Book review: Stubborn Archivist

February has been a great month of reading: we’re only two weeks in, and I’ve already finished four (!!!) books! The latest book I read was Stubborn Archivist, a novel about a young, half-British/half-Brazilian woman navigating adult life in London, and trying to make sense of who she is.

The book: Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Stubborn Archivist was an interesting read, and one of the reasons why was its use of language and formatting. There are interesting line breaks throughout the novel, and also (very intentional) omissions of punctuation. These features give the book a very poetic feel, and even give some parts of the novel a sort of surreal quality.

I also liked how – through the lens of the protagonist’s experiences – author Rodrigues Fowler portrays the challenges of looking “different” or “foreign” in your own country. Without having experienced any of the micro-aggressions portrayed in the novel, I really felt for the protagonist, who repeatedly deals with men exocitizing her because of her ethnicity, and people making assumptions about her ability to speak intelligently. Books that demonstrate these challenges are vital because they give voices to cultural phenomena that are common and important, but still not discussed enough in mainstream media.

At the same time, many of the protagonist’s experiences were familiar to me (someone who is not considered “different” looking in their own country). Being steamrolled or ignored by well-intentioned people who assume you have nothing to say, passing up invitations to socialize and drink with coworkers because alcohol upsets your stomach, obsessing over what if situations before a date – these were all so relatable! These relatable moments illustrate how some experiences and feelings are universal, and have the ability to transcend culture, language, and geography.

My main critique of Stubborn Archivist is that it feels…unfinished. The whole novel is so ambitious: in the stories it tells, the timelines it follows, and the creative formatting and language it employs. But at times it feels like Rodrigues Fowler sets out to do so many things, that sections end up feeling incomplete and blurry. The gaps in the novel may be intentional (the title of the book gives me reason to think it is), but I personally prefer less “blurry” narratives.

Overall, I enjoyed Stubborn Archivist and appreciated its story and main character. I recommend this book, because it is a different read, and because it shares interesting perspective that many people could benefit from reading. Just know in advance – if you do read this book – that the formatting is a bit surprising at first and that some parts of the novel have a sort of unfinished quality.

My favorite romance novels

Happy Valentine’s Day! In the spirit of the holiday, I thought that I’d share some of my favorite romance novels with you all. The only problem is…I have not read very many traditional romance novels. So I’m being very generous with the term “romance novel” here, and recommending my favorite novels that have romance in them (but would not necessarily be categorized in the romance genre).

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less is not a traditional romance novel, yet the entire book feels like a rom-com in novel form. In this novel, writer Arthur Less plans an around-the-world adventure to avoid going to his ex-lover’s wedding. The book is hilarious, heartbreaking, heartwarming, and surprisingly profound. I recommend this novel to those who love a good rom-com!

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Reid Jenkins

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is even less of a traditional romance novel than Less, but it features a truly excellent love story. This book revolves around the (fictional) reserved Hollywood celebrity Evelyn Hugo, who sits down with a journalist to give a tell-all interview about her life. In telling her life story, Evelyn recounts her seven marriages, and the story of the one true love of her life. This novel is an addictive page-turner, and also surprisingly moving.

Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

This book is the clearest “romance-novel” of the bunch. In it, two frenemies (who happen to be the first son of the U.S.A., and Prince Henry of England) are forced to stage a friendship as a publicity stunt. As the two spend more time together, they become close and develop real feelings for each other. Both being major public figures, however, they have to determine if becoming a serious couple is actually possible. This novel is wonderful: the love story is believable and endearing, and the characters are so smart and complex. I highly recommend it!

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

This one is really different. The Pisces follows graduate student Lucy, who moves to California for a summer after breaking up with her boyfriend of nine years and spiraling into an emotional crisis. Lucy is supposed to use the time in California to pick herself up and attend group therapy sessions, but instead feels her emptiness with sex and relationships…ultimately finding somebody as insecure and needy as she is. This book is strange, and disturbing at times, but it is also incredibly profound, and makes a great anti-romance novel.

Have you read any of the novels listed here? What other romance novels (not listed here) do you recommend?

Book Review: Lot

Over the weekend I finished reading Lot (making it the 3rd book of 2020 that I read after it being on my TBR for a long time). Lot is a fictional short-story collection that follows characters living in black and latinx communities in Houston, Texas. Half of the stories are told from the perspective of a single character, allowing the reader to follow his journey from early-adolescence to adulthood.

The book: Lot by Bryan Washington
Genre: Fiction, short-stories
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

As is the case with most short story collections, some of the stories in Lot work better than others. I thought the best stories were the ones told from the perspective of the “main character” (i.e. the only character whose perspective appears multiple times throughout the book). In short stories, it can be challenging to connect with the characters, simply because there isn’t as much opportunity for character development as there is in a novel. But by having a recurring character in Lot, Bryan Washington allows his readers to deeply understand and connect with one of the characters.

Something that I really appreciated about Lot was that, although most of the characters in this novel are struggling, their stories are told compassionately. Washington shows characters dealing with gentrification, troubling relationships, homelessness, and more. Yet it never feels like Washington exploits his characters struggles. The characters in Lot are deep and complex, and they are clearly defined by more than just the difficult circumstances they face.

I also found the writing in Lot to be very powerful. The language is never flowery; it is precise to the point that I frequently found myself marveling at how Washington conveyed so much using so few words. In “Bayou,” the narrator mentions that his father walked out on him, saying: he stepped out for a glass of water, and believe it or not he’s been thirsty ever since. In “Waugh,” the main character reckons with his friend’s life-threatening illness, reminding himself that everything could and would be fine, until all of a sudden it wasn’t.

All in all, I highly recommend Lot. Individually, the stories shine a compassionate light on people living in marginalized communities. Collectively, they illustrate how everyone tries to make the best of their circumstances and find a place of belonging.

Book Review: Conversations with Friends

I finally read Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney! This book was on my TBR ever since reading Normal People in June. Conversations with Friends is the story a young student/poet, Frances, who is discovered by an older and more prominent writer named Melissa. Frances (and her best friend and co-performer, Bobbi) start spending more time with Melissa, and Frances finds herself increasingly captivated by Melissa’s husband Nick. As Frances and Nick become closer, Frances’ relationships – with her friends, family, and Nick – begin to spin out of control.

The book: Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

This novel was so captivating! I am not sure whether to say that I consumed it, or it consumed me. But I finished the book in less than 24 hours because the plot was intriguing and suspenseful. Which is really impressive for a non-mystery-or-thriller novel. What made the book so captivating was simply the main character’s emotional complexity and personal struggle. I couldn’t put this book down, because I wanted to see how or if Frances would resolve her personal issues.

I was surprised that Conversations with Friends pulled me in so deeply, because the narrator and main character (Frances) is kind of unlikable. Frances is self-conscious to the point of being excessively self-centered, and she frequently engages in impulsive, selfish behavior that has the potential to hurt others. She also struggles to apologize for her harmful actions, and instead waits for the people that she has hurt to apologize to her. Yet reading her story, it is clear that Frances isn’t hopeless: she has the potential to learn, grow, and change. This is part of what compelled so deeply about this novel: I was rooting for Frances to change.

While the narrator and main character (Frances) was certainly challenging at times, she wasn’t the only difficult character in Conversations with Friends. Most of the major characters in this novel had blatantly unlikeable qualities. At the same time, though, all the characters are so well-developed that the root of their challenging behaviors becomes clear. This isn’t to say that psychology is an excuse for morally questionable actions – just that the characters in Conversations with Friends are realistically complex.

Another aspect of Conversations with Friends that was realistic yet frustrating was the bad communication between characters! So many of the issues in this book – particularly Frances’ issues – could have been resolved with better communication. I think this was very intentional on author Sally Rooney’s part, and that it’s meant to highlight the importance of good communication in a healthy relationship.

All in all, I loved Conversations with Friends. The book is frustrating, heartbreaking, and above all – deeply compelling. If you like stories with *slightly* unlikeable or emotionally complicated main characters, I definitely recommend this book.

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.

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).

If You See Me Don’t Say Hi (short-stories unified by a single theme, and unique cupcakes unified by a base flavor)

The book: If You See Me Don’t Say Hi by Neel Patel.

Recently I read If You See Me Don’t Say Hi, a collection of fictional short stories by Neel Patel. Each short story is told from the perspective of a different character, most of whom are first-generation Indian-Americans. Individually, the stories are shocking, uncomfortable, and above all else, relatable. Collectively, they completely upend some of the commonly-believed stereotypes about Indian-Americans in the United States.

If You See Me Don’t Say Hi was a quick and engaging read. Like many short-stories, the plot in each story moves quickly: some stories span ten or more years in just 10-20 pages. My favorite stories, however, were the ones in which the plot moved just slightly slower; or the stories that provided more time to intimately know and understand the characters. The last two stories in the collection do an especially great job of this; and they are actually related to each other, giving the reader a more nuanced perspective of the characters and their relationship.

What I loved most about If You See Me Don’t Say Hi were the complex (and oftentimes difficult) characters. Each story features a character going through a challenging time in their life: a closeted-gay high school student struggles to cope with bullying and his father walking out on his family; a young doctor becomes completely unhinged and has a mental breakdown following the death of her parents; two young adults become isolated from their community as gossip wreaks havoc on their reputations. The characters behave in shocking, yet completely familiar ways in response to the challenges they are going through. It is through these surprising-yet-not-surprising behaviors that Patel so brilliantly debunks stereotypes of Indian-Americans. Patel’s characters react the way any human being might respond to heartbreak, trauma, isolation, and failure – they just happen to Indian-American.

Overall, I thought If You See Me Don’t Say Hi was a quick and wonderful read. As with most collections of short-stories, some stories are stronger than others. Personally, I liked the last two stories best, because they are connected to each other, and I liked the continuity and nuance of that. Each story is unique and important, though; and they collectively deconstruct the problematic stereotypes about Indian-Americans in the United States.

The bake: chocolate-tahini cupcakes with assorted frostings.

For If You See Me Don’t Say Hi, I was inspired by the cover art of the book, which shows varying shades of brown, caramel, and peach. In tribute to that, I decided to make chocolate cupcakes with frostings in various shades of brown.

Specifically, I made this chocolate tahini cake from flavor-genius Molly Yeh, but as cupcakes instead of a full cake. I frosted some cupcakes with the tahini buttercream that is given with the recipe, but I also made small batches of other frostings to achieve varying shades of brown: chai cream cheese frosting, chocolate cream cheese frosting, and coffee buttercream.

The cake was very straightforward to make – it is oil-based, which makes it much easier to prepare than a butter-based cake. It was also a great cake to eat! The cake itself tasted like a rich, complex chocolate cake. I couldn’t actually detect the tahini flavor, but I’m sure that the tahini added to the complexity. The frostings were also good, with my favorites being the tahini buttercream and the chocolate cream cheese. What I liked most about this bake was that the different frostings lent diversity, while the single cake flavor unified everything. This is fitting for If You See Me Don’t Say Hi, since it is a collection of unique stories unified by a single theme.

I also experimented with different frosting application methods – the frostings that were piped (as opposed to spread with a knife) definitely look neater.