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!

Croatia with Girl at War

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“Though I hadn’t told the professor anything about myself, he seemed to know I was not at home in the world, and so he lent me books–Kundera and Conrad and Levi and a host of other displaced person.”–Ana Juric, Girl at War

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This is a fresh, raw account of a war our side of the globe paid little attention to, as Ana sharply points out. The story starts out with how the Yugoslavian Civil War shaped a young Croatian girl’s life, and transforms into a brilliant coming of age story as she comes to terms with who she is, where’s she from, and what’s happened to her.
  • It’s good because:
    • Novic’s writing is concise and important, imparting the severity of this tale with heartbreaking and sparse details. This story is set apart from many accounts of young girls caught in the midst of war because it doesn’t end when the tanks roll out of her homeland. This is as much a story of reconciliation and recovery, and the bulk of the novel is Ana coping with her experience as a survivor and making amends with the country she fled.
  • Read if:
    • The Amazon synopsis of this book says it will delight fans of All the Light We Cannot See, and while I can certainly see similarities between the two, this book reminded me more of Between Shades of Gray. It may be because both stories are set in the Baltic region, but it’s also because both are narrated by strong, young women who tell the story with naiveté and perseverance. I hadn’t read a book I’d torn through in two days in a very long time–both due to how busy I’ve been, but also because I hadn’t loved any of my recent reads–but this book was powerful and vivid and kept me spellbound.

Up next: Sri Lank with Wreck and Order by Hannah Tennant-Moore!

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!

February–Ruminating on South Sudan

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I’ll start this post off this month by saying I’ve been a bad reader. I’m a little frustrated that I’ve been so consistent with this blog for over a year, reading 2-5 books a month and posting regularly, to fall off the wagon in February with only 1 novel to share and a monthly recap coming in four days late. Ugh.

However, the reasons I’ve been a bad reader are because I’ve been excelling in other areas of life. Hardly an excuse, I know, especially since one of my favorite life mottos to espouse is that we must always make time to read (cheers to Confucius: “No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.”).

This month, I was a very productive bride, finalizing our cake, our hotel blocks, our registry, our photographer, our videographer, and our wedding coordinator. These were ticky-tacky details that required reading of contracts, negotiating fees, and comparing minuscule details that seemed both mundane and completely essential. I was also a good teacher, coordinating our school’s first Read Across America event where students decorated their doors, dressed up as book characters, and community members joined classes for reading and activities. It wasn’t a perfect event, but it was an extra passion project that didn’t fall within the normal scope of my job, and it earned me the Employee of the Month award, on top of giving many of my friends and family an opportunity to get to know my students. Lastly, I was a good fiancee as my partner began the training routine for his new job, a new 9 to 5 schedule that has included many tough workouts. This has left many of the cleaning and cooking chores we normally split to me, on top of being left with a man who was cranky, exhausted, and worried about not being the best firefighter in his group.

So, while I wish I could say I was a better reader, I also realize my shortcomings this month were not for nothing.

Nevertheless, Michael Paterniti’s Love and Other Ways of Dying was a cerebral, heartfelt journey across the globe and across the human experience. Scatter-brained and spread thin as I was this month, it was lovely to check in with these diverse essays for a pitiful 15 pages a night before passing out in bed. From plane crashes to Albert Einstein’s remains, this collection was unusually poignant and a great means for reflecting on the peculiar and tender nature of life in a fast-paced, short month.

I’ve realized I have been reading less since getting engaged; each time I crack open a book, I wind up on Pinterest or adding items to my checklist. I’ll only be engaged once, so I’m trying not to be too hard on myself for this, but I hope with Spring Break and wedding planning progress on the horizon, I’ll be able to pick up the pace just a little. Here’s to finding a balance between being a successful human and a literate blogger!

South Sudan with Love and Other Ways of Dying

screen-shot-2017-02-07-at-10-32-52-am“The more willing we are to suffer pain and loss and even great throes of happiness, to live fully inside these big emotions, the closer we come to–what? The folded hands of the universe? Our humanity? Infinity? It must be something.”–Michael Paterniti, Love and Other Ways of Dying 

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This is a collection of 17 stunning essays that capture the beautiful, passing, almost unnoticeable moments as well as the enormous, earth shattering occasions that compose a life. With exquisite detail and mind-boggling reverence for the human experience, Paterniti connects a handful of unrelated tales to create what feels like a comprehensive look at the understanding of life and happiness.
  • It’s good because: 
    • Each story is unique and unpredictable, but the themes of fulfillment and enjoyment and love are familiar. The word choice is impeccable and the pace and sequencing of this collection is flawless. I was honestly constantly stunned at his mastery of the human spirit, and found myself pausing to reflect on the beautiful truths he constructed quite frequently.
  • Read if:
    • You never thought you’d enjoy a book of essays. I promise you will connect with at least one of these special stories.

Up next: Burma with The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker!

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!