17 August, 2011

Not so supermarket

Is there nothing supermarkets can't offer? Along with an astonishing special (who doesn't need five pairs of tissues at once? And how happy is this guy to be offering them?), they're also helping out with basic maths. That's right, five boxes for $5 equals...$1 a box. A division worthy of its exclamation mark.

Thanks Woolworths.

Only question is, how will I fit them on my bike?

09 August, 2011

'Little Sister' - Aimee Said

Al Miller is in Year 10 and living in the shadow of her pretty, popular, super-talented, super-respected older sister Larrie, who's about to do her Year 12 exams.

Using this simple, and common, story basis, Aimee Said has crafted a young-adult novel that covers an admirable number of areas of teenage angst, from identity to popularity to sexuality, in a plot that is both modern and believable. Said is young enough to remember what high school was like, but old enough to bring a degree of wisdom to her book. Most impressively, Said's novel doesn't patronise teenagers, but rather respects the issues it raises.

Social networking is a key issue in the novel. Facebook, blogs and mobile phones are used in the way that landlines and letters were when I was reading John Marsden: that is, the book doesn't draw undue attention to modern technology; it simply includes it as the current medium of communication. A particularly effective technique is included an imaginary status update for Al at the end of each chapter. There's a message in that technique: Al isn't putting those updates on Facebook; they're too personal, too honest. It's a reminder (as with several more overt plot points) that we still have multiple means of communication, and the internet is not the place to share everything.

Relationships work strongly in this book, without doting on backstory. As Al's best friend, Maz serves an archetypal role as the voice of reason. It's a common device in YA fiction - the more-sensible best friend - but, again, it's important as a reminder of the power of true friendship, of the existence of multiple opinions at a time when self-centredness can seem the only sane way forward. Al and Maz are friends with boys, and while there are romantic sub-plots for both of them, male-female friendships are presented without undue examination. I also liked that the backgrounds of the minor characters weren't unnecessarily fleshed out: one is wealthy, one has no father figure mentioned, but these aspects didn't need to be emphasised. The characters are granted idiosyncrasies, however, such as stinky feet or a predilection for counting cats. In a novel so concerned with identity, these touches help remind its target audience that we are all unique.

Most significantly, the book explores teenage sexuality in an exceptionally mature and empathetic fashion. 'Woman-identifying woman' is the school counsellor's uber-PC term for lesbians, and it's a subtle jab at society's ongoing awkwardness around terminology and acceptance. The book looks at the experience of coming out from several perspectives: those of siblings, friends, bullies and, admirably, parents and other adult figures. Social media, sexuality and science collide for an effective examination of how a teenager not only figures out who they are, but how they are going to tell the world.

I'm so impressed with Said's use of language, and repeated terms that capture the essence of exploratory adolescence. In her earlier novel, Finding Freia Lockhart, the titular character regularly took time out for 'boogie breaks', dancing to her heart's content in her bedroom, often until interrupted by a 'death stare' from her cat. The death stare is replaced in Little Sister by the stinkeye. As in the first novel, swear words are kept to a minimum, with 'shiz' proving an effective replacement (although the one use of the f-word in Freia nails a cathartic moment!). She makes great use of strikethroughs and brackets to add asides to the reader, again paying respect to her audience in acknowledging that they understand what's going on at a deeper level.

I found Little Sister laugh-out-loud funny at times, but it doesn't trivialise adolescence. The problems of identity and peer pressure are genuine, and pressure on young adults is surely only increasing as the global village shrinks ever further and we increasingly express and share our emotions via pixels. This novel is both quietly cautionary and strongly affirming.

Monsieur Truffe and friends

Monsieur Truffe: 351 Lygon St, Brunswick East; (03) 9380 4915
Kumo: 152 Lygon St, Brunswick East; (03) 9388 1505

The Resurrection: 135 Lygon St, Brunswick East (no phone)

What's happening in Brunswick East? Everything, seems to be the answer.

This isn't the first time this blog, and many others, have talked about the changes to the northern end of Lygon St. In the five or more years I've lived in this part of the world, a string of cafe, bar and restaurant owners have made this part of town their own, joining several pioneers and stayers in the industry already here. Either all those people are very savvy in their business models, or East Brunswickians are generous with their custom. Very few of the places whose birth I've witnessed have closed and some of them, even years after opening, can be tough to get into at times.

It appears the second half of 2011 will see a whole new wave of big names making Lygon St their home. In the space of 24 hours I came across three new 'name' venues opening along one stretch.

First up is Kumo, an izakaya and sake bar. These Japanese style 'pubs' are pretty hot right now - Maedaya in Richmond and Izakaya Den in the city have garnered plenty of press attention. It's a smart move opening up on the stretch of Lygon already home to Rumi and Bar Idda - this part of Brunswick doesn't do a lot of 'cool Asian'. There's Thaila Thai, sure, and neighbourhood spots such as Satay Anika and Kake di Hatti. For Japanese, there's Matsumoto down the street and Iku Yakitori on Sydney Rd.

But Kumo is run by a 'Japanophile', Andre Bishop, who studied sake in the land of the rising sun. It's early days: Three Thousand mag reports they opened on 5 August, and their website is still 'coming soon'. From the exterior though it sure looks the part, having completely rejuvenated a corner spot that used to be a kids' toy store.

Better known in Melbourne hospitality circles is Jerome Borazio, he of Jerome's Bar, the Laneway Festival and Ponyfish. He's opened a new bar - also with a soft launch on 5 August - across the road and down a bit from Kumo, busting in on The Alderman and Atticus Finch territory. You can find more details on Facebook.

The third is the triumvirate is Monsieur Truffe, which has its existing home on Smith St, Collingwood (another stretch of real estate making like a Monopoly set with restaurants popping up like hotels). Thibault Fregoni has opened an atelier, wherein he will make artisan chocolate from cocoa beans, a first for Melbourne. On sale are a variety of high-end chocolate products (truffles, button, 'thins'), along with a small cafe menu including Noisette bread and croque monsieur. The small menu is at odds with the size of the cafe - this place is huge! Warehouse sized, it features two large communal tables, several smaller tables with banquette seating, and some bar stools from which you can look at the chocolate making machinery.

Their mocha is an intense, deep, dark chocolate and caffeine fix that will have you humming until well into the afternoon.

04 August, 2011


500 Victoria St, North Melbourne; (03) 9329 5228

Degustations really are gourmet at its best.

The first time I settled in for a degustation I couldn't wrap my tongue around the pronunciation. True, I was in Italy, and struggling to keep up with the emphases as I grappled with languages across Europe. We drank Montepulciano and Vernaccia di San Gimignano, appropriate as that was the very town we sat in. We snacked on sumptuous plates of meat while looking at this view:
Degustation experiences have been thin on the ground in my homeland, but I had the pleasure of one recently, on a weekend redolent with indulgence.

A close friend visiting from Sydney, who used to live in Melbourne, realised that there was no reason not to spend an entire weekend between bars, cafes and restaurants. An excellent notion of gourmet travel, to my mind. I happily signed up for the full tour, the highlight of which was an eight-course degustation, with wine, at North Melbourne's Libertine.

We lined up at 6:30 and rolled out, suitably stuffed but also wonderfully nourished, after 11. It doesn't get any better than sitting in a plush room - in this case at a table with wedge-shaped chairs that looked like pieces of pie nestled in a Trivial Pursuit token - and having kind, informative people bring you food and wine for four and a half hours.

We started with an amuse bouche of pumpkin and cauliflower soup. This simple taster stayed with me so that the following week I endeavoured to make it for dinner with the same velvety creaminess. I thought I was pretty generous with the dairy, but it wasn't a patch on this offering, which was as rich as it was petite.
The dishes proper started off-season, with a plate of slivered artichoke and courgette with chevre, toasted grains, quail egg and salsa verde. Great colours, with the vibrant greens of the veg and verde clashing against the brighter egg and cheese. The grains add both textural and colour contrast.

Wine: 2009 Fontenille blanc, Sem/Sav blanc (Bordeaux)

The next plate was matched the colours of the first nicely, but presented a different flavour spectrum. This time we have King George whiting with avocado mousse, almond, radish, lemon olive oil. Avocado is a smooth substance as it is, and moussed it was quite sublime. The thinnest of radish slivers added extra crunch (as did fish bones in one of the dozen pieces of whiting delivered to the table).
Wine: 2008 Labet Bourgogne blanc Vielles vignes, Chardonnay (Burgundy)

For many, fine French dining is synonymous with rich, decadent foods such as foie gras. I was at a table with several veterinary scientists, and we debated the merits of that cruel and indulgent dish. Our waiter informed us it was only on the menu as it was so close to Bastille Day - the chef doesn't cook it otherwise, but he was still using up the 14 July supply. It came in two forms - foie gras brulee and mousse - served with with olive dust and apricot smear. Highly enjoyable in the mouth, if not on the conscience.
Wine: 2007 Gunderloch Redstone Riesling (Rheinhessen, Germany)

After that indulgence it was time to cleanse, with this rather unusual shot of basil seeds
Happily more recognisable food was on its way: roasted duck breast and leg with persimmon Armagnac jus, peas and baby leeks (well, leek). This was my favourite dish of the evening. It looked great on the plate, with a scattering of Brussels sprout leaves. The jus was rich, the peas were sweet, and the meat was succulent.
Wine: 2007 Willm Pinot noir (Alsace, France)

More meat followed, this time Moondarra wagyu steak with pied et paquet, sauce bordelaise and potatoes. The rest of the diners had made a no-offal request at the start of the meal. Me, I'm pretty partial to the extra bits of animal, and through the pied et paquet the chef snuck some onto our plates. In the traditional Marseilles version, this is a packet of tripe and trotters. Ours came across as more of a dry sausage in uncooked casing. It did it for me, but not for most of the table :)
Wine: 2005 Ch√Ęteau Lucas Cote de Castillon. Merlot/Cab Sav (Bordeaux)

And so we came to the end of the savoury side of things. That didn't mean we were at the end of the good stuff. Au contraire, on the way was this marvellously named, and marvellous tasting, cumquat and Cointreau souffle, with a simply delicious dessert wine to savour alongside.
Wine: 2007 Tendresse de Jurque, Gros/petit manseng (Jurancon, France)

A few apple jellies, madeleines and marshmallows later, we were on our way into a chilly night, deeply satisfied.
The whole meal, wine included, was $150. Without the wine its $95. Given what we could have spent on a three-course fine dining meal with a bottle of wine or several between six of us, I think this represented superb value dining.

'The Hippopotamus' - Stephen Fry

Recently I had cause to answer the question: who do you rank among the cleverest minds of our time? It's one of those frustrating enquiries, for which you know you've come across candidates, but put on the spot it can be hard to come up with a good answer, one that doesn't seem trite or obvious.

A day or so later, the perfect answer came into my mind: Stephen Fry. He is, irrefutably, a clever man. And one who has used being clever as a means to a very successful career. Watching him weekly on 'QI', one can never quite tell how much of the copious knowledge he spouts comes from research he's done for that specific show, the notes on the cards in front of him, or simply out of the larger-than-average font of knowledge that encompasses his brain.

In The Fry Chronicles, his autobiography, Fry endeavoured to affect a humility, a sense of 'Oh shucks, I'm such a lucky chap, I really don't know what I've done to deserve this good fortune'. He's routinely generous in praise for his friends - Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Ben Elton (a joke-writing machine), Douglas Adams etc - and just as self-deprecating about his own talents. At the same time, he can't escape the fact that he's in a position to share his life story in a form that is likely to sell very well indeed, because of the very gifts he's keen to downplay, even dismiss. He must, of course, be acutely aware that he is, in fact, famous and that he's using the skills that have brought him to fame to his advantage.

The Fry empire covers making documentaries and TV series, acting in a few films, hosting a quiz show and stage shows, tweeting, and writing screenplays and novels. The Hippopotamus tells the story of Ted Wallace, a cantankerous old upper-class poet, fired from his job as newspaper drama critic, who is sent to the palatial Norwich home of his old school chum Michael Logan at the behest of his goddaughter, to investigate and report back on 'miracles' seemingly performed by the Logans' son. The hippopotamus of the title refers to Ted himself - he is a fat, wallowing, difficult creature.

Stephen Fry is a man for whom I have a great deal of respect, but this is not a good book. This novel is an expurgation - it's Fry getting out all the witty turns of phrase, all the horrid toffee-nosed characters whose seeds have been planted in his writerly mind as he mingles ever more frequently with the highest British society. It's a chance for him to write about women salaciously, and frankly, it's all quite appalling.

The storyline is absurd, and isn't at all helped by the multiple storytelling methods. Ted is hard enough to like, without his characterisation coming variously from his own voluminous letters to his goddaughter, first person narration, third person observation and stitled dialogue from other characters.

Here's Fry, as Wallace, describing lunch:

Luncheon lies between the servantless breakfast served from tureens and the formal fig-feast of dinner in ceremony as in chronology. The library serves as the muster station and pre-prandial lapping-pool of choice; thence we are gonged to the dining room for solids....the imbibal of anything stronger than iced water is uncommon
Language and topics throughout are trite, contrived, pompous and pretentious. Entirely suitable, perhaps, given the class of Brits Fry is depicting.

There's also a scene with a horse that goes where Daniel Radcliffe presumably didn't go on stage in Equus. Call me squeamish but it was a bit more than I was up for.

01 August, 2011

Are you mad about Harry?

HP VII 2...sounds more like a printer model than a movie. When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2) was released, I made no effort to organise to see it. I felt my patience had been exhausted by the franchise, and I had never reconciled my cynicism at them splitting the last of the movies into two parts.

I've wondered many times why I found that decision so insupportable. While I assumed it was done purely for financial gain, I don't know that that's the case. To be fair, though, they were only able to choose to split it due to the outrageous success of the proceeding six movies. And the extra box-office takings couldn't have been entirely absent from their considerations.

Could I give the production team credit for wanting to do justice to a book whose release was more anticipated than perhaps any in history by alloting it five or six hours on screen rather than three? Well...not after seeing part one, which wasn't even a film, but rather a lot of stitched together CGI and (admittedly) effecting camera techniques wrapped around an uncohesive plot. When you look at the fifth and sixth films in isolation, it is galling for the audience - the arrogance of the film house to make something that absolutely doesn't make sense unless you've followed the rest of the franchise closely. That would be OK if we viewed Harry in a cinematic vacuum - if there were dedicated cinemas that just screened each instalment (and it's kind of surprising that there aren't). But all eight of these films have gone into the mainstream, up against other films, whether blockbuster or independent. And as an audience member I feel that something that grosses hundreds of millions of dollars - at the expense of smaller productions - should make sense in its own right.

I have heard the argument that the Harry films perhaps present a paradigm of movie-going for the new generation, who don't need to be fulfilled at the cinema. Anyone who saw Part 2 (which I did, at another's instigation) was bombarded with advertising for merchandise around the film (which almost saw me give up and leave before the film even started). For the game- and tech-savvy audience member, perhaps the film is a taster for what's to come on Nintendo, or their own explorations via social media. It's a fair point. Again, I don't know if it's true, and it certainly doesn't speak to my preferred version of movie-going.

Knowing I was going to see the last of the films, I borrowed Book 7 to read it again. I hadn't yet finished the section of story portrayed in the first film by the time I saw the second. Being more familiar with the story, however, was definitely a help and I did find myself far more taken with the final instalment than with the two preceding it. Despite that, however, I wasn't nearly as taken with the film as I was with the book, which drips with angst, remorse, guilt and longing on every page. While the movies are hard to understand for what they leave out, the book is laden with detail as Rowling winds up the intricacies and complexities of this multi-thousand page story.

And therein arose again some of my angst. Even with the split into two, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the movie, still left out a lot of story, and a lot of explanation. In my opinion, it could have been a great, single film. Viewers have argued that Part 1 allowed the filmmaker to establish the boredom and frustration inherent in the search for Horcruxes. A filmmaker worth those kind of box-office takings shouldn't need an extra two hours to do that. We could have had angst, arguments and action in one memorable three-hour instalment.

What Part 2 did do for me was push buttons. I wept and blubbered my way through all the revelations, which made it a good emotional experience, but one I didn't need to wait an extra year for. When it finished I felt like we'd reached the end of the longest movie ever made, which in some ways we have. An eight-part continuation of a single story is as good as unprecedented in the movie world.