Archive for July, 2008

(…in my own innovative “I don’t know winetasting words” vocabulary…)

Deakin Estate Moscato, Australia, 2007: like drinking granny-smith apple flavoured soda (possibly due to 5% alcohol content).

Old Broke Block Semillon, Australia, 2004: upon first swallow, produces a warm, goose-pimply feeling in the body.  ever so slightly burnt, if you stick your nose deep into the glass; reminiscent of dry grass hills, ranches in a hot climate.
Alamos Torrontes, Argentina, 2007: my favorite of the night.  offers about 1,000 flavours in each sip, ending with a warm, satisfied feeling.  feels like a burst of fruits, flowers, and bitter tastes in the mouth.
Piropo, Pinot Blanc, Argentina, 2007: very bitter taste, not especially smellable.
Bisceglia Falanghina Beneventano, Terre di Vulcano, Italy, 2007: very drinkable and pleasant, not too sweet, mild aftertaste.  better balanced than the next Italian (below).
Thesaurum Zibibo, Sicily, 2007: cheese and fruit smell, with a wisp of designer perfume just before the first sip.  rich, flowery taste, which is gorgeous but would be overpowering and ultimately tiring in any quantity–a show off wine, perhaps.
Vivanco Viura/Malvasia, Spain 2006/7: faintest whiff of smoke, followed by a slight sparkle at first taste.  extremely drinkable white rioja.
Oviacion Rueda Superior Verdejo, Spain, 2007: very strange taste!  overpowering chocolate smell, mixed with smoke, the result being an extremely chocolaty-and-woody flavour.  literally uncomfortable at first taste, but a pleasant aftertaste that coats the mouth in an almost meaty way.
Corbieres Blanc Vielles Vignes, France, 2006: delicious wood-fire smoke smell.  produces a slightly sharp feeling on the tongue, but has a sweetish, thickish taste.  very pleasant at first, but has a hollow aftertaste, as if it can’t live up to itself.  an emptiness about it.
Chateau Berranger, Picpoul de Pinet, Languedoc, France, 2006: extremely drinkable; something the tiniest bit bitter at the end of a sip.  notable especially for its name, “picpoul,” which the frenchman at our table translates literally as, “poke the chicken.”

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There’s a story behind my decision to read Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, but now is not the time to tell it.  Now is the time to say this: it must, must be the lovechild of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Nigel Slater’s Toast–the two books met on a shelf somewhere, had a torrid affair, and spawned a Winterson novel.  (I do realize Slater wrote Toast quite a bit after Oranges, but it’s still a tempting thought).

Moreover, the protagonist’s adoptive mother is a dead ringer for Mrs. Kim, the bible-thumping seventh-day-adventist Korean mom from The Gilmore Girls.  

It may be a bit wrong to publicly betray one’s feelings about a book just halfway through, but I can’t resist.  Every time I start a paragraph I have to remind myself what I’m reading.

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On Reading

The problem with Reading–if we can refer to it as we might a person of particular stature–is that it’s got a split personality.  

On the one hand, we have our bog-standard, supermarket specimens: paperbacks with gaudy covers and gaudier stories, sold next to checkout counters the world over and in alarming quantity at airports and train stations.  We like to frown on these: they aren’t literary.  Often they’re poorly written, if not poorly constructed.  They’re what’s known unflinchingly as “trashy.”
And on the other hand, we have the revered literary specimen: the classics, the Booker prize winners, the inscrutable and the un-understandable.  We have Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie.  We have academics writing in a secret language; and War and Peace, and Swann’s Way.

What’s in between?  Well, not much–we only have two hands, as it were.  For as soon as something finds a home at Tesco, it automatically loses a chance at existing on an intellectual’s bookshelf–and vice versa.  In a Guardian article  today, Stuart Jeffries discusses our inability as a culture to read–that is, to finish books we start, or to start books that we’ll actually like.  He suggests that the problem might be largely due to a sort of collective guilt–we read (or attempt to read) the books we think we should, and when that fails (just because it’s on some obscure list of “the greatest 100 novels ever written” doesn’t actually mean it’s good, or compelling, or the sort of thing that you are interested in) we sink into a depressive reading slump.  
“According to the Office for National Statistics,” writes Jeffries, “a third of Britons read ‘challenging literature’ in order to seem well-read even though they could not follow what the book was about.  It has always been thus: ‘challenging literature’ is an eternal mystery, like women or, if you prefer, like men.”  
And we’re enchanted by the mystery–or the possibility that the mystery holds, anyway.  We’re told that literature is the key to intellectual discovery, that we’ll never be the same after we’ve read Dostoyevsky or Wide Sargasso Sea.  What we’re told less often, sadly, is that we’ll also never be the same after we’ve read Agatha Christie or Harry Potter; what we understand sticks with us.  
What gets left out is this truth: that it’s story we identify with, and language, and nothing else. We will not be changed as people because someone has deemed a particular book Booker-prize worthy, but we will be changed because we find something embedded in it that rings achingly true.
“Challenging literature” is an art form, but not necessarily a good one.  I’m sure that Salman Rushdie has only earned such prestige because everyone is afraid to admit that they’ve read his books and not understood them (or, worse still, not finished them)–I can see a whole slew of academics thinking, “Oh!  this must be brilliant, if even I can’t get through it.  What a genius this man is!”  (I’m doubly convinced of this after hearing him speak at Hay-on-Wye in a mystifyingly packed makeshift theatre.)  The only Rushdie book I have finished happily is the one he wrote directly after The Satanic Verses (which confounded me completely): Haroun and the Sea of Stories.  But it’s essentially a children’s book, dedicated to the author’s son, interpreted by some as his attempt to explain the Fatwah in easy metaphorical terms; and it’s far less lauded for it.
Academics, you see, are a notoriously exclusive people (if you’ve ever tried to read the TLS, you’ll understand this automatically).  Though I suspect there are some out there who earnestly have a passion for their studies and would be perfectly happy to see the whole world fall in love with the same topic, with varying degrees of success, the overwhelming impression is that academics actually like being obscure.  It’s a brand of triumph to be able to to appeal only to a tiny, select group, and a kind of failure to attempt to cast one’s net wider.  
But where’s the point?  If we can’t understand what we read, then we may as well not read at all.  The joy of reading is not to be able to list off the classics we’ve downed (it isn’t a drinking game), but to be able to say (or simply to feel) that we have found something in the writing that
 impacts us, or speaks to us, or that we like, or that, in fact, we dislike, for some other reason than that it bores or baffles us.  If that happens in a Tom Clancy book, that’s great; but there’s also nothing to preclude us from also foraying into the forbidden fields of intellect and finding whatever we damn well please in Joseph Heller.  And at this point, only we can narrow the literary class-gap.

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It’s the summer of the ice cream van.  Maybe I was oblivious last year but the ice cream van wasn’t around half as much as it is now.  All day, every day: the inanity of the song, as it weaves in and out of our neighborhood streets.  I can’t even hum it now; it’s just a constant backdrop.  

“Oh, give it a rest, will you?” we say when we hear the tinkling notes from afar.  We cringe as it comes nearer.  But I don’t know if we really mind.  It means that it’s summertime.  I never see anyone buy ice cream from the van, but maybe, in a weird sort of way, we’re all just comforted by its presence.
It’s been hot here.  Hot enough to hang laundry outside and have it dry alarmingly fast.  While I’m hanging our shirts and trousers and undergarments I notice a cat who has curled up at the far end of the garden, next to the potato patch.  He looks as if he’s guarding the vegetables; he stretches a paw, yawns, settles his head against the warm concrete.  
At midday I open the window upstairs wide and stick my head out of it to get some fresh air.  I like being able to peer down; sometimes, at night, when we hear strange things, we do the same thing.  It’s amazing how much you can see when the street doesn’t think you’re watching.  
I go for a run; I take a circuitous route that leads me to the top of South Park, where I find myself looking down at the spired skyline below.  There’s a little haze hanging in the afternoon air, so that the spikes of Magdalen tower look soft.  On the swing set, a pair of teenagers are pumping their legs furiously.  
One of them, the boy, says, “I’m going to jump!”  The girl giggles coyly, but when she sees he’s serious, she says, “Don’t do it, Will.  It’s too high Will.”  She has very short hair, a sort of 1920’s bob, and a striped t-shirt.
Her voice changes as he prepares to leap.  
“Will NO!  Will, I’m begging you, no!” She says.  She implores him so earnestly I turn to watch; he pumps his legs one last time and propels himself from the seat of the swing.  He is suspended; then he lands in an awkward cat-crouch, off-balance.  He falls to his knees, rolls sideways.  He whoops and begins to laugh very hard.  The girl, who had sounded so desperate, is laughing too.  Her shoulders are shaking with giggles and she ceases to move her legs, just rolling forwards, backwards on the swing.  
A woman walks past talking to a tiny, fluffy white dog.  The boys with the remote-control helicopter at the crest of the hill pin their eyes skyward to watch it hover; perspective makes it seem that it could be real, could be hanging just above the point of an Oxford tower.
I take a lukewarm shower and think of all of the things I need to do.  
I take the laundry inside to the tune of the ice cream van.

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You know that old Coldplay song that goes, “we live in a beautiful world……”?

Don’t we indeed?

(botanic gardens, oxford, summer 2008)

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I think it’s time for me to come clean about something–and I may as well do it publicly, because as many times as I tell myself in private, it never quite seems to sink in.

Here it is: I’m shit with money.

I’m not, like some of the best minds of my generation, mired in student loans, or credit card debt. No. The problem is that it isn’t that simple. I don’t owe anyone money; I have enough stored up to get by, and though I’m in a bubble of unemployed bliss at the moment, I have the capacity to get a job and keep it. I have a university degree and am on my way to another. If you put all that together, it spells someone grounded, someone with a stock of cash in a bank somewhere and a clear sense of how to budget.

At the very least, it spells someone who’s been given a chance at a clean financial slate. And that’s just it: for no good reason at all, I’ve blown my chance. Is it because I’m a girl? I never can resist that cute new dress in the window, or the perfect handbag, or the must-have shoes of the season. I think garments have my name on them (and some of them, as you’ll see from the picture, literally do!). Or is it because I’m young and carefree? I like being able to buy a round of drinks at the pub or a meal out for no good reason. Maybe it’s because the exchange rate is painfully not in my favor, or because I spent three months a year ago living abroad off my savings and nothing else. Maybe it’s because, for whatever reason, I’m more afraid of stinginess than starvation.

Fundamentally, I think it’s because it’s hard to think of myself as poor when I live like I do. I don’t just mean that I feel rich, emotionally–I do, but that isn’t the point. The point is that I have a sleek apple laptop, and a digital camera, and expensive jeans, and the two of us live in a three bedroom, two-storey house with an expanse of garden out back and four fireplaces. We jet off to California for a month and though I cringe at the $1,000 tickets (nearly twice what I paid just six months ago) I pay up anyway–cringing is a very different thing, after all, from not being able.

I sometimes don’t know how to reconcile the financial reality of my life with my life itself: how is all of this possible when we pay our rent late every single month because we always just barely have enough? Once, in a money-induced panic, we looked at moving, but it isn’t significantly cheaper to rent a shabby bedsit, and we came to the conclusion that the problem is us, not where we live.

What frightens me is that there’s a point where it stops being the relative poverty of youth–a glamorous poverty, if there can be such a thing, a state of lacking in which you feel the pressure not as a weight but as an incentive, a driving force–and becomes simple poverty. The possibility that we might actually run out of money completely–no longer cringing, simply unable–is real, and only gets realer with each month, each year, each pound spent. If I know what my life looks like from the outside in, and I know that I love it, how do I preserve it?

I don’t know if it’s possible to feel the grip of seriousness until it’s too late–having never known before what life looks like with an utterly empty bank account, I go on living as if I never will know, and hope that I won’t.

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And I Think I Like How the Day Sounds

I’m feeling more human. Last night we had one of our epic Sunday meals. We’re pinching pennies so it was meatless, but what I find as an ex-vegetarian is that meatless meals feel just as natural as any other kind. The crown jewel was the pudding–boiled pears drizzled in chocolate and chili, which we followed with coffee and calvados, which is nicest if you don’t put too much of the spirit in (I did). It was a warm evening so we ate in the garden.

While we were cooking, we shared a jug of Pimms. I wanted to know what my life looked like from the outside. I went to the far reaches of the garden; I could see the terraced houses of East Oxford just starting to light up, and the potato plants that have begun to droop onto the walkway, and the window to the spare bedroom, and the garden shed that houses a broken bicycle, a bird’s nest, a veritable lace net of cobwebs, a host of dusty tools and cleaning supplies. I went closer so I could see through the window into the kitchen. There was a lot of food, and bottles of wine, and some handpicked lavender in a vase, and four young Englishmen, and an incongruous salt lamp from Poland (it really is made of salt–about twelve people, including me, have licked it to check). So that’s what it looks like, I thought.

Today I take the recycling out. I say hello to my bicycle, which is something I do every day. I make a salad of avocado, mozzarella, and French dressing. I idly rearrange some books, which is what I do when I think I want to clean the house but know deep down I don’t really. I wonder if I want a bath or not. I think I’ll likely walk into town later for a drink, if it isn’t raining, and if it doesn’t take me too long to get dressed (it always does).

So that’s what it looks like.

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