A Year of War and Peace, the Halfway Point (and Favorites of 2018 so far!)

Back in January, I decided to conquer War and Peace over the year and I'm proud to report that I'm still on track and over the halfway point at page 797!

This has been an interesting exercise, and I've learned a few things about my reading habits along the way...
For one thing, I AM capable of enjoying more than one book at a time. I have always been monogamous with my print books: I never start a new one until I am done with my current read. The only exception to this rule is audiobooks. I can listen to one while reading one, but even then, I only do nonfiction on audio to keep them totally separate. Reading War and Peace has opened up the possibility for me to perhaps tackle a yearly doorstop. It's akin to turning on a soap opera every day, like I did back in college!
It's a great way to transition between current reads. When I have finished a physical book, I almost always wait until the following day to start a new book - or, at least delineate the time in some way (complete some tasks, wait until after dinner, or some TV) before starting another book. Checking in with the characters of War and Peace is like a palate cleanser between stories. 
There is something meditative about reading War and Peace daily. Maybe it's the prose, or having to really concentrate on what is going on: the complex history and the huge cast of characters that go by many different nicknames require my full attention. It has become a time to switch off worrying, thinking about the to do list, or zone out.
I am also reminded of my own advice for reading more, or any big endeavor: breaking it down into small daily tasks is a great way to accomplish your goal. The idea of reading a 1400 page book seems sort of ludicrous. But, I honestly am pretty amazed at how much I've accomplished already and I have already been thinking about what big book I want to tackle next year!
That being said, there were certainly days when I didn't feel like picking it up, and I didn't bring it along on vacation. Rather than giving up altogether, which I contemplated from time to time, I just chose to do what I could, when I could to catch up. In general, it's not a reason to give up on something when you have a setback. To be clear, I am enjoying the story, and I'm glad to be reading it! This hasn't felt like a chore, because I've given myself permission to read it when I feel like it, and it has worked out so far.

Since we're halfway through the year, I thought I'd also round up a few books that I think will most likely be on my best of 2018 list (here's the link to previous years and other book lists). There are a few that might squeak on to the list, and maybe one or two might fall off of a top ten, but here are five books that I've loved so far this year:

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (review here)
You Think It, I'll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld (review here)
Glitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan (review here)
How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran (review here)
The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir (review here)


What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan (NetGalley Review)

What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (July 10, 2018)
Description from the publisher:
After years of chasing the American dream, the Zhen family has moved back to China. Settling into a luxurious serviced apartment in Shanghai, Wei, Lina, and their daughter, Karen, join an elite community of Chinese-born, Western-educated professionals who have returned to a radically transformed city. 
One morning, in the eighth tower of Lanson Suites, Lina discovers that a treasured ivory bracelet has gone missing. This incident sets off a wave of unease that ripples throughout the Zhen household. Wei, a marketing strategist, bows under the guilt of not having engaged in nobler work. Meanwhile, Lina, lonely in her new life of leisure, assumes the modern moniker taitai-a housewife who does no housework at all. She is haunted by the circumstances surrounding her arranged marriage to Wei and her lingering feelings for his brother, Qiang. Sunny, the family's housekeeper, is a keen but silent observer of these tensions. An unmarried woman trying to carve a place for herself in society, she understands the power of well-kept secrets. When Qiang reappears in Shanghai after decades on the run with a local gang, the family must finally come to terms with the past and its indelible mark on their futures.
From a silk-producing village in rural China, up the corporate ladder in suburban America, and back again to the post-Maoist nouveaux riches of modern Shanghai, What We Were Promised explores the question of what we owe to our country, our families, and ourselves.

This was a slow burn of a novel, that centered mostly on each character's internal life and struggles. The missing bracelet at the beginning of the novel had me intrigued. Was it truly missing? Was it an attempt to replace the maid, or does it have value? What kind of value? The hint of a secret between Lina and her brother in law Qiang is also hinted at in the very first pages. Then the bulk of the book delves into the past and the lives led by each of the characters up until the present day, full of immersive detail while examining contrasting themes of those with money and power, and those without. Who has more freedom or happiness, really? 
The narrative lingered a bit longer than I would have liked with expats Lina and Wei's history, ostensibly the main characters. I found Sunny the maid's story much more interesting, and would have liked to spend more time with her and Little Cao, the Zhen's surprisingly multifaceted driver. Perhaps because she was the working class observer, the more relatable character in the beginning. Though, overall, I was impressed with Tan's ability to create an entire cast of characters that I was rooting for, major flaws and all. The various relationship dynamics were very compelling, even some of the briefest interactions were the most impactful, as with the tenuous father daughter connection between Karen and Wei.
"Why do our minds fixate on the kinds of love we're not getting instead of the kinds of love we are? We expect it to be the thing we want it to be. And we're blind to every other form of it."
In the end, the secrets and realizations that are made gave it a highly satisfying ending with a lot of food for thought about family, loyalty, freedom and finding a place in the world. I would highly recommend this as a read alike for another summer debut, A Place for Us with very similar themes on family, choices and culture. 
Many thanks to NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company for the complimentary digital review copy!


Books I Read in June

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
A melancholy, hypnotic and lovely family saga. Full review here.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Yes, I am a sucker for a multigenerational family saga, and Pachinko delivers. I was immediately drawn to the characters and felt so invested in their fates. Lee's writing is full of detail and sense of place. Being on this journey with Sunja, from her birth until old age, will stay with me for a long time. Learning about the plight of Koreans in Japan leading up to, and after, WWII was equally saddening and enlightening. The subject matter feels so relevant today, with the plight of immigrants trying to give their families a better life. What is home? Your ancestors country you've never set foot in? Where you were born? As with the game of Pachinko, the theme of how our lives are shaped by chance is a brilliantly executed.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
True crime is not a go-to genre for me, but I couldn't resist the hype surrounding McNamara's posthumous book about the Golden State Killer. I listened to this on audio, and maybe I should have sat down to read it, but I felt kind of glazed over by the umpteenth description of another horrifying murder. To her credit, it was not gratuitous in the gory details, it was more nuanced in trying to figure out the patterns and mindset of the killer. What I found compelling was Michelle talking about her own life, how she became interested in true crime and the fascinating beginnings of DNA testing and prosecuting criminals. 

Drama by Raina Telgemeier
My kids and I adore Telgemeier's books, and somehow I hadn't got 'round to reading Drama. My daughter has been enjoying her graphic novels of The Baby-Sitters Club , so I got her Drama and promptly stole it after she was done. It's another adorable, relatable coming of age story with an LGBTQ character and it was done really well, even if it felt a little predictable.

The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir
Talk about a page turner! I burned through this in two days, staying up into the wee hours because I HAD to know how this crazy story story would end. The setup, a story of a teenage girl on a reality tv show with her holier than thou conservative religious family gets pregnant, reeled me in with delicious schadenfreude. Full disclosure, I am not a religious person. (I can see how it can be a force for good, but seems to do more of the opposite.) To quote one of the characters:
"They've infected the country with a special brand of intolerance that masquerades as religion."
This book absolutely addresses the current hypocrisy of some christian religions head on and I found it a very satisfying read, one that makes you think about consumerism, race, misogyny, and religious freedom. Essie and Liberty are heroes you will root for until the bitter end. It was pretty easy to guess Essie's terrible secret, and it ended pretty much how I thought it would. But it was a fun ride and I highly recommend it for an un-put-downable summer read!

How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran
Absolutely loved this, even more than How to Build a Girl. Full review here.

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy’s Quick Lit! Check out all the book reviews here: https://modernmrsdarcy.com/quick-lit-july-2018/


How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran (ARC Review)

How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran
Publisher: Harper Books (July 2, 2018)
Description from the publisher: 
You can’t have your best friend be famous if you’re not famous. It doesn’t work. You’re emotional pen-friends. You can send each other letters—but you’re not doing anything together. You live in different countries.
Johanna Morrigan (AKA Dolly Wilde) has it all: at eighteen, she lives in her own flat in London and writes for the coolest music magazine in Britain. But Johanna is miserable. Her best friend and man of her dreams John Kite has just made it big in 1994’s hot new BritPop scene. Suddenly John exists on another plane of reality: that of the Famouses.
Never one to sit on the sidelines, Johanna hatches a plan: she will Saint Paul his Corinthians, she will Jimmy his Pinocchio—she will write a monthly column, by way of a manual to the famous, analyzing fame, its power, its dangers, and its amusing aspects. In stories, girls never win the girl—they are won. Well, Johanna will re-write the stories, and win John, through her writing.
But as Johanna’s own star rises, an unpleasant one-night stand she had with a stand-up comedian, Jerry Sharp, comes back to haunt in her in a series of unfortunate consequences. How can a girl deal with public sexual shaming? Especially when her new friend, the up-and-coming feminist rock icon Suzanne Banks, is Jimmy Cricketing her?
For anyone who has been a girl or known one, who has admired fame or judged it, and above all anyone who loves to laugh till their sides ache, How to Be Famous is a big-hearted, hilarious tale of fame and fortune-and all they entail.

I ADORED How to Build a Girl, and when I learned that there would be a sequel, I jumped at the chance to read it! Expectations for sequels are high, and rife with the possibility of disappointment. Rest assured that Caitlin Moran still writes with amazing heart, humor...

"He was drunk, and there was nothing on TV - that is how 80 percent of kissing starts in Britain."

 and searing hot takes on feminism.

"The idea that women carry the shame for shameful things that have been done to them is Bible old, and Bible black."

As with her previous novel, How to be Famous also feels hyper realistic: full of crazy situations, over the top characters and dialogue that suits the business of rock n' roll, which delighted me to no end. Her brother and father reappear in this novel, and the way these siblings deal with dad's midlife crisis like a hot potato had me guffawing. I also loved the introduction of Johanna's new larger than life musician friend Suzanne Banks who, according to Johanna,

 "...she's so f*cking fizzy and delicious, I want to swim around in her innards, like a dolphin." 

There's no shortage of f-bombs, crass talk and sex scenes, fair warning. But they absolutely serve a purpose in the broader feminist message that Moran delivers with such unrestrained wit. There is indeed an engaging plot that moves at a good pace, as we buckle up for another ride along with Johanna's rollicking highs, and terrible lows as she makes questionable decisions and deals with a bad situation. 
The story is a perfect vehicle for such important messages for women and girls to take to heart about being comfortable in our skin, in our hopes, in our desires, that girl culture is COOL, owning our sexual pleasure, and the importance of being in a relationship that lifts us up, that does not tear us down. There are so many books with a feminist slant being published lately, many with a terrifying Handmaid's Tale tone. These works are important and needed, for sure. (If you haven't read Margaret Atwood, now is definitely the time.) But Moran's work is equally significant while being so very refreshing with uplifting, galvanizing and hopeful feminism.
I marked up How to Build a Girl, but I pretty much wanted to take a highlighter to the entirety of How to be Famous. If (WHEN) you read it, I'd take note of: Dolly's letter to John about how teen girls run the world, when John's fans line up to meet him she writes about the intimacy of art and meeting our heroes, and the last five or so pages about love and a relationship being two people invested in building 'the very best you' just made me swoon with love and light. 
Run, don't walk, to get your hands on this brilliant book. Thank you SO, SO MUCH to the lovely people at Harper Books for a free review copy in exchange for my honest review!

P.S. - My husband and I talked about Peggy Orenstein's Girls & Sex a while ago and, upon reading How to be Famous, I hastily moved it further up in the to be read queue. I read Cinderella Ate My Daughter the year after I gave birth to my daughter and highly recommend it!