Book review: Stubborn Archivist

February has been a great month of reading: we’re only two weeks in, and I’ve already finished four (!!!) books! The latest book I read was Stubborn Archivist, a novel about a young, half-British/half-Brazilian woman navigating adult life in London, and trying to make sense of who she is.

The book: Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Stubborn Archivist was an interesting read, and one of the reasons why was its use of language and formatting. There are interesting line breaks throughout the novel, and also (very intentional) omissions of punctuation. These features give the book a very poetic feel, and even give some parts of the novel a sort of surreal quality.

I also liked how – through the lens of the protagonist’s experiences – author Rodrigues Fowler portrays the challenges of looking “different” or “foreign” in your own country. Without having experienced any of the micro-aggressions portrayed in the novel, I really felt for the protagonist, who repeatedly deals with men exocitizing her because of her ethnicity, and people making assumptions about her ability to speak intelligently. Books that demonstrate these challenges are vital because they give voices to cultural phenomena that are common and important, but still not discussed enough in mainstream media.

At the same time, many of the protagonist’s experiences were familiar to me (someone who is not considered “different” looking in their own country). Being steamrolled or ignored by well-intentioned people who assume you have nothing to say, passing up invitations to socialize and drink with coworkers because alcohol upsets your stomach, obsessing over what if situations before a date – these were all so relatable! These relatable moments illustrate how some experiences and feelings are universal, and have the ability to transcend culture, language, and geography.

My main critique of Stubborn Archivist is that it feels…unfinished. The whole novel is so ambitious: in the stories it tells, the timelines it follows, and the creative formatting and language it employs. But at times it feels like Rodrigues Fowler sets out to do so many things, that sections end up feeling incomplete and blurry. The gaps in the novel may be intentional (the title of the book gives me reason to think it is), but I personally prefer less “blurry” narratives.

Overall, I enjoyed Stubborn Archivist and appreciated its story and main character. I recommend this book, because it is a different read, and because it shares interesting perspective that many people could benefit from reading. Just know in advance – if you do read this book – that the formatting is a bit surprising at first and that some parts of the novel have a sort of unfinished quality.

Book Review: Lot

Over the weekend I finished reading Lot (making it the 3rd book of 2020 that I read after it being on my TBR for a long time). Lot is a fictional short-story collection that follows characters living in black and latinx communities in Houston, Texas. Half of the stories are told from the perspective of a single character, allowing the reader to follow his journey from early-adolescence to adulthood.

The book: Lot by Bryan Washington
Genre: Fiction, short-stories
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

As is the case with most short story collections, some of the stories in Lot work better than others. I thought the best stories were the ones told from the perspective of the “main character” (i.e. the only character whose perspective appears multiple times throughout the book). In short stories, it can be challenging to connect with the characters, simply because there isn’t as much opportunity for character development as there is in a novel. But by having a recurring character in Lot, Bryan Washington allows his readers to deeply understand and connect with one of the characters.

Something that I really appreciated about Lot was that, although most of the characters in this novel are struggling, their stories are told compassionately. Washington shows characters dealing with gentrification, troubling relationships, homelessness, and more. Yet it never feels like Washington exploits his characters struggles. The characters in Lot are deep and complex, and they are clearly defined by more than just the difficult circumstances they face.

I also found the writing in Lot to be very powerful. The language is never flowery; it is precise to the point that I frequently found myself marveling at how Washington conveyed so much using so few words. In “Bayou,” the narrator mentions that his father walked out on him, saying: he stepped out for a glass of water, and believe it or not he’s been thirsty ever since. In “Waugh,” the main character reckons with his friend’s life-threatening illness, reminding himself that everything could and would be fine, until all of a sudden it wasn’t.

All in all, I highly recommend Lot. Individually, the stories shine a compassionate light on people living in marginalized communities. Collectively, they illustrate how everyone tries to make the best of their circumstances and find a place of belonging.

Book Review: Conversations with Friends

I finally read Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney! This book was on my TBR ever since reading Normal People in June. Conversations with Friends is the story a young student/poet, Frances, who is discovered by an older and more prominent writer named Melissa. Frances (and her best friend and co-performer, Bobbi) start spending more time with Melissa, and Frances finds herself increasingly captivated by Melissa’s husband Nick. As Frances and Nick become closer, Frances’ relationships – with her friends, family, and Nick – begin to spin out of control.

The book: Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

This novel was so captivating! I am not sure whether to say that I consumed it, or it consumed me. But I finished the book in less than 24 hours because the plot was intriguing and suspenseful. Which is really impressive for a non-mystery-or-thriller novel. What made the book so captivating was simply the main character’s emotional complexity and personal struggle. I couldn’t put this book down, because I wanted to see how or if Frances would resolve her personal issues.

I was surprised that Conversations with Friends pulled me in so deeply, because the narrator and main character (Frances) is kind of unlikable. Frances is self-conscious to the point of being excessively self-centered, and she frequently engages in impulsive, selfish behavior that has the potential to hurt others. She also struggles to apologize for her harmful actions, and instead waits for the people that she has hurt to apologize to her. Yet reading her story, it is clear that Frances isn’t hopeless: she has the potential to learn, grow, and change. This is part of what compelled so deeply about this novel: I was rooting for Frances to change.

While the narrator and main character (Frances) was certainly challenging at times, she wasn’t the only difficult character in Conversations with Friends. Most of the major characters in this novel had blatantly unlikeable qualities. At the same time, though, all the characters are so well-developed that the root of their challenging behaviors becomes clear. This isn’t to say that psychology is an excuse for morally questionable actions – just that the characters in Conversations with Friends are realistically complex.

Another aspect of Conversations with Friends that was realistic yet frustrating was the bad communication between characters! So many of the issues in this book – particularly Frances’ issues – could have been resolved with better communication. I think this was very intentional on author Sally Rooney’s part, and that it’s meant to highlight the importance of good communication in a healthy relationship.

All in all, I loved Conversations with Friends. The book is frustrating, heartbreaking, and above all – deeply compelling. If you like stories with *slightly* unlikeable or emotionally complicated main characters, I definitely recommend this book.

Book Review: Mobituaries

My first read of February was Mobituaries by Mo Rocca. Inspired by Rocca’s podcast of the same name, Mobituaries gives obituaries to people (or things) who are misremembered or altogether forgotten by society: mediocre presidents who accomplished great things outside of their presidency, revolutionary athletes who nobody’s heard of, and even dragons.

The book: Mobituaries by Mo Rocca
Genre: Historical non-fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

I enjoyed and learned so much from Mobituaries. My favorite stories were about famous people who are still remembered today (for acting or modeling or being president), but perhaps not as well as they should be. For example, I learned that Herbert Hoover – before he became president – was an engineer and humanitarian who saved hundreds of thousands of Europeans from starvation during World War I.

Also, for a book about people who have died, Mobituaries is extremely positive, and even funny! Author Mo Rocca injects his offbeat humor into his obituaries (excuse me, Mobituaries) at surprising times, but it never feels disrespectful or out of place. Instead Rocca’s humor lightens the mood of the book, and prevents the stories from getting heavy or dry.

I did have a couple issues with the book, though. The first is that, as a listener of the Mobituaries podcast, I was disappointed by the number of stories that were repeats of podcast episodes (except for the story of the poisoning of the famous Auburn tree – I will never tire of that story). This book was advertised as having unique stories not told on the podcast…but that wasn’t 100% true.

My second issue with Mobituaries was the size of the book! It is huge! I think the book is intended as a “coffee-table book.” It definitely would make a great coffee-table book, but the large size of the book made it a bit challenging to carry around or even to read in bed.

Minor inconveniences aside, I loved Mobituaries. Mo Rocca pays respectful tributes to individuals whose complete legacies have been forgotten, and tells each story in an upbeat (and oftentimes funny) way. If you want to learn a bit more about history, I definitely recommend this book!

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.