Some people have Paris. Some people dream of the long, languorous Italian countryside. Some romanticise about the bustling streets of New York City. Somewhere far away that symbolises something romantic and other worldly. A place to dream of visiting and aspire to one day call it home. For me, it’s Berlin. I love it’s dark European brood, it’s unpretentious love of literature and the arts, the idea of being surrounded by history both old and new. And I absolutely love how much the Germans love Christmas.
As we approach Christmas, sometimes you need a reminder to look after yourself. Suddenly all those work deadlines are due right now, the streets are filled with tourists and the supermarkets frantic, the stress of presents and money and so many people to see, while the holidays bring up every emotion possible. This year this has been heightened further by some incredibly tragic, frightening and sad days in the Australian news. And in the background, there was little old me understandably struggling to read very serious, complex literary fiction. Just like the time I dived in to My Salinger Year, I knew I needed something more nourishing. My partner bought me My Berlin Kitchen months ago and I’ve been waiting for a special occasion to read it. This week was very special — this week my partner and I bought one-way flights to Berlin. It’s something we’ve been planning for almost eighteen months and this week we bit the bullet and booked. On the very first day of Europe’s 2015 summer, we will be crossing the globe for a new phase in our lives. Twelve months of travel, new endeavours and of course, food. So as some comfort to my brain that was beginning to feel like a shaken bottle of soft drink about ready to explode, I picked up My Berlin Kitchen ready to be swept away.
My Berlin Kitchen is written by a blogger - Luisa Weiss of The Wednesday Chef fame - and I’ll admit that this book does often read like a series of blog posts, rather than a well-plotted narrative. The many anecdotes, though compiled chronologically, often feel like extended copy-and-paste chunks of a story finished with recipes, rather than a more formed memoir such as Dress, Memory. Though there are some lovely moments, such as early on when Luisa describes her difficulty in finding a true home:
When you grow up all mishmashed like I did, with an American passport and Italian citizenship and a birth certificate issued in West Berlin, it might take you a little longer than usual to figure out your place in the world.
Though the early chapters provide context and form it into a sort of coming-of-age story, it just doesn’t have the self-deprication and likeability of Dress, Memory or My Salinger Year. The real focus of this book is the love story between Luisa and her now husband, Max, and it’s intrinsic ties to the city of Berlin and it’s only really when the story makes it to these intersections does it find its feet and become a rather enchanting love story to the city of Berlin. Scenes such as this where Luisa is picking wild plums made me ooze excitement. I read this passage while grinning like an idiot on the tram, seemingly mad to all those who surrounded me:
The city still had a special, wild feel to it. There was something so innocent and untouched about an abandoned fruit orchard, open for the picking, just a few miles from the city centre, making jelly from berries found on bushes in the park across the street, and finding wild plum trees in people’s backyards.
But it was in her descriptions of Christmas that I was totally won over by Luisa. I am unashamedly a Christmas person. Often at this time of year I just wish other people would embrace how lovely it is and forget all the stress and panic that comes from rushing and spending crazy amounts of money. I am a total sucker for the magic of Christmas, so I have to admit I read this passage a few times over, embracing Weiss and German traditions like a long-lost kindred spirit:
There is no better place in the world to celebrate Christmas than in Germany. No country I know takes it more seriously. And no other place on Earth is still able to infuse the holiday with such a sense of solemn tradition and beauty. Weihnachten in Deutschland still retains a sense of the sacred and the divine.
Weiss goes on to describe the treats on offer: “all manner of Christmas cookies or moist Stollen”, warm Glühwein, lit candles and adorned trees. Whilst this chapter offers some beautiful German Christmas recipes, I chose to make this slightly lighter and therefore more appropriate to Australian summer, recipe for Spiced Vanilla Cookies. It’s another recipe from Donna Hay Magazine’s Christmas issue (where I also took the recipe featured with Stoner here). Without online access to this recipe, I’d use a traditional sugar cookie recipe as the base, increasing the vanilla used and adding a teaspoon each of cinnamon and mixed spice to the flour before incorporating into fluffy whipped butter, sugar and eggs. This particular recipe was so incredibly easy to make and I was able to double the quantities for a large batch to gift to family and friends without an issue. They’re not as heavy as a more traditional gingerbread, and as a result make a friendlier introduction to spices for the uninitiated. The heavy quantity of vanilla here packs a heady punch, with the spices just bringing a nice hum in the back of the palette. The trickiest part by far is dealing with the rather temperamental dough. The importance of refrigerating between rolling, cutting and baking cannot be underestimated, particularly when cooking on a warm Australian summer’s day. The buttery dough just will not cooperate unless it is cold (it should be stiff each time you take it from the fridge). After a few infuriating attempts to rush through, I eventually learnt to embrace the slower pace and take my time, and the results improved tremendously. Straight from the oven the cookies felt a little under cooked, but after a few minutes cooling on the tray they crisped up nicely, allowing me to transfer them to wire racks to finish cooling completely. A few decorative twirls of simple icing and they were ready to package as little treats for my in-laws.
As I was cooking, it was hard not to reflect on the year that is coming to a close, and think about where 2015 will take me. 2014 has been incredibly busy but equally rewarding. I have had some amazing producing jobs, have met some wonderful new people and have finally, after fifteen years, started to call myself a writer. But it’s also been a difficult balance. I haven’t spent nearly as much time with my partner, family and close friends as I would have liked, and as I grow another year older, it feels like a good time to take a step back and try new things, create a simpler life and take things slowly for a change. So when I step on to the plane in June, I’ll be stepping away from my day job as an events producer for awhile, but in doing so will be making more time to write, to read, to exercise, to travel, to spend time with the ones I love. Because as I wrote for The End of Days - life is short. I’m seeing it not only on the news but in my friends and loved ones. Sometimes you just need to take a risk and do the things you’ve always wanted to do, because you never know what life will throw at you next. Since launching book-plate in January I feel like I’ve come a long way in many parts of my life, and so many of them have been shared here. Thank you with all of my heart for reading, sharing, talking to me about books, food and ideas. Book-plate will be a big part of the next year, no matter where I am, and I can not wait.
Being the end of the year, I couldn’t resist the temptation to think about my favourite books read over 2014. However whilst I was putting this list together I realised how few books I actually read that were released this year. Even as a somewhat voracious reader, I always feel like I’m catching up. For all the books I’ve read in 2014, there is a list nearly as long of those I wish I’d snuck in time to read too: Ali Smith’s How To Be Both; David Gilbert’s & Sons; Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing; Mary Miller’s The Last Days of California; Lorrie More’s Bark; Ben Lerner’s 10:04; Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World; John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van; Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminism and An Untamed State; and the entire, slightly imposing, collection of novels and memoirs I’m taking with me on holiday.
But despite this, it’s been a brilliant year of reading. As I said last week, in many ways I’ve changed what I read, but in many ways it’s not that different either. I will always, always go for contemporary literary fiction over almost anything, particularly stories of dysfunctional families or books that question who we are and why we do what we do.
So here are the top five fiction books I read from 2014:
1. Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
2. Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days
3. Dave Eggers’ Your Fathers, Where Are They?...
4. Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
5. Christos Tsiolkas’ Merciless Gods
And the top five non-fiction books:
1. Hilton Als’ White Girls (technically a 2013 release but I spent all of 2014 thinking about it. Seriously).
2. Sophie Cunningham’s Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy (reviewed with Ruth Park's A Harp In The South)
3. Erik Jensen’s Acute Misfortunte: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen (reviewed with Haruki Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki)
4. Lorelei Vashti’s Dress, Memory
5. Ronnie Scott’s Salad Days (reviewed with Haruki Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki)
Plus, because otherwise I feel like I’m doing a disservice to all the reading I did this year, here are the top ten fiction books I read from previous years in 2014, including those from the summer break, because it hurts me not to acknowledge them:
1. Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North
2. Laurent Binet’s HHhH
3. Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings
4. Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation
5. Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda
6. Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
7. Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?
8. Zadie Smith’s The Embassy of Cambodia
9. A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven
10. Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel
Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a happy and healthy new year, filled with reading and eating whilst surrounded by loved ones. Love, Kylie. x
As 2014 comes to a close, I’m already looking forward to several 2015 releases. There are new novels from Jonathan Franzen and Kuzuo Ishiguro, there’s Judy Blume’s first book for adults in sixteen years, Mikhail Elizarov’s The Librarian, Miranda July’s The First Bad Man and Phil Klay’s Redeployment, which is getting amazing reviews internationally.