Saturday, 26 June 2010

Amazing Adventures (Part 3)

In which someone (me) talks about a period of reading fiction to anyone who’ll listen (you) by talking about a work of non-fiction. This is significant because it’s the fourth book I’ve finished this month, a feat of page turning unseen in my world since I tore through my junior school library’s entire collection of Asterix books in a couple of weeks when I was 9.

I may give the impression that I don’t like books, which is probably a bit misleading. I’ve always been a big reader. It’s just in recent years I’ve devoted a lot of time to magazines, the internet and - when I do buy books - non-fiction, with music biographies in particular my default setting. This isn’t just George Martin syndrome (‘and I remember John turning to Paul and saying “why don’t we stick this tape recorder up your bottom and then play it the tape backwards and “hoop-la, Penny Lane!” ’) it’s just that I like reading about creative people who have ideas and some of them happen to be musicians. It’s also a fact that books like Everything, Simon Price’s passionate and meticulous dissection of all things Manic Street Preachers and Bill Drummond’s 45 are as inspiring, romantic and fantastical as any fiction.

Anyway, so after 650 pages of Kavalier and Clay and having whipped through David Walliams’ entire literary oeuvre I felt like I deserved a quick break from fiction. My palate cleanser of choice then was Things the Grandchildren Should Know by the Eels frontman Mark Oliver Everett; better known to his friends as simply E. This is him here, with his dog Bobby Jr.

It should be said from the off that had the tragic events of E’s life been presented by an aspiring author to a publishing house as a work of fiction they’d probably be criticised for being a) highly unlikely and b) bit bleak. “Well, it’s an interesting story, but does everyone in his family have to die?” or “this stuff about an awkward introverted loner is understandable but it’s a bit far fetched to think that he’d become a famous rock star.

However, these are the facts. Yes, everyone (and I mean everyone) in E’s family dies before he hits 40, plus a few friends too. They die tragically, often painfully, sometimes pointlessly and E has to deal with it all. And yes, this troubled soul with a teenage delinquent past, little in the way of an education and an aversion to the trappings of rock superstardom has indeed managed to carve himself a beautiful and unique little niche in the music world. Which, as anyone who has even dabbled in the world of professional musicianship will tell you is all the more remarkable because rocking out on stage, trying to appear friendly yet deep and meaningful in interviews, living on a bus full of musicians, coming up with new marketable material and appearing on television can be challenging at the best of times, never mind when you've just come back from your only sister's funeral or you have to fly home between gigs to help clean shit off your dying mother.

It’s probably fair to say that Things the Grandchildren Should Know (named for one the songs on the 2005 album Blinking Lights and Other Revelations) will never win any literature awards, with E pointedly eschewing flowery language for a straight-ahead four to the floor telling of the facts more in keeping with his constantly failing attempts to lead a down-to-earth approach to life. For fans there are also some odd omissions (no mention at all of MC Honky, E's hip hop alter ego, and no real mention of ideas and inspirations behind his always interesting videos). Still, his tale is told with heart on sleeve frankness and precious little rock star ego which only renders it all the more compelling. This is a distinctly human story and instead of the usual 'I-wish-my-life-was-like-that' after-effect of rock bios, one is left with a distinct feeling of being a little blessed ourselves.

Interestingly E's experiences - good and bad - have taught him a similar lesson; that life has some downs but they usually lead you to some ups and you really don't ever know what's coming next. That might not seem like much in the way of philosophy for a lifetime of fascinating, thrilling joys (E's own personal fandom is never far and his pride at meeting Tom Waits or playing London's Albert Hall after first hearing about it via the Beatles' A Day in the Life is just lovely) and deep personal losses (I even lost count of the amount of friends and neighbours who died in what is a relatively short book) but it's refreshingly honest and thankfully avoids the Jerry Springer's Final Thought summation.

Whether you're a fan of the work of Mark Oliver Everett and his ever-changing band of troubadours or not there is much to gain from reading Things the Grandchildren Should Know. If you're new to him then I'm sure there's enough to pique your interest to explore his wonderful back catalogue (still growing with his 2010 release End Times garnering great reviews). For those already familiar with E's brand of beautiful blues, be assured this is one of those rare bios that will only add to your listening pleasure. All right? Goddam right.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Look at Me, Look at Me

So there were Mrs Custard and I, 5am in the morning wrapped up in a blanket watching the Socceroos come agonisingly close to getting through to the next round of the World Cup. In the middle of the first half I said 'you know what's been nice about this World Cup - it's meant that I haven't had to listen to Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd or anyone else in Canberra droning on and trying to make us care about the election...'

So to me it looks like a bad case of attention deficit disorder from the pollies that the first thing I heard when i turned on ABC local radion today was that the Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard is mounting a leadership challenge against Rudd at 9am this morning.

I read the news today. Oh boy...

By the time you read this chances are Australia will have its first female Prime Minister. Which is ace of course, and sadly in many ways no more than Rudd deserves for losing the plot and touch with public opinion so needlessly and so drastically in such a short space of time... however I'm sure there are better ways with dealing with the fact that this week Australians care more about Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell - hell - even Brett Holman (who hell he? Australia's top goal scorer of the tournament, that's who) than our political leaders.

And if a certain flame-haired lady is reading this before her leadership challenge, remember - half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you, Julia...

Amazing Adventures (Part 2)

... or the continuing adventures of the Mint Custard Book Club (membership of one but always looking for friends) or stuff about someone who is rubbish at reading fiction but is trying hard. This includes reading children's books - to which this particular post is dedicated...

The Boy in the Dress / Mr Stink – David Walliams

Ah cross-dressing; it's an English tradition. I love it, you love it, David Walliams loves it and (perhaps unsurprisingly given the title) so does Dennis, the 12 year old hero of the Boy in the Dress. Writing his first book for children Walliams sympathetically taps into his own longstanding interest in feminine finery and in the process repairs some of the gentle damage he did creating Little Britain’s Emily ‘I’m a lady’ Howard.

David Walliams and the Quentin Blake drawn cast of The Boy in the Dress

Although teenage transvestism might appear unlikely fodder for a children's book, Walliams manages it deftly. He is clear that Dennis's predilection for women's fashion has no impact on his footballing abilities nor does it prevent him having a lustful crush on Lisa, the school fashionista Lisa who encourages his interests in increasingly involved and daring ways.

Yet far from being just a book with a pinky leftie commie message the Boy in the Dress is full of the type of humour you'd expect from one half of the Little Britain team, with local newspaper shop owner Raj a particularly constant source of laughs. Unphased by Dennis' nervous purchase of Vogue magazine Raj is more interested in selling half eaten chocolate bars, old christmas wrapping paper ('eleven rolls for the price of eight!') and bags of out of date pickled onion Monster Much ('a British delicacy!')

I have no idea what the 9 to 12 year olds this funny, energetic and ultimately rather sweet book is aimed at would think, but to me Dennis’ lone-parent family troubles were well handled and didn’t feel at all contrived. Whilst the same couldn’t be said of the slightly silly ending the Boy in the Dress’ big idea – be who you are and not who other people want you to be – seems like a good reason to write a children’s book.

The biggest coup for Williams is the inclusion of Quentin Blake’s always-wonderful visuals. Having Roald Dahl’s illustrator onboard immediately adds to the impression that the Boy in the Dress is somehow part of the Dahlian canon and it’s fair to say that give or take one too many contemporary references to reality television and a plot mostly grounded in the real world Walliams succeeds in emulating his idol’s knack for escapist pre-teen thrills.

Dennis (a boy)... in a dress

The same is not quite true of Walliams’ second children’s book, Mr Stink which whilst infused with a similar infectious energy and cheeky breaking of the fourth wall, as well as Blake’s wonderful drawings, feels a little more forced. This time our hero is Chloe, another twelve year old with parent-induced self-esteem issues who finds friendship in the form of a putrid-smelling homeless man called (aptly) Mr Stink.

At war with her revoltingly overachieving younger sister Annabelle, bullied by school colleagues and put down by her mother for carrying a bit of extra weight young Chloe hides away from the world, devoting herself to her creative writing that she dare not share with anyone. No-one that is apart from Mr Stink who encourages her to tell him night time stories as he beds down in the family shed. Chloe spends the rest of her time letting her imagination run riot about Mr Stink's past, imagining several histories for his each time they meet.

The evolution of Chloe and Mr Stink’s relationship is nicely done, but her politically ambitious Hyacinth Bucket-like mother and down at heel ex-rocker father don’t feel quite as plausible. Perhaps this is part of the point as Mr Stink sees Walliams let his own imagination loose more than Boy in the Dress, resulting in helicopter rides to meet the Prime Minister in Downing Street (an untrustworthy, slightly smarmy man called Dave, interestingly for a book published long before the 2010 election) and a flatulent appearance on Question Time.

Mr Stink and the Duchess ('she wasn't any particular breed of dog, she was just a dog')

There is another welcome outing for Raj (this time trying to offload a crate full of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle stationery sets) and some lovely descriptions of Annabelle's daily diary ('2am Learning Arabic; 3am Dance Lesson - breakdance, hip hop, krumping; 4am Oboe; 5am Tour de France cycle training etc) but overall there was less joy than his first volume.

It is possible that Walliams has nothing left in his children’s literary locker, but in Mr Stink, and especially the Boy in the Dress he can at least boast two highly likeable, endearing and above all fun books to add to his growing list of achievements.

Yet more Mint Custard Book Club tomorrow (I know, whoda thunk it...?)

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Amazing Adventures (Part 1)

So after a book-barren 2009 my 2010 continues to be full of page turning action. As promised back in January I’ve been riding the fiction-train to try and understand what it is that makes folks devote hours of their own lives to the adventures of people who don’t exist.

I’ve been progressing at a rate of a book a month (more impressive than it sounds given it took me over 18 months to read On the Road) so I’m pleased to report that the Mint Custard Book Club (membership of one) got a few more than that under its belt this past month (albeit with a little stretching of the rules as you’ll see over the next couple of posts) starting with…

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon

Despite being the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001 I’d never heard of Michael Chabon or this wonderful book until it was recommended to me by a fiction-aficionada. Now I’m on a mission to share the love, something that’s hard to do without making The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay sound trite or spoiling the treasures contained within. Still, here goes…

Let’s start with the big news; this is the only book that has ever made me cry. Not huge sobs or rivers of tears, but certainly a big lump in my throat and an emotional breakdown that delayed me from eating my vegemite on toast one morning to the point where it went cold. No mean feat, Mr Chabon.

Kavalier and Clay is broadly about the eponymous heroes, Josef (Joe) Kavalier and Sammy (Clay) Klayman, two young Jewish cousins whose lives are brought together when Joe is forced to flee his native Czechoslovakia for New York because of the Nazis, leaving his family behind.

Sammy is an obsessive devotee of the burgeoning world of comic books, whilst Joe is both a gifted artist and amateur magician. Merging their talents and interests they create the Escapist, a costumed super hero for their times, dedicated to ‘the liberation of all who toil in chains, whether of iron or ideas.’ When their comic book starts to sell they cement their fortunes and reputations but whilst the fictional Escapist is liberating the people of Europe from Hitler and the Nazis, Joe and Sammy struggle to escape from their own personal demons.

To say anymore would risk spoiling the many twists and turns that Chabon skilfully sets up and reveals with the occasional swish of his magician’s cloak. Part social history, part war epic, part mystery, Kavalier and Clay is fundamentally a fractured but beautiful love story which leaves you caring passionately about the fates of all concerned.

The book’s strengths lie in the complexity of emotions behind the actions of Sammy, Joe et al as well as an impressively researched and wholly believable recreation of the 1930s and 1940s. Neat tricks like referencing the Escapist as an actual comic contemporary of the newly-created Superman (similarly dreamt up by two young Jewish Americans) and mirroring Joe’s escalating personal battles with the build up to America’s involvement in World War II mean the period setting of the book is integral to the plot rather than just a device to talk about the war again.

Anyway in summary, if you want a startlingly original, emotionally engaging, multi-dimensional book that reinvents several dead genres and stops you eating toast so you can have a cry, then this is it. I’ve already added it to my favourite books on my profile – I can’t say fairer than that …

Epilogue: if you’re not the type of person to latch onto something ten years after everyone else and have actually read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay you may still be interested to know that in 2004 Chabon teamed up with those clever souls at Dark Knight comics and a number of contemporary comic artists for the Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, a collection of graphic stories echoing and inspired by those created by Joe and Sammy. It’s worth picking up volume one of the collected works for the cover art alone (see pic) and I got a brand new copy for just A$22 which is a bargain considering the love that has gone into making it…

(more Mint Custard Book Club tomorrow…)

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Intense Feelings of Disappointment

Folks, the argument about fashion retailers making clothes available in sizes that reflect the average woman has been well documented and dissected in the world's media. However here at Mint Custard we are sad to report an even worse trend than Size 0; that of tent intolerance.

For more on this disgusting phenomenon, check out these pictures from a recent trip to the Big W outdoor pursuits section. Look at the size of these tents. Who on Earth can sleep in these? Only tiny people, that's all. Really tiny people. The average Australian woman is a size 14. Do they really expect a size 14 woman to be able to fit into these tents? No, of course they don't - because they don't care about the real people, the normal people - people like you and me. No, they only care about magic tiny people who can fit into their trendy tiny tents... people like Kate Moss and Ruby Rose and Grand Denyer from Channel 7. Boo Big W. Boo to you for supporting this market fascism.

And it's not just tents. Look at these lovely sleeping bags. Duck down, lotsa togs, suitable for temperatures up to minus 10 degrees centigrade. Sounds good huh? Looks nice, right? Well dream on brothers and sisters because unless you fit with the media dictated hiking high set or you're part of the cool camping club, forget it. These tents come in just one size - super fucking small, so unless you're Dannii Minogue you can just ditch those plans for climbing Mount Kosciuszko in comfort and prepare yourself for chilblains and frostbite, you tubby suckers.

As we all know from Rick (the People's Poet) in situations like this there is only one option and that is to write to the lead singer of Echo and the Bunnymen and demand action... So for those equally as incensed as me at this hiking hypocrisy, please contact Mr Echo here...

Mint Custard - bringing back political activism one row of tents at a time.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Midnight Feast

At the start of the year I made a deal with myself not to buy any DVDs in 2010. Our place is full of stuff and we really don’t need any more. As a result we’ve been using the DVR a lot more, mostly to record episodes of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. When I wrote about Late Night earlier this year Jimmy still hadn’t really hit his stride, but in the past few months both he and his crew seem to have shifted up a gear and are producing some really great telly moments.

Sure some of it is a big advert for some of the worst dross that Hollywood has to offer, but it’s worth sitting through every interview with a Sex and the City actor to see the stuff in between. So because I love a list and because Jimmy Fallon doesn’t get any coverage at all here in Australia here are some of my highlights from the past six months for your viewing pleasure (all links feed through to videos on the NBC site).

  • Might as well start with the best. It’s pointless describing Let Us Play With Your Look so take your pick from either Zack Galifianakis or Sarah Silverman, sit back and enjoy. Will Ferrell and Alec Baldwin had highly popular turns too, but I think your first time is always the funniest, and these were mine...
  • The Roots, the world’s greatest house-band bar none, play tribute to Michael J Fox with a rocking Back to the Future homage
  • Betty White: the last Golden Girl standing talks about hosting Saturday Night Live for the first time in her 80s and offers a new take on Jay Z’s 99 Problems
  • Brit indie-dancers Hot Chip play the title track off their 2010 album One Life Stand with the Roots and some steel drums and unexpectedly rock the house.
  • Uber-grump John Cleese actually enjoying himself as Jimmy’s co-host on Wheel of Carpet Samples (fitting, since it’s a well crafted rip-off of Monty Python’s Silly Noises Quiz sketch)
  • 30 Rock’s Tracy Morgan is a mentalist… no really. He is.
  • Jimmy and Gwyneth Paltrow reminisce about their pre-fame career as 80’s rap innovators Shazzazz
  • Jimmy versus Stephen Colbert. Talk show wrestlemania-geddon…
  • LATE: parody of Lost about a lift full of passengers which crashes on a mysterious floor. Extra mad props for doing it as a big budget multi-parter that pays homage to the original and occasionally manages to out-weird it thanks to Questlove’s secret handshake, Higgins’ Shaggy impressions and Carlton the Goldfish Man
  • The gorgeous Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation discusses following her teacher home in a box. A star is born.
  • Thank You… Jimmy’s Friday night ritual of writing thank you notes to things, people, places and phenomena that make his life better. Proof that ‘repeat to fade’ can make even the silliest of jokes very funny…
  • Ludacris performs ‘How Low’ with the Roots - with a bizarre Disco Duck cameo by Questlove and some early 90s time-warp midget backing dancers
  • Jimmy sings the 12 Days of Christmas with the Muppets. Utterly lovable and I’m still jealous
  • Of all the many audience participation games, Think About It, is my favourite. Participants are asked to think about stuff whilst their thoughts are transmitted to our screens via top secret technology electronic nipples mounted on their heads. Invariably they are shown to be thinking about something inappropriate, and every time it makes me giggle.
  • Jimmy’s inability not to mention deadly spiders that live in swimming pools whenever he interviews anyone Australian
  • An awestruck Jimmy interviews Barry and Robin Gibb from the Bee Gees for the first time since his SNL skit the Barry Gibb Talk Show (featuring Justin Timberlake as a painfully shy Robin) culminating in a three-way sing-a-long of Nights on Broadway. Class.
  • Man in audience gets over excited about images from the Hubble Space telescope. And makes a rap video about it. Intergalactic multi-dimensional exploding space nebulae? Hubble Gotchu!
  • Every so often Jimmy clears out his office and finds old VHS video instructions for office workers from the 80s. Made by a company called Video Vision they offer expert tips on a range of topics including sexual harassment, Christmas and, in this case, fire safety
  • A reformed Public Image Limited perform Bags during which a strident John Lydon dispenses with sneaking expletives in through the back door (a la Pretty Va-cant) and instead stares into the camera and drops the c-bomb repeatedly to fade in a remarkable feat of mainstream swearing. And no one seems to notice…
  • And finally, Jake Gyllenhall rocks the yellow boiler suit as he and Jimmy compare the finale of American Idol to a hedgehog doing karate. In dance.

If you’ve got any favourites to recommend then feel free to add below or email The Fallon love-in starts here.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Pulled a Mussel at the Seafood Disco

So for what it’s worth, I’m a pescatarian. It’s a rubbish word that people always argue the toss over but it basically means I don’t eat meat. Or rather I don’t eat land-meat (things that cluck, gobble, moo, bleat, squeak or oink) only seafood. Or to put it another way I’m a vegetarian – who eats fish… if there is such a thing. Anyway, you catch my drift? Good.
I stopped eating meat in 2003 after a nasty run-in with a laksa containing some particularly sinewy chunks of beef; an experience akin to eating warm moist rubber bands. A bit queasy, I went home and dared myself to try a meat-free month. Mrs Custard was already a vegetarian so it wasn’t a massive leap. I easily completed the month, that became six months and after that I was away.
Having no moral or ethical foundation for my self-imposed pseudo-vegetarianism I hadn’t considered that there might be benefits to not eating something. However, benefits there were, including being able to look an untethered cow in the eye guilt-free one day in a field in North Yorkshire, never once in seven years feeling uncomfortably full for more than an hour after a meal (even curry) and always getting my meals served first on long haul flights.
Another unexpected side-effect was a dramatic broadening of my palate, something long overdue. At home I was forced to try more vegetables to keep my belly full. However, denied my default staple when eating out (steak…. bloody as hell and lots of it) I started making plate-sized raids on the Pacific Ocean and all its fishy delights. For the first time I tried tuna steak and swordfish, octopus and squid, oysters, crayfish and crabs. I ate lobster and discovered all manner of prawns; tiger, king and shrimp. I experimented with salmon and played with every variety of tinned tuna taster on offer. On the whole it has all been delicious and mostly healthy too (my beloved fish finger sandwiches aside, but hey, we all need vices).
Indeed in my seven years without meat I’ve had relatively few commitment wobbles and have never actually succumbed. I’ve only ever missed steak (especially fried lean strips in Mexican restaurants) and had the odd nostril-fuelled pang at barbeques. In exchange, Haloumi has proved a perfect remedy to bacon cravings and both Indian and Thai cooking have enough veg options to keep me away from textured vegetable protein (though I’m actually quite fond of vegetarian sausages). If there have been any real wobbles it’s actually been the other way, towards a fish free diet.
Mostly this happens in Chinese restaurants when I see big-eyed fish with sooky lips and miserable looking crustaceans crammed into brightly lit tanks. Rather than making me think ‘mmm, fresh and delicious’, it usually makes me turn to tofu. I imagine the same effect might occur if there was a beautiful long-lashed cow wandering around each branch of McDonalds. Thankfully most restaurants spare their customers having to confront their soon-to-be-dinner, keeping the death-kill-guilt stuff separate to the yum.
And yet last week I came closer than ever to going fish-free thanks to a mixed seafood mee goreng that started so well and ended like a Shakespearean tragedy. I was happily munching my way through some spicy noodles laced with prawns, squid, that weird rolled up flouro crab stuff and a few choice bits of broccoli and was just about to congratulate myself on another lunchtime well spent when I discovered a surprise under my last chopsticks' worth of noodles. There, soaking up the remnants of my oyster sauce was one single lone mussel. Now before you think 'hmmm, saving the best for last?' let me assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. Despite my seafood conversion I remain averse to the chewy shell based critters. The mussels I've tried have been akin to that beef which turned me off meat in the first place, so I tend to avoid them so I'm not a little bit sick in my mouth.
The particular problem with this little fellow was his symbolic arrival at the end of the meal. With no other distractions around him, with the whole of the bottom of the bowl to himself, and with no fucking way on Earth I was eating him, I began to feel sorry for him. Poor little fellow I thought; a life lived, a life ended and all for naught. His friends and family might have seen him caught in the nets (or wherever mussels get caught) and thought, 'ah, 'tis sad, young Jimmy, he is gone, but at least to a useful purpose.' But sadly not. His fate was to end up at the bottom of my bowl, from ocean to fridge to plate to bin... I contemplated eating him just to add more purpose to his pointless life, but the idea made my noodles quiver in my stomach, so I covered him up with a paper towel and chucked the bowl away.
It was at this point, as I pondered my own existence on the planet, weighing up its value with that of young Jimmy that I thought perhaps enough is enough. For the sake of my fishy friends in the ocean, and especially for all those on aquarium death row in Chinese restaurants, for the sake of my old goldfish; let the killing cease. Then I got home and Mrs Custard had sorted me out some lush prawn fried rice and it smelled DELICIOUS... so those thoughts went away. But I just want you to know, little Jimmy, you marvellous mollusc, that you didn't die for nothing. Because you touched me, little Jimmy, you made me think. You made me stop and wonder... and I know that's what you would have wanted more than anything. So thank you Jimmy. Thank you, from the bottom of my bowl.