5 Books to Read this Summer

1) Carry on, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

If you want to learn how to write dialogue, read Wodehouse.

2) Stoner by John Williams

Sad and smooth, like a glass of almond milk.

3) Merriam-Webster’s Spanish-English Medical Dictionary (Spanish Edition)

Do you know how to say “small-incision cataract surgery” in Spanish?

4) El Tercer Reich by Roberto Bolaño

A book all about lying on the beach and looking for your (possibly) dead friend.

5) Min Camp 6 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

It still hasn’t come out in its English translation and won’t until 2018. Which means you can buy it in Norwegian, Swedish, or Danish and put it in Google Translate. Or learn one of those languages. Or move to Sweden.

Goenaga: A Tribute to Spain’s Finest Yogurt


God, I love yogurt.

Originally written 14 December 2015 while living in San Sebastian, Spain. 

Spain generally has shitty yogurt.  Spain also generally has shitty grocery stores.  This morning I went to the grocery store Lidl near my house and after five minutes of frantically dodging old people and unsuccessfully trying to find any yogurt that didn’t look terrible, I finally gave up and left and went to Eroski.

Eroski is substantially better than Lidl but still by no means what I’d call “great.”  Like I said before, great supermarkets do not exist in Spain.  Actually that’s not completely true.  The Corte Ingles supermarkets are the only supermarkets in Spain I’ve ever witnessed that might be termed “good.”  You can get Fage yogurt there (though sometimes only the nonfat variety which is awful), the aisles are fairly ample, and the selection is noteworthy..

In San Sebastian there is no Corte Ingles supermarket, so I’m forced to make due with my two favorites: Eroski and Super Amara.  Super Amara is wonderful (Spain wonderful); they have a variety of yogurts and not all of them make you want to wretch.  The best one they have, one that’s also carried by Eroski, is called “Goenaga.”

Goenaga comes in little blue tubs (the normal version) or green tubs (the low or nonfat version).  Unless you’re suffering from some kind of bizarre yogurt mental illness, you’ll buy the blue tubs.  You’ll take them home, you’ll perch over them like a vulture poised over fresh carrion, and  you’ll be delighted to find a little pro-biotic layer of creamy film on top that your spoon will slice through to get to the even creamier goodness beneath.  You will not eat one tub.  You will eat at least two.  And if you’re like me, you’ll eat all four tubs in one sitting, stopping rarely to breathe and ending with a dreamy smile on your face.

This little rant on yogurt leads to an even bigger rant on Spain in general.  There are some wonderful things about Spain.  There are some things that Spain, and Spaniards, do really well.  Yogurt, generally, is not one of them.  Supermarkets are definitely not one of them.  Ethnic food isn’t of them, either.  What do Spaniards do well?


Five Good Travel Books

It’s interesting: I don’t read travel books much (I usually prefer novels) and yet the following books are not only travel books but some of my favorite books of all time.

I’m not exactly sure what this means, but I think it means that a lot of travel books are annoying. It usually starts with the title.  Take No Touch Monkey! by Ayun Halliday, for example. I will never read that book, not because it’s a bad book (I have no idea if it’s good or bad) but simply because of the title.

A lot of travel books seem to suffer from the malady of trying to make experiences seem more dramatic or crazy than they are. I’ve suffered from this same pitfall. “Creative” non-fiction writers tend to think their experiences are unique.

But though they might not be unique, how you tell it is. Bill Bryson, for one, has proven a great travel writer can write something readable about a mundane experience. It’s not in how you lived it then but how you tell it, and the following authors and books tell it well.

Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe, Bill Bryson

This was the first real travel book I read. I belly-laughed at multiple parts in the book, and it sparked my love affair with Bill Bryson, still one of my favorite authors.

Quotable quote: “Romans park their cars the way I would if I had just spilled a beaker of hydrochloric acid on my lap.”

A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s best book, which has since been made into a movie. A narrative about walking a trail day after day seems like it would be boring, but Bryson’s talent for taking any experience, like shopping for hiking gear at the local co-op, and turning it into comedy, is apparent.

Quotable quote: “We spent a whole afternoon going through his stock. He would say things to me like: ‘Now this has a 70-denier high-density abrasion-resistant fly with a ripstop weave. On the other hand, and I’ll be frank with you here’-and he would lean to me and reduce his voice to a low, candid tone, as if disclosing that it had once been arrested in a public toilet with a sailor-‘the seams are lap felled rather than bias taped and the vestibule is a little cramped.'”

Passage to Juneau, Jonathan Raban

The description of navigating Deception Pass alone is reason to read this book. The meditative language fits the pace of sailing/motoring up the Inside Passage from Seattle to Alaska perfectly.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

I only read this recently. I like it for the dark, dream-like qualities — it’s hard to tell if what is happening is really real or just some kind of malaria-induced hallucination.

There is also something to be said for heading into the unknown. Not just the unknown for you, but the unknown for most. Travel is a chance to do this.

Quotable quote: “We live as we dream–alone….”

Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a true story, Chuck Klosterman

Still my favorite Klosterman book of all time, I re-read KYTL every couple of years, or at least snippets of it. The reason this book is so good is because it’s not about what it’s supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about Klosterman traveling through the US going to sites where famous rock stars have died, but it’s actually about his relationships with various women. And we humans love to read about relationships, especially when talked about by someone as funny as Chuck.

Quotable quote: “…Lenore will send me the nicest e-mail I’ve ever received from anyone, and reading it will make me want to hide in a cave for 10,000 years.”


50 Shades of Earl Grey

taller de te

“Hardwood floors! Tasteful lighting! A garden! Cool trinkets! A beautiful ivy plant I thought was fake but is actually totally real!”

I’m imagining a torture situation in which I have to yell out true statements about Taller de Te, Bogota’s number one specialty tea shop. Every time I yell out something false Adriana, one of the owners, clad in hip-high leather boots, cracks me across the stomach with a sock full of quarters.

“Name our four most exquisite specialty teas,” she says in her lilting Colombian accent.

I think about it. “Coca leaf tea.”

“I can’t hear you.”

“Coca leaf tea!”

The quarters stay steady.

“Sencha rose?”

She whips me across the abdomen. “Sencha Rose is not specialty!”

I frantically search my memory banks.  There is one tea.  It’s from China and of the particular variety they stock only 300 bricks were ever produced.  But what is it called?  Pearl?  Po-Er?  It’s some kind of Chinese name.  

“Pearl?” I venture.

“What did you say?” 

“Pearl,” I say again.

She throws back her head and laughs.  “There is no ‘Pearl’ tea here, my dear.  There is only Pu-erh.  It is the most exquisite tea we have.”

I was so close. “Pu-erh! Pu-erh!  Pu-errrrrrrr!” I scream, but it’s too late. There’s a grunt and the sock whizzes through the air. I gasp for breath and look up at Adriana. She’s smiling and stroking the sock of quarters as if it were a Shar Pei. I groan with delicious pain and slip into unconsciousness…

Located in the leafy Chapinero Alto district, Taller de Te is the best tea shop in Bogota.  In a country known for its coffee, Taller de Te has distinguished itself in the world of tea.  The shop boasts exotic teas from around the world: coca leaf tea, high-grade matcha tea, and an exotic Pu-erh of which only 300 bricks were produced. Sometimes when I go into the shop I just sit and there and mutter the words Pu-erh to myself. I’m not quite sure how to pronounce it, but I love how it rolls off the tongue. Pu-erh. Pu-erh. Pu-errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrh.

Today Taller de Te is crowded. This is usually not the case. Usually I’m the only customer. But today is Saturday and the Bogotanos are out in force. They need their tea, they need it loose-leaf, and they need it now. The shop is buzzing. It smells like cheap glue because Carla, one of other owners, is making crafts. I feel 70% happy and 30% like I might pass out. I’ve just ordered a “Bollywood Chai Tea” for the horrendous price of 10,000 COP (3.40 USD). The music that’s playing is tasteful. For some reason the fact that it’s so tasteful is irritating. What standard of perfection! I shall never live up to it. I am flesh and bone. I experience primitive emotions like lust and envy. I do not deserve to drink this tea. I deserve to be flogged by Adriana. Pu-erh! Pu-erh!

My chai latte comes. It smells like a gingerbread house. It smells like Christmas. I feel like I’m Hansel of Hansel and Gretel, being led toward the house of a witch. Except instead of breadcrumbs dotting the path there are tiny cups of steaming-hot chai. And instead of being in the forest I’m in a South American metropolis. And instead of being led toward the house of a witch I’m being led towards Adriana, who in real life is polite and helpful, with cute bangs and skin like the soft glow of a sunrise. She might be the most beautiful tea shop worker in northeastern Bogota. She places the chai latte in front me. I say “Thank you.” She says, “OK.”

The chai is delicious. It’s perfectly sweetened with panela (sugarcane). Not too sweet, though — Adriana would never allow that. I sip it and gaze into the garden. Night falls around us in this garden of chai and evil. The spices are exquisite. I detect cardamom. I slip into a kind of reverie and soon the tea is gone. I’m not satisfied; I want more. But more what? More milk? More spices? More tasteful decoration?

I look over at Adriana.  In my mind she hikes up her skirt to show off her hip-length boots and reaches for a sock of quarters. She knows what I want more of. Pu-erh. Pu-erh! Pu-errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrh.