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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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!

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…)?!

Vietnam with The Things They Carried

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“But the thing about remembering is that you don’t forget. You take your material where you find it, which is in your life, at the intersection of past and present.”–Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This is a collection of war stories–war stories that transcend our typical conception of war stories, war stories that are tragic love stories, painful coming of age stories, and atypical hero’s journeys. It’s a blend of fiction and nonfiction–with no clear or important distinction between the two–as O’Brien examines the nature of war and the heart of a soldier.
  • It’s good because:
    • This is a highly acclaimed account of the Vietnam War (I realized while reading it that both my best friend and husband had read it in high school). It’s honest and vulnerable, critical and supportive, inquiring and hopeful. It’s a beautiful mix of both funny and painful stories that attempt to give our reader an idea of what war is and how it changes a person.
  • Read if:
    • You want a new appreciation for the sacrifices soldiers make and the things they endure. This book is emotionally over-whelming, for sure, but very inspiring.

Up next: The Republic of Congo with African Psycho by Alain Mabanckou!

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!

Syria with Murder on the Orient Express

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“There was a kind of cool efficiency in the way she was eating her breakfast and in the way she called to the attendant to bring her more coffee, which bespoke a knowledge of the world and of traveling.”–Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This is a classic murder mystery story, unraveling the death of a train passenger while the train is stopped in a snowstorm. Master detective Hercule Poirot takes us on the intellectual adventure of piecing together scant evidence and suspect testimonies to make sense of the puzzling situation.
  • It’s good because:
    • Agatha Christie is considered an authority on mystery writing for a reason. It’s a quick-moving story, and it’s amazing the way she is able to piece together such a perplexing circumstance.
  • Read if:
    • I’m not much of a mystery reader, but I have to say I wound up enjoying this story much more than anticipated. I loved the unique characters, and appreciated the fast unfolding of the plot. Plus, the movie adaptation looks wonderful!

Up next: Zimbabwe with When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin!

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!