Book Review: Chemistry

Chemistry tells the story of an unnamed protagonist whose life, from a distance, would appear to be going really well: she is a Ph.D. student in a prestigious chemistry program, and her longterm boyfriend (who is also a chemist) has proposed to her. But her laboratory experiments aren’t going well and she doesn’t feel ready for marriage. All of this pressure – plus the pressure her parents have placed on her from an early age to succeed – causes the protagonist to panic and break down, and then to reevaluate her life as she slowly picks herself back up.

The book: Chemistry by Weike Wang
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Chemistry was such an immersive and wonderfully emotional read. Wang’s unnamed protagonist is so well-developed that I really felt her pain of feeling inadequate and lost in life. At the same time, I found it frustrating and distressing to watch the narrator make one questionable decision after another – I so badly wanted her to make different choices and take better care of herself! The way the protagonist simultaneously evoked frustration and tenderness in me is a testament to Wang’s razor-sharp writing.

I also really enjoyed the writing style and structure in Chemistry. The story is told as a somewhat disjointed collection of the narrator’s thoughts, experiences, and memories. While this might sound like a disorganized or chaotic reading experience, there is a remarkable consistency and flow to the narrator’s voice. The result is that all of the story’s fragments come together beautifully to illustrate a wonderfully complex and compelling character.

On the topic of the novel’s structure, I also want to mention that it doesn’t follow a typical narrative arc. Chemistry‘s protagonist slowly breaks down and (even more slowly) tries to find herself and, just as journeys of self-discovery go in real-life, there is no perfect resolution to her journey. The end of this book actually snuck up on me because of that; I had naively assumed that the story would resolve conclusively, and wasn’t expecting it to end in the somewhat anticlimactic way that it did. While anticlimactic, though, the way the story wrapped up was also hopeful and realistic.

In addition to being evocative and compelling, Chemistry is also full of fantastic commentary. Wang touches upon the insane demands of graduate school that inevitably lead people to break down, as well as the unique challenges faced by first-generation Asian Americans. While all of the commentary was excellent, I was particularly touched by Wang’s portrayal of being caught in between two different cultures – one individualistic and one more community-focused – and feeling like you don’t quite belong to either of them.

Note: I live in the greater Boston area, so the next paragraph is very much influenced by my personal biases.

My only critique of Chemistry is that I wanted more from the setting! Wang sets the novel in Boston, but aside from mentioning a few Boston landmarks (and I use the word mentioning very intentionally; she does not describe these landmarks in much detail, not even the Arnold Arboretum in the Fall), there is not much that gives the story a distinct setting. And yet…I have to acknowledge that despite the lacking setting, I still found Chemistry to be a completely captivating read because the narrator’s internal experience was so immersive.

Overall, I loved and highly recommend Chemistry. There were so many things about this novel that don’t normally work for me, but the novel was SO well-written and the protagonist so realistically compelling, that I found myself completely immersed in the story. I tend not to reread books, but I would reread this one for the experience of feeling so absorbed in the main character’s mind.

Book Review: Big Friendship

Co-written by best friends Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, Big Friendship is a memoir of the authors’ friendship. Using their friendship as a model, Sow and Friedman explore why friendship is so important, how and why certain people become friends, why those friendships sometimes end, and the (oftentimes invisible and unspoken) work required to maintain close friendships. Ever since I moved over 1,000 miles up the coast, I’ve wondered how to make new friends in a new city – but I’ve spent considerably less time thinking about how to maintain those friendships. Big Friendship seemed like something I needed to read.

The book: Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
Genre: Nonfiction, memoir
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

The first couple chapters of Big Friendship left me feeling skeptical, because the authors didn’t seem relatable at first – and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to connect with the authors’ advice if I couldn’t connect with them. Sow and Friedman clearly value ambition and success, and they spend a lot of time in the early chapters talking about their professional achievements. This made me worry that the book was aimed for a more professionally ambitious audience, with an emphasis on #girlbosses and #squadgoals. While there certainly was some of that, and while the authors seem to care about climbing the professional ladder in a way that I probably never will, I still got a lot out of Big Friendship (including the chapter that focused on female camaraderie in the workplace).

One of my favorite things about Big Friendship was its emphasis on the importance of respectful but honest communication between friends. Sow and Friedman point out that many women have been socialized to avoid “drama” at all costs, but that there’s an important distinction between avoiding “drama” and sweeping issues under the rug in a way that may ultimately be harmful to a relationship. They also talk about how jealousy can turn ugly, but how jealousy can also be used as an opportunity for good communication. For example, if I’m feeling jealous that my work friend got an incredible promotion that I wanted, instead of being salty that I didn’t get the promotion, I should reach out to that friend for advice!

While I gained some great insights from Big Friendship, I think the book would have been even stronger if it hadn’t used Sow and Friedman’s friendship as the model for all their ideas about friendship. I’m inspired by the co-authors’ ability to maintain a deep and rewarding long-distance friendship, but at the same time, they are just two people, and not every friendship is going to look like theirs. In fact, many friendships cannot look like Sow and Friedman’s, because most people probably don’t have the resources to resolve rough patches in a friendship by going on a luxurious spa weekend, or paying for expensive couple’s counseling (two things that the co-authors talk about in the book).

While Big Friendship certainly isn’t perfect, I still enjoyed it. The book is highly readable, and surprisingly not too heavy despite its focus on maintaining deep, interpersonal relationships. And even though I found many of the authors’ anecdotes unrelatable, I still gained valuable insights from their book.

Book Review: The Boyfriend Project

After enjoying Beach Read, I decided to continue with the romance genre and read The Boyfriend Project. The novel opens with young professional Samiah Brooks learning via Twitter that her boyfriend has been cheating on her with two other women. After dumping the three-timing liar, the women become instant friends and vow to spend the next six months investing in themselves. But immediately after making this vow, Samiah falls for a new-hire at her office, and must decide whether she is willing to risk the potential consequences of breaking the pact and starting a workplace romance with someone she barely knows.

The book: The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon
Genre: Romance
Rating: 2 stars out of 5

I really wanted to like this book because the premise sounded promising, but unfortunately it fell short in many ways. One of my biggest issues was that none of the main characters were well-developed enough. I especially wish that Samiah’s flaws and internal issues had been explored more deeply. For the first half of the novel, Samiah seemed too perfect to be real: she is super successful professionally, has a great relationship with her family, can make friends easily, and loves charity and “paying it forward.” These are all admirable and compelling characteristics, but taken together in the absence of any major character flaws, they don’t make for a very relatable protagonist. As the novel progresses, it’s revealed that Samiah is a perfectionist, and that she has difficulty trusting and accepting help from others. But even then, all of these issues are revealed at once, with the author quickly telling rather than showing them. I still liked and rooted for Samiah, but I wish she had been a more deeply developed character.

If the characters weren’t the most relatable but their romance had been compelling, I probably still would have enjoyed this book. But it was hard to feel compelled by the romantic development when so much of it happened “off-page.” For example, Samiah and Daniel first meet and flirt when they happen to take a coffee break at the same time. Their next conversation takes place after they both attend the same work meeting, with the author/third-person-narrator noting that they had taken coffee breaks together for the past couple of days. As the initial basis for Samiah and Daniel’s romance, those other coffee breaks should have been shown! This is just one of many examples of the author telling the reader that something important happened off-page.

Another reason why I didn’t find Samiah and Daniel’s romance compelling was because I thought that Daniel kind of sucked! Some of the reasons why he sucked are spoilers, so I’ll just mention his emotional indulgence. He uses his strong feelings for Samiah to justify selfish and unethical behavior, which is a huge red flag to me. He also does things like show up at her apartment unannounced to “surprise” her, which seems like a problem with healthy boundaries and communication.

I’ve spent most of this review being critical, so now I want to focus on what I did like. I loved the way the novel started with a friendship, and how the importance of non-romantic relationships was emphasized throughout the book. I also liked the tongue-in-cheek commentary about corporate culture at startup companies, and the complex dynamics between coworkers. And I really appreciated the messages about the importance of recognizing one’s own advantages, using those advantages to help others, and just generally paying kindness forward.

I wanted to love The Boyfriend Project, but it just wasn’t for me. The romance at the center of the novel didn’t compel me, and I thought that too much important action happened off-page. I also thought the book was a bit too long. There were multiple points before the book ended where I thought “the story could end right here and it would be perfectly fine”…but then it continued on.

Even though this book wasn’t for me, please don’t discount it based on my review if you are interested! There are plenty of 4 and 5-star reviews of The Boyfriend Project on Goodreads, and its average rating is currently at 3.72. If you read this book and liked it, I would love to know what aspects of it compelled you.

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: 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: 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: 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.