So, I Tried a Filet-O-Fish

I know I do my best to talk about books on this blog but I do sometimes talk about other things, so I figured in that grand tradition I would write about the Filet-O-fish sandwich from McDonalds. Because the content gods demand more content.

I recently (past couple of years) went from eating meat all the time, to eating meat on and off, to not eating meat anymore.  I’ve written about this before, but in short; I’d always known it was wrong, but had always been able to compartmentalise the guilt and carry on. I lost the ability and that was that. I still liked the taste of meat, the texture, and the smell; but the accompanying overwhelm of my moral sense wasn’t something I could deal with.

Not eating meat will really cut down on your options when you want to eat some dirty fast food. I am not the kind of person that has tried everything on the McDonalds menu but I did miss being able to just walk into a place like that and just get a hit of calories, salt, and fat. You have to bear in mind that I live in Peterborough, which doesn’t have all that much left in its city centre barr restaurants and takeaways; though I suppose I should be glad there is at least something left.

I didn’t decide to still eat fish, but I happened to eat some while visiting family and noticed that I didn’t feel guilty about it. And the texture was close enough that it allayed some of the cravings I was experiencing for meat. Well there you go. I was a pescatarian. Then I read The Shadow Over Innsmouth and really didn’t feel bad about eating fish.

After walking past McDonalds for the umpteenth time and defeating the urge to go in for the unpteenth time, I decided to just try the Filet-O-Fish. After all, I was still eating fish, and it might be enough like those burgers I used to enjoy to help me with some of those cravings.

(By the way, the actual solution to this problem is the No Bull Burger from Iceland. It is one of those foodstuffs perfect for people like me. It looks like meat, it tastes like meat, it feels like meat. For all intents and purposes it is meat. But it doesn’t make me feel guilty.)

I got a Filet-O-Fish with some fries and a coke because the fries and a coke are a sure thing.

I was warned that the Filet-O-Fish wasn’t all that, but I hadn’t had McDonalds in years and was hoping for something that might qualify as a treat. But damn, it wasn’t good. The bun had a really strange texture. Like, it was oddly rubbery and flavourless. The fish itself was just a wider, flatter fish finger. The crunch was nice, but there really wasn’t much fish in it. Like, when you’re comparing unfavourably to store brand fish fingers in terms of your fish content, it isn’t good at all. The cheese will never not be an odd choice to me to put in a fish sandwich, but at least it was flavourless. I doubt it would have helped had I been able to taste it, but as it stands it just helped goop up the already stodgy bun. The tartare sauce was pretty good. Nice and sharp. Now pickles and capers, those are flavours you can see going with fish. I might give tartare sauce in general more of a go if I carry on eating fish, even if I still don’t really like mayonnaise.

But I’m probably not going to carry on eating fish, especially now I’ve realised that the dirty, fast version of it that I was craving didn’t actually exist. I like fish and chips as much as any English person, but it’s something I could live without. I mentioned when it came to not eating meat that I was also aware of its huge environmental impact and all the rest of it. Well, I was having a worry free time eating my fish until I read about the astonishing percentage of plastic waste in the ocean that is made up of discarded fishing equipment. And declining fish stocks and all the rest of it. I come again to the point where I can no longer lock the guilt away, and am probably going to have to stop eating seafood. Which will suck, because I have just developed a taste for sushi.

I have no illusions about saving the world; I just want to be able to live with myself as much as possible.

I hope I don’t start feeling bad about eating dairy products but these feelings about my own diet have only been going in one direction, haven’t they?

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A Gentle Reminder about a Hard Thing: Margareta Magnusson’s The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

Self-help is not a genre I am interested in 99% of the time, but I liked the cover of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, a gentle blue with gold accents, and I liked the title, something that could be attached to a Don DeLillo novel, and that was enough to get me to pick it off a library shelf. I read it in a couple of bus journeys and spent the whole time enraptured by the voice, loving the feeling that I was absorbing wisdom, like I was making a conscious effort to listen to the stories of someone I know won’t be around forever.

The voice is of paramount importance, because really, none of what is in this book is wisdom. As snarky as you might feel about the commonness of common sense, a lot of people will be familiar with the main ideas in this book.

  • You are better equipped to deal with your belongings than anyone else
  • You probably don’t need all the things you have
  • Space is a resource like any other and must be managed
  • Your environment is a reflection of yourself
  • Focus on one thing at a time
  • It’s never too early to start planning for the inevitable
  • Death is inevitable

See that last one. Not very cheery, is it? But said the right way, and this book is a masterclass in saying things the right way, this feels more like being gently reminded of important things than it does being hit over the head with moral maxims. Death is inevitable but it can be prepared for; here are some reminders of what you might want to get done before you die. Margareta Magnusson’s conversational mixture of anecdotes, advice, speculations, jokes, and recipes, goes a long way to making the impact of her reminders about the inevitability of death and the mess often left behind a gentle one.

I am twenty eight and hopefully a lot of Magnusson’s advice won’t apply to me for a while. That said, she includes some great hints on broaching the subject with other people (grandparents whose estate you will have to help deal with, for example), which I think makes this book one that is well worth reading at any stage of life. For someone my age, it is a perspective on a life well lived, and a window into what some of my older relatives and friends might be contemplating. It will better equip me to deal with some of the awkward situations that death presents.

Read this as motivation to help you get up and get sorting your own life out, no matter your age. (Magnusson tells us it is never too early to start death cleaning.) Read it for consolation regarding your own coming death. Read it to hear the soft, happy voice of a grandparent. But whatever you do, read it. I needed this antidote to nihilism.

First Impression of A Game of Thrones

I don’t normally make new year’s resolutions but this year I decided to because my reading has slowed down a lot and there are a few big novels I want to read that I might not even start if I don’t set myself a target. I’d been curious about A Game of Thrones for a while and figured I’d make it my new year’s resolution to give it a try. I went in completely blind; I knew nothing about it other than that it was a fantasy novel, and I have not seen any of the television series. I told myself I’d know within a hundred or so pages whether I was going to enjoy it enough to finish it, and I gave myself permission to just drop it if I wasn’t feeling it.

How’s that for a wishy-washy new year’s resolution?

I mean, cut me some slack. It’s been two years since I quit smoking. I’ve settled on pescatarianism after flip-flopping on my diet a bit. I’d like to exercise more but not because I want to lose weight, and that’s a cliché resolution, anyway. Assigning myself a fat novel and giving myself a year felt like a fun little way of joining in.

A month and a bit later I finished it and had to make myself not immediately move on to the next one. I didn’t want to burn myself out. Eight hundred pages of incredibly dense, Gibbon-esque world building and intrigue is enough for anyone, I think. It was a fast 800 pages and didn’t feel like a slog at all. A Game of Thrones is really damn good. George R.R. Martin has put together a very convincing world, populated it with believable characters each involved in a historical event bigger than any one of them can grasp, balanced it all finely as clockwork, and set it ticking.

I will say, though, there wasn’t as much sex as I was expecting, and there also weren’t as many characters being culled as I thought there might be. I was expecting Ed Stark to die for about 400 pages before he actually died. I was expecting the fall to be it for Bran and then he survives? I know Tyrion must not die (just yet) because I know he’s a favourite character in the TV series, and judging from the books I can see why.

I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy when I was a kid and loved it, but I always felt that the strength of its cast is also its weakness. Epic is another way of saying unfocussed, and while it was always interesting to get differing perspectives on the war of the ring, you did also occasionally wonder when you were going to get back to some of the characters you really cared about, like Frodo, or Gandalf. Martin does a very good job of not only developing a kaleidoscope of interesting characters whose fates we are invested in, but in this first novel he keeps them very much focussed on the main historical thrust of events. Yes, we get lots of different perspectives, but these perspectives are on the same thing, and as such the novel doesn’t get too unfocussed.

A Game of Thrones does tick a lot of boxes. There’s adventure, conspiracy, titillation, heartbreak, romance, history, politics, all kinds. I am not familiar with Martin or his other works but I imagine based on this that he’s a man of varied interests and knowledge, both in himself and in his fiction. A Game of Thrones has something in it that can appeal to everyone, I feel, which is probably how it’s been adapted into a hugely popular TV series. I know people who made fun of me for playing D&D who watch this show avidly, and Martin’s omission of goblins and elves probably goes a long way to helping that be a thing.

Except for in the Danaerys chapters. But they have an effect like when we check in on Anton Chigur’s progress in No Country for Old Men. We know it’s something devastating and momentous, but we don’t know quite how or when, yet. I imagine Danaerys has a big effect on Westeros and I look forward to finding out about it in the next novels. Plus, I might complain about it blurring the focus, but it does help cut down on the eurocentrism of the novel. You could argue the Dothraki are a caricature of other cultures, but it’s a change from all the m’lords and ser’s, which can get a bit grating.

I thoroughly enjoyed A Game of Thrones and will be reading the other ones at some point. I don’t tend to read much fantasy, but this novel is making me reconsider my ignorance of the genre. I like SF enough, fantasy probably has some stuff in it that I’d like, and even if it turns out that I just happen to like A Song of Ice and Fire, then that’s fair enough.

Paying Attention to Birds

I’ve never taken much notice of birds. I’ve known they’re a thing, and appreciated their music, but apart from the ones that nested in the guttering around my bedroom and would wake me up with their chirping and rustling every AM in the spring, I’ve not interacted with them much.

Readers of this blog will note that I’ve been doing my best to be more active and to be more mindful. I thought a good way to do that might be to take more notice of birds and learn a few of their names and faces. It occurred to me partly because my girlfriend has a birdhouse in her garden that we can see from the living room windows, and this spring, like every spring, a pair of great tits have made their nest there. I’ve always known that we had great tits nesting in the garden, because my girlfriend tells me and points them out every year, but this has been the first spring where I’ve really had a good look and ponder, really thought about what a great tit is, what colours it is, what its movements look like. I am thinking of it a bit like a mindfulness exercise. I’ve read before about paying attention to people’s shoes, or reading license plates, as a way of getting out of your own head and managing your anxiety. I thought, well, why don’t I try pay attention to the birds around me? Other people I know seem to get enjoyment out of it.

I borrowed a book on birds off my girlfriend, and a similar book off my grandmother, and I’ve been asking them questions and picking their brains about what kind of birds to expect in the garden and what kind of food they like, and where they like to nest. I’ve also found out that a bag of wild bird seed for like, a quid, and a flat surface, such as a sundial, is a great combination if you want to attract birds. I knew a few birds before all this because they are so (I hate this word but it’s the best fit) iconic, such as robins, magpies, and blackbirds. Now I am passably good at identifying great tits, starlings, and sparrows. I’ve also got a pretty good idea of what a goldfinch is. And the seed I’ve been putting out has been monopolised by some wood pigeons and collared doves.

It has also occurred to me that having a better knowledge of the local wildlife would better my fiction. Consider for example the difference between,

“The birds sang in the morning mist”

And

“The robins and blackbirds sang in the morning mist”

(Pardon the differences in rhythm. Also pardon that I’ve probably made a mistake and they sing at different times of the morning, or something.)

People (like me) who know fuck all about birds are going to hear the same thing in their head regardless, but people who know what a robin or a blackbird sounds like are going to really benefit from the specificity; it’s going to be a lot easier to imagine and seem a lot more real. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’ve just finished reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. He knows a lot about wildlife and is always very specific when it comes to describing it. Not being able to picture some of the things he was describing made me feel inadequate. I could only imagine what a wild cornucopia Area X is to someone who can follow all of VanderMeer’s descriptions. I’m glad for the feeling of inadequacy, because it’s always nice to have a signpost or two as to what you don’t know.

You know, Corbyn’s fascination with manhole covers might fulfil a similar function to my nascent birdwatching. It’s nice and relaxing to just take a moment to wonder what birds are in the garden, or in a tree that you’re passing, and for a moment it focuses your attention on something that isn’t your worries. I’ve not often had so little knowledge bring me so much pleasure, and I look forward to learning more about birds. In the future I plan to learn a bit more about insects and plants, too, and I’m just glad that Peterborough is a place that affords me opportunities to look at and think about this stuff. There’s a lot to complain about with regards to Peterborough, but I am doing my best to see the positives in it and see what I can do to try and make it better for myself and others.

PS Talking to people about birds means you get to use the word “jizz” in polite conversation and if that’s not the best thing ever I don’t know what is.

Some Thoughts on William S. Burroughs’ Exterminator!

I’ve been fond of William S. Burroughs for a long time but never got around to reading any of his short fiction. The library had a copy of Exterminator!, and I decided to pick it up and see what Burroughs was like out of the cut-up novel he’s most known for. I quickly realised that any distinction between his short fiction and his experimental novels is arbitrary at best.

Burroughs’ short stories are not discreet; the same events are recalled from different perspectives, timelines bleed together, characters disappear and reappear in different stories. Exterminator! was apparently marketed as a novel, so this makes sense. If it wasn’t for the page breaks and the titles, this would really just be a standard Burroughs novel.

And I do mean standard. Like, there’s lots of babbling about mixing the image track and the sound track, lots of sexual psychoses, plenty of seedy unhinged characters flitting about in a shadowy world. Unmistakably Burroughs, but it is a bit less coherent than even the most fucked up and cut up of his other works, and this feeling is only increased by the fact that the two strongest stories in Exterminator! are the most discreet, coherent ones.

“The Discipline of DE” is an odd little story about a retired colonel that decides to start living in the moment. It has such a pleasant, even tone that it’s hard to believe it’s Burroughs; it could be right out of a self-help manual. And then it hits you. This *is* a self-help manual, in the guise of a short story; Burroughs’ DE (Do Easy) is just a mindfulness practice. If you’ve ever read that you should take your time while you brush your teeth and really focus on how it feels, then you’ll be familiar with the kinds of practices that Burroughs is describing. Don’t think it’s just boring and didactic though, there’s plenty of odd interjections about not spilling tea on the duchess, and an exploration of the idea that DE might make a good gunfighter. This story has an odd charm all of its own, but there’s an adaption of this story that’s only about nine minutes long, and is well worth your time.

The other story in Exterminator! that really stands out is “The ‘Priest’ they Called Him”. An archetypal Burroughs story about a desperate junky looking for a fix, but with a sweet twist; this is a Christmas story, and the ‘Priest’ charitably gives up his fix to help out a neighbour in need. This is one of my favourite Christmas stories, and I was familiar with it before I read Exterminator!, because what lead me to Burroughs?

Nirvana, and Kurt Cobain in particular, who collaborated with Burroughs on an excellent recording of the story that you can listen to below.

I need to read more Burroughs. I haven’t read Queer yet, and I’ve only read the first of The Red Night Trilogy. When I get around to it I’ll let you know. In the meantime, if you like Burroughs, go read Exterminator!, particularly if you’re in the mood for some self-help, or a nice Christmas tale. I know, right?

My Conscience Catches up with Me

I have eaten meat all my life despite knowing that it is unethical and, probably, indefensible. All that time, I was able to just ignore it. I knew it was bad for the environment, and I knew I loved animals and didn’t really want them to die, but it was tasty, and that was enough for me.

Well, you might know that over the past year or so, I have made quite a few changes to my lifestyle. My diet, inevitably, was going to come up at some point.

I’ve already trialled not eating meat, because, except on rare occasions, I’ve never eaten meat when I’ve been around my girlfriend, who is a pescaterian/vegetarian who has also been a vegan before. I know you can have a perfectly nice diet without eating meat because half the time I don’t anyway.

Having tried vegetarianism and spent a lot of time around vegetarians, the voice in my head that tells me that eating meat is unethical is getting louder and louder, and I’m now at the point where if I eat meat, I feel pretty bad about it afterwards. It still tastes good, but not good enough to make that feeling bearable.

So I’m going to stop eating meat. I’m probably going to transition over to not eating fish/seafood at some point, but for now I think not eating meat is going to be enough to quiet my conscience. I don’t think I am ever going to transition to veganism because I love cheese too much, but I have tried various plant milks and found them to be more than fine, so never say never I guess.

There is one thing I am going to find difficult though, and that is that so many sweets (so, so many), use bovine or porcine gelatine, including some of my favourites, like blackjacks, or Haribo Starmix. I’ll just have to carefully read packets and look for alternatives. Or eat less sweehahahahahaha.

I’m not going to turn this into a food blog, don’t worry. But I did want to tell you about these bad boys that my girlfriend got me to try.

haribo

Vegetarian Haribo!

I think these are fantastic. Lovely taste, nice chewy texture. My girlfriend’s daughter tried one and said it was like eating a crayon, and I was just like, damn, that is spot on. These taste exactly the way you imagined crayons would taste, way back when you were a toddler and thought crayons looked delicious. Well, crayons do look delicious, and so do these.

P.S. Chewits are vegan too!

A Reading Update

I hate forcing myself to finish books, but I just had to do it with Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. It was a library book, so it wasn’t like there were any sunk costs at play, but I did borrow it along with Iain M. Banks’ Feersum Endjinn, which I just couldn’t get along with at all. I would have felt bad returning two books unread, and I’ve loved everything else of Bradbury’s I’ve read, so I felt like I owed it to him, even if I did skim the last fifty or so pages.

First of all, Feersum Endjinn. I’m used to Banks’ experimental turns; I’ve read Use of Weapons, so his fragmented narratives don’t surprise me. And I did really like the structure of Use of Weapons, the way it goes forwards and backwards and somehow arrives at the same devastating point. It’s cool, and I like it when that kind of formal inventiveness comes off. When it doesn’t, like in Feersum Endjinn, hoo-boy. I’ll describe it to you if you haven’t read it. Four different narrative threads, one chapter of each in each section. So it’s like, 1 2 3 4 / 1 2 3 4 / 1 2 3 4. If you see what I mean? I very quickly lost any handle on the story at all. And one of these narrative threads features a character that has an implant that lets him dive into other people’s consciousnesses. And another narrative thread is written entirely phonetically. I applaud Banks for his attempt to represent the writing of someone who is neuroatypical, but in the context of this particular novel, it just adds to the mess. Probably the fault is mine. It made me think of all the people who bounce off Infinite Jest because of the first Wardine section, or who put down Ulysses when it goes “Ineluctable modality of the visible”. I just couldn’t get any handle on Feersum Endjinn at all, and I couldn’t just let it go and enjoy it on its own terms. Oh well. I’ll try it again someday. The next Banks I read will probably be a Culture novel. Maybe The Hydrogen Sonata, because there’s a copy of that in my local library.

Ok, sorry for the tangent. I just finished Something Wicked This Way Comes and I really didn’t enjoy it. It’d be too easy to say I found it trite, but… no fuck it, it is trite. Maybe the way to defeat evil… is love? Ugh. A lot of Bradbury’s themes boil down to simple moral judgements, (correct simple moral judgements I might add), but in this case it being novel length exposes the weakness of the idea, I think. Fahrenheit 451 might have a pretty simple moral judgement at its core, but Guy Montag experiences doubt, experiences shades of morality, and changes his mind. In Something Wicked, Jim and Will are utterly one-dimensional by comparison. Which makes sense considering that they’re kids, but that brings me to my next point.

I think a lot of Something Wicked is supposed to hinge on nostalgia, on a wistful looking over lost youth and a contemplation of what that youth still means in the young people you see around you. It is supposed to evoke that nostalgia and get you to feel it so you can drag you along. And it just didn’t work on me. I didn’t grow up in the American Midwest, I’ve never particularly liked carnivals, and the abdication of father figures in my own life has made me eternally suspicious of them. I can tell that this is the kind of novel that people might read and say “it wove a spell on me”. I can see why they might say it, I can see how Bradbury tries to do it. It just didn’t work on me.

I love Banks, I love Bradbury, and I don’t want it to be their fault. Feersum Endjinn is probably just too complex for my tiny insect brain. Something Wicked This Way Comes probably can’t work its magic on my cold husk of a heart. I returned both books to the library with a sense of failure and guilt.