Book Review: The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell

Black lives matter, Black voices matter, and Black stories matter! The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell is, as you may have inferred from the title, an essay collection and memoir from stand-up comedian W. Kamau Bell. If you haven’t seen his work, I highly recommend his Netflix comedy special “Private School Negro” or his CNN show “United Shades of America.” In his memoir, Bell dissects the various components of his identity – fatherhood, Blackness, activism, nerdiness, and more – and how they shape who he is as a person.

The book: The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Before I get into the content of the book, I want to mention that I read this as an audiobook, which probably influenced my opinion in some ways. Bell has a deep, clear voice which is pleasant to listen to and well-suited for audiobooks. Beyond enjoying the sound of Bell’s voice, I enjoyed the experience of hearing his stories in his own voice. From now on, I will try to listen to memoirs and autobiographies exclusively as audiobooks.

I also enjoyed the book itself. W. Kamau Bell’s comedy is political with an emphasis on intersectional racism, and so is his memoir. The book isn’t exclusively about racism or politics, but as a Black man in America (or more specifically, a 6’4″ black man married to a white woman, with two interracial children), Bell’s perspectives are influenced by the racism that he has witnessed and experienced. Even the chapters about “apolitical” things – such as Bell’s love of superheroes, Denzel Washington, and the movie Creed – eventually touch upon race, subtly demonstrating the ways in which racism seeps into virtually every facet of American culture.

In addition to offering excellent commentary on intersectionality, Bell describes his life experiences with brilliant transparency and authenticity. He proudly talks about his nerdiness, his love for his family, and his personal and professional growth. He is also very open about how his shortcomings and failures shaped him, discussing failures in the early stages of his stand-up career, his unconscious sexist biases that he unlearned with the help of a friend, and even a rough patch in his marriage where he and his wife lived apart. Of course, celebrities aren’t required to present themselves in all of their complexity to write an enjoyable memoir, but I found Bell’s honesty refreshing.

My biggest critique of The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell is that it could have been considerably shorter. The book is repetitive in places, and his elaborate build-ups to important moments didn’t always work for me. One story in particular focuses on an incident at a gas station that took place over the span of a few minutes, but Bell spends over twenty minutes telling the story! I also took issue with a comment Bell made that “some kids are just jerks. After all, where else do adult jerks come from?” The comment was probably a joke, but it was one of his jokes that really didn’t land for me, especially because it contradicts Bell’s own assertion that jokes at the expense of innocent people aren’t that funny.

Overall, though, I had a great time with The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell. This deeply personal essay collection strikes a great balance between funny, sincere, and serious. I also learned a lot from Bell’s stories, with one of my biggest takeaways being that racism subtly invades just about every facet of American society (even things that white Americans think of as “apolitical”). I would recommend this book – especially as an audiobook so you can hear Bell’s stories in his own voice!

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.

Book Review: Midnight in Chernobyl

The book: Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham
Genre: Historical non-fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

I recently finished reading Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl. This nonfiction book tells the comprehensive story of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, as well as the events that followed it.

Overall, I enjoyed and learned a lot from Midnight in Chernobyl. Prior to reading the book, I knew very little about the Chernobyl nuclear accident – other than the fact that it happened. I didn’t understand why the accident happened, though, or how severe it was. Midnight in Chernobyl provided a comprehensive background of the Soviet Union’s nuclear industry in the 1970’s and 1980’s (plagued by ambitious goals and unrealistic timelines, which led to constant corner-cutting), and key technical details about the lead-up to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Author Adam Higginbotham also spends a great deal of time addressing the events that followed the Chernobyl nuclear accident – especially the Soviet government’s response to it. Reading about how the Soviet government responded to Chernobyl was eye-opening to me: it demonstrated just how secretive and obsessed with public-image the Soviet Union was. For example, Higginbotham describes how the Soviet government waited over 24 hours to evacuate citizens from the town of Pripyat (which was adjacent to the Chernobyl nuclear facility) because they worried that evacuation would cause panic and portray the USSR in an unflattering light.

My one critique of Midnight in Chernobyl was that its comprehensiveness sometimes came at the expense of a well-flowing read. By trying to fit in every pertinent detail – including distinct events occurring simultaneously in different places – the story is a bit disjointed and hard to follow at times. The last chapter of the book was the worst offender of this. I think that Higginbotham was trying to use the final chapter to tie up loose ends, but instead the chapter felt all-over-the-place.

Overall, I definitely recommend Midnight in Chernobyl. It is not necessarily an easy read (there is a lot of information to keep track of, and the story itself is tough to stomach), but it is fascinating. If you want to learn more about the events that led to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, how the government responded to the accident, or how the disaster was contained – you will definitely learn that (and more) from this book.

Lab Girl (plus, how baking meringues is like doing laboratory work)

The book: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.

Earlier this month I read Hope Jahren’s memoir, Lab Girl. Dr. Jahren is a professor and researcher at the University of Oslo in Norway, but she has also held professor positions at Georgia State University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Hawaii. Lab Girl tells the story of how Dr. Jahren fell in love with science, and her journey through her battlefield of a career in academia.

When I first started the book, I felt skeptical of the author’s motives (i.e. her “agenda”). I couldn’t shake the feeling that the memoir was a bit self-congratulatory, or perhaps validation-seeking. As the memoir progressed, though, it really grew on me. Dr. Jahren is refreshingly honest about her career in academia: she unflinchingly describes the countless times she’s been dismissed for being a woman in science, the poor living conditions she endured in order to “make it” as a starting professor, and her experiences living with bipolar disorder. These are aspects of academic research that are present for so many grad students, post-doctoral researchers, and professors – yet they are rarely discussed (in fact, my experience in academia was that students are expected to keep their struggles to themselves).

In addition to portraying academic life so honestly, Lab Girl also contains amazingly accessible science writing. My background is actually in plant sciences, but I think that Dr. Jahren’s science-writing could easily be digested by readers from a non-science background. I especially liked Dr. Jahren’s explanations of how seeds germinate, root, and ultimately develop into trees – oftentimes against staggeringly low odds.

Despite my initial skepticism, I loved this book and I have a lot of admiration for Dr. Jahren. I don’t know that her story is exceptionally unique for a female science professor, but I do know that she is incredibly brave to come forth and tell her full story. Her writing style is gorgeous and easy-to-follow, and the book contains a few of my new favorite quotes, including this one: “in the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you’re supposed to be.”

The bake: (attempted) lime-swirl meringues.

As a scientist myself, I often tell people that what I do in the laboratory is a lot like following a recipe. I have even been known to say that “if you can follow a recipe, you can do a DNA extraction!” Both baking and conducting good laboratory research involve following optimized protocols. As such, I decided that for Lab Girl, I would bake something that required me to follow a “highly optimized protocol” (i.e. a meticulous bake): meringues swirled with lime curd.

I chose meringue and lime curd, because both are tricky to make: just like doing lab-based research, both require that you follow your protocol (i.e. recipe) pretty closely if you want to be successful. I baked these meringues, but instead of using raspberry puree for the swirled topping, I used a homemade lime curd (following this recipe).

Although I have struggled with curd in the past, this one came out very well! I love the bright and zesty flavor of it. Unfortunately, my meringues were not as successful: they took on a weird caramel color in the oven, and they never got crunchy (most likely the result of two mistakes: putting them on too low an oven-rack and over-baking them). I almost didn’t post about this bake, but I decided that – in the spirit of sharing my full story and not just the shiny parts of it – I should write about my baking failures.

I was disappointed with the meringues at first, but like all failed experiments, this was an opportunity to learn and improve. I’m really glad that I also made the lime curd, because now at least one part of the bake was successful. Also, I have a lot of leftover lime curd; I can’t wait to put it to good use in my next bake!

The Truffle Underground (and my above-ground fungal feast)

The book: The Truffle Underground by Ryan Jacobs.

Last month, I read The Truffle Underground by Ryan Jacobs. This non-fiction book exposes the fraud, corruption, and even violence that goes on in the truffle mushroom industry – generally, without the knowledge of the consumer. As a lover of fungi, I was compelled to learn about the dark side of the delicacy known as truffle mushrooms.

Although the subject matter of The Truffle Underground intrigued me, the first 60 (or so) pages of the book did not. I thought the book got off to a boring start without any real hook. In fact, I felt like the writing was attempting to be intriguing – without much success.

After the slow start, however, The Truffle Underground really picked up. The book became compelling partly because the rampant corruption in the truffle industry is shocking, and partly because the writing starts to flow better after the first few chapters. Jacobs exposes issues in the truffle industry ranging from malicious sabotage of competitors, “under-the-table” dealings, tax evasion, and fraudulent mislabeling of much less valuable truffle species as the delicacy Tuber melanosporum. One thing that has especially stuck with me is that “truffle oil” is one of the biggest lies in the food industry: it is virtually never made purely from Tuber melanosporum, and oftentimes contains no mushroom in it whatsoever.

Overall, I’m glad that I read The Truffle Underground. Learning about the dark side of the truffle industry was unsettling, but it also provided me with a much more nuanced perspective of the industry. After reading this book, I will probably never eat any food product with the word “truffle” in its name (besides chocolates, of course). If you want to learn about the world of complexity and corruption that lies beneath one of the finest delicacies in the food world, I definitely recommend this book – just be warned that it can be a bit boring at times.

The bake: fungus lovers’ pizza.

While it turned out to be a fascinating read, The Truffle Underground turned me off of truffle mushrooms in the strongest way possible. So a bake that incorporated “truffle oil” or “truffle cheese” or any BS truffle product was out of the question. Instead, I turned to some other edible fungi that I love: Saccharomyces cerevisiae (bakers’ yeast), Penicillium roqueforti (blue stilton cheese), and Boletus edulis (porcini mushroom) – and combined them into one fungus-tastic pizza!

I didn’t follow any recipe for the pizza. I just bought pizza dough from the grocery store, then topped it with a homemade garlic-ricotta sauce, mozzarella cheese, bleu cheese, porcini mushrooms, and basil. I had read that a common mistake with homemade pizzas is overloading the dough with too many toppings, so I was pretty modest with the toppings. I baked my pizza on the top rack of an oven at 450 degrees (F), and took it out when the crust was lightly browned.

This pizza was AMAZING! I probably could have been more generous with the toppings, and also taken the pizza out of the oven a couple minutes sooner. That being said, it was still deliciously decadent, and the various flavors (garlic, ricotta, bleu cheese, basil, etc) worked well together. While I will probably never eat anything “truffle”-flavored ever again, I still love and appreciate edible fungi in the forms of yeast, mushrooms, and bleu cheese.

Served with a dash of hot sauce and a fungal-fermented drink (BEER!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

(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 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.