How to Bake a Man by Jessica Barksdale Inclán
Ghostwoods Books 2014
Fiction; Chick-lit; Romance
If you’re looking for a fun and sometimes surprising chick-lit romance full of food references (and recipes), you might want to pick up a copy of How to Bake a Man. While there are some more serious themes at play here – the young, working generation’s struggle to find meaningful, satisfying work and a purpose in life; difficult people in the workplace; overcoming fear and taking risks – at its heart this story is a celebration of comfort food and love.
Becca Muchmore is twenty-seven, single, and trying to do something with her life by spending her savings on an MBA. Only, her first day back at uni is a humiliating experience for her, and she feels so out-of-place that she’s ready to pack it in, go home and bake cookies. As her best friend Dez says, “But what are you going to do? You’re in school and hate it. You quite your job that took forever to find. You can’t make cookies your entire life.” Yet that’s exactly what Becca decides to do, despite her friend’s wise words, despite her mother’s theatrical sighs and criticisms. Within the space of just twenty-four hours, she’s done the paperwork for the permits and licenses she’ll need, and followed a connection from Dez’s husband and secured a trial deal, selling baked goods to the staff at a law firm in a San Francisco skyscraper. Now she needs to bake, and bake some more.
Luckily, she has help: one of her neighbours and the de facto superintendent of her apartment building, Salvatore Souza, puts his arm muscles to work, mixing the tough dough for honey nuts. A man of many part-time trades, Sal is liberal with advice on women and love – of which he has plenty of experience – and lets Becca know that he’s available to help her with her new business, should she need it. As Becca launches her new business, Becca’s Best, at Winston, Janszen and LeGuin, she realises the job comes with an unexpected – and unpleasant – surprise: one of the lawyers, Jennifer Regan, is her doppelgänger. The resemblance between Becca and Jennifer would be nothing but a funny story if it weren’t for the fact that Jennifer is the office cow, a deeply angry, mean-spirited and foul-mouthed woman with a sharp tongue and no interpersonal skills. She also happens to have a wonderful, handsome, genuinely nice boyfriend, a lawyer from another firm called Jeff, who Becca feels herself falling for, fast.
Over the next few days, Becca finds herself becoming increasingly obsessed with the resemblance she shares with Jennifer, how someone like Jeff could be with her, and what’s going on between Jennifer and another of the firm’s lawyers, Brad. While she bakes by night and tries to figure things out by day, the one thing Becca can’t see is the truth in front of her: that there’s a loyal, resourceful and uncomplicated man who’s perfect for her, working alongside her, waiting for her to figure things out.
There is much to enjoy about How to Bake a Man. First of all, I find it hard to go past a book that so prominently features cooking, especially baking – I don’t seek them out, but when they come my way they score (consider Baking Cakes in Kigali, Sweet Nothings and Sugar Spun Sister as good examples). Secondly, romance and baking just go so well together, don’t they? (And in Baking Cakes in Kigali, cakes and detectives!) But this is also a coming-of-age story for Becca, as she figures out what she wants to do and goes for it. That’s not easy to do, especially when you have confidence issues like Becca does.
I will say that Becca’s ability to quickly set up her own company and acquire a client did strike me as a bit too easy, a bit quick and convenient. She started small-scale, it’s true, but the focus of the story was on her emotional hang-ups, her would-be romance with clean-cut, preppy Jeff, and her obsession with Jennifer. The baking was a way in to that, albeit a consistently relevant one. Things just seemed to work out a bit too easily and cleanly for her, she didn’t experience the blows and set-backs of most small businesses. I’m also unconvinced that anyone would readily buy baked goods twice a day, every day (just as I have no idea how she could cook that much in a day – making more than one recipe in a day is exhausting in my experience!). I’m not sure that her business, as structured, would actually work the way it’s described here. You have to suspend disbelief and focus on the same things Becca’s focussed on: namely, Jeff and Jennifer.
The physical likeness between Becca and Jennifer – which some people see immediately and others pick up on more slowly – was an interesting plot tactic, not something I’d read before, and used as justification for Becca’s personal interest in Jennifer’s life. Not sure I’m entirely convinced, but it makes for fun reading (there is some stalking involved). Really, the star of this story – the one character you can’t help but love and appreciate from the beginning – is of course Sal (with, surprisingly, Becca’s mother in second place). Unlike stories like Bridget Jones’s Diary, the real love interest is portrayed as a good guy from the beginning. The only strikes against him, from Becca’s perspective, are that he’s a womaniser (which is just an impression she’s picked up) and that he doesn’t have a “real job” – and when you’re white and middle class, that’s important. But through helping Becca get her business going, she sees that he’s reliable, dependable, loyal, useful, intelligent, friendly, and likeable. Like most people, she judges on appearances, and those are generally always shown to be misleading.
Becca can be frustratingly slow at times, though, especially on picking up Sal’s none-too-subtle signals. But she has to go through a cycle of falling for the kind of man your parents would like to see you bring home, to realising it’s just an infatuation and getting it out of your system, before you can see the man you really love, who was there all along. It’s not original, but it’s a classic.
With recipes for all the baked goodies talked about at the back of the book (in American measurements etc. – you’ll need to do a bit of translating if you want to cook any of them), the story comes full circle. The commonly-held belief that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” is perhaps at the heart of this book, or at least is its structure, but really this is a story about a young woman coming into her own, realising her full potential, going after what she wants and succeeding at it. It’s a story about strong women, lonely women, women in love and women in the wrong relationships. The tone is a nice balance of light-hearted and ‘let’s be serious for a minute here folks’, though I found the scene with Jeff on Becca’s couch a bit odd and disturbing. Maybe because the whole Jeff thing was so wrong for Becca, and that was the point where she seemed to realise it too – or be on the brink of realising it. Overall, a fun tale and some new recipes to try someday!
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.
More stops on the tour:
Monday, October 13th: A Chick Who Reads
Tuesday, October 14th: girlichef
Wednesday, October 15th: Nightly Reading
Thursday, October 16th: Bookchickdi
Monday, October 20th: Bewitched Bookworms
Tuesday, October 21st: Giraffe Days
Wednesday, October 22nd: WV Stitcher
Thursday, October 23rd: Leigh Kramer
Friday, October 24th: Books à la Mode
Monday, October 27th: Peeking Between the Pages
Tuesday, October 28th: From the TBR Pile
Monday, November 3rd: Kritter’s Ramblings
Tuesday, November 4th: Kahakai Kitchen
Friday, November 7th: Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers
Date TBD: Book Marks the Spot
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Fourth Estate 2009 (1997)
Fiction; Historical Fiction
In December 1969, Rahel and her twin brother Estha accompany their mother, Ammu, their great-aunt, Baby Kochamma, and their uncle, Chacko, in Chacko’s skyblue Plymouth to Cochin. They’re going to see The Sound of Music for the third time, but also – more importantly to the adults – to collect Chacko’s ex-wife and daughter from the airport. Margaret Kochamma is English, and mourning for her second husband, Joe, who died earlier that year. It is the first time Rahel and Estha have met their cousin, Sophie Mol, but it will prove to be disastrous. This is the December that Sophie Mol drowns, Ammu is ostracised, and an Untouchable is beaten to death for breaching the laws that spell out who can be loved. The connection between these three events is not simply the twins, it is India’s culture, caste system, and the fragility of the mother-child bond. It is miscommunication, a child’s need to play, a woman’s need to be loved, and a man’s need to be touched.
With some books, when it comes time for me to review them, I find myself reliving the best bits, focussed on the story’s strengths, and end up bumping up my rating because the things that I had thought were holding me back from enjoying it more turn out to be insignificant, or just simply vanish. Sometimes it’s good to let a little time go by between finishing a book and reviewing it; other times, it’s detrimental. This may be one of those cases. I finished reading this in early August and am only now, two months later, writing this review. I had given the book a “I really liked it” ranking on Goodreads, but now I don’t know why. I think, at the time, I was letting the writing and all the nifty literary stuff hold sway. Now, I mostly think of it as a story, and all the things that made this a slow read for me, all the things that bored me a bit or made it hard to follow are rising to the surface like oil in a broth, and the meaty stuff has sunk out of sight. Still there, but it’s a cloudy view.
In truth, I have left it too late to write this review and do the book justice. Details are slipping away from me, but what remains is a messy jumble of the big truths that this story deals with – which it does not in a gentle way, but in a firm-gripped, wrestled-to-the-ground kind of way. It is both subtle and obvious, sometimes vacillating between the two states, sometimes being both at the same time. It is full of fine details, details that become relevant personas through repetition, like Rahel’s “Love-in-Tokyo” hair band and Estha’s “puff” hairdo. The Love-in-Tokyo is a rubber band with two beads on it, “two beads on a rubber band”. Possibly a metaphor for Rahel and Estha – and it’s this that preoccupies your reading, constantly wondering about the importance of things. You could read into the details, characters and themes almost endlessly, and that makes it an exhausting book to read.
Roy has her own unique, distinctive style, and it’s not one that I find easy to read. It took concentration and mental effort, something that might ease with repeated readings. It really makes you aware of that vast pool of consciousness that a culture creates with a shared language, so that when you are speaking the same language you are sharing more than just grammar, you are sharing deeper connotations. But for The God of Small Things, there is no shared or borrowed cultural understanding between the Western reader and the Indian author: the flow of words isn’t familiar and soothing, you can’t predict the end of the a sentence, or what direction you’ll go in next. Roy writes in perfect English, but with an unfamiliar, exotic and artistic handle on the words and grammar that is both fascinating and confounding. She breathes new life into the language, but it is so constant that I found it exhausting just as much as I found it beautiful, exciting, invigorating, insightful.
Airport garbage in their baby bins.
The smallest one stretched its neck like people in English films who loosen their ties after office. The middle one rummaged in her pouch for a long cigarette stub to smoke. She found an old cashew nut in a dim plastic bag. She gnawed it with her front teeth like a rodent. The large one wobbled the standing up sign that said Kerala Tourism Development Corporation Welcomes You with a kathakali dancer doing a namaste. Another sign, unwobbled by a kangaroo, said: emocleW ot eht ecipS tsaoC fo aidnI.
Urgently, Ambassador Rahel burrowed through the press of people to her brother and co-Ambassador.
Estha look! Look Estha, look!
Ambassador Estha wouldn’t. Didn’t want to. He watched the bumpy landing with his tap-water Eagle flask slung around him, and a bottomless-bottomful feeling: the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man knew where to find him. In the factory in Ayemenem. On the banks of the Meenchal.
Ammu watched with her handbag.
Chacko with his roses.
Baby Kochamma with her sticking out neckmole. [p.139-140]
That’s just a random passage to use as an example, which also shows the curious narrator who speaks both with Rahel and Estha’s perspective and voice, and something else too. It is another mark of strangeness that is this writing: written in third person omniscient from, often, the perspective of the children, it yet manages to convey the sense that there is no narrator. Even when the “narrator” makes direct comments, they just seem to Be. It’s quite intriguing. Even so, the language, the perspective, the voice, they are like the different tools in an artist’s hands, each given just as much weight and attention. Through the twins’ obsessions over certain words, phrases, games, misunderstandings, through repetition and a non-linear structure, you are constantly aware that a real artist is at work here.
But as I said, the real strengths of this novel are the story itself, and the characters, which of course wouldn’t have been the same if the writing had been more conventional. The two main parts of the novel that will really dig into your heart and squeeze, are those in which Rahel feels she has lost her mother’s love – a grey moth resides on her heart when her mother tells her that when she’s bad, she makes people “love her a little less” – and Estha is sexually molested by the “Orangedrink Lemondrink Man” at the theatre and lives in fear that the man will turn up in their village; and Velutha, the Untouchable, a character who naturally resonates with the Western reader because the very concept of his lowly status and the way people treat him for no reason other than a seemingly arbitrary caste system is abhorrent, and has tragic consequences. Or rather, characters ignoring the caste system results in tragedy. There is a distinction.
There is, throughout the novel, a sense of being trapped, of being restricted by caste, gender, wealth, poverty, expectations and custom in absolutely everything, for everyone. No one is exempt, and, it seems, no one is happy either. Time is fluid, the story shifting back and forth willy-nilly, moving sometimes into the “present” when Rahel and Estha are adults – still young, but damaged, moving about like ghosts. It is a damaged country, Roy seems to say, trying to maintain some semblance of order and control by obeying senseless traditions. It is a story, ultimately, about “the tragic fate of a family which ;tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how’.” (I can’t find that quote just now so I’m borrowing from Christina Patterson’s review for the Observer, quoted on the back cover.) In today’s Western culture, such a story would be futuristic science fiction, probably labelled “dystopian” in the Young Adult market; but for India, it’s a very real and very turgid past and present. With strains of political machinations and Communist manoeuvrings, life in India after the British left sees a slight shuffle as the high-status families jockey to maintain their position, which necessitates keeping the low-born, low. You can’t mix, love and marry, you just can’t. But Rahel and Estha see just what happens, when you try.
“The God of Small Things is nominally the story of young twins Rahel and Estha and the rest of their family, but the book feels like a million stories spinning out indefinitely; it is the product of a genius child-mind that takes everything in and transforms it in an alchemy of poetry. The God of Small Things is at once exotic and familiar to the Western reader, written in an English that’s completely new and invigorated by the Asian Indian influences of culture and language.” The Book Addict Blog
“If you are looking for something lighthearted and quick to read, this is not for you. It took me awhile to get through the book, even with the beautiful writing, and there are some pretty dark subject matters that come to play. Things that could never be called pleasant. This book is wonderful though, when all said an done. It will be a bit challenging at first, but if you are open to that I think you will love this novel.” Definitely Not For the Birds
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I don’t have a specific cookbook to review or recommend today, but I thought I’d share my recent cooking experiment before I forget what I did and what worked. We had friends over for dinner during the week and I love the opportunity to make some fancy dessert I’ve previously only salivated over. Trouble is, there’s always too much choice! I wanted something light and summery (even though it’s only spring and lately it’s been overcast and sometimes chilly), with maybe some fruit, maybe a tart or a pie. Only I also didn’t want to have to buy too many new, pricey ingredients, and this isn’t the best time of year for fresh fruit. In the end, I found myself drawn to a recipe for mini white chocolate and raspberry cheesecakes from the August 2014 edition of Taste magazine (Taste.com.au is an excellent online database of recipes; they started putting out a magazine a year ago).
But I didn’t want to make four smaller cheesecakes, nor did I have the smaller, 10cm-diameter tins needed. I wanted to make one big one to share. So then I found a recipe for a white chocolate cheesecake in one of the Taste anthology cookbook-magazines, called Bake (pictured), which you can buy at the supermarket. I decided to combine the recipes, and for the most part it worked.
(As usual, my photos are a bit crap, but hopefully does it justice.)
White Chocolate & Raspberry Cheesecake
250g Arnott’s butternut snap biscuits
250g Arnott’s granita biscuits
200g butter, melted
500g (2 packets) cream cheese, softened
100ml sour cream
1 tsp vanilla bean paste (or if you can’t get hold of it, use regular, natural vanilla essence)
1/2 cup caster sugar
2 Tablespoons cornflour
180g white chocolate, melted and cooled
200g fresh or frozen raspberries
Line the bottom of a 22cm springform cake tin and lightly grease the sides.
In a food processor, whiz the biscuits in batches until finely crushed and tip into a mixing bowl. Add the melted butter and mix to combine. Tip into the tin and, using a straight-sided glass, spread evenly across the bottom and sides. Cover with plastic wrap and put in the fridge for 30 minutes to set.
Preheat the oven to 160 C. In a mixer, beat the cream cheese and sour cream until smooth and lump-free. Add the vanilla paste and sugar and beat. With the mixer still going, add the eggs one at a time, and then the cornflour and finally the melted chocolate.
Good opportunity to show off my new Kenwood mixer, too!
Pour the mixture into the prepared tin. Scatter raspberries on top and gently fold them in.
Bake for 1 hour, then leave in the oven with the door ajar for a further hour. Serve at room temperature or chilled.
There are a few things I would change for next time. I was using a bigger tin than the one in the recipe and I wasn’t sure of my quantities, which is why I have so much crumb coming up the sides – baked cheesecake usually rise a bit but it didn’t rise enough. Or did it? Maybe it’s good this way.
I made too much crumb mixture, mostly because the packets are 250g, not 200g (as required in the original recipe), and I hate having just a couple of biscuits left over, plus I thought with the bigger tin it’d be alright. Also, a good crumb makes a wonderful cheesecake. But I still probably had too much.
The full cheesecake recipe called for 3 eggs, but I ad-libbed using my favourite baked cheesecake recipe which I’ve made loads of times before, and that only uses 2 (and makes a big cheesecake). But increasing the eggs to three, and using more cream would probably have made more filling for this size of tin.
The original recipe, from Bake, required you to not only leave the cheesecake in the oven for 2 hours (or until cooled completely), but also to chill in the fridge for another 4 hours. I didn’t have time to do that, but I worried what it would mean to my cheesecake setting. So I increased the cornflour from 1 tablespoon to 2. I’m not actually sure if that’s the role of the flour or not but it seemed logical. If I had endless time and ingredients I could experiment to find out, but I’ve neither so I gambled. Well, it was set, but I think I left it in the oven a bit too long, as it’s more browned on top than I intended.
I used frozen raspberries, as raspberries are ridiculously expensive to buy fresh in Australia (we grow lots, be we export them and there’s not much left over), and there weren’t actually any on sale that day anyway. But when I opened my bag of frozen raspberries, I saw more ice than fruit! I had to grab a couple of handfuls and defrost them slowly in the microwave so I could separate the fruit from the ice. I didn’t have much in the end, and I had to fold them in carefully to prevent more bleeding of juice than there was, but it did work out. Would have been a lot easier to use fresh of course!
Flavour: you could definitely taste the white chocolate, and the raspberries, but neither was over-powering. There was a good cheesecake-to-crumb ratio I thought (I love the crumb!) and the crumb was good and nutty and buttery. I would still like, one day, to do the brûlée topping as in the mini cheesecake recipe – sprinkle some caster sugar on top then pop under the grill for a minute (or, if you have one, use a chef’s blowtorch to caramelise the sugar).
So that’s me. What would you do to adapt this recipe?
From Taste magazine (August 2014, p.102)
Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads, is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog’s home page. For more information, see the welcome post.
Friday Fictioneers is hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields and the task is a simple but challenging one: to write a short story of 100 words or less in response to the photo prompt (see below). I’ve been loving the ones author Claire Fuller puts up on her blog, and thought I’d give it a try.
I’m hoping that the more of these I do, the better I’ll get, but it’s not easy writing in only a hundred words. Practice, right? I’m not sure that my story has a beginning, middle and end per se, but I wanted to see if I could reveal a beginning, middle and end through this snippet. I think my main fear is being unoriginal, but you do need to work through the clichés to get to the new. Oh, and I got stumped on the title.
Photo Prompt Credit: Rochelle Wisoff-Fields
The Record Player
“There’s nothing here that I want,” she said, squinting into the garage, trying to make sense of the debris of her father’s life.
Her mother picked up an old record player. One corner of the glass cover was cracked. There was a record still inside. Tears For Fears. “He would want you to have this, I’m sure.”
A reluctant laugh came out, rough-edged and broken. “Christ. We should have buried it with him.”
“Couldn’t,” her mother replied. “I needed it to play his favourite songs at the funeral.”
She took it from her mother, held it awkwardly, looked away. “Thanks Mum.”
Constructive feedback welcome. Check out more of this week’s Friday Fictioneers here.