Why we like the writers we do … or not

The pages of the print-out are dated 13 January 2009, in fact, more precisely than that: 12:01pm. It’s an article that I liked in Salon.com from 2002. I suspect that years after I first read it (I was reading a lot of Salon those years), I remembered it and printed it out so I could save it.

It seemed that I had found in the words of a journalist named Tom Bissell something profound and correct in a long essay about how we connect with writers and not with others, even though we know that everyone else might like/hate them, and even when we have contradictory feelings for very similar writers. Perhaps I liked it as a justification for the authors that I’ve not connected with, or haven’t been drawn to read.

The article was called ‘I’d prefer not to‘ and I’m happy to see it’s still online.

I’m amused to now read that the author went on to co-write the book “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made” which I’d heard of, after my friend James introduced me to the semi-regular showings of The Room at a cinema here in Sydney, Australia. I’m also interested to read that Bissell has kept writing, including a book of short fiction, and including video games scripts. I’ll have to check out those short stories.

The argument that he lays out is that the books we end up falling in love with are akin to finding a friend that provokes a ‘nearly cell-level sensation’, the pages emitting an ‘aura, the ineffable, almost psychic pulse’. It is more than just subject matter or aesthetics or whether we like the politics of the book, but something that is both describable and indescribable.

At times, we might not be in the right place to connect with a book (physical, temporaral or mental), but when it happens, it is love, yes.

Now, I’m going to recycle these pages, since I know where to find the article, which he wrote when he was only 28 years old. It’s worth a read if what I’ve written has peaked your interest.

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Book Review: Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story

The End of the StoryThe End of the Story by Lydia Davis
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I found The End of the Story a confusing book, and yet, it felt like it was purposely so. The narrative and descriptions could be emotionally precise: ‘slipping back through those years to an innocence or freshness that had a certain helplessless attached to it.’ Or both poetic and precise, ‘the sidewalks were full of canes and walkers, the old people swaying among them’. Or even in details, extremely precise, for example where the protagonist recounts both a 37- and a 14-minute conversation with her lover/ex-lover.

But a lot of the book is about being vague and imprecise. The narrative plays with how much detail to divulge, admitting that ‘memories are quite often false, confused, abbreviated, or collapsed into each other’. The locations are described in abstract without names. The lover/ex-lover only slowly gains physical details, over many pages. He is wide. He has reddish-brown hair. It is surprisingly late in the book that we learn he is 22 years old. A major argument occurs, and we are told she shocks him, but we are not to learn what it was that did so.

The End of the Story, winner of the Booker Prize in 2013, was written by Lydia Davis, her first and only novel. She is well-known for short stories. I like short stories so I’m not sure how I haven’t stumbled across her in my reading history. The novel is about a relationship between a 34-year-old woman writer and, as mentioned above, a 22-year-old man.

It is a novel about writing a novel, in a way that with the mechanics laid bare, I found interesting at first but then somewhat painful. What it reminded me of most was Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle of which I only read the first and meant to read the rest. The writing is clear and competent and often elegant, but most of all feels like a direct reflection of the author’s thought process, a detailed and complete, and somewhat cold recounting of a relationship, with all of the author’s thoughts, indecision about what to put in and what to leave out, and a level of forgetfulness of how events actually occurred. ‘There were five quarrels, I think,’ she writes, and tries to decide whether it would be better to conflate events for easier storytelling. ‘I was acutely aware of the smallest sounds in the room,’ she writes. We sometimes get, like in Knausgård’s writing, every detail, every thought.

Although I found this exploration of memory and the writing process interesting, it became less interesting the longer the novel went and actually found it hard to finish, reading about that constant ambivalence. And I felt disengaged with the main story. It’s a relatively short relationship, less than a year, I think, and while the narrator explains that she missed the man afterwards, and was hurt by the breakup of the relationship, her descriptions of him are cold. She’s mostly annoyed with him, distant and admits to treating him badly. She’s not particularly interested in his life outside of their time together. I think it’s about halfway through the book before I finally read a reason why she likes him, a physical attraction and comfort and feeling seen by him, that she got his full attention. She’s honest about it, admitting that she may have felt ‘that I did not have to love him very deeply, or considerately, for him to go loving me’.

But I found this a difficult narrative. Why should we care about the relationship when she didn’t care much for it? How are we supposed to care about her and how hurt she was by the break-up, when neither the relationship nor the man seemed very substantial. Then she becomes a stalker, after the end of the relationship and won’t leave him alone, won’t stop thinking about him, wanting him, calling him. This wallowing in broken-heartedness seems indulgent because he doesn’t seem worth it. He’s barely employable, drifting, happy to use people for his own purposes and not particularly truthful. But then I found it hard to find any sympathy or interest in the narrator for her self-pity, her coldness and her endless churning of thoughts.

It becomes evident that more important than the relationship is the story of the relationship, ‘even though the novel claims to be fiction and not a story about me’. It is about how to write the story, about what is remembered and what is not, what is falsely told and corrected, or left out.

I’m puzzled why this book was so praised and how it won the Booker Prize.

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Book review: David Lebovitz’s Drinking French

Drinking French: The Iconic Cocktails, Apéritifs, and Café Traditions of France, with 160 RecipesDrinking French: The Iconic Cocktails, Apéritifs, and Café Traditions of France, with 160 Recipes by David Lebovitz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m a huge fan of Lebovitz’s blog and website, and his regular newsletter, having discovered them around the time that I was lucky enough to live in Paris for a few months of time, in two consecutive years. He was an indispensible source of advice for restaurants, bars, food stores and recipes (which I made in Australia, as we never had very big kitchens in our AirBNBs or rental apartments). Moreso, he imbues a sense of adventure, discovery and delight for what to discover in French eating and drinking.

As I’ve been making more cocktails lately, I ordered this book as soon as he announced it, and it arrived, fortuitously, not long before the COVID-19 lockdown. So, I’ve already been making various cocktails and drinks, including some homemade crème de cacao, and mixing up drinks with Lillet and St Germain Elderflower Liqueur. I found a bottle of Dubonnet, so that’s the next ingredient on my list.

But it’s far more than a recipe book. His writing style is so engaging, and each recipe is an opportunity to let us know something new about French drinking and cuisine, or the culture. It’s all very romantic, and feels much more real (and authentic) than the whole genre of books about ‘Living in Paris for a Year’ or ‘I fell in love with a Frenchman’. You really feel like you want to hang out and have a drink with him, and I felt terribly envy that I’m not in his home when he’s serving up these drinks … and snacks, as there’s a lovely selection of recipes of food to match up with the drinks.

Highly recommended for anyone who loves Paris and France and anyone who likes a good cocktail. He’s also stirring up cocktails online on Instagram (in lockdown and unable to do a book tour): I’ll have to check it out.

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Book Review: Shaun Tan’s The Arrival

The ArrivalThe Arrival by Shaun Tan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. I’m stunned by this book.

I’ve read a lot of comic books in my time, and some graphic novels, so on first glance, I wondered how the format would work. The panels are mostly square, a series of 12 or 20 of them, say, and then a larger illustration.

Tan creates his own rhythm and style, and basically, from the first pages, I was drawn in. The smaller drawings require more attention, simply to take in what’s happening, so when a larger view appears, a punctuation or emphasis, it has this feeling of emotional enlargement as well.

When the protagonist of the book sees scenes of his new city for the first time, I felt this same sense of a huge, unfamiliarity looming over me. And they took my breath away, these images. The first are identifiable, a father leaving his wife and child, to emigrate. And then wonderfully, it’s clear that this is not a literal tale. There are dragons. There are strange and charming creatures. The language is incomprehensible.

And yet what is clear and understandable are the emotions, the small victories and challenges of the protagonist as he makes his way into this new life. The drawings are *beautiful*: moody, emotional, gorgeous. And the creation of these worlds and this story, all in images: what a wonderful achievement.

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COVID-19 lockdown cocktails

Um. We’re in lockdown. COVID-19. This would seem to be a good time to have a cocktail. Since what else are we going to do? (Rhetorical question: don’t answer it).

So, the biggest success so far has been pre-mixed negronis, nuked in the microwave, and made in a batch. Look up @mrlyan on instagram or google Ryan Chetiyawardana’s recipe for the Nuked Negroni, where the usual suspects (gin, red vermouth and campari) are infused with blackberries, grapefruit peel and rosemary in the microwave at 600w for 3 minutes.

Then, when you want to use it, you just stir 3 ounces (per person) with ice until it’s cold, and then pour onto a big old ice cube. I love negronis. I’m pretty indiscriminate and don’t often meet a negroni I don’t like, so I can’t tell if this one is better, but I like to think it is.

I found another recipe for bulk, nuked Vieux Carrés (a drink originating from New Orleans), so that’s next on my list to try.

Part of the fun of making cocktails is seeing what ingredients are on hand! As we found a bunch of limes on special at Harris Farms, and a friend who stayed with us gave us a bottle of rum (which we weren’t keeping a regular stock of), I decided to make Boston Sidecars the other night:

🍸 3/4 ounce rum
🍸 3/4 ounce brandy
🍸 3/4 ounce grand marnier
🍸 1/2 ounce lime juice

Shaken with ice, served in a sugar-rimmed glass and we couldn’t resist putting in a maraschino cherry 🍒 It was lovely. A little bit on the heavy side, but the lime juice lifts it.

Other cocktails which I didn’t take photos of: the Dark and Stormy (ginger beer, rum and a twist of lime: very nice); and to use up some Pimm’s we had stored, a Pimmlet (instead of a regular old Pimm’s cocktail):

🍸 25 ml Pimm’s No.1
🍸 25 ml Gordon’s Gin
🍸 25 ml fresh lime juice
🍸 Dash of sugar syrup
🍸 Cucumber slice
🍸 Mint leaves

Pimm’s and cucumber seems a classic combination. Great for a hot day. Making this inspired me to make my own sugar syrup, so stay tuned for some more cocktails that make use of that!

The night before last was Angostura Bitter Sour, as years ago, I had accidentally bought a second bottle of bitters, when we already had one. So I wanted to get down to one bottle (impossible unless you us more of it than the usual 3 dashes). In the meantime, I had some egg whites leftover from making ice cream, so this was the perfect recipe. It was surprising good, perhaps like a Jagermeister cocktail instead of a shot, some deep and rich herb flavours (🍸 an ounce of bitters) mellowed with sour (🍸 an ounce of lime juice) and sweet (🍸 an ounce of sugar syrup). All shaken up with the egg white to make it foamy. This was a fun experiment (with a pretty deep purple/brown colour) but I’m not sure I’d do it again.

Last night was also a pretty cocktail. We’ve become fans of Fever-Tree tonics, but for my last liquor run at Dan Murphy’s (where I treated myself to a number of ingredients to make NEW cocktails with), they were out of every flavour of tonic instead of the lemon tonic water. When I looked it up on various websites, mixologists are VERY specific about matching this tonic water to certain ingredients, rather than just making a lemony gin and tonic.

The ‘Bitter Lemon Cooler’ was refreshing, and pretty. I’m likely to make it again sometime, and it’s a good way to use up dry vermouth, which is impossible to use up with the whisper of it I add to martinis.

🍸 1 1/2 oz Dry vermouth
🍸 1 oz Gin
🍸 1/4 oz Grenadine (or maraschino cherry juice, which we used)
🍸 1/4 oz Fresh lemon juice
🍸 Bitter lemon soda

That’s a rather full report of last week’s cocktails! Stay tuned for more (as it seems the lockdown will go on a lot longer).

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Book Review: Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

On Earth We're Briefly GorgeousOn Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was stunned by this book. Immediately, on entering it, it’s clear that the story will be unconventional. A letter to a mother. An autobiography? A poem? The shifts in time and scenes were disorienting, but in a way that I didn’t mind, sort of like getting used to turbulence on a flight.

I’ve read many immigrant stories in my time and stories from a multicultural and Asian North America (which is where I’m from, hence the interest). And then I’ve read a lot of gay fiction (being gay and a gay writer). To combine those two strands of storytelling, and set in the context of a decaying, poor America amidst the opioid epidemic – I was delighted by this original setting.

And I thought his language was really, really beautiful. While Dwight Garner, in his review in the New York Times, found parts of the writing ‘showy’, ‘affected’ and ‘swollen quasi-profundities’ with the effect like pebbles in your shoe, I didn’t mind it, or in fact quite liked it.

I don’t particularly like writing that is too ornate but I don’t mind showy, for example, a favourite book is Michael Ondaatje’s ‘In The Skin of the Lion’, which I didn’t know how showy it was until a friend complained about it (she preferred the subtler and more popular ‘The English Patient’).

But I didn’t really think of it as showy. I found it striking instead, that I often had trouble following a train of thought, or an image, that the lines were reaching for meaning in a way that I didn’t quite understand. But rather than being bothered by it, I could see that Vuong has a different way of looking at the world, and a way that I think is marvelous: filled with beauty among much pain, full of feeling but not sentimental.

‘I considered the stars, the smattering of blue-white phosphorescence and wondered how anyone could call the night dark.’

While the primary relationship in the book purports to be between the narrator, Little Dog, and his mother, I didn’t have a sense of who she was, aside from traumatised and hard-working and poor and pretty crazy. I preferred reading about the narrator’s first love and first lover. It captured the pain and excitement, nervousness and tenderness of a same-sex first love like few others I’ve read. And since first lovers become former lovers, that description of separation, loss and grief is beautifully wrought.

Since I’ve only read three books this year, it doesn’t say much that this is the best book I’ve read this year. Let me just say I think this book is gorgeous, and for longer than a brief moment. Highly recommended.

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Home baking: Josey Baker’s Adventure Bread

Baking during the COVID-19 lockdown 🍞 I made this recipe for ‘Adventure Bread’ from @JoseyBakerBread posted by @DavidLebovitz, Paris-based author and chef (check out his new book, Drinking French, it’s great).

It’s this amazing gluten-free bread made mostly of nuts, seeds and oats 🍞 It reminded me a bit of the heavy German or Scandinavian bread you can sometimes find at Aldi, in a heavy square loaf, sliced very thinly.

And I’ve always loved bread with lots of nuts and seeds. So, this is really, really tasty and not difficult to make at all 🍞🍞🍞 And I feel pretty smug that I made it myself.

We actually had most of the ingredients: psyllium husk, oats and chia seeds. I had to get some more sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds, and find some flax seeds too. You mix everything together with some liquid, put it overnight into the fridge and then bake it for a long time the next day.

It’s dense and has great texture. Tastes great smothered in butter. The only thing is that in the Australian heat, mold started to get to it after a few days (it’s so heavy, we were just treating ourselves to a piece or two each a day), so best stored in the fridge (or in the freezer as we’re doing).

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Book Review: David Sedaris’s When You are Engulfed in Flames

When You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhen You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve enjoyed Sedaris’s writing in the past, and possibly even more so, hearing him speak at a writer’s festival. He’s funny. Occasionally, he produces a gem of a sentence that is sad, cynical and hilarious, all at once. If I had a better memory, I’d quote him at dinner parties, like people do of Oscar Wilde.

This book was passed onto me (as I will pass it on to a friend who has been giving up smoking, as Sedaris is doing in the last and longest essay in the book) and I noted that it is from 2008.

While Sedaris’s humour always involves some self-deprecation and observation about how strange and absurd the world is, what struck me is that I wonder if his humour (or that of 2008) is going slightly out of date. He often mocks other people and their physical appearance in a way that feels not challenging or outrageous, but just sort of mean. It’s possibly forgiveable since he often makes fun of himself, but it generally gave me the feeling that at this particular point of our history, it’s not funny anymore to make fun of other people.

The other issue is that while I found his recounting of stories from his younger years sharper and funnier, and more full of memorable, absurd detail, I found other stories to be fairly mundane and anecdotal. The final chapter, giving up smoking while in Japan, didn’t grab me: perhaps I’ve read too many ‘Westerners find Japanese culture strange’ stories or had too many friends who gave up smoking.

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Sydney Food Diary: Kobe Wagyu BBQ, Chinatown

I’m glad to see on Zomato how highly diners have rated Kobe Wagyu, up on the first floor across from World Square, at the edge of Chinatown. For that was my feeling too: this was great food and a great dining experience.

And it was a bit of a historical meal for us too, as it was the last place we went to before restaurants got shut down (except for takeaway service) because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, if humanity is doomed, it was great to have this as our last restaurant meal.

Head up the stairs and be impressed by the fridge full of wagyu beef. In fact, I was at a Japanese restaurant in the same location maybe … ten years ago?

Anyways, here at Kobe Wagyu BBQ, It’s a fun and easy concept. For $84, you get a beautiful deluxe plate of sashimi …

You can also get free beer (one bottle each), free oysters (one each) …

… and then order small side dishes to your heart’s content (more on that below).

And you get a staircase of meat. I wasn’t careful enough to try to write down the different cuts and names of the beef (though having access to the menu might have helped) but there was an amazing variation …

… in how much fat there was, how thin or thick the slice was, and then the different texture and mouth-feel with each bite. It was really amazing, and you can tell this is high-quality, expensive meat.

And with a biteful of each type, you can really savour and appreciate them. I think there was only one out of the eight varieties that I thought was average. Mostly, we looked at each other after tasting a piece and said: OHMYGOD.

The setting is fun and comfortable. Perhaps a little too bright. But the booths are comfortable and they were spaced so that everyone was sitting a comfortable distance apart (all the staff were wearing masks, there was hand sanitizer at the entrance when you came in. It was clear they were doing everything they could to make it a safe and comfortable experience).

And the ordering pad is fun. Easy to understand and the orders come in minutes!

We ordered quite a few little plates: a cold tofu, takoyaki (octopus balls), crab claws (which tastes surprisingly of crab rather than the artificial seafood filler I expected) …

… a seaweed salad, asparagus, and burdock fries (chewy and interesting). We even had a frozen matcha tiramisu for dessert, which was fine. Nothing special but I like the concept.

All in all a wonderful evening and I would definitely go back. And I hope in these tough times for restaurant that Kobe Wagyu, and all of the other wonderful restaurants in Sydney, will also be back to normal business as soon as we can all be safe.

Kobe Wagyu Yakiniku Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Home Cooking: Alison Roman’s Spiced Chickpea Stew with Coconut and Turmeric

The COVID-19 lockdown is a perfect opportunity to try out all the recipes that I’ve been printing out and then putting to one side! I have quite a collection.

Some have already proven to be failures (for me, at least). I was so concerned that the ribs wouldn’t be cooked long enough in Roy Choi’s Braised Short-Rib Stew (which weirdly, as of March 2020, isn’t behind it’s usual NYT pay firewall), that while I managed to cook the ribs a long time (and they were delicious), I absent-mindedly chucked in the rest of the ingredients way too early.

So, the expensive and somewhat hard to find ingredients (roasted chestnuts, taro, fresh shitake mushrooms) melted down with the pumpkin into a thick gravy and it wasn’t a success.

In contrast, Alison Roman’s Spiced Chickpea Stew with Coconut and Turmeric would have to be my biggest success of the lockdown so far (photo at the top of the post). A columnist for the New York Times and Bon Appétit, she’s a cook and cookbook writer and you can visit her here. Her recipe is up on the New York Times website (and is behind the paywall) but it’s been reproduced in different places on the web, for example, here in the Irish Times, that calls it the chickpea stew that broke the internet.

The spices aren’t complicated (turmeric, ginger, garlic and onions) and neither are the ingredients, but matched with two cans of coconut milk (which are in short supply in Sydney at the moment, I think because of panic buying), and the chickpeas and chard, this stew was magical.

I was especially pleased with rehydrating the dried chickpeas myself in the pressure cooker (and then used the chickpea water with a few stock cubes instead of the water and stock called for in the recipe). Frying the chickpeas until they have a lovely crunchy texture on the outside is magic (I’ve also done this for a chickpea pasta recipe which was great).

I think this might have been the first time ever that I cooked with silverbeet (In Australia, they call the one with white stalks silverbeet and the ones with red stalks Swiss Chard, though I believe in North America, it’s all chard). I loved the substantial texture and weight of the leaves.

Since I hate waste, I looked up a recipe for how to use the stalks and made an Italian-style silverbeet stalks dish. We’d run out of parmesan though, which I think made a difference. Even with the garlic, capers and rich tomato sauce, we both found the dish a bit bland, and serving it as a separate course rather than a side dish emphasised this (even though the handful of macaroni I threw in was good for textural contrast).

It was a bit better, the next day, served alongside ANOTHER recipe I’d wanted to try, pressure cooker aloo masala (Indian curry potatoes), which I won’t bother posting a link too since the ideas were cobbled together from a few different recipes. The potatoes were OK but not fab; I’ll stick with something like the Washington Post’s Divorce Potato Roasties instead. And sadly, will probably toss the silverbeet stalks the next time I make the chickpea stew!

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