TTT: My 10 Favorite Fictional Unlikable Characters

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

For me, reading is all about the characters. I want them to be interesting. I want them to have chutzpah and gumption and a *teensy* bit of common sense. They need to develop, have interesting viewpoints, be flawed. So actually, I really like the normally “unlikable” characters. I think villains are interesting. They have goals, ambition, flaws, a story arc. My actual least favorite characters are not bad–they’re one dimensional. I have (and will continue to) stop reading a book if the main character

1) delights in violence and evil “just because”

2) they are wishy washy and let everyone walk over them with nary a peep of protest

3) don’t let anything change them over the course of the story

4) don’t have interesting flaws/motivation/back story

5) are continually whining

6) they have no self-awareness

Strong characters have flaws. And sometimes those flaws are formidable, horrible, and gut wrenching. But if they’re interesting, I’ll enjoy the book not despite, but because of the complexity.

From least to most favorite character (not necessarily book):

the narrator from My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

This is one of those books that people either love or hate. The main character is vain, petty, and totally willing to do what it takes to escape from her life in the form of keeping herself drugged. Like if Sleeping Beauty chose her curse. But although I couldn’t relate to the narrator I found this scenario so insanely outside my realm of understanding, I just had to keep reading. I wanted to understand this character even though I didn’t like her at all. That never happened. But it was still a great book in my opinion. An unapologetically unlikable figure.

pretty much everyone in The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I don’t have a favorite unfavorite character from this book. I love/hated them all equally. Like Moshfegh, Tartt is really skilled with unlikable characters. I would never want to inhabit their world, but I liked the peek through the window.

also pretty much everyone, but especially Behemoth in The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

I really love this book, where the Devil comes to Moscow, creates a witch, and then puts on a party. Behemoth is a monstrous (in size but also in behavior) black cat who also has a human form. I think he’s actually more unlikable than the Devil but he’s so much fun and creates so much mischief. Now I want to reread it.

Dorian Gray from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Oh Dorian, so vain and dumb to think that life wouldn’t eventually catch up with you… but it’s fun while it lasts.

Zenia from The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

She’s manipulative, gorgeous, and even her friends love to hate her. But you can’t really hate all that glamor and poise. At least I can’t. I think she also makes an appearance in several of Atwood’s short stories.

Olympia/Oly from Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Oly is kind of entitled to be unlikable. She’s dealt with a lot of traumatic crap in her life such as her parents purposefully trying to get their children to have “interesting” birth defects for their circus act….

the wizard from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

I think the Witch of the West is pretty one dimensional in the original book–she’s much more complex in the Wicked books, but ultimately not unlikable, which negates her for this list. No, my favorite unlikable character from the first book is definitely the wizard. Oh that lovable humbug. He’s just such an American villainfaking it till he makes it. He becomes more likable in subsequent books in the series–leaning into his role as inventor, showman, and tinkerer honestly.

Hugo from The Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen

Hugo is so grumpy. He has so many hot takes. But this novel is complex and philosophical and I just really like him in spite of his grouchy behavior. Don’t attempt the sauce recipe he makes through. Blech. I did–and I’m telling you now–save yourself.

The Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Off with her head! I mean–almost everyone in these two books is unlikable. I don’t really like Alice all the time. Especially the Disney version where she comes off as a little insipid. But the book is so playful, so absurd and delightful, and no one embodies this quite as much as the Queen of Hearts and her bloodthirsty whims.

Lady Bracknell from The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

I’m actually not sure if Lady Bracknell is supposed to be unlikable. But since she tries to thwart the lovers–I’m counting it. I absolutely love this character and how snobby she is. This is a play where the writing is much more lovable than any of the characters to be honest, but it’s one of my absolute favorite…book is not the right word. Pieces of fiction? She’s a very complex character as well–probably the most complex in the play. She actually changes her mind rather than the circumstances changing to suit her. Although pretty much everything she says runs counter to my own beliefs, she just says it so decisively and with so much wit.

“I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like delicate exotic fruit; tough it and the bloom is gone.”

Lady Bracknell, Act One

Who is your favorite unlikable character? Let me know in the comments.

Baking for Bookworms: Homemade Ice-Cream Floats from The Secret History by Donna Tartt

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The food in Donna Tartt’s book is an interesting mixture of the decadent (roasted lamb, exotic mushrooms, souffles, foie gras) and the hopelessly mundane school cafeteria food and bad coffee. Food helps delineate separate worlds of influence and privilege. As the protagonist, Richard, is largely an outsider, he notices the discrepancies between the displays of wealth shown by his classmates (even those that are not rich) and his own working class background. But this is still college, and many of the foods are comfort food or are “prescriptive” for things like hangovers. These ice cream floats are no exception:

“Charles closed the screen door behind him and wandered listlessly onto the porch in his red-striped bathrobe. ‘What you need,’ he said, ‘is an ice-cream float.’

‘You and your ice-cream floats.’

‘They work, I tell you. It’s very scientific. Cold things are good for nausea and…

‘The ice cream slows down your digestion. The Coke steles your stomach and the caffeine cures your headache. Sugar gives you energy. And besides, it makes you metabolize the alcohol faster. It’s the perfect food.'”                                                                                                  95-96

I won’t hazard a guess whether Charles is correct in saying that Coke floats are the perfect hangover cure, but it certainly sounds better than eating raw eggs.

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You can use any soda you want for your floats, but this particular ice cream goes better with the darker colas because of the added brown sugar. If you don’t add the brown sugar, you can put it with orange soda or anything else that strikes your fancy.

Homemade Vanilla Ice-Cream

This simple recipe is meant to be used in an ice cream maker. If you don’t have an ice cream maker, you can still use this recipe, just use a freezer gallon sized bag, put the mixture inside, and then mush it around every 20-30 minutes until its the right consistency.

  • 1 cup whole milk (whole milk really does work best, I wouldn’t use lower than 2%)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla paste (if you don’t want to use this specialty ingredient, just use about 2 tablespoons of vanilla extract total, but I like the little vanilla bean flecks without having to use a whole bean)
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

My ice cream maker requires me to freeze the insert 24-48 hours ahead of making ice-cream. If yours is the same, make sure you do this first.

Whisk whole milk together with the sugar and salt until the sugar dissolves.

Add in the cream and vanilla and whisk to combine.

Put in the refrigerator for 1-2 hours to let all the flavors come together and so the mixture can chill.

Make the ice-cream using your machine. Instead of spreading the ice-cream out in a tupperware container, I like to use a 8×8 inch pyrex baking dish so that it freezes faster. You can put whatever container you’re using in the freezer so that the ice cream doesn’t melt right away.

Freeze for at least another hour before eating.

To make the floats, scoop out some ice cream, add soda, and enjoy!

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What’s your favorite hangover cure? or if you don’t drink, what’s one food that always makes you feel better? Let me know in the comments!

Women Writers Reading Challenge #36: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

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I find that it always takes me a while to get through Donna Tartt’s books, but that the effort is always worthwhile. Her writing is so intelligent, so tightly controlled, and you get drawn into this parallel universe where insane things can happen and seem quite rational. Her characters are flawed, interesting, and dynamic. She works her narrative with a light hand, but every thing that happens seems as though it couldn’t happen any other way. She creates a sense of fate, destiny, or maybe it’s just inevitability, but it’s not necessarily predictable, or, if it is, you want to keep reading anyway.

I highly recommend this complex study of what it means to be young, to be intelligent, to belong, and to be evil. It’s a powerful work of fiction that will make you think and reconsider.

Baking for Bookworms: Jasmine Caramels from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

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If you have not read the Pulitzer Prize winning book, you really ought to do so. Donna Tartt’s novel is not a recent read for me, as I read it over a year ago, but it was a book that stayed with me. It is not a plot heavy novel, but the rich language negates that need. I was fully swept up in the life of the main character and happy to linger over the pages.

Food is more or less used to show home and comfort. The meal he shares with his mother right before her death becomes a kind of emblem of what home means. His meals are more or less meaningless throughout the book unless he’s with Hobie, one of the only places he ever really feels at home. The one exception to this rule is a orgiastic meal he has with his friend and father–but it serves to bring out the sense of his father’s greed more than any sense of well being.

These caramels are one of Hobie’s creations. I love jasmine and any tea infused treat, and I was intrigued with the image of these being passed around as metaphysical questions are discussed (caramels are an interesting choice because their texture hampers discussion, but maybe that’s Hobie’s genius, everyone has to “chew” their words before they speak).

This passage comes toward the end of the book at Hobie’s house in New York when the host asks his guests to seriously consider their last meal, if they could choose it:

“for him it was a metaphysical question, best considered on a full stomach after all the desserts were cleared and a final plate of jasmine caramels was being passed, because–really looking at the end of it, at the end of the night, closing your eyes and waving goodbye to Earth–what would you actually choose? Some comforting reminder of the past? Plain chicken dinner from some lost Sunday in boyhood? Or–last grasp at luxury, the far end of the horizon–pheasant and cloudberries, white truffles from Alba?”

This question is interesting not only for its interaction with the sweet we’ll be making, but in the context of considering your last meal after your last (most recent) meal. We have an amazing way of surrounding ourselves with food. Intrinsically we understand its significance as extending beyond sustenance into the realms of symbol and meaning. And in a story where everything seems to point toward larger meaning and understood or misunderstood or misinterpreted symbols, this passage takes on even more gravity.

But enough serious stuff. On to the candy!

 

IMG_9144I couldn’t find a recipe for infused caramels, but I’ve infused cream and milk for ice cream, so I just found a tasty looking caramel recipe and ran with it. This recipe is adapted from The Kitchn, developed by Emma Christensen.

We’ve recently moved in with some roommates as Paul finishes his degree, so I only brought a few trusty pieces of cooking equipment with me. Please don’t be surprised if I advise you to use equipment that I don’t have with me right now. It’s for your own piece of mind–trust me.

The most important thing about making candy is having everything ready to go right when you need it and to have read the recipe all the way through once or twice so you know what you’re doing. In addition to the ingredients, you should also have these things ready:

  • two saucepans, one two-quart and one four-quart (with steep sides if you have it, or a small pot)
  • candy thermometer
  • whisk
  • spatula
  • wax and parchment paper (although just wax paper will do in a pinch)
  • damp pastry brush or damp paper towel
  • 8×8 pan or something like that. (This is a new kitchen for me and I couldn’t find a brownie pan so I used a casserole dish instead)

Jasmine Caramels

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 4 tablespoons butter (you can use salted or unsalted for this recipe. If you use salted, like I did, just omit the salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 bags jasmine tea (or approx. 1 tablespoon loose leaf)
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup light corn syrup (this is not the same thing as high fructose corn syrup, which is super bad for you. While no sugar is awesome–this is candy. We’re not going for healthy necessarily. Using the corn syrup will help keep everything happy and stop the sugar from crystalizing and doing all sorts of weird unattractive things)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla or less (a little vanilla in this recipe goes a long way, too much overpowers the jasmine’s delicate fragrance. If you’re making this later and decide you don’t want to infuse the cream, feel free to add more vanilla. And more salt. Make salted caramels. The world is your wax paper wrapped confection so to speak.)

Put parchment paper in your 8×8 dish so it overhangs on the sides* (this way you can pull it out and cut it up into delicious bite sized pieces). Put it in a place that’s simultaneously  easy to reach and out of the way. If you don’t have parchment paper, you can spray a baking dish with cooking spray.

Boil some water. Pour 1/4 cup boiling water into a liquid measure (so you only have to get one thing dirty) and add the three tea bags. Steep tea for two-three minutes.

While tea is steeping, prepare the cream and butter by combining the two in a medium sauce pan and turning to medium low heat. When tea has steeped, add the tea bags to the cream mixture (Don’t discard the liquid!) and leave on the heat until the butter has melted.

In a larger saucepan or smallish pot, add the sugar, corn syrup, and the tea you’ve just brewed. Stir until you get all the sugar wet and goopy. If there are sugar crystals on the side of the pan, get them off with either a damp paper towel or a damp pastry brush (not the silicone kind).

Put your candy thermometer into the mixture and boil over medium high heat. Find your patience–do not stir it, agitate it, or disturb it by whisking.  Boil your sugar until the thermometer reads 300F**

Turn off the burner briefly while you add the cream mixture, whisking just until combined. (I also like to remove my candy thermometer as it is not instant read and needs time to readjust). The mixture will bubble up at this point, basically tripling in size.

Add your candy thermometer back in, and let it boil again without stirring until it reaches 245-250F. In this time the color will gradually shift from a pale, yellowy color to a darker, more caramel like color.

Immediately take it off the heat, add your dash of vanilla, whisking it into the mixture and pour all that goodness into the prepared pan.

Let set at room temperature (this may take only an hour or several. If you have more willpower than I do, you can let them sit all night).

When you’re ready to cut them, either remove the caramels in the parchment paper or cut them in the pan if it’s been coated with cooking spray. I typically cut strips slightly smaller than 1/2 inch and then cut those strips into thirds, but you can cut them however you like. Wrap the little pieces in wax paper and they’re ready to eat while lounging in a bath, or while at a fancy dinner party, or as a gift to one of your lucky friends or relations.

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In my first batch of these, the jasmine flavor didn’t shine through, but with a little tweaking the jasmine flavor became detectable and delectable. I really encourage you to give it a try (perhaps even trying different teas. I bet orange spice or earl grey would be lovely). The jasmine adds a floral, fragrant note to the rich, creamy caramel.

If you’ve never made caramels before, go forth and make some! These are one of the easiest candies you can make and they impress everyone. Make some with a friend or a sibling. Then you can read this book together and start a new little book club.

Ever made candies before? Worried about trying? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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You may or may not be able to see the melted wax paper disaster that ruined my caramels. Also don’t know what’s with that weird part in the middle. Not the right texture at all. The good news is, I was able to improve the recipe the second round, and I memorized my caramel recipe. This is dangerous people…

 

* I did two batches of these particular caramels because of problems I had with the first patch. Do not put wax paper down instead of parchment paper. The wax paper will fuse to the molten caramel and then your life will be over.

**There is a large range of temperatures that you can make caramel at (anywhere from 250F to 325F), but I found 300F gave a nice firm texture to the caramels without making them too chewy.