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!


New Zealand with Barkskins

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“In every life there are events that reshape one’s sense of existence. Afterwards, all is different and the past is dimmed.”–Annie Proulx, Barkskins

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This is a dramatic and sweeping family saga that takes us across hundreds of years and several continents. The story starts in the 16th century with the colonization of New France by the blood, sweat, and tears of French loggers, and snakes through time as those initial loggers build empires and create families. Proulx grapples with the eternal dilemmas of class, race, and legacy through the Sel and Duquet family trees.
  • It’s good because:
    • It’s hard to believe it is a work of fiction because it is so detailed and intricate in its scope. From the intimate knowledge of the forest to the sprawling and overlapping family trees, Proulx writes as if these stories have always existed and she were uncovering them rather than inventing them.
  • Read if:
    • You’re looking for a substantial, intellectual read that you’ll feel good about. This heavy (both literally and figuratively) is no guilty pleasure; spending 700 pages with the Sel and Duquet families is an achievement–a beautiful one, but certainly a time-consuming one as well.

Up next: Austria with The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck!

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.

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!

St. Thomas with The Marriage of Opposites

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“I kept the book of fairy tales close to my heart, the cover flaming blue. That would keep me warm until at last I reached the place where I belonged.”–Rachel Pomie Petit Pizzarro, The Marriage of Opposites

  • Here’s what happens:
    • Rachel, the primary narrator and protagonist of this colorful story, is as wild and unruly as the island of St. Thomas that she calls home. Her days are spent reading fairy tales and dreaming of the day she’ll escape the island that’s been refuge to her family and a community of Jewish refugees and start a life of her own in Paris. However, the fate of a woman in the early 1800’s is rarely her own decision, and Rachel is married off to save her father’s troubled business. Though she never loses hope of her girlhood fantasies, she begins to understand that her life will unfold in ways even a smart girl like her never expected–including giving birth to one of the world’s most famous artists, Camille Pissarro.
  • It’s good because:
    • Rachel is the kind of smart, brave, pain-in-the-ass heroine that I just love, in the vein of Little Women‘s Jo or (my all-time favorite) Gone with the Wind‘s Scarlett. And, St. Thomas provides the exotic setting, full of magic, disaster and lore, that I find so interesting. Basically, it’s the perfect combination of strong, complicated characters and a rich, dynamic place for the plot to play out.
  • Read if:
    • I’ve always suspected Alice Hoffman would be the type of writer I’d love. I’ve mentioned a few times my adoration for magical realism, and she’s one of the contemporary forerunners in the genre. I read The Dovekeepers for my last reading challenge, however, and really struggled with it. This book was my second chance, and I’m thankful for it. I’m excited to read The Museum of Extraordinary Things soon, because I’m certainly a fan of Hoffman’s now!

Up next: Haiti with A Wedding in Haiti by Julia Alvarez!

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!

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!