Book Review: Catch and Kill

This weekend I finished the mind-blowing book Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow. Through telling his account of uncovering the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Farrow exposes the way that the wealthy and powerful control the media and therefore the public narratives about themselves – even when their abusive behavior is an “open secret.”.

The book: Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow
Genre: Non-fiction
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Catch and Kill was an addictive read. Although it is a non-fiction book, the story it tells is so gripping that the book reads more like a thriller. Farrow weaves together two main story-lines throughout the book: the first is the story of his attempts to investigate claims of sexual assault and harassment against Harvey Weinstein, and the second is the story of Weinstein’s lawyers blackmailing and stalking Farrow to prevent him from going public. The way that Farrow moves back and forth between the two (obviously very connected) stories adds so much thrill and suspense to the book.

Also, the degree of corruption exposed in this book is absolutely insane. Obviously, the Harvey Weinstein scandal was huge news when it broke – yet it wasn’t until reading Catch and Kill that I internalized just how much bribery, blackmail, and general corruption it took to keep the scandals quiet. Harvey Weinstein – and powerful people like him – basically controlled media outlets, forcing them to keep his scandals quiet while publishing character assassination pieces about victims who spoke out against him. Understanding this (sickening) detail makes me so much more appreciative of the fact that the Weinstein scandal was reported at all. It also makes me wonder what other scandals news outlets are sitting on. Some information that was exposed toward the end of the book strongly suggests that the Harvey Weinstein scandal is just one of many examples of institutions knowingly protecting predators. It is harrowing.

One thing about Catch and Kill that didn’t quite work for me was Farrow’s attempt to weave into the book stories about sexual assault cases against Donald Trump. These stories show up in the last quarter of the book, but the transition from the Weinstein scandal to Trump’s scandals feels sudden and bumpy. That being said, I understand why Farrow included this section. The book demonstrates the disgusting, predatory, unethical, and oftentimes illegal behavior of powerful people; and it shows how Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer were exposed for their crimes…yet the United States has a president who is guilty of the exact same type of behavior, and hasn’t really faced consequences for it. I think it was important for Farrow to make this point, even if the execution fell a bit short.

Also, there were moments in the book were I felt annoyed by Farrow. As someone who was born to famous parents, attended Ivy League schools, and became a high-profile reporter, Ronan Farrow isn’t always the most relatable narrator. This shows up from time to time in the book – like when Farrow mentions someone’s Ivy League schooling as a testament to their superiority, or when he tells an anecdote about not getting the internship he wanted in law school and having to “slum it” at a second-tier law firm. That being said, Farrow has obviously done a lot of good by taking seriously the claims of sexual assault survivors, and publishing their stories (and this book).

Overall, I loved Catch and Kill. The story is thrilling and harrowing, and I am so grateful that someone was brave enough to tell it. This book changed my life, as it opened my eyes to the insane degree of corruption among the wealthy and powerful. Even the criticisms that I have of this book only bring my rating of it down to 4.5 stars out of 5. I can’t bring myself to lower the rating any more than that, because the book was that good.

Year of Yeh #9: Cauliflower Shawarma Tacos

Whenever I’m figuring out what to cook for the week, one of my biggest considerations is what leftovers I already have in the fridge. At the beginning of this week I had a lot of leftover beans, so I decided to make something that would work with a side of beans. And so I made Molly Yeh’s cauliflower shawarma tacos, which are tacos that feature seasoned cauliflower instead of meat.

The recipe: Cauliflower shawarma tacos
Difficulty level: Easy
Time: ~1 hour

The process of making this recipe is straightforward: toss cauliflower with curry powder, cumin, and garam masala; bake the cauliflower for 30-40 minutes; then put the seasoned cauliflower (and any other toppings) into a tortilla and enjoy! Since the cauliflower bakes for a while, you can work on the other components of the recipe – like the fried onions and tahini sauce – during the roasting period.

Before making this recipe, I had been kind of skeptical about it; I wasn’t sure if mediterranean tacos would work. But they did work, and this recipe is one of my absolute favorites! The cauliflower gets really crispy in the oven, and the seasoning is…*does chef’s kiss.* Because the baked, seasoned cauliflower is so delicious on its own, it would also make a great side dish, salad component, or sandwich filling.

Technical notes:

  • This recipe calls for a lot of cauliflower! To bake it all at once, you will likely need two sheet pans.
  • If you own a lot of seasonings and spices, but NOT garam masala…you can make your own garam masala blend out of coriander, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, and nutmeg.
  • This recipe tastes best when the cauliflower is fresh out of the oven (it doesn’t get as crispy after being refrigerated and reheated).
  • You can take the Mexican/Mediterranean fusion even further than Yeh did by adding toppings like guacamole, pickled jalapeƱos, and/or shredded cheese to the tacos.

Year of Yeh #8: Cardamom Cupcakes

Happy belated Valentine’s Day! Last week, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day and romance and my Year of Yeh project, I baked Molly Yeh’s cardamom cupcakes with jam filling and cream cheese frosting.

The recipe: Cardamom cupcakes
Difficulty level: Easy
Time: ~90 minutes (including inactive time)

Making these cardamom cupcakes was so much fun! In fact, this recipe reminded me how much I love baking. The cardamom cake batter is straightforward and quick to make. Once the cupcakes are baked and cooled, you punch/scoop out a small hole from the top (I used a small cookie cutter, but an apple-corer or spoon would work too), fill the hole with jam, cover the hole, and frost the cupcakes. Adding jam filling to the cupcakes surprisingly doesn’t require too much additional prep time.

One modification I made to these cupcakes was using mixed berry instead of lingonberry jam. I was able to find lingonberry jam at the supermarket, but I thought it was pretty bitter. Since these cupcakes were for other people, and strong/bitter flavors can be controversial, I decided to go with the more crowd-pleasing mixed-berry jam.

These cupcakes were delicious! Cardamom elevates the flavor of the cake so much, and tastes really nice with the cream cheese frosting. Adding the jam filling to the cupcakes made them a bit more challenging to make than regular cupcakes, but not that much harder! And the extra prep time is absolutely worth it for the tart, fruity flavor that the jam contributes. I would like to try this recipe again sometime using the lingonberry jam, because I suspect the contrast between the bitter lingonberry and the sweet cream cheese frosting is excellent.

Technical notes:

The finished, decorated cupcakes!
  • If you don’t have buttermilk, you can use regular milk spiked with 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar or use half a cup of plain greek yogurt and half a cup of regular milk.
  • Wait for the cupcakes to cool completely before starting on the jam filling! Hot cupcakes will be crumbly and difficult to disassemble, and the heat might melt the jam too.
  • Don’t discard the cupcake pieces that you scoop out! Save them, and when you are done filling the cupcake-holes with jam, re-seal the cupcakes with the pieces you punched out. This will make the cupcakes easier to frost.
  • If you can’t find lingonberry jam (or are skeptical about the flavor), any tart fruit jam (or even a curd) will work well with this recipe.
  • Take the cupcakes out of the cupcake pan before you frost them. It is quite challenging to remove frosted cupcakes from the cupcake pan; I learned the hard way!

Book review: Stubborn Archivist

February has been a great month of reading: we’re only two weeks in, and I’ve already finished four (!!!) books! The latest book I read was Stubborn Archivist, a novel about a young, half-British/half-Brazilian woman navigating adult life in London, and trying to make sense of who she is.

The book: Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Stubborn Archivist was an interesting read, and one of the reasons why was its use of language and formatting. There are interesting line breaks throughout the novel, and also (very intentional) omissions of punctuation. These features give the book a very poetic feel, and even give some parts of the novel a sort of surreal quality.

I also liked how – through the lens of the protagonist’s experiences – author Rodrigues Fowler portrays the challenges of looking “different” or “foreign” in your own country. Without having experienced any of the micro-aggressions portrayed in the novel, I really felt for the protagonist, who repeatedly deals with men exocitizing her because of her ethnicity, and people making assumptions about her ability to speak intelligently. Books that demonstrate these challenges are vital because they give voices to cultural phenomena that are common and important, but still not discussed enough in mainstream media.

At the same time, many of the protagonist’s experiences were familiar to me (someone who is not considered “different” looking in their own country). Being steamrolled or ignored by well-intentioned people who assume you have nothing to say, passing up invitations to socialize and drink with coworkers because alcohol upsets your stomach, obsessing over what if situations before a date – these were all so relatable! These relatable moments illustrate how some experiences and feelings are universal, and have the ability to transcend culture, language, and geography.

My main critique of Stubborn Archivist is that it feels…unfinished. The whole novel is so ambitious: in the stories it tells, the timelines it follows, and the creative formatting and language it employs. But at times it feels like Rodrigues Fowler sets out to do so many things, that sections end up feeling incomplete and blurry. The gaps in the novel may be intentional (the title of the book gives me reason to think it is), but I personally prefer less “blurry” narratives.

Overall, I enjoyed Stubborn Archivist and appreciated its story and main character. I recommend this book, because it is a different read, and because it shares interesting perspective that many people could benefit from reading. Just know in advance – if you do read this book – that the formatting is a bit surprising at first and that some parts of the novel have a sort of unfinished quality.

Valentine’s Day Reading List, 2020 edition

Happy Valentine’s Day! In the spirit of the holiday, I thought that I’d share some of my favorite romance novels with you all. The only problem is…I have not read very many traditional romance novels. So I’m being very generous with the term “romance novel” here, and recommending my favorite novels that have romance in them (but would not necessarily be categorized in the romance genre).

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less is not a traditional romance novel, yet the entire book feels like a rom-com in novel form. In this novel, writer Arthur Less plans an around-the-world adventure to avoid going to his ex-lover’s wedding. The book is hilarious, heartbreaking, heartwarming, and surprisingly profound. I recommend this novel to those who love a good rom-com!

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Reid Jenkins

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is even less of a traditional romance novel than Less, but it features a truly excellent love story. This book revolves around the (fictional) reserved Hollywood celebrity Evelyn Hugo, who sits down with a journalist to give a tell-all interview about her life. In telling her life story, Evelyn recounts her seven marriages, and the story of the one true love of her life. This novel is an addictive page-turner, and also surprisingly moving.

Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

This book is the clearest “romance-novel” of the bunch. In it, two frenemies (who happen to be the first son of the U.S.A., and Prince Henry of England) are forced to stage a friendship as a publicity stunt. As the two spend more time together, they become close and develop real feelings for each other. Both being major public figures, however, they have to determine if becoming a serious couple is actually possible. This novel is wonderful: the love story is believable and endearing, and the characters are so smart and complex. I highly recommend it!

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

This one is really different. The Pisces follows graduate student Lucy, who moves to California for a summer after breaking up with her boyfriend of nine years and spiraling into an emotional crisis. Lucy is supposed to use the time in California to pick herself up and attend group therapy sessions, but instead feels her emptiness with sex and relationships…ultimately finding somebody as insecure and needy as she is. This book is strange, and disturbing at times, but it is also incredibly profound, and makes a great anti-romance novel.

Have you read any of the novels listed here? What other romance novels (not listed here) do you recommend?

Book Review: Lot

Over the weekend I finished reading Lot (making it the 3rd book of 2020 that I read after it being on my TBR for a long time). Lot is a fictional short-story collection that follows characters living in black and latinx communities in Houston, Texas. Half of the stories are told from the perspective of a single character, allowing the reader to follow his journey from early-adolescence to adulthood.

The book: Lot by Bryan Washington
Genre: Fiction, short-stories
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

As is the case with most short story collections, some of the stories in Lot work better than others. I thought the best stories were the ones told from the perspective of the “main character” (i.e. the only character whose perspective appears multiple times throughout the book). In short stories, it can be challenging to connect with the characters, simply because there isn’t as much opportunity for character development as there is in a novel. But by having a recurring character in Lot, Bryan Washington allows his readers to deeply understand and connect with one of the characters.

Something that I really appreciated about Lot was that, although most of the characters in this novel are struggling, their stories are told compassionately. Washington shows characters dealing with gentrification, troubling relationships, homelessness, and more. Yet it never feels like Washington exploits his characters struggles. The characters in Lot are deep and complex, and they are clearly defined by more than just the difficult circumstances they face.

I also found the writing in Lot to be very powerful. The language is never flowery; it is precise to the point that I frequently found myself marveling at how Washington conveyed so much using so few words. In “Bayou,” the narrator mentions that his father walked out on him, saying: he stepped out for a glass of water, and believe it or not he’s been thirsty ever since. In “Waugh,” the main character reckons with his friend’s life-threatening illness, reminding himself that everything could and would be fine, until all of a sudden it wasn’t.

All in all, I highly recommend Lot. Individually, the stories shine a compassionate light on people living in marginalized communities. Collectively, they illustrate how everyone tries to make the best of their circumstances and find a place of belonging.

Year of Yeh #7: (variations on) Pizza

Bold or surprising flavor combinations are a hallmark of Molly Yeh’s recipes. The key to many of Yeh’s recipes is trusting her flavor combinations – even when they seem odd – and then being blown away (by how good tahini is in a milkshake, or how adding what seemed like way too much ginger actually resulted in the perfect carrot salad).

But when it came to Yeh’s pizza recipes…I just wasn’t feeling her flavors. The pizza recipes in Molly on the Range are: Hawaiian-inspired pizza pockets, squah-and-arugula pizza, walnut-and-zucchini pizza, and butter-and-salami pizza. Maybe this isn’t very open-minded of me, but I am somewhat of a pizza traditionalist: I don’t really like toppings like butternut squash or walnuts on pizza. So my husband and I made three pizzas of our own, following Yeh’s recipe for pizza dough, but then using our own inspiration for the sauces and toppings. We ended up making three pizzas: (vegan) sausage, cilantro-garlic-corn, and pesto with sun-dried tomatoes.

The recipe: (variations on) pizza
Difficulty level: Moderate
Time: 1 hour (longer if you make pizza dough from scratch, but a lot of that time will be inactive)

Vegan-sausage pizza with spicy tomato sauce.

Making pizza from scratch (the recipes as they are written in the cookbook have you make your own pizza dough) was a learning process! The components and process of making pizza dough are similar to (maybe even exactly the same as) those of bread dough. But pizza dough is a bit tougher because you have to stretch and shape the dough. It took a lot longer than I expected to work the dough into a reasonably thin pizza crust. It’s also tough to transfer your uncooked pizza to a pizza-stone in the oven. My husband and I accidentally deformed a pizza doing this.

Luckily, pizza is robust to mistakes! You can deform your pizza, burn or dry out some of the toppings, and/or leave the dough too thick…but the pizza will most likely still taste good. The cilantro-garlic-corn pizza got deformed, and the corn dried out a bit in the oven…but it was still pizza with creamy cilantro-garlic sauce: it was delicious. The sun-dried tomato pizza wasn’t stretched thin enough, so it was pretty bread-y…but again…it’s pesto pizza: it was still very good. The (vegan) sausage pizza had the fewest technical mistakes, and was also very tasty – and as a bonus, our non-vegetarian friends really liked the vegan sausage too.

Maybe someday I will be more daring and non-traditional, and try Molly Yeh’s actual pizza recipes with toppings like butternut squash, zucchini, and walnuts. But regardless of what pizza toppings you like, I am a huge proponent of making your own pizza! (And side note: I think that getting store-bought/pre-made pizza dough is just as valid as making your dough from scratch)

Technical notes:

  • It’s hard to get pizza dough thin and perfectly round. The key to stretching the dough to an ideal thinness is patience; it just takes a while. As for the key to getting your dough perfectly round…I still don’t know.
  • It’s also challenging to transfer pizza from your work surface to a heated pizza stone in the oven (this was how my husband and I accidentally deformed our first pizza). The best solution that we came up with was putting our pizza on a sheet pan, and then putting the sheet pan on top of the pizza stone. If you know of a better way to get pizza onto a pizza stone, please let me know!
  • Pesto is delicious, but more challenging to work with than marinara or white sauce because it is so oily! Our pesto pizza leaked some oil in the oven.
  • Some toppings shouldn’t be put on until after your pizza has been baked and removed from the oven. Sun-dried tomatoes burn quickly at 500 degrees F, and corn dries out.
  • Pizza freezes really well! If you are making pizza and end up with extra pizza dough…just make an extra pizza and freeze it!

Book Review: Conversations with Friends

I finally read Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney! This book was on my TBR ever since reading Normal People in June. Conversations with Friends is the story a young student/poet, Frances, who is discovered by an older and more prominent writer named Melissa. Frances (and her best friend and co-performer, Bobbi) start spending more time with Melissa, and Frances finds herself increasingly captivated by Melissa’s husband Nick. As Frances and Nick become closer, Frances’ relationships – with her friends, family, and Nick – begin to spin out of control.

The book: Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

This novel was so captivating! I am not sure whether to say that I consumed it, or it consumed me. But I finished the book in less than 24 hours because the plot was intriguing and suspenseful. Which is really impressive for a non-mystery-or-thriller novel. What made the book so captivating was simply the main character’s emotional complexity and personal struggle. I couldn’t put this book down, because I wanted to see how or if Frances would resolve her personal issues.

I was surprised that Conversations with Friends pulled me in so deeply, because the narrator and main character (Frances) is kind of unlikable. Frances is self-conscious to the point of being excessively self-centered, and she frequently engages in impulsive, selfish behavior that has the potential to hurt others. She also struggles to apologize for her harmful actions, and instead waits for the people that she has hurt to apologize to her. Yet reading her story, it is clear that Frances isn’t hopeless: she has the potential to learn, grow, and change. This is part of what compelled so deeply about this novel: I was rooting for Frances to change.

While the narrator and main character (Frances) was certainly challenging at times, she wasn’t the only difficult character in Conversations with Friends. Most of the major characters in this novel had blatantly unlikeable qualities. At the same time, though, all the characters are so well-developed that the root of their challenging behaviors becomes clear. This isn’t to say that psychology is an excuse for morally questionable actions – just that the characters in Conversations with Friends are realistically complex.

Another aspect of Conversations with Friends that was realistic yet frustrating was the bad communication between characters! So many of the issues in this book – particularly Frances’ issues – could have been resolved with better communication. I think this was very intentional on author Sally Rooney’s part, and that it’s meant to highlight the importance of good communication in a healthy relationship.

All in all, I loved Conversations with Friends. The book is frustrating, heartbreaking, and above all – deeply compelling. If you like stories with *slightly* unlikeable or emotionally complicated main characters, I definitely recommend this book.

Year of Yeh #6: Spinach & Feta Rugelach

Last Sunday was the NFL’s Super Bowl (in which my hometown’s team squandered their lead in the last few minutes of the game, but it’s just a sport so whatever). My husband and I had a couple friends over – not so much to watch the game, but rather to watch the kitten bowl, play games, and eat snacks. Snacks that included Molly Yeh’s spinach & feta rugelach (i.e. spinach-feta filling wrapped in pie dough).

The recipe: Spinach and feta rugelach
Difficulty level: Moderate
Time: ~1 hour (longer if you make a pie dough from scratch)

Spinach-feta rugelach are essentially a spinach-feta filling rolled in pie dough. In her recipe, Yeh says that you can either use store-bought pie dough, or make your own dough from scratch using a recipe of your choice. I made dough from scratch using this recipe for buttery pie crust. Making your own pie crust in advance makes this recipe more time-consuming, especially since some pie crusts require a chilling period in the fridge.

So, once you make your pie dough (or thaw your frozen pie dough), you prepare a spinach-feta filling on the stove. You then roll out your pie-dough into a 1/4″-thick circle, spread a thin layer of spinach-feta filling over it, cut the circle into 8 slices, and roll up each slice. I found it difficult to roll out the pie dough into a perfect circle (how do bakers make this look so easy?), but luckily the rugelach can still turn out nicely even if the dough wasn’t rolled perfectly. Once you have your rugelach rolled, you brush them with an egg wash and bake them.

Once they are baked, the rugelach are absolutely delicious: the pie dough is buttery and flaky, while the filling is cheesy and deliciously seasoned. I do have mixed feelings about using such a buttery pie recipe, though. While the buttery taste and flaky texture are lovely, I found the buttery flavor a bit too overpowering. I think that a plainer dough would have allowed the flavor of the filling to come through a bit more. If I were to make this again (and I don’t know if I will, because it was a lot of work), I would probably use a less buttery pie dough.

Leftover rugelach! Yes, it is delicious as leftovers.

Technical notes:

  • If you follow the recipe exactly, you will end up with more filling than you can put in your rugelach. Don’t try to overfill the rugelach! The filling is delicious on its own, so you can save the leftovers for something else (perhaps an omelette).
  • It is so hard to roll out perfectly round pie dough. But because you end up cutting and rolling the pie dough anyway, it doesn’t really need to be perfect.
  • When you roll your rugelach, some spinach-feta filling will be exposed. This is fine! It won’t leak out.

Book Review: Mobituaries

My first read of February was Mobituaries by Mo Rocca. Inspired by Rocca’s podcast of the same name, Mobituaries gives obituaries to people (or things) who are misremembered or altogether forgotten by society: mediocre presidents who accomplished great things outside of their presidency, revolutionary athletes who nobody’s heard of, and even dragons.

The book: Mobituaries by Mo Rocca
Genre: Historical non-fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

I enjoyed and learned so much from Mobituaries. My favorite stories were about famous people who are still remembered today (for acting or modeling or being president), but perhaps not as well as they should be. For example, I learned that Herbert Hoover – before he became president – was an engineer and humanitarian who saved hundreds of thousands of Europeans from starvation during World War I.

Also, for a book about people who have died, Mobituaries is extremely positive, and even funny! Author Mo Rocca injects his offbeat humor into his obituaries (excuse me, Mobituaries) at surprising times, but it never feels disrespectful or out of place. Instead Rocca’s humor lightens the mood of the book, and prevents the stories from getting heavy or dry.

I did have a couple issues with the book, though. The first is that, as a listener of the Mobituaries podcast, I was disappointed by the number of stories that were repeats of podcast episodes (except for the story of the poisoning of the famous Auburn tree – I will never tire of that story). This book was advertised as having unique stories not told on the podcast…but that wasn’t 100% true.

My second issue with Mobituaries was the size of the book! It is huge! I think the book is intended as a “coffee-table book.” It definitely would make a great coffee-table book, but the large size of the book made it a bit challenging to carry around or even to read in bed.

Minor inconveniences aside, I loved Mobituaries. Mo Rocca pays respectful tributes to individuals whose complete legacies have been forgotten, and tells each story in an upbeat (and oftentimes funny) way. If you want to learn a bit more about history, I definitely recommend this book!