The Fun of Baking Bread

I received a copy of this cookbook as an eBook courtesy of the author. I’ve only reviewed one other cookbook on this blog, but I really enjoy cooking and trying new things. Regretfully, I’m not much of a baker, so I was keen to see if maybe this author had what it took to educate me.

The Fun of Breaking Bread

“The Fun of Baking Bread” by Andrea Schmidt is a instructive cookbook on the fundamentals of how to make your own bread.

Schmidt is a graphic designer as well as cookbook author, so I think it is critical to note that unless you have a colour eReader (which I do not), it would be best to get the paperback version so you can really appreciate the beautiful design and colour photographs. Also I’m always a bit nervous about spilling ingredients on my electronic devices. I was a bit apprehensive to give this book a go, because I know that baking is not my strength. However, Schmidt covers the fundamentals in a clear yet enthusiastic way that even I could follow. I decided to try my hand at baguettes, and while my shaping probably leaves a bit to be desired, I think they turned out rather well!

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A lovely little book that would be a great gift or a great starting point if you, like me, are intimidated by baking.

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Looking For Alaska

I recently came across an article about the top 10 most challenged books in USA schools, and this book was ranked number 6. I bought a copy some time ago after I read my first John Green book. Obviously I couldn’t walk past it: it’s a stunning 10 year anniversary edition with a gold dust jacket and black tinted edges. It’s also got some commentary from the author and some deleted scenes as well. However, after sitting on my shelf for a while, I was finally inspired to give it a go.

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“Looking for Alaska” by John Green is a young adult novel about a teenager called Miles who moves to Alabama for boarding school. Leaving his beige and bullied existence behind, he is quickly taken under the wing of his roommate Chip, known as the Colonel. Chip immediately gives him the ironic nickname of Pudge, and Pudge meets the others in the group, Japanese-American boy Takumi and the beautiful and wild Alaska. Obsessed with people’s final words and finding meaning in life, Pudge left his home in search for a Great Perhaps, and starts to wonder if he just might find it in Alaska.

Although I am completely against book censorship, I can see why this book is so often challenged (though, personally, I think that “The Rest of Us Just Live Here” pushes more boundaries). Green writes candidly about sex, drinking and smoking and his characters are paradoxical in their dedication to schoolwork but opposition to authority. I think that for the most part, none of it was too problematic (though I did feel as though Green romanticises smoking in a way that doesn’t gel with 2017 values). I found the boarding school setting quite interesting. Having gone to a boarding school as a day student and seen what boarding schools are like, I did feel like the degree of free reign students had was a bit unrealistic. Apparently Green based it on his own boarding school experiences though, so I might well be wrong. Pudge is an interesting narrator who, like Charlie in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower“, is much more a follower than he is a leader. Happy to tag along at the heels of the charismatic Colonel and Alaska, Pudge is easily influenced by his new friends. However, his lack of either passion or much of a sense of righteousness, especially after he is the victim of a particularly intense hazing incident, ultimately set him apart.

This book was Green’s debut novel, and I think on balance it was a heartfelt and compelling bildungsroman. I did feel like maybe Pudge could have had a bit more character development than he did, rather than have an experience, but it’s hard to say how reliable a narrator he ultimately is – including about himself. I also felt like Alaska was a classic manic pixie dream girl, and it looks like I’m not alone. Green himself responded to criticisms about the way she was depicted, and while I think part of the point of the book is how much Pudge idealises her, I did feel a bit like her character wasn’t quite as three dimensional as she needed to be.

This is a quick and gripping read that while probably not the best in the genre, I think certainly would have been groundbreaking in its honesty about teenage life when it was first published. A book that at its heart is about what it means to be a good friend, I think it will stick with me for quite a while.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning

Somehow, I never read this book when I was a kid. I’m not quite sure how this happened. It was first released when I was 11 years old, around the time the Harry Potter books were gaining traction, and I was a big reader. I think I had heard of them, but maybe I thought they sounded a bit childish, or maybe they sounded needlessly grim. Either way, I missed the boat. Now, you may remember that some years ago a film adaptation was made starring Jim Carrey. I remember watching it and being quite underwhelmed, and the film was not memorable at all. However, recently a new TV adaptation has been made starring Neil Patrick Harris. It’s available on Netflix, it’s gotten really good reviews, so I figured the time was nigh for me to give this book series a go before I watch the show. Canty’s had plenty of copies in stock, and the hardcover editions have really cool roughly cut page edges that add to the ambiance. Also, if you watch the show before reading the book – be warned: there are spoilers in the first episode that aren’t in the corresponding book.

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“The Bad Beginning” by Lemony Snicket, is the first book of 13 in the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” series. The story introduces the three Baudelaire children. 14 year old inventing genius Violet, 12 year old bibliophile Klaus and baby Sunny who is good at biting stuff. When the children receive the terrible news that their parents have died from the executor of the will, Mr Poe, they are sent to live with their distant relative Count Olaf. It’s not long before the children cotton on to Count Olaf’s nefarious plans to steal their inheritance.

I think the first thing to say about this book is that it is definitely a book for children. I’m pretty certain that if I had read this book as a child, I probably would have gotten a lot more out of it. Snicket has a that glib style of writing that I remember finding very funny as a kid. He uses lots of “big” words but explains their meaning in a careful way without being condescending. He also gives plenty of examples of the children being independent and being able to capably solve problems, do chores and cook. I think this is a quirky, educational book that would probably be a good gateway book to get reluctant readers reading. However, as an adult (especially an adult that studied law), it’s a bit hard to suspend disbelief enough to really immerse yourself into the story. A big piece of the plot hinges on a “law of our community” that itself is completely implausible in both it’s text and application. I also found the sheer incompetence of the adults (particularly the judge and the banker) to be really annoying. I know this is a bit of a trope in children’s book, but their collective ineptitude was just a bit much.

A solid children’s book that would be perfect to help kids improve their reading, but probably a bit of an eye-roller for parents.

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Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil

Melina Marchetta has been the trailblazer of Australian teen fiction since the early 1990s, so I was really excited when she came to speak at Muse in Canberra not too long ago. A quietly thoughtful and articulate speaker, afterwards she kindly stayed back to sign copies of her latest novel.

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“Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil” is a modern mystery thriller set in France and the UK. Chief Inspector Bish Ortley has been temporarily relieved of his police duties after an incident with a colleague when he gets a disturbing call from an old friend. A bus has been blown up in France and his daughter, who is away on camp, was on it. Pulling himself together enough to drive over the Chunnel, Bish finds out that his daughter was not the only person of interest on that bus. Another teen, Violette LeBrac, is the daughter of the infamous Noor LeBrac who is serving a life sentence for her involvement in a bombing in London many years earlier. When Violette disappears taking another teen with her, Bish finds himself leading the hunt to find her. Along the way, he finds himself forced to face his demons, past and present.

This is an interesting, compelling and relevant story with many, many layers. Marchetta is second to none when it comes to exploring the teenage psyche and she definitely has not lost her touch with the advent of the internet and social media. After writing about the Italian immigrant experience in Australia, Marchetta does a convincing job tackling the Middle Eastern experience in Europe. Her exploration of race is multifaceted and informed, and Bish’s own complex identity is a valuable conduit between two very polarised experiences. Although there were times where I felt the characters were perhaps a little too virtuous, the rest of the story more than made up for it and I found myself staying awake way too late to finish this one.

A cracking read that couldn’t be timed better. Reading this book is like having your finger on the pulse of Europe.

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The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

This book has been sitting on my to-read pile since my dad lent it to me at New Year’s. I thought the first eponymous story was just one of several short stories but it actually is more like a novella with several shortish stories afterwards. I toyed with the idea of just reading the first one, but the completionist in me won and I finished the book.

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“The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil” by George Saunders is a novella about a micro and fictional country called Inner Horner which is only big enough to hold one citizen at a time. The remaining six citizens wait their turn in the short term residency zone of the surrounding country of Outer Horner. One day, with no warning, Inner Horner shrinks and only 1/4 of the current citizen in residence is now able to fit. Opportunistic Outer Hornerite Phil declares this event an invasion and disaster for the Inner Hornerites ensues. Tacked onto the end of this novella is “In Persuasion Nation” which is a collection of short stories mostly centred around themes of advertising and television.

The novella is a really interesting story that walks a fine line between satire and surrealism. Saunders takes an issue of incredible complexity (border control), and simplifies it down into its most basic and wacky elements. This story could really apply to any place or any time (and I can think of a few places right now) where internal pressures outside their control force people to leave their country and some unlikely megalomaniac uses that as as springboard to ascend to power. Saunders is a very imaginative writer with a keen eye for the ridiculous. The rest of the short stories were a bit more of a mixed bag. I really enjoyed some of them, especially “my flamboyant grandson”, but some of the others were a bit too abstract or a bit too blunt in their messaging.

“The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil” is a timeless reminder that success shouldn’t be achieved by taking advantage of someone else’s misfortune. Even though this story was first published in 2005, it would have applied just as easily in 1945 as it does today.

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South of Forgiveness

Please note that this review discusses sexual violence and may be upsetting to some people. I use the term “victim” and “survivor” interchangeably throughout this review.

I received a copy of this book courtesy of Lost Magazine. I first became aware of this book, and the controversy surrounding it, when I watched the International Women’s Day episode of Q&A earlier this month. I was pretty taken aback by the premise: an author touring Australia with her rapist to talk about the book they have written together? Before I had even seen the book I was conflicted.

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“South of Forgiveness” by Thordis Elva and the somewhat befittingly named Tom Stranger (in slightly smaller writing), is a recount of a week that they both spent together in Capetown, 17 years after Stranger raped Elva when she was 16 years old. While finishing high school in Iceland in 1996, 18 year old Australian Stranger met Elva and they started dating. Very early in the relationship Stranger brutally raped Elva while she was completely incapacitated by alcohol then broke the relationship off shortly afterwards. A number of years later, long after Stranger had moved back to Australia, Elva reached out to Stranger by email to talk about what had happened. After 8 years of emailing, Elva and Stranger agree to meet in South Africa to see if they can finally achieve what they both long for: Elva’s forgiveness.

Where do I even start? I found this book to be incredibly problematic in a plethora of ways and I have a lot of very complex thoughts about it. From the outset, this is a very difficult and uncomfortable book to read. I found myself many times sitting there with the book next to me procrastinating on my phone – not because the book was badly written (Elva is a spirited and eloquent writer) – but because I was so reluctant to dive back into the incredibly raw, challenging and morally ambiguous conversations.

Having some knowledge of justice systems and restorative justice programs, I was quite appalled that Elva would embark on a journey like this at all. Due to the Icelandic statute of limitations, the length of time that had passed and issues of evidence, there was no possibility of Stranger being charged for his crime. As a consequence, Stranger is caught in this awkward grey area of not being a convicted criminal but being remorseful for his actions nonetheless. Living on opposite sides of the planet doesn’t help, and access to joint counselling, mediation or any kind of formal process is impractical and ultimately never raised. I think my biggest reaction in this regard was wondering how Elva could feel safe spending a week with her rapist. As the story unfolds it transpires that this is not the first time that they have met up since the incident, but even so, it made for some very intense reading.

However, it’s not just physical safety that could have been a concern – it was also emotional safety. Sexual violence is about power, and Elva is clearly driving this bus. In fact, even from the writing it is clear that Elva is a very strong, determined person and Stranger seems much more hollow and unsure. The difference in tone between Elva’s parts and Stranger’s parts is clear. Nevertheless, it made me wonder: what kind of message is this sending for other rape survivors? I’m conflicted about the idea of recommending that people forgive their rapists generally, let alone over the course of a week of intimate discussions in a country not your own. One of the biggest obstacles for most victims, obviously, is actually having a rapist who feels remorse for their actions. I don’t think that forgiveness is essential for everyone’s survival. Elva decided that this was what she needed to do to let go of her trauma, but I don’t think that this is going to be the path for everyone. Everyone deals with suffering in their own way, some people could be seriously retraumatised by having to face their attacker. This is one point where I think it’s important to reiterate that this book is not and should not be taken as prescriptive.

Another message I had concerns about was the message for perpetrators. As I mentioned earlier, Stranger essentially got off scot-free, and I worried about this sending the message to rapists (or potential rapists) that a) they were unlikely to ever be prosecuted, and b) that their victim would forgive them eventually. I had concerns about the extent to which this book could be interpreted as being apologist, but I think ultimately that was not the case. The book is divided into 7 sections, one for each day in Capetown, chronicling Elva’s experiences and their conversations, and then finished with a brief summary from Stranger. Despite never having faced the law for his actions, Elva’s observations and Stranger’s sections show that he has been wracked with guilt. Although my knee-jerk reaction was for someone to throw the book at him, on reflection that is probably against my core beliefs when it comes to the justice system. Sentencing by courts typically have one or more of three main purposes: punishment, community safety and rehabilitation. Despite my initial desire to see Stranger punished, ordinarily, that’s not the purpose I subscribe to and I prefer prisons and sentences to be more about community safety and rehabilitation. After reading this book, I was left with two questions to answer: did I think that Stranger was safe to be in the community and did I think that he had been rehabilitated? My answer to both was yes.

I think that this raises two important points. The first is that legal systems worldwide are still extremely flawed when it comes to sexual violence, both in the laws and their application. Maybe if circumstances had been different, Stranger would have gotten a conviction, maybe he wouldn’t have. I recoil from ideas of vigilante justice, but I acknowledge that the legal system frequently does not get it right. The second point is what Elva calls the monster effect, and I think this is the most important message of the book. Sexual assault isn’t always done by some stranger down an alleyway, sexual assault can and is done by people known to the victim. This is in some ways even more traumatic because of the enormous breach of trust. Most people who know Stranger probably consider him a “good guy”. There are probably millions of men around the world like him who did a similar, once-off thing and kept going when their partner said no, or took advantage while their partner was not able to give consent. This raises further moral questions about to what extent people are and should be judged on a once-off action. Most casual rapists probably never think of it again, while the impact on the victim can be lifelong. I think this book treads a fine line between raising awareness of this different kind of rapist and inviting the reader to believe that people can change and be “on the right side” again.

There was one part of the book that made me deeply uncomfortable. Towards the end, Elva and Stranger visit a rape crisis centre together and although Elva seemed completely fine with this, Stranger and I were not. While I appreciate (as I’ve said above) that Stranger was never convicted of a crime, I think in my heart a rape crisis centre is a safe place for survivors to seek assistance. This was one point in the book where I felt like Stranger and Elva’s reconciliation was put before the best interests of others. It was almost like a betrayal of the CEO’s trust. Without any criminal convictions, there was nothing apart from Stranger’s own guilt stopping him from being there but eventually Stranger grew so uncomfortable that he left. I felt as though if this had truly been about Elva networking, she could have gone alone but there was a sense that this was more about proving a point.

I think another thing that felt a bit incongruous with the core subject of the book was how much of this book seemed to be a joyful celebration. I think I described this book to my partner as something along the lines of “misery porn meets travel blog”. The beginning of the book in particular feels like it’s leading up to a hugely traumatic event, but the rest of the book had a bit of a summer holiday by the beach feel with Elva and Stranger doing a lot of their discussions on various tourist activities. Elva has quite a whimsical writing style and there is a fairly strong spiritual undertone to this book with references to the “playwright in the sky” and a lot of credence given to signs and serendipity. They both laugh a lot, and they both cry a lot. I think this serves to highlight just how complex the relationship between Elva and Stranger is with years of history and trauma between them, but also a fragile friendship. I think again it would be incredibly unrealistic for most rape survivors to have a fun holiday with their rapist and talk it out heart-to-heart.

My final problem with this book is a problem with money, and I think ultimately I would not have bought this book myself. In Australia especially, it is illegal to profit from your crime, however again Stranger finds himself in the grey area of having admitted to a crime but never having been convicted. Technically, the proceeds of the book go towards him for having done a bad thing rather than having done a crime, but I think my reaction is still the same. There has been some call for him to donate any profits he makes and I understand Elva said that she would be receiving the bulk of any royalties anyway.

My main message to people who are considering reading this book is to not take this as a recommendation for how to respond if you have been sexually assaulted or sexually abused, or you yourself are a rapist. This book depicts an extraordinary situation with two very privileged and educated people that would be completely out of reach for most. I think that the correct way to take this book is as a thought experiment to unpack some of the moral and social issues around rape. It is an incredibly challenging book to read and ultimately I’m not sure where I fall on every moral conundrum, but I think anyone who reads this book should read it with caution.

If you have experienced sexual violence, either as a survivor or a perpetrator, please report and seek assistance through your local services. 

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Around the World in 80 Tales

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I love to travel, so I was very keen to see whether there was any overlap between my adventures and the author’s, and whether our observations had been similar.

Around the World in 80 Tales

“Around the World in 80 Tales” by Dave Tomlinson is a collection of stories about his adventures across many continents. Separated into 10 sections with 8 stories each, the book has a bit of a postcard-feel about it with each story a brief vignette about a place Tomlinson went and what he found there. Each section is broken up by photos Tomlinson took on his travels.

Tomlinson’s stories are bite-sized and it’s very easy to read a couple, take a break, and come back and read more later. He has a clear passion for the physical side of travelling and shares keen observations about transport, hiking, scenery, architecture and the practicalities of getting from one place to another. Reading Tomlinson’s book really made me think about the age-old tension between tourism and travelling. This book made me realise that there is no one way to travel. I think where I would focus on the people I met, the cultural nuances I observed, the language I learned and the food I ate, intrepid Tomlinson is much braver than I about pushing his body to its limits by tackling epic trails to observe some of the most ancient and wonderful structures in the world. The book is peppered with tips about visiting different places and I found myself wondering whether Tomlinson does much other travel writing. It turns out he does, so if you want some more great advice about travelling on a shoestring, check out his website.

A take-your-time book that you can put down and pick up whenever you like, and full of great snippets of what must have been some incredible trips.

 

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