Spain with For Whom the Bell Tolls

Screen Shot 2017-12-04 at 11.13.59 AM“The world is a fine place and worth fighting for, and I hate very much to leave it.” –Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

  • Here’s what happens:
    • It’s a transcendent war story detailing the experiences of Robert Jordan in the Spanish Civil War as he works to blow up a bridge. Throughout this task, he confronts his own will to live and the true meaning of love.
  • It’s good because:
    • It’s hard to say anything new about classics like this one. I admire Hemingway as a writer, and think this story is an important and enduring one, but I couldn’t help but feel like I was completing a high school assignment by reading this book. It wasn’t as engrossing or immersive as my brain would’ve liked, and I kept worrying I was missing some important detail–as if I were writing an essay about it.
  • Read if:
    • Like me, you’ve never read this particular classic. Or, if you’re in the mood for a tragic war story.

Up next: Iraq with Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood (another war story!).

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November–Interpreting the Republic of Congo and Uruguay

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November is a time when I think most people in the U.S. pause to reflect on the wonderful things they have going on in their lives–and I’m no different. 2017 has been too good to me–with my marriage to my soulmate, with a loving family whom I’ve seen often, with an amazing group of kids to teach this year. I’m beyond thankful for all the big things that really make a life worth living–but also for the small things: good coffee, and comfortable places to read interesting books, among them.

I started the month reading African Psycho, a book I had brought with me on my travels in October but hadn’t managed to finish. It was a dark read, and wasn’t one I particularly looked forward to as I slogged through schoolwork. It told the story of a murderer aspiring to live up to the legacy of a fellow killer, and while I spent some of my free time this month binge watching true crime shows like Mindhunter, this book just didn’t do a whole lot for me.

Next, I took on The Invisible Mountain, which I didn’t know a whole lot about except that it was the type of Latin American magical realism I’ve really come to love these past few years. Both my husband’s and my families live near us, which is a wonderful thing, but can also make holidays rather hectic. My husband worked on Thanksgiving, so my holiday included stopping by the fire station before my parents’ dinner, and then a make-up dinner the following day–not to mention the fabulously Friendsgiving we threw the week before. I love Thanksgiving, and every year I think a holiday centered around eating and family time is going to be relaxing, and every year I remember how busy and exhausting it can be. Therefore it was nice to be reading something I was looking forward to reading, a story of revolution and self discovery, but I found I didn’t have as much time as I’d have liked.

With December underway and the countdown to Winter Break on, I imagine I will be enduring similar conditions–Christmas shopping, wrapping up the quarter, finally finishing the paperwork nightmares of sorting out my teaching certification and and getting my name changed, and trying to be a festive and jolly person (and not the cranky brat I normally am). But hey–let’s hope I can squeeze in a few books too!

Uruguay with The Invisible Mountain

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“Miracles are miracles, she said; they come unannounced and unexplained and have no guarantee of giving you what you want; and yet you take them; they are the hidden bones of ordinary life.”–Carolina de Robertis, The Invisible Mountain

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This wonderfully vivid story explores the lives of three generations of Uruguayan women–both their most lively adventures and the darkest corners of their existences. De Robertis takes us through their triumphs, their loneliness, their loves, their losses–all against the backdrop of a Latin America striving to discover its role on the global stage.
  • It’s good because:
    • This is the kind of vibrant, serpentine piece of magical realism literature that my soul craves. Brimming with strong and dynamic heroines and family curses, I started this novel complacently, feeling like I didn’t have time to read, but I ended up thinking about this book nonstop. I loved these bold, strong, flawed, secretive, independent women.
  • Read if:

Up next: Spain with Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls!

The Republic of Congo with African Psycho

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“Could it really be that my willpower has no part in what I undertake? That my entire life has been drawn in advance so that I am only following a path established by a force above me?”–Gregoire, African Psycho

  • Here’s what happens:
    • Serial killer Gregoire gives us the skinny on his sordid past, murderous pursuits, and bloodthirsty aspirations for infamy.
  • It’s good because:
    • It’s straightforward and brief, and truly a unique perspective on murder.
  • Read if:
    • I’m honestly not sure why I picked up this book. I read American Psycho in high school (and I hated it), and I knew this book was intended to parallel the detached, matter-of-fact approach to violence and psychopathy. I guess if that’s your thing, this is a pretty interesting book.

Up next: Uruguay with The Invisible Mountain by Carolina de Robertis!

October–Thinking over Zimbabwe & Vietnam

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Raise your hand if your October also felt 10 years long.

Hermione_the_teachers_petOctober is infamously called Darktober for teachers–something about this point in the year just stirs up something endless and awful–but that was only part of what made these last 31 days feel so long and taxing!

I kicked off the month counting down to Fall Break, a vacation from students but also a week in which I had jam-packed quite a few exhausting activities.

My  husband and I jetted off to Vancouver for a newlywed, weekend away after stumbling across some very reasonably tickets. Though we did experience some sticker-shock at what an expensive city it turned out to be, we had a nice time strolling through Stanley Park, perusing Granville Island, and venturing out for a whale watching tour. I brought When a Crocodile Eats the Sun with me to read on plane rides since my husband is infamous for passing out as soon as we board, and it was such a fascinating read to tote along. I tore through this emotional family saga of discrimination and perseverance much faster than expected, and found myself book-less for my last flight and layover.

After spending so much money over our weekend in Canada, I confined myself to the clearance table of the airport bookstore to pick up something to last me the last few hours of travel. I picked up Eleanor and Park, a charming YA read that I enjoyed, but one that did not correspond with this reading challenge (it is set in Nebraska).

My second Fall Break read was The Things They Carried, which I carried with me on a trip to North Carolina and Florida. I was very excited to visit some friends who recently moved to Durham, and was happy to squeeze that visit in en route to a wedding in Fort Myers. This book was a little heavier than I was probably looking for, but this moving account of soldiers in the Vietnam War was powerful and important nonetheless. I felt very touched by the stories O’Brien shared in this collection, though the weight of these stories slowed down my reading as it took time to process these accounts.

I had every intention of including African Psycho in this month’s reading, especially given how quickly I was ploughing through literature at the beginning of the month,  but the plight of a murderer was not exactly the relaxing read I was looking for after parent-teacher conferences and exhausting days with hyper children.

Hopefully this next month will hold some relaxing time with family, and the sorting out of my teaching certificate so I can start to find a better balance between work and my personal life.

Oh, did I mention my husband and I bought a house (or at least, started that interminable process…)?!

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!

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!