surprise. His wife, Marie-Do pesters him to tell her what he is making. 

"It's a surprise."

"Surprises are an enthusiasm of young societies," she said pedantically. "The French don't care for them."

Statuary in Tuilleries

My first major surprise on reading this book was that John Baxter is Australian! I'd not heard of him before, and had assumed from the brief bio at the front of the book that he would be American. He's a frightfully well connected Australian though- he describes being destitute on first moving to England in the late 60s as so many clever young Aussies did, but he was lent a tiny, unheated cottage by Randolph Stow, who happened to be away for at a six month writer-in-residence gig in Scandinavia. Baxter later became a drinking buddy of Kingsley Amis, because they both enjoyed a well-mixed drink.

John Baxter grew up in Australia, and learnt to read whilst whiling away the hours waiting for his parents to finish up at the pub. Hardly an auspicious start. Yet he grows up to become an author and codirector of the Paris Writers Workshop. This book gave me joy on many levels- as an Australian, as a Francophile, and as a foodie. The breadth of subject matter is quite astonishing- and a tantalising tidbit is thrown in so very often. In his chapter talking about the prodigious drinking abilities of the average Australian, he mentions George Miller, the filmmaker who made Mad Max. Baxter states that Miller's inspiration for Mad Max's apocolyptic vision of vehicular homicide stemmed from the young doctor moonlighting as an ambulance driver in the 1970s and seeing the results of so many alcohol-drenched crashes. It really was the perfect book for me to while away the hours, and if I do ever become lucky enough to spend a Christmas in Paris I shall make certain to read it again before I go.

The dome of the Pantheon

I love the glimpse provided into hugely different Christmas traditions, and a look back in time to the history of Christmas. John Baxter meets his future French wife in Los Angeles in 1989, and then impulsively moves to Paris to marry her and begin his Parisian life. He discovers that their Christmas celebrations affirm family and tradition. It's fascinating to me to know that the French send their Christmas cards after Christmas. His wider French family arrange presents around a shoe belonging to the recipient- a tradition dating back to when people would put a clog by the chimney to receive a single emblematic gift.

Of course our modern frenzy of gift buying and giving is relatively new. I remember my own childhood of course. We usually got one present for Christmas, often something exciting like a swing set, and fully meant to encourage us to play outdoors of course. "In Dickens's day, food and good works mattered far more. Scrooge, when he sees the error of his ways, doesn't buy presents but gives money to a charity that helps the poor and sends a turkey to his clerk Bob Cratchit, whose wages he raises and family he helps."

The magnificence of a Sadaharu Aoki quatre fruits rouge tart

"Gifts were symbolic- sometimes just an imported orange or clementine, luxuries in midwinter." Modern French folks appear to have a rather extraordinary number of rules to follow when selecting a gift. Normally you can't give anyone food or wine, but at Christmas this is possible. While you can give any number of kitchen gadgets you can't offer up a knife as a present as it is thought it will cut the ties that bind the friendship. And you can buy your mother in law silk pyjamas, perfume, cream, soap or cosmetics, but not an electric toothbrush as that would be too intimate, and so not appropriate. A rather formidable, and apparently confusing set of rules to the sadly non-French.

Friday 27 May 2011

The Sea of Tranquility

Interesting things happen when you have a mega-selling blockbuster book hit. All your previous books resurface, relabelled as "bestselling author of", and then people like me want to read them.

I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time soon after it came out, in the midst of all the frenzy and hype. And I loved it. Clever. Quirky. I've since read boom! Haddon's first book which was a repackaged, updated and buffed version of Gridzbi Spudvetch! It was a fun, engaging and silly tale, that lacked the punch of the megaselling Dog in the Night-time. 

Recently I came across a re-issued picture book that Haddon initially wrote in 1996. It was on sale for 5 bucks at a local bookstore, so I bought it, just so I could read it. I'll donate it to my son's school library now. It's a nice story, and I really like the moon illustrations, I think the kids should like it. The version I bought has a CD included as well. 

A nice picture book about the 1969 moon landing from the point of view of a young boy who avidly watches the skies, and the events of that summer and that night in particular. He stares at the moon through binoculars for hours, keeps a scrapbook about the lunar mission. It is cool to think that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's footprints are still up there! And sad to remember that there was another astronaut on that mission, but noone knows his name- well I didn't at least. Although I just checked with my husband and he did know it! Although it took him a while to remember it. Michael Collins by the way. 

Thursday 26 May 2011

Wondrous Words Wednesday 25/5/11

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a fabulous weekly meme hosted by Bermuda Onion, where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our weekly reading.  

Wordy inspiration can strike from any reading. I always have some old weekend papers lying about waiting for me to glance their way before putting them in the recycling.

Reading from The Sydney Morning Herald April 30 edition, about the big news from the day before I came across prelate.

1. Prelates. Noun.

Westminster Abbey, Gothic and ever mysterious, played witness to the young couple who, clearly moved at times, took their vows before 1900 guests- among them kings, prelates and prime ministers.

A high-ranking member of the clergy, especially a bishop. (Free Online Dictionary)

Tuesday 24 May 2011

13 Buildings Children Should Know

Perhaps I'm shallow, superficial or just plain dumb, (or maybe all three, after all they're not mutually exclusive) but I find reading children's non-fiction fulfilling. It is much more likely to give an overview of a topic in simple language that anyone can understand. Sure if I want to read an adult tome of 700 pages on concrete cancer or bonsai techniques I COULD do that. But I'm never going to. It's not going to be interesting. Ever. But the books for kids have picked out the most interesting bits to make them appealing to the worlds toughest readers- kids.  So it's made to be fun. And I will always learn stuff.

Recently I was trawling the library shelves for some books to help my son with a school assignment, and I stumbled on this little gem.

Beautifully presented in lovely hardback this book begs to be picked up. So I did. And took it home. I figured that I'd try to interest my son in it, but that it was mainly for me to check out.

It turns out that this is one of a series of books about 13 things children should now (and adults too if they were smart). Published by Prestel, an imprint of Harper Collins, they publish in English and German, and specialise in art, architecture, photography and design books. And it shows.

I'm not sure why they chose to focus on 13 buildings, a baker's dozen I guess. It could have been 10, 20 or 23 I suppose. But they have to pick some number and so 13 it is. And an interesting 13 it is. Contentious of course. I'm sure we all have our favourite buildings around the world, and if your favourite isn't here, it's a tad upsetting. The 13 are

The Great Pyramid of Giza
The Parthenon
Notre Dame de Paris
The Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Tower of London
Saint Peter's Basilica
The Taj Mahal
Neuschwanstein Castle
The Eiffel Tower
The Chrysler Building
The Guggenheim Museum, New York
The Sydney Opera House
The Beijing National Stadium

A reasonably predictable selection perhaps, but one designed to cover the last 4,500 years of world architecture and construction. I think I'd change the Guggenheim to the one in Bilbao, Spain, which is a much more astonishing building than the one in New York.

Guggenheim New York- a little bit too much Charles De Gaule?

The Splendour of the Guggenheim Bilbao

Some amazing facts that I learnt from this book.

1. The pyramids used to have a smooth white limestone casing, but this has been stolen over time. I can't imagine how amazing they would look smooth and white.

2. That the beautiful and graceful arches at the base of the Eiffel Tower had to be added after the tower was finished, to make the tower prettier.

3. The Tower of London was actually constructed from stone imported from Normandy in France. There have been six ravens in the Tower for centuries. Legend has it that as long as there are ravens in the Tower, then the UK and the Tower will not fall.

4. Neuschwanstein Castle contains Germany's first indoor flush toilet.

I was actually most interested in The Leaning Tower of Pisa. It was  built over nearly 200 years. It started tilting during the construction of the third level in 1170. The locals were so frightened that they left it alone for 100 years! Then nearly 100 years later they decided to construct a belfry. And that's a word we don't use often enough these days-belfry. 

Monday 23 May 2011

Late Autumn Colour

These colours are all but a distant memory now. We've already shivered through the first cold snap, and the first snow of the winter and many frosty mornings. 

A group of beautiful trees near the library

My favourite tree near the library
A gorgeous tree on Molong Road that often looks like it's on fire it's such a  vibrant red.

Saturday 21 May 2011

Malteser Slice

My 10 year old son changed schools this year. It's been a fantastic change on the whole. He's moved from a large badly run school to a lovely small school out of town. We've gone from providing permission notes every week to say that he can eat a particular food (complete with medicare number) to a school where every Thursday is Cake Day. Four families each week provide 2 dozen cakes for the day. Students go to school clutching a 50 cent piece with which they can pick their own treat for the day. Such a change. Such a revelation. Such a normalising influence in a crazy world. I just love it.

So it was with mounting anxiety that I approached my first Cake Day. There was a lot of things to juggle. Cake Day is a Thursday. Which is tricky for working mothers. Especially those working an evening the day before. I saw the recipe for this slice a few months ago and thought it would work perfectly for Cake Day. I could make it the day before. And I figured that the kids would love it. And they did! A Cake Day triumph!

The recipe I found was on a fellow Australian blog Les Reve d'une Boulangere. I'd never heard of Eric Lanlard before, perhaps because I don't have pay tv. I tried the recipe as it was with digestive biscuits, but found the base too heavy, so I substituted arrowroots. To my mind this was a great improvement, but I think it could possibly do with some more tweaking. I'm sure any plain sweet biscuit would be fine.

Malteser Slice

100 gm unsalted butter
200 gm milk chocolate, chopped
3 tblsp golden syrup
225 gm arrowroot biscuits, finely crushed in a food processor
225 gm Maltesers

100 gm Maltesers, extra, for topping
50 gm white chocolate, melted, for topping


Grease a shallow 20 cm square cake tin and line bases and sides with baking paper.

In a medium pan, melt together the butter, milk chocolate and syrup until smooth and combined.

Add the crushed biscuits and stir until well mixed. Leave to cool slightly.

Add the Maltesers and stir together quickly so that the chocolate on the outside of the Maltesers does not melt.

Tip into prepared tin, spread into an even layer, sprinkle the extra 100 gm of Maltesers on top. Gently press the Maltesers into the base.

Set in fridge until set, 2-3 hours, or overnight. Once set, drizzle the melted white chocolate on top of slice. Cut into small squares to serve.

I made a double recipe to pack off to the little darlings at school.

Today I've just found what is possibly the original recipe. There are a number of differences. He drizzles with both milk and white chocolate. He chills the base and then sprinkles cut maltesers on top. These wouldn't stick in my experience. Which would be annoying. The Maltesers don't fully stick as it is.

I was tempted to melt the chocolate and butter in the microwave, but never got around to doing it. I think it would work well, on a medium temperature, and save on washing up, which is always worthwhile.

This post is linked to Weekend Cooking, a fabulous weekly meme at Beth Fish Reads.

The Chocolate War

The Chocolate War was originally published in 1974. It was controversial then and remains controversial now, being the #3 most challenged book in America between 2000 and 2009. Which is quite a feat given that a book called The Joy of Gay Sex is only at #78. There must be a whole lot of subversive stuff in here. Right? Well, not really. There are fair amounts of swearing, references to masturbation and the unpure thoughts of teenage boys, but these certainly aren't the focus. 

In essence, The Chocolate War is a book about high school bullying. Jerry Renault is the new boy in school. His mother has recently died, and he is living with his grieving pharmacist father in a small flat. Jerry is a freshman in high school, and he dares to disturb the universe. Jerry's school is a Catholic high school, run formally by the menacing Brother Leon, and informally by The Vigils, a group of senior students who organise their bullying of the younger students. While I was reading the book, I didn't get much of a sense of menace from The Vigils. I thought perhaps the name was dated, now I wonder if it was meant to be a play on vigilante and I just didn't get it. I thought more of the keeping watch kind of Vigil, and it just didn't sound threatening. 

Brother Leon is in a spot of bother, he needs to offload $20,000 boxes of chocolates for $2 each. Apparently this was quite pricey back in 1974. Sadly, it is never fully explained why he needs money so urgently, I was hoping it was to pay off his gambling debts or something. He enlists the help of The Vigils, to get the boys into line and selling lots of chocolates. Jerry disturbs the universe and doesn't plan to sell any chocolates. The book was apparently inspired by his son refusing to sell fundraising candy for his own school. 

I wonder if this book has the worst ever selection of cover art?

The Chocolate War is written in the voice of an omniscient third person narrator. A voice which can be annoying at times. Early on, a lot of emphasis is placed on the inner turmoil of Archie, the self-styled leader of The Vigils, who thinks up ever more demeaning humiliations for the kids. How he has to deal with "the agonies of it all" and "the nights he's tossed and turned" thinking up his new fiendish schemes. I'm not all that sure that as readers we care about the inner workings of Archie's mind. We are certainly never going to feel a great empathy with him. 

I don't even know what that is supposed to be
Jerry has a great poster in his school locker:

Jerry opened his locker. He had thumbtacked a poster to the back wall of the locker on the first day of school. The poster showed a wide expanse of beach, a sweep of sky with a lone star glittering far away. A man walked on the beach, a small solitary figure in all that immensity. At the bottom of the poster, these words appeared- Do I dare disturb the universe?

The quote is from T.S Eliot, who I was forced to study in high school as well. All I remember is that TS Eliot is an anagram of Toilets. Perhaps I may be old enough finally to appreciate him? Although I don't feel I'll ever be clever enough to get poetry. Jerry is shown very clearly by The Vigils that he shouldn't dare to disturb the universe. Jerry certainly does disturb the universe for a while, but has to decide in the end if that is worthwhile or not. He never seems like the sort of kid destined to do this in a way. 

Overall, I found the pace of the book a bit slow. It was only really at page 180 that things really got going. The book does however, build to a dramatic, and rather gripping climax. 

I actually don't mind this one
Is this the best YA book of all time, as has been claimed by some? No, I don't think so. But it has been an important, controversial and influential book and I am certainly glad to have read it on my way to growing up.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Wondrous Words Wednesday 18/5/11

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a fabulous weekly meme hosted by Bermuda Onion, where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our weekly reading.  

Recently I read Meg Rosoff's debut novel How I Live Now

1. Water butt (noun)

Piper helped me lug buckets of water up the stairs from the water butt in the garden and I filled the bath a little way and with a bar of Aunt Penn's soap, a bottle of shampoo and room full of clean clothes I started to reinvent myself as a person. 

 a butt set on end to contain water especially to store rainwater

butt - a large cask (especially one holding a volume equivalent to 2 hogsheads or 126 gallons) thefreedictionary.com

Wiki says that a water butt is what I would simply call a water tank. The images I found on google had impossibly small tanks though, 100-160 litres. 
I guess there isn't drought in the UK

Whereas ours is a trifle bigger at 10,000 litres.

like there's drought in Australia

Monday 16 May 2011

How I Live Now

I've been looking forward to reading How I Live Now since the enthusiastic reviews were published on the books release in 2004. Lots of glowing stuff. The Guardian labelled it an instant classic. Clever folks at The Observer wondered if she had dramatised adolescence itself, and externalised its inner landscapes. It won many prestigious prizes. Mark Haddon is quoted on the cover sprouting "A magical and utterly faultless voice".  The Australian reviews of the time were just as glowing. I was very keen to read it. Which is always a problem when you do eventually get to reading a book. What book can stand up to 7 years of hype and hope?

Still, I am glad to have finally read How I Live Now. It just didn't wow me in the way that I was hoping that it would. It's an interesting tale, well told. I like first person narratives. Here, we are inside the mind of fifteen year old Daisy, a New Yorker who goes to England to spend the summer with her aunt and four cousins that she has never met. Daisy likes using Capitals For Emphasis Quite A Lot. 

Very early on we get rid of all the responsible adults in the way of classic childrens books. Daisy's mother died in childbirth. Her father is married again to the pregnant, evil stepmother, so is essentially lost to her. Daisy has disconnected herself from them at least.  Daisy then travels to England, and her aunt has to leave the country on business for a week. All conveniently gone within pages of the start. 

How I Live Now is part of a larger trend of dystopian YA fiction that has been growing in popularity for the last 10+ years. I actually found it moderately similar to John Marsden's Tomorrow When the War Began, but not quite as compelling a page-turner for me.

Soon after Daisy arrives in England the country is invaded by an unnamed force, that quickly brings the country to its knees by bringing down the electricity and water supplies. Daisy and her four cousins are forced to cope on their own with their rapidly changing circumstances, and are quickly robbed of all the modern conveniences that we take for granted- phones, email, ready access to food, water and transportation. 

The book deals with some other big issues besides war and hardship- eating disorders and consanguinous relationships amongst them. Daisy is anorexic on her arrival to England. She explains this away as "not eating much", and that it came about because she didn't want "to get poisoned by my stepmother and how much it annoyed her and how after a while I discovered I liked the feeling of being hungry and the fact that it drove everyone stark raving mad and cost my father a fortune in shrinks and also it was something I was good at."

I wasn't quite ready for the violence in this book when it started, which is rather silly given that I know it's set in an England at war. But much of the time we are lulled into believing in a rather bucolic lifestyle with apple picking and cow milking. When the violence does start it's quite sudden and very brutal.

Perhaps I shall remember Daisy best for this line:
I don't get nearly enough credit in life for the things I manage not to say.
I feel similarly maligned in my own life. 

This is another book along the way on my quest to grow up.

Saturday 14 May 2011

The 100 mile dinner

It seems almost long enough ago to be a dream.... but in mid-April I was lucky enough to attend the 3rd annual 100 Mile Dinner as part of FOOD week.  The 100 mile diet was started by two Canadians who decided to spend a year eating food sourced within 100 miles of their home in Vancouver, BC, and then write a book about it. 

This concept has been taken on by the FOOD week folks, and turned it into a fabulous celebration of regional food. For the last three years on a chilly Monday night in April, a select bunch of lucky diners get bussed to Canowindra to take over the main street for a night of fine food, wine and festivity.

The street is blocked off and 12 tables set out

The night is a master feat of organisation. The 4 major towns in the Orange area are all represented and each supply an entree and main course. Tables go to each town in turn for their meal. At the start of the night you really wonder how this can work, by the end of the night you're really impressed at how well it works. 

Delicious plates of Leaning Oak Cheeses

Orange - Roast capsicum and chilli soup with Jannei goats curd gougere

Cowra - Caramelised pumpkin, broccoli and Trunkey Creek pancetta tart with a smudge of  La Barre plum vinegar

Bathurst- Mandagery Creek venison, jerusalem artichoke and pistachio terrine with quince jelly and mini toasts

Mudgee- Baked High Valley fetta and Oakfield Estate olives

The stylish set were out in force

Orange- Braised Dutton Park duck with kipfler potatoes, beetroot relish and jus (my favourite course- but no real surprises there)

Cowra- Fillet of beef with butter corn, nashi pear jam, confit tomato served with Mulyan Shiraz jus
Mudgee- Ormiston Free Range pork braised in verjuice with rosemary and crackling served with parsnip skordalia, tomato, lentils and cauliflower fried in Lakelands olive oil
I don't seem to have a picture of the Bathurst main which was a slow braised venison osso bucco with baby carrots, Tuscan kale and dutch cream potatoes served with gremolata. I can only imagine that I had had so much pinot by this stage, that somehow it was overlooked. Perhaps I was too busy chatting?

Canowindra- Organic Honey Pannacotta with organic poached figs and hazelnut bread
This was Sensational. The pannacotta was so rich and unctuous. A perfect end to a great night.

This post is linked to Weekend Cooking, a weekly meme at Beth Fish Reads.

I've just realised that this was my 100th post!