31 January, 2009

'A Spot of Bother' - Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon achieved a wide-reaching bestseller with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, a book loved by book groups and literary types, and taken up by high schools for English studies. As in that earlier novel, Haddon again builds a story around observation. His main characters are a little less confrontational this time: rather than a teenager with Aspergers, the novel works through the buildup to a wedding from the point of view of the bride-to-be and her family. Each has their own issues; each finds themself in a potentially intractable situation through misjudged priorities. Her doubts about the nuptials increase as the date approaches; her mother is having an affair; her father incubates a growing insanity as mortality draws closer; and her brother must swap contentment for rejection as he dallies in his commitment to his boyfriend.

It is a book of pithy, warming observations, written in a style that sits somewhere between the wry humour of Nick Hornby and the hysterics of Jonathon Franzen. Such is the profusion of witty perceptions, that it would seem Haddon built a set of characters expressly to carry out the truisms he had already gleaned from surveilling society. The novel's 61-year-old patriarch, David, before cooking dinner for a former colleague who is, unbeknownst to him, sleeping with his wife, 'spent the day shopping and making risotto in the time-honoured male way, removing all the utensils from the drawers and laying them out like surgical instruments, then decanting all the ingredients into small bowls to maximise the washing up'.

About halfway through the book, David's son, Jamie, sums up the book's focus when he identifies the 'rootless ache he always felt in business hotels and spare rooms, the smallness of your life when you took the props away'. Each of the characters is separated from a touchstone and must reconnect by different means. Haddon parodies himself along with these representatives of his countrymen by titling this collection of life-changing events as 'a spot of bother'.

The novel has its own spots of bother: Haddon frequently brings in an aside to elaborate a character point, but often he steps too far, leaving paragraphs disjointed. His intent is normally practical rather than poetic - to flesh out a character and their relationships - and perhaps he's endeavouring in building these rounded characters to prove his own point that men 'put words together like sheds or shelves and you could stand on them they were so solid'.

23 January, 2009

Food Bloggers' Picnic

Fellow food bloggers Duncan, Thanh and Sarah have organised a food bloggers' meet for Saturday 7 February at Batman Park (between Spencer and King Sts on the Yarra, across from Crown).

It'll be great to catch up with everyone!

Update: Due to the extreme weather conditions forecast for tomorrow, the picnic was cancelled. See this more recent post for new date and venue.

13 January, 2009

'The Book Thief' - Markus Zusak

I should preface this by confessing I have a tendency to dislike a certain type of bestseller - the runaway success, from an 'unknown' author, commonly set in an historical context, and frequently issued in a bulky volume with a cover designed to stand out at Borders. To wit, Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind, a book that shares many characteristics with The Book Thief. Both are hefty volumes running to almost 600 pages; both take books and the power of words as a key motif; both use Europe and war as a backdrop; and both view all of this through the eyes of a young protagonist. Most interestingly, both authors had published young adult literature before achieving international success with a book for adults.

Zusak is an Australian author, of Austrian/German parents. His novel's narrator is Death, an apt character to observe the lives of a small town of Germans in the 1940s. In the book's opening passages, the protagonist, Liesel, is travelling with her mother and brother to a foster family. Along the way, Death visits and takes Liesel's six-year-old brother. She never sees her mother again. Her foster father, Hans, is a gentle accordion player and his wife, Rosa, is a foul-mouthed, hard woman, who softens enough to shelter a Jew in their basement.

Aside from the unusual choice of narrator (which works surprisingly well), the novel's most prominent characteristic is the prolific use of simile and metaphor, often mixing senses - such as the sound of a smell - or using unexpected personifications - 'the music would look Liesel in the face'. The technique results in some beautiful, effecting imagery and emotion. At a Nazi book burning - a potent image as books are a treasure to Liesel - 'the orange flames waved at the crowd as paper and print dissolved inside them. Burning words were torn from their sentences'.

The richness of the language does, however, start to resemble that feeling at about 4pm on Christmas Day, when you've been snacking copiously since lunch and know that another multi-course meal is but hours away. It's not that you don't enjoy the food, and there's nothing wrong with its quality, but there's frankly too much of it. At times the book felt like a performance from a too-clever public speaker; I was often desparate for a passage of simple substance, rather than grandeur.

Most off-putting, for a book focused on language, was the way German was used throughout the novel. I was sceptical at some of the translations that feature late in the book, but given the author's parentage, I'm reluctant to question them. What was frustrating was the way a character would speak a line of German dialogue then simply repeat it, as part of the same string of dialogue, in English (for example 'Vielen Dank, meine Herren,' Franz Deutscher politely said. 'Many thanks my gentlemen.'). It seemed a clumsy, lazy method of incorporating the foreign tongue and thereby lessened its effect.

More effective were the frequent asides from Death to address the reader, reminding them of details of the unravelling story that they already knew (there are many flash-forwards), allowing them to share in the narrator's omniscience - a canny way to keep the reader engaged.

Like a green salad that steals the show at a banquet, it was the simpler things I appreciated in this book. The fact that amongst Liesel's passion for words and the extreme emotions and events of war, the most powerful phrases were still 'I'm sorry' and 'Thank you'. It's easy to understand the novel's success given the innovative style and patches of truly glorious writing, but I would have taken a shorter, tighter story of skilled words over so much clever trickery.

11 January, 2009

French Toast

Green Refectory: 115 Sydney Road, Brunswick; 03 9387 1150
Cafe 3A: 3A Edward St; 03 9380 4996
Red Box: 317 Sydney Road, Brunswick; 03 9387 8699

It's a handy word, toast. You'll see it, or close derivatives thereof, on menus across many languages, making breakfast orders a less onerous task. Its culinary incarnations, however, are more diverse than its linguistic variations.

To the Spanish, tostada is often a dry, crispy bread snack enlivened with some marmalade, eaten late morning as an afterthought with the far more critical cafe con leche or espresso.

In France, toast has developed into an evening meal in the form of croque monsuier. Gruyere is mixed with dijon and slathered on ham atop bread toasted on one side, then grilled to gooiness. The Welsh take the mustard and cheese idea - normally cheddar rather than gruyere - and maybe throw in a little beer for perhaps the world's best national dish.

Our focus here, however, is on the particular incarnation known as French toast. Here, the nomenclature becomes murkier. Why the myriad permutations of (traditionally slightly stale) bread soaked in egg and fried became known in our language as 'French' is a fact lost to history. The range of names and interpretations of the dish perhaps indicate that it was in fact invented by everyone and no-one.

Pain a la francaise seems to be having something of a renaissance, not to mention a reinvention. It's no longer limited to eggy bread served with maple syrup and bacon. Seasonal fruits often feature: Green Refectory poaches a pear in white wine (another good way to sneak alcohol in with brekky), cinnamon and vanilla bean. Across the road, Cafe 3A may be miniscule, but their menu has room for both a sweet and savoury French toast. The former mixes it up with sour cherries and cinnamon creme fraiche. The savoury matches sweet tomatoes, slow-roasted till they barely hold their shape, and salty twins pancetta and fetta:Further up Sydney Road, at Red Box, the French toast nods to the traditional bacon and maple syrup, but is lifted by sprinkles of macadamia and smears of mascarpone.For more variations, check out Gingerlee and CERES, or leave a comment with your own fave French toast.

100 Mile Cafe

Level 3, Melbourne Central, 211 La Trobe St, Melbourne; 03 9654 0808

My only visit to 100 Mile Cafe came just a few weeks before it was due to close. Paul Mathis, the restaurant's owner, has been upfront about his two projects at the Melbourne Central site - 100 Mile and its predecessor SOS (a vegaquarian cafe) - losing big money, but he remains dedicated to the cause of presenting a sustainable dining option.

Both ventures were founded on admirable tenets. The earlier restaurant eschewed meat and fish sourced unsustainably. 100 Mile takes the ideology made popular by figures such as J.B. McKinnon and Alisa Smith in Vancouver, Canada (via their book, Plenty) and applies it to a restaurant format. (The only one of its kind in Australia that I know of - does anyone know of other restaurants going hardcore locavore?) The focus is about local eating, and while the radius may stretch beyond the nicely rounded 100 mile mark, diners can expect that food is sourced within Victoria.

Eating locally is often touted as a strong environmental protection mechanism. Transporting food from its growth source, to where it's processed, to the point of sale, and from there to the place of consumption, produces phenomenal amounts of emissions. In many cases, sourcing food from within 160 kilometres is far more energy efficient than the 1000+ km the majority of food travels to reach our plates.

The idea of Melbourne's population of four million being supported by agriculture and farming within a 160 km radius of the city is, naturally, fanciful. Locavorism works optimally with smaller communities than our metropolises. Inherent in locavorism, however, is the notion of seasonality, and embracing the concept of eating food in its natural cycles is a great first step to reducing your food's footprint, as well as making your diet healthier. Fresh, seasonal food needs very little dressing up and following the seasons - waiting for the first apples of autumn, or finding the first ripe peach of summer - adds excitement to food consumption.

So, in these last weeks of trading, what did 100 Mile Cafe have on offer?

A tasting plate of local produce makes for a tantalising entree.
Starting with the pink sticks and going anti-clockwise: pickled beetroot, eel mousse, calamari, proscuitto, felafel and marinated Mt Zero olives. A more diverse range of cuisines than I expected on a local tasting plate! The olives and pickles are from outside the 100 mile zone, sourced from the Grampians, about 300 km from Melbourne. Mt Zero also produce chickpeas and hence may have been the source for the felafel (and hopefully they all came in on the one truck!). The calamari are from nearby Portarlington.

For main, there was seared rainbow trout fillet - plucked from the Yarra Valley - with asparagus, kipfler potatoes and orange butter.
I believe strongly in locavorism and seasonality, and applaud Mathis's intent. Generally, I think the menu would have priced many otherwise eager consumers out of the equation, and the location just gave off the wrong vibe and attracted the wrong passing traffic (locavores and shopping centres don't always mix!). The politics of such a venture are difficult as well. Advertising a 'mostly local' restaurant just wouldn't have the same punch, but to truly source everything (eg, the calamari, sourced from within 100 km, are rice-flour dusted) from within a small radius would necessarily make the restaurant economically unviable (if not uninteresting).

A case in point: the highlight dish of the night was the chocolate fondant - served warm with caramel espresso ice cream and pistachio praline. Every bite was divine, but it's well known that both coffee and chocolate were menu items that Mathis had to source from much further afield (though he still went as close as possible - the coffee is from Byron Bay).

Wholesale change and strict rules aren't the answer to addressing sustainability through locavorism. Seasonality, something diners can rely on at many of Melbourne's restaurants, and awareness - on the part of restaurateurs to think about where they're sourcing produce from, and on the part of diners to enquire - are more important.

05 January, 2009

'Breath' - Tim Winton

Can breathing be more than a requirement for life and become an addiction? In Breath, Tim Winton plays on our attachment to that fundamental action to explore his characters’ addictions to the extreme and the dangerous.

Breath begins with Pikelet, its narrator, as a middle-aged man, witnessing a scene that takes him back to his adolescent days of surfing and cheating dangerous fate with his mate Loonie. He reflects on those earlier days of discovery, impetuosity and anxiety for the majority of the novel, bringing the audience slowly to the person he is as an adult. Winton, however, doesn’t allow himself to take the easiest ‘V’ route of literary recall: starting at the end, jumping in a straight line to the beginning then traversing directly back to that starting point. He mixes tenses and mentions things subtly out of sequence to remind the reader that they are within a future reflective. To take the simpler path would render the drama and insanity of Pikelet’s youth far less affecting.

The first passage of the novel punches immediately with the best of Winton’s style: sparse and rough, yet beautiful; withdrawn but honest. At times Winton can become too weird, obtuse (think Cloudstreet) or irresolute (think The Riders) to sustain his audience (not that his book sales reflect that!). Breath features neither aspect of his writing: it is intensely engaging throughout its length (at just over 200 pages, shorter than usual for Winton), and as surely as a wave will break on the shore it comes to an end.

The bulk of the book is set in the mill town of Sawyer. Pikelet’s father is scared of the open ocean, but through Pikelet and Loonie’s friendship with the enigmatic Sando, they not only start surfing but also push themselves to attempt and conquer increasingly dangerous breaks. The majority of descriptive text in the book is reverent of the surf and the coast: on the estuary as a child Pikelet watches “the disembodied shadows of pelicans rushing over the mottled flats”; watching a young surfer take her first wave, the narrator opines that “every time I see a kid pop to her feet, all milk-teeth and shining skin, I’m there;...some spark of early promise returns to me like a moment of grace”.

Despite the daring of Pikelet’s adventures, and the seriousness of his thoughts, he is still a child, as Winton takes care on occasion to remind us: a dead roo prompts him to muse, “I wondered if roos had thoughts”. While his lungs and bravado get stronger, he finds himself eventually in a situation defined by suffocation. Perhaps we are all suffocated – denied free and easy breathing – in some way, whether by something we have sought out (for example Pikelet’s relationship with the surf and danger) or something foisted upon us (such as Pikelet’s parents’ concern for him); whether through a chemical addiction or the undeniable need for something far more visceral.

Pikelet is knocked over by countless ocean waves, but always resurfaces. Eventually, however, he reaches a different outcome in his own life, as he realises “some mighty turbulence had hold of me, and nothing...would ever rescue me”. Pikelet has toyed with breath too often to be able to settle to a steady rhythm of respiration and life. Winton, by contrast, maintains a stunning level of control throughout to bring us an exemplary and undoubtedly Australian novel.