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!

Israel with The Red Tent

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“The story it told was unremarkable: a tale of love found and lost–the oldest story in the world. The only story.”–Dinah, The Red Tent

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This is the fictional autobiography of Dinah, sister of Joseph and a relatively minor character in the Bible. Diamant explores the relationships of women through the ancient custom of the red tent, a retreat for menstruating women, and fleshes out the story of Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter. She covers her sacred journey into womanhood, her first love, and of course, a whole mess of bloodshed and tragedy, because it’s set in biblical times and that’s just the kind of stuff that happened.
  • It’s good because:
    • Dinah is a curious, precocious and understanding narrator who renders a world very different from ours pretty easy to get immersed in. She is a compelling character, and her story is intimate and special. Her story is of women everywhere who have endured whatever life has given them, and it’s a resonant one that matters.
  • Read if:
    • You haven’t read it yet. I never would’ve guessed the coming-of-age story of a biblical woman would’ve enraptured me for three days, but I could barely put this book down. Romantic, dark, and surprisingly relatable, I understand why this book is so often talked about.

Up next: St. Thomas with Alice Hoffman’s The Marriage of Opposites!

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.