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: Nervous Conditions

Both a coming-of-age novel and cultural criticism, Nervous Conditions examines the effects of “post-colonialism” on young African women. The novel features Tambu, a young girl who gets the opportunity to be educated at a Christian missionary school after her brother dies. Initially, Tambu believes that eduction is her path to a better, brighter future; but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the white man’s education has devastating effects on Tambu, her cousin Nyasha, and society as a whole.

The book: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Nervous Conditions is an incredibly smart and thought-provoking novel. While the story starts off a bit slow, it picks up nicely after Tambu gets sent to school in her late brother’s place. What makes the novel interesting isn’t the plot, but Tambu’s analysis of the world around her. During a scene where her wealthy and educated uncle Babamukuru lashes out at his daughter (Tambu’s cousin) for coming home late, Tambu realizes that toxic masculinity isn’t unique to poor families like hers: The victimisation, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on. Men took it everywhere with them. Even heroes like Babamukuru did it. And that was the problem.”

While much of the social commentary is told rather than shown, I think it works well in the context of this coming-of-age novel. From a young age, Tambu has been led to believe that education is the solution to all of her family’s problems – that education will lift her out of poverty and make her more worldly and civilized. The longer Tambu spends in school, however, the more she sees that the education she so desperately wanted is problematic. Not only is the sexism that Tambu resents still prevalent in school, but education at a missionary school revolves around the idea that African lifestyles and traditions are inferior to Western ideals – an idea which many of the students internalize, leading them to look down upon their own culture. As a young woman who is slowly realizing that education is not the panacea she was promised, I think it makes sense for Tambu to explicitly articulate those thoughts.

Like the social commentary, the characters in Nervous Conditions are brilliant and nuanced. Not only are they complex, but they act as vehicles for further social commentary, as they are each the product of their unique upbringing. Tambu’s uncle Babamukuru, for example sees himself as superior to his family members because he is more educated and financially successful than they are – but it’s clear that this belief is the result of being raised and practically brainwashed by white missionaries. Nyasha’s outspoken nature and unwillingness to be seen as inferior to her male peers is the result of spending some of her formative years abroad, which gave her the unique opportunity to observe and question cultural differences at a young age. It’s hard to see any main character in this novel as better or worse than one another, when they are all trying to survive the effects of colonialism.

Overall, I really enjoyed and appreciated Nervous Conditions. The beginning was a bit slow, and the ending a bit abrupt – but I can give the abrupt ending a pass knowing that there are two sequels to this novel. Nervous Conditions is a cutting and compelling critique on colonialism, and I think it should be required reading for high-school or college students. I highly recommend this novel, and can’t wait to read The Book of Not and This Mournable Body.

Book Review: Real Life

Another read from the Booker longlist! Real Life follows Wallace, a gay, Black 4th-year PhD student in a rigorous and predominantly white biochemistry program at the University of Wisconsin. Taking place over a particularly eventful summer weekend, Real Life illustrates the pain of trying to fit into white spaces as a person of color.

The book: Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Real Life is a novel that somehow manages to be compulsively readable, incredibly moving, and full of brilliant social commentary. The story takes place over a single summer weekend, dissecting the way each event – from failed laboratory experiments, to microaggressions by his well-intentioned white friends – contributes to Wallace’s frustration and mental fatigue. Because the emotional impact of Wallace’s experience is so deeply explored, Wallace is a very well-developed character despite the novel covering such a short timespan.

In addition to being beautifully written and intimate, Real Life is also full of excellent social commentary. Taylor shows how Wallace is subjected to dozens of microaggressions on a daily basis, how his white friends make him carry their white guilt, and how even his non-white friends make conversations about Wallace’s struggles about how they are struggling too, stop being so selfish! These dynamics play out in Wallace’s friend group, with his lab-mates and graduate advisor, and even in his most intimate relationship. Taylor demonstrates the massive mental and emotional toll this all takes on Wallace: Wallace is aware of the casual racism in the spaces he occupies, and he recognizes the behavior of his peers as unfair, but he doesn’t stand up for himself because having to experience that casual racism on a daily basis is already exhausting enough.

Real Life also provides great commentary on how racial trauma compounds other traumas. Wallace finds the casual racism in his friend-group and graduate program emotionally exhausting, but he is dealing with other stresses too: unresolved childhood traumas, the death of his father, and the pressures of his demanding graduate program. When Wallace talks to his white friends about his problems, though, they respond by sharing the ways in which they relate to him, implying that their experiences are the same (which of course, they aren’t). This point – that being a graduate student or healing from trauma isn’t stressful for Wallace’s white classmates in the same way that is for him, because Wallace has to deal with racism on top of everything else – was something that I really appreciated, and I thought that Taylor did an excellent job of clearly showing this without explicitly stating it.

I took one main issue with Real Life, and that was the single chapter of the book that is told from Wallace in the 1st-person (the rest of the book is written in the 3rd-person). In this chapter, Wallace is telling the story of a traumatic childhood event to the guy he is hooking up with. It is a beautifully written chapter, but as a story that Wallace is supposed to be telling to someone he doesn’t know that well, it just wasn’t believable for me.

*Minor spoiler in the next paragraph – read at your own risk!*

I also want to mention that one of the relationships portrayed in this novel is extremely unhealthy. The scenes involving this relationship were particularly painful to read, and because Taylor’s commentary is shown rather than told, Wallace never explicitly grapples with the fact that the relationship is abusive. While frustrating and heartbreaking to read about, I do think this relationship brilliantly (and horrifyingly) illustrates the way Wallace has been conditioned to endure pain. In So You Want To Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo says that being Black in America is like being in an abusive relationship, but the abuser is society as a whole – Wallace’s unhealthy relationship in Real Life definitely brings this point to mind.

Overall, I thought Real Life was phenomenal. The writing was strong, the main character was complex and well-developed, and the social commentary was incredibly moving. Although I had a couple minor issues with it, I am so glad that I read Real Life, and am excited to check out whatever Taylor publishes next. I highly recommend this novel.

Trigger warnings: sexual violence, racial slurs.

Book Review: Death in Her Hands

Death in Her Hands is about an elderly widow named Vesta, whose mundane life is disrupted by a note that she finds while walking her dog in the woods. The note says “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” Vesta’s curiosity about this note slowly begins to consume her, and she starts spending the majority of her time trying to solve the murder mystery with what limited information she has.

The book: Death in Her Hands by Otessa Moshfegh
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

If you’re looking for a fast-paced mystery novel, you won’t find it in Death in Her Hands. Although the novel has some elements of mystery, the real focus of this story is the narrator’s mental and emotional state. Vesta is elderly and lonely, and without much factual information about the mysterious note she found in the woods, she spends most of her time pondering hypothetical situations that could have led to Magda’s death. As she becomes increasingly obsessed with Magda’s death, Vesta’s grip on reality – and therefore the events of the novel as described by Vesta – becomes hazy.

Conceptually, I think what Moshfegh did with Death in Her Hands was clever and interesting. Humans are extremely good at telling stories, and we are especially prone to telling ourselves stories to make sense of situations that don’t have an obvious explanation. When we do this without enough factual information, however, we can get lost in spiraling thoughts that are no longer based on reality. I find the stories that people tell themselves fascinating, and I can appreciate the ideas behind Moshfegh’s detailed exploration of an elderly widow getting lost in her own mind.

While I appreciate what Moshfegh was trying to explore in Death in Her Hands, I didn’t actually enjoy reading it. This 270-page novel takes place over the course of a couple days, and most of that time is spent inside Vesta’s unreliable mind. The combination of slow pacing and an unreliable narrator who may or may not be losing her mind just didn’t work for me – especially since I had expected the book to be more of a mystery than it turned out to be. I kept waiting for the mystery to pick up, but it never really did.

Although Death in Her Hands didn’t work for me, I still recommend checking it out if you were previously interested, or if it sounds interesting to you based on this review. Many of my issues with the book are the result of my own expectations, so if you go into this book knowing that it is not a typical mystery novel, you will likely have a better time with it.

Trigger warnings: fatphobic narrator and an animal abuse scene that I wish I could unread.

Book Review: Freshwater

Black lives matter. Black voices matter. Black stories matter. Freshwater is the first book that I read for my black lit challenge, which is a lifelong commitment to listen to and amplify black voices in literature. Freshwater tells the story of a volatile Nigerian woman, Ada, who is trying to make sense of her multiple personalities. After a traumatic experience in college, two of Ada’s personalities materialize and become more dominant, leading Ada to get lost in her mind and make increasingly risky decisions.

The book: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

It’s hard for me to review Freshwater because it was such a unique reading experience that nothing I say could possibly do it justice. The first part of the novel is told from the perspective of Nigerian ogbanje, or the spirits in Ada’s mind that cause her pain and grief. After Ada experiences a major trauma in college, two of these spirits materialize in Ada’s mind, and become distinct personalities that she calls Asughara and Saint Vincent. The remainder of the novel is mostly told from the perspective of Asughara. I absolutely loved this narrative style, because it resulted in a very nuanced, layered story. Every event that Ada experienced could be viewed from the perspective of Igbo folklore in which spirits manipulate the physical world, and through the lens of Western psychology in which one’s sense of self can fracture in response to trauma.

In addition to being wonderfully nuanced, Freshwater is beautifully written. Emezi’s prose is powerful, lyrical, and engrossing. It is also quite introspective, which results in Ada being portrayed in an immensely compassionate light. Sometimes it’s hard to empathize with characters who behave in startling and self-destructive ways, but Ada’s psyche is explored so deeply that it’s impossible to feel anything but compassion for her – all of her behavior makes sense in light of her complex psychological underpinnings.

This is a short review, but I don’t have much more to say about Freshwater. The combination of Igbo folklore with psychological introspection was so beautiful and fresh, resulting in one of the most striking and captivating novels I’ve ever read. I highly recommend this book, and can’t wait to read more of Emezi’s works.

Book Review: Red at the Bone

My latest read from the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. Told in vignettes, the novel opens at sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming-of-age ceremony at her grandparent’s house in New York, where she is surrounded by friends and family. As the book moves through various family members’ perspectives and memories, Woodson illustrates an intricate family history.

The book: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

This novel was surprisingly deep and delightful! Despite its short page count, Red at the Bone is powerful and almost instantly immersive. Woodson writes from the perspectives of five characters (Melody, her mother Iris, her father Aubrey, and her grandparents Sabe and Po’Boy) in an intimate and compelling way. While some characters are explored with more depth and nuance than others, I never felt like the novel suffered from lack of character development – an impressive feat for a novel that fits five distinct voices into just 200 pages.

Red at the Bone also compassionately explores topics including intergenerational trauma, sexuality, ambition, class and privilege, and parenthood. I thought that Woodson’s exploration of parenthood – largely done through the character of Iris, who became pregnant with Melody when she was 15, but still had ambitions for herself beyond motherhood – was especially skillful. I loved the way that Woodson flipped the script on some of the common tropes around teenage moms, and instead portrayed a mother who wanted to provide what she could for her child, but ultimately had the ambition and agency to realize that she wanted more from life. This portrayal worked well for me not only because it was different, but also because it was so compassionate: Woodson never insinuates that Iris is a bad person for choosing ambition over motherhood, nor does she suggest that Melody is inherently damaged from not having a close relationship with her mother.

I also liked how Woodson acknowledged some of the clichés and potential criticisms of her novel through the voices of her characters. In the vignette where Po’Boy describes falling in love with Sabe, he says “some people don’t believe that you can meet a person and know that’s the person for you for the rest of your life. I’m not going to try to argue with them on that.” Not only does this sentence convey Po’Boy’s love for Sabe, but it also acknowledges the cliché of the “love at first sight” trope. Woodson demonstrates this same self-awareness when Melody is recalling one of her earliest memories: “They say you don’t remember the early stuff, that you’re suddenly six and having your first memories. But that’s not true. I can go back to five and four and three.” That being said, I’m not sure that this kind of meta self-acknowledgement was sufficient to justify the “characters remembering their own birth” trope.

Overall, I really liked this book. While there were a couple things that didn’t quite work for me, and a couple topics that could have been explored more deeply (Iris and Melody’s mother-daughter relationship, for one), I found Red at the Bone to be a powerful and compelling read. The fact that Woodson managed to develop the novel’s characters and their intricate dynamic in under 200 pages makes it even more impressive. While I’m not actively rooting for this one to make the WP shortlist, I certainly wouldn’t be upset if it did. Based on my experience with this novel, I’d like to check out some of Woodson’s other works in the future.

Book Review: Actress

Yup, another novel from the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist! Actress follows Norah – adult daughter of the (late) superstar Katherine O’Dell – as she looks back on her mother’s life history and tries to figure out why Katherine went mad and shot her colleague in the foot. In retracing her mother’s history, Norah uncovers old secrets and reflects on how her mother’s stardom affected her own life.

The book: Actress by Anne Enright
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 4 stars out 5

One thing that immediately stood out to me about Actress was the writing. The prose is beautiful, intimate, and sometimes cynically funny. Structurally, the novel had a non-linear timeline, and shifts in whose story the novel was telling (Katherine’s and Norah’s stories are intertwined throughout the book). These are both elements that don’t always work for me, but Actress was so well-written that these elements felt natural in the context of the story.

I’ve seen mixed reviews on whether or not Norah was a good choice of narrator for this story – I thought she was. Norah is the person that Katherine was closest to, and therefore the best person to write about her in all her complexity. Because of their close relationship, Norah is able to write about her mother in an unflinchingly honest way, while also expressing tenderness and compassion. The only thing about the narrative that didn’t work for me was it being written in the 2nd-person to Norah’s husband; I think using the 1st-person (still with Norah as the narrator) would have made more sense.

A weird experience that I had reading this novel was immediately loving the writing, but not finding the first ~100-or-so pages of plot to be particularly interesting. I wasn’t that compelled by Katherine’s family history or her childhood exposure to stardom, but at the same time, I could appreciate that it was exceptionally well-written. The remainder of the book – Katherine’s young adult career, her rise to stardom, the way that fame changed her, and Norah looking back and figuring out what broke her – really pulled me in. This could be because Norah, who was born when Katherine was 23, tells the parts of Katherine life that she personally remembers with more warmth, intimacy, and nuance. Or it could just be some personal bias that made it hard for me to get into the story at first!

Another strength of Actress was the historical commentary. Throughout the novel, Enright weaves in historical details about old Hollywood and The Troubles in a way that is believable, immersive, and pertinent to the story. I thought that the impact of certain historical events, especially the political violence of The Troubles, could have been given a bit more consequence…but having just read Dominicana, where major political events were simply mentioned without being meaningfully woven into the story at all, I thought that Enright captured the political climate of 20th-century Ireland in a way that made sense to the story as a whole.

Overall, I thought Actress was a beautifully written novel featuring a realistically complex mother-daughter relationship. I’m not sure if the first ~1/3 of the book was actually slower or less interesting than the rest, or if it was just me. Regardless, once I did get into the story, it absolutely captivated me. I would be very happy to see Actress advance to the WP shortlist.

Side notes:

  1. The summary of this book (the American version) on the inside of the cover contained what I thought were major spoilers. This was on the physical copy of the book only, not in the Goodreads summary.
  2. Once again, this book led me to retroactively change another WP longlist book rating. I keep rating books in a way that makes sense to me at the time, but then doesn’t hold up when I directly compare/rank the longlisted books.

Book Review: Weather

I kicked off the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist with Weather by Jenny Offill. The novel centers around Lizzie, a librarian and self-proclaimed “fake shrink” who tries to help everyone around her while devoting little time to herself. When Lizzie agrees to answer questions for her ex-mentor’s podcast Hell and High Water, she slowly spirals into an obsession over the changing climate and doomsday prepping.

The book: Weather by Jenny Offill
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

I expect that Weather will be a polarizing read due to its writing style. The book is written as a collection of distinct (yet ultimately interconnected) thoughts, a sort of inner narrative. As such, there is not a lot of action in the novel – instead, the reader infers what has happened by reading the narrator’s internal processing of events. I personally loved this, because it allowed me to connect with the narrator in a very intimate way, almost like I was in her head experiencing her thoughts.

I also loved the way author Jenny Offill captured the heightened climate anxiety that is so characteristic of our current time. Through the listener questions that Lizzie answers for the climate-change-focused podcast Hell and High Water, we get a sense of the despair and fearfulness that is overcoming society. That sense of potential impending doom seemed especially poignant and relevant now, as people worldwide are actually panicking and doomsday prepping over the coronavirus.

Bonus picture: my cat reads Weather.

The reason why Weather wasn’t a 5-star read for me is because – although the narrative style largely worked for me – the novel felt a bit boring in places. That being said, I still appreciated seeing the world through the lens of the narrator’s semi-mundane life. And I do recommend this book (while knowing that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea).

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: Literary 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.