Book Review: And I Do Not Forgive You

The last book I read before delving into the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks. This collection of short stories is a contemporary take on fairy tales, myths, and ghost stories – most of which are united by undertones of sadness, bitterness, anger, and redemption.

The book: And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks
Genre: Contemporary fiction, short-stories
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

My favorite thing about And I Do Not Forgive You was that it gives validity to the “undesirable” emotions that women are not “supposed” to admit they feel. The women in Sparks’ short stories are unabashedly sad, bitter, and sometimes enraged. Some want revenge, some long to connect with lost loved ones, and some just want to be left alone. I appreciated that Sparks wholly embraced these “undesirable” feelings that probably all women have felt, yet rarely get to openly discuss.

I also liked that Sparks’ stories featured perspectives from people that society generally ignores: families living in trailer parks, women who were historically important yet barely remembered, cult survivors, children of broken families, and more. Because the characters’ perspectives may be unfamiliar (or even taboo) to readers, I think some of the stories come across as Weird. But I don’t know that the characters in And I Do Not Forgive You are any weirder than me or you or people that we know; they’ve just had starkly different life experiences.

With all of that said, I only liked about half of the stories in the collection. Even though I appreciated what Sparks was doing – and even though I just defended the weirdness of the book – some of the stories were still too “out there” for me. As in, I tried to read them deeply but still had trouble processing and finding meaning in them. Other stories were moving and razor-sharp, though! My two favorite stories were “Everyone’s a Winner in Meadow Park” and “The Language of the Stars.”

Overall, I am glad that I read And I Do Not Forgive You. It was very different from the books I usually read, and it challenged me to think deeply about its various characters and story-lines. If you are looking for something “weird” or different, or if you want a surprising blend of magic/mysticism and contemporality, I recommend this book!

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.

If You See Me Don’t Say Hi (short-stories unified by a single theme, and unique cupcakes unified by a base flavor)

The book: If You See Me Don’t Say Hi by Neel Patel.

Recently I read If You See Me Don’t Say Hi, a collection of fictional short stories by Neel Patel. Each short story is told from the perspective of a different character, most of whom are first-generation Indian-Americans. Individually, the stories are shocking, uncomfortable, and above all else, relatable. Collectively, they completely upend some of the commonly-believed stereotypes about Indian-Americans in the United States.

If You See Me Don’t Say Hi was a quick and engaging read. Like many short-stories, the plot in each story moves quickly: some stories span ten or more years in just 10-20 pages. My favorite stories, however, were the ones in which the plot moved just slightly slower; or the stories that provided more time to intimately know and understand the characters. The last two stories in the collection do an especially great job of this; and they are actually related to each other, giving the reader a more nuanced perspective of the characters and their relationship.

What I loved most about If You See Me Don’t Say Hi were the complex (and oftentimes difficult) characters. Each story features a character going through a challenging time in their life: a closeted-gay high school student struggles to cope with bullying and his father walking out on his family; a young doctor becomes completely unhinged and has a mental breakdown following the death of her parents; two young adults become isolated from their community as gossip wreaks havoc on their reputations. The characters behave in shocking, yet completely familiar ways in response to the challenges they are going through. It is through these surprising-yet-not-surprising behaviors that Patel so brilliantly debunks stereotypes of Indian-Americans. Patel’s characters react the way any human being might respond to heartbreak, trauma, isolation, and failure – they just happen to Indian-American.

Overall, I thought If You See Me Don’t Say Hi was a quick and wonderful read. As with most collections of short-stories, some stories are stronger than others. Personally, I liked the last two stories best, because they are connected to each other, and I liked the continuity and nuance of that. Each story is unique and important, though; and they collectively deconstruct the problematic stereotypes about Indian-Americans in the United States.

The bake: chocolate-tahini cupcakes with assorted frostings.

For If You See Me Don’t Say Hi, I was inspired by the cover art of the book, which shows varying shades of brown, caramel, and peach. In tribute to that, I decided to make chocolate cupcakes with frostings in various shades of brown.

Specifically, I made this chocolate tahini cake from flavor-genius Molly Yeh, but as cupcakes instead of a full cake. I frosted some cupcakes with the tahini buttercream that is given with the recipe, but I also made small batches of other frostings to achieve varying shades of brown: chai cream cheese frosting, chocolate cream cheese frosting, and coffee buttercream.

The cake was very straightforward to make – it is oil-based, which makes it much easier to prepare than a butter-based cake. It was also a great cake to eat! The cake itself tasted like a rich, complex chocolate cake. I couldn’t actually detect the tahini flavor, but I’m sure that the tahini added to the complexity. The frostings were also good, with my favorites being the tahini buttercream and the chocolate cream cheese. What I liked most about this bake was that the different frostings lent diversity, while the single cake flavor unified everything. This is fitting for If You See Me Don’t Say Hi, since it is a collection of unique stories unified by a single theme.

I also experimented with different frosting application methods – the frostings that were piped (as opposed to spread with a knife) definitely look neater.

Sour (orange and mango) Heart (cake)

The book: Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang.

This is my first Books and Bakes post and I am so excited to dive into this. I’m starting the project off with Sour Heart, Jenny Zhang’s fictional collection of short stories about the experiences of 1st generation Chinese American girls growing up in New York City. Each story takes place through the lens of a different girl (actually one girl narrates two of the stories) grappling with identity, culture shock, family, and simply being a teenager. The stories are dark, but also funny and heartwarming.

One of the things that I love most about this book is that it evokes so much compassion. Children lash out at their parents without guilt, parents are overbearing, and kids are mean to each other for the sake of being mean – but Jenny Zhang does such a brilliant job of painting these characters that you, the reader, understand where they’re coming from and feel empathetic rather than judgmental.

I also like how all the characters in Sour Heart are connected. This isn’t a necessity in a collection of short stories, but there’s something really comforting about encountering at least one familiar character in each new story. The intersection of characters also contributes to the compassion that I mentioned earlier. In the first story, for example, Christina perceives Lucy as self-absorbed and vain. But in the second story, the narrative flips and we hear Lucy’s perspective – she is just a child who feels helplessly lost and anxious, and her inability to express these feelings magnifies her need to overcompensate with excessive confidence.

Finally, I love the beautiful portrayal of contrasting perspectives throughout the book: young vs. old, past vs. present, sweet vs. sour. Especially sweet vs. sour. The book is titled Sour Heart, but there is definitely tenderness, love, and compassion throughout these stories. In “We Love You Crispina”, Christina’s father routinely brings home mistresses, but he also loves his family and makes Christina feel comforted throughout her unstable childhood. In “Our Mothers Before Them,” Annie’s mother is overbearing and self-absorbed, but also shows moments of wholehearted compassion for her family. Even in “The Empty the Empty the Empty,” as Lucy and Francine’s after-school experiments turn from innocent to cruel, Lucy attempts to extend kindness to the victim of her cruelty.

To summarize: Sour Heart is a beautifully written collection of short stories that will evoke shock, sadness, laughter, and so much compassion.

The bake: mango cake with tart orange buttercream frosting.

My inspiration for this bake came from the title of the book, which comes from Christina (the narrator of the first story, ‘We Love You Crispina’) and her love of sour fruits. Originally, I had hoped to make a cake with passionfruit in it, because passionfruit is my favorite sour fruit. Unfortunately, passionfruit is not in season right now! Even the international farmer’s market that I go to for unconventional produce (and also Polish candies) didn’t have them. So I had to find a different ode to delightfully sour fruit.

I ended up making a modified version of this mango cake from Natasha’s Kitchen. Though nowhere near as tart as passionfruit, mango is my favorite fruit. I thought the sweetness of the mango would pair well with a tart orange buttercream frosting (as opposed to the cream cheese frosting from the original recipe). I followed this recipe for orange buttercream frosting, but used a homemade sour orange juice instead of regular orange juice (in an attempt to add sourness) and Aperol instead of vanilla extract.

A slice of the finished orange mango cake. 

So how did this cake turn out? It was good…but it wasn’t the right bake to celebrate Sour Heart. My experimental tart orange frosting just wasn’t tart enough, and the mango that I used for the filling was slightly overripe (meaning very sweet)…so overall this cake was sweet with very little sourness. It’s tasty, but it lacks that beautiful contrast of sweet vs. sour. Christina probably wouldn’t have liked this cake (but my fiancĂ© and I do).

What the cake looked like before cutting into it. I decorated the top with a candy heart to incorporate the Heart from the book title.