Book Review: Love and Other Thought Experiments

Even though the Booker Prize shortlist has been announced, I’m still working through the longlist. This means I’m reading some books that I already know didn’t make the shortlist – books like Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward. This book is a collection of ten interlinked short-stories, each of which is inspired by a famous philosophical thought experiment.

The book: Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward
Genre: Literary fiction, short-stories, science fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

One of my favorite things about Love and Other Thought Experiments is that it can be read in several different ways. Although the stories in the collection are interlinked, most of them can stand on their own; as such, the book could be read as a collection of standalone short-stories about love and relationships. The links between the stories can also be connected together to form a cohesive and expansive work of philosophical science fiction. Regardless of how you choose to read it, though, Love and Other Thought Experiments is a moving and thought-provoking collection.

Love and Other Thought Experiments is also immensely empathetic. Ward clearly lays out her characters’ flaws and eccentricities, but never passes any judgment on them: the characters are simply human, and none are deemed undeserving of love for their limitations. Even the collection’s most “out there” stories – and one of the stories is so “out there” that I literally shouted “you’ve gotta be kidding me!” at first – are so compelling that it’s hard not to suspend disbelief and become immersed.

**Minor spoiler alert in the next paragraph**

In the final stories of Love and Other Thought Experiments, the book ventures into sci-fi territory and shows the world through a new lens. This reveal clarifies some of the hazy details from previous stories, and allows many of the previous stories to be understood in a new light. I finished this book over a week ago, and I’m still making new connections and realizations!

I feel like Love and Other Thought Experiments is one of those books that you just have to jump into and experience for the fascinating ride that it is, so I don’t have much else to say about it. This book left such an impact on me, but it might not work as well for readers who don’t enjoy philosophical science-fiction.

Book Review: So We Can Glow

This post is a couple weeks late, but I recently read Leesa Cross-Smith’s short story collection So We Can Glow. Actually, as I learned from Melanie at Grab the Lapels, this is a flash-fiction collection: most of the stories are just a few pages long. The stories in this collection feature women in moments of obsession, longing, and fantasy.

The book: So We Can Glow: Stories by Leesa Cross-Smith
Genre: Contemporary, short-stories
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

While the stories all center around similar themes, they are different enough from each other to make for a varied and interesting reading experience. So We Can Glow is a book about obsession, but the stories are also about loneliness, longing, grief, fear, fearlessness, and friendship. The stories also vary in tone – some are whimsical, some are heavy, and some are endearingly weird. That variety in theme and tone really worked for me: it made most of the stories distinct enough from each other to be memorable, and it also allowed me to experience a full range of emotions as I read through the collection.

And even though the stories in this collection are short, Leesa Cross-Smith made them unbelievably captivating in just a few pages. It normally takes me a while to “get into” any new story I’m reading, but with So We Can Glow I instantly felt connected to the characters and their worlds. The writing is lyrical, immersive, nostalgic and also super readable.

I also appreciated how the characters’ emotions are given validity no matter what. Even when the characters behave in challenging ways, Cross-Smith never judges her characters or goes into lengthy explanations to justify their behavior. Instead, she unapologetically shows her characters as they are in the brief moments of their lives that the stories capture. In this way, the collection kind of reminded me of Amber Sparks’ And I Do Not Forgive You or Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You, but Cross-Smith’s stories were much more compelling and accessible to me.

Finally, I want to mention that some of the later stories in the collection follow up on earlier stories. Continuity in a short story collection isn’t a necessity for me, but in this case I really appreciated the opportunity to follow up on old characters and to see their stories from new perspectives.

My overall impression was that the stories in this collection are beautifully written, emotionally evocative, endearing, and unapologetically authentic. I loved and highly recommend So We Can Glow, and can’t wait to read more of Cross-Smith’s work.

Book Review: And I Do Not Forgive You

The last book I read before delving into the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks. This collection of short stories is a contemporary take on fairy tales, myths, and ghost stories – most of which are united by undertones of sadness, bitterness, anger, and redemption.

The book: And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks
Genre: Contemporary fiction, short-stories
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

My favorite thing about And I Do Not Forgive You was that it gives validity to the “undesirable” emotions that women are not “supposed” to admit they feel. The women in Sparks’ short stories are unabashedly sad, bitter, and sometimes enraged. Some want revenge, some long to connect with lost loved ones, and some just want to be left alone. I appreciated that Sparks wholly embraced these “undesirable” feelings that probably all women have felt, yet rarely get to openly discuss.

I also liked that Sparks’ stories featured perspectives from people that society generally ignores: families living in trailer parks, women who were historically important yet barely remembered, cult survivors, children of broken families, and more. Because the characters’ perspectives may be unfamiliar (or even taboo) to readers, I think some of the stories come across as Weird. But I don’t know that the characters in And I Do Not Forgive You are any weirder than me or you or people that we know; they’ve just had starkly different life experiences.

With all of that said, I only liked about half of the stories in the collection. Even though I appreciated what Sparks was doing – and even though I just defended the weirdness of the book – some of the stories were still too “out there” for me. As in, I tried to read them deeply but still had trouble processing and finding meaning in them. Other stories were moving and razor-sharp, though! My two favorite stories were “Everyone’s a Winner in Meadow Park” and “The Language of the Stars.”

Overall, I am glad that I read And I Do Not Forgive You. It was very different from the books I usually read, and it challenged me to think deeply about its various characters and story-lines. If you are looking for something “weird” or different, or if you want a surprising blend of magic/mysticism and contemporality, I recommend this book!

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.

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.