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.

Lab Girl (plus, how baking meringues is like doing laboratory work)

The book: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.

Earlier this month I read Hope Jahren’s memoir, Lab Girl. Dr. Jahren is a professor and researcher at the University of Oslo in Norway, but she has also held professor positions at Georgia State University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Hawaii. Lab Girl tells the story of how Dr. Jahren fell in love with science, and her journey through her battlefield of a career in academia.

When I first started the book, I felt skeptical of the author’s motives (i.e. her “agenda”). I couldn’t shake the feeling that the memoir was a bit self-congratulatory, or perhaps validation-seeking. As the memoir progressed, though, it really grew on me. Dr. Jahren is refreshingly honest about her career in academia: she unflinchingly describes the countless times she’s been dismissed for being a woman in science, the poor living conditions she endured in order to “make it” as a starting professor, and her experiences living with bipolar disorder. These are aspects of academic research that are present for so many grad students, post-doctoral researchers, and professors – yet they are rarely discussed (in fact, my experience in academia was that students are expected to keep their struggles to themselves).

In addition to portraying academic life so honestly, Lab Girl also contains amazingly accessible science writing. My background is actually in plant sciences, but I think that Dr. Jahren’s science-writing could easily be digested by readers from a non-science background. I especially liked Dr. Jahren’s explanations of how seeds germinate, root, and ultimately develop into trees – oftentimes against staggeringly low odds.

Despite my initial skepticism, I loved this book and I have a lot of admiration for Dr. Jahren. I don’t know that her story is exceptionally unique for a female science professor, but I do know that she is incredibly brave to come forth and tell her full story. Her writing style is gorgeous and easy-to-follow, and the book contains a few of my new favorite quotes, including this one: “in the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you’re supposed to be.”

The bake: (attempted) lime-swirl meringues.

As a scientist myself, I often tell people that what I do in the laboratory is a lot like following a recipe. I have even been known to say that “if you can follow a recipe, you can do a DNA extraction!” Both baking and conducting good laboratory research involve following optimized protocols. As such, I decided that for Lab Girl, I would bake something that required me to follow a “highly optimized protocol” (i.e. a meticulous bake): meringues swirled with lime curd.

I chose meringue and lime curd, because both are tricky to make: just like doing lab-based research, both require that you follow your protocol (i.e. recipe) pretty closely if you want to be successful. I baked these meringues, but instead of using raspberry puree for the swirled topping, I used a homemade lime curd (following this recipe).

Although I have struggled with curd in the past, this one came out very well! I love the bright and zesty flavor of it. Unfortunately, my meringues were not as successful: they took on a weird caramel color in the oven, and they never got crunchy (most likely the result of two mistakes: putting them on too low an oven-rack and over-baking them). I almost didn’t post about this bake, but I decided that – in the spirit of sharing my full story and not just the shiny parts of it – I should write about my baking failures.

I was disappointed with the meringues at first, but like all failed experiments, this was an opportunity to learn and improve. I’m really glad that I also made the lime curd, because now at least one part of the bake was successful. Also, I have a lot of leftover lime curd; I can’t wait to put it to good use in my next bake!

The Truffle Underground (and my above-ground fungal feast)

The book: The Truffle Underground by Ryan Jacobs.

Last month, I read The Truffle Underground by Ryan Jacobs. This non-fiction book exposes the fraud, corruption, and even violence that goes on in the truffle mushroom industry – generally, without the knowledge of the consumer. As a lover of fungi, I was compelled to learn about the dark side of the delicacy known as truffle mushrooms.

Although the subject matter of The Truffle Underground intrigued me, the first 60 (or so) pages of the book did not. I thought the book got off to a boring start without any real hook. In fact, I felt like the writing was attempting to be intriguing – without much success.

After the slow start, however, The Truffle Underground really picked up. The book became compelling partly because the rampant corruption in the truffle industry is shocking, and partly because the writing starts to flow better after the first few chapters. Jacobs exposes issues in the truffle industry ranging from malicious sabotage of competitors, “under-the-table” dealings, tax evasion, and fraudulent mislabeling of much less valuable truffle species as the delicacy Tuber melanosporum. One thing that has especially stuck with me is that “truffle oil” is one of the biggest lies in the food industry: it is virtually never made purely from Tuber melanosporum, and oftentimes contains no mushroom in it whatsoever.

Overall, I’m glad that I read The Truffle Underground. Learning about the dark side of the truffle industry was unsettling, but it also provided me with a much more nuanced perspective of the industry. After reading this book, I will probably never eat any food product with the word “truffle” in its name (besides chocolates, of course). If you want to learn about the world of complexity and corruption that lies beneath one of the finest delicacies in the food world, I definitely recommend this book – just be warned that it can be a bit boring at times.

The bake: fungus lovers’ pizza.

While it turned out to be a fascinating read, The Truffle Underground turned me off of truffle mushrooms in the strongest way possible. So a bake that incorporated “truffle oil” or “truffle cheese” or any BS truffle product was out of the question. Instead, I turned to some other edible fungi that I love: Saccharomyces cerevisiae (bakers’ yeast), Penicillium roqueforti (blue stilton cheese), and Boletus edulis (porcini mushroom) – and combined them into one fungus-tastic pizza!

I didn’t follow any recipe for the pizza. I just bought pizza dough from the grocery store, then topped it with a homemade garlic-ricotta sauce, mozzarella cheese, bleu cheese, porcini mushrooms, and basil. I had read that a common mistake with homemade pizzas is overloading the dough with too many toppings, so I was pretty modest with the toppings. I baked my pizza on the top rack of an oven at 450 degrees (F), and took it out when the crust was lightly browned.

This pizza was AMAZING! I probably could have been more generous with the toppings, and also taken the pizza out of the oven a couple minutes sooner. That being said, it was still deliciously decadent, and the various flavors (garlic, ricotta, bleu cheese, basil, etc) worked well together. While I will probably never eat anything “truffle”-flavored ever again, I still love and appreciate edible fungi in the forms of yeast, mushrooms, and bleu cheese.

Served with a dash of hot sauce and a fungal-fermented drink (BEER!)

Maybe You Should Talk To Someone (a book about therapy, and a mint cake inspired by therapy)

The book: Maybe You Should Talk To Someone by Lori Gottlieb.

After reading two novels involving characters overcoming trauma through therapy, I decided to stick with the therapy theme, so I read Maybe You Should Talk To Someone by Lori Gottlieb. The book is a non-fiction account of Lori Gottlieb’s insights on humanity that she gained both as a therapist, and a patient in therapy.

Book cover of "Maybe You Should Talk to Someone."

As I read Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, I was quickly blown away by Lori Gottlieb’s gift for story-telling. Gottlieb manages to take the journeys of actual patients from her therapy practice, and turn them into incredibly compelling and relatable stories. I binged this book the same way I would breeze through a fiction novel, but the plot was the true story of real peoples’ healing.

In addition to being compelling, Maybe You Should Talk To Someone was very well-structured. Gottlieb takes the journeys of four different patients, and alternates among their respective stories throughout the book. She also includes extensive details about her own experience in therapy, and her journey to becoming a therapist. This was effective, because it broke up the plot and built intrigue, while also allowing me to make connections between different individuals’ experiences.

Finally, I loved the way that Gottlieb explained psychological phenomena! She generally steered away from jargon, and when she did use technical terms it was just to define them in ways that a reader coming from a non-clinical background could easily understand. Some of Gottlieb’s explanations of psychological phenomena helped me understand myself better, and even challenged me to change the way I react to certain situations. In particular, her passage about how people often project their insecurities onto other people (or things) because it is easier than looking internally, challenged me to notice and work on this tendency myself.

Overall, I highly recommend this book! There is so much to learn from other peoples’ journeys through emotional healing, and Gottlieb writes about those journeys so compellingly. Through her explanations of psychological tendencies – and examples of these tendencies as demonstrated by her patients and herself – this book has the potential to be a life-changing read.

The bake: “therapy cake” (or fresh mint cake).

For Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, I decided to bake a cake inspired by my own experience in therapy a few years ago. When I left my therapist to move for grad school, she gave me a green stone as a goodbye gift, and when I think of her I often think of that stone. Inspired by my experience with her, and also inspired by the stone, I decided to bake something green and slightly earthy: a fresh mint cake!

To make the fresh mint cake, I used this recipe from My Name Is Yeh. I followed the cake recipe pretty closely (only substituting lime zest for lemon zest), but I baked the cake in an 8″ square pan instead of two 6″ round pans. I also frosted the cake with a homemade lime cream cheese frosting (instead of labneh and honey, as suggested in the recipe), and garnished with fresh mint leaves.

Over two cups of fresh mint on a cutting board.
ALL of this fresh mint (from my balcony “garden”) went into the cake!

I was so pleasantly surprised by this cake. It could have been hit or miss, but it was definitely a HIT! The cake is sweet and minty (the mint flavor really comes through!), while the frosting is deliciously tart. It is also not too rich or heavy, because it uses olive oil (as opposed to butter) as its source of fat. My fiance brought the cake to work yesterday, and it was gone by 11:00AM. I’m seriously considering baking this cake again tomorrow to bring to my neighborhood potluck. Anyway – this cake was surprisingly delightful! It nicely pays tribute to the book (and the individual) that inspired it, and I also found the process of making it to be *therapeutic.*

A square cake, with frosting and mint leaf decoration.
The finished cake, frosted simply with lime cream cheese frosting and garnished with more fresh mint.