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…)?!

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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!

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.