Books, Bikes, and Food

Reviews, Recipes, Rides… and some other things, too.


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Patricia Highsmith: The Price of Salt, or Carol (1952)

priceofsaltAlthough I haven’t been posting much about books lately, I have been reading, and there have been some quite interesting finds, too. I’ll get around to writing about them at some point, because they deserve it. I’ve been in the mood for different things lately, and then somewhere I read about Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (sometimes published as Carol), and lightning struck. This book, I am fairly certain, will make my “favourite reads of 2015” list, unless the reading year suddenly picks up to become exceptionally stellar (and even then).

The Price of Salt is the story of Therese Belivet, a young woman living in New York without many strings attached. She wants to be a set designer and has a circle of artistic friends, among them Richard, who is adamantly in love with her and determined to make her love him back. She’s slept with him, but she’s not in love. To make a living, Therese works in a department store during the Christmas period. One day, a blonde woman buys a doll from her, and Therese is strangely attracted to her. She writes her a Christmas card and they start getting to know each other. The woman – Carol – is going through a divorce and has a little daughter.

Therese and Carol start seeing more and more of each other, much to the dismay of Richard, who starts seeing less of Therese as a result. Therese begins to realise she’s actually in love with Carol, she longs to spend time with her and is jealous of Carol’s old friend Abby. Likewise, Carol seems to enjoy spending time with Therese, but her intentions are less clear. Richard believes she’s taking advantage of Therese, but Therese keeps seeing her, they get closer, and eventually decide to go on a road trip together. And so, a beautiful love story between them begins to unfold.

But this is 1950s America, and Carol’s ex-husband wants custody of their daughter Rindy. He knows of Carol’s sexual orientation and sets a detective on the heels of the two women. Eventually, Carol has to return home to face the charges against her.

Despite these dark undertones and the sacrifices especially Carol has to make, this is a hugely optimistic novel. Patricia Highsmith originally published it under the pseudonym of “Claire Morgan”. In the afterword, she states that even years after the novel was published, she used to receive letters thanking her for writing a novel about a same-sex couple with an uplifting ending (apparently most of these stories at the time ended with at least one of the protagonists committing suicide, repenting, or losing everything).

Aside from that, I also very much liked the writing in The Price of Salt. It’s quite beautiful, and there are some very insightful and very current statements to be found.

For example, Therese has a conversation with Carol at some point that makes her reflect on the issue of hate:

It reminded her of a thousand conversations with Richard, Richard mingling war and big business and congressional witch hunts and finally certain people he knew into one grand enemy, whose only collective label was hate.

Could these lines not be written about one of today’s Internet trolls, liberally mingling politicians, journalists, and “the powers that be” into a big conspiracy theory? We sometimes talk about this phenomenon as if it were something new. It’s helpful to be reminded that perhaps it has merely changed shape and is now more obvious and possibly easier to spew vitriol against “the enemy”. Apparently people need the mirage of such a clear-cut enemy whom they can blame for everything that is wrong with the world, and the more complex the world becomes, the greater this need.

In fact, the realisation that such an enemy is in reality hard to identify profoundly shakes Therese:

An inarticulate anxiety, a desire to know, know anything, for certain, had jammed itself in her throat so for a moment she felt she could hardly breathe.

Who doesn’t know this feeling, the almost paralysing anxiety that sometimes overcomes you when you consider certain complexities and uncertainties surrounding the future and your life?

Was life, were human relations like this always, Therese wondered. Never solid ground underfoot. Always like gravel, a little yielding, noisy so the whole world could hear, so one always listened, too, for the loud, harsh step of the intruder’s foot.

It’s easy to imagine, of course, that if you’ve just discovered you’re in love with a person of the same sex, something even more frowned upon at the time than today, this feeling of shifting ground can really grip you. But then there are the love scenes. Tender and erotic, they’re beautiful and striking. I won’t put any of them here, because I don’t want to spoil them for you.

Read this book. It’s beautiful.

It also made me consider, once more, how far we’ve come on the one hand, and how stuck we still are in old ways on the other. This year, “only” 63 years after the publication of The Price of Salt, same-sex marriage was legalised in the US. Considering that non-heterosexual relationships have been stigmatised for so long, the speed at which things have evolved is breathtaking. BUT. BUT. Homophobia and prejudices against people who identify anywhere on the LGBTQ spectrum are still everywhere. Same-sex marriage is still not legal even in many Western countries (Germany, I’m looking at you).* This stings, and it also stinks, to high heaven. Books like The Price of Salt should be required reading in our secondary schools, where LGBTQ-phobia is often particularly rampant and can make the lives of LGBTQ kids a living hell. But as long as we have bigot parents around who would rather “protect” their children from anything even remotely resembling a graphic sex scene than raise sexually secure and empowered human beings, there’s a fat chance of that happening. The fact that The Price of Salt was written in 1952 and we’re still this far away from acceptance is shameful.

At the danger of repeating myself, read this book.

*Say what you will against the enshrining of privileges in an outdated institution such as marriage (you’d be right), but the fact that this institution is slowly opening itself up to other forms of relationships is, in my view, a step towards greater acceptance and thus, progress.

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Timur Vermes: Er ist wieder da (Look Who’s Back; 2012)

Er ist wieder da (English translation: Look Who’s Back) is the kind of book you can’t resist because of the cover. Good graphic designers can say so much with so little: one quick look and you immediately know what, or who, this book is about. I bought this at some point last year, having eyed it on the shelves for some time. Then, the book spent several months in my TBR pile, and the other day, I decided to pick it up.

The premise of this novel would’ve been considered outrageous in Germany just a few years ago, and it did cause quite a stir: One fine day in 2011, Adolf Hitler finds himself waking up in Berlin some 66 years after his suicide. He’s wearing his uniform, and he’s in good shape. Berlin, however, is not what it used to be. It is the capital of a liberal democracy, self-complacent and cynical.

Germans are not what they used to be, either, he finds: There are too many Turks, and an entire population of people who don’t work but are generously provided for by the Government through a puzzling scheme called Hartz IV, as he finds out during his first forays into trash TV. And, no-one is much inclined to take him seriously. Speaking, as he does, in a military tone and with antiquated Nazi vocabulary, and firing his tirades at anyone who will talk to him, nobody can quite believe he is actually being serious (and of course, Hitler is dead anyway). So, people quickly decide, he must be a comedian, a particularly radical one who never leaves character. He receives a slot in a comedy show run by a comedian of Turkish descent, and takes the audience by storm. Except for Germany’s leading tabloid, Bild-Zeitung, and some old-timers who have actually suffered under his regime. But he manages to turn Bild Zeitung around, and after he is beaten up by some neo-nazis for “ridiculing” their “idol”, he becomes unstoppable…

I wasn’t expecting anything brilliant, but I also didn’t expect to have such a lukewarm reaction to this book. Really, the most radical thing about it is the premise. After that, it’s kind of predictable. There are a few interesting turns, such as the fact that the only political party Hitler sympathises with are the Greens, or that Bild, a tabloid that normally holds, shall we say, hyperconservative populist views, doesn’t take to him kindly. But other than that, I found it was mostly trying too hard. Most of the scenes weren’t that funny, even though they were meant to be. These episodes caused the Süddeutsche Zeitung‘s critic to wonder to what extent portraying Hitler as a bit eccentric or detailing his reactions to modern technology wasn’t trivialising him too much. I can see where she’s coming from. His first experiences with smartphones and computers provoke a “Ha ha, just like Grandma!” type of reaction. The only really brilliant scene, in my view, was Hitler’s visit to the headquarters of the NPD, Germany’s most radically right-wing party, exposing them and their pseudo-democratic rhetoric as the hypocrites they are (but we already knew that too – it was just funny to see them criticised from the “other side” for not being “properly” right wing).

There is also an aspect in which the very circumstances of the book undermine one of it’s most important points. The reason people find “comedian” Hitler so fascinating is that he criticises German society from a viewpoint that nobody else would dare to take (so there’s always a bit of an awkward taste to his “jokes”). But on the other hand, there’s a scene where people shout “Sieg Heil” back at him in a way that is absolutely chilling. Yet, since people think he’s a comedian, wouldn’t you think they’re shouting it “ironically”? And wouldn’t that actually detract from the fact that the way he’s still able to grip the masses is beyond frightening? I’m not sure about this, but it was a thought that occurred to me as I considered that particular scene.

Some of the cultural references to current affairs are also quite funny and on-point. But most of these are very Germany-specific and if you don’t know the politicians or celebrities involved, you’d really be missing out. I suppose if you read it in translation and without socialisation into contemporary German politics/public life, you’d likely be even more disappointed. If you don’t understand all these cultural codes the book plays on, I would imagine that what remains is the hollow shell of an intriguing premise that leaves a stale taste in your mouth afterwards.

For me, the main problem was that the novel seemingly couldn’t decide whether it wanted to make a serious point or not. I mean, I suppose it does, and the idea had quite a lot of potential. But the introduction of quite a few slapstick comedy-like elements sometimes draws it dangerously close to losing track of that and thereby actually trivialising this serious point.

If you’re still intrigued, you should also read Tony’s review of Look Who’s Back. He provides the viewpoint of a non-German and makes some great observations.


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Gioconda Belli: El país de las mujeres (2010)

el_pas_de_las_mujeresI started reading El país de las mujeres (I don’t think it’s been translated) because I was intrigued by its premise and because I remembered having read and enjoyed La mujer habitada (The Inhabited Woman). Gioconda Belli is a Nicaraguan feminist writer, and this novel is no exception from her feminist literature. In a fictional Central American country called Faguas, Viviana Sansón and her friends decide to launch a radical feminist party, the Partido de la Izquierda Erótica (which abbreviates to PIE, meaning “foot” in Spanish, and so the party’s symbol is a woman’s foot), “Party of the Erotic Left”.

Viviana is a highly successful TV presenter who is on a mission to change the highly corrupt politics of her country. Initially a group of outsiders that relies on political actions mostly designed to attract a lot of attention, they suddenly get help from mother nature: a volcano erupts and its gasses leave the men of Faguas without testosterone. As a result, they become weak, malleable, and lose their will to keep power. Suddenly, the PIE finds itself in power and Viviana is President. She instals a series of measures to change her country, the most radical of which is the removal of all men from government positions.

Men are relegated to the household, while women staff all the ministries, police, the army, and all public services. Of course, some are not happy. As their testosterone levels return to normal, those who have been ousted from power start plotting. The novel opens with their plot coming to fruition: Viviana is shot in the chest at a public rally and falls into a coma. El país de las mujeres runs in two parallel strands of narration, a first in which we witness Viviana’s colleagues and allies dealing with the extraordinary situation, and a second that consists of Viviana’s memories of how she came to power and the developments that led there. She’s stuck in a kind of limbo between life and death in which she remembers all the significant moments in her and her party comrades up until the shooting.

Intriguing, right? And I did enjoy parts of El país de las mujeres quite a lot. But on the whole, I have to confess that this book left me a bit cold. I wasn’t in the right mindset when I started: I expected a novel, but this is a thought experiment. A lot of the political ideas expressed seemed not just far-fetched, as they would have to with this kind of premise, but more than naive and completely unrealistic. Don’t get me wrong, there are many important ideas in this book I wholeheartedly agree with, starting with the premise that the value society attaches to “typically female” tasks such as housekeeping and care-giving needs to be placed on a par with the value of “typically male” tasks. But as a thought experiment I found El país de las mujeres to be a bit simplistic.


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Cheryl Strayed: Wild (2012)

wildThere’s not really a need to tell most people about Wild any more, I don’t think (but I will anyway, because I loved loved loved it! Ha.). Most people have heard of it, possibly because of the film that came out recently with Cheryl Strayed played by Reese Witherspoon. That’s how I first became interested – I’d seen the book in bookshops before but it wasn’t until I saw a review of the film that I became interested. Usually I like to read the book before watching the film, but in this case it was actually the other way around: I became so intrigued by Strayed’s solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail when I watched the film that I wanted the additional depth of the book.

I’m very glad about that, too, because Wild is an absolutely fascinating account of how a woman finds herself (again). Shaken by her mother’s too early death, Cheryl Strayed’s life gets out of hand. Her stepfather, her siblings, her husband – all the relations that have been her social web lose meaning in the aftermath, or people filter out of her life. Strayed had a very special relationship with her mother and losing her throws her completely off track: she cheats compulsively on her husband, races across the US from one temporary living arrangement to another, and even starts doing heroin.

Then, one day, she sees a guidebook of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) at a shop, and an idea begins to take shape: can she find herself again by hiking the trail all by herself for three months? And so she starts preparing, sells most of her belongings, and sets off. Wild is a journey, not just along the PCT, but towards becoming the woman she once was.

I loved Cheryl Strayed’s voice in Wild: unapologetic, honest, thoughtful, and smart. I really enjoyed the reflections on her life before and after the watershed of her mother’s death, on love, on what it means to be a daughter, a wife, and on physical and mental challenges. I had expected to like it, but not to enjoy it this much, to be honest. Wild made me want to pack up my stuff, hike out for three months, and see what would happen to my personality. Who knows, perhaps I will, one day. Maybe not three months, but a while.


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Edgard Telles Ribeiro: His Own Man (2010)

his_own_manI first came across His Own Man (original title: O punho e a renda) through Guy’s great review at His Futile Preoccupations. A novel about the involvement of a Brazilian diplomat in the dark times of Latin America’s military dictatorship in the 60s-80s? My Latin-America-and-International-Relations-loving heart jumped. And His Own Man did not disappoint.

Brazil, 1968: a young diplomat is approached by Marcílio Xavier Andrade (Max) and asked to lunch. He’s honoured by this more senior figure’s assessment of him as one of few “luncheable colleagues” and quickly joins his social circle. Max has a penchant for surrounding himself with interesting figures, writers, artists, actors etc., and inviting them to listen to jazz. Things take a sinister turn very quickly though and slowly but surely, those with oppositional views disappear from Max’s circle of “friends” as the political environment becomes ever more oppressive.

Max, it turns out, is a careerist chamaeleon, able to adapt himself quickly to any situation and any new “master”. He becomes increasingly involved in the dark manoeuvres of the Brazilian state in Uruguay and Chile, where the country was heavily involved in supporting the military regimes’ rise to power. But Max isn’t just a chamaeleon, he also seems to have a highly efficient non-stick coating. No matter how deeply involved he becomes, nothing sticks, and he’s able to swiftly shift his allegiances post-democratisation:

“There were few among us like him, so readily adapting to the ever-changing conditions of that time with such charm and competence, swiftly scaling the ranks of our hierarchy over the twenty years of military rule, and then going on to achieve further triumphs after the return to political normalcy”

The narrator, who has been following Max’s career, is eager to finally unearth all there is to be known about Max’s real actions during the dark chapters of Brazil’s recent history. As he goes along, he discovers the real extent of Max’s ruthlessness.

His Own Man is an excellent exploration of the inner workings of Brazilian diplomacy over several decades. The issues it addresses affect everyone working in a diplomatic service – mostly to a lesser degree though: to what extent is it possible or impossible to remain true to political, ethical or personal beliefs if your job is to represent your government (no matter what)? What role does your conscience play and when do you have to act on its calls? In other words, is it possible to remain “your own man (person)” as a diplomat? To some degree, a good diplomat is one who is able to make his own judgement fade into the background in favour of his country’s interests. But in the case of this novel’s title, the answer to these questions is ironic, since Max is nothing but “his own man” – everything he does, every acquaintance he makes, even his marriage, has only one goal: to further Max’s own advancement. To achieve his goals, he sheds every morsel of morality and ethics, and seemingly every aspect of whatever personal values he may have held at some point.

The narrator ponders these issues as they pertain also to himself:

“I knew full well that I’d been no hero. I hadn’t criticised my superiors out loud; I hadn’t resigned […] nor had I taken up arms. On the contrary, I’d become part of an orchestra – in which Max was the soloist.”

What’s more, the narrator addresses the responsibilities of any diplomat dispatched to a country under a dictatorial regime. To what extent is it your duty to try and take action against the regime, and if so, how? In what ways are you able to influence the government of a country that isn’t yours and where you’ve been sent as a representative of your own government?

“During my year and a half in Central America, I hadn’t hesitated to dutifully socialise with known tyrants of the region, to whom I was introduced at dinners and receptions.”

His Own Man sent shiver after shiver down my spine. The fact that Telles Ribeiro himself is a former diplomat means that he can explore these issues in an extremely thorough way, drawing on his own experience. This is an excellent political novel.


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Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven (2014)

Station_ElevenTo be entirely honest, I don’t even know what I could possibly say about Station Eleven that hasn’t already been said. I’m usually super cautious about digging into books that get a lot of hype, but this one got the good kind of hype from book bloggers whom I know I can trust, so I jumped right in. And of course, everyone was right, this is one amazing book. And since all the intelligent things have already been said about it, I’ll just focus on some of the aspects I loved the most.

Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic novel set 20 years after a particularly virulent strain of the flu has killed the vast majority of the population. The Internet is gone, there are no cars, phones, and computers, airtravel and electricity are a thing of the past. The first 20 years have been hard and life is still much harsher than we’re used to, but one thing that I absolutely loved about Station Eleven is that it’s set once life has started to “normalise” a bit under the new conditions. People again have jobs, there are certain rules, and above all, there’s still art. Station Eleven follows a travelling symphony that puts on concerts and stages Shakespeare plays. Their motto is “Survival is not enough”, and if the idea that even after civilisation as we know it is over, culture and the arts continue to exist and inspire isn’t uplifting, then I don’t know what is.

Station Eleven is set at a time when many people are still around who know what life before the flu was like, but there are already children and even young adults who only remember post-flu life. I loved how the different ways of dealing with the catastrophe are portrayed in the book. Many people try to pass on their knowledge of how things were to the children, but trying to explain the Internet to someone who has only ever seen a computer as a non-functional plastic box that does nothing at all is a challenge. One of my favourite characters curates a “Museum of Civilisation” where he keeps things like passports, credit cards, mobile phones, etc. on display for those who want to either reminisce about life before, or marvel at things they don’t fully comprehend. Others interpret the flu as some sort of punishment, many join strange cults.

I loved how Station Eleven follows a number of characters and slowly peels away their stories from before and after the flu. Their lives are all interconnected, and slowly these connections appear until at the end, the reader understands how they all fit together. And rather than being contrived (as it might if the story were less well-crafted), the characters’ encounters before and after weave a touching fabric. I cried several times during Station Eleven, because what happens is terrible, but I also cried because the slivers of hope that keep appearing are so touching. This isn’t your typical post-apocalyptic “anarchy is everywhere” and “things will just keep getting worse” kind of book. Instead, it’s inspiring and hopeful in a very melancholic way. I loved it.


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Leanne Shapton: Swimming Studies (2012)

Lately, I’ve been reading really great books, I don’t even quite know where to start reviewing! Some books just hit right home, and Swimming Studies is one of them. Leanne Shapton is a former swimmer who competed in the Canadian Olympic trials in 1992. She later quit competitive swimming and became an artist and writer, but swimming continues to be a very big part of her life. In Swimming Studies, half autobiography, half artistic essay, she explores what swimming has meant to her at different stages of her life and how she has become who she is in part due to swimming.

As a swimmer myself (though of course nowhere near as good as Leanne Shapton), I could relate to her writing in a very personal way. Although for me, swimming has been mostly recreational, I did compete when I was younger, and currently swim as regularly as my life lets me. It’s like once you’re in it, swimming stays with you. When I swim, everything else around me goes, I’m counting strokes and lanes, and when I climb out of the pool I’m tired but relaxed at the same time and my mind has cleared. Swimming, for me, is like going on a mini-retreat. Leanne Shapton describes the way thoughts float through your mind while swimming in a very poetic way:

As I swim, my mind wanders. I talk to myself. What I can see through my goggles is boring and foggy, the same view lap by lap. Mundane, unrelated memories flash up vividly and randomly, a slide show of shuffling thoughts. They flash up and fade, like the thoughts that float peripherally before sleep

There are many very poetic sections in Swimming Studies, but there is also some very interesting art work. One of my favourite bits is Shapton’s photos of her swim suit collection; she describes each suit and where she’s worn it.

I also love the section on smells, which she visualises as multi-coloured dots of paint.

Swimming Studies is one of the most extraordinary books I own because of its mixture of different art forms and Leanne Shapton’s beautiful writing. It’s a stunning book and will stay with me for a long time.