Burundi with Strength in What Remains

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“In order to go on with our lives, we are always capable of making the ominous into the merely strange.”–Tracy Kidder, Strength in What Remains

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This is Deo’s odyssey into America after fleeing war-torn Burundi in the 1990’s. He encounters culture shock, poverty, racism–and overcomes this to build meaningful relationships and create a new life for himself.
  • It’s good because:
    • I actually didn’t realize this was a work of nonfiction until I was two chapters in. The story flows with the tenderness and descriptiveness of a fictional story. This is not reporting; this is a narrative at its finest.
  • Read if:
    • You enjoy nonfiction stories of perseverance and compassion.

Up next: Scotland with The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan!

Kiribati with The Sex Lives of Cannibals

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“I was simply restless, quite likely because of a dissatisfaction with the recent trajectory of my life, and if there is a better, more compelling reason for dropping everything and moving to the end of the world, I know not what it is.”–J. Maarten Troost, The Sex Lives of Cannibals

  • Here’s what happens:
    • Aimless but adventurous J. Maarten Troost and his new fiancée relocate from Washington D.C. to Kiribati, a small atoll in the middle of the Pacific. They are constantly surprised and confused by the peculiar and challenging way of life for those living on the Equator. This is a book brimming with charming, fish-out-of-water anecdotes that makes you yearn for your next adventure, and reminds you to cherish the inconveniences of travel.
  • It’s good because: 
    • This is a humorous travel memoir that chronicles the author’s transcontinental move with curiosity, thoughtfulness, and plenty of laughter. Troost makes jokes without being insensitive (a difficult feat, especially when regarding another culture), making this a fun and interesting read.
  • Read if:
    • You’re experiencing a bit of wanderlust. Planning our honeymoon (and being a little stir crazy for summer vacation), I feel eager to be on the move. This book was a refreshing reminder of why I love to travel, though it certainly did not cure my desire to visit somewhere new!

Up next: Burundi with Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains!

Hong Kong with The Expatriates

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“You think only one specific event, one miracle, will make things better, but actually, life will get better if you only let it. You have to let life get better.”–Janice YK Lee, The Expatriates

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This book follows the lives of three women, who have relocated to Hong Kong for various reasons and find themselves perplexed, frustrated, and amazed by the dynamics in their lives there. They run in circles of foreign elite as they attempt to build and maintain relationships, make sense of the cultural contradictions, and ultimately understand their roles in this affluent and often antiquated community.
  • It’s good because:
    • It explores the aggravations and anomalies of the modern housewife without coming across as the self-pitying and bemoaning of the wealthy white woman living abroad. I think this is what Hausfrau had attempted to do, but in my opinion, The Expatriates does it in a more empowering and dynamic way.
  • Read if:
    • You like a good literary novel set against a unique backdrop. (I’ve mentioned this before, I know, and I’m beginning to think this may be becoming one of my favorite aspects of a good book). Lee explores the mutable role of a woman when faced with the challenges of motherhood–all amid the exotic life of foreigners living in ritzy in Hong Kong.

Up next: Germany with Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken!

November–Reviewing Italy & Tahiti

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November was a blur of a month–a delightfully unexpected, blissful, chaotic, over-whelming, transformational month.

It kicked off with a detailed plan for reading, as I was fully expecting to finish 4-5 books this month–with Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving Break as time off to indulge myself–and end the year halfway through my reading challenge. However, a wrench was quickly thrown into my plans; albeit a stunning, sparkly, happy diamond wrench, but a wrench nonetheless.

The month started with a visit to Italy with Beautiful Ruins, an idyllic reprieve from news about the election that seemed entirely inescapable. While this novel did a wonderful job of creating iconic and moving moments (I was particularly affected by how All the Light we Cannot See did this, and I definitely saw similarities in these thoughtfully crafted scenes set in stunning European landscapes), the message on the perceived pointlessness of love was a little difficult for me to grapple with. My own relationship had entered some growing pains, settled into two years of being together and one year of sharing a domestic life together, and I had encountered a small degree of anxiety about what the next step was–and when it would get here. Not to say I wasn’t stupidly happy in my relationship; I feel supported, loved, and ecstatic to be sharing my life with my other half. But as I waited for our current stage to transform into something else, it could be a little unnerving, especially when confronted with the idea that a few happy moments together was really all we need from each other, which is what many of the poorly-timed, ill-suited, flawed relationships of Beautiful Ruins seemed to suggest. Nevertheless, this was a detailed and deliberate story that tied many lose ends together in a masterful, if painful, way.

Little did I know, as I leapt to Tahiti with The Signature of All Things, my boyfriend was already plotting the next step of our lives together. About 80 pages into my second book of the month, on November 13th, he got down on one knee and asked me to marry him in the reading room he built me for my birthday. He had the ring stashed in a harimg_1209d cover copy of Gone with the Wind, my absolute favorite book and the book he read when we first started dating long distance–a 1,000-page feat that really showed me he was serious about what we were starting.

Needless to say, this was the happiest day of my life so far, and I am beyond thrilled to spend my life with someone who knows me so well. However, also needless to say, being engaged definitely slowed down my reading. Time normally allocated towards reading was spent scrolling on Pinterest or just staring at the gorgeous ring he picked out. Additionally, it did not help that The Signature of All Things was a little tricky for me to get into. Some shifts in life are difficult adjustments, and acclimating to the unique, botanical, colonial premise of this novel was a more difficult transition for me. It was an interesting story with dynamic characters, but overall not as captivating as I had hoped. Luckily, the transition to being engaged was a much smoother one than immersing myself in the floral world of the Whitakers.

While I would love to spend the rest of the year in engaged dream land, alternating between reading amazing books in steamy bubble baths and browsing the internet for gorgeous flowers and table settings, this time of year is unfortunately very busy. Staff members are constantly out of work–either with illness or mental breakdowns, school has a variety of extra obligations ranging from a four-Saturday course and preparing for a formal observation, and then of course the regular tasks of holiday engagements and duties. I am a little disappointed to not be making it halfway through this challenge, not because I’m on a strict schedule, but just because I hate to have a plan unfulfilled. But of course, it’s hard to complain. I’m marrying a man I love (hopefully this summer–did I mention that?), I have a job that challenges me to grow, and this is my first Christmas spent as we join two families, which is something I don’t think I’ll ever stop being thankful for.

Maybe it’s for the best I didn’t have too romantic of books this month, because this post was already pretty mushy on its own! Here’s to finding balance and enjoying the last month of 2016–a full year of reading, writing, and all kinds of adventures in between.

August–Weighing in on Iran & Ethiopia

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As predicted, August was a whirlwind month chock full of blood, sweat, and tears and rather lacking in books, blogs, and reflection.

August 1st marked the first day of school, a magical day where I busted out my rusty teaching tools and met my new 8th graders. As if that wasn’t an antsy, nerve-racking enough occasion, I spent the weekend prior with my boyfriend’s family in San Diego (yes, reading One Thousand and One Nights, as well) and my Sunday evening flight was delayed repeatedly, which meant I didn’t arrive to Phoenix until around midnight–a dire detail when a 5am wake-up awaits you. And while there are a million words to describe how teachers hope their first days of school will go, sleep-deprived is generally not one of those ideal adjectives (though it is inevitably one that will describe most of the school year).

Despite the hectic start, it’s been a happy school year so far, one that has really made me feel confident in my unexpected decision to return to the classroom. Of course, even though it’s been a joyful and welcome month, it hasn’t been without hurdles, as I imagine much of my time at a small charter school serving predominately low-income children will be. Adapting to a new school’s procedures and expectations, on top of learning about my students and, of course, teaching English, has been a 10-hour-a-day task that has completely sapped my energy. Additionally, low enrollment at our campus has meant laying off two staff members and the complete upheaval of everyone’s teaching schedules as administration shuffles to redistribute responsibilities. Also, unrelated to my professional trials, my family also said goodbye to our dog Buttercup this month, a personal obstacle that certainly made all aspects of life a little more difficult.

Therefore, while my classroom is nowhere near the chaotic hellscape it was my first year of teaching when I had no clue how to manage children or communicate expectations,the workload is very reminiscent of those days when I was frantically creating worksheets and rehashing lesson plans at all hours of the day. Finding a balance between building a curriculum, grading papers, calling parents, and trying to be a normal human adult is a tricky thing, and it’s particularly challenging these first weeks of school.

Consequently, though One Thousand and One Nights was started on vacation at the end of July, it was read very slowly throughout the first half of August–mostly during Drop Everything and Read (DEAR–the 20 minutes of independent reading my students do every day), in between checking homework and correcting students who weren’t reading. Basically, it was read about 5 pages at a time, with minimal brain space left to absorb the spectacularly strange myths of ancient Persia. However, the fantastic lore that Hanan al-Shakyh spins throughout this book was just as unexpected and peculiar as life in a middle school classroom–where my days include obstacles like tears over detention, spontaneous bloody noses, and the frequent interception of pens thrown across the room. While I probably didn’t have enough mental capacity this month to truly appreciate these myths at their cultural level, stories of princesses and genies are a welcome break from hormones and homework.

About halfway through August, I finally cracked the cover on Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, started as a reward during Sunday lesson planning and torn through during a weekend in Flagstaff with my boyfriend escaping the heat. He and I celebrated our year and a half anniversary on August 14th–and by celebrated I mean, barely even acknowledged it. Anniversaries are a little confusing for us to calculate due to the on-again off-again, ambiguous nature of the first two years of our knowing each other, so while 18 months is a significant achievement, it also feels like a lot more to us in a way that’s difficult to quantify. Additionally, we’ve been so run-down and worn out from the heat, that we spent that weekend ordering in and watching movies, in a perfectly pleasant but hardly celebratory way. So I guess the weekend up north could be considered a celebration–but really, we planned it before we even realized what milestone was coming up.

Anyway, Cutting for Stone was brimming with anticipatory love and tender relationships, and was a lovely compliment to a chapter in my life that has been filled with happiness and excitement for future events. I feel content with my work, my relationship, and my self in a way that I don’t know if I’ve ever felt before, and this new level of bliss can’t help but make me look forward to future steps in my life. Doors have opened with my boyfriend to conversations about our future that are full of hope and trust (not to be too terribly mushy), and the forward-thinking introspection of our narrator Marion in Cutting for Stone made it all the more enjoyable to relish this new direction.

While my time allotted for recreational reading definitely took a toll this month, as predicted, these two books were definitely worthwhile means of occupying that limited time.

It is also worth noting that this month included extracurricular reads like the newest installment in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (a play set in England, which was already covered with The Cuckoo’s Calling) and Elie Wiesel’s Night (Romania, a new stop admittedly, but my third time through this particular text so I didn’t count it on this literary exploration), which my class is currently reading. Overall, lots of major achievements for August even if minimal progress was made towards this specific challenge. I’m looking forward to hopefully striking a better balance in the months to come, and continuing to grow as a teacher, reader, girlfriend, and person.

Holy cow, this has been a cheesy post.

July–Analyzing Journeys to Wales, Canada, the Dominican Republic, and the Netherlands

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July started out as a relaxing month–I wrapped up my old job, took a week off to be a couch potato, and did what most Arizonans do when it’s 115 degrees outside: take advantage of air conditioning with occasional migrations to poolside loungers.

Because of the ample amount of R&R this month has afforded me before I plunged into a new school year (first day is tomorrow!), I spent quite a bit of time reading–so much so, my boyfriend commented that my head was always in a book. To be fair, he also had a cold earlier this month, so a lot of time was spent on the couch together, and a girl can only watch reruns of Brooklyn 99 so many times. So, this month was spent reposing with an ambience of Netflix in the background with Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on your Knees, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

As things at work wrapped up, my Fourth of July weekend was tranquilly spent racing through Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an easy-to-digest young adult fantasy book set in Wales. I’d been looking forward to reading this book, hoping it would be a dark and quirky easy read, and a good recommendation for my new students. While it was an easy read with dark and quirky moments, it wasn’t one of my favorites. Anxious Jacob and his bonds with the unusual, old-timey students at Miss Peregrine’s home weren’t particularly resonant for me, but hopefully the eclectic bunch and their trials against magical monsters will hold important messages for my students. Maybe I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I had hoped (and I recognize 25-year-old college graduates who typically enjoy literary fiction aren’t exactly the target audience) but it was a good step towards organizing my new classroom library, which is also an exciting development.

Next, I moved onto Canada with Fall on your Knees, a book I knew little about other than that it was an Oprah book, so it was probably going to be weird, depressing, and shockingly amazing. And it was just that. Read during my last week of work, when I was already a little inclined to procrastinate those final tasks of my position, and also while my boyfriend was bound to the couch with a cold, this book was wonderfully strange enough to keep me up late at night (and by late, I mean until midnight, since I’m 25 and have a strict bedtime of 10pm). It was hard to relate to any of the bizarrely flawed Piper women, whose imperfections and histories in their remote Canadian home rendered them borderline alien. Despite how stark and unfamiliar their personalities were, I felt some connection to their longing for something more, something beyond their “ordinary” lives. This particular longing is what leads me to travel (We have been recounting our trip to Europe for friends and family lately, and I often get asked why we went to Croatia–which happened when I went to Cuba, Ghana, and China–and sometimes it’s hard to articulate the need to just see something new, something more than what you see on a daily basis) and what has led me to re-enter a career field that was really challenging for me.

Next, I threw myself into Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, an intimate look at the de Leon family which takes us to both the Dominican Republic and New Jersey. I was able to connect with this high-energy exploration of family, culture, and human decency during my week off between my two jobs and while housesitting for my parents. I loved this book for many reasons, but the last few chapters were particularly powerful as our narrator pushes us to examine how we treat each other, and how much our society has actually changed. Who takes responsibility for this change? In the wake of the recent violence, it’s easy to feel disheartened–and I have often felt exactly that way. I’ve also felt torn, being in a relationship with a first responder but also working in a profession that serves predominately low-income, minority populations. I don’t feel like I should have to pick sides, but unfortunately the tensions often make it seem that way. However, Diaz’s characters were a needed reminder that there are outliers and changemakers, and it’s always possible to believe in the best and have hope.

Lastly, I finally took on The Goldfinch, which has been on my reading list for quite some time but was an intimidating choice due its length. I embraced it during my first two weeks of professional development at my school, which was perhaps not my wisest choice as I was knackered and brain dead by the time I got home, and barely able to keep my eyes open for 20 pages each night. Nevertheless, I looked forward to reading it, tucking it into my enormous teacher bag whenever I could on the off-chance I’d have a spare few minutes in my car to read. Theo’s transient journey following a personal tragedy, the different personalities he tries on while growing up in the wake of grief, was beautiful and gripping. It is the story of him working to make sense of a world that often seems illogical and unfair, a trial that will always be relevant. While it did seem overly long at some points, sometimes that’s how life is: chapters of our lives that seem drab or not very meaningful drag on, so perhaps The Goldfinch was expertly mimicking the very nature of human existence. Either way, it was a vivid portrayal of personal growth from a rather unique lens.

I’m so glad I was able to pack in so many books during a time that has been filled with a lot of emotion for me–nostalgia, excitement, relaxation, exhaustion, sweatiness (when it’s 115 degrees, the level of sweat is unfortunately a deep emotional experience). I’m also glad because as the school year gets underway, especially at the beginning, my recreational reading time will probably be decreased, so I’m not sure how many books August will hold. Nevertheless, I’m excited for this new phase of my life, and whatever stories I take with me!

England with The Cuckoo’s Calling

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“To prove, to solve, to catch, to protect: these were things worth doing; important and fascinating.”–Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling

  • Here’s what happens:
    • Model Lula Landry dies tragically–and the question of murder versus suicide enraptures her family and the public. Private investigator and down-on-his-luck hero Cormoran Strike teams up with his ambitious temp Robin Ellacott to get to the bottom of Lula’s death–and in the process, they end up learning a lot about themselves and each other.
  • It’s good because:
    • J.K. Rowling (who chooses to go by the pseudonym Robert Galbraith for this book) is a phenomenal writer, and even though there’s no magic, dragons, or Dumbledore, it remains that Rowling/Galbraith is a gifted story crafter.
  • Read if:
    • You enjoy a mystery with strong characterization. It wasn’t quite Gone Girl spell-binding, but there are definitely a few plot twists that will keep you wondering–not to mention more than a handful of captivating and unique characters.

Up Next: Mauritius with Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You!