Book Review: The Hilarious World of Depression

The Hilarious World of Depression is a memoir inspired by author John Moe’s podcast of the same name. In the podcast, Moe interviews comedians, writers, and musicians about their experiences with depression and other mental illnesses. While Moe hosts the podcast and occasionally peppers his own anecdotes into episodes, the show is very much focused on his guests. In his new memoir, Moe details his own experiences with depression, and also synthesizes the insights he gained about mental illness through hosting interviews.

The book: The Hilarious World of Depression by John Moe
Genre: Nonfiction, memoir
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The Hilarious World of Depression is honest, powerful, and necessary. John Moe tells his life story through the lens of mental illness, and reflects on past experiences that he now realizes were influenced by depression. He speaks frankly about the trauma of growing up with an alcoholic parent, feeling like an imposter and failure throughout his career, and blaming himself for the loss of a loved one. Some of these reflections – especially Moe’s account of blaming himself for a family member’s death – are painful to listen to, but they are extremely powerful. I believe that accounts like Moe’s are necessary in order for society to eventually stop stigmatizing mental illness and those who suffer from it.

The stories Moe tells will resonate with anyone who has experienced mental illness (even just briefly), and will likely also help some people to realize they’re struggling. His accounts of chasing accomplishments, yet feeling unsatisfied and imposter-like after achieving them – behavior that was common and normalized in my grad program – made me realize that not taking pride in and severely minimizing achievements isn’t healthy! It’s something that I’ve started working on, thanks to this book.

Moe’s stories aren’t only for those who have experienced symptoms of mental illness, though. Throughout the memoir, Moe reiterates that depression is a disease of the brain, and frames the seemingly “illogical” choices of a person with depression through that lens. Combined with vivid accounts of his own experiences, Moe’s characterization of depression as a devastating disease (one which nobody would choose to have) allows readers who might not grasp the realities of depression to better understand and empathize with those who do suffer from it.

While I appreciated the overall message of the book, not everything about The Hilarious World of Depression worked for me. Moe uses a gratuitous amount of metaphors to explain depression to readers who may not have firsthand experience with it, and some of those metaphors overlook the very nuance of mental illness that this book is supposed to convey. Early in the book, Moe says that not getting help for mental illness is like being hungry but not going to the “free pizza shop” around the corner. This metaphor seems more harmful than helpful, because therapy is rarely cheap let alone free (at least in the United States), and also because finding a therapist can be a huge ordeal – it’s not as simple as just walking around the corner to the “therapy store.” Moe also at one point likens a brain with depression to the war-torn Middle East, which seems wrong in a way that I can’t quite articulate.

Ultimately, I really appreciated The Hilarious World of Depression (even with its problematic metaphors), and would recommend it. This book has the potential to help individuals with depression to feel less alone and ashamed, to motivate those with mental illness to seek out help, and to inspire empathy and understanding in people who haven’t experienced mental illness themselves. I also recommend checking out Moe’s podcast by the same name, which achieves many of the same things as the book, but features a wide range of guests and their unique experiences.

Trigger warnings: suicide.

Book Review: Hunger

Roxane Gay’s Hunger is a collection of the author’s complex thoughts about her body. In the memoir, Gay explores how a traumatic childhood event led to her weight gain, and examines how having an “unruly body” (as she calls it) has affected her self-image, relationships, and life experiences.

The book: Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

One of my favorite things about Hunger was Gay’s honesty and vulnerability. Throughout the memoir, Gay unapologetically portrays herself in all of her complexity, including her moments of pettiness and insecurity. Gay takes ownership of her body and her experiences, but she balances that self-possession with honesty about the ways in which she still struggles to accept herself. Listening to Hunger as an audiobook – which is narrated by Gay herself – especially accentuates her vulnerability.

In addition to being deeply moved by Hunger, I also learned a lot from it. Early in the memoir, Gay mentions that the upper-end of the “normal” BMI range was lowered in 1998. This infuriated me, because I have heard so many fear-mongering claims that the obesity “epidemic” in the United States has dramatically increased in the past 30ish years. None of those claims were accompanied by an acknowledgement that this “increase” is likely an artifact of the way we classify overweightness.

Hunger also opened my eyes to more obvious problems with the way fatness is treated in the United States; problems that should have been obvious to me, but that I had never considered before reading this book. An example of such a problem is the fact that overweight people experience eating disorders too. This hadn’t occurred to me before, because (as Gay points out) health class textbooks and the media generally don’t talk about eating disorders as something that overweight people struggle with. Another example is TV shows – like The Biggest Loser – which portray fatness as a problem to be combatted by any means necessary. Taken together, these examples paint a disturbing picture of how American society actively encourages unhealthy weight loss strategies. This hadn’t explicitly occurred to me before, but as Gay pointed out these problems, they immediately rang true.

Without summarizing the entire memoir, here are a few more of Gay’s critiques that really resonated with and moved me. First, I loved Gay’s idea that women in particular are pressured to be thin because thin women literally take up less space, and American society certainly isn’t ready for women to take up as much space as men. I also appreciated Gay’s point that no matter how powerful a woman becomes, she will never be exempt from critiques of her body (she cites Oprah as an example of this). Finally, I loved Gay’s idea that it is possible to know logically that your body doesn’t define your worth, yet simultaneously feel insecure about your body in a society that harshly judges appearances (especially women’s appearances).

My one critique of Hunger is that some of the chapters ended a bit abruptly, giving some of the stories an “unfinished” quality. Still, the writing was incredibly moving, and the chapters came together to create a beautiful and powerful memoir. I loved Hunger and would highly recommend it.

Trigger warnings: eating disorders, r*pe. Even if these aren’t normally triggers for you, Gay’s accounts of her experiences are so deeply personal that they might shake you up a bit.

Book Review: The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell

Black lives matter, Black voices matter, and Black stories matter! The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell is, as you may have inferred from the title, an essay collection and memoir from stand-up comedian W. Kamau Bell. If you haven’t seen his work, I highly recommend his Netflix comedy special “Private School Negro” or his CNN show “United Shades of America.” In his memoir, Bell dissects the various components of his identity – fatherhood, Blackness, activism, nerdiness, and more – and how they shape who he is as a person.

The book: The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Before I get into the content of the book, I want to mention that I read this as an audiobook, which probably influenced my opinion in some ways. Bell has a deep, clear voice which is pleasant to listen to and well-suited for audiobooks. Beyond enjoying the sound of Bell’s voice, I enjoyed the experience of hearing his stories in his own voice. From now on, I will try to listen to memoirs and autobiographies exclusively as audiobooks.

I also enjoyed the book itself. W. Kamau Bell’s comedy is political with an emphasis on intersectional racism, and so is his memoir. The book isn’t exclusively about racism or politics, but as a Black man in America (or more specifically, a 6’4″ black man married to a white woman, with two interracial children), Bell’s perspectives are influenced by the racism that he has witnessed and experienced. Even the chapters about “apolitical” things – such as Bell’s love of superheroes, Denzel Washington, and the movie Creed – eventually touch upon race, subtly demonstrating the ways in which racism seeps into virtually every facet of American culture.

In addition to offering excellent commentary on intersectionality, Bell describes his life experiences with brilliant transparency and authenticity. He proudly talks about his nerdiness, his love for his family, and his personal and professional growth. He is also very open about how his shortcomings and failures shaped him, discussing failures in the early stages of his stand-up career, his unconscious sexist biases that he unlearned with the help of a friend, and even a rough patch in his marriage where he and his wife lived apart. Of course, celebrities aren’t required to present themselves in all of their complexity to write an enjoyable memoir, but I found Bell’s honesty refreshing.

My biggest critique of The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell is that it could have been considerably shorter. The book is repetitive in places, and his elaborate build-ups to important moments didn’t always work for me. One story in particular focuses on an incident at a gas station that took place over the span of a few minutes, but Bell spends over twenty minutes telling the story! I also took issue with a comment Bell made that “some kids are just jerks. After all, where else do adult jerks come from?” The comment was probably a joke, but it was one of his jokes that really didn’t land for me, especially because it contradicts Bell’s own assertion that jokes at the expense of innocent people aren’t that funny.

Overall, though, I had a great time with The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell. This deeply personal essay collection strikes a great balance between funny, sincere, and serious. I also learned a lot from Bell’s stories, with one of my biggest takeaways being that racism subtly invades just about every facet of American society (even things that white Americans think of as “apolitical”). I would recommend this book – especially as an audiobook so you can hear Bell’s stories in his own voice!

Dear Girls (and dear double-chocolate cookies)

The book: Dear Girls by Ali Wong

Last month I read Dear Girls by comedian and actress Ali Wong. The book is a collection of life-lessons that Wong has learned and wishes to share with her daughters. The book covers topics such as dating, travel, and work. The stories are intimate, shocking, often filthy, and pretty funny.

I had mixed feelings about Dear Girls, but one thing that I loved about it was that it’s frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious. I read Dear Girls on an airplane, and couldn’t stop myself from laughing out loud while reading it. Ali Wong is an incredible stand-up comedian (if you haven’t seen her comedy, I recommend the Netflix special Baby Cobra), and also, somehow, just as hilarious as a writer.

At the same time, Dear Girls wasn’t always funny to me. I found myself surprised and even disappointed by some of the perspectives Wong shared in the book. In particular, she makes light of homelessness a lot and also tells a story whose punchline is essentially: “The guy I was dating turned out to have a personality disorder! Good thing he didn’t murder me!” So I really disliked that.

But what really turned me off of this book was the fact that Wong shares all these compelling stories about the difficulty of motherhood, and what it’s like to balance being a mom and having a career…but never mentions the fact she has a nanny! The nanny is only mentioned in passing in the husband’s afterword. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that there is anything wrong with having a nanny if you have the means, and I don’t think that having a nanny makes you any less of a parent. What I take issue with is the lack of transparency: the barely-mention of having a nanny is dishonest, and makes the book feel insincere.

All in all, I thought that Dear Girls was a funny book, but it’s definitely not for everyone. If you like Ali Wong’s comedy, you will probably like her book (some of the stories are easy to imagine in her voice, which makes them even funnier). However, a few of Wong’s jokes are based upon outdated stereotypes, which is disappointing.

3 stars out of 5

The bake: chocolate cookies with chocolate glaze.

With the bake for Dear Girls, I wanted to accomplish two things. First (and perhaps obviously) I wanted to bake something inspired by the bake. And secondly, I wanted to get into the holiday spirit! So I decided to make glitzy sprinkle cookies.

For sprinkle cookies, any cookie recipe and any glaze will work. I decided to make chocolate cookies, because I already had leftover cookie dough in my freezer from the last time I made them. I decided to frost them with chocolate glaze, because I absolutely love a decadent double-chocolate dessert.

These cookies take a while to make – because the dough undergoes two separate chilling periods in the refrigerator – but the rich, chocolatey treats are well worth the wait. And the chocolate glaze on top takes these cookies to the next level; I highly recommend doing the chocolate-on-chocolate. The sprinkles don’t really add anything taste-wise, but they make the cookies look so much more festive and inviting! A glitzy, bold bake for a bold book.

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.

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!

Maybe You Should Talk To Someone (a book about therapy, and a mint cake inspired by therapy)

The book: Maybe You Should Talk To Someone by Lori Gottlieb.

After reading two novels involving characters overcoming trauma through therapy, I decided to stick with the therapy theme, so I read Maybe You Should Talk To Someone by Lori Gottlieb. The book is a non-fiction account of Lori Gottlieb’s insights on humanity that she gained both as a therapist, and a patient in therapy.

Book cover of "Maybe You Should Talk to Someone."

As I read Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, I was quickly blown away by Lori Gottlieb’s gift for story-telling. Gottlieb manages to take the journeys of actual patients from her therapy practice, and turn them into incredibly compelling and relatable stories. I binged this book the same way I would breeze through a fiction novel, but the plot was the true story of real peoples’ healing.

In addition to being compelling, Maybe You Should Talk To Someone was very well-structured. Gottlieb takes the journeys of four different patients, and alternates among their respective stories throughout the book. She also includes extensive details about her own experience in therapy, and her journey to becoming a therapist. This was effective, because it broke up the plot and built intrigue, while also allowing me to make connections between different individuals’ experiences.

Finally, I loved the way that Gottlieb explained psychological phenomena! She generally steered away from jargon, and when she did use technical terms it was just to define them in ways that a reader coming from a non-clinical background could easily understand. Some of Gottlieb’s explanations of psychological phenomena helped me understand myself better, and even challenged me to change the way I react to certain situations. In particular, her passage about how people often project their insecurities onto other people (or things) because it is easier than looking internally, challenged me to notice and work on this tendency myself.

Overall, I highly recommend this book! There is so much to learn from other peoples’ journeys through emotional healing, and Gottlieb writes about those journeys so compellingly. Through her explanations of psychological tendencies – and examples of these tendencies as demonstrated by her patients and herself – this book has the potential to be a life-changing read.

The bake: “therapy cake” (or fresh mint cake).

For Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, I decided to bake a cake inspired by my own experience in therapy a few years ago. When I left my therapist to move for grad school, she gave me a green stone as a goodbye gift, and when I think of her I often think of that stone. Inspired by my experience with her, and also inspired by the stone, I decided to bake something green and slightly earthy: a fresh mint cake!

To make the fresh mint cake, I used this recipe from My Name Is Yeh. I followed the cake recipe pretty closely (only substituting lime zest for lemon zest), but I baked the cake in an 8″ square pan instead of two 6″ round pans. I also frosted the cake with a homemade lime cream cheese frosting (instead of labneh and honey, as suggested in the recipe), and garnished with fresh mint leaves.

Over two cups of fresh mint on a cutting board.
ALL of this fresh mint (from my balcony “garden”) went into the cake!

I was so pleasantly surprised by this cake. It could have been hit or miss, but it was definitely a HIT! The cake is sweet and minty (the mint flavor really comes through!), while the frosting is deliciously tart. It is also not too rich or heavy, because it uses olive oil (as opposed to butter) as its source of fat. My fiance brought the cake to work yesterday, and it was gone by 11:00AM. I’m seriously considering baking this cake again tomorrow to bring to my neighborhood potluck. Anyway – this cake was surprisingly delightful! It nicely pays tribute to the book (and the individual) that inspired it, and I also found the process of making it to be *therapeutic.*

A square cake, with frosting and mint leaf decoration.
The finished cake, frosted simply with lime cream cheese frosting and garnished with more fresh mint.

nîtisânak (a memoir that I can’t stop thinking about, and that inspired me to bake poppy seed muffins)

The book: nîtisânak by Lindsay Nixon.

nîtisânak is Lindsay Nixon’s memoir about growing up native and queer in the Canadian prairie. It is a book that covers many issues, including identity, family, oppression, and truth. nîtisânak also utilizes many forms of writing, including narrative, poetry, and even illustration.

nîtisânak was unlike anything I’ve read before. From the perspectives offered, to the writing style itself – this book was truly mesmerizing. Lindsay Nixon shares their thoughts on power, family, capitalism, punk rock, and so much more – all from the rarely-heard perspective of a queer Native Canadian. One of the major themes that Nixon touches on is the idea of “home.” Like, how do you define home? For some people, home is the physical space that you occupy; whereas for others home may refer to the people that you surround yourself with, your chosen kin. Either (or another) interpretation is completely valid: “home” is a concept that every individual defines for themselves (while hopefully understanding and respecting that other people may have different interpretations).

This ties into another important theme in nîtisânak: the concept of “truth.” Sometimes when people remember or perceive things differently, they simply have different truths. Nixon beautifully brings up this point when talking about how they and their late mother have very different memories of the same event:

“whose version of the story…is right…will never be reconciled. I’m the only one left to carry our story forward -which is perhaps why I cautiously wade through remembering with a hint of cynicism. Because whose truth is The Truth, you know?

However, Nixon also acknowledges the bitter side of nuanced truths: society routinely favors the white man’s version of the truth as “The Truth.” Nixon beautifully condemns this societal practice of disbelieving oppressed, minority groups:

“As if truth isn’t relative and, if she contends that her experience is true, well then, isn’t it to her at least?”

The nuance of the concepts of “home” and “truth” were what stuck with me most after reading nîtisânak, but the entire memoir is incredible. Lindsay Nixon’s writing is gorgeous, and they bring so much life and realness to each topic they discuss. The best way to understand is to read the book for yourself, and I hope that you will.

The bake: poppyseed muffins.

nîtisânak was so thought-provoking and complex, that at first I felt like summarizing the memoir through baking would be doing it a disservice. I worried that a bake based on nîtisânak would be simplifying Nixon’s story and, by extension, their experiences. But then I remembered that the point of this blog isn’t to summarize the books that I read; it’s to create things that are inspired by them.

What inspired me most in nîtisânak were Nixon’s different descriptions of the concept of “home.” After reading the memoir, I thought a lot about my own definitions of “home.” One of my “homes” is the house and family in which I grew up. There is also the physical space that I occupy now, and my chosen family. With that in mind, I tried to think of something that could merge these versions of home…and I ended up with poppyseed muffins. The bake had to be a muffin of some kind, because that is the only thing I can remember my mom ever baking when I lived with her. I also wanted to incorporate poppy seeds, because my loving partner (AKA my chosen kin) said that a lot of the traditional desserts that his family enjoys involve poppy seeds.

Tried to create something inspired by my nuanced thoughts on “home” – ended up with poppy seed muffins.

I ended up making a modified version of these poppy seed muffins from Taste of Home (very fitting website name given the theme of this bake). I substituted half of the flour with almond flour, and then added a teaspoon of potato flour to help with the bake. I also used ricotta cheese instead of milk.

The muffins are good, but a bit too sweet. Even though they were inspired by my thoughts on home, they don’t make me feel nostalgic for home. That is okay, because I still loved the process of making them. And with more modification to the recipe, I can totally see poppy seed muffins becoming a new tradition that I associate with (my chosen) home.

I enjoyed the muffins with cherry jam and ricotta cheese!