Books and bakes #12: The Vanishing Half and strawberry-rhubarb pie

The bake

I want more pie in my life. And frozen fruit provides the opportunity to make any type of pie no matter what’s currently in season. Earlier this week, I bought a package of frozen strawberries and rhubarb, figuring I’d find a recipe for pie later. To my surprise, most of the strawberry-rhubarb pie recipes I found advised against using frozen fruit. And the ones that said it was an option warned to make sure the fruit was thawed and drained well, since there was a lot of moisture that could make the filling soupy. So I thawed the fruit in the fridge overnight, drained it in a colander the next morning, and then placed it in a container lined and covered with paper towel. I used the recipe from Sally’s Baking Addiction for the filling. (I omitted the orange juice, only because I didn’t have it, and I figured I could probably stand losing the extra liquid.) I made the pastry from the apple pie recipe I use because I like it and know that it’s easy to work with.

The end result? A tasty pie that could use some improvement. The filling was well set–not soupy at all–and a good balance of sweet and tart. And I already knew the pastry would be a winner. The only problem was that I would have liked a bit more filling in the pie. Sally’s recipe called for 5.5 cups of fruit. I measured the entire package of frozen fruit and it came to about 5.5 cups. The issue, I think, was that I measured it frozen, so it may have been slightly less if I had measured the fruit after it was drained. The next time I make a strawberry-rhubarb pie, I’ll use fresh fruit, just to see if it makes much of a difference.

The book

This weekend, I cracked open The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, a novel about twin sisters who run away from their hometown when they are teenagers. Years later, one ends up living her life passing as white, while the other returns with her daughter to live in the black community she and her twin left behind.

I’m looking forward to returning to this novel, as I’ve heard so much about it over the past year. But it took this novel becoming a book club pick for me to finally grab a copy (book club is next weekend). Sometimes it seems that when you hear a lot about a book, it just can’t live up to the hype, and that might be why I sometimes take my time getting to those ones (or never getting to them). I’m trying to manage my expectations. In any case, it’s always fun to hear about the experiences of others with a book, so no matter how I end up feeling about The Vanishing Half, I’m sure our book club discussion will be interesting.

Books and bakes #10: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 and blueberry crumb bars

The bake

Sometimes you just feel like baking. And since I have enough chocolate for now (I picked up some early Easter chocolate last weekend), this week I felt like making something fruity. Blueberries don’t come into season until the summer in Ontario, but something about the lemon-blueberry flavour combination always says “spring” to me. Thankfully frozen fruit makes it possible to bake with this combo at any time of year. I found this recipe for blueberry crumb bars from My Baking Addiction that have just a hint of lemon with the addition of lemon zest to the crust/crumble. The bars were easy to make, and had a tasty crumble on top, with a good balance of crumb to fruit. My only complaint is that in just 24 hours, some of the bars became quite soggy sitting in a sealed container. I’m not sure if there was a better way to store them, as the recipe didn’t include any notes. But it’s not a real bother. The bars still taste great. The soggier ones just have to be eaten with a fork rather than with fingers.

The book

I’ve had Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo on hold at the library since before it was released in Canada. I think it’s been over a year now. If my memory serves me right, it was released when everything first closed due to the pandemic. I couldn’t get anything from the library at that point, and I think they had paused on receiving books, too. There may have been some other reasons for the delay, but I am unaware of the details. Anyway, the fact that it was taking so long just made me want to read it more. And, a few days ago, I was finally able to pick it up.

Kim-Jiyoung, Born 1982 is a short novel (160 pages) that opens with 33-year-old Kim Jiyoung displaying increasingly unusual behaviour that concerns her husband. The book then goes back in time with a section devoted to a different period of Jiyoung’s life, starting with her childhood, then her adolescence, her early adulthood, and then her marriage (outlined in the table of contents). The opening of the book grabbed me. Right away I wanted to know what was happening with Jiyoung. I’ve just finished the adolescence section, and now I’m finding it fascinating going back to look at Jiyoung’s life, seeing how her family and culture have affected and shaped her. So far, this book is proving to have been worth the wait.

Reading in the midst of a global pandemic

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As I write this, it seems like everyone is either social distancing or self-isolating because of COVID-19. At least we have books.

Stories connect us. They show us other perspectives, introduce us to new ideas, make us feel things on a deep level. Books can provide us with a lot of joy. But while all of this is true, reading during a global pandemic can be tricky. How can you get your mind to focus on the words on the page when there is so much going on?

So here’s how I’m approaching reading these days.

Turning to stories that offer escape

Earlier this week, I finished The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, which was a perfect book for me to read right now. I was able to immerse myself in this other world–one that was magical and enchanting, that talks about stories and books in such a beautiful way. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, so I can’t compare this to other novels in the genre, but this book gave me the escape I needed.

Finding books that make me LOL

My current read is Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, and I’ve found myself chuckling at socially awkward Eleanor more than once. I’m about a third of the way into it, and I feel that something is coming that’s going to pull at my heartstrings, too. So maybe it will be one of those books that makes you laugh and makes you cry, too.

Skipping the dystopian fiction

A lot of people are reading or recommending Emily St. John Mandel’s wonderful novel Station Eleven lately. While I did enjoy that book, I definitely don’t want to read about civilization collapsing at this moment. The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker is another book I really liked but it seems to be hitting too close to home at the moment. I don’t want to read about a virus right now, TYVM. Maybe later.

Re-visiting favourites

I may re-read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca or The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters–two gothic novels that I love and can really sink into. The familiarity of re-reading a favourite book can be comforting, but also it’s great because, if you get distracted, it’s not like you’ll be completely lost. You already know what happens! I find myself craving childhood favourites, too, like Judy Blume YA novels. Alas, I don’t have those books on hand.

Doing other stuff

No matter what the state of the world is, I will always love to read. But when I find it too difficult to focus, I do other things. I exercise, bake, cook, connect with friends and family online, sketch…maybe even write a blog post. Reading will always be there, so don’t feel bad if you have to take a break from it.

Q&A with author Brian Francis

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Brian Francis (photo credit: Samuel Engelking)

Brian Francis is a Toronto-based writer whose third book–a YA novel entitled Break in Case of Emergency–will be released in September 2019. I recently asked Brian about his upcoming novel, his motivation for helping other writers, and how he ended up writing a play. I also didn’t miss the chance to find out which refreshment Brian recommends you enjoy when you crack open his newest book this fall.

Can you describe what Break in Case of Emergency is about in five sentences or fewer?

The book is about a teenage girl named Toby growing up on her grandparents’ dairy farm. Her mom died by suicide and Toby is convinced she’s destined to follow in her mom’s footsteps. Those plans go astray when she receives the news that her father, someone she’s never met, is returning home. And that he’s a female impersonator.

How did you come up with the title?

I didn’t. My editor, Suzanne Sutherland, did. We were struggling to find the right title for the book and she offered up this gem. It stuck. Thank god for editors is all I have to say. Otherwise, this book would be called Book.

What was different about the experience of writing Break in Case of Emergency from writing your other novels, Fruit and Natural Order?

Given that Break is a YA book, I had a stronger sense of the intended audience. Not so with the other two books. I think Break is my tightest book in terms of storytelling. But I guess readers will be ultimate judge of that.

In the book reviews I’ve posted on my blog, I suggest some recommended refreshments. What refreshment(s) would you recommend readers enjoy while reading Break in Case of Emergency?

Hmm. Well, if you’re Arthur (Toby’s father), I’d recommend a stiff martini or two. But if you’re underage, then I’d recommend milk, since Toby lives on a dairy farm.

How does having a day job at the Toronto Public Library inform or affect your writing?

It’s nice to be in an environment that celebrates and recognizes the value of books and reading (as opposed to, say, working in an accounting firm.) So my work isn’t at odds with my writing in that respect.

I met you when I took a class you taught called “Kick-Start Your Creative Writing.” What or who helped you to kick-start your creative writing?

I took a class at Ryerson, which really helped. It gave me the focus and structure I needed. It can be hard to keep yourself motivated when you’re the only holding yourself accountable. Paying out money for a course changes the dynamic. Writing becomes work. And you start taking it seriously. Which you should.

In addition to your experience teaching, you also write an advice column for Quill and Quire. Why is helping other writers important to you?

I just remember feeling really shitty and alone when I was first starting out. I wasn’t friends with other writers, so I had to figure a lot of stuff out on my own. When I help other writers, I help the writer I used to be. I want writers to understand that there is no secret formula and that all of us are struggling in our own ways. But none of us are alone.

Are you still teaching, or do you have any future plans to teach?

No, none at the present time. It was a nice run, and I enjoyed doing it, but it’s a lot of work. I might go back to it at some point.

What are some of your favourite books, or who are some of your favourite writers?

I love me some Alice Munro. David Sedaris, too. Margaret Laurence. Some great books I’ve read in the past year include Dear Current Occupant by Chelene Knight, Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese and Little Fish by Casey Plett.

Is there a book or a writer you love to read that you think deserves more attention and readers should know about?

Honestly, I think most writers deserve more attention.

You used to run a blog called Caker Cooking, and you write a food column for Taddle Creek called “The Kitch.” What got you interested in food writing?

I don’t think I got interested in food writing, per se. It was more about the recipes, if that makes sense. I’m not one of those “mouth feel” people. And I generally don’t like food blogs because they make you wade through 25 variations of the same damn shot before you get to the recipe. But I’m interested in the history of recipes. They’re like snapshots to me, little souvenirs, not only of my life, but also of the world I grew up in.

You also wrote a play based on your real life experience called Box 4901, and you’ve starred in the production as well. What made you want to try this different art form and type of writing?

Initially, I thought it might be a website or a podcast or a book. But certainly not a play. But when I approached director Rob Kempson with the material and asked him what he thought, he basically said, “This is a performance piece. And you’re in it.” So it wasn’t deliberate on my part at all. But it’s been a great experience so far. And I’m glad I did it. It’s taken me out of my comfort zone.

You always seem to have some creative project on the go. What are you currently working on?

I bought a paper mache book a few weeks back for a dollar and I’m going to try making a pencil holder. Wish me luck.

Brian’s Francis’ new novel, Break in Case of Emergency, will be available in Canada in September 2019 from HarperCollins and in the U.S. in February 2020 from Inkyard Press. You can find out more about Brian’s writing and his other projects by visiting his website at www.brian-francis.com.

All We Shall Know: an emotional roller coaster you’ll want to ride

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What I read

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

What it’s about

Melody Shee, a 33-year-old woman, is pregnant, but the father isn’t her husband, whom she’s been with since high school. The father is Martin Toppy, the 17-year-old boy Melody has been teaching to read inside her home.

Melody’s husband has left her, and she can’t find Martin. In her search for Martin, Melody befriends a young woman named Mary Crothery, who is dealing with her own troubles. The two women develop a bond while they deal with family feuds and town gossip.

Most of this story is introspective, where the reader gets much more information from Melody than the characters do. Melody tells of the mistakes she has made leading up to the pregnancy and some of the secrets she has kept from others in her life. But Mary might be able to help Melody right some of her wrongs.

Why I picked it up

I heard about this book back in the summer, marked it on my TBR list, and then forgot about it. Browsing in the bookstore earlier this month, the spine jumped out at me. The title was familiar. I read the back cover copy and was reminded of my desire to read this one. So, of course, I bought it.

What I liked about it

At first, I was drawn in by the idea of the affair. I wanted to know what led to Melody taking advantage of her student, and I wanted to find out what would happen with her marriage. But I quickly realized there is a lot more going on in this book. I thought I had a handle on things only to discover there was more to it, reinforcing the idea that things aren’t always as they seem.

Melody isn’t exactly a likeable character. She’s made some terrible life choices and her decisions weren’t always ones I had empathy for. But she did feel believable, and I was hooked on trying to understand her decisions. At times I was shocked by the things she did, but I wanted to see her somehow redeem herself.

You’ll want to read it if…

If you like emotional roller coasters, this one’s for you. At only 180 pages, you’ll wonder how you could experience a wide range of emotions so quickly, how you could go up and down so much in such a short span of time.

This is also a great choice for readers who like to get into the psyche of characters, even if those characters aren’t necessarily people you’d like in real life.

Recommended refreshments

A cappuccino, like the ones Melody and Mary order at a cafe in town (Mary, who has never had one before, endearingly calls it a “coffacheeno”) and/or the KitKats that the two women share sitting in Melody’s kitchen one day.