Bland is so…bland – I had no idea I was a curry addict until…

Curries (royalty free image - Morguefile)

Curries (royalty free image – Morguefile)

So I am currently lying around at home recovering from throat surgery, a tonsillectomy. For those of you in the know, this is an incredibly painful procedure for adults and the recovery time is at least two weeks. Rest assured, this article will not be listing the horrors of my post-surgery life (trust me, you do NOT want to know, it’s bad) but I AM going to focus on one element of my current purgatory. Food.

Now I didn’t think I was a particularly adventurous or ‘different’ eater. My husband and I cook and eat out regularly, usually something Asian-inspired or Italian and sometimes we treat ourselves to a take-away pizza from our local (which is fabulous – inner-eastern dwellers of Melbourne, please check out Lina’s Pizza!) but I wouldn’t have said that I have ‘exotic’ tastes.

I have always taken for granted that I could eat whatever food I like; we are lucky enough to have a wonderful array of restaurants on our doorstep, Vietnamese, Burmese, Malaysian, Indian, Japanese, Thai, Italian. I would rate myself as an ‘above average’ cook and I have no food allergies so quite frankly, the world is my oyster. An average week of evening meals for me pre-surgery would have included a spicy veggie stir fry, a Malaysian, Indian or possibly Burmese curry, Cajun Salmon with some veggies, Pasta Puttenesca and/or maybe a thin crust pizza with prosciutto and mozzarella. Basically everything would have been spicy and/or tomatoey.

But post-surgery, oh how my culinary journey has been curtailed. I had no idea how exciting my diet was, what a wonderfully diverse range of cultures I could plunder for recipes, until now!!  Because right now I am restricted to bland, bland, bland. My throat is essentially raw; swallowing is painful and pretty much anything can set it aching and burning in the most upsetting way. So I have to play safe. Soup? Sure, but only if it is non-tomato based (ever cut your finger while slicing a tomato…imagine your entire throat feeling like that!). Pasta? Yep, but steady on, keep it plain, just a splash of olive oil and maybe a teeny sprinkling of parmesan. Stir fry? Why not but no chilli, ginger, garlic. Curry? Ha! I wish.  And did I mention the fact that even if I wanted a glass of wine (which I don’t!) I couldn’t; it’s not a good mix with the painkillers I am on plus I am pretty sure wine would hurt my throat just as much as tomato right now.

You may ask what on earth I have been eating for the last seven days and here it is. In all its glorious tedium:

  • wholemeal toast with a scraping of butter
  • porridge
  • pumpkin soup
  • poached eggs
  • baked potatoes
  • steamed vegetables (with no salt or pepper).

Oh, and before you ask why ice-cream isn’t on the list; let me tell you that it is an outright lie that you get to have ice-cream all the time after a tonsillectomy. Maybe that was the case in the good old days, but now you are expected to eat ‘normal meals’ straight away. And that means stuff that scrapes your throat but doesn’t ‘burn’. Plus you have to avoid excessive amounts of dairy as it – gross bit, apologies – creates mucus build up in the throat that can affect the healing process. In other words, no ice-cream.  I thought I could cheat with yoghurt, but nope, too acidic, thought my throat was on fire when I tried some.

A week on after surgery and although my appetite is finally starting to return and I am actively thinking about food again, unfortunately my throat is not playing ball; it is still way too sore to waver from the path of blandness. To distract myself as I chow down on yet another poached egg or plain baked potato (oh and did I mention that all of my food needs to be tepid – too hot and it’s like I am swallowing molten lava) I have made a list of all the food that I will be feasting on the moment my throat is healed (all washed down with the appropriate glass of wine or cider, rest assured!):

  • Lamb Rogan Josh with garlic naan
  • Chicken chilli & ginger stir fry
  • Stir fried rice
  • Tom Yum Soup or maybe a Laksa (or both!)
  • Chilli con carne
  • Dhal
  • Tapas such as patatas bravas, albondigas and chorizo
  • Every single tomato-based pasta sauce known to mankind
  • Chips (that would be ‘hot chips’ to Australians and ‘fries’ to Americans)
  • Salsa
  • Yoghurt
  • Brie, King Island Roaring Forties, in fact just cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese
  • Oranges, raspberries, rhubarb

So here’s to my swift recovery, ‘cos I have me some feasting to do!

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It’s a (wo)man’s world

Apparently it’s International Women’s Day today, so I thought that I would write about just a few of the women who influenced and inspired me as a child and young woman. Growing up, I always felt eminently confident that I could study any topic I wanted, have any career I wanted, have any life I wanted. And much of that feeing was down to the stories of the women who had made their mark on history, who were a wonderful character in a book, women who had bucked the trend. The following are just a few of those women; it’s an eclectic selection, a personal one, and yes, I know that there are many, many more I could have listed!
Wonder Woman
Who wasn’t inspired by Wonder Woman as a young girl?! She had a truth lasso. And an invisible plane. And she always won against the bad guys. There weren’t many female superheroes when I was growing up so Wonder Woman was particularly special to me.
George from the Famous Five stories
George should be held up as an example to all girls. She’s a tomboy who doesn’t want to ‘play house’; she wants adventures; she’s fearless and most importantly, she talks back to Julian (pompous prig that he is) and has an awesome dog called Timmy. I devoured The Famous Five books as a child, and I don’t care how non-PC these stories are perceived to be now, George still rocks!
Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni
She took on the Romans and won. Well, at first; the Romans won eventually and killed her. But she gave it a damn good shot and I always loved the illustrations of her in my history book, arm raised in a fist, standing in her chariot driving towards the enemy at the head of her army. A woman leading an army. Something else that was rare in my history books. Which leads me onto…
Elizabeth I
“I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.” Elizabeth was a powerful ruler, she wasn’t a consort, she ruled in her own right. She faced down the Spanish threat, countless assassination attempts and managed relatively successfully to keep the religious in-fighting to a minimum. It was so refreshing to learn at school about a woman in control, in charge, as opposed to the endless stories of male leaders and their derring-doing.
Amelia Earhart
A female pilot. So no nonsense about women not being able to navigate or understand machinery!
Jane Austen
Yes Jane Austen was a ‘spinster’ living her quiet life in Bath. But what a waspish tongue she had, what a fabulous turn of phrase. So cutting and every word packing a punch. Her sentences are pure joy to read, the situations she wrote about still recognizable today. If I could write just one sentence in my life as perfectly crafted as one of Austen’s, I could die a happy woman.
Anita Roddick, The Body Shop founder
I have to admit I am not actually a massive fan of The Body Shop products, although I was a sucker for the banana hair putty and chamomile rinse as a teenager who wanted to be blonder but didn’t have the guts or the money for blonde highlights. But Anita Roddick was more than a woman who sold toiletries. She highlighted issues; she raised awareness of environmental challenges and supported fair trade, well before it became ‘trendy’ to be concerned about these things. A true trailblazer and one who made me realize that not every company was set up and run by men. And that women in business could be, and were, a reality.
Carmen Callil, founder of Virago
I devoured the Virago Classics novels as a teenager. Every time I saw that distinctive dark green livery and tiny apple logo on its spine in the bookstore or library, I had to have it. Antonia White. Willa Cather. Elizabeth Bowen. Writers I would never have come across, never have had the opportunity to read, if it hadn’t been for Callil’s vision for a women’s press. My heart still leaps when I see a Virago title I haven’t read yet.

There are obviously many, many more women out there who have been an inspiration to others in the past and who are an inspiration today, and I appreciate that I haven’t mentioned any female scientists, engineers, linguists, artists, but I am an English Literature graduate and books and authors will always be my inspiration in all areas of my life. In fact, if you would like to read more about fictional heroines, I suggest you read Samantha Ellis’ How to be a Heroine (Or, what I’ve learned from reading too much). It is a wonderfully entertaining book about the fictional women that have inspired and sustained the author over the years.
One last thing. At my current workplace (a publishing company), five of its seven board members are women. So not only do I read about inspirational women, read writing BY inspirational women, but I work with inspirational women every day. Who make a successful career the norm, not the exception. And so that gives me hope that maybe one day we won’t feel the need for International Women’s Days, women-only author prizes or women-only clubs. Because successful women will be the norm everywhere.

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The rollercoaster ride of live tweeting an event

Confession time. Up till recently I used my twitter account to listen rather than talk; to get newsfeed from my favourite news channels in the UK, the US and Australia, follow @thebloggess (if you aren’t already, you should be the woman is a genius), follow about 20 book-themed twitter accounts and follow all of those types of social twitter types that talk about the latest places to go (love a new bar to visit!).

But, attending the Social Business 2014 conference here in Melbourne, I decided that rather than take notes I would live tweet the event. And then use my tweets as notes and action points. How hard could it be I reasoned to myself? Well, let me tell you it is HARD! And stressful. And addictive!

I made it through the day, having sent 85 tweets, attending ten sessions (I took notes at the first two, warming up!) although I did end up with tweet cramp. And stupidly I hadn’t brought my charger so I have to borrow one. But actually, it went well. The conference had a hashtag #SocialBiz14 (obviously, it’s a social business conference) and the delegates were encouraged to tweet the sessions using this hashtag and also tweet questions to the presenters. And for extra incentive there was a massive screen to the right of the stage, displaying tweets as they were sent. The first time I saw one of my tweets up on the huge screen, it was really quite a rush! The screen displayed up to eight tweets at a time; at one point I had three up in one go. And yes, to all those who know me as a cat tragic, I even managed to find a way to tweet a (related) photo of my cat. My cat, Tibbles, on the big screen, I hope he appreciates it (Grumpy Cat is always good leverage!).

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So what did I learn from my first attempt live tweeting?

Be prepared! Know the twitter handles of the speakers, the topics under discussion, any relevant hashtags that would apply.

Be consistent. Use the relevant hashtag EVERY TIME. A couple of my tweets went astray as I forgot to add the conference hashtag.

Be succinct. Use sound bites from the presenters where possible. Lists are good. If they are talking about the five stages of something, tweet them.

More haste, less speed. Always read your tweet before sending. Always. Typos look unprofessional and it is possible that you managed to select the wrong hashtag from the helpful auto match list that twitter supplied (I can’t tell you how many times I almost selected #sochi14 rather than #Socializ14!

Oh, and have fun! I really enjoyed myself and will definitely do it again!

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Unread, now read book 14 – Every Day, David Levithan

Every Day

For all of you who have fond memories of watching Quantum Leap in the early 90s, Every Day is for you! A 16-year-old, wakes up each morning to find himself in a different person’s body. Every day. They are always the same age as the protagonist (known as ‘A’) but that is the only common denominator: pretty, mean, gay, jock, emo’, suicidal, happy; ‘A’ experiences each person’s life from waking up to falling asleep, approximately 16-18 hours, before then waking up as the next person the following morning. Apparently ‘A’ doesn’t remember a time when this hasn’t happened to him. He has never spent more than one day with a family as far back as his memories stretch. Luckily (and usefully for the plot!) ‘A’ can access the person’s memories and use these to get through the day.  It’s also helpful that ‘A’ has access to an email account as this means that he can keep track of his real ‘self’ across his daily transitions; he frequently emails himself information and notes on the people he was ‘in’ and thoughts he has about his predicament to give himself continuum (and then cautiously wipes all internet history from whosever computer he has used). ‘A’ has also set himself rules, and constructed a coping mechanism to help him with the transitions day after day:

Follow the person’s daily routine.

Don’t draw attention to yourself.

Don’t interfere.

Respect the person you are ‘in’ and keep them safe by making good decisions.

Don’t leave traces of yourself.

Don’t fall in love.

But of course, one day he meets Rhiannon. And ‘A’ breaks all of his rules.

Rest assured, this is not a soppy coming of age, a Romeo and Juliet-esque doomed romance novel. Every Day intelligently explores a fascinating concept and makes the reader think about what makes ‘you’ you, what drives people to make choices, and reminds you that no-one should another judge another on appearance alone.

I think I would class this as a YA novel, but only because the main character(s) are teenagers and the novel centres around everyday issues that teenagers face. It would be a fabulous text for use in schools to discuss ethics, or in English Literature when discussing ‘issues’ such as bullying, or how to analyze character. Because ‘A’ is always someone else, as well as himself, it teaches him to be tolerant and thoughtful of others. And some of the moral/ethical dilemmas he faces are genuinely tough; for example, he wakes up one morning as Kelsea Cook who has some form of mental illness and is suicidal. ‘A’ finds her journal and realises that she is planning to kill herself in six days’ time. What can he do? He will not ‘be’ her after that day so has to take action instantly. Then there is ‘Day 5998′ (chapters are titled as consecutive numbered days) when he wakes up as a drug addict.

Anyway, I could list all of the people’A’ ‘inhabits’ and what happens to him and Rhiannon… but I think you should read it and find out for yourself!

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Unread, now read book 13 – Goodbye Columbus, Philip Roth

Goodbye Columbus

Out of all the impulsively bought books that have been languishing around unread for the last year on my shelves, this probably has the silliest reason as to why I bought it. Put simply, it’s because Julian Morrow in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History makes a sly joke to Richard Papen about English freshman needing to purchase a copy of Goodbye Columbus for their course. Told you it was silly.

For some reason, that literary reference always stuck with me even though I didn’t know anything more about the novel than the title, not even who it was by. So when I saw a copy in a secondhand bookstore and noticed it was written by Philip Roth who I have read and (kind of) enjoyed, I decided to buy it. Like I said I have read other novels by Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint, made the mistake of reading it in public and blushed quite a bit; American Pastoral, which I liked a lot) so I assumed that Goodbye Columbus would have similar themes and focus on a Jewish male protagonist who had some sort of angst going on.

And now that I have read it, I don’t have a lot more to say about Columbus than that! It’s always interesting reading a novel written at/set in an earlier time to which you currently live; the social mores portrayed are usually very different, particularly what men and women respectively want from life, their attitudes towards sex and marriage, etc. And Columbus is no different. But it didn’t really hook me; I didn’t get interested in any of the characters, who all felt a little two-dimensional. But then, it is his first novel; if you read some of his later novels, such as American Pastoral, his writing is highly accomplished. So there you go, not a novel (well novella, it’s pretty short) I would reread but it wasn’t a ‘bad’ novel. And for those who are interested, apparently it was made into a film, starring Ali McGraw and Richard Benjamin in 1969.

 

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Unread, now read book 12 – The Glass Room, Simon Mawer

The Glass Room

This is a domestic novel, concentrating on one family, the Landauers, and their close friends and what happens to them all throughout the 1930s and 40s (and up to present day) in the First Republic of Czechoslovakia (as it is called at the time). Liesl and Victor Landauer are newly married, happy and looking forward to their future together, starting with an ambitious new house build in ‘Mesto’ (fictional Brno) in the First Republic of Czechoslovakia. A modern house, a glass house, it reflects and reinforces all of their modernistic dreams and is a meeting place for the cultural figures of their acquaintaince, including pianists and poets. But Victor is a Jew. And war is coming. Soon they have to flee their home, first to Switzerland, then Cuba, then eventually the US. Their beautiful glass house is abandoned,  is requisitioned first by one occupying force, then another, before finally being claimed by the Communists and turned into a museum.

From an historical point of view I found this novel interesting as I didn’t know much about the Czechs’ experience during the war; obviously I have read a lot of novels set in WWII France, Britain, Germany, etc. and learnt a lot of WWII history at school but I have never really read much about the political and cultural situation in Eastern Europe at this time. The tension between Germans and Czechs (then the Russians and Czechs) is well drawn and the architectural, lyrical descriptions of the house (which is a real house the the author once visited, the Villa Tugendhat in Cerna Pole in Brno) are excellent. In fact, quite honestly the house displays more personality than the characters who are quite one-dimensional (except Hana Hanakova, Liesl’s best friend, who is fabulous!).

However, the heavy-handed symbolism and the reliance on coincidences to drive the plot annoyed me. That the plot relies on five or six outrageous coincidences experienced by Victor and/or Liesl beggers belief. I refuse to list them here, they are just silly. So not sure I would recommend this novel.

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Unread, now read book 11 – Old Filth, Jane Gardam

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I bought this novel, along with Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room,  because they were part of a nice point of sale display in my local bookstore containing the 40 years of Abacus special edition books, and had lovely covers. Shallow of me, I know, but really sometimes that’s all it takes. Which is why I don’t let myself in bookstores very often.

Anyway, I digress. Old Filth.Essentially Old Filth (FILTH standing for Failed in London Try Hong Kong) tells the story of Sir Edward Feathers, a retired judge who, having spent most of his long career in Hong Kong, has now retired to Dorset with his wife. At the beginning of the novel he loses his wife suddenly to a heart attack and that is when he starts to unravel and we get the extended flashbacks to his childhood and early career. Born a child of the British Empire, a Raj orphan who is then shunted off to Wales, where he suffers dreadfully at the hands of his sadistic guardian before escaping that life to go to a boarding school where he is happy, Edward’s life arc appears to be as unpredictable to him as it is to the reader following his story. At the mercy of the whims of family members who have jurisdiction over him till he turns 18, then the war and the army, then his career, Edward seems constantly surprised by where he is in life. But he is no Paul Pennyfeather. Everything good that happens to him is a result of him showing kindness or understanding to someone in need that he has come across. But he isn’t a goody-goody either. Oh, it’s really hard to explain.

Suffice to say, I loved this book. Got to the end and wanted to read it again. I still can’t really tell you why; the writing was strong but not wow, amazing; the characters were well-drawn but most of them weren’t very likeable; the plot was interesting and the constant shift between the present and various points in the main character’s past kept me on my toes. So why so engaging? I think because when I reached the end, although I thought I understood buttoned-up, emotionally desolate Edward, the final reveal made me revisit everything that had gone before. I would normally say that I felt cheated but it’s not that. Having read the introduction written for this particular edition by the author, I was relieved to see that she felt the same way. Old Filth was meant to be a standalone, a one-off but once she had finished writing it, she felt the urge to write two more linked novels and turn it into a trilogy. The second novel (The Man in the Wooden Hat) tells the same story but from Betty’s (his wife) point of view and the third (Last Friends), focuses on the retirement of all of the protagonist from Hong Kong to Dorset. I can’t wait to read the second, I feel as if there is so much more waiting for me. So once again, I add to the list of books I want to read when I have finished my current list of unread books!

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