Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Great Library Challenge: Eco, Umberto The Name of the Rose

Posted by lea at 2:40 PM 7 comments Links to this post
Wow - finishing this book was quite a feat. This very dense and complex mystery is set in a Benedictine monastery in the 14th century before the complete power separation of state and church. The main protagonists are William of Baskerville, a Sherlock Holmes-esque character who is sent with his sidekick novice Adso (the narrator) to investigate some mysterious deaths occurring in the abbey.

The narrative is filled with gothic religious imagery, set in the confines of a cloistered and esoteric sect, and backgrounded by the religious power struggle that defined the church of the day.

The book is dense and multi-faceted - laid simply, these layers are:
  • the mystery that William attempts to unravel with every clue: how and why are the monks dying in such strange circumstances;
  • the theme of the danger of seeking and/or suppressing knowledge. All the clues lead to the mysterious and closely guarded library - the centre of knowledge;
  • social commentary on the atmosphere of the 14th century, the power struggle between the emperor and the pope, and the thinly veiled political machinations that joust in the sphere of religious theology.
In one respect, this is like a high-brow literary version of Sherlock Holmes, although I'm not impressed by the fact that Umberto Eco has apparently never even acknowledged the debt of inspiration (or straight out plagiarism) he owes to Arthur Conan Doyle for the characters and the plot. William and Adso have great chemistry - one the sage, learned and experienced detective, and the other a naiive and innocent novice. There are some great moments of humour in the way Adso faithfully recaptures William's speech, sometimes unaware of the sarcasm or wit it accompanies:

I never understood when he was jesting. In my country, when you joke you say something and then you laugh very noisily, so everyone shares in the joke. But William laughed only when he said serious things, and remained very serious when he was presumably joking.
(The Name of the Rose: Sixth Day; Prime)

Whilst the events of the novel take place within a single week, the plot moves at a snail's pace. Entire chapters are taken up describing things that have no bearing to the plot (like the carvings on a door), and there are more red herrings than a fisherman's basket.

When you finally get to the end, it comes quite quickly and is rather climactic and powerful. However, I do have a bone to pick with Mr Eco. I won't spoil the plot, but suffice (though confusing) to say that the basis of the mystery boiled down to the belief by a single and powerful monk that humour and laughter were a blight on the honour of the church, and that fear is the basis of Godly faith:

But laughter is weakness, corruption, the foolishness of our flesh... but law is imposed by fear, whose true name is fear of God.
(The Name of the Rose: Seventh Day; Night)

But anyone who knows their Bible will know that it preaches the complete opposite of that:

He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy. (Job 8: 21)
A merry heart does good like medicine (Proverbs 17:22)
For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but love, power and a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7)

So how is it that so pious a monk believes in a completely opposite doctrine to the Bible? Christian dogma may have changed throughout the ages but the Bible hasn't. Are you telling me that this monk, who knows even the most mysterious books inside out, hasn't read it yet? This kinda ruined the mystery for me because all the work Eco put into making the story so believable unwinds on the hinge of such a trivial detail - much like the apple business at the end of the Da Vinci Code (so wrong of me to even mention that book in this post). Lame.

I know this book is considered a major classic, but I'd only recommend it to the hardcore because it's quite a slog to read, although it is ultimately rewarding. I'd write more about the whole theme on knowledge because it's a fascinating topic, but I've got to mull over it a bit more first, and it's time to move on to F in my Great Library Challenge.

Off the library's F section I go!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The universe is conspiring to make me happy...

Posted by lea at 1:14 PM 3 comments Links to this post
It's the little things... like beautiful summer weather, having a public holiday to look forward to (hooray for Labour Day!) and the return of excellent TV shows that make me happy.

So that's the topic of my post today: 5 things that make me happy.

The sky
No matter what mood I'm in, I just have to glance upward and (as corny as this sounds) I can literally feel my heart soar with happiness. The wide expanse of open sky, whether it's scattered with clouds, hued with the colours of dusk or inky black with pinholes of light, reminds me that there's more to the universe than just me - just us. And that makes me happy.

Hubster
Crank up the cringe factor, but this is true. Those who know me will know that I never planned to get married, so when it happened it was a 180 degree reversal of all my best laid plans. However, it was the best decision I've ever made because whether we're lounging in front of the TV, joking in the car or getting (ahem) more affectionate, I love every minute with hubster because he makes me incredibly happy.

Reading a good book
Nerd alert. Nothing compares to the feeling of reading a really really good book, and then coming to the end and closing it with a massive smile on your face and wishing you could start all over again. Especially when that reading is happening on a beach or somewhere super comfy.

PS - speaking of reading, my Great Library Challenge is stalled on E right now - Umberto Eco is killing me with The Name of the Rose!! It's already consumed 2.5 weeks of my life and the end is only now in sight.
Good humour
Whether it's hanging with good friends or appreciating a genuinely funny TV show - like Seinfeld, Flight of the Conchords and Arrested Development, three now defunct series which I LURVE - nothing makes me happier than laughing with (or at) something or someone. Right now I'm celebrating the return of the following shows that make me laugh: Modern Family, Glee, 30 Rock, Big Bang Theory and Community.

Being able to see clearly
Sounds like a funny one, but this refers to my recent laser eye surgery. It's not so much being able to see clearly, which I could do before with contact lenses or glasses, but remembering that I NO LONGER NEED THEM TO SEE!! Goodbye fogged up glasses anytime I enter a warm room or try to eat a bowl of hot noodles. Goodbye painstaking cleaning of contact lenses that eats up my toiletry time and disposable income. Hello being able to see the clock first thing in the morning. Hello new 20/20 life!

What makes you happy?

Friday, September 17, 2010

My life in 10 dishes

Posted by lea at 3:19 PM 2 comments Links to this post
A few weeks ago, Jill Dupleix did a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald about a food biography. I liked the idea so I've decided to make it the topic for my post today, tracing my history through the foods that defined certain periods of my life.

 #10: Sherbet straws and coffin candy
Sweets were a staple part of my diet as a kid, and half my pocket money used to go to feeding my sugar frenzy. I particularly loved those really big sherbet straws that would clog up from saliva halfway through, and the candy shaped like skulls and bones that came in a small plastic coffin.

#9 Canned spag bol
It's a poor start to my food biography, but I used to be addicted to Leggos bolognese in a can. As hungry kids, when the parents weren't around (they were often at work), we'd just pop open a can of spag bol and nuke it for sustenance. This was actually a treat amongst the other rubbish I used to eat, like tomato sauce spread on bread, mayo spread on bread, tomato sauce and mayo spread together on bread...

#8 Fried sashimi
I know, it's an oxymoron... but so was I (har har). When I was a teenager, on special occasions, my parents would go to the fish markets early in the morning and bring home a fresh kingfish or salmon and slice it into thin sashimi pieces (long before sashimi bars became the popular urban choice they are today) that they, my brother and sister would devour with wasabi and soy sauce. But me: raw fish? Yuck. I would fill my plate with sashimi, dip them in egg and flour and then fry them, much to the chagrin of my family.

#7 Proper spag bol
I think this was the first dish I learned to make properly when I moved out of home. What a revelation to discover that if you threw in garlic, sundried tomatoes and red wine, it tasted even better than the canned stuff! Needless to say, this dish ended up on rotation almost every week for the next 10 years.

#6 Vietnamese chicken rolls
I fell in LOVE with these simple rolls that you can buy at any Vietnamese bakery many many years ago, and the love affair hasn't ended yet. These rolls are AWESOME and come with the added bonus of being cheap. My favourite was from the bakery on Burwood Rd - just down the street from where I used to live in Burwood in our little flat with diarrhea-brown 70s carpet. Even now they remind me of those days of youthful poverty and make me smile.

#4 Roast beef
I felt like a 'real' cook when I conquered roast beef and three veg. It was so delicious I decided to follow up with an encore presentation, which flopped because I wrongly bought silverside, being on a budget and knowing nothing about beef cuts back then. Things haven't changed THAT much, but I do know now that silverside tastes like salty spam on steroids.


#5 Maccas french fries
Not only do I love these little strips of deep-fried deliciousness for the taste, but they also have a good connotation for me because I shared my first kiss with my now-husband over a pack of these. Was it the fries that made the kiss so delicious or the other way around? It's a matter of the chicken or the egg, really. Both were great :)


#4 Sticky-date pudding
The first time I tried it (the Sarah Lee version), I thought I'd died and ended up on a different astral plane. I have very strict ideas about vegetables sticking their nose in where they don't belong (carrot cake, I'm looking at you), and although dates aren't a vegetable, I hated them with an intensity that even celery can't muster in me. Yet, in a pudding... it was transformed. And so was I. I mark this as the occasion that my palate grew up.

#3 Koshary
Imagine this: two girls in the busy city of Cairo, wander into a local restaurant a day before their adventure tour begins and order a bowl of who-knows-what. What we ended up with was a delicious lesson in cultural discovery. A combination of macaroni, lentils, rice, fried onion and a mouth-watering, tangy tomato-based sauce, koshary introduced me to the delight that is Egyptian cooking, and now has a special place in my heart and my recipe folder.

#2 Dragonfruit
I love dragonfruit not only because they look so pretty, but I love their subtle-sweet taste, especially the red-flesh variety. It always reminds me of Cambodia, where I tried it for the first time, and I remember sitting in the tuk tuk with Jinah coming back from the Russian markets, each holding a big red dragonfruit and devouring it like a banana with their skins peeled and hanging off the side, with red juice dripping down our arms in the sweltering heat.

#1 Vietnamese rice paper rolls... Korean-style
The epitome of awesome, these rice paper rolls are healthy and delicious. Slam dunk.They're easy to make too, just time consuming because of all the vegetables you have to wash and cut up (Korean-style means you add vegetables of every colour plus a variety of meats and a kick-ass sauce). The crowning glory is the sauce - the best I've ever tasted and now continue to make goes like this: in a food processor, blend together coriander roots, raw garlic, small hot red chillis and canned pineapple. Once blended, add fish sauce, the juice from the canned pineapple and a good squeeze of lemon juice. It. Is. Di. Vine.

Do you have food that defines your life? Is this topic as fascinating as I think it is or am I just obsessed with food?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Bloom in Cambodia

Posted by lea at 7:46 PM 1 comments Links to this post
I mentioned in a previous post that I'd been away, and that I'd write 'more about it later'. Well later is here now, so I thought I'd do a quick post about my trip.

The majority of my time was spent in Cambodia, where I volunteer in the Communications dept for Bloom Asia. Bloom was set up to help victims of trafficking in Cambodia, and currently runs a vocational training centre in the heart of Phnom Penh. Girls who have been rescued from trafficking are taught a vocational skill to help them create a new life, because without an alternative source of income, a huge majority of them will end up being re-trafficked within months, or even weeks of being rescued.

Sex trafficking is a very troubling issue in Cambodia, and is the result of a number of factors, the greatest of which is the crushing poverty of the country after the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Today, it is fueled by a highly sexualised, male-dominated society and a massive international sex tourism market.

I'm not going to go into all the figures and case studies of the victims - there's a lot of material out there already and suffice to say, it is horrific, soul-destroying stuff.

Instead, I'm going to talk about Bloom, because it's a place of hope, a place where students are taught the skills they need to create a better future. Girls who enter the program unable to even meet their trainer in the eye end up graduating with their heads held high. And rightly so. Their work is simply amazing.

Bloom's Hospitality Course, taught by Director Ruth Larwill, teaches the girls all the basics of hospitality (hygiene, service, etc) at an Australian Cert II level, and provides hands-on training working in a cafe, dealing with customers, baking a large variety of different cake recipes, and creating staggeringly beautiful sugar art. There is a large market for celebration cakes in Phnom Penh, and Bloom has managed to create a niche for itself with a cult following in just a few short months.

Here are a few images that will leave your jaw on the ground:



What is more amazing is that the majority of the students are not literate in their own language. This means that all classes are taught verbally, using flash cards, games and role play. For girls who have had little to no education, they are able to recite and recreate recipes on demand, and create sugar art that Ruth herself says exceeds her own abilities - and she's had over 20 years experience.

It is a privilege for me to be part of the Bloom team - people who are truly passionate about seeing these girls freed from a life of captivity, and creating a future full of promise and hope. The centre has such a great vibe - every morning all the students (and graduates, who are now full-time employees of the Cafe and Cakes business) sit around to plan their day, hear a short life-affirming message and play a game... speaking of which, you would NOT want to get caught between the girls and their games! They LOVE to play (evidence of their missing childhood?) and the shrieking and laughter (and competitiveness!) are a total buzz.

The girls are loved, appreciated, cared for and looked after by the Bloom staff, and are supported through their trials (literal legal trials against their traffickers and the punishing trials of daily life) like no other place I've ever seen.

While I was there, we had the privilege of being part of Bloom's third graduation. When the girls appeared in their gowns and caps to receive their certificates, the pride and emotion in the room were palpable. Parents who had experienced the deepest agony of seeing their child sold into a brothel now witnessed them being honoured, and the way they presented them with flowers and huddled around to take photos at the end was just beautiful.

A previous graduate had said that she'd been shunned by her community after she had been rescued, because they knew she'd been sold to a brothel, but when she graduated from Bloom and showed them the cake art she'd created, 'they told me that I had my value back.'

And that's what Bloom is about. It's about restoring worth and dignity upon girls from whom they have been unrightfully stolen. It's about bringing God's daughters back to a safe place where they can be nurtured to flourish. It's about doing what we can to stop injustice, which I think is part of our moral duty as a human being, let alone as a Christian who believes in a just and loving God. As Nike puts it so succinctly, we just gotta do it.

There are heaps of places on the internet where you can get more information about trafficking,  but here's a good place to start: www.stopthetraffik.org

For more about Bloom, go to www.bloomasia.org

The Great Library Challenge: Dean, Louise Becoming Strangers

Posted by lea at 1:03 PM 0 comments Links to this post
My D author for the Great Library Challenge, Louise Dean, was the Winner of the Butty Trask Prize and this particular novel, Becoming Strangers, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Do literary prizes mean much? I'm not so sure. I'd be more inclined to pick up a book that's won something, but as in this case, it won't always be a rewarding read.

I'm not saying this book sucked, just that it... didn't capture me. At all. It was a hard read because I couldn't identify with any of the characters and didn't particularly like any of them - in fact, I quite detested one of them, but that's not the emotion I would've liked to carry away.

The plot revolves around two couples on their last holidays in the Caribbean - in both cases, one party is suffering from illness (cancer and alzheimers). Another review described this book as 'an examination of the human condition' and I couldn't have put it better. I wanted something to happen, for there to be a build up or a climax or SOMETHING... but nothing much really happens except some detailed insight into some very well-worn marriages. Even so, it manages in its own way to be quite thought provoking.

Dean, through her protagonists and observations of peripheral characters, questions your ideas of marriage and loyalty. It's like taking one of those blue lights from CSI and flashing it into a real marriage, so you can see all the stains and crap that aren't normally visible. The marriages in her novel are way too real and rather depressing.

Halfway through the novel, I found myself turning to hubster and saying in a fit of passion, 'When we grow old, let's never become like those couples who grow apart, and let things get in the way of their relationship and never deal with issues.' And he was like, 'What the...? Okay.'

For now, this is my least favourite book from the Challenge, but with 22 more to go, I'm bound to hit some duds.

So onto my 'E' author... I chose Umberto Eco and originally I was going to read The Island of the Day Before, but a quick search found that there's an almost unanimous agreement that The Name of the Rose is his best work, so I'm going to wait until I can get my hands on that. In the meantime, I've borrowed Neil Gaiman's The Sandman graphic novel to keep me busy.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The great library challenge: Capote, Truman Breakfast at Tiffany's

Posted by lea at 4:25 PM 6 comments Links to this post
I chose this book for my 'C' author because:
  • Truman Capote has a big reputation and I wanted to know if his writing lived up to it;
  • I never really got why people loved the movie so much, and thought maybe the literary version would enlighten me;
  • I was travelling overseas (more in my next post) and wanted something short and quick that I could finish before I left.
I didn't have time to post my review before I left, so it's been two very long weeks and lots of experience since finishing this book, but to the best of my recollection, it was pretty good.

I still don't get why people love it so much - or more to the point, love 'her' so much. Holly Golightly. Quite a refreshing character in some ways, but totally flighty (not necessarily a bad thing), selfish, social-climbing, racist and immature in so many others. It's easy to love Audrey Hepburn in her very stylish portrayal of Holly, but as a literary character, she doesn't quite pass muster. One can't really understand why so many other characters in the book are obsessed with her, and personally, I think that Capote actually manages to portray a rather emotionally disturbed young lady who can't (or doesn't want to) connect with reality.

However, Capote's narrative style is impressive. He immerses you immediately in the 1950s New York social scene (for some reason I kept imagining everything in black and white) and his writing is like a confident hand in the small of your back pushing you along.

As for the next books in the challenge, I had a hard time picking my D author and easy time picking my E author. The only stipulation for this challenge is that I mustn't have read any of the author's books before.

So D is Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean, and E is The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco. Yes, shame on me for having never read him before.
 

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