Month in review: September 2019

Hello and HAPPY AUTUMN! I’m glad to be writing this wrap-up, because I’m quite ready for September to be over. The month started out with a cold that knocked me out for a few days, but things were busy and stressful even after I recovered. I didn’t read or bake as much as I had hoped to, but I still got a little bit done!

Books read:

So…I only finished reading one book in September. Luckily, it was a really good book! Lost Children Archive is about a family of four that embarks on a summer road trip to “Apacheria” during the “immigration crisis” at the United States’ southern border. It is a touching book that strikes a great balance between somber, heart-breaking, sweet, and funny.

Bakes inspired by the books:

I baked two things this month. Inspired by The Truffle Underground, I made fungus-filled pizza…which is disgusting phrasing but delicious eating (it was a pizza that had baker’s yeast, bleu cheese, and porcini mushrooms).

For Lost Children Archive, I made banana-ginger cheesecake bars. Both of my bakes this month were pretty experimental, and I am happy to be taking more risks in my baking now. In the case of the banana-ginger cheesecake bars, the risk didn’t result in anything spectacular; but the mushroom pizza was amazingly good!

Books in progress/October reading goals:

I’m currently about halfway through Lab Girl by Hope Jahren; I have mixed, but overall positive feelings about it so far. I am also still working on An Orchestra of Minorities! It is long (~450 pages) and I have been getting through it pretty slowly, but I hope to finish it this month. I also hope to read The Invention of Nature and Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis.

Some great blog posts I came across in September:

  • Katie at Never Not Reading posted a moving piece about the value of reading books about people who are different from you (something I wholeheartedly agree with)
  • Vee at Millenial Life Crisis nicely summarized the essentials of self-esteem
  • Ashley at Mental Health at Home tackled the notion of “drug seeking” – a phrase that is commonly and wrongly used to describe people who use medication – and explained why it is problematic
  • Tess McClure published an amazing article about the dark side of the “healing crystal” trend that is especially popular amongst consumers who practice “alternative” lifestyles

Favorite photos this month:

Lost Children Archive (and the ginger-banana cheesecake bars it inspired)

The book: Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli.

Earlier this month, I read Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli. The novel follows a family of four taking a road trip from New York to Arizona: the father, a documentarist, is creating a sound documentary about Apacheria (the former home of the Apaches). At the same time, the mother has become impassioned by the immigration crisis at the U.S./Mexico border, and decides to create her own sound documentary about it. Lost Children Archive is a moving story about marriage, family, and the so-called “immigration crisis” in the United States.

While the novel may sound heavy (and honestly, it is), Lost Children Archive is incredible – it may even be my favorite book of the year. Luiselli’s writing style is smooth, flowing, and poetic. This makes the novel easy to follow, even when the plot or the novel’s themes get heavy. Also, Luiselli doesn’t use quotation marks around characters’ dialogue – I liked this technique because it made the conversation feel like it was flowing very naturally.

Valeria Luiselli is also a master at evoking all the emotions. When the plot centers around the plight of migrant children and their families, the novel evokes immense empathy and sadness. Other parts of the novel are anxiety-inducing yet page-turningly suspenseful. And then there are moments where the novel is laugh-out-loud funny, thanks to Luiselli’s ability to capture the surprising and hilarious innocence of children.

As the novel progresses, parallels between the family’s children and the “lost” migrant children become increasingly clear. I thought this was a clever way of evoking empathy for children. These parallels first draw empathy for migrant children, because it allows the reader to feel for migrant children the way they would for children they actually know. The parallels also elicit empathy for children in general, by showing how even relatively privileged children can feel lost in the world.

Although I loved Lost Children Archive, I will acknowledge that it has received a lot of criticism from those with a more formal literary background. I am a casual reader and a scientist, so literary things – like cramming in too many references to older literature, or imitating the writing style of James Joyce – did not bother me (in fact, most of the references flew right over my head). I loved and learned so much from this book.

The bake: ginger-banana cheesecake bars.

When I was contemplating a bake for Lost Children Archive, I drew on the idea of the cross-country road trip for inspiration, and decided to bake something that would combine various regional desserts. The ultimate fusion dessert that I landed on was hummingbird cheesecake bars (with a spicy twist). Hummingbird cake is said to be a classic Southern dessert (although I never ate it when I lived in the South), and cheesecake is often thought of as a classic New York dessert.

Luckily for me, a hummingbird cheesecake recipe already exists, so I used that as a guide for my bake. However, hummingbird cheesecake seemed like too sweet of a dessert for a novel as heavy as Lost Children Archive, so I decided to spice it up a bit by using candied ginger instead of pineapple. Also, I used an 8×8 inch pan to make “bars” instead of a traditional cheesecake, because bars seem more kid-friendly than a traditional cheesecake (and this bake was inspired by a book about children).

The cheesecake bars look a bit ugly, but taste quite nice.

From the long bake time to the decoration, these cheesecake bars ended up being WAY more challenging than I expected! If I were to make these bars again, I wouldn’t use candied ginger, because it sunk to the bottom of the cheesecake batter and made the bars difficult to cut. That being said, they were very tasty – I loved the flavor combination of ginger and banana. These cheesecake bars are a great sweet-and-spicy treat – perfect to celebrate a bittersweet novel like Lost Children Archive (or just to enjoy on their own).

(Valentine’s Day cheesecake with) Less

The book: Less by Andrew Sean Greer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bake: strawberry chocolate cheesecake.

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

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

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

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