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!

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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!

Mexico with Like Water for Chocolate

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“Life had taught her that it was not that easy; there are few prepared to fulfill their desires whatever the cost, and the right to determine the course of one’s own life would take more effort than she had imagined.”–Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This is the story of lovesick Tita de la Garza, the youngest daughter of a well-born Mexican family with an aptitude for cooking. Though she is in love with Pedro, she is told by her mother that the youngest daughter must remain single forever to care for her mother in her old age. Throughout the story, she and Pedro pine for each other, and Tita uses her cooking as a way to channel her emotions in this painful and complicated predicament–which produces deliciously unexpected results.
  • It’s good because:
    • This is magical realism at its very best. Rich and sensual, this story is colorful and dark at the same time, blending the full scope of love–in all its pain and glory–with fantastical elements of folklore, set against the backdrop of revolutionary Mexico. It reminded me of One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of my all-time favorite novels (seriously–I love this book so much I rarely recommend it because I couldn’t bear to hear if someone I knew didn’t enjoy it) with its doomed and eternal portrayal of love and bizarre twists of fate.
  • Read if:
    • Like me, it’s been a while since you’ve read something you loved. I’ve been in a bit of a book draught (the last book I enjoyed this much was Girl at War, which I read in March!), searching for something I just couldn’t put down. Like Water for Chocolate was that book. Relatively short and extremely quick-paced, this is a standout piece of literature.

Up next: Israel with Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent!

Egypt with Cleopatra: A Life

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“But from an early age she would have known literarily what she at twenty-one discovered empirically: there were days you felt like waging war, and days when you just needed to go home.”–Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra: A Life

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This is a biography of Cleopatra–or as much of a biography as there can be about this woman. Her existence and reign leaves few historical facts for us–but legends, myths, and folklore abound, and have captivated the world for thousands of years. Schiff presents us with what (we think) we know about her world, acknowledges the numerous gaping holes about her life (her appearance, for example) and leaves us to wonder even more about one of history’s most powerful and mysterious women.
  • It’s good because:
    • Stacy Schiff is an exceptional nonfiction writer. She explores niche areas of our world–topics that inspire curiosity–with precision and straightforwardness. This is not a textbook about Ancient Egypt; it’s investigative journalism into the past.
  • Read if:
    • As I said above, I think Cleopatra is one of those historical figures that piques anyone’s interest. After all, there’s a reason we are still reading books and watching movies about her after all this time. If you want a fascinating account of her life–of both what we know and what we will likely never know–this is it.

Up next: Mexico with Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate!

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!

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!