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!

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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.

Month in review: October 2019

Happy November! While most of 2019 has flown by, October actually seemed to pass at a good pace. It was still a busy month though! Mostly because…I got married! Given that wedding planning is insane and all-consuming in the weeks leading up to the wedding, I am honestly shocked that I managed to get anything else done at all. Let’s reflect back on October:

Books read:

I finished two books this month (which is honestly two more books than I expected to finish). Lab Girl is a memoir by academic researcher and university professor, Hope Jahren. As a young scientist myself, I loved this book for its honesty about the stress of trying to “make it” as an academic researcher, and also for its beautifully written passages about how trees grow. Frankissstein is a novel that ponders how technology will change life for humankind, and particularly how it will change how we relate to our bodies. Frankissstein was an interesting philosophical read, but at the same time I didn’t particularly care for most of the characters or their “love stories.”

Bakes inspired by the books:

For Lab Girl, I attempted to bake meringues with a lime curd swirl on top. As you might be able to tell from the picture, these meringues were a baking fail. But I posted about them anyway because I wanted to review Lab Girl, and I wanted to own the fact that sometimes my bakes aren’t successful on the first try.

For Frankissstein, I made chocolate linzer cookies with cherry jam and lime curd. These were delicious and made me feel much better about the Lab Girl meringue fails. I also got to use the rest of the lime curd that I had made for the meringues.

Books in progress/plans for November:

I’m currently reading Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. I resisted this book for a long time – I’m not sure why – but someone recently gifted it to me, and I immediately got sucked in. I already know what I want to bake for this book, and I can’t wait to post.

I also want to read The Invention of Nature and Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis – two books that I had initially planned (unrealistically) to read in October. Also, the comedian Ali Wong recently published a memoir and I might want to read that, too.

Great blog posts of the month:

I read so many great blog posts this month…but my brain was so fried that I forgot to bookmark my favorite posts. So here is ONE post that stuck with me so much, I remember it even without having bookmarked it: a heartwarming story called “Pizza it Forward” from Vee at Millenial Life Crisis.

Photos:

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

The book: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.

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

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

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

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

The bake: (attempted) lime-swirl meringues.

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

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

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

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