Friday, August 20, 2010

The great library challenge: Bazell, Josh Beat the Reaper

Posted by lea at 3:02 PM 5 comments Links to this post
You're right, there have been a lot of 'greats' in the titles of my blog posts recently. Hopefully the content will one day catch up to the overuse of the word.

But back to my great library challenge. Author 'B' (Josh Bazell) is now down and out for the count. So was it the 'ice cold and ferocious read' we'd been promised? Yes, yes and more yes!

The plot begins like a whip held overhead, ready to crack. When it comes down, it takes you with it on a heartpounding ride that races back and forth from his past to the present. It's enough to give you whiplash.

The hero of the book is Dr. Peter Brown, a seriously tough guy in witness protection with a mafia background who is now a doctor. His first person narrative is punchy, informative (complete with footers for the detail-minded) and intelligent. He's a man who's got it all: the smarts, the toughs and a history worth hiding from. But when a patient from the past intrudes into his present, he finds himself in a race to... you guessed it: beat the reaper.

When I googled it for the cover image, pictures of Leonardo Di Caprio abounded, being apparently it's being turned into a movie with Leo playing the main role. Woot woot!

So onto author C of the great library challenge: I chose C for Classic, C for Capote, Truman Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The great Quorn experiment

Posted by lea at 11:36 AM 6 comments Links to this post
So lately, the treatment of animals prior to their death in order to nourish our bodies, has been weighing on my mind. I read a book that described the treatment of chickens on a UK battery farm and it was very disturbing. I haven't (and don't plan to) read Jonathan Safran Foer's apparently very excellent book Eating Animals because I know it will haunt me and quite frankly, affect my meat-loving self.

My position is that I would be happy to pay more to know that the animals whose flesh I'm eating had been treated well before their death. It's the least we could do, right? (The most we could do is to NOT EAT THEM but I'm not a freaky vegetable-lover thank you). To this end, I've weighed in on the comments sections of articles discussing this issue and also tried to reduce the meat intake in our house as a small protest against the mean meat factories (goodbye Steak Sundays).

... then along came QUORN, a British meat substitute that was apparently created by scientists in response to potential future food shortage. It's high in protein, consists mainly of fermented fungus and is much lower in fat than actual meat. I was excited to hear about it and finally tracked down Quorn mince at our local supermarket on the weekend.

At $6 for 300g, it's almost double the average price of mince, but it could simply be that it's much lighter than real mince, because quantity-wise, 300g seemed much like the mince meat equivalent of 500g or possibly even a little more.

Hubster had flatly refused to eat it previously, but since he was out at the pub last night for after-work drinks, I thought I had a pretty good chance of sneaking it past him. First, he'd be hungry from the delayed dinner, and secondly he'd probably be slightly fuddled by alcohol.

When he walked in the door, there I was like a good wife stirring a pot on the stove top.
What evil lurks beneath that smile?

Him: Hey, that smells great!

Me: Yep, it's spag bol.

Him: (suspicious face) That's not....

Me: Don't worry, it's just mince (technically not a lie, since it's called 'Quorn mince'), I found it in the freezer (which is where I put it after shopping... ha ha).

Him: Okay cool.

Skip to after dinner...

Me: (Looking at his empty bowl which has practically been licked clean) So tell me honestly... did you even notice the difference?

Him: What? (looks in his bowl, looks at me slightly aghast) You lied to me!

Me: I didn't lie! It is called mince and it was in the freezer. But could you tell?

Him: (after an ardent meat-eater's hesitant pause) No, it was actually really nice...


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The great library challenge: Akunin, Boris Turkish Gambit

Posted by lea at 4:02 PM 0 comments Links to this post
The first author of the alphabet is now down, with Boris Akunin's Turkish Gambit complete and under my belt. Actually, I just found out his real name is Grigory Chkhartishvili, so perhaps he should've been my 'C' author.

I mentioned previously that Akunin had been compared with other Russian literary greats like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. The similarity for me as a reader was in that I wanted to skip all the war bits and get down to the human drama. I'm not sure if T or D would have written political crime fiction if they'd been alive today, but if they did, I'm guessing there would have been less swashbuckling action and more human tragedy.

Instead, what we get in Turkish Gambit is Erast Fandorin, a 'gentleman sleuth' in the epicentre of war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, surrounded by intrigue, espionage, and a strong-willed and spirited young Russian woman, Varvara  Suvorova. In fact, there's so much political intrigue that it's sometimes hard to follow.

Turkish Gambit is part three of a series of Erast Fandorin novels by Akunin, and knowing this, I now wish he'd intruded more in the narrative than he does. I like what I've glimpsed of him so far – super-cluey, intelligent, modest to a fault and highly respected – sounds like my kind of guy. In this book, he's the modest hero who does the grunt work, while the story is told from the point of view of Varvara, who has journeyed to the Balkan front to reunite with her fiance, a war telegrapher who is wrongly jailed.

The ending is a little... unsatisfying, but the story resolves of its own volition, thanks to the hero. Also thanks to the hero, Russian crime lit has just gone up in my radar.

Now, onto B. I've chosen Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell, apparently an 'ice cold and ferocious read'. Is it really? I'll let you know.

Boy is kiwi magic

Posted by lea at 3:07 PM 6 comments Links to this post

Boy is a charming Kiwi film about 11 year old Boy growing up in Waihau Bay, New Zealand. Boy and his younger brother Rocky live with their grandmother, since their father has been jailed and their mother died during childbirth. He loves Michael Jackson, dreams of his heroic father, and drools over local pretty girl Chardonnay.

Boy's life takes a turn when his father, played by actor and director Taika Waititi, shows up with his Crazy Horse gang (two fairly incompetent friends) to find his buried cash. A humorous and heartwarming film, Boy's best assets are the beautifully understated performances of the two main kid actors, James Rolleston (Boy) and Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu (Rocky).

The script is full of humour, mostly quirky with an occasional broad streak, and the drama is downplayed. The Kiwis, like the British, have a hard time expressing their emotions, but they don't disguise it with a stuff upper lip. Instead you get great human moments of raw awkwardness that are touching and warm.

My only criticism would be that perhaps the story is too underplayed, which could potentially leave a lack of emotional connection. The single crux of the film is that Boy's dreams of his father are crumbled when he sees his fallibility (hilariously portrayed in Michael Jackon-esque scenes), but it's a slow journey and the climax lacks the oomph that we expect in great cinema. However, on the whole, Boy is a lovely film and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Great Library Challenge

Posted by lea at 11:58 AM 0 comments Links to this post
I was almost giddy with excitement yesterday when I discovered how close my new office location is to the Surry Hills library, of which I am a member through my City of Sydney libraries membership.

Have I mentioned that I LOVE LIBRARIES?!!!?

Where else can you get a smorgasbord of books, dvds and cds that you can borrow for FREE? Where else can you discover new authors and lose yourself in different worlds in the comfort of a quiet air-conditioned space solely dedicated to readers?

Ah, library memories... in primary school, my friends and I used to get regularly ejected from our local Ashfield Library for being noisy, then I used to sneak back, sans friends, to borrow books and tapes (yes cassette tapes. I am that old.). During high school, the library foyer was primarily the location for my friends and I to hang out and play card games. I think for pretty much most of my life, I've never been without at least one library card on my person.

Anyway, back to my Great Library Challenge. The background to this is that there are SO MANY BOOKS in the world, and my exposure to them is limited. I tend to re-read books I love, read the same authors or in the same genres, and don't often read books unless they've been recommended by trusted sources or received a good public review. So I've decided to go through the alphabet and borrow from amongst authors that I've never read, starting with A.

Beginning the Great Library Challenge is Boris Akunin. According to the back of his books, he's a Russian crime writer who's been compared to Tolstoy and Dostoesvky - let's hope that comparison isn't just based on his nationality. Fingers crossed... let's go!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Wuthering Heights sucks big time

Posted by lea at 1:57 PM 26 comments Links to this post
I will never understand how Wuthering Heights achieved such cult status. The characters are awful, the situation ridiculous and the writing absolutely bog-sewer atrocious.

Let's start with the main characters. Heathcliff and Cathy are the most vile, melodramatic, selfish and unnecessary creations in literary history. There isn't a single appealing aspect of their characters, and their so-called 'love' is shallow and self-torturing. Heathcliff, cried up by the author as such a dark and tortured character, is simply one-dimensional and boring as hell (except when he's being domestically violent). He's an immature stamp-footy cry-baby who never gets over his forced separation with Cathy, won't stay away and let her be happy with her choice of husband, and then interferes with their offspring for his own dastardly delight. Bastardly, more like. He is simply pathetic, and not in the good literary 'pathos' kind of way.

Their offspring are almost as bad. The second Cathy is more forgivable, but by God how many times did you want to slap Linton across his weak-willed, self-pitying face? The trashy schoolgirl ending with the ghosts of Heathcliff and Cathy undo the goodwill of Heathcliff's redemption in allowing Hareton and Cathy II to get together.

It's my understanding that Emily Bronte gained publication of her manuscript off the back of her sisters' successes, and in the early days, there was a widespread belief that Wuthering Heights was in fact an earlier, more immature work of her sister Charlotte. This is no wonder, because her attempt at writing in Wuthering Heights is abysmal. Case in point: the original narrator is the self-proclaimed hermit Mr Lockwood, whose heightened curiosity about Wuthering Heights and its inhabitants is unlikely from the first. He re-tells the story as told to him by the servant Nelly Dean, and at points of the narration, Nelly Dean re-tells someone else's  version of the story, so you have a narration-within-a-narration-within-a-narration situation, yet the style of writing never changes. When Joseph speaks in this thick almost-unintelligible brogue, every storyteller reproduces it faithfully. This stretches the imagination of even the most gullible.

The entire story is suffocatingly small both in scope and nature, and the fact that it was even published is astonishing, let alone its success in the past 150 years and the number of people who defend its 'complexity and depth'. For me, it was a waste of time and even the $3.50 I bought it for.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

How much do we really need?

Posted by lea at 5:00 PM 3 comments Links to this post
The media is buzzing with the news that over 40 US billionaires have pledged to give away half their fortunes to charity in their lifetime. I'm stoked - good on them!

Here's the goss:

Dozens of U.S. billionaires pledged on Wednesday to give at least half their fortunes to charity as part of a philanthropic campaign by two of the world's richest men -- Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.

Based on Forbes magazine's estimates of the billionaires' wealth, at least $150 billion could be given away. Among the rich joining The Giving Pledge campaign are New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, media moguls Barry Diller and Ted Turner, Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, "Star Wars" movie maker George Lucas and energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens.

The campaign asks U.S. billionaires to give away at least half their wealth during their lifetime or after their death, and to publicly state their intention with a letter explaining their decision.

"I've long stated that I enjoy making money, and I enjoy giving it away," energy tycoon Pickens, who is worth about $1 billion, said in his Giving Pledge letter. "I'm not a big fan of inherited wealth. It generally does more harm than good."

Source: Reuters 

I'm thrilled to hear about this, because giving is something I've been thinking about a lot lately- not on the billionaire level, but on the average person's level. How much do we really need before need turns to want turns to excess?

It's easy to say, 'Oh they're billionaires - they can afford to give away that much'. But like the story of the widow and the two mites*, it's all relative. They can afford to give away BILLIONS of dollars and we can't, but surely we can still afford to give away tens of dollars... maybe hundreds even, and you're in a very good position if you can afford to give away thousands.

It's great too to hear that it's happening in the secular field of business, because for too long, charity has been the domain of churches and religion. Say what you will, but religious people are givers. A review from Stanford University showed that the average religious person is 25% more likely to give financially and 23% more likely to volunteer their time than a demographically identical nonreligious person - and this includes giving to nonreligious causes (source: Hoover Institution Publications).

Much of this can be attributed to exposure and opportunity: churches regularly focus on needs and causes from around the world and give opportunities to the congregation to give towards them. It can also be attributed to the widespread religious belief that it is our duty to help our fellow man, which is based in the root of most religions: love. This is what caused Mother Teresa to go into the slums of Calcutta, and what an example she is.

Not everyone can be a Mother Teresa, and not everyone will be motivated by love. I'd find it hard to believe that most of these billionaires are giving their money out of love. I'd believe that many of them are giving out of compassion and generosity, but in most likelihood, I imagine most will do it just because they can. And frankly, that's not a bad motivation.

How much do we really need, apart from shelter and clothing and some luxuries that give us enjoyment? How much before our wealth becomes a burden and not a joy? I don't advocate giving out of guilt - if you work hard for your money, you should be able to spend it however you want. BUT it's worth remembering, before we buy the latest model of the gadget we already have, that a single dollar can feed a hungry person in another part of the world, and that a few dollars more can prevent a child from being sold to a pedophile.

Okay, enough preaching. If you don't know enough charities to give to, try TEAR's gift-a-month, which allows you to give to a different charity every month. Great idea.

* Mark 12:41-44 in the Bible - a wealthy man and a poor widow give money, and the wealthy man is pleased with himself because he gave so much more than the widow, however in God's eyes, what the widow gave was worth far more because she gave from her lack, while he gave only a tiny portion of his wealth. This is Einstein's theory of relativity at work.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

That Guy Sebastian

Posted by lea at 2:41 PM 1 comments Links to this post
The other night, Nat loaded me in the car and headed out towards Bankstown, under the guise of going to Habib's for dinner (a great Lebanese charcoal chicken place with to-die-for garlic sauce). When we got there, he parked the car in the Bankstown Sport Centre carpark and lo and behold, whose poster did I see but the one and only Guy Sebastian performing for one night only?!

It wasn't a coincidence, but a lovely planned surprise because I love hearing Guy sing live (or on cd, or radio, or anywhere at all) - he's a superb singer and a really great entertainer. And don't underestimate these local sports clubs - those pensioners must be spending bucketloads on the pokies because they're pretty impressive even in all their tackiness. It had state of the art ID check-in stands, around 4 or 5 restaurants (including a fine dining one) and more lights than Christmas, not to mention that the showroom was actually really similar to the one at Star City.

Guy did a great set with a mix of old and new favourites from his albums (Elevator Love, Art of Love and of course, Angels Brought Me Here), plus a few cool renditions from other artists thrown in. Before I knew it, my feet were tapping, my head was bopping and there was a massive smile on my face, which was mirrored by just about everyone there (lots of youngish and older couples, families and women). He really is a great performer, and his funny stories set everyone at ease and segued his songs perfectly. Particularly memorable was his anecdote about the poor plumbing in his current apartment in LA, which once housed John Lennon. A flush of the toilet led to around 30 years worth of sewage to come gushing out of the bathroom pipes, so having already been familiar with John Lennon's sh*t, he proceeded to sing his song Jealous Guy.

There was also a really interesting part of the concert using a recording device, into which he used a combination of beatbox, ukelele and vocals (recorded live on the spot) to accompany a medley of songs including Jason Mraz's I'm Yours, Alicia Key's Noone and Travie McCoy's currently ubiquitous Billionaire, amongst others.

But I think the best part of the night was just his personality. He came back to Australia off the back of an American tour along the west coast with Jordin Sparks, and bounced into the concert after a day of filming the X Factor, a show in which he's one of the judges, but his pleasure at playing to a westie crowd in Bankstown was totally genuine. His charming and disarming nature is simply impossible to dislike, and add to that the heart, energy and talent of himself and his great band, and you have one heck of show.

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