If You See Me Don’t Say Hi (short-stories unified by a single theme, and unique cupcakes unified by a base flavor)

The book: If You See Me Don’t Say Hi by Neel Patel.

Recently I read If You See Me Don’t Say Hi, a collection of fictional short stories by Neel Patel. Each short story is told from the perspective of a different character, most of whom are first-generation Indian-Americans. Individually, the stories are shocking, uncomfortable, and above all else, relatable. Collectively, they completely upend some of the commonly-believed stereotypes about Indian-Americans in the United States.

If You See Me Don’t Say Hi was a quick and engaging read. Like many short-stories, the plot in each story moves quickly: some stories span ten or more years in just 10-20 pages. My favorite stories, however, were the ones in which the plot moved just slightly slower; or the stories that provided more time to intimately know and understand the characters. The last two stories in the collection do an especially great job of this; and they are actually related to each other, giving the reader a more nuanced perspective of the characters and their relationship.

What I loved most about If You See Me Don’t Say Hi were the complex (and oftentimes difficult) characters. Each story features a character going through a challenging time in their life: a closeted-gay high school student struggles to cope with bullying and his father walking out on his family; a young doctor becomes completely unhinged and has a mental breakdown following the death of her parents; two young adults become isolated from their community as gossip wreaks havoc on their reputations. The characters behave in shocking, yet completely familiar ways in response to the challenges they are going through. It is through these surprising-yet-not-surprising behaviors that Patel so brilliantly debunks stereotypes of Indian-Americans. Patel’s characters react the way any human being might respond to heartbreak, trauma, isolation, and failure – they just happen to Indian-American.

Overall, I thought If You See Me Don’t Say Hi was a quick and wonderful read. As with most collections of short-stories, some stories are stronger than others. Personally, I liked the last two stories best, because they are connected to each other, and I liked the continuity and nuance of that. Each story is unique and important, though; and they collectively deconstruct the problematic stereotypes about Indian-Americans in the United States.

The bake: chocolate-tahini cupcakes with assorted frostings.

For If You See Me Don’t Say Hi, I was inspired by the cover art of the book, which shows varying shades of brown, caramel, and peach. In tribute to that, I decided to make chocolate cupcakes with frostings in various shades of brown.

Specifically, I made this chocolate tahini cake from flavor-genius Molly Yeh, but as cupcakes instead of a full cake. I frosted some cupcakes with the tahini buttercream that is given with the recipe, but I also made small batches of other frostings to achieve varying shades of brown: chai cream cheese frosting, chocolate cream cheese frosting, and coffee buttercream.

The cake was very straightforward to make – it is oil-based, which makes it much easier to prepare than a butter-based cake. It was also a great cake to eat! The cake itself tasted like a rich, complex chocolate cake. I couldn’t actually detect the tahini flavor, but I’m sure that the tahini added to the complexity. The frostings were also good, with my favorites being the tahini buttercream and the chocolate cream cheese. What I liked most about this bake was that the different frostings lent diversity, while the single cake flavor unified everything. This is fitting for If You See Me Don’t Say Hi, since it is a collection of unique stories unified by a single theme.

I also experimented with different frosting application methods – the frostings that were piped (as opposed to spread with a knife) definitely look neater.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (plus, my first attempt at baking something “gorgeous”)

The book: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.

Earlier this month, I read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. The book takes the form of a letter from a son to his (illiterate) mother, divulging parts of his life to her that she has never known. In the book/letter, he also explains the impact that their family history – starting in Vietnam in the late 20th century – and shared experiences have had on him. The memories he writes about all come together to tell an intimate and moving life-story.

My favorite thing about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was, without a doubt, the beautiful writing. The writing often felt more like poetry than prose, something I had never encountered in a fiction novel before. Because the writing was so poetic, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was not only a fascinating story, but also tender and moving in a way that most novels are not. The poetic writing style also meant that I couldn’t quickly binge-read this novel (in the way that some fiction books can be binged) – On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a book that demands to be read slowly, in order to take in every (beautifully-written) word.

In addition to being beautifully written, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous also feels relevant and important in today’s world. The narrator’s encounters with racism, addiction, poverty, and abuse made me seriously consider these social issues, while really empathizing with those who suffer from them. The passages that deal with these issues never feel preachy or forced, though. They are simply portrayed as part of the narrator’s real lived experiences – part of why he has become the person that he is now.

One social issue that is especially highlighted in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is abuse (and abusive relationships). Without spoiling any of the novel, I will say that certain relationships portrayed in this novel seemed abusive to me, yet the narrator still writes about them with love and tenderness. I am conflicted by this, because I feel that writing about abusers in a loving manner is – in some way that I can’t quite explain – excusing their abusive behavior. On the other hand, though, the narrator unsparingly describes the abuse that he witnessed or experienced – therefore calling out the abusers.

Overall, I really enjoyed On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It is a beautifully written book, that reads more like poetry than a fiction novel. The narrator’s heartfelt descriptions of formative life experiences are compelling, and they will stick with you, leaving you feeling like you know the narrator. My only caveat is this: because abuse is dealt with in a very complex way, I might not recommend this book to readers with a history of abuse (or I would least caution them before reading).

The bake: lime meringue pie.

I was inspired by the title of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and therefore decided to try to bake something…well…gorgeous. My fiancé loves to bake pie, so we combined forces to make an aesthetically pleasing lime meringue pie.

To make the pie, we used this recipe from Cravings Journal. My fiancé made the cookie crust and lime filling, and I made (and piped) the meringue. We followed this recipe to the T, with the exception of the meringue topping, which I piped onto the pie instead of spreading as suggested in the recipe. I simply used a star-tip, and piped spirals all over the pie until I had used all the meringue.

Spirals are actually really easy to pipe! It is the perfect beginner’s piping design.

This pie was SO GOOD! The buttery cookie crust, the smooth tart filling, and the crispy meringue topping come together perfectly to create a complex, yet delightful dessert. If I were to make this again, I might add zest of one lime into the pie filling, just to make sure that the lime flavor is bold. But aesthetically, and – more importantly – taste-wise, this truly is a gorgeous dessert.

A slice of the gorgeous pie.

Sunshine Blogger Award

Thank you to Mathew at Blog of the Wolf Boy for nominating me for the Sunshine Blogger Award! Mathew consistently posts interesting and thought-provoking content, including poetry and motivational writing. Recently, he posted a letter from the perspective from his 13-year-old self to his present-day self; it was really moving!

The rules:

  • Thank the person who nominated you and provide a link back to him/her.
  • Answer the 11 questions provided by the blogger who nominated you.
  • Nominate 11 other bloggers and ask them 11 new questions.
  • Notify the nominees by commenting on one of their blog posts.
  • List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award logo on your post.

The questions (complete-the-sentence style):

  1. I love it when…a challenging bake turns out well!
  2. If I could, I would…move into a completely different field of work in the next 1-3 years.
  3. Not too many people know that…I love dancing, and I met my (soon-to-be) husband through swing dancing!
  4. What really gets to my nerves…is when people lack awareness of their surroundings in public spaces, especially public transit.
  5. I can’t comprehend why…people still listen to Fox News.
  6. My fantasy job would be…something creative.
  7. If I were a color, I’d be…a purplish-blue shade.
  8. Sometimes when I’m by myself…I think about what my life would be like if I had made completely different choices earlier on.
  9. This may sound crazy but…here’s my number, so call me maybe. Just kidding! I don’t know how to answer this.
  10. The funniest thing about me…(according to my partner) is the way that I talk to our cats. I use a lot of baby-talk, but then other times I try to lecture them earnestly as though they are humans.
  11. It doesn’t really matter if…people follow a rigid “path” to their career or lifestyle (or what career or lifestyle people have, as long as they are not hurting anyone).

Questions for the next round:

  1. What food could you not live without?
  2. How frequently do you remember your dreams?
  3. Do you prefer warmer or cooler weather?
  4. What was the last thing that made you laugh out loud?
  5. What grosses you out?
  6. What book has influenced you the most, and how?
  7. Do you consider yourself a creative person? Why or why not?
  8. What is your favorite thing to eat for breakfast?
  9. Describe a quirky trait about yourself!
  10. What relaxes you when you’re feeling tense or stressed out?
  11. What is your favorite game?

Nominees:

I am breaking the “rules” of this award and nominating anybody who wants to participate! Or if you don’t want to do a full post, feel free to share your answers with me in the comments!

Maybe You Should Talk To Someone (a book about therapy, and a mint cake inspired by therapy)

The book: Maybe You Should Talk To Someone by Lori Gottlieb.

After reading two novels involving characters overcoming trauma through therapy, I decided to stick with the therapy theme, so I read Maybe You Should Talk To Someone by Lori Gottlieb. The book is a non-fiction account of Lori Gottlieb’s insights on humanity that she gained both as a therapist, and a patient in therapy.

Book cover of "Maybe You Should Talk to Someone."

As I read Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, I was quickly blown away by Lori Gottlieb’s gift for story-telling. Gottlieb manages to take the journeys of actual patients from her therapy practice, and turn them into incredibly compelling and relatable stories. I binged this book the same way I would breeze through a fiction novel, but the plot was the true story of real peoples’ healing.

In addition to being compelling, Maybe You Should Talk To Someone was very well-structured. Gottlieb takes the journeys of four different patients, and alternates among their respective stories throughout the book. She also includes extensive details about her own experience in therapy, and her journey to becoming a therapist. This was effective, because it broke up the plot and built intrigue, while also allowing me to make connections between different individuals’ experiences.

Finally, I loved the way that Gottlieb explained psychological phenomena! She generally steered away from jargon, and when she did use technical terms it was just to define them in ways that a reader coming from a non-clinical background could easily understand. Some of Gottlieb’s explanations of psychological phenomena helped me understand myself better, and even challenged me to change the way I react to certain situations. In particular, her passage about how people often project their insecurities onto other people (or things) because it is easier than looking internally, challenged me to notice and work on this tendency myself.

Overall, I highly recommend this book! There is so much to learn from other peoples’ journeys through emotional healing, and Gottlieb writes about those journeys so compellingly. Through her explanations of psychological tendencies – and examples of these tendencies as demonstrated by her patients and herself – this book has the potential to be a life-changing read.

The bake: “therapy cake” (or fresh mint cake).

For Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, I decided to bake a cake inspired by my own experience in therapy a few years ago. When I left my therapist to move for grad school, she gave me a green stone as a goodbye gift, and when I think of her I often think of that stone. Inspired by my experience with her, and also inspired by the stone, I decided to bake something green and slightly earthy: a fresh mint cake!

To make the fresh mint cake, I used this recipe from My Name Is Yeh. I followed the cake recipe pretty closely (only substituting lime zest for lemon zest), but I baked the cake in an 8″ square pan instead of two 6″ round pans. I also frosted the cake with a homemade lime cream cheese frosting (instead of labneh and honey, as suggested in the recipe), and garnished with fresh mint leaves.

Over two cups of fresh mint on a cutting board.
ALL of this fresh mint (from my balcony “garden”) went into the cake!

I was so pleasantly surprised by this cake. It could have been hit or miss, but it was definitely a HIT! The cake is sweet and minty (the mint flavor really comes through!), while the frosting is deliciously tart. It is also not too rich or heavy, because it uses olive oil (as opposed to butter) as its source of fat. My fiance brought the cake to work yesterday, and it was gone by 11:00AM. I’m seriously considering baking this cake again tomorrow to bring to my neighborhood potluck. Anyway – this cake was surprisingly delightful! It nicely pays tribute to the book (and the individual) that inspired it, and I also found the process of making it to be *therapeutic.*

A square cake, with frosting and mint leaf decoration.
The finished cake, frosted simply with lime cream cheese frosting and garnished with more fresh mint.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (and so are these cheddar scones)

The book: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

Last month, I read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. The novel’s title character, Eleanor, lives a regimented and lonely life without realizing that anything is wrong: she goes to work and prepares healthy meals during the week, and enjoys pizza, wine, and vodka on the weekends. When Eleanor saves an elderly man’s life with the help of her coworker Raymond, the three of them become friends, enriching Eleanor’s life with positive social interaction for the first time in years. As the novel progresses, Eleanor’s formerly-mundane life is permanently changed by her friends, who look out and want the best for her.

I absolutely loved reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. The book somehow manages to strike the perfect balance between hilariousness and darkness. Having spent so many years without social interaction, Eleanor lacks the ability to read social cues, and often says outrageously blunt things without realizing that she is being offensive. Although Eleanor’s lack of filtering is often funny, it never feels like she is the butt-end of a joke. In fact, there are scenes where Eleanor’s coworkers do make fun of her, and those scenes come across as slightly sad rather than funny.

Additionally, author Gail Honeyman goes deeper than just portraying Eleanor’s bluntness as a humorous tic. Throughout the novel, Honeyman provides glimpses into Eleanor’s traumatic childhood, allowing the readers to understand that while Eleanor’s social skills are in some ways amusing, they are most likely coming from a place of pain. I loved this development, because it teaches that peoples’ unusual or unsettling treats generally come from somewhere – and that we should be empathetic rather than dismissive.

The next two paragraphs contains mild spoilers, so read at your own risk!

What I loved most about Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is that it eventually became a book about the real progress that can be made with therapy when people are willing to address their mental health issues. Eleanor’s time in therapy illustrates that opening up can initially be quite difficult, but that doing so can allow people to work through traumas, and better understand and improve themselves. The novel isn’t explicitly marketed as a “mental health book” – wisely so, I think – but it does ultimately take that direction, and it does so in a remarkably effective way.

I also loved how this book didn’t end with Eleanor getting into a romantic relationship! At the end of the book, it seems like romance could be in Eleanor’s future, but it is just as likely that her near future will be focused on friendship. I loved this ending, and the message that it carries: a romantic relationship is not the only type of “happy ending” a person can have. I wrote in a previous blog post that this message is starting to feel cliché, but a fellow blogger helped me realize that in today’s society, we really do still need this message to be reinforced.

Okay, done with spoilers.

If you couldn’t tell by the amount of times I used the word “love” in this post, I absolutely adored Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. The novel portrays loneliness and lonely people in a very empathetic light, and also demonstrates how friendship and earnest introspection can improve peoples’ lives. The book is also pretty funny, yet it never feels like it is making fun of Eleanor’s social skills or loneliness. There is a lot to be learned from this book, and I highly recommend it!

The bake: cheese scones.

For Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, I decided to bake something referenced in the book. As Eleanor and Raymond become good friends, they regularly get lunch together at a local cafe, where Eleanor always orders a cheese scone and a frothy coffee. So in tribute to Eleanor and Raymond’s friendship, I decided to bake my own cheese scones!

For the scones, I followed this recipe from King Arthur Flour, replacing the scallions with fresh basil (because that is what I had in my kitchen). I also included both of the optional ingredients (dijon mustard and hot sauce), because I thought they would give the scones more flavor. Overall, the recipe was pretty straightforward; the only complications were flouring the surface sufficiently to prevent the dough from sticking (scone dough is so sticky!), and shaping the scones.

These scones were lovely and flavorful! They turned out a bit flatter than I would have liked, but that is okay because perfection is not the purpose of my baking. I think other herbs besides scallions or basil would work in this recipe (rosemary comes to mind), so that might be something to experiment with in the future. Overall, these scones were a lot of fun to bake, and even more fun to eat. I ate one with a fried egg this morning; maybe tomorrow I’ll have one with frothy coffee.

Month in review: July 2019

Every month, I find myself writing “this past month has been crazy” – or something to that effect. Well…July was no exception! This month consisted of a 6-hour road trip to Pennsylvania, lots of wedding-planning activities, and a cross-country visit to California. Also, my fiancé and I adopted two cats! They are amazing and adorable and enrich our lives, but adjusting to life with them has certainly contributed to my “busy” feeling. The month also consisted of lots of reading (mostly because I spend virtually all of my commute-time reading now).

Books read:

One of my friends used to joke with me that I don’t have “distinguishing tastes” when it comes to food…but based on this month’s book ratings, that may be true of books too! Or perhaps I just got lucky enough to genuinely love all the books that I read this past month. Something interesting about this month of reading is that three of the four books I read focused heavily on mental health. The Hate U Give was focused more on racism and police violence, but it still touches on mental health (although not explicitly), as the main character of the novel experiences trauma-induced anxiety. I love that mainstream media is portraying mental health issues in a normalizing and empathetic way.

Bakes:

While I did a lot of reading this month, I’ve lagged significantly on baking: I only completed bakes for two of the four books I read. For The Hate U Give, I baked red velvet cheesecake brownies inspired by Mrs. Rooks’ famous red velvet cake. For Queenie, I baked a vanilla bundt cake glazed with guava syrup. Bakes for Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and Maybe You Should Talk To Someone are coming soon!

Books in progress/goals for August:

I’m currently reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong and – WOW – it already lives up to its hype. I also plan to read Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg, as well as a non-fiction book called The Truffle Underground (which is about truffle mushrooms). I also might check out some of the books that made the Booker Prize Longlist (although I’m pretty turned off by the fact that On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous didn’t make the list).

Blog posts I enjoyed…

I have to confess something: I have NOT been a good member of the blogging community this month. I read and responded to some bloggers’ posts this month, but I didn’t engage as meaningfully with other bloggers as I would have liked. I frequently skimmed other bloggers posts, reading and commenting on posts superficially rather than mindfully. I strive to do better in August.

Some photos from July: