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.

Year of Yeh #3: Scallion Pancakes (and carrot slaw)

This week I continued my “Year of Yeh” project with a versatile recipe that works as a breakfast, lunch, dinner, appetizer, side, or snack: scallion pancakes! The Molly on the Range cookbook lumps the scallion pancakes with a maple syrup carrot slaw, so I did the same.

The recipe: Scallion Pancakes with Maple Syrup Slaw
Difficulty: Moderate
Time: 1.5 hrs

This recipe was time-consuming, but lots of fun. The carrot slaw that accompanies the pancakes is straightforward: just shred carrots and combine them with the other slaw ingredients (vinegar, maple syrup, and ginger). The pancakes are a bit more challenging.

Fresh scallion pancakes.

First, I found it tough to get the pancake dough to the right consistency. To get the dough to a smooth and “slightly sticky” consistency, I had to add at least an extra half cup of flour to the dough. It also took me a LONG time to understand the shaping instructions (the recipe said to roll the dough like a “jelly roll” and I didn’t know what that meant) – but that is on me, not the recipe.

This recipe was the most challenging one I have tried so far, and also the most delicious! The scallion pancakes are perfect when they are hot off the pan! And the tanginess of the carrot slaw nicely complements the scallion-and-sesame-filled pancakes. I will probably remake this recipe again at some point.

Technical notes:

  • The carrot slaw recipe calls for minced fresh ginger. This was the first time that I used fresh ginger (as opposed to powdered) and it makes a world of difference!
  • The pancake dough recipe as it is listed in the recipe just doesn’t seem right – I ended up requiring at least an extra half cup of flour to get it to a “smooth and slightly sticky” consistency.
  • The pancake dough will seem too salty if you taste it before frying your pancakes. But once the pancakes are fried, they are perfect. Somehow the too-salty taste goes away once they’re in their final form.
  • It is okay if some oil/scallion filling spills out of your pancake. You can sprinkle a bit of flour over it.
  • These pancakes are best when they are fresh off the pan. If you are going to re-heat them, do so over the stove (they don’t microwave well).

Year of Yeh #2: Basic Challah

This weekend, I tackled another recipe from Molly on the Range…with help from my husband, who is an excellent bread baker! There were several bread recipes (especially challah recipes) in Molly on the Range to choose from, but we decided to start with basic challah.

The recipe: Basic Challah
Difficulty: Easy
Time: 3+ hours (but much of that time is hands-off)

This challah was the perfect lazy weekend bake. It was slightly time-consuming to make, but much of the prep time was hands-off, leading to lots of down time while the dough rose. This challah was also a lot of fun to bake with a partner. My husband and I split the dough into two balls, and each braided a challah simultaneously.

On the subject of braiding the challah: that was the most challenging part of this recipe. My husband made a 5-stranded braid, and I made a 4-stranded one, but we both found that our braids were a bit loose on one end (the end where we started the braid) and tighter on the other end. Luckily, the second rise (and the third rise, or the bake) allows the dough to expand and correct any looseness.

Husband’s 5-stranded challah on the left; my 4-stranded challah on the right.

All in all, this recipe took us over 3 hours…and it was so worth it! This challah recipe is honestly perfect. The bread is soft and airy, with a smooth golden crust. Because the challah uses an enriched dough, the bread is rich and just slightly sweet, making it one of the few breads that is enjoyable on its own. But it is also excellent with butter, jam, fresh fruit, or probably anything else you want to put on it.

Sliced challah with butter and passionfruit.

Technical notes:

  • You will need a VERY LARGE bowl if you follow the recipe as it listed in the Molly on the Range cookbook (it calls for 6.5 cups of flour, as opposed to 3.5 in the scaled-down version on KAF)
  • If you have a kitchen scale, weight out your dough so that your braid strands are roughly the same size. This will make the braiding easier.
  • DON’T flour your work surface before you roll out the strands! It’s easier to elongate your dough strands if they are not coated in flour (I learned the hard way).

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.

Year of Yeh #1: Spaghetti & Meatless Balls

This is my first “Year of Yeh” post, wherein I document the process of making recipes from Molly Yeh’s cookbook Molly on the Range. A couple nights ago, I kicked off the project by making her “Spaghetti & My Ex-Boyfriend’s Meatless Balls” recipe. The recipe utilizes spaghetti and marinara sauce as a vehicle for vegetarian meatballs.

Recipe: Spaghetti & My Ex-Boyfriend’s Meatless Balls
Difficulty level: easy if you have a food processor
Total time: ~30-45 minutes (longer if you make sauce from scratch)

The cooked meatless balls.

I had a great time making this recipe! The meatless balls are pretty straightforward as long as you have a food processor. All you have to do is: measure out your ingredients, pulse them all together in a food processor, roll the mixture into balls, and then fry them. The frying was the most challenging part of the process. For one thing, hot flying oil particles are scary! But it was also challenging to get each meatball perfectly browned on every side. Many of the meatballs I cooked had a semi-burnt spot.

The meatless balls are the star of this recipe – author Molly Yeh says so herself in the book. But she recommends serving them with spaghetti and marinara sauce, as this is one of her favorite ways to enjoy the meatless balls. I mostly followed her recommendation: I served the meatless balls over spaghetti with tomato-garlic-pesto sauce (I wanted to use up leftover basil in the fridge).

So how did the meatless balls taste? Really good! The predominant flavors were parmesan cheese and toasted almond, with pleasant seasoning from the garlic, pepper, and parsley. Smothered in sauce, these meatless balls might pass as turkey balls. On their own, they don’t really taste like meat…but they don’t need to. With their savory, slightly nutty flavor, these meatless balls absolutely hold their own.

Meatless balls served over spaghetti; topped with tomato-garlic-pesto, parmesan cheese, and basil.

Technical notes:

  • The recipe calls for toasted almonds. If you can’t buy toasted almonds, it is absolutely worth your time to toast your own almonds (just bake in the oven for 3-4 minutes at 350 F). Toasting the almonds changes/improves their flavor so much!
  • If you don’t have dried parsley, dried basil or oregano will work well too.
  • I didn’t think the meatballs needed to be fried in 1/4″ oil – just enough oil to perfectly coat the pan worked pretty well for me.
  • Marinara sauce seems like the perfect sauce for these meatless balls (I served with tomato-garlic-pesto, which was good, but marinara sauce would be better).

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.