...for a few days and won’t have regular Net access, so little or no blogging for some time. Haven’t been able to do much reading lately and almost no movie-watching (had been hoping to catch Firaaq, Baraah Anna, Revolutionary Road and Milk), but here’s some of what I have got through:
- Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – the first book in the posthumously published Millennium trilogy of crime novels. Extremely well-plotted, character-driven thriller about a journalist in disgrace, now hired to investigate the disappearance and possible murder of a young girl decades earlier. Very atmospheric too - the Scandinavian chill (and the gloom that it causes) is a character in its own right. A bit too long though. More on this soon.
- Jay Rayner’s The Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner – the award-winning food critic sets off on a worldwide hunt for “the ultimate meal”, determined to show that the world’s great chefs can preserve their individuality and creativity even in the face of homogenizing globalisation (and that the worldwide food revolution isn’t merely about providing safe consistency to the ultra-rich). He eats his way through Las Vegas, Moscow, Dubai, Tokyo, London and New York, before ending up in – where else? – Paris, where he conducts a heroic weeklong eat-a-thon at seven of the world’s fanciest restaurants. (You’re thinking you want his job, but the man assures us he was seriously jaded by the end of the adventure.)
The thing to accept first up about a book like this, written by someone who eats for a living (and who has become famous for doing this), is that it can’t be of much practical use to those of us who are serious foodies in a non-professional capacity. (To Rayner’s credit, he acknowledges the advantages and constraints of his job, both of which distance him from the ordinary diner: having access to important contacts in every city he travels to; eating in the presence of a high-profile chef or restaurateur who’s scrutinizing his every move; having to man up for a 12-course meal even when he isn’t feeling very hungry or enthusiastic.) However, this book does provide a solid insider’s view of the fine-dining world. There are many anecdotes about culinary history, like the one about the Moscow restaurant that discontinued its Chinese cuisine after the souring of Sino-Soviet relations but allowed diners to eat Russian sausages with chopsticks. Rayner also discusses the morality of eating obscenely expensive food while millions of people around the world are starving, explains why this doesn’t prick his conscience and expresses strong views on such subjects as “authenticity” being prioritized over quality (“Dishes lauded for their authenticity are either created out of necessity – would I>ouzi laban have been prepared with dried yoghurt if fresh yoghurt had been manageable in the desert climate? – or they those eaten by poor people, and most poor people’s food is not pleasant.”)
On balance, I empathised more with his wife Pat, who halfhearted accompanies him to fancy restaurants that are more about the “experience” (and the money you have to pay for it) than the food. “The first time you try high-end food it’s astounding, but after that you are just grading your experiences against themselves,” says this sagacious woman at one point. I wouldn’t mind reading a notepad filled with her perspectives on the perfect meal.
- Have also been re-reading Watchmen (earlier post here) in anticipation of the movie, which I don’t have very high hopes for.
- Also, finally got around to watching Nina Paley’s delightful Sita Sings the Blues, a jazzed-up animated version of the Ramayana as seen through the eyes of Sita (whose eventual abandonment by Rama is contrasted with Paley’s own estrangement from her husband). After reading some angry blog comments about how the beloved Indian epic had been shallowly appropriated by a foreigner, I was unprepared for how closely this film sticks to the mainstream version of the Ramayana. You have to be hopelessly literalist or thin-skinned to be offended by it. I especially enjoyed the three chatty narrators, portrayed as Indonesian shadow puppets, a reminder that a tradition of Ramayana storytelling that’s completely different from the Indian one exists in that country (and others such as Thailand). The puppets relate the story in casual dialogue (“So Kaikeyi, she asked Dasharath to send Rama away for 14 years, thinking that’s a pretty long time – if you go away for 14 years, you’re pretty much out of sight, out of mind, right?”), fumbling over details, stopping to correct each other.
The use of mixed media, including Annette Hanshaw songs from the 1920s, helps free the epic from a narrow cultural context, which is always a good thing. (Related post here.) I also loved Paley’s tribute to the Ramanand Sagar TV show, the “Sagar zoom” in the scene where Sita rebuffs Ravana's advances, and the camera keeps zooming in on him dramatically.
(While on Indonesian Java puppets, check out the last sentence of this Wikipedia entry on Kripacharya: “The picture above is a puppet form of Kripacharya and does not resemble the actual character.”)
Downloads and other online-viewing options for Sita Sings the Blues available here. I saw it on Youtube.
Until next week, or later...