Month in review: November 2019

Happy December, everyone! Thanksgiving has passed, and it is starting to snow where I live…it really feels like winter! The first two weeks of November were relaxing, then the second half was a bit crazier. My husband and I went to an impromptu one-week-early Thanksgiving dinner (driving 6 hours each way) the third weekend of November. And we spent the last week of the month in London and Amsterdam!

Books read:

This was my best month of reading in a while! Little Fires Everywhere is a fictional novel about a mother and daughter that move into a wealthy, hyper-planned community in Ohio. I absolutely adored this book and will be posting about it soon. Dear Girls is a memoir by Ali Wong in which she writes about her memorable life experiences, and draws advice from them. This book was okay – it taught me that I don’t really like reading books written by celebrities. Ashley Peterson’s books (Psych Meds Made Simple and Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis) take highly stigmatized and misunderstood mental health issues and provide nuanced, accurate information about these topics. Both books were great, and I can think of many people in my life that I wish would read them.

Bakes inspired by the books?

I baked something for Little Fires Everywhere over two weeks ago, but I still haven’t gotten around to posting it! That post is coming very soon. Still, I am a bit back-logged, with three books completed but no bakes for them yet. I have several bakes in mind, though, so get ready for lots of posting in December!

Books in progress/December reading goals:

I am currently reading The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. This is a biography of the Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt, who came up with the foundations for the science of ecology and inspired many great thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries (from writer Goethe, to revolutionary Simon Bolívar, to famous evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin). I’m about two-thirds through this book, and find it quite enjoyable.

I also plan to read The Wall by John Lanchester and Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham. If I get through all of these with time to spare, I’ll probably try to read more books from the Booker prize longlist (yes – I know that the winner was already announced).

Some (out of many) posts I enjoyed this month:

  • Jan Flynn wrote about how smart people can do stupid things, and why there is nothing wrong with this!
  • Ashley wrote an informative piece laying out the facts about how the influenza vaccine works (and importantly, debunking the myth that the flu vaccine will make you sick)
  • Rachel at pace, amore, libri shared a list of anticipated 2020 book releases – many of which I am excited about too!

(a few good) November photos:

Nonfiction November 2019: week 2

This week’s Nonfiction November prompt is fiction/non-fiction book pairings. To quote the creator of this challenge: “It can be a ‘If you loved this book, read this!’ or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.”

I was nervous about this prompt – mostly because I am not confident in giving recommendations to others – but I ended up having a lot of fun with it! Here are the pairings/groupings that I came up with:

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Queenie, and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

I grouped these together because they all emphasize the potential of therapy. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is a non-fiction book that looks at an actual therapist’s experience helping patients (and going to therapy herself), and shows how therapy helped both her and her patients. Queenie and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine are fiction books, and both include the title characters going to therapy to process trauma. If you read and liked either Queenie or Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, my guess is that you would also like Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.

nîtisânak and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

These books go well together because they are both beautifully and poetically written; and they both show difficult relationships through a very compassionate lens. nîtisânak is a memoir by poet Lindsay Nixon, who writes about the struggles of being queer and native Canadian. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a fictional novel (but based in part upon author Ocean Vuong’s lived experiences) that explores a first-generation American son’s complex relationship with his mother. Both are meant to be slow, thoughtful reads, and both discuss difficult relationships and “taboo topics” from a place of immense compassion. Also, they are both so beautifully written – they would make a lovely pairing.

That’s all I have for this prompt! If you have any fiction/non-fiction book pairings, I would love to hear them!

Nonfiction November 2019: week 1

This year, I’m participating in a blogging event called Nonfiction November! I’m excited to participate by posting, but even more excited to read others’ posts: I’m gaining a lot of great nonfiction recommendations this way!

Image result for nonfiction november 2019

Week 1: (Oct. 28 to Nov. 1) – Your Year in Nonfiction (Julie @ Julz Reads): Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

I read 11 nonfiction books this year. They spanned a range of topics, but the most common was probably memoir. Even books that were not strictly memoirs, had memoir-like components to them. For example: Spineless was part science nonfiction, part memoir; Hard to Love was a book of essays, but in making her essays so personal, author Briallen Hopper effectively also wrote a memoir.

My favorite nonfiction reads this year were Spineless by Juli Berwald, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb, and Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. All three books contained memoir components, and all three taught me about science (psychology is a science) using compelling and accessible language. And I can’t ignore that all three were written by highly educated women whom I admired a lot after reading their books.

Spineless tells the story of Juli Berwald’s quest to figure out how climate change will impact jellyfish populations (and also the story of her career as an ocean scientist).

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone talks about the insights author Lori Gottlieb has gleaned about humanity through her career as a therapist, and also as a patient.

Lab Girl is Hope Jahren’s memoir, in which she talks about what it’s really like to try to “make it” as a female scientist in academia.

The book I recommend the most is Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, because I think it satisfies a wider audience than Spineless or Lab Girl, and has the potential to help people in a way that the other two books don’t. But all three of these books strike a beautiful balance between informative and personal, and are well-written without being pretentious. As a bonus, I think that all three of the authors are excellent role models, especially to young women interested in science.

(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.

Month in review: September 2019

Hello and HAPPY AUTUMN! I’m glad to be writing this wrap-up, because I’m quite ready for September to be over. The month started out with a cold that knocked me out for a few days, but things were busy and stressful even after I recovered. I didn’t read or bake as much as I had hoped to, but I still got a little bit done!

Books read:

So…I only finished reading one book in September. Luckily, it was a really good book! Lost Children Archive is about a family of four that embarks on a summer road trip to “Apacheria” during the “immigration crisis” at the United States’ southern border. It is a touching book that strikes a great balance between somber, heart-breaking, sweet, and funny.

Bakes inspired by the books:

I baked two things this month. Inspired by The Truffle Underground, I made fungus-filled pizza…which is disgusting phrasing but delicious eating (it was a pizza that had baker’s yeast, bleu cheese, and porcini mushrooms).

For Lost Children Archive, I made banana-ginger cheesecake bars. Both of my bakes this month were pretty experimental, and I am happy to be taking more risks in my baking now. In the case of the banana-ginger cheesecake bars, the risk didn’t result in anything spectacular; but the mushroom pizza was amazingly good!

Books in progress/October reading goals:

I’m currently about halfway through Lab Girl by Hope Jahren; I have mixed, but overall positive feelings about it so far. I am also still working on An Orchestra of Minorities! It is long (~450 pages) and I have been getting through it pretty slowly, but I hope to finish it this month. I also hope to read The Invention of Nature and Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis.

Some great blog posts I came across in September:

  • Katie at Never Not Reading posted a moving piece about the value of reading books about people who are different from you (something I wholeheartedly agree with)
  • Vee at Millenial Life Crisis nicely summarized the essentials of self-esteem
  • Ashley at Mental Health at Home tackled the notion of “drug seeking” – a phrase that is commonly and wrongly used to describe people who use medication – and explained why it is problematic
  • Tess McClure published an amazing article about the dark side of the “healing crystal” trend that is especially popular amongst consumers who practice “alternative” lifestyles

Favorite photos this month:

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).

Month in review: August 2019

I finally figured out the secret to adult life: it’s that everyone is insanely busy all of the time. Saying “August flew by” is a cliche, but it’s a cliche because everyone says it, and everyone says it because it’s true because we’re all so busy. The point of this is to say that, once again, I had a very busy month. Highlights included kayaking, going to a wine and paint night, FINALLY having a beach day this summer, celebrating with friends and family at the best bachelorette party ever, and visiting a super cool art exhibit. And spending lots of time with my cats. Low-lights (if that’s a word?) included falling behind on chores, not getting enough sleep, and public transit being slow and inefficient.

Books read:

I finished three books this month, all of which were quite different from each other. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a fictional memoir, that reads more like poetry than a novel – it was my most challenging read of the month, and also the one that I enjoyed most. If You See Me Don’t Say Hi is a collection of short-stories featuring first-generation Indian Americans going through challenging life events. It was a quick, compelling, and stereotype-smashing read – I highly recommend it. Finally, The Truffle Underground is a non-fiction exposé on the corruption that goes on in the truffle mushroom industry – I won’t say much else here, but a post about this book is coming soon!

Things I baked:

Early in the month, I made delayed bakes for two books that I finished in July. I made cheese-scones inspired by Eleanor’s signature lunch in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, and a fresh mint cake inspired by Maybe You Should Talk To Someone.

For On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, I wanted to bake something beautiful, so my partner and I teamed up to make an aesthetically pleasing lime-meringue pie. For If You See Me Don’t Say Hi, I baked chocolate-tahini cupcakes with assorted frostings (inspired by the different shades of brown on the cover of the book). I haven’t baked anything yet for The Truffle Underground, but that post is coming soon!

Books in progress/September reading goals:

Right now I’m reading Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli. I’m about two-thirds through, and I absolutely love this book: it is gorgeously written, culturally relevant, and generally insightful. I can’t wait to post about this book! In the next month I also plan to read An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma and Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. And maybe others if I have time – we will see.

(just a few of the many) blog posts I loved:

  • Jan wrote an excellent piece about the importance of “wasting” time.
  • Sohpie wrote about the positive impact that blogging has had on her mental health.
  • Ashley wrote a beautiful and powerful article about intersectionality, and the major role it plays in mental health issues.

Favorite photos of the month: