Review: The Cook

The CookThe Cook by Wayne Macauley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So Wayne Macauley, a satirist worth his salt, has been round for a while. Good ole’ Black Pepper Press took a punt on his skewered cheese-dreams of Australian aspiration. Not just suburban oiks, the obvious target, but those artistes applying for the wafer-thin dinner mints of grant funding and greater glory. Check out his early books.

But not before you read this one. My, this is a good book. If Jude the Obscure was obsessed by making it to Masterchef instead of Christminister you might get an inkling of the flavor.

Zach the delinquent trained on a TV-chef’s farm with a group of other fuck-ups takes like a zealot to the filet-knife, the butchering, the prep. But like Jude he understands nothing; his vision of where he will go is so myopic, so focussed, he misses the perilousness of his day-to-day life. He is used. He is in the hands of others.

He’s also entirely, suffocatingly creepy. Macauley gives us just enough of Zach in reflective mode to grasp that he feels very little. Shame is his engine. He freaks people out with this.

My only quibble with the book was the deliberate lack of punctuation. It felt like an ruse to elict better concentration from the reader. I read closely, but punctuation helps to slow me down, find repose. It seemed unnecessary.

Things do not end well. But the larger picture is as frightening as the denouement. In the world of food – working class butchers, obsequious deli owners, farmers, even celebrity chefs – things are broken. The dream of money and fame, the aspirational velocity that Australians have been repeatedly told is what we all should have – it’s in tatters.

And therein lies the true wonder of this novel. The dread. The dystopia. The Global Financial Crisis hangs over it as palpably as the fear of nuclear Armageddon hung over Gen X dinosaurs like myself in the early eighties. Remember, Ronald Reagan was going to start bombing in five minutes.

All that Masterchef glitz turns out to be bread and circuses. And I’m talking supermarket sawdust snags and fairy loaf.

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Review: Heat

HeatHeat by Bill Buford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most food writing is shit. It wallows in superlatives as brazenly as real estate hustings. But really good writing about food makes the heart soar.

This is in the second category. Partially because Buford is so craven, so desperate to GET what it is like being young, dumb and full of come in a kitchen more stuffed with wise-asses and borderline personality disorders than the average martini olive.

Lots of guys take up lycra and the bike for their mid-life thingo. Or get expensive mistresses. Or foreign cars (the same thing, really). Buford rather sadly wants to cut it on the line in a four star restaurant. He is known as “kitchen bitch”.

Happily for the reader, as a long-time food obsessed New Yorker staff writer with serious “chops” (sorry) in the descriptive department, it’s a pretty great ride for the reader.

Things I learnt from Bill Buford:
1.Mario Batali is deeply unlikeable.
2.Kitchens are the most unreconstructed misogynist bastions imaginable. Still.
3.Italians love a gesture. The thing that makes it ineffably charming, which gives it gravitas, is that they LIVE by such gestures. Even if it makes their lives in some ways suck.

I was tempted to deduct points from Buford’s giant schwing (sentimental and gee whiz all at the same time which is some feat for an erection) for artisanal production. YES, food made by hand is better. YES, frankenstein food production is a truly terrible side-effect of globalisation. But I’ve heard it a lot. And it doesn’t explain how in reality non-yuppies in urban settings can readily afford organic/local meats and produce. Other than to grown it, which is a HUGE leap for many folks. People don’t want to eat shit, but gee, nutrition is pretty good nowadays. Have you SEEN the SIZE of the feet on sixteen-year-old girls?

I didn’t deduct the points because this book isn’t so new, and perhaps the Michael Pollan-esque message was a bit fresher then.

Buford scores because he makes it fun instead of holier-than-thou. You won’t forget the Tuscan butchers he trains with in a hurry, either.

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Varuna Part I – Walking

A tortoiseshell twitching its ears at me from a tower window.

Germans climb over the railing to have their picture taken, backs to the void.
“You know, you really need to grow up,” says the girl taking the picture.

The movement of the cable counterweight against the trees, a shuttle through the loom of canopy.

Mud and water.

Endurance walker with a pack, arms dangling; the feeling has gone from them.

Mist swirling in the sky, the wind is fast. It brings weather like an arrow.

The currawongs, those brutes.

Strappy grass extends its fingers into the slotted mailbox.

Hidden cockatoos strip a pine of nuts, releasing oily scent; palm sunday and air-freshener.

Birds ping from the Valley, sonar through mist.

The fermata of GangGangs, impossible wings.

On Why I Can Deal with the Shame of my Bookcase

From Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan, on Umberto Eco’s library:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encylopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others – a very small minority – who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight read-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books.

Review: The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith

The Unusual Life of Tristan SmithThe Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading Peter Carey is always a gamble. The bower-bird nature of his source material, where his current obsessions – often an aspect of the creative life – is unpicked to the point of immersion, sometimes comes off and sometimes doesn’t. His books are quilts – glass and gambling, painting and forgery, ern malley and the botany of Malaysia. Does that last one jar a little?

You bet it did. My Life as a Fake was the worst Carey book I’ve suffered, a hopeless melange of Frankenstein, Carey’s nostalgia for a good nonya curry, and the fascinating tale of the Malley hoax. With child stealing and post-colonial jungle riffing on the side. It just did not work as a whole book. TOO MUCH. Even Carey can fail to convince us with his incredible ear for jerked dialogue, gumbo politics and grotesque mise en scene.

But this one – Tristan Smith is a pearler. I’d heard absolutely naught about it, and now I know why. It’s tough, in the same way Sterne’s book, one of its obvious echoes, is tough. 150 page diversions on the narrator’s birth aren’t for everybody. As usual, Carey bites off way too much and chews like crazy.

Obsessions, catalogued within:
The theatre, the real experience of acting on stage, and receiving that action – right up close, in the footlights. Raw theatre, Pram Factory Theatre. Sometimes terrible, because it’s risky, alchemical, apt to blow up.
Congenital deformity. How would it work if the protagonist was saddled with serious handicaps to his speech, movement, digestion? Unable to walk? Unable to be looked at?
Politics. Imagine Australia and the US and the deep contradictions of their relationship. BUT – they are not Australia and the US – in this world Australia was a colony of France, the US a colony of Holland. OK.
Linguistics. The above shift means that the cultural referents, the slang, the religion, everything – has evolved differently. And you’d better keep up ’cause he ain’t explaining it.
Circus. The history of danger and mimetics, Hermes-trickery and human sacrifice – it’s Cirque de Soleil without nets, with the possibility of death. Circus as actual religion, as addiction.

It’s mad and magnificent. I read it in total silence and concentration away from everything, and was convinced and transported to those places without question. It’s hard work. I bet it wasn’t popular. But read it; The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is shit hot.

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I grow old, I grow old; I would probably still eat a Chiko Roll

This is a picture of the last three months worth of ear-fruit from my local opshops. Bitchin’, no?


Music is a relatively recent rekindled love in my life. Having small children and cranking my music of choice has presented some difficulties in my thin-walled cottage. Sure, they like Underworld and James Brown but only about one-tenth of the time. The rest is strictly devoted to a rotation of my kid-friendly mixtapes (Shirley Temple, Danny Kaye, classic musicals, Sesame St classics and slippages in taste as unfortunate as The Wiggles) and weird talking books like E. Nesbit‘s Five Children and It.

But now in the car I listen to my music, and have an office with speakers for my computer. Before long I’m dreaming of installing something wall-mounted, small and sexy from Bose in my house, as part of the grander fantasy of renovating it.

So I thought I might you know, reconnect with music a bit. It’s only been five years, right? I can’t have got a completely tin ear in that time? I like The Eels and Hot Chip and Vampire Weekend and listen to JJJ until it shits me (not long – it’s the announcers) before furtively slipping the dial to 3RPH for the oldies reading the newspapers in between sucking on butter menthols and drinking tea, god bless them. Or slipping on the even less hip local station, WMA, with its restricted playlist and regular doses of Waylon Jennings and Bread.

Re-reading that last para has confirmed that I am old. Def. But care factor zero, as we used to say. For the young people reading (none), that is equavalent to “wev”.

And the opshops have provided a freaking shitload of musical love. CD format is FINISHED, mos def. Which makes me happy. For two bucks a pop I’m taking chances on stuff I’d barely heard of like The Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible (this was before the Grammys scandal that popped a million Belieber brains like so many grapes). What a mindshredding score that turned out to be.

Other extremely happy additions to my live have been Moloko’s Things to Make and Do (it’s daft and dancey) and Idol Songs: The Best of Billy Idol. Billy Idol is camp fabulousness that I’d completely forgotten – Adam Ant is still alterna-cool so why not Billy? Dancing with Myself? Hot in the City? Flesh for Fantasy?

I’ve never had a copy of Joni’s Ladies of the Canyon either, and it’s fascinating for all the wrong reasons. It evokes a strange land before (righteously) angry feminism when free-lovin lasses like Mountain Girl and Joni baked bread and endured bad sex with too many smelly men who let them be liberated enough to do all the cooking and cleaning, while said men sat around the narghile and dreamed of freeing some other underclass. I’m fucking glad I didn’t live in Laurel Canyon. It sounded a tad Stepford Wives under all those wampum beads and cheesecloth. I do love Rainy Night House though, and the unassailable vibrato of her voice, it’s style from another time.

I’ve also massively dug Aussie Crawl’s The Boys Light Up (naughty, colloquial, scandalous nipple on the cover) and Suede’s Head Music (adenoidal Britpop), but don’t kid myself that this is more than nostalgia. Some of the cds in the stack haven’t even been graced with a listen yet. Maybe I’ll do potted reviews of all of them.

In the meantime, I’m going to buy myself a kicking pair of noise cancelling headphones and dance like I learnt how in the 80s. Because I did. If you get me drunk enough, I’ll even robot dance.