Monday 31 March 2014

Le Week-End

I knew that I would go see this movie when I saw the poster in the Coming Soon list at my local cinema. Clearly it was set in Paris, and that was enough for me. I didn't really bother to find out anything much else about it.  I saw the trailer once, and was mildly concerned that it might be depressing. Before I went I did find out that it was about an English couple going to Paris to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary.

That English couple is Nick and Meg Burrows, (Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan) he is a philosophy lecturer and she a teacher. They spent their honeymoon in Paris, and have travelled there again to rekindle the magic that Paris can impart. However they are a particularly unlikeable pair. Meg's character seems inconsistent, I never understood her, and I never got to like either of them. Reading reviews online it seems a particularly divisive film- many people love it, and find it profound- and there are some profound moments, some humorous moments, but not enough for me.

Paris was majestic of course. From the opening scenes on the Eurostar heading to Paris I was continually oohing, and going oh, I've been there. Meg was even reading Elegance of the Hedgehog, which I took with me last year but didn't get to read as there too much holidaying to be done. Although sadly I have never stayed in a suite at the Plaza Athenee, I have been to Musee Rodin, the Arc de Triomphe and the Rue de Rivoli. On my trip last year we too climbed the steps of Montmartre and looked out on Paris from Sacre Coeur. I can fully understand Meg asking "Who would want to live anywhere else?"

I did enjoy the lesson in French film history embedded within Le Week-End. There was a classic dance from a  film referenced several times, but I didn't know what it was. It's a fairly easy Google to discover that it is a famous dance scene from Luc Goddard's Bande à part (Band of Outsiders), which they apparently referred to as the Madison scene, even though it isn't the Madison.

This scene apparently influenced Uma Thurman and John Travolta's dance in Pulp Fiction. Having just watched both of these dances again I can't say that I get how. I had long thought that the dance that Australians do to the Nutbush was referred to as the Madison, but I know see that it is merely a variation of the Madison. Which all goes to explain how Brad can ask "Say, do any of you guys know how to Madison?" in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Which is really quite a long way from Le Week-End I suppose. I'm glad to have seen Le Week-End and would probably watch it again when it came on the tele, but it isn't my favourite Paris movie.

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

Saturday 29 March 2014

The Birds of the Gold Coast

It's always nice to get away, whether for work or pleasure. My trip to the Gold Coast last week was for work, and my days were pretty full, but it's usually possible to get out early in the morning (well that's never so nice for me), or in the evening and check out the birds too.

Most of the birds were quite familiar for me, and not that unusual. In fact I only got one new bird.

Birds I saw that I won't show you today, but saw.

Noisy Miner
Crested Pigeon
Rock Dove
Pacific Black Duck
Australian Wood Duck
White Faced Heron
Dusky Moorhen

I'm sure that I would have seen sparrows and starlings too, but I don't really remember them. I'm almost sure that I saw a white faced scrub wren, but didn't get a proper look at it.

So, what else did I see? And manage to get a somewhat decent photo of? Not surprisingly they're all largish birds.

My only new bird
Long billed Corella (Cacatua tenuirostris)
I've seen plenty of short billed corollas before but don't think I've seen one of these

The rather absurd Australian Scrub Turkey
(Alectura lathami)
They wander incessantly through the bush, so it's hard to get a clear shot

Until they start charging across the path in front of you

They build a rather large, extraordinary mound in which to incubate
 their eggs at a very precise temperature

The Australian White Ibis (Threskiornis moluccus) are everywhere,
but not quite as numerous as in Sydney

I always love seeing Rainbow Lorikeets
(Trichoglossus haematodus)
I know I've shown you them a few times before,
but these two were so cute grooming each other
and I like the building backdrop

One of my most exciting sightings was on the way to the bus stop to leave
Can't get much more last minute than that?
Blue faced Honeyeater
(Entomyzon cyanotis)

Not a new bird for me, but the best pictures I've managed to get of them,
they're often up in trees instead of exposed on this banksia

Saturday Snapshot is a wonderful weekly meme now hosted by WestMetroMommy

Thursday 27 March 2014

Max and Moritz

I've been interested in books in translation for some time, and this has been gaining momentum lately, with my recent reading of Found in Translation. While I have a major interest in, and a small knowledge of the French speaking world, I really don't know much about Germany or the German language- my only memory from dabbling in German at uni when I was younger is "Ich habe hunger" (at least that may come in handy one day), and is better than the standout French phrase from my uni days "J'aime les haricot verts".

Max and Moritz was first published in 1865 and is apparently iconic in the German speaking world. Wiki tells us so- so it must be true.

Busch's classic tale of the terrible duo (now in the public domain) has since become a proud part of the culture in German-speaking countries. Even today, parents usually read these tales to their not-yet-literate children. To this day in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, a certain familiarity with the story and its rhymes is still presumed, as it is often referenced in mass communication. The two leering faces are synonymous with mischief, and appear almost logo-like in advertising and even graffiti.

It's amazing how much we may not know of our own English speaking world, but I find it really intriguing to discover things that may be much more commonplace in other cultures. If you search the internet hard enough you can find Max and Moritz restaurants, statues, beer, dolls, stamps, costume masks and many other items.

Springerle forms

cookie cutters

and Christmas decorations
The naughty pair were even immortalised in the 1979 German Postcard at Eurovision.

Totally captivating classic Eurovision!

Max and Moritz is "a tale of two scamps in seven pranks". They are extremely naughty boys who terrorise the adult inhabitants by killing chickens, putting gunpowder in their meerschaum pipes or bugs in their beds, stealing and many other types of mischievousness. They do ultimately get their comeuppance in a rather gruesome and macabre way. It is all told in cute rhyming couplets with rather extraordinary English that can't have been original, but works a treat.

Bang! The meerschaum pipe goes off
Loud like a Kalashnikov!

Max and Moritz was the inspiration for the first newspaper comic strip, The Katzenjammer Kids, and this early influence and legacy is recognised with the Max and Moritz Prize for the best comic published in Germany. It only takes about 15 minutes to read, and is available online, mostly in German, but sometimes in English too

I was certainly not aware of Wilhelm Busch's fame either. Apparently he was one of Germany's great poets alongside Goethe and Schiller (shhh, I haven't heard of Schiller either). Busch has his own museum in Hanover, which seems to be currently conducting manga workshops!


Wednesday 26 March 2014


I travelled away to a conference recently and Ratburger was one of the books that I took with me. One of 6. I took six (actual books) away with me for a 5 night trip. Slightly excessive perhaps. But I did get through three of them and it's important not to run out, and have a bit of a choice. I'd taken my first Walliams title with me on my last conference trip in September last year (The Boy in the Dress), and it was such perfect travel reading that I took another one this time.

Ratburger is my fourth Walliams read, and his fifth published book- oh no I'm out of sequence again! It's probably the one where I found the cover least appealing. Rats and creepy looking guys don't appeal that much to middle aged women I guess. I should have known better and trusted him. Ratburger is I think the most gruesome Walliams book that I've read so far. There are many, many references to flobbing- a new word for me, but clearly British slang for spitting, from the back cover on it's ever present.

Our hero here is Zoe, 12 years old, who lives with her father and stepmother. Her dad has succumbed to overwhelming grief after the death of Zoe's mother,

Dad used to give her the best cuddles, but after Mum died he had retreated to the back of his eyes, and never came out any more. 

and he now essentially lives at the local pub, which leaves Zoe trapped at home with her evil, fat, prawn cocktail crisp eating stepmother, Sheila. A true evil stepmother if ever there was one.

Zoe's family is poor, living in a high-rise council estate. She is rather miserable at home, and is bullied at school.

Zoe didn't have many friends at school. What's more, the other kids bullied her for being short and ginger and having to wear braces on her teeth.

When her beloved pet hamster, Gingernut, dies she is quite bereft. Until she finds a young rat, who she names after a toilet, and an extraordinary sequence of events follow.

Ratburger is the grossest Walliams I've read so far. He creates a perfect villain- gross, nasty and mean. And there are perfectly Dahlesque teachers like Miss Midge.

Miss Midge would refuse to teach anything but the most grisly passage of history: beheadings, flogging, burning at the stake. The teacher would grin and bare her crocodile teeth at the mention of anything cruel and brutal and barbaric. 

Ultimately, though Ratburger is about holding onto your dreams. I read a quote recently that children's books should always leave the reader with a sense of optimism or hope, which may or may not be true, and which I can't find the original for the life of me, but Walliams seems to be doing that with all of his books, but with suitable amounts of gore and humour along the way. I'm going to run out of his books soon!

I think I love David Walliams' books
as much as these kids do

Tuesday 25 March 2014

25 YA Novels Everyone- Even Adults- Should Read

It's been a while since I checked out a list. I am really interested in this one I found recently at Flavorwire. As an adult I do enjoy reading YA, so it's not much of a stretch for me at all.

As with any list there's some books I've read, many I've been meaning to read, and some I've never even heard of.

Harry Potter Series - J.K Rowling (read 1/7)

His Dark Materials trilogy- Philip Pullman

Ender's Game- Orson Scott Card

Ender's Shadow- Orson Scott Card

Abhorsen trilogy- Garth Nix

Shade's Children- Garth Nix

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret- Judy Blume (see my review)

The Fault in Our Stars- John Green (see my review)

The Giver- Lois Lowry (see my review)

Divergent- Veronica Roth- Master Wicker is currently heavily enamoured of this series, and is just starting the third book in the lead up to the movie release of Divergent next month.

The Bartimaeus Trilogy- Jonathan Stroud (read 1/3)

Song of the Lioness- Tamora Pierce

The Hunger Games trilogy- Suzanne Collins (read 2/3) (see my reviews- The Hunger Games, Catching Fire)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower- Stephen Chobsky (see my review)

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian- Sherman Alexie ( see my review)

Uglies- Scott Westerfeld

So Yesterday- Scott Westerfeld

Holes- Louis Sachar (see my review)

Just Listen- Sarah Dessen

Feed- M.T. Anderson

The Book Thief- Markus Zusak

The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants- Ann Brashares

A Wrinkle in Time- Madeleine L'Engle (see my review)

Monster- Walter Dean Myers

Eleanor & Park- Rainbow Rowell

It's not really 25, it's really 37, they've cheated a bit with trilogies and series, and I can well understand that.

I've read 10/37. And so the TBR grows.

September 2014 11/37

October 2015 12/37

Sunday 23 March 2014

The Simple Gift

I suspect that if I make another list of favourite authors new to me this year as I did last year, then Steven Herrick's name will appear. I first read Steven Herrick's most recent book Pookie Aleera is not my Boyfriend in January. It was great. I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed it, after all, I've known all my life that poetry is not my thing. I've actively avoided them til now but perhaps verse novels are my thing?

After I read Pookie Aleera recently I checked out Steven Herrick online and discovered that one of his books, The Simple Gift is used as an HSC text here in NSW. The Simple Gift was Steven's third verse novel for young adults and first published back in 2000. It has just been reissued by University of Queensland Press, with a great new cover, it deserved an update, so the time seemed right for me to read it. Sadly my library cover has one of the old, daggy (yet appropriate) covers, but I read it anyway. It was autographed too!

I'm so very glad that I did. The Simple Gift is a bit like Pookie Aleera in that it is again a multiple point of view verse novel. Here we hear from just the three main characters- Billy, Old Bill and Caitlin. But that's about where the similarities end. The Simple Gift is very much a teenage coming of age novel with more mature themes than Pookie.

Billy leaves the only home he's ever known on page 1. He has lived with his abusive, alcoholic father and had enough.

I'm not proud.
I'm sixteen, and soon
to be homeless.

He's a good kid, although perhaps no angel.

Mrs Johnston's mailbox on the ground
after I took to it with a cricket bat
last week. 

Billy is clever though, a survivor. Subsisting on leftovers at MacDonalds and living in a disused railway carriage. He meets Old Bill, another resident of a disused railway carriage, and they form a bond of necessity in some ways, but it becomes much more than that. A friendship. A nurturing, honest relationship. Billy wonders if Old Bill represents his own future.

I slept badly.
I dreamt of myself
as an old man
in a pub, at the bar,
watching the races on TV
with my smokes and my plans
for winning $5 on the grey horse
running second last. 

All of our narrators have a story to tell- Old Bill's is particularly poignant and tragic.

The Simple Gift is a powerful story well told. Steven tells us that he wanted to write a story showing a young person as a positive influence on an adult, instead of the more typical reverse situation. Steven Herrick lived some of Billy's life when he was a young man, making the details deliberate and affecting- Steven travelled on freight trains, slept in disused carriages, and got by with odd jobs- it will be hard to think of tinned tomatoes in the same way again after reading this book!

I'm looking forward to reading even more Steven Herrick soon.

Tuesday 18 March 2014


What a surprise this book turned out to be for me. I'd heard good things about it when it was published back in 2010. I nearly bought it. But I thought of the many, many books that sat in my house unread and I resisted.

Then this year Master Wicker was assigned Trash in his Year 8 English class at school. They are doing  a topic on Troubled Times in class. The first book they read was John Marsden's Letters from the Inside (see my review), and now this has been coupled with Trash. For weeks I have heard nothing but moaning about this book. Master Wicker didn't like it from the outset. He was moaning about having to read it. Moaning about how much he didn't like it. Moaning that he had finally read it (after much parental goading) and now has to write an essay.

So a few days ago I cautiously opened the covers and started. And I loved it from the start. An extraordinary setting, quite unlike any other children's book that I've read. The three main characters, Raphael, Gardo and Rat eke out their existence scavenging through the rubbish of an unnamed city (but rather clearly based on Manila). It's far from glamorous. 

People say to me, 'I guess you just never know what you'll find, sifting through rubbish! Today could be your lucky day.' I say to them, 'Friend, I think I know what I find.' And I know what everyone finds, because I know what we've been finding for all the years I've been working, which is eleven years. It's the one word: stuppa, which means- and I'm sorry if I offend- it's our word for human muck. I don't want to upset anyone, that's not my business here. But there's a lot of things hard to come by inout sweet city, and of the things too many people don't have is toilets and running water. So when they have to go, they do it where they can. Most of those people live in boxes, and the boxes are stacked up tall and high. So, when you use the toilet, you do it on a piece of paper, and you wrap it up and put it in the trash. 

The boys live out their lives at the dump where they work. Trash is a story of poverty, corruption, power and brutality. But it's also a page turning thriller. Very early on Raphael does find something. A small bag with a wallet, a map and a key. There's a sum of money- a bonanza for Raphael and his aunt, but a modest amount really. But then the police come searching for the bag. This simple find is clearly more important than it would seem.

This was the next book that I picked up after Emil and the Detectives, and there are some quite surprising parallels with Emil really. Again we have boys working together, without the help of the police to solve a mystery and catch a criminal. It was funny to see the echoes of suburban 1920's Berlin in the slums of modern day Manila. 

Trash created some controversy because of the subject matter, and it is realistically violent at times. Trash had initially been selected for the Blue Peter Book Award shortlist in 2011, but it was deemed unsuitable and soon dropped.

Andy Mulligan grew up in London, and has spent quite a bit of time in Manila. He had been a theatre director for 10 years when circumstances conspired to send him to India.

I was out of work. Mrs Thatcher, bless her, was closing the country down, so I was making nothing.

After his experiences in India Andy Mulligan was inspired to become a teacher, and he has now taught English and Drama in Britain, India, Brazil and the Philippines. Trash grew out of him meeting street-children and visiting the dumpsites. The location is non-specific so that it is not seen as an attack on one country, but a more universal story of child-exploitation and corruption, which is indeed a widespread problem still in our world.

There is a movie of Trash due out later this year. No trailers seem to be available as yet. Interesting to see Richard Curtis has done the screenplay (he of Notting Hill, Love Actually and Four Weddings and Funeral fame). It was filmed in Rio where they created a "safe and healthy dump" for the filming. Martin Sheen plays Father Juilliard. The other actors named are new to me. I'll be watching out for it.

Monday 17 March 2014

L'invention de la cuisine- Pascal Barbot

L'invention de la cuisine is a fascinating documentary in the same series as Le Solfege du Legume about Alain Passard that I shared last year, we watched both of them in preparation for our extraordinary trip to Paris last year. We dined at two three star restaurants- L'Arpege and L'Astrance. Naturally both were exceptional meals, and exceptional experiences. Our night at L'Astrance was very, very special, I will have to tell you about that another time. 

L'Astrance is the result of an incredible partnership between chef Pascal Barbot and his front of house manager Christophe Rohat. It is a small restaurant with a tiny kitchen on a quiet street in the upmarket 16th arrondissement. 

"I don't know how I'd cope in a bigger kitchen."

Their original aim was to do away with menus altogether, to let the food take precedence and allow Pascal the freedom to express himself fully. Christophe talks to their customers and finds out their preferences, and passes this information along to Pascal in the kitchen. We see the intensity and precision that Pascal uses in each and every component of every dish. He creates beauty with cooking that is akin to magic.

Working without a menu has taught us a lot about food and people's eating habits. 

Pascal takes inspiration from his travels, he tasted grape juice in Morocco inspired by the Arabian nights, and three years later he remembered that particular drink and made a grape and tamarind sauce one night when he had the perfect slightly dried, concentrated grapes. Pascal says that he must search his soul to create his own cuisine, another reason why he travels. He appears contemplative and intense, and yet playful, funny and light.

He likes mixing two cuisines that he doesn't know all that well such as Moroccan and Indian, or Swedish and Japanese. Improbable pairings, but whatever he does, it works.

My cuisine is greatly inspired by "elsewhere".

When contemplating a dish with onion, mint, rose petals, cumin- "Is it a dessert or an appetiser? A condiment or a side dish?"

Buying the produce for the restaurant takes up 50-60% of Pascal's time. At Rungis market he makes the point that with millions of people to feed it can't all be excellent produce so you have to search.

I think the second part of the DVD is slightly less interesting. Pascal and Christophe recruit a table of three people, strangers to each other and high gastronomy, and create a meal for them after watching video interviews about their food preferences. Although it is fascinating to watch one of the young men in particular be wowed by the technique and skill brought out with each plate.

This is insane! How do they do that?

And he is forever French in his thoughts.

An opera cake is like an unspoken thought. 

I can't imagine a young Australian man being moved so by a piece of cake.

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

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

Saturday 15 March 2014

Banjo Paterson Festival

Banjo Paterson is a national icon. He wrote many of our most famous poems, Waltzing Matilda, The Man from Snowy River and Clancy of the Overflow among them. He still makes news, and invokes controversy. Recently Orange held a Banjo Paterson Festival to mark the sesquicentenary of his birth.

Andrew Barton (Banjo) Paterson was born at 'Narrambla' near Orange on 17 February 1864. His family actually lived at Yeoval, but his mother had come into town for his impending arrival.

There were many functions as part of the festival, most of which I didn't get to. This is but a taste.

A competition was held for shop windows
Collins Booksellers Orange
won by McDonalds

A competition and sale featuring local artists

with works inspired by the man and his writings

Inspired by Old Man Platypus
Sampa Bhakta

A display at the Orange library

A signed copy of The Man From Snowy River

Original manuscript draft of
The Reveille

Saturday Snapshot is a wonderful weekly meme now hosted by WestMetroMommy

Friday 14 March 2014

Emil and the Detectives

Emil and the Detectives is a classic book written by German journalist, poet and thinker Erich Kästner. It was published in Germany in 1929, and then in English in 1931. It is a charming book, with a deserved enduring popularity. Indeed there is a current theatre production by the National Theatre in LondonThe National Theatre made a lovely short video piece about the historical context of Emil.

Emil Tischbein lives with his mother in a small town in rural Germany. His father died when he was five, and his mother supports them both with her hairdressing business, but it's a fairly marginal existence, and money is tight. Emil sets off alone on the train to visit family in Berlin with money to take to his grandmother. Emil is robbed on the train, and sets off after the villain when they arrive in Berlin. He enlists the help of a group of boys he meets on the street to help him get his money back and catch the thief, all without the help of the police of course.

The illustrations are the original ones
by Walter Trier
with odd social commentary
(I think by Kästner)

I found Emil and the Detectives a little slow to get going at first. But this gentle wonder grew on me with every page. It feels like a period piece. 1929 was a long time ago after all. When the boys are organising themselves to catch the villain one of them asks:

"Who's on the phone at home?"

Detective adventures were certainly all the more difficult in the pre-iphone age! I read a cute 1959 translation by Eileen Hall (to help bring translators out of the shadows) from Vintage Classics.

Emil and the Detectives was one of the first books to feature a child detective, although he was pipped to the post by Franklin W. Dixon's Hardy Boys in 1927 (see my review). And it has been a burgeoning genre ever since. The Famous Five. Nancy Drew. Encyclopaedia Brown. Artemis Fowl.

Erich Kästner is intriguing in himself too. He was one of the most important intellectuals in Berlin, a pacifist and who opposed the Nazis, and so attracted Nazi attention to his writings. His writings and books were burnt by the Nazis in May 1933. Kästner himself was present at the burnings. However, Emil and the Detectives was very popular, and even the Nazis couldn't find it offensive, so it was the only one of his writings to escape the pyre.

But Erich Kastner is fascinating for other reasons too. In 1931 he published the book The 35th of May, where the characters enter a fantasy world via a wardrobe- a full 19 years before CS Lewis published his The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe! It seems that there really is nothing new under the sun.


Thursday 13 March 2014

12 Years a Slave

I didn't know a lot about 12 Years a Slave before I went along and saw it yesterday, in what turned out to be the final session at our local cinema. Sure, I'd heard about it, I knew it won 3 Oscars just recently (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay). I don't follow the Oscars all that much but I was keen to see it. I'm so glad that I got there, it was astonishing. And I got a free popcorn. Bonus.

Based on Solomon Northup's memoir of the same name (available online many places including here, the film is often harrowing, and a discomforting experience that stays with you after you leave the darkness of the cinema. But it's an important story, and one well worth watching. It will be powerful still on a small screen at home, but is a film that does especially well with the big screen at the movies.

In 1841 Solomon Northup was a free man living in Saratoga, New York with his wife and children. He was duped to take a trip to Washington for work, and from there kidnapped into slavery and transported to New Orleans. I had no idea that people were kidnapped from the North and taken to the South as slaves. Solomon lived and worked on several plantations during his 12 years of slavery, generally in the poorest and most degrading of conditions. His treatment by even the benevolent slaveholders is appalling. It's an incredible story, an incredible life, and all the more incredible because it was true. We see the lives of other slaves too of course, people who were born into that life, and died within it.

This is a very strong movie. The performances are all very good, and I think Lupita Nyong'o well deserved her Oscar as Best Supporting Actress, and she looked particularly gorgeous in that lovely blue frock at the ceremony.

Not one for young kids
some scenes are particularly brutal
and confronting

Wednesday 12 March 2014

The Nutcracker

I do always enjoy some seasonal reading and seasonal music around Christmas time. I didn't get all that much done last year really, and am very late talking about it, but I was really pleased to finally read Nutcracker. Images of the Nutcracker, are so iconic, I've seen them many places of course, they're a favourite of department store windows around the world it seems. I've never even seen the ballet, so didn't even have that to give me a clue.

I'd bought a beautiful hardback edition illustrated by Maurice Sendak on a trip to Canberra recently- it was time to read it. Sendak's involvement in this book came about via the ballet. In 1981the Pacific Northwest Ballet asked Maurice Sendak to design a set for their upcoming production of the ballet version. He was not immediately keen.

To begin with, who in the world needed another Nutcracker? The mandatory Christmas tree and Candyland sequences were enough to sink my spirits completely. And the fantastical subject mixed generously with children, seemed, paradoxically, too suited to me, too predictable. I didn't want to be suited to the confectionery goings-on of this, I thought, most bland and banal of ballet productions.

Interestingly, the ballet is based on the popular French version of the tale by Alexandre Dumas, pere- The Nutcracker of Nuremberg. The creator of the ballet Ivan Alexandrovitch Vsevolojsky simplified Dumas' version even further, emerging "at a dangerous distance from Hoffmann."

Of course Sendak did design the production- two full acts and over 180 costumes. The book version is illustrated with a composite of his ballet designs and new illustrations for the sequences in the story that don't appear in the ballet.

I was rather surprised to find that The Nutcracker isn't really all that much of a Christmas story. Yes, the story starts at Christmas, and there is a wonderful description of a 19th century tree decorated with "gold and silver apples, and sugared almonds, bright-coloured candles, and goodies of all kinds shaped like buds and blossoms hung from every branch." But the story itself of warring tribes of toys and mice isn't particularly Christmasy. Although it's interesting to speculate on the links between The Nutcracker and the much more modern Toy Story. Toy Story certainly wasn't the first story to have toys come to life at night.

While I enjoyed the early parts of the story, and quite like the notion of a seven-headed King of Mice, I did get a bit bored and a bit bogged down in the story within the story aspect of it all. But I think Ralph Manheim did a lovely job with the translation.

One night at exactly twelve o'clock, a lady-in-waiting who was sitting close by the cradle was startled from a deep sleep. All was quiet round about. Not a purr could be heard. In that deathly stillness you might have heard the woodworm nibbling in the wainscoting. 

Still I'm happy to know that The Nutcracker is really a nutcracker after all. One day I need to watch the ballet.


Monday 10 March 2014

Found in Translation

I spend a great deal of time thinking and dreaming about France. And so I think about language quite a bit I suppose. I mourn how I used to speak almost decent French, but now my abilities have wizened through disuse, and I wish I could speak, read and understand French better.

Linda Jaivin spends even more of her time thinking about language. Linda is an author in English, and a translator from Chinese. She specialises in subtitles for film and television, but she has also translated lyrics, poetry and fiction and worked as an interpreter. She is perfectly placed to write an essay musing on the importance of language, translation and culture.

Linda tells us right on page one that "translators are used to labouring in the shadows". She reminds us that unless we "speak all 7000 languages that exist in the world, or abide in a cave without even a copper-wire connection" that we live in a world found in translation.

Translation lays the tracks over which news, trade, aid, diplomacy, ideas and culture travel. Translation is the invisible skein that binds our world. 

I've been thinking more about books in translation since reading the amazing article Why Don't French Books Sell Abroad last December. Linda tells us that "about half of all the books available in translation around the world have been translated from English, and only 6% are translated into English"!

For the third year running, Guillaume Musso is the most read author in France.
And I'd never heard of him before. 

It's often only through travel that we step outside our language comfort zones. As a native English speaker, living in an English speaking country it's all too easy. Our comfortable Anglophone existence is rarely shaken. I will always remember our first trip to Paris with 9 year old Master Wicker back in 2010. He knew we were going to France obviously. He knew that they spoke French there. But it was only as we sat down in a cafe for lunch within minutes of arriving and he was handed a menu that he really realised it. "But I can't read this". Yes Dorothy, there is a whole French speaking world out there.

Linda reminds us that we native English speakers can be lazier than speakers of more niche languages. And we are lazy. Only 12% of year 12 students in Australia now study a language, compared to 44% back in 1968. And yet

Forty-five percent of Australians were born overseas or have on e parent who was born overseas. Between us we claim more than 300 ancestries and 200 ancestral homelands. After English and Mandarin, the most commonly spoken languages in Australia are Italian, Arabic, Cantonese, Greek, Vietnamese, Tagalog/Filipino, Spanish and Hindi. 

I'd never really thought of how our Anglophone habits affected our lives in other ways.

not just binge drinking but obesity, abuse of recreational drugs, overindulgence in cosmetic surgery, status-oriented spending, television and free-market ideology were also far more widespread in the Anglophone world. 

Are we really fat because we speak English? Do we binge drink because we speak English?

Linda tells us that "a culture doesn't grow just by talking to itself." Although English is not the only culture in the world to protect their own language. The French famously set up their own institution, Académie française,  to protect and guard their national language, from the many, often English words that "daily besiege its fortress". As well they should, because English is imperial, and it is becoming too pervasive, we need to maintain the unique visions of culture and civilisation that exist in other languages. Even swearing is cultural, helping us to understand "what is forbidden, what is permitted and what is held sacred".

This is an important, far reaching essay on such a broad topic, there is so much to ponder. I hope it's being widely read, see what Lisa at ANZLitlovers and Whispering Gums thought of Found in Translation recently.

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

Saturday 8 March 2014

A Family Reunion

Recently I travelled to a family reunion where over 70 descendants of one set of my great grandparents gathered together. I'd never been to a family reunion before- it was an amazing experience. One of my relatives shared an amazing old photo that I'd never seen before.

I just love it so much! How stylish they all were, all nicely turned out for their wintry holiday. We think it was taken in 1937. 

The man holding the baby is my grandfather, and even though he has been dead for nearly 20 years his face was what leapt out at me from the photo as soon as I saw it. I think he is holding my aunt. My grandmother died when I was very young so I don't remember her at all. 

Saturday Snapshot is a wonderful weekly meme now hosted by WestMetroMommy

Friday 7 March 2014

Debbie Harry Sings in French

I was absolutely powerless to resist this book when I saw the title browsing the library shelves. Debbie Harry. French. No matter that I'd never heard of the book, or the author, I had to bring it home. I didn't bother with reading the blurb, it didn't matter what it was about- the title had me. And then I just had to squeeze in time to read it. Happily that happened this week.

Johnny is 12 when we meet him, living in Tampa, Florida in the early 90s with his parents- his ex-hippie mum, and businessman dad who is often away on business trips. As with many of us his teenage years are defined by music. Johnny is introduced to "British spider music" by his babysitter. The Cure, Bauhaus, Joy Division, New Order, the Sisters of Mercy, the Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees. Ahh, good times.

Johnny's father dies very early in the book, his mum falls apart, and he has to grow up too soon. He goes through a bit of a goth phase, (although I have to say that I'd never thought of goths in Florida) and starts drinking too much.

I guess you can figure out why I started drinking. I didn't do it just to get wasted, like some kids, or to impress anyone. I kept it to myself. I was stressed, and, on top of it all, I was afraid somebody would find out how bad a shape my mom was in and send me to an orphanage or a foster home. I couldn't talk to anybody; I couldn't ask for help. But I could raid the liquor cabinet…

Johnny at 16 ends up in rehab briefly were he discovers Blondie after one song on the radio.

The English version is good, 
but the French has a certain je ne sais quoi
Does "got the blues" not translate?

And he is transfixed.

Listening to Debbie Harry sing the French part of "sunday Girl" was somehow more reassuring than anything the counsellors had told me so far.

Soon after he is sent to live with his uncle and cousin in South Carolina.

South Carolina was disgusting. It pissed rain. Rain so heavy and dark it seemed black. The trees were so wet they looked black too. And the trees were everywhere- not the palm trees I was used to, but big, hulking, leafy things, all crowded together. No tall buildings, no beaches. Just a crummy little strip mall of a town and all these trees. I felt like I was lost in the woods. 

Most of the story is then in South Carolina as Johnny makes his way in a new state, a new school, finding new friends. Finding his way in the world with his teenage soundtrack, yet another "orphan" tale. And it is about more than the transformative abilities of music, although music features heavily as it does for pretty much every teenager.

I enjoyed my time with Johnny and his world. I've read a smattering of modern YA books and I find that they always make me wonder if everyone is so troubled, if most people have lives like this. I guess the kids with the more boring, traditional families and lives don't make for an interesting story, as pretty much nothing would happen.

Thursday 6 March 2014

Arthur The Seeing Stone

I was worried about this book. Arthurian legends aren't my thing. It's safe to say that the sum total of my experience and knowledge comes from multiple viewings of Monty Python's Holy Grail (did someone say word perfect?) and Master Wicker's prior, but relatively brief, obsession with the tv series Merlin. But when you embark upon a quest some of it will be into unknown territory. Arthur The Seeing Stone was unknown territory for me.

Arthurian legends arose in 14 or 15 medieval European languages, and one of these tales became one of the first books to be published in English- Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur in 1485. There have been many books and films over the years, so it really should come as no surprise that these stories have an enduring popularity even now.

Arthur The Seeing Stone is the first book in what was to become a trilogy. Here we meet 13 year old Arthur de Caldicot, a second son growing up in the Welsh Marches in 1199. It is a time of political and religious turmoil, a time of crusades, Richard the Lionheart will die this year

Arthur's father, Sir John is the local knight living in relative comfort (for the Middle Ages) in a small village of 60 people. Kevin Crossley-Holland does create a remarkable feeling for the period, the inequities of feudal system, the constant hunger, the primitive medicine, housing and marginal existence faced by most of the people.

It had to come
Help, help I'm being repressed!

Arthur is keen to start his adult life- to become a squire and then a knight, but as second son he struggles with the fear that he may be forced to become a priest or a scribe. Arthur excels with archery but he struggles with some of his yard exercises- jousting and tilting- which somehow seem to be different. Merlin gives Arthur a special obsidian seeing stone that shows him extraordinary scenes of dragons, battles, a young boy and a mysterious hooded man. The stories in the stone sometimes reflect Arthur's life, and at other times show a point of difference.

'But who are you?' asked Merlin. 'And who are you to be? That's what matters.'

Written in 100 short short chapters, I did struggle with Arthur for much of the book, although it built in momentum for me, and I did come to enjoy the last third more than that which had come before. Usually I like books written in short chapters as it's an easy way to make quick reading progress. Here I found the chapters more like snapshots, and a bit disjointed. Clearly I must be missing something as Kevin Crossley-Holland won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize for Arthur, and it also won the English language award for the Welsh book prize Tir na n-Og, and was shortlisted for several other prizes. 

'And I said that anyone without a quest is lost to himself.'

Thank goodness I've already got one.