Thursday, June 30, 2011

Tea review: Twinings Russian Caravan

Tea flavour: Russian Caravan
Tea type: Standard teabag
Drunk: Black, no sugar
Blurb: "A fragrant blend of Keemun and other fine China teas, producing a delicate nutty flavour".

So, I thought it might be fun to expand the world of Joel's Blog #1, featuring regular reviews of different sorts of tea in addition to my book reviews & other such junk. I can't remember why I thought this might be a good idea, but here we are. As a dedicated tea drinker*, and appreciator of many different types of tea, I'll try to cover a range - but must admit that I have a strong bias towards black teas, so you won't see too many green/herbal teas here. (At present, I have seven varieties of tea at home, with an additional one in the office, so those will provide a start, and by the time I get through those, I'll have picked up some more to review.)

Leading off is the somewhat-polarising Russian Caravan tea, here represented by the Twinings teabag version (they also do a leaf-tea pack). I first tried Russian Caravan back in 2004, when the parents of my then-girlfriend were given a sampler box of different tea varieties, and found that nobody wanted the Russian Caravan. So I decided to try it. It made something of an impression, although I don't think I drank it again until several years later at High Tea at the (Brisbane) Stamford, when I somewhat foolishly ordered a whole pot of it (in fairness: when they serve all-you-can-drink tea, you don't stick with the thing you've got at home). The rest of my table - none of whom were tea-drinkers - found the aroma distinctly disgusting (an opinion they choose not to keep to themselves). One of my tablemates, who has since become my wife, subsequently refused to be present while Russian Caravan tea was made or consumed, and only came around after I introduced her to Lapsang Souchong, a tea so, um, noticeable in its aroma (& taste, for that matter) that even through several layers of packaging it can make dogs weep and train tracks buckle. Next to that, Russian Caravan smells like slightly insipid water.

Its most prominent flavour is actually a smoky taste and smell - in that sense, quite neatly capturing the world of the long journeys by which the tea originally made its way from Asia to Russia (hence the name). It has a taste & smell almost of Australian billy tea, tea made over an open fire while camping. The Twinings packet suggests drinking it with milk or lemon, but - as usual for me - I prefer it black. That way the full flavour is allowed out, and despite the distinctive aroma, Russian Caravan is actually not a overly flavoured tea. Actually, it's quite a smooth flavour, quite drinkable, even though I wouldn't choose to drink it every day for the rest of my life.

Very possibly, the chief asset of Russian Caravan tea is that it is almost peerless among teas in evoking the world from which it comes. I don't know how it's possible for a tea to be the beverage equivalent of a camel & caravan trip from Asia to deliver tea to the Russian aristocracy of the 19th century, but somehow it is. If all teas were as successful in that aim as Russian Caravan is, the world would be a better place...

* Less-kind descriptions have also been used.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Book review: The Great Gatsby

As I noted back when I began this trip through the fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby was the only one of his novels I had previously read. And thus, it's the only one for whom this read was a re-read. Since it's also Fitzgerald's best-known novel, I'll keep my plot-recounting even slimmer than usual, and focus instead on some thoughts I had about The Great Gatsby.
Unlike either This Side of Paradise or The Beautiful & Damned, The Great Gatsby is told in the first person, and this removes the slightly distant feel of the two earlier novels. Yet Nick Carraway is still something of a cipher - his character is not the central one of the book (or, at least, of the plot of the book), and even his relationships are relatively insignificant. His romantic relationship with Jordan Baker is never all that important - either to Nick, I suspect, or to us. And even his relationship with Jay Gatsby is oddly unimportant - I had remembered their friendship as being a focus of the book, but it's kept in the background, almost unnoticed - it doesn't seem to matter all that much to Gatsby, and doesn't really change Nick all that much either.

In fact, one of the notable things about The Great Gatsby as a novel is how short it is. In the edition I read, under 200 pages. And Jay Gatsby, although discussed earlier, doesn't appear until page 50. Somehow this seems wrong - when you think of the ideal of The Great American Novel, the sort of thing that comes to mind is something big, sprawling, vastly populated. Most of the other contenders for that (entirely arbitrary, subjective, frustrating) title do fall more or less into that category. Yet Gatsby is short, has only a handful of significant characters, takes place over a short period and is chiefly marked by containing a plot which serves much the same role as it does in Fitzgerald's other novels: as a frame for him to hang some characters and moods. There is a plot, of course, but it's not really Gatsby's selling point.

Instead, as always with Fitzgerald, we get characters and scenes painted with incredible vividness. Jordan Baker, for instance, is pegged in our minds the whole time: we know from the first time Nick meets her that there's something slightly dubious about her, and never quite shake the impression that a long-term relationship between her & Nick is neither plausible nor advisable. Yet we are never hit over the head with this - it's just something Fitzgerald sneaks into our consciousness. And, indeed, when she & Nick break up (er, spoiler!), it makes very little difference to the story or the characters. This is, again, Fitzgerald's slight coolness towards his characters. Other authors would have made a much bigger deal of both this relationship and its end, yet in doing so would have derailed the book, not to mention changed the character of Nick so much as to completely alter everything else. Nick Carraway is one of fiction's most passive narrators: skimming past his own life, providing only enough detail so we can understand what he wants to tell us about. Fitzgerald as author and Nick as narrator also make the interesting structural choice to let us know about Gatsby's past earlier in the book than Nick knows it in the story - clearly saying, 'people in this story are interested in this background. you shouldn't be, or at least no more than I want you to be'.

In the end, the theme here is pretty straightforward, if no less profound for that. We can't escape the past. As the famous final lines have it:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Or, as D'Angelo Barksdale would say:

The past is always with us. Where we come from, what we go through, how we go through it: all that shit matters.

And that is why people still read The Great Gatsby, and still consider it one of the greatest American (or anywhere) novels of the 20th century.