Books, Bikes, and Food

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

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Chika Unigwe: On Black Sisters’ Street (2009)

unigweg_black-sistersAfter not being overly lucky with my German Literature Month choices this year, I was really hoping for a great read, and thankfully On Black Sisters’ Street met, nay, far exceeded the challenge. This was most definitely one of the best books I read this year! I came across it through the lecture by Taiye Selasi I went to. Chika Unigwe also came to speak as part of the same lecture series, but unfortunately I couldn’t make it to her talk (after reading On Black Sisters’ Street, I’m really sad about that). This novel was first published in Flemish as Fata Morgana.

This amazing novel is set in Antwerp, Belgium, and tells the story of four African (all but one are Nigerian) women. All of them are sex workers who have come to Belgium through the same Nigerian “businessman”, Dele. He makes his (huge amounts of) money by shipping hopeful women off to Belgium to become prostitutes who then have to pay him back for his “services” for years and years until they have bought their way out of the profession.

Three of the women, Sisi (not her real name; her real name is Chisom), Ama, and Efe, have come to Belgium in the hope of making enough money to lead a better life, either back home in Nigeria or by staying in Europe after they’ve paid Dele off. The fourth, Joyce (real name: Alek), is from Sudan and had been brought to Nigeria by her boyfriend, whose family refuses to let him marry a Sudanese girl, so he has to ship her off somewhere. They all end up living together in Antwerp, in the same house as their “Madam” (who also works for Dele and ensures they do their jobs properly) and Segun, a stuttering man who does odd jobs around the house. But something happens: Sisi is killed. As Ama, Efe, and Joyce sit in the living room trying to come to terms with the death of their colleague and house mate, they start telling each other their stories, which they had previously cautiously kept to themselves. They’re interwoven with Sisi’s story, how she comes to Belgium and what eventually leads to her death.

The stories are more than hard, there’s poverty, war, rape, and the maybe futile hope for a better future. And yet, I thought this was a beautiful book. I loved how the women’s stories were slowly revealed, and how by sharing their lives, they start to become friends – or start to realise that they’ve become friends, or even something like family. The street they live on is called Zwartezusterstraat (Black Sisters’ Street), and as they narrate their stories, Ama, Efe, and Joyce realise that they’ve become something like sisters, and that Sisi was their sister too.

I also liked that despite the horrific events in their lives and their dire situation as illegal sex workers in Europe, the novel doesn’t give in to hopelessness. If you think about it, this can be a bit conflicting: of course the women are exploited, illegal immigrants, deprived of their rights. But on the other hand they knew exactly what job they were going to do in Europe, perhaps with the exception of Joyce, whose boyfriend and Dele told her she’d be working as a nanny. And despite their undignified situation, they are making money and able to send some money back home to their families, even though they’re unable to meet demands for cars, mobile phones, and other luxury goods they’re asked for. So is this really such a bad deal for them? Of course it’s awful, absolutely terrible, that this is their only shot at getting a better life. But at least they get a shot, there’s hope at the end of the novel for the three that survive. Is that something to be grateful for? I’m not sure. While the system is completely warped, within it there does seem to be some room for individual improvement. This is – among other factors, of course (such as the greed of European men who view sex and a woman’s body as being for sale) – what perpetuates the system Chika Unigwe describes, I think. Because there’s a silver lining, women are willing to play along with the system, which makes it all the more terrifying in some ways.

Another thing that I loved about On Black Sisters’ Street was the writing. It sucked me in and took me right there, to the house on Zwartezusterstraat, to Lagos, to Sudan. And despite all the despair, it’s very funny in places.

Has anyone read this? I’d be really glad to discuss. So if you haven’t read it, go do that. This is an excellent book.


Recipe: Brussels Sprouts with Cranberries, Gorgonzola and Roasted Nuts

I used to hate Brussels sprouts. To me, they were that bitter, sort of slimy vegetable that my parents for some unfathomable reason had to eat every once in a while during winter. But, I’m learning, and I’m experimenting. To be honest, to me the worst thing about Brussels sprouts was the consistency with the slimy exterior. So when I found this recipe on Pinterest, and then stumbled across fresh cranberries in the supermarket, I decided to give my little green enemies another chance. I tweaked the recipe slightly by using honey instead of maple syrup. I left out the barley. And I couldn’t get pecan nuts, so I used a nut mix instead. I implore you, even if you’re convinced you hate Brussels sprouts, give this recipe a try. The pan-seared version of this veg is so much friendlier than the steamed or cooked version! And the cranberries melt around the Brussels sprouts just so, balancing the bitterness with their tang, and then there’s the creamy deliciousness of the gorgonzola, and the slightly sweet touch of the honey… we have ourselves a Brussels sprouts convert thanks to this dish.

If in the above picture, you fail to spot any nuts, that’s because the second time I made it, when I took the picture, I forgot to put in the nuts. It was delicious anyway, but the nuts definitely add another interesting dimension and texture.

Ingredients (serves 2 as a vegetarian main course or 3-4 as a side)

  • 500g Brussels sprouts
  • two handfuls fresh cranberries
  • gorgonzola cheese (no idea how many grams I used… go with your gut feeling)
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1 small handful of nut mix, roughly chopped
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Toast the chopped nuts in a pan and set aside. Wash the Brussels sprouts, remove the outer leaves, and cut them in half. In a frying pan, heat some olive oil and add the Brussels sprouts and the cranberries. Season with salt and pepper and cook for 8-10 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Add the honey and the balsamic vinegar and stir until the Brussels sprouts and cranberries are evenly coated. Remove from the heat and place in a bowl. Toss with the nuts and crumble the gorgonzola on top. Enjoy!


Juli Zeh: Nullzeit (2012)

Finally, here’s my last instalment for German Literature Month 2014. I’d actually finished Nullzeit (English translation: Decompression) in good time to write a review while German Lit Month was still on, but to be honest I really, really couldn’t be bothered. Writing a good bad review takes time (or hot passion at how bad a book was), I didn’t have it in me. I still don’t really, so if this review is somewhat less than thoughtful, please excuse me.

I honestly have no idea how this book got so many people to like it. It definitely wasn’t a hit with me. Nullzeit is a love-triangle story about an (almost) failed actress, Jola, who comes to a Spanish holiday island with her partner Theo, an (almost) failed writer, to prepare for what she thinks is her final shot at getting a good role (she doesn’t get it). The two of them are in the most toxic, co-dependent and, yes, ridiculous relationship ever. They’re either completely insane or completely unbelievable and unfortunately, Zeh can’t write them to be crazy enough to be credible, so they’re just annoying and stupid, especially Jola.

Jola and Theo are prepared to pay an insane amount of money to spend two weeks of exclusive training with diving instructor Sven, a failed (spotting a pattern yet?) lawyer who fled Germany because he couldn’t handle reality and is now living with his accidental girlfriend Antje. She showed up in his life one day and he didn’t have it in him to throw her out. Active participation in life doesn’t seem to be Sven’s forte. What does seem to be his forte is a stupid contempt for everyone around him, the Spaniards (Zeh unpacks every single stereotype she can think of, it’s revolting), the other foreigners on the island, the Germans, Antje, Theo, and even Jola.

The book alternates perspectives between Sven’s notes and Jola’s diary. These different perspectives are the only mildly interesting aspect of the book. In the beginning you don’t notice it, but as the storyline moves on differences between the two narratives begin to appear, until the two stories become completely irreconcilable. According to Jola, Sven begins a passionate love affair with her. According to Sven, Jola goes completely crazy for him, but he fends her off. Events unfold and of course there is a dramatic climax that could be read in two different ways. Because of the double perspective, you don’t know who’s telling the truth, Jola or Sven, but it didn’t matter because by the climax I was so annoyed with every single character in the book that I didn’t even care and was wishing they would all just shut up.

The writing alternates, too, but between being quite good (I think this was what kept me going. I was constantly waiting for this book to finally come around) and being absolutely cliché and tacky. The annoying stereotypes about the Spanish inhabitants of the island were just the icing on the cake. The whole storyline just seemed stilted and like she didn’t care about constructing a solid background, let alone a credible plot. Needless to say, not this year’s most recommended reading.


Anne Wizorek: Weil ein #Aufschrei nicht reicht: für einen Feminismus von heute (2014)

Ger_Lit_Month_2014This is my non-fiction instalment for German Lit Month. It hasn’t been translated because it only just came out (and the context is very specific to the German-speaking world and Germany in particular), but its title roughly translates to “Because an #Outcry is not enough: for a contemporary feminism”. It’s difficult to write about this book because I wanted to love it so much that I find it hard to acknowledge that I thought it was a bit of a disappointment. BUT, let me get this out first: I think it’s a hugely important book, especially for those who are sort of drawn to feminism but haven’t made contact yet. It provides a good introduction to some of the main issues and above all, it makes clear that feminism isn’t some sort of man-hating club of bitter female professors who sit around in stuffy offices and hate on each other and all things male. I just wish it was a bit better executed.aufschrei_book

I can’t stress enough how important feminism has become for me over recent years. The older I become, the more impatient I get with issues like the glass ceiling, male privilege, and everyday sexism. And I think the events of the last few weeks only prove me right. An ESA scientist wore a hugely unprofessional shirt on the day of us landing a robot on a comet and no-one thought to prevent him from it (if you’re going to read one final article about “that shirt”, please make it this one, it’s simply brilliant, and if you want one more, this one is also very good)*, resulting in Lewis’s Law being proven right on about a million articles. The morning after pill has to become prescription-free by order of a European agency and against the will of Germany’s most important political force, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The compulsory 30% quota for women on the boards of listed companies in Germany – that will affect just over 100 companies in total because smaller companies are not obligated to implement it – is pushed through after years and years of negotiation and vitriol (the vitriol, of course, continues to be spilled all over the place). I think we have plenty of reason not to become complacent about “how far we’ve come” on gender equality.

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Recipe: Basic chick pea soup

Today’s post brings you my culinary discovery of the month. I’ve been trying lots of new recipes lately, as I now eat a hot lunch every day at the University canteen. The food there is… well, canteen food. It’s neither particularly healthy nor particularly satisfying, but it is a full meal and so I’ve been adapting my home cooking to really simple things involving lots of vegetables and small dishes.

Soups fit the bill quite well, and this week brought along a fantastic option that makes a great base for different variations. The basic recipe, if you can call it that (original here), involves just five ingredients: canned chickpeas, onion, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Really. I also threw in a bit of vegetable stock to give it a bit more flavour (chicken stock works too). This is one of the best make-ahead dishes ever: prepare it on a Sunday and enjoy it during the week in different shapes or forms. One day, chuck in some pimientos del piquillo. Another day, just add the juice of half a lemon. I bet, even though I haven’t tried it yet, spinach would work brilliantly too. This is an amazing option to keep in the fridge for those days you come home late after exercise or a long day at work and just need something really satisfying really fast.

Ingredients (2 portions)

  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 2 cans of chickpeas
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 stock cube (optional)

Heat some olive oil in a pot and sautée the onion with some salt over low heat until translucent, about 20 minutes. Drain and rinse the chickpeas, add them to the pot and add water until the chickpeas are just about covered. Bring to the boil and simmer on low heat for about 1 hour. Add pepper and some more salt (if necessary) to taste. If you’re adding a stock cube, you can either do this when you add the water, or as I did, when I reheated the soup just before having it.

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On meeting Taiye Selasi, stereotypes, and getting schooled

Almost two weeks ago, I went to a lecture by Taiye Selasi, the author of Ghana must go fame, and I was super excited to meet such a brilliant author in the flesh. I had many thoughts on her talk, which is why it’s taken me this long to write about it. I was prepared to fangirl all over her talk, so it took me some time to get over the conflicted feelings I came away with. She’s a great speaker and I’m full of admiration. But there were also some elements of her talk where I thought she might take things a bit further.

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