Friday, 18 April 2014

Cat Out of Hell

I have a house full of perfectly good and largely unread books, and yet sometimes I get caught up in the   buzz about a book and buy it. Usually the story ends there, but sometimes, just sometimes I read the book that week. Cat Out of Hell was one such lucky book. I'd read a few glowing reviews that had made me quite curious. Then there was a copy sitting in my local bookshop when I was at a low ebb of   willpower.

Somehow the reviews I had read didn't really manage to convey anything of the story really or even the genre. Somehow Cat Out of Hell appears to be comedy/horror. I definitely read Talk to the Hand, and possibly read Eats, Shoots & Leaves way back when, which was wonderfully comedic so it's probably not surprising that Lynne Truss has managed to infuse such humour in a very odd story about satanic cats. If it was a bad TV show it would be called When Good Cats Go Bad.

The first 10-20 pages of Cat Out of Hell are quite confusing, but do stick with it, it soon becomes a captivating page turner. Told in a variety of formats, straight narrative, screenplays, emails, and descriptions of photos- Cat Out of Hell has a most unusual structure.

Mostly narrated by a retired, recently widowed librarian, Alec Charlesworth. Alec ran the periodicals department at a university library in Cambridge for 30 years, and lived a rather quiet life. After his wife's death he takes a cottage on the coast of North Norfolk to be alone with his grief.

Having recently suffered the loss of my dear wife, I chose the location with care- isolation was precisely what I required, for I was liable to sudden bouts of uncontrollable emotion, and wished not to be the cause of distress or discomfort in others.

He soon discovers a improbable, unusual and yet "terrifyingly plausible" story about a man called Wiggy and a talking cat called Roger. And after that it gets really strange! Lynne Truss takes the old notion of cats having nine lives and runs with it. It's moving, scary and laugh out loud funny at times.

The back cover advises that the book "demands to be told in a single sitting". That would have been nice, but I never manage to read books in a single sitting, well the occasional picture book perhaps, but sometimes I can't even make it through one of them. I read The Cat Out of Hell over 4 days, not in a single sitting- but it kept me up past midnight two nights in a row. It is such unexpected fun, but certainly won't be for everyone.

The Cat Out of Hell is my first outing with British Isles Friday.

Take a fun trip to the British Isles
every Friday with Joyweesemoll

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Red Shoe

If you'd asked me a week ago if it was possible to combine Hans Christian Anderson, the Petrov Affair, the Sydney Morning Herald, polio and red shoes into an unsettling book about an Australian childhood I would have thought that the answer would have been no. But it's definitely a yes. And somehow it all works.

Matilda, Frances and Elizabeth are three sisters growing up on the outer edges of Sydney in the early 1950s. They live in what was really the semi-rural/suburban isolation of Palm Beach, before it became the millionaire's playground of today.

The house next door had two storeys and a long wide front garden and a side driveway for cars. It's like a film star's house, their mother said, but nobody lived there, not even a film star, because it was a holiday home. Lots of the houses in the streets around them were like that. In the summer people came in cars and had parties in the houses and trailed down to the beach. But the rest of the year the streets were empty as a ghost town. There were more trees than houses, more possums than people, their mother said. It's like living at the ends of the earth. said their mother, and in fact it was. 

Their father was a soldier in the war, and is now often away working as a merchant seaman. The family are going through a difficult time. Matilda is bothered by her imaginary friend who lurks in the radio, Floreal, Frances has stopped speaking and Elizabeth is having a nervous breakdown. She's stopped going to school, and stays at home reading every word of the Sydney Morning Herald.

Elizabeth was not bored. For one thing, there was the newspaper. She had always liked reading the newspaper, but since her nervous breakdown she had begun to read every single word, really every word. All the conflicts, crimes, unknown names, excitements and miseries, all those numbers and letters and reports of rain and snow. She read the legal reports and the obituaries and the medical notices and the houses for sale and the employment columns and the entertainments. Everything seemed to fit into a mysterious and beautiful pattern, connected like fine strands of coloured cotton strung across each other to form curving parabolas.

Dubosarsky peppers the text with columns from the Herald which sometimes have an obvious link to the story, and other times I struggled to see the relevance. There is an interesting reading guide where Ursula describes her original inspiration for the story- hearing people on the radio reflecting after the news of the death of Mrs Evdokia Petrov.

The cover blurb tells us The Red Shoe is "Punctuated by the headlines of the time, it shows with unsettling clarity how the large events of the world can impinge on ordinary lives." It does do that, but it is much more a domestic story than I was expecting based on that quote.

The back cover blurb has an astonishing quote from Sonya Hartnett.

'Reading Ursuala Dubosarsky's novels is like walking through a dream: you know you're not allowed to stay, but you don't want to leave it, and when it's gone you can't stop thinking about it. In this beautiful story, Dubosarsky proves yet again that she is the most graceful, most original writer for young people in Australia- probably in the world.'

High praise indeed from one of our most original writers, I have great respect for Sonya Hartnett. The Red Shoe was my first book by Urusla Dubosarsky. It won't be my last.


Monday, 14 April 2014

The Sweet Life in Paris

I'd been meaning to read this book for a while. I'm a great fan of David Lebovitz's blog, I have his Paris Pastry app on my phone, and it is called The Sweet Life in Paris, so it's a no-brainer for me really. A few weeks ago I ordered it online. And then it arrived a matter of minutes after we had spent 3 1/2 hours doing battle with the Singapore Air website and making multiple phone calls to them booking my next trip to Paris! What could I do? I had to put everything else aside and read it.

I had presumed that this book was about pastries in Paris, in the way of Sweet Paris, but it's much more broad ranging than that. A memoir, often with foodie highlights, but more a memoir of a transition from living in San Francisco in your native English speaking environment to living in Paris in a French speaking world. David Lebovitz decided to pack it all up and move to Paris after his partner died suddenly. He really took an astonishing leap into the void. He sold up his American life and moved to Paris with three suitcases. That takes some courage.

David moved into a tiny apartment in the Bastille, so small that he comes to realise that it is best to wash his Le Creusets in the bath instead of the sink. There are the requisite tales of French tradesmen and disastrous French language classes in short readable chapters with fabulous sounding recipes at the end.

Early on he spends three pages reinforcing the "two most important words in the French language." "Bonjour, monsieur" or "Bonjour, madame".

Whether you step into a shop, a restaurant, a cafe, or even an elevator, you need to say those words to anyone else in there with you. Enter the doctor's waiting room and everyone says their bonjours. Make sure to say them at the pharmacy, to the people who make you take off your belt at airport security, to the cashier who is about to deny you a refund for your used-once broken ice cream scoop, as well as to the gap-toothed vendor at the market who's moments away from short-changing you. 

On a first visit to France it is initially disconcerting to be greeted with a singsong "Bonjour, madame" as you walk into any new establishment, but after a while it is lovely. They will all say goodbye as you leave the shop too, such a welcome change from my experience of the English speaking world.

David has spent time working (for free) alongside the poissonières at the marche d'Aligre, learning to prepare all sorts of seafood, except squid (his aversion is really quite deep rooted), and also manning the counter of the very upmarket and very now chocolatier, Patrick Roger. What a great approach to a new life and a new city that is.

David feels that his understanding of the food, and allowing himself to adapt to the culture made a big difference to his transition.

I arrived knowing a fair amount about the pastries, cheeses, chocolates, and breads, which impressed the French, and I also soaked up as much as I could. More important, though, I learned to take the time to get to know the people, especially the vendors and merchants, who would patiently explain their wares to me. 

He now feels much more a part of the global community than if he had stayed in America.

I do my best to act like a Parisian: I smile only when I have something to actually be happy about, and I cut in line whenever I can. I've stopped eating vegetables almost entirely, and wine is my sole source of hydration.

There is a fascinating chapter about water, which as I've long suspected is rationed.

Random, fascinating facts.

It's rude to ask someone what they do, better to ask where are they from.

Paris has more tanning salons than boulangeries.

In a nation of readers, writers are revered in France.

Berthillon, makers of the best ice-cream in the world IMHO  serve tarte tatin with caramel ice cream at their tea salon (31 Rue Saint Louis en L'ile 75004) which is "over-the-top good". Next time I won't plan on walking past.

Parisians will eat a banana with a knife and fork.

The same word, les bourses, means both scrotum and stock exchange.

And what of the many recipes? I haven't tried any as yet, but I will be absolutely spoilt for choice when I start. Sweet or savoury. Dulce de Leche Brownies. Cheesecake. Spiced Nut Mix. Sweet and Sour Onions. Braised Turkey in Beaujolais Nouveau with Prunes. Chocolate Spice Bread (Pain d'Epices au Chocolat). Floating Islands (Ile Flottante). Or Salted Butter Caramel Sauce. Oh lordy! That could be the end of me. But I think I'll try the Lemon-Glazed Madeleines first.

In typical timing for me David Lebovitz has just published his next book, My Paris Kitchen, which apparently tells us that eating in Paris is fun again. Was it ever really not fun? Cleaning your teeth in Paris is fun. In another interview promoting his new book they discuss how Parisians are using influences from other cultures in their home cooking, and presume that this is new. I'm not so sure that it is all that new. On our first visit to Paris in 1998 I bought quite a few recipe magazines and there certainly many ethnic inspired recipes there. Perhaps it is more common now?

Books on France, a great 2014 challenge
 from Emma at 
Words and Peace

Dreaming of France is a wonderful Monday meme
from Paulita at An Accidental Blog

This post is linked to Weekend Cooking
a fabulous weekly meme at BethFishReads

Foodies Read 2014!

Saturday, 12 April 2014


I like a walk through our local botanic gardens at any time of year. Of course Spring has more OTT splendour, but autumnal walks have their delights too- you just have to look a bit harder for them at times.

Although there was the odd bit of showy display still

There has been quite a bit of rain lately and so there were many kinds of mushrooms on show. 

Some kind of slime mould I believe.

I'd never seen these before, but there were quite a few this day
They are apparently wood moth larvae shells recently emerged
from that hole.
The case was bigger than my fingers!

Some tiny cyclamen

Saturday Snapshot is a wonderful weekly meme now hosted by WestMetroMommy

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Burnt Stick

I came across this book title on the 50 Australian Books to Read Before You Die list last week. I'd heard of most of those books before of course, but there were a few notable exceptions. The Burnt Stick was one of those 50, and for some reason I was rather captivated by this title. I checked that my library had it- it did, and a day or so later it was home with me. At a mere 52 pages it was easy to sneak it in to my really quite overcrowded, and always over-optimistic reading schedule, and I'm very glad that I did.

The Burnt Stick is lovely, warm book that tells the chilling story of forced removal of children in 20th century Australia, now called The Stolen Generations. This was official government policy of the time and lighter skinned Aboriginal children were removed from their families with the aim of bringing them up in the way of the white community. I'd like to think that this was perhaps done with paternalistic yet altruistic intentions, but I don't really think that it was. This practice occurred up until the 1960s, I was quite shocked a few years ago to realise this, and that if my family had been different then I too could have been removed from my parents at any time.

John Jagamarra is living a simple, traditional life with his mother at a camp near a remote inland cattle property. John doesn't know who his father was, a white man, a traveller.

But it did not matter all that much. Within the camp John felt membership of a larger family, each one of whom looked upon him as part of their own. There were ties of blood and country through his mother and grandmother and his cousins. 

John Jagamarra has light skin and is under threat from being taken away by welfare to be brought up far away at the Pearl Bay Mission.

It was felt to be best if those children with the light-coloured skin were sent to be taught in the white man's way.

The Burnt Stick was written by Canberra's Anthony Hill, and based on a true story told to him by an Aboriginal man who had been taken away from his mother as a young child. It highlights the forced removal of the children, and the rather incredible attitudes of the times.

'They are not like us. They soon forget.'

It's great that The Burnt Stick is still in print. I'm sure that its inclusion in the 50 Australian Books to Read Before You Die will encourage others to seek it out like I did. It's important that Australian children still know these stories as the effects of these policies are still alive in our community.

Mark Sofilas provides lovely charcoal illustrations that manage to be somber and moving at the same time.

I hadn't heard of Mark before either. He is Australian, but now lives in the UK and has moved more towards oil painting.

Monday, 7 April 2014

40 Books That Will Make You Want to Visit France

Well I certainly don't need a book to make me want to visit France.

I want to visit France every day already, and so I read books about France, but this list of 40 books certainly includes many that I would like to read, lots I haven't heard of, and a very small number that I already have read.

If You're Going to Paris

1. Madame Rosa (The Life Before Us) - Romain Gary (Emile Ajar)

2. The Ladies' Paradise - Émile Zola

3. Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) - Charles Baudelaire

4. Les Misérables - Victor Hugo

5. The Fall - Albert Camus

6. Bel-Ami - Guy de Maupassant

7. Hunting and Gathering - Anna Gavalda

8. The Mandarins- Simone de Beauvoir

9. Zazie Dans le Metro (Zazie in the Metro) - Raymond Queneau (see my review)

10. The Hunchback of Notre Dame - Victor Hugo

11. The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery

12. Holiday in a Coma & Love Lasts Three Years - Frédéric Beigbeder

13. In Search of Lost Time - Marcel Proust

14. The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway

15. Mythologies - Roland Barthes

16. Paris to the Moon - Adam Gopnik

If You're Going to Provence

17. My Father's Glory and My Mother's Castle - Marcel Pagnol

18. The Horseman on the Roof - Jean Giono

19. Letters from My Windmill - Alphonse Daudet

20. Bonjour Tristesse - Francoise Sagan

21. Tender is the Night - F. Scott Fitzgerald

22. A Year in Provence - Peter Mayle

If You Want Some French Panache

23.  The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas (see my review)

24.  The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas

25. Cyrano de Bergerac - Edmond Rostand

26. Asterix, The Gaul - Goscinny and Uderzo

If You Want to Explore Parts of France Where Tourists Don't Go

27. Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow/ Just Like Tomorrow - Faïza Guène

28. The Red and the Black - Stendhal

29. Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert

30. Three Strong Women - Marie NDiaye

31. Le Grand Meaulnes (The Lost Estate) - Henri Alain-Fournier

If You Want to Read About Sex

32. Les Liasons Dangereuses - Choderlos de Laclos

33. Philosophy in the Bedroom - Marquis de Sade

34. The Elementary Particles/ Atomised - Michel Houellebecq

35. The Art of Sleeping Alone - Sophie Fontanel

If You're a History Nerd

36. The Accursed Kings (The Iron King and The Strangled Queen) - Maurice Druon

37. Marie Antoinette - Stefan Zweig

38. Fouché - Stefan Zweig

39. Colonel Chabert - Honoré de Balzac

40. Suite Francaise - Irene Nemirovsky

Hmmm, 5/40 (or actually 5/43 as they've fudged a bit, but I get that)

Books on France, a great 2014 challenge
 from Emma at 
Words and Peace

Dreaming of France is a wonderful Monday meme
from Paulita at An Accidental Blog

Saturday, 5 April 2014

As We Must Appear to the Hawk #7

Alain de Botton was in Australia recently promoting his new book News. I didn't get to see him sadly, and I haven't read News yet. I do still think of his Art of Travel each time I fly and look out of the window.

I had a window seat on my recent flight from Sydney to the Gold Coast.


Pacific blue

Nelson's Bay

Surfer's Paradise

Burleigh Heads National Park
where I would walk a few days later
but didn't know that yet

Looking towards the Gold Coast Hinterland

Saturday Snapshot is a wonderful weekly meme now hosted by WestMetroMommy