Books, Bikes, and Food

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


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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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Happy International Women’s Day

To celebrate International Women’s Day, I thought I’d do a round-up of some interesting things in the world of feminism I’ve come across recently (some more bookish than others).

Image Source: lulastic.co.uk

Currently reading: 

Gioconda Belli’s El país de las mujeres (A Women’s Country). It’s set in a Central American country where a feminist party takes power and starts exercising it, much to the dismay of some men. Gioconda Belli is a Nicaraguan poet and fiction writer and an awesome feminist. I’ve previously read and enjoyed another of her novels, La Mujer Habitada (The Inhabited Woman). Check her out!

Looking forward to: 

Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. I know I’m REALLY late to the party on that one, everyone and their sister have already read it except me. Since everyone is also raving about it, my excitement just keeps growing!

This excellent quote sets some things straight and is available as a print from this great Etsy shop.

Watching: 

I’ve already ranted at length about the This Girl Can campaign and why I think it’s awesome. For International Women’s Day, the ladies at the BBC have gone and shot their own video of being awesome while female and sweaty.

Loving:

  • The idea of making International Women’s Day your #feministdayoff (Link in German) – enjoy Sunday while feministing to your heart’s content: watching films, reading, posting a blog entry… the possibilities are endless!
  • This article in the Guardian’s Women in Leadership section addresses an important career dilemma for women: how to manage employees who are older than themselves? (Unfortunately the article’s advice wasn’t that great, I thought, but at least they identified an important topic)
  • One of my male friends who asked his female friends on Facebook what advice he should give to a younger woman in his department. If only more men asked these questions!
  • This post on Bookriot.com on feminist books for kids and teenagers. Yeah for getting them started early!

Have a great day :)


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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.


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Recipe: Chicken with Avocado-Yoghurt Dip

It occasionally happens that you get inspired. On Monday, I was going to make this recipe and follow it pretty much step-by-step. I was also feeling supremely lazy (so if you’re feeling too lazy to click on the above link to the original recipe, I totally hear you – it’s called “Greek Chicken Skewers with Avocado Tzaziki”), so I decided to make this recipe even less work than it originally was. I was going to leave out the skewers and just fry the chicken breast. I was also going to leave out the “Greek seasoning mix”, mainly because I wasn’t quite sure what it was (I’d never even heard it was a thing), what it contained, and was too lazy to google it – so I was just going to replace it with whatever Mediterranean spices I could find in my spice drawer.

And then, inspiration struck. Because what exactly would happen if in addition to the olive oil, garlic and assorted spices I coated the chicken breast in tahini before frying it? In one word: magic. The tahini really made the chicken pop! And the avocado-yoghurt dip was divine. On a side note, I’m refusing to call it tzaziki, for the love of Greece. The poor Greeks already have it hard enough as it is without folks – and worse, Germans – butchering their cuisine (although, might I say, in a freaking delicious way). And on that note, this video, made by German public television (you will not believe this), is absolutely BRILLIANT. It had me in tears laughing.

Man, so many words for such a simple recipe. So here it finally is. It admittedly doesn’t photograph very well (poor lighting, bad camera, etc.). It was a whole lot more interesting than it looks in this picture. The dip, which was velvety avocado-yoghurt perfection. And the chicken breast was soft and at the same time almost-crunchy tahini perfection. Maybe the next time I’ll add some actual sesame seeds too, to make it even better.

Ingredients (2 portions)

For the dip:

  • 1 avocado
  • 150g natural yoghurt (I used the low-fat kind and it was still incredibly creamy)
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 8 drops tabasco sauce
  • 1 pinch oregano
  • pinch pul biber
  • freshly ground pepper
  • salt

For the chicken

  • 500g chicken breast
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • pinch of oregano
  • pinch of pul biber
  • pinch of thyme
  • 2-3 tsp tahini
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • salt

To make the dip, place the pitted avocado, yoghurt, garlic, and lemon juice in a blender and whizz until smooth. Add the tabasco and spices, stir, cover, and leave it to chill in the fridge while you make the chicken. Wash the chicken breasts and cut them into thin strips. In a medium-sized bowl, mix the olive oil, tahini, garlic, and all the spices. Add the chicken to the bowl and mix until it’s is evenly coated in the dressing. Fry the chicken pieces in a non-stick frying pan until golden. Serve with the avocado-yoghurt dip and enjoy!


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Baudoin & Troubs: El sabor de la tierra (2013)

Let me get this out: this book is brilliant. It’s also an interesting genre: I’d call it a graphic documentary, because it’s definitely not a graphic novel. If you read either Spanish or French, I can only recommend it (the original French title is Le goût de la terre). Sadly, I don’t think it’s been translated to English.

Two French comic artists, Baudoin and Troubs, travel to Colombia to interview people about their experience of the civil conflict that has been raging in the country for decades (on a side note, there was a very interesting piece on the difficulties of brokering peace in Foreign Policy recently). Baudoin and Troubs have met two Colombian students who have convinced them that the stories of “ordinary” Colombians are worth recording and sharing. And so they go out and trade portraits for memories – they ask people for their most important memory in return for a drawing of them. If I put “ordinary” in inverted commas before, that’s because the people they interview are really all but ordinary. Each of them has impressive memories, often about the conflict, and many of them are actively involved in trying to work towards peace, even if it’s just in their own immediate environment. Household employees, school teachers, university professors and students, farmers… they all get to tell their stories. One is more intense than the other, and the joint artwork by Baudoin and Troubs is beautiful. Part of El sabor de la tierra‘s appeal is the fact that the conflict stops being abstract. It becomes personal, concrete, and shows many faces, each with its own past, present, hopes, and dreams for the future.

The most striking portrait is that of a young FARC commander though: a young woman, smart, political, who knows what she wants, and who feels the need to use violence to get there. And while reading her story, I absolutely understood why: to her, it seems the only way out in a situation where poverty, corruption, and deprivation have been prevalent and there have been no peaceful means to deal with them. Baudoin and Troubs understand her too, which very much shines through in the book. I felt very conflicted about this part of El sabor de la tierra. I mean, I don’t exactly condone violence, and I was wondering whether Baudoin and Troubs were getting a bit blinded by the commander’s Amazon appeal. But then again, what do I, as a privileged white woman from a first-world background, even know? How would I react in this situation? Would I join a guerrilla group? Or would I just give up and try to adapt rather than fighting for my vision and goals? I have no idea.

El sabor de la tierra made me hungry for more. Actually, this is Baudoin and Troub’s second joint graphic documentary dealing with Latin America; in fact, they met the two students who invited them to Colombia during an earlier project they did in Mexico. It’s about Ciudad Juárez and is called Viva la vida. I really want to read it now, if it’s anywhere near as powerful as El sabor de la tierra, it’s bound to be fantastic. Baudoin also has a solo graphic documentary on Chile (titled Araucaria), which I think is only available in French. But that might just be as good an excuse as any to dust off my French, so that one is going on the reading list too.


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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.


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Video: Breaching the Seawall | Modern Love

This beautiful little animated video tells the story of a woman whose relationship with another woman and cycling transforms her vision of the city she’s living in: Manila.

Animation by Adam Wells

I came across the video through Meli of Bikes and the City and her awesome Pinterest feed.

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