About 25 years ago, when I was working at a big web development company in San Francisco, our Creative Director planned a team summit, the...Read More
Reading Recap: August 2018
At the end of every month, I take a look back at my reading journal and share the books and my thoughts on them here. The comments below are excerpts from my full reviews on Goodreads; you can always keep up with my reading in real-time over there.
My Goodreads goal for the year was 71 books, and I hit it this month! So I’ve increased my goal to 91 books—this is the most I’ve ever read in my life, and I’m loving it. After being a guest on the What Should I Read Next? Podcast, I decided to start treating my love of reading as a hobby. Prior to that—for reasons I can’t articulate—I just didn’t see reading that way. It was something I did around the edges of the day, but it wasn’t a primary activity.
Since we moved to Prague, that’s changed. I watch only 1 hour of TV each day—and don’t read that in a snooty voice! I pass no judgment on TV-watching; I love TV-watching. I just like reading more. By the by, we usually work our way through a series, one episode per day until we’re done. Just finished season two of Riverdale, and I love it so much OMG. So campy and over-the-top. LOVE! I cannot wait for season three. Give me more Cheryl!
Anyway… back to reading. I deleted Twitter and my RSS reader from my phone so I don’t get sucked into the vortex. I always have my Kindle in my purse so I can take advantage of unexpected bench-sitting time or a long line. I listen to audiobooks and literary podcasts on my daily walks. And I read every night before bed, sometimes at lunch, and sometimes for 30-60 minutes in the morning, if I wake up before 6:00 a.m.
I am thoroughly enjoying this book nerdiness.
Pachinko byMin Jin Lee | 3 1/2 stars
I really wanted to love this book, but for me, it was good, not great—which makes me feel kinda dumb because it received so many prestigious accolades. I respect it, but it didn’t touch my heart. To be fair, I’m beginning to think that sprawling family dramas are not for me. I prefer to be really connected to a smaller cast of characters in an atmospheric setting. There were so many people in this book and the way I thought of them was “the one that owns the pachinko parlor,” “the one that wants to be a scholar”… they never moved past 1-liners into real people for me. (My Goodreads review provides more detail, but also spoilers; proceed with caution.)
This book’s biggest strength—and it’s significant—is the way it brings an unknown-to-me part of history to light. I was only vaguely aware of the events leading up the U.S. Korean War, and it was fascinating—and sobering—to learn about the tensions and discrimination between the Korean and Japanese people.
Favorite highlight: “People are rotten everywhere you go. They’re no good. You want to see a very bad man? Make an ordinary man successful beyond his imagination. Let’s see how good he is when he can do whatever he wants.”
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss | 4 stars
Just as Pachinko helped me realize multigenerational family sagas aren’t really for me, this book reinforced how much I love stories about found families. Set in Victorian England, this romping adventure includes not one, but FIVE plucky heroines, and I am here for it. If you enjoy the Veronica Speedwell series—A Curious Beginning, A Perilous Undertaking, A Treacherous Curse—then you will probably enjoy this one, too.
I don’t want to give too much away because the surprises are fun, but this story includes Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, the danger of poisoning, literary references, a traveling circus, an insane asylum, potentially evil nuns, and family secrets. What’s not to love?! (I also treated myself to the sequel European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman because it’s described as a “madcap romp” and the action takes place in Paris, Vienna, and Budapest.)
Favorite highlight: “No wonder men did not want women to wear bloomers. What could women accomplish if they did not have to continually mind their skirts, keep them from dragging in the mud or getting trampled on the steps of an omnibus? If they had pockets! With pockets, women could conquer the world!”
I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life by Anne Bogel | 5 stars
It’s no secret that I adore Anne Bogel’s podcast What Should I Read Next? so I had high expectations for this collection of essays. On her podcast, Anne is just the kind of person with whom you’d want to discuss books: opinionated but not pushy, insightful, relatable, and quick to laugh—all of that warmth and intelligence and sheer book love comes across in these essays. I read it over the course of a month or so, dipping into the essays between the other novels I was reading to cleanse my palate and to revel in the book nerdiness of reading.
I sometimes have a difficult time talking about my favorite books, or even really sharing how much reading means to me as a human—it feels too personal, makes me vulnerable in a way I’m not really ready for. But reading this book made me realize that there are legions of us out there: People who find friendship, solace, adventure, challenge, grief, joy—the whole gamut of human emotions—in the books that we read. And sometimes, they’re just damn fun.
I’d Rather Be Reading is just like that: lots of feels and damn fun.
Favorite highlight: “Old books, like old friends, are good for the soul. But they’re not just comfort reads. No, a good book is exciting to return to, because even though I’ve been there before, the landscape is always changing.”
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel | 4 stars
Food, love, magic, and passion color this luscious family saga set in a Mexican border town around 1019, so the intimate story of the family is played out against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution. The tale reads like a family legend that’s been passed down through generations, and it centers on the forbidden love of Tita and Pedro. As the youngest daugher, it’s Tita’s fate to forsake love and to care for her dominerring mother Mama Elena until her mother’s death. But Tita and Pedro fall madly in love: When Tita felt Pedro’s gaze on her “she understood exactly how raw dough must feel when it comes into contact with boiling oil.” To be close to Tita, Pedro marries her older sister, and no one’s life remains untouched by this flawed decision.
Tita’s life is spent in the kitchen—both a gift and a curse to her—and her cooking is infused with deep emotion and magic. To Tita, food is life, and each chapter represents a month of the year, opening with a recipe that intertwines with the characters’ lives. Tita’s tears wept into wedding cake batter induce a devastating sense of longing in the guests who take a bite, and a delicate sauce made of rose petals inspires dangerous passions around the dinner table.
As the plot traces Tita and Pedro’s lifelong love, we see its impact on the rest of the family and the village: Tita’s sisters, a kindly doctor, bouncing babies, and Mexican revolutionaries. It’s a delightful—and sad—story of family obligation, the things that feed us, and a passion that could not be extinguished.
Favorite highlight: “When the talk turns to eating, a subject of the greatest importance, only fools and sick men don’t give it the attention it deserves.”
Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier | 3 stars
I went into this novel expecting a dark gothic adventure—thanks to previously reading Rebecca https://amzn.to/2BVakpp—and that’s exactly what I got—for better and for worse. Our heroine is definitely a damsel in distress, all muddle and forbidden love and quivering fear. I think I would have loved this book if Mary had some spunk, but instead, she kind of just bounces her way through the story. I found I enjoyed giving daily updates to my husband about what was happening a lot more than I actually enjoyed reading it. But for pure camp, it’s great: creepy isolated house, desolate moors, shady characters, an is-he-or-isn’t-he love interest, locked doors, a big character reveal, and plenty of stormy nights.
Favorite highlight: “The driver, muffled in a greatcoat to his ears, bent almost double in his seat in a faint endeavor to gain shelter from his own shoulders…”
Prague Spring by Simon Mawer | 4 1/2 stars
Yay for British release dates: I got to read this book in time for the anniversary of Prague Spring on August 21—it’s available for pre-order now in the U.S.
This books examines what people are willing to risk for freedom and love. And if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to accidentally get caught up in a potentially dangerous spy mission, this is the book for you.
It’s the summer of 1968—the summer of love—even, for a while, in communist Czechoslovakia. As tensions rise between Moscow and Prague in the background, this story follow the misadventures—romantic and otherwise—of two groups of people: an on-again-off-again British couple who cross the Iron Curtain on a lark as they listlessly backpack through Europe, and a group of Czech youths—eager to test the limits of the Czechoslovak “socialism with a human face”—who find themselves in an unexpected friendship with a British diplomat.
There are also world-famous musicians, bugged rooms, larks into the countryside, and secret meetings. The various threads of this sort-of spy story come together in a satisfying, heartbreaking way. There’s plenty of intrigue, interpersonal sparks, romance, adventure, and irresistible descriptions of Prague, as well as a cast of characters you won’t soon forget. (I also LOVED another book by Simon Mawer: The Glass Room.) http://meljoulwan.com/2018/07/23/reading-recap-june-2018/
Favorite highlight: “You haven’t lived here long enough,” Zdenek said. “No one can live in this place for long and still believe in reality.”