Monday, December 29, 2008

Perfectly happy

So I’m trying (belatedly) to read the new Siri Hustvedt novel, but the baby book on the table is so much more suited to my bite-size concentration span at the moment. The section on Post-natal depression (always a cheerful breakfast read) in Kidwrangling mentions that “expecting things to be perfect” is a personality trait that can predispose you towards developing PND. There are a million other factors too, of course. The main one is having a baby.

Those of you who have seen my house will understand that I am already okay with things not being perfect. But what about expecting your children to be perfect?

There’s a short story that I’ve always loved, though I can’t remember for the life of me who wrote it or what it was called. It was about a perfect little girl who never misbehaved and never lost her temper. This level of perfection naturally caught the attention of and annoyed the devil, who became determined to make her crack it (I can’t remember if there was some deal where he got her soul if she lost her rag, or if it was a slow week in hell and he just needed a new project). He made everything go wrong for her. I especially remember he made her dolls fall in the mud and get stepped on by horses. But every time this little girl pulled a Pollyanna on him and didn’t lose her temper. Eventually the devil hit upon a long-term plan, which worked a treat and made this little-girl-now-woman absolutely furious.

He gave her a perfect husband.

He gave her a perfect house.

……..And he gave her a “fair-to-middling” child.

I love it. It’s such an evil little story. And I love the idea that the best way to piss off a perfect person is to give them something that everyone else would be quite happy with.

Although maybe not, as according to the tv, most parents these days require their children to become Prime Minister. These little tackers are either going to have to share the role or become leaders of different countries, because there just isn’t enough Prime Ministership to go round that many kids. Paul and I recently watched “Life at One”, a production about child development that follows a bunch of kids and their parents from birth (they’re up to “Life at Three” now). When the parents were asked what they wanted for their children, a scary amount of them said they wanted their child to be “healthy”, “confident” and “leaders”.

Paul and I look at each other in horror. “I don’t want to be a confident leader,” I said. “Neither do I,” says Paul. Is anyone going to mention that they’d like their child to be “happy”? Nope. Or maybe “happy” is supposed to be an exclusive result of combining those other three terms.

I want most for my child to be happy. Healthy is good too. If being a confident leader makes him happy, I can deal with that. But if we all give birth to confident leaders, the amount of public speaking competitions in high school will soon reach critical mass, and might distract from the importance of sporting events.


Here’s to shy children.

Here’s to children who quietly hold their own opinions.

Here’s to children who quietly hold no opinions at all.

Here’s to children who say “I don’t know” in answer to every question they’re asked, because it’s easier or they’re embarrassed or they can’t be bothered.

Here’s to children who, to quote Tripod, aren’t ahead of the pack. They’re just with the pack. Towards the back.

Here’s to children who don’t know what they want to be when they grow up, and still don’t know when they are grown up.

Here’s to easy-going children.

Here’s to children who do what they think they want to do (which may even involve enrolling in a course that doesn’t take full advantage of their VCE score).

Here’s to them changing their minds and doing something completely different.

And here’s to fair-to-middling children. May they piss off perfectionists and give the devil his due.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one beauty." - How to sell your hair

"...and she came walking in with a very queer expression of countenance, for there was a mixture of fun and fear, satisfaction and regret in it, which puzzled the family as much as did the roll of bills she laid before her mother, saying with a little choke in her voice, 'That's my contribution toward making Father comfortable and bringing him home!'

'My dear, where did you get it? Twenty-five dollars! Jo, I hope you haven't done anything rash?'

'No, it's mine honestly. I didn't beg, borrow or steal it. I earned it, and I don't think you'll blame me, for I only sold what was my own.

As she spoke, Jo took off her bonnet, and a general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short.

'Your hair! Your beautiful hair!' 'Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one beauty.'"

- Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

Given that I am a) lazy and b) tight, I only have a haircut every 3 or 4 years, and when I do I sell it to a wigmaker. I'm a hair farm. Pretty much everyone brings up Little Women when I say I sell my hair, so that's the tenuous bookish link for this blog entry.

Since I'm supposedly giving birth in about 2 weeks, it seemed a good time for a haircut. Firstly, I wanted to take advantage of 'pregnancy hair' (thicker and more of it), and secondly, it's one less thing to wash baby spew out of. Also, after 3.5 years of growing it from here:

To here:

I was a bit sick of it. When I turned over in bed at night it practically strangled me.

So how do you sell your hair?

Firstly, you can't sell loose hair (otherwise hairdressers would make a fortune from what they sweep off the floor). The hair shaft has a direction, and wigmakers need all your hairs pointing in the same direction to use them. Also, loose hair turns into a matted furball within about 20 seconds.

So when you go to get your hair cut, first get the hairdresser to put it into four tight ponytails and cut them off above the rubber band, leaving a fair bit of hair (at least 5cm) sticking out past the top of the bands so they don't slide off.

It's bizarre how much resistance you can get from hairdressers at this point. Seriously, what do they care how many ponytails it's put into? I had to bargain to get mine put into two ponytails (he had his heart set on one - this is how you end up with the rubber band slipping off and all your hair landing on the floor, which is how I lost about a quarter of my hair last time). They're also a bit slapdash with the rubber band fastening, so you might need to carefully adjust the ponytails a bit when you get home. Here is my product, after I'd tidied things up a bit:

Then you take it to a wigmaker. There's quite a few around, I rang around the ones in the Yellow Pages about 4 years ago, asked if they buy hair and roughly what they pay and picked the one who gave the best price. Since then I've been selling mine each time to:

C. Harms - A Better Wigmaker
Suite 512 (Level 5)
125 Swanston Street
Melbourne (next to the HiFi Bar)
Ph. 9650 4484

She's open Tues-Thurs 8am-4pm, and makes wigs solely for cancer patients, which is kind of nice.

So what do you get? It depends on the length, weight, colour and quality of your hair. The ponytails generally need to be at least 25cm to be of use to a wigmaker. I've got what is hilariously termed 'virgin hair', which means it's never been dyed or heat-treated (straightened or permed or other such things that damage hair). You get more money for virgin hair, though you can still sell dyed/treated hair to some wigmakers. The wigmaker will weigh and measure your hair and make you an offer (C. Harms writes you out a cheque to cash then you go round the corner to the ANZ and cash it in).

I got $100 for those two ponytails above, I think they were about 40cm long. So I don't exactly get enough to bring Father home from the war with, but it pays for my haircut and it's better than letting it go to waste on the cutting room floor. Apparently you can also sell your hair online at places like The Hair Trader, but they're generally American, are advertisement-based (eBay-style), boast curiously high prices and I've got no idea if they're legit. I prefer just handing it over to a person.

And now I start again from here!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

From the favourer: "For once, the general public got it right. I first read it over 20 years ago and was amazed (and a little annoyed as I was about 30 by then myself) that someone, somewhere, hadn't told me about it earlier. So, if you haven't read it, delay no more. You can thank me afterwards."

When a comedic novel is first published in 1889, you’d expect by now that the jokes would, well, date a bit. Like the cartoons from Dickensian newspapers and Shakespearean comedies, where you can’t exactly work out what the joke is (although in Shakespeare the joke is usually a man in a dress. Hilarious.)

Perhaps the longevity of the humour in Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) has to do with its honesty about travel (flowing on rather nicely from The Art of Travel) and people. As the author says in his preface, George, Harris and Montmorency (the dog) “are not poetic ideals but things of flesh and blood – especially George, who weighs about twelve stone.” And of course, what we really want to hear about other people’s travels are the bits that went wrong. And preferably involve someone showing off and being shown up.

Upon publication Three Men in a Boat was snatched up lovingly by the general public and derided by the critics as being vulgar and written for the "‘Arrys and ‘Arriets" (kind of the Kath and Kels of the time). Probably a good sign.

The story begins as the author and his two friends George and Harris are sitting around with their pipes, and discussing their general malaise (the author, on perusal of a medical dictionary, has discovered he suffers from every disease known to man, except Housemaid’s Knee: “I felt rather hurt at this at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of slight. Why hadn’t I got housemaid’s knee? Why this invidious reservation?”). They conclude that what they need is to get away from it all, and a boating trip up the Thames from Kingston to Oxford is planned.

What follows is the “record of events that really happened” on this trip; part travelogue, part floridly described reverie (which the author keeps being dragged away from as he’s about to the crash the boat) and part tangential anecdotes about storing cheeses.

Lots of the stories are a smile-out-loud read, such as when the author stops Harris from singing a comic song:

“You have never heard Harris sing a comic song, or you would understand the service I had rendered to mankind. It is one of Harris’s fixed ideas that he can sing a comic song; a fixed idea, on the contrary, among those of Harris’s friends who have heard him try, is that he can’t, and never will be able to, and that he should not be allowed to try.

When Harris is at a party and asked to sing, he replies: ‘Well, I can only sing a comic song, you know’; and he says it in a tone that implies that his singing of that, however, is a thing that you ought to hear once, and then die.

‘Oh, that is nice,’ says the hostess. ‘Do sing one, Mr Harris’; and Harris gets up, and makes for the piano, with the beaming cheeriness of a generous-minded man who is just about to give somebody something.

‘Now, silence, please, everybody,’ says the hostess, turning round, ‘Mr Harris is going to sing a comic song!’

‘Oh, how jolly!’ they murmur; and they hurry in from the conservatory, and come up from the stairs, and go and fetch each other from all over the house, and crowd into the drawing-room, and sit round, all smirking in anticipation.

Then Harris begins.

Well, you don’t look for much of a voice in a comic song. You don’t expect correct phrasing or vocalization. You don’t mind if a man does find out, when in the middle of a note, that he is too high, and comes down with a jerk. You don’t bother about time. You don’t mind a man being two bars in front of the accompaniment, and easing up in the middle of a line to argue it out with the pianist, and then starting the verse afresh. But you do expect the words.

You don’t expect a man to never remember more than the first three lines of the first verse, and to keep on repeating these until it is time to begin the chorus. You don’t expect a man to break off in the middle of a line, and snigger, and say, it’s very funny but he’s blest if he can think of the rest of it, and then try and make it up for himself, and, afterwards, suddenly recollect it, when he has got to an entirely different part of the song, and break off without a word of warning, to go back and let you have it then and there.”

It’s all pretty delightful and unserious, and could probably be prescribed as a good alternative to anti-depressants (much like P.G. Wodehouse, who I always read when I feel sad).

Most of the fun comes from the general wrestling with the realities of travel, in this case, boat travel. When they try to set up the tent-like cover over the boat ready for the night; “it would take quite ten minutes, we thought.

That was an underestimate.

We took up the hoops, and began to drop them into the socket places for them. You would not imagine this to be dangerous work; but, looking back now, the wonder to me is that any of us are alive to tell the tale. They were not hoops, they were demons. First they would not fit into their sockets at all, and we had to jump on them, and kick them, and hammer at them with the boat-hook; and, when they were in, it turned out that they were the wrong hoops for those particular sockets, and they had to come out again.

But they would not come out, until the two of us had gone and struggled with them for five minutes, when they would jump up suddenly, and try and throw us into the water and drown us. They had hinges in the middle, and, when we were not looking, they nipped us with these hinges in the delicate parts of the body; and, while we were wrestling with one side of the hoop, and endeavouring to persuade it to do its duty, the other side would come behind us in a cowardly manner, and hit us over the head…It took us half an hour’s hard labour, after that, before it was properly up, and then we cleared the decks, and got out supper. We put the kettle onto boil, up in the nose of the boat, and went down to the stern and pretended to take no notice of it, but set to work to get the other things out.

That is the only way to get a kettle to boil up the river. If it sees that you are waiting for it and are anxious, it will never even sing. You have to go away and begin your meal, as if you were not going to have any tea at all. You must not even look round at it. Then you will soon hear it sputtering away, mad to be made into tea.

It is a good plan, too, if you are in a great hurry, to talk very loudly to each other about how you don’t need any tea, and are not going to have any. You get near the kettle so that it can overhear you, and then you shout out, ‘I don’t want any tea; do you George?’ to which George shouts back ‘Oh, no, I don’t like tea; we’ll have lemonade instead, tea’s so indigestible.’ Upon which the kettle boils over, and puts the stove out.”

The actual journey of the book is apparently still quite recognizable (and replicable) today, if you know the towns by the river they are traveling through - which I don’t, but it doesn’t matter reading-wise. So, if you’re planning a boating trip up the Thames (aren’t we all), perhaps you could follow their itinerary.

And if it rains, and you can’t take it any more, you can always follow their lead – lie to the boatman that you’re not running away from the rain and the boat is to be ready for you at nine the next morning, but “if anything unforeseen should happen” preventing your return, you will “write to him”. Then bugger off to the pub and home.


I've registered this book on Bookcrossing and will be releasing it into the wild in a week - but if you'd like to have it, email me before then and I'll post it to you instead!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Due dates

This morning I lent a dvd to a borrower and stamped the due date in the front (yes, we still stamp date slips at the Rowden White Library).

Me: "There you go."

Borrower: "Thanks. When is it due?"

Me, looking at the dvd: "In a week."

Borrower: *horrified pause, staring at my 6-months-pregnant belly* "A week??!!"

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

From the favourer: "The thing I loved is that it's the universal guidebook applicable to all travels. It also implores readers to make sure they engage in the travel experience in a way that is personally meaningful and not just ticking items off a list."

Travelling is an art. It's not one I do exceptionally well (I do it so it feels like hell, in fact). I am a bad traveller, and when I say to people "I don't like travelling", they look at me like I've said "I enjoy boiling puppies". There are three main reasons I'm a bad traveller.

1. I hate discomfort, physical and psychological. Not 'discomfort' in a doctorly "you may experience some mild discomfort" sense (which translates as "you will now suffer agonising pain"). Just the ordinary uncomfortableness of plane seats, being too hot, having to say the same thing all over again, not knowing where you're going, etc. If I had somone to carry all my luggage for me all the time when I travelled, I reckon I'd be about 50% better at it.

2. I hate unfamiliarity. I'm best at going back to places I've been to before, and much happier going anywhere for the second time. This is a bit of a problem as generally to go anywhere, you have to go there for the first time sometime.

3. I'm a self-conscious traveller. In the immortal words of Jarvis Cocker: "Everybody hates a tourist". I feel like all the locals hate me all the time. Because of this I always tried to be nice to tourists in Warrnambool when I worked in the bookshop there, even when they asked really stupid questions like: "What time are the whales on?". I didn't say "It's not Sea World, guys." I just politely explained that as they were wild, the whales showed up whenever they felt like it, so you just had to try your luck to see them. Only once, when we were really busy, did I say to one man "They're on at 3pm" (and he seemed quite happy with that anyway).

These may seem like small reasons, but given that most travelling (unless you're stinking rich) is basically about being uncomfortable, in unfamiliar situations, and being a tourist, I find my small reasons get bigger fairly quickly. I think Alain de Botton would understand.

The Art of Travel is a guidebook to the why, rather than the how or what of travelling. Each chapter takes an author/artist/thinker (starting with our old friend Joris-Karl Huysmans) and uses their work as a 'travel guide' to a particular country de Botton is visiting, exploring notions such as anticipation, the sublime, the exotic, beauty and habit.

It's a neat little structure, part personal reflection, part travelogue, and part philosophical/art/literary history. He can be a bit of a romantic (I initially had trouble working out when he was quoting Huysmans and when he was writing as himself), but his reflections often have an appealing honesty that balances this. He notes things like how an argument with a partner over who gets which serving of creme brulee can totally spoil the appreciation you should be having of a Barbados sunset.

Journeying through Madrid (with Alexander von Humbolt as our guide), de Botton reflects that travel works better when there is a driving interest behind why you've gone to the place - a mission, of sorts. The danger is in taking in many unconnected 'sights' in a row "before we have had a chance to build up the necessary receptivity and when new information is therefore as useless and fugitive as necklace beads without a connecting chain." 'Sight-seeing', it's an ugly compound.

I always made myself keep a diary when I travelled (and no, it wasn't all whingeing. That would bore even me), to 'keep' moments of the journey - small details without which the memory of travelling becomes a bit of a coffee-table-book blur. With John Ruskin as our guide in the chapter On Possessing Beauty, de Botton explores our need to 'possess' the beauty we find on our travels; "to buy something - a bowl, a laquered box or a pair of be reminded of what we have lost, like a lock of hair that we cut from a departing lover's mane." (I know what he means, but someone really ought to have a quiet word to Alain - cutting bits of your ex-partner's hair off is creepy and liable to land you with a restraining order.)

De Botton recommends word-painting or drawing on your travels as a better way to really "eat a place", rather than blindly taking photos. I think there's photo-taking and photo-taking though - some people take real care with the framing and composition of their travel photos. But I guess it's easy to take a thoughtless photo, not so easy to do a thoughtless drawing or written description.

I think my favourite chapter (apart from the first one, but that's because Huysmans' Des Esseintes and I have similar attitudes to travel) is the one on Xavier de Maistre and his notion of "room travel", which de Botton (not being blessed with a spacious bedroom), extends to "neighbourhood travel". He decides to spend his walk to the Underground actually paying attention to the details of his surroundings rather just barging along. This really appealed to me, as I spend my walk to the bus each day basically looking at stuff - for instance, currently there's a bandaid stuck to a tree at the top of the hill, a huge dump of lilly-pillies that are gradually being crushed into the footpath, and a newly printed 'NO ENTRY' across a one-way street that's all raised and clean and nice. I know the sleeping places of the neighbourhood cats and which ones will come over, and I name the trees and birds that I know (in a species kind of way, not a "Hi Bob, hi Sandra" kind of way).

Introspective thoughts, who needs 'em. I much prefer de Botton and de Maistre "gently nudging us to try, before taking off for distant hemispheres, to notice what we have already seen."

Friday, September 19, 2008

Come and work at the Rowden White Library

Our lovely lady librarian Aimee has gone to a new job at the Bionic Ear Institute (or as we like to refer to it, the Ionic Beer Institute).


But you can apply for her job:

Library Officer @ the Rowden White Library.

It's fun! There's often cake! But it's no easy task; you can't just be ace and like cake. You have to be a qualified librarian and ace and like cake.

It's a tough trifecta.

Friday, September 12, 2008

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

From the favourer: "It was the numerous characters and the way he wrote the story that made me think "Wow!" - it is so complex with all the (partly perverted) details, I didn't think anyone could make something like that up. It does not happen often that I actually like a book that others tell me to read because it is a classic."

So after so much reading for the judging, I thought I’d pick something not too taxing to read from the favourites list. I hadn’t read any Marquez before, and I thought from the look of it “Yes, that looks like an enjoyable piece of literary fiction that won’t be in any way confusing or require me to keep 100 years of characters who all have the same name in my head at once.”

I can hear those of you who’ve read this book laughing at me from here.

One Hundred Years of Solitude follows the fortunes of a family line in the fictional small town of Macondo over at least a century. Births, deaths, marriages, wars, people who are followed around by clouds of yellow butterflies, cousins who float up towards heaven and are never seen again – you know, the usual stuff.

When I told people I was having real difficulty understanding this book, they usually replied “it’s magic realism”, as if this explained things. Magic realism is when weird shit happens in everyday life and you need to accept that and move on, buddy. It didn’t actually occur to me as I was reading it that the fantastic bits were anything out of the ordinary; perhaps as my reading intersperses non-genred literature with fantasy novels it all seemed perfectly acceptable.

I think the main reason I found this book so difficult to keep straight in my head was that everyone has the same name. Alright, not just one name, but considerably less than your fair share. We start with Jose Arcadio Buendia. It’s all his fault. He has children: Colonel Aureliano Buendia, Jose Arcadio, and Amaranta. Colonel Aureliano has a son called Aureliano Jose, and, by all different women, seventeen other sons named Aureliano. They become known as ‘The Aurelianos’ throughout the book. Jose Arcadio has a son named Arcadio, who has children named Aureliano Segundo Remedios and Jose Arcadio Segundo. Aureliano Segundo has children named Renata Remedios, Jose Arcadio and Amaranta Ursula. Renata has a son named Aureliano, and Amaranta Ursula has a son named Aureliano.

Got that? It’s rather like that chapter in the bible where everyone begets everyone else. I didn’t work that out on my own either, there’s a family tree at the start of the book. For a while I kept referring to it, trying to work out who everyone was, but all I was begetting was a state of confusion so in the end I decided just to go with the flow and not worry too much about keeping all the Arcadios and Aurelianos straight. I’m not sure if this was the best idea, because sometimes an Arcadio died and it didn’t mean much to me as I had thought he was the Arcadio who had died a few chapters earlier. Paul suggested maybe they’d make a movie of the book and then I’d be able to tell everyone apart, but I have a suspicion it would be like when I watch Westerns – every man has a moustache, brown clothes and braces and may as well be the same actor. Looking closer at the cover of the book, I’m thinking I might be right in this:

So, just as I was despairing of having any thoughts about this book other than “who?”, I started to notice a building up of repetitions and circularities throughout the generations of the family line.

A theme! Thank God!

The Aurelianos are all psychically sensitive and intelligent, the Arcadios are all physically powerful, characters repeat the actions and mistakes of their forbears (and their forbears often turn up as ghosts to watch). The women tend to reject the men who passionately love them (which leads to the men committing suicide and the women – who really did love their suitors – spending the rest of their lives in regretful mourning). Some characters fight this repetition – like trying to name their children something other than Aureliano or Remedios, but fortune always intervenes and draws them back into the family cycle.

The notion of this circularity is evoked subtly in the middle of the book by Ursula, who notices “that every member of the family, without realizing it, repeated the same path every day, the same actions, and almost repeated the same words at the same hour.” Towards the end of the novel it is noted more explicitly again by Ursula: “time was not passing…but that it was turning in a circle” and by Pilar Tenera: “the history of the family was a machine with unavoidable repetitions, a turning wheel that would have gone on spilling into eternity were it not for the progressive and irremediable wearing of the axle.”

So by the time I finished, the notion of circularity had kind of strung it all together for me, and I felt a bit less dumb (I can save the pregnancy-brain-shrinking excuse for another day).

And it is actually a very enjoyable book in terms of the act of reading, with healthy amounts of sex, plus some incest thrown in for good measure (with that many people with the same name, I suppose you’re always going to end up shagging your aunt at some point). Of course I’m reading it in translation, but it’s beautifully written and translated, without that ‘pared back’ feeling some translations seem to have. There’s a lot of fragments that stay with you after reading this book – the construction and destruction of the little gold fishes, Jose Arcadio Buendia’s experiments with alchemy and pianolas, seeing ice for the first time in a gypsy tent.

The whimsy of the magic realism is nicely tempered by Marquez’s sense of humour and the ridiculous (I have a bit of a low tolerance for books that get too whimsical). When folding the sheets one day, Remedios the Beauty floats up into the air and disappears, and everyone hails it as a divine event. Fernanda, on the other hand “burning with envy, finally accepted the miracle, and for a long time she kept on praying to God to send her back her sheets.” Fair enough too, sheets are expensive.

I laughed at Gaston, who “was not only a fierce lover, with endless wisdom and imagination, but he was also, perhaps, the first man in the history of the species who had made an emergency landing and had come close to killing himself and his sweetheart simply to make love in a field of violets.” Which is all a bit Spike Milligan somehow.

For quoteableness, you can’t go past: “The world must be all fucked up…when men travel first class and literature goes as freight.”

And I’ve learned my lesson. My son will not be named Arcadio.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

19 weeks

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand it's a boy! Nice little dude.

He's actually 23 weeks now, but getting around to capturing images off our ultrasound dvd (fancy fancy) took me a few weeks to get around to.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Dress-ups and acceptances

The Rowden White Library 70th birthday party of course went swimmingly, with about 400-500 students (and post-students) turning up to dispatch massive amounts of cake and booze:

And staff in their costumed best (we each came as different sections of the library):

Alice Pung made a nice speech about how we are great (yay us), and of course we all sang 'happy birthday' to the Rowdy. There's something nicely absurd about 500 people singing "Happy birthday dear library...". We're still finding rogue helium balloons hiding in corners. More photos here.

Then I got a cold (which sucked), then I got 2 poems accepted at pageseventeen and 1 at Westerly (which does not suck). So now I can feel a little bit writerly when I go the the Melbourne Writer's Festival tomorrow morning to see Kate Atkinson and other randomly chosen sessions (o! the joy of a volunteer's free-entry lanyard).

Friday, August 8, 2008

Comin' over all judgemental

This year I was convenor of the
Premier's Literary Awards Young Adult Prize, which was a somewhat crazy amount of reading to attempt when you're suffering from morning sickness and pregnancy-related tiredness that requires sleep during all the times when I normally read (ie. on the train, during my lunch break, on the train, after dinner).

Yet somehow it was done! Now I have to find room for 65 extra books on my shelves. Although I probably don't need another copy of The Stone Key - anyone want one?

The shortlist was announced today. I think we chose good, go judging team. The winner (not tellin') will be announced on September 1st.

But more importantly, I had to choose a photo to put on my judge's bio - which I thought would be easy enough, until I discovered every recentish photo of me either stars me pulling faces:

or with a silly hat on:
or with bits of Paul's hair on my face:
Finally settled on this one (after cropping out the ubiquitous wine glass).


Thursday, July 17, 2008

Happy Birthday, Rowden White Library!

My beloved home away from home (I suppose some would call it my workplace, but what other workplace has a room full of beanbags so the tired/pregnant can sleep in their lunch break?) is having a special day.

The Rowden White Library is turning 70! Just look at old RW, he's in the mood for celebratin':

We're having a party.

You don't have to be a member to come along. Past students/library lovers/people with nothing else to do welcome.

There will be booze, and cake, and Alice Pung.

And library staff in costume. We have a habit of this:

Do Come:
Date - Wednesday August 13th, 3pm
Place - Rowden White Library, 2nd Floor Union House, University of Melbourne

Fellow liberrian Aimee and I are making the slideshow for the party (like the ones you have at your 21st, except longer and with less photos of you in the bath or dressed up as a gollywog), so we've been finding old photos of the RWL from the Student Union archives.

This is the library in its gentlemanly original incarnation:

But my favourite photos are from the 70s. Gotta love Listening Lounge hallway pashing:

And novelty shoulder massage*:

Wonder whose boobs they were?

So yes, come party, eat cake, hear Alice, see me dressed up as the SF/Fantasy Collection, and go 'yay 70 years of library'.

* Boob-on-shoulder massage is no longer provided as a service at the Rowden White Library.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Finding Ghosts

Books that weirded me out as a kid really stick in my memory. But they’re a bit like post-it notes that have been reused too many times, or the blutack that’s fallen in dust and won’t stick to the wall any more. (So many analogies, all of them stationary-based.) I remember these books as if they were dreams – in images, cover fragments, stray sentences and waves of feeling. I don’t usually remember them by anything vaguely googleable (say; title and author), though sometimes I remember what library they were from. Also not so useful 20 years later.

I’m not the only one with these book ghosts, a friend of mine once had been looking for a book from her childhood and all she could remember was that there was a witch that lived on an island in the middle of the lake, and a girl who floated up the stairs. Title? Nuh. Author? Nuh. I had no idea what the book was either. I file other people’s book ghosts like this away in my head, and always try to find them when I’m in the children’s section of a second-hand book store. I did find this one – quite by chance at a launch of a Mirka Mora book in Richmond, by picking up a book by an author I'd liked as a kid and reading on the back that it had a witch who lived on an island in a lake. Excitement!

It was A Visit To Folly Castle by Nina Beachcroft. Which I should have thought of, really. I’d thought of Nina Bawden…points for the Nina bit.

One of my own book ghosts that I’d been trying to remember for years was a book I borrowed from the Bendigo library, so I must have been under 8. All I could vaguely remember was that the face on the cover didn’t have proper eyes, it had something about a weather-friend in it, and there was an evil goblin that lived in a stove. But the feeling I had carried from it (which was what had weirded me out) was one of everything being out of control and frustrating and scary. I still hadn’t had any luck finding it until a few weeks ago in Alice’s Bookshop. Browsing through the children’s section I saw the name Joyce Dunbar on a spine. I sort-of recognised the name, so I pulled out the book:

Mundo and the Weather Child. WIN! I was so excited I did that ludicrous thing where you hold onto the book really tightly and look wildly around you as if someone is going to take it away. There’s really no way of sharing that moment with anyone. Found! Found!

Then I had to re-read it, to see what the deal was. I had completely forgotten that it was about a boy Edward who moves to a new town and then suddenly becomes deaf after an illness. Stuck at home, he feels trapped and frustrated by his friendlessness and new silent world. And everything about the new house is threatening – the tangled garden rips at him with thorns, the decayed summer-house houses an evil goblin inside an old stove. One day when he is sent out into the garden to play, Edward meets the Weather-Child, a mysterious creature who names him Mundo and shows him how to ride the weather and find new worlds hidden in his garden.

As is sometimes the case with book ghosts, it’s not a particularly brilliant book. But while reading it again I was still shot through with that same feeling, like it had pierced through from 1988 to 2008. The goblin is a threat but not in a concrete way, and the Weather Child may be a magical friend, but he is in no way tame or particularly human (he doesn’t understand emotion and when Edward cries asks "show me how to rain"). Like his deafness, all his magical experiences are well out of Edward’s control most of the time. And that was the unsettling thing for me – you find a new magical world filled with amazing experiences and creatures, but it’s not safe or reliable or always particularly enjoyable. A scary thought for an 8-year-old who fully expects to find a door to another Narnia around the corner.

Some other books that weirded me out as a pre-teen:

Dorp dead by Julia Cunningham - my all-time freakout this one. Just look at it! It's creepy! He looks like a child in a Balthus painting. In the book, Gilly is left an orphan after the death of his beloved grandmother, and at the orphanage he craves a life of quiet and order that living with hundreds of other boys just can’t provide. His pretence of stupidity (despite being ‘brilliant’) is ensured by his deliberately never learning to spell. When Gilly is sent to live with Kobalt, the town ladder-maker and eccentric, it seems as if his prayers have been answered. Kobalt’s life is lead in a series of precise hourly rituals, and Gilly at first slides into the grooves of this ordered life with relief. I wrote about re-reading this one for an assignment in library school, and nailed down the freakout to the boy Gilly's insidiously gradual loss of self - once again the kind of threat that was too obscure for me to pinpoint as a young 'un, but left a huge impression in my memory. The copy I eventually bought was a cast-off from the Warrnambool Library! Sometimes the books are still there.

The Girl in the Box by Ouida Sebestyen (great name) - about a kidnapping victim held in a cellar with (for a reason I can't remember) a typewriter. Weirded me out not just for the unresolved ending, but for the fact that as the room was so dark she never even knew if she was hitting the right keys on the typewriter.

Why Weeps the Brogan by Hugh Scott - A famous one. My only memory, until I found it, was that they had mysteriously appearing warm rolls for breakfast. Where did the rolls come from???? Creepy. It now kind of reminds me a little of Margo Lanagan's short stories.

The Fortunate Few by Tim Kennemore - A futuristic-ish world where gymnastics is the brutal super-sport and ruthlessness makes money. The ending is so coolly horrific I seriously thought at the time that my school library copy was missing pages, and that gymnast Jodie didn't know what had happened to her team-mate Beth. Discovered on finding and re-reading that no, that was the end, and went "ooooh."

And there's a bazillion more (if anyone has a spare copy of Peter Dickinson's A Box of Nothing lying around, let me know). They'll keep turning up, unexpected and with dodgy cover artwork.

This is what second-hand book stores are for, in my opinion. Nailing where your freakouts come from, and laying to rest old book ghosts.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

12 weeks...

Well, this isn't entirely about reading (though it will be one day - I've got quite a selection of picture books on my shelves), but look what I'm growing!

The little tacker is 12 weeks old and has all its bits in the right places (according to ultrasound guy, who pointed out the legs and said about 10 times "and look it's got its feet up on the dashboard." That's his schtick).
Rock on!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Thomas Mann on writers

"A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." - Thomas Mann

Wise chap. Looks like he could challenge Vincent Price to an Edgar Allan Poe reading:

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Manga happy

Favourite manga title of the day (from the series One-Piece):

"The Crap-Geezer"


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

While you're busy making other plans

Or rather, reviewing is what happens to me while I'm busy making other plans.

I've been AWOL from the reading list for the last few months as firstly (as I mentioned), Isobelle Carmody's new book weighs approximately the same as two cans of Stagg Chili (ignited by Habanero Peppers). Object lesson:*

Paul really likes Stagg Chili. Each time we buy it, he says "ignited by Habanero Peppers."

It kind of looks like something you would imagine a bum eating in the depression.

Anyway. Secondly, reviewing always takes longer when you get a cold and tend to fall asleep during your lunch break when you should be directing enthusiasm through the prism of intellect. Still, my words about that little bunch are now on their way to being stamped on paper.

Back to the Favourites list, right? WRRRRRRONG! The few months will be spent in a reading-and-not-getting-a-cold frenzy. Meet my new friends:

Nine weeks; sixy-five books. Sums; you do them. So given that there'd be another dearth of blogging, and who's going to tell me off it's my blog anyway, I thought maybe I could branch out here into the generally book-related bits of my life.

All in favour say "Ignited by Habanero Peppers!"

*Dramatic renenactment. Actual results may vary.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Obernewtyn (Obernewtyn Chronicles, #1) by Isobelle Carmody

From the favourer: "Part of me likes the idea of the basic simplicity of the characters lives, i.e.. no electricity, cars, everything done manually, and using traditional forms of healing. I can't be sure, but this book may have been one of the reasons why I wanted to study Naturopathy. And the tragic romantic in me definitely responded to the budding relationship of the main character!"

The stars seem to have been in alignment for my choosing this time to read (well, re-read) this favourite book. Just as I started on Obernewtyn, the long awaited 5th book in the series appeared on bookshop shelves. So I thought I may as well rip through all four previous books so that my memory was refreshed of the story arc in time to read the #5, The Stone Key. Then, just after I bought the latest book/doorstop, the lovely Pam of Viewpoint asked me if I was an Isobelle Carmody fan, because they were looking for someone to review book #5 and would I do it? I proceeded to look slight panicked and squeak out the question that springs foremost to every reviewer's mind:

"By when?"

Mid-April. This should be okay. Despite the fact that I also have 6 books to review for ABR due on the same day. And despite the fact that now I really need to re-read the past four Obernewtyn books, as I can't remember anything that happened in the last book, I don't trust wiki-summaries, and I don't want to appear any more ignorant than possible when I'm in print. And despite the fact (last one) that the latest Obernewtyn book is 1000 pages long and weighs 1.05kg. If I was to sell you this book on eBay, you'd have to pay $9.40 to have it posted to you. So note to all my friends: if I can't see you for the next month, it's because I have to spend every spare moment reading.

Obernewtyn fans are very patient people. We've been waiting for this 5th book for nine years. That's a long time to wait. Generally you're only willing to assign that kind of waiting time to things like unrequited love, or a really nice holiday. You also become a fairly different person in that waiting time if that gap falls between you as an 18-year-old and you as a 27-year-old. I'm taller, for instance. (No really. I've grown 4cm in that interim. Don't people usually stop growing by 18?)

But hey, I ran into Mr Dragonlance Reader #1 on the train again last week! He was reading a Dragonlance book. He asked me if I was still reading the Dragonlance books, to which I replied "Err, no." But I held up Carmody doorstop #4, and that seemed to pass muster.

Anyway, on to Obernewtyn. It's been through several cover art incarnations since its publication in 1987, all of which I rather like. My copies are the first and second styles of covers, though I must say the latest photographic covers are very attractive:

The first-incarnation cover, which is the copy I read for this review, is a nostalgia-inducing Puffin Plus 1980s design, and contains many misprints throughout, most amusingly that "Seeker" is printed several times as "$eeker", which puts rather a different spin on what is being sought.

Elspeth Gordie knows that she is different. She also knows that her kind of difference is enough to see her ritually killed or sterilised, should anyone find out. After the Great White, an apocalyptic event that wiped out most of human life on earth, the civilisation that is slowly rebuilding itself is superstitious and has no tolerance for seditioners or Misfits - humans born with unusual mental capacities. If discovered, they are Burned (in a capitalised ceremony that smacks of witch-trials), sterilised, or sentenced to a slow death working on Council farms. Her own parents Burned as seditioners, Elspeth has managed to keep her mental abilities a secret as she moves between Orphan Homes. But though they do not suspect the extent of her abilities, a representative of Obernewtyn buys Elspeth to take her to this mysterious place in the mountains. Rumours are hazy and sinister, but Obertnewtyn is generally thought to gather up Misfits to work towards 'curing' them. Keeping secret the vast powers of her mind (which include the ability to read minds, communicate with animals, and coerce people to do/say/see things), Elspeth and some new-found friends begin to investigate what is really going on at Obernewtyn. What is the purpose of the never-sighted Doctor's 'treatments' of Misfits that seem to do more harm than good? What do the guardians of Obernewtyn really want with all these Misfits?

Going back to the first of the Obernewtyn books has reminded me why it still seems to be the strongest of all the series. Firstly, I think it's the way it's written predominantly as a mystery story. Elspeth has spent so long just trying to survive and keep her talents hidden, that when she begins to discover the dodginess of Obernewtyn's goings on, it's her love for her friends that prompts her to act. She doesn't initially have a goal or a quest to fulfill, she just wants to find out why people are being hurt. It annoys me when fantasy novels disclose a 'quest' too early, so you simply spend the rest of your reading time waiting for the hero to get on with it, and any emotional/character growth simply gets in the way of the narrative. In Obernewtyn, Elspeth's quest unfolds bit by bit as she gradually pieces together what is going on at Obernewtyn, and the role she must play to avoid a repeat of the Great White. So while her quest does turn out to be rather a lofty one - saving the earth usually being left to the Buffys amongst us - both the intriguing mystery style structure and the relatively small cast of characters means you never feel that fantasy-novel-distancing effect I sometimes encounter as a reader. And matching up what we learn of the Beforetime earth to our earth is great fun. Carmody always writes it as tantalisingly both our world and not-quite-our-world, which makes your brain hover in a weird unsettled place between realism and fantasy.

The character of Elspeth herself is another reason why Obernewtyn is so enjoyable. I've always especially liked that when faced with the possibility of torture, she's pretty certain that if pain is inflicted, she'll spill everything about her friends to get the pain to stop. So rather than cliche-heroic stoicism, she decides in a Jane Eyreish "Keep well and not die, sir" kind of way that she'll just have to avoid being tortured. In the later books Elspeth does veer a bit more towards being the lofty noble heroine (I suppose having the fate of the world hanging over you would have to have an effect eventually), but in this first novel she's a very humanly flawed breath of fresh air.

While the later novels do get spectacularly more complex and epic in scope, in them the first book's committment to non-violence towards all humans and animals, and to fighting with words, mental abilities and cunning rather than broadswords deepens. This is a 'principle' I love about this series. I hate big 300/Lord of the Rings cast-of-thousands macho battles. They are UGLY and BORING. In the Obernewtyn series, the one death that Elspeth causes recurrs through the series as a deep mark on her aura, even despite the fact that she did not intend to kill.

Of course, there's also the longing that I've metioned before as something I associate with reading fantasy novels. Obernewtyn makes you desperately want to be able to communicate with animals, and have a one-eyed grumpy half-mad cat as your lifelong friend. Well, Paul's cat Vada (star of this entry's photo) is grumpy and half-mad but I still can't talk to her. Her ability to understand "dinner?" doesn't count. And Obernewtyn makes you want to live in a wild mansion in the mountains, and you want herbal healing to actually work, and you want to be part of a civilisation at its very beginning.

But mostly you want to be able to talk to animals. And ask them what they think of LOLcats.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham

From the favourer: "I think the reason this book made such a big impression on me had something to do with not settling for things just because other people have certain expectations of you. The only other book that gave me a similar face-slapping sense-check was 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'. In retrospect, I think 'The Razor’s Edge' smacks more gently and keeps the soft leather gloves on while doing so."

I’ve heard it said that you need to read The Razor’s Edge before you’re 20, preferably while you’re an Arts student. So I’m seven years late on the former and four years late on the latter, but given the fact that I only stopped being a student in 2006, and the added fact that I still haven't managed to leave campus, I think I’ll be okay.

Set amongst the high society of the 1920s and 30s, The Razor’s Edge is narrated by Maugham posing as himself. A writer who suddenly finds moderate success and the fame that goes along with it, he begins to be invited to dinner parties by Elliott. Elliott is an amicable career snob who has made it his life’s work to climb the ranks of the social elite: to charm every rich old lady, attend every important party, and host dinners that are the social equivalent of a golden ticket in a Wonka bar.

At one of Elliott’s lesser (but still beautifully orchestrated) dinners, Maugham meets Elliott’s niece Isabel and her fiancĂ©, Larry. Maugham doesn’t pay much attention to Larry, but notes that “though…he hadn’t said half a dozen words since entering the house, he seemed perfectly at ease and in a curious way appeared to take part in the conversation without opening his mouth.”

As Maugham’s friendship with Elliott and Isabel grows, he learns that rather than obediently taking a highly paid job and marrying Isabel, war veteran Larry has decided instead to pursue a notion unthinkable to the circles in which he moves: he wants to go to Paris and, in his words, “loaf”.

But Larry’s version of loafing doesn’t involve home delivery pizza and a boxed set of The West Wing, he goes there to live in a tiny room, spend basically no money, and to learn. This royal “screw you” to expectations and society obviously does not go down well, but Isabel agrees to allow Larry two years in Paris to get it out of his system before they marry. This was never going to work.

The proposed two years turn into a quest that sees Larry move from studying in Paris, to working in coal mines and on farms, to discovering mysticism in the mountains of India. But what is he really looking for? And what of those he leaves behind?

You’ve gotta love Maugham. Despite the fact that the female characters in his writing are generally whores or heartless bitches (I don't think he liked women very much), he creates such wonderfully varied, intriuging and rounded characters and writes them so wittily you can’t possibly be annoyed.

This includes the whores and the bitches, to his credit. I especially loved Sophie, alcoholic opium addict of 'dubious repute' who Larry intends to marry and ‘save’ from herself. Instead she racks off back to Paris to her old life, and in a great moment drawls to Maugham: “Darling, when it came to the point I couldn’t see myself being Mary Magdalen to his Jesus Christ. No, sir.” Don't blame her myself.

Larry is not a blind crusader, however. When Isabel initially tries to convince him that she could perhaps try his style of life in Paris, he observes:

“One can dress very nicely without going to Chanel. And all the interesting people don’t live in the neighbourhood of the Arc de Triomphe and the Avenue Foch. In fact few interesting people do, because interesting people generally don’t have a lot of money.”

When Isabel says: “Don’t be stupid, Larry…You know I’m not a snob. I’d love to meet interesting people”, he replies:

“Yes, in a Chanel dress.”


I actually found Larry less interesting as he became more spiritual. It’s hard to really like a character that becomes so removed from natural fluctuations of human emotion. Perhaps it says more about me than about him, but I always find a suspicion of smugness in spiritual transformations. It’s the same irritation I have with the smiles on images of mystical gods, they tease: “I know something you don’t know...”

I much preferred Larry in his Paris phase, and even felt a brief touch of first-year-uni nostalgia (craziness, I know) after his conversation with Maugham:

“‘Don’t you think you might tell me what you’ve been up to all the time you’ve been in Paris?’
‘I’ve been reading a good deal. Eight or ten hours a day. I’ve attended lectures at the Sorbonne. I think I’ve read everything that’s important in French literature and I can read Latin, at least Latin prose, almost as easily as I can read French. Of course Greek’s more difficult. But I have a very good teacher. Until you came here I used to go to him three evenings a week.’
‘And what is that going to lead to?’
‘The acquisition of knowledge,’ he smiled.
‘That doesn’t sound very practical.’
‘Perhaps it isn’t and on the other hand perhaps it is. But it’s enormous fun. You can’t imagine what a thrill is it to read the Odyssey in the original. It makes you feel as if you only had to get on tiptoe and stretch out your hands to touch the stars.’”

It gave me a little thrill of familiarity to read that paragraph.

Maugham, in his narrator incarnation, is a sharp and never-impartial observer, able to encapsulate amorphous character traits with amusing brevity. He describes Elliott, who tries to insist on escorting him to his flat every time, as having “the feeling I have noticed in some Americans who have lived many years abroad that America is a difficult and even dangerous place in which the European cannot safely be left to find his way about by himself.” Heh heh.

In fact I found Maugham to be one of the most interesting characters in the book, despite the fact that you spend most of the book standing next to him rather than looking at him. I wonder if anyone else has felt this way? In his way Maugham-as-narrator is just as much a rebel as Larry – always forthright, amused by Elliott’s ambitions, and never hesitating to call someone on a statement if he thinks it's crap. And it is his voice in the final paragraph that reveals, in his light and typically backhanded way, a truth about his friends that you could easily miss beneath the veneer of affectionate sentiment.

While I do understand why this book has a kind of cult following among students, I also think that the under-20 restriction is a bit harsh. Even leaving aside the fact that it’s beautifully written and corner-foldingly, email-signature-quotingly witty, I think it’s a book not just to inspire, but to re-inspire.

If you’ve ever had an overwhelming urge to yell: “Bugger the system, I’m going to hurl the mortgage to the wind and embark on a journey of discovery and adventure/pursue knowledge for the pure love of it/search for wisdom and happiness, and not give a rat’s arse if I end up without two pennies to rub together,” then there’ll be at least a part of this book that will reawaken that urge.

And if you haven’t had that “bugger expectations” urge, ever, in your entire life, then you need this book immediately.

And possibly some kind of electro-shock therapy.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Cook's Companion by Stephanie Alexander (2004 edition)

From the favourer: "Steph is the 'go-to girl' for all food-related matters. My kitchen bible."

*Warning to vegetarian friends, this blog entry contains photos/video of a recipe using meat*

Given that this book is somewhat of a doorstop, I thought that rather than reading the entire thing (which could take years in itself, especially if I read every ingredient measure), I would instead randomly open the book, read the introduction to whatever foodstuff section was being featured, and then pick a recipe from the chapter to cook for Paul and I, with accompanying photographs and videos of our success/dismal failure/burning the house down.

This whole random recipe choice thing seemed a great idea. So, we sit down on the couch the night before our weekly supermarket shop, and I open the book in my lap. I've opened it at the 'nectarine' section.

"Nectarines," I say.

"That's not really a main meal," says Paul.

Amendment #1: we will cook from any section of the book that will actually provide us with dinner, rather than just, say, a sauce.

I open the book again. Brussel sprouts.

"I hate brussel sprouts," says Paul.

I open the book several more times. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. I heave the book at Paul:

"You find a good one!"

He opens it, first time, at duck. Duck! I love duck. We'll roast a duck. Paul is all in favour.

Then he turns the page to the photo of a cute and friendly looking (live) duck. Paul's eyebrows go up. He looks at me with big liquid eyes.

We're not having duck. Sigh.

Amendment #2: We will not eat any animal that is pictured in a cute and friendly way opposite the recipe.

How many times are we going to have to 'randomly' open this book? Paul has another go. Kangaroo! They have kangaroo at our local supermarket! And there is no cute picture of a kangaroo on the following page. We're set. Maggie Beer's barbecued kangaroo with anchovy vinaigrette and soft polenta.

The Cook's Companion is always a wonderful read - I've found myself in past times reading whole sections describing, for example, how to open an avacado. It's just so nice to read! I advise you to keep it on your coffee table, pick it up in spare moments, read yourself into a ravenous stupor (and then probably order a pizza because like us your fridge contains a lettuce and some raw chicken wings for the cat).

So I read the whole section on kangaroo and wallaby before starting, and learn that the meat is best served pretty rare. This suits me fine. It also provides some information about the methods of kangaroo farming/hunting which are, I think, intended to comfort the squeamish. This is interesting but unnecessary for me; I think that if you choose to be a meat eater, you should be under no illusions about where your food came from, what its origin looked like, and how it was brought to you in its pretty polystyrene presentation.

We buy our kangaroo, all the other ingredients, and are ready to cook.

Uh oh:

The olive oil can is empty! The local supermarket is shut already. I sniff the olive oil then compare my sniff to the peanut oil (only other oil in the house apart from fish oil. We're not using fish oil). Peanut oil will have to do.

Many vital pre-cooking operations ensue:

Some of the instructions leave me a little unsure. I'm making a half-size recipe for Paul and I.

"What's half of 3/4 of a cup?" I ask Paul.
*sip of wine*
"It's too hard," says Paul. We continue cooking for a bit.

"WAIT!" yells Paul, "It's 1/3 of a cup! Isn't it? Hang on, no it's not..."
We conclude with "bugger it" and chuck in 1/2 a cup.
Sally forth!

The polenta & vinaigrette dealt with, we move on to the kangaroo fillets. I've decided to obey the instructions to the letter (except for the olive oil thing, but that was an accident. Oh, and except for the inclusion of mint. I hate mint. It's a strange thing to hate. My other ingredient dislikes are equally unlikely: balsamic vinegar, walnuts, melon and bananas. One day my fellow librarian Aimee brought a salad to work to share. It comprised melon, mint and balsamic vinegar. I had to leave the room). Fillets are to be sizzled for 45 seconds then roasted for 4 minutes. Paul is appointed timer.

"How long to go?" I say, a little while into the roasting.
Paul frowns at his watch. "I don't know," he says.

I try to turn them over with a fork. They're stuck! Paul comes to the rescue, aided only by a spatula. ("Where'd you get your neat spatula?" "SPATULA CITY!")

Fillets are finally removed from oven.

Now the recipe informs me we have to rest the fillets on a warm plate.

Warm plate! We don't have a warm plate! Why didn't it say, earlier on in the recipe, "you will soon need a warm plate"? Action stations:

On the home stretch now...serving time...and the result? NOM NOM NOM:

The final verdict:

Hooray for Stephanie Alexander! Zzzzzzz......