December–Checking out Spain, Iraq & Cameroon

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The holidays usually fly by, but when I think of this past December and all the things that happened come to mind, I can’t help but feel the month of December was approximately three eons long.

The month started out with benchmark testing for my students, which is rarely fun for them but is one of my absolute favorite things (not just because I personally love a silent classroom working on independent work, but also because it’s exciting to see how their reading levels have grown). My students’ scores were really good, and I also had the opportunity to attend a training on incorporating books into the classroom, so I entered December feeling pretty positive about the work I was doing–which helped balance out the lack of enthusiasm I felt while reading For Whom the Bell Tolls. I often get caught between wanting to read the things I feel I should have read, and wanting to enjoy a page-turner (what my training dubbed “book candy”–books that may not be as challenging, but are fun to read), and I’m still not sure what the resolution is. Every now and then I’ll stumble upon a book that somehow falls in both categories (cheers to One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Red Tent and Like Water for Chocolate!). I was a little disappointed (mostly in myself as a reader) that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I did, and I more or less slogged through the war-time dialogue and introspection.

I read Youngblood as my students took their final exams and I made the final preparations for Christmas and Winter Break. I enjoyed the deeply flawed–jealous, insecure, ambitious–narrator, though I hadn’t planned to read two relatively dark war stories back-to-back, especially while trying to get into the holiday spirit (a more or less perpetual struggle for me).

As I finished up this book, I discovered I had received an educational award that will send me to the Harvard School of Education in February for a training and awards ceremony, an opportunity I am so thrilled about. I decided to celebrate how any Winter Breaking English teacher would: with a juicy book from my #TBR list. I picked up Behold the Dreamers while shopping for Christmas gift books for my students; I had seen it all over social media and wasn’t even sure it would fit in with this reading challenge (but what self-respecting bibliophile can resist a good thrift store book deal!?). This was an amazing book to finish the year with, a heart-warningly human story with sharp thoughts on immigration, racism, social mobility, and materialism–perfect for reflecting on the past year and the current state of our country, and where the hell we go from here.

It’s crazy that this month wraps up not just three more books on my journey around the world, but also my second year of writing about this literary challenge. I am so excited for everything 2018 will hold: travel, celebrating the marriages of some of my best friends, growing as a teacher, moving into our first home, and reading the final 16 books in this challenge!

Let’s go 2018 and Year 3 of #AroundTheWorldIn80Books!


Cameroon with Behold the Dreamers

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“Life is hard everywhere. You know that maybe it will get better one day. Maybe it will not get better. Nobody knows tomorrow. But we keep on trying.”–Betty, Behold the Dreamers

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This is an extraordinary book disguised as what I’m sure is a rather ordinary experience. Behold the Dreamers follows the newly-immigrated Jonga family as they try to achieve the American dream in New York City. Jende Jonga acquires a job as a chauffeur for a Wall Street executive, and their plight for citizenship and success takes a few dramatic turns as the recession begins.
  • It’s good because:
    • This book has received a lot of praise, so I was prepared to enjoy it–even if, as I mentioned before, that plot sounded rather simple and common. But maybe that’s why it’s so important and resounding? In a climate of increasingly anti-immigration, borderline-xenophobic, corporations-before-people attitudes, this book is a very human reminder of the variety of struggles that exist within our country.
  • Read if:
    • You’re sick of constantly consuming political psychobabble online, and just want a refreshing and beautiful means to look at things from a new perspective.

Up next: Venezuela with Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits!


Iraq with Youngblood

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“I’ll answer crooked, and I’ll answer long. And when they get confused or angry, I’ll smile. Finally, I’ll think. Someone who understands.”–Matt Gallagher, Youngblood

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This is the story of a “youngblood” lieutenant during counterinsurgency in Iraq, chronicling his struggles to find his foothold as a leader as he tries to uncover a local mystery nestled at the crosshairs of forbidden romance and a terrorist heist.
  • It’s good because:
    • Gallagher’s writing is sharp and honest when it comes to the internal struggles of being a soldier: the constant conflicts between vigilance and boredom, hopefulness and cynicism, camaraderie and competition. This is a dynamic piece of writing.
  • Read if:
    • You enjoyed The Things They Carried. Different war, of course, but I believe Gallagher alludes to this book often, especially when saying that the truest war stories are the ones that are hard to believe.

Up next: Cameroon with Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers!

Spain with For Whom the Bell Tolls

Screen Shot 2017-12-27 at 2.30.48 PM“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!).

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!