City Music I

One of those buildings
that you’re never quite sure what it’s for.
Offices, probably,
but then there are those art projects
filling the ground floor rooms,
the paintings pinned to the windows.
A college? Night classes?
You’ll never know now,
because the insides have been sucked dry,
those windows shattered in a frozen wave
of sea-coloured shards around the perimeter,
as though the builders have picked up the building,
taken it and shaken it, tapped it
like a sheaf of news against the ground.
The outside layer has been stripped off,
leaving strange hollows
and a dangling dancer’s jewellery of metal
that rings like bells in the wind.
What it was is lost,
but just for now it is a performance,
a musical improvisation of metal and air.

Lessons

I have decided that today I will smile.
It’s raining and yesterday I made soup
and stayed away from the news,
so today I step neatly out of ways
and wait my turn,
and when I avoid collision with a small child
trailing like a kite
I smile,
in case he looks back,
to show him no harm done
and nothing to worry about.
We’re all going in the same direction.

From this angle the clock which is five minutes fast
is only one side of a three-quarters right clock.

The child stands with his family
in a triangle on the escalator
and I wait with all the time in the world
behind them, beneath the red shadow of my train.
There’ll be another along.

They see theirs a tick too late,
hurry up as the doors close,
but the father has a trick.
He shows his son how to use the world to his advantage,
like any animal teaching its child to hunt, use tools, tell good from bad.

He slips his hand fearlessly between the train’s jaws
and waits–
don’t fight or it will bark at you or run, spooked–
and the doors open obediently as a shell.

Thoughts: Wer Fürchtet den Tod, by Nnedi Okorafor, translated by Claudia Kern

Right, let’s skip the apology for taking so long and just assume it at the beginning of every post, OK? OK.

Another German book, but this time with a twist – it was translated FROM English INTO German! The English title is Who Fears Death. To everyone who read it in English, I apologise in advance for anything I misunderstood because of my imperfect German! I haven’t read the English version.

Also there are spoilers coming!

I was really nervous about this one – it’s a brick, and not just a brick but a sci fi brick, and not just a sci fi brick but a post-apocalyptic African sci fi brick, and my knowledge of the African continent is embarrassingly embryonic, and combined with my child-German I was legitimately worried that it would impair my understanding.

But happy news! Wer Fürchtet den Tod is really clearly written, and the language didn’t impair my understanding. I have skimmed a few Goodreads reviews just to make sure I didn’t miss anything major, and there are a few complaints about the simplicity of the language, but you know what? It really helped me out, so I’m grateful for it.

It occupies this really weird space, half post-nuclear war and half pure fairytale. The scenery and world are very detailed and the images strong, but there are pure fairytale, almost magical details. The main character, Onyesonwu, is a shapeshifter, and her mother can’t speak any higher than a whisper since she was raped (and Onyesonwu conceived), which I couldn’t help seeing symbolism in. The way a lot of the tech is described means it basically functions in the narrative as magic, even when it’s based on real technology. For instance, the device they use to get water from the ambient air is described in the same way as a fantasy novel would describe something magical, and yet something about it recalls (to this white Brit) inventions you’d see shared in Facebook video adverts, designed to make life easier in the developing world. You know the type of thing? Some of the tech had that type of feel – real and rooted to the setting. The book straddled a really interesting line.

It deals with weaponised rape, child soldiers, light-skin/dark-skin discrimination, structural misogyny and FGM, so it’s not an easy or lighthearted read (I learned a lot of words, LET ME TELL YOU), but it’s a powerful one. The way Okorafor deals with FGM in particular is really complex and nuanced. I don’t think any one book should bear the responsibility of being the be-all and end-all of debate about an issue, but I’ve never seen FGM dealt with ever at all in spec fic, and Okorafor has made an incredible contribution to that conversation which needs to be had.

Firstly, FGM is a coming-of-age ritual in the place Onyesonwu and her mother have ended up after her (beautifully drawn) childhood in the desert, and as an outsider both in terms of being new to the village and being mixed race and therefore automatically despised, Onyesonwu wants to belong as much as she can and she sneaks out of her house against her mother’s wishes to participate in the ritual. The other girls who have come of age in the same year as her are all bound together with her by this ritual in a strong friendship. It’s almost a community-building or reinforcing thing, and the village elder women make it look really attractive too, offering a safe space to discuss sex and also taking on themselves the protection of Binta, one of the girls, who has been repeatedly raped by her father.

But it doesn’t last – their intervention with Binta’s father is ineffectual, and the ritual has magically (literally by magic, I mean) destroyed all pleasure in sex for the girls until they marry, which they only realise later. In the end, the injustice of placing the burden of community morals on the unconsenting girls is unignorable, as is the violation of the way in which it’s done.

I do agree with some of the other reviews’ complaints about the middle – the journey does wander a bit, and petty squabbling between the characters overshadows the bigger picture a few times. The end gets a bit mad, but that’s something I enjoy in an ending, to be honest, so your mileage may vary.

Definitely recommend this one, both for the story and for any German learners looking for some practice!

Bookthoughts: Die Entdeckung der Currywurst – Uwe Timm

Okay, it’s been A WHILE, and I’ve read SEVERAL BOOKS, but now it’s time to try to catch up. I was focused on writing at the end of last year, and this year I’ve been trying to submit things because I’m a glutton for rejection and disappointment, and that’s all been compounded by a rough January.

And now I come back to find that WordPress is totally different.

Whatever. On to the book. This is the first book I finished in 2019 – I’m going to catch up here and then go back to 2018, I think. It was given to us when we came to Germany, and until now has been a reminder of my less-than-great German. But I’ve been working on my German, and I finally decided it was time.

Warning, this won’t be a particularly long or insightful post, because the book is short and not in my native language, but let’s get stuck in.

The title of the novella translates to “The Discovery of Currywurst”, referring to the popular German street food of sausage in spicy ketchup-based sauce. There are tons of apocryphal origin stories for currywurst, and this one is decidedly fictional. The narrator is visiting the elderly Lena Brücker, self-styled creator of currywurst, in her nursing home to find out the story. She says quite early on that it was an accident, and if you’re wondering if one day curry powder accidentally falls into ketchup in a happy disaster, then, you know, congratulations, but that’s also not really the story.

Die Entdeckung der Currywurst spends a lot of time flashing back to the last days of World War 2, when the rusted out flasks and old bullet casings the narrator went hunting for as a child were still shiny and in use. During an air raid, young (or not that young) Lena meets a soldier briefly stationed in Hamburg, they end up at her flat, and she inadvertently finds herself hiding him as he inadvertently deserts.

It’s not a story filled with drama and action. It’s quiet and tense, evoking a small community under the immense pressure of a losing war, the shortages from that war, and the psychological control of the Nazis policing everyone’s behaviour so well that people police themselves effectively instead. It drifts from past to present, narration to dialogue with little fanfare. It’s slow and strangely immersive, all these mundane daily details beautifully invoked – and of course living in a world where you have to make coffee from acorns and trade potatoes off the back of a wagon for a flask of petrol isn’t mundane to me.

The love story at its heart is doomed, we know that. But for a while it’s in perfect balance. Right up until the war ends, and Lena doesn’t tell Bremer. Right up until Lena asks if Bremer’s married, and he says he isn’t. But for that short time…

My German is still not perfect – I had to look up a lot of the military words during the war – but even I could appreciate the way Lena’s voice was written, the way it shone through the text. It slowed my reading into her rhythms and made it feel like I was really being told a story. And not just a story about the creation of currywurst, but about luck and connection and what people need, about finding the means of survival and realising that they were inside you all along.

Recipe: Spooky Halloween eyeball tarts

A really easy Halloween recipe for delicious (and actually rather healthy) fruit tarts with a spooky twist.

Ingredients (makes 12):

  • 250g jarred balled pears or lychees
  • 1 tube of Smarties or similar colourful chocolate circles
  • 1 food-safe black cake decorating pen
  • 200g raspberries
  • Sugar to taste
  • 12 small cooked pie cakes or flan bases

Method:

  1. Using the food pen, draw black pupils on the Smarties. These will be the irises.
  2. With a knife or (if your kids are helping) spoon, gouge a Smartie-sized hole in the top of each pear ball/lychee
  3. Push the raspberries through a sieve to extract the juice. Add sugar (and a little of the pear or lychee juice) to taste.
  4. Put the pear balls/lychees in the pie cases
  5. Put one Smartie in each to make eyeballs
  6. Spoon the raspberry coulis into the space between the eyeballs.
  7. Enjoy!

Thoughts: Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, by Shiri Eisner

This was recommended to me by a friend, possibly on CSD (though I could easily be remembering wrong). I was a little bit intimidated and a little bit excited, as I hadn’t given myself over to reading much LGBT theory for a long time, since I slunk out of the Shakesville blog, with the exception of some of Julia Serano‘s excellent work. And besides  these great blog posts, I’d never read anything really exploring bisexuality. (It turns out that Serano’s post links a post by Shiri Eisner, actually, which is an excerpt from the book I’m talking about here.) If you too haven’t read much dedicated to bisexuality, then this is a pretty good place to start.

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Thoughts: Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

Yes, it has been forever. Yes, as always, I regret it. Such a backlog.

This one needs a big embarrassing disclaimer: I think I might be a little bit jealous! As an amateur writer, sometimes when I read a good book it’ll dishearten me, because I’m a self-centred human being, and instead of happily appreciating someone else’s skills I’m always in the back of my head brooding about mine (or the lack thereof). So I’m going to be careful about my few small criticisms of this book, and make sure they aren’t coming from that resentful place. I am guilty of backhandedly complimenting things I love but could never approach. Ninefox tripped that wire for me quite hard. I don’t know exactly what it was, but something did. I kind of thought I was over the irrational envy after reading Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven without wanting to cut off my fingers and break my keyboard, but nope.

Spoilers spoilers spoilers.

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Recipe: Beef tea OR chunky beef soup

Unfortunately Dove has been down with a cold this week. To ease her suffering, I cooked her this soup. You can stop halfway through to produce a delicious warming beef tea, or do both halves to produce a chunky stew-like soup.

Ingredients

For the stock

  • About 400g beef bones
  • 1 large or 2 medium onions
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 leek
  • 2 bay leaves

For the stew (ignore if you’re only doing the beef tea)

  • About 500g stewing beef
  • 150g pearl barley
  • 250g mushrooms

Method

Roughly chop the onions and garlic and put them in a stock pot. If you’re doing a chunky soup, cut the green part of the leek and add to the pan – if you’re just doing beef tea, add the whole leek. Boil all the stock ingredients with about 1.5 l water for about 20-25 minutes. If a lot of water has boiled off, top it up. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Filter the stock through a sieve, and throw away the bones etc. This can now be drunk as a beef tea.

Otherwise, add the pearl barley and beef to the stock. Simmer for 20 minutes. Add the mushrooms and the leftover leek and simmer for another 10 minutes.

Serve with crusty bread!

Recipe: Broccoli and Stilton Soup

Piping hot soup

It’s been a while since we put a recipe up, but I managed to bring back a block of stilton cheese to Germany and this soup turned out too good not to share.

Ingredients

  • 1 large head or 2 medium heads of broccoli
  • 1 large onion or 2 medium onions
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 leek
  • Around 200 g (one wedge) stilton
  • Herbs (I used basil, thyme and tarragon)
  • Optional: cream to garnish

Equipment

  • 2 large pots
  • 1 sieve
  • 1 stick blender

Method

  1. Cut the florets off the broccoli (keep the stems!), slice the leek (keep the tips!) and chop up the onion (keep the ends!). Cut the stilton into reasonably small pieces (keep the rind!)
  2. Put the broccoli stems, leek leaves, onion off-cuts and stilton rind in a pot with 1.5 litre of boiling water to make a stock. Simmer for 20 minutes.
  3. In another large pot, sweat the chopped onions, leek and garlic with the herbs, pepper and salt on a low hear.
  4. Once the stock has simmered, take the broccoli stems out. Let them cool a bit, and then use a knife to cut off any small sprouts and leaves. Cut them into smallish pieces. Drain the stock through a sieve into the other pot. Discard the leek, onion and stilton cuttings.
  5. Add the broccoli florets and stems and simmer for about 5 minutes.
  6. Take the soup off the boil and blend it smooth.
  7. Put a little bit of stilton to one side for a garnish. Add the rest to the soup. Briefly blend to mix the soup through.
  8. If the soup seems too thick, dilute with a little cream. Taste – add more salt if necessary (it shouldn’t need much, since the cheese is also salty).
  9. Serve, crumbling the left over stilton on top as a garnish.

 

Thoughts: Death’s End, by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu

At first I was putting this off because I wanted to let the story sit for a while, and then I found myself putting it off because I didn’t want it to be over. How can it be over?! I know that Cixin Liu has given me more than I deserved. He gave me a whole extra book after the perfect ending of The Dark Forest! He took me to a time before The Three-Body Problem and then all the way to the end of the universe! He even gave me a sort of wink at the end to reassure me that my secret opinions about the choices of the characters were all correct.

Spoilers everywhere, as this is the last book in a trilogy!

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