Book Review: Circe

The book: Circe by Madeline Miller
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

This weekend, I finished reading Madeline Miller’s Circe. This story takes the mythological figure Circe – the Greek goddess of magic who is most famous for turning Odysseus’ crew into swine in The Odyssey – and imagines her life story from her own perspective. In the novel, Circe is banished to an isolated desert island as punishment for using witchcraft to turn a mortal into a god. Alone on the island, she hones her magical abilities, entertains and helps visitors, and ultimately discovers who she is.

I tend not to read many fantasy novels, but I really enjoyed Circe! While the novel is centered around Greek mythology and contains many fantastical elements, the story is about so much more than fantasy and witchcraft. Circe is a book about finding yourself and staying true to your personal values.

One of the things I liked most about Circe was how author Madeline Miller characterized many of the famous Greek gods and heroes as power-hungry and narcissistic, while showing Circe as soft and compassionate. This portrayal spoke to me a lot, because in history (and in present-day America) we tend to glorify those who become powerful and successful, even though those people are not necessarily morally good. Circe shows that the people we deem “witches” might just be misfits who were never given the opportunity to tell their side of the story.

Circe also demonstrated how any person can thrive when they are in the right environment. Amongst the gods and goddesses, Circe is considered powerless and unlovable by her family, who generally ignore her. It is only after she is banished to the island of Aiaia – away from the influence of her destructive family – that she realizes that she is, in fact, powerful. As she hones her witchcraft on the island, she learns how to protect herself, express herself, and help others. This message is important, too: just because some people don’t see your worth, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

The reason why I didn’t give this book 5 stars was because the plot was slightly too long-winded for me. Specifically, I thought that the scene where Jason and Medea visit the island could have been omitted, because it didn’t add that much to the story (in my opinion). Also, I’m not sure there needed to be two intense run-ins with Scylla…but that might be my disinterest for action scenes speaking.

Overall, I really enjoyed Circe, and the way it retold the story of a supposed evil witch. The book is full of self-discovery and growth, as well as many beautifully inspirational quotes, including this one: “All my life had been murk and depths, but I was not a part of that dark water. I was a creature within it.

Book Review: Girl, Woman, Other

The book: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Earlier this week, I finished Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. This book of short stories – each from the perspective of a different black woman living in modern-day Britain – encompasses what it is like to live in post-Brexit Britain.

Girl, Woman, Other did an outstanding job of portraying many unique perspectives on modern-day Britain. Each character’s chapter reveals how their particular life experiences have shaped their perceptions of today’s world. As women (or non-binary people) of color who immigrated to Britain (or are recent descendants of immigrants), the characters have all experienced their fair share of struggle, and the book consistently addresses the issues that have affected them. Amazingly, author Bernardine Evaristo weaves these issues into the story in a very sincere and organic way – it never feels like the commentary on sexism, racism, xenophobia, or homophobia is forced or out-of-place.

To dig a bit deeper than that, I really appreciated how this book shows multiple perspectives on what it means to be a black woman in today’s world. So often, people of color are expected to be a “spokesperson” for their entire race. By featuring twelve women of color with very different life experiences, Evaristo refutes the idea that there is just one definition of what it means to be a person of color in today’s world.

I also found this book to be overwhelmingly positive, which was refreshing. While, yes, all the characters in this book have faced major obstacles in their lives, so many of the characters overcome those obstacles and achieve wonderful things. Amma, after years of being rejected by mainstream theatre companies, makes her way into the establishment and becomes wildly successful. Bummi, despite being orphaned as a child and then losing her husband at a young age, finally ends up living the peaceful life she has always dreamed of. I absolutely loved that this book balances great struggle with great triumph.

Finally, I loved the way this book was structured. There are no capital letters at the beginning of sentences, oftentimes no punctuation where there traditionally would be, and interesting line breaks in the middle of sentences. This made the book feel slower, gentle, and poetic – even when the events described in the book were quite dramatic (or traumatic). It also made sentences and stories flow in a way that felt very natural, making the book hard to put down.

Girl, Woman, Other was incredibly ambitious in the stories it set out to tell – and (in my opinion) it was wildly successful. This book is bold and sharp, but also poetic and beautiful. It is also incredibly astute, hitting the nail on the head with regard to pertinent issues in today’s world. I whole-heartedly recommend this book, and hope to see it on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.

Book Review: Midnight in Chernobyl

The book: Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham
Genre: Historical non-fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

I recently finished reading Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl. This nonfiction book tells the comprehensive story of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, as well as the events that followed it.

Overall, I enjoyed and learned a lot from Midnight in Chernobyl. Prior to reading the book, I knew very little about the Chernobyl nuclear accident – other than the fact that it happened. I didn’t understand why the accident happened, though, or how severe it was. Midnight in Chernobyl provided a comprehensive background of the Soviet Union’s nuclear industry in the 1970’s and 1980’s (plagued by ambitious goals and unrealistic timelines, which led to constant corner-cutting), and key technical details about the lead-up to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Author Adam Higginbotham also spends a great deal of time addressing the events that followed the Chernobyl nuclear accident – especially the Soviet government’s response to it. Reading about how the Soviet government responded to Chernobyl was eye-opening to me: it demonstrated just how secretive and obsessed with public-image the Soviet Union was. For example, Higginbotham describes how the Soviet government waited over 24 hours to evacuate citizens from the town of Pripyat (which was adjacent to the Chernobyl nuclear facility) because they worried that evacuation would cause panic and portray the USSR in an unflattering light.

My one critique of Midnight in Chernobyl was that its comprehensiveness sometimes came at the expense of a well-flowing read. By trying to fit in every pertinent detail – including distinct events occurring simultaneously in different places – the story is a bit disjointed and hard to follow at times. The last chapter of the book was the worst offender of this. I think that Higginbotham was trying to use the final chapter to tie up loose ends, but instead the chapter felt all-over-the-place.

Overall, I definitely recommend Midnight in Chernobyl. It is not necessarily an easy read (there is a lot of information to keep track of, and the story itself is tough to stomach), but it is fascinating. If you want to learn more about the events that led to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, how the government responded to the accident, or how the disaster was contained – you will definitely learn that (and more) from this book.

Book Review: Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis

The book: Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis by Ashley Peterson
Genre: Non-fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

After reading Psych Meds Made Simple, I read author Ashley Peterson’s other (and more recent) book Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis. From Goodreads:

“Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis aims to cut through the misinformation, stigma, and assumptions that surround mental illness and give a clear picture of what mental illness really is.”

I loved Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis for many of the same reasons that I loved Psych Meds Made Simple. First of all, the book is very well-structured. The introductory chapters lay the foundation for the rest of the book, which makes the book easy-to-follow from the get-go. Also, for many of the illnesses that are described in the book, not only are their official criteria for diagnosis listed, but there is also an excerpt about the illness written by somebody who has actually been diagnosed with it. These personal excerpts depict what living with psychiatric illness is like, and how mental illness can affect peoples’ day-to-day lives. I absolutely loved the contrast between the matter-of-fact criteria for diagnosis juxtaposed against such deeply personal passages.

Also, Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis does a great job of de-stigmatizing mental illness. By sharing the official criteria for diagnosis of psychiatric disorders, author Ashley Peterson illustrates the difference between how people use terms colloquially (e.g. “I’m such a neat freak, I basically have OCD”) and what those terms actually mean. And by including passages written by people who have been diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, we get to hear voices and perspectives of those who suffer from mental illness in their own words.

With a book like Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis, the temptation to diagnosis people (yourself or others) is very real. But at several points throughout the book, the author reinforces the point that psychiatric diagnosis can only be made by a highly trained clinician. This is so important and responsible, and it one of the things that I love most about the author’s writing! She synthesizes complex and nuanced information, and puts it into a concise, digestible format…and then she reminds the reader that the information is, in fact, very nuanced and not meant to be mis-applied.

Overall, Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis was an informative and eye-opening read. My favorite thing about it was getting to hear many unique perspectives that I probably wouldn’t find elsewhere. I recommend this book to anybody who suffers from mental illness, knows someone with who suffers from mental illness (pretty sure we all do), is interested in psychology, or wants to hear the perspectives of those who experience the world in a different way.

Book Review: Psych Meds Made Simple

The book: Psych Meds Made Simple by Ashley Peterson
Genre: Science non-fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Last month, I read Psych Meds Made Simple, a short non-fiction book that explains the science behind common psychiatric medications. I found this book through the Mental Health @ Home Blog. MH@H is one of my favorite blogs – I especially love Ashely’s science advocacy posts – so when I saw that the author had published a book, I was interested to read it.

The objective of Psych Meds Made Simple is to make “pharmacology accessible” to those who might not have a background in chemistry (or any science, in general), and it wildly succeeds in doing this. The book is structured in a way that eases the reader into the science of pharmacology: the first few sections of the book provide background information that act as building blocks for understanding the rest of the book. The explanations given are scientifically sound, but never more complicated than they need to be.

Not only does the author do a great job at making the science of pharmacology accessible, but she also de-stigmatizes psychiatric medications throughout the book. At several points in the book, she explains why most psych meds are not addictive (despite so many of them being stigmatized as such). And in her descriptions of different psychiatric medications, she sticks to the facts that are known about them: what neurotransmitters do they interact with, what side effects do they cause, what is a typical dosage, etc. By sticking to the facts – as opposed to opinions that place subjective value on actions – Peterson keeps her book judgment-free.

The above paragraph does NOT mean – however – that the book blindly promotes any and all psychiatric medications. There are some medications that seem to be effective for specific illnesses, but the science behind them is unclear. And while most psych meds are not considered addictive, some do have addictive potential. Where either of these facts are true, Peterson is transparent about it. Furthermore, she states throughout her book that medication is not meant to be an entire treatment plan for psychiatric illness. Instead, she emphasizes that medication can be used as part of a bigger-picture wellness plan – but a part that can provide real symptom relief and aid in recovery.

Overall, Psych Meds Made Simple was a great read. Author Ashley Peterson cares deeply about providing readers with non-judgmental, science-based information, and her writing reflects that. In a misinformation-riddled society that deeply stigmatizes mental illness, Psych Meds Made Simple is a compassionate and scientifically accurate breath of fresh air.

2019 reading review & 2020 goals

Now is the time of year when everybody is posting their 2019 reading stats, and goals for 2020. So I am going to hop on that bandwagon and do the same! I’m keeping things simple, and combining my 2019 review and 2020 goals into a single post.

Booking and blogging in 2019:

I read 34 books in 2019. Compared to many of the book-bloggers that I follow, this number is laughably low. But 2019 was my first year of reading as a hobby; prior to 2019 I never read consistently throughout any calendar year. So while the number is low compared to others’, this is definitely a personal success for me.

I baked things for 30 of the 34 books I read this year. If you follow my blog, you probably know that it started off as a dual baking/reading project, where I baked something inspired by every book that I read. Toward the end of the year, I was unable to keep up with my goal to bake something for every book. Still, 30 bakes is a lot! I became a much better baker this year; and also strengthened connections with coworkers, neighbors, and friends by regularly sharing baked goods with them.

My favorite three books that I read this year were:

2020 goals:

Read at least 45 books. Last year I read 34 books (average: ~3 per month). I would love to read even more this year! With one of my New Year’s resolutions being to limit to weeknight TV time, I think I can accomplish 45.

Read every book longlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction. By following amazing book-bloggers on wordpress, I learned about the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and read 6 of the 16 longlisted books. Some of these books I probably wouldn’t have read had it not been for the Women’s Prize, but I really enjoyed them: four of those books were 5-star reads for me, and one of them (Lost Children Archive) ended up being my favorite book of the year. So this year I’d like to broaden my horizons even more, and read more excellent woman-authored fiction!

Read at least two classics. In 2019, all the books I read were contemporary, with the “oldest” one being published in 2008. This makes sense, because there is always so much great new material being published. But this year I would like to at least slightly diversify by reading a couple of excellent older books.

Changes to the blog in 2020:

I will no longer be doing a bake for every book that I read. As I mentioned above, it has become too hard to keep up with this project. My bakes (and therefore my blog posts) are now over a month behind my reading, and this gap will likely continue to widen. Instead, I will post standalone book reviews, and hopefully continue to participate in blogging events.

Month in review: December 2019

Happy New Year!!! The celebration of a new year can feel like an artificial way to mark the passing of time…but that being said I truly wish everybody reading this the best in 2020. December moved very quickly for me: wrapping up the last quarter at work and celebrating the holidays with friends, families, and coworkers. I didn’t get as much done as I would have liked (do I ever?) but it was a rewarding month, and 2019 was a rewarding year.

Books read:

This month, I finished reading The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. Although dense at times, this biography provided a riveting account of the life of Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt, who essentially came up with the concept of ecology. Humboldt was centuries ahead of his time in his hypotheses about nature and the world, and it was amazing to learn just how many famous thinkers and scientists he influenced.

I also read The Wall by John Lanchester, a dystopian fiction novel that imagines what life might be like if serious actions aren’t taken against climate change soon. I personally liked this book (especially the first part) but I completely understand why some people won’t.

Bakes inspired by the books:

I am still so back-logged on bakes. I read a ton of books in November, and my baking never caught up. Early in December, I baked cupcakes inspired by Little Fires Everywhere (a book that I read in early November) – they were chocolate flavored with passionfruit buttercream frosting, and they were delicious!

I also baked chocolate shortbread cookies with chocolate glaze last month, inspired by Ali Wong’s nonfiction book Dear Girls. These cookies were decadent and delicious, and a lot of fun to decorate.

Books in progress/up next:

I am currently reading Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham. The book is a detailed, nonfiction account of the now-infamous Chernobyl nuclear disaster. I didn’t know much about Chernobyl prior to reading this book – other than the fact that it happened – and the book provides fascinating historical context for it.

I would also like to read Circe, Mobituaries, and Girl, Woman, Other this month. I hadn’t planned on reading Circe this year – not even this spring/summer when the book was hot – but it ended up on a lot of peoples’ “top 3 books of 2019” list, so I’m curious to read it and see if it lives up to the hype. Mobituaries is a nonfiction book about people or things that are no longer with us, but who should be remembered. The author hosts an excellent podcast by the same name, so I’m really excited to read the book. And I’m interested in Girl, Woman, Other because I’ve heard very good things about it (including the fact that it won the Booker Prize).

Shout-outs to some great blog posts:

  • Chaz wrote about his experience participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) – if this is something you are considering, I highly recommend his post which detailed the time and planning that goes into it
  • Ashely explained the science of herd immunity, and why it makes anti-vaxxer logic so harmful to society
  • And Aho wrote a lovely piece about the Polish mushroom dumplings known as Uszka (and the preparation that goes into making them)

Photos!