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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Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)

I read The Talented Mr. Ripley for the “R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII” challenge. It was the first time for me to participate, and I joined on a whim as Hamburg was beginning to turn autumnal and I had visions of myself curled up on my sofa with a blanket, sipping tea, and being thrilled in an autumnal, sofa-curling, tea-sipping fashion. Things turned out a little different, as I read The Talented Mr Ripley on a business trip to Latin America, on planes and in hotel beds. But thrilled I was.

Not least because it was made into a very famous film (which I haven’t seen, so I can’t judge), the plot is so well known that I’m not even sure it’s worth summarising. But just on the off chance that you’ve been living under a rock for the last few decades, like me, here’s a quick roundup. Tom Ripley, a mousey American who enjoys tricking people a bit just for the sake of it, gets the chance to travel to Italy. A rich businessman engages him to get his son, Dickie, back to America (by the way, how annoying is the name “Dickie”?! No offense, it sounds like a chubby five year-old). Dickie has run away to Italy to lead the life of a wannabe painter – he doesn’t seem to have much talent – and seems to have no intention of returning to the States. So Tom is sent off to retrieve him, well stocked with money, and jumps at the chance of living it up in Italy for a while.

As you may have imagined, things go pear-shaped quite quickly. Tom develops an unhealthy obsession with Dickie, and his jealousy eventually leads him to kill his friend, as well as another guy. Because when you’ve just killed a guy, what you do is to assume his identity, right? And of course if you’re in danger of being discovered, you kill the potential whistleblower too. And so begins a chase around Europe, with Tom eventually transforming back into himself, whoever that may be.

The chase is very thrilling indeed. Will he be discovered? Will the police start asking questions Tom can’t answer? Will someone realise that post-mortem “Dickie” and Tom are actually the same person? There’s more than enough in The Talented Mr Ripley to keep you on your toes and reading on to find out what happens next.

But since this is a very good thriller, I was also fascinated by Tom’s personality. He’s evidently not quite sane. His obsession with Dickie begins with him wanting to be liked by Dickie at all costs:

“The first step, anyway, was to make Dickie like him. That he wanted more than anything else in the world.”

But he doesn’t just want to be liked by Dickie, he wants to be like Dickie, more and more so. At one point, he puts on Dickies clothes, and upon being surprised by a very consternated Dickie, nothing is ever quite the same again. This obsession comes to its logical culmination: Tom has to become Dickie.

I love how Patricia Highsmith crafted this character who is so uncomfortable with being himself that he has to become someone else and is ready to kill in order to do that. And when he is forced to switch back, he loathes it:

“He hated becoming Thomas Ripley again, hated being nobody, hated putting on his old set of habits again, and feeling that people looked down on him and were bored with him unless he put on an act for them like a clown, feeling incompetent and incapable of doing anything with himself except entertaining people for minutes at a time.”

Passages like this make the reader sympathise so much with this awkward guy that his criminal behaviour becomes completely understandable. Highsmith turns the traditional crime/thriller chase around, you’re with Tom Ripley, not with the police trying to catch him. And again and again introduces new turns that makes you go “oh no – don’t do that Tom, it’ll make it worse, don’t do it!”, and of course… he goes and does it.

The Talented Mr. Ripley is a real classic of its genre that I enjoyed a lot. There are, by the way, a number of sequels, so if you’re not satisfied you can keep on reading.

German title: Der talentierte Mr. Ripley
Spanish title: El talento de Mr. Ripley


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Readers Imbibing Peril (R.I.P. VII)

As autumn draws closer, I’m feeling the suspense/thriller vibe, and thus have decided to join the “Readers Imbibing Peril VII” fun, a.k.a. RIP VII, hosted by Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings. I’m only going to read one book because September and October look set to be completely crazy in terms of work etc.

It’s going to be a classic of the thriller genre, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley. I’m excited!