Books, Bikes, and Food

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


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.



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.


Meg Wolitzer: The Interestings (2013)

interestings The Interestings was part of my Christmas reading this year, so it’s been a while since I’ve read it. That maybe says a lot about how I felt about the book. There’s no denying it, I found this novel interesting and entertaining, but it didn’t exactly wow me either.

It traces the lives of a group of people who meet at “Spirit in the Woods”, a summer camp for artistically gifted children. The protagonist, Jules (her real name is Julie, but she ditches it at camp for the much more intriguing Jules and it sticks), is taken into the group of the most “interesting” camp participants, hence the name “The Interestings”. The novel follows their diverging paths that take them down different routes, from Ethan, who becomes a highly successful animator and creates a TV show called Figland (the Simpsons spring to mind), to Goodman who is the one everyone gravitates towards initially but who goes on to become an extremely shady character and probably even a rapist (this is never completely resolved as Goodman denies it, but it’s very strongly insinuated). I suppose one of the key aspects that intrigued me about The Interestings is the way it inverts the characters’ standing. Ethan, who is initially the socially awkward type turns out to become the most successful artist, while Goodman becomes a fugitive marked by drugs, alcohol, and a complete lack of self control. There are also elements of feminism and social criticism I found very interesting.

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that either I’m too European for The Interestings, or The Interestings is too American for me, whichever way you prefer to look at it. Meg Wolitzer seems to have gone out with the goal of writing something with potential to become a Great American Novel, and she certainly does a great job of analysing the evolution of US society over several decades. As a European, it seemed to me that I might not be the book’s key audience, and it showed. The second thing is, I might be too young for this book to really strike a chord. As a European child of the 80s, I can absolutely see why someone who’s lived through the same time period – from the 70s to today – in the US would love this novel and recognise their own experiences in many of its aspects. I didn’t, and so I found it interesting (how many more times can I say “interesting” about a book called The Interestings?!) and engaging, but it didn’t mesmerise me.


Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch (2013)

The Goldfinch was part of my Christmas reading binge, and so it’s “only” taken me about a month to get around to reviewing it. Blame the holidays and the ensuing laziness afterwards. I mentioned previously that I was really enjoying The Goldfinch and was keeping my best-of 2014 post in stock to wait and see if it’d make the cut. And it almost did!

As a Pulitzer Prize winner, this novel has received more than its fair share of both hype and hatred. Many people found it too long, and my edition does clock in at 864 pages. But that was what I wanted for my Christmas reading – some heft. I wanted something to get lost in, a story that would suck me in for days. The Goldfinch did this, I would say, to about 90%.

What happens is actually not that complicated: Theo, at age thirteen, survives a terror attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that kills his mother. He comes away from the chaos with a ring given to him by an elderly man just before dying in the rubble of the museum. Theo is supposed to give the ring to the man’s business partner and friend, James Hobart (Hobie). But Theo also comes away with a small but very valuable painting that the dying old man seems to have pointed at as he passes away. Theo initially means to hand in the picture, but he’s a traumatised child and something just always happens that makes him keep it. He’s strangely fascinated by the small masterpiece. And so the painting begins to determine the course of his life, an odyssey that takes him to live with the wealthy parents of one of his school friends at first, then with his alcoholic and gambling addict father and his new girlfriend, and later again in New York with Hobie, whom he locates after the blast at the museum to give him the dying old man’s ring. The painting, of course, is The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, painted in 1654).

If you’re now wondering how Donna Tartt can spend 864 pages on this relatively straightforward story – well, she spends a lot of time on detail. Her intricate descriptions of the places Theo stays at are so vivid it makes you feel like you’re there. My favourite parts of the whole book were the descriptions of Hobie’s antiques workshop and apartment in the same building, and how Hobie carries out his restorations of antique furniture:

After school, amidst the drowsy tick of the tall-case clocks, he taught me the pore and lustre of different woods, their colors, the ripple and gloss of tiger maple and the frothed grain of burled walnut, their weights in my hand and even their different scents […] spicy mahogany, dusty-smelling oak, black cherry with its characteristic tan and the flowery, amber-resin smell of rosewood.

I could smell those woods myself as I was reading, feel the comforting warmth of the workshop and Hobie’s calm, quiet passion for his work. Similarly detailed descriptions of less pleasant places also exist though, and I really enjoyed the contrast and how Tartt’s mastery of language made everything become real. She also spends a lot of time on dialogue, so the characters come to life in a similar way.

But if the language was so enticing, why did the book only pull me in 90% rather than the complete sinking-into-the-story I’d hoped for? I’m not sure. Maybe it was the aforementioned loads of hype and hatred. I think I may have been over-analysing The Goldfinch. All the time I kept checking myself, wondering if I should feel bored yet by all the details, if I should let myself be so enticed by the language or whether this was masking a fundamental flaw in the novel. I have to say that my answer, after pondering, was always “no”, that the book was fine and I kept on reading. But there was a mental fishing line that kept pulling me out of The Goldfinch and of which I’m still not sure whether it was my or the book’s “fault”.

Also, reflecting on it, I notice that there was a lack of truly pro-active female characters in The Goldfinch. Theo’s mother is sort of idealised as an artsy, warm and nurturing personality, his father’s new girlfriend is annoying and touching at the same time, he’s infatuated with his friend Pippa, who’s fragile and just as traumatised as he is (she was with Hobie’s partner at the museum the day of the blast). It would be unfair to call them stock characters because they do have strong personalities and come to life. But all the plot-driving action is taken by men: Theo himself, of course, his father, Hobie, his friend Boris. For all the amount of time Donna Tartt spends on description, it’s still astonishing to find that women are mostly on the receiving end, while the characters who make the decisive moves in the novel are men.

Other than that, this hefty novel is worth diving into. I enjoyed myself, though not as thoroughly as I’d planned.

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Alexander Maksik: You Deserve Nothing (2011)

I picked up You Deserve Nothing on a whim following an event a local bookshop – for the benefit of the Hamburgers reading this, Stories at Hanseviertel. The idea is great: staff present English language books they’ve recently read, in English. The girl presenting You Deserve Nothing spoke with such enthusiasm about it that I cast away the prejudices the cover evoked in me and bought it.

And, what can I say, for a while I actually thought it was quite good. You Deserve Nothing covers the story of an inappropriate teacher-student relationship. Will, a charismatic and enigmatic English teacher at the International School of France in Paris, gets into a sexual relationship with a student, Marie, at a party just at the end of the school year. As the new school year begins, they keep seeing each other.

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Ursula K. Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

Left_hand_darknessAre you ready for a confession? Because this girl has to eat some humble pie. I read a science fiction* book, and I loved it. Who would have ever thought this would happen? I admit that my dislike of the genre is based mainly on prejudice: I just don’t care that much for star ships. But as with all genres, there’s usually something out there that’s just right for you.

What drew me to The Left Hand of Darkness was, an article in the Guardian, advertising it as feminist science fiction and stating that it “arguably marks the point where SF came into its true political strength.” Together with a fellow political scientist’s recommendation, that had me intrigued, so I decided to venture outside my comfort zone and into the world of Gethen, a planet of genderless inhabitants. “Genderless” only most of the time though, because once per month they come into “kemmer”, during which they take on either the role of a man or that of a woman, and they appear to have some choice in the matter.

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