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!

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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!

 

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!

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…)?!

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!