Spring/Summer Reads

As the months are slowly turning towards summer the need to relax and enjoy the seasons becomes greater. If you’ve found yourself with no plans then there’s no better time to step outside and lounge away an afternoon reading. Even if you’ve not purchased a get away you can settle yourself on the grass and be taken to a far away place in the pages of these books.

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Sometimes books are written too late. Normal People is the novel I needed when I was sixteen and will now be the unwanted gift I give to all young adults. The story follows Marianne and Connell in Northern Ireland as they journey out of high school adolescence into university and subsequent adulthood. Rooney depicts these years with the quick pace, freedom of language and emotional intensity they deserve. It’s a must read for any age, even ease to get hold of after the recent paperback release.

 

Twelve Rules for Life by Jordan B Peterson

As the sun gets hotter you become more motivated to become a better person, stride outside and achieve your goals. Peterson shows you how develop as an individual through a combination of psychological, scientific, theological and personal examples. The journey the book provides is sometimes difficult to follow.  As a reader I found myself confronting some of my short comings and considering the negative traits I ignore. But by the twelfth lesson there’s a feeling of motivation and an urge to seize life a little harder. Overall, Peterson has presented the world with a particularly challenging book that will leave your reflection slightly altered.

 

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

I first came across Umberto Eco in a literary criticism lecture and had no idea he was a novelist until several years later. His role as an academic initially put me off reading his creative work. I’d developed a prejudice that his fiction would just be a vessel to demonstrate his critical thought, But after reading The Name of the Rose and The Prague Cemetery my opinion was quickly altered.

Prague Cemetery takes place throughout Italy in France from around the mid eighteenth century until the early twentieth. Through a combination of real history and conspiracy, Eco creates a complex and intriguing mystery novel. The most shocking part of the story is despite the Freemasonry, Illuminati, political upheavals, that all the characters (excluding the protagonist) were real and apparently committed the events within the pages. Eco’s vast historical understanding has truly enriched the book, transforming what could have been a seminar into one of my favourite books of the year.

 

Selected Poems by Wendy Cope

The title selected poems is a little misleading. Whilst there are compilations of Cope’s work there are three collections I’d recommend: Serious Concerns; Family Values; and Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis. Each of these books are a great introduction to the poet’s witty and accessible style.  With humour and tear wrenching emotion Cope explores the whole range of the human experience from Love and Loss to buses and motorway service stations. After a few books she’s quickly becoming one of my favourite poets and a perfect way to spend an hour, reclining in the summer sunshine.

 

 

Couch to 5K: The easiest way to start running

If you’re anything like me then running alone is a little nerve racking. Should you muster the energy to step outside you’re faced with the embarrassment in sweating past strangers as you try to shift your holiday weight. And when you stop you’re confronted with the feeling that you’ve not run fast or hard or long enough. Anxieties like these make it almost impossible to maintain a regular running routine and achieve long term health goals. Fortunately, we live in a digital age where even our exercise can be enhanced with mobile apps.

After an eighteen month running hiatus I downloaded Couch to 5k. Being away from exercise for so long meant I could only run half the distance I achieved less than two years before. My efforts were disappointing and I needed a programme to rebuild the lost fitness level Couch to 5k offers this. The app encourages you to slowly develop your running abilities over a nine week schedule. By the end of the plan you’ll progress from a one minute sustained jog up to a half hour run.

As well as a providing an effective exercise schedule Couch to 5k comes with several features to keep you motivated such helpful reminders and encouragement from a well known celebrity voice (personally I chose stand up Sarah Millican). Not only does the app help you reach a goal practically but it efforts to keep you on the track by supporting your exercise.  The steady but successful incline along side the helpful motivational features makes it an ideal app for the beginner runner.

Teeth Whitening Toothpastes: Do they work?

I like my coffee black, my wine red and I drink both far too often. As every good dentist will tell you, over indulging in my favourite beverages can quickly take the shine out of your smile. To prevent this I spend too much time scouring stores for new toiletries to preserve my dental sheen. Retailers are packed with toothpastes promising to remove discoloration and deliver an award winning smile. With heavy competition in a crowded marketplace good products need to whiten effectively and fit your budget. Most importantly, they need to give you a feeling of security. If you’re using a toothpaste twice a day it should not only brighten your smile but provide good oral health.

I’ve trialed three easily accessible examples against these standards over the past month. Giving each one week of twice daily use and compared it with the others. The reason for this project is because there are now so many choices all claiming to produce great results. Until you’ve tried a few it’s impossible to know which brand is best. Hopefully this will save you some of that effort.

Arm and Hammer Advance White

I stumbled across this toothpaste when packing for a city break in the travel toiletries section. At an affordable £1 (usually £2.50 for regular), this miniature was the perfect sample to start to my weekly trials. The unique selling point of Arm and Hammer toothpastes is that their whitening comes from bicarbonate of soda, a product most of us are familiar with. I found this immediately reassuring,  thinking that if it’s safe enough to eat, it’s safe enough for teeth. After a week your mouth feels healthy and after continual use the toothpaste is moderately effective. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy the taste of bicarb, which dampened my experience. I’d recommend people try Advance White but be wary that the flavour may prevent the product from becoming a favourite.

 

EcoDenta Black Whitening

Like most toothpaste brands, EcoDenta offer several products with a variety of  flavours and effects. On the recommendation of a friend I settled on trying Black Charcoal. My tube came from a health food store running an offer on the toothpaste at £2.50. EcoDenta state that this product is made of 96% natural ingredients and contains no fluoride. The dark colouring, unique taste and eco friendly origins make the brand appealingly unique. The main drawback of Black Whitening is the mixed reviews. There seems to be some online uncertainty if the product is suitable for daily use. After several days this made me feel slightly uncomfortable and regulated use to night time brushing only.

 

Colgate Max White Expert White Anti-Stain

When you think of teeth whitening toothpastes this is the most typical of the products. Looking over the ingredients there’s the usual list of chemicals, including Hydrogen Peroxide. My initial expectation was that the toothpaste would be unsuitable for daily use. Working more like a nuclear bomb to remove stains and discolouration but not having a positive lasting effect on my oral health. Thankfully, all my assumptions were pleasantly incorrect. After a week there was a visible improvement in the whiteness of my teeth and my gums felt healthy. Overall, this was my favourite product for both quality and taste but it does have a heavy drawback. Currently, a tube is retailing at a hefty £12. I anticipate this toothpaste will become more affordable when it has been on the market longer.

 

 

Circe by Madeline Miller Review

Circe is Madeline Miller’s second retelling of ancient Greek legend. The novel introduces us to the title character Circe, an underdog nymph and daughter of the sun Titan, Helios. We follow the minor immortal from her creation to final scenes as she is interjected into the lives of some of Greek mythology’s most prominent players. But even when placed in the path of famous beasts like the Minotaur; heroes such as Odysseus; and the proud Olympians Athena and Hermes, Circe carves her place among the illustrious cast.

The legend of Circe is often forgotten outside of Homer’s Odyssey, however Miller paints fresh layers onto one of the lesser characters in the Greek Pantheon. We are given an imaginative retelling that is overflowing with tragedy, magic and destiny. Such a story allows Circe to steal the pages, upstage the most famous characters and cement her place in legend. A must read for anybody with an interest in mythology.

Language Learning made Simple

After completing all the tasks on Duolingo I found myself a bit lost. Suddenly, I had exhausted the app and needed a new direction for my Swedish lessons. The alternate learning methods needed to develop on the basics of Duolingo and engage me into further study. There are a variety of information points available ranging from websites with lessons plans to online video tutorials and subscription apps. With a bit of experimenting I found a combination of several resources suited me best.

 

Changing media

This is probably the simplest way to boost your vocab. Once you have changed the language settings on your devices, social media and Netflix you will pick up new words everyday. Scrolling through Facebook and Instagram translates all the adverts, which makes them slightly more interesting and streaming your favourite show teaches you all the swear words that family friendly sources won’t. The only problem is if you have a technical issue. It’s easier to walk past discount Ben and Jerry’s than turn your phone back to factory settings.

Memrise

Finding an app that fits for you is exhausting. They all seem to offer the same intermediate level lessons and charge the GDP of Kuwait. It took a lot of experimenting before I settled on an app that would engage me and justify a monthly subscription. Eventually, I settled on Memrise partly because it was the cheapest on offer at less than £6 per month. However, the app offers a lot of features others don’t such as videos of native speakers pronouncing vocabulary, an interactive story-line as well as access to tutors for an additional charge. As you complete each lesson your extraterrestrial avatar grows and journeys further into space. Learning this way keeps exploring a language fun and feels less like a chore. Ideal if your children are insisting on being bilingual.

https://www.memrise.com/

 

101Languages

If language learning resources were gold then 101Languages is as valuable as the crown jewels. Just like the name suggests they have information on about 101 languages available. The site offers samples of everything from vocab flashcards to links to radio shows and a smorgasbord of audio lessons. There is so much choice, all you have to do is click a link and learn.

http://www.101languages.net/

 

 

Finally visiting Fargfabriken

Towards the end of last year I wrote a post titled ‘The Days out that Didn’t Happen’. The piece lamented my unfulfilled holiday plans and the three galleries/museums I didn’t explore. One of the places I missed out on was an old paint factory, Fargfabriken.  Located in Liljehomen, Stockholm the building originally opened as paint producer in 1889. Nearly 150 years later it now houses art and architectural exhibits available to the public for a small fee.

To find Fargfabriken you need to journey about five minutes away from Liljehomen’s tube station. Unlike most art spaces which are located in affluent, central city locations the surrounding area of Fargfabriken is entirely industrial. Walking past the concrete landscape, coated in old snow the red brick of the factory is a contrast. It’s purpose is immediately imparted. The grey buildings are for working but the red is for exploration.

Inside, there is a popular cafe, gift store and exhibit rooms. Currently, the main attractions are installations from Beckers Art Award winner,  Petra Hultman. Her exhibit focuses primarily on the home and the work of the women who make it. The walls are lined with old instruction manuals designed to inform housewives on creating the perfect living environment. The center tells a story of an elderly couple. The husband and wife have their creative outlets: He builds key boxes out of wood; she forms blankets from material. His work is stacked high and displayed for examination. Her work is folded into piles, neglecting the intricacies and effort of each piece.

I wondered if the works belonged to real people or if the couple were a fictional device to emphasise the experience of domestic labour. Huntman was available to question because she was working on a tapestry as part of the exhibit. However, I was stopped by a question: Did the origin of these characters matter? Whether they were a product of fact or fiction didn’t change the story. I’ll never know the answer and I’m content with that, If you have the time and about £7/70Sek spare perhaps you could visit and let me know your thoughts. I’ll leave a link to Fargfabriken and Hultman below.

https://fargfabriken.se/en/

http://www.petrahultman.se/

 

 

Two years of Goodreads

I first joined Goodreads in September 2015 and have been using it on & (mostly) off ever since. In the last eight or nine months my activity on the book review site has accelerated. Before opening the first page I immediately update my “book shelf” and after final sentence I award the author my stars. My visits to Goodreads have probably increased due to ‘Reading Challenge” function. This feature allows the user to set a reading goal for the end of the year, so that whenever you complete and update your latest favourite you’re also reaching a goal.

For this year’s reading challenge I set myself an attainable target of 45 books. Now we are roughly half way through the year and I’ve managed a respectable 27 titles (60% apparently). This pile of books has been bolstered this year by being able to update eBooks from my kindle devices. Opening up my Goodreads to electronic texts has been helpful in finding new books as well. Sometimes, one of the worst aspects of being a heavy reader is that you simply run out of books, or rather you can’t see the wood for the trees. Perhaps a more subtitle metaphor for this stage in the paper’s production would be ‘not seeing the pages for the books’? Whichever allusion you choose, it’s handy to have a community of people, across several platforms with varied reading interests that mirror and inspire your own.

The other function I’ve recently discovered (I shall exorbitantly name) is multi-platform reviewing. This allows me to share my recent Goodread reviews on my WordPress blog. Sharing the reviews onto my blog is something I am excited about because it enable me to join two areas of my writing experience together. Now that the reading challenge is slowly rolling downhill towards the goal I intend to focus more intently on the reviews and hope you enjoy them.

Happy Reading

The Most Moreish Mozzarella

Now that I’m approaching my mid-twenties my perfect Friday nights have become more demure. No longer are my weekends spent drinking away hours in clubs or sipping a cocktail at a bar. Instead, my idea of the ideal evening is a plate of various snacks and a glass or two of red wine. The sundries can vary depending on where I have been shopping but my plate must always have some cheese and olives. I have yet to encounter a cheese I do not enjoy and each lazy evening I sample a new variety. However, there is one cheese that must always be present: The humble Mozzarella.

There is something irresistible about the creamy spheres that I always enjoy. When I pick up a pack and hear the slosh of water around the cheese, I am immediately content and know the evening will be peaceful. Over time I have had the pleasure of slicing many varieties under my cheese knife. It has reached the point that I feel  my understanding of the food has reached beyond the level of novice and I can now advise the newly initiated on the correct purchase.

In order to determine what constitutes a good cheese we must set ourselves some categories. I propose two empirical perimeters that will allow for comparison: Texture/Shape and Flavour. Beginning with Texture/Shape we must understand that supermarket Mozzarella spends most of its life in a bath. Once the packaging has been opened a considerable amount of liquid must be drained. Now the cheese is squeezed free of excess fluids we may now consider how it appears and feels upon the tongue. Has the ball lost its shape and now resembles a creamy puddle or hold its shape? Does it slice and tear away easily in fleshy strips? The sad truth is that some retailers sell overly saturated mozzarella that is an immediate disappointment upon opening.

Our second and perhaps most important category for comparison is flavour. It seems absurd that different brands of such a mild cheese can have distinct differences on the pallet. However, every Mozzarella producer will procure their ingredients from different dairies and have an individual process in the making of their product. As with all cheese, Mozzarella is largely made up of fat and the levels of the unhealthy substance impact on the taste. In an attempt to be more health conscious there are now reduced fat Mozzarella readily available. Broadly speaking these cheeses are an abomination and if you are inclined to ingest these for health reasons, then I would suggest eating less of other foods or exercising more. It is better to relegate Mozzarella to a rare treat than compromising on one of life’s purest delights.

Now we have our guidelines for understanding quality, we can move on to comparing some common varieties. I have picked up three readily available samples from a Northern English town and applied to them the rules of Texture/Structure and Flavour. This brief comparison will hopefully guide you in your purchases and lead you along the road of Mozzarella appreciation.

ASDA Mozzarella Cheese- £0.63

The first cheese on the list proudly proclaims to have been made in Italy. This claim should be a considered mild international offense to the Italians. At the low price of 63p the supermarket’s mid-range, own brand offering could be considered fair value for money. That is by paying so little for the cheese you will receive little in return. Once you’ve opened the packet, poured away the liquid and given the sphere a small squeeze  you’re left with a melted snowball. This Mozzarella is excessively saturated and fails to hold the ball shape. Only the center is an enjoyable texture because the enormous amount of fluids makes the majority of the cheese into a mild milk slush. The water gives the cheese a diluted taste and promotes the impression of eating a new terrible form of Mozzarella flavour protein shake.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend offering this option on a cheese board. Instead, I believe the true destiny of this offering is for cooking. When exposed to heat the liquid will evaporate, concentrating the flavour and allowing the cheese to shine. For the bargain price it’s definitely worth exploring on a pizza and is mild enough to be enjoyed by children and strong cheese abstainers.

Rating: Raw eating- 2/5 Cooking-4/5

Galbani Santa Lucia Mozzarella- £1.30

This is perhaps the most readily available option in most retailers. The reason for this is because it’s a really dependable option. Galbani offer a wide variety of choices from the maxi (large tube), to dainty pearls and a light Mozzarella that is only good as substitute wall filler. The standard Mozzarella ball is solid, soft and tears away in satisfying fleshy strips. It doesn’t ooze liquid on the plate to taint other cheeses. Instead, it stands firm to knife pressure and retains a proud shape. The flavour is mild, creamy and feels indulgent to eat. After eating one sphere I look at the other cheeses I have purchased with minor disappointment- I should have bought two Mozzarella instead. I would recommend this Mozzarella for all general eating and is always my standard choice.

Rating: Raw eating- 4/5 Cooking-Just eat it now

Fattorie Garofalo Mozzarella di Bufalo Campana- £2.39

Now we’ve reached the top end of the Mozzarella scale. This is your Champagne of the cheese world. Just like champagne it can be a little overrated. Sometimes your standard Prosecco will be just as good. However, there are times when only the best will satisfy. I imagine that when I win my Nobel Prize for Literature because of my seminal cheese reviews, the after-party will be flooded with the fancy stuff.

This Mozzarella has a fluffy outside texture that immediately places you onto a cloud of eating. It is intensely creamy which makes you jealous to have not been born a buffalo, able to drink the goodness from source. The price and availability doesn’t make this everyday eating. The good stuff should be a treasure for when you truly deserve the best Mozzarella has to offer.

Rating: Raw eating- 4.5/5 Cooking- HEATHEN!

One Hundred Years of Solitude

For New Year’s Eve I attended a dinner party in Stockholm. I donned a new suit, (from the H&M boxing day sale) and not to sound too immodest looked particularly handsome. Whilst we had coffee and dessert conversation turned to books. I mentioned my recent obsession with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his most highly regarded novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Only one other person at the table had read the book but she immediately replied, “it’s rare that a book lives up to the hype”. This review (by the most esteemed reader Lina) is exceptionally accurate.

Initially I had bought the text from a second hand book store for £1 and was apprehensive about opening it. There were other books I bought that day I wanted to read first and One Hundred Years of Solitude filtered its way to the bottom of the pile. This was a mistake. I should have devoured Marquez’s words fresh upon purchase because it quickly became the most captivating story I read in 2016.

In 1982 Marquez was correctly awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In the directions of Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament, writers may be awarded the prize for producing, “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. It seems verbose to describe my favourite book of the year with Nobel’s words but Marquez managed to do just that. He weaved a story unbound by the normal passage of time and follows a whole family, with their interweaving life and relationships, over the span of a century. So much detail is compacted into a small space. It’s an achievement to fully explore the history of the whole family through the generations. A testament to the number of characters and various relations is the family tree that is printed in my edition.

Not only does the book cover an expanse of characters but manages to do so simultaneously. The chapters are long because whole family’s life is explored at the same time in a fluid manner. There’s no stopping to focus on a particular person for a chapter, despite how pivotal the drama is. This creates a different approach to the passing a time and saves excessive leaps in chronology to catch up on people’s lives, allowing for fuller characters. If you add to this the magical nature of the story, the remote location family reside and the tone of isolation, you’re quickly immersed into the lives of the clan.

The tragedies of the household and rare their joys are easily felt. It swiftly became a book I couldn’t stop reading on the commute, at lunch and before falling asleep. Unfortunately, disaster struck one lunch time after I returned the book to my bag along with an unopened bottle of cola. As I returned my bag to the storeroom, before sitting at the desk, I noticed it felt damp. The liquid had exploded over the book when I had less than twenty pages left. The paper was soaked and no radiator was working for a quick rescue. I started working under the sways of melancholy; the train home was in mourning with nothing to read.

I managed to rescue the text on the bathroom radiator. I paced the tiles all night hoping the words would be legible. Eventually I awoke, slumped against the bathroom sink. The book pages struggled to be separated but the words were fine. In fact, the book smells better than before. The heat curled and splayed the pages into a fan as large as the story they hold. It’s now the most beautiful book on the shelf and possibly the best story as well.

Joanne

When I heard the first single off Lady Gaga’s new album (Joanne) I anticipated the record to be a flop. Initially I wasn’t keen on Perfect Illusion. I set it as my alarm, using the almost screamed vocals to scare me into the shower every morning. I’m not proclaiming Perfect Illusion is bad but a generic pop tune that most recording artists churn out. It certainly lacks the catchy nature of her other major songs but unlike her other work seems to come from a more emotional place. This is true of the whole album. Gaga has ditched excessive electronic sound and penis metaphors for a country, rock and roll vibe and lyrics fueled on feeling. The new employment of a classically American sound has taken the artist in a new audio direction and along with the more personal rhymes has possibly help create her best collaborative work.

Mark Ronson has heavily been involved in the making of the record. His renowned affinity for sampling becomes obvious in songs like Come to Mama which reminds me of the Beatles. A lot of the album carries this feeling with Dancin in Circles being a re-imagining of Madonna’s La Isla Bonita with Gwen Stefani style vocals. Similarly, Diamond Heart and Grigio Girls feel like heavily stolen melodies and a result of this is that parts of the song structure, when transitioning from verse to chorus, tend to sound clunky and oddly rushed. However, the record is overall much more enjoyable and less aggressively synth than previous sounds resulting in an album that is a lot easier to listen to even if the vocals are a lot louder, harsher and emotionally unrestrained.