Books, Bikes, and Food

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


Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000)

kavalier_clay_smallHello world! I’m back! Let’s see how long my re-found blogging mojo lasts this time around. Anyway, before it leaves me again I want to talk to you guys about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. It tells the stories of two Jewish cousins, Josef (Joe) Kavalier and Sam Clay (Klayman) during and after WW II. Joe has a a traumatic escape from Third Reich Prague and joins the side of his family who has emigrated to the US. Together, Joe and Sam start a comic book series, centred on a super hero called The Escapist. Joe is a gifted artist, Sam is the story man behind the outfit. As two slightly naive hot heads eager to get their ideas out there, they get royally ripped off by the people they sell their stories to, but they have a very good time of it. At the same time, the Escapist’s adventures sort of function like a therapy for them both: Joe uses the hero to fight the Nazis in his imagination, while his cousin, who suffered from polio as a child, can do things he can’t do in “real life” through him. Both meet people: Joe meets Rosa Saks, an artist, and Sam meets Tracy Bacon, the Escapist’s radio voice. For a while, they’re almost carefree, if it weren’t for Joe’s continuous obsession with helping his family escape from Prague.

But then a tragedy happens, and Joe joins the army. Sam goes on an adventure with Tracy Bacon that goes wrong as they’re arrested for homosexual action. Joe is sent on a mission to Antarctica, while Sam takes a decision that shows the deep relationship he has formed with his cousin. I won’t tell you what happens after Joe returns from the war, because I don’t want to give too much away – even though this isn’t a novel mainly built on the tension that comes from not knowing (but it’s nicer that way).

I liked The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay a lot. The story checks out beautifully and I really enjoyed the novel’s unpretentious style. There’s no over-the-top drama, which helps you use your own imagination, but the story line never lags. The same goes for how he deals with Sam’s homosexuality – it obviously causes problems, but it’s not the main subject everything revolves around, as seems to be the case with some books with LGBT characters. And even though I’m everything but a comic or graphic novel buff, I really liked the way Chabon works some of the stories Kavalier, Clay, and Rosa develop for their characters into the action.

To me, Kavalier and Clay never got boring, even though it’s a long book and it took me quite a while to get through it because of how little I get around to reading these days. I’d actually say it’s a great book to take on a holiday when you want an engaging, but not shallow, read and you have some reading time available. But this is also fine to read in bite-sized chunks like I did, just be prepared for it to take a little while.

German title: Die unglaublichen Abenteuer von Kavalier & Clay
Spanish title: Las asombrosas aventuras de Kavalier y Clay



Stefan Zweig: Angst (1910)

literatur_2012I won Angst in Tony‘s Stefan Zweig giveaway, so I’d like to take a moment to thank Tony for introducing me to Zweig. This was the first of his works I read and it was completely unplanned, too. Without intention, my German Literature Month (for which this post is now officially very, very late) was about reading books from not-Germany and touring Switzerland and Austria instead. Very fittingly, I also went on a trip to Vienna, of which I offer you gratuitous Christmassy evidence here.

Angst is about a Viennese lady named Irene Wagner, who has an affair. She’s become bored with her marriage and family life, which has turned out distinctly “meh” so far. And so she seeks diversion in the arms of a young pianist, when all of a sudden a woman turns up and begins to threaten her. If Irene doesn’t pay her what she demands, she’ll tell her husband about the affair. And so Irene gets caught up deeper and deeper in her fear of being discovered. She knows the woman will be back to demand more, and she knows her husband will find out eventually.

But just as afraid as she is of being discovered, she’s even more afraid of telling her husband herself. She’s trapped in a triangle of fear: of the blackmailer, of telling her husband, and of her husband finding out and judging her. These multiple sources of fear paralyse her like a deer in the headlights. Whenever she decides to finally confess, her fear of her husband’s reaction gets the upper hand, and so her situation spirals downward and picks up speed very fast. And yet strangely, this moment of existential fear makes her come to important realisations about her life. She realises she doesn’t really know her husband – or her children, for that matter – mainly because she hasn’t tried, because she’s been too busy trying to distract herself from her boredom. She has dumped the children with household staff and never made an effort to have a deeper conversation with her husband.

Angst perfectly captures this downward spiral of fear, the way Irene ricochets from one fear to another: in each situation, the fear of what is about to happen is so overwhelming she can only react to it, rather than deciding consciously or taking control. And so, Angst inevitably moves towards its climax…

As such, it would be wrong to say that I “enjoyed” Angst, because its descriptions of Irene’s fear are so well-crafted that it makes the reader very uncomfortable. I still liked it a lot though, precisely for how Zweig conveys her psychological state. And for his unmistakably Viennese touch.

English title: Fear
Spanish title: Miedo


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


John Irving: In One Person (2012)

The second I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it. I’d read two others by John Irving before, The Hotel New Hampshire and of course, The Cider House Rules, and loved both. I’d then taken a bit of a break from Irving because goodness should be enjoyed in reasonable doses, right? To cut a long story short, I loaded In One Person onto my Kindle as quickly as I could when it came out.

Well, it didn’t come close to The Cider House Rules, but I still enjoyed it a lot. I just love Irving’s language. It’s incredibly well-honed and I admire the way he finds exactly the right words for what he wants to express (I could fangirl on about this for a while).

In One Person tells the story of Billy. By the way, If I could’ve changed one thing about the novel, I would’ve chosen the protagonist’s name, or at least allowed him to become “Bill” as he grows up. “Billy” irritated me no end – to me it’s just not an adult’s name (no offense to anyone called Billy). As he grows up in small-town America, he discovers his bisexuality and is forced to deal with it in the hardly supportive environment of an all-boys school where his stepfather is also a teacher. Faculty brat and bisexual? Billy doesn’t have it easy.

Irving traces Billy’s sexual (and other) developments from his first feeling that he has “a crush on the wrong people” through his adolescence, the AIDS crisis, and all the way to his return to his home town as an elderly man. I enjoyed the bit until the point where he leaves high school the most. The characters in the first half of the book are better developed and Billy’s struggle as he comes to terms with who he is seemed more interesting to me than the second half. In a sense, it almost felt a bit like an afterthought, although the period of the AIDS epidemic is extremely intense and very moving. But in the first part, Irving takes his time carving out the story and its protagonists, while the second part is more sweeping and characters are often reduced to a few rough strokes as passers-by in Billy’s life.

One thing that bothered me – and other readers as well, at least Adam of The Roof Beam Reader agrees with me – is the overabundance of (gender)queer characters. Nigh on everyone is in some way sexually divergent from the “norm”, in fact, sexual divergence is the norm in In One Person, which somehow makes the novel less believable. It’s just a bit too much.  Agreed, realism may not have been the goal here, but the overabundance of queer characters does compromise the novel a bit for me. Surrounding Billy almost exclusively by other GLBT characters makes his own journey seem less important somehow; especially in the second part there was relatively little societal struggle of the type the GLBT community normally has to deal with on an almost daily basis, just because it was more or less impossible in the novel’s setting (aside from the wrestling club Billy joins).

Aside from these issues, though, In One Person is a very interesting novel of a person finding their own identity and voice. That and Irving’s beautiful storytelling made it a very enjoyable read.

Spanish title: Not yet out
German title: In einer Person


Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

The Tiger’s Wife was, until recently, one of those books the entire blogosphere except me had already read. It’d been hailed by many a review as one of the most amazing recent discoveries, so I decided to give it a shot.

I was also intrigued by the setting of the novel, the post-war Balkans (which I know nothing about but would like to know more). The Tiger’s Wife weaves together different narratives. The one set in the present follows Natalia, a young doctor, on her journey across one of former Yugoslavia’s new borders in order to vaccinate children at an orphanage. On her way there, she learns that her grandfather has died under very strange circumstances in a hospital close to the village she is travelling to. So rather than turn around, she goes ahead on her vaccination trip in order to pick up his belongings which are still at the hospital. Meanwhile, she is suspended in a surreal limbo, going about her business while she comes to terms with her grandfather’s death, remembering the stories he used to tell her. The other narratives include precisely these stories, the most important one being that of the tiger’s wife, as well as memories of moments Natalia has shared with her grandfather.

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Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818)

Frankenstein is one of those novels that had always intrigued me, but I’d never gotten around to reading it. Now that I finally did, I’m glad I’ve read it, but not in an “Oh my God this was so amazing” kind of way – more in an “Ok been there, done that, let’s check it off the to do list” kind of way. In other words, I enjoyed it and it got me thinking, but it didn’t blow me away either.

So – is it even worth summarising a plot that is so well known? I’ll just do a really quick summary. Guy grows up in happy family, goes to University where he becomes obsessed with studying natural sciences, guy discovers secret of life and in his obsession builds an imitation of a human, gets scared and runs away, letting his creation run free. Creation potters around the place looking for love, finds only rejection, becomes angry, kills guy’s little brother, guy finds out, is devastated, is confronted by his monster, who tells him his heartbreaking story. Guy promises to create a monster-wife to keep his he-monster company, but then decides otherwise because wouldn’t it be horrible if they had offspring (mini monsters!)? Monster becomes really angry, kills everyone guy loves, guy persecutes monster, dies in the process, but not before having told his story to a ship captain on a voyage to the North Pole, who is actually the one writing down the entire tale.

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