2017 Books, Pt. 1 / Chocolate Olive Oil Cake

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This week’s recipe: Chocolate Olive Oil Cake

I’m not one to write, “Sorry I haven’t posted in a while” because I DON’T OWE YOU PEOPLE ANYTHING. But I haven’t posted in a while, and that’s because I’m doing NaNoWriMo and all of my writing efforts have been devoted to that. Still, I know you’ve all been thirsting for me to drop a new blog post, so I thought I’d do writeups of some of the books I’ve read this year so you can all entertain yourselves while I’m busy with my important novel-writing duties. Enjoy!

The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore

I actually started reading this one in late 2016, out of a desire to learn all that I could about our new Russian overlords. My knowledge of the Romanovs was limited to what I had learned in my Jewish education (that they endorsed and encouraged pogroms that caused many of our ancestors to flee to America) and during the brief mania for them surrounding the release of the 1997 animated film Anastasia (that they were an elegant, innocent, loving family, and that the entire Russian Revolution was the result of an evil curse placed on them by Rasputin). Surprise: turns out that the former was a lot more accurate than the latter. This comprehensive history hammers home the cruelty of the Romanovs; even the cultured ones were barbarians. They were excessive in every way–excessive drinking, excessive sex, excessive violence, and excessive piety on top of all of that–which makes them scads of fun to read about, though not much fun to live under. Yet live under them people did, for three centuries, until Rasputin sold his soul and cast his curse they got what was coming to them.

I know I made a joke about how this book helped me understand our new Russian overlords but, in all seriousness, it did illuminate how tightly authoritarianism and state power are woven into Russian life. Montefiore’s epilogue describes how Putin sees his own reign as a restoration of the czarist tradition after the Soviet era, and while I would never say that the people of some countries want to be dominated, it’s easy to see how 300 years of autocracy shaped Russian culture to a point where Putin is not only tolerated, but venerated.

Crazy Rich Asians / China Rich Girlfriend / Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan

Okay, I am kind of late to the Crazy Rich Asians train, though with the trilogy now complete and the movie coming out soon, there seems to be renewed interest. I read Crazy Rich Asians on the beach in Hawaii and let me tell you, it is the platonic ideal of a beach read. The first book is the story of Nick, the scion of an insanely wealthy Singapore family, who brings his American fiancee Rachel to meet his relatives while they are in Singapore for his (even more insanely wealthy) best friend’s wedding. They are not pleased with his choice, hi-jinks and intrigue ensue, etc. When I finished the first book I immediately wanted to read the other two, though I was disappointed in the second book, when Nick and Rachel travel to China to meet her relatives, encounter even more lavish wealth, blah blah blah. Luckily, the series redeemed itself with the third book, which revolved around the death of Nick’s grandmother and the jockeying for inheritance of her palatial estate.

Most of the characters, particularly Nick’s family, are just as crazy as the book’s title promises, to hilarious effect. Though they are richer than God, they are grasping about money, anxious about status, and especially among the older generation, weirdly cheap about certain things. Their shenanigans and outlandish displays of wealth make the books worth reading, even though the protagonists are two of the most boring characters in literature. The trilogy runs to nearly 1,500 pages yet I could not tell you a single thing about Nick’s personality, because he doesn’t have one, unless you define “having good cheekbones” as a personality trait. Rachel is so boring that when [spoiler alert] she gets poisoned and finds out who did it, she barely appears to register it. The reason I disliked the second book is because it revolves around Nick and Rachel, who I already didn’t care about, and then introduces a bunch of Rachel’s relatives and their friends, who I also don’t care about, all while mostly staying away from the antics of the family back in Singapore. Conversely, Rich People Problems was my favorite because it largely moved away from Nick and Rachel and the Chinese characters and refocused on the Singapore relatives.

Another aspect of these books that I enjoyed was getting a peek into the culture and customs of the new class of Asian billionaires. It’s only been a generation or two since such a level of wealth was even possible in China or Singapore, and Kwan, who grew up in this milieu, is an excellent guide. At times, especially in the second book, the plot exists solely as an excuse to describe lavish shopping trips, and you shouldn’t read these books unless you have a high tolerance for endless lists of designer brands. But they’re a lot of fun, and I for one am excited for the movie!

Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild

I didn’t feel like reading Hillbilly Elegy after last year’s election so I went with Strangers in Their Own Land instead. Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist, spent years in a highly polluted, economically depressed, heavily Tea Party area of Louisiana, trying to understand why people who had suffered so much from environmental degradation support politicians who oppose regulation. She finds out–in a conclusion that will surprise absolutely no one who’s been paying attention over the past year–that their sense of grievance and resentment is stronger than their desire to make their own lives better. The central metaphor of the book is the line; that white working-class conservatives conceive of themselves as waiting patiently on a line for the American Dream, and their anger stems from their feeling that women, minorities, and immigrants are cutting in front of them.

Hochschild recognizes that most of this anger is coming from a place of emotion, not rationality, and she displays almost ostentatious level of empathy for her subjects and respect for their emotions. This can manifest in a faux-naivete that she lays on a little thick at times; i.e. she reads Ayn Rand to prepare for her time among the Tea Partiers, and then is shocked! when they turn out not to all be heartless sociopaths. Lady, you are an educated, sophisticated sociologist with tenure at one of the best universities in the country, don’t pretend to be amazed that people are not cartoons. But despite her best efforts to scale what she calls “the empathy wall,” it’s still a really frustrating read in this day and age. Not only rightwingers vote their values over their economic self-interest (there’s a saying the Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans, for instance). But I’ve long thought that the one thing that unites Trump voters is a desire to say, “Screw you” to liberals, no matter how badly they themselves get screwed in the process. This book did little to dispel that notion.

Shrill by Lindy West / Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling / You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein

I grouped these together as “memoirs by funny women writers.” Kaling suggests that her book would be a great gift to your niece who you don’t know very well but want to connect with more. She’s being self-deprecating but it’s actually a pretty perfect description. West’s book would be a perfect gift for said niece if she is a budding feminist, and Klein’s book would be a perfect gift for said niece if said niece is me. Seriously,  I identified an almost embarrassing amount with many of the essays in Klein’s book, from the evils of barre class to the seductive tweeness of Anthropologie to the crazy-making process of waiting for your fucking boyfriend to just fucking propose already. Kaling’s book is like hanging out with a friend who, even if you don’t have much in common with her, is always super-entertaining to talk to. West’s book is definitely heavier in content but can be just as funny as the ones by professional comedians.

What was the interesting–though I suppose not surprising–unifying factor in all of these was the number of pages devoted to appearance. If you are a woman, it would appear that no matter how funny, successful, and interesting you are, at least 65 percent of your brainspace will be taken up by various appearance-related insecurities. This was especially true of Shrill. I think that West, who has been significantly overweight her whole life, would object to the term “insecurities,”since she is an activist for fat acceptance, and a significant percentage of the essays in her book are about how proud she is to be fat. In my experience, people who have truly accepted something don’t talk about it constantly. Nevertheless, I think her pride is awesome, but also kind of limiting. I understand that it’s a heavy lift (sorry) to convince the world that you are happy being fat, when everything and everyone in society tells you that that’s not possible. And hey, it’s her memoir, she can write about what she likes. But I was sad that West, who is a smart, insightful, and hilarious writer on so many topics, has decided that fat-shaming and misogynistic bullying deserve the first 212 pages of her 257-page book.

The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn

I read and loved Jeff Guinn’s book on Charles Manson. This one was just as good and, if anything, even more horrifying to read. As one of the Jonestown survivors points out near the end of the book, Jonestown has become something of a cultural punchline–“don’t drink the Kool-Aid” and all that–which has dulled some of the tragedy of what happened there. But listening to a description of hundreds of babies and young children being force-fed drops of cyanide from syringes as their parents watch brings back the reality of it real quick.

The other book that I thought of often while reading The Road to Jonestown was Lawrence Wright’s book on Scientology, Going Clear. It’s not a novel insight that all cults share certain characteristics, and that cult leaders tend to exhibit the same potent blend of charisma, charlatanism, and control that allows them to dole out physical punishment and psychological humiliation to their followers without repercussion. What makes Jones interesting is how, before his descent into full-on drug-fueled demagoguery and paranoia, he combined the best aspects of the Christian social justice tradition and the worst aspects of religious hucksterism and exploitation. Followers are attracted to Scientology because of what it can do for them; followers were attracted to the Peoples Temple because of what they could do for others, and they had to give up essentially all their material possessions and personal freedoms to join. As Guinn puts it, members of the Peoples Temple gave rather than got, and in the end, the things they gave included their lives.

So anyway, here’s cake. Isn’t she a beauty? Three amazing things to know about this cake: 1) It comes together extremely quickly and easily 2) It is vegan but doesn’t taste like it 3) It stays moist forever, even when you leave it out on the table for five days and most of the tinfoil covering it falls off. Plus it has olive oil in it, and olive oil is very good for you. Ergo, this cake is very good for you. So what are you doing, fools, go make this cake for your Shabbat dinner NOW!

Chocolate Olive Oil Cake

From Smitten Kitchen

CAKE
  • 1 1/2 cups (195 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup (60 grams) unsweetened cocoa, any variety, sifted if lumpy
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup (145 grams) dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup (120 ml) olive oil
  • 1 1/2 cups (355 ml) water or coffee
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) cider vinegar or white vinegar
GLAZE
  • 3/4 cup (135 grams) semisweet chocolate chips
  • 2 tablespoons (10 grams) cocoa powder
  • 3 tablespoons (45 ml) olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon (20 grams) light corn syrup (for shine)
  • A pinch or two of flaky sea salt
Make cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Line the bottom of 9-inch round cake pan with a fitted round of parchment paper and coat the bottoms and sides with nonstick cooking spray.Whisk together flour, cocoa, baking soda, salt and granulated sugar in the bottom of a large mixing bowl. Add brown sugar and olive oil, and whisk to combine. Add water and vinegar and whisk until smooth.

Pour into prepared pan. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the top is springy and a tester inserted in the center comes out with just a few sticky crumbs (but not wet or loose batter). Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then cut around it with a knife to ensure it is loosened and flip it out onto a cooling rack to cool the rest of the way.

Make glaze: Combine chocolate, cocoa powder, olive oil, corn syrup, and salt in a medium bowl and microwave to melt, in 15 to 30 second increments, stirring between each until just melted. Whisk until smooth. Pour over completely cooled cake and use spatula to gently nudge it down the sides.

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