September 2007

I don’t normally do crime novels, but this was a beaut.

Bangkok 8 is the tale of a Bangkok detective attempting to uncover the killer of an American Marine. It’s a tale of mystery, the sex trade, drugs, corruption, and humidity. And it rolls along beautifully.

The novel was a recommendation from a friend in Malaysia, and it strikes me as being about as accurate a depiction of the life of a Buddhist cop as you could except from a farang writer (“foreigner”). In particular, there was a lot of description of how a Buddhist should or does contemplate issues and my “cultural authenticity” alarms were ringing. But, hey, it’s a great story.

What Burdett does well is describe the swelter and glamour of Bangkok without any patronisation or titillation,  something not easy to do. He also gives the characters a lot of depth, but without over-writing them.

It’s a great read, and well-recommended.

Well, my impression thus far is that Robbins mostly writes books with the intention of putting characters into usual sexual situations, and he demonstrates this again in this novel.

Fierce Invalids is a story of an a paedophiliac CIA agent “Switters” who finds himself cursed by the shaman of a Peruvian tribe. And from there it really goes downhill.

Robbins is interesting because he produces some truly hilarious writing, and is probably something of a raconteur in the real world, but this novel swings violently between the ridiculous and the tedious. Fortunately I was not in a mood to read anything complicated, so this was just about right.

So… unless you’re confined to bed for any reason. Don’t bother.

Everyday People is a fictional story set in a restaurant called Raskins in Brooklyn, NYC. The restaurant is about to close, and the film explores the impact on the lives of the people who work there.

And it’s bloody awful. I was interested to see how it depicted life in the service industry, and it kind of gets the mood right, but fails to deliver anything like an interesting film. Instead we’re delivered schmaltz and sentimentality instead of substance. in fact, it took two sittings to get through it all.

Certainly I admired the attempt to depict the lives of what amount to the working poor in New York, but the writers have attempted to do too much in the time given, and instead deliver such fleeting glimpses that you’re left wondering what in the hell the story was all about. I get that it was supposed to be a snapshot of the film. I get that it’s supposed to skim across the lives of the characters to deliver “collage” of their lives. But it comes across more like a montage set to some reasonably cool soul music.

Avoid. Maybe buy the soundtrack. But save the two hours for another something in your life.

With a bit of time up my sleeve I went to see Stardust in the expectation that it would diverge a fair amount from the recently-read novel. And it did, though not extensively.

What I enjoyed most about Stardust the novel was the whimsical storytelling. It had a properly fantastic air without the pretension that causes many fantasies to labour, and propelled the characters along without too much ‘over-the-top’ type effort.

The story is that a young man sets out into fantasy-land to retrieve a fallen star. The twist is that the star is actually a young woman, and she is also pursued by some Princes and a wicked witch. You can see where it’s going from here.

Where the film fell down for me (more…)

This book initially threw me. I hadn’t read the summary on the back of the book, and it took me a little while to realise that it was a story set on a world in which there is only one gender. If that isn’t difficult enough, it’s a planet in the grip of an ice age. Tough place to land if you’re an alien envoy trying to bring the inhabitants into the fold of interplanetary civilisation.

The main character is Genly Ai, a human sent to treat with the natives of Winter. The novel begins with him in the nation of ‘Karhide’, and Genly is attempting to gain acceptance that the nation is open to the idea of trading with the wider ranks of humanity off-planet. However, the politics of the place are complex, and his mission is imperiled almost immediately.

I enjoyed The Left Hand of Winter, but wasn’t as fascinated as I was with other Le Guin novels. (more…)

When it comes down to it, all you really have is your health. And your money. And a flash car. And your own inflated sense of self-worth. But, mostly your health. So when you spend 18 months on a waiting list for something to be done, you’re entitled to get a little grumpy.

My 18 months of waiting finally ended this week when I was given a strange phone call and summoned to Auckland. Not wanting to look a gift shop in the mouth I duly boarded a plane and set out on a wee adventure. And what an adventure it was… it went a little like this.

It turns out that the cardiology unit at Auckland hospital is in the new building, which had this freaking massive 7-storey atrium in the middle of it. Now some might consider that a waste of space. Space that could be used for beds or kitchens or something. But when you’re couped up in a room with two octogenarians for two days, that bit of the hospital that’s almost like you’re going outside when you’re being wheeled back and forth from x-rays and surgery is most welcome.

I’ll be honest and say that I consider myself somewhat of a planner. A planner who knows exactly how bad Wellington hospital really is. REALLY bad. So I didn’t trust them to send anything like the correct amount or type of info to the people in Auckland. At one point it took them a month to get a record from one side of the hospital to the other, and back. A month! So seeing that on the first day on the ward I was free to stay in my trousers and wander about a bit, me and the ‘support person’ (also flown up to Auckland by the DHB) wandered out into Grafton and had lunch. A strong coffee that really, really got the heart racing. We then wandered back to the hospital and asked for me to be given an ECG. This will become important later.

I had checked in at about 10 on Sunday, and they ran a few tests, with the operation due on Monday, “some time in the afternoon”. Boring. Very boring. I’ll skip to the good bits.

I’m given a razor and told to shave my own groin, which I do. It is now intensely itchy.

Later in the day (Monday) a guy in an official-looking coat pops in and spends 45 minutes explaining to me the many ways this could go wrong, and the several ways it could kill me. He then requests I sign a waiver, and leaves. I’m not feeling altogether reassured, but never mind.

Later again, and some nurses in surgical gear turn up and wheel my trolley past the atrium and over towards surgery. Very calming. If I had simply been wheeled down acres of corridors with fluorescent lighting I’d likely be having some kind of David Lynch-induced anxiety attack. But the sight of palms and ferns is, well, peaceful.

I’m wheeled into a big theatre full of machines, TVs, and surgical-looking stuff. They move me off my bed, and onto a narrow table. They restrain my arms, and shift the covers off my groin before covering the main strip down the centre with a heavy, bunched cloth. I naturally thought this was there to preserve my dignity. Turns out that it was there so the surgeon could rest his hands on something while he punctured freaking great holes in my crotch.

You still with me? (Warning: this is a looong post) (more…)

Well, she’s a gorgeous day here in Wellington, and I’m trapped inside some a hen-pecked child stuck at a violin rehearsal.

The story is that I got a phone call maybe 10 days ago from Auckland Hospital. It went something like, “Sunday 23 September, Grafton, be there.”

Me: “wtf?”

Them: “And stop taking your meds 5 days before you arrive.”

Me: “WTF?!”

Them: “Phone this number, ask for [Louie], he’ll arrange everything.”

Me: “Meh. Gift horse, mouth.”

It turns out that I was being summoned for some type of surgical procedure. I still dunno what. I still dunno how long I’ll be there. I still dunno how long till I’ll be allowed to go to work. I still dunno is it’s the local anaesthetic procedure I’ve heard about, or a general one. Nothing. Nada. Zip.

All I know is that I’ve spent three days now counting down the seconds on account of being off the meds.

Hence the staying in doors. If I become the tiniest bit stressed, BOOM, off goes the heart into tachycardia. I walked across the road this morning, and off it went.

So, here I am, sitting indoors, convalescing.


At least tomorrow I get to confine myself to yet another tiny aluminium box and fly to Auckland to maybe have this resolved…

Will keep you all posted. Maybe with pictures!

You know this could be the first bit of “New Zealand literature” I’ve ever read? I have a couple of Barry Crump books, but I think they’re considered too low-brow to be lit.

And it was thoroughly enjoyable. Shadbolt has an easy writing style that lends itself to the telling of short stories (this volume is a collection), and he weaves an admirable range of tales about New Zealand and New Zealanders set comfortably between the Depression and the 1960s.

If I had any criticism though, it’s that I struggled to see the uniquely New Zealand aspect of the characters and settings? It could be that I read this over a number of sittings, so the flow of the stories was disjointed for me, or it could be that Shadbolt wrote them over a number of years? Most likely though, it’s just that some of the behaviours of his characters are so intrinsically Kiwi that I can’t recognise them as unique.

It might also be that many of the characters really are dislocated Britons discovering that they no longer fit into a British mold. The landscapes are still relatively alien in the book, a weird superimposition of Europeans mores and ways on Aotearoa, and the characters themselves seem to become more alien because of it. It’s a weird juxaposition,and one that Shadbolt explores easily and without prejudice.

Moreover, the types of personal habits he describes seem to be fairly adventurous for the times. Many characters are gay, promiscuous, or somehow distinguished, and this also creates an ‘edginess’ that keeps the reader engaged.

So all in all, probably a visionary set of stories. And recommended.

Right, I’ve already put this up once, but this time we have pictures.

These are the duck legs from the birds I dressed the other day. From two ducks I got around 800g of thigh.

I cleaned them in fresh water, then lighted seasoned them with sea salt.

Go easy with the salt. It soaks into the duck’s fat and skin, and will flavour all of the thigh meat. So if you’re on a low-salt diet, be warned.

Next, cover the lot with happy wrap and put them in the fridge overnight.

Your duck will keep in the fridge for a couple of days happily. But don’t leave it there too long. The idea of this recipe is to keep everything sterile, and not to let any little bits of food get into your confit.

Next, set your over to bake at about 190 degrees, and take the duck out of the fridge. Season it with pepper, preferably that you’ve ground yourself. I use a mortar and pestle from Moore Wilsons. There’s nothing like the green smell of freshly ground pepper.

The recipe normally calls for thyme, but I couldn’t find any. Instead I’ve used fresh rosemary that I knicked from round the back of New World. Why pay $5 for a bunch when I grows all over the city for free? Just make sure you pick the stuff that’s above dog-leg height.

Also add two or three whole cloves of garlic, skin-on. Put them in the bottom of a casserole dish with some of of the rosemary, and layer the thighs.

Next, cover the thighs completely with melted duck fat. You can use fat you’ve recycled from a previous confit, fat you’ve rendered yourself, or fresh. Cover the lot in tinfoil, and place in the oven.

There isn’t really a trick to cooking a duck confit. Just fire the whole thing in the oven for about an hour. You needn’t worry about under-cooking the duck for instance, because you’ll be re-cooking it again in future.

However, you can tell when it’s cooked, because the skin ‘thins’ and pulls away from the thigh. This picture doesn’t show much, but you can see how dark the fat is. That means lots of the flavour of the thighs is in the fat, and vice-versa.

Now the good news? You don’t actually eat the fat. The next thing is to let the whole shebang cool, and refrigerate it.

If you’ve kept everything sterile the confit will preserve the duck for weeks. When it comes time to eat it, either dig the thighs out individually, or gently heat the fat until you can remove them. Then cook them how you like, in a cassoulet for example.

Ensure you save the confit fat. I use it to roast vegetables for example. It’s a good idea to use it before getting in new fat for future confits.

Now, what I didn’t get a photo of is the jelly. When the confit is cooling a layer of extremely rich jelly will form at the bottom of the dish. When the fat is set you can turn the whole lot out and remove the jelly by more or less peeling it off the layer of solid fat above it.

This jelly is extremely rich, and extremely delicious. Heat it gently and strain to remove the little bits of herbs. I pop the garlic out of their skins and mash them into the liquid. Another option is to reserve the garlic cloves, mix them with a tiny bit of jelly, and eat them on toast.

You then mix the jelly with a little of the confit meat, and move the lot to a ramekin or small bowl. Put a thin layer of fat over it to help preserve it, and let it set in the fridge.

This can then be used as a entree to any meal. It is light, fresh, and the essence of the confit.

Enjoy. Oh, and don’t eat this too often if you’re on a diet of any kind…

I’ll admit that the realisation this is a musical came as a teeny bit of a shock. I don’t do musicals.

But Hairspray was just so much damn fun!

Based on a stage musical, Hairspray contains all the cheesy elements you expect from earnestly happy script. There’s the unusual girl who lights up everyone’s life, the heartless witch who refuses to accept difference, the good-natured father, the whole shebang.

Once I got used to John Travola in a fat-suit and in drag I kind of went along with the film, and even found myself grooving along to some of the songs.

A recommended film, not too cerebral, not too intense, just a nice afternoon at the cinema.

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