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.

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 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.

The Dreamers (plus, a dreamy chocolate-cherry-almond bread)

The book: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker.

As my personal life gets busier, I find myself wanting to read only binge-worthy fiction novels that offer me the chance to stop thinking about stressful realities and escape into a different universe. The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker was the perfect book for that. The premise of the novel is that a small town in California is confronted with an outbreak of a mysterious sleeping sickness. As the disease spreads through the town, scientists and government authorities try to manage the epidemic, and the threat of the illness affects various residents’ lifestyles and relationships.

Something that I appreciated about The Dreamers was its thoroughness: the novel offers glimpses into many facets of a major epidemic including the disease symptoms, the attempts to quarantine the infected and prevent further spread of the disease, the politicization of the epidemic, and the general chaos that follows the outbreak. The book also shows how fear spreads with the epidemic, and how the threat of becoming infected affects people in different ways. Mei, a shy college student, becomes bolder and more sure of herself. A young couple with a newborn baby is forced to confront marital issues they had intentionally repressed. Two young sisters gain the opportunity to think for themselves after the quarantine separates them from their controlling, paranoid father.

The Dreamers also subtly nods to other issues. Climate change – and the willful ignorance of those who continue living in precarious environments – is a major theme. The book also demonstrates (and I mean demonstrates, this issue is never explicitly discussed) how parents’ own biases and fears can negatively impact their children. These themes aren’t major foci in the novel – a book cannot responsibly cover every issue in under 300 pages – but they are there, and they add depth to the story.

The biggest weakness of The Dreamers might be that it attempts too much. There are too many characters, too many things going on, and too many themes. If you are someone who likes getting to know one or a few characters in all of their complexity, The Dreamers might disappoint you in that respect.

And speaking of disappointments, the ending of the novel was kind of underwhelming! That’s just my subjective opinion though, and sometimes an “underwhelming” ending is the most realistic one, as life isn’t always so dramatic. Overall, The Dreamers is an interesting and addictive novel that explores many aspects of humanity through the lens of a disease epidemic.

The bake: chocolate-cherry-almond challah.

During the week that I read The Dreamers – a novel about a town plagued by sleeping sickness – I barely slept at all. I was fatigued during the day and sleepy at night, yet still somehow unable to sleep! Because of the ironic timing of this insomnia spell, I decided to bake something inspired by sleep. I did some investigative research (i.e. a google search) into foods that help promote sleep, and among the results were cherries, almonds, and dark chocolate. Three flavors that I love and that taste great together: perfect for a bake!

I combined my favorite three sleep-promoting flavors together in a challah bread, following this recipe from King Arthur Flour. Instead of adding apples and raisins, though, I added the trifecta of chocolate, cherries, and almonds. And since I wasn’t using apples (which add moisture to the bread), I added an extra 1/4 cup of water. Also, I omitted the cinnamon sugar topping because I didn’t think it would go well with my flavors.

This challah recipe was awesome! I proved my dough (i.e. let it sit and rise) for the minimum recommended amount of time, and the loaf still got huge! The taste and texture of the bread were also great, and I think that many different fillings could work with the base challah recipe. Despite containing a trifecta of allegedly-sleep-promoting-fillings, I doubt this bread will actually put you to sleep…so you can enjoy it whenever you want! What a dream!

The Incendiaries (a novel about a relationship gone wrong, and my story of apricot bread gone right)

The book: The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon.

Last week I read The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon. The novel is the (fictional) account of a college student, Will Kendall, trying to understand how his ex-girlfriend became deeply involved in a pro-life cult. The story is primarily told from Will’s perspective, although he also tries to imagine pieces of the story from the perspectives of his ex-girlfriend Phoebe Lin and cult-leader John Leal. As the plot unfolds, the novel also becomes the story of the dissolution of Will and Phoebe’s relationship, as well as a story about Will’s fraught relationship with religion.

The first few chapters of The Incendiaries seem like a typical college love-story, as R. O. Kwon spends a lot of time developing Will and Phoebe’s characters and their relationship. However, as the story progresses, it becomes much darker. We see the flaws in Will and Phoebe’s relationship, as well as Phoebe’s underlying guilt complex that makes her so vulnerable to unhealthy relationships and religious brainwashing.

One thing that surprised me in The Incendiaries was realizing that the narrator – Will Kendall – was often unreliable. It becomes especially evident in the second half of the novel that, although Will likes to think of himself as an unbiased observer, sometimes his perspective is simply wrong. He is blinded by his attachment to Phoebe, and he can only see her as an idealized image, not the complex person she truly is. Of course, Will doesn’t realize this – he thinks his flawed perspective is the objective truth. These shortcomings of Will make him frustrating, but realistic, and R. O. Kwon did an amazing job writing from his realistically flawed perspective.

In addition to having complex, well-developed characters, The Incendiaries is an addictive and thought-provoking read. There are questions about the story that I still haven’t resolved (and I finished this book over a week ago). For example: did Phoebe’s increasing involvement in the cult cause her relationship with Will to dissolve, or was it the slow dissolution of their relationship that pushed her further into the cult? It’s hard to say because there is validity to both perspectives, but I really like how R. O. Kwon leaves this ambiguous and forces the reader to think for themselves.

Overall, I highly recommend The Incendiaries. R. O. Kwon beautifully captures the recklessness and naiveté of young love, as well as how deep unexamined pain can drive people to extreme actions. The novel’s ending leaves major questions unresolved, yet somehow The Incendiaries is still a totally satisfying read.

The bake: apricot swirl bread.

For The Incendiaries, I decided to bake something inspired by the character of Phoebe. Throughout the novel, we see how she fluctuates between discipline and wildness, and as such, I decided to bake something that straddles the line between both.

To me, baking with yeast is the ultimate crossover between discipline and wildness. Yeast is a living organism, and small changes in temperature or humidity have a huge impact on the way yeast reacts with other baking ingredients. Yet there’s a reason why humans have been baking with yeast for centuries: under the right conditions yeast behaves predictably, making it very useful as long as it’s used carefully.

With that in mind, I made this apricot swirl bread from King Arthur Flour (they call it a “coffee cake” on their website, but I would call it a bread). I followed the recipe exactly as its written on the site because, as mentioned above, yeast requires specific conditions! It took about three hours, but much of the time was inactive.

I was so excited to cut a slice of bread that I forgot to take a picture of the in-tact loaf! This is what it looks like with one slice already cut out, oops!

My bread didn’t turn out nearly as beautifully as the King Arthur Flour example…I guess the imperfections highlight the “wildness” that partly inspired this bake. Imperfections and all, this is a lovely bread: light enough that you don’t feel too indulgent eating it, and packed with delicious apricot flavor. Perfect to soothe your soul after the emotional journey that was The Incendiaries…or to enjoy for any other occasion!

nîtisânak (a memoir that I can’t stop thinking about, and that inspired me to bake poppy seed muffins)

The book: nîtisânak by Lindsay Nixon.

nîtisânak is Lindsay Nixon’s memoir about growing up native and queer in the Canadian prairie. It is a book that covers many issues, including identity, family, oppression, and truth. nîtisânak also utilizes many forms of writing, including narrative, poetry, and even illustration.

nîtisânak was unlike anything I’ve read before. From the perspectives offered, to the writing style itself – this book was truly mesmerizing. Lindsay Nixon shares their thoughts on power, family, capitalism, punk rock, and so much more – all from the rarely-heard perspective of a queer Native Canadian. One of the major themes that Nixon touches on is the idea of “home.” Like, how do you define home? For some people, home is the physical space that you occupy; whereas for others home may refer to the people that you surround yourself with, your chosen kin. Either (or another) interpretation is completely valid: “home” is a concept that every individual defines for themselves (while hopefully understanding and respecting that other people may have different interpretations).

This ties into another important theme in nîtisânak: the concept of “truth.” Sometimes when people remember or perceive things differently, they simply have different truths. Nixon beautifully brings up this point when talking about how they and their late mother have very different memories of the same event:

“whose version of the story…is right…will never be reconciled. I’m the only one left to carry our story forward -which is perhaps why I cautiously wade through remembering with a hint of cynicism. Because whose truth is The Truth, you know?

However, Nixon also acknowledges the bitter side of nuanced truths: society routinely favors the white man’s version of the truth as “The Truth.” Nixon beautifully condemns this societal practice of disbelieving oppressed, minority groups:

“As if truth isn’t relative and, if she contends that her experience is true, well then, isn’t it to her at least?”

The nuance of the concepts of “home” and “truth” were what stuck with me most after reading nîtisânak, but the entire memoir is incredible. Lindsay Nixon’s writing is gorgeous, and they bring so much life and realness to each topic they discuss. The best way to understand is to read the book for yourself, and I hope that you will.

The bake: poppyseed muffins.

nîtisânak was so thought-provoking and complex, that at first I felt like summarizing the memoir through baking would be doing it a disservice. I worried that a bake based on nîtisânak would be simplifying Nixon’s story and, by extension, their experiences. But then I remembered that the point of this blog isn’t to summarize the books that I read; it’s to create things that are inspired by them.

What inspired me most in nîtisânak were Nixon’s different descriptions of the concept of “home.” After reading the memoir, I thought a lot about my own definitions of “home.” One of my “homes” is the house and family in which I grew up. There is also the physical space that I occupy now, and my chosen family. With that in mind, I tried to think of something that could merge these versions of home…and I ended up with poppyseed muffins. The bake had to be a muffin of some kind, because that is the only thing I can remember my mom ever baking when I lived with her. I also wanted to incorporate poppy seeds, because my loving partner (AKA my chosen kin) said that a lot of the traditional desserts that his family enjoys involve poppy seeds.

Tried to create something inspired by my nuanced thoughts on “home” – ended up with poppy seed muffins.

I ended up making a modified version of these poppy seed muffins from Taste of Home (very fitting website name given the theme of this bake). I substituted half of the flour with almond flour, and then added a teaspoon of potato flour to help with the bake. I also used ricotta cheese instead of milk.

The muffins are good, but a bit too sweet. Even though they were inspired by my thoughts on home, they don’t make me feel nostalgic for home. That is okay, because I still loved the process of making them. And with more modification to the recipe, I can totally see poppy seed muffins becoming a new tradition that I associate with (my chosen) home.

I enjoyed the muffins with cherry jam and ricotta cheese!

(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.