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.

Dear Girls (and dear double-chocolate cookies)

The book: Dear Girls by Ali Wong

Last month I read Dear Girls by comedian and actress Ali Wong. The book is a collection of life-lessons that Wong has learned and wishes to share with her daughters. The book covers topics such as dating, travel, and work. The stories are intimate, shocking, often filthy, and pretty funny.

I had mixed feelings about Dear Girls, but one thing that I loved about it was that it’s frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious. I read Dear Girls on an airplane, and couldn’t stop myself from laughing out loud while reading it. Ali Wong is an incredible stand-up comedian (if you haven’t seen her comedy, I recommend the Netflix special Baby Cobra), and also, somehow, just as hilarious as a writer.

At the same time, Dear Girls wasn’t always funny to me. I found myself surprised and even disappointed by some of the perspectives Wong shared in the book. In particular, she makes light of homelessness a lot and also tells a story whose punchline is essentially: “The guy I was dating turned out to have a personality disorder! Good thing he didn’t murder me!” So I really disliked that.

But what really turned me off of this book was the fact that Wong shares all these compelling stories about the difficulty of motherhood, and what it’s like to balance being a mom and having a career…but never mentions the fact she has a nanny! The nanny is only mentioned in passing in the husband’s afterword. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that there is anything wrong with having a nanny if you have the means, and I don’t think that having a nanny makes you any less of a parent. What I take issue with is the lack of transparency: the barely-mention of having a nanny is dishonest, and makes the book feel insincere.

All in all, I thought that Dear Girls was a funny book, but it’s definitely not for everyone. If you like Ali Wong’s comedy, you will probably like her book (some of the stories are easy to imagine in her voice, which makes them even funnier). However, a few of Wong’s jokes are based upon outdated stereotypes, which is disappointing.

3 stars out of 5

The bake: chocolate cookies with chocolate glaze.

With the bake for Dear Girls, I wanted to accomplish two things. First (and perhaps obviously) I wanted to bake something inspired by the bake. And secondly, I wanted to get into the holiday spirit! So I decided to make glitzy sprinkle cookies.

For sprinkle cookies, any cookie recipe and any glaze will work. I decided to make chocolate cookies, because I already had leftover cookie dough in my freezer from the last time I made them. I decided to frost them with chocolate glaze, because I absolutely love a decadent double-chocolate dessert.

These cookies take a while to make – because the dough undergoes two separate chilling periods in the refrigerator – but the rich, chocolatey treats are well worth the wait. And the chocolate glaze on top takes these cookies to the next level; I highly recommend doing the chocolate-on-chocolate. The sprinkles don’t really add anything taste-wise, but they make the cookies look so much more festive and inviting! A glitzy, bold bake for a bold book.

(cupcakes that look like) Little Fires Everywhere

The book: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.

Last month, I read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. This fictional book is about a mother and daughter – Mia and Pearl – that try to settle down in a wealthy, meticulously-planned suburb in Ohio after a lifetime of moving every several months. One family in particular, the Richardsons, become especially interested in this mother-daughter duo. As Mrs. Richardson becomes increasingly jealous and suspicious of Mia, she uncovers dark secrets about Mia’s past, threatening to disrupt Mia and Pearl’s newly-established life.

Little Fires Everywhere was an addictive and amazing read that managed to live up to all the hype surrounding it. The plot was thorough yet fast-moving; this book contains the perfect ratio of backstory to action. It also succeeds at hinting at soon-to-be-uncovered secrets and building suspense. The result is the perfect page-turner.

Not only was the plot of Little Fires Everywhere compelling, but so were the characters! The characters in Little Fires Everywhere are very realistic and well-developed – as a result, I developed a lot of compassion for each character (even when they were difficult or made morally questionable decisions). In fact, I think part of what made the novel so addictive was this deep understanding of each character, which made me root for them and want to see their individual stories play out positively (all the while knowing that not every character’s story would).

I would classify Little Fires Everywhere as a drama, but it went surprisingly deep, touching on complex moral issues. One of the major questions that this book poses is this: who has the right to an adopted and/or abandoned and/or surrogated child? Can the original parents claim the child theirs whenever they want to? Or should the child remain with the family that wanted to adopt and provide for the child from the beginning? Based on how the book played out, it seems that my answer to this is different than the author’s – but the issue is so complex that there is, of course, no right or wrong answer.

Overall, I loved Little Fires Everywhere. It is fast-moving yet thorough in plot, the characters are realistically flawed (i.e. very human and relatable), and the book raises some interesting moral questions. Also, this book just has that “satisfyingly addictive page-turner” quality about it. I highly recommend this novel for a holiday read (or any time).

The bake: chocolate cupcakes with passionfruit frosting.

For Little Fires Everywhere, my original idea was to bake something with some resemblance to actual fire. So, I baked with cupcakes with textured orange frosting, with the idea that the frosting would resemble flames. I chose passionfruit flavor for the frosting, because passion and love are important themes in Little Fires Everywhere; I chose chocolate as the cupcake flavor because passionfruit and chocolate pair surprisingly well together.

To make the chocolate cake, I followed this recipe from Add A Pinch. I love this recipe, and almost always use it for chocolate cake – it is simple, delicious, and can easily be made vegan. The passionfruit frosting was my own recipe (1 stick butter, juice of two passionfruit, and powdered sugar to taste – enough to modestly frost about 16 cupcakes).

The actual baking process was very straightforward; the only issue I ran into was accidentally overfilling the cupcake tin (I had never adapted this recipe for cupcakes before), which then made the cupcakes a bit hard to remove from the pan. To avoid this issue, fill each cupcake tin only halfway with cake batter.

All in all, this bake was delicious! The chocolate cake recipe I used is reliably fantastic, and it paired so well with the passionfruit frosting. I wish passionfruit were more accessible, so I could bake many more chocolate/passionfruit treats!

(chocolate linzer cookies for) Frankissstein: A Love Story

The book: Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson.

In the spirit of Halloween and all things strange, I just finished reading Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson. The novel follows two main story lines. First: nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley is inspired to write Frankenstein in the summer of 1816. Then, fast-forwarding two centuries, there is the story of a romance between Ry – a transgender doctor who works in a cryogenics facility – and Victor Stein, an AI specialist dreaming of a future where humans digitally upload their brains to live eternally without bodies. As the novel wades between the two stories, we observe incredible parallels between the story told in Frankenstein, and a not-so-distant future ruled by AI.

My opinions on this book are…all over the place. There were aspects that I liked, and aspects that I didn’t care for…and some things that I have conflicting feelings toward. One thing that I have mixed opinions about is the connection between the two main stories in this novel. I appreciated the parallels between the two main stories…but I wish that Winterson had been more subtle with some of those parallels. For example, Ry and Victor Stein’s story begins at an AI conference in Memphis; at the very beginning of this section, Ry explicitly tells the conference organizer that the conference is in honor of the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. At that point, it felt like Winterson was just beating us over the head with the connection between the two plot lines.

I also wish that the book had been more character-focused. Frankissstein had a strong plot that prodded at interesting philosophical questions…but I felt that it could have used more character development. With the exception of Mary Shelley, I found it hard to understand any of the characters beyond a surface-level, which then made it hard to care what would happen to them.

A praise that I have for Frankissstein is that it touched upon fascinating philosophical issues – particularly, can AI solve the problems of humanity? How will technology continue to transform our world, and what will this mean for the future of humankind? Frankkissstein suggests a world where AI may radically change what life means for humans, yet it also shows that people have been pondering questions about how technology may change society for centuries.

Overall, Frankissstein was a bit of a let-down for me. It is characterized as a love-story, but I didn’t find it particularly romantic (did I miss the point?). I also found most of the characters a bit lacking, and possibly underdeveloped. The plot was interesting, though; and if you like thinking about the future of humanity, this book offers fascinating perspectives on what that may hold.

The bake: chocolate linzer cookies.

Frankisstein is characterized as a love story (the subtitle of the book is literally A Love Story). Although I didn’t find the novel particularly romantic, I decided to roll with this theme, and made a “romantic” dessert. I made chocolate linzer cookies with a cherry jam filling (some were filled with leftover lime curd, too).

To make the cookies, I followed this recipe from Bon Appetit. Instead of making the tahini-chocolate filling (which I’m sure is amazing), I used two fillings that I already had: cherry jam (because chocolate and cherry seems “romantic”) and lime curd (because I had a lot of leftover lime curd that I needed to use).

These cookies take a long time to make because the dough needs to chill in the fridge for a long time…but they are not particularly difficult. And this recipe rewards patience: as long as you follow the recipe (including the chill periods in the refrigerator), the cookies will turn out amazingly! The ingredients are nothing out of the ordinary…but somehow these chocolate cookies taste so rich and decadent. Definitely worth the wait, and definitely something to make for any occasion.

Lab Girl (plus, how baking meringues is like doing laboratory work)

The book: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.

Earlier this month I read Hope Jahren’s memoir, Lab Girl. Dr. Jahren is a professor and researcher at the University of Oslo in Norway, but she has also held professor positions at Georgia State University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Hawaii. Lab Girl tells the story of how Dr. Jahren fell in love with science, and her journey through her battlefield of a career in academia.

When I first started the book, I felt skeptical of the author’s motives (i.e. her “agenda”). I couldn’t shake the feeling that the memoir was a bit self-congratulatory, or perhaps validation-seeking. As the memoir progressed, though, it really grew on me. Dr. Jahren is refreshingly honest about her career in academia: she unflinchingly describes the countless times she’s been dismissed for being a woman in science, the poor living conditions she endured in order to “make it” as a starting professor, and her experiences living with bipolar disorder. These are aspects of academic research that are present for so many grad students, post-doctoral researchers, and professors – yet they are rarely discussed (in fact, my experience in academia was that students are expected to keep their struggles to themselves).

In addition to portraying academic life so honestly, Lab Girl also contains amazingly accessible science writing. My background is actually in plant sciences, but I think that Dr. Jahren’s science-writing could easily be digested by readers from a non-science background. I especially liked Dr. Jahren’s explanations of how seeds germinate, root, and ultimately develop into trees – oftentimes against staggeringly low odds.

Despite my initial skepticism, I loved this book and I have a lot of admiration for Dr. Jahren. I don’t know that her story is exceptionally unique for a female science professor, but I do know that she is incredibly brave to come forth and tell her full story. Her writing style is gorgeous and easy-to-follow, and the book contains a few of my new favorite quotes, including this one: “in the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you’re supposed to be.”

The bake: (attempted) lime-swirl meringues.

As a scientist myself, I often tell people that what I do in the laboratory is a lot like following a recipe. I have even been known to say that “if you can follow a recipe, you can do a DNA extraction!” Both baking and conducting good laboratory research involve following optimized protocols. As such, I decided that for Lab Girl, I would bake something that required me to follow a “highly optimized protocol” (i.e. a meticulous bake): meringues swirled with lime curd.

I chose meringue and lime curd, because both are tricky to make: just like doing lab-based research, both require that you follow your protocol (i.e. recipe) pretty closely if you want to be successful. I baked these meringues, but instead of using raspberry puree for the swirled topping, I used a homemade lime curd (following this recipe).

Although I have struggled with curd in the past, this one came out very well! I love the bright and zesty flavor of it. Unfortunately, my meringues were not as successful: they took on a weird caramel color in the oven, and they never got crunchy (most likely the result of two mistakes: putting them on too low an oven-rack and over-baking them). I almost didn’t post about this bake, but I decided that – in the spirit of sharing my full story and not just the shiny parts of it – I should write about my baking failures.

I was disappointed with the meringues at first, but like all failed experiments, this was an opportunity to learn and improve. I’m really glad that I also made the lime curd, because now at least one part of the bake was successful. Also, I have a lot of leftover lime curd; I can’t wait to put it to good use in my next bake!