Volume 1, No. 29: Family Sagas + Tahini Chocolate Chip Cookies

Greetings, book people! It is well and truly fall, and, at this point, you probably know how I feel about that. So I’ll refrain from shouting about how perfect it is and how much I won’t miss summer, not even a tiny fraction of an iota.

Usually, I pick books for this newsletter from various genres. That’s part of the fun: talking about different kinds of books that share some theme or quality. But this week I’m breaking all the rules. Apologies to all my SFF and nonfiction fans out there; today I’m talking realistic fiction—specifically, family sagas.

Friends, I love them. I could read family sagas endlessly and never get bored. Picking only three was definitely a challenge. (In fact, why stick with three? Other family sagas I’ve reviewed in this newsletter include The Seed Keeper, Infinite Country, The Thirty Names of Night, Sharks in the Time of Saviors, The Removed, Caul Baby, and Blue-Skinned Gods.)

These three books have a lot in common. They all happen to be stories about immigrant families. They’re all told from multiple points of view, and they explore messy intergenerational relationships. They all have queer characters. I didn’t pick them because of these similarities—they’re simply three books I wholeheartedly adore— but I’ve realized that they have a lot to say to each other. All of them are about silence and its costs, about the unknowable spaces between parents and children, and about what happens when characters refuse to bridge those spaces.

The Books

Backlist: America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo (Fiction, 2019)

I’ve read and loved so many family sagas that picking just one backlist title was…well, I sort of had to just close my eyes and point. I decided to go with this one, not only because I absolutely love it, but because I haven’t seen it get a ton of hype across the bookish internet. I am here to hype it, because it is wonderful.

It’s a multigenerational story about three generations of Filipina woman. The novel opens with this incredible prologue in which we meet Paz, who immigrates to Milpitas, CA with her husband. Paz offers her life story in this dazzling, fast-paced stream-of-consciousness narrative. It’s a visceral and powerful way to begin the story; I was hooked immediately.

The book then switches gears. The bulk of the novel concerns Hero, Paz’s niece. Hero spent most her young adulthood as part of the anti-Marco resistance in the Philippines. After being released from a prison camp in the late 1980s, she arrives in Milpitas to live with her aunt and uncle and their young daughter, Roni. This is where the book lingers, as Hero slowly adjusts to life in America. She has a complicated relationship with her aunt and uncle, and she becomes close to their daughter Roni. She also carries the scars and traumas of her coming-of-age during a dictatorship. She comes to the U.S. for a fresh start, but it’s the first time she’s really lived as an adult outside of the intensity of the resistance movement. Big chunks of the novel are told in flashbacks, so we get to see not only Hero in the present, but a younger Hero back in the Philippines.

It’s a quiet, meandering novel. I’m still amazed by this, because it does cover a ton of Filipino history, and some of it is brutal. Castillo goes into detail about Hero’s life during Marco’s reign, which involves a lot of violence. But there’s nothing dramatic or sensational about the book. It’s strength is in the details, the everyday moments, the emotional complexities of every relationship.

I also love the structure. It’s all over the place, with flashbacks and time jumps, and there’s that prologue about Paz, haunting the edges of the story. I love the way Castillo builds it, offering us bits and pieces of all of these lives, leaving some stories untold, delving into the details of others. It’s about the silences that exist between generations, about first and second generation immigrant experiences, about the memories and traumas that live inside bodies. All of these things come across in different ways in Paz, Hero, and Roni. There’s a lot of wrangling and grappling and messy confrontations between all of them. We get to watch the distances between them expand and contract. It’s a breathtaking journey.

There’s also an incredibly nuanced queer romance at the heart of the book. Hero falls in love with Rosalyn, the granddaughter of a Filipina woman who owns a restaurant that, over time, becomes a haven for Hero and Roni. It’s a relationship that develops slowly, partially because Hero is reluctant to let herself be truly seen. There’s so much healing that goes on, and it makes the love story all the more poignant. It’s not a simple story. It’s messy—non-linear, almost—full of starts and stops, pitfalls and moments of joy. The specificity of it took my breath away. I especially love how Castillo writers about desire and sex and intimacy, and all the various identities and histories and insecurities and stories that make relationships.

One last thing: the mediations on food and language. Both are central to the plot and the way the characters interact with each other. Language, especially, shows up again and again. Castillo explores all the ways language intersects with identity, place, home, the experience of being an immigrant. There’s a ton of untranslated Tagalog and Ilocano throughout the book, and whenever I come across untranslated language in a novel, I rejoice. It’s so beautifully done. It makes the book feel immersive and true. And besides, why should a character translate their words for the benefit of a white, non-Filipino audience? The language is a kind of claiming, a taking up of space, a celebration, a grounding. I listened to the audiobook, which I can’t recommend enough, and getting to hear all of the Tagalog and Ilocano out loud made me appreciate it even more.

Frontlist: The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan (Fiction)

I checked this book out of the library back in March, but didn't get to it before I had to return it. Then in August, on a whim, I decided to try it out on audio. I knew basically nothing about it besides that it was a family saga about several generations of a Syrian Lebanese American family. I was in the mood for a character-driven family saga, so I dove into the 20 hour audiobook. I spent the next few days avoiding all other responsibilities so I could listen to this book basically non-stop. It is that good.

Very basically, the novel is about adult three siblings and their parents who all reunite for the first time in years at the family house in Beirut. Idris, the patriarch, has decided to sell the family home after the death of his father. His wife Mazna and his three grown children are horrified. They all fly to Beirut to stop the sale from going through. Over the course of a summer, a whole lot of messy stuff happens.

I’m getting overexcited just thinking about this one. It’s got the two things that, for me, always add up to an exceptional novel: perfect character development and perfect pacing. Let’s start with the characters. There’s Ava, the oldest, a microbiologist, married with two kids, living in Brooklyn, always trying to live up to the ideal of a perfect daughter, struggling in her relationship. Then there’s Mimi, the middle child, who works at a restaurant in Austin but whose true love has always been music. Naj, the youngest, is a queer musician who moved back to Beirut as an adult and has become an internationally famous singer/songwriter. Mazna, their Syrian mother, was an actor before she immigrated to America with her husband Idris, a Lebanese surgeon who's had a long and successful career in America.

Here’s my favorite thing in fiction: characters I absolutely love who are flawed and frustrating and not always likable. I was riveted by every character in this book. Their inner lives, their internal struggles, their histories, their fears and plans and desires for their futures. Their massive mistakes. The ways they fail to show up for each other. The secrets they keep. I love books about people I can imagine so clearly because they act like humans act: selfishly, impulsively, thoughtfully. I wanted everything to work out for every member of this family; watching them hurt each other, intentionally and unintentionally, was painful. Watching them find their way back to each other was a joy. I wanted them all to be okay, but not because they were “good” people. Because they were people I came to understand intimately, thanks to Alyan’s masterful storytelling.

The incredible characterization is part of what makes the pacing so good. I cared about every detail—Ava’s phone calls with her white husband back in the U.S., Naj’s late-night conversations with her brother Mimi, Mimi’s self-indulgent whining and refusal to look clearly at his life. It didn't matter what was happening—whether it was a flashback to Mazna’s young adulthood, when she used to sneak across the border into Lebanon to see friends, or Mimi recounting a recent band practice, or the whole family arguing in the house in Lebanon—I could not look away. The present of the story depicts a summer of immense change; every character is going through a life crisis of some kind. Their backstories are also full of movement. The blending of the various timelines is brilliant. But the book is also building toward something. There are all these small crises of love and family and parenting and carer, but there’s a larger something looming on the horizon that slowly becomes more obvious. It’s a book that builds and builds, but never feels rushed. Alyan lingers in so many moments. There’s this wonderful sense of expansiveness to the whole story.

Honestly I want to just keep on rambling about how much I loved this, but I won’t. It is about so much, it’s impossible to sum up in a review. It’s about the legacies of war and violence and displacement, about what it means to be an Arab-America, about the lifelong reverberations of small events, about marriage and power and generational differences between women. It’s about siblings, and stories, and secrets, and familial expectation, and living between among cultures, and what it means to call a place home. I loved every moment of it and never wanted it to end, though I loved the ending.

Upcoming: Tell Me How to Be by Neel Patel (Fiction, Flatiron, 12/7)

In many ways, this novel is about two people, a mother and a son, who are unable to talk to and relate to each other, despite the fact that their lives have remarkable similarities. It’s a heartbreaking read, painful and claustrophobic for long sections, and yet it’s also cathartic. At times, reading it felt a bit like lancing a wound and watching all the poison drain out—just very, very slowly.

The story is told via two second-person POVs. Akash is a gay Indian American man living in LA. His life is spiraling out of control: his relationship with his white boyfriend is falling apart, his drinking is out of control, his career as a music producer isn’t going where he wants it to, he has no money, and he’s not out to his family. His relationship with his older brother Bijal has been a disaster ever since he got drunk and collapsed at Bijal’s wedding. He’s miserable and lonely and hurting, and it comes through in his narration. His sections are addressed to his childhood friend Parth, a character whose importance in Akash’s life becomes clear as the novel unfolds.

His mother Renu is unhappy in a different way. It’s been a year since her husband died, and she’s decided to sell the house and move back to London, where she lived as a young woman after leaving Dar es Salam, where she grew up. She’s bored and exhausted by the life she’s lived in suburban Illinois, yearning for the freedom she had before she got married and moved to the U.S. Her sections are addressed to Kareem, the Muslim man she fell in love with back in London before her marriage.

The novel unfolds over the course of a week or so, when Akash and Bijal return home to mark the one-year anniversary of their father’s death and help Renu pack up the house. Everyone is a mess. Everyone is keeping secrets from each other. Or maybe secrets isn’t exactly the right word. They’re all holding pieces of themselves safe, out of the light, where nothing can hurt them. There is so much silence in this book. Bijal and Akash hardly speak to each other for the first 2/3 of the novel. Renu is hilarious, smart, sharply observant, and sarcastic—but rarely lets either of her sons see any of this. They see only a silver of who she is, what she’s been through, and what she wants. Likewise, she sees only versions of them: Bijal, the perfect son, a married doctor. Akash, the failure: a broke alcoholic with no career prospects. The beauty of the novel is watching these characters slowly begin to reveal themselves to each other. In doing so, they’re able not only to relate differently to each other, but to see their own lives in new ways.

I inhaled this book in two sittings. Partly because I wanted to get through it. Akash’s sections, especially, are hard to read. His pain is so palpable; he makes bad choice after bad choice. But I also simply wanted to spend all the time I could with these characters. Yes, the book deals with a lot of intense themes: homophobia, racism, alcoholism, grief. But it’s also full of snarky humor. There are moments of levity. The characters are so vivid. Even the minor characters—Akash’s boyfriend, Renu’s best friend, and especially Kareem and Parth, the people who have defined their lives—feel like whole people with their own complicated messes. This is a book that’s easy to sink into. It flows perfectly. Structurally, it’s simple and elegant. I had a sense of where it was going, and it mostly went there, with a few surprises along the way.

The thing I love most about it, though, is the way that Renu’s and Akash’s stories merge and divide and merge again. They are both preoccupied with people from their pasts. There’s this upsetting sense of separateness throughout the whole book. Here is this mother and son, their relationship strained, who are both hurting in similar ways. Over the course of the book, Renu and Akash revisit their pasts, and their relationships to Kareem and Parth shift and change and become new. And it’s by finally confronting those relationships that they find their way back to each other. It’s such a beautiful story about healing and letting go and starting over and learning to truly see another person, instead of just looking at yourself reflected in them.

It’s out December 7th, and you can preorder it here.

The Bake

This bake has nothing to do with families or sagas or family sagas. I am just obsessed with tahini in baked goods, and I’d been craving chocolate chip cookies. So I made these. And they’re super delicious. So I wanted to tell you about them.

Tahini Chocolate Chip Cookies

These are a pretty basic chocolate chip cookie, with tahini and sesame seeds. Because everything is better with tahini.

Ingredients:

  • 8 Tbs (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

  • 65 grams (1/3 cup) tahini

  • 150 grams (3/4 cup) toasted sugar

  • 67 grams (1/3 cup) dark brown sugar

  • 1/2 tsp salt

  • 1 tsp vanilla

  • 1 egg

  • 102 grams (3/4 cup) all-purpose flour

  • 28 grams (1/4 cup) whole wheat pastry flour

  • 1/4 tsp baking soda

  • 3 Tbs sesame seeds

  • 6 ounces (170 grams) bittersweet chocolate, chopped (feel free to use more if you want!)

Preheat the oven to 350. Line two baking trays with silicone mats or parchment paper.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or with handheld beaters, cream the butter, tahini, both sugars, and salt until pale and smooth, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and vanilla and mix on low speed until combined. Scrape down the bottom of the bowl, and then measure the flours and baking soda right into it. Mix on low speed until no streaks of flour remain. Add the sesame seeds and chocolate and mix again, just to combine.

Scoop out mounds of dough (a little smaller than a tablespoon) and roll them between your palms to form smooth balls. Place them about 2 inches apart on the cookie sheets. I am impatient, and don’t like having to mess with two batches of cookies, so I crammed 12 cookies onto each baking sheet. These are spreaders; my cookies merged. If you care about that, you’ll need to make more than one batch. If you don’t, you’ll have less pretty but equally delicious cookies sooner.

Bake for 13-16 minutes, until the edges are just set. The centers will still be soft. I opened the oven and banged the pans a few times after 13 minutes, then baked them for two minutes longer. That’s what gives them that delightful crinkly edge. It’s not essential, though it is fun.

They’ll last for a week or so if you can hold onto them that long. Both the dough and the baked cookies freeze beautifully.

The Bowl & The Beat

The Bowl: Lamb and Bulgur Salad with Roasted Peppers & Onions

This is one of those dishes that evolved magically as I was making it. I was just going to broil some lamb kebabs I’d defrosted with some onions and peppers, and then I decided to make a little feta-parsley sauce, and then I realized I wanted a grain, and before I knew what was happening I’d made a delicious grain salad bursting with all sorts of treats: honey-roasted lamb, fresh thyme, pistachios, feta. Pure kitchen magic.

Preheat the oven to 425. Thickly slice 2-3 medium onions and dump them on a baking tray. Trim a handful of small sweet peppers (I used about 8), take out the seeds, and quarter them. Add them to the baking sheet, and toss with olive oil and the spices of your choice. I used cumin and a little bit of sumac. Stick it in the oven.

Meanwhile, prepare the lamb. Or don’t, if you don’t eat meat. Or use beef instead. I used about a pound of kebab meat, cut into small 1” pieces. Toss the meat with a tablespoon or so of honey, several pressed garlic cloves, a glug of olive oil, a drizzle of sherry vinegar, salt and pepper, and some fresh thyme. Cut a lemon into chunks and toss that in as well. Mix it all up so the meat is evenly coated. Dump it all onto a baking sheet and cook until the lamb is just tender, 5-8 minutes, depending on how big your pieces are. It’ll cook a look quicker than the veggies.

Make your parsley-feta sauce. In a bowl, crumble some feta. Add a handful of chopped parsley and a few handfuls of pistachios, if you’re into that. Pine nuts are also nice. So are golden raisins. Get the grain of your choice cooking. I used bulgur, which is handy because it cooks quickly.

If you’re feeling fancy, you can slice the lamb into even smaller pieces when it comes out of the oven. You don’t have to. Either way, add the lamb and its juices to the parsley-feta mixture, picking out and discarding the lemons and thyme springs. Add the bulgur. When the onions and peppers are nicely soft and browned, dump those in as well. Mis well, adjust the seasonings, and enjoy.

The Beat: The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, read by Kerry Shale, and Ruth Ozeki

I absolutely loved A Tale For the Time Being, so I was so excited to see that Ozeki has a new book out! I’m really into this one so far. It’s very strange, but in a way that feels…familiar. Like, the strangeness isn’t upsetting or shocking. It’s warm, and sad, and real. It’s about a Japanese American boy, Benny, who can hear the voices of everyday things, and his white mother, Annabelle, who collects things partly to assuage her loneliness after the death of her husband. The POV switches back and forth between Benny and Annabelle, but most of the story is narrated by a book, Benny’s book, the book that’s telling the story of his life. It’s delightful. There are books within books and stories within stories and the whole thing is enchanting. I’m about halfway through and I’m annoyed every time I have to stop listening. Kerry Shale narrates most of it (Ozeki reads selections within the story from a book called Tidy Magic), and the way he subtly but distinctly switches his tone as he moves between POVs is wonderful. I am hooked.

The Bookshelf

The Visual

One of the best things about my new house is the big built-in bookcases at the top of the stairs. This, coupled with the fact that I got rid of 10+ boxes of books when I moved, means that, for the first time in my adult life, I have extra shelf space. So, naturally, I bought more books! I love romance, but, until few weeks ago, I didn’t own any physical romance novels. I fixed that problem by buying a few of my all-time favorites from The Ripped Bodice, and now I have this lovely queer romance section on one of my empty bookcases. It’s a joy.

Around the Internet

I swear I didn’t plan this, but I’m thrilled by the coincidence: on Book Riot, I made a quiz to help you decide…wait for it…what family drama to read next! I also made a list of some rad Indigenous illustrators to check out.

The Boost

I’ve been thinking a lot about this section and what I want to do with it. Sometimes I know exactly what I want to share, and sometimes I don’t. I have some exciting ideas for the future. For now, since we’re talking families, I’ll just take this opportunity to plug one of my favorite family-owned businesses.

As always, a little bit of beauty to send you on your way: I just can’t get over this walk.

And that’s it until next week. Catch you then!