Mini-Reviews of Short Reads: The Origin of Others & Dear Ijeawele

Over the past couple of months I read two short (~100 pages) nonfiction books that I definitely want to discuss, but don’t have that much to say about. Although I read the titles a few weeks apart, I think the books go quite well together, as they are both short pieces of nonfiction that focus on themes of social justice and equality. So with that, please enjoy (or don’t – I can’t tell you how to feel) my first ever mini-reviews post!

The origin of others by toni morrison

The Origin of Others is a collection of six essays which demonstrate how societal injustices and inequalities often occur through the act of excluding, or “othering,” minority groups. By characterizing minority groups as “others,” rather than human beings deserving of the same rights as everyone else, the in-group is able to justify its unfair advantages and even abuse of power over the oppressed. Morrison talks about distinct forms of othering including: romancing and romanticizing slavery, fetishization, and stereotypical depictions of minorities in literature and films.

Although short, The Origin of Others packs a powerful punch. The foreword alone (which is written by Ta-Nehisi Coates) had me nodding and underlining vigorously because, like the rest of the book, it is full of powerful insights. One of the reasons why this book is so powerful is because Morrison uses examples about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement to illustrate her points – yet her points are still incredibly pertinent to the current moment. There is something so striking and stirring about clearly seeing the parallels between slavery and contemporary society. I’m sure this was no accident on Morrison’s part, as The Origin of Others was published in 2017.

Overall, The Origin of Others was an incredibly powerful read. Despite being only 112 pages, this book is neither light nor easy to read – yet it is also so eye-opening and necessary. I highly recommend it.

Dear Ijeawele by chimamanda ngozi adichie

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions was born after a friend of Adichie’s asked her for advice on how to raise her daughter as a feminist. The result is this short book of – as the title says – fifteen suggestions on how to raise a feminist daughter, with elaborations and examples to accompany each suggestion. Adichie’s suggestions include rejecting gender roles/stereotypes, teaching women to aspire to more than just marriage, teaching girls to question why certain behaviors are criticized in women but not men, rejecting the idea that “likeability” is a measure of success, and talking openly about sex.

For the most part, I got on well with this book. I agree with most of Adichie’s suggestions, and think that her advice is valuable for raising a curious and socially conscious child of any gender – not just a daughter. However, as the need for intersectional feminism becomes increasingly apparent, I feel that this book isn’t intersectional enough. For one thing, many of Adichie’s examples – like teach your daughter about oppression, but don’t turn the oppressed into martyrs or saints – assume that the reader enjoys a certain level of privilege and is not oppressed themself. Additionally, the book is not very trans-inclusive, as it contains well-intentioned, yet problematic statements which equate being a woman with having a vagina (for example, in rejecting the notion that women in a cis-heterosexual relationship must do all the cooking for their partner, Adichie writes that “the knowledge of cooking does not come pre-installed in a vagina“).

Despite its limitations, though, I still think Dear Ijeawele is a good book with good advice. I recommend it, with the caveat that you should also read more intersectional books (such as Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism) in order to recognize the limitations of this one.

Book Review: I Contain Multitudes

I Contain Multitudes is science journalist Ed Yong’s deep dive into the world of microbes. By examining diverse scientific studies under the umbrella of microbiology – from studies of animals that literally do not survive without microbial symbionts, to the (widely accepted) theory that our own Eukaryotic organelles evolved from bacteria – Yong illustrates how microbes are interwoven into every facet of life as we know it.

The book: I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong
Genre: Science nonfiction
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Note: I read I Contain Multitudes as an audiobook, which likely played a major role in some of my opinions of it.

When I read science nonfiction, I want to learn and be filled with a sense of wonder and amazement: I Contain Multitudes achieved both of those things. Even though I do microbiology research, I didn’t know that most animals can’t survive without microbes, or that the human body hosts tons of non-pathogenic viruses, or even that the majority of viruses are non-pathogenic. Throughout this book, I found myself marveling at the specific things that microbes can be responsible for (like triggering deadly auto-immune responses in organisms across the tree of life), as well as their involvement in virtually every ecological niche on Earth.

While the book was successful in conveying the importance of microbes, however, some of the specific studies that Yong cites felt dryly written to me. I found it hard to keep track of acronyms and hyper-specific jargon, and to wrap my head around certain ecological interactions. I read I Contain Multitudes less than a month ago, and I’ve already forgotten several examples from the book because I couldn’t fully grasp them to begin with.

I also felt like I Contain Multitudes could have been made shorter by omitting a few of the scientific studies. While all the microbes that Yong covers are interesting in some way, it’s not clear that every study was strictly necessary for the book. At times, the book felt less like a cohesive story about microbes, and more like a collection of examples of microbes that do cool things.

Something that Yong handled very well was addressing the nuanced nature of scientific research. I appreciate that Yong steered away from oversimplified or misleading scientific claims, and that he called out mainstream news companies that do oversimplify or sensationalize microbiology research. I also like that when Yong presented controversial studies, he addressed the limitations and critiques of those studies. I respect and appreciate that Yong showed the nuance and complexity of scientific research – even though it sometimes came at a cost to my own understanding.

Overall, I enjoyed and learned a lot from I Contain Multitudes. While I found some of the science to be inaccessible and some examples unnecessary, I thought that the book clearly and excellently communicated the abundance and importance of microbes. And I also have to point out again that some of my negative takes on this book are very likely the result of trying to read science nonfiction as an audiobook!

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: Big Friendship

Co-written by best friends Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, Big Friendship is a memoir of the authors’ friendship. Using their friendship as a model, Sow and Friedman explore why friendship is so important, how and why certain people become friends, why those friendships sometimes end, and the (oftentimes invisible and unspoken) work required to maintain close friendships. Ever since I moved over 1,000 miles up the coast, I’ve wondered how to make new friends in a new city – but I’ve spent considerably less time thinking about how to maintain those friendships. Big Friendship seemed like something I needed to read.

The book: Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
Genre: Nonfiction, memoir
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

The first couple chapters of Big Friendship left me feeling skeptical, because the authors didn’t seem relatable at first – and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to connect with the authors’ advice if I couldn’t connect with them. Sow and Friedman clearly value ambition and success, and they spend a lot of time in the early chapters talking about their professional achievements. This made me worry that the book was aimed for a more professionally ambitious audience, with an emphasis on #girlbosses and #squadgoals. While there certainly was some of that, and while the authors seem to care about climbing the professional ladder in a way that I probably never will, I still got a lot out of Big Friendship (including the chapter that focused on female camaraderie in the workplace).

One of my favorite things about Big Friendship was its emphasis on the importance of respectful but honest communication between friends. Sow and Friedman point out that many women have been socialized to avoid “drama” at all costs, but that there’s an important distinction between avoiding “drama” and sweeping issues under the rug in a way that may ultimately be harmful to a relationship. They also talk about how jealousy can turn ugly, but how jealousy can also be used as an opportunity for good communication. For example, if I’m feeling jealous that my work friend got an incredible promotion that I wanted, instead of being salty that I didn’t get the promotion, I should reach out to that friend for advice!

While I gained some great insights from Big Friendship, I think the book would have been even stronger if it hadn’t used Sow and Friedman’s friendship as the model for all their ideas about friendship. I’m inspired by the co-authors’ ability to maintain a deep and rewarding long-distance friendship, but at the same time, they are just two people, and not every friendship is going to look like theirs. In fact, many friendships cannot look like Sow and Friedman’s, because most people probably don’t have the resources to resolve rough patches in a friendship by going on a luxurious spa weekend, or paying for expensive couple’s counseling (two things that the co-authors talk about in the book).

While Big Friendship certainly isn’t perfect, I still enjoyed it. The book is highly readable, and surprisingly not too heavy despite its focus on maintaining deep, interpersonal relationships. And even though I found many of the authors’ anecdotes unrelatable, I still gained valuable insights from their book.

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: How To Be Fine

I had to take a break from the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I normally alternate between reading fiction and non-fiction books, so after six novels in a row from the WP longlist, my brain was craving something other than literary fiction. How To Be Fine seemed like the perfect book for the occasion. Written by the co-hosts of the By The Book podcast, How To Be Fine is a reflection on the authors’ experiences living by the rules of various self-help books.

The book: How To Be Fine by Jolenta Greenberg & Kristen Meinzer
Genre: Non-fiction/self-help
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

On a technical level, How To Be Fine is very readable. The writing style is casual to the point that it sometimes feels like hearing a story from a close friend. As a fan of the podcast that inspired How To Be Fine, this writing style worked for me – but if I had picked up this book without ever having listened to an episode of By The Book, I might have found the writing underwhelming.

Structurally, the book is easy-to-follow. It is divided into three sections: what self-help advice worked for Kristen and Jolenta, what didn’t work, and the topics that they wish more self-help books covered. My favorite insights from the first section were Kristen’s philosophy that being an optimist and being an activist actually go hand in hand (she argues that as an optimist, she is hopeful that her activism will amount to something), and the exploration of what a good, meaningful apology entails. Despite containing interesting insights, though, I felt that the first section of the book was bit too long (Kristen and Jolenta detail 13 pieces of advice from self-help books that improved their lives, when 8-10 probably would have sufficed).

In the second and third sections (what didn’t work, and what the authors wish more self-helps books talked about), How To Be Fine really shines. In the section on what advice didn’t improve their lives – or in some cases actually had detrimental effects – Kristen and Jolenta explore how some books written under the guise of self-help seem more like covert marketing tools for authors trying to become famous “lifestyle gurus,” and how the term “self-help” has unfortunately been co-opted by influencers and consumerism. In the section on what advice they wish more self-help books included, Kristen and Jolenta talk about body positivity, acknowledging and accepting all of one’s feelings (even anger, which many self-help books apparently demonize), and the benefits of seeing a therapist. I thought that both the second and third sections provided excellent commentary on the limitations of self-help books, and that the third section nicely complemented the second by offering healthy alternatives to some of the unhelpful – or even toxic – advice that is perpetuated under the label of “self-help.”

Another thing that I appreciated in How To Be Fine was the authors’ transparency. Both Kristen and Jolenta seem to present themselves in all of their complexity. From eating disorders to financial struggles to cruel and unsupportive family members, neither Kristen nor Jolenta pretends to “have it all figured out” or be perfect. Because the authors present themselves in a way that seems authentic, their advice also comes across as genuine.

Overall, I really enjoyed How To Be Fine. The book is a quick and easy read that strikes a surprisingly nice balance between praise and criticism of self-help books. Additionally, the authors present themselves in a way that feels authentic and responsible (although I am likely biased by the fact that I listen to the authors’ podcast, which inspired this book). This book was the exact type of fun – yet not superficial – read that my brain needed after six literary fiction novels in a row.

Book Review: Mobituaries

My first read of February was Mobituaries by Mo Rocca. Inspired by Rocca’s podcast of the same name, Mobituaries gives obituaries to people (or things) who are misremembered or altogether forgotten by society: mediocre presidents who accomplished great things outside of their presidency, revolutionary athletes who nobody’s heard of, and even dragons.

The book: Mobituaries by Mo Rocca
Genre: Historical non-fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

I enjoyed and learned so much from Mobituaries. My favorite stories were about famous people who are still remembered today (for acting or modeling or being president), but perhaps not as well as they should be. For example, I learned that Herbert Hoover – before he became president – was an engineer and humanitarian who saved hundreds of thousands of Europeans from starvation during World War I.

Also, for a book about people who have died, Mobituaries is extremely positive, and even funny! Author Mo Rocca injects his offbeat humor into his obituaries (excuse me, Mobituaries) at surprising times, but it never feels disrespectful or out of place. Instead Rocca’s humor lightens the mood of the book, and prevents the stories from getting heavy or dry.

I did have a couple issues with the book, though. The first is that, as a listener of the Mobituaries podcast, I was disappointed by the number of stories that were repeats of podcast episodes (except for the story of the poisoning of the famous Auburn tree – I will never tire of that story). This book was advertised as having unique stories not told on the podcast…but that wasn’t 100% true.

My second issue with Mobituaries was the size of the book! It is huge! I think the book is intended as a “coffee-table book.” It definitely would make a great coffee-table book, but the large size of the book made it a bit challenging to carry around or even to read in bed.

Minor inconveniences aside, I loved Mobituaries. Mo Rocca pays respectful tributes to individuals whose complete legacies have been forgotten, and tells each story in an upbeat (and oftentimes funny) way. If you want to learn a bit more about history, I definitely recommend this book!

Book Review: Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis

The book: Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis by Ashley Peterson
Genre: Non-fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

After reading Psych Meds Made Simple, I read author Ashley Peterson’s other (and more recent) book Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis. From Goodreads:

“Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis aims to cut through the misinformation, stigma, and assumptions that surround mental illness and give a clear picture of what mental illness really is.”

I loved Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis for many of the same reasons that I loved Psych Meds Made Simple. First of all, the book is very well-structured. The introductory chapters lay the foundation for the rest of the book, which makes the book easy-to-follow from the get-go. Also, for many of the illnesses that are described in the book, not only are their official criteria for diagnosis listed, but there is also an excerpt about the illness written by somebody who has actually been diagnosed with it. These personal excerpts depict what living with psychiatric illness is like, and how mental illness can affect peoples’ day-to-day lives. I absolutely loved the contrast between the matter-of-fact criteria for diagnosis juxtaposed against such deeply personal passages.

Also, Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis does a great job of de-stigmatizing mental illness. By sharing the official criteria for diagnosis of psychiatric disorders, author Ashley Peterson illustrates the difference between how people use terms colloquially (e.g. “I’m such a neat freak, I basically have OCD”) and what those terms actually mean. And by including passages written by people who have been diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, we get to hear voices and perspectives of those who suffer from mental illness in their own words.

With a book like Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis, the temptation to diagnosis people (yourself or others) is very real. But at several points throughout the book, the author reinforces the point that psychiatric diagnosis can only be made by a highly trained clinician. This is so important and responsible, and it one of the things that I love most about the author’s writing! She synthesizes complex and nuanced information, and puts it into a concise, digestible format…and then she reminds the reader that the information is, in fact, very nuanced and not meant to be mis-applied.

Overall, Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis was an informative and eye-opening read. My favorite thing about it was getting to hear many unique perspectives that I probably wouldn’t find elsewhere. I recommend this book to anybody who suffers from mental illness, knows someone with who suffers from mental illness (pretty sure we all do), is interested in psychology, or wants to hear the perspectives of those who experience the world in a different way.

Book Review: Psych Meds Made Simple

The book: Psych Meds Made Simple by Ashley Peterson
Genre: Science non-fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Last month, I read Psych Meds Made Simple, a short non-fiction book that explains the science behind common psychiatric medications. I found this book through the Mental Health @ Home Blog. MH@H is one of my favorite blogs – I especially love Ashely’s science advocacy posts – so when I saw that the author had published a book, I was interested to read it.

The objective of Psych Meds Made Simple is to make “pharmacology accessible” to those who might not have a background in chemistry (or any science, in general), and it wildly succeeds in doing this. The book is structured in a way that eases the reader into the science of pharmacology: the first few sections of the book provide background information that act as building blocks for understanding the rest of the book. The explanations given are scientifically sound, but never more complicated than they need to be.

Not only does the author do a great job at making the science of pharmacology accessible, but she also de-stigmatizes psychiatric medications throughout the book. At several points in the book, she explains why most psych meds are not addictive (despite so many of them being stigmatized as such). And in her descriptions of different psychiatric medications, she sticks to the facts that are known about them: what neurotransmitters do they interact with, what side effects do they cause, what is a typical dosage, etc. By sticking to the facts – as opposed to opinions that place subjective value on actions – Peterson keeps her book judgment-free.

The above paragraph does NOT mean – however – that the book blindly promotes any and all psychiatric medications. There are some medications that seem to be effective for specific illnesses, but the science behind them is unclear. And while most psych meds are not considered addictive, some do have addictive potential. Where either of these facts are true, Peterson is transparent about it. Furthermore, she states throughout her book that medication is not meant to be an entire treatment plan for psychiatric illness. Instead, she emphasizes that medication can be used as part of a bigger-picture wellness plan – but a part that can provide real symptom relief and aid in recovery.

Overall, Psych Meds Made Simple was a great read. Author Ashley Peterson cares deeply about providing readers with non-judgmental, science-based information, and her writing reflects that. In a misinformation-riddled society that deeply stigmatizes mental illness, Psych Meds Made Simple is a compassionate and scientifically accurate breath of fresh air.

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!