March–Sifting through Burma, Croatia & Sri Lanka

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My reading journey in March kicked off in Spring Break, about 10 days into the month. Unlike my teacher self of two years ago, I had zero exciting plans for break. No vacations. No schedules. Nada. Just a list of chores I’d like to accomplish, and several days of alone time to recharge.

So I set about getting my house in order, cooking for a firefighter now in 10-hour days of training, completing my taxes, paying deposits for various wedding services–and buckling down on becoming an active reader.

I finally focused on finishing Jan Phillip-Sendker’s The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, a book I dragged through for really no reason at all. The story was quick-paced, emotional, and full of riveting and moving plot twists. It was the kind of literary adventure I’m typically drawn to, a venture into the unknown that leads the characters to examine themselves. As I mentioned last month, I’ll blame my pace on the chaos of my life and not the quality of the novel; it was a beautiful love story that made me thankful for the love in my life.

I picked up Girl at War by Sara Novic unexpectedly at the Tucson Book Festival, and decided to throw it into my reading itinerary. I visited Croatia last summer, so this was a fascinating glimpse of their history–a history that more or less transpired in my lifetime. Ana is a resilient and strong narrator whose restraint and perseverance were inspiring. Hers is a story of how an everyday existence can crumble into a lifetime wracked by genocide and war. She is the strong and honest heroine I love, which is perhaps part of the reason why I did not enjoy my next book quite as much.

Wreck and Order‘s Elsie struck me as hapless, confused, and honestly a little lazy. While her plight of not understanding her life’s purpose was certainly a relevant and important one, the self-destructive and half-assed ways she went about it were hard to rationalize. And maybe that was part of the point, I’m not entirely sure. Maybe Elsie is who all struggling twenty-somethings are at their core, whether we like it or not.

While I keep hoping to get my reading stride back, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that until the wedding is over, it is going to be very difficult. Breaks and lulls in school certainly help, but free time is typically spent preparing for the wedding in some fashion–working out, managing guest list, visiting the town we’re getting married in, planning or honeymoon–and that’s okay. We only get to do this once, and while I’m so excited it’s just over three months away, I should just enjoy the process rather than worrying about the lack of balance in my life these days.

Nevertheless, it is nice to encounter a book I love that sticks with me all month, such as Girl at War, to help me remember why it’s always good to make time for reading.

Here’s to a month that’ll include state testing at my school, the second month of my fiancé’s firefighting academy, my bridal shower, Easter, my parents’ birthdays, Saturday school, and a hopefully a book or two.

Sri Lanka with Wreck and Order

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“Nowhere to be, no one to answer to, Clam Shack would be serving Bloody Mary’s soon, the ocean was huge and the world was incredible.”–Elsie, Wreck and Order

  • Here’s what happens:
    • Sloppy, anxious, and frustrated Elsie hits a breaking point with her loser boyfriend and unfulfilling job, and travels through France and Sri Lanka on her father’s dime to escape the relentless humdrum nature of her life. This is basically the archetypal millennial anthem brimming with the desire to make a difference but not wanting to do any work, destructive relationships, enabling parents who provide a bubble of privilege, and a few exotic locations in which to juxtapose these modern commonalities.
  • It’s good because:
    • Tennant-Moore is a sharp and honest writer. I didn’t personally love Elsie or her internal plights. I read a review that compared her to Lena Dunham’s character from Girls, and it was a description I couldn’t shake. Elsie (and Girls‘ Hannah, for that matter) struck me as whiny, spoiled, and sometimes a little gross–there was a point where she described her eyes as tiny, hard vaginas, a simile that seemed unnecessary and uncomfortable.
  • Read if:
    • You’re interested in the millennial saga. It may not be as awe-inspiring and painful as the stories of the lost generation, but there certainly is a story to tell–one inflicted with cell phones, hangovers, and casual sex. Elsie’s story seems to hit the nail on the head with the run-of-the-mill millennial experience.

Up next: Sweden with Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo!

Burma with The Art of Hearing Heartbeats

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“I speak of a love that brings sight to the blind. Of a love stronger than fear. I speak of a love that breathes meaning into life, that defies the natural laws of deterioration, that causes us to flourish,  that knows no bounds. I speak of the triumph of the human spirit over selfishness and death.”–U Ba, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats

  • Here’s what happens:
    • Intelligent, successful Julia jets off from her lawyer job and refined life in New York City to search for her missing father in Burma after discovering a cryptic letter that makes her wonder if there is more to her quiet, restrained father’s life than she had known. This leads her on a journey where she learns about her own heritage, experiences more than a few cultural shocks, and ultimately gains more knowledge about love, duty, and what it means to understand one another.
  • It’s good because:
    • It’s beautifully written and you can’t help but sympathize with Julia, who is a lovable perfectionist seeking insight into her family and her life. Equal parts introspective literary journey and fantastical Burmese fairy tale, this story is simultaneously exotic and familiar.
  • Read if: 
    • You can’t decide between magical realism and literary romance. Sendker paints a fantastical love story that teeters on the verge of mysticism, but ends up creating a transcendental, overwhelming picture of love at its strongest that is grounded in life’s realest moments. The power and magic of this story unfolds up until the very last page.

Up next: Croatia with Girl at War by Sara Novic!

January–Discussing the Czech Republic & China

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January was a long, exhausting month that dragged by with twelve hour-days, not enough sleep, and an unending list of responsibilities. Though I was excited to begin 2017, the year I’ll start the next chapter of my life as someone’s wife, these past 31 days were a challenging beginning to an important year. Between the Writer’s Conference I help coordinate each year, frustrating changes to our schoolhaleymitch85of89‘s discipline system that made behaviors and consequences confusing and aggravating, and finally getting into the nitty gritty chores of our wedding, I was run ragged and reading at an irritatingly slow pace. There were definitely some high points to the month; my fiancé finally got a call back from the fire department he’s hoped to build a career with (and even though his academy will coincide with a lot of key wedding planning details, it’s a big win), we got beautiful engagement pictures taken–a preview featured above, and I bought a wedding dress. It was undoubtedly 31 busy, jam-packed days!

During this time, I slogged through The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Incarnations, two books I enjoyed but ones I had a hard time finding uninterrupted, distraction-free time to sit down and read.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the first book I read in 2017 which also lasted me through the first week back at school, explored the nature of adultery, love, independence, fulfillment, and sexuality. While I enjoyed this short and unique story, I honestly felt like I wasn’t smart enough to understand the perplexities of this book. Maybe I was two scatter-brained trying to adjust back to a school schedule in addition to managing the writer’s conference appointments, or maybe the philosophies behind infidelity just escape me entirely. There’s no way to be sure. Despite the fact that I feel like I only scratched the surface of this novel, I still enjoyed its self-damning and passionate characters struggling in a scary world. Adultery is not usually a topic I enjoy in my fiction, but Kundera approached it in a way that felt sad and complicated, rather than frivolous and impulsive, which my newly-engaged self appreciated.

Next, I spent the majority of the month visiting China with The Incarnations. I dragged that book with me to countless appointments (nails, car maintenance, dentist, etc.), to San Diego, and to bed for three weeks, and even though I enjoyed the story, I read at a painfully slow pace. My fiancé, who has been working on Stephen King’s lengthy Dark Tower series, finished his 800-page book in about the same timeframe.

Regardless, Barker took on a complex topic–reincarnation–and wound a pretty excellent story around two spirits who are connected throughout centuries of Chinese history. I loved the historical context of this novel–I know next to nothing about Maoist China, so that was super interesting–and the destructive love these two characters have for each other was painful and compelling. I finished the last 70 pages of the book in one sitting–partially because January was winding up but partially because the last part where each lifetime is tied together with precise and surprising details was totally amazing. I didn’t connect with these characters a whole lot either, but as I’m trying to push myself to write more (not just this blog, but also a fictional novel I’ve been toying around with)  it’s always helpful and inspiring to delve into some incredible literature.

February is a short month, and it will entail schoolwork (as always), even more wedding planning (why is finding a photographer and DJ so expensive and complicated?!), my two-year anniversary with my fiancé (and our last time celebrating in February before we trade it in for a July anniversary!), and some attempts to eat healthier now that my form-fitting wedding gown is on the way. I’m hoping I’ll have some increased motivation (and brain capacity) to squeeze in a few more pages than I managed this past month. #HereGoesNothing!

 

China with The Incarnations

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“In the end, how much distance lies between the truth and what we believe to be true? Between the things we feel at one time and the things we end up doing?”–Susan Barker, The Incarnations

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This is the story of two incarnates throughout several centuries as they grapple with their love and obsession for one another. It is dark, winding, and completely inescapable in its mastery of storytelling.
  • It’s good because:
    • This is a tumultuous, violent, sexual, colorful story that weaves Chinese pop culture, history, and folklore into a vivacious tale of the highs and lows of complicated love.
  • Read if:
    • You want to have your mind blown by an emotional, riveting, non sequential but totally seamless plot line. Beautiful, painful–and just wow.

Up next: South Sudan with Love and Other Ways of Dying by Michael Paterniti.

December–Pondering Hong Kong, Germany, India & Ukraine

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December means the holidays–time at my parents’ house, time to repose on the couch, and time to trick myself into taking care of Christmas shopping by bribing myself with a new book (or four). However–December also means the chaos of concluding a semester, the stress of shopping for and wrapping gifts for loved ones, and the runaround of fun holiday engagements. And, of course this year, it’s also been a time for cracking down on wedding decision-making. Even though I expected December to be a tranquil time of reading and relaxing with family, it honestly turned out to be really hard to read anything besides students’ final essays, Amazon reviews for popular gifts, and wedding budget blogs.

I started the month with The Expatriates, a book I’ve been looking forward to reading for quite a while. I was excited for a gripping, literary novel, and while it was a completely unexpected story, I was not disappointed. After struggling to slog through any book in November, I was delighted for such a dynamic and engrossing read. While the plot primarily centered on the plight of motherhood, an experience I’ve only been on the receiving end of, the issues surrounding being a woman in a modern world and trying to make sense of a chapter of life that feels temporary were ones I have been all too familiar with. From college to my two-year stint in Louisiana, I’ve grappled with the conflicting desire for permanence while acknowledging that my current situation was a fleeting one. Now that I’m on the brink of my most permanent decision ever, committing to spend my life with one person, that in-between time of wanting to put roots in but also be looking to take my next leap seems like a lifetime ago. It was nevertheless an important and relatively happy time, and The Expatriates was a moving reminder of those challenges.

Next was Germany with Unbroken, an action-packed piece of shockingly resilient history. As with most nonfiction, this was a bit of a slower read for me. Combined with the added chores of shopping for and wrapping Christmas lists, trying to nail down some initial wedding plans, and grading final essays for my students, it was difficult to find the time to immerse myself in this World War II tale, fascinating as it was. Additionally, I also found the tragic situation of these soldiers often saddled me with nightmares, so reading before bed (one of my favorite nightly rituals) became a little less appealing. I mentioned in a previous post that this wasn’t a typical holiday story, but it certainly made me feel appreciative for all that I have–for the sacrifices others have made so I can live this life–and if that isn’t the Christmas spirit, I’m not sure what it.

Finally, I kicked off Winter Break with The Namesake, a warm and enjoyable read largely about finding oneself via the relationships one sustains–be they romantic or family. As my own relationships evolve as my fiancé and I prepare to be married, I find myself learning new things every day–about myself, as well. I connected with the protagonist Gogol’s highs and lows–with his parents, with his significant others, with his own perception of himself–as he stumbled, succeeded and matured.

Lastly, I finished the year with Everything is Illuminated, a book I knew I’d love and had selected so I could finish 2016 with a wonderful story. Quirky and smart and unique–kind of like 2016 itself. A lot of people complain that 2016 was an awful year, and for some people it really, really was. But I have to say, this weird and long year was pretty wonderful to me. I traveled a lot–to San Diego, to Disneyland, to Europe, to Universal Studios, I started a new job that makes me feel passionate and purposeful, we moved into a new home that is beautiful and closer to our families, and of course we got engaged. Not to mention I’ve kept up with this challenge and blog for a full year (1 year to go!) which is an accomplishment and I’m sure a record I’ll enjoy revisiting in the coming years.

I had hoped to finish the year halfway through this challenge, and I came damn close. And if that’s my only complaint, as I lay in bed nursing a New-Year’s-hangover headache on a rainy afternoon with an enormous cup of coffee, well, then that’s okay with me.

Happy New Year, y’all!

India with The Namesake

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“You are still young, free. Do yourself a favor. Before it’s too late, without thinking too much about it first, pack a pillow and a blanket and see as much of the world as you can. You will not regret it. One day it will be too late.”–Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This is the story of artsy, first-generation American Gogol Ganguli and his path to understanding the meaning of his name, the bonds of family, and his connections to his own heritage.
  • It’s good because:
    • I’ve read many books about immigrant families’ journeys to the U.S. with this challenge, and it’s fascinating to see how each character remains unique, yet a few common threads connect them as they work to adapt to their new environment while still preserving aspects of their homeland–and struggling to find the happy in-between of these two ambitions. Lahiri provides a beautiful snapshot of maturity as Gogol flounders in love, work, and finding himself.
  • Read if:
    • You’re looking for a quick, heartfelt read that pushes you to understand life from someone else’s perspective. Gogol’s exasperation with his parents often pushed me to examine how my parents view things. Though not immigrants, we come to blows on a variety of issues, especially as we both get older, and it’s important to step back and cherish them, even when I feel like they came from a different planet. This book is a refreshing reminder of the importance of family.

Up next: Ukraine with Jonathan Safron-Foer’s Everything is Illuminated!