July–Mulling over St. Thomas & Haiti

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July was a month I spent caught between wishing it away and savoring every moment. The end of the month meant summer break was over–first day of school came shockingly early this year on the 31st–but it also meant my wedding, the event we’ve been planning since December and the beginning of the rest of my life.

I tried to select books with a nuptial theme to set the tone for this momentous month in my life, so I started off with the epic love story of The Marriage of Opposites, a book I absolutely loved. Rachel explores a variety of loves–with her kind but removed first husband, with her step-children, with her cryptic parents, with her best friend and possible half-sister, and lastly, with the love of her life Frederick–and the compounding factors that make these relationships real and challenging: scandal, secrets, and much more. While I hope my own marriage doesn’t consist of quite so much intrigue, it was still a riveting and unique love story that my heart adored.

Next, I picked up Julia Alvarez’s A Wedding in Haiti, which I enjoyed much more than expected. With all the thousands of wedding details finally coming into fruition these last few weeks, my email and phone were constantly chirping with updates and questions, and it was hard for me to focus on anything for longer than 3 minutes. (I recently began watching Pretty Little Liars on Netflix as my go-to relaxation activity because it was mindless enough for me to take care of other tasks with). So much more than an outsider’s look at one of a culture’s most exemplary displays of tradition and values, a wedding, this book also looks at pre and post earthquake Haiti with tenderness and curiosity. Furthermore, it was a compact little book that was super easy to tote with me along to last minute wedding appointments.

I hauled one more book with me up to Prescott for the wedding and on our honeymoon, but it was a honker of a book and I don’t know why I’m surprised I didn’t have time to read it! Between wedding excitement and prep, trying to get as prepared as possible for the upcoming school year, and the exhaustion that followed the wedding, it’s no wonder I didn’t have time to read a 700-page novel.

This next month will bring the start of my fourth year of teaching, my first as a Mrs., and hopefully restoring our lives to some post-nuptial order! And definitely a book or two, who are we kidding.

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Haiti with A Wedding in Haiti

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“Even if in the end we’re going to be royally taken, I’d still rather put my check mark on the side of light. Otherwise, all the way to being proved right, I’d have turned into the kind of cynic who has opted for a smaller version of her life.”–Julia Alvarez, A Wedding in Haiti

  • Here’s what happens:
    • Julia recounts the tale of the time she and her husband travelled to rural Haiti to attend the wedding of one of their coffee farm employees. It is a story that is brimming with travel-related mishaps and illuminating cultural understandings and misunderstandings.
  • It’s good because:
    • Honestly, this is one more book I picked up and began reading before I realized it was nonfiction. Looking forward to one last, page-turning piece of fiction before my summer break ended, I was a tiny bit disappointed. I was hoping for a colorful piece of Dominican fiction a la The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; however, even though Alvarez’s travel memoir wasn’t what I expected, it was still a thoughtful and introspective piece of writing. I love the unexpected adventures that arise from third world travels, and I am also equally fascinated by the history of dictators and the movements that resist them. Luckily for me, Alvarez includes both in this novel.
  • Read if:
    • It’s hard for me to decide on the circumstances to recommend this insightful little book since my reading it felt very accidental. But if you have an open mind about travel narratives, and are looking to be pleasantly surprised, I think this would be a good one to read. I also can’t help but feel like this book was destined for me, since I purchased it second hand months ago, and discovered it was a signed copy when I sat down to read it two weeks ago!

Up next: New Zealand with Annie Proulx’s Barkskins!

The Dominican Republic with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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“And maybe, just maybe, if she’s as smart and brave as I’m expecting she’ll be, she’ll take all that we’ve done and all we’ve learned and add her own insights and she’ll put an end to it. That is what, on my best days, I hope. What I dream.”–Yunior, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

  • Here’s what happens:
    • Junot Diaz explores the de Leon/Cabral family by plunging into the tumultuous history of the Dominican Republic and overlapping that with the darkest secrets of each of the dynamic characters. He starts with hopelessly nerdy Oscar, and his perpetual struggles to fit in and find love, and weaves Oscar’s plights in with his hard-headed sister Lola, his resilient mother–who grew up behind the “Platano curtain” in Trujillo’s DR–and roommate/narrator/typical Dominican playboy/secretly empathetic friend to the de Leon clan, Yunior. This is a story about cultural acceptance, about family, about the nature of love–and told from the perspective of a hilariously honest narrator who considers this group of people with love, respect, and a good sense of humor. Somehow–magically, artfully–all this brings the reader to evaluate how we treat each other, and how much society has truly changed. This is an absolutely breath-taking story.
  • It’s good because:
    • I knew I was going to love this book before I even cracked the cover. I devoured Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her last year, and it was clear to me that this author has the kind of voice I will always love. Diaz writes with snappy Spanglish and the kind of timeless dialogue that is both natural to the characters and philosophical in its universal truths. I hesitate to call anything unique in a world as multifaceted as ours, but Diaz’s voice is unlike anything I’ve ever read: quick, electric, and painfully poignant.
  • Read if:
    • You’re at all interested in reading the great voices of the 21st century before they’re staples of college syllabi throughout the country. I’ve said this about a book before, I know, but this book is a salient, cultural work of art that will speak to readers for generations to come.

Up next: The Netherlands with The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt!

May–Contempating Ireland, Cuba, Zambia, Cape Verde & Bosnia and Herzegovina

mayI’m going to start this month’s post with the disclosure that it was really difficult to draw connections between this month’s books, no matter how many morning commutes or sudsy showers I gave to pondering about it. Whether it’s because of the wide variety of countries I covered or because I managed to read so much this month (five books!) or just because I picked some unique stories that were outside my normal genres, I’m not sure.

Here’s what I do know: I had a wonderful May and it was spent starving on the streets of Limerick with Frank McCourt, chasing down an enormous fish with Santiago off the coast of Cuba, climbing the wild family tree of Alexandra Fuller in Zambia, sperm whale hunting on the Essex in Cape Verde, and fumbling through young adulthood with unbelievable acumen in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In between those epic adventures, my boyfriend and I hosted Mother’s Day brunch for our families, I directed my organization’s first annual conference, I turned 25, and I went on a drunken best friend vacation to Las Vegas–along with the other day-to-day tasks that usually fill my months.

So, while this month has been full of both wonderful memories and memorable books, I’m sure you can understand my struggle to scrounge up some connections.

The beginning of this month found me preparing for a big event at work, finally getting settled into our new house following a chaotic move (granted–most moves are chaotic, but me being in Oklahoma our last week in the old house certainly didn’t help), and slowly plugging away at Angela’s Ashes. I chose to read this book–finally, considering I was assigned it my freshman year of college and it’s been on the backburner of my reading itinerary ever since–because I head to Ireland with my boyfriend next month. While I am glad I read it, it’s not exactly a fun read; its pages are littered with starvation, illness, and alcoholism. After days spent coordinating meal counts and editing agendas and then coming home to a house that was technically still a construction zone (we didn’t have an oven or dishwasher, and we are actually still awaiting a few door knobs), it was a little difficult to immerse myself in Frank’s world where he didn’t even have a pair of shoes and his siblings were dropping like flies.

Nevertheless, I finished Angela’s Ashes while in Prescott for my work event–celebrating both Frank’s ascension to a better life and a huge accomplishment for my organization checked off. I took a couple days off to commemorate the conference and my birthday, and tore through The Old Man and the Sea, and Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.

The Old Man and the Sea was actually purchased in Havana when my boyfriend and I visited last November. Though my copy is in English, I’m pretty sure it’s a contraband version; it’s sprinkled with typos and the cover is kind of a strange texture. After two weeks plugging through Angela’s Ashes, though, it was a quick read that reminded me of that vacation to Cuba, and consequently made me excited for our vacation next month. However, Santiago’s relentless determination to kill this fish at any cost, wasn’t one that resonated with me. While I appreciated the dedication and fulfillment he experiences, maybe I just couldn’t get over that part where he ate a dolphin.

When I returned from the work trip, my boyfriend had organized an early birthday surprise for me (which I kind of alluded to in my earlier post on Cape Verde). He had been concerned about what time I was getting home that day, and when I walked through the door, he was strangely sweaty. I was instantly instructed to close my eyes, and was guided upstairs to the spare bedroom. In a very Beauty and the Beast fashion, he revealed that he had created an entire reading room for me for my birthday–complete with four bookshelves and a sign depicting some of the settings from my favorite books. It was a beautiful, thoughtful gift, and I was so overwhelmed with how much I love it.

I was also overwhelmed by how much shelf space I now have, and I immediately wanted to go to the bookstore–which is how I came into possession of Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. I read it on my four-day weekend, lounging on the couch with my boyfriend in absolute bookish, birthday bliss. Alexandra Fuller’s reflections on her challenging and resilient family were a nice compliment to this weekend, as she shared a variety of painful, funny, and fortifying experiences from her family’s history that help explain who she is, and her gratitude for that. A childhood in war-torn African countries isn’t what most of us would classify as ideal, but Fuller finds the charm and strength in these chapters of her life, reminding us how rewarding and actualizing unusual experiences can be–and how much we owe to the people who accompany us on those adventures.

Next, I immersed myself in In the Heart of the Sea. While I enjoyed it, I must admit I truly have no parallels for this book to my own life. I am a land-loving gal prone to sea-sickness and squeamish about ninety percent of what these brave sailors did. However, I will say this book has stuck with me, and I’ve brought up facts about sperm whales, oil, and starvation much more than the average person does ever since I read this book.

I finished out the month with Love and Obstacles, a short book that I took my time meandering through. Hemon’s delicious diction was like an exotic garden, and I loved cracking the cover to poke my head in for a few pages every day to what lovely words might bloom onto the page. I read slowly either because I had quite a few tasks at work, and I was overwhelmed with excitement over my upcoming European vacation to focus for long periods of time, or because I enjoyed prolonging this unique and eclectic read. I adored our narrator’s bookish curiosity and constantly evolving sense of self, set against the backdrop of the revolution on Yugoslavia.

I apologize for the rambling, mismatched nature of this long post, however I feel that it kind of mimics what a multifarious month it’s been. Here’s to a June filled with exciting adventures and one big announcement!

Cuba with the Old Man and the Sea

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“A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”–Santiago, The Old Man and the Sea

  • Here’s what happens:
    • The old man embarks on an epic battle of strength and will with a large fish, leading him to reflect on his capabilities, his purpose, and his relationship to the sea.
  • It’s good because:
    • It’s a succinct, no-nonsense narrative of what one can achieve. Not to mention, it’s a classic, and a quick one at that.
  • Read if:
    • You enjoy Hemingway’s brief and sharp story-telling, or if you’re feeling defeated and could use a new perspective from which to evaluate your pitfalls and triumphs.

Up next: Zambia with Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness!