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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Spain with For Whom the Bell Tolls

Screen Shot 2017-12-27 at 2.30.48 PM“The world is a fine place and worth fighting for, and I hate very much to leave it.” –Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

  • Here’s what happens:
    • It’s a transcendent war story detailing the experiences of Robert Jordan in the Spanish Civil War as he works to blow up a bridge. Throughout this task, he confronts his own will to live and the true meaning of love.
  • It’s good because:
    • It’s hard to say anything new about classics like this one. I admire Hemingway as a writer, and think this story is an important and enduring one, but I couldn’t help but feel like I was completing a high school assignment by reading this book. It wasn’t as engrossing or immersive as my brain would’ve liked, and I kept worrying I was missing some important detail–as if I were writing an essay about it.
  • Read if:
    • Like me, you’ve never read this particular classic. Or, if you’re in the mood for a tragic war story.

Up next: Iraq with Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood (another war story!).

August–Taking into Account New Zealand & Austria

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Whether a teacher or a student, August always hits me like a bus. This year has been no different. Sure, I’m entering this month as a wife, and currently the happiest I’ve ever been–but the mental and physical hardships of starting out a school year are just as challenging as they always have been! I am at the same school I was last year, which definitely made me feel more prepared plunging into the school year right after the wedding, but the hours and routines that go into the first weeks of school (combined the new germs from kids and 100+ degree heat of Arizona summer) always wipe me out.

I started the month still wading through Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, an epic monstrosity of a book I first began reading right before the wedding. Proulx emerges in the history of loggers across the world by following two families throughout 300 years, introducing and killing characters with the same fluidity and tragedy as life itself. Each generation of Sels and Duquets was so vastly different, that this book honestly felt like several smaller stories woven together. The story, at time, was too dense–brimming with new characters and historical context–for me to get caught up in after working a full day with my middle schoolers and then coming home to unpack wedding presents and write thank you notes with my husband. But, on the relaxing weekends spent at home when I wasn’t completely worn out or pulled in several directions, it was a beautiful and unique story to get swept up in. Life moves so fast, that the changes that happen throughout a year or a lifetime can be easy to miss, but Proulx does a magical job of documenting the ebbing and flowing of family and history. As my life has changed drastically over the past few years, it was a lovely reminder.

Next, I read The End of Days mostly in class with my students, a book I thought would be fitting tie-in with our class novel, Night. While still an interesting story, it wasn’t exactly the historical fiction that I expected, and didn’t connect to World War II in the way that I expected. I like to donate the books I read during DEAR to my classroom library, as my students have usually noticed and wondered about what I read, but the translation of this book was a little hard to follow even for me, so I’m not entirely sure it’ll be an exciting addition for them. The path a soul can take throughout history, as the bodies it inhabits die, is a very compelling topic for a book, and it was fascinating following the unexpected course the protagonist took.

With thank you cards finished and wedding presents unpacked, the last of my wedding tasks are complete and I regain a large junk of my free time. I am still balancing the responsibilities of being a teacher, the chores and duties of being an adult and a wife, and the tasks every teacher must fulfill–but hoping September will hold a few good books. I’m looking forward to my first three-day weekend of the year, and creeping a little closer to Fall Break!

Austria with The End of Days

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“If you get the slightest bit off track, the consequences in the end are just as inescapable as if you’d gone and leapt headfirst into this or that abyss.”–Jenny Erpbenbeck, The End of Days

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This story follows the soul of a female in five “books.” Each book finds her in a different circumstance, across time and Europe, but ultimately ends with her death.
  • It’s good because:
    • I expected this to be another fast-paced, historical fiction, young adult book about Eastern Europe–in the vein of Between Shades of Gray or Girl at War. I was completely wrong. While kind of jarring and confusing at first (I’m assuming this is due in part because it was originally written in German and then translated to English, and that can pose some challenges), it ended up being a surprisingly poignant exploration of the purpose of life rather than the predicted historical fiction.
  • Read if:
    • You like the type of books that toys with the nature of time and living. In reminded me vaguely of The Incarnations in the unusual way it floated across history through its ill-fated heroine.

Up next: Rwanda with Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil!

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!

May–Inspecting Kiribati, Burundi & Scotland

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May! May is the last month of school, my birthday month–it is a time for celebrating! And while it is exciting, it is also a hectic time.

No matter how much I try to prepare, the chaos of wrapping of a school year is hard for me to avoid. Finalizing grades, attending end-of-year celebrations, preparing for the next year, and trying to suppress my excitement for summer–well, these things kick my butt. Therefore, my reading habits were erratic–either nonexistent or completed in hermit-like binging.

I started The Sex Lives with Cannibals thinking it would be a quick, funny read (I had actually hoped to finish it in April, which leads me to my next point). I was exactly 50% right on my prediction. J. Maarten Troost’s travel tales were bizarre and hilarious; however, this was a slower read for me. Partially because, due to the title, I couldn’t read this book at school while my students were reading, but partially because it is nonfiction, and even though it’s a quirky memoir, it’s filled with important information and history, which always takes me a little longer to digest. Nevertheless, Maarten Troost’s sardonic reverence for the impossible to understand set the perfect tone on which to close out the school year. My students and administration are constantly baffling, my patience and energy fluctuate unpredictably (actually, not unpredictably–usually in proportion to the amount of coffee on hand), and it frequently strikes me as a strange situation that I graduated college and now one of my responsibilities is telling children multiple times a day that they are not allowed to use the restroom. Maarten’s ability to take into stride an island that eats wild dogs and defecates along the beach struck a chord of camaraderie with me. It also made me excited for my next adventure (marriage of course, and a honeymoon in a new city!).

To find something acceptable to read in my classroom during our book report unit, I started Strength in What Remains. This time, I unknowingly picked up my second nonfiction book–though admittedly, this intimate narrative flows much like a fictional story. Our book report unit focused on characters who understand themselves better through some unusual challenge (students read The House on Mango Street, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or Speak), and this book unintentionally fit right into that team as Deo immigrated to the U.S. and persevered through a variety of issues as he adapted to his new home and coped with the civil war he left behind. Interesting, and occasionally challenging to read (but then again, that may be because I chose to read it largely in the presence of 25 teenagers), despite the fact that I was reading a few minutes each day with my students, this book took most of May to get through as I delved into grading and preparing for 8th grade promotion.

I squeezed in The Illuminations towards the end of the year, a book I’ve been looking forward to reading, a treat for completing my end-of-year to-do list. Though my brain was ready to relax and sit down with a few hundred pages of literature, apparently life wasn’t ready to allow that. My first few days of freedom found me celebrating my ass off–hitting the bars and even crashing my fiancé’s bachelor party–and little time/brain power to sit back with this tale of an elderly woman’s journey to recall the beautiful details of her past.

And while I thought I’d finish the month with some much-anticipated book time, my last few days of May were spent Netflix-binging and finally taking care of some of the wedding tasks that got pushed to the back burner during the school year. Which also explains why my monthly recap is 9 days late (especially if you toss in my bachelorette party and a handful of end-of-fire-academy celebrations!). But hey, it’s summer–and I’m going to be a wife in less than two months!

Scotland with The Illuminations

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“Out there, staring into the mountains, it occurred to him that he had travelled far from his old resources, from Anne Quirk and her mysterious belief that truth and silence can conquer everything. Was she even real in herself, he asked. Or was she just another of life’s compelling hopes?”–Andrew O’Hagan, The Illuminations

  • Here’s what happens:
    • An introspective and artsy tale about aging photographer Anne Quirk and her soldier grandson Luke, this novel tackles the topics of family, memory, purpose, and perspective.
  • It’s good because:
    • Pretty, unique, and important, O’Hagan carefully crafts a story that is detailed and relatable in its beautifully connected internal and external conflicts.
  • Read if:
    • You want to revel in the challenges one discovers on memory lane–the details that slip away and the ones that haunt us. Anne and Luke’s trouble forgetting and recalling various parts of their lives will bring you to wonder what aspects of your own life will stick with you, whether you want it to or not.

Up next: Egypt with Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff!