Read this: The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Dinner
by Herman Koch

Happy Monday, friends 🙂 Now that you’ve got some great places to chill out at over lunch this week, you’re going to need a good book to read, too! I heard this book was a pretty good read a while ago, and to start off with, I was a bit disappointed. A few dozen pages in, I almost gave up on it, but before long, I realised I’d been completely drawn in to it; I ended up finishing it in a few days, because half way through, I couldn’t put it down!

Without giving too much away, you’ve for two couples who meet for a dinner, and the story is relayed by one of the guests. While it starts out simply enough, we find out that they in fact have some serious stuff to discuss over dinner. You get the idea from the get go that the dinner probably isn’t going to be the most enjoyable or relaxing of evenings…

“I didn’t feel like doing this at all, I realized again. My aversion to the evening that lay ahead had become almost physical – a slight feel of nausea, clammy hands and the start of a headache somewhere behind my left eye – not quite enough, though, for me to actually become unwell or fall unconscious right there on the spot.”

 

Each section of the book starts with another course of the dinner, and the descriptions of the food by the waiter are well explained…

“‘The crayfish are dressed in a vinaigrette of tarragon and baby green onions,’ said the manager: he was at Serge’s plate now, pointing with his pinkie. ‘And these are chanterelles from Vosges.’ The pinkie vaulted over the crayfish to point out two brown toadstools, cut lengthways.
It was a well-groomed hand, as if established while the manager was uncorking the bottle of Chablis Serge had ordered… For the hand of a stranger, though, I felt as though it was coming too close to our food; it hovered less than an inch above the crayfish, and the pinkie itself came even closer, almost brushing the chanterelles”

 

As the dinner unfolds, course by course, so do the secrets and betrayals. They’re there to discuss an event involving their children, an event that’s sparked national interest and a police investigation. The characters develop quickly with their histories plainly laid out on the table, if you will, but you still feel like you’re really getting to know them and what makes them tick quite well. The story teller jumps back and forth between the dinner as it happens, and past events that relate to the incident that brings them all together on that fateful night; it’s obvious immediately that he’s the sort of character that overthinks things, notices the small details, and reads deeply between the lines – this was one passage that really highlighted that for me, and sums him up pretty well…

“I saw something in his eyes that I hadn’t seen there before: something neutral, or rather, something non-committal, as non-committal as his herringbone suit.”

 

I found that, while I’ve never been in the situation of the characters in the book, a lot of it was very relatable – a lot of the characters in the book are like people most of us know, and it really does make you think about what you would do, what lengths you’d really be willing to go to to protect someone you love… Absolutely fantastic read; do yourself a favour and pick up a copy now, dig in, and enjoy!

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Motivation Monday! Read this: My Fight / Your Fight by Ronda Rousey

My Fight / Your Fight
by Ronda Rousey

Motivation Monday! Because I’ve been sick for almost two weeks and God knows I need some motivation to start my week with!! Last week, while reading My Fight / Your Fight, I posted this image on Instagram; it was surprisingly difficult, and at the same time, therapeutic. I’m no world class MMA fighter, but I won’t be accused of jumping on the bandwagon, because I am a black belt in taekwondo. I wasn’t the best of the best, but I never gave anything less than my best. My years in the sport were the most formative years of my life. Competing in martial arts isn’t something that can be easily understood unless you’ve actually done it yourself – it is so, so different to other sports. Taekwondo was also the first thing I’d ever tried in my life where:
a) I wasn’t compared to my sisters
b) nothing was expected of me, so I wasn’t under any pressure
c) I was part of a group of people who really cared and made me feel like I belonged
d) I didn’t feel like an utter and complete failure

It was a big, big part of my life, and leaving the sport tore a massive hole through me – both literally (with hip surgery to repair torn cartilage) and figuratively (when you’ve spent a decade trying to build some semblance of self confidence, and that one bad egg tears you apart with a few nasty words said to get a laugh at your expense, it truly does rip your soul). One day I hope to be able to write honestly about my taekwondo life – what brought me to it, what kept me going, what my experiences truly were, both mentally and physically,  but I’m not ready for that now. Let me say instead that if a role model like Ronda Rousey had been around for me 10 years ago, if someone had written a book this raw and real when I was still training and competing, things may have turned out differently for me. Not just in the sport, but in my entire life.

As a creature with so little self-confidence a few mean words from a pre-schooler would probably reduce me to tears, I was utterly and completely captivated by this book, written by one hell of a woman, who managed to fight every limitation and assumption against her with the strong belief she had in herself. The hard times in her life only served to toughen her, living proof of the good old “whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” cliche. And it’s not just about the sport; it’s about life.

If you don’t know who Ronda Rousey is, you’ve obviously been cozily tucked away under your rock for quite some time now . The Olympic judo medalist and reigning UFC bantamweight champion has taken the world by storm, parlaying her success in the MMA into an acting career and now, her book My Fight / Your Fight. I was pretty keen to get my paws on it, given the serious lack of genuine female martial artists with something to say, and I was not disappointed – I flew through the book! So what’s it about?

Marked by her signature charm, barbed wit, and undeniable power, Rousey’s account of the toughest fights of her life—in and outside the Octagon—reveals the painful loss of her father when she was eight years old, the intensity of her judo training, her battles with love, her meteoric rise to fame, the secret behind her undefeated UFC record, and what it takes to become the toughest woman on Earth. Rousey shares hard-won lessons on how to be the best at what you do, including how to find fulfillment in the sacrifices, how to turn limitations into opportunities, and how to be the best on your worst day.

What that translates to is a book full of mini chapters, each headed with a little bit of advice as applicable to the real world as in competitive fighting. Some of my favourites, some of the things I wish I’d heard from a fellow female martial artist when I was younger, included:

– Never underestimate an opponent.

– Do not accept less than what you’re capable of.

– Turn limitations into opportunities: use setbacks to develop in another area you wouldn’t otherwise addressed.

– Find fulfillment in the sacrifices: most people focus on the wrong thing; they focus on the result, not the process. The process is the sacrifice; it is all the hard parts – learn to enjoy them, or at least embrace them.

– You have to be the best on your worst days: you have to win so clearly that they have no choice but to declare you the winner.

– No one has the right to beat you: you both start from zero. Where you take it from there is up to you.

– Don’t rely on others to make your decisions.

– Everything is as easy as making a decision and then acting on it.

– This is my situation, but this isn’t my life: terrible situations don’t last forever.

– Nothing will ever be perfect: make the present moment the perfect moment.

– The only power people have over you is the power you give them: once you start caring about people’s opinions of you, you give up control.

 

Honestly, I loved this book. It’s raw and open and honest. It’s not polished up to be glamorous, not even in the “oh look how hard things were and how amazing I am now!” kind of way you usually read. And don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s only worth a read if you’re a female martial artist. This book is for everyone who’s ever had to put in a fight for something that really meant something to them. It’s for everyone who’s ever lost someone important. For everyone who’s been in a shitty relationship. For everyone who’s been told they couldn’t, shouldn’t, or that their ideas are ridiculous. It’s for the guys and girls who’ve been torn down and fought to get back up. For the people who want something better for themselves, even if they don’t know what that is yet or how to get it. It’s for every single person out there who doesn’t realise that the big chance they need to change their lives isn’t going to be magically bestowed upon them – that the chance is already ready to be taken if they can just be brave enough. Because you shouldn’t ever let anyone force you to take a step back.  Get a copy, as soon as you possibly can, and re-examine the excuses you’re making for yourself not to live the life you really want.

Read this: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea
by Jules Verne

It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago I read Around The World in 80 Days, another Jules Verne classic, and one of the original “travel” books. I really loved that book because while I was reading it, I was totally wrapped up in it – it was all-consuming in the greatest possible way, completely took me away from my world for a while. I picked up a copy of another one of his very well known classics, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea a couple of months ago, and finally got around to reading it in August. Much like Around The World, it’s a complete whirlwind adventure, fantasy and at the same time, kinda believably plausible; Verne was so, so far ahead of his time writing about crazy submarines! And not only ahead of his time, but his tale has stood the test of time – anyone heard of “The Nautilus” or “Captain Nemo”? That’s where they’re from. Hell, Nemo’s submarine even has a home in Disneyland – that’s when you know you’ve really made it!

But anyway, the book. Basically, we’ve got Captain Nemo and his submarine, The Nautilus. You’ve got the Frenchman Monsieur Arronax, his faithful man-servant Conseil, and the Canadian Ned Land who somehow get caught up in Nemo’s world, and an adventure that takes place below, in and under the sea. Douglas Hill introduces this version (published in 1969), and when I finished reading it, I found that I vividly remembered this part of his introduction which I think describes it better than I can:

“With this approach, the full mind-expanding effect of his work can be felt. We come away from Verne with our imaginations exercised – not our social consciences or our skills at literary appreciation. And certainly not our tendencies towards vague and dreamy flights of fancy. Verne’s books in most cases cannot accurately be called fantasies. He had built a direct line to our rational imagination, and he puts it to work in relation to the clear-cut technological world around us. It is an unfamiliar, and therefore often unforgettable, form of exercise for readers who are not addicts of science fiction. 
Verne’s ability to set up this line to our imagination, and to keep it operable long after the books have been read, grows out of the immense enthusiasm with which he relates his stories… And it is contagious: we are carried away, too…”

The story is relayed by M. Arronax after said events have unfolded, and Captain Nemo is painted as quite an odd and mysterious character. He’s incredibly defensive about his decision to leave “earth” as we know it and live out his days in/around/on the waters of the sea. Why? We never really, definitively find out… but he is very passionate about it, as you can well tell from the exchange below that he has with M. Arronax…

“You like the sea, Captain?”

“I love it! The sea is everything… In it is supreme tranquility. The sea does not belong to despots. Upon its surface men can still exercise u just laws, fight, tear one another to pieces, and be carried away with terrestrial horrors… But at thirty feet below its level, their reign ceases, their influence is quenched, and their power disappears. Ah! sir, live – live in the bosom of the waters! There is only independence! There I recognize no masters! There I am free!”

Without giving it all away, it’s another consuming read; if you enjoy travel and adventure books for their ability to help you take a break from the real world, like I do, this will more than fill that desire. It’s beautifully descriptive and vivid, an easy read, entertaining, and full of possibility. Pick up a copy here and enjoy 🙂

 

New York week! Read this: Inside The Apple by Michelle & James Nevius

Inside The Apple
by Michelle & James Nevius

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So, I was reading the last few chapters of this book on the train last week, reminiscing about the great time I had in New York back in January, and I had a thought… I’ll come back to the book in a moment, but first let me introduce you to what I’m dubbing “New York week” on the blog this week! It’s an enormous city, with an absolutely fascinating history, and I learnt that on this Sunday, July 26th, it’ll be 227 years to the day since New York City officially became the 11th US State. So in celebration, I’m turning my blog New York themed for the week, to share some of my favourite things and places and foods and what not from my visit to one of the world’s greatest cities 🙂 And the best way to start this week off, I think, is with this brilliant book.

Reading Inside The Apple (which I bought at the absolutely amazing NYC book shop Idlewild Books) kept bringing me back to a quote I remember vividly from reading Stephen Brook’s New York Days, New York Nights:

“New York is no place for antiquarians. There are no ruins, and never will be, in New York City. They would be too costly. New York is exactingly different because it insists you live precisely in the present, with all your capacities stretched to the limit. It is a good city to leave, for in your absence it will continue to live and breathe and grow, and, in its altered state, like a body in which most of the cells have been replaced, it will be ready for you when, as you surely will, you return.”

The book is both a history lesson and street guide of the city; Michelle and James take you through the history of the city, in chronological order, but with a twist – they relate the historical events that shaped the city back to landmarks of the city. Some are still there, but most are gone – as Stephen Brook said, there are no ruins and never will be!

I learnt SO much from reading this book about the city, and it was so cool to be reading the little chapters and recognising street names that I walked down and places that I saw! There was a lot I didn’t realise, like how the Empire State Building was originally meant to have zeppelins (like blimps) anchored to the top of it, like a sky scrapper blimp airport, and that the stoops that allow entrance up and into most residences were actually to hide the servants’ entrances underneath. The book also ends with some great walking tours you can take yourself on through the city, to see some of the things you’ve just read about.

If you live in NYC and want to know a little more about your city (I really wish there was something like this written about Melbourne!!), if you’ve visited like me and want to know a little more about the cool stuff you saw, if you’ve never been before but are still kinda interested in the history of this great city, pick up a copy here and enjoy!

Escape

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I took this photo almost two years ago now, when we moved into our new home. I cannot believe it’s actually been almost two years… wow…

Anyway, we were unpacking, and I’d just laid out Marley’s favourite blanket that I knitted him a few years ago on the new couches. I opened the blinds so he could watch the happenings on his new street while we unpacked our lives and set them up again. Oh man, I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to have been unpacking… I mean, moving is a real bitch, and we moved 4 times in 5 years, so I was really starting to hate it. This move was huge for us – a few years ago, we bought a nice big block of land, around a third of an acre, and built a beautiful big 4 bedroom, 2 bathroom home on it. We were there for 3 years, and it never felt like home. What the hell did two people and a midget beaglier need that much room for?? We’d been there a few months (we moved in at Christmas time, and went camping at Easter the following year when it all came out) when we realised how much we’d been fighting lately. Sitting by our campsite it all kinda came out that we both hated this lovely new home of ours, we hated the bigger than necessary mortgage, and we hated that we were stuck paying off a house we hated living in. We wanted to travel instead, and we were stuck there instead, and we both realised we’d made a huge mistake, which manifested itself in us fighting about everything from what to cook for dinner to what to watch on TV to what newspaper to buy. This photo was taken like 30 minutes after that revelation, way back in 2011…

Fast forward a few years, and we were in a home, not just a house. A cutesy little two story townhouse, with a man cave for husband and a book nook for me and a little yard/park a few streets away for Marley. So there we were, unpacking, and I noticed this little dude looking out the window. I felt like the want and need and yearning for escape were written all over his beautiful little face. And I got it.

 

Anyway, I remembered this photo of Marley over this weekend when I recognised that same feeling in myself that I thought I saw in him. That wanting to escape, to run across the road, and run down the street to the park, and just keep running to… I dunno, freedom I guess. The last few months have been tough; maybe it’s the fact that I’ve finally acknowledged how much depression and anxiety have affected my life, what horrible consequences the disordered eating has had, how hard it is to try to take these illnesses seriously and “recover” while trying to keep my shit together and keep up the “I’m fine!” act in front of everyone, which means that no one else takes what’s wrong with me seriously… I’ve been living such a wonderful life on paper for so long, with an amazing husband, a surprisingly supportive family, a job I enjoy, a beautiful house, a cutie pie dog, a full passport, all that jazz, and yet my soul aches more and more every day. I think the problem is that I’m being encouraged to stop and think and feel my feelings instead of dealing with them in my typically self-destructive ways, which is not easy. Does anyone realise how hard it really is to actually feel your feelings?! Damn…

 

I’m trying to take a multifaceted approach to this whole dis-ease that’s in my life right now, including a 12 week meal plan based on hitting food group targets instead of counting calories, daily exercise including strength training, the C25K run training program and yoga, daily meditation and reflection time. I should also be practising active daily “self-love” and trying to build some sort of confidence, but honestly, I’ve hated so much about myself for so long that I don’t even know where to start. Any tips from anyone who’s been through this kinda thing?!

The other big part in all of this is trying to work out what makes me happy and keeps me going. What am I living for? What am I working for? What do I love? I love to travel. I love to learn. I love to see new things and experience new cultures and throw myself into new places. Feelings of fernweh and wanderlust are becoming stronger and stronger every day. And if I’m meant to be finding what makes me happy, I think that’s where I’m going to find my answers. Much like Marley, I need to escape and run free every now and then. Unfortunately I’m not a rich kid or a trust fund baby, so a life of constant travel is out of the question (unless anyone wants to pay me to work Bourdain style? I love to travel and eat and write, and will gladly do that for a paid living if anyone wants me!), but I can still find ways to escape when I’m not giving my passport a workout. Going for a run with my favourite music blasting through my head phones. A weekend road trip on my own. Time on my yoga mat. A pot of good tea and a home made biscuit while reading my favourite blogs. Writing. Writing helps a lot. Reading helps the most. My baby sister just gave me the most fabulous gift on Sunday night, too, something I’ll probably read every day now. Actually, I will make it a point to read this every day from now on. She wrote in the front of it to me, “Be strong now, because things will get better. It might be stormy now, but it can’t rain forever.” I can’t believe I haven’t read this book since things really started going down hill – it is the exact life advice and daily reminder that I need, it was like this book was written directly to and for me…. In the words of the great Dr Seuss:

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

What I’m coming to see is that we all have our obligations, we have to work to pay the bills, we all have to do what we have to do. But our obligations are not who we are. Our dreams are who we are. And we feel the need to escape so desperately when we’re not honouring those dreams; without taking time to escape the world of our obligations and indulge in our happiness, we fall apart. I know that if I stop giving a crap about what everyone else thinks, what everyone else expects, and just do what makes me happy, I can’t possibly be depressed or anxious. If we live authentically, if all we aim to be is the best possible versions of ourselves instead of what we think the world wants or expects us to be, what could we want to escape? How can we possibly be miserable failures? We only fail when we’re trying to be someone we’re not – we’re setting ourselves up to fail by comparing and trying to compete. I know that I just need to embrace who I am and be the best version of that. Then instead of wanting to “escape” to something “better,” I’ll be living a life I love, doing the things I love, surrounded by people I love, and I won’t feel the need to escape at all. It sounds so simple…

Read this: A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain

A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines
by Anthony Bourdain

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I’m a big Bourdain fan. I know he has his critics, as most outspoken, overly confident Americans do, but I’m a fan. I’ve taken his advice on books, shopping and eateries, and am yet to have been let down. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his first book, Kitchen Confidential, a while ago now, and decided a few weeks ago to get his next one, A Cook’s Tour. Even though he wrote it more than a decade ago, it’s still damn good reading (particularly when you find yourself reading it in his condescending yet dulcet tone).

So on the back of his unexpectedly wildly successful first book which looked into the secret life of the kitchen, he approached his editor with a new idea (anything to avoid getting back into the kitchen, he was enjoying the life of a successful author): “‘How about this?’ I suggested to my editor. ‘I travel around the world, doing whatever I want. I stay in fine hotels and I stay in hovels. I eat scary, exotic, wonderful food, doing cool stuff like I’ve seen in movies, and looking for the perfect meal. How’s that sound?’

Bloody fantastic. Sign me up.

“Of course, I knew already that the best meal in the world, the perfect meal, is very rarely the most sophisticated or expensive one. I knew how important factors other than technique or rare ingredients can be in the real business of making magic happen at a dinner table. Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.”

The book follows Bourdain and his crew around the world, on this hunt; from Portugal to France, Vietnam, Russia and Morocco, Tokyo, Cambodia and more, we read along as he travels and eats his way around the world. It was also nice to read early on that what you see in his shows, like No Reservations, is far from the reality of how it all really went down behind the scenes; it makes the reading of this book far more enjoyable.

 

At the end of the almost 300 page adventure, he ends with this: “The whole concept of the ‘perfect meal’ is ludicrous. ‘Perfect,’ like ‘happy,’ tends to sneak up on you. Once you find it – like Thomas Keller says – it’s gone. It’s a fleeting thing, ‘perfect,’ and, if you’re anything like me, it’s often better in retrospect.”

That really summed it up perfectly for me. Not just the perfect meal, but the perfect travel moment, the perfect adventure, the perfect relationship moment, the perfect day…. Whatever it is, perfect isn’t concrete, nor is it the same for everyone. Perfect is objective, it’s dynamic, it’s in the moment. What this man gets to do for a living is, ironically, my version of perfect; to have the opportunity to travel the world, meeting locals and experiencing their ways of life through their foods and the traditions and customs surrounding them, to eat with new friends and become a part of their stories as they become a part of yours. To learn, to live out of a suitcase, to be constantly moving, to live so fluidly and freely. That’s my perfection. And it was truly a pleasure to be able to zone out of my life for a while and live that life vicariously through those pages. Grab a copy for yourself here and enjoy!

Read this: Around The World In 80 Days by Jules Verne

Around The World In Eighty Days
by Jules Verne

Happy Friday! Congratulations on making it (almost) through another week, particularly if, like me, you’ve been in your office chicken coop instead of being out exploring the world, like you’d prefer to do. So on your lunch break today, treat yo self; go spend a few dollars on a new book and live vicariously through a character who’s doing exactly what we all want to do – getting up, leaving regular life behind for a few months, and seeing the world.
I absolutely love this book; I’ve read it twice this year already! The premise of the story is quite simple: Phileas Fogg, an upstanding but eccentric English gentlemen makes a bet with his mates to the tune of, today, what is around £1.6 million (or just over AUD$3 million!) that he can travel around the world in exactly 80 days. He sets off with his recently employed manservant, a Frenchman named Passepartout, and a strict timetable which proves the feat is theoretically possible. He attempts, in earnest, to adhere to this timetable, which is challenged and interrupted at every opportunity, by, among other situations, a police officer who believes he is responsible for a bank robbery, making this one of the classic adventure novels of all time despite being written in the late 1800s.
 
It’s a pretty light, quick, easy read, but it’s one of those rare novels that truly take you away from your world for the time you spend reading it and immerse you in this adventure or Mr Fogg and his entourage. If you’ve got a case of wanderlust, if you’re having a crappy day and need to escape temporarily, if you need to experience the world of travel before the simplicity of jumping on a plane to take you from A to B in a few hours, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy, pour yourself a proper English cup of tea, and take the whirlwind tour with Mr Fogg  : )