Vietnam with The Things They Carried

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“But the thing about remembering is that you don’t forget. You take your material where you find it, which is in your life, at the intersection of past and present.”–Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This is a collection of war stories–war stories that transcend our typical conception of war stories, war stories that are tragic love stories, painful coming of age stories, and atypical hero’s journeys. It’s a blend of fiction and nonfiction–with no clear or important distinction between the two–as O’Brien examines the nature of war and the heart of a soldier.
  • It’s good because:
    • This is a highly acclaimed account of the Vietnam War (I realized while reading it that both my best friend and husband had read it in high school). It’s honest and vulnerable, critical and supportive, inquiring and hopeful. It’s a beautiful mix of both funny and painful stories that attempt to give our reader an idea of what war is and how it changes a person.
  • Read if:
    • You want a new appreciation for the sacrifices soldiers make and the things they endure. This book is emotionally over-whelming, for sure, but very inspiring.

Up next: The Republic of Congo with African Psycho by Alain Mabanckou!

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Zimbabwe with When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

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“Love is the way that life forgets that it is terminal. Love is life’s alibi in the face of death.”–Peter Godwin, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

  • Here’s what happens:
    • Peter Godwin recalls his family’s history in Zimbabwe, sharing tales of post-independce prosperity and unity alongside the subsequent chaos and backwardness of the Mugabe dictatorship. While recording the making and unmaking of his beloved country with journalistic precision, Godwin also explores the idea of home as he struggles with simultaneous love and frustration for his homeland.
  • It’s good because:
    • This book was so much more than I expected. I added it to my reading list after randomly discovering it in a box of books my husband’s uncle donated to my school. I thoroughly enjoyed the writing of Alexandra Fuller, and thought this book looked like a similar coming of age story as a white African. I definitely sensed similarities between Fuller and Godwin–admiration and confusion for parents who boldly forced their families to face the challenges of post-colonial Africa, an accepting sense of humor for the oddities of day-to-day life in the bush, and a passionate exasperation with the poverty and corruption that flourishes in these complicated political circumstances. What I especially loved about When the Crocodile Eats the Sun was how Godwin interlaced his father’s history as a Jewish refugee from the Holocaust with the persecution of white farmers in Zimbabwe, really shining a light on humanity’s need to identify and demoralize an “other” and the overall effect on a person of being isolated from one’s home. These stories were indescribably moving.
  • Read if:
    • I often feel like I go through reading droughts, where I spend months without reading anything I truly love. When a Crocodile Eats the Sun marked the end of one of those droughts. I tore through the book during our weekend trip to Vancouver, in airports and on planes and while my husband napped after tromping all over the city. This book is a magnificent and intimate story of family, of home, of suffering, and of perseverance, and it will stick with me for a while.

Up next: Vietnam with The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien!

September–Surveying Rwanda & Syria

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My husband and I marveled at how long September felt–an Arizona phenomenon where we are all impatiently waiting for fall weather to finally hit while we are sweating out 100+ degree days. Nevertheless, I still feel like I didn’t accomplish half as much as I thought I would in this warm, interminable time. I had some LONG days with students, I felt like I was constantly behind on household chores like laundry and cooking, and I stumbled and creaked into trying to establish a running routine. In between those exhausting tasks, I took on Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire and Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.

Inspired by my students’ unit on genocide, I took on Romeo Dallaire’s account of the Rwandan genocide, Shake Hands with the Devil. An understandably heavy book, I waded through the facts slowly; it was far from a relaxing read to unwind with after work. As overwhelming as it was, I am glad I read it alongside my students, who were comparing Elie Wiesel’s Night to excerpts from Broken Memory: A Novel of Rwanda and Tree Girl. Dallaire’s writing made me want to be a more knowledgeable activist, reinvigorated my desire to help my fellow man, and really drove to focus this unit on encouraging my students to understand and sympathize with the texts they read.

After finally finishing up with Rwanda, I decided to read something a little more light-hearted and frivolous, and picked up Murder on the Orient Express. I wanted to give the book a read before seeing the new movie, which looks excellent. I read it hoping to finally overcome my inability to piece together mystery stories, but alas, I lagged far beyond Hercule Poirot’s reasoning as he sifted through the evidence of this murder. It was a fun book to get caught up in in bed while my husband watched Rules of Engagement, or on our weekend away in Heber, drinking a cup of coffee and enjoying cooler weather.

October is going to be a busy but exciting month, kicking off with a field trip to Tucson with my students to visit Arizona’s only Holocaust museum, and then continuing with a month full of trips to Vancouver, Raleigh, Ft. Myers and San Diego. With Fall Break and a handful plane rides, I’m hoping to get through a few good books as well!

Syria with Murder on the Orient Express

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“There was a kind of cool efficiency in the way she was eating her breakfast and in the way she called to the attendant to bring her more coffee, which bespoke a knowledge of the world and of traveling.”–Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This is a classic murder mystery story, unraveling the death of a train passenger while the train is stopped in a snowstorm. Master detective Hercule Poirot takes us on the intellectual adventure of piecing together scant evidence and suspect testimonies to make sense of the puzzling situation.
  • It’s good because:
    • Agatha Christie is considered an authority on mystery writing for a reason. It’s a quick-moving story, and it’s amazing the way she is able to piece together such a perplexing circumstance.
  • Read if:
    • I’m not much of a mystery reader, but I have to say I wound up enjoying this story much more than anticipated. I loved the unique characters, and appreciated the fast unfolding of the plot. Plus, the movie adaptation looks wonderful!

Up next: Zimbabwe with When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin!

Rwanda with Shake Hands with the Devil

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“I believed that the magic of command lies in openness, in being both sympathetic to the troops and at the same time being apart, in always projecting supreme confidence in my own ability and in theirs to accomplish whatever task is set for us.”–Romeo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This is the heartfelt and open story of Canadian military leader Romeo Daillaire, and his experience with the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda in the midst of their genocide. He sheds light onto his own leadership, on the goals and shortcomings of our global attempts to maintain peace, and the tragedies that took place not only within Rwanda, but around the world as we failed to respond appropriately.
  • It’s good because:
    • It’s a moving and important part of history, and hopefully the more we study why and how this happened, the better chance we stand of preventing something so awful from ever happening again. Daillaire is straight-forward with his retelling, sharing both the facts as well as his emotional reactions to this experience. It’s an honest retelling, and it should be read.
  • Read if:
    • I read this book with the same gut-wrenching apprehension you feel as you ascend a roller coaster–you know something terrible is right around the corner, and you can’t prepare yourself for it even though you know what it is. Dallaire writes with clear and precise details, as if he himself is trying to piece together how we let this genocide happen. It’s an important historical text, and if you’re interested in your role in preventing future atrocities like this, you should read it.

Up next: Syria with Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie!

August–Taking into Account New Zealand & Austria

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Whether a teacher or a student, August always hits me like a bus. This year has been no different. Sure, I’m entering this month as a wife, and currently the happiest I’ve ever been–but the mental and physical hardships of starting out a school year are just as challenging as they always have been! I am at the same school I was last year, which definitely made me feel more prepared plunging into the school year right after the wedding, but the hours and routines that go into the first weeks of school (combined the new germs from kids and 100+ degree heat of Arizona summer) always wipe me out.

I started the month still wading through Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, an epic monstrosity of a book I first began reading right before the wedding. Proulx emerges in the history of loggers across the world by following two families throughout 300 years, introducing and killing characters with the same fluidity and tragedy as life itself. Each generation of Sels and Duquets was so vastly different, that this book honestly felt like several smaller stories woven together. The story, at time, was too dense–brimming with new characters and historical context–for me to get caught up in after working a full day with my middle schoolers and then coming home to unpack wedding presents and write thank you notes with my husband. But, on the relaxing weekends spent at home when I wasn’t completely worn out or pulled in several directions, it was a beautiful and unique story to get swept up in. Life moves so fast, that the changes that happen throughout a year or a lifetime can be easy to miss, but Proulx does a magical job of documenting the ebbing and flowing of family and history. As my life has changed drastically over the past few years, it was a lovely reminder.

Next, I read The End of Days mostly in class with my students, a book I thought would be fitting tie-in with our class novel,¬†Night. While still an interesting story, it wasn’t exactly the historical fiction that I expected, and didn’t connect to World War II in the way that I expected. I like to donate the books I read during DEAR to my classroom library, as my students have usually noticed and wondered about what I read, but the translation of this book was a little hard to follow even for me, so I’m not entirely sure it’ll be an exciting addition for them. The path a soul can take throughout history, as the bodies it inhabits die, is a very compelling topic for a book, and it was fascinating following the unexpected course the protagonist took.

With thank you cards finished and wedding presents unpacked, the last of my wedding tasks are complete and I regain a large junk of my free time. I am still balancing the responsibilities of being a teacher, the chores and duties of being an adult and a wife, and the tasks every teacher must fulfill–but hoping September will hold a few good books. I’m looking forward to my first three-day weekend of the year, and creeping a little closer to Fall Break!

Austria with The End of Days

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“If you get the slightest bit off track, the consequences in the end are just as inescapable as if you’d gone and leapt headfirst into this or that abyss.”–Jenny Erpbenbeck, The End of Days

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This story follows the soul of a female in five “books.” Each book finds her in a different circumstance, across time and Europe, but ultimately ends with her death.
  • It’s good because:
    • I expected this to be another fast-paced, historical fiction, young adult book about Eastern Europe–in the vein of Between Shades of Gray or Girl at War. I was completely wrong. While kind of jarring and confusing at first (I’m assuming this is due in part because it was originally written in German and then translated to English, and that can pose some challenges), it ended up being a surprisingly poignant exploration of the purpose of life rather than the predicted historical fiction.
  • Read if:
    • You like the type of books that toys with the nature of time and living. In reminded me vaguely of The Incarnations in the unusual way it floated across history through its ill-fated heroine.

Up next: Rwanda with Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil!