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: 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: How Much of These Hills is Gold

I’m continuing my way through the Booker Prize longlist with How Much of These Hills is Gold. The story centers around two young Chinese-American siblings, Sam and Lucy, who become orphans during the peak of the American Gold Rush. After their Ba dies, the siblings set on a journey to bury him, and to find a home for themselves beyond their poor mining town.

The book: How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

I have mixed feelings on this novel, but I’ll start with what worked for me. Structurally, How Much of These Hills is Gold was very interesting: the novel is divided into four sections, which are non-linear and not all narrated by the same person. Non-linear timelines can be so hit or miss for me, but Zhang executed this one beautifully; I particularly liked that the family’s history prior to Ba’s death wasn’t described until after Ba’s passing. Things are going well for the family in the second part of the book, but it is clear (to the reader) from the first section that their luck is going to turn – this dramatic irony left me with a sense of suspense, dread, and impending doom.

I also really enjoyed Zhang’s writing voice, which manages to pack subtle, yet powerful, commentary into seemingly simple sentences. Through Sam and Lucy’s experiences, Zhang depicts the complexity of family dynamics, as well as the intense racism that Chinese Americans faced in the 19th-century. Some of the prejudices that Lucy and Sam experience – particularly the way they are fetishized and exoticized, and the way their teacher talks about “domesticating” them – felt like they could have been written about contemporary times, rather than 170 years ago.

The character development is where I start to have mixed feelings. Lucy, who I consider to be the main character of the novel, is portrayed as lacking agency and a strong sense of self, while her sibling Sam is full of swagger and personality. Surprisingly, I thought Lucy was more well-developed than Sam: the driving forces behind Lucy’s reserved nature are deeply explored, whereas Sam is portrayed as bold but somewhat hard-to-understand. I would have loved to see more of the novel from Sam’s perspective! At the same time, I can appreciate that Zhang decided to focus more on the internal workings of someone reserved and insecure, who in real life might be overlooked next to their spunky sibling (or maybe I’m just projecting my middle-child baggage onto a fictional character).

I feel even more conflicted about the portrayal of Sam and Lucy’s Ba, who for the first two sections is characterized as an intimidating, prideful, and at times violent alcoholic. Then, the third section of the book is narrated by Ba himself, and Zhang shows the family history from his perspective, as well as the pain and trauma behind his abusive behavior. While this chapter was incredibly moving, and added layers of nuance to the story, I also found it troubling. Yes, the abusive character in this novel is obviously struggling with his own trauma, but why should that mean that he gets to be the most complex and well-explored character in the novel? When authors do this, it almost feels like they are excusing abusive characters for their atrocious behavior.

Where I took the most issue with the book, though, was the ending. Without spoiling anything, How Much of These Hills is Gold ends with a character making a huge sacrifice that (to me) felt completely unnecessary. The emotional impact of that sacrifice wasn’t well-explored, either, so the ending felt abrupt and unsettling. On top of that, the last sentence of the book leaves things open-ended, so the novel’s ending is not only jarring, but also vague.

As you can probably tell, How Much of These Hills is Gold was a rather mixed bag for me. Although this review focuses more on what I didn’t enjoy, I really liked the majority of this novel. I found the prose and main characters complex and compelling, and the commentary intensely powerful. But the aspects of this novel that didn’t work for me really didn’t work for me. With a different ending, this book would have been a 4-star read, but because of the vague and abrupt ending, I’m rating it 3.5 stars out of 5.

Book Review: Such A Fun Age

Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age opens with Emira Tucker, a 25-year-old black woman, being called to babysit for the white Chamberlain family during a late-night crisis. Emira takes the Chamberlains’ older daughter, Briar, to the supermarket to distract her from the commotion at home, when she is accused by the store’s security guard of kidnapping the white toddler. After the incident is resolved, two white people in Emira’s life – her employer Alix Chamberlain, and a customer named Kelley who witnessed and videotaped the racist supermarket incident – take it upon themselves to help Emira in whatever way they can.

The book: Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

I had a great time reading Such a Fun Age. The novel is fast-paced and highly readable, with riveting scenes that engrossed me in the way that a TV drama would. I thought the characters were compelling, too; although they weren’t always relatable, I found them complex and believable.

Where Such a Fun Age excels the most to me, though, is in the social commentary and criticism that is packed throughout the story. The book features two well-intentioned white characters (Alix and Kelley) who claim they want to help Emira – yet they both repeatedly subject her to microaggressions, and manipulate her in their attempts to help. By portraying Alix and Kelley as simultaneously well-intentioned and harmful, Reid brilliantly illustrates the concept that good intentions can still be problematic and have damaging effects. Through Alix and Kelley’s actions, Reid also demonstrates how white people can recognize others’ actions as racist, yet fail to see their own racism.

Spoilers in the next paragraph – read at your own risk!

My main complaint about Such a Fun Age is that the drama feels heavy-handed at times. One of the major plot drivers is an unrealistic coincidence where two high-school enemies are reunited as adults when one shows up as a plus-one at the other’s extravagant Thanksgiving party. The novel also ends somewhat abruptly with a dramatic blowout that is being televised in realtime for the local news. These excessively dramatic scenes were only a minor problem for me, though. Drama isn’t inherently bad (in fact, sometimes it’s really entertaining – that’s why soap operas are a thing!), and the over-the-top scenes effectively heightened characters’ inner conflicts and interpersonal tensions.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed Such a Fun Age. I found the novel addictively compelling, and the characters realistically complex. I also appreciated the novel’s blend of entertaining drama and thought-provoking social commentary. I would recommend this book, with the caveat to also read some of the more critical reviews if you’re unsure.

Month in Review: July 2020

It’s the first of the new month, so you know the drill: time to look back on another month of reading! I’m slightly changing the format of these month-in-review posts by incorporating a small section dedicated to things I’ve cooked/baked. During a conversation with Melanie at Grab the Lapels (who I highly recommend following!), it came up that I don’t really post about baking, despite my blog being called “Books and Bakes.” So the new section is an attempt to bring baking back to Books and Bakes.

Books read:

  • Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas – DNF
  • The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell – 4 stars out of 5
  • Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh – 2.5 stars out of 5
  • Hunger by Roxane Gay – 4.5 stars out of 5
  • Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman – 3 stars out of 5
  • Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid – 4 stars out of 5
  • The Hilarious World of Depression by John Moe – 3.5 stars out of 5

Books in progress/August TBR:

Apparently I’m the type of person who sets a July reading goal of 9 books, doesn’t come close to completing it, then sets the same unrealistic goal for August! We’ll see how it goes. This month’s TBR is influenced by the Booker Prize longlist, which I’m going to try to read through (more or less) before the winner is announced.

  • The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison. I’m currently reading this short book of essays about how the act of “othering” people allows those in power to abuse their authority without feeling guilty about it. It’s very powerful.
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. Still reading this for a book club! It’s also incredibly powerful so far.
  • Difficult Women by Roxane Gay. After absolutely loving Hunger last month, I’m excited to read Difficult Women. I’ve heard that Hunger is Gay’s best work, but I want to explore more of her books and decide for myself 🙂
  • How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zheng. This is from the Booker longlist, but it was already on my list of books that I wanted to finish before the end of 2020. Its place on the longlist is giving me the push I need to prioritize it.
  • Real Life by Brandon Taylor. Another one of the Booker-longlisted books that I was already really excited about (thanks in large part to Emily and Gil‘s glowing reviews).
  • Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga. This is also on my radar because of the Booker prize. The third book in this trilogy (This Mournable Body) got longlisted, but since I haven’t read the other books yet, I’m starting here.
  • We Want Our Bodies Back by Jessica Care Moore. This has been on my radar ever since reading Melanie’s excellent review, and I’m really excited to read it for myself!
  • Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler. Honestly, this is one of the Booker-longlisted books that I’m less excited about…but I’m reading it anyway because sometimes I end up really enjoying books that I “wasn’t excited about.” We’ll see.
  • The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi. Hahaha I was saving the best for last. I have been anticipating this release for so long and I’m SO excited for this read!!!

Some recommended posts:

  • Stargazer’s clever review of Circe in the form of a fictional interview! It was super creative, and perfectly captured Circe’s character.
  • Stephanie’s moving post about how reading “Will I Ever Be Good Enough?” by Karyl McBride helped her out of a really (mentally and emotionally) rough place.

Things I baked!

This month I baked red velvet cupcakes with cookies and cream frosting, rhubarb pie bites, and a birthday cake for my husband!

Other July photos:

Book Review: Girl, Woman, Other

The book: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Earlier this week, I finished Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. This book of short stories – each from the perspective of a different black woman living in modern-day Britain – encompasses what it is like to live in post-Brexit Britain.

Girl, Woman, Other did an outstanding job of portraying many unique perspectives on modern-day Britain. Each character’s chapter reveals how their particular life experiences have shaped their perceptions of today’s world. As women (or non-binary people) of color who immigrated to Britain (or are recent descendants of immigrants), the characters have all experienced their fair share of struggle, and the book consistently addresses the issues that have affected them. Amazingly, author Bernardine Evaristo weaves these issues into the story in a very sincere and organic way – it never feels like the commentary on sexism, racism, xenophobia, or homophobia is forced or out-of-place.

To dig a bit deeper than that, I really appreciated how this book shows multiple perspectives on what it means to be a black woman in today’s world. So often, people of color are expected to be a “spokesperson” for their entire race. By featuring twelve women of color with very different life experiences, Evaristo refutes the idea that there is just one definition of what it means to be a person of color in today’s world.

I also found this book to be overwhelmingly positive, which was refreshing. While, yes, all the characters in this book have faced major obstacles in their lives, so many of the characters overcome those obstacles and achieve wonderful things. Amma, after years of being rejected by mainstream theatre companies, makes her way into the establishment and becomes wildly successful. Bummi, despite being orphaned as a child and then losing her husband at a young age, finally ends up living the peaceful life she has always dreamed of. I absolutely loved that this book balances great struggle with great triumph.

Finally, I loved the way this book was structured. There are no capital letters at the beginning of sentences, oftentimes no punctuation where there traditionally would be, and interesting line breaks in the middle of sentences. This made the book feel slower, gentle, and poetic – even when the events described in the book were quite dramatic (or traumatic). It also made sentences and stories flow in a way that felt very natural, making the book hard to put down.

Girl, Woman, Other was incredibly ambitious in the stories it set out to tell – and (in my opinion) it was wildly successful. This book is bold and sharp, but also poetic and beautiful. It is also incredibly astute, hitting the nail on the head with regard to pertinent issues in today’s world. I whole-heartedly recommend this book, and hope to see it on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.

(chocolate linzer cookies for) Frankissstein: A Love Story

The book: Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson.

In the spirit of Halloween and all things strange, I just finished reading Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson. The novel follows two main story lines. First: nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley is inspired to write Frankenstein in the summer of 1816. Then, fast-forwarding two centuries, there is the story of a romance between Ry – a transgender doctor who works in a cryogenics facility – and Victor Stein, an AI specialist dreaming of a future where humans digitally upload their brains to live eternally without bodies. As the novel wades between the two stories, we observe incredible parallels between the story told in Frankenstein, and a not-so-distant future ruled by AI.

My opinions on this book are…all over the place. There were aspects that I liked, and aspects that I didn’t care for…and some things that I have conflicting feelings toward. One thing that I have mixed opinions about is the connection between the two main stories in this novel. I appreciated the parallels between the two main stories…but I wish that Winterson had been more subtle with some of those parallels. For example, Ry and Victor Stein’s story begins at an AI conference in Memphis; at the very beginning of this section, Ry explicitly tells the conference organizer that the conference is in honor of the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. At that point, it felt like Winterson was just beating us over the head with the connection between the two plot lines.

I also wish that the book had been more character-focused. Frankissstein had a strong plot that prodded at interesting philosophical questions…but I felt that it could have used more character development. With the exception of Mary Shelley, I found it hard to understand any of the characters beyond a surface-level, which then made it hard to care what would happen to them.

A praise that I have for Frankissstein is that it touched upon fascinating philosophical issues – particularly, can AI solve the problems of humanity? How will technology continue to transform our world, and what will this mean for the future of humankind? Frankkissstein suggests a world where AI may radically change what life means for humans, yet it also shows that people have been pondering questions about how technology may change society for centuries.

Overall, Frankissstein was a bit of a let-down for me. It is characterized as a love-story, but I didn’t find it particularly romantic (did I miss the point?). I also found most of the characters a bit lacking, and possibly underdeveloped. The plot was interesting, though; and if you like thinking about the future of humanity, this book offers fascinating perspectives on what that may hold.

The bake: chocolate linzer cookies.

Frankisstein is characterized as a love story (the subtitle of the book is literally A Love Story). Although I didn’t find the novel particularly romantic, I decided to roll with this theme, and made a “romantic” dessert. I made chocolate linzer cookies with a cherry jam filling (some were filled with leftover lime curd, too).

To make the cookies, I followed this recipe from Bon Appetit. Instead of making the tahini-chocolate filling (which I’m sure is amazing), I used two fillings that I already had: cherry jam (because chocolate and cherry seems “romantic”) and lime curd (because I had a lot of leftover lime curd that I needed to use).

These cookies take a long time to make because the dough needs to chill in the fridge for a long time…but they are not particularly difficult. And this recipe rewards patience: as long as you follow the recipe (including the chill periods in the refrigerator), the cookies will turn out amazingly! The ingredients are nothing out of the ordinary…but somehow these chocolate cookies taste so rich and decadent. Definitely worth the wait, and definitely something to make for any occasion.

Lost Children Archive (and the ginger-banana cheesecake bars it inspired)

The book: Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli.

Earlier this month, I read Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli. The novel follows a family of four taking a road trip from New York to Arizona: the father, a documentarist, is creating a sound documentary about Apacheria (the former home of the Apaches). At the same time, the mother has become impassioned by the immigration crisis at the U.S./Mexico border, and decides to create her own sound documentary about it. Lost Children Archive is a moving story about marriage, family, and the so-called “immigration crisis” in the United States.

While the novel may sound heavy (and honestly, it is), Lost Children Archive is incredible – it may even be my favorite book of the year. Luiselli’s writing style is smooth, flowing, and poetic. This makes the novel easy to follow, even when the plot or the novel’s themes get heavy. Also, Luiselli doesn’t use quotation marks around characters’ dialogue – I liked this technique because it made the conversation feel like it was flowing very naturally.

Valeria Luiselli is also a master at evoking all the emotions. When the plot centers around the plight of migrant children and their families, the novel evokes immense empathy and sadness. Other parts of the novel are anxiety-inducing yet page-turningly suspenseful. And then there are moments where the novel is laugh-out-loud funny, thanks to Luiselli’s ability to capture the surprising and hilarious innocence of children.

As the novel progresses, parallels between the family’s children and the “lost” migrant children become increasingly clear. I thought this was a clever way of evoking empathy for children. These parallels first draw empathy for migrant children, because it allows the reader to feel for migrant children the way they would for children they actually know. The parallels also elicit empathy for children in general, by showing how even relatively privileged children can feel lost in the world.

Although I loved Lost Children Archive, I will acknowledge that it has received a lot of criticism from those with a more formal literary background. I am a casual reader and a scientist, so literary things – like cramming in too many references to older literature, or imitating the writing style of James Joyce – did not bother me (in fact, most of the references flew right over my head). I loved and learned so much from this book.

The bake: ginger-banana cheesecake bars.

When I was contemplating a bake for Lost Children Archive, I drew on the idea of the cross-country road trip for inspiration, and decided to bake something that would combine various regional desserts. The ultimate fusion dessert that I landed on was hummingbird cheesecake bars (with a spicy twist). Hummingbird cake is said to be a classic Southern dessert (although I never ate it when I lived in the South), and cheesecake is often thought of as a classic New York dessert.

Luckily for me, a hummingbird cheesecake recipe already exists, so I used that as a guide for my bake. However, hummingbird cheesecake seemed like too sweet of a dessert for a novel as heavy as Lost Children Archive, so I decided to spice it up a bit by using candied ginger instead of pineapple. Also, I used an 8×8 inch pan to make “bars” instead of a traditional cheesecake, because bars seem more kid-friendly than a traditional cheesecake (and this bake was inspired by a book about children).

The cheesecake bars look a bit ugly, but taste quite nice.

From the long bake time to the decoration, these cheesecake bars ended up being WAY more challenging than I expected! If I were to make these bars again, I wouldn’t use candied ginger, because it sunk to the bottom of the cheesecake batter and made the bars difficult to cut. That being said, they were very tasty – I loved the flavor combination of ginger and banana. These cheesecake bars are a great sweet-and-spicy treat – perfect to celebrate a bittersweet novel like Lost Children Archive (or just to enjoy on their own).