Why reading and writing is the road to happiness...

This blog started years ago as a place to muse on the life projects keeping me entertained. It is no surprise then that it has morphed into a blog about my reading as that has been my lifelong project. Here I review lots of different types of books, with an added focus on Australian women writers. Hope you enjoy - feel free to contribute to the conversation!

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

A Day for Wine and Jesus...

We have had an epic couple of weeks renovating the house in time for my daughter's christening which was held on Sunday. We joked that we were like contestants on The Block, racing to finish before we would be judged by family. Well, we made it - deck finished, sanded and stained. Pegoda finished. Sliding doors finished, and walls plastered. House rendered, but unfortunately not painted yet - that will happen in a month or so. We collapsed in a heap on the Saturday afternoon, and then I began the final clean to have the house in a reasonable state. And then I had to think about preparing food for 70 or so people. Easy with an irritable nine month old demanding attention. Needless to say I was up til midnight, and back up in the dark the next day to finish about ten tonnes of various salads, and put the final touches on the fab lolly bar we have been collecting sweets for over the weeks.
But enough of the tedious housework talk... a topic that had us talking at the party was the sermon from the Reverend during the Christening. My family are religious in a general way - that is, have been christened, or went to Sunday school and went to church as children, but do not attend church anymore. The Reverend had discussed with us the issue of growing a parish in this day and age and we sympathised - it's much like running a business isn't it? And a business that relies on people taking time out of their busy lives to give up a Sunday morning lie in! A very tough sell. So, upon hearing about our sizeable party attending church that Sunday, the Reverend must have given some consideration to his sermon in its appeal to his captive audience. He spoke of the fatigue that we are all feeling these days, the trials that weary us and make us constantly anxious. Job stress, taking care of elderly parents, grappling with cancer, losing superannunation in the GFC...the kind of things that touch all of our lives. And he reminded us that someone is there to give us a rest from this stress - he said, let God take a load off you. God is always here to give you some relief from the stress. I immediately thought of all the food waiting at home that needed to be prepped, worried that I hadn't made enough, hadn't bought enough wine, that it would rain, that people would notice the baby food stains on the carpet...would God relieve this stress?
We discussed the sermon at the party and all of us had thought of our various little stresses and thought of how tired life makes us, and we laughed when we all agreed that we wished God would step in and take off some of the load. And we discussed how strange it was to hear that sort of comforting talk, and agreed that it was that reassurance that someone was looking out for us that possibly made people continue to attend church even though it seems such an old fashioned institution in our lives today. We also agreed that our lives are so dictated now by change and flux, that the constancy of the church - or temple, or synagogue, or mosque - can be a comforting stalwart amongst this ebb and flow. Food for thought.
Anyway, I had made the goal in a previous post to be a cool, calm and collected host - well, I wasn't always entirely calm, but I think I was mostly collected. And the lolly bar was a massive hit among the young and old. And I didn't have to hope for a miracle for water to turn to wine - there was plenty left over, enough for a celebratory glass afer everyone went home. And that was comforting....

Two days before the party....

And the same spot the night before the party with a lolly bar - poms poms hand crafted by my mother. Fab!

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Parental Guilt Reaches Fever Pitch

Parental guilt starts from the minute the pink lines appear on the pregnancy test stick and you and your partner think back to the previous Saturday night when two bottles of sparkling white were consumed along with some sashimi and camembert cheese. Oops - already starting off on a bad foot. And it goes on from there....
Our parental guilt reached fever pitch on Saturday night, coiniciding with a real fever pitch: my daughter's temperature in fact. 39 degrees celcius and rising. Off to Emergency we went, carrying only a clutch with lip gloss, a Medicare card, credit card for the exorbitant parking fee, and enough guilt to make the Catholic Church rub their hands with satisfied glee. 
Our little pallid skinned, feverishly burning family unit had four hours to reflect on our parental guilt while we sat in the children's emergency room, facing off with other guilty family units nursing broken elbows, possible kidney stones, bronchitis, and several delightful cases of gastroenteritis. Here are the things to be learnt from the children's ward of the ER:
  • You will be wearing your worst clothes, barely fit for public display. You'll feel guilty for this because it will confirm that you keep a messy house and you're too lazy to maintain suitable clothing into the evening hours.
  • You will make jokes to the nurses about DOCS being called in response to whatever has happened to your kid. Broken arm? We've told little Jonny not to run down the stairs a million times. Gastro? I thought the leftovers might have been a bit too old. Measles? We thought they might have been mosquito bites. Guilty, guilty, guilty. You are a negligent parent.
  • You will mirror the expression of all the other parents in the ward - the thousand yard stare as you think back to the good times when you didn't have any responsibility. Remember Saturday nights when you'd be doing shots, and contemplating whether you'd dance to the next track or go outside to chat up some hottie that made eyes at you ten minutes ago? Remember? You'll feel guilty thinking like this because you should be feeling sorry for your little sick person, not sorry for yourself. You know what? You'll still feel more sorry for yourself.
  • You will have a full bladder and you'll be thirsty as hell. You'd like to go to the bathroom, and have a drink of water, but the sick kid won't let you leave them, and you dare not touch the gastro germed taps or toilet seat of the emergency ward. You'll feel guilty for thinking only of your own needs. You should be selfless. But you still seriously need to go to the toilet.
  • You will silently convey allegience with the other parents as you take your script, pick up your kid, and stagger out of the ward to make your way through the plastic doors out to freedom. You're all in this together: you're guilty, we're guilty. We're all bad parents. Until we meet again next flu season comrades - take strength for the battelfield that is parenting.
The only antidote to a guilt laden trip to emergency is a healthy week's dose of antibiotics and we are currently enjoying the fresh hell of forcing cherry flavoured medicine down a resistant baby's throat. Awesome.
Anyone else had an attack of the parental guilts lately?

Monday, 18 June 2012

Book Review - Charlotte Wood 'Love and Hunger'

Recently finished the loveliest book, Charlotte Wood's 'Love and Hunger: Thoughts on the Gift of Food'. The experience of reading it was like slipping under a doona with a cup of hot chocolate on a rainy Sunday. Absolutely delicious and cosy. Wood is a journalist and novelist who often writes on food related issues - her recent Good Weekend article where she experimented with cooking and eating offal for a week was great reading. This is a collection of her musings on food and its many aspects of etiquette: what to cook for funerals, the best food for beach house holidays, why our tastes change as we age, dinner party etiquette, and our relationship with soup among other topics. Wood writes in a succinct fashion, never wasting words, but still manages to make the reading experience leisurely and comforting. 
Love & HungerSeveral ideas or points in the book provoked me into some new behaviour. Firstly, her thoughts on dinner party etiquette in the book and on the discussion on her blog have made me renew my attitude to what to bring to a party. Someone scathingly referrred on her blog to the disdain he felt when people brought store bought hummus and chips to dinner parties. Ooops! Yep, guilty. It is such an innocuous food stuff to bring to someone's house that I never really gave it any thought - and it's always accompanied by a good bottle of wine! But I take his point - it's pretty impersonal. Charlottle refers to a 'hostess gift' - I'm going to use that term from now on - and she argues it's nicer to bring some homemade tidbit, something grown or made. She suggests chutney, or jam, or the excess zucchini you can't use from your veggie patch, or some honey you bought on holidays. Yes, that would be lovely to receive if you were hosting the party. My father always brings home made hummus when he comes over and I appreciate the gift - it also tastes better than the store stuff! I've tried to make my own hummus but it always seems like too much work. But now - well, the hard things in life are always the best aren't they? So, I shall endeavour to make something for my next 'hostess gift'.
Secondly, Wood describes the pleasure she and her partner take in stopping at the roadside stalls where farmers are selling their produce. I've never stopped at a stall! Dreadful. So, on our holiday last week, I thought of this, and we stopped at a MOAD stall in Nana Glen (small town northern NSW where Russell Crowe famously has a farm). Wood informs me that MOAD is a 'Money or a donation' stall. Nana Glen specialises in bananas and we picked out a fabulously golden bunch, throwing the requested two dollar coin down the tube that ran all the way down the hillside to the family home where a pan presumably held all the coins. The bananas were divine. Tart but sweet at the same time. That's the first time I have bought from a road side stall in Australia. Why do we always do that stuff in other countries but not in our own home?
And finally, one essay looked at the need for a host to be calm at all times - otherwise guests feel stressed about coming, relaxing, taking their time over the dinner, lunch etc. Wood lists all the ways a host can be prepared before guests arrive to create the illusion (!) that everything is under control. So I take this advice for the big party I am holding at our house this Sunday - about 70 people to cater for, and entertain. Serenity now.....serenity now.

Charlotte Wood's blog can be found here - 

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Dear Prime Minister

On Monday night I formalised my burgeoning personality as a cranky old crackpot by huffing my way through an angrily penned letter - ok, actually I tapped out an email (modern technology has really taken the romance out of the letter written in anger hasn't it?). It wasn't to my local newspaper, although I have threatened many times to write to the editor there on such pressing issues as the increasing amount of grafitti in our area, and the lack of clean public toilets in the parks. No, I haven't gone through with that threat, namely because J said he would be mortified if my name appeared next to such a 'Nanna-esque' correspondence. Nor have I written an email to my local member to complain about the fact that our recycling bins are only emptied every fortnight, which is a real impediment to a thorough collection of all recycled materials, and quite frankly the bane of my existence as empty milk cartons and Pinot Noir bottles mount precariously in my pantry. No, I haven't contacted my local member - that's for small fry. I have emailed the Prime Minister - directly. And not because I'm angry at her. I'm not angry at her - I'm angry at all the negative nellies that continually demonise her for her clothes, her voice, her marital status, her childlessness, her treatment of KRudd (I've moved on, can't everyone else?), and her policies which are in reality supporting the working class of Australia, and giving a bit of stick to the very wealthy. I'm over it. And her treatment at the hands of Tony Jones on Q and A on Monday night pushed me over the edge - he would never speak to Tony Abbott the way her spoke to her, and it confirms for me my belief that much of this is pure sexism. Sure, people might not agree with her policies as well - that's fine. Tony Jones may be a Liberal voter. But there is an underlying sexism in his, and other individuals' treatment of her, that is palpable. 
People need to remember that being a Prime Minister is a seriously tough gig, and possibly we should also remember and be happy that our Prime Minister isn't having sex with her interns, or having bongo bongo parties with sixteen year old models (it was bongo bongo parties wasn't it or am I making that up?), and she isn't having people executed, thrown in jail for expressing their beliefs, or using the military as her henchmen. I think she's doing a pretty bloody good job representing us, and I emailed her to tell her. And to thank her for my non-means tested paid parental leave which was very appreciated, and to encourage her to keep looking at the troubling issue of child care in this country, which I believe is a major cause of women being held back in the workforce. I am thrilled that she is discussing it, and won't be whinging if there isn't a solution straight away, because I understand that it's a difficult issue to resolve. And I told her to ignore the crap about her jackets - I actually like Carla Zampatti anyway...
So - I hope she gets that email because I've decided that I'm no longer going to fume in silence over issues, and secondly, if people are doing the right thing I will let them know. We get so little positive feedback these days that I think it boosts people's morale to have just a little kindness directed their way. Like the email I sent to Coles last month to congratulate the wonderful staff that deliver my groceries. They are fantastic - very friendly, and helpful. Will they hear about that email though? Hhmmm, probably not: the Coles people are too busy throwing money at British comediens to sell our products when an Australian would do just as well at the job. Gee there's another email in that I think...
Anyway, I'll let you know if I get a reply from JG. I wait with bated breath...

Monday, 11 June 2012

Sydney - Lift Your Game!

We've just come back from a week on the north coast of NSW and the experience has compounded a suspicion that I had started to form earlier in the year on our road trip to South Australia. Like most people, we eat our way through a holiday, and this one was no exception. And I have come to the conclusion that regional areas have overtaken Sydney on the culinary front, and they are kicking ass. I'll concede that Sydney and Melbourne no doubt will always own the high end restaurant market, but we've found the casual dining in the north coast region, and along the route from Sydney, through Victoria to South Australia was so sophisticated and innovative in using seasonal produce, that we have felt a bit bored with the cafe dining here in Sydney. The food in Mildura - granted it is actually known as a foodie's heaven - was so amazing that we'll be going back just to stay there rather than spend one night on route. And the South Australian towns used regional produce like nothing we've seen here - we went to a cafe in Hahndorf that served us piping hot raspberry muffins straight out of the oven and garnished with huge dried apricots, crisp oats and drizzled with local honey, accompanied by boutique beer brewed on site. And the owner sat down with us to discuss his choice of vineyards to visit in McLaren Vale. These Sydneysiders nearly fell over from the sheer friendliness...
We've eaten out in most hot spots in Sydney and done the restaurants, fawned over the celebrity chefs, eaten the Zumbo cakes - but do you know, I think Sydney is getting a bit lazy and resting on its 'big city laurels'. And I really think we are lacking those little cafes that are visually inviting, have staff that care about seasonal produce, present the food beautifully, and keep the price as reasonable as possible - and gasp, yes as a parent I now realise that making you feel welcome with kids is a bonus as well!
Here's our breakfast from a fabulous cafe called Split in the little town of Sawtell, 10km or so near Coffs Harbour - it was a cafe that doubled as a bike shop cum meeting point for the Sawtell cycling club, and the food was delicious. I ordered muesli, and it had pistachios, chestnuts, the toastiest oats, and shredded crisp Granny Smith apple. J had a full breakfast with chorizo and a hash ball that was so light and crunchy, homemade relish on the side. The coffee was supreme. And for this city slicker, the price was ridiculous. Remind me again why I live in this city? Okay, okay the work opportunities, the easy access to culture blah blah blah...I guess we'll just have to keep going on holidays.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

The Great Scone Challenge - Baking

Well, when I fail at something I turn to my usual strategy - cheating. And since my scone making has continued to fall flatter than a ballet dancer's chest, I have resorted to accepting help from the masters - the CWA. Did you know that you can buy a pre mixed scone flour especially commissioned by the CWA? No? Well, now you do. I spied it in my local Woolies and while I felt a bit naughty for using a packet in my quest to become a better baker, I felt reassured nonetheless that I was being mentored in a way by the consumate bakers. The verdict? I threw some water into the mix, and it was very sticky so I thought I had used too much (no of course I didn't measure it - that's why my baking always fails!), and prepared for another failure. I placed the scones close together, as advised by the CWA instructions on the side of the box, to help the rising. And I baked for 18 minutes. I can tell you that they looked pretty bloody bonza in the oven - hey I'm already talking like someone from the CWA! Okay, they were connected and were pretty much just one giant scone, but what a scone it was! Fluffy, light, crusty on the outside. They were fantastic. My guests gobbled them up. Those CWA woemn sorted me right out. Is there anything those women can't do?
Right, now I'm going to attempt another CWA classic - the sponge....*deep intake of breath*