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, 24 July 2012

I Give A Bo Peep

Noone would ever accuse me of being a patriot. I don't have a Southern Cross tattoo, I don't own an Australian flag, and I'm pretty sure I've never uttered that hideously cliched phrase, 'G'day mate'. But I do care about this country, and more to the point, I care about its people. So it's been with a growing alarm that I have listened to news report after news report in the last several years of Australians losing their jobs as Australian companies go under or are bought out by foreign enterprises. We all wrung our hands and muttered about the irony of Vegemite being owned by an American company a few years ago, but did we do anything to rectify that matter? No. Do we all still buy Kraft Vegemite? Yes. Despite the fact that we are, I dare say, Vegemite's only customer, given the rest of the world think its like tar in a jar - and yet, the Americans are getting all the proceeds from that particularly Australian culinary treat. I've also become increasingly distressed this year as more and more workers from car manufacturers in small towns are laid off in the droves - it's reported on the news for one night, and the government shakes its head in dismay - and then we move onto the next night's news, already forgetting the plight of the car factory worker who has a mortgage to pay, children to feed, and a new job to find at age 45 in a small town.
The financial trouble of family owned Darrell Lea was the final straw for me. Here's a company that is owned and run by an Australian family, it has products that have great meaning and memories for millions of Australians, and its products are well manufactured, reasonably priced, and available to all Australians. The global financial crisis no doubt hit Darrell Lea hard as it did with all the retail sector in Australia - and chocolates are a luxury item. We all know that. But what a shame that this company will be bought, possibly by a big, anonymous, probably foreign company - an Australian institution will be lost yet again, and gradually all the workers that would have been nurtered by the family style management of the Australian company will be laid off as the company is streamlined, commercialised, probably Americanised. And while there has been a surge of support for the Darrell Lea stores, as reported by an increase in their sales as Australians rally to provide enough wages for the staff during the takeover - I'm afraid in a few weeks time, it will be old news. Noone will give a Bo Peep.
Well I give a Bo Peep. We quite regularly buy Darrell Lea chocolates, in particular the Caramel Snows and J's favourites, Peanut Brittle. I bought some today. And we, as a family, have agreed that we will make a concerted effort to buy Australian owned. Now I must admit, I've made this promise before, and then failed as the temptation to save dollars by buying the 'Store Brand' products has taken precedence. But these products are all produced overseas - I've started looking at labels again. New Zealand seems to feature prominantly - well, lucky they are pretty much friends I guess. But I'm deternined to do my bit to save Australian companies. So we're sucking it up, and paying a bit more to have it pay off at the end. For our children, and their children. May they always eat Australian made Rocky Road.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Project Updates - Four Shades of Grey?

Haven't updated the projects for a while so here is a quick run down of what has been projecting happiness lately...
Renovation: We have taken a litttle break for a while, a bit of breathing space from gyprock dusty air and plaster shavings on the carpet. The biggest thing we have done this month is cement render the old red brick facade and we now wait for six weeks or so before we paint. That's lucky because we have to choose colours - and while we would never think of ourselves as dithering old nannas when making renovation decisions, we have in fact stood at this colour palette painted on the facade and contemplated with great seriousness four different shades of bone and grey. This is the sort of ridiculous introspection that gives renovators a bad name. Anyway, we'll probably go with test colour three and regret our decision for the next twenty years.
Gardening: This gardening business is a test in patience. Everyday I rush out to see if anything looks even remotely bigger, or even an inch closer to edibility. At the very least, I can say that the leaves of my broccoli and spinach are picture perfect - no bug bites or discolouration. I'm as pleased as punch, but still impatient to cut off that first head of brocolli. I suppose I'll just keep waiting and willing this sunny weather to go on and on...

Baking: Still have not made that sponge cake I threatened to try, but we had a Tour de France party here on Saturday and I made Apple Tarte Tatine from Jamie Oliver does France. It was tres delicious - and very easy.

Running: Have gone back to training, and have committed myself to the Sutherland to Surf 11km run this Sunday. Two years ago I did it in 60mins flat - expecting to take 3 hours this year! May need to stop in on someone's house on the way for a pee stop and something to eat!

Film: Finally got to see a film at a cinema this month, and no, we didn't go see something esoteric. We saw the new Seth McFarlane film Ted, and while I heard a few of my brain cells give a throaty cough and roll over and die - it was fun nonethless.

Books: Currently reading 'Gold' by Chris Cleave, a fictional account of a British Olympic cycling team training for the London Games. I have read 'the Other Hand' by Cleave which was a really intense novel that won a lot of critical acclaim a few years ago. This is so-so. I'm not really gripped by the characters but only 100 pages in so will persist.

And that's all the projects for now. I'm off to stare at the grey and bone squares again...

Monday, 9 July 2012

Just A Spoonful of Sugar?

I rarely read the nutritional information on food packaging – I’d rather not know how many kilojoules I’ve consumed when I throw down a packet of Allen’s lollies in one sitting. However, with the addition of a little tacker in our family unit, I’ve had to become a ‘responsible adult’ and hence, I find myself standing in front of a supermarket wall of Dora and Toy Story endorsed kids’ food, wondering which product might actually be healthy or merely a nicely wrapped bag of food additives. Hey, I can abuse my own body with salt and sugar, but I’d like to give my child at least a few good years of healthy organs. What has concerned me the most lately is Junior’s sweet tooth addiction to yoghurt – what if these kids’ yoghurts are full of sugar and additives? I don’t want to be that parent who is being lectured by the dentist as he or she removes rotting baby teeth from my toddler – I might as well just book my spot on A Current Affair now for their routine segment, “When Good Parents Turn Bad”.

Enter Catherine Saxelby’s ‘Complete Food and Nutrition Companion’ – Hardie Grant asked for readers to trial the information and I decided to use Catherine’s expert advice to go from being a baffled supermarket browser to a nutritionally expert shopper. So I decided to trial the vast array of yoghurts in the kids’ section of the supermarket to get to the bottom of my quest to find the healthiest yoghurt marketed to kids. First up - buy a selection of yoghurt pouches. Second task – feed child, who incidentally lapped them all up. What’s with babies and yoghurt? They throw the stuff back like it’s chocolate! Maybe it’s because they are eating the full cream stuff, unlike their adult counterparts with their depressingly watery low fat stuff...
Armed with Catherine’s cheat sheet on translating the nutrition information panel I have analysed four different yoghurts and these were my findings.

Petit Miam Squeezie – 249 kj per serving which seems fine, 8.3 grams of sugar, but 30mg of sodium as well! I see from Catherine’s book that the ingredients are listed in order of bulk in the product – so the order in this yoghurt is skim milk, sugar, water, banana (which they label as 5% - no quantifying of the other ingredients though), cream, milk solids, thickener, fructose, mineral calcium, halal gelatine and the list goes on with flavouring information. Hhmmm, so sugar is the second largest ingredient in this product.

 Pauls Yoghurt with Real Fruit – Same serving size, this time more kjs at 265. Same sugars as the Petit Maim at 8.3g but 47mg of sodium which is considerably more. It also had significantly less calcium than the previous yoghurt.  Interestingly though, this product has milk as its first ingredient which makes me revise the Petit Miam which only had skim milk. Babies and children should be having full cream milk (unless intolerant) so the Petit Miam might be lacking somewhat.  Second ingredient was skim milk, milk solids and then sugar, water and only 3% strawberries.

Vaalia Kids – Calculating to 70g from a 140g pouch, the kjs are 266, almost 7g of sugar and 37g of sodium. Ingredients start with whole milk, skim milk, water, sugar, milk solids, 3.5% of strawberries, rice starch and so on. This one is winning so far.

CalciYum – 244kj, with 8.1g sugar and 25mg of sodium. The main ingredient is skim milk, then milk solids, sugar, 5% fruit, cream, gelatine and so on. I've got to say, the Disney Princess marketing on this one appealed to me - so if I'm swayed by the marketing....

Interestingly, Rafferty’s baby yoghurt has approximately 10g sugar for 70g package but does not mention sugars in the large font ingredients list – which they say is largely real fruit and then yoghurt powder. Does this mean the sugar is part of the fruit? Or have they lumped it into the 1.5% yoghurt powder? This one seems very high in sugar but naturally so – within all the real fruit.

Catherine reminds her readers that ‘if some form of sugar appears as one of the first three ingredients the food is generally high in added sugar’. And what I have concluded here is that all of these products have about 10% of their product being sugar.  I did a bit of Googling on how yoghurt is actually made and found that natural yoghurt doesn’t contain sugar, BUT Catherine’s section on yoghurt reminds me that milk has sugar lactose – ahhh, maybe the sugar percentage comes from that? So maybe these yoghurts aren’t too bad for children after all? What I do know is that nutriotional information is a bit of a tricky business, which I guess is why Catherine has sought to break down the information.
Well, my conclusion is that all of these yoghurts have about the same amount of sugar but I might want to reconsider the skim milk versus whole milk ingredients. I guess in this world of McDonalds, KFC, and Pizza Hut, a little bit of natural sugar, and a little bit of added sugar in a squeezie pouch of omega 3 packed yoghurty goodness can’t be all that bad surely? And now that I feel a little bit more aware of what the packaging is telling me –  maybe I should start looking at the very high sodium counts in what I’m eating...

Does anyone else use any of these products? It's been suggested to me before that natural yoghurt for adults is better for babies than the kids' stuff - is this just a case of convenient and appealing packaging?

Monday, 2 July 2012

One Hit Wonders - Why, How and Where Are They Now?

Two songs that I have heard on tv this week have made me ponder the phenomenon of the 'one hit wonder'. The first song is featuring on some ad at the moment - a tourism ad I think, couldn't find it on Google - Taxiride's 'Get Set'. Very catchy song. I keep singing it in that way you do when they are flogging an ad like a dead horse - and I didn't even really care for the song when it was released back in the day. But I will concede it's a catchy song. The second song I heard was on the closing credits on the first night of the Tour de France - J is a die hard cycling fan - and it was the hit 80s song 'Counting The Beat' by The Swingers. You may know it from the Kmart (??) ad a few years ago - great song. Another one hit wonder. And it made me think that these songs are really quite superior to say, many of the songs of stalwarts like Madonna and U2, but fascinatingly these types of bands are never heard of again. Just one massively popular song and then pffft! Disappear forever, only to dredged up for commercials, movie soundtracks and weddings, school reunions and bar mitzvahs where everyone says 'God, I loved this song, who was this again?'. So how do these songs come about? Does the band have one magical moment, but then become overwhelmed by the instant fame, and struggle to make something as big again? Or is it that that particular song strikes a chord with the community at that very moment, and it was a matter of being at the right place, at the right time? Or is it more cosmic - that we can't all be megastars but fate will let as many people as it can have their fifteen minutes of fame to spread the joy around...
Anyway, what happened to these bands and other famous one hit wonders? I turned to my friend Google:
  • Taxiride 'Get Set'- Taxiride's official website talk of their 'newest' release from 2006, and has the 'latest news' of a tour supporting Noiseworks in 2009. Hhhmmm - looks like the royalties from the ad will be coming in handy.
  • The Swingers 'Counting The Beat' - According to Wikipedia, the band broke up in 1982 after a few changes to the line up. Someone has done a very dodgy looking fan page for them but I didn't dare probe any further into Google with the search term 'swingers'...
  • New Radicals 'You Get What You Give' - Another ad favourite, this song was huge in the late 90s - remember it? And, have to say, despite its saturation on the airwaves even now - catchy tune. The guy behind the song, Gregg Alexander only had one other unsuccessful song but ended up writing and producing for other artists like Sophie Ellis Bexter and Ronan Keating. So he's made a bit of coin over the years, lucky soul.
  • Vanilla Ice 'Ice Ice Baby' - no need to explain how awesome this song was - and you may have seen what Vanilla is doing these days. Naturally, his own home renovation show. Stop. Renovate and listen...
  • Dee Lite 'Groove Is In The Heart' - This one has been used in a few hundred soundtracks... Where are they now? They all became djs, but the girl in the band (Lady Kier) sued Sega for allegedly creating an animation that resembled her Dee Lite persona. According to Wikipedia, she lost.
So, a bit of a trip down memory lane. They were all great songs - followed by silence, or at very worst, a stinker of a second song. Thank god for advertising royalties...