A Restaurant Review: Food as Set-Piece – Everyone’s Favourite Scottish Restaurant and the flavour of the Games

The restaurant is not spotless, but cleaner than its Milton Road branch. Its colourful and cosy interior create a comforting and welcoming atmosphere (the almost equally ubiquitous Kentucky chain has to its own misfortune chosen a predominantly blue scheme, which is chilly and unappetising). Although the restaurant is oddly empty for the time of evening (perhaps due to the downturn while people recover between bouts of State of Origin), the staff are friendly and helpful and when asked whether I would like a meal, I change my initial plans and say yes. This prompts me to muse on what makes a meal a meal, but that may be left for another time.

Service is prompt. Although I take my own drink and side to the table, the waitstaff deliver the burger within minutes. The orange juice is somewhat too sweet and warm, the insipidity of a recent refill, but it is consistent with previous experiences. The fries are unfortunately somewhat limp. Though acceptable and even surpassing other restaurants’ forays into this field, they are not the slender threads of saffron crispness that I am fond of and have come to expect, and I can enjoy them only as counterpoints to that memory, as symbols of potential.

But it is the centrepiece of the meal that must command attention, for it is the newest offering of this venerable establishment – veritably debutante – and like the mayfly, short-lived. In a fortnight it will be gone, and I confess I am surprised that curious gourmands have not beaten a path to the automatic doors and fluorescent-lit cashier to savour it on this, its opening night.

Grandly christened “The McEurope” (in a coy reference to recent accusations of the owner’s cultural imperialist tendencies), it is proudly presented in a themed wrapping – a cheap gimmick perhaps, but one which does not antagonise by being difficult to negotiate. It is hinged on ancient principles and, indeed, may be considered a nod to the paper wrappings used to steam foods in many cuisines and increasingly popular in fusion styles, a nice nod to the internationality of the event it is created to honour. Inside, the burger rests in a cushioning of shredded lettuce.

I cannot pretend to justify the title of “The McEurope” except to the extent that America itself may be held up as the defining characteristic of “The West”. Those influences not native to the common or garden burger seem to be drawn primarily from the Mediterranean region and what are popularly considered to be the keynote flavours of Italy. The signature meat is chicken, crisply crumbed and fried, but this is topped with napolitana sauce and parmesan. Pleasingly, the parmesan is shaved, not shredded or powdered, though it lacks some of the piquancy of true and truly fresh parmesan. The chef has chosen a stereotypical napolitana sauce, perhaps to avoid detracting from the desired impression with flights of culinary fancy. It is, perhaps, a little too stereotypical however, as it is less reminiscent of Italia than of bottled supermarket sauces.

The lettuce, I confess, puzzles me, particularly in such a “limited edition” dish as this where, untrammelled by the restrictions inherent in dishes which form the backbone of the menu (consistent and sustainable), I might have thought the chef would risk using the somewhat more diner-friendly leaf lettuce. I do not think it would have made the dish too divergent from the balance of the menu. Oddly, the lettuce was not mentioned on the menu itself. Ordinarily this would not surprise me, but as all the other ingredients were listed, it seems this too should have been included, for although frequently included in burgers lettuce is arguably not essential to their make-up in the way bread is.

Ultimately, the dish doesn’t quite gel for me. The individual ingredients – perhaps further hampered by the sheer quantity of shredded iceberg lettuce – never become a single “McEurope” but remain isolated in flavour, as listed on the menu, an ensemble performance of capable and solid (if uninspired) actors whose director fails to bring them together into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Nevertheless, I am intrigued by the experiment and will return with some curiousity for the next fornight’s instalment in this serial drama of food not as sustenance or flavour or even convenience, but as novelty, gimmick and idea.

April Short Book Reviews

The Mean Seasons: Fables Vol. 5 – Willingham et. al. I am enjoying this graphic novel series so much. I spent an evening sitting in a cafe composing a post on the awesomeness of one of the main characters. The series is not unproblematic, but it’s better than a lot and it is fairytales not retold but… matured? continued? and thrown into a difficult situation they have to deal with or perish. Snow continues to be amazing, Bigby to be difficult, everyone has their own agendas and jealousies, and they are beginning to be under threat not only from the old world but from elements of the new and from their own rules. Will the triumph of democracy be a deathblow for Fabletown? Will investigative journalists expose the secret at the heart of 21st century New York? Will true love triumph? And will anyone ever cut Snow a break? I wish comics weren’t so expensive. I’m trying to not buy more than one volume of this a month, but I bought vol. 6 a week after this one.

Batman – A Death in the Family . My first actual Batman encounter other than the movies and The Daily Batman, so while I enjoyed reading it (and found the idea of readers “voting Robin off”) I don’t really have any framework within which to review it. But seeing the Joker so much gave me a jawache.

Assorted short comics acquired at Supanova – these were out of context for me, both in terms of the continuing stories and the sort of comics they are, so I won’t review them. Also, I was disconcerted by the artwork being so much weaker than what I am used to seeing and so much better than mine.

Labyrinths – Borges. Finally. And yes, he is gorgeous. He reminds me of Umberto Eco, but perhaps took himself a little more seriously. His short stories, essays and poems tread between fantasy (sometimes reminding me of Lovecraft) and philosophy, theology, impossible hypotheticals, all short enough that they leave you room to go off on thoughts of your own. I would sit on the bus pondering the relationship between his examination of ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’ and the cultural cringe and the landscape in Australian speculative fiction until I began to suspect the reason I was having trouble concentrating at work that week was because I was thinking too much outside it. The final poem in the collection was ‘Elegy’ which contained the very lovely line: “to have grown old in so many mirrors” which reminded me of Elliot but is both more beautiful and just as tragic.

The Game – Diana Wynne Jones. As lively and convoluted (plot and story and characters all) as any of her stories, but in other ways just as reserved. The story of the paths of the mythosphere, the interconnectedness of families and stories and myths and legends (the Sysiphus strand which reaches out to the legend of Sysiphus at one end, but closer to home is office workers dealing with never-empty in-trays), the whirling wheeling stars (which reminded me of P. L. Travers at her best) are so rich and ripe and vivid and yet DWJ holds back so much, telling only the barest part of the story and leaving the reader wanting so very much more. Not that the story is untold, but she has shown and hinted at wonders and worlds just over the edge of it and then pared back to only the core of her tale. It is incredibly frustrating. I wrote to the DWJ list that “DWJ is very good at giving the impression that there are stories spilling over the edge of the one you are reading, that there are worlds and events and tales that you can’t quite turn the page to read although you *want* to, and that she probably won’t tell you ever because they aren’t necessary to the (quite wonderful) story at hand. Lately, however, she seems to be developing this to a very fine pitch – as if she has worked out the bare minimum she needs to actually tell to convey the story she wants to tell you, while hinting at an even more voluminous universe. The story she is telling works and is very very good, but as a reader I am convinced that there is *so much more out there* that it becomes a kind of exquisite torture.” The worst part is that I know from experience that even if she does write a sequel, it will probably be about an extremely peripheral character and is unlikely to take place in the same universe.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat – Oliver Sacks. If you ever saw Awakenings with Robin Williams, Williams played Sacks. This is a series of case studies of patients with various neurological anomalies – twin savants, a ‘disembodied’ woman, a musician who ceases to recognise faces (not just the faces of certain individuals but human faces at all), people whose lives are held together with music or who can only walk upright by means of a spirit level attached to their spectacles, who recognise expression but not words or words but not expression. It is fascinating and alarming but most interesting because he treats his patients less as fascinating cases than as interesting, complicated people, whose ‘problems’ may not be problems at all, or part of a continuum of human experience. I was glad I read this after Borges, for Sacks referred to him (and particularly his story ‘The Mnemonist’) several times.

March Short Movie Reviews

I should probably retitle these “Short Non-Printed Material Reviews”.

Phantom of the Opera – Live at the Lyric Theatre. C’mon, it’s Phantom – what can I say? I hadn’t seen it live before, and what struck me was the unashamed Gothic (as in, Northanger Abbey gothic) fun of the musical version (underwire nightdresses, the works) and how much I need to reread the book because I can’t remember now if there was an eight-sided mirrored room with an iron gallows (not in the musical). I went with (but did not sit with for a variety of reasons including the Dreadful Situation of wheelchair seating at the Lyric) my family, and we enjoyed it. It was well done but, ultimately, isn’t the only reason you are there the organ music in the first scene, the way The Poseidon Adventure can be as dreadful as it likes as long as they turn a ship upside down? Also, I worked out why you’re meant to “keep your hand at the level of your eyes”. That had been bugging me for years.

The Bucket List – I would have liked it as an amateur theatre production. Mawkishly sentimental, silly, obvious, degrading and with backdrops that look like they were painted for a film in 1950.

Run, Fatboy, Run – Better than The Bucket List. And, indeed, not awful. Ordinary, tainted and not the best work of any of the actors, and would have been better without the American influence (actually, I like the idea of an American trying to live in London and the cultural difference getting to the point that he just breaks and can’t take it anymore, but they didn’t do it well and this wasn’t the movie for it in any event). Dylan Moran played a dreadful human being, as he should.

Jumper – Better than The Bucket List. It was all about the special effects, because the story felt… ellided. It made me want to read the book but I don’t think there is one. Still, though I didn’t walk out feeling ten foot tall, I had fun.

CMC Rocks the Snowies – Better than The Bucket List, even if the mountains were shorter. It would be hard to give this a negative review. The taxi to the airport, the flight to Canberra, the bus to Thredbo, our lunch on the way, the lodges, the tickets to the festival, the gift bags with hats and peach schnapps and the side-venue with drinks and food on the Saturday were all paid for. The air was clear as crystal and the white stars did fairly blaze at midnight in the cold and frosty sky, etc., although there was a heatwave on Friday and we’d only packed jeans and boots. We took a skilift up the mountain and drank beer on a balcony and were very cozy in our cabins at night. There was a kiosk at the gate to the concert area which made fresh hot cinnamon doughnuts. I got to see The John Butler Trio live (and dreadlockless) and several country bands covered The Travelling Wilberries, which always makes me happy. A man took an odd fancy to my scarf, but the skiruns were scented of hay and even if you don’t know country music it is very easy to pick up the words and sing along to. People wore fancy boots and akubras and cowboy hats and generally it was just a fun weekend. The only dull spot was my inability to catch the colour of the mountain in coloured pencil.

Vantage Point – Better than The Bucket List. I think. Who puts Sigourney Weaver in a movie and then doesn’t use her? Hello? People? I enjoyed the structure of the story: eight (?) overlapping viewpoints putting it altogether, but oh! the corniness! the Americanness! the Quaid! “Don’t worry Mr President! I’ve got you!”.

Hey Hey, It’s Esther Blueburger – Better than The Bucket List. An Australian Judy Blume novel, really, in which a young, awkward girl grows up, gains confidence, explores sexuality, accepts her & her families admitted oddities. Not a kid’s movie, unless you have prepared the kids, and it will probably be studied in school. I cried three times, twice over the duck (actually, I cried once over the duck and bawled the second time) and think the beanbag scene in the family psychologists office was one of the funniest things I’ve seen for a while. Also, I want a toy xylophone as a doorbell.

Be Kind, Rewind – Better than The Bucket List, by a very long way. I’ve seen bad reviews of Be Kind, Rewind, and they seem to fall into either “It’s a bad Michel Gondry Film” or “It’s a bad Comedy”. No, it doesn’t mess with reality like Eternal Sunshine. But I wouldn’t classify it as a Comedy – not because it isn’t funny (it is, and I would probably even watch a regular comedy that used this premise) but because it’s an American movie and it isn’t an American Comedy. Like Hidalgo, it suffers from preconceived expectations and reviewers’ inability to classify it. I loved it. It was, like Hidalgo, expansive, but the movie it reminded me most of (and which is referenced/refilmed twice in Be Kind) was Driving Miss Daisy. Not for any obvious reasons, but because it had a gentle, funny seriousness underlying it, and because halfway through the movie I consciously thought “please, please don’t finish yet” and by the time it did finish I thought, “That was an elegant sufficiency”.

February Short Book Reviews

Return to Labyrinth, vol. 1. No, no, no, no, no. This isn’t Labyrinth. The Labyrinth is there, and the fantastic creatures, but it has had its heart cut out. The movie had its flaws, but it was wonderful and powerful, and if the main character was spoiled she was also lively and active and if she made mistakes she also made progress and friends. Volume 1 of Return to Labyrinth had none of that. For a moment there was a glimpse of grown-up Sarah, which was like seeing a glimpse of an old friend – heartbreaking because her life now appears to revolve around Toby (who seems to have grown very much into Nick from Deep Secret, but without any of the charm). I enjoyed the creatures and places, some known, some new, some developed (the forest of hat-birds! loved it). But it is, so far, a story of a spoiled and discontented child being led (not enough emotion to be ‘dragged’) against his will into a life of fantasy and privilege, which isn’t the same thing as a spoiled and self-centred child on the point of making a terrible mistake and jumping in feet-first to fix it and travelling through dangers unnumbered and hardships uncounted and loyal friendships and seductive promises and finally growing up. I will read another volume if it comes my way, just to see if the story becomes a deeper story, but it left me cold and sad and wondering if anyone ever can return to Labyrinth. Someone once, long ago, began a fanfiction novel which I found and read unfinished, and it promised so much more than this. On the art: this was my first manga and I do not think, from art I have seen around, that I should judge all manga by the quality of the artwork in this which was sometimes inconsistent to the point of distraction.

The Orphan Tales: In the Night Garden – Catherynne Valente. Fabulous. A filigreed nesting-box of wonderful stories. A thousand-and-one stories each part of the other. A genealogy of delight. The assistant editor at Bantam Dell whose card you can’t quite see on this page of my journal recommended it to me at a function at the Australian Consulate in New York. I could not find it in the days left to us in New York. It subsequently won the World Fantasy award and when I came home I ordered it at Pulp Fiction and – eventually – it arrived. It deserved the award. Now, when I started the book I was not sure whether it would leave me cold, and the first story, the upper layer, the framing story is on its surface a small tale and unfolds only at great intervals across the book. But the tales the girl with all the stories written across her eyelids told were luminous and strange, rendolent of Arabian nights and Norse legends and European maerchen, yet never retellings or rephrasings – always fresh and new and surprising and lovely and shocking and heartbreaking. Lovely monsters and terrible fates, wars and treachery, ambition, love, gold and starlight and foxes and otters, bears and phoenixes and Beasts, creatures of the stars that burn the grass they tread on, creatures of the moon which inhabit and discard cratered bodies, cities of rose domes, of spice, of towers built of ships and bones. And gradually each story feeds into the others, loops back, is threaded through, brushes against the others and builds a world of beauty and dark secrets. And if there were no further book I would be happy in the story – but now I do know and care about the upper layers and am very glad there is a second half, which is on order and I will report back on as soon as possible.

The Fantasy Artist’s Reference File – Peter Evans. I said I might review this. It was – oh, it’s the illustrated version of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland without the self-awareness or deliberate humour. (I think. There were a couple sections where I thought the author must be having a dig at his audience). It is a volume of photo-references of figures poses and costumes, complete with CD of images. The production values are high, the models appear very healthy and there are some unexpected inclusions. And I can’t not laugh. On a pay-per-read it may be one of the cheapest books I’ve bought. It includes poses, costume details, figure reference, facial expressions, ‘classic poses’ and suggestions for illustrating the following: Barbarian Warrior, Warrior Woman, Elven Warrior, Elven Queen, Fairy, Princess, Wicked Sorceress, Warrior Prince, Wizard, Evil Sorcerer, Warrior Dwarf, Cleric, Peasant Boy, Peasant Girl, Norseman and Goblin. And oh the cliches, they burn! And the intricate back stories and descriptions for barely related photographs (did you know: “Elves’ eyesight is far better than that of humans. They have a greater color spectrum and can see in the near dark”)! And the sight of a bearded, wise wizard in his underwear! What is seen cannot be unseen… Some noteable pose titles include: Death to the Dragon! Come forth, my paladins. Get back hordes of chaos. Dragon bait. Midnight abduction (two of these). I will rend your soul. Aaarrghhhh! No, that is not the way to do it. I had it when we left. Notable costume elements: Baggy hose (seriously, if they had not pointed it out I would not have noticed and now I cannot look away!). Puffy gold-lame wristlets. Skullband (as in, a headband on a skull).

I also read several short stories including ‘Tongue before Sword’ which received a longer review here, and Matthew.

Rodrigo! Rodrigo! Save me!

I make a point of reading everyday, and sometimes on weekends when I don’t want to read a book I associate with bus travel and coffee in McDonalds, I pick up odd volumes at home – Labyrinth manga, histories of King John and bound volumes of Windsor Magazine. As a result of which I am left cold by internal inconsistencies, fascinated and frustrated by introductions to books that keep sinking down in the pile of Books to Read and calling friends and saying “Oh. My. Word!”

Oh. My. Word.
This last is because the story I read this weekend was just the sort of story that Anne Shirley and Katy Carr and The Story Girl and Jo March and their friends-and-relations read and wrote and swooned over and learned through the trials of life not to write anymore. Exactly.

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January short movie reviews

Below are last month’s reviews. The book reviews are here.

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January Short Book Reviews

Bellwether – Connie Willis. This was a reread, aloud to my parents. It’s just a good book – small and light but entertaining and endearing, with scientist and statisticians and sheep and iced tea and 1920s haircuts. I tell people (if they ask) that it isn’t science fiction, because they won’t notice. To science fiction what What’s Up Doc is to musicology, with many laughs and a little romance.

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi. I thought I’d finished this, but I hadn’t read the last two chapters. This is an autobiographical graphic novel about growing up in Iran and Austria, with a simple, likeable style and covering an emotional range between the very humourous and the very tragic, both rendered more so by the everyday depiction of what (to me) are circumstances very difficult to imagine. My mother had never read a graphic novel, and she cried when she read this one. I laughed aloud, then cried in the bookstore.

Vanishing Acts – Jodi Picoult. Not my style – I was embarrassed to read it on the bus because it might detract from my image : ) An odd book, the settings and styles seem to belong to two different novels which don’t really mesh. The mystic elements intrude rather than complement the rest of the plot, the flowery language used in the depiction of life in gaol jarred and made the attempts at gritty realism seem insincere and unlikely, and the attempts to explore shades of grey sat oddly because it seemed so obvious which way the reader was supposed to read them (a good example of shades of grey is the characters of the adoptive parents in Juno).

The Sunday Philosophy Club – Alexander McCall Smith. Undecided, although I liked the fact that the eponymous club never actually meets. I have decided that Alexander McCall Smith’s books are a Good Thing solely on the basis of their titles, and I am happy that books called The Kalahari Typing School for Men and Morality for Beautiful Girls exist, so he gets a free pass.

The Rum Diary – Hunter S. Thompson. My first encounter with the gonzo journalist. Still not sure what gonzo means (although I am convinced Gonzo comes from Tatooine), but I enjoyed the book more than I thought I would and from my limited experience with journalist the volume of rum consumed rings about right.

The Princess Diaries – Meg Cabot. A reread before consigning the books to Karen. Meg Cabot is very light, but with a hyperactive humour that I enjoy, and The Princess Diaries is a well plotted, enjoyable novel with a story that seems like it was just waiting to be written. The later books hold up (mostly because of Lily and the characters’ many Top 10 Lists), but I don’t like them as much, because they start to become Issues books and part of the charm of The Princess Diaries is that the central issue is one which most people are unlikely to every have to deal with directly – I appreciate outrageous premises, a great glorious What If at the centre of the fiction.

The Morning Gift – Eva Ibbotson. I like Eva Ibbotson. I used several of her fantasy novels (The Secret of Platform 13, etc) in my honours thesis, but only discovered her adult, non-fantasy novels last year. I bought A Song For Summer at a Lifeline Booksale and was very impressed and entertained (and also suspect the book was written around the word defenstration). I lent that to my mother and sister, the precedents manager, another solicitor, and two friends. In America, I bought The Secret Countess (a.k.a. The Countess Downstairs) and it has also done the rounds. I am banned from buying The Star of Kazan because the precedents manager wants to buy it and lend it to me. And then I was delighted to find my little sister, whose tastes in books rarely overlap mine, had bought The Morning Gift. I was third in line. It is not my favourite (that remains in order of reading) but it has the same marvelous light humour, an insight into the situation of the exile, endearing secondary characters, admirable main characters, handsome archaeology professors, musicians and communities being rebuilt. The good end happily and the bad get what they deserve. I wish someone would make miniseries of these novels.

March of the Wooden Soldiers (Fables Vol. 4). The lands of legend and fairytale have been overrun by the mysterious Adversary, and the refugees maintain a community in exile in the middle of New York: Fabletown, where the mayor is King Cole, his deputy is Snow White (my favourite graphic novel heroine at the moment, and the prettiest) and Bigby (as in B.B. Wolf), in human form, is the police department (and shares much of Vime’s appeal). In this volume, the forces of the Adversary reach our world, and there is blood in the streets. I remembered how much I liked this series when I saw how the version of Robin Hood in the battle in the first episode acted exactly like Robin Hood should – cocky and cheeky and arrogant and ultimately bested by Britomart and getting a taste of his own medicine. The losses were heartrending, the characters further developed, and one major relationship outed with a minimum of fanfare.

They’re a Wierd Mob – Nino Culotta. This novel was published in the early ’60s and is the story of Nino Culotta’s arrival in Australia as an Italian journalist, his inability to understand Australian (although his English is excellent), his employment as a brickie’s labourer, his many misunderstandings, friendships and eventual settlement as an Australian with an Australian wife who tries to eat spaghetti with a spoon. I read it out loud to my father and we both enjoyed it a great deal. It’s the Sydney of his childhood and my history lessons, and an Australia that is recognisable but vastly altered (for one thing, non-canned spaghetti is no longer considered an exotic dish!)

Also: Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.

Questions? Comments? Disagreements? Serious objections to my style of review?