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!

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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!

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!

June–Deliberating on Egypt, Mexico & Israel

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June was my first full month of summer break–a delightful 30 days of waking up with no alarm, of running errands in the middle of the day, of thinking of nothing but what I wanted to watch on Netflix. Sure, I am also in the last month of planning my wedding, which kept me fairly busy but mostly with tasks that were fun to me. But mostly, June was deliciously relaxing, an unprecedented time of basically uninterrupted self care.

I spent the month reading books about remarkably strong women in the most challenging of circumstances–a little ironic, since my life resembled that of a 50’s housewife (lots of cleaning before my fiancé came home from work, shopping, cooking, and basically eating bonbons on the couch).

Nonfiction typically takes much more of my focus, rendering me hell-bent to take note of all the facts, so it made sense to kick off my new open schedule with Cleopatra. Reading about the queen of luxury while luxuriating myself–well, it was divine. Sure, the girl had her fair share of challenges: a murderous family, a few scandalous baby-daddies, and a tumultuous political climate to rule, but she was also one of the richest people to walk this earth, and practically invented decadence. I may not have spent my first days of summer hosting feasts for dignitaries or cruising the Nile in a bejeweled barge, but I did engage in my own version, which typically entailed multiple cups of midday coffee, binge-watching my favorite shows on Netflix, and putting the final details on lovely wedding crafts.

Next, I was excited for a quick read–something that would encourage me to take time from running errands and watching TV–and that’s exactly what I got with Like Water for Chocolate. I loved the protagonist, strong, passionate Tita who endures multiple heartbreaks with bravery and wisdom. It was a colorful and atypical love story, and I devoured it in three days.

Lastly, I capped off the month with The Red Tent, a book that has been on my TBR list for months but kept getting pushed to back-burner as my reading pace slowed. Biblical fiction isn’t what I would say is one of my go-to genres, but I could certainly understand why this novel has garnered so much acclaim. Dinah’s journey into womanhood was compelling and her forays into heartbreak were completing spellbinding.

While I do feel sad the summer is halfway over, I am excited to be onto my next step as a woman: marriage. I’m thankful to have spent my last month as a single girl with a cast of bold and independent females!

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!

February–Ruminating on South Sudan

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I’ll start this post off this month by saying I’ve been a bad reader. I’m a little frustrated that I’ve been so consistent with this blog for over a year, reading 2-5 books a month and posting regularly, to fall off the wagon in February with only 1 novel to share and a monthly recap coming in four days late. Ugh.

However, the reasons I’ve been a bad reader are because I’ve been excelling in other areas of life. Hardly an excuse, I know, especially since one of my favorite life mottos to espouse is that we must always make time to read (cheers to Confucius: “No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.”).

This month, I was a very productive bride, finalizing our cake, our hotel blocks, our registry, our photographer, our videographer, and our wedding coordinator. These were ticky-tacky details that required reading of contracts, negotiating fees, and comparing minuscule details that seemed both mundane and completely essential. I was also a good teacher, coordinating our school’s first Read Across America event where students decorated their doors, dressed up as book characters, and community members joined classes for reading and activities. It wasn’t a perfect event, but it was an extra passion project that didn’t fall within the normal scope of my job, and it earned me the Employee of the Month award, on top of giving many of my friends and family an opportunity to get to know my students. Lastly, I was a good fiancee as my partner began the training routine for his new job, a new 9 to 5 schedule that has included many tough workouts. This has left many of the cleaning and cooking chores we normally split to me, on top of being left with a man who was cranky, exhausted, and worried about not being the best firefighter in his group.

So, while I wish I could say I was a better reader, I also realize my shortcomings this month were not for nothing.

Nevertheless, Michael Paterniti’s Love and Other Ways of Dying was a cerebral, heartfelt journey across the globe and across the human experience. Scatter-brained and spread thin as I was this month, it was lovely to check in with these diverse essays for a pitiful 15 pages a night before passing out in bed. From plane crashes to Albert Einstein’s remains, this collection was unusually poignant and a great means for reflecting on the peculiar and tender nature of life in a fast-paced, short month.

I’ve realized I have been reading less since getting engaged; each time I crack open a book, I wind up on Pinterest or adding items to my checklist. I’ll only be engaged once, so I’m trying not to be too hard on myself for this, but I hope with Spring Break and wedding planning progress on the horizon, I’ll be able to pick up the pace just a little. Here’s to finding a balance between being a successful human and a literate blogger!