Friday 31 January 2014

Letters from the Inside

I'm quite familiar with John Marsden. After all he is certainly one of the masters of Australian YA writing. I've read quite a few of his books, but all more than a few years ago and before I began book blogging in earnest. He wrote the Tomorrow, When the War Began series, and many other books. John Marsden is also a teacher, and school principal- he set up his own school, Candlebark School in Victoria in 2006.

Master Wicker was given Letters from the Inside by his English teacher at the end of last year, it is to be their first book for the year this year. He read it over the holidays, and I thought I should too. It's interesting that all the books he's been given as assigned reading in high school have been Australian so far. Last year his class read Jackie French's Hitler's Daughter, and then the first two books in  Isobelle Carmody's Obernewtyn Chronicles - Obernewtyn and The Farseekers.

Letters from the Inside is a masterly epistolary novel. Two 15 year old girls begin a penpal friendship after Mandy answers an ad Tracey has placed in a magazine. The girls get to know each other and we get to know their stories as they begin their correspondence. It's gripping from the start, but soon becomes even more riveting. Both girls have a variety of family problems. Both girls have their secrets. We readers learn some, but not all of these secrets, problems and triumphs in their letters to each other over the course of a year.

There are quite a number of particularly adult issues in Tracey and Mandy's lives and in their letters. Possibly slightly too much adult stuff for the soon to be Year 8s I think. Apparently Letters from the Inside is usually used in higher years, and I think I would be happier with that. Not that I'm the complaining, book banning kind generally. Besides we've both read it now. I just think Master Wicker would have got more out of it in a few years. For instance he didn't understand the rather major event in the last few pages of the book- whereas several of his female classmates did. Still I'm glad to have had the chance to read it, and will be interested to see how the classroom discussions go over the next few weeks.

Wednesday 29 January 2014

The Enormous Crocodile

The Enormous Crocodile is one of Roald Dahl's books for younger readers, published in 1978. Not quite a picture book, a bit too wordy for that, but not like some of his longer stories for older children like James and the Giant Peach or The BFG.

The Enormous Crocodile lives in the "biggest brownest muddiest river in Africa". He's very hungry this day and decides to try and have some children for his lunch. He's tried going into town before to eat children, but he's so "enormous and ugly" that everyone saw him coming and ran away. So, this time he's more prepared and has "secret plans and clever tricks". 

I didn't think that The Enormous Crocodile was ever going to be one of my favourite Dahl books, but it's really growing on me. I'd listened to Stephen Fry read the story before, but not read the actual book. In the last week or so I've read the book a couple of times, and borrowed an audiobook from my library with Roald Dahl reading the story. 

So Roald has been reading to me as I drive around town this week. The story only lasts about 17 minutes, so I've heard it several times now. And perhaps as young children do with repetition, I'm growing to love it more and more. 

I really like Quentin Blake's illustrations for this one. I'm not sure whether it's that they're colour here- his illustrations for the longer books are most often printed in black and white of course, or the expression that he does get into our Enormous Crocodile that does it.

There is lovely Dahl word play of course. Grumptious. Gollop. Squashed. Squished. Squizzled. And discussions between crocodiles about whether children are tasty or not. 

"Children are too tough and chewy. They are tough and chewy and nasty and bitter."
"Tough and chewy!" cried the Enormous Crocodile. "Nasty and bitter! What awful tommy-rot you talk! They are juicy and yummy!"

The Enormous Crocodile tries his secret plans and clever tricks to lure the children within eating range, disguising himself as a coconut tree, a ride on a carousel and a see-saw. It's almost like a book form of a pantomime- "look behind you!". It's a classic good vs evil battle, with the classic good vs evil ending. 


Tuesday 28 January 2014

An Original DUCKumentary

Who says that there's nothing on tv in the summer? I accidentally saw a listing for this amazing Duckumentary in the tv schedule this week and made sure to tape it. I'm so glad that I did, I learnt so much and the first 5 minutes alone is worth it.

An Original DUCKumentary shows us many ducks, but predominantly features North American ducks, and focuses on a pair of North American Wood Ducks. The opening sequence shows a clutch of North American Wood Duck ducklings hatching and then leaving the nest. Each egg was laid a day apart, but they all hatch together within 24 hours! The day after they're born their mother calls them from their nest and the flightless day old ducklings jump from the 20m high nest!

The footage of this is amazing! These tiny ducklings climb out of their nest and leap out in what must surely be the most extraordinary leap of faith that I've ever seen. They don't need their mother to teach them the ropes, they need her to protect them from hawks, foxes, and cats- in some years 9/10 wood duck ducklings don't survive their first two weeks.

I finally learnt the difference between dabbling ducks and diving ducks, which I vaguely understood until now. Dabbling ducks are many of the familiar ducks who feed on the surface or tip bottom up to feed off the bottom in the shallows. Diving ducks of course dive in deeper water to feed off the bottom. Dabbling ducks have small light bodies and can take off almost vertically, while heavier bodied diving ducks need a long watery runway to take off.

Some ducks act a bit like a cuckoo and lay eggs in another ducks nest- although those ducklings don't push the other eggs out of the nest as a cuckoo would.

Moulting ducks drop all flight feathers at once in summer, so they can't fly for 3-4 weeks, they go into hiding to avoid predators. Waterproofing uses a waxy gland near the base of their tails.

Rather incredibly some ducks don't fly south for the winter but stay in the Arctic to feed throughout the very cold winter. Common Goldeneyes have adapted to cool the blood going to their toes and warming it on the way back in, so that they don't lose warmth through their feet. More extraordinary footage shows Common Eiders diving deep into the icy arctic waters to feed on the shellfish on the ocean floor.

Some ducks are extremely badly behaved and "ducks are one of the few birds that suffer forced copulations".

I'm not sure how much of this is directly applicable to our Australian ducks, but I look forward to finding out.

It's not available for me due to geography, but I think a lucky few could watch An Original DUCKumentary online at PBS, (although it is on SBS on Demand until Feb 8) but we can all watch the jumping ducklings!

Sunday 26 January 2014

Pookie Aleera is not my Boyfriend

I've had a growing awareness of Steven Herrick for a while now, but had never read one of his books until very recently. I'm very glad that Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend was the first one I read, but I already know that I will read more of his books. Which is quite an extraordinary thing for me to feel. Poetry is not my thing, I've had a life long aversion, that I think was created in high school, and verse novels are not my usual reading fare. In fact I had a hard time remembering if I've read one before- I think I have read one, but remained non-plussed. Til now.

Pookie Aleera is Steven Herrick's 21st book, and was shortlisted for the CBCA Younger Readers Book of the Year 2013 (won by Sonya Hartnett's The Children of the King), and also for every state that has literary awards- it was a joint winner of the West Australian Premier's Book Awards 2013.

Pookie Aleera is the story of a group of kids in primary school in an inland NSW town.

My town
is exactly
four hundred and twenty-two kilometres
from the ocean. 

Year 6 get a new teacher, Ms Arthur.

My new teacher
wears a flowing summer dress
with red pianos printed
on white linen. 

Pookie is a marvellous multiple point of view tapestry of the school pupils, and the school gardener Mr Korsky. Each of our narrators gives us a page or two most often and then we move on to the next. Gradually a picture builds up of the kids, their class, their school and their community.  Pookie is a warm, gentle story with moments of devastating sadness, about friendship and community and how even the little things can make a difference. It's beautifully written and reads like a dream. There's even two bonus recipes at the end- two Australian classics- Anzac biscuits and Chocolate Crackles.

Steven Herrick spends a lot of time touring Australia and the world, working in schools with many, many kids, and it shows in his writing. In 2014 he has 162 shows in 94 schools across NSW, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia. Now that's a hard working poet! He runs a rather fascinating blog, poetryfootballtravel, where he chronicles his three major passions. We get many insights into his writing process along the way.

All of my books are concerned with this minutiae of our lives. I’ll never write the great fantasy novel, the ripping detective yarn or the bold adventure novel. But I will attempt to tell stories with everyday characters who want to connect with their community; who want to feel loved and appreciated; who understand the value of friendship; and who want to make a difference to the people around them.And I remembered the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes. How it sometimes takes a child to point out the obvious.Born in a hundred hotel rooms between Turkey and Spain, and nurtured in my study in Katoomba, I hope ‘Pookie’ tells we readers something about ourselves as Australians. 

And also the struggle for recognition and earning a living writing poetry for kids.

Like every author, I hoped 'Pookie Aleera' would be met with positive reviews, requests for media interviews and never-ending sales. Ha! The book got quite a few very positive reviews in the usual magazines and the occasional daily newspaper. But, despite having a publicity department at UQP, I got zilch media interest. Nothing.'Pookie' disappeared, appreciated by a few thousand readers, ignored by the wider world. The fate of nearly every book.

Let's hope Pookie doesn't disappear completely! You can read the first few pages of Pookie Aleera on Amazon. 

The travel on Steven's blog is often achieved by bike, and more recently Steven has written two travel ebooks about cycling in France, baguettes and bicycles, and bordeaux and bicycles, both of which I've down loaded onto the iPad where they are awaiting my reading pleasure- but that does depend on wrestling the iPad away from the boys and their games long enough for me to read.

Saturday 25 January 2014

Australia Day

Tomorrow is Australia Day, a commemoration of the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney on January 26 1788. In celebration I thought I'd show you one of our most famous national symbols.

Recently I took my nephew out one morning to show the visiting city boy some kangaroos.  Even though I see kangaroos quite commonly, I still get a thrill whenever I see them. I'm moderately certain that these are all Eastern Grey Kangaroos, but I'm not a kangaroo ID expert.

I drive past a mob in this paddock quite often
there was only one in photo distance this day

This next mob lives in reasonable proximity to people as you can see, so they are reasonably comfortable around people and you can get quite a good look at them. They are wild animals, and the big males are really quite big and powerful, and some do attack people at times (although I'm not aware that any of these ones ever have), so we kept a respectful distance. They moved when they felt the need to.

A large male demonstrating his unique anatomy
He was clearly boss, and kept a careful eye on us. 

We didn't see any joeys in the pouch this day
but there were big and small

Saturday Snapshot is a wonderful weekly meme now hosted by WestMetroMommy

Friday 24 January 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

I'm often the last person in the world to read a book. And so it was with The Fault in Our Stars.

They were even reading it on the Metro in Paris last year.
I can make anything about Paris. 

There has been so much hype about this book, and with the movie coming out in a few months time was running out for me to read it. The sole copy in my library is always on loan. Actually, it's rare to find a copy of any of John Green's books available for loan. So I asked for a copy of The Fault in Our Stars for Christmas. And Santa came through.

Still I'm Rather Terrible at actually reading books that were presents, so much so that Mr Wicker always grumbles when I ask for a book as a present, so that still doesn't guarantee that I'll get it read. And it is somewhat true. I haven't read last years Christmas present books, or the year before that, or…. But this week I had the glorious gift of time. 4 days! All to myself, with really nothing to do. So I took to the couch and read The Fault in Our Stars. In a day. I don't really remember the last time I read a book in a day. Perhaps when I was bedridden with flu at some stage.

Happily, I didn't know all that much about The Fault in Our Stars when I read it (and I'm not planning on spoiling the fun here just in case there is still someone else left who hasn't read it yet). I knew that it was about two kids meeting while having cancer treatment. But somehow I didn't know much more than that.

Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death. 

Hazel Lancaster is our 16 year old narrator, three years earlier she was diagnosed with metastatic thyroid cancer, and given a very grim prognosis, the option of treatment, not cure. Hazel is an only child, living at home with her parents, who are supportive and loving. Hazel hasn't been to school in three years, but studies from home with the assistance of her mother. Hazel's mother encourages her to go to a weekly Support Group in the basement of a local church. It is at Support Group that Hazel meets Augustus Waters.

The Fault in Our Stars is as powerful, moving, funny and sad as everyone says it is. A story about two kids falling in love at a cancer Support Group is going to be that way. John Green is very clever though. We have all the big themes. Life. Death. Love. Grief. Family. Friends. Church. America's Next Top Model.

So here's how it went in God's heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, grazed at a decrepit selection of cookies and lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust, and listened to Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable life story- how he had cancer in his balls and they thought he was going to die but he didn't die and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meagre living by exploiting his cancertastic past, slowly working his way towards a master's degree that will not improve his career prospects, waiting, as we all do, for the sword of Damocles to give him the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both of us nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life. 

There is an intriguing story within the story based on a fictional book and writer. I wasn't particularly expecting to be thinking about Shakespeare, Venn Diagrams or Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, or for there to be a picture of it.

Hazel disagrees with it, and I don't know that
 I'm fully comfortable with it either. 

Or to finally understand Magritte's Ceci n'est pas une pipe for the first time. D'Oh!

I didn't know that The Fault in Our Stars was party set in Amsterdam. It's always exciting when you're familiar with the location of a book. While I know next to nothing about Indianapolis, I did go to Amsterdam last year. Anne Frank Huis. Vondelpark. Rijksmuseum. The canals. We did it all. I must use this as an excuse to show you more pictures of Amsterdam. It's a fascinating and beautiful city.

Still there are annoyances in The Fault in Our Stars. John Green like, reproduces, like the way teens speak. It's not on like every page. But it's there.

After getting our bags and clearing customs, we all piled into a taxi driven by this doughy bald guy who spoke perfect English- like better English than I do. 

The Daily Mail in the UK stirred up quite the internet storm last year when it derided 'sick lit'  books including The Fault in Our Stars. It was a lot of sensationalist posturing really. Illness, dying and death are part of our human experience. Characters have been sick or dying in books as long as there have been books. And in books written for adults, teenagers and children. Dickens anyone? Heidi. Pollyanna. The Secret Garden. Tuberculosis in art even has it's own wiki page. John Green is still frighteningly young, but when he was even younger he spent time as a student chaplain at a children's hospital. He got to meet and know children with cancer, it was their stories he wanted to tell. 

Well many years ago I worked as a student chaplain at a children's hospital, and I think it got lodged in my head then. The kids I met were funny and bright and angry and dark and just as human as anybody else. And I really wanted to try to capture that, I guess, and I felt that the stories that I was reading sort of oversimplified and sometimes even dehumanized them. And I think generally we have a habit of imagining the very sick or the dying as being kind of fundamentally other. I guess I wanted to argue for their humanity, their complete humanity.

Sick lit is just a more recent, if somewhat pejorative, term for illness in our stories, riffing off chick lit. I much prefer sick lit to all the vampire, werewolf, shape shifting stuff of recent years. 

But even within the Daily Mail article there is some good advice. 

So the next time your teen is curled up with a book, ask them what it's about, says Emma. 

Yes you should do that. Because you're interested. In your child. And what they're curled up reading. (I always cheer on the inside when I see my teen curled up reading- reading anything, because it means that he's stopped playing Minecraft for at least 8 minutes), but not because it might be sick lit and they're at risk of becoming depraved.

Tuesday 21 January 2014

International Children's Laureates

Children's Laureates are a growing trend around the world. As far as I'm aware the UK kicked it all off back in 1999 after an idea from Michael Morpurgo and Poet Laureate Ted Hughes. Quentin Blake became then became the first Children's Laureate. They have had a trail of illustrious names ever since.

Anne Fine
Michael Morpurgo
Jaqueline Wilson
Michael Rosen
Anthony Browne
Julia Donaldson

Most recently Malorie Blackman took up the post of the 2013-2015 Waterstones Children's Laureate. Malorie is best known for writing for teenagers, while many of the previous laureates write for younger children predominantly, or write for all ages of children. Malorie is looking to champion diversity and inclusiveness through YA lit and she is curating a YA Lit Convention at the London Film and Comic Con in July 2014. There was a recent fascinating BBC Radio program, Open Book, featuring three Laureates- Malorie Blackman, Jaqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen about why we need a Children's Laureate, and how even children's literature can be political "because it is ignored".

Just recently the Americans announced their next Ambassador of Young People's Literature for 2014-2015- Kate Di Camillo. The Library of Congress have been awarding Ambassadors since 2008. The Americans have had three previous Ambassadors.

Jon Scieszka
Katherine Paterson
Walter Dean Myers

Ireland set up their Children's Laureate Project in 2010. They have had two Laureates na n'OG so far-  Siobhan Parkinson and Niamh Sharkey, and will shortly select their third. The Irish have the most inclusive selection process whereby 111 nominating bodies are asked to make nominations (up to two authors and two illustrators), and individual people can also nominate- the final decision is of course by their committee.

Australia has been a bit late coming to the Children's Laureate party. Our inaugural joint Laureates- Alison Lester and Monty Boori Prior have just finished their two year term, and Jackie French has taken up the reins this month.

Canada doesn't seem to have a Children's Laureate, but they have plenty of bloggers looking to stir the pot. New Zealand doesn't have a Children's Laureate either, although they have a Facebook group looking to create change. Let's hope they get one soon.

There's not a whole lot of information about Laureates beyond the English speaking world. Sweden (of course it's the Swedes) recently created a Reading Ambassador for Young People. Their first Ambassador was Johan Unenge, and their current Ambassador for 2013-2015 is Johanna Lindback. Sadly I can't really find much about either of them in English, and their books don't appear to be available in English either.

I do look forward to the contributions that all these Laureates (all of whom are women at the moment!) make to the world of children's literature, and I certainly look forward to reading more of their own books too.

Monday 20 January 2014

Roald Dahl

January 2014 has been a big Dahl month at Chez Wicker. I'm reading three of his books, one associated book, been listening to his books on audio and generally loving the Dahl vibe. So I decided to branch out a bit too and learn a bit more about the man himself. 

Roald Dahl not only wrote fascinating stories, he lived a fascinating life too. The basic facts are pretty well known. Born in Wales. Lived in England. Worked as a spy during the war. I wanted to go a bit deeper, so sought out the only two biographies in my library about Roald Dahl.

The first one, Tell Me About Writers Roald Dahl, took just a few minutes to read. But I learnt so much cool stuff about Roald Dahl. 

Roald was a prize winning orchid grower. 

Roald's father Harald Dahl lost an arm as a young man when he fell off a roof.

Roald was a great collector of modern art. 

If I had known that Roald's first wife was Patricia Neal, an American actress, then I'd forgotten. 

I'd learnt recently that Roald Dahl had helped develop a cerebral shunt after his son Theo was injured in an accident. Here I learnt that he was injured when his pram was hit by a taxi in New York.

Quentin Blake based the drawings for The BFG on none other than Roald Dahl himself. 

The other book I borrowed was Famous Lives. Roald Dahl. The Storyteller by Jason Hook. A treasure trove of great facts. 

Among the items Roald kept on a desk in his writing hut was a heavy, silver ball, made entirely of chocolate wrappers; a carved grasshopper; his father's knife; the cerebral shunt he helped develop; a model of a Hurricane fighter plane, and his own hip bone. 

Harald Dahl's left arm had to be amputated after an accident as a 14 year old. Sorry I but I do like the gory medical details. 

As a young boy Roald heard Norwegian folk tales from his mother about giants and witches. 

I knew that Roald had been in a plane crash during the war (I read Boy a few years ago, and may have read Going Solo too)- he crash landed in the desert in Egypt after he became lost and ran out of fuel. He just managed to drag himself clear before the plane burst into flames. Roald spent six months in hospital recovering from his injuries. 

He became a published writer with the aid of CS Forester (of Horatio Hornblower fame), who asked Roald for some notes to help with a story. Dahl wrote a complete story and Forester sent it to The Saturday Evening Post, who published it. You can hear Roald tell the story himself:

Through the magic of the internet- we can still read that first story!

I hadn't heard of his first story for children, The Gremlins- and we can read that too! It seems gremlins as a term came from the RAF during the second world war as little imps causing mechanical problems on aircraft. Disney published that story, and it's still in print, but I've never seen it before in shops, and it doesn't seem to be one of the 6,002 Dahl titles that are published by PuffinPerhaps Disney is still hanging on tight to it? It just adds even more to the ever growing, never diminishing TBR. 

Roald made rich and powerful friends while working in America as a spy during the war. After the war he made a living for a time buying paintings and antiques for his new wealthy American friends. 

The nanny was pushing little Theo's pram when he was struck by a taxi. He was 4 months old, and had a badly fractured skull. He needed a series of "dangerous operations". Theo didn't end up needing the valve that his father helped develop. 

In 1965 Roald's wife Patricia suffered three strokes while pregnant leaving her crippled, blind in one eye and unable to speak. Patricia had to learn to speak again

Her words came out muddled: a 'spoonful of sugar' became a "soap driver", a cigarette was an "obliging". Dahl would later remember this when he wrote about a tongue-twisted giant in The BFG. 
Roald used to tell his children that their dreams were created by a big, friendly giant who blew magical powders through their bedroom window. He would then say goodnight, and creep out into the garden. Easing his creaking bones up a ladder, eh would slide a bamboo cane through their window, and gently blow.

Many of his stories came from stories that he made up for his own children- certainly a common theme for many of the great writers for children. 

In his final years, Dahl became a very controversial figure. He made an outspoken attack on Israel, criticised the author Salman Rushdie, and reportedly turned down an OBE because he felt he deserved a knighthood.

There's just so much fascinating stuff. I wonder if he was a curmudgeon, or just opinionated?

A quick google, and Oh WOW! News of a recent biography about Roald Dahl that is trying to burst my Dahl bubble.

The much-loved, best-selling children's author, one of the UK's most popular post-war writers, was a man of considerable fury and contempt for people who crossed him, or whom he considered beneath him. The creator of Willy Wonka, the Twits and Fantastic Mr Fox was often less than fantastic as a human being. He was an anti-Semite, a chronically unfaithful husband and a raging bully to business associates, teachers and friends. The creator of the Big Friendly Giant could easily, it seems, transform himself into a Big Unfriendly Bastard.

Can this really be the same man? 

"I think probably kindness is my number one attribute in a human being. I'll put if before any of the things like courage or bravery or generosity or anything else. If you're kind, that's it."

I might leave off reading that newer biography for a while. I want the Dahl magic to continue. That article actually takes big swings at most of the major names of classic British children's authors. 

There were lots of more conventional and widely known Dahl details in these books, but these I thought the most intriguing. 

Saturday 18 January 2014

Happy New Year!

We had a very Happy New Year in the Wicker household. I hope you did in yours too. I was too excited to about Paris and Pamplemousse the last few weeks, but this time we're back in Australia for Saturday Snapshot.

We still have some Christmas beetles around but not as many as there were a few weeks ago. After learning more about Christmas beetles when I wrote that post I watched them a bit more closely, and pretty soon noticed that we had at least four common beetles flying at the light in the back yard.

A few days into the new year the christmas beetles attacked! Sitting comfortably in my favourite chair one evening I suddenly became aware of a very strong smell of burning. We looked out the door but didn't see anything. The smell briefly went away, then came back even stronger. I realised that smoke was coming out of the outside light. So I turned it off, then went out with a torch to have a look at it.

I found a smoking christmas beetle carapace!

It seems you can get too close to the light! Step away from the light. 

We had a family trip to the Blue Mountains one day just before new year. Meeting up at the Conservation Hut, a new place for me at Wentworth Falls. After a lunch at the cafe we headed off for a little walk. 

No, not to National Pass

Boys always find something fascinating to explore

All those steps down of course means
all those steps up on the way out. 

Queen Victoria Lookout provided a typical spectacular
Blue Mountains view

The lovely sandstone cliffs of the Sydney Basin

Saturday Snapshot is a wonderful weekly meme now hosted by WestMetroMommy

Wednesday 15 January 2014

Roald Dahl Audio Books

Last year I lucked upon this magnificent CD collection in one of those book sales that display at your work or the gym. I knew immediately that I needed to buy it. The attraction of Roald Dahl is massive enough, but the list of readers is astonishing.

Simon Callow
Stephen Fry
Miriam Margolyes
Andrew Sachs
Hugh Laurie
June Whitfield
Geoffrey Palmer
James Bolam
Timothy West
Martin Jarvis

And all for 20 or 30 bucks! The stories range from 1 to 3 CDs, perfect for short or longer trips. Packed in a fantastic zippered tin, just perfect for rattling around in the car.

I first listened to Stephen Fry reading The Enormous Crocodile. I don't believe that I'd read that story before. Of course Stephen, perhaps most famous for reading audiobooks of the Harry Potter series, did a fabulous job reading this wonderful story about an enormous crocodile plotting with "secret plans and clever tricks" to eat up vast quantities of small children. Yes, it is Dahl.

Next up I listened to Simon Callow reading The Twits. OMG, it's stupendous. But then I've loved Simon Callow long time. Simon Callow is so fabulous that I want him to read every one of the stories from now on, which is possibly a bit unfair to the other readers. Of course, the story is full of the malevolence of Mr and Mrs Twit, and the opening is sensational about the disastrous state of being of "hairy faced men", with hair sprouting on their faces in revolting tufts. I've listened to this three times now, just to have Simon in the car with me for a bit longer.

Simon also reads The Witches, one of Roald Dahl's most famous stories, but it isn't one I've read yet. (Update 2015 see my review of The Witches) I feel I should read it first, so I can then listen to Simon tell me the story. But I listened to the The Twits before I read it, and indeed I haven't read it yet, and have come to love it enormously.

Geoffrey Palmer reads one of my very favourite Dahl titles, The BFG. The BFG is Dahl at his neologic best. The story of young Sophie's adventure with the BFG (Big Friendly Giant), who is not like the other giants, such as The Bloodbottler or The Fleshlumpeater, who of course gobble up people for dinner every night. The BFG is full of wondrous words like scrumdiddlyumptious (precursor of Ned Flanders?), snozzcumbers, frobscottle and whizpoppers. It was wonderful to hear the story again. I had forgotten that the Queen of England plays such a role in the story.

Most recently I've listened to Andrew Sachs read James and the Giant Peach. I've read James twice now, including just before I listened to it in the car. It's rather fascinating to listen to an audio version of something that I've just read in the past few days- there are parts that seem as if I'm hearing them for the first time!

I still have so many treats in store from this most wondrous collection. Miriam Margolyes reading Matilda- I love her nearly as much as Simon Callow. And first visits with The Witches  and Danny The Champion of the World, neither of which I've read yet. This has been definitely one of my best buys ever.

Tuesday 14 January 2014

James and the Giant Peach

I recently read James and the Giant Peach for the second time. I could have read Dahl in my own childhood, but have no memory of ever doing so. Indeed he was to remain a mystery to me until Master Wicker was in primary school and every one of his teachers seemed to use Roald Dahl for in-class reading. I now have a growing understanding of why he was so popular with these teachers. Roald Dahl is the modern master of writing for kids.

James and The Giant Peach was one of his earliest children's books. Published in 1961, it has become one of his best loved titles. But James has not been without controversy, being the 50th most challenged book of the 1990s in America.

I reread James recently, and have listened to the audio version in the car. It's rather fascinating to listen to an audio version of something that I've just read in the past few days- there are parts that seem as if I'm hearing them for the first time! I always thought that my attention wandered more with audiobooks than reading. Maybe that's not the case.

I first read JATGP a few years ago, and my memory of it was that I thought it was ok, but didn't love it. Seems that I liked it more than I remembered, I just checked out my review on goodreads:

I can't believe that my childhood was so deprived that I never read any Roald Dahl! I'm making up for lost time now though, and ensuring that my son doesn't have the same terrible childhood that I did without it. I can't believe that I'd escaped reading this book, or seeing the movie til now. It's a hoot. James is your typical kids book kid, orphaned and living with two aunts who are greedy, selfish, horrible and just plain mean. Spiker and Sponge are fantastic characters, and Dahl gets lots of mileage and humour out of them. James' life changes one day when a funny old man gives him a bag of magic green crystals. Which probably has quite a different connotation nearly 50 years on. I just loved the cloud men. And was interested to see mention made of skyhooks (obvious reference for any Australian of a certain age).

Dahl gave James such an idyllic life to start.  But that was the first paragraph, and then it was cruelly taken away in the second paragraph, when he was orphaned at 4 years old. 

Dahl uses a lot of anticipation and foreshadowing in JATGP.

After James Henry Trotter had been living with his aunts for three whole years there came a morning when something rather peculiar happened to him. And this thing, which as I say was only rather peculiar, soon caused a second thing to happen which was very peculiar. And then the very peculiar thing, in its own turn, caused a really fantastically peculiar thing to occur. 

And of course there is the characteristic Dahl mix of the ridiculous, the gross and the magical, in what is one of his earliest books for children.

'Crocodile tongues!' he cried. 'One thousand long slimy crocodile tongues boiled up in the skull of a dead witch for twenty days and nights with the eyeballs of a lizard! Add the fingers of a young monkey, the gizzard of a pig, the beak of a green parrot, the juice of a porcupine, and three spoonfuls of sugar. Stew for another week, and then let the moon do the rest!'

It's great to see some Dahl trademarks being established so early in his writing career. Vermicious knids, snozzwangers and whangdoodles all feature. Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker are of course marvellous caricatures. So venomous, spiteful and mean. Definitely, "two ghastly hags". So malevolently described. 

Aunt Sponge was enormously fat and very short. She had small piggy eyes, a sunken mouth, and one of those white flabby faces that looked exactly as though it had been boiled. She was like a great white soggy over boiled cabbage. Aunt Spiker, on the other hand, was lean and tall and bony, she wore steel-rimmed spectacles that fixed on to the end of her nose with a clip. She had a screeching voice and long wet narrow lips, and whenever she got angry or excited, little flecks of spit would come shooting out of her mouth as she talked.

Who could do anything but cheer as "Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker lay ironed out upon the grass as flat and thin and lifeless as a couple of paper dolls cut out of a picture book? And indeed that is exactly what Master Wicker did as we listened to it in the car. Revisting Dahl is always fun, and I still have lots more of Dahl to discover. 


Sunday 12 January 2014

Le Solfege du Legume- Alain Passard

The Wicker family had an astonishing celebration lunch at Arpege in July 2013. So I was thrilled recently to see this documentary on chef Alain Passard, the passionate mind behind the 3 Michelin star L'Arpege. I've recently discovered that the lovely glass panels in the restaurant are by Lalique, makers of my perfume, Satine, which makes me like it even more of course.

Le Solfege du Legume shows us the history of Arpege, which used to be a "steakhouse". I'm sure it was never a steakhouse in the way that I would usually think of one. But Alain cooked with meat for 30 years.

"The transition between the two ways of cooking took some time, I was almost a year without work, it was very hard to find inspiration in a dead animal, and then one day a new world opened and the world of vegetables opened up to me."

And then he decided to make vegetables the star of his menu, which is one of the reasons that we picked this restaurant for a special family lunch- it's hard taking a 12 year old vegetarian to most restaurants, particularly most French restaurants- but Arpege made it easy.

Alain is so passionate about vegetables it's astounding to see him work with them. He is reinventing the fine art of cooking vegetables daily. He approaches produce in a  way that I've never seen before.

"The difficult thing is to make it simple."

Much of the discussion about cooking is about simplicity. Alain believes that simplifying comes with experience and maturity- that the essence of his art is about refinement, precision and accuracy. We see the intensity with which he approaches each tasks, the delicacy of him shaving a fine layer from a beetroot, almost caressing it. Alain judges the quality of a young worker by the way he uses his hands, how he sprinkles a pinch of salt- he is able to learn their character by their hands.

"The hand is our tool."

Alain and his chefs often wear gloves in the kitchens. He often cooks the vegetables in butter at low heat, covering them with greaseproof paper to partly steam them.

Cooking the vegetables is based on heat control, "with softness comes subtlety". He brings his knowledge and experience gained from cooking meat for 30 years to the cooking of vegetables, he enjoys controlling the heat. Alain also uses sound in his cooking- his grandmother Louise taught him to listen to the food he is cooking, the way the flame sings around the food. Her influence is very much still present, and she is honoured by having her picture hang in the restaurant.

Alain of course sources his produce from his own kitchen garden, potager, near Fille-sur-Sarthe, close to Le Mans, in the Loire, about 200km from Paris. Using their own produce is a "quality issue".

Head gardener Sylvain Picard grows 450-500 varieties of fruit, vegetables and herbs each year. They grow more than 50 varieties of apples, 10 types of asparagus and 7-8 varieties of carrots.

We've only used 10% of what can be done with a carrot, the ideas you can find in a vegetable is intoxicating, it forces you down a different creative path to cooking meat."

The produce guides the menu. We see Alain and Sylvain examining the produce at the farm, plucking it from the ground, slicing, tasting, and envisioning possibilities. 

Simplicity and controlling the heat shine through as Alain Passard's guiding principles in the kitchen. Arpege isn't completely vegetarian, we had two courses that involved meat, and indeed these shine too-both Mr Wicker and I remember the speck foam from Arpege as one of the best things we ate in Paris last year. 

Through the miracles of the internet you can watch Le Solfege du Legume online. Whilst I found the material fascinating, there was a rather annoying voiceover instead of subtitles, which I would have greatly preferred.

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

Dreaming of France is a wonderful Monday meme
from Paulita at An Accidental Blog