On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (plus, my first attempt at baking something “gorgeous”)

The book: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.

Earlier this month, I read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. The book takes the form of a letter from a son to his (illiterate) mother, divulging parts of his life to her that she has never known. In the book/letter, he also explains the impact that their family history – starting in Vietnam in the late 20th century – and shared experiences have had on him. The memories he writes about all come together to tell an intimate and moving life-story.

My favorite thing about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was, without a doubt, the beautiful writing. The writing often felt more like poetry than prose, something I had never encountered in a fiction novel before. Because the writing was so poetic, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was not only a fascinating story, but also tender and moving in a way that most novels are not. The poetic writing style also meant that I couldn’t quickly binge-read this novel (in the way that some fiction books can be binged) – On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a book that demands to be read slowly, in order to take in every (beautifully-written) word.

In addition to being beautifully written, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous also feels relevant and important in today’s world. The narrator’s encounters with racism, addiction, poverty, and abuse made me seriously consider these social issues, while really empathizing with those who suffer from them. The passages that deal with these issues never feel preachy or forced, though. They are simply portrayed as part of the narrator’s real lived experiences – part of why he has become the person that he is now.

One social issue that is especially highlighted in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is abuse (and abusive relationships). Without spoiling any of the novel, I will say that certain relationships portrayed in this novel seemed abusive to me, yet the narrator still writes about them with love and tenderness. I am conflicted by this, because I feel that writing about abusers in a loving manner is – in some way that I can’t quite explain – excusing their abusive behavior. On the other hand, though, the narrator unsparingly describes the abuse that he witnessed or experienced – therefore calling out the abusers.

Overall, I really enjoyed On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It is a beautifully written book, that reads more like poetry than a fiction novel. The narrator’s heartfelt descriptions of formative life experiences are compelling, and they will stick with you, leaving you feeling like you know the narrator. My only caveat is this: because abuse is dealt with in a very complex way, I might not recommend this book to readers with a history of abuse (or I would least caution them before reading).

The bake: lime meringue pie.

I was inspired by the title of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and therefore decided to try to bake something…well…gorgeous. My fiancĂ© loves to bake pie, so we combined forces to make an aesthetically pleasing lime meringue pie.

To make the pie, we used this recipe from Cravings Journal. My fiancé made the cookie crust and lime filling, and I made (and piped) the meringue. We followed this recipe to the T, with the exception of the meringue topping, which I piped onto the pie instead of spreading as suggested in the recipe. I simply used a star-tip, and piped spirals all over the pie until I had used all the meringue.

Spirals are actually really easy to pipe! It is the perfect beginner’s piping design.

This pie was SO GOOD! The buttery cookie crust, the smooth tart filling, and the crispy meringue topping come together perfectly to create a complex, yet delightful dessert. If I were to make this again, I might add zest of one lime into the pie filling, just to make sure that the lime flavor is bold. But aesthetically, and – more importantly – taste-wise, this truly is a gorgeous dessert.

A slice of the gorgeous pie.

Who Is Vera Kelly? (and adventures in Argentinian cooking)

The book: Who is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht.

One of my reading goals for 2019 is to broaden what I read, specifically by reading more books by women, people of color, and/or queer authors – and to read books featuring non-white and queer characters. Who is Vera Kelly? is my first read of 2019 that I found by actively searching LGBTQ+ book lists. It is the story of a young CIA agent who is tasked with infiltrating a student activist group in the volatile political climate of Argentina in the 1960’s.

Who is Vera Kelly? is amazing for many reasons. First of all, the plot is thrilling. After a certain point, Vera’s adventures in Argentina became so fascinating that I couldn’t stop reading. In addition to creating a compelling plot, author Rosalie Knecht skillfully weaves chapters about Vera’s backstory throughout the novel. These chapters help paint a more complete and complex image of Vera, and because they’re intertwined throughout the book, they also build suspense to the Argentinian spy plot.

Another strength of Who is Vera Kelly? is Vera herself. She is a complex, well-developed, and admirable character. Despite being young, Vera knows exactly who she is, and she’s confident in herself. She’s cool, competent, and focused – but not without empathy for others. I found Vera incredibly likable, which only fueled my interest in the novel more – I was rooting for her and wanted to see how her story would play out!

I’ll also mention that Vera’s sexual orientation plays a key role in who she is as a person. When Vera was a young teenager, her mother forcefully separated her from her best friend (for whom she had romantic feelings). This experience played a huge role in who Vera became as an adult, and it is a memory that she frequently revisits. Yet as a CIA operative, Vera’s queerness is irrelevant. She is skilled at her position, and her work never suffers for her being gay. This is so important, and this is another reason why I love the way that Knecht portrayed Vera’s character.

All in all, I would definitely recommend this book. It’s not a typical spy novel, but it’s thrilling and compelling. And Vera Kelly is a wonderfully complex and interesting character! I hope that Knecht continues to write Vera Kelly adventures, because I am so curious to see what she’ll do next!

The bake: vegetarian empanadas, two ways.

Who is Vera Kelly? is all about Vera’s adventures in Argentina…so I decided that I would venture into the realm of Argentinian cooking! By making these vegetarian empanadas. This recipe seemed perfectly appropriate, because the author of the blog is Canadian – and in the book Vera’s fake spy identity is a Canadian student!

I tried two of the fillings: the sweet potato lentil, and the onion and cheese. I loved the onion and cheese filling – the oregano gives it a lovely flavor – but I found the sweet potato lentil one a bit bland. I would just add extra spices to taste next time…

This is the onion and cheese filled pastry – my favorite of the two I tried.

…but to be honest I’m not sure if there will be a next time! I really wanted to like this recipe…but the dough gave me problems. Like to the point that I couldn’t use it. So I tossed the dough (side note: I hate wasting food and I still feel bad about this), and thawed some frozen puff pastry sheets from my freezer. Is using puff pastry dough to make empanadas the authentic way? Probably not. But the goal of my bake had changed from authenticity to not wasting anymore food. 

The savory pastries – I won’t call them empanadas – were good, but I don’t think I would make them again. That being said, I’m not upset about how the bake turned out. It was a fun adventure, and the hiccup with the dough was just an interesting plot twist.

The final product: puff pastries with tasty savory fillings. Not empanadas, but still very tasty.