27 February, 2009

Bloggers' Meet, Take 2

The bloggers' meet, postponed in February due to Melbourne's hottest ever day, has been rescheduled for next weekend, Saturday 7 March, at the Commoner in Fitzroy, from 2 pm. Full details at Duncan's site.

16 February, 2009

'The Raw Shark Texts' - Steven Hall

My two-word review of the Raw Shark Texts would be 'utterly compelling'. I could hardly call that impartial, however! I do regard this as one of the best novels I've read in some years, but it's not without its flaws.

The strength of the novel comes through its concept, one that explores the dangers lurking in our communications and the power of some media to enter or control our thoughts. Ironically, I feel it's a book where less communication about its content offers the reader a more rewarding experience, as they can be freshly surprised by the genius of Hall's intellectual creation as the story unfolds.

There are weaknesses in the execution, however. Dialogue, for example, can be trite, and particularly within the romantic sub-plot, it can become overly derivative. Perhaps the author is aware of that, as the key character acknowledges that he has remembered the conversations he recounts as cleverer than they were.

Hall's language skills are better employed in physical descriptions and tight scenes of drama and suspense. His language is both surreal and precise, employing cunning comparisons that allow him to place his hyper-realistic story deep within the ordinariness of our existence. On the first page, the reader is sucked in at speed:

My eyes slammed themselves capital O open and my neck and shoulders arched back in a huge inward heave, a single world-swallowing lung gulp of air. Litres of dry oxygen and floor dust whistled in and snagged up my throat with knifey coughing spasms. I choked and spat through heaves and gasps and coughing coughing coughing heaves. Snot ropes unwound from my nose. My eyesight melted into hot blurs over my cheeks.

I found this character description particularly visual:
Dr Randle was more like an electrical storm or some complicated particle reaction than a person. A large clashing event of a woman whose frizzy hack job of white-brown hair hummed against a big noisy blouse which, in turn, strobed in protest against her tartan skirt. She had strontium grey eyes which crackled away to themselves behind baggy lids. She made the air feel doomy, faintly radioactive. You half expected your ears to pop.

Hall's similes demonstrate his capacity to twist language into inventive, unexpected associations, and his obsession for language is made clear as it finds its way into so many of his comparisons: 'It was still raining outside. A dramatic wet sheet broke against the window followed by a haiku of fat rain taps as the wind took a breath'.

Conceptually, the book carries out a relentless assault. The framework of Hall's extraordinary plot allows him to take a concept down from the shelf, put in a snowdome and shake it around to see how it comes out in a new arrangement:
Maybe it's natural for questions to outlive their answers. Or maybe answers don't die but are just lost more easily, being so small and specific, like a coin dropped from the deck of a ship and into the big deep sea.

If you find the intellectual vacillations of the book a lot to take in, focus for a while on the various cameos of protagonist Eric's cat, Ian. He's a well-drawn character for an animal, his actions often described through brilliant, personifying descriptions:
After a moment, Ian's big ginger body stepped out, cautiously at first, and then, looking around with that not bad expression dads use when looking at other dads' new cars, he sauntered off into the depths of the warheouse.

The book also famously includes some dramatic typesetting, engineered by the author himself. I felt too that there was more to be read into some of the character names than first met the eye, either through aural similarity or the use of anagrams. In a book where a laptop becomes a lethal weapon, and someone's life can be endangered through an ill-chosen download, do the names Mycroft Ward and Clio Aames conjure any associations?

03 February, 2009

Salty and sweet; A Minor Place IIII and Giorno II

A Minor Place: 103 Albion St, Brunswick East; 03 9384 3131
Giorno: 608 High St, Thornbury; 03 9484 2040

I love a dish that combines two elements of the taste spectrum. It probably won't do my rep any favours to admit that in my formative years one my favourite indulgences was to dunk the fries from a certain corporate-evil fast-food franchise into said franchise's chocolate sundae. Sickly sweet chocolate sauce with extraordinarily salty chips...it was an inglorious start to a food obsession, but it's the same principle on which many great dishes are based.

A Minor Place has the right idea with one of the options for their scrambled eggs: adding fetta and caramelised onions. It promised a little more than it delivered, in that the salty fetta and sweetened onions didn't present quite the bold contrast I'd had in mind. It was, regardless, a very satisfying dish, with the creamy eggs sitting perkily atop the promised multigrain bread (I like a cafe prepared to go the grain).

Over at Giorno, I'd learnt on previous visits that their menu can understate things. Dropping in for a post-groceries spot of lunch, I was keen to try out one of their piadinas (available from 11am), the Italian contribution to flatbreads. More robust than a crepe, and more closely resembling naan than a tortilla in looks, piadina is perfect to wrap around some Italian meat and cheese. My choice at Giorno featured proscuitto, artichokes, fontina and rocket. 'Sounds like a salty combo!' I hear you say. You're not wrong! Hopefully it was an unusual batch of bread, as the piadina itself could have sold more beer than a bowl of peanuts. The Giorno/Pizza Farro staff are always friendly and forthcoming, and I did mention that the bread seemed unreasonably salty. The waitress didn't think they normally added salt to the dough, so fingers crossed in most cases it's the quality of filling that is allowed to dominate and linger, rather than the need to slake a thirst!

'Naked' - David Sedaris

He's deceiving, that David Sedaris. Not only is he almost impossible to classify (as discussed in an earlier review of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim), it also takes some perseverance to get into the right frame of mind to fully appreciate his essays. He can be outrageously funny, but even while delivering a riposte as sharp as a needle dipped in lemon juice, he can ruminate on deep social questions. Reading for seriousness can mean you miss some humour; reading to laugh can mean missing the provocations that elevate Sedaris above a simple humourist.

In the last, and eponymous, essay in his collection Naked, there is a passage of humour that exceeds even Bill Bryson's awe at the range of incontinence pads he found in an American supermarket. The essay is a lengthy one, describing Sedaris' experience at a nudist camp. He originally requested a brochure for the camp as part of an ongoing joke at the expense of his brother; he later decides to attend for a week, a decision born out of the noble belief that if he can be comfortable being naked around others, he will be better able to accept himself for who he is. That reasoning is a good example of the intellectualism and honesty Sedaris employs in his essays. It's easily missed, however, if, like me, you were still wiping your eyes after reading the previous page:

The brochure [for the nudist camp] pictures a swimming pool...and the inevitable volleyball court, which leaves me to wonder: What is it with these people and volleyball? The two go hand in hand. When I think nudist, I don't think penis - I think net.

Included in the envelope is a calendar of events...In May they held a golf-cart rally, several theme campfires, a chili cook-off, and something called 'Wild West horseback riding'.

Test eye shadow on all the rabbits you want. Strap electrodes to the skulls of rhesus monkeys and shock them into a stupor, but it is inhumane to place a nudist on horseback the day after a chili cook-off. ('Was he always an Appaloosa?')

Toast; North Island and Crunch

North Island: 111 Scotchmer St, North Fitzroy; 03 9486 8864
Crunch: 669 High St, Thornbury; 03 9495 1655

"It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you," opined British food writer Nigel Slater in his memoir, Toast. I haven't quite fallen in love with the cafe staff who have provided me with a golden serve of carb with toppings in the last couple of weeks, but as long as the bread is good and the grilling hand steady, it is a marvellous thing to sit down to.

In an attempt to reclaim January as a relaxed, vacationing month, I headed out on spontaneous mid-week jaunts to tick yet more local cafes off the list. I wasn't after Big Breakfasts - more to get a feel of the place, sample the coffee, and quiet my gurgling morning belly. It can seem odd to leave a kitchen amply stocked with a toaster, bakery bread and quality Australian honey to order and pay for a plate of toast; then again, like a cup of tea, the flavour and crunchy delight of toast is somehow enhanced when someone else makes it for you.

At North Island, they took care of the toasting and slicing, but the rest was up to the diner.The simply served plate of pide, avocado and lemon fits the cafe's atmosphere, a proponent of the Brunswick model of minimal kitout, eschewing fancy touches in favour of good coffee and basic menu items with a twist. I had to interrupt David Sedaris (not him in person, unfortunately; rather, his humour, in the form of Naked) to effect my own avocado and lemon distribution. But look at that avocado - that's why you order out. I've never had one at home that looked like that: mine are browny green and mushed before they even leave the skin (due to my flesh-extracting technique, rather than inferior produce!). Accompanying this indulgently simple start to the day was a fine coffee.

Thornbury's Crunch probably isn't a cafe that many people cross town for, but it's one that looks after local shopkeepers and families with adequately prepared cafe staples for breakfast and lunch.

Their sourdough toast comes with a side bowl of orange and tamarind marmalade. Tamarind is vital for giving that extra oomph to good satay sauce, and combined here with the orange it produced a tartness best enjoyed via a light smear, rather than a good dollop. A refreshingly intercultural way to start the day with toast.