Books, Bikes, and Food

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


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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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Dinner for Two: Oyster Ceviche

dinner42I’m posting this in the “Dinner for Two” series because Mr BBF and I made it together, but it was in fact a pintxo for 12. Let me explain: last year, some of our Basque friends decided to host a pintxo competition. It works like this: each participating person or couple prepares one pintxo recipe, making as many pintxos as there are people, and brings it along. All pintxos are then consumed by all participants, and at the end we vote on the winner. Last year, I missed out on the action because they held it before I made it to Bilbao, but this year we decided to give it another spin and I was there! After some debating, Mr BBF and I decided to make use of the fact that in the Basque Country you can get a hold of both fresh sea food and Latin American ingredients quite easily, and prepared oyster ceviche. We came second, just behind an absolutely delicious cheese-cream with breaded prawns – our ceviche turned out entirely to our satisfaction!

Ingredients (for 12 oysters)

  • 12 fresh oysters
  • 1 red onion
  • ají amarillo
  • juice of 3-4 limes
  • 1-2 tomatoes
  • 1 handful cilantro

Finely dice the onion and place it in a bowl of cold water for about 30 minutes to 1 hour (this will take away some of its sting). De-seed the ají amarillo and dice it very finely. If you find your ají to be extremely spicy, you can also soak it in cold water like the onion, ours wasn’t that bad so we didn’t do that. De-seed the tomatoes and cut them into very small cubes. Chop the cilantro. Mix everything except the cilantro with the lime juice in a bowl and leave to marinate while you open the oysters with a knife (careful!). Carefully loosen each oyster from its shell and clean it a bit, leave it in half its shell for serving.

Add the cilantro to the dressing and mix well. Spoon a bit of the dressing onto each oyster and let them marinate for 5-15 minutes, depending on how raw you like your oysters.

Slurp and enjoy!


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Top Reads of 2014

While I don’t read enough to make a big long list of books I loved in 2014, I want to at least leave you with my personal favourites (in no particular order). Because of my long blogging hiatus during the first 10 months of the year, quite a few books I read this year also never got reviewed. I have to say that this reading year picked up considerably towards the end! Cover Her Face was a huge hit as a holiday crime read. And I kept this post waiting to see if The Goldfinch would still make the list – it didn’t quite, but it did have a solid shot. I’m also currently loving The Interestings, which got started but not finished in 2014.

Fiction

unigweg_black-sisters the_luminaries untamed_state

  • Chika Unigwe: On Black Sisters’ Street. (Review here) – I loved the narrative of this novel about five African women working in the sex trade in Belgium. What a beautifully written novel!
  • Roxane Gay: An Untamed State. (Mini-review here) – This little novel about a woman’s kidnapping in Haiti stayed with me for a long time after I finished it. It was one of the most horrific books I’ve ever read, but it’s excellent.
  • Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries (Mini-review here) – This book pulled me out of a major reading slump in the early summer. I spent delightful hours on the couch with this thriller set in Victorian New Zealand.

Non-Fiction

Snowden_Files lean-in

  • Luke Harding: The Snowden Files (Mini-review here) – A thrilling account of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA and CHCQ’s large-scale collection of data from ordinary citizens.
  • Sheryl Sandberg: Lean In (Mini-review here) – Despite all the caveats, I found Lean In to be a very encouraging and, dare I say it, inspiring book about having a career as a woman.


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PD James: Cover Her Face (1962)

CoverHerFaceAround autumn and winter, for some reason I start craving English crime novels. It happens quite reliably every year, and last year acquainted me with the Flavia De Luce series. This year, I decided to sink my teeth into PD James, and boy, am I glad I did. I started with her debut crime novel, Cover Her Face, which is also the first in the Adam Dalgliesh series.

As far as “whodunnit” crime novels go, this one is very close to perfection. Dalgliesh is one of those inspectors who does his job thoroughly before gathering all the suspects (and there are plenty of suspects in Cover Her Face) in one room to reveal the results. A young maid, unmarried and with a son, is taken in by the Maxies to work for them. She turns out to be ambitious and not very likeable, but intelligent, and promptly gets killed. Many people seem to have a motive for wanting to get rid of young Sally: the old maid Martha, Stephen Maxie and his sister Deborah, Sally’s uncle who took her in when she was a child, Miss Liddell who runs the home for young unmarried mothers where Sally lived before working for the Maxies… Inspector Dalgliesh has lots of lines of investigation to pursue.

Exactly three months before the killing at Martingale Mrs Maxie gave a dinner-party.

This is the opening line of Cover Her Face, and it keeps its promise. This is post-war Britain at its finest, with many old rules and institutions still intact but starting to crumble, and I loved how PD James picks up on these issues while providing everything you could ask for in a classic crime novel.


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Recipe: White Beans with Spinach, or alubias con espinacas

This recipe is my take on this one for spinach with chickpeas from Smitten Kitchen. They claim that things sound better when named in Spanish, and knowing this to be absolutely true my white beans with spinach were quickly turned into alubias con espinacas, making the recipe sound all the more attractive. Then I popped a soft-boiled egg on top and it was perfection.

The great folks over at Smitten Kitchen use fresh spinach and dried chickpeas, but for me it was canned white beans and frozen spinach. It worked beautifully, too.

Ingredients (2 portions)

  • 1 can of white beans, drained and rinsed
  • frozen spinach (I used about two handful of the portionable stuff)
  • 2 eggs
  • 100ml passata
  • 1 tsp tomato purée
  • olive oil
  • 1 dried small chile
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp (smoked) paprika
  • 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • fresh lemon juice to taste
  • salt and pepper

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan. Add the minced garlic, chile, paprika and cumin, stir well and cook until the garlic is golden. Add the beans and stir to coat them evenly with the spices. Add the passata, tomato purée, vinegar, and the spinach. Cook until the spinach is fully defrosted. Season with salt, pepper, and lemon juice to taste. While the beans and spinach are cooking away, boil the egg for five minutes. Plop the beans and spinach onto two soup plates and crack the soft-boiled eggs on top. Enjoy with some toasted bread.


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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.


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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!

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