Friday, December 24, 2010

2010 in review

Posted by lea at 12:48 PM 0 comments Links to this post
2010 seems to be one of those years that was completely packed with stuff, even though I don't even remember most of it. I was about it say 'it flew by' because most years feel like that, but I feel like 2010 went at the pace it should have - no faster or slower.

In a snapshot:
  • second year of marriage
  • big year for Bloom (my volunteer job)
  • location move for moneytime (my day job) 
  • launch of www.thegracioushost.com.au
  • lots and lots of books.


For Bloom it was the year we launched proper. Bloom cakes made it into the public consciousness of the Khmer population in Phnom Penh, with a front cover feature story in the Cambodian Daily, huge orders from Cambodia's richest families and Cambodia's largest wedding cake at Phnom Penh's first International Food Fair. There's so much the girls can rightly be proud of, and I'm about to burst because I'm so proud of everything they've achieved and how far they've come.

Second year of marriage is extremely comfortable, though we're still growing and learning from each other. For me, maybe I'm a little too comfortable because I snap a lot faster. Thankfully I have a human mirror to show me how ugly my behaviour can be sometimes, and how I need to improve. No matter what they say about how you get stuck in your ways as you get older, I think it's impossible to do that in a relationship. I'm constantly challenged to grow, even in little things like the fact that N needs to plan things whereas I tend to fly by the seat of my pants, so I'm learning to be a little more circumspect. Just a little.

It's great to have someone whose opinion you trust to bounce things off, and it's also really lovely to have someone who thinks really well of you all (or at least most of) the time. It may only be a matter of time before that image cracks, but N really seems to think I'm something good, which is very nice of him :)

In terms of travel, we had a most excellent holiday to Bali in January with a bunch of friends, which was a lot more fun and lot less hassle than expected for such a large number of people and kids to boot! It'll now be a bi-annual (every second year) occurrence, which I'm looking forward to for 2012.

In September I also went to Cambodia for Bloom business. It was a whirlwind busy week including graduation, which was moving and beautiful. We played games with the girls every morning and one of the things that sticks in my mind is the Vaseline incident. We organised that Minute to Win It game where you dip your nose in vaseline, attach a cotton ball, then run across the room and deposit the cotton ball into a bowl all without using your hands. The vaseline tub was big so we just opened the lid and put it on the table, and suddenly Ruth whisked in and picked it up, dumped the vaseline out on a plate and hid the tub. She explained later that one of the girls has a panic attack when she sees a Vaseline tub because of the trauma associated with it. It was a horrific reminder of the innocence that was so brutally stolen from them, so even the smallest thing can have terrible associations. Sigh. We also had another game with balloons, and we had to be really careful with them because another student had been shot at once, so was afraid of popping balloons. I was trying to be so careful when letting the air out of them afterwards, but I popped 3 of them in a row!! Fortunately she wasn't in the room at the time. Whew.

2010 was probably the best for my eyes though. I am now the proud owner of 20/20 vision eyes, which were formerly around -5.5. Laser eye surgery rocks. And doing it in Korea meant I saved thousands of dollars, so I'm pretty pleased about that too.

Last month I launched The Gracious Host, a website dedicated to entertaining at home. It seemed like a good idea one day, and by the next it was launched. Actually, probably the next hour. Like I said, I fly by the seat of my pants. I love having people over and I guess I wanted to show how easy and enjoyable it could be, and hopefully I'll find ways to monetise it in 2011 and reduce my work hours. Woo hoo - the dream of everyone in cyberspace!

At the beginning of the year I marked 2010 as a year for being FEARLESS: facing things head on and doing things that might formerly have scared me. I have to say though, there weren't any massive challenges that I had to consciously psyche myself up to face. It was a pretty cruisy year - very blessed and very full in ways I couldn't have foreseen. I'm so grateful for my generous friends, extended family, being able-bodied and able to help others, living in Australia (and Sydney specifically), having a functioning brain, enjoying food, being able to travel and appreciate new experiences, a home I love... I could go on but I'll sign off here.

Merry Christmas!! I hope your 2010 was full and cheers to an even better 2011.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Tiny Bit Marvellous, Dawn French

Posted by lea at 3:35 PM 1 comments Links to this post
I have to admit I'm a BBC-nerd. I love those old-timey English shows like Keeping Up Appearances, As Time Goes By and The Vicar of Dibley. Would you like a spot of tea? Oh yes please!

So when this novel by the Vicar herself, Dawn French, appeared on my horizon, I grasped and read it eagerly. Like the title, the book itself is a tiny bit marvellous.

The novel is about a fairly typical, middle-class, suburban British family. Chapter by chapter, the perspective changes across the members of the family. The main voice is child psychologist mum Mo, who is pre-menopausal and about to turn 50. She's an intelligent, insightful woman... except when it comes to her kids.

First there's Dippy Dora, a teen who embodies the worst of all the insecure yet supremely narcissistic and rude Brit teens you see on X-Factor cringe moments, and eccentric, Oscar Wilde-channeling gay son Peter (but call him Oscar). Their father, referred to as Husband, is somewhere in the background.

It's written in first person, diary-like monologues, which allow us to get to know each character more intimately than they know each other (and sometimes themselves). French takes a little too long to let us get used to them before anything of significance in the storyline actually happens. About half the book, in fact.

But it does pick up pace as each character makes mistakes (Oscar's is the funniest, Dora's rather sad and Mo's... well, slightly predictable) and learns and grows. Like normal families, there's a lot of bickering, and like TV families, there's a nice tidy end that brings them all together.

The writing is good. Mo has several French-esque moments when she goes off at something with funny observational humour, and Oscar's over-the-top dandyism is very amusing, but Dora's angsty entries can get, like, really tired like really fast. I hope that was intentional (do British teenagers still really talk like that?). French also manages to make this motley crew of characters very endearing despite - or rather because of - their many flaws.

I enjoyed reading A Tiny Bit Marvellous. I doubt it'll win any prizes, but it's a nice family drama-type book with wisdom and humour.

PS - thanks to the Ongs for gifting me with this book!

Air Kisses, Zoe Foster

Posted by lea at 3:34 PM 1 comments Links to this post
This is a hard review to write, because I really like Zoe Foster. She's the type of person I'd like to have as a friend.

I know she can write, because I follow her beauty blog at primped and I'm not even keen on beauty products. I read it because her posts are funny and informative. From what I can tell, she's funny, self-deprecating and rather charming, so I had high expectations for this book.

Air Kisses is about unlikely beauty editor Hannah Atkins, who works at Gloss magazine and is a thoroughly modern young woman. Like the best chicklit heroines, she's not too highly polished. She's a little klutzy, well grounded and pretty-despite-herself (we know this because of the number of times she spills food on her clothes, and is informed by other characters how adorable she is).

The book starts with Hannah getting dumped by her hunky newsreader boyfriend, but we don't feel anything particularly about this because we (the readers) haven't met him. She then blunders through a number of unnecessary and unfulfilling relationships before ending up in the arms of the guy we knew she should be with all along, causing agonising tedium and predictability along the way.

Parts of the novel have Foster's own brand of charm (the little humorous asides and observations), but much of it is cluttered with unnecessary details that don't progress the plot, increase our understanding of the heroine or even act as a humorous anecdote. Case in point: something about toenail polish in a taxi and wearing strange slippers. Wha...?? It's like one of those times your friend tells you something HILARIOUS that happened to them and falls over laughing, but it's a you-had-to-be-there moment that loses its humour in the telling.

As a result, the book is way too long and meandering. The most satisfying bit, the part you wait for the entire book, is then shuffled into the last few paragraphs on the last page. The guy she ends up with is the only one she has practically no meaningful contact with throughout the book, which again leads to us not caring very much instead of oohing and aahing like we're supposed to.

Hannah as a heroine is mostly likeable but too weak to admire or aspire to, and every single stereotype you could possibly imagine in chicklit is represented here: the one-dimensional glossy working girls, the supportive best friend, the gay pal who gives bitchy advice, the good-looking guy who falls in love with the heroine, the second good-looking guy who falls in love with the heroine... you've seen them all and you've seen them better.

The best part of the book are the little beauty editorial bits that begin each chapter. For example, did you know that you can kill a cold sore with nail polish remover? 

As I've said, I know Zoe Foster can write. What I think she needs is a good editor to bounce the plot, pacing and characters off. It's like this book came straight from her computer without the necessary shuffling and editing and re-editing that a good book needs. There are lots of examples but the one I can think of off the top of my head is where Hannah wryly mentions that her best friend's word of the month is 'fierce', but she only uses it once, then Hannah uses it several times throughout the book herself in the narrative. I know it's a little thing, but it's these sorts of inconsistencies repeated that the editor is meant to pick up on. Someone needs to be ruthless with the manuscript to turn it into good reading material.

With Air Kisses, the bare bones are there but they haven't been sculpted into anything worthwhile. Just, unfortunately, more blah in a genre overloaded with it already.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice

Posted by lea at 3:35 PM 4 comments Links to this post
The third book in my Vampire Fiction series:

Interview with the Vampire begins with an intriguing and gripping premise: Louis, a 200 year old vampire from New Orleans, permits an interview with a young journalist, retelling the story of his life. The nerves and fascination of the reporter fuel our own, as we hear Louis's story of his 'making' by Lestat, the vampire who created him in order to share his wealth and plantation.

Despite his newfound vampire status and appetite, Louis never quite lets go of his human nature, which makes for a fascination and haunting tale of internal struggle and external strife. Louis and Lestat, locked in an unsatisfying relationship of co-dependency, mutually create Claudia (against Louis's desire to inflict vampirism on anyone), a young girl who grows into a deadly and intelligent young woman trapped in a little girl's body, and eventually incites Louis's betrayal of Lestat.

Claudia and Louis travel the world to find others of their kind, discovering them finally in Paris at the Theatre des Vampire. Louis finds his soul mate in Armand, and from this point, the novel becomes extremely homo-erotic despite the absence of actual physical sex (except when he feels the 'hard sex' of Armand's slave boy press against his body as he offers himself to Louis. For bloodsucking, not for sex - get your mind out of the gutter).

Partway through the book, the story starts to lose steam and Louis's philosophical who-am-I becomes quite tedious, as I'm sure it must have been for him after 200 years. Rice poses a lot of big questions (Is there a God? Who created vampires? Are they inherently evil?) that are never really answered (except the last question, where Rice tends toward no - they've just grown bored and detached through the years and lose the human ability to empathise or love), and in the end we become even more confused about the whys and wheres and hows of vampirism.

The website annerice.com explains that Interview with the Vampire started as a short story which Rice turned later into a full novel. That explains a bit for me, because the pace of the novel is certainly not as good as it could have or should have been, considering the calibre of the writing. Well, most of it anyway. At times it becomes all too flowery and dramatic, but for the most part, it's quite beautifully penned.

Back to the pacing issues: Rice spends way too long dwelling on the early years in New Orleans with Lestat, which in the scheme of things was not as important a chapter in Louis's life as the latter years, when he meets Armand and goes through what appears to be the vampire equivalent of a nervous breakdown. Also, she never answers the obvious question of whether his family has noticed his vampirism (pale skin, aversion to sunlight, sleeping in a coffin... any of it ring a bell?) and the sudden addition of another pale-skinned, sunlight-averse, coffin-sleeping male in the household.

The revelation of what sets Louis apart from other vampires comes late in the book, and Lestat's degeneration leads only to more questions. Why did he set himself apart from the other vampires, when he obviously knew of their existence? Why does he follow them to Paris and desperately ask to talk to Louis and then say nothing of significance to him? And why do I keep imagining him as a badly made-up Tom Cruise?

Overall, I found the book a very intriguing read, but certainly flawed. I'm told the second and third books (The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned are better, but I'm not sure whether I'll read them yet. I only planned my Vampire Fiction series to be a three-part thing, but I'm of two minds whether to read Dracula as well... anyone out there read it yet? Is it better than Interview?

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Shopaholic Series - 3-in-1 review, Sophie Kinsella (The Great Library Challenge author K)

Posted by lea at 11:57 AM 2 comments Links to this post
When I got to K in my great library challenge, I decided to go with Sophie Kinsella because her novels are so hugely popular and I wanted to know what the big deal was.

I have to admit that my expectations were low. So very sadly low, reflecting the state of chicklit, in my opinion. Good ones are very few and far between. But Kinsella delivers on every count: slightly dizzy but very endearing character? Check. Romance? Check. Funny-slash-disastrous situations that make you laugh? Double and triple check. And this is where the books really win out: Kinsella has masterful comic timing and uses it to great effect.

The heroine is the shopaholic herself: disaster-prone Becky Bloomwood, who starts off in the first book (The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic (also published as Confessions of a Shopaholic)) as a bored journalist at a money magazine who is unable to curtail her love of shopping, despite threatening letters from the bank and maxed out store cards. She's irresponsible and a bit ostriche-head-in-sand when it comes to finances, leading her into impending disaster, which of course she'll bounce out of better than ever, and with a super-hot boyfriend to boot.

What did you expect? I told you it was chicklit, right?

In the second novel, Shopaholic Takes Manhattan, her adventures take her to the Big Apple, where super-hot boyfriend Luke Brandon is starting a new branch of his super-successful business. But her super-spending (amongst other things) takes their relationship to the brink of disaster, which she deftly handles in the end, learning a little something along the way.

In the third novel, Shopaholic Ties the Knot, Becky digs herself further and further into a hole with her dithering as Luke comes to terms with his feelings for his birth mother, and two weddings are organised in different continents on the same day.

I have to admit, if Becky was my friend I'd give her a good shake and a talking to, because common sense seems to elude her until she's forced into a position to make good, but it does make for great comic fodder. And despite her dithering and disaster-proneness, she has a good heart. By the end of each novel she seems to grow and develop in character, but at the start of the next novel, she stumbles again, which is probably actually very realistic but could be frustrating if you cared too much.

There are classic chicklit elements that could get tiresome awfully fast (like the impossibly good looking and successful boyfriend, the ability to fall head over ass into good fortune), but Kinsella reinforces Becky's underdog status, ensuring that she remains endearing and flawed, and thus relatable.

In certain respects, Shopaholic reminded me of Bridget Jones's Diary, as Sophie Kinsella and Helen Fielding appear to have very similar comic sensibilities. Personally I think they're both really good writers (which shows in their books), and thankfully they redeem the overwhelming hovel of crap that chicklit tends to attract. Their heroines are larger than life versions of ourselves, and their adventures have a bigger arc with greater romantic rewards than you'd find in reality, which make them a great escape.

I'd highly recommend the Shopaholic series for light reading, suitable for holidays, on the beach, in-flight and when you're feeling down and need a pick up. I only meant to read one but ended up reading three!

There are three more books out now (Shopaholic and Sister, Shopaholic and  Baby and Mini-Shopaholic) but I think I'll space them out to avoid overdosing. Thank goodness for Christmas holidays!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Light Boxes, Shane Jones (The Great Library Challenge author J)

Posted by lea at 12:52 PM 1 comments Links to this post
Okay okay, I know you're thinking, 'I thought you were going to read James Joyce for your J author!' (because, of course, you care so incredibly much about my Great Library Challenge). But, I've been defeated. Round one: Ulysses.

At first I was determined to conquer it at some point, even if not now, but I've thrown in the towel and have to admit: I don't care about two drunkards who ramble around Dublin making no sense. I just don't care. So there, literary gods.

Moving on.

Perhaps from the trauma of trying to read such a hefty book, I found the smallest alternative possible in Light Boxes. It's literally a small book, around A5 in size, but the content... oh the content. Thank God I put down Ulysses or I might never have found Shane Jones.

Light Boxes is a heartbreakingly beautiful book, a melancholic fable about a town afflicted by eternal winter as 'February' refuses to loosen its grip. At the centre of the story is a simple family: Thaddeus, Selah and their daughter Bianca.

The townspeople look to Thaddeus, a balloonist, to lead their revolt against February as they attempt all manner of acts of war: using tall poles to forcibly move the dark clouds, wearing shorts and pretending that June has arrived, pouring boiling water to melt the snow and trick winter into leaving. But no dice.

February is not your average one-dimensional bad guy either. He's a complicated figure - one you can't quite work out because his issues are so deep ranging. And he's arbitrary, like using the priests to ban flight, and then one by one, kidnapping the children, including Bianca.

The prose is as close to poetry as you can get, and is richly imaginative and impossibly tender. Typography is put to good use and various other tools, like lists and changing perspectives, add layers to the story.

Light Boxes evokes so many feelings, a bit of whimsy but mostly sadness. I constantly felt like I had that expression that I hated on Gwyneth Paltrow when she won the Oscar - eyebrows contracted and lifted in the middle, mouth in a small O, like you're half in pain and half in pleasure.

It's a beautiful read and I highly highly recommend it.

PS - I just did a google search on it and found out that apparently it's now officially achieved cult status. Well, as officially as you can get with cult status. From the original independent print run of 500, it got picked up by Penguin Books and distributed globally. The original pints are now worth $200!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Family Man, Elinor Lipman

Posted by lea at 3:59 PM 0 comments Links to this post
The Family Man is funny and charming and witty and sweet. What I love about Elinor Lipman is that her stories don't need to be dramatised or heightened to be interesting, and she doesn't dumb down the narrative for mass appeal. Her writing is just gorgeous, like dipping a big red luscious strawberry into melted Belgian chocolate and letting it set.

At the core of the story is Henry, a single recently-retired divorcee, who has since come to terms with his homosexuality. The catalyst is the funeral of his ex-wife's third husband, which in a roundabout way re-connects Henry with his long-lost but still beloved stepdaughter Thalia, embroiling him in her media-spun romance with a horror director, and the arrival of a new love interest. Sound convoluted? You'd think so, but it's not. Lipman makes everything sound like a natural string of events.

She's often compared to Jane Austen in a lot of her reviews: my two cents worth is that the similarities in the two authors are their wonderful wit, insight into human behaviour and gently mocking social commentary. Austen is a sparklier writer though - her dialogue zings, while Lipman shines more when it comes to internal monologue.

I closed the last page on this book with some wistfulness. I would've loved for it to last longer - I needed this dose of literary medication after reading the last dud.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Dead Until Dark, Charlaine Harris

Posted by lea at 5:20 PM 4 comments Links to this post
My vampire fiction journey began well with The Radleys, but it's taken a real nosedive with this clunker.

Dead Until Dark is the first of the Southern Vampire series by Charlaine Harris, which spawned the True Blood television series. Apparently True Blood is masterful. Having read this book, I can say that must have been quite a feat for the producers.

Okay, let's overlook the ridiculous names. Sookie is a telepathic barmaid who sees her mind-reading powers as a disability and acts like a deer in headlights when others treat her as odd. Bill (Bill! Has there ever been a less sexy name?) is a vampire who's just returned to the small town of Bon Temps to integrate with the humans. Sookie saves his life and promptly falls in love with him. It seems his only attraction is the fact that she can't read his mind, because otherwise he's pretty boring. Laconic, no appreciable sense of humour and not particularly high up in the vampire hierarchy.

The story is told from Sookie's perspective but one can't help but hear a middle-aged author indulging herself a little too much. Sookie is beautiful, has big boobs, is tough but soft, and is desirable to everyone (humans, vampires and everything in between). Oh and did I mention she has an orgasm every time? Like every time. 

The plot itself is surprisingly decent, which leads me to believe that Charlaine Harris is a good story-creator, but not a particularly good storyteller or author. The writing is clumsy and cringe-inducing and the climax is left so far into the plot that when you get to it, you don't care too much. I actually put the book down to do something right in the middle of the climax and didn't pick it up again for another two days. That's unheard of for me; usually I have to know what's going to happen next, but all the eyeball rolling and cringing left me rather untouched by the end. Particularly cringe-inducing was the appearance of an extremely famous now-dead singer incarnated as the vampire Bubba. Seriously.

The characters were one-dimensional and never develop very much, but presumably this is because Ms Harris is busy setting up the following books that have since built her Southern Vampire empire.

If you're a fan, don't hate me. Obviously I'm voicing the opinions of a minority, because this book has received glowing reviews, and not even just from the publishers.

If you want a bit of a thriller with human-vampire sexy scenes thrown in, this might be for you. If you want something you won't be embarrassed to read on the train, then maybe give this a miss.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Sinking my teeth into vampire fiction: a beginner's journey

Posted by lea at 3:12 PM 2 comments Links to this post

I started my foray into vampire fiction with Matt Haig's The Radleys, which I really enjoyed. I think that, combined with the fact that I'm stalled on J in my Great Library Challenge (shakes fist at James Joyce), have contributed to my new challenge: read and compare vampire fiction.

Someone in my book club mentioned that the True Blood TV series is based on a book series that wasn't too bad, so I've borrowed book one from that series (Dead after Dark by Charlaine Harris). Someone else suggested the classic Dracula (hang on, is dracula a vampire? are they the same things?) or maybe it was Interview with a Vampire. Yeah that sounds more like it. But my dracula question remains.

Maybe... just maybe I might even give Stephanie Meyers a go. Maybe.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Knowing my luck

Posted by lea at 1:08 PM 1 comments Links to this post
Anytime there's an easy competition to enter, I'm in. And I've had pretty good luck; I've won countless movie double passes, Jerry Seinfeld's CD, a Rent musical pack (2 t-shirts, the soundtrack and a double pass), a number of DVDs including The Bounty Hunter (which turned out to be more a punishment than a reward), tickets to a Coldplay concert... nothing huge like a holiday (I'm still waiting), but an assortment of little things that keep me going back for more.

Normally they're just a matter of entering your name. Sometimes they take more work, like writing a 25-word-or-less entry about why or how or who or whatever, which you can usually knock out in less than 60 seconds because I bet they're not reading all the entries anyway.

Sometimes, the competition requires a little more. Like writing about it in your blog.

So here it is: to win a new Tamron AF18-270 camera lens, just head to Nothing but Bonfires and leave a comment as to which celebrity you'd want to get up close and personal with. I've just discovered it but it's a really cool blog that I think you'll enjoy. Good luck!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger (a second look)

Posted by lea at 2:49 PM 1 comments Links to this post
This isn't my first time reading The Catcher in the Rye but I have to say it affected me more this time than any other, which is ironic considering that I read it for the first time as an angsty teen and now I'm in my thirties.

The protagonist is 16 year old Holden Caulfield, who's just been expelled from his latest school for poor performance. He's not dumb though, he's just not interested. Still suffering from the effects of his brother Allie's death and in a state of... I guess you could call it depression, he leaves school early and wanders around New York like a self-professed 'madman' for a couple of days before returning home to face the music.

When I was all set to go, when I had my bags and all, I stood for a while next to the stairs and took a last look down that goddam corridor. I was sort of crying. I don't know why. I put my red hunting hat on, and turned the peak around to the back, the way I liked it, and then I yelled at the top of my goddam voice, "Sleep tight, ya morons!" I'll bet I woke up every bastard on the whole floor. Then I got the hell out. Some stupid guy had thrown peanut shells all over the stairs, and I damn near broke my crazy neck. (Chapter 7)

I never noticed before just how funny the book is. It's really a riot and I could barely stop myself chuckling out loud on the bus.

I was half in love with her by the time we sat down. That's the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they're not much to look at, or even if they're sort of stupid, you fall half in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are. Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can. (Chapter 10)

Salinger writes in one of the strongest narrative voices I've ever read. It's completely absorbing and sucks you right into the character of Holden, whether you like him or not (many find him annoying). He's lonely and isolated and horny and angsty and all the things you could expect of a 16 year old, just more heightened. He's at the bottom end of a downward spiral which comes crashing down at the end of his 48 hours of wandering. 

There's an underlying tone of tragedy beneath it all, and through his erratic behaviour we sense an impending doom. A review published in 1951, when the book was still fresh, said:

It’s a sort of lost week end; it’s a boy who can’t go home again; he belongs to a lost generation and lives in a world he never made.... but besides that, and despite your hoots of laughter at Holden’s indomitable speech, this is in essence the tragic story of a problem child, unless indeed it’s an indictment of a problem world. Month in, month out, novels don’t come much better. (source)

Rather than it being an indictment of a problem world, I would suggest that it's just a tale of someone trying to find their place in one. It would explain why so many people are drawn to it, and why others identify themselves with it. It offers no solutions but beautifully captures the troubled thoughts of someone navigating their way.

From my current perspective, I think the breakdown was the obvious conclusion to his not having dealt with Allie's death and possibly even the sexual abuse that he hints at ('perverty stuff' has happened to him around 20 times). When he hits rock bottom, we find that he's telling his story from a psychiatric hospital, possibly the best thing that could've happened to him. Although the novel ends on a bittersweet note, we feel that he is on the way to healing.

A note on the title

I love how the title is explained in the book. Although other members of my book club didn't have patience for Holden, I have a soft spot for him because he has such a tender heart.

I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me.  And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.  That's all I do all day.  I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all.  I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. (Chapter 22)

A note on the author

What really knocks me out is a book, when you're all done reading it, you wished the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. (Chapter 3)

I found this bit quite ironic because although I don't know much about JD Salinger, I do know that he was a recluse. Actually, that's probably why I don't know much about him.

In all honesty though, I probably wouldn't call him up to talk about The Catcher in the Rye because I'd be intimated by his genius.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A sucker for punishment

Posted by lea at 10:51 AM 4 comments Links to this post
So I've come to J of the Great Library Challenge and I've chosen the most obvious and the most (apparently) painful of all possible reads: James Joyce's Ulysses.

It tops almost all the 'top read' lists so I thought, why not?

The comment I've most often come across regarding this book is "Ulysses was rated the greatest novel of all time, and most of the people who voted it had never read it," so I thought I'd check out a few reviews from people who have read it to see what I'm getting myself in for:

In spite of its very numerous qualities, 'Ulysses' is one of the dullest books ever written, and one of the least significant. This is due to the total absence from the book of any sort of conflict.
Aldous Huxley

OK, I never read Ulysses from beginning to end, but then again, neither, I believe, has anybody else, including most of the writers and scholars who declared it the greatest English-language book of the century in that Modern Library list last year. I have read the first one hundred pages at least three times, and then, longing for a story, I never got further.
Richard Bernstein, The New York Times book critic

I knew I wouldn't be able to read this beast--I've tried & failed three or four times. But last night I had an epiphany.  It occurred to me that Ulysses is the greatest hoax of the century, ranking with Conan Doyle's Piltdown Man. Surely, Joyce must have realized that Ulysses was the inevitable & fitting conclusion to the Romantic Age. Art, cut loose from the mooring of God,  had steadily drifted away from the universal & towards the personal.  Ulysses is the culmination of this trend--a novel that could only be read, understood or enjoyed by its author. Spare yourself.
brothersjudd.com

Oh my god. Oh my god. Just where do I begin? I stopped walking to work as a result of this book. I stopped enjoying the act of reading. I stopped enjoying the very fact of my existence, knowing that the same God who created me also created James Joyce and this pile of pages.

[A friend] asked how the book was going. Without pausing, I said, "It is like having a rib ripped out of my body, being beaten with it, raped with it, and then being forced to eat it." 

I'm sorry that this review is so long, rambling, and at times incoherent.  But it could be worse.  You could be reading Ulysses.

Here's the quick version of my review:   Ulysses was clearly written by a clever guy.  I was not smart enough to understand it.  I had a horrible time reading it, and will never read it again.
DougShaw.com, Ph.D (currently reviewing all Top 100 books)

At least I can't complain since I'm going into this with my eyes wide open. See you when I resurface... hopefully before Christmas.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Sleep No More, Greg Iles (The Great Library Challenge author I)

Posted by lea at 11:33 AM 1 comments Links to this post
I had a hard time choosing an I author for my Great Library Challenge because I'd read most of the ones suggested to me (thanks for the suggestions LO and FB) and my local library had only a single shelf of I authored books. So I simply chose the author most represented in that section (with 4 books, Greg Iles had 30% of the shelf space market at Surry Hills Library) and chose the book that sounded most interesting.

Although it's not the sort of book I'd normally choose, the case for Sleep No More was strengthened by Stephen King's recommendation on the cover: 'a thriller that really thrills, a shocker that really shocks'.

Was it really? I tentatively read the first few chapters, prepared to swap the book for another I author if I didn't enjoy it, but the next thing you know, I was halfway into the story with no intention of stopping. It really was a thriller that thrilled.

The premise is that John Waters, an oil well driller with a good business and generally happy family, is suddenly approached by a strange woman who purports to be imbued with the spirit of his ex-lover, an obsessed fatal-attraction type who was raped and murdered 10 years ago. She claims that through the act of sex, a portal is created whereby she can overtake the use of her 'host's' body through orgasm (I know the temptation to laugh is strong, but resist. It gets chilling.).

His incredulousness turns to fear when she starts to prove that it's really her - it took her 10 years to make her way to him (like a game of 6 degrees to Kevin Bacon) from the man who raped and murdered her all the way into the body of an attractive young woman in his hometown in Mississippi, but now she's back and she still wants him all to herself.

Sleep No More combines horror and suspense with elements of supernatural fantasy to make a very compelling read. There were only two points in the book when I fell out of the spell, through an overused cliché or lame turn of phrase, but otherwise I was pretty engrossed.

It's a shame that the climax was rather unsatisfactory and lets down the build up that Iles achieves, but a plot like this is understandably difficult to resolve. It's just unfortunate that the final pages (which still manage to elicit a certain number of chills) takes it from a cinema-worthy psycho-sexual thriller (of the chilling rather than titillating kind) to a midday movie.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Radleys, Matt Haig (The Great Library Challenge author H)

Posted by lea at 4:53 PM 1 comments Links to this post
The Radleys appear to be a very normal family living a white picket fence life: Peter the doctor, Helen the artist and their two kids Rowan and Clara, who are rather average if a little intolerant to sunlight, quite pale and somewhat sickly.

Noone suspects that the members of this suburban family are actually vampires - especially not the kids, who don't know themselves, until one night, Clara defends herself against a bully and bites his hand. With her first taste of blood, the Radley secret comes spilling out.

This was my first foray into vampire fiction, and like Clara, I liked it. Matt Haig writes deliberately sparse prose that is free from unnecessary flourish, excess drama or gratuitous violence. There's a certain elegance to the writing, which I imagine is something that sets it apart from modern vampire fiction (think Stephanie Myer).

Peter and Helen are abstainers (vampires who choose not to drink blood), who have turned away from their blood-soaked past for the sake of their children. After seventeen years of cover ups and lies, they are forced to deal with their identity to help their children navigate their way around the background of who they really are. It's a family drama in which vampirism is a suppressed form of life, that once unleashed can't be contained. But more than that, it's about learning to accept oneself, and in a strange way, the acceptance of their vampire identities make them more human.

Though it's not a comedy, there is some humour in the novel, which mostly comes from the account of prominent vampires in the past: Lord Byron, Jimi Hendrix (one vampire school of thought says they're one and the same, Lord Byron simply having adopted a new identity for a new generation), David Bowie, and more obviously, Bram Stoker. Peter's brother Will (an unashamed practising vampire whose entry into the household wreaks havoc) says Prince's musical decline happened when he chose to become an abstainer. LOL

The Radleys is an enjoyable novel, not in the sense that it's fun or funny, but because it's a well written story that, at its core, is about being empowered by being yourself. It's a story that, ironically unlike vampires, has a soul.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Third Twin, Ken Follett (The Great Library Challenge author F)

Posted by lea at 2:23 PM 3 comments Links to this post
With around 20 books under his belt, Ken Follett is one heck of a prolific writer, so I thought I'd see what the bother was all about.

The Third Twin is a thriller about the genetic cloning debate and the dangerous mystery that its feisty (and of course attractive) protagonist, university researcher Dr Jeannie Ferrami, stumbles upon.

At the risk of sounding like a pretentious literary wanker, based on this novel alone I have to say that Ken Follett is a great storyteller but not a great writer. The Third Twin is a very fast-paced and absorbing novel, but the narrative voice isn't always believable, and is at times downright awkward.

Firstly, the good bits. It's a hefty book but easy to read, and I couldn't put it down. The story races very quickly (and not at all believably) in the course of a single week or so, in which Dr Jeanne discovers a major cover-up, gets her life threatened several times and takes down the big powerful bad guys.

But the bad bit is that the characters are extremely one-dimensional and while it has a whip-cracking pace, it has no emotional depth whatsoever. The story of Jeannie's raped friend was particularly unmoving and unconvincing. The dialogue is sparse at best and awkward at worst, and the narrative has some major holes and employs a lot of cliches.

To be kind, I'd say it's probably a story for its time. Being published in 1996, it was possibly even ahead of its time. But now, in light of all the more sophisticated and polished stories of a similar vein, it smacks of amateurishness. We've become accustomed to authors who research their topics in depth to maintain narrative integrity, but it feels like this book was written in a hurry with nothing but the broadest ideas about the complex topic it's based on.

Ken Follett paved the story for writers like John Grisham – great airport novelists, but Pulitzer Prize material they ain't. As long you know what to expect, I think you can enjoy his extensive range of published novels, because after all, we all need a good airport novel sometimes.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert: book and movie review (also the Great Library Challenge author G)

Posted by lea at 11:13 AM 1 comments Links to this post
Eat Pray Love the book

It wasn't the easiest thing to get into and I must admit I would've left it only half-finished if the movie wasn't coming out so soon. However, I'm glad I finished it because the latter half was better than the first.

It's as though Elizabeth Gilbert distilled her personal diary to write this book – it has the intimacy and warmth of someone not holding anything back, but it's also very beautifully written so you know she's crafted her words and stories carefully to bring the best of her experience to paper.

I started off skeptical – after all, it's about a privileged New Yorker running out on her marriage and real life to spend a year in exotic locations 'finding herself' – but I ended up won over. It's not just about her running away, but also running towards. She's seeking something more than herself (God) while seeking to find herself, and it becomes a spiritual journey where, by the end, she discovers contentment and a self-identity that she seems not to have had before. Who can argue with that?

Eat Pray Love the movie

Despite the presence of Julia Roberts and the lush international scenery, Eat Pray Love doesn't really work as a movie because ultimately the story is boring to watch on screen. It's such an intimate spiritual journey that most of the action happens in the interior, which doesn't translate well to an audience who expects a climactic movie experience.

Apart from the breakdown of her marriage in the beginning, there are no major highs or lows – it's all a very linear journey of self-discovery. At times, especially the beginning, the movie felt like a string of 'this is a re-enactment' scenes from a reality TV show – especially the use of that hazy filter and backlighting the first time she goes to Bali. Then the showdown scene between her and Felipe (Javier Bardem) at the end just didn't ring true to me at all. Maybe it's because it didn't happen in the book, but I was totally prepared for them to deviate from the plot of the book (in fact I expected it), but even then the whole scene seemed rather a false attempt to create some dynamic in an otherwise flat movie plot.

My conclusion

I thought that the critics were unduly harsh about the story when the first movie reviews came out, but I can see why they would have come to that conclusion now. In the movie, you don't get the full in-depth experience that you do with the book, so it's easy to overlook the whole thing as the self-indulgent whims of a Western woman.

In fact to be honest, that's how I first felt when the book topped all the bestseller lists and caused such a scene in the book-reading world. I avoided it for a long time and only decided to read it finally because I watched Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk and thought she sounded awfully wise and well-grounded.

After reading her book, I'm more convinced of that assessment. It is a wise book, full of lessons learned and lots of humour too. She has a great writing voice, and there were a lot of moments that resonated with me as a reader, which I'm sure is why the book was so popular.

Now onto H of my Great Library Challenge. I decided on Matt Haig and wanted to read The Radleys, but the library didn't have it so I'm now waiting for my book to arrive from the Book Depository. Any suggestions for an author beginning with 'I' would be appreciated because Surry Hills library only has a single short shelf for I, which consists of approximately 11 books only. Help!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Great Library Challenge: Fforde, Jasper The Eyre Affair

Posted by lea at 4:06 PM 1 comments Links to this post
'Ingenious - I'll watch Jasper Fforde nervously'
Terry Pratchett

After reading this quote by Terry Pratchett, I couldn't resist picking this book for my F author in the Great Library Challenge. I can see why Fforde has been likened to Pratchett - he creates a nonsensical world of parallel reality, injects a good dose of humour and drives the plot at a furious pace.

The protagonist, Thursday Next, is a SpecOps agent in the LiteraTec department, who quickly becomes embroiled in the chase for the evil Acheron Hades. Hades is hellbent on wreaking havoc in the literary world - by which Fforde means the real literary world of fiction - and enters Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre manuscript with an intent to sabotage.

Next's chase leads her to Swindon, where she manages to cross time barriers, parry with her ex- for whom she still harbours a flame, incur the wrath of the powerful Jack Schitt (yes that's really his name) and follow Hades into Jane Eyre to change the course of the story.

Next is a protagonist you can really grow to like. She's tough, self-deprecating and smart, even though she doesn't have it altogether. The fact that she's flawed is a lot of her charm, and returning to her Swindon hometown throws her square into the path of her ex-, Landon Parke-Laine, and her quirky family (time-crossing father, absent-minded mother, multi-religious brother, Aunt Polly and brilliant Uncle Mycroft - whose name was apparently borrowed from Sherlock Holmes' genius brother).

Any literary snob (or anyone with pretensions to literary snobbery) with some smarts and a sense of humour will love this book. There are some very funny ideas that often stretch the bounds of belief, woven through with enough intelligence and classic literary knowledge to make them believable. (Who really wrote Shakespeare's plays? How many John Miltons can one town contain?) I'm sure I missed or only half-got some of the references, because my literary perch is not that lofty.

It's an enjoyable romp that manages to suspend your belief and throw a smile on your face. Apparently this is the first of a series of novels about Thursday Next, but I'm not sure if I'll continue with it right now. I get my good dose of silly and witty and Pratchett, Gaiman and Holt.

Onto my G author: I've chosen Elizabeth Gilbert, because I've been halfway through her book for ages now, but haven't been able to finish. I'm taking this opportunity to finish the book before the movie comes out and knock down my G author with one stone.

On a side note, I've found myself really embarrassed to carry Eat Pray Love around because I fear I'll be mistaken for 'one of those women'. However, I was totally won over by her TED talk on creativity, which spurred me to read her book, and I want to finish it now so I can make up my own mind whether it deserves its early acclaim or, more recently, the disdain that the movie has been receiving.

Monday, October 11, 2010

2010 third quarter reading round up

Posted by lea at 1:56 PM 1 comments Links to this post
Brief review of books read between July-September 2010:

The Diary of Anne Frank
This is a particularly moving read because we know the author's fate before we begin (for anyone who's lived under a rock for the last 50 years, Anne Frank was a young Jewish girl who died in a concentration camp during WWII), but even without allowing for the fact that it was written by a 13-15 year old, it's a really well-written account of her life in hiding during the war, and it's an oddly intimate experience reading someone else's diary. She was a really lovely person, honest and refreshing and hopeful even against all hope - no wonder it's such a classic.

Daddy Longlegs, Jean Webster
This is a lovely book (written in 1912) in the form of letters from an orphan to her benefactor, who sends her to college. It's a coming-of-age story and a love story in one, which I remembered reading and loving at around 13 years old. It was just as good as I remembered. You can read it for free on project gutenberg.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, MA Shaffer & A Burrows
Whilst I love the idea that this book was the first published work of 70-year old first time author, I'm afraid I didn't find it as charming as the rest of the world appears to have. It was quite predictable, and the letter-writing method of storytelling didn't quite work because many of the letters sounded contrived. It would've worked better told in straight narrative.

The Bride Stripped Bare, Nikki Gemmell
I'm trying not to re-read books on my bookshelf, but while I'm waiting for my new purchases from the Book Depository, I picked this one up because I remember it being a quick read. Second time round, the device used to sandwich the narrative (the bride is missing, the manuscript was found by her mother) is even flimsier than ever, but kudos to Nikki Gemmell for the second person present tense narrative, which is difficult and at times sounds pretentious, but she manages to make it quite lyrical and create a unsettling tone for the book.

East of Eden, John Steinbeck
East of Eden is a fascinating book full of character studies, most of them one-dimensional, but fascinating nonetheless. 

Wutherng Heights, Emily Bronte
The fact that my review is titled 'Wuthering Heights sucks big time' kinda gives away how I feel about this book. It's seriously atrocious - the characters suck, the plot sucks and the writing sucks.


Turkish Gambit, Boris Akunin
(The Great Library Challenge: Author A)
I wasn't sure if I'd enjoy historic Russian crime fiction, but Boris Akunin kinda made it fun. Set during the war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, this is one of a series of books about Erast Fandorin, a modest gentleman sleuth. It seems to be written a bit tongue-in-cheek and that's just the way I like it.

Beat the Reaper, Josh Bazell
(The Great Library Challenge: Author B)
With its punchy, fast-paced narrative, Beat the Reaper is a great holiday (or anytime) novel about a one-time wiseguy turned doctor who's under witness protection. It'll make a great movie when it comes out too - apparently starring Leonardo Di Caprio.

Breakfast at Tiffanys, Truman Capote
(The Great Library Challenge: Author C)
The fact that this appears to be one of the defining novels for American literature (or am I making this up?) says something about the disenfranchised state of a generation who loved it and allowed it to define them. Holly is a seriously emotionally troubled young woman and I couldn't help but finish the book thinking it would be far better for her if she could just get some professional help.

The News Where You Are, Catherine Flynn
On the whole, I have to say that the book doesn't live up to the blurb about Frank Allcroft, a local news anchor and the 'unfunniest man on Earth'. It does have some depth and a message about growing older, but it's such a bland read that I just couldn't get into it.

Becoming Strangers, Louise Dean
(The Great Library Challenge: Author D)
This is a 'character study' novel about two couples who meet on holidays, one party from each couple being seriously ill in some way. It's about life and growing older and... yet another bland book I couldn't get into.

The Sandman: Endless Nights, Neil Gaiman and graphic artists
Really amazing graphic novel about a family of siblings who are Dream, Death, Desire, Destruction, Delirium, Despair and Destiny. Each chapter is drawn by a different artist, and each has a uniquely stylised feel. It really creates a whole different world that's really easy to immerse yourself in. Highly recommended.

Ramona's World, Beverly Cleary
I was stoked to find that Beverly Cleary had added a new volume to her Ramona series, which I LOVED as a kid. Although it was written around 15 years after the last one, it's a seamless and timeless addition.

Wow - I can't believe three quarters of 2010 is already over!!!!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Great Library Challenge: Eco, Umberto The Name of the Rose

Posted by lea at 2:40 PM 5 comments Links to this post
Wow - finishing this book was quite a feat. This very dense and complex mystery is set in a Benedictine monastery in the 14th century before the complete power separation of state and church. The main protagonists are William of Baskerville, a Sherlock Holmes-esque character who is sent with his sidekick novice Adso (the narrator) to investigate some mysterious deaths occurring in the abbey.

The narrative is filled with gothic religious imagery, set in the confines of a cloistered and esoteric sect, and backgrounded by the religious power struggle that defined the church of the day.

The book is dense and multi-faceted - laid simply, these layers are:
  • the mystery that William attempts to unravel with every clue: how and why are the monks dying in such strange circumstances;
  • the theme of the danger of seeking and/or suppressing knowledge. All the clues lead to the mysterious and closely guarded library - the centre of knowledge;
  • social commentary on the atmosphere of the 14th century, the power struggle between the emperor and the pope, and the thinly veiled political machinations that joust in the sphere of religious theology.
In one respect, this is like a high-brow literary version of Sherlock Holmes, although I'm not impressed by the fact that Umberto Eco has apparently never even acknowledged the debt of inspiration (or straight out plagiarism) he owes to Arthur Conan Doyle for the characters and the plot. William and Adso have great chemistry - one the sage, learned and experienced detective, and the other a naiive and innocent novice. There are some great moments of humour in the way Adso faithfully recaptures William's speech, sometimes unaware of the sarcasm or wit it accompanies:

I never understood when he was jesting. In my country, when you joke you say something and then you laugh very noisily, so everyone shares in the joke. But William laughed only when he said serious things, and remained very serious when he was presumably joking.
(The Name of the Rose: Sixth Day; Prime)

Whilst the events of the novel take place within a single week, the plot moves at a snail's pace. Entire chapters are taken up describing things that have no bearing to the plot (like the carvings on a door), and there are more red herrings than a fisherman's basket.

When you finally get to the end, it comes quite quickly and is rather climactic and powerful. However, I do have a bone to pick with Mr Eco. I won't spoil the plot, but suffice (though confusing) to say that the basis of the mystery boiled down to the belief by a single and powerful monk that humour and laughter were a blight on the honour of the church, and that fear is the basis of Godly faith:

But laughter is weakness, corruption, the foolishness of our flesh... but law is imposed by fear, whose true name is fear of God.
(The Name of the Rose: Seventh Day; Night)

But anyone who knows their Bible will know that it preaches the complete opposite of that:

He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy. (Job 8: 21)
A merry heart does good like medicine (Proverbs 17:22)
For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but love, power and a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7)

So how is it that so pious a monk believes in a completely opposite doctrine to the Bible? Christian dogma may have changed throughout the ages but the Bible hasn't. Are you telling me that this monk, who knows even the most mysterious books inside out, hasn't read it yet? This kinda ruined the mystery for me because all the work Eco put into making the story so believable unwinds on the hinge of such a trivial detail - much like the apple business at the end of the Da Vinci Code (so wrong of me to even mention that book in this post). Lame.

I know this book is considered a major classic, but I'd only recommend it to the hardcore because it's quite a slog to read, although it is ultimately rewarding. I'd write more about the whole theme on knowledge because it's a fascinating topic, but I've got to mull over it a bit more first, and it's time to move on to F in my Great Library Challenge.

Off the library's F section I go!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The universe is conspiring to make me happy...

Posted by lea at 1:14 PM 3 comments Links to this post
It's the little things... like beautiful summer weather, having a public holiday to look forward to (hooray for Labour Day!) and the return of excellent TV shows that make me happy.

So that's the topic of my post today: 5 things that make me happy.

The sky
No matter what mood I'm in, I just have to glance upward and (as corny as this sounds) I can literally feel my heart soar with happiness. The wide expanse of open sky, whether it's scattered with clouds, hued with the colours of dusk or inky black with pinholes of light, reminds me that there's more to the universe than just me - just us. And that makes me happy.

Hubster
Crank up the cringe factor, but this is true. Those who know me will know that I never planned to get married, so when it happened it was a 180 degree reversal of all my best laid plans. However, it was the best decision I've ever made because whether we're lounging in front of the TV, joking in the car or getting (ahem) more affectionate, I love every minute with hubster because he makes me incredibly happy.

Reading a good book
Nerd alert. Nothing compares to the feeling of reading a really really good book, and then coming to the end and closing it with a massive smile on your face and wishing you could start all over again. Especially when that reading is happening on a beach or somewhere super comfy.

PS - speaking of reading, my Great Library Challenge is stalled on E right now - Umberto Eco is killing me with The Name of the Rose!! It's already consumed 2.5 weeks of my life and the end is only now in sight.
Good humour
Whether it's hanging with good friends or appreciating a genuinely funny TV show - like Seinfeld, Flight of the Conchords and Arrested Development, three now defunct series which I LURVE - nothing makes me happier than laughing with (or at) something or someone. Right now I'm celebrating the return of the following shows that make me laugh: Modern Family, Glee, 30 Rock, Big Bang Theory and Community.

Being able to see clearly
Sounds like a funny one, but this refers to my recent laser eye surgery. It's not so much being able to see clearly, which I could do before with contact lenses or glasses, but remembering that I NO LONGER NEED THEM TO SEE!! Goodbye fogged up glasses anytime I enter a warm room or try to eat a bowl of hot noodles. Goodbye painstaking cleaning of contact lenses that eats up my toiletry time and disposable income. Hello being able to see the clock first thing in the morning. Hello new 20/20 life!

What makes you happy?

Friday, September 17, 2010

My life in 10 dishes

Posted by lea at 3:19 PM 2 comments Links to this post
A few weeks ago, Jill Dupleix did a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald about a food biography. I liked the idea so I've decided to make it the topic for my post today, tracing my history through the foods that defined certain periods of my life.

 #10: Sherbet straws and coffin candy
Sweets were a staple part of my diet as a kid, and half my pocket money used to go to feeding my sugar frenzy. I particularly loved those really big sherbet straws that would clog up from saliva halfway through, and the candy shaped like skulls and bones that came in a small plastic coffin.

#9 Canned spag bol
It's a poor start to my food biography, but I used to be addicted to Leggos bolognese in a can. As hungry kids, when the parents weren't around (they were often at work), we'd just pop open a can of spag bol and nuke it for sustenance. This was actually a treat amongst the other rubbish I used to eat, like tomato sauce spread on bread, mayo spread on bread, tomato sauce and mayo spread together on bread...

#8 Fried sashimi
I know, it's an oxymoron... but so was I (har har). When I was a teenager, on special occasions, my parents would go to the fish markets early in the morning and bring home a fresh kingfish or salmon and slice it into thin sashimi pieces (long before sashimi bars became the popular urban choice they are today) that they, my brother and sister would devour with wasabi and soy sauce. But me: raw fish? Yuck. I would fill my plate with sashimi, dip them in egg and flour and then fry them, much to the chagrin of my family.

#7 Proper spag bol
I think this was the first dish I learned to make properly when I moved out of home. What a revelation to discover that if you threw in garlic, sundried tomatoes and red wine, it tasted even better than the canned stuff! Needless to say, this dish ended up on rotation almost every week for the next 10 years.

#6 Vietnamese chicken rolls
I fell in LOVE with these simple rolls that you can buy at any Vietnamese bakery many many years ago, and the love affair hasn't ended yet. These rolls are AWESOME and come with the added bonus of being cheap. My favourite was from the bakery on Burwood Rd - just down the street from where I used to live in Burwood in our little flat with diarrhea-brown 70s carpet. Even now they remind me of those days of youthful poverty and make me smile.

#4 Roast beef
I felt like a 'real' cook when I conquered roast beef and three veg. It was so delicious I decided to follow up with an encore presentation, which flopped because I wrongly bought silverside, being on a budget and knowing nothing about beef cuts back then. Things haven't changed THAT much, but I do know now that silverside tastes like salty spam on steroids.


#5 Maccas french fries
Not only do I love these little strips of deep-fried deliciousness for the taste, but they also have a good connotation for me because I shared my first kiss with my now-husband over a pack of these. Was it the fries that made the kiss so delicious or the other way around? It's a matter of the chicken or the egg, really. Both were great :)


#4 Sticky-date pudding
The first time I tried it (the Sarah Lee version), I thought I'd died and ended up on a different astral plane. I have very strict ideas about vegetables sticking their nose in where they don't belong (carrot cake, I'm looking at you), and although dates aren't a vegetable, I hated them with an intensity that even celery can't muster in me. Yet, in a pudding... it was transformed. And so was I. I mark this as the occasion that my palate grew up.

#3 Koshary
Imagine this: two girls in the busy city of Cairo, wander into a local restaurant a day before their adventure tour begins and order a bowl of who-knows-what. What we ended up with was a delicious lesson in cultural discovery. A combination of macaroni, lentils, rice, fried onion and a mouth-watering, tangy tomato-based sauce, koshary introduced me to the delight that is Egyptian cooking, and now has a special place in my heart and my recipe folder.

#2 Dragonfruit
I love dragonfruit not only because they look so pretty, but I love their subtle-sweet taste, especially the red-flesh variety. It always reminds me of Cambodia, where I tried it for the first time, and I remember sitting in the tuk tuk with Jinah coming back from the Russian markets, each holding a big red dragonfruit and devouring it like a banana with their skins peeled and hanging off the side, with red juice dripping down our arms in the sweltering heat.

#1 Vietnamese rice paper rolls... Korean-style
The epitome of awesome, these rice paper rolls are healthy and delicious. Slam dunk.They're easy to make too, just time consuming because of all the vegetables you have to wash and cut up (Korean-style means you add vegetables of every colour plus a variety of meats and a kick-ass sauce). The crowning glory is the sauce - the best I've ever tasted and now continue to make goes like this: in a food processor, blend together coriander roots, raw garlic, small hot red chillis and canned pineapple. Once blended, add fish sauce, the juice from the canned pineapple and a good squeeze of lemon juice. It. Is. Di. Vine.

Do you have food that defines your life? Is this topic as fascinating as I think it is or am I just obsessed with food?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Bloom in Cambodia

Posted by lea at 7:46 PM 1 comments Links to this post
I mentioned in a previous post that I'd been away, and that I'd write 'more about it later'. Well later is here now, so I thought I'd do a quick post about my trip.

The majority of my time was spent in Cambodia, where I volunteer in the Communications dept for Bloom Asia. Bloom was set up to help victims of trafficking in Cambodia, and currently runs a vocational training centre in the heart of Phnom Penh. Girls who have been rescued from trafficking are taught a vocational skill to help them create a new life, because without an alternative source of income, a huge majority of them will end up being re-trafficked within months, or even weeks of being rescued.

Sex trafficking is a very troubling issue in Cambodia, and is the result of a number of factors, the greatest of which is the crushing poverty of the country after the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Today, it is fueled by a highly sexualised, male-dominated society and a massive international sex tourism market.

I'm not going to go into all the figures and case studies of the victims - there's a lot of material out there already and suffice to say, it is horrific, soul-destroying stuff.

Instead, I'm going to talk about Bloom, because it's a place of hope, a place where students are taught the skills they need to create a better future. Girls who enter the program unable to even meet their trainer in the eye end up graduating with their heads held high. And rightly so. Their work is simply amazing.

Bloom's Hospitality Course, taught by Director Ruth Larwill, teaches the girls all the basics of hospitality (hygiene, service, etc) at an Australian Cert II level, and provides hands-on training working in a cafe, dealing with customers, baking a large variety of different cake recipes, and creating staggeringly beautiful sugar art. There is a large market for celebration cakes in Phnom Penh, and Bloom has managed to create a niche for itself with a cult following in just a few short months.

Here are a few images that will leave your jaw on the ground:



What is more amazing is that the majority of the students are not literate in their own language. This means that all classes are taught verbally, using flash cards, games and role play. For girls who have had little to no education, they are able to recite and recreate recipes on demand, and create sugar art that Ruth herself says exceeds her own abilities - and she's had over 20 years experience.

It is a privilege for me to be part of the Bloom team - people who are truly passionate about seeing these girls freed from a life of captivity, and creating a future full of promise and hope. The centre has such a great vibe - every morning all the students (and graduates, who are now full-time employees of the Cafe and Cakes business) sit around to plan their day, hear a short life-affirming message and play a game... speaking of which, you would NOT want to get caught between the girls and their games! They LOVE to play (evidence of their missing childhood?) and the shrieking and laughter (and competitiveness!) are a total buzz.

The girls are loved, appreciated, cared for and looked after by the Bloom staff, and are supported through their trials (literal legal trials against their traffickers and the punishing trials of daily life) like no other place I've ever seen.

While I was there, we had the privilege of being part of Bloom's third graduation. When the girls appeared in their gowns and caps to receive their certificates, the pride and emotion in the room were palpable. Parents who had experienced the deepest agony of seeing their child sold into a brothel now witnessed them being honoured, and the way they presented them with flowers and huddled around to take photos at the end was just beautiful.

A previous graduate had said that she'd been shunned by her community after she had been rescued, because they knew she'd been sold to a brothel, but when she graduated from Bloom and showed them the cake art she'd created, 'they told me that I had my value back.'

And that's what Bloom is about. It's about restoring worth and dignity upon girls from whom they have been unrightfully stolen. It's about bringing God's daughters back to a safe place where they can be nurtured to flourish. It's about doing what we can to stop injustice, which I think is part of our moral duty as a human being, let alone as a Christian who believes in a just and loving God. As Nike puts it so succinctly, we just gotta do it.

There are heaps of places on the internet where you can get more information about trafficking,  but here's a good place to start: www.stopthetraffik.org

For more about Bloom, go to www.bloomasia.org

The Great Library Challenge: Dean, Louise Becoming Strangers

Posted by lea at 1:03 PM 0 comments Links to this post
My D author for the Great Library Challenge, Louise Dean, was the Winner of the Butty Trask Prize and this particular novel, Becoming Strangers, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Do literary prizes mean much? I'm not so sure. I'd be more inclined to pick up a book that's won something, but as in this case, it won't always be a rewarding read.

I'm not saying this book sucked, just that it... didn't capture me. At all. It was a hard read because I couldn't identify with any of the characters and didn't particularly like any of them - in fact, I quite detested one of them, but that's not the emotion I would've liked to carry away.

The plot revolves around two couples on their last holidays in the Caribbean - in both cases, one party is suffering from illness (cancer and alzheimers). Another review described this book as 'an examination of the human condition' and I couldn't have put it better. I wanted something to happen, for there to be a build up or a climax or SOMETHING... but nothing much really happens except some detailed insight into some very well-worn marriages. Even so, it manages in its own way to be quite thought provoking.

Dean, through her protagonists and observations of peripheral characters, questions your ideas of marriage and loyalty. It's like taking one of those blue lights from CSI and flashing it into a real marriage, so you can see all the stains and crap that aren't normally visible. The marriages in her novel are way too real and rather depressing.

Halfway through the novel, I found myself turning to hubster and saying in a fit of passion, 'When we grow old, let's never become like those couples who grow apart, and let things get in the way of their relationship and never deal with issues.' And he was like, 'What the...? Okay.'

For now, this is my least favourite book from the Challenge, but with 22 more to go, I'm bound to hit some duds.

So onto my 'E' author... I chose Umberto Eco and originally I was going to read The Island of the Day Before, but a quick search found that there's an almost unanimous agreement that The Name of the Rose is his best work, so I'm going to wait until I can get my hands on that. In the meantime, I've borrowed Neil Gaiman's The Sandman graphic novel to keep me busy.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The great library challenge: Capote, Truman Breakfast at Tiffany's

Posted by lea at 4:25 PM 6 comments Links to this post
I chose this book for my 'C' author because:
  • Truman Capote has a big reputation and I wanted to know if his writing lived up to it;
  • I never really got why people loved the movie so much, and thought maybe the literary version would enlighten me;
  • I was travelling overseas (more in my next post) and wanted something short and quick that I could finish before I left.
I didn't have time to post my review before I left, so it's been two very long weeks and lots of experience since finishing this book, but to the best of my recollection, it was pretty good.

I still don't get why people love it so much - or more to the point, love 'her' so much. Holly Golightly. Quite a refreshing character in some ways, but totally flighty (not necessarily a bad thing), selfish, social-climbing, racist and immature in so many others. It's easy to love Audrey Hepburn in her very stylish portrayal of Holly, but as a literary character, she doesn't quite pass muster. One can't really understand why so many other characters in the book are obsessed with her, and personally, I think that Capote actually manages to portray a rather emotionally disturbed young lady who can't (or doesn't want to) connect with reality.

However, Capote's narrative style is impressive. He immerses you immediately in the 1950s New York social scene (for some reason I kept imagining everything in black and white) and his writing is like a confident hand in the small of your back pushing you along.

As for the next books in the challenge, I had a hard time picking my D author and easy time picking my E author. The only stipulation for this challenge is that I mustn't have read any of the author's books before.

So D is Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean, and E is The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco. Yes, shame on me for having never read him before.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The great library challenge: Bazell, Josh Beat the Reaper

Posted by lea at 3:02 PM 5 comments Links to this post
You're right, there have been a lot of 'greats' in the titles of my blog posts recently. Hopefully the content will one day catch up to the overuse of the word.

But back to my great library challenge. Author 'B' (Josh Bazell) is now down and out for the count. So was it the 'ice cold and ferocious read' we'd been promised? Yes, yes and more yes!

The plot begins like a whip held overhead, ready to crack. When it comes down, it takes you with it on a heartpounding ride that races back and forth from his past to the present. It's enough to give you whiplash.

The hero of the book is Dr. Peter Brown, a seriously tough guy in witness protection with a mafia background who is now a doctor. His first person narrative is punchy, informative (complete with footers for the detail-minded) and intelligent. He's a man who's got it all: the smarts, the toughs and a history worth hiding from. But when a patient from the past intrudes into his present, he finds himself in a race to... you guessed it: beat the reaper.

When I googled it for the cover image, pictures of Leonardo Di Caprio abounded, being apparently it's being turned into a movie with Leo playing the main role. Woot woot!

So onto author C of the great library challenge: I chose C for Classic, C for Capote, Truman Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The great Quorn experiment

Posted by lea at 11:36 AM 6 comments Links to this post
So lately, the treatment of animals prior to their death in order to nourish our bodies, has been weighing on my mind. I read a book that described the treatment of chickens on a UK battery farm and it was very disturbing. I haven't (and don't plan to) read Jonathan Safran Foer's apparently very excellent book Eating Animals because I know it will haunt me and quite frankly, affect my meat-loving self.

My position is that I would be happy to pay more to know that the animals whose flesh I'm eating had been treated well before their death. It's the least we could do, right? (The most we could do is to NOT EAT THEM but I'm not a freaky vegetable-lover thank you). To this end, I've weighed in on the comments sections of articles discussing this issue and also tried to reduce the meat intake in our house as a small protest against the mean meat factories (goodbye Steak Sundays).


... then along came QUORN, a British meat substitute that was apparently created by scientists in response to potential future food shortage. It's high in protein, consists mainly of fermented fungus and is much lower in fat than actual meat. I was excited to hear about it and finally tracked down Quorn mince at our local supermarket on the weekend.

At $6 for 300g, it's almost double the average price of mince, but it could simply be that it's much lighter than real mince, because quantity-wise, 300g seemed much like the mince meat equivalent of 500g or possibly even a little more.

Hubster had flatly refused to eat it previously, but since he was out at the pub last night for after-work drinks, I thought I had a pretty good chance of sneaking it past him. First, he'd be hungry from the delayed dinner, and secondly he'd probably be slightly fuddled by alcohol.

When he walked in the door, there I was like a good wife stirring a pot on the stove top.
What evil lurks beneath that smile?

Him: Hey, that smells great!

Me: Yep, it's spag bol.

Him: (suspicious face) That's not....

Me: Don't worry, it's just mince (technically not a lie, since it's called 'Quorn mince'), I found it in the freezer (which is where I put it after shopping... ha ha).

Him: Okay cool.

Skip to after dinner...

Me: (Looking at his empty bowl which has practically been licked clean) So tell me honestly... did you even notice the difference?

Him: What? (looks in his bowl, looks at me slightly aghast) You lied to me!

Me: I didn't lie! It is called mince and it was in the freezer. But could you tell?

Him: (after an ardent meat-eater's hesitant pause) No, it was actually really nice...

Verdict: WIN FOR THE QUORN

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The great library challenge: Akunin, Boris Turkish Gambit

Posted by lea at 4:02 PM 0 comments Links to this post
The first author of the alphabet is now down, with Boris Akunin's Turkish Gambit complete and under my belt. Actually, I just found out his real name is Grigory Chkhartishvili, so perhaps he should've been my 'C' author.

I mentioned previously that Akunin had been compared with other Russian literary greats like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. The similarity for me as a reader was in that I wanted to skip all the war bits and get down to the human drama. I'm not sure if T or D would have written political crime fiction if they'd been alive today, but if they did, I'm guessing there would have been less swashbuckling action and more human tragedy.

Instead, what we get in Turkish Gambit is Erast Fandorin, a 'gentleman sleuth' in the epicentre of war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, surrounded by intrigue, espionage, and a strong-willed and spirited young Russian woman, Varvara  Suvorova. In fact, there's so much political intrigue that it's sometimes hard to follow.

Turkish Gambit is part three of a series of Erast Fandorin novels by Akunin, and knowing this, I now wish he'd intruded more in the narrative than he does. I like what I've glimpsed of him so far – super-cluey, intelligent, modest to a fault and highly respected – sounds like my kind of guy. In this book, he's the modest hero who does the grunt work, while the story is told from the point of view of Varvara, who has journeyed to the Balkan front to reunite with her fiance, a war telegrapher who is wrongly jailed.

The ending is a little... unsatisfying, but the story resolves of its own volition, thanks to the hero. Also thanks to the hero, Russian crime lit has just gone up in my radar.

Now, onto B. I've chosen Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell, apparently an 'ice cold and ferocious read'. Is it really? I'll let you know.
 

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