Book Review: How To Be Fine

I had to take a break from the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I normally alternate between reading fiction and non-fiction books, so after six novels in a row from the WP longlist, my brain was craving something other than literary fiction. How To Be Fine seemed like the perfect book for the occasion. Written by the co-hosts of the By The Book podcast, How To Be Fine is a reflection on the authors’ experiences living by the rules of various self-help books.

The book: How To Be Fine by Jolenta Greenberg & Kristen Meinzer
Genre: Non-fiction/self-help
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

On a technical level, How To Be Fine is very readable. The writing style is casual to the point that it sometimes feels like hearing a story from a close friend. As a fan of the podcast that inspired How To Be Fine, this writing style worked for me – but if I had picked up this book without ever having listened to an episode of By The Book, I might have found the writing underwhelming.

Structurally, the book is easy-to-follow. It is divided into three sections: what self-help advice worked for Kristen and Jolenta, what didn’t work, and the topics that they wish more self-help books covered. My favorite insights from the first section were Kristen’s philosophy that being an optimist and being an activist actually go hand in hand (she argues that as an optimist, she is hopeful that her activism will amount to something), and the exploration of what a good, meaningful apology entails. Despite containing interesting insights, though, I felt that the first section of the book was bit too long (Kristen and Jolenta detail 13 pieces of advice from self-help books that improved their lives, when 8-10 probably would have sufficed).

In the second and third sections (what didn’t work, and what the authors wish more self-helps books talked about), How To Be Fine really shines. In the section on what advice didn’t improve their lives – or in some cases actually had detrimental effects – Kristen and Jolenta explore how some books written under the guise of self-help seem more like covert marketing tools for authors trying to become famous “lifestyle gurus,” and how the term “self-help” has unfortunately been co-opted by influencers and consumerism. In the section on what advice they wish more self-help books included, Kristen and Jolenta talk about body positivity, acknowledging and accepting all of one’s feelings (even anger, which many self-help books apparently demonize), and the benefits of seeing a therapist. I thought that both the second and third sections provided excellent commentary on the limitations of self-help books, and that the third section nicely complemented the second by offering healthy alternatives to some of the unhelpful – or even toxic – advice that is perpetuated under the label of “self-help.”

Another thing that I appreciated in How To Be Fine was the authors’ transparency. Both Kristen and Jolenta seem to present themselves in all of their complexity. From eating disorders to financial struggles to cruel and unsupportive family members, neither Kristen nor Jolenta pretends to “have it all figured out” or be perfect. Because the authors present themselves in a way that seems authentic, their advice also comes across as genuine.

Overall, I really enjoyed How To Be Fine. The book is a quick and easy read that strikes a surprisingly nice balance between praise and criticism of self-help books. Additionally, the authors present themselves in a way that feels authentic and responsible (although I am likely biased by the fact that I listen to the authors’ podcast, which inspired this book). This book was the exact type of fun – yet not superficial – read that my brain needed after six literary fiction novels in a row.

Book Review: Catch and Kill

This weekend I finished the mind-blowing book Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow. Through telling his account of uncovering the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Farrow exposes the way that the wealthy and powerful control the media and therefore the public narratives about themselves – even when their abusive behavior is an “open secret.”.

The book: Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow
Genre: Non-fiction
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Catch and Kill was an addictive read. Although it is a non-fiction book, the story it tells is so gripping that the book reads more like a thriller. Farrow weaves together two main story-lines throughout the book: the first is the story of his attempts to investigate claims of sexual assault and harassment against Harvey Weinstein, and the second is the story of Weinstein’s lawyers blackmailing and stalking Farrow to prevent him from going public. The way that Farrow moves back and forth between the two (obviously very connected) stories adds so much thrill and suspense to the book.

Also, the degree of corruption exposed in this book is absolutely insane. Obviously, the Harvey Weinstein scandal was huge news when it broke – yet it wasn’t until reading Catch and Kill that I internalized just how much bribery, blackmail, and general corruption it took to keep the scandals quiet. Harvey Weinstein – and powerful people like him – basically controlled media outlets, forcing them to keep his scandals quiet while publishing character assassination pieces about victims who spoke out against him. Understanding this (sickening) detail makes me so much more appreciative of the fact that the Weinstein scandal was reported at all. It also makes me wonder what other scandals news outlets are sitting on. Some information that was exposed toward the end of the book strongly suggests that the Harvey Weinstein scandal is just one of many examples of institutions knowingly protecting predators. It is harrowing.

One thing about Catch and Kill that didn’t quite work for me was Farrow’s attempt to weave into the book stories about sexual assault cases against Donald Trump. These stories show up in the last quarter of the book, but the transition from the Weinstein scandal to Trump’s scandals feels sudden and bumpy. That being said, I understand why Farrow included this section. The book demonstrates the disgusting, predatory, unethical, and oftentimes illegal behavior of powerful people; and it shows how Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer were exposed for their crimes…yet the United States has a president who is guilty of the exact same type of behavior, and hasn’t really faced consequences for it. I think it was important for Farrow to make this point, even if the execution fell a bit short.

Also, there were moments in the book were I felt annoyed by Farrow. As someone who was born to famous parents, attended Ivy League schools, and became a high-profile reporter, Ronan Farrow isn’t always the most relatable narrator. This shows up from time to time in the book – like when Farrow mentions someone’s Ivy League schooling as a testament to their superiority, or when he tells an anecdote about not getting the internship he wanted in law school and having to “slum it” at a second-tier law firm. That being said, Farrow has obviously done a lot of good by taking seriously the claims of sexual assault survivors, and publishing their stories (and this book).

Overall, I loved Catch and Kill. The story is thrilling and harrowing, and I am so grateful that someone was brave enough to tell it. This book changed my life, as it opened my eyes to the insane degree of corruption among the wealthy and powerful. Even the criticisms that I have of this book only bring my rating of it down to 4.5 stars out of 5. I can’t bring myself to lower the rating any more than that, because the book was that good.

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: 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.