Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Chocolate and Zucchini

I’ve been reading Chocolate and Zucchini by Clotilde Dusoulier, a Parisian food blogger. The success of her blog led to the publishing of her book with the same name.

While the book is mostly a collection of recipes, I have been enjoying the introductions she has written in which she gives the story behind each dish, they have a wonderful personal quality that makes one feel like a friend instead of a distanced reader.
For an idea of her writing style, rather give a selection of quotes, I recommend a visit to the Chocolate and Zucchini blog.

While there are many recipes in the book that don’t appeal to me – anything containing fish for example – there are a few that I would love to try. Maybe they will be the stimulus I need to take charge of the kitchen myself, giving Gloria a break from food preparation.

One of my favourites has been waiting for suitably cold weather before I even think of attempting it. Clotilde’s Beef Bourguignon lists chocolate as one of its ingredients, and any recipe with chocolate sounds all right to me (as long as it doesn’t include fish).

For some reason when I ordered the book from my local book shop they obtained the American edition instead of the one intended for Australian readers (the British edition). Therefore the names of some ingredients and the quantities used are the American terms instead of those that are more familiar to me. I also understand that there are a few differences in the recipes included in the different editions. Fortunately, being a part of the greater American Empire ruled from Hollywood, I have enough familiarity with the American terminology for this not to be a great problem.

(And did I mention I don’t like fish?)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Foxeys Hangout

It’s hard to believe but I’ve now read two books in a row that have maintained my interest and have kept me wanting to read. Two books in a row that had me returning to them at every available opportunity, and the difference in content could hardly have been greater.
One was an SF/Fantasy title written for “young adults” (see previous post), the other almost defies genre, being part memoir, part history, part cook book.

Foxeys Hangout is Cathy Gowdie’s account of her family moving from Melbourne to establish a winery on the Mornington Peninsula. Wine making wasn’t a completely new venture. They had already established a small vineyard in the region and wine from their grapes had been produced for them by other winemakers. It was marketed under the label “Foxeys Hangout” named after a landmark near their vineyard.

The whole idea of this book appealed to me from the time I read a review in a food and wine magazine. Gowdie’s family brought to reality a lifestyle I can only dream about. Growing grapes and making wine has a very romantic appeal to those who want to overlook the realities of hard work and the uncertainties of growing any kind of crop. It’s easy to envy a lifestyle of sitting on the veranda, sipping wine made from your own grapes as you watch the sun setting beyond rows and rows of healthy vines.
But I’ve now done enough vineyard work to understand that reality is far different from the idyllic scenario I described above.

Foxeys Hangout shows both sides of the picture: the joys of rural life, and also the realities of a WORKING rural life.
The family faced several problems after buying their property, intending to develop part of it into a winery and restaurant. Their plans were delayed when objections made to the local council effectively put an end to their idea of building and running the restaurant. Ironically, many of the objections didn’t come from fulltime local residents who made a living from the land; they came from the part-timers, those who had purchased properties as weekend escapes from the busyness of city life. Those who saw the farming countryside as a quiet retreat instead of work places providing their food and drink.

As well as detailing the family’s experiences, Gowdie also investigates the background of her new home. From the history of the landmark after which the wine label was named, to a local, historical murder mystery, she weaves diverse strands together into an original cohesive collection of stories. The uniting factor is Foxeys Hangout, a tree from which fox hunters hung the corpses of their victims, a practice which continued until the 1980s, creating a gruesome memorial for the introduced pest that was the bane of local farmers.

Gowie divided her book into monthly sections and ends each section with a seasonal recipe. These dishes are among those that the family serve to customers who visit their cellar door. While plans for the restaurant may have fallen through, this setback didn’t prevent the desire to serve quality food to complement the wines being produced. Gowie’s husband is a qualified chef as well as grape grower and wine maker. Such focused drive and commitment is clearly the decisive factor that divides dreamers like me from achievers like them.

The wine lable's website is here:

Richard Harland’s Worldshaker.

Before I write anything else I have to confess to two areas of apparent “vested interest”. Firstly Richard Harland was one of my lecturers/tutors at University in the early 1990s and he wrote me a very generous reference when I was looking for work afterwards. Secondly, in the mid 90s I worked for Allen & Unwin, the publisher of Worldshaker, for about a year and a half.
(Richard’s website also had a part in inspiring me to create this blog which is why I have a link to it in the sidebar.)

While this may appear to give me reasons for bias, I will also add that for one essay, Richard gave me the lowest mark I ever received for any assignment during my whole time at University (and I still remember after 19 years!!!), and A & U relocated my job to another city so I had to leave them and find work elsewhere in a less stimulating environment. So we can pretend that the positives have been cancelled out and a balance of neutrality has been restored.

Worldshaker was a book I didn’t want to leave. I read it at every opportunity and was disappointed when I reached the end. It’s the kind of book that demonstrates why continuing series of novels can be so successful. It is a book that creates a world and characters so interesting that you want to explore and experience them some more.

Harland has created an alternative history, a world where the industrial innovation and creativity of the Victorian era has taken a huge leap beyond the bridge and shipbuilding wonders of I K Brunel. In this world political necessity has driven steam age technology to achieve far grand goals than was the case in the “real” Victorian age.

Worldshaker is a massive “juggernaut”, part ship, part tank, part earthmoving excavator, which houses and employs citizens of various fixed classes. Perhaps a comparison could be made to futuristic stories of massive star-ships transporting nation sized communities through space – except juggernaut communities are earthbound and restricted to Victorian age technology.

Colbert Porpentine, heir in waiting to Worldshaker’s Supreme Commander, is thrown into contact with a girl who has entered his room to hide from the authorities. She is a member of the lowest of the low, a “filthy. A reflex decision not to expose the girl’s forbidden presence puts Col’s privileged position at risk and leads him to discover the price that others continually pay to maintain the lifestyle of the Juggernaut’s elite classes.

Worldshaker has what I consider to be a novel’s most essential qualities: strongly believable characters that I care about; an exciting storyline with interesting and original ideas and on a more practical level - short chapters.
I have found long chapters can be a stumbling block to successful reading. It is a major reason I’ve always struggled with Lord of the Rings. By the time I finish one long chapter, the task of reading another of similar length can seem too daunting, especially when other things are competing for my time. With shorter chapters it is easy to read “just one more chapter” several times in succession until a significant portion of the book has been read.

Worldshaker would be classed as a Young Adult title and it was a pleasure to read a book untarnished by the presence of graphic sex and foul language. From recent experience, books that don’t resort to such devices are becoming increasingly hard to find.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Reviewing My Reason for Reviewing

The review I wrote of Mary Poppins left me wondering whether I’d forgotten my reason for starting this blog.

I’m not sure I wrote anything of interest or value in that review. I could at least have written about my reason for reading that particular book at that particular time: which was for convenience. The book had been sitting unread on my bookshelf for ages and I wanted something reasonably quick and easy to read after taking over a month to get through the second of two books about the space race of the 1960s.

So why did I think I had to attempt a review? Do I really need to review every book I read or should I reserve that task for those books that I WANT to write about? Those books that move me in some way and give me an experience that I feel is worth documenting…

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Alistair Hulett, Roaring No More

This week I read of the death of Alistair Hulett, a Scottish folk singer and musician who I interviewed in the early 1990s. When I met him he sang with a Sydney based band “Roaring Jack” who played weekly at a pub in Newton (NSW). The band released two albums “Cat among the Pigeons” and “Through the Smoke of Innocence” which I played daily without fail.

I wouldn’t have a clue how many times I drove to Newton from Wollongong to hear them play live. I was at their last Newtown performance when accordion player Steph Miller left the band. I was also at one of their first return gigs, on New Years Eve at the Harold Park hotel, with Steph’s replacement alternating between accordion and saxophone. I don’t remember hearing anything about them after that night.

When I interviewed Alistair he made the mistake of playing some of his then unreleased solo album (Dance of the Underclass). Not wanting to miss the opportunity of hearing as many of his new songs as possible I definitely overstayed my welcome. The situation also wasn’t helped by the fact that he had served me what seemed to be a half pint glass of scotch during the interview.

I’ve possibly still got the tape of the interview somewhere, but as far as I’m aware the article based on it no longer exists.

Alistair was born in Scotland and moved with his family to New Zealand in the late 1960s. At eighteen he moved to Australia and started performing around the country. After his Roaring Jack days he started collaborating with former Fairport Convention fiddle player Dave Swarbrick who was then also an Australian resident.

In the mid 90s Hulett moved back to Britain where he lived, performed and recorded until his death, from cancer, in January 2010.

Several of his songs are available for download on his official website, where there are also a detailed biography and discography.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Mary Poppins

Perhaps most people would know of Mary Poppins through the Disney film starring Julie Andrews. I saw the film as a child during its original cinema release. It was notable for some memorable songs and for the worst cockney accent in cinematic history courtesy of Dick Van Dyke.

Those familiar with the film would recognise some of the stories in PL Travers’ book including Mary entering a chalk drawing to spend an afternoon in the countryside scene it depicted; an afternoon tea floating near the ceiling with an uncle afflicted with “laughing gas”, and the bird lady selling bread crumbs to “feed the birds, tuppence a bag”.

Travers’ book is a collection of short stories about the strange situations experienced by the Banks children after the arrival of a mysterious nanny literally blown in by the wind. The Mary Poppins of the book seems far more abrupt and lacking patience than the Julie Andrews character in the film, but she is still able to obtain the affection of the children in her care.

The most memorable part of the book for me was a chapter about the babies of the Banks family when they are still young enough to understand the languages of nature; holding conversations with the sunlight and with a visiting starling. Twins John and Barbara want to know why their parents and older brother and sister can not also understand what the birds and the weather are saying, and when told that the ability is lost with age they are adamant that THEY will never forget.

Most stories in the book cast the older Banks children, Jane and Michael, into unusual situations which afterwards they are never sure were real. Their nanny offers them no assurance of the reality of their experiences. If anything she insists the children’s claims are absurd –and yet there is sometimes a clue that makes them doubt her denials.

Mary Poppins is the first in a series of books that Travers wrote about the Banks family nanny. I have two of the others but have not yet read them. The second title, Mary Poppins Comes Back gives a clear indication about the ending of the first book where, as in the film, a change of wind direction leads to Mary’s sudden departure from the family. The departure reveals the affection the children have developed for their nanny despite her abrupt lack of patience. After their initial sadness the children’s spirits are lifted when they learn the meaning of the “au revoir” in Mary’s farewell note.

“Au revore dearie?” shrieked Mrs Brill from the next room. “Why, doesn’t it mean – let me see, I’m not up in these foreign tongues – doesn’t it mean ‘God bless you’? No. No., I’m wrong. I think, Miss Jane dear, it means ‘To Meet Again’.”

Jane and Michael looked at each other. Joy and understanding shone in their eyes. They knew what Mary Poppins meant.

Michael gave a long sigh of relief. “That’s all right,” he said shakily. “She always does what she says she will.”

Monday, March 1, 2010

Binary Moon: two views of the Apollo Missions

Alan Shepard & Deke Slayton were two of the original intake of astronauts for the American space program. Shepard was the first American into space but soon after was removed from active flight duty due to an ear problem that affected his balance. Slayton was also removed from flight duty because of a minor heart problem. These two men remained with NASA as managers of the astronaut department

The writing of Moon Shot is credited to Shepard and Slayton but its writing had a significant contribution from Jay Barbree and Howard Benedict, journalists with a background in aerospace reporting.

Moon Shot gives a good general (and brief) coverage of the space race of the 1960s – early 70s, with a more detailed concentration on the roles of Shepard and Slayton and how they overcame their health issues to be reinstated to active flight service. Shepard was reinstated in time to command Apollo 14 and become the 5th man to walk on the moon. Slayton missed out on a moon mission and barely scraped into the last pre-shuttle mission, a joint USA- USSR flight in which the rendezvous and docking of the two nations' craft was achieved.

I read the book immediately after Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon and my reading experience suffered because of it. Chaikin’s book is much more detailed and to my mind much better written. He interviewed almost every surviving astronaut from the Apollo era as well as their wives and many of those behind the scenes. His descriptions of events and memories were written using information gained from these interviews but without the obvious flights of imagination used in Moon Shot.

In my previous post I mentioned the Moon Shot account of the first moon landing which gives an imaginative description of Neil Armstrong’s eyes as “tired but warm with anticipation”.
This was only one example of what marred the book. How about this description of the separation of the stages of a rocket?
“Explosive charges blew apart the two stages with all the velvety touch of a locomotive thundering off a high trestle to roll down a rocky slope”.

I also found that parts of the book were over-sentimentalised and soap-opera like. Yes, I’m sure that astronauts and their families did experience some strong emotions – but those feelings could have been explored with greater skill than was utilised.

In my previous post I described the book’s style as “new journalism gone mad”. So much was written that was not based on obtainable fact or observation – so much imaginative speculation was presented as fact (as in the Armstrong eyes example). “New Journalism” at its best gives literary style to description without resorting to unverifiable detail. At times it might get into the head of a “character” and explore his/her thoughts and emotions, but the exploration needs to be based on substantial evidence from interview with (and observation of) the person being portrayed.

In contrast, I don’t know whether there could be a better book of its type than Chaikin’s. It addresses the major developments in the space programme from the beginning through to the climax of the moon missions, examining every moon landing (and the aborted Apollo 13 flight) with enough detail to highlight the individual achievements of each Apollo crew.
The book provided the basis for Tom Hank’s mini series From the Earth to the Moon.