Monday, July 25, 2011


The wattle is out in our suburb and it smells divine.  No doubt this is causing angst for some fellow hayfever sufferers but I love it.

I went for a walk this morning.  It was a bit nippy in the foothills of Mt Coot-tha and I was rather sorry I wasn't wearing my mitts.
I ran into the cheerful wandering weeders near the Hut on my way back from the coffee shop.

And spotted this luminous beauty on the path.  What is it?  Can anyone identify it for me?  Is it boronia?

I'm glad I walked.  It's been a while and I needed to walk off the trifle I had made on the weekend in honour of the international guest who came to dinner on Saturday night.

I tried out the recipe for Lime Curd Trifle here .  Of course Woolies and Coles only had lemon curd didn't they?  Then I foolishly tried to make creme anglaise - twice.  Eight eggs later, I chucked both efforts down the garbage muncher - such a waste I know - I could have cried.  I jumped into the car for the 3rd time that day and went and bought custard in a carton.  If I had been watching Masterchef this week apparently I would have picked up tips.

I really should have made the trifle the previous day.  It is always better after a good long soak.  It was the first time I had made a gluten free cake so that was interesting.   I don't fancy this trifle as much as Aunt Jane's tipsy trifle in Babette Haye's 200 Years of Australian Cooking though.  

And the quantity is ENORMOUS!!  Please note this recipe would be marvellous for a function of say 30 people!! 

Can you make custard?  Or Creme Anglaise?  What's your secret? 

Friday, July 22, 2011


Right!  Who's seen this movie and wants to talk about it?  I saw it last night with Maree and Melinda.

I wanted to see it last week but then I fell foul of a vicious tummy bug   It was probably just as well I didn't go then because SPOILER ALERT!!  there's lots of spewing and diarrhoea in this movie which is tough enough to watch in reality, let alone on the big screen. I must give a high five to the makeup artist before I forget....those girls looked really sick (and not in the way you young folk mean Caspar!)

Should you go and see it?  Well yes, so we can talk about it silly.  But don't take your mother or your grandmother because they're likely to be grossly offended and walk out.  I have been ruminating all night trying to come up with a clever summary or logline - like "It's Borat meets My Best Friend's Wedding" - but part of the movie's problem is it is hard to define.  It sure does divide its audience - they seem to love it or hate it.  I of course, as usual, fall right in the middle.  I hate being a fence sitter - apart from anything it's mighty uncomfortable.  That reminds me of a funny scene in the movie....

There were some really knockout performances in this movie and some really great casting. I am now a devoted fan of Maya Rudolph who plays the part of Lillian who gets lucky and is about to be married.  This woman seems to just glow and shine like no other.  She is not typical Hollywood material by any stretch of the imagination.  She is not conventionally beautiful but she radiates empathy and humanity and I was captivated by her.   She's Gwyneth Paltrow's childhood friend apparently - lucky Gwyneth.  

Kristen Wiig  gives a fabulous portrayal of the deeply complex and flawed lead, Annie,  for whom we can't help but feel sympathy. Annie is Lillian's besty and wrestling with the dubious honour of being crowned Maid of Honour. 

Australia's own Rose Byrne is a stunner as the interloping new besty and bridesmaid with designs on the role of Maid of Honour, Helen.  There is a raft of bridesmaids to absorb, including another Australian -  Rebel Wilson as Brynn,  Ellie Kemper who plays Becca (just delightful to watch) and the extraordinary Melissa McCarthy who plays the mega bridesmaid, Megan (yes, bad pun I know).  Was anybody else disturbed by how much Melissa resembles Ricky Gervais ?  

There's not much eye candy for the girls though - Michael Hitchcock does nothing for me and Chris O'Dowd, who is a kind of thinking girl's boyfriend, seemed uncomfortable with his role - at one stage I was even beginning to doubt he was a police officer ! 

I did laugh out loud in many places.  There are so many good scenes and so many good lines....."Why can't you be happy for me and then go home and talk about me behind my back like a normal person?" is one of my particular favourites from Lillian.

But there were too many just plain uncomfortable scenes which didn't work that spoiled my enthusiasm. I walked out feeling that I had seen about five pilots for sit-coms jammed into one movie.  Matt Lucas from Little Britain plays the part of an extremely oddball and funny flatmate for  Annie (Kristen Wiig) and  these scenes are typical of the ones that jar.  It is as if the cast is too big for the movie.  At 125mins I  feel it could have done with some judicious editing.

The director, Paul Fieg is new to me and I think I'm correct in saying that this is his first feature.  Interestingly his television credits include The Office (US version) and Arrested Development.  I was also interested to read that he always wears a suit and tie when he directs. Right.  A man of style.  Paul does a lot of acting (he's got more credits for that on IMDB than anything else) and you can catch him as the Dad in the carwash in Bad Teacher which debuted in Australia last night.

To be fair the movie doesn't pretend to be anything it's not....the poster screams at you that it is produced by Judd Apatow, the same chap that produced Knocked Up, 40 Year Old Virgin and Superbad. So of course there is going to be teenage toilet humour.  Only I don't think that is meant to be the audience demographic.  I suspect most of the audience going to see this movie were probably expecting something PJ Hogan-ish or Robert Luketic-ish.  

Weddings on the big screen are the stuff of fantasy - they don't mix well with spew and well.....that other stuff.  I don't think this movie knew what it was.  Comedy is difficult.  Its success does depend largely on making us squirm and laughing at other's misfortune.  Only in this story the discomfort was too great and the tragedy too real.  This is an important story - it's about girlfriends - something too little explored on the big screen - Thelma and Louise comes to mind and that other lovely little nugget of a movie Jucy.  These worked because they were honest and I want to say modest but that sounds silly. Maybe I'm talking about that intangible quality - integrity.   Bridesmaids thought it could eat the cake and have it too.

So what do you think?  Am I right or am I right?

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Next Big Thing

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel
Eugene Delacroix
Saint Sulpice Church Paris - France
licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike 3.0 License

Isn't this rather beautiful? This painting features in Making Things Better aka The Next Big Thing by Anita Brookner.

It was long-listed for the Booker Prize in 2002.

I was a bit excited about reading it as this is the first Anita Brookner I've read that features a male in the lead role, so to speak.

Julius Herz is retired and reflecting on his life to date. It could be argued that he is in his dotage. He is ailing physically and mourning the lack of someone to look after him in his old age.

Julius did marry once - to a cheerful, practical sort of woman - Josie - but cramped living conditions, which included his demanding and morose parents, spelled the death-knell for any hope of proper intimacy.

Brookner's novels may be slim but they're never an easy read. She seems to delight in tackling the difficult subjects like old age and loneliness that other writers might choose to give a wide berth.

Not our Ms Brookner. She plunges in where angels fear to tread and paints a sobering picture of something that most of us will face - decline and decay - and possibly regret. As my father regularly intones in lines attributed to Bette Davis I think - "Old age isn't for sissies."

Like many of Brookner's characters, Julius was an obedient offspring. Not necessarily the favoured son by any stretch of the imagination...but the one that tidied up and tried to make things better. When his brother Freddy, a promising concert violinist starts to lose the plot, Julius is the only one who visits him in the Sanitorium and witnesses his decline.

Late in life, Julius is given a chance at freedom. His parents having passed on, a distant acquaintance, who helped the family re-settle in London from war-torn Europe, bequeaths a significant proportion of his estate to Julius which frees him from the necessity to work or worry about a roof over his head.

But is it too late? "He was not trained for freedom, that was the problem, had not been brought up for it." Poor Julius feels so overcome with the challenge of freedom he suffers "a feeling of unreality, so enveloping as to constitute a genuine malaise." A quite amusing dialogue ensues during an appointment with his doctor where Julius earnestly asks if he could be suffering a similar experience to Freud's on the Acropolis. The Doctor ignores the question of existentialism and pursues a comfortable line of enquiry - blood pressure.

Friends and acquaintances suggest that what Julius needs is a holiday. In his obliging manner, he attempts to re-visit the joys of his youth, when he sampled the delights of brief getaways in Paris with obliging young women. It doesn't take long to get to Paris from Waterloo...but the people have changed and of course Julius has too. He feels his age and decides to return home earlier than planned. Before he leaves, he pops into Saint Sulpice to check out Delacroix's painting. I'll leave you to read the book and find out the epiphany or new reading that Julius takes away with him from the viewing.

I always feel a wee bit more edu-muckated after I've read Brookner. I learn new words - this book brought me meretricious, which I always forget means "befitting a harlot - or showily attractive" - a most useful word - must use it more often. Then of course there is fiacre - which you might think is something to do with a fiasco - but no, it is a French four-wheeled cab - never enough cabs I say. Finally inanition.- emptiness esp of nourishment i.e. how I felt earlier this week after a particularly nasty tummy bug.

In conclusion I have to say that on the whole I found The Next Big Thing a bit of struggle - rather like Jacob wrestling with the Angel. There is a very telling line early on when Julius forms a friendship with a younger man - a co-beneficiary of the estate bequeathed to them. They dine together on a regular basis "Herz had little experience of dealing with younger people but understood instinctively that one kept out of their lives as much as possible but was curious and indulgent towards them....It was a matter of discretion not to talk about oneself. To do so would be to shock Simmonds with the prospect of what awaited him."

I guess I'm not shocked. More gloomily depressed. One doesn't want to shoot the messenger of course, but it has to be said that Brookner fair puts you off old age, so she does.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Making Things Better

Some of us are very busy reading in celebration of  

There are prizes and everything......

Chip here is reading Brookner's Making Things Better....he sincerely hopes this foray into human activity does make things better and not worse, though he morosely suspects the latter.

Chip is a bit like a Brookner character...he is lonely and lives a fairly caged existence. His every need is provided for but he lacks companionship or any significant other.

Of course, there was a time in his youth, when he thought he fancied his cousin.  Misty was a pretty, petulant thing but then the humans interfered, as humans do, and they've been separated ever since. He makes sure he sees her every day, as she lives right next door, but it's a quiet life.  

Half the time he doesn't even know if she sees him.  Misty's name became eerily prophetic that day she was gorging herself on nut grass, blissfully unaware of the danger lurking in the unclipped chicken wire which scratched her eye, making her blind overnight and detracting somewhat from her beauty.  No other suitors come knocking at her door now but he admires and defends her foolish pride steadfastly.

It's grey and wintry in Brisbane today and Chip longs for the sun of summer although the oppressive heat brings the threat of exhaustion and prostration .  A guinea pig's lot brings its own small trials.

Chip knows he mustn't grumble.  Broccoli stems, carrot sticks and apple are provided regularly.  The straw could be changed more frequently but the humans mean well.  He is grateful for any attention really.

It's just that every day is the same with no hope of change on the horizon.

Chip has thought of travelling - his mother often told stories of the early years when she had been allowed to roam free around the small suburban block.  But then the human mother and father took charge and any idea of "continental" travel was quashed. His mother became withdrawn and needy after that.  No delicate morsels could tempt her.  Her decline was slow and somewhat pathetic.  Chip dreams about her still but in happier days which makes the pain of waking all the more unbearable. 

Chip wonders if an iPad might provide some comfort but then demurs - it would jar aggravatingly with the Victorian decor of his hutch. 

An old-fashioned book will make do and, if consumption proves indigestible, it can always be recycled as compost...some of us were not born for great deeds but take comfort in contributing, however frugally, to the great circle of life.

With thanks to Isabel for participating in this bit of nonsense and taking such an excellent photo of Chip.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Leaving Home

The great thing about writing book reviews is it makes you think.  The great thing about reading Anita Brookner is she really makes you think...and then want to talk to someone about what you've read.

Thomas at My Porch and Simon of Savidge Reads are co-hosting International Anita Brookner Day this Saturday 16 July.  They remind us that "thirty years ago ...Anita Brookner had her first novel, the aptly titled A Start in Life (or The Debut in the U.S.) published at the tender age of 53."  They're encouraging everyone to read and review her work.

Well, thirty years ago I was twenty and probably about to read Anita Brookner for the first time...I had in fact just left home.  I haven't read Anita Brookner for yonks and welcomed the return.  Leaving Home is one of Brookner's more recent titles and how curious and spooky that I should choose it from the library shelf after all these years.

Thomas is quite correct.  There really is no excuse not to read an Anita Brookner - they are mostly under 200 pages and a relatively easy read.  I polished off Leaving Home in less than a week but was left with a slightly maudlin feeling - or one of deep melancholy.  Don't get me wrong - I tend to lean towards the melancholy in terms of taste, but this time I was feeling a bit impatient and disaffected with it.  "Where's the drama?" I wanted to scream - reminiscent of my colleagues' John and Billy - who won't mind being called old (in the nicest sense of the word) friends/screenwriting lecturers from AFTRS days.

Peta Mayer says there are ten things you should expect from an Anita Brookner novel - my review is probably a reflection of  Point Number 5 - Expect to see a reflection of yourself, not necessarily in the best light!

I was forced to reflect on my feelings...something which I think we should do more of....really critically analyse our responses to things.  Why was I so disaffected?  What is great writing after all?  Had perhaps Anita Brookner drawn a very accurate depiction of a character that was perhaps just a little too close to the bone for me?  What were my thoughts and feelings when I made the momentous decision to leave home? What was I hoping to achieve?  What had I made of my life?  Had I really rebelled or had I conformed in the end?  And was that a character fault or the way of all things?

My memory of Anita Brookner's work is that she really hones in on one character's experience.  It becomes at times somewhat claustrophobic - particularly if the characters don't do much or are great thinkers...which is the case in this instance.  Our main character in Leaving Home is Emma. Emma is a writer reflecting on her journey to this point.  The novel opens with her remembering a dream from her youth (there's another one of Peta's points no doubt - Point Number 9 - Freud).  The dream points to the necessity of Emma leaving home in order to carve out, she hopes, a less sad and lonely existence than that of her widowed mother.  

Emma is the epitome of Englishness.  What do I mean by that?  Well she is unfailingly polite, restrained, tactful, discrete.  Emma writes thank you letters.  Need I say more?  I do not think Brookner chose her name lightly - Jane Austen's Emma must be one of the most famous character's in English literature - and yet Brookner's Emma is, I think, very different.  Emma is anxious to leave home gracefully -  "It would have to be managed, and managed, if possible, without disloyalty, more or less invisibly, above all in good faith."

Emma is an only child and a daughter - which can bring the double handicap of being expected to be very good - and whilst she cares genuinely for her mother's feelings, she wrestles with the expectation of her uncle to be her mother's supporter and provider.  Emma in short needs to rebel.  But, dear reader, Emma is English. People who queue find it hard to rebel.  She settles on studying classical garden design, is offered a scholarship in France and away she goes, in search of "another source of authority, another agent of influence."  Where better to learn to rebel than to ensconce herself in Paris - the very home of revolution?

We then witness Emma's various attempts to seek out real and/or satisfying relationships both with members of the opposite sex and her own sex.  Of all the relationships, her friendship with the aptly named Francoise is the most complex and challenging.  Complex because Francoise is almost a reflection of herself but not quite.  Francoise is also an only child and a daughter.  But Francoise could almost be the French version of Jane Austen's Emma.  Whilst not beautiful, she is certainly striking and "electric with an energy that made her presence in the library dangerously welcome." Francoise is not a match-maker as such, but is certainly keen to see Emma "break out" and find an "amoreuse".  Francoise only handicap is her controlling mother, who is keen to marry her off to the local prize beau - "Jean-Charles - a pale, slightly corpulent man of indeterminate age."  The relationship is challenging because, whilst Francoise is an agent of influence and change, her authority becomes a threat to Emma's own self-determination.

It would spoil the book if I told you too much more.  There is drama - eventually - in Leaving Home.  Brookner saves it til the very end.  It wasn't til this passage that my heart fluttered in recognition of the Brookner of yore..."It takes a kind of genius to save one's own life, the sort of genius that I so signally lacked."  Now things were getting interesting!  What would happen next?

For me Brookner's strength is her great depiction of character.  Emma is by no stretch of the imagination a conventional hero.  She says as much about herself and I don't think it would take too much away to quote some of the novel's last few lines....

"Not everyone is born to fulfil an heroic role.  The only realistic ambition is to live in the present.  And sometimes, quite often in fact, this is more than enough to keep one busy."

What do you think?  Should we all be legends in our own lunchtime?  Is Emma a victim of her Englishness which she can never escape?  Or her cloistered upbringing?  Or her sex?  Is she a victim or a hero?  Is she Anita Brookner's alter ego wishing she had been Simone de Beauvoir but rather glad she wasn't?  And yes I know that is very naughty of me to say - I am being deliberately provocative, boys and girls!  Who else has read She came to Stay - funny how the heroine is called Francoise - non?  C'mon - what's your take on this slim but tardis-like novel?