Book Review: Fleishman is in Trouble

Last night, I stayed up until 4 AM binge-reading Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. The novel focuses on newly divorced dad, Toby Fleishman, who feels liberated after many years of unhappy marriage. Toby views the divorce as an opportunity to reconnect with old college friends, focus on his career, and go on dates with “self-actualized” women. But just as Toby is jumping into this new life, his ex-wife Rachel drops their kids off at his place unexpectedly and disappears. Now, on top of being a hepatologist and newly single dad, Toby must also take care of his children full-time and search for his ex-wife – all while reconciling the emotions that he has tried for years to ignore and deny.

The book: Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

I love a good story with an unlikable main character, and Fleishman is in Trouble was no exception. From the first page of the novel, it was clear that Toby Fleishman is an unrealistic and oblivious main character, and that most of his perspectives should be taken with a grain of salt. As the novel progressed, and Toby made one morally questionable decision after the next, it became increasingly clear that the story he told himself about his failed marriage could not possibly be the whole truth, and that he had a lot of unresolved emotional issues.

The psychologically-complicated characters in Fleishman is in Trouble didn’t just stop at Toby: all the main characters in the novel were well-developed and complex. They weren’t always likable, but I appreciated how thoroughly author Taffy Brodesser-Akner explored the roots of the characters’ challenging behaviors. It did take a while for Rachel’s perspective to be explored, though. The first two-thirds of the story revolved around Toby’s perspective, and I found myself impatiently wanting to hear Rachel’s side of the story about halfway through the novel.

One of the biggest strengths of Fleishman is in Trouble was the way it scrutinized the unfair expectations that American society places on mothers, and women in general. I loved how, through the perspectives of her characters, Brodesser-Akner called out men who take advantage of the invisible labor of women, as well as the unfair double-standards that American society places on women. Through the experiences of the two main female characters in the novel, Brodesser-Akner demonstrated how American society judges women for choosing to become housewives or stay-at-home moms, yet also punishes women and mothers for being too ambitious in their careers.

I also liked the way the novel was narrated. Fleishman is in Trouble is narrated by Toby’s college friend, Libby, who retold Toby’s and Rachel’s stories as they had been told to her. Sometimes she infused her own commentary and life experiences into the narrative, too. While some parts of the story might have worked better coming directly from Toby’s or Rachel’s perspective, I thought that Libby’s insights added a nice depth to the novel. In many ways Libby is a counter-example to Rachel: her experiences showed how women who sacrifice their ambitions to become mothers are judged just as harshly as those who are unabashedly ambitious. I also think that because Libby is less self-absorbed than Toby or Rachel, her narration was able to capture nuances that neither of theirs would.

My biggest issue with Fleishman is in Trouble was the characters’ insane wealth and privilege, and the way that was barely addressed. Rachel believes that being poorer than her wealthy classmates was the source of her unhappiness as a child, and is therefore determined to make sure her children are never excluded from top-tier social-status the way she was. She realized early on in her marriage that Toby’s salary would never be sufficient to afford her children the best opportunities, so she went back to work as a talent agent to become the breadwinner of the family. This might have worked for me…if Toby’s “insufficient” salary wasn’t a doctor’s salary of over $250,000! Especially given that the novel is narrated by Toby’s friend who has given up on professional ambition and ladder-climbing (and has moved from New York to the suburbs in New Jersey), I was disappointed by the lack of commentary on wealth, privilege, or materialism.

Overall, I thought that Fleishman is in Trouble was a great, page-turner of a novel. The characters were frustrating and oftentimes unlikable, but they were deeply developed in a way that really worked for me. I also enjoyed the novel’s commentary on gender roles in society, and the way it showed the importance to listening to both sides of every story.

Book Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

My latest read for the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara. This novel, told from the perspective of 9-year-old Jai, tells the story of several children from an impoverished neighborhood in India, all of whom disappear around the same time. Inspired by the detective shows he has seen on TV, Jai decides to investigate the disappearances with the help of his two best friends.

The book: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

One of the biggest strengths of Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is that it compassionately draws attention to major issues in present-day India, including: disappearing children, poverty, wealth inequality, religious tensions, and police corruption. As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear how these issues are interconnected and part of a larger systemic problem. All of this is shown through the perspective of a 9-year-old child who doesn’t quite understand how the world works, but is still impacted by all of these issues.

Prior to reading this novel, I had been skeptical about the story being narrated by a 9-year-old child. After reading the novel, though, I don’t think it would have worked from the perspective of an adult. By telling Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line from a child’s perspective, author Deepa Anappara is able to highlight serious issues of corruption and wealth inequality in contemporary India, without ever seeming preachy or self-righteous. And by developing realistic child characters with unique backgrounds, perspectives, and dreams, Anappara prevents the disappearing children from being viewed as just statistics.

Note: there are potential spoilers in the paragraph below:

While this novel was eye-opening and brilliantly written, the story itself was a bit slow. I thought the plot especially lost momentum around the second half of the novel, when more children continued to disappear but Jai and his friends got no closer to making sense of the disappearances. And while the book’s ending was certainly realistic, it was also disappointing. I think this was intentional: just as I was left wanting more resolution from the story, the families of missing children are left wanting answers about what happened to their children.

All in all, I recommend Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line. The characters are compelling, the setting is immersive, and the book draws attention to societal issues in contemporary India (in a compassionate way). The book may leave you feeling unsettled, but it is well worth the read.

Book Review: The Dutch House

This week, in continuing to read the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, I read The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. This novel centers around two siblings, Danny and Maeve, who grow up in a beautiful estate in suburban Pennsylvania. When Danny is 15, the siblings are forced to abandon the Dutch House, leaving them with a trust for Danny’s education, memories of their childhood home, and an unbreakable bond with each other. The Dutch House shows how the siblings’ experiences in their childhood home shape the people they become as adults, and the decisions they make over the course of their lives.

The book: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

I have conflicting opinions about The Dutch House. Most of the story is told from the perspective of Danny reminiscing about his life experiences, especially his shared experiences with his sister Maeve. A lot of Danny’s reminiscing is non-linear, which makes it realistic (who really recounts their entire life history in chronological order?), but a bit hard to follow at first. I also thought that some of Danny’s memories were told boringly – certain descriptions and details could have been omitted or at least shortened.

I also have mixed feelings about The Dutch House‘s main character. Danny was sometimes a frustrating narrator, because he was so oblivious to and disconnected from the world around him. I can’t decide if this was a weakness of the writing, or an intentional reflection on Danny’s emotional stuntedness and the limitations of his memory. Still, Danny’s obliviously selfish behavior was sometimes difficult to read.

Also, because Danny was the narrator, the other characters in the novel could never be well-developed enough. The only deep relationship Danny has is with his sister, Maeve, and even then he often fails to see things about her. I would have loved to see more of Maeve’s perspective, but because Danny is so oblivious that is impossible. I also would have loved to understand the character of Danny’s step-mother, Andrea, better – she is portrayed very one-dimensionally.

Overall, I enjoyed reading The Dutch House. Although the main character is frustrating, the novel is very character-driven (which I almost always enjoy). And the novel left a lot for the reader to think about, like: would I characterize Danny as a good person or not? How would the story have been different from Maeve’s perspective? Do “saint-like” people get a pass on being bad parents? The Dutch House clearly raised some interesting issues, and has stuck with me a lot in the 36 hours since finishing it. I just wish that the narrator had been even slightly less oblivious – his one-dimensional view of the world resulted in under-developed supporting characters.

Book Review: Weather

I kicked off the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist with Weather by Jenny Offill. The novel centers around Lizzie, a librarian and self-proclaimed “fake shrink” who tries to help everyone around her while devoting little time to herself. When Lizzie agrees to answer questions for her ex-mentor’s podcast Hell and High Water, she slowly spirals into an obsession over the changing climate and doomsday prepping.

The book: Weather by Jenny Offill
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

I expect that Weather will be a polarizing read due to its writing style. The book is written as a collection of distinct (yet ultimately interconnected) thoughts, a sort of inner narrative. As such, there is not a lot of action in the novel – instead, the reader infers what has happened by reading the narrator’s internal processing of events. I personally loved this, because it allowed me to connect with the narrator in a very intimate way, almost like I was in her head experiencing her thoughts.

I also loved the way author Jenny Offill captured the heightened climate anxiety that is so characteristic of our current time. Through the listener questions that Lizzie answers for the climate-change-focused podcast Hell and High Water, we get a sense of the despair and fearfulness that is overcoming society. That sense of potential impending doom seemed especially poignant and relevant now, as people worldwide are actually panicking and doomsday prepping over the coronavirus.

Bonus picture: my cat reads Weather.

The reason why Weather wasn’t a 5-star read for me is because – although the narrative style largely worked for me – the novel felt a bit boring in places. That being said, I still appreciated seeing the world through the lens of the narrator’s semi-mundane life. And I do recommend this book (while knowing that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea).

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Longlist Reaction

This year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist has been announced and I am so excited! I learned about the Women’s Prize for Fiction last year, when many of the book bloggers that I follow posted their reviews of books on the 2019 longlist. Based on their reviews, I read some of the longlisted books (including ones that never would have made it onto my radar otherwise) and found some unexpected gems! In fact, my favorite book of 2019 was Lost Children Archive, which I heard about because so many of the book bloggers I follow were posting about it as part of their WP longlist review.

This year, it is my goal to read every longlisted book before the winner is announced on June 3rd. Before I announce my reaction to the books that were longlisted, I wanted to mention a few books that didn’t make the longlist:

  • Trust Exercise by Susan Choi: this book is critically acclaimed, but has a low rating on Goodreads. It has been on my TBR for almost a year now, but I can never seem to get to it. I had hoped it would make the WP longlist to give me the push I needed to read it!
  • Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid: this is another critically acclaimed book that I’ve been meaning to read for a while! This book is topically relevant in 2020, and I’ve heard great things about it from other book bloggers.
  • Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson: another topically relevant book that is really hot right now. I’m in the minority of people that didn’t like this book (it was “meh” for me). But I thought that given the novel’s takes on feminism and the future of humanity, its positive reception, and its Booker Prize nomination, that it would end up on the WP longlist.
  • The Testaments by Margaret Atwood: the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. I didn’t care for The Handmaid’s Tale when I read it 10 years ago, and I don’t care to read the sequel now. I’m glad this book didn’t make the longlist because it doesn’t need any extra hype.
  • Death in Her Hands by Otessa Moshfegh: I had wishfully hoped this book would make the WP longlist because 1) this book is already on my priority TBR, and 2) I love Moshfegh’s writing.

And now…the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 longlist!

  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes: I’m cautiously optimistic about this book. I absolutely loved Circe, which was also a feminist re-imagination of a Greek classic. And more generally, I love books that give voices to those who have previously been silenced. So this sounds like something up my alley.
  • Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams: I was so pleasantly surprised to see this on the WP longlist! I already read this book and really enjoyed it. It is a story about a young 20-something trying to find herself and heal from a traumatic childhood…and it is really well-executed. So happy to see this novel getting more well-deserved attention. (PS – you can read my review of Queenie here)
  • The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel: I am not going to read this book. It is historical fiction that takes place in 1500’s England AND it is close to 800 pages AND it is the 3rd book in a trilogy that I haven’t read. Hard pass.
  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: this is another “cautiously optimistic” one for me. It is a WWII book, but it is more about the aftermath of the war on a family relationship, which could be really interesting. I have also heard great things about Ann Patchett’s writing, so I’m excited to read her for myself!
  • Actress by Anne Enright: I’m neutral about this book. For some reason, I usually don’t like books about actors or writers…but I did like The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (a book about an actress). Could work for me, we will see.
  • Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie: another book that I feel neutral about. I don’t quite know what to expect based on the official description, so we will see.
  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara: I am pretty excited about this mystery/thriller novel that takes place in contemporary India. It sounds unlike anything I’ve read before, in a good way. My only potential reservation is that it is written from the perspective of a nine-year-old boy; whether or not this works will depend on the author’s execution.
  • How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee: I’m not sure how I feel about this book. It sounds like it will be a difficult read (because of the subject matter), but since the novel is written about Singapore by a Singaporean author, I think the book is more likely to be written from a compassionate perspective than an exploitative one.
  • Weather by Jenny Ofill: another book that I’m excited for. Based on what little I know about it, the characters sound compellingly complex, which is something I love in a novel.
  • The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo: a multigenerational book about family relationships and secrets, this one could go either way for me. I am intimidated by the book’s page count (532), but hopefully it will be a good read!
  • Dominicana by Angie Cruz: another “cautiously optimistic.” The novel is about a woman who enters into a loveless marriage for the opportunity to immigrate to the United States, and what comes of her life after she moves. It sounds like this book contains a lot of elements that I typically like: socially-relevant themes, complex characters, and morally difficult decisions.
  • Girl by Edna O’Brien: I am pretty hesitant about this book. It is a story about Nigerian girls who were abducted by Boko Haram…and it is written by a white author. Major red flag for me, as books about marginalized people written by non-marginalized people often end up in the realm of exploitation/trauma-porn.
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell: cautiously optimistic. On the one hand, it is a 1500’s period piece, which is not at all my thing. But on the other hand, it is a re-imagination of history from the perspective of Shakespeare’s wife, which sounds like it has the potential to be amazing!
  • Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson: lukewarm about this. It low-key sounds like the debutante ball episode of Gilmore Girls, but spun into a novel.
  • Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner: cautiously optimistic? I think I’m the only person who isn’t mad about this book making the WP longlist. I love a novel with an unlikeable main character, and books where unrealistic characters are forced to change their way of thinking. So it sounds like this book has a lot of potential to work for me.

Are you following/reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction? What are your thoughts on the longlist? Do you agree or disagree with any of my takes? What books are you most excited for? I’m so eager to discuss!

2019 reading review & 2020 goals

Now is the time of year when everybody is posting their 2019 reading stats, and goals for 2020. So I am going to hop on that bandwagon and do the same! I’m keeping things simple, and combining my 2019 review and 2020 goals into a single post.

Booking and blogging in 2019:

I read 34 books in 2019. Compared to many of the book-bloggers that I follow, this number is laughably low. But 2019 was my first year of reading as a hobby; prior to 2019 I never read consistently throughout any calendar year. So while the number is low compared to others’, this is definitely a personal success for me.

I baked things for 30 of the 34 books I read this year. If you follow my blog, you probably know that it started off as a dual baking/reading project, where I baked something inspired by every book that I read. Toward the end of the year, I was unable to keep up with my goal to bake something for every book. Still, 30 bakes is a lot! I became a much better baker this year; and also strengthened connections with coworkers, neighbors, and friends by regularly sharing baked goods with them.

My favorite three books that I read this year were:

2020 goals:

Read at least 45 books. Last year I read 34 books (average: ~3 per month). I would love to read even more this year! With one of my New Year’s resolutions being to limit to weeknight TV time, I think I can accomplish 45.

Read every book longlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction. By following amazing book-bloggers on wordpress, I learned about the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and read 6 of the 16 longlisted books. Some of these books I probably wouldn’t have read had it not been for the Women’s Prize, but I really enjoyed them: four of those books were 5-star reads for me, and one of them (Lost Children Archive) ended up being my favorite book of the year. So this year I’d like to broaden my horizons even more, and read more excellent woman-authored fiction!

Read at least two classics. In 2019, all the books I read were contemporary, with the “oldest” one being published in 2008. This makes sense, because there is always so much great new material being published. But this year I would like to at least slightly diversify by reading a couple of excellent older books.

Changes to the blog in 2020:

I will no longer be doing a bake for every book that I read. As I mentioned above, it has become too hard to keep up with this project. My bakes (and therefore my blog posts) are now over a month behind my reading, and this gap will likely continue to widen. Instead, I will post standalone book reviews, participate in blogging events, and pursue a different cooking/baking project…

I am starting a project for 2020 called “Year of Yeh.” This project is essentially Julie & Julia, but using Molly Yeh’s cookbook Molly on the Range. I recently received several cookbooks as gifts, and I want to start using them! So this year, I plan to cook and bake my way through Molly on the Range. I specifically chose this cookbook for two reasons. First, I have baked a few things from Yeh’s online blog and I really enjoy her recipes (including tahini milkshakes, coffee-cardamom cake, and fresh mint cake). And second, her cookbook contains a nice mix of main dishes, side dishes, and desserts – so I will get to try and learn many new things.

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).