My Year of Rest and Relaxation (and coffee and kahlua)

The book: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.

I recently read My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. I had seen it on a bunch of lists at the end of 2018, but I wasn’t sure if it would be my cup of tea. I later saw it at my local bookshop, though, and I felt as though I couldn’t not check it out. The premise of the book is straightforward: the narrator, despite her many advantages, is unsatisfied with her life and herself. She decides that if she can sleep for a whole year, her cells will rejuvenate so much that she will essentially become a different person. With the help of a truly terrible psychiatrist and the outrageous drug cocktails she prescribes, our narrator embarks on a strange but oddly compelling journey toward sleep.

My first impression of My Year of Rest and Relaxation was that I wouldn’t be able to get into it, because the main character (whose name is never revealed) is so unlikable. She is highly critical, treats her most loyal friend incredibly coldly, and is kind of vain. Yet I couldn’t put the book down. I was exasperated by the narrator, but also genuinely rooting for her. I was curious to see how her mission to sleep the year away would play out. I wondered if it would work: would her “year of rest and relaxation” allow her to address her underlying issues and change for the better?

Something that surprised me about My Year of Rest and Relaxation were the moments of tenderness. Even though the narrator claims to find everyone annoying, she seeks out human connection during her Infermiterol-induced blackouts, going to parties with people that she formerly convinced herself she hated. She also shows love and warmth to her “best friend” in those drug-induced states – something that she certainly doesn’t do (perhaps is incapable of doing) when she’s conscious and sober. It’s almost as if the sleep-inducing-drugs help the narrator to access her better, kinder self.

I struggled with two things in My Year of Rest and Relaxation. The first was deciding whether or not I found it funny. When I bought this novel, a woman at the bookshop told me that it’s supposed to be very funny…and some of it is. I just can’t figure out how much of it is meant to be funny. I found many of the conversations between the narrator and her psychiatrist amusing, and the sheer absurdity of certain passages had me laughing out loud (“‘Your phone is in a Tupperware container floating in the tub’, Reva yelled from the bathroom. ‘I know’, I lied. ). But then there were really dark components of the story as well: the stereotype of the insane and incompetent spinster, the ice cold treatment the narrator gives her best friend for no real reason, and the narrator’s parental and romantic relationships that clearly stunted her emotional development. These things all add depth to the book, but surely these aren’t supposed to be funny?

My other struggle with this book was finding a take-home message from it. Don’t get me wrong: I loved the book . Once I got sucked into the narrator’s absurd world, I couldn’t stop reading. In fact, I think this is the only novel that I’ve ever finished in less than a day. When I put it down though, I kept trying figure out what to make of the ending, never really finding a conclusive answer. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: there is probably something to be said of a book so addictive that you can’t put it down (even though you don’t even like the main character!), and so fascinating and strange that you can’t stop thinking about it once you’ve finished it.

The bake: coffee kahlua cake.

In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the narrator spends a wild yet somewhat unremarkable year pursuing full-time sleep. Two of the major constants in her life that year are prescription drugs (downers), and the coffees that she routinely buys from the Bodega before taking more downers and going back to sleep. So I decided to bake something that incorporated coffee, as well as my favorite downer (alcohol).

What I ended up baking was (a one-layered version of) this coffee kahlua cake, and a modified (less sweet) version of this espresso frosting recipe. I chose not to make the frosting provided in the coffee kahlua cake recipe because I am not ready to attempt egg-white-based frostings yet. This cake turned out to be one of my favorite recipes: making the cake is straightforward, and it is delicious and indulgent without being excessively rich or sweet. It is truly a delightful treat, one that might even make you feel restful or relaxed after eating a slice.

A slice of the coffee kahlua cake!

Welcome to Night Vale (mostly void, partially stars) (yes this post is also about cake)

The book: Welcome to Night Vale.

Last week I read Welcome to Night Vale, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s fiction/mystery/fantasy novel inspired by their hit podcast of the same name. The book follows the independent lives of two Night Vale women: Jackie Fierro, a 19-year-old owner of the town’s pawnshop who has been stuck at age 19 for what feels like centuries and cannot remember her childhood, and Diane Creyton, a working single mother of a 15-year-old shape shifter. Eventually, their stories intersect and the two join together on an adventure to the mysterious town of King City. 

Welcome to Night Vale is certainly weird – creepy, even. Night Vale is a world in which children get piñatas full of bees on their birthdays, angels named Erika are part of the community (though you mustn’t acknowledge that they are, in fact, angels), there is a 24-hour diner where a tree serves invisible coffee to customers, and – oh yeah – time just doesn’t work there. These things (and more) all set Night Vale apart as a weird and mystical place, but other aspects of Night Vale felt unnervingly familiar: there is a general mistrust of science, the government forces citizens to acknowledge facts that are contrary to reality, and there are police officers who “instead of looking after our interests, work under arbitrary authority to unfairly target and extort those who are least able, societally, to fight back.” I found it fascinating that since the novel’s publication (in 2015), America has become a lot more like Night Vale (or maybe these similarities were always here, and I just didn’t notice until recently). In this way, Welcome to Night Vale struck me as surprisingly profound.

Other, less dark, descriptions of life in Night Vale were also profoundly relatable. Take, for example, this description of the Moonlite All-Nite, a 24-hour diner that appeals to individuals dining solo: There is nothing more lonely than an action taken quietly on your own, and nothing more comforting than doing that same quiet action in parallel with fellow humans doing the same action. This simple description of solo-dining is so deep and instantly relatable! Perhaps this is what makes Welcome to Night Vale so compelling: despite taking place in a dark and creepy fantasy world, the authors describe mundanity and humanity in profound and poetic ways that immediately resonate, and make us feel connected to the odd land of Night Vale.

There were only two things that I didn’t like about Welcome to Night Vale. The first was the interweaving of “the voice of Night Vale” passages. These are chapters that are written as radio broadcasts from Night Vale Community Radio station. I understood the idea behind this – the Welcome to Night Vale podcast is presented entirely as a radio broadcast to its citizens (for those who haven’t listened: think Prairie Home Companion but creepier)  – but in the novel, these passages just weren’t very effective. In my opinion, they did not illustrate anything that the 3rd-person narrative chapters couldn’t. 

The other issue I had with Welcome to Night Vale was the ending of the story. A couple components of the mystery just weren’t resolved satisfyingly (and there’s one thing that wasn’t really resolved at all). For the first 350 pages, Welcome to Night Vale was a compelling and addictive page-turner that I couldn’t put down. Then, near the end of the book, the mystery is explained to the protagonists who have gone through so much (including sprinting through a hellish horror-library and somewhat losing their minds) to solve it…and I just found myself thinking “that’s it?” I was a bit underwhelmed, but maybe that was the point, because the protagonists seemed pretty miffed about the explanation too. As I type this, I feel pretty sure that the underwhelming explanation of the mystery was probably intentional. 

So Welcome to Night Vale is mysterious, weird, intriguing, and moving. Would you believe me if I told you that, on top of all of that, it’s also funny? Well, it is. This passage, for example, had me laughing out loud at midnight while my fiancé tried to sleep: …attacking a person with a hatchet…is technically a crime. But Leann made it work by engaging in semiotic arguments with law enforcement about what is assault and what is a business plan. Also this gem: Ralph’s…offering fresh food and low, low prices, although never at the same time. 

All in all, Welcome to Night Vale is a great read. As a mystery novel, it is compelling and nearly impossible to put down. Night Vale is simultaneously strange and relatable, making the fictional fantasy world surprisingly endearing. And, of course, the writing is beautiful, moving, and oftentimes funny. 

The bake: “Mostly void, partially stars” cake.

For Welcome to Night Vale, I decided to bake a cake based on the phrase used to describe the Night Vale sky in chapter 1 of the novel: “Mostly void, partially stars.” It seems that “mostly void, partially stars” has become emblematic of Welcome to Night Vale fandom. You can find clothing, fan-art, and even tattoos inspired by this quote. 

Because it’s the holiday season here in the U.S., I also wanted this cake to be seasonally festive. I chose a white chocolate cake with cranberry curd filling and cream cheese frosting. I colored the frosting purple using gel food coloring because I associate Night Vale with purple (probably since the podcast logo and novel’s cover are both this color). I also decorated the top of the cake with silver and gold sprinkles to look like stars. But not too many sprinkles because it should be mostly void, only partially stars. 

The finished cake: purple and starry.

This was the hardest cake I have ever made, and I am happy with how it turned out. As you can probably tell from the picture below, I had difficulty cutting the cake horizontally and filling it. But that is fine. Every component of the cake worked, and that in itself was an accomplishment (I had never successfully made a curd before, I was so worried that it wouldn’t set). And the cake as a whole is delicious: the sponge is rich and buttery, the frosting is sweet, and the curd is wonderfully tangy. Taken together, each component of the cake blends to create a delightfully satisfying dessert. Also, an added bonus: when you cut into the cake, a bit of curd spills out from the center; a bleeding cake seems very Night Vale. 

This is what it looks like sliced: slightly uneven and bleeding curd. Still delicious.

Sour (orange and mango) Heart (cake)

The book: Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang.

This is my first Books and Bakes post and I am so excited to dive into this. I’m starting the project off with Sour Heart, Jenny Zhang’s fictional collection of short stories about the experiences of 1st generation Chinese American girls growing up in New York City. Each story takes place through the lens of a different girl (actually one girl narrates two of the stories) grappling with identity, culture shock, family, and simply being a teenager. The stories are dark, but also funny and heartwarming.

One of the things that I love most about this book is that it evokes so much compassion. Children lash out at their parents without guilt, parents are overbearing, and kids are mean to each other for the sake of being mean – but Jenny Zhang does such a brilliant job of painting these characters that you, the reader, understand where they’re coming from and feel empathetic rather than judgmental.

I also like how all the characters in Sour Heart are connected. This isn’t a necessity in a collection of short stories, but there’s something really comforting about encountering at least one familiar character in each new story. The intersection of characters also contributes to the compassion that I mentioned earlier. In the first story, for example, Christina perceives Lucy as self-absorbed and vain. But in the second story, the narrative flips and we hear Lucy’s perspective – she is just a child who feels helplessly lost and anxious, and her inability to express these feelings magnifies her need to overcompensate with excessive confidence.

Finally, I love the beautiful portrayal of contrasting perspectives throughout the book: young vs. old, past vs. present, sweet vs. sour. Especially sweet vs. sour. The book is titled Sour Heart, but there is definitely tenderness, love, and compassion throughout these stories. In “We Love You Crispina”, Christina’s father routinely brings home mistresses, but he also loves his family and makes Christina feel comforted throughout her unstable childhood. In “Our Mothers Before Them,” Annie’s mother is overbearing and self-absorbed, but also shows moments of wholehearted compassion for her family. Even in “The Empty the Empty the Empty,” as Lucy and Francine’s after-school experiments turn from innocent to cruel, Lucy attempts to extend kindness to the victim of her cruelty.

To summarize: Sour Heart is a beautifully written collection of short stories that will evoke shock, sadness, laughter, and so much compassion.

The bake: mango cake with tart orange buttercream frosting.

My inspiration for this bake came from the title of the book, which comes from Christina (the narrator of the first story, ‘We Love You Crispina’) and her love of sour fruits. Originally, I had hoped to make a cake with passionfruit in it, because passionfruit is my favorite sour fruit. Unfortunately, passionfruit is not in season right now! Even the international farmer’s market that I go to for unconventional produce (and also Polish candies) didn’t have them. So I had to find a different ode to delightfully sour fruit.

I ended up making a modified version of this mango cake from Natasha’s Kitchen. Though nowhere near as tart as passionfruit, mango is my favorite fruit. I thought the sweetness of the mango would pair well with a tart orange buttercream frosting (as opposed to the cream cheese frosting from the original recipe). I followed this recipe for orange buttercream frosting, but used a homemade sour orange juice instead of regular orange juice (in an attempt to add sourness) and Aperol instead of vanilla extract.

A slice of the finished orange mango cake. 

So how did this cake turn out? It was good…but it wasn’t the right bake to celebrate Sour Heart. My experimental tart orange frosting just wasn’t tart enough, and the mango that I used for the filling was slightly overripe (meaning very sweet)…so overall this cake was sweet with very little sourness. It’s tasty, but it lacks that beautiful contrast of sweet vs. sour. Christina probably wouldn’t have liked this cake (but my fiancé and I do).

What the cake looked like before cutting into it. I decorated the top with a candy heart to incorporate the Heart from the book title.