Egypt with Cleopatra: A Life

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“But from an early age she would have known literarily what she at twenty-one discovered empirically: there were days you felt like waging war, and days when you just needed to go home.”–Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra: A Life

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This is a biography of Cleopatra–or as much of a biography as there can be about this woman. Her existence and reign leaves few historical facts for us–but legends, myths, and folklore abound, and have captivated the world for thousands of years. Schiff presents us with what (we think) we know about her world, acknowledges the numerous gaping holes about her life (her appearance, for example) and leaves us to wonder even more about one of history’s most powerful and mysterious women.
  • It’s good because:
    • Stacy Schiff is an exceptional nonfiction writer. She explores niche areas of our world–topics that inspire curiosity–with precision and straightforwardness. This is not a textbook about Ancient Egypt; it’s investigative journalism into the past.
  • Read if:
    • As I said above, I think Cleopatra is one of those historical figures that piques anyone’s interest. After all, there’s a reason we are still reading books and watching movies about her after all this time. If you want a fascinating account of her life–of both what we know and what we will likely never know–this is it.

Up next: Mexico with Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate!

May–Inspecting Kiribati, Burundi & Scotland

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May! May is the last month of school, my birthday month–it is a time for celebrating! And while it is exciting, it is also a hectic time.

No matter how much I try to prepare, the chaos of wrapping of a school year is hard for me to avoid. Finalizing grades, attending end-of-year celebrations, preparing for the next year, and trying to suppress my excitement for summer–well, these things kick my butt. Therefore, my reading habits were erratic–either nonexistent or completed in hermit-like binging.

I started The Sex Lives with Cannibals thinking it would be a quick, funny read (I had actually hoped to finish it in April, which leads me to my next point). I was exactly 50% right on my prediction. J. Maarten Troost’s travel tales were bizarre and hilarious; however, this was a slower read for me. Partially because, due to the title, I couldn’t read this book at school while my students were reading, but partially because it is nonfiction, and even though it’s a quirky memoir, it’s filled with important information and history, which always takes me a little longer to digest. Nevertheless, Maarten Troost’s sardonic reverence for the impossible to understand set the perfect tone on which to close out the school year. My students and administration are constantly baffling, my patience and energy fluctuate unpredictably (actually, not unpredictably–usually in proportion to the amount of coffee on hand), and it frequently strikes me as a strange situation that I graduated college and now one of my responsibilities is telling children multiple times a day that they are not allowed to use the restroom. Maarten’s ability to take into stride an island that eats wild dogs and defecates along the beach struck a chord of camaraderie with me. It also made me excited for my next adventure (marriage of course, and a honeymoon in a new city!).

To find something acceptable to read in my classroom during our book report unit, I started Strength in What Remains. This time, I unknowingly picked up my second nonfiction book–though admittedly, this intimate narrative flows much like a fictional story. Our book report unit focused on characters who understand themselves better through some unusual challenge (students read The House on Mango Street, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or Speak), and this book unintentionally fit right into that team as Deo immigrated to the U.S. and persevered through a variety of issues as he adapted to his new home and coped with the civil war he left behind. Interesting, and occasionally challenging to read (but then again, that may be because I chose to read it largely in the presence of 25 teenagers), despite the fact that I was reading a few minutes each day with my students, this book took most of May to get through as I delved into grading and preparing for 8th grade promotion.

I squeezed in The Illuminations towards the end of the year, a book I’ve been looking forward to reading, a treat for completing my end-of-year to-do list. Though my brain was ready to relax and sit down with a few hundred pages of literature, apparently life wasn’t ready to allow that. My first few days of freedom found me celebrating my ass off–hitting the bars and even crashing my fiancé’s bachelor party–and little time/brain power to sit back with this tale of an elderly woman’s journey to recall the beautiful details of her past.

And while I thought I’d finish the month with some much-anticipated book time, my last few days of May were spent Netflix-binging and finally taking care of some of the wedding tasks that got pushed to the back burner during the school year. Which also explains why my monthly recap is 9 days late (especially if you toss in my bachelorette party and a handful of end-of-fire-academy celebrations!). But hey, it’s summer–and I’m going to be a wife in less than two months!

Scotland with The Illuminations

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“Out there, staring into the mountains, it occurred to him that he had travelled far from his old resources, from Anne Quirk and her mysterious belief that truth and silence can conquer everything. Was she even real in herself, he asked. Or was she just another of life’s compelling hopes?”–Andrew O’Hagan, The Illuminations

  • Here’s what happens:
    • An introspective and artsy tale about aging photographer Anne Quirk and her soldier grandson Luke, this novel tackles the topics of family, memory, purpose, and perspective.
  • It’s good because:
    • Pretty, unique, and important, O’Hagan carefully crafts a story that is detailed and relatable in its beautifully connected internal and external conflicts.
  • Read if:
    • You want to revel in the challenges one discovers on memory lane–the details that slip away and the ones that haunt us. Anne and Luke’s trouble forgetting and recalling various parts of their lives will bring you to wonder what aspects of your own life will stick with you, whether you want it to or not.

Up next: Egypt with Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff!

Burundi with Strength in What Remains

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“In order to go on with our lives, we are always capable of making the ominous into the merely strange.”–Tracy Kidder, Strength in What Remains

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This is Deo’s odyssey into America after fleeing war-torn Burundi in the 1990’s. He encounters culture shock, poverty, racism–and overcomes this to build meaningful relationships and create a new life for himself.
  • It’s good because:
    • I actually didn’t realize this was a work of nonfiction until I was two chapters in. The story flows with the tenderness and descriptiveness of a fictional story. This is not reporting; this is a narrative at its finest.
  • Read if:
    • You enjoy nonfiction stories of perseverance and compassion.

Up next: Scotland with The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan!

Kiribati with The Sex Lives of Cannibals

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“I was simply restless, quite likely because of a dissatisfaction with the recent trajectory of my life, and if there is a better, more compelling reason for dropping everything and moving to the end of the world, I know not what it is.”–J. Maarten Troost, The Sex Lives of Cannibals

  • Here’s what happens:
    • Aimless but adventurous J. Maarten Troost and his new fiancée relocate from Washington D.C. to Kiribati, a small atoll in the middle of the Pacific. They are constantly surprised and confused by the peculiar and challenging way of life for those living on the Equator. This is a book brimming with charming, fish-out-of-water anecdotes that makes you yearn for your next adventure, and reminds you to cherish the inconveniences of travel.
  • It’s good because: 
    • This is a humorous travel memoir that chronicles the author’s transcontinental move with curiosity, thoughtfulness, and plenty of laughter. Troost makes jokes without being insensitive (a difficult feat, especially when regarding another culture), making this a fun and interesting read.
  • Read if:
    • You’re experiencing a bit of wanderlust. Planning our honeymoon (and being a little stir crazy for summer vacation), I feel eager to be on the move. This book was a refreshing reminder of why I love to travel, though it certainly did not cure my desire to visit somewhere new!

Up next: Burundi with Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains!

April–Studying Sweden

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There is a specific kind of short-tempered exhaustion that hits teachers in the last month of school. Combine that with the frustration of forcing teenagers to complete 5 days of silent state testing, coming home to a grumpy and sunburned firefighter, and mitigating the wedding requests of an involved family and over 200 guests–well, at that wiped out intersection is where you’ll find me, face-down and begging for coffee.

Being a total idiot, I also spent April signing up for extra duties like Saturday School, house-sitting for my parents, and taking charge of organizing a volunteer activity for the Teach for America board I serve on.

I’ve kicked my own butt this month.

Nevertheless, it’s spring–my favorite time of year, my birthday is coming up, and we are officially in the double digits of our nuptial countdown, so I’ve done my best to squeeze in some fun as well. My in-laws, my fiancé and I did Pat’s Run together, I roped in some friends to attend our Cajun Festival so I could suck down some crawfish, and we celebrated both of my parents’ birthdays. We closed out the month with my bridal shower, which was basically a giant tailgate thrown in my honor–exactly what I wanted.

So with all that going on, it wasn’t terribly surprising that I spent almost the whole month with one book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Albeit, it was a longer one and I was certainly out of my element genre-wise.

I finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo while my students were state testing, and I actually got a bulk of the reading done at school. I had no idea violence against women played such a central role to the plot, so my inner activist was pleased to have read this book during Sexual Assault Awareness Month. It took me a while to get into the political, financial world set up by Larsson, but once the mystery of the Vanger family began to unfold, I plowed through the final 300 pages quite quickly. I don’t know if I identified with mild-mannered and investigative Blomkvist or analytical and angry Salander, but I appreciate both of this off-beat characters and enjoyed them as a team.

I had every intention of making it to Kiribati this month–especially since I took a personal day to spend at home–but alas, it did not happen. The last weekend of April was spent celebrating at my bridal shower, attending my niece and nephew’s third birthday part, and recovering from those two momentous occasions (thank you notes, clean-up, and maybe a smidgen of a hangover..). Therefore, the time I thought I’d have for reading never presented itself.

Less than a month left of school (though that month does include an overnight field trip to Los Angeles with 24 8th-graders). Less than three months until I’m a married woman. Looking forward to a few good books to accompany me during this exciting time!

Sweden with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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“Armageddon was yesterday. Today we have a serious problem.”–Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

  • Here’s what happens:
    • Though most of you have probably already read this book and/or seen the movie, this is the story of a besmirched journalist and an offbeat investigator navigating a world of political and social intrigue. Tasked with deciphering the mysterious disappearance of a businessman’s niece, writer Blomkvist takes us on a jarring journey into the violent underbelly of a family corporation and their fanatical beliefs.
  • It’s good because:
    • This book was obviously a big deal. It was a best seller, it merited two sequels, and the movie adaptation was also widely acclaimed. This was a book that everyone has read. So, I obviously am not saying anything particularly new in professing that it is well-crafted with a meticulous plot and off-beat, well-rounded characters. Not my go-to genre to be sure, but definitely an excellent novel.
  • Read if:
    • You’re one of the few weirdos (like me) who hasn’t read it yet. Gritty and complex, it’s clear why this series took off the way it did.

Up next: Kiribati with The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost.