Mini-Reviews of Short Reads: The Origin of Others & Dear Ijeawele

Over the past couple of months I read two short (~100 pages) nonfiction books that I definitely want to discuss, but don’t have that much to say about. Although I read the titles a few weeks apart, I think the books go quite well together, as they are both short pieces of nonfiction that focus on themes of social justice and equality. So with that, please enjoy (or don’t – I can’t tell you how to feel) my first ever mini-reviews post!

The origin of others by toni morrison

The Origin of Others is a collection of six essays which demonstrate how societal injustices and inequalities often occur through the act of excluding, or “othering,” minority groups. By characterizing minority groups as “others,” rather than human beings deserving of the same rights as everyone else, the in-group is able to justify its unfair advantages and even abuse of power over the oppressed. Morrison talks about distinct forms of othering including: romancing and romanticizing slavery, fetishization, and stereotypical depictions of minorities in literature and films.

Although short, The Origin of Others packs a powerful punch. The foreword alone (which is written by Ta-Nehisi Coates) had me nodding and underlining vigorously because, like the rest of the book, it is full of powerful insights. One of the reasons why this book is so powerful is because Morrison uses examples about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement to illustrate her points – yet her points are still incredibly pertinent to the current moment. There is something so striking and stirring about clearly seeing the parallels between slavery and contemporary society. I’m sure this was no accident on Morrison’s part, as The Origin of Others was published in 2017.

Overall, The Origin of Others was an incredibly powerful read. Despite being only 112 pages, this book is neither light nor easy to read – yet it is also so eye-opening and necessary. I highly recommend it.

Dear Ijeawele by chimamanda ngozi adichie

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions was born after a friend of Adichie’s asked her for advice on how to raise her daughter as a feminist. The result is this short book of – as the title says – fifteen suggestions on how to raise a feminist daughter, with elaborations and examples to accompany each suggestion. Adichie’s suggestions include rejecting gender roles/stereotypes, teaching women to aspire to more than just marriage, teaching girls to question why certain behaviors are criticized in women but not men, rejecting the idea that “likeability” is a measure of success, and talking openly about sex.

For the most part, I got on well with this book. I agree with most of Adichie’s suggestions, and think that her advice is valuable for raising a curious and socially conscious child of any gender – not just a daughter. However, as the need for intersectional feminism becomes increasingly apparent, I feel that this book isn’t intersectional enough. For one thing, many of Adichie’s examples – like teach your daughter about oppression, but don’t turn the oppressed into martyrs or saints – assume that the reader enjoys a certain level of privilege and is not oppressed themself. Additionally, the book is not very trans-inclusive, as it contains well-intentioned, yet problematic statements which equate being a woman with having a vagina (for example, in rejecting the notion that women in a cis-heterosexual relationship must do all the cooking for their partner, Adichie writes that “the knowledge of cooking does not come pre-installed in a vagina“).

Despite its limitations, though, I still think Dear Ijeawele is a good book with good advice. I recommend it, with the caveat that you should also read more intersectional books (such as Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism) in order to recognize the limitations of this one.

Book Review: Love and Other Thought Experiments

Even though the Booker Prize shortlist has been announced, I’m still working through the longlist. This means I’m reading some books that I already know didn’t make the shortlist – books like Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward. This book is a collection of ten interlinked short-stories, each of which is inspired by a famous philosophical thought experiment.

The book: Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward
Genre: Literary fiction, short-stories, science fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

One of my favorite things about Love and Other Thought Experiments is that it can be read in several different ways. Although the stories in the collection are interlinked, most of them can stand on their own; as such, the book could be read as a collection of standalone short-stories about love and relationships. The links between the stories can also be connected together to form a cohesive and expansive work of philosophical science fiction. Regardless of how you choose to read it, though, Love and Other Thought Experiments is a moving and thought-provoking collection.

Love and Other Thought Experiments is also immensely empathetic. Ward clearly lays out her characters’ flaws and eccentricities, but never passes any judgment on them: the characters are simply human, and none are deemed undeserving of love for their limitations. Even the collection’s most “out there” stories – and one of the stories is so “out there” that I literally shouted “you’ve gotta be kidding me!” at first – are so compelling that it’s hard not to suspend disbelief and become immersed.

**Minor spoiler alert in the next paragraph**

In the final stories of Love and Other Thought Experiments, the book ventures into sci-fi territory and shows the world through a new lens. This reveal clarifies some of the hazy details from previous stories, and allows many of the previous stories to be understood in a new light. I finished this book over a week ago, and I’m still making new connections and realizations!

I feel like Love and Other Thought Experiments is one of those books that you just have to jump into and experience for the fascinating ride that it is, so I don’t have much else to say about it. This book left such an impact on me, but it might not work as well for readers who don’t enjoy philosophical science-fiction.

Book Review: Chemistry

Chemistry tells the story of an unnamed protagonist whose life, from a distance, would appear to be going really well: she is a Ph.D. student in a prestigious chemistry program, and her longterm boyfriend (who is also a chemist) has proposed to her. But her laboratory experiments aren’t going well and she doesn’t feel ready for marriage. All of this pressure – plus the pressure her parents have placed on her from an early age to succeed – causes the protagonist to panic and break down, and then to reevaluate her life as she slowly picks herself back up.

The book: Chemistry by Weike Wang
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Chemistry was such an immersive and wonderfully emotional read. Wang’s unnamed protagonist is so well-developed that I really felt her pain of feeling inadequate and lost in life. At the same time, I found it frustrating and distressing to watch the narrator make one questionable decision after another – I so badly wanted her to make different choices and take better care of herself! The way the protagonist simultaneously evoked frustration and tenderness in me is a testament to Wang’s razor-sharp writing.

I also really enjoyed the writing style and structure in Chemistry. The story is told as a somewhat disjointed collection of the narrator’s thoughts, experiences, and memories. While this might sound like a disorganized or chaotic reading experience, there is a remarkable consistency and flow to the narrator’s voice. The result is that all of the story’s fragments come together beautifully to illustrate a wonderfully complex and compelling character.

On the topic of the novel’s structure, I also want to mention that it doesn’t follow a typical narrative arc. Chemistry‘s protagonist slowly breaks down and (even more slowly) tries to find herself and, just as journeys of self-discovery go in real-life, there is no perfect resolution to her journey. The end of this book actually snuck up on me because of that; I had naively assumed that the story would resolve conclusively, and wasn’t expecting it to end in the somewhat anticlimactic way that it did. While anticlimactic, though, the way the story wrapped up was also hopeful and realistic.

In addition to being evocative and compelling, Chemistry is also full of fantastic commentary. Wang touches upon the insane demands of graduate school that inevitably lead people to break down, as well as the unique challenges faced by first-generation Asian Americans. While all of the commentary was excellent, I was particularly touched by Wang’s portrayal of being caught in between two different cultures – one individualistic and one more community-focused – and feeling like you don’t quite belong to either of them.

Note: I live in the greater Boston area, so the next paragraph is very much influenced by my personal biases.

My only critique of Chemistry is that I wanted more from the setting! Wang sets the novel in Boston, but aside from mentioning a few Boston landmarks (and I use the word mentioning very intentionally; she does not describe these landmarks in much detail, not even the Arnold Arboretum in the Fall), there is not much that gives the story a distinct setting. And yet…I have to acknowledge that despite the lacking setting, I still found Chemistry to be a completely captivating read because the narrator’s internal experience was so immersive.

Overall, I loved and highly recommend Chemistry. There were so many things about this novel that don’t normally work for me, but the novel was SO well-written and the protagonist so realistically compelling, that I found myself completely immersed in the story. I tend not to reread books, but I would reread this one for the experience of feeling so absorbed in the main character’s mind.

Book Review: Paradise Cove

Last weekend, I read Paradise Cove as part of a read-along with Melanie. In the novel, Dr. Nora Walsh moves from Toronto to the tiny town of Moonflower Bay in the aftermath of a painful breakup. She plans to stay in town for only a couple of years, but there are compelling reasons for her to stay longer, including her developing chemistry with local fisherman/fix-it-man Jake Ramsey.

The book: Paradise Cove by Jenny Holiday
Genre: Romance
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

I enjoyed this book in much the same way that I enjoy Hallmark movies. The story is set in the (fictional) small town of Moonflower Bay, Canada, where everyone knows everyone and the elders love to gossip and meddle in the young adults’ affairs. The town reminded me of Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls, and like Stars Hollow, Moonflower Bay worked so much for me because I so badly wanted it to be real!

To continue with the Hallmark movie comparison, I thought that the key elements of the romance in this story were great. From the meet-cute in a hair salon, to the town emergency that forces Nora and Jake into each others’ lives, to their undeniable chemistry despite their firm assertions that they don’t have time for romance – it was all very compelling.

I do think that Paradise Cove offers a bit more than just an indulgent, escapist romance, however. Nora and Jake’s relationship is built not only on lust, but also on their deep emotional connection and their ability to listen to and support each other. Jake supports Nora by helping her with the chores that her demanding career makes it hard for her to keep up with, and Nora supports Jake by being an excellent active listener as he processes a traumatic event from his past with her. For all the time spent on Jake and Nora’s sexual chemistry, Holiday spends just as much time (if not more) focusing on their emotional intimacy.

Both protagonists also have meaningful relationships besides their romantic relationship with each other. Nora has an incredibly sweet relationship with her sister and grandmother, and she also makes fast friends with the residents of Moonflower Bay. Jake has lifelong friends in Moonflower Bay, who accept his need for lots of personal space, but also intervene when they recognize he is making self-destructive decisions. By giving both protagonists healthy friendships and familial relationships outside of their romance, Holiday shows that friendships and romantic relationships are not mutually exclusive – a message that I really appreciated.

I only had a few small issues with Paradise Cove. One was that the writing felt a bit cliched at times. There is one scene where Nora is feeling insecure about her ability to satisfy Jake sexually, and he thinks “Someone should just reach into [my] chest and pull [my] heart out right now. Stomp on it and throw it in the trash. Because this woman thought she was not sexy.” My other issue was some of the language used in the sex-scenes – language like “burrowed through her folds” – which not only felt actively unsexy, but was also vague and conceptually confusing.

Overall, though, I enjoyed Paradise Cove. It was easy to set aside the small issues when, on the whole, this novel was so heartwarming and bingeable. There’s another novel in the same series as Paradise Cove, plus a new novel in the series coming out in 2021 – I will most likely read them both based on my experience with Paradise Cove.

Women's Prize for Fiction 2020: Winner Announcement & Concluding Thoughts

Remember the Women’s Prize for Fiction?! So much time has passed since the longlist announcement back in March that the prize hasn’t been on my mind as much in the past couple months. But the winner was announced today, and it is Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell! While I hadn’t been rooting for Hamnet to win, I can appreciate that it is a gorgeously written and thoughtful work of historical fiction. You can read my full review of Hamnet here, but the tl;dr of it is that, while beautifully written and quite moving at times, the book spends over 200 pages leading up to an event that the reader already knows is going to happen (based on the synopsis). For other takes on Hamnet, check out Callum, Emily, Naty, Beth, Rachel, and Fatma’s reviews!

The book that I was rooting for to win was Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I became a (slightly) harsher reviewer after reading it, because Girl, Woman, Other showed me that one book really can do it all: profound social commentary that feels completely organic in the context of the story, excellent characters, beautifully poetic writing, and a fresh premise. Even though a couple of the stories in the collection weren’t as compelling as the rest, I was astounded by the book as a whole. I also would have loved to see Evaristo, and her alone, take the prize after having to share the 2019 Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood.

I also would have been very happy to see How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee win the prize, but unfortunately it didn’t even make the shortlist (I have already ranted about this once, and won’t rehash that again here). Despite being such a powerful and evocative novel, How We Disappeared has NOT gotten the attention it deserves! On Goodreads, How We Disappeared has 2,748 ratings and 475 reviews, compared to Hamnet’s 9,042 ratings and 1,547 reviews. Winning the Women’s Prize could have brought so much well-deserved attention to Jing-Jing Lee and How We Disappeared.

Looking back on my experience reading through the Women’s Prize longlist this year, I have to say that it was a bit disappointing. I made the decision to read the list in (almost) its entirety this year, because of how much I loved the WP books I read last year. Last year, I read eight books from the WP longlist, and gave them an average rating of 4.5 stars out of 5. This year, I read thirteen longlisted books, and rated them 3.7 stars out of 5, on average. Obviously, I can’t make statistically meaningful comparisons here, and I know that 3.7 stars out of 5 isn’t that bad. But 1) I am the type of reader who rates most books as 4 stars out of 5, and 2) I just didn’t have that deep connection with many of the books on this year’s longlist, even ones that I thought were well-written.

Part of my problem with this year’s longlist might have been the huge thematic focus on motherhood. While I’m not actively opposed to books about motherhood, I’m also not really interested in reading a dozen books about motherhood in the span of three months. I wonder why the judges centered the longlist around this theme, when surely they recognize that women have so much to contribute to the world besides motherhood? I also wonder what WP-eligible books were omitted from the longlist because they didn’t fit the theme?

Other themes that came up throughout the longlist were family sagas and family secrets; mental health, trauma, and grief; reimaginations and retellings of history; and “rich people problems.” I was particularly surprised that the longlist included three “rich people problems” novels, especially when only one of those novels (Fleishman is in Trouble) offered any type of meaningful social commentary.

I’m getting a bit ranty here, so I want to make sure that I also acknowledge the positives that came out of reading this year’s WP longlist. The best thing was connecting with other bloggers. I loved having reading buddies to exchange opinions and (especially in the case of Dominicana and The Most Fun We Ever Had) commiserate with! Also, I did rate quite a few books as 4-stars or higher. I most likely wouldn’t have read all of these books – especially Weather, Red at the Bone, How We Disappeared, and Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line – if it weren’t for the Women’s Prize.

tl;dr Although I was rooting for Girl, Woman, Other, I’m not mad about Hamnet winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I was a bit disappointed with the longlist on the whole, but loved connecting with other book bloggers over the Women’s Prize, and ended up reading some great novels that I otherwise might not have. I will most likely do it again next year 🙂

my Rankings of the wp-longlisted books

  1. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – 5 stars out of 5
  2. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner – 4.5 stars out of 5
  3. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – 4 stars out of 5
  4. How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee – 4 stars out of 5
  5. Queenie by Candace Carty-Williams – 4 stars out of 5
  6. Weather by Jenny Offill – 4 stars out of 5
  7. Actress by Anne Enright – 4 stars out of 5
  8. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara – 3.5 stars out of 5
  9. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes – 3.5 stars out of 5
  10. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – 3.5 stars out of 5
  11. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – 3 stars out of 5
  12. The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo – 3 stars out of 5
  13. Dominicana by Angie Cruz – 2 stars out of 5
  14. Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie – didn’t read (because I read many negative reviews that made me suspect I would dislike this book)
  15. Girl by Edna O’Brien – didn’t read (because it sounds like trauma porn, and also if I want to read about Boko Haram I’ll read something by an ownvoices author)
  16. The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel – didn’t read (because I didn’t have the motivation to start the Wolf Hall series this summer)

Book Review: The Death of Vivek Oji

The Death of Vivek Oji opens with the title character’s corpse being dropped off on his mother’s doorstep in Nigeria. The story that follows is a non-linear exploration of Vivek’s life leading up to his death, and the impact of his death on his friends and family.

The book: The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

I started The Death of Vivek Oji with lukewarm feelings, but the book grew on me over time. One aspect of the book that initially underwhelmed me was the writing. Perhaps the breathtakingly beautiful, lyrical prose of Freshwater (Emezi’s debut novel) unfairly heightened my expectations, but I felt that the writing in this novel (especially the dialogue) left a lot to be desired. As I read on and let go of my expectations, however, I found things to appreciate about the writing: there were some beautifully evocative passages that pulled at my heartstrings, and Emezi’s infusion of Igbo language into the dialogue helped to keep me immersed in the setting of Nigeria.

The novel’s structure is another area that I disliked at first but came to appreciate. At first, I felt like the book’s focus on many characters’ perspectives came at a detriment to nuanced development of any individual character. But the benefit to having so many different main characters is revealed when their stories come together to paint a beautifully complex portrait of the title character, Vivek, and of Nigerian society as a whole. While I do still think that a couple of the side stories could have been omitted, I loved the way Emezi weaved disparate narrative threads together to reveal a powerful bigger picture.

On the note of threads being woven together, I loved this novel’s imagery and symbolism. There were many references to plaiting (i.e. braiding) throughout the novel, which I appreciated given the novel’s braid-like narrative structure. I also really liked the theme of pictures: the novel opens and ends with references to photographs, and pictures end up playing an important role in the novel’s plot.

And speaking of the plot, I found the story itself to be compelling. The novel opens with Vivek’s corpse being dropped off at his parents’ house, so it is no secret that he is going to die, but the circumstances surrounding his death are unknown. As the novel progresses and the pieces of the story come together, Emezi drops hints and signs about how Vivek is going to die, but they keep the true story behind his death a mystery until the very end. For me, Emezi’s storytelling successfully built intrigue, dread, and suspense – which is definitely what I want from a novel with mystery elements.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend The Death of Vivek Oji. While I had some issues with the dialogue and character development, I feel that Emezi’s conclusion to the novel made the entire read worth it. And to those who read and loved Freshwater, just keep in mind that this is a very different novel!

Month in Review: August 2020

Just a couple days into September, and it’s already starting to feel like autumn in my corner of New England! Looking back on August, it was probably my best month of the year. The warm weather made it possible to socialize with friends IN PERSON (outdoors and distancing, but still!), and to go kayaking TWICE. I also got to have some nice virtual hangouts, including a Zoom pickling sesh with my little sibling and a couple lovely video chats with Melanie at Grab The Lapels! And while I didn’t achieve all of my reading goals (which were unrealistic to begin with), August was still a great reading month: I finished 7 books and rated most of them 4-stars or higher.

Books read:

  • Difficult Women by Roxane Gay – DNF
  • How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang – 3.5 stars out of 5
  • I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong – 3 stars out of 5
  • Real Life by Brandon Taylor – 4.5 stars out of 5
  • Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga – 4 stars out of 5
  • The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi – 4 stars out of 5
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo – 5 stars out of 5
  • The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison – 4 stars out of 5

Books in progress/September TBR:

Honestly, I have no business setting a reading goal of 10 books for September…and yet…here we are. This month’s reads are primarily inspired by the Booker prize longlist, books that I think would work well as audiobooks on my commute to work, and a fun read-along that Melanie at Grab The Lapels is hosting.

  • Bright Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich. I’ve been interested in this book for so long, yet never seem to prioritize it. I even incorporated it into my June reading plan, and still didn’t read it! But now I’m FINALLY reading this and really enjoying it so far!
  • Paradise Cove by Jenny Holiday. For Melanie’s read-along! A romance novel set in the tiny town of Matchmaker Bay, this seems like the book we need in 2020. There’s still time to join and read along if you’re interested!
  • Chemistry by Weike Wang. This has also been on my TBR for a while! I started it yesterday and find it incredibly moving so far!
  • We Want Our Bodies Back by Jessica Care Moore. I wanted to read this in August, but fell a bit behind on reading. Very excited to get to this in September.
  • The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga. Last month I read and enjoyed Nervous Conditions, so I’m really looking forward to the sequel!
  • Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A short feminist manifesto by an incredible writer? Sounds like a powerful and necessary read!
  • Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. This was my September BOTM pick! I checked BOTM literally just a couple hours after TBRing this book, and it was such a pleasant coincidence.
  • Apeirogon by Colum McCann. This Booker longlisted novel seems like it will either be hit or miss for me…so hopefully it is a hit!
  • Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward. Another Booker title. This is one of my most highly anticipated Booker reads, but I’m trying to keep my expectations in check so I don’t overhype it.
  • Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall. This seems like it will be a great follow-up to So You Want to Talk About Race (which had one chapter about intersectional blindspots of feminist and progressive movements).

Some posts I really enjoyed:

Baking!

I made: blueberry bars, pecan cupcakes (adapted from this recipe), and strawberry cupcakes!

More photos:

Book Review: I Contain Multitudes

I Contain Multitudes is science journalist Ed Yong’s deep dive into the world of microbes. By examining diverse scientific studies under the umbrella of microbiology – from studies of animals that literally do not survive without microbial symbionts, to the (widely accepted) theory that our own Eukaryotic organelles evolved from bacteria – Yong illustrates how microbes are interwoven into every facet of life as we know it.

The book: I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong
Genre: Science nonfiction
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Note: I read I Contain Multitudes as an audiobook, which likely played a major role in some of my opinions of it.

When I read science nonfiction, I want to learn and be filled with a sense of wonder and amazement: I Contain Multitudes achieved both of those things. Even though I do microbiology research, I didn’t know that most animals can’t survive without microbes, or that the human body hosts tons of non-pathogenic viruses, or even that the majority of viruses are non-pathogenic. Throughout this book, I found myself marveling at the specific things that microbes can be responsible for (like triggering deadly auto-immune responses in organisms across the tree of life), as well as their involvement in virtually every ecological niche on Earth.

While the book was successful in conveying the importance of microbes, however, some of the specific studies that Yong cites felt dryly written to me. I found it hard to keep track of acronyms and hyper-specific jargon, and to wrap my head around certain ecological interactions. I read I Contain Multitudes less than a month ago, and I’ve already forgotten several examples from the book because I couldn’t fully grasp them to begin with.

I also felt like I Contain Multitudes could have been made shorter by omitting a few of the scientific studies. While all the microbes that Yong covers are interesting in some way, it’s not clear that every study was strictly necessary for the book. At times, the book felt less like a cohesive story about microbes, and more like a collection of examples of microbes that do cool things.

Something that Yong handled very well was addressing the nuanced nature of scientific research. I appreciate that Yong steered away from oversimplified or misleading scientific claims, and that he called out mainstream news companies that do oversimplify or sensationalize microbiology research. I also like that when Yong presented controversial studies, he addressed the limitations and critiques of those studies. I respect and appreciate that Yong showed the nuance and complexity of scientific research – even though it sometimes came at a cost to my own understanding.

Overall, I enjoyed and learned a lot from I Contain Multitudes. While I found some of the science to be inaccessible and some examples unnecessary, I thought that the book clearly and excellently communicated the abundance and importance of microbes. And I also have to point out again that some of my negative takes on this book are very likely the result of trying to read science nonfiction as an audiobook!