Sunday, April 22, 2012

My kind of town

Max is eating well, so I'm often to be found sitting in the same chair and I'm getting through lots of books - thank goodness for excellent Australian libraries. More by accident than by design, I read three books set in New York one after another.

The first, Pariah by Bob Fingerman, met my deep-seated need to read about the forthcoming zombie apocalypse so much more effectively than the current, colossally disappointing AMC series The Walking Dead ever could (although to be fair, I'm still persisting with the latter, two seasons in, in the vain hope it will lift its game from being a soap opera with the occasional zombie). In Pariah, people actually ask the questions that will need asking in the event of the dead rising: how did this happen? How will we survive? What will happen to the zombies over time? What's the best place to hole up? What's the point? A motley group of previous strangers are starving to death in a barricaded New York tenement, tantalisingly close to the doors of a supermarket, a small, unbridgeable distance away and guarded by flesh-eating zombies in apparently good health. Then someone wanders by in the street whom the zombies don't want to eat ...

The second book is more ambitious and in some ways more satisfying, being rooted in all-too-readily imaginable reality: The Submission by Amy Waldman reconstructs the process of choosing the 9/11 memorial for the site of the Twin Towers but imagines a scenario where the winning design, chosen anonymously from thousands of submissions, was created by a Muslim architect. Before the selection has been announced to the public, the selection committee is torn apart by the resulting conflict. The book was written before the controversy about the proposed Muslim cultural centre at Ground Zero, but eerily foreshadows it. The characters are complex, and beautifully drawn with their frustratingly dogmatic thoughts and opinions, never quite behaving the way they should, and never quite making the matter an easy one.

The last book, which I finished this morning, is a superior detective novel set in Lower Manhattan, Lush Life by Richard Price. It's partly a collection of observations from New York life and acute character sketches, and partly a traditional police procedural written with a keen sense of empathy. It's about wasted dreams and wasted lives, as in some way the other two books also are; apart from that they have nothing else in common except the city where they're set.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Box of tricks

At the end of this year I will have lived away from the UK for 10 years. In that time, a new tradition has developed whereby my Mum and my sister send me, for birthdays and Christmas, a magnificent parcel filled with individually wrapped items that can only be bought in the UK or, more specifically, in Scotland. These have in the past consisted of, in no particular order (and without suggesting that I don't want surprises next time):

1. Scottish Blend teabags
"Specially blended for Scottish water", and with an accompanying sarcastic advert alluding to the fact that it never stops raining in Scotland: these possibly fraudulent (will they only work with Scottish water?), but nonetheless excellent teabags have frequently been smuggled through customs in Australia for me. They really do taste better than any other teabag. Even with (previously) inferior Hong Kong and (now) Australian water.

2. Shortbread House of Edinburgh shortbread
I first encountered this peerless brand when I was working in Morningside in a wholefood shop called Cornucopia. Rich, buttery, and absolutely irresistible. The website offers all sorts of perversions of the original idea (cinnamon and demerara? "Christmas"?), but in this I am a puritan: it has to be plain. And it's not just me who says so; Shortbread House's original recipe has won nine of the prestigious Gold Great Taste Awards.

3. Protect and Perfect
Boots the Chemist is probably the best chainstore in the UK, a fact you don't really appreciate until you leave and find yourself searching the dispiriting recesses of inferior pharmacies in vain for the sheer variety of products available in even the meanest, tiniest Boots. Boots' own brand is pretty reliable. When Boots launched Protect and Perfect a BBC science programme (clearly a peer-reviewed reliable source) declared that it actually reduced wrinkles. From my personal experience, this may not be true, and the stuff does smell strongly chemical; but my skin feels quite silky afterwards, and you can't ask for much more than that. P&P gets a kicking from some sources (click here to see all your favourite products mercilessly critiqued, except for, oh, products created by the site's founder).

4. Thorntons Brazil Nut Special Toffee   
No more needs to be said.
5. Soap & Glory: The Scrub of Your Life
Soap & Glory products are packaged in retro pink, with graphic imagery and concepts (rotten puns) which are possibly shamelessly stolen from Benefit, but it's true what it says on the tube: this is a near perfect scrub which smells great and leaves the skin feeling very, very soft.

6. Bio-Oil
This is a relative newcomer which I started using when I was pregnant and have been using ever since, not only on my distorted stomach (before and after) but also on my face. It smells faintly but not powerfully plasticky (repellent though that may sound, it's pleasant; it reminds me of the smell of new dolls) and is as slick as you like. It's supposedly good for scars. Like all similar products I think the benefits of regular massage may have more to do with it, but I've been using it just for the sheer pleasure of application.

Believe it or not I'm regularly approached (via email) by PR people asking if I'll promote something on one of my blogs (a fashion designer, a restaurant, a jewellery range). I always say no: if I'm asked to promote something in some sort of quid pro quo arrangement, I can't be neutral, and unless I genuinely like something without being asked to, I couldn't promote it. This is the closest I'd ever get to promoting anything, and that's only because this is what arrives in my magic box.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

O sweet spontaneous

O sweet spontaneous
 earth how often have

           fingers of
 prurient philosophers pinched

 ,has the naughty thumb
 of science prodded

       beauty      .how
 oftn have religions taken
 thee upon their scraggy knees
 squeezing and

 buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive

 to the incomparable
 couch of death thy

           thou answerest

 them only with


e.e. cummings
For some reason this poem was going through my head when I was shivering in the (astonishingly cold) operating theatre undergoing a c-section. I was in labour (unimaginable pain, waves of it), for minutes, hours (all day): the closest parallel which occurred to me at the time, in my drugged state,  was that I was being oppressed by an enormous ceiling fan beating ceaselessly overhead, Apocalypse-Now style, delivering layers of agony). Birth by c-section, the crucial part, takes 5 minutes; the longest part is being stitched up again. When the baby was removed, I could feel a strange stretching and tugging sensation. I think I must have been deliriously equating the poem with the reality: the doting fingers of prurient doctors pinched and poked me so I answered them only with Max.