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: 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: 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.

(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.

Lost Children Archive (and the ginger-banana cheesecake bars it inspired)

The book: Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli.

Earlier this month, I read Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli. The novel follows a family of four taking a road trip from New York to Arizona: the father, a documentarist, is creating a sound documentary about Apacheria (the former home of the Apaches). At the same time, the mother has become impassioned by the immigration crisis at the U.S./Mexico border, and decides to create her own sound documentary about it. Lost Children Archive is a moving story about marriage, family, and the so-called “immigration crisis” in the United States.

While the novel may sound heavy (and honestly, it is), Lost Children Archive is incredible – it may even be my favorite book of the year. Luiselli’s writing style is smooth, flowing, and poetic. This makes the novel easy to follow, even when the plot or the novel’s themes get heavy. Also, Luiselli doesn’t use quotation marks around characters’ dialogue – I liked this technique because it made the conversation feel like it was flowing very naturally.

Valeria Luiselli is also a master at evoking all the emotions. When the plot centers around the plight of migrant children and their families, the novel evokes immense empathy and sadness. Other parts of the novel are anxiety-inducing yet page-turningly suspenseful. And then there are moments where the novel is laugh-out-loud funny, thanks to Luiselli’s ability to capture the surprising and hilarious innocence of children.

As the novel progresses, parallels between the family’s children and the “lost” migrant children become increasingly clear. I thought this was a clever way of evoking empathy for children. These parallels first draw empathy for migrant children, because it allows the reader to feel for migrant children the way they would for children they actually know. The parallels also elicit empathy for children in general, by showing how even relatively privileged children can feel lost in the world.

Although I loved Lost Children Archive, I will acknowledge that it has received a lot of criticism from those with a more formal literary background. I am a casual reader and a scientist, so literary things – like cramming in too many references to older literature, or imitating the writing style of James Joyce – did not bother me (in fact, most of the references flew right over my head). I loved and learned so much from this book.

The bake: ginger-banana cheesecake bars.

When I was contemplating a bake for Lost Children Archive, I drew on the idea of the cross-country road trip for inspiration, and decided to bake something that would combine various regional desserts. The ultimate fusion dessert that I landed on was hummingbird cheesecake bars (with a spicy twist). Hummingbird cake is said to be a classic Southern dessert (although I never ate it when I lived in the South), and cheesecake is often thought of as a classic New York dessert.

Luckily for me, a hummingbird cheesecake recipe already exists, so I used that as a guide for my bake. However, hummingbird cheesecake seemed like too sweet of a dessert for a novel as heavy as Lost Children Archive, so I decided to spice it up a bit by using candied ginger instead of pineapple. Also, I used an 8×8 inch pan to make “bars” instead of a traditional cheesecake, because bars seem more kid-friendly than a traditional cheesecake (and this bake was inspired by a book about children).

The cheesecake bars look a bit ugly, but taste quite nice.

From the long bake time to the decoration, these cheesecake bars ended up being WAY more challenging than I expected! If I were to make these bars again, I wouldn’t use candied ginger, because it sunk to the bottom of the cheesecake batter and made the bars difficult to cut. That being said, they were very tasty – I loved the flavor combination of ginger and banana. These cheesecake bars are a great sweet-and-spicy treat – perfect to celebrate a bittersweet novel like Lost Children Archive (or just to enjoy on their own).

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (plus, my first attempt at baking something “gorgeous”)

The book: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.

Earlier this month, I read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. The book takes the form of a letter from a son to his (illiterate) mother, divulging parts of his life to her that she has never known. In the book/letter, he also explains the impact that their family history – starting in Vietnam in the late 20th century – and shared experiences have had on him. The memories he writes about all come together to tell an intimate and moving life-story.

My favorite thing about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was, without a doubt, the beautiful writing. The writing often felt more like poetry than prose, something I had never encountered in a fiction novel before. Because the writing was so poetic, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was not only a fascinating story, but also tender and moving in a way that most novels are not. The poetic writing style also meant that I couldn’t quickly binge-read this novel (in the way that some fiction books can be binged) – On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a book that demands to be read slowly, in order to take in every (beautifully-written) word.

In addition to being beautifully written, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous also feels relevant and important in today’s world. The narrator’s encounters with racism, addiction, poverty, and abuse made me seriously consider these social issues, while really empathizing with those who suffer from them. The passages that deal with these issues never feel preachy or forced, though. They are simply portrayed as part of the narrator’s real lived experiences – part of why he has become the person that he is now.

One social issue that is especially highlighted in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is abuse (and abusive relationships). Without spoiling any of the novel, I will say that certain relationships portrayed in this novel seemed abusive to me, yet the narrator still writes about them with love and tenderness. I am conflicted by this, because I feel that writing about abusers in a loving manner is – in some way that I can’t quite explain – excusing their abusive behavior. On the other hand, though, the narrator unsparingly describes the abuse that he witnessed or experienced – therefore calling out the abusers.

Overall, I really enjoyed On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It is a beautifully written book, that reads more like poetry than a fiction novel. The narrator’s heartfelt descriptions of formative life experiences are compelling, and they will stick with you, leaving you feeling like you know the narrator. My only caveat is this: because abuse is dealt with in a very complex way, I might not recommend this book to readers with a history of abuse (or I would least caution them before reading).

The bake: lime meringue pie.

I was inspired by the title of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and therefore decided to try to bake something…well…gorgeous. My fiancĂ© loves to bake pie, so we combined forces to make an aesthetically pleasing lime meringue pie.

To make the pie, we used this recipe from Cravings Journal. My fiancé made the cookie crust and lime filling, and I made (and piped) the meringue. We followed this recipe to the T, with the exception of the meringue topping, which I piped onto the pie instead of spreading as suggested in the recipe. I simply used a star-tip, and piped spirals all over the pie until I had used all the meringue.

Spirals are actually really easy to pipe! It is the perfect beginner’s piping design.

This pie was SO GOOD! The buttery cookie crust, the smooth tart filling, and the crispy meringue topping come together perfectly to create a complex, yet delightful dessert. If I were to make this again, I might add zest of one lime into the pie filling, just to make sure that the lime flavor is bold. But aesthetically, and – more importantly – taste-wise, this truly is a gorgeous dessert.

A slice of the gorgeous pie.