Friday, May 17, 2013

The Green Kitchen by David Frenckiel and Luise Vindahl (2103)

This book is based on a blog, Green Kitchen Stories. This blog won the 2013 Best Special Diet Saveur award, so it is clearly popular. If you like it, you'll probably like this book. However, before borrowing this book I hadn't read their blog and this type of cooking is just Not. For. Me.

For starters, the list of pantry essentials is seven pages long and includes annoying categories like 'superfoods' and 'fermented essentials'. If you're going to have a category for nuts and seeds, put *all* of the nuts and seeds in that category, not eighteen (eighteen!! And that's counting red, white and black quinoa as one item) in the nut section and another four in the superfood section. That's not how grouping works.

Secondly, the tone of this book is incredibly patronising. The first chapter gives some advice to parents. Please note the two authors do not have any qualifications in nutrition and childcare, this is just what they've learned from raising their one child. Based on this advice, their child is going to be obnoxious and, if possible, I would recommend avoiding eating with them and their one child, because item number 8 is don't worry about table manners. Awesome advice.

The breakfast section includes recipes for things like flourless pancakes made from banana and eggs (why?) and flowered granola which features nordic super berries and dried flowers (of course. pantry staples in my household!). These ridiculous recipes are immediately followed by pictures of a hand holding asparagus and a tree framed against a blue sky (both super-relevant to both breakfast and nordic super berries). The light meal section has a recipe for a raw broccoli salad where the yoghurt dressing is, actually, just yoghurt. Like you cut up broccoli, add yoghurt, salt and pepper and there's lunch (followed by a photograph of the sun setting on a closed, curtained window). This section includes a recipe for wild nettle pesto that specifies that the pesto must be freshly picked but not picked in a city. ARGH!!

The smugness of The Green Kitchen bleeds off the page. I had absolutely no idea how much this cookbook irritated me until I began to write this review, but seriously, any recipe book that tries to tell me that wrapping mango, beans and corn in raw cabbage leaves and topping them with a 'raw sour cream' made of apple cider vingegar and raw cashew nuts is a taco must be mocked. I wish these smug, annoying bloggers would just stick to their smug annoying blogs which I can easily ignore and stop clogging up my library's bookshelves with their indulgent, impractical and ridiculously irritating vanity projects.

Two stars.

Monday, May 13, 2013

High Sobriety by Jill Stark (2013)

“I’m the binge-drinking health reporter. During the week I write about Australia’s booze-soaked culture. At the weekends, I write myself off.”

Years ago, I remember reading this article by the Age’s health reporter Jill Stark. As someone for whom binge-drinking has been a regular part of socialising – not as in I binge-drink a lot, but regular heavy weekend drinking has definitely been acceptable and encouraged in many of the groups I have spent time with – it certainly resonated with me. Following on from the success of that article, this book details the year-long break from alcohol taken by the life-of-the-party Jill Stark. Her personal experiences are interspersed with really confronting and disturbing data about the damage that alcohol abuse can have on a personal, social and cultural level.

As a Scotswoman living in Australia, Stark comes from two cultures where drinking is seen as an integral part of belonging. Stark is called ‘unAustralian’ for not drinking and her friends joke that her Australian citizenship certificate will come with a six-pack of VB. However, Stark finds that Australia’s history with alcohol is not one of larrikin good-natured mateship but a more complicated relationship of politics, marketing and regulatory factors (such as the famous 6 o’clock swill). Although we may believe that alcohol is fundamental to the formation of Australia as we know it, our current levels of drinking are a recent development that is constantly being reinforced by marketing, for example CUB’s ‘Raise a Glass’ promotion. The recent increase in alcohol sale and abuse has not been matched by an increase in funding for treatment and recovery and, according to the picture painted by the experts Stark interviews, the problem is only going to get worse as baby boomers take their problem drinking habits with them into retirement homes.

There were two things I found incredibly disturbing in this book. Firstly, I was shocked at the long-term ramifications of heavy drinking physically – for women, a considerable increase in the risk of breast cancer and for both sexes, an all-over increase in cancer risk – as well the considerable psychological damage that can be done to memory and behaviour. Secondly, I was not aware of the role of industry and government in the ever-increasing ubiquity of alcohol. Over the last ten years there has been a massive increase in the number of places that sell alcohol and the hours in which alcohol is available for purchase. Advertising within the industry is self-regulated, which in practical terms means very little regulation at all. Alcohol is a huge part of sporting events and, disturbingly, a vital part of sports funding. The AFL even has an ‘official beer’, which seems even more ridiculous when Stark points out that alcohol is totally non-conducive to elite sports performance and therefore not used by the athletes whose performances are linked by marketing with booze. It’s a really disturbing situation.

I really enjoyed reading this book. Jill Stark has a frank, interesting writing style and she seems like (ironically) she would be a great person to go and have a drink with. Having completed both Dry July and FebFast, a lot of what she found was true to my experience – the fear of going without alcohol tends to be a lot worse than the reality. We are still us without a drink. Yet just as nature abhors a vacuum, Australians are terrified by a non-drinker and dealing with talking about not-drinking is definitely more painful than the not-drinking is. I also agree that sometimes we drink because we’re bored – we’re at a terrible party or there’s nothing on TV so we crack open a bottle of wine. However, my experience of problem drinking is not the same as Stark’s – I don’t know many people in their mid-30s who go out and have massive nights every week (although, based on the statistics she presented, it seems to be a huge problem with younger people). In my experience it’s the nights in that are the issue – the one glass of wine with dinner that transitions into a bottle three or four times a week. The people I know who say they drink too much drink too much at home, not out and about. I also think because it’s really clear that Stark has a problem with alcohol abuse (although she doesn’t believe she’s an alcoholic because she was able to give it up quite easily), it becomes easy to say ‘Oh, that’s not like me and my friends – we never vomit when we go out’. Because she’s worse, our situation seems not that bad.  

That said, I think this is an important book for people to read, not just for the information it contains but because it’s an engaging, interesting account of a woman’s experiences with alcohol and a discussion of two societies (Scottish and Australian) who are reaching crisis point with their relationship to alcohol. While it suffers from the same problems of many first-person memoirs (overuse of the pronoun ‘I’ and the phrase ‘tears streamed down my/her/his/our face/s’), it is still entertaining and thought-provoking. I give it four stars.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Sophia, Living and Loving by A Hotchner

Continuing my trend of reading female star (auto)biographies, I read Sophia Loren’s autobiography, Sophia, Living and Loving. I recently watched Houseboat, which stars Loren and Cary Grant, and I was reminded how really gorgeous both of those actors were. I knew that they had had a torrid love affair while filming The Pride and the Passion (it’s a terrible movie – don’t watch it) and I am a bit ashamed to admit that my desire to read this book was motivated by a salacious curiosity! Which I’m sure is something the publishers were counting on when they published this book.

The story opens like a standard ‘70s film star biography with an anecdote that determines which parent the film star blames for the childhood trauma that shapes the rest of her life. It is her father, who impregnated her mother but refused to marry her, condemning her to a life of scandal and shame. Sophia (born Sofia Scicolone) grew up in a small poor Italian town called Pozzuoli, near Naples. As there was a munitions factory in Pozzuoli, the town got bombed by the Allieds during the war so Sophie and her family were forced to evacuate to Naples, where they lived in near starvation until the end of the war. I know this exposes my ignorance but I knew very little about the Italian experience of World War II and I found Loren’s story about Four Days of Naples touching and sad.

After the war, they moved back to Pozzuoli, where Loren grew up, filled in and started entering beauty contests. After wining wallpaper and a trip to Rome in one contest (can you imagine if America’s Next Top Model contestants were given wallpaper as a prize? Too funny) she moved to Rome and started working as a model and an actress. The rest, as they say, is history and Sophia went on to have a busy life as an actress, becoming the first woman to win an Academy Award for a non-English role (in 1961 for Two Women) and as a concubine, as officially designated by the Catholic Church for firstly being in a relation with a married man (Carlo Ponti) and then marrying him and bearing his children.
I am a bit confused at the writing of Sophia – it has an author listed (A. Hotchner) but is written in the first person. It also features short first-person anecdotes about Sophia from the people close to her, like her husband and her sister. I’m not sure if it is A Hotchner’s imaginings of what Sophia would say or if s/he has written up what Sophia told her/him? And the same with the anecdotes?  I think in one her husband admits to cheating on her, which I did find amazing because she looked like this:

But who really knows what goes on in another person’s relationship?

Despite this confusion, I did enjoy this book. Loren has done some amazing things, like working with Marlon Brando in a Charlie Chaplin-directed film – is that not the bizarrest combination ever? She was the centre of a number of scandals internationally, most famously with the Carlo Ponti-bigamy thing but also for wearing a crown when meeting Queen Elizabeth. She has a nice Italian-mamma-esque writing style (or Hotchner does, I’m not sure) and reading about her interesting life was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.

I give it three stars (downgraded from four because of the unclear authorage).