Egypt with Cleopatra: A Life

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 7.52.57 AM

“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

Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 9.54.54 AM

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

screen-shot-2017-03-04-at-11-06-21-am

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!

South Sudan with Love and Other Ways of Dying

screen-shot-2017-02-07-at-10-32-52-am“The more willing we are to suffer pain and loss and even great throes of happiness, to live fully inside these big emotions, the closer we come to–what? The folded hands of the universe? Our humanity? Infinity? It must be something.”–Michael Paterniti, Love and Other Ways of Dying 

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This is a collection of 17 stunning essays that capture the beautiful, passing, almost unnoticeable moments as well as the enormous, earth shattering occasions that compose a life. With exquisite detail and mind-boggling reverence for the human experience, Paterniti connects a handful of unrelated tales to create what feels like a comprehensive look at the understanding of life and happiness.
  • It’s good because: 
    • Each story is unique and unpredictable, but the themes of fulfillment and enjoyment and love are familiar. The word choice is impeccable and the pace and sequencing of this collection is flawless. I was honestly constantly stunned at his mastery of the human spirit, and found myself pausing to reflect on the beautiful truths he constructed quite frequently.
  • Read if:
    • You never thought you’d enjoy a book of essays. I promise you will connect with at least one of these special stories.

Up next: Burma with The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker!

October–Sorting out Afghanistan, the DRC, Switzerland, Lithuania & Antarctica

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-11-59-21-am

In an attempt to be festive, I tried to save some particularly scary reads for the month of October; what could be more terrifying than the oppression of women, a sophisticated and violent society of apes, an adulterous spouse, the Holocaust, and of course shipwreck in one of the most unforgiving climates on earth? While not traditionally spooky stories, I would say this wide range of tales were valiant efforts towards scaring the pants off me during Fall Break and the days leading up to Halloween. Of course, I’ll let it be known that I was also delighted to not be wearing pants, regardless of the level of fright.

October is a notoriously challenging month for teachers, so I was a little surprised to have read as much as I did this month. However, between end-of-the-quarter finals and Fall Break, I found myself with some time for R&R and thankful to have a few good books on hand.

It’s been a taxing month at school. Working with children is an emotionally draining job, and it takes its toll from time to time. Additionally, it’s been a busy month for my boyfriend as well, so it’s been a little difficult to cope and unwind with him always on the go. He was in Las Vegas for a cousin’s birthday for half of my Fall Break, which of course made me miss him, but also allowed for ample time to read in our bed for hours, not wear make-up, and do things like eat string cheese for dinner.

I kicked off the month in Afghanistan with Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, a strong, feminist novel about the power of friendship and what it takes the change the world. Full of abuse, rape, and death, it was a moving account about the unglamorous work that goes into transforming a community. While I am by no means up against the Taliban as I teach my students, the behind-the-scenes look at the blood, sweat, and tears you pour into a cause you care about was key for me. Teachers at my school have been struggling to stay motivated–or even show up to work–which isn’t entirely uncommon this time of year. October usually is a prime time for burnout to take its toll. But many staff members seem to have loss sight of our school’s mission, of the fact that this isn’t a regular school, that changing the course of low-income kids and trying to alter the face of public education isn’t a normal job. It’s painful and exhausting and frustrating and comes with major emotional wounds–and occasionally a physical one or two.

Next, I traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo with Congo, expecting to be frightened since Michael Crichton scared me to death with Jurassic Park, and I have a pernicious fear of violent monkeys (to be fair, this book is actually about gorillas). I expected this to be a thrilling vacation read, but it was honestly rather boring–kind of like my Fall Break. Sure, it was alright, but nothing terribly exciting happened.

Another Fall Break read included Hausfrau, set in Switzerland. Again, I had saved this book for break as well, thinking it would be a quick-paced, easy read perfect for relaxing on the couch. While Congo was lackluster, this book might be the first I’ve read for this challenge that I’ve actively disliked. It’s probably good that I read it during break, when my stress level was low, because if I had spent precious free time during my work week on this novel, I would’ve been irate. Anna’s passivity is aggravating, and her infidelity is horrifying. I felt no sympathy for her predicament, as she destroyed her own life and the lives of others. At the root of this story is a message about mental health, so maybe I’m being insensitive, but I spend my day listening to the powerless whining of small children–and Anna honestly felt just like a helpless child, except one wreaking a disconcerting amount of damage.

Lastly, I closed out Fall Break with the saving grace of vacation reads, Between Shades of Gray. While the story of the mass deportation of Lithuanians is far from a light-hearted, guilty pleasure book, this young adult historical fiction was a great read. Lina is a heroine I could stand behind, tough, talented, and caring, and the historical insight was refreshing and interesting. Having finished our unit on Elie Wiesel’s Night last quarter, I was also excited to share this book with students, which made the transition from sleeping in to 5am wake-ups just a little easier to stomach.

The hectic and exhausting close of October was spent in Antarctica with Endurance. Though my life at school at the end of Darktober felt like a disaster on par with Shackleton’s predicament, this was nevertheless a slower read for me. Call it macabre, but I just felt like it took far too long for the disaster to begin-which of course, is the opposite of my life at school, where I feel like things start going wrong as soon as I walk in the door. Whether it’s issues with admin, naughty children, or fighting a paper jam in the copy machine, the feeling of being shipwrecked was not lost on me.

Overall, my month was dominated by schoolwork–which was scary enough–and even though I had selected books to be frightening additions to the season, they fell a little short in comparison to the hurdles in my everyday life. But now that parent-teacher conferences and the wild behavior of October are behind us, I’m looking forward to starting the holiday season at a steadier pace and with quite a few more books!

The Democratic Republic of Congo with Congo

screen-shot-2016-10-09-at-9-38-31-pm

“It was frightening to be confronted by what Stanley had called ‘the indifferent immensity of the natural world.'”–Michael Crichton, Congo

  • Here’s what happens:
    • A failed geological mission and an outlandish primatology hypothesis bring a group of scientists to the jungles of the Congo in search for the lost city of Zinj. Equipped with fragmented knowledge of primate-related violence in the area and accompanied by a sign-language-speaking gorilla named Amy, the team dives into this region wildly unprepared for the obstacles awaiting them.
  • It’s good because:
    • Michael Crichton is a brilliant writer who skillfully blends seemingly plausible scientific information with a fast-moving plot. Think Jurassic Park, except gorillas instead of raptors.
  • Read if:
    • You enjoy the kind of science fiction that doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Sure, at points the plot does get weighed down with techno-babble jargon, but Crichton spares no expense when it comes to supporting his story with science.

Up next: Switzerland with Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum!

September–Evaluating Chile, Ghana & Australia

screen-shot-2016-09-11-at-8-52-13-am

September started out solely as a countdown to Labor Day Weekend. School has been a hectic, demanding, exhausting 6-days-a-week, 12-hours-a-day emotional drain. The small amount of energy left at the end of the day as I text parents, put stickers on student papers, and input grades is summoned for opening bottles of wine, washing my hair once a week, and setting my coffee pot so there’s a hot cup of coffee ready when I crawl out of bed at 5:15am. Basically, recreational activities like reading (or staying up past 8:45pm) have fallen to the wayside, so an extra day off–to sleep in, to eat lunch with my boyfriend, to rent a movie on iTunes–has been worth counting down to for the past month.

Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune was my three-day-weekend book and while it wasn’t quite the spell-binding, page-turning vacation read I craved (ex: Me Before You, All the Light We Cannot See, Americanah), it was a smart look into a period of history I haven’t read much about, and even though the plot of an illegitimate pregnancy for a society woman is definitely a historical trope, Eliza is the stubborn and brave heroine I always adore. As mentioned above, life has been moving a little too fast for me, so a glimpse into Chilean aristocracy and the California Gold Rush were welcome sojourns from a day-to-day life I’m struggling to get ahold of.

Next, I turned to Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, one I’ve been excited to read due to an aforementioned affection I have for the country of Ghana. Also contributing to my nostalgia for my time spent in west Africa is the fact that my fellow intern while in-country, now a long-time friend, is recently engaged, and she and I have been discussing wedding plans quite frequently, in addition to occasionally pining for a bowl banku or reminiscing about cab rides across Ghanaian countryside.

At first was hard for my scrambled bits of brain to grasp onto the jarring and choppy story-telling Selasi embraces, but as I got more familiar with the characters and the variety of issues that created them, it became easier. The doses of nostalgia for one of the happiest chapters of my life was also a welcome reprieve from countless busy days at school.

Lastly, I delved into Stolen for a quick, easy read to help me relax after emotionally taxing work days. Every teacher will tell you this is a job that doesn’t turn off, but it’s still hard to prepare yourself for how exhausting it is to be thinking about 50 adolescents at all hours of the day. Luckily, Gemma’s plot of being kidnapped and inflicted with Stockholm Syndrome was compelling, and I tore through this book in just two days (and talked about it as an example of foreshadowing in my class before donating it to our classroom library, where one other student was already read it just as quickly!).

While I finished Stolen early on in the month, I was forced to slow down my reading both due to being way tired but also trying to apply to a Master’s program fellowship–which required two essays, a resume, and a letter of intent. Forcing myself to eek out intelligent responses to any of those tasks has taken about every scrap of energy I’ve had left–and then some.

However, I was ultimately surprised to have read as much as I did this month. Pre-Fall Break is a tiring time of year, as students are settled in enough to display bad behavior, and there really isn’t an end in sight to keep anyone motivated and upbeat–teachers included. Last week, students were found with alcohol and tobacco on campus (not sure if I’ve mentioned that I teach 8th grade), and I’ve begun teaching essay-writing, a skill that many students struggle with and resist aggressively. As a result, each night I’ve been in my pajamas by 8:30pm, and my eyes can scarcely stay open long enough to get under the covers, let alone crack the cover of a book.

Additionally, as of this month, I’ve officially been working at this challenge for 9 months, and have read about 34% of my goal. But, whenever I glance at my monthly maps, it barely seems like I’ve made a dent in the list of countries out there. Sure, some of them are small and a few haven’t even been on the map (and to be totally honest, 27 really only accounts for 10% of the countries in the world, so it really is hardly a dent!). And of course, after devoting 9 months of reading and writing to this challenge, it can be a little disheartening to feel like I’ve barely made any progress.

Which, unfortunately, often resembles my feelings in my professional life, as well. After two months of teaching, of enforcing positive behaviors, of relentless grading and planning, it is sometimes frustrating to see students still struggling with concepts we’ve been going over since day one–especially when those students are the ones who misbehave. I work hard, and I do believe I’m a good teacher, and I know a lot of my efforts will pay off. However, it’s impossible to save every student, and that will never stop being hard to accept.

I guess the point of both of these frustrations is just to celebrate the victories, no matter how small, and keep working towards the bigger picture, no matter how challenging.

Here’s to surviving October (called Dark-tober in the educational realm, since this is usually the month of the worst behavior for a variety of reasons!) and lots of reading during Fall Break! #1WeekToGo