Sunday, September 25, 2011

Book review: Tender Is The Night

Tender Is The Night was F. Scott Fitzgerald's final completed novel (only the unfinished The Last Tycoon remains), and in some ways that this is the work of an older author is apparent.  Compared to the earlier novels - and most of his stories - Tender Is The Night seems like a more mature novel: the characters are a little older, there's a more-obvious attempt to take them out of the autobiographical surrounds of his earliest work, and only The Beautiful And Damned is longer.

Tender Is The Night centres on the Divers, Dick & Nicole.  At the start of the novel they are a relatively recently married young couple holidaying in Europe (unlike any of his other novels, almost none of Tender Is The Night occurs in America). They are the centre of a social circle there, including our initial POV character, Rosemary, a young actress.  One of the differences between Tender Is The Night and most other Fitzgerald novels is that the perspective from which we get the story changes regularly - mostly it's from Dick's, but other views are also given to fill in both story and character details. After the initial section, following the Divers and their friends, lovers and other acquaintances, we jump back in time to the beginning of their relationship, before moving to later (around five years after the first section) as their marriage falls apart.

While The Great Gatsby obviously remains Fitzgerald's most famous novel, I know that some hold Tender Is The Night in higher esteem.  Yet for me it simply didn't hang together as well as his earlier novels.  Certainly more mature, and perhaps an insight into the sort of books Fitzgerald would have written had he lived & written for a longer time (although The Last Tycoon is clearly going to be a better indication of that), but Tender Is The Night also seems lifeless compared to anything up to & including Gatsby.  The shifting timeframes and perspectives help keep things interesting, and of course he remains a beautiful writer, but Tender Is The Night never grabbed me in the way that his other books have.  Perhaps this is as much my fault as his - and I will definitely revisit it in the future to see if my opinion shifts - but I found less to love in this polished, mature work than I did in his somewhat-flawed first books.  Part of the problem is Dick, for whom I never got much of a feel.  Perhaps less-obviously autobiographical than some of this other main characters, possibly Fitzgerald never quite figured him out either.  There are still some wonderful scenes, and the final section is quite effective, but Tender Is The Night was a bit of a disappointment for me considering Fitzgerald's tremendous talents.

Guest tea review: Glenbog Fine Teas' Stockholm

A special guest review by my sister Karla!  (This tea is a similar blend to the Glogg I reviewed recently.)

Tea flavour: Stockholm
Tea type: Leaf
Drunk: Black, no sugar
Blurb: "
black tea with orange peel, safflower, calendula, vanilla pieces, apricot and rose petals".

The dried bouquet is delicate, gently fruity, with a lingering floral motif.

Once brewed, the orange and apricot become more dominant in the aroma, and I'm probably smelling those safflowers and calendula as well but just don't know it.

The vanilla becomes evident upon drinking, and the rose petals also make their presence felt. Smooth and gentle on the palate, with fruit and floral flavours perfectly united. Overall, a very pleasant tea-drinking experience: soft and delicate, with a mild citrus overtone. Lovely over strawberries and yoghurt on a lazy Sunday morning, but would also be well-paired with a light sponge cake at afternoon tea.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Book review: Woman's World

Norma and Roy are sister & brother in their twenties who live with their mother in London.  It appears to be the early 1960s, although this is never explicitly stated. Roy has just started a new job as a delivery driver for a local laundry company. Norma is obsessed with looking her best & being a glamorous modern woman. Their mother, Mary, doesn't seem to like Norma very much, but is always glad to see Roy.

For most of the first couple of hundred pages, Woman's World is dedicated to setting up its characters and the world they occupy. The plot doesn't really kick in until about halfway through the book, but the first part of the book is nonetheless ripe with mysteries: why does Mary distrust Norma? As the book begins, Roy has just returned from being away for a while - where had he been? What lies beneath Norma's superficial-seeming character? What is the significance of Norma's 'accident' in the past that gets mentioned a few times?

Woman's World has an intriguingly noir-ish setup. Rawls tempts the reader with these puzzles before bringing it all into sharper focus with the mid-book plot twists. I don't intend to say anything about those, in part because my reading of Woman's World was somewhat spoiled by having read an indiscreet review which gave away a major plot point without acknowledging that it was about to do so.

What is worth mentioning, however, is the unique and fascinating way in which Woman's World was written: Rawls wrote the basic story in rough draft form, and then pieced all his words together by cutting up old women's magazines. Every single word, punctuation mark, page or chapter number comes from an actual women's magazine - articles, stories, advertisements: according to the author's postscript it took five years to assemble. While this is an interesting gimmick, it's not only a gimmick: since Norma narrates the story (even the bits at which Roy but not she is present), we begin to understand her addiction to these magazines and devotion to presenting herself as the sort of woman 1960s magazines idealised.  For the reader, it is often a subtle commentary on these standards, as Norma's narration occasionally veers off into endorsements of cleaning products or clothing styles.  It also acts to underline the contrived nature of Norma's character as she tries to present it to the reader. As the book progresses, we get a better idea of why she might use such a method to tell her story.

As I said, I'm not going to reveal too much more of the plot or revelations throughout Woman's World. Yet I give it a strong endorsement, since it manages to succeed on two levels: on a mechanical level, it's an intriguing way of writing a book, and yet the story & characters are interesting enough that the form serves in conjunction with the content, rather than distracting from it or covering up a shortage of actual ideas. Woman's World is well worth your time and should attract an admiring audience.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Tea review: Glenbog Fine Teas' Glogg

Tea flavour: Glogg
Tea type: Leaf
Drunk: Black, no sugar
Blurb: "A warming Scandinavian blend of black tea with cinnamon, ginger, cloves, orange peel and almond pieces".

 My apologies for the long wait between tea reviews here on Joel's Blog #1.  On the positive side, a couple of weeks ago I discovered a new tea vendor, who conveniently enough sells his wares just down the road (albeit only on Sundays), so I've got a few new types to review... not to mention the prospect of more types to come...

Anyway, Glogg is a delicious smelling tea - a product of the variety of spices and flavours it contains. The picture to the right is not the exact same one I have (different brand), but the appearance is very similar - mixed in with the black tea leaves are big chunks of almond, orange peel and cloves. Smelling it in its dry form reveals a strong cinnamon aroma, with the cloves also noticeable.

Glogg is a very smooth tea - even an extended infusing period (I left mine for over five minutes) does not turn the cup bitter or sharp.  Not surprisingly, the smell of the brewed cup is significantly weaker than the dry tea, but brewing brings out the ginger aromas along with the cinnamon.

Cinnamon is probably the dominant flavour other than the tea leaves themselves. The cloves are not particularly evident, flavour-wise (probably just as well, most people would think), but the orange peel does add a touch of citrus, and of course works well with the subtle ginger flavours.

In fact, the combination of flavours works well as a whole. The list of spices might look like a mash of too many things, but the overall tea is actually quite low-key. Glogg is not weak, but it is a finely balanced flavoured tea - unlike some flavoured teas, its aroma and taste both are pleasant without hitting you over the head. I recommend Glogg to those who would like a black tea that's a little different but quite delicious.