The Pisces (and donuts to satisfy her cravings)

The book: The Pisces by Melissa Broder.

This weekend, I binge-read The Pisces by Melissa Broder. I heard a lot of buzz about this novel, because many book bloggers that I follow have already reviewed it. Between their (mostly) glowing reviews, and the book’s appearance on the Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, I was really eager to read The Pisces. The basic premise of the book is that Lucy, a 9th-year PhD student, breaks up with her non-committal boyfriend of 8 years, causing her to fall into a severe depression. A couple of “episodes” result in her spending the summer in California dog-sitting for her older sister, while attempting to fill her emptiness with sex and relationships.

My first impression of The Pisces was that the narrator’s worldview was pretty disturbing. Lucy is simultaneously emotionally needy and emotionally unavailable, which results in her being infatuated with love and sex, yet also never satisfied in relationships. She is also impulsive and selfish, and routinely abandons all progress toward a healthy mental state at even the slightest hint of a potential romance. Still, I could not help but root for Lucy to break her destructive relationship patterns and make healthier choices. This was part of the addictive allure of The Pisces: Lucy is frustrating, but she is also believable and she’s somebody that you want to be okay in the end.

What I found most interesting about Lucy was that despite being disturbed and depressed, she is still a pretty reliable narrator. In some ways, Lucy deludes herself into thinking that her lifestyle of seeking romance is sustainable, but she also has some awareness that she is deluding herself: “There was something about the morning of a date that tricked me…It punctured the nothingness. Now I felt passion and love for everything.”

This brings me to my favorite thing about The Pisces: Lucy’s profound and relatable descriptions of existential despair. Melissa Broder did such a beautiful job of articulating the despair and confusion that is felt yet unspoken among many, like in this scene where Lucy talks to her sister’s dog while she is sick: “I heard myself talking to the dog, and it reminded me that I existed. Existence always looked like something other than I thought it would.” Or in this scene, where Lucy reflects on her need for romance: “Was it ever real: the way we felt about another person? Or was it always a projection of something we needed or wanted regardless of them?”

While I personally enjoyed The Pisces, I should point out that it is NOT for everyone! Lucy’s impulsive and destructive behavior could be very triggering for some readers, especially those who struggle with sex and love addiction, borderline personality disorder, or severe depression. There are also a couple disturbing scenes involving animal neglect, and several extremely graphic sex scenes. So those are all things to keep in mind before reading this book! But with those caveats, I still enjoyed and would recommend this book.

The bake: matcha green tea donuts

At the beginning of The Pisces, when Lucy has just broken up with her boyfriend and is severely depressed, she craves donuts and drives to buy them while under the influence of Ambien. It is this donut-incident that indirectly results in her spending the summer in California and spinning out. My bake for The Pisces is a tribute to that “donut-incident”: matcha green tea donuts with chocolate glaze. (Note: the flavor of the donut isn’t symbolic of anything in the book; I just recently bought a lovely matcha powder and wanted to use it in baking).

Matcha green tea donuts, glazed in chocolate and dusted with a bit of matcha powder.

To make the donuts, I followed this recipe from King Arthur Flour, but I replaced the nutmeg with matcha powder (and also used oat-milk instead of buttermilk, since that is what I had in my kitchen). Then, I glazed the donuts with the chocolate glaze recipe shown here (also from KAF) and sprinkled a bit of matcha powder over them.

These donuts turned out wonderfully! I was worried that the matcha flavor might not come through, but it absolutely did! These were definitely good enough to satisfy my own donut cravings, so hopefully they will be satisfying to others as well. I plan to hand deliver these treats to my neighbors so, unlike in the novel, there should be no incidents of driving under the influence involved with these donuts. 😉

Donuts are best enjoyed with a good book and a cup of chocolate oat milk!

Boom Town (and the strawberry celebration cake it inspired me to make)

The book: Boom Town by Sam Anderson.

After nearly four weeks, I finally finished reading Boom Town by Sam Anderson. The book is a non-fiction account of the history and culture of Oklahoma City. From the city’s wild founding in 1889, to the dynamic of its professional basketball team (the Oklahoma City Thunder), to the professional and personal lives of famous Oklahomans, Boom Town truly covers it all.

400 pages of historical non-fiction about a medium-big city in an overlooked region of the United States might sound questionable; I was certainly skeptical at first of how interesting this book could actually be. But Boom Town quickly exceeded my expectations of it. I kept asking myself: “is the story of Oklahoma City really this interesting? Or is Sam Anderson just an amazing writer and story-teller?” The answer, I think, is both.

From the beginning of the book, Sam Anderson’s writing is captivating, punchy, and often humorous. Historical non-fiction can be dense, but Anderson finds ways to lighten it, like when he adds this detail about the first night that settlers moved into Oklahoma City: “centipedes swarmed all over the place, wondering what the f*** was going on.”

Anderson also keeps the story engaging by jumping from one sub-story to another. For example: the first chapter is a (surprisingly interesting) overview of Oklahoma City, the second chapter focuses on a (former) player for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and then the third chapter switches back to general information about the city. I appreciated this technique, because it helped break up the dense history of Oklahoma City into more digestible pieces. A few chapters focused on aspects of Oklahoma City that seemed irrelevant to the story at the time they were introduced, but Sam Anderson brilliantly connects all the different aspects of Oklahoma City in the last quarter of the book. Everything is interconnected, even if it isn’t immediately clear how.

My only critiques of Boom Town are the following: 1) Sam Anderson doesn’t use footnotes or endnotes to cite his references, and 2) he writes about his personal impressions of famous Oklahomans as though they are objective characterizations. Specifically, I disliked how Anderson was obsessed with finding flaws and secret “not-niceness” in NBA-player Kevin Durant, yet didn’t address any of the nuances in the character of weatherman Gary England (in my opinion, England seems grouchy and disgruntled).

Overall, Boom Town is a great book. It isn’t a quick read, but I wholeheartedly recommend taking the time to read it. The saga of Oklahoma City will leave you sighing in exasperation, laughing out loud, scratching your head, and – when you read the chapter “9:02” – weeping.

The bake: strawberry celebration cake.

For Boom Town, I baked a strawberry sprinkle cake, which is fitting for the book in a couple of ways. First, strawberry is the official fruit of Oklahoma. Second, and more importantly, a sprinkle cake captures the celebratory boom-or-bust spirit of Oklahoma City that was portrayed throughout Boom Town. (Also, there are good things going on in my personal life right now, so the cake was a nice way to celebrate that.)

To make the strawberry cake, I used this recipe from Beth Cakes, but I baked it in two 9″ round pans instead of the 9×13″ rectangle pan as stated in the recipe. I also added approximately 3 tablespoons of sprinkles into the cake batter. I frosted the cake using my own improvised strawberry cream cheese frosting recipe, sandwiched the two cakes with frosting and fresh strawberries, and decorated the cake with more sprinkles.

The frosted cake. I accidentally started assembling and frosting the cake while it was still on the cooling rack!

My only criticism of the cake is that it didn’t actually taste strongly of strawberries! One possible explanation is that the strawberries I used were underripe, and therefore didn’t add much strawberry flavor to the cake. That being said, the cake still tasted really good! It was buttery and rich, and the fresh strawberries and strawberry cream cheese frosting definitely carried lots of strawberry flavor. Overall, this was a very fun cake to make (and eat and share), especially after not baking for nearly a month!

A generous slice that shows: the sprinkle cake, the strawberry cream cheese filling with fresh strawberries, and frosting and sprinkles on top.

East coast road trip

The past 10 days have been a complete whirlwind. In these 10 days, I packed up my 1-bedroom apartment, loaded my belongings into my car and shipping boxes, drove 1000 miles from the southeastern to northeastern United States (with wonderful company), began unpacking, and had a job interview in my new location.

One thing that made this transition feel less chaotic was turning the 1000-mile drive into a mini-vacation. Time and money were both limiting factors, but my fiancé and I still managed to stop (even if just for a few hours) in the following places:

  • Durham, North Carolina
  • Richmond, Virginia
  • Alexandria, Virginia
  • Bergen County, New Jersey (not pictured)
  • New York, New York

All the stops provided much-welcome breaks from driving, and the opportunity to explore unfamiliar places. If anyone here is ever planning a large-scale move, I highly recommend driving it (with at least one other person – I don’t recommend driving large distances alone!) and exploring and adventuring along the way!

Here are some pictures from my East coast road trip adventure:

Mystery Blogger Award

Thanks to Reasons2Stay for nominating me for the Mystery Blogger Award! Reasons2Stay writes a refreshingly honest personal blog, which includes great food for thought and daily doses of positivity.

How the Mystery Blogger Award works:

-List the rules.
-Thank whoever nominated you and provide a link to their blog.
-Tell your readers 3 things about yourself
-You have to nominate others
-Notify your nominees by commenting on their blog
-Ask your nominees any 5 questions of your choice

Three things about myself:

  1. I am in the process of a major move (currently ~800 miles into a ~1000 mile road trip)!
  2. I recently started doing yoga to help with anxiety and insomnia, but it has also made me stronger and more flexible.
  3. I’m indecisive by nature, so I’m having a difficult time choosing a third fact!

Q&A:

  1. How long have you been in your blogging journey? Since December 2018.
  2. Do you like comics, if you do which one is your favorite? I love PhD comics!
  3. Do you think we are alone in the universe? Probably not! The universe is vast, so the possibilities for life beyond Earth (including life forms that we humans wouldn’t necessarily recognize as “life”) are also vast.
  4. Shower or bath? Shower all the way.
  5. London or Paris? Can I pick both?! I haven’t been to either, but would happily visit either or both.

My nominations:

I will nominate the following bloggers for the Mystery Blogger Award 🙂

Questions for my nominees:

  1. What book, movie, or TV show has changed your life?
  2. What combination of three fictional characters do you think describes yourself?
  3. Have you ever overcome a major fear? How did you do it?
  4. What has been the best day of 2019 for you so far? Why?
  5. What is your guilty pleasure?

Month in review: April 2019

Hi readers! I’ve decided to start adding “month in review” posts to my blog. The main purpose of these posts is to keep myself accountable for reaching my reading goals. I’ll also be posting a bit about my personal life, as things going on in my personal life affect how much I read in a given month. Also, I have really enjoyed reading other bloggers’ posts that offer glimpses into their lives, so I wanted to do the same. Let’s review April 2019!

Books read:

In April I finished two books: Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper and Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom. Both books are collections of essays written by highly educated academics, and both teeter the line between academic essay and personal memoir. I loved both books (I actually rated them both as 5-star books on Goodreads), but I might like Thick ever-so-slightly better because it taught me more and challenged me to see certain issues from a new perspective.

Bakes inspired by the books:

I wrote a “books and bakes” post for each of the books mentioned above. For Hard to Love, I baked a coffee-flavored cake with raspberry jam filling and mocha buttercream. For Thick, I baked chai spice donuts with chocolate icing. Both bakes turned out well, but neither were as “aesthetically pleasing” as I would have liked (something to work on and improve over time). The donuts were the better of the two bakes, but I may be biased since I’m a sucker for anything chai-spiced.

Books in progress/reading goals for next month:

At the end of April I started reading Boom Town, a non-fiction book about the history and culture of Oklahoma City. For several reasons, I was skeptical about the book before I started it…but after reading the introduction I was hooked. I’m really excited to finish reading Boom Town and write about it here. After Boom Town, I hope to read one (maybe two, but that’s not necessarily realistic because May is going to be INSANE) more book in the month of May. Specifically, I’m hoping to tackle a couple books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist (yes, I know that the shortlist has been announced – but the book that I most want to read didn’t make the shortlist).

Blog posts that I loved:

There is so much great content out there in the blogosphere that I can’t list every awesome post that I’ve come across. But that being said, these four posts might have been my favorites of April:

Naty’s Bookshelf reviewed Daisy Jones and the Six (a book that I was intentionally resisting because I am inherently skeptical of hyped-up books)…now the book is in my TBR.

Literary Lizard reviewed The Island of Sea Women and left the review on a cliffhanger, so I definitely plan to read that too!

Pointless Overthinking posted a short, motivational essay about thinking of ourselves as seeds growing through dirt, which is a beautiful way to think about adverse or stressful moments in life as transformative and positive.

And Dopamine Queen posted about how being an “attention seeker” can actually be a good thing.

Anything else?

  • I am officially a master of science! I defended my thesis ~4 weeks ago and submitted the official paperwork last week!
  • I’ve been getting back into a good exercise routine (necessary for maintaining my sanity during busy/stressful times), so I’m really happy about that.
  • I’m about to move ~1,000 miles away (will probably post more about that later this month) – it is an exciting and busy (and also slightly terrifying) time!

(donuts inspired by the cover of) Thick

The book: Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom.

This week I finished Thick: And Other Essays by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom. Thick is a collection of essays that explore what it is to be a black woman in America. Each essay looks at how race intersects with aspects of society including socioeconomic status, profession, and ethnicity.

My first impression of Thick was that the writing style was academic and formal; this wasn’t entirely surprising since Dr. McMillan Cottom is an academic (she is a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University). Although the writing is formal at times, Dr. McMillan Cottom also writes poetically and accessibly throughout Thick. She perfectly sprinkles personal anecdotes throughout her essays, allowing the reader to connect abstract ideas to real peoples’ lived experiences.

I also found Thick to be enlightening and profound. Some people told me that Thick didn’t teach them anything they didn’t already know, but that was not my experience. This could be a reflection of my lack of expertise in the field of sociology, or perhaps my ignorance as a white woman in America (or, more likely, a combination of both). But even when Thick tackled concepts that I already understood at some level, I felt like I was learning something new: Dr. McMillan Cottom really dissects and examines the nuances of race in America, allowing me (and probably other readers) to process information and expand upon my perspectives that were previously shallow or one-dimensional.

So much of Thick was eye-opening and memorable, but one of the concepts that stuck with me most was that capitalism and racism serve each other in a positive feedback loop. This is tackled in the chapter “In the Name of Beauty,” where McMillan Cottom explains how “beauty isn’t actually what you look like; beauty is the preferences that reproduce the existing social order” (the same is true of most “lifestyle” preferences that are promoted by capitalism).

The other idea that stuck strongly with me was one that I already knew (in a shallow way) prior to reading Thick: that white men are more likely to be seen as competent in America, regardless of their level of expertise or their actual competence. Not only are white men viewed as competent, but social order forces women and people of color (especially women of color) into situations where they are likely to fail, resulting in people of power treating them as incompetent. This is explored in much more depth in the chapter “Dying to be Competent.” A major takeaway from this chapter was the importance of listening to people other than white men, especially women and non-binary people of color: because their social status often forces them into positions of less power, it is especially important that we do listen and take them seriously.

Overall, I highly recommend Thick. Dr. McMillan Cottom uses the perfect blend of academic and prosaic writing to illustrate issues of race in America. You can read an excerpt from the chapter “Dying to be Competent” here.

The bake: spice cake donuts with chocolate glaze.

I had a tough time choosing a bake inspired by Thick, mostly because the essays describing systemic racism in America (which I benefit from) did not exactly fuel my appetite for sweets. Eventually, I decided that I would make a shareable treat inspired by the cover of Thick. I ended up settling on donuts glazed with chocolate, and then drizzled with white and pink icing (to resemble the white and pink writing on the dark cover of the book).

The finished donut, next to the book cover that inspired it.

I baked these cake donuts from King Arthur Flour, then iced them in this chocolate glaze (also from KAF). I modified the donut recipe by adding a bit of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and cloves. Once the donuts were glazed and cool, I melted some white chocolate chips and drizzled that mixture over the donuts to get the finished, decorated donut. The pink drizzle is just the melted white chocolate with a drop of pink gel food coloring.

My verdict on the donuts is that they are tasty, but definitely not as “aesthetically pleasing” as I had wanted. I am okay with this, because as Dr. McMillan Cottom points out in “In the Name of Beauty,” beauty is a construct. What matters most to me is that the donuts taste good (which they do), so that my friends and co-workers can enjoy them.

(a raspberry mocha cake that isn’t) Hard to Love

The book: Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper.

I am currently going through a non-fiction phase, and Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper was the first book I read as part of this phase. Hard to Love is a compilation of essays, each of which tackles the topic of love in its various forms. Hopper writes about friendships, sisterhood, and the ways in which these bonds can form.

Hard to Love is a joy to read because Briallen Hopper is an exceptional writer. She is able to articulate her perspectives so well that, by the end of the book, I almost felt as though I knew her. Because Hopper expresses her points of view so eloquently, it is easy to empathize with her. Even when I didn’t necessarily agree with Hopper, I was able to consider new perspectives with so much more compassion. For example, in the chapter “Hoarding,” Hopper defends the practice of hoarding as a means of remembering others by holding on to their physical possessions. I doubt I’ll ever be pro-hoarding, but after reading this essay I no longer feel much negative judgment toward those who do hoard.

In addition to being beautifully written, Hard to Love is refreshing. Our society places so much value on romantic love that other types of love are often-overlooked, despite being equally (if not more) important. In “Lean On,” Hopper argues that it is okay to be dependent on friendships, explaining how she “learned to practice mutual, broadly distributed leaning: to depend on care that was neither compulsory nor conditional” with her friends. In “Young Adult Cancer Story” and “Coasting,” she writes about being part of a close-knit friend-group that formed over a mutual friend’s cancer diagnosis. In “Dear Octopus” and “On Sisters,” she discusses how familial relationships are complex, yet “sustain [themselves] through things that can end or prevent intimate friendships.”

All Hopper’s essays are thoughtful and gorgeously written, but my personal favorites were “Lean On” and “Tending My Oven,” probably because both instantly resonated with me. I loved “Lean On,” because it perfectly expressed my own love for constructing and maintaining meaningful “friendship shells” and “structures of togetherness” with others. “Tending My Oven,” an exploration of why people bake, at times felt like it was written for me (I know that it wasn’t): in this essay, Hopper explains how baking can both “[allow us] to be warm and sweet in a world that so often isn’t, and provide “a space of authenticity and generosity.” These were the chapters that resonated with me the most, but let me reiterate that all of Hopper’s essays are wonderful – even her ideas that don’t resonate with everyone are very thoughtfully written.

By the way, you can read the essay “Lean On” on Longreads!

The bake: (four-layer) raspberry mocha cake

As I mentioned above, Hopper’s essay “Tending My Oven” – an exploration of the practice of baking – strongly resonated with me. In addition to examining the reasons why some people love to bake, Hopper writes about her own favorite things to bake (which include apple bundt cake, chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter cream cheese frosting, and berry shortcake). Of all the baked goods Hopper mentions in “Tending My Oven,” the one that intrigued me most was “Seven-Layer Insomnia Cake with Bitterness Buttercream Frosting.” So I decided to make my own version of it.

To pay tribute to “insomnia,” I made my cake coffee-flavored (as coffee usually exacerbates my own tendency toward insomnia). I followed this recipe from my name is yeh, leaving out the cardamom. To pay tribute to “bitterness,” I modified the recipe’s frosting to be less sweet, and I added about 1 tbsp cocoa powder since dark chocolate, like coffee, is delightfully bitter.

The final cake: two layers of coffee cake separated by mocha buttercream frosting and raspberry jam, and covered in more mocha buttercream frosting.

The recipe that I followed yields two 9″ round cakes, and I ended up being too afraid to slice the cakes into thinner layers. So I merely sandwiched them with a layer of mocha buttercream frosting and a layer of raspberry jam in between. Then I frosted the whole thing with more mocha buttercream. So my cake has either two, four, or five layers depending on what you consider to be a “layer” in the context of cake. I consider both the frosting and jam in between the two cakes to be their own layers.

Regardless of the number of layers, this cake is great. The coffee flavor is strong, and well balanced by the raspberry jam filling. Also, because the cake is made with canola oil, it doesn’t dry out quickly. The best thing about this cake, however, was that I got to share it with coworkers, allowing me to be “warm and sweet” and to express “authenticity and generosity.”

The end of two eras: life after grad school and the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Tomorrow, April 5th, at 9:00 AM EST, I will attempt to defend my Master’s thesis to my graduate advisor and committee members. With 112 pages spanning a comprehensive literature review, two scientific manuscripts, and way too many tables and figures, this thesis represents the entirety of my grad student career. If I successfully defend my thesis – if my committee members agree that the work I completed is sufficient to earn me the title of Master of Science – I will be done with this figurative chapter of my life, and move on to the next. I will move to Massachusetts, find a job, and get married to my fiancé of 1.5 years – most likely in that order. The end of an era – my life as a graduate student – is scheduled for tomorrow, April 5th. Incidentally, the season finale of my favorite television program of all time, the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, is also scheduled for tomorrow.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend tells the story of Rebecca Bunch (played by the insanely talented Rachel Bloom), a successful and seemingly put-together young lawyer who moves from New York City to West Covina, California in the hopes of reconnecting with a former summer fling. As she starts her young-adult life on the opposite side of the country, Rebecca finds meaningful new friendships and embarks on a quest toward true happiness.

Rebecca falls in love with West Covina in the series’ pilot episode.

From its brilliant original musical numbers to its surprisingly feminist messages, there is a lot to love about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Despite the seemingly sexist title of the show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend actually deconstructs numerous tropes including sexist stereotypes. In many ways, especially at the beginning of the series, Rebecca does embody characteristics of the stereotypical, obsessive, crazy ex-girlfriend. As more of Rebecca’s backstory is revealed, however, we realize that the situation is a lot more nuanced that: behind Rebecca’s unhealthy and obsessive behavior is an unstable mental health which likely resulted from unresolved childhood traumas. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend candidly and responsibly explores these mental health issues throughout the series, showing that Rebecca is so much more than just a “crazy” overly attached girlfriend.

As the series progresses, other problematic cliches – including the female rivalry between Rebecca and Valencia (the girlfriend of Rebecca’s love interest, played by Gabrielle Ruiz) – are completely flipped on their heads. This isn’t to say that characters who initially seemed unlikable are revealed to be wholly amazing. In fact, most of the characters in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are often unlikeable: even at her best, Rebecca is usually self-centered; Paula (Rebecca’s best friend in West Covina, played by Donna Lynn Champlin), from her scheming nature to her reputation as the “office bitch”, is controlling; and Josh (Rebecca’s first love interest, played by Vincent Rodriguez III) is irritatingly oblivious. These blatant flaws make the characters of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend frustrating, but also relatable and honest, and remind us viewers that people are nuanced. Instead of forcing characters into boxes or reducing them to caricatures, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend demonstrates that people are complex, and often fall into “gray areas” rather than discrete “black or white” categories.

Josh’s obliviousness is perfectly highlighted in this musical number aptly named “I’ve Got My Head In the Clouds.”

In addition to flipping the script on sexist tropes and typical TV-drama cliches, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend also de-stigmatizes taboo topics ranging from abortion to antidepressants. As I mentioned earlier, mental health becomes a major focus of the show. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the first television show I know of that so candidly portrays the experience of trying to overcome mental health issues. In season 4, episode 12, for example, after a year of attending individual and group therapy sessions, and so much personal growth, Rebecca backslides into certain unhealthy relationship patterns and reaches one of her all-time lows. She is able to recognize her mistakes and become more grounded, but it takes a lot of work. By exploring Rebecca’s mental health issues and healing process in depth, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend sheds light on the often overlooked subject of psychological health, while also portraying those who suffer from mental illness in a realistic and sympathetic manner. Other “taboo” topics that are brought to the forefront of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend include: society’s impossible expectations of female beauty, bisexuality, and periods. (warning: the third video might make some people uncomfortable).

This brings me to my next praise of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: its original music is amazing. Like Rebecca herself, the songs of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are nuanced: I still catch new nuggets of gold every time I re-listen to my Crazy Ex-Girlfriend playlist (yes, I made a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend playlist). A great example of this is the song “Dream Ghost,” which takes place when Rebecca falls asleep on a cross-country plane ride and dreams she is having a poignant conversation with her therapist Dr. Akopian (played by Michael Hyatt). In just two and a half minutes, “Dream Ghost” teases the trope of characters in predicaments having life-changing revelations in their dreams, respectfully parodies Dream Girls, and also becomes a commentary on sexism in the work place! And on top of that it is well-sung and catchy!

The incredible and hilarious “Dream Ghost” scene: part musical number, part parody, part social commentary.

Most of all, though, what I love about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is that it’s the first TV show in which I truly identified with a character being portrayed on-screen. While I’ve never uprooted my entire life to chase a love interest, or been in the center of a love triangle, I do see a lot of similarities between myself and Rebecca: we are both Jewish, we are both dorky and weird, we are both professionally successful (although that doesn’t necessarily make us happy), and we both try very hard to be balanced and happy despite struggling with mental health issues.

Seeing my own experiences reflected in the character of Rebecca Bunch has helped me come to terms with my past and present self. Although it’s hinted at from the show’s very beginning, it is eventually made explicitly clear that Rebecca’s obsession with romantic relationships stems from childhood trauma. Like Rebecca, I was relationship-crazy from an early age, almost always in a relationship or seeking one. Several of my past relationships have been unhealthy, and there is one relationship in particular that I cannot think about without feeling intense, spiraling shame…or that is, I couldn’t – past tense – until Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. When I first saw my own previous unhealthy relationship patterns portrayed on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I felt embarrassed for Rebecca, and often found her relationship drama painfully uncomfortable to watch. As I watched Rebecca grow throughout the series, however, I gained empathy and respect for her…and for myself. Realizing how much I used to have in common with season-1-Rebecca made me realize that, like Rebecca, I haven’t exactly been dealt an easy hand in terms of mental health; but also like Rebecca, I am capable of growth and change so long as I keep putting in the effort. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend guided me to the revelation that our pasts are a part of who we are, but they don’t define us.

In addition to guiding me out of unhelpful shame spirals, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has helped me by role-modeling healthy relationship patterns and mature decision-making. No character on the show is portrayed as perfectly reasonable, and we frequently watch characters struggle to do the mature thing. But, generally speaking, the characters of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend do eventually do the mature thing. I mentioned previously that some episodes show Rebecca backsliding into unhealthy behaviors, demonstrating how difficult it can be for those with mental health issues to make healthy decisions. But after the backslides come the…frontslides? After each backslide, Rebecca picks herself up, with admirable determination and the support of her friends. After experiencing agoraphobia in season 4, episode 2, Rebecca acknowledges her feelings of shame, makes peace with them, and is ready to stop isolating herself. After the aforementioned backslide of season 4, episode 12, Rebecca realizes that she’s out of control, and initiates a beautifully candid conversation with her psychiatrist to get herself back on a path toward good mental health. Other characters – Paula, Valencia, and Nathaniel come to mind – don’t backslide per se, but they still struggle with healthy relationships (romantic, platonic, and professional), and we see them grow and mature alongside Rebecca throughout the series.

In Rebecca’s shame spiral of season 4, episode 2, she becomes obsessed with a woman who was murdered, and tries to communicate with the woman’s spirit. It is her empathy for this woman that eventually brings her out of her own shame spiral.

After four spectacular seasons of smashing hack stereotypes, de-stigmatizing mental illness, role modeling healthy behavior, and producing some of the most amazing original music numbers of all time, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend comes to an end tomorrow. Throughout the series we’ve watched Rebecca make impulsive decisions, behave selfishly, seek improvement, explore her passions, make meaningful friendships, and just…grow. I have no idea what the series finale has in store for Rebecca, but given the show’s theme of personal growth, I imagine Rebecca will follow whatever path is truly best for her (even if that path doesn’t involve choosing one of the three men pining after her). I would also guess that Rebecca’s ultimate decision will highlight the importance of self-acceptance and self-worth.

Unlike the fictional, four-season run of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, however, my very real three-ish-season run of graduate studies will not necessarily end on a poignant note. As I learned at my undergraduate commencement ceremony, and with some of the biggest accomplishments of my life (getting into graduate school, being recognized for academic achievements, and giving my last ever seminar as a grad student), hyped up life events are often underwhelming. I didn’t experience tremendous joy, relief, or revelation after giving my exit seminar earlier this week, and I don’t expect to experience them after my defense tomorrow, either (if my defense is successful, that is).

But even without any major revelations, and without new episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to guide me through an uncertain future, I can still strive to be the most sincere version of myself. I can take the example set by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and try my best to be aware, empathetic, realistic, and honest with others. I can make healthy and mature decisions, even if it sometimes takes a while to get there. I can continue putting in the work required to be fulfilled and mentally stable. And should I ever forget the lessons exemplified by the characters of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I can always re-watch their inspiring personal growth journeys. And by that I mean that I will absolutely be re-watching this beautiful, heart-stopping, breathtaking, life-changing series.

The Four Agreements (and a blood orange upside down cake that sort of encompasses them)

The book: The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.

If you’re reading this post, it means that I finally finished reading The Four Agreements, a philosophy and self-help book by Don Miguel Ruiz. Ruiz believes that due to the pressures of society, we have blindly agreed to negative beliefs and perspectives that are not really our own, and in doing so we have made ourselves unhappy. Ruiz offers four alternative agreements, and promises that if we can stick to these four basic principles, we will become happier and healthier.

Ruiz’s four agreements are: 1) be impeccable with your word, 2) don’t take things personally, 3) don’t make assumptions, and 4) always try your best. Even though The Four Agreements is about these four principles, the book actually has seven chapters, plus an introduction. The first chapter is used to outline why we need the four agreements in the first place…but it actually had the opposite effect on me.

Ruiz spends the first chapter convincing us that because we have blindly agreed to the demands of society, we are living in a personal hell. While it is true that societal expectations can and do constrain us in various ways…I think it is going a bit far to say that we are living in a personal hell. Ruiz’s use of that phrase struck me as fear-mongering, as though convincing us that we are suffering in the worst imaginable way might make us more receptive to the advice he has to offer.

The fear-mongering introduction is unfortunate, because the agreements themselves are actually…well…agreeable. Being impeccable with your word, or having integrity and treating others as you would want to be treated, is a core tenet of many cultures and religions. Not taking things personally and not making assumptions are also great practices: living by these two agreements would almost certainly alleviate unnecessary stress over minor events. The final agreement – to always try your best, whatever your “best” may be in any given circumstance – is simple, yet exceptional advice.

But…even though the agreements themselves are generally good messages, Ruiz’s elaborations on the agreements sometimes seem misguided. An example of this: Ruiz defends not taking things personally so strongly that it almost seems like he is saying “be immune to any criticism.” But I think there is value in taking certain things personally. Well-intentioned, constructive criticism makes us better, so long as we are receptive to the advice and willing to change. To me, Ruiz crossed a line between not taking things personally and not holding yourself accountable for problematic actions.

Some other things that rubbed me the wrong way in The Four Agreements were: Ruiz’s victim-blaming and defense of abusive behavior (he says “If you have the need to be abused, you will find it easy to be abused by others. Likewise, if you are with people who need to suffer, something in you makes you abuse them”); his ignorantly idealistic claims that we should only do things that we enjoy, and do so without expecting any type of compensation in return; and – of course – his misunderstanding of how cancer works (he says that if you listen to somebody tell you “I see that color in your face in people who are going to get cancer,” then you will get cancer in one year).

If I had to summarize my thoughts on The Four Agreements, I would say: there is some good advice in there, but the book should be taken with a grain of salt. I personally felt that there were more harmful messages than helpful ones in this book, but I also understand that the messages that are helpful vs. harmful will vary from person to person. Read at your own risk.

The bake: blood orange upside down cake.

My original idea for a Four Agreements-inspired bake was to create four different things, one for each of the agreements. Unfortunately, time and finances both prohibit me from doing such an elaborate baking project right now. As an alternative, I decided to bake something that I hoped would be really good, and then share it with others. The action of sharing love and camaraderie with others through the sharing of baked goods seemed to encapsulate the good messages in the Four Agreements, especially “be impeccable with your [actions, not just] word” and “always try your best.”

I ended up baking something that I have wanted to make for a long time now: a citrus upside-down cake. Specifically, I made this buttermilk blood orange upside-down cake from Bon Appetit. Funnily enough, I forgot to buy buttermilk, so I substituted coconut creamer spiked with 1.5 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar.

Substitutions and all, this cake is awesome! I actually like the base of the cake more than the caramelized blood orange topping. Not that the topping is bad – it’s just that the cake shines on its own. It’s buttery, soft, and ever-so-slightly tangy from the buttermilk (or in my case, the apple cider vinegar). I will definitely remake the base cake recipe again.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (and passionfruit cupcakes as bold as Evelyn’s love)

The book: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Reid Jenkins.

I recently binge-read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Reid Jenkins. The novel is about the (fictional) former Hollywood icon Evelyn Hugo who, after several decades out of the limelight, sits down with journalist Monique Grant for a tell-all interview. Through the stories that Evelyn tells Monique – about her rise to stardom, her impressive career, her many lovers, and her biggest secrets – we see Evelyn’s complexity and humanity.

One of the best things about The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is the character of Evelyn herself, not because she is necessarily likable, but because she is realistically complex. She is calculating and business-minded, and also makes morally questionable decisions with zero qualms. At the same time, though, she can be soft: she loves whole-heartedly and optimistically despite having been hurt, and she will go to extraordinary lengths to protect the people she loves.

The story-telling and underlying messages in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo are also exceptional. A lot of online reviews have described the novel as a gossipy beach read. That description isn’t wrong…but it’s also not complete. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is scandalous and dramatic, for sure, but it also touches on deeper issues including what it means to love and forgive, the sacrifices people make for love and fame, and how people deal with regret.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo also includes a lot of social commentary, especially surrounding sexism and harassment in Hollywood. Evelyn matter-of-factly describes having to use her body to advance in the male-dominated industry, as well as male superiors controlling personal aspects of her life (such as what she eats and who she dates). Evelyn’s stories also demonstrate how many events in Hollywood – like romantic relationships between celebrities – are actually staged.

Ultimately, though, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a story about love in various forms: romantic love, platonic love, familial love, sexual love, and practical love. I would definitely recommend this book: it is light and fun, yet at the same time surprisingly deep. If you like romance, drama, and complex, well-developed characters – I think you will love The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.

The bake: passionfruit cupcakes.

To celebrate The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, I baked cupcakes inspired by the character of Evelyn. To represent her, I needed to use a flavor that was simultaneously bold, surprising, and delightful. Passionfruit seemed like a good fit: its flavor is punch-you-in-the-face bold, yet still so enjoyable. Plus, the name itself – passionfruit – is perfectly fitting for a character as passionate as Evelyn.

I adapted this recipe from The Great British Baking Show to make my passionfruit cake batter. I mixed the following ingredients together using the all-in-one method, poured them into a standard-size cupcake tin, and baked at 350 F for 18 minutes:

  • 50 grams all-purpose flour (approx. 1/2 cup)
  • 50 grams granulated sugar (approx. 1/4 cup)
  • 1.5 tablespoons almond flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 3.5 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 egg
  • Pulp, juice, and seeds of 2 passionfruit

If you are planning on making this recipe, note that the portions listed above will only yield about 4 standard sized cupcakes!

This cupcake clearly lacks decoration and looks a bit plain…but its taste is rich and bold!

These cupcakes were simultaneously sweet, tart, and buttery. I didn’t frost them, but I think they would go well with a whipped cream or mascarpone frosting. The flavor of the cake itself holds its own, though, so if you don’t want to frost them – you don’t need to! Like Evelyn Hugo, these cupcakes are bold and full of substance.