Thursday, 15 April 2010

Consolation goal

As Liverpool are languishing in mid-table mediocrity and are out of everything that matters (although it was great to see them trounce Benfica) I have to get my footballing pleasures where I can. Wanting them to reach the coveted fourth spot has made things a little weird - I even found myself supporting Arsenal over Spurs this morning. Very odd.

Apart from praying that the England players don't get injured before the World Cup and hoping that by some peculiar twist of fate Burnley manage to stay up, my main enjoyment comes from rejoicing in Manchester Utd's misfortunes. I'm pleased they don't look like they can win the league or the Champions League (they won't overtake us on either score). My how I laughed when I found this Lego reconstruction of Robben's goal that sent them out of the Champions League. Who said the German's don't have a sense of humour? (Well, apart from me and the rest of Europe...)

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

My newest favourite thing: Amisfield

To be fair, it’s probably not that new, because I’ve liked Amisfield for a while (frequently showing it off to our guests), but we went there for dinner last night and it sparked off a whole new appreciation.

The building is a fabulous design whose handsome schist walls, copper roof, redwood beams and clean, sloping lines reflect the early colonial cottages of the region. Nestled beside Lake Hayes, a single sheet of glass affords one of the most spectacular views across the Central Otago landscape, while the crackling wood fires keep things cosy.

We had opted for the ‘Trust the chef menu’ in which we are assured of exquisite dishes with fresh ingredients and subtle sauces so as not to overwhelm the flavour of the magnificent produce.

The staff were friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable: they matched wines for us; joked about our accents (the English chap was delighted to be able to offer us aubergines rather than eggplants); and pleasantly took the photo of the large group at the table next to us.

We began the night with bubbles, as you do. The Arcadia brut is one of the best sparkling wines I have ever drunk and one of my favourite ways to celebrate a special occasion. Our dishes arrived at our table on pewter-looking plates that made us feel as though we were at a medieval banquet.

To begin, we had whitebait lightly dusted in flour and then gently fried, served with rocket leaves and sourdough bread. This was followed by a plate of Parma ham, shavings of parmesan, and leaves of fragrant basil. The salmon with wilted greens, tomatoes and pine nuts continued the fishy theme and went superbly with a flinty Dry Riesling. The blend of citrus and spice cut cleanly through the fish oils and enhanced the experience perfectly.

We also had a plate of roasted aubergines, chickpeas, tomato, tahini and mint to share which was a simply delicious explosion of flavours. The pinot gris was sublime matched with the mini pot-roast chicken served with feta and tapenade. Side dishes of mixed leaves and the creamiest mashed potato you have ever tasted complemented the complex but subtle ‘each peach pear plum’ notes detected in the wine.

The portions were enough that we were satisfied but not satiated and, as neither of us are really pudding people, we finished off with a selection of the three desert wines. My favourite was the Lake Hayes Noble which was rich and sweet with a lemony zing that had me licking my lips all the way home.

I really enjoy this style of eating – it’s like tapas but the chef chooses whatever is freshest and best. There is no danger that you won’t like anything (you are asked about any dislikes or allergies at the beginning) so you can sit back, relax and know that you will be served the most sumptuous of treats.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Books read in November

Below are short reviews of the books that I read in November 2009. The numbers in the brackets are the marks I have given them out of five.

The Icarus Girl – Helen Oyeyemi (3.3)
Jessamy Harrison, born to a British father and Nigerian mother, is a bright, intelligent girl but prone to violent tantrums, fierce illnesses and an inability to cope with social situations. In an effort to counter the disruptive tendencies, her parents take her to stay with her family in Nigeria where she meets TillyTilly on her grandfather’s compound. Delighted to have made friends with such a captivating character, Jess only begins to realise there may be something suspicious when TillyTilly follows her home to England, no one else can see her, and bad things start happening.

Jess is an intense girl with strange ideas and big fears of the unknown. Many children retreat into their imagination but Jess’ mind does not seem like a safe place to be. She is afraid to open her mind to people and air her worries; unwilling to relinquish any perceived control, she builds her own isolation. Clear, taut prose creates a chilling and unsettling atmosphere, while the mixture of Christian ritual and Nigerian superstition heightens the sense of cultural dislocation.

It is a debut novel and there are still some immature devices and unrefined elements. The first-person child narration hampers character development, while the repetitive and slightly predictable structure is not entirely satisfactory. However, both the substance and style make this young author one to watch for the future.

Press Pass: 40 Years of Award-Winning Press Photography – Geoff Dale (3.8)
The subtitle of this book of black and white photographs is ‘the critical moments that make the news… and how to capture them.’ The last part of that sentence is essential because, although the book does provide a social commentary of New Zealand over the past 40 years, it is also of interest to budding amateur photographers as each image includes details of the photographic settings such as exposure, focal length, shutter speed, and aperture width.

The book is divided into six sections: awards; news; features; portraits; sports; photojournalism. The portraits are an eclectic mix of faces familiar to New Zealanders, including Roger Douglas, Kelly Tarlton, Dame Whina Cooper, David Lange, Keisha Castle Hughes, and Rod Stewart. The news covers events ranging from the Mt Erebus crash or the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior to the Auckland blackout or the Queen Street riots.

My favourites are probably the sports photos. It is very hard to capture an instant and in fact, he says that the photo of the celebration often makes a better shot than the actual scoring of a try or the taking of a wicket. Persistence, patience and preparation are crucial. He provides explanations of technique – how to capture motion and blur the background; how a telephoto lens can give a shortening effect; how to light a shot at night or use an exterior flash.

 Dale took up photography after a knee injury stopped him playing rugby – a game he still loves – although working for a photo-agency he needs to take the photos the customers want, which are often of themselves, rather than of the match itself – it’s not all fun and games.

As a journalist for the New Zealand Herald for 28 years before becoming a freelance journalist, Dale admits the job is both a great honour and a daunting responsibility, allowing you to have a “front row seat at major events in the history of your country.” He explains that despite unprecedented access, you are still bound by deadlines, integrity and protocol.

A great photo is the difference between a story appearing on the front page or page 12, but newspaper photographers are seeing their specialist role eroded by ‘citizen journalists’ and lack of payment. This book shows what will be lost if this movement persists – the photographer’s art is a fine one, indeed and Geoff Dale is a great proponent of it.

The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean – Paul Theroux (3.8)
One of the Pillars of Hercules is the rock of Gibraltar; the other is the rock on the other side of the straits – Ceuta in Morocco – apparently flung there by Hercules as his tenth labour. Paul Theroux aims to travel from one to the other the long way round, all around the shores of the Mediterranean coast – the shores of light. Following this inland sea gives him an itinerary predetermined by the coastline, and he discovers that the towns and people along the shore have more in common with each other than they do with people from other parts of their country.

 Theroux is not above generalisations. The Spanish are “both very polite and very curious” while the Corsicans are proud. “The more generous and extrovert Italians were full of compliments.” The Greeks are “ill-tempered and irrational”; the Israelis are “gruff, on the defensive, rather bullying, graceless and aggrieved, with a kind of sour and gloating humour”; the French are racist.

Descriptions of countries are equally succinct and often one-dimensional. He is obsessed by pornography and bullfighting in Spain, and dog mess on the pavements in France. Greece is “an awful place, of glum grey tenements and wrecked cars and rough treeless hills of solemn stone.” He claims to have no interest in politics but he has much to say about the small countries with the big ideals and the recent wars; Albania and Israel attract his severest criticism.

He likes Corsica with its “cold days of dazzling sunshine, its cliffs of glittering granite, the blue sky after a day of drizzle, its lonely roads.” He praises the Riviera as being the epitome of the Mediterranean dream. He can drift off on tangents and his prose can become almost whimsical. When he likes a place, he can veer off into flights of fancy, such as Venice which he describes as “the loveliest city in the world. It is man-made, but a work of genius, sparkling in its own lagoon, floating on its dreamy reflection, with the shapeliest bridges and the last perfect skyline on earth: just domes and spires and tiled roofs.” Trieste on the other hand is simply, “A city of suits, a businesslike place with an air of solidity and prosperity.”

He travels alone because he has no fixed plans and changes his destination on a whim, but lack of a travel companion can make him feel lonely and he occasionally misses the normality of routine. He frequently mentions that he did his laundry and wrote up his notes. Knowing the personal details and the mechanics of the travel experience gives us a sense that we are there too, but it is also intrusive.

Grace – Linn Ullmann (3.4)
Johan has terminal cancer. He wants to exit the world with dignity so he asks his second wife, Mai, to help him when the time comes. When the time does come, however, he wonders whether he has made the right choice, why she agreed to do it, and why she is wearing new clothes and make-up for the first time as though waiting for him to die so that she can move on.

From diagnosis to death is a short space of time and Ullman captures the fear and impotence of palliative care. In this slender volume things happen with the swiftness of degenerate disease. Although he hasn’t got the strength to write them down, Johan has many memories, “rushing back now, like children demanding attention.”

He thinks of his first wife, Alice, and their son Andreas. He thinks of Mai as she brushes her hair with one hundred strokes every night. But most of all he thinks of his mother and his life with her as a child, from their daily summer walks to look for wild strawberries, to the magical mystery of Christmas Eve. When she was sick, he bargained with Death to take his father rather than his mother, and when she recovers but his father dies, Johan is at pains to explain to Death that this is “no small sacrifice.”

Expertly translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland, the prose is sparse but efficient and packed with meaning and the memories and anecdotes are introduced without blandishment. It’s short, it seems simple, but it is ultimately compelling and Johan will haunt you long after you have finished reading his story.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows (4.6)
Generally I avoid books that claim to be delightful or charming as they are usually sentimental pap, but this really is as enjoyable as they say. It contains all the ingredients I like in a novel: epistolary form – check; discussions of books – check; island mentality – check; Occupied Territory during the war – check. In fact the only reason it doesn’t get top marks is because it introduces the infernal Jane Austen/Mr Darcy angle and threatens to become chick lit in the final pages.

It has been likened to 84 Charring Cross Road due to the correspondence between people who don’t know each other but meet due to a shared love of books. When Dawsey Adams buys a second-hand copy of Charles Lambs’ essays, he finds Juliet Ashton’s name and address in the front cover and decides to write to her asking if she can recommend him some more books.

Juliet is a writer trying to find a new subject for a book, and what better topic than the characters who live on Guernsey and survived the German Occupation. She discovers that they began a book club as cover for a pig dinner –and had to fill in the details to make it look realistic. Juliet interviews the members of this society by letter until she decides to visit them in person in May 1946 and discovers a host of quirky characters with unbreakable spirits.

In letters to her publisher and friends, she records the deprivation the islanders suffered as tales of domestic hardship became a fact of life. She feels great sympathy for those who had to make the terrible decision of whether to evacuate their children to England to live among strangers (they weren’t allowed to contact them or even know where they were staying for security reasons) or whether to keep them in Guernsey with the threat of German invasion – they had a day to decide.

Juliet has firm opinions on writing and romance – you know that things between her and her illustrious suitor, Mark, are doomed because he doesn’t understand the appeal of Guernsey and because, “Mark doesn’t write, he telephones.” It’s old-fashioned and a little bit twee, but sweet and comforting, to be read with a cup of tea and a biscuit.