The Incendiaries (a novel about a relationship gone wrong, and my story of apricot bread gone right)

The book: The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon.

Last week I read The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon. The novel is the (fictional) account of a college student, Will Kendall, trying to understand how his ex-girlfriend became deeply involved in a pro-life cult. The story is primarily told from Will’s perspective, although he also tries to imagine pieces of the story from the perspectives of his ex-girlfriend Phoebe Lin and cult-leader John Leal. As the plot unfolds, the novel also becomes the story of the dissolution of Will and Phoebe’s relationship, as well as a story about Will’s fraught relationship with religion.

The first few chapters of The Incendiaries seem like a typical college love-story, as R. O. Kwon spends a lot of time developing Will and Phoebe’s characters and their relationship. However, as the story progresses, it becomes much darker. We see the flaws in Will and Phoebe’s relationship, as well as Phoebe’s underlying guilt complex that makes her so vulnerable to unhealthy relationships and religious brainwashing.

One thing that surprised me in The Incendiaries was realizing that the narrator – Will Kendall – was often unreliable. It becomes especially evident in the second half of the novel that, although Will likes to think of himself as an unbiased observer, sometimes his perspective is simply wrong. He is blinded by his attachment to Phoebe, and he can only see her as an idealized image, not the complex person she truly is. Of course, Will doesn’t realize this – he thinks his flawed perspective is the objective truth. These shortcomings of Will make him frustrating, but realistic, and R. O. Kwon did an amazing job writing from his realistically flawed perspective.

In addition to having complex, well-developed characters, The Incendiaries is an addictive and thought-provoking read. There are questions about the story that I still haven’t resolved (and I finished this book over a week ago). For example: did Phoebe’s increasing involvement in the cult cause her relationship with Will to dissolve, or was it the slow dissolution of their relationship that pushed her further into the cult? It’s hard to say because there is validity to both perspectives, but I really like how R. O. Kwon leaves this ambiguous and forces the reader to think for themselves.

Overall, I highly recommend The Incendiaries. R. O. Kwon beautifully captures the recklessness and naiveté of young love, as well as how deep unexamined pain can drive people to extreme actions. The novel’s ending leaves major questions unresolved, yet somehow The Incendiaries is still a totally satisfying read.

The bake: apricot swirl bread.

For The Incendiaries, I decided to bake something inspired by the character of Phoebe. Throughout the novel, we see how she fluctuates between discipline and wildness, and as such, I decided to bake something that straddles the line between both.

To me, baking with yeast is the ultimate crossover between discipline and wildness. Yeast is a living organism, and small changes in temperature or humidity have a huge impact on the way yeast reacts with other baking ingredients. Yet there’s a reason why humans have been baking with yeast for centuries: under the right conditions yeast behaves predictably, making it very useful as long as it’s used carefully.

With that in mind, I made this apricot swirl bread from King Arthur Flour (they call it a “coffee cake” on their website, but I would call it a bread). I followed the recipe exactly as its written on the site because, as mentioned above, yeast requires specific conditions! It took about three hours, but much of the time was inactive.

I was so excited to cut a slice of bread that I forgot to take a picture of the in-tact loaf! This is what it looks like with one slice already cut out, oops!

My bread didn’t turn out nearly as beautifully as the King Arthur Flour example…I guess the imperfections highlight the “wildness” that partly inspired this bake. Imperfections and all, this is a lovely bread: light enough that you don’t feel too indulgent eating it, and packed with delicious apricot flavor. Perfect to soothe your soul after the emotional journey that was The Incendiaries…or to enjoy for any other occasion!

nîtisânak (a memoir that I can’t stop thinking about, and that inspired me to bake poppy seed muffins)

The book: nîtisânak by Lindsay Nixon.

nîtisânak is Lindsay Nixon’s memoir about growing up native and queer in the Canadian prairie. It is a book that covers many issues, including identity, family, oppression, and truth. nîtisânak also utilizes many forms of writing, including narrative, poetry, and even illustration.

nîtisânak was unlike anything I’ve read before. From the perspectives offered, to the writing style itself – this book was truly mesmerizing. Lindsay Nixon shares their thoughts on power, family, capitalism, punk rock, and so much more – all from the rarely-heard perspective of a queer Native Canadian. One of the major themes that Nixon touches on is the idea of “home.” Like, how do you define home? For some people, home is the physical space that you occupy; whereas for others home may refer to the people that you surround yourself with, your chosen kin. Either (or another) interpretation is completely valid: “home” is a concept that every individual defines for themselves (while hopefully understanding and respecting that other people may have different interpretations).

This ties into another important theme in nîtisânak: the concept of “truth.” Sometimes when people remember or perceive things differently, they simply have different truths. Nixon beautifully brings up this point when talking about how they and their late mother have very different memories of the same event:

“whose version of the story…is right…will never be reconciled. I’m the only one left to carry our story forward -which is perhaps why I cautiously wade through remembering with a hint of cynicism. Because whose truth is The Truth, you know?

However, Nixon also acknowledges the bitter side of nuanced truths: society routinely favors the white man’s version of the truth as “The Truth.” Nixon beautifully condemns this societal practice of disbelieving oppressed, minority groups:

“As if truth isn’t relative and, if she contends that her experience is true, well then, isn’t it to her at least?”

The nuance of the concepts of “home” and “truth” were what stuck with me most after reading nîtisânak, but the entire memoir is incredible. Lindsay Nixon’s writing is gorgeous, and they bring so much life and realness to each topic they discuss. The best way to understand is to read the book for yourself, and I hope that you will.

The bake: poppyseed muffins.

nîtisânak was so thought-provoking and complex, that at first I felt like summarizing the memoir through baking would be doing it a disservice. I worried that a bake based on nîtisânak would be simplifying Nixon’s story and, by extension, their experiences. But then I remembered that the point of this blog isn’t to summarize the books that I read; it’s to create things that are inspired by them.

What inspired me most in nîtisânak were Nixon’s different descriptions of the concept of “home.” After reading the memoir, I thought a lot about my own definitions of “home.” One of my “homes” is the house and family in which I grew up. There is also the physical space that I occupy now, and my chosen family. With that in mind, I tried to think of something that could merge these versions of home…and I ended up with poppyseed muffins. The bake had to be a muffin of some kind, because that is the only thing I can remember my mom ever baking when I lived with her. I also wanted to incorporate poppy seeds, because my loving partner (AKA my chosen kin) said that a lot of the traditional desserts that his family enjoys involve poppy seeds.

Tried to create something inspired by my nuanced thoughts on “home” – ended up with poppy seed muffins.

I ended up making a modified version of these poppy seed muffins from Taste of Home (very fitting website name given the theme of this bake). I substituted half of the flour with almond flour, and then added a teaspoon of potato flour to help with the bake. I also used ricotta cheese instead of milk.

The muffins are good, but a bit too sweet. Even though they were inspired by my thoughts on home, they don’t make me feel nostalgic for home. That is okay, because I still loved the process of making them. And with more modification to the recipe, I can totally see poppy seed muffins becoming a new tradition that I associate with (my chosen) home.

I enjoyed the muffins with cherry jam and ricotta cheese!

(Valentine’s Day cheesecake with) Less

The book: Less by Andrew Sean Greer.

It is almost Valentine’s Day, and I recently finished a seasonally appropriate novel to celebrate. Less is the story of Arthur Less, a middle-aged writer who plans a spontaneous trip around the world to avoid his ex-lover’s wedding. He travels to New York, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Morocco, India, and Japan – with exactly none of the trips playing out as he had expected.

Less is phenomenal for many reasons, and one of those reasons is the prose. I have always been amazed at the ability of writers to describe common experiences in a way that makes them seem novel or profound. Andrew Sean Greer does this throughout Less. Take, for example, his insight into why anxious people are actually quite brave:

“…because he is afraid of everything, nothing is harder than anything else. Taking a trip around the world is no more terrifying than buying a stick of gum.”

Another wonderful thing about Less is the humor. Although the novel is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, it is frequently smirk-or-chuckle-to-yourself funny. The entire visit to Germany, for example, is made incredibly light by translating Less’s broken German (Less thinks he is fluent, by the way) into its English equivalent. Even simple one-liners are enough to make you smile, like the description of Less feeling like “a criminal who has pulled off one last heist” for managing to mail off the airport’s tax-free form despite government bureaucracy making this a nearly impossible task.

Then, there is the plot itself. Arthur Less travels to eight different destinations, and we read about his adventures in each one. Despite the fact that world travel drives the plot, Less is neither travel-porn nor the stereotypical obscenely inspirational “finding-yourself” narrative. Although Less does reflect on his life and himself throughout his travels, I think the novel differs from the aforementioned genres because it never takes itself too seriously. Even at its most contemplative, Less is light-hearted.

Perhaps the best thing about Less was that it could have ended any number of ways and still been a satisfying read. By the end of Less’s journey, we know that he has grown and that he is going to be okay regardless of what happens when he returns home. That being said, I loved the ending that Andrew Sean Greer chose for this book. And if you are a fan of romantic comedies, I suspect you will too.

The bake: strawberry chocolate cheesecake.

Since Less is essentially a romantic comedy in novel form, I decided to be cheesy and bake a romantic dessert. No, literally. I decided to be cheesy, as in, I baked a cheesecake. Specifically, this raspberry chocolate cheesecake from I Am Baker. Actually, I ended up making a strawberry chocolate cheesecake, because all the raspberries at my local Kroger were covered in mold.

This bake is a little bit involved. The preparation required so many mixing bowls (read: so many dishes to wash)! Also, the actual baking of a cheesecake is no easy task! This was my first time ever attempting to make cheesecake, and I learned the hard way that precision is key. Luckily, I was able to hide the major flaws – cracks in the top of the cake – with decoration.

The finished dessert! I meant to take a picture of what it looked like sliced…but my co-workers and I devoured the cake too quickly!

Cosmetic difficulties aside, this was a fantastic recipe. This dessert is indulgent, cheesy, and sweet – making it an excellent tribute to Less and to Valentine’s Day.

Who Is Vera Kelly? (and adventures in Argentinian cooking)

The book: Who is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht.

One of my reading goals for 2019 is to broaden what I read, specifically by reading more books by women, people of color, and/or queer authors – and to read books featuring non-white and queer characters. Who is Vera Kelly? is my first read of 2019 that I found by actively searching LGBTQ+ book lists. It is the story of a young CIA agent who is tasked with infiltrating a student activist group in the volatile political climate of Argentina in the 1960’s.

Who is Vera Kelly? is amazing for many reasons. First of all, the plot is thrilling. After a certain point, Vera’s adventures in Argentina became so fascinating that I couldn’t stop reading. In addition to creating a compelling plot, author Rosalie Knecht skillfully weaves chapters about Vera’s backstory throughout the novel. These chapters help paint a more complete and complex image of Vera, and because they’re intertwined throughout the book, they also build suspense to the Argentinian spy plot.

Another strength of Who is Vera Kelly? is Vera herself. She is a complex, well-developed, and admirable character. Despite being young, Vera knows exactly who she is, and she’s confident in herself. She’s cool, competent, and focused – but not without empathy for others. I found Vera incredibly likable, which only fueled my interest in the novel more – I was rooting for her and wanted to see how her story would play out!

I’ll also mention that Vera’s sexual orientation plays a key role in who she is as a person. When Vera was a young teenager, her mother forcefully separated her from her best friend (for whom she had romantic feelings). This experience played a huge role in who Vera became as an adult, and it is a memory that she frequently revisits. Yet as a CIA operative, Vera’s queerness is irrelevant. She is skilled at her position, and her work never suffers for her being gay. This is so important, and this is another reason why I love the way that Knecht portrayed Vera’s character.

All in all, I would definitely recommend this book. It’s not a typical spy novel, but it’s thrilling and compelling. And Vera Kelly is a wonderfully complex and interesting character! I hope that Knecht continues to write Vera Kelly adventures, because I am so curious to see what she’ll do next!

The bake: vegetarian empanadas, two ways.

Who is Vera Kelly? is all about Vera’s adventures in Argentina…so I decided that I would venture into the realm of Argentinian cooking! By making these vegetarian empanadas. This recipe seemed perfectly appropriate, because the author of the blog is Canadian – and in the book Vera’s fake spy identity is a Canadian student!

I tried two of the fillings: the sweet potato lentil, and the onion and cheese. I loved the onion and cheese filling – the oregano gives it a lovely flavor – but I found the sweet potato lentil one a bit bland. I would just add extra spices to taste next time…

This is the onion and cheese filled pastry – my favorite of the two I tried.

…but to be honest I’m not sure if there will be a next time! I really wanted to like this recipe…but the dough gave me problems. Like to the point that I couldn’t use it. So I tossed the dough (side note: I hate wasting food and I still feel bad about this), and thawed some frozen puff pastry sheets from my freezer. Is using puff pastry dough to make empanadas the authentic way? Probably not. But the goal of my bake had changed from authenticity to not wasting anymore food. 

The savory pastries – I won’t call them empanadas – were good, but I don’t think I would make them again. That being said, I’m not upset about how the bake turned out. It was a fun adventure, and the hiccup with the dough was just an interesting plot twist.

The final product: puff pastries with tasty savory fillings. Not empanadas, but still very tasty.