Archive for the ‘art’ Category

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Indie bookstore love!

March 24, 2016

I have been away from this blog for a loooooong time, but have been sent back here today by an interview with the fabulous Richard Glover of 702 ABC Sydney, who had me on his Drive show to talk about a prize I won last night – and about FISH!

First, the fish – it’s Easter, and lots of people like to keep to tradition and eat fish on Good Friday. At the last moment Richard asked me t0 stay on for his segment with the beloved Simon Marnie, weekend ABC Radio host, gourmand and excellent kitchen knowhow guru . I was asked for my go-to fish recipe, which had to be the Five-Minute Feast dish we eat at least once a week, of Salmon with Mirin, Ginger & Soy. I posted the recipe way back in 2009, and here it is.  These days I add a sliced red chilli to the mirin/soy mix, and sometimes some finely julienned red capsicum. And we add lots more greens of whatever variety are about – broccolini, or bok choy, whatever you like.

CharlotteWoodAusIndiesJust before that Richard and I were celebrating Australia’s independent bookselling scene, because our beloved indie stores yesterday chose my novel The Natural Way of Things as their Indie Awards fiction category winner, and then their overall Book of the Year. I can’t tell you how much this means to me, but those who were in the room and saw me blubbing like a fool might have got some idea. Richard, by the way, was also shortlisted for his brilliant, funny and very moving memoir, Flesh Wounds

The excellent folk at Allen & Unwin have posted my speech about bookstores on their blog, and I thought, ‘what a good idea’. So here are my thoughts about independent bookstores and what they mean to us in Australia.

Happy Easter everyone!

I am so very touched by these awards, and so grateful. Thank you for this honour. I would like first to thank the Independent Booksellers of Australia for your support of my novel. From offering me the chance to speak at the Leading Edge conference in May last year to choosing it for book clubs, to all the bookshop events, social media postings – and, most of all, the truly enthusiastic hand-selling of my novel, I owe you all so much.

I would also like to honour my fellow shortlistees. Gail Jones, Stephanie Bishop and Geraldine Brooks are writers I have long admired and whose accomplishments I celebrate. Book prizes are a strange phenomenon, and the way they are discussed can sometimes give rise to the depressing idea that the creation of literature is a contest, with one writer pitted against another. I honestly feel that nothing is further from the truth. All writers work in quiet, often lonesome isolation, each pursuing our own particular truth, each trying more than anything to make a strong and beautiful work of art. Yet despite this essential seclusion and the equally necessary differences between our literary projects which thankfully makes comparison impossible, we are also a community. Not a competition, but a flourishing community of quiet creators. I thank my fellow writers for their encouragement and solidarity over the years – and I offer mine to them, always. Independent booksellers in so many ways connect and support and build this community of writers. We could not make our work without you.

I also thank my beloved publisher Jane Palfreyman and editor Ali Lavau and all at Allen and Unwin who have been so overwhelming in their support.

I’m sure every author in this room has faced moments in the writing of a book where you can’t see a way forward. The book defeats you – uneven, unresolved, shameful in its ragged, state. You have a deep urge to finish it but every logical part of your mind wonders, why?

It was at one such moment, about fifteen years ago, that I left my desk in a state of despair and went for a walk. My first strange little novel, Pieces of a Girl, had mercifully been published but died soon into its short life, sent to the great pulping station in the sky. I kept writing, struggling along with a second novel that wasn’t working. All the time I was working against these questions: Why am I doing this? Who wants this? Who will even notice, let alone care, if I never write another book?

Brooding on those questions that day, I found myself wandering – perhaps riskily – into my local bookshop, Better Read than Dead in Newtown. I drifted along the shelves, looking for I don’t know what: consolation, inspiration, a reason to keep going. I bought something – quite possibly considering my finances at the time, not even a book but a card, a notebook. Behind the counter was a friendly bookseller I’d seen there before, but didn’t know by name. As I handed over my five bucks, she said to me quietly, ‘And Charlotte, can we expect another beautiful book from you some time soon?”

I was utterly stunned.

I have no idea what I said in reply. I am sure I was ungracious, from shock. But I can tell you that this moment of generous noticing from the bookseller, Karen Ferris, was a watershed moment in my writing life. If Karen cared that I finished my book, maybe someone else would. More importantly, maybe I could care, and keep going.

Since that moment I’ve felt the same kind of noticing, and caring, from so many independent booksellers, quietly urging me on through the writing of all my six books. Some of those books sold okay, and some didn’t, but the support I felt from these people never wavered. I want to particularly thank Barbara Horgan (formerly of Shearers and now of Boffins Books in Perth), Karen of course, now with Berkelouw, Kathryn Bancroft and Jenny Barry at Books Plus in Bathurst, Anna Low and her beautiful team at Potts Point Bookshop, Natalie Yabuka and Jeremy and all at Oscar and Friends in Double Bay and Surry Hills, Scott Whitmont at Lindfield, Lindy Jones and the team at Abbeys, Fiona Stager and Krissy Kneen and everyone at Avid Reader in Brisbane, David Gaunt and Morgan Smith at Gleebooks, Gillian May at Berkelouw Mona Vale; and Mark Rubbo, Chris Gordon and everyone at Readings in Melbourne for their sustaining care over the years.

One of the pleasures of sending The Natural Way of Things into the world has been meeting a whole new lot of booksellers, whose enthusiasm for it has been astounding to me. As well as those already mentioned, I thank the unstoppable Amelia Lush at Better Read than Dead, Gavin Williams at Matilda’s in Adelaide, Dan Sanderson and Nikki Anderson at MUSE Canberra; Clive Tilsley at Fullers, the amazing Natasha Boyd of Book Bonding in Essendon, Jay Lansdown from Constant Reader, Paul Macdonald at The Children’s Bookshop and the indefatigable Suzy Wilson at Riverbend Books in Brisbane.

Of course, I know there are so many others I haven’t named, and others not met, but who have gone out of their way to press my novels into readers’ hands, and I cannot thank them enough.

CharlotteWoodBlog

Recently I saw a news item about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a bombproof storage bank built deep into a mountain in Norway, in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, about 1300 kilometres from the North Pole. Countries from all over the world send seed samples there to be protected and preserved; the Vault’s mission is to provide a safety net against accidental loss of diversity in traditional gene banks.

In thinking about tonight, and Australia’s independent booksellers, it struck me that you are like that seed vault. You are storehouses for the kernels not only of our literary culture but our history, our music, our food culture, our health and legal and technological culture, our visual arts, our politics. You are the safety vault for the seeds of our country’s cultural and intellectual life, and your customers are the spreaders of those seeds out in the world.

A few years ago, the outlook for our independent bookselling scene looked gloomy. But like those seeds packed into the cold mountain in Norway, you have survived, you are thriving, and because of your noticing and care, your love of words and your determination to flourish, you have kept Australian literature and our culture alive and thriving too.

On behalf of us all, I thank you so very much.

You can listen to Richard every weekday here – and see more about the Indie awards and the other category winners – brilliant writers all – here.

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Playing salads

August 29, 2012

The fictional knives of Alice Thomas Ellis

It’s been far too long since I posted some fictional food on this site. But in the last couple of weeks I’ve been introduced to a writer whom I know immediately will become one of my favourites – Alice Thomas Ellis. This was the nom de plume of the English writer and legendary editor Anna Haycraft, and I am indebted to my friend Tegan for lending me The Birds of The Air, which I absolutely loved. Tegan has written about Thomas Ellis in a riveting series of academic essays on literary influence, which I hope to see in widespread publication very soon.

Thomas Ellis is one of those sharp-eyed, caustic observers of the English middle classes, and wrote her thirteen novels from the late 1970s to the 1990s. She died in 2005, and I feel a little mortified that I’d never heard of her before now, because judging by the obituaries of the time she was very highly regarded.

(She reminds me a bit of another recent discovery of mine, Nina Bawden, whose children’s books are renowned but who also wrote brilliant fiction for adults  – coincidentally, the first Bawden book I read was titled The Birds On the Trees ).

Thomas Ellis, like Bawden, is one of those discoveries that thrills because you know there are so many more books to read – on finishing The Birds of the Air I went immediately to Google and discovered not only all the other novels but also, excitingly, that she wrote two books on cooking! Am tracking those down forthwith, but in the meantime am engrossed in Unexplained Laughter, which I ordered as an e-book (nothing quite like that instant gratification) and am loving.  The writing reflects the paradox of Thomas Ellis’s conservative Catholicism – a convert who spent six months as a nun, she famously loathed any progressive change to the church and described the Second Vatican Council (an attempt to modernise some of the most rigid teachings of the Church) as unleashing  a “tide of sewage”. Despite her books being filled with powerful female characters, she was apparently “bitterly opposed” to feminist influence in Catholicism. Go figure.

Tegan tells me that Thomas Ellis’ novels are “full of food” – and so far at least, she’s right. What I love about this extract, from Unexplained Laughter, is how spectacularly narky Thomas Ellis is – food here isn’t the sloshy-galoshy shorthand for sensuous pleasure it so often is in fiction: it’s a point of unspoken tension between two women, black and sharp. With the character of Lydia so immediately and richly unpleasant, I can only imagine the scorn with which Thomas Ellis would have greeted contemporary preoccupations with “likeability” of characters in fiction.

Lydia and Betty are staying at Lydia’s cottage in the Welsh countryside. Lydia has just been ditched by her unfaithful lover, and “had invited Betty to stay by accident, or rather by drunken mischance, at one of those fatal office parties.”  Now they’re trapped there together, with Lydia’s loathing of Betty growing more intense by the minute. But she “determined to be pleasant since the one thing more disagreeable than staying with someone you detested was staying with someone who detested you too. Dissembling was tiring but squabbling was disgusting. She would never be sufficiently intimate with Betty to quarrel with her.”

“The sun shone the next day, and Emyr arrived to connect the water pipes. Betty made him a cup of tea and sat among the cut lengths of gleaming copper and strong-toothed tools conducting a little chat, which afforded Lydia a moment’s amusement since Betty was adjusting her conversation to suit a person of low intelligence and the people of the valley were, on the whole, clever, devious and unusually literate. As Betty talked of the rain of the previous days the builder spoke briefly of water tables; as she deplored the unemployment of the Principality he gave a succinct resume of the economic situation; as, somewhat at a loss, she praised the sun for now shining, Emyr described in a few words how it would eventually burn itself out. The scene was rather like a bull-fight, with Betty, small-eyed, blundering hither and yon dazzled by the whisk of scarlet, the glancing slippers of the matador.

‘What do you want for lunch?’ enquired Lydia when Emyr, having demonstrated that the taps now functioned, had left.

‘I thought I’d make us my special salad,’ said Betty. ‘If you’ll wash the lettuce I’ll make my special dressing and we could pick some wild sorrel and chop it in at the last minute.’

‘Do you know, I’m not hungry,’ said Lydia, consideringly. There was something spinsterish in Betty’s plans for her salad, something intimate in her expectation that Lydia would collude with her, and something repellent in the prospect of two single women fussing over food in the kitchen. Lydia was damned if she’d play salads with Betty. She might never eat again until Betty had gone. She had real women friends: pretty, witty women more likely to speculate on a swift method of fermenting potato peel than slaver over wild sorrel. Why were none of them here? Because she hadn’t asked them, that’s why. She had chosen for herself the human equivalent of sackcloth and ashes, and she denounced herself for a masochist. Do I, she asked herself, imagine that because I have lost a man I am in the same category as spotty Betty? Is it my Unconscious (of the existence of which I have informed doubts) that has dropped me in this plight? Because if so, I had better watch out. ‘I think I’ll go for a walk,’ she said.

‘Perhaps it’ll give you an appetite,’ said Betty. 

As she walked, Lydia wondered whether perhaps Betty was lesbianly inclined and that this was why she found her presence so distasteful. After half a mile she had rejected this hypothesis and decided that it was merely because she was unattractive, the sort of person who, fifty years ago, would have worn rubber galoshes. Lydia did not castigate herself for so disliking a fellow-being, believing that it was sufficient merely to refrain from overt unkindness.”

From Unexplained Laughter, Alice Thomas Ellis, 1985 – published by Corsair, an imprint of Constable & Robinson (ebook) 2012

Buy Alice Thomas Ellis books here.

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Why cook?

June 19, 2012

This post is rather a cheat, but as I’ve been travelling so much lately (last week back to  good old Varuna, where I spent a week remembering what it is like to sit still, think in silence for hours at a time and even – gasp – write a little) I’ve hardly been home to cook anything. It’s been a pleasure to meet readers of Love & Hunger at events around the place, including a couple in Sydney, one at Bathurst, another at Huskisson. And this coming Sunday I’m in conversation with the Jennifer Byrne at the Noosa Long Weekend Festival, after an event tonight here in Sydney which promises to be a real treat – not abut my book this time, but I’m in conversation with the wonderful Ailsa Piper about her book on pilgrimage, Spain and ethical life without religion. It’s called Sinning Across Spain. Do come along if you get a chance… 

All this running around, while such a gratifying response to the books, can tend to separate one from real life and what for me are the grounding, nourishing routines of ordinary domesticity. So I’ve decided to remind myself about that real life by posting the first chapter of Love & Hunger. It’s called Why cook?

And soon I’ll be back with some new adventures in the kitchen, hopefully starting with a successful first edition of homemade yoghurt – stay tuned. 

PART 1: ORIGINS

WHY COOK?

I began really learning to cook in my mid-twenties, at about the same time as I began really learning to write. I have only recently wondered if there is a link between these two things, other than the circumstances in which I found myself: an idle university student in possession of time for dawdling, some vague creative urges and new friends who inspired me with their own creativity and skill with a pen or a frying pan.

I had, of course, been cooking for years, in the way one does to feed oneself on first leaving home. I cooked sturdy, cheap and cheerful meals that were nutritious enough, if not exactly adventurous. I had also been writing for years, as a journalist on our small-town local newspaper, and I suspect the properties of my writing echoed those of my cooking. My articles—about artificial insemination of cattle, say, or the latest Lions Club fund-raising effort for a new piece of hospital equipment—were competent, and no doubt accurate enough. But the desire to write creatively, to bring out into the light and give shape and purpose to the inchoate longings and imaginings of my young mind, was still too unformed—or else too deeply buried to acknowledge. I remember once being asked if I had ever thought about writing a novel. The idea seemed utterly ludicrous. My questioner might as well have asked if I had yearnings to captain a ship to Antarctica, or to become a world-famous belly-dancer. It was not just that such an achievement was beyond me, but I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to expose herself—to danger, to knowing—in such a way.

Skip a few decades to a recent dinner, when a dear friend who likes to be provocative suggested that people like me cook for others as a way feeling superior to them. I admit I was a little rocked by this idea. Could he be right? Might there be even a kernel of truth in this? And if it wasn’t true, why then do I cook, and why does the satisfaction it brings me feel so profound?

I hope my friend is wrong about my motives—or mostly wrong—but I do see his point, given the almost obscene contemporary obsession with what I think of as fashion cookery: the slavish reproduction of the latest television fad, the obedient queuing outside this cake shop or that restaurant, the cult-like allegiance to this brand of olive oil or that cookbook. All this worries me, because it seems born of a kind of competitive social anxiety rather than a confident love of food, and it makes cooking into a club of knowing insiders, excluding all others. The fetishisation of chefs and dishes and ingredients and equipment led one woman I know to declare in exasperation that she just didn’t get this obsession with something as basic as food, she said. ‘I mean,’ she cried, ‘it’s just petrol!

I am not immune to food fashion, and some of it can be fun. But I aspire to something nearer to the ground, more elemental. The home cooks I know who have the most strongly anchored, easy relationship with their skill and interest in making food are somehow both serious and casual about it at once. They might make their own passata, but they would never dream of replicating an Adriano Zumbo cake. They spend hours a day reading food books, but couldn’t give a damn about where ‘the best’ olive oil comes from.

But I’m drifting from the question. What is the nature of the pleasure I get from cooking?

Whenever we whined about being bored as children, our mother would call over her shoulder that we should ‘go and do something constructive!’ This may well have merely sprung from the desire to get yet another of her five children out of her face for a moment, but she touched on something important: the deep arising from the act of creating something that didn’t exist before you made it. Whether it’s a drawing, a paper plane, a garden bed or a tub of baba ganoush—there is something fundamentally enriching about bringing something new into existence. It’s constructive, in the most literal sense.

Another aspect of my pleasure in cooking is in the mental diversion it creates. When cooks speak of preparing a meal as a way of ‘unwinding’ or ‘relaxing’ after a hard day at work, I think there are several things at play. I am reminded of the great joy I felt for the year or so I went to Latin dancing classes. As with any kind of dancing involving patterns, what’s essentially happening when you cook is a focused engagement with something physical and momentary, with patterns of repeated movements (chopping, stirring, turning a piece of fish or meat, for example). And in that focus on the physical, the mind may be freed from whatever had previously been occupying it. One woman I spoke to about this described it as ‘free concentration’—a graceful transition from the intellectual part of her day to the leisure part of it. I wonder if this kind of freeing of the mind from niggling worries of the past hours or days, or of future expectations, the intense focus and control only of the present moment, is part of the serenity that people seek from meditation.

At the same time as I am freed from the past and the future, though, in some subtle but definite way I am also connected, at least once every mealtime, to a cycle of life greater and more permanent than my own. This might sound grandiose, but pour a cupful of dried Puy lentils through your fingers and tell me you don’t feel at least a faint twinge of earthy delight. Similarly, whenever I thump a cleaver through a piece of raw meat, it inevitably provokes a subtle but definite stirring of some primal life-and-death struggle.

Pinching the balled-up bud of a basil flower off a knee-high plant by the kitchen door and tossing it into a pan of pasta sauce might not satisfy as deeply as making cheese from the milk of your own cows, as does one gentleman of my acquaintance, but it’s still there, this tiny thread of connection between me and the earth. This thread is so fine nobody but me would notice it – and to others it may sound tenuous and highly romantic, but I don’t care. It’s true for me.

This kind of creativity is also mercifully free of public evaluation. In a creative field, your work is always attended by the possibility of humiliation—when a novel is published you are at the very least subject to several cool public assessments of your work, if not to newspaper declarations of your failure, or screeds of online comments about how stupid are your characters, how scant your ideas, how tedious your voice. Even when reviews turn out to be positive, the period of waiting for them makes opening the Saturday newspapers an exercise in nausea control for weeks, if not months, around publication time. So freedom from critical evaluation of the result makes the creative pleasure of cooking even deeper for me. Nobody is going to publicly declare your soufflé a workmanlike attempt in which the slight dip on the left-hand side ultimately led to the failure of the whole dish. For me, cooking (and gardening, a related pursuit) represents creativity in its purest form. It’s no surprise that many fiction writers I know also have other private creative pursuits: one plays the ukulele, another sews stunningly beautiful bed quilts. We do these things partly, I think, because the strain of producing creative work under the watchful eye of reviewers, even publishers, even our beloved readers, can leach the work of much of its joy. It’s work, after all. But cooking – or quilting, or ukulele-playing—is pleasure.

Ah, pleasure. Of course physical pleasure must also be at the heart of every good cook’s desire to do it. A friend (who, ironically, doesn’t drink much at all) once told me she didn’t trust teetotallers. To her, permanent abstinence from alcohol equates to a pathological fear of losing control, which in turn equals a fear of life. Having a couple of life-loving friends who don’t drink at all, I’m not sure about that—but I certainly agree that a love of eating and drinking seem to correspond, among the people I know, with a love of life. A powerful appetite for food and an open emotional and intellectual appetite tend to go together—or perhaps that’s my convenient prejudice.

What is not a prejudice but firm, proven data is something social researchers have been telling us for years: that connection with other people is what gives meaning and purpose to our lives. For me cooking creates the occasion and the place for those connections to happen. I remember several years ago stirring a pot of something in the kitchen, listening to the near-deafening hubbub of a dozen people sitting around the table in the next room, and thinking: I have never been happier in my life than in this moment.

But what about my devil’s-advocate friend’s assertion, that people become good cooks in order to impress—even intimidate—others? Well, no doubt this is true for some. But I think the inverse is far more prevalent: that people become good cooks in order to be loved. The writer and former restaurateur Gay Bilson has spoken of her ‘need to be needed’ in this context, and in her book Plenty: Digressions on Food writes of the moment she learned, by making cream puffs at age eleven, that cookery leads to praise. I think it would be a rare cook who could truthfully deny sharing these desires. For one thing, this kind of praise is so easy to get: any good cook will tell you that the compliments lavished upon them usually far exceed the effort it took to bring the lauded dish to the table. (This is not all sweetness and light, however; so bound up is my social life and my cooking that in my darker moments I have occasionally wondered whether, if I didn’t make food for them, I would have any friends at all. If there is a sombre underside to be found in my cooking life, that is it.)

But some of the deepest satisfactions of cooking are not necessarily to do with sharing food with others, with the big dinner party or the impressive dish; it might be a single perfectly seared piece of salmon eaten on a weeknight in front of the television, or the pleasing consistency of a pea and mint soup eaten at your desk for lunch.

Thinking about the quiet but serious pleasure in these small moments, I finally recognise the most persistent feeling I have about my skill with cooking. It’s not superiority, or even wantedness—it’s that I feel lucky.

Every now and again someone will say to me wistfully, ‘I wish I liked cooking.’ I think my mother was probably this sort of person. My siblings may have differing opinions, but it seems to me she did not really like cooking much and yet she did it, hour upon hour of it, every day, with very little money, to provide nourishment for five children and a husband. Her garden was where her heart lay, and I think with a kind of sadness sometimes about how often she must have longed to be out in the garden instead of buttering yet another biscuit tray, or chopping another carrot, and I blush at how much we complained about the food she so selflessly put on our table each night.

This is when I realise my luck. To derive so much pleasure from what to some people is a chore as joyless as vacuuming feels like an enormous stroke of good fortune.

Writing and cooking are, as I have said, two separate arenas of my life, and their separateness is part of what makes them both so satisfying to me—and yet here I am, bringing them together. But there is another thread that joins them. Like many before me, I write fiction to find out what I think about the world; to open it up, look at it and place myself in it—and, in sending those books out into the public space, to share with others what I have found. In some ways, cooking does this for me too. When I try out a new technique or a recipe on my friends, or I pick a bay leaf from the little potted tree outside my kitchen, or I get excited by something as simple as a well-made frangipane tart, I am extending myself, discovering something new, and connecting myself to my world in a way that feels important.

As I write this I am increasingly impatient to get into the kitchen. I have ten people coming for dinner this evening, and I’m roasting two experimental chickens. I’m brining one of the birds before cooking, for the first time, to see why people make such a fuss about brining. As well, I’ve just been given a whole real truffle—an amazing black, chocolatey nugget of a thing—which I’m to shave and put under the skin of the second chicken before roasting. I am more excited by these two experiments to come, and yet so anchored to myself and my place in the world because of them, than it is possible to explain in words.

From Love & Hunger: Thoughts on the Gift of Food, by me.

Now it’s your turn. What is the nature of the pleasure you get from cooking? 

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Amy Bloom’s fictional food

June 28, 2010

Don’t you find writing about food becomes awfully twee and tiresome much of the time?

All those clichés  about seasonal produce and sharing tables with family and friends, the delicious aroma of baking from the kitchen, blah blah blah. Or the slickly stupid language of shrine restaurant menus. Remind me to tell you one day of a friend’s visit to a most pretentious molecular gastronomy restaurant – not, I hasten to add, The Fat Duck, where we’ve eaten and which is an unforgettable experience of playful culinary genius, but one presided over by a rather less skilled chef. She said the wait staff behaved like members of a cult and the menu featured stuff like An Interim of Parsley Dust – hilarious.

Turning to food in fiction, it’s just as tricky. If you are as engaged and delighted by cooking and eating as we are, putting the spotlight on food in novels or short stories so often results in gushy, sentimental sop and nostalgic rosy glows. A writing teacher friend of mine, buried in marking one day years ago, sighed, “If I have to read about one more yiayia’s orchard I’m going to puke.”

I am well aware, dear readers, of my own shortcomings in this department, both fictional and non-. From now on I’m going to pretend Gay Bilson is looking over my shoulder when I write about food, for her stern, clear-eyed and unsentimental writing is inspiring.

For now, as an antidote to any food tosh you might have been reading lately, I want to show you how a really good fiction writer does it. I recently read Amy Bloom’s story collection, Where the God of Love Hangs Out.  This is from ‘Between Here and There’.

Most of the mothers in our neighborhood were housewives, like my mother. But my mother was really a very good cook and a very accomplished hostess, even if the things she made and the way she entertained is not how I would have done it (red, white and blue frilled toothpicks in lamb sausage pigs-in-blankets on the Fourth of July, trays of deviled eggs and oeufs en gelée—with tiny tulips of chive and egg yolk decorating each oeuf—to celebrate spring). My mother worked hard at what she considered her job, with no thanks from us and no pay, aside from the right to stay home.

Five minutes before the start of a cocktail party or bridge night, my father would make himself comfortable on the living room couch, dropping cigar ash on the navy-blue velvet cushions, or he’d stand in the kitchen in his underwear, reading the newspaper while my mother and I put out platters and laid hors d’oeuvres around him. Sometimes, he’d sit down at the kitchen table and open the newspaper wide, lowering it almost to the tabletop, so we’d have to move the serving dishes to the counter. One July Fourth, when I was about twelve and Andy was ten, my father picked up an angel on horseback as my mother was carrying the tray past him. “What is this, shit on a stick,” he said, and knocked the whole plate out of her hands, and then there we were, my mother and Andy and me, scrabbling to grab the hot, damp, oily little things from under the sideboard and out of the ficus plants. My father picked up a couple and put them in my mother’s apron pocket, saying, “You kids crack me up.” He was still chuckling when the doorbell rang and my mother went back into the kitchen and Andy and I went to our rooms, and he was still smiling when he opened the door for Mr and Mrs Rachlin, who were always the first.

Now that’s writing.


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Food as loneliness (in London still)

October 28, 2009

londonAm excited this week, because our anthology, Brothers & Sisters, is finally out, in the shops, published, released into the wild. The launch is in a couple of weeks – I would love all howtoshuckanoyster friends to come along, so if you are in Sydney and available on the evening of Tuesday 10 November, let me know!

It’s so much easier to be vocal about and proud of a book I’ve edited than one I’ve written – quite a joyful experience, quite  unlike the usual nauseous tremor that accompanies the release of a novel, and that ghastly fear every time you see a newspaper that within its pages you are being evaluated, judged, pilloried or – better, but still weird – foolishly praised … This time, though, I am so confident about the quality of the book because of the skill and talent of the writers within its pages, that I feel nothing but happiness that the stories and essays about siblings are finally reaching their readers.

I am also thrilled because I’ve wanted for ages to post my friend Tegan Bennett Daylight‘s brilliant passages about loneliness from her story, Trouble, but have been resisting until the book is actually available.

Trouble is narrated by a young woman who’s moved to London with her sister Emma, and the narrator’s loneliness as she watches the more confident Emma embrace the big new world they find themselves in while she herself is struggling to find her feet. They share a plush apartment belonging to some family friends, but Emma is out a lot – at her groovy architect’s job, or with her new boyfriend – while the narrator stays home, watching out the window at the city, feeling fat and out of place, halfheartedly looking for a job and trying to ward off  London’s cold, rainy misery.  It’s a beautiful story about growing up, about loneliness and desire, and finding your own way in a world far from home. Here are a couple of bits I particularly wanted to share.

Emma’s office was only a few tube stops from our flat, and I met her for lunch sometimes, but mostly I sat at home, too weary to struggle along in the fine bubbles of her wake. I couldn’t get warm. It was only September, and the flat was centrally heated, but I was doing nothing except sitting at the table in our white kitchen, whose window overlooked Vauxhall Bridge Road. Sometimes I ate porridge oats, dry, from a bowl. There was something solid and sustaining about them. You could make porridge in your own mouth, mashing the oats into a warm paste with teeth and saliva. I could eat two or three bowls at once. I looked in the newspaper for work. Sometimes I had baths to try to ease the cold ache in my sides and legs.

Eventually she gets a job in a department store.

After a month or so I gave up eating in the cafeteria at work, no longer exercised by the horrible fascination over the other staff’s eating habits. At first I had just sat and watched as slender, clear-faced girls collected trays of lasagne and chips, bowls of chocolate pudding, and Diet Cokes. Everything came with chips. London was the only place I had been where you were offered chips with Chinese food. Not even Parkes, not even Dubbo had food like that.

It was partly the food, but partly also that I didn’t like people to see me eating. Later on I would wonder why I’d thought myself so fat – I was merely plump, a word I hated nearly as much as chubby – but back then there seemed to be no doubt about it. Whenever I could, now, I went over the road to Harrods to buy my lunch. In the food hall you could get a mango, or a bag of dates or figs. I always tried to get outside if it was sunny, but often enough I spent my whole lunch break in the food hall, sneaking figs from a paper bag while I stood in front of the bread display, or the butchery. Everything was beautiful in the food hall – the tiled floors, the columned rooms, the elaborate plaster ceilings. There were no windows, but the lighting was generous and warm. There was nowhere to sit, but I sat all day at work anyway, and there were always enough people to prevent me from feeling conspicuous as I walked around.

One lunchtime I was waiting at the fruit counter when someone beside me said, ‘Hey.’ I looked up. The voice belonged to Tony, our floor manager. I had never spoken to him before. He was a tall, skinny man who always wore the same loose-fitting suit. He had a walkie-talkie clipped to his trousers and thick, slicked-back hair. Sometimes I saw him conferring with the white-shirted security men. I don’t think he liked Rory, he rarely came into our section. But I saw him in the distance sometimes, talking to an outraged customer. Women in particular became angry very easily, and it was his job to soothe them and make them want to come back.

He had a gentle Cockney voice and quite a large mouth. He grinned at me. ‘Hungry?’ he said.

I blushed and blushed.

‘Seen you in here before. This lady was first,’ he said to the woman behind the counter.

‘No, you go,’  I said, stepping back so fast I trod on someone’s toes. ‘I was just looking.’


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Sibling chivalry!

October 6, 2009

2008_Siblings_Sauvignon_Blanc_Semillon_FRONT_LABEL_(WEB)A quick cheerio to Leeuwin Estate Wines, for generously agreeing to send some of their delicious Madge River Siblings Sauvignon Blanc Semillon our way for the launch of our new anthology, Brothers & Sisters. A cut above the usual book launch wine, I think you’ll agree – and so beautifully apt! Yay Leeuwin Estate. And I have just noticed that this match was meant to be – the Siblings label colours even match our cover!

The launch is on November 10 at my favourite bookshop and local, Better Read than Dead in Newtown, Sydney – so you must all come along.

brothers&sistersPS: Today is an exciting one for other reasons too – we have been sent a copy of B&S‘s  first review, to appear in next month’s Australian Bookseller & Publisher mag, and it’s a cracker!

Can’t say too much as it’s not out yet, but an esteemed reviewer says of our short stories:

“It’s a measure of the strength of the form, and of the calibre of contemporary Australian writers using it, that the writing is keen, sharp and challenging.”

I’ll drink to that – off to buy some Siblings SBS to do it with.

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More writing on food

September 21, 2009

My thanks to my friend Eileen, for alerting me to this meaty segment on writing about food from ABC Radio National’s Book Show. More surprising than I had expected, it’s a nice energetic discussion on fictional, poetic and other writerly food between Stephanie Alexander (whose new book The Kitchen Garden Companion I absolutely lust after), John Newton and Gay Bilson with Ramona Koval.

Gay Bilson is particularly literate, erudite and thoughtful. She’s a very interesting woman, I think, given her stepping away from her massive success as a restaurateur (Berowra Waters Inn, etc) into a more reflective, quieter and far more ascetic sort of life these days. As a result of this interview I shall be seeking out her own books, Plenty and On Digestion. She also writes for The Monthly, and has a strangely moving piece in this month’s issue about organ donation which begins by evoking mushroom harvesting. She is intriguing, I reckon.

The beloved MFK Fisher comes in for a surprisingly acerbic serve from both Gay Bilson, who says Fisher’s writing is self-regarding and “makes my toes curl” and Stephanie, who calls her writing mannered and says she gets the feeling of indigestion from Fisher! A good lively, highly literate discussion all round, liberally sprinkled with food quotes from Sybil Bedford, Hemingway, Ian McEwan, Henry James, Lawrence Durrell, Anita Brookner, Frank Moorhouse and invoking The Magic Pudding, Enid Blyton and lots more.

Download it or listen online here.