17 May, 2011

'Crossing to Safety' - Wallace Stegner

Who is Wallace Stegner? He's a twentieth century midwest American writer, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. He's renowned in Utah, where he grew up, and commemorated at the west-coast university where he taught creative writing with a writing award.

But he's not an author who has received much attention in Australia. Crossing to Safety was his last novel, released in 1987, a full fifty years after his first. According to the book jacket, Australia started at the end with Stegner, as this was his first title to be published here. It carries endorsement from no less than Tim Winton, who calls Crossing to Safety a 'wise and good book...I with [it] was one of mine'.

It is certainly a book of an old writer. (Stegner was almost 80 when it was published.) It's a reflective story, beginning with Larry Morgan arriving at a remote Vermont lake compound with his crippled wife, Sally, to meet their lifelong friends, Charity and Sid Lang. Charity is terminally ill, and, as befits her character, has summoned those closest to her in her final days to farewell her life as she decrees. It's obvious much time has passed since the two couples last saw each other - a gap born of argument or disagreement, or the reality of dispersed living?

Gentle tensions exist throughout the book. Stegner has a storyteller's mastery of suspense. Not edge-of-your-seat, monster-under-the-bed suspense, but rather genuine drama, a level of engagement that makes you care if characters are about to be hurt or disappointed.

What is most apparent in this novel's style is that it is a straightforward story. Yes, there are two timelines, but they rarely intersect. For the majority of the novel we are in the thirties, when pregnant women drank and a hotel cost a couple of bucks. Stegner recounts the relationship between wealthy, effervescent Sid and Charity, and poor, ambitious Larry and Sally in measured tones, taking his time over details. About two thirds of the way through he starts to drop hints of a drama to come, which is duly played out in the novel's last third.

You notice while reading it how rarely a novel these days is able to simply tell a story. Stegner allows himself one trope - Larry, the protagonist, is a writer, and he comments on the process of writing within the story, which, we assume, he is in fact penning in character as a memoriam of a lasting friendship. It's a little cliched, particularly in the beginning of the third act, when we return to modern day and Larry and Sally at the Langs' Vermont lakehouse. The Morgans breakfast with Sid and Charity's daughter, catching up on the events the reader has missed in the many years not recounted in detail. For a few pages, it's straight exposition dressed up as dialogue, and it jars a little. Mainly because up until then Stegner has relied on the poetry of his own prose to reveal intimacies, rather than characters delivering it in straight voice. But perhaps any hint of cliche only comes from so many authors repeating this style in the literature of the last thirty years.

Although the novel is adamant about its time setting - the Depression is a significant backdrop - it resonates more than once with issues that reveal themselves as timeless. Take this dinner-time discussion with 'Uncle Richard', a publisher whom Charity is hoping to woo into taking on Larry's novel:

'Uncle Richard...suggested that publishing was not a charitable enterprise. He named six titles on his fall list that he would be unable to publish if he weren't able to count on the sales of this one that Sid thought shouldn't have been published at all.

Being an academic table, we began deploring the level of popular taste. Only junk seemed to sell. Wasn't there any market for good, serious, intelligent, well-written books? There must be. Couldn't you count on a good book's finding an audience - small, maybe, but enough to carry it?'

e-books face a lot of competition for the role of being the end of the printed word.

16 May, 2011

Fructose free II: good and bad

On a low-fructose finding trip to the Organic Wholefoods during the week, I had a win and a loss. The winner was this bread:

Part of the Ancient Grains range, it's made from barley flour. It took a bit of research to confirm this as fructose friendly. It didn't come up in a lot of lists, which either meant I shouldn't be eating it or it just wasn't common enough to be counted. Interestingly, googling 'fructose' and 'barley' returned a lot of mentions of Subway. It's certainly a sweet bread, and I can imagine it contributing to those sickly fast-food buns.

The loaf is so delicious I'm still doubting its health value. And it actually comes with decent-sized slices. One of the problems of seeking alternative breads is that you so often get tiny loaves that are a struggle to make into sandwiches. It's years since I bought bread at a supermarket, but at $4.70 I'd say this loaf is giving some of the big bakers a run for their money.

The loss was this block of chocolate.
When you were a kid, did you ever sniff a jar of cocoa, then eat a spoonful, disbelieving that the smell and taste of something could be so opposed? This chocolate tastes like that cocoa. Which is fair enough, given the chocolate we know and love only tastes like it does because of all that sugar. But I'm endeavouring to cut down on sweet snacks, and thought this could substitute for my sugar addiction. As it is, I'll either cook with it, or douse it with some rapadura sugar to add the sweetness back in! I'll be better off sticking with organic chocolate that eschews processed sugar, and there are options for that within this same brand.

12 May, 2011

The hard stuff

There's a street in my 'hood that I refer to as the place where architects get to try out their first drafts. It's a dead end, and each of the twenty or thirty houses have been built to a completely different, and often quite eccentric, design. There's a Tuscanate three-storey villa, a prison-like edifice with all its windows facing the creek and bathroom slits facing the street. Some are boxes: four walls, all right angles, no eaves, no bay windows, nothing to break the brickwork. There are shadier bungalows and, at the end of the street, a McMansion, replete with double entry doors and floor-to-ceiling, black-tinted windows.

Regardless of design, each house has been built to take up every centimetre of the width of its block. They're all free standing, but the gap between neighbours isn't much thicker than the mortar between bricks.

Walking through it today, I could have renamed it the Street the Hard Waste collectors forget. Out mouldering in the rain were a few old lounge suites, embarassing artworks and dried tins of paint. Close enough to every house had at least one television out the front. In the case of the McMansion there were four, plus a hard drive and a DVD player. One house was disposing of a food processor, blender, upright vacuum cleaner and various other plug-and-plastic kitchen appliances.

We have one telly. And have had the same one for over five years. I can't imagine having four to give away. As they squat in the rain, or tip forward to shatter on the pavement, or succumb to rabble-rousers, it's depressing to see how quickly they become unusable as an appliance, when it will take generations for them to return to what they were made of.

Please tell me there's an artist out there with a submission in to take all these tellies - and their embedded energy, plastic and water - and turn them into a worthwhile art installation.

05 May, 2011

'Preincarnate' - Shaun Micallef

The thinking person's comedian, sometimes it seems Shaun Micallef can do no wrong. Newstopia was one of the most intelligent series on Australian TV and rates up there with Frontline for ingenuity and pertinence. I can't say that I settle in to watch Talkin' 'Bout Your Generation (the apostrophes are enough to put me off), but from all reports Micallef hosts with aplomb and warms himself to each generation, whether denoted X, Y or BB.

So why shouldn't he write a witty novella? Preincarnate is a whole lot of fun. Maybe it's a little rambly and maybe its preposterousness slighty outweighs the weight of the story, but it's clever, and it plays homage to a whole range of writers and genres (even Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure). Since sketch comedy on Australian TV is most likely dead, we should be grateful we're able to access Micallef in the written form.

It's a reader's book, too, presented with all manner of delightful touches. There's a ribbon bookmark; a delightfully coloured and swirled frontispiece, with a place to write your name; and illustrations from Bill Wood, in the best boys-own or Famous Five fashion.

The plot? Well, I could try and explain it, but suffice it to say that it involves a modern man who is in fact a clone of Richard Cromwell, and in travelling between 2005 and 1657 we encounter Tom Cruise, Arthur Conan Doyle and Matthew Reilly among others. The book is littered with amusing footnotes, wherein the author and his editor argue over finer points of the MS. You don't need to follow the chronology of the chapters, which is as jumbled as Catch-22, to enjoy the ride.

I had the pleasure of hearing Micallef read from the book at the Writers at the Convent. He chose the scene where the President of Bibliotheque nationale de France reveals the terrible truth that Matthew Reilly spilt crumbs in precious books while researching one of his novels. Micallef rendered it complete with ridiculous French accent for the President, interspersed with his own rich tones, and it was hilarious.

It's that kind of book, one where even from the page characters speak with silly accents. While unwritten, you can visualise sly eyebrow raises, exaggerated shrugs and sneaky glances to camera. It's a whole lot of fun, and an attractive addition to your bookshelf.

02 May, 2011

Fructose free

Food intolerance, or malabsorption, is the scourge of the food lover. In the case of fructose malabsorption (FM), it's a surprisingly sneaky curse. Fructose is a naturally occuring sugar, present in some of the most everyday, innocuous foods that make up fave snacks and meals - who would ever suspect apples and carrots as capable of inflicting digestive problems, tiredness, bad moods?

Conversely, it's also the primary ingredient of one of our most heinous manufactured products - high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), an ingredient variously responsible for the destruction of swathes of variegated farming land (all turned over to monoculture corn production), the homogenisation of groceries (some estimates say about 90% of products in an American supermarket required HFCS at some point in their production), and obesity, since all that fructose in packaged foods is more than our bodies know what to do with. Fructose is processed by the liver, rather than being taken on by muscles to make energy, and what we can't use goes straight to triglycerides, ie fat.

In my neck of the woods, avoiding HFCS isn't that hard. But the list of naturally occurring sources of fructose reads pretty much like my shopping list: garlic, onion, apples, tomato paste, honey, zucchini, artichokes, quince. Some foods are more affecting than others, and for products on the definite no-go list everyone's tolerance is different.

So there's a lot of experimenting going on at the moment. I admit I'm not a dedicated intolerant. Some days I'm content to merely verbalise that I know what I'm eating is high in fructose - the acknowledgement somehow substituting for the avoidance. Last night, for example, I cooked up the first minestrone of the season, replete with a bobbing ham hock. I loaded it with celery - an allowed vegetable - and went easy on the carrot. I didn't think to cut back on mushrooms though (cut into chunks, they're one of my favourite parts), and it wasn't until I was eating it that it occurred to me it of course contained a tin of tomatoes...and pasta (wheat contains fructose).

Today for lunch, however, I think I nailed something acceptable. That Jess Ho mentioned farro, which reminded me of a big tub of pearl barley in my pantry. I'd used some recently in a braise to accompany lamb shanks, something I'd copied from a delicious lunch at De Bortoli's Locale restaurant. I cooked a handful of grain gently in a puddle of stock for about half an hour, then fried up some spinach, with a few pine nuts, and drizzled on lemon olive oil. On top I perched a poached egg.
It was pretty good - could have used some more pep with the spinach, but it was filling, tasty, healthy and fructose free. Here's to more of that.