“I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book.” – J.K. Rowling

Peace Corps Volunteers often find themselves with an abundance of free time, especially after moving to site. In an effort to fill some of my newfound my free time, I challenged myself to read (at least) one book during each of the 27 months of my Peace Corps service.
To combine my love of reading and writing, I thought I’d pursue a personal project of reviewing and reflecting upon each of the 27 months’ books. The books I read will be selected at random, and, to be completely honest, most will be from the “Books to Read” note on my iPhone. The challenge’s only rule is that I can’t have already read the book. 
I hope to use this project as yet another way to share my Peace Corps experience with readers, even if only to provide an idea as to just how much free time I have. Each post will include personal connections and reflections, which will link the book to my life and my journey. 
So please, read, comment, share, and feel free to make book suggestions! Enjoy!

 


April 2017

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(Photo Credit: ericweinerbooks.com)

Title: The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Author: Eric Weiner

Published: Twelve (2008)

Synopsis: Former NPR correspondent and self-proclaimed “grump” Eric Weiner takes readers along his year-long quest for the happiest countries in the world. Weiner’s journey follows a fairly new social science phenomena, “the science of happiness”, and seeks to answer the age-old question, “What makes people happy?”

Somewhere between The Netherlands, Bhutan, Iceland, Thailand, and many others, Weiner starts to develop and understanding of what makes people genuinely happy in countries ranking as some of the happiest in the world. On the other end of the spectrum, Weiner finds himself among the dark, dingy streets of Moldova – labeled one of the least-happy countries in the world – and grasps at an understanding of what may cause people to be unhappy.

There’s tales of love, loss, wealth, and poverty in each of the countries Weiner visits. That’s not to say any one country is immune to any of these blessings and burdens, but rather, it seems the way people in a given country deal with life’s celebrations and complications defines where the country falls on the happiness spectrum.

Weiner’s story isn’t your typical travel book, but rather a book about traveling with purpose, traveling to collect ideas and insights from various corners of our world. It’s true, the author never discloses which of his travels brought him to “the happiest country in the world”, but instead he leaves readers contemplating the meaning of happiness, the root of content, and the sense of place. In his own words, Weiner explains, “Place. That is what The Geography of Bliss is about. How place—in every aspect of the word—shapes us, defines us. Change your place, I believe, and you can change your life.”

Personal Connections and Reflections: The 335 pages of Eric Weiner’s story are not for the faint of heart, but his reflections, insights, and experiences certainly help readers keep the pages turning (or clicking, as I do on my Kindle). I happened upon this book by pure accident, thanks to a free Kindle download, and am not sorry I took the time to read it. That being said, I do have mixed feelings about whether or not I liked this book for many different reasons.

For starters, the book and its chapters – each of which revolves around a new country – seemed long and I found myself wishing for more excitement. I often noticed Weiner would go off on random tangents, most of which were relevant to the given topic, but found myself thinking, “Alright, bring it back to the story.” I did, however, find it very rewarding to find out which country Weiner was headed to next immediately after finishing a chapter. That part was really fun for this travel-lover!

If I were to pinpoint what I liked the best about Weiner’s book it’d be the fact that it is truly unlike anything I’ve read before. Sure, I’ve read my fair share of travel books and adventure tales, but Weiner’s book was less about adventuring for the sake of an Instagram post or stamps in a passport and more about finding the answer to a question he himself found difficult to solve. Since completing the book, I’ve not only added a handful of countries to my bucket list, but I’ve begun to question and rethink the way I travel and what sort of traveler I want to be in the future. Weiner says, “Travel, at its best, transforms us in ways that aren’t always apparent until we’re back home.”

My experience in Thailand has already been and will forever be different than my experience in any other foreign country. My six-month study abroad semester in Germany during college was the extent of my living abroad and I lived with a host family in Germany for a month during high school, but neither experience comes close to the wild ride I’m currently on. For the first time in my life, I’m totally immersed in another country, culture, and language. I’ll admit, there are some days I hate it here and want nothing more than to be home, back in my comfort zone with the people I love. But other times I love it here, love what I’m doing and what I’m learning, and can’t imagine going back to my “old life”.

Thailand and my Peace Corps experience have, in a sense, done exactly what Weiner’s book challenged me to do: travel differently. Being here for almost six months has already taught me so much about the complexities of culture and of the interconnectedness of our great, big world. And, as Weiner mentions, I’m sure the transformation of this wild and crazy adventure will not be truly apparent until I am two years ahead of today’s self, back home and looking back.


March 2017

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(Photo Credit: Penguin Random House)

Title: The Road of Lost Innocence

Author: Somaly Mam

Published: Spiegel & Grau (2008)

Synopsis: The Road of Lost Innocence is a beautifully tragic story of hope and heroism written by a victim-turned-advocate of the global human trafficking industry. Author Somali Mam bravely recounts horrifying experiences from her early life and exquisitely explains the hardships and hopefulness she endures as she works to combat the industry that forever changed her life.

Somaly was born in the highland forests of Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province in the early 1970s. After being abandoned by her parents, Somaly was taken from her village by a man claiming to be her “grandfather”. At age twelve, after enduring years of hardship, abuse, and indentured servitude, Somaly’s grandfather sold her into sexual slavery. For the next decade, Somaly lived and worked as a prostitute in Phnom Penh’s sprawling sex trade until she managed to escape with the help of a French aid worker. After spending years rebuilding her life, Somaly finds herself with a burning desire and newfound courage to help girls still suffering in the grips of one of the world’s largest illegal industries.

Somaly uses international NGO connections and her knowledge of Phnom Penh’s brothel system to begin working as an outreach aid worker. When she realizes soap and condom deliveries to brothels isn’t enough help, Somaly orchestrates the creation of a non-profit organization to help rescue and rehabilitate victims of the sex trade. Somaly’s organization works to save thousands of women and girls, some as young as five years old, from human trafficking organizations in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. Beyond simply removing victims from brothels, the Somaly Mam Foundation works to orchestrate brothel raids, build shelters, establish schools and provide victims with vocational skills so they can one day rejoin society.

Between the pages of Somaly’s story, readers will find their perceptions of the world’s realities changed and their faith in do-gooders renewed.

Personal Connections and Reflections: I started and finished this book in less than 48 hours while on a field trip with my new Thai school. Very few people on the trip spoke English so I had a lot of quiet downtime, but that wasn’t the only reason I flew through the book’s 192 pages.

From the get-go, the author had me enthralled, engaged, and excited. Somaly’s story was unlike anything I had read about before and the history buff in me grew more and more excited to do follow-up research on the ins and outs of Cambodia’s history and culture. During my two years of service in Thailand, I hope to visit neighboring Cambodia, especially after reading this book. Like all countries, Cambodia has an imperfect past which has shaped the country into what it is today.

It was very interesting to read this book from Southeast Asia, especially after living and working in Thailand for three months. People may think about the global sex trade as an issue that is especially prevalent in Southeast Asia, but, by definition, the global sex trade is, in fact, a global issue.

Thailand is known to many as a hotbed for sex trafficking and prostitution, but, as in all cases, the country cannot fully be defined by one of its issues. During a Peace Corps culture seminar with our Thai training staff, cultural generalizations were discussed. Staff members explained that it is unfair to punish a whole country and culture for the actions of a small population, as is also true with American culture. Our training manager explained that, just because she’s Thai, she will forever carry the burden and the stigma associated with the Thai sex trade. I think of it like the birthmark an entire country’s people have. The reality of the world we live in is that everyone, regardless of their country of origin, has a cultural “birthmark” of some sort. Unfortunately, it does not seem to matter whether or not the “birthmark” and what it represents applies to us as individuals; we’re forever tainted.

Upon doing more in-depth research, I found that Somaly Mam and her foundation have been highly scrutinized for the accuracy and truthfulness of her story. Different sources provide conflicting insights and criticisms about Mam’s story, work, and non-profit foundation, but nothing seems to have been officially verified by Mam herself. After a Newsweek exposé in May 2014, Mam resigned from the Somaly Mam Foundation but again started work with “The New Somaly Mam Fund: Voices for Change” later that year.

I mention the above because I think it’s important for potential readers to know the full story, regardless of either side’s truth. Scrutiny aside, I really enjoyed Somaly’s book and know that, whether or not these things actually happened to her, they most likely occurred in another girl’s life or many girls’ lives, so I don’t consider them to be totally inaccurate. Either way, the book sheds light on an issue that may be often overlooked. It made me realize that my time in beautiful Thailand will truly only provide insight to a fragment of a very complex country in our very complex world.


February 2017

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(Photo Credit: Penguin Random House)

Title: Someday, Someday, Maybe

Author: Lauren Graham

Published: Random House Publishing Group (2014)

Synopsis: Among New York’s bright lights and big city, Franny Banks struggles to become a successful actress within her self-imposed three-year deadline. Beyond a one-liner in a TV ad for ugly Christmas sweaters, Franny has nothing to prove her success and, to top it off, has a terrible comedy club waitressing job with an even more terrible boss.

Aside from the horrors of drink orders and embarrassing auditions, Franny enjoys city life with her two roommates – Jane, her best friend from college, and Dan, an aspiring sci-fi writer. Although Franny has a sort of-boyfriend in Chicago who she’d really be okay ending up with, she can’t help but struggle with her crush on James Franklin, the flirty and very successful actor in her acting class.

Franny’s hopeful career depends heavily on her acting class’ showcase, where she has the chance to perform for agents who might actually want to work with her. Of course, as it seems is the case with most of Franny’s doings, the showcase takes an unexpected turn, but ends up offering Franny more insight than she anticipated the night to bring. As she continues to struggle with her career and, well, just about everything, Franny takes readers on a her incredibly relatable journey of being a twenty-something with a dream.

In her debut novel, author Lauren Graham, best known for playing Lorelei Gilmore in “Gilmore Girls”, tells a story of hopes, dreams, love, loss and finding one’s self among the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Personal Connections and Reflections: In complete honesty, I only read this book because it’s written by the actress who plays my favorite TV character from my favorite TV show. I credit my love for witty things to Lorelei and Rory Gilmore, who I met and fell in love with during my teenage years. I figured that if the book was even half as funny and witty as I find Lauren Graham’s character, Lorelei, to be, I’d probably enjoy it.

The book and I had a bit of a rough start, as it took me a while to get into it, but once I did I could hardly stop reading. There weren’t any dramatic cliffhangers, but the characters’ lives just seemed to excite me and I constantly found myself wanting to know how things would end up. The author uses an impressive amount of wit and subtle humor to spice up the otherwise normal lives of a few twenty-something artists living in the Big Apple. Additionally, since the book takes place in 1995, it was fun to be reminded of the pre-cellphone days of landlines and answering machines.

I found Franny Banks to be one of the most relatable characters I’ve read about in a long time. Her struggles with life, responsibilities, dreams, and love seem to encompass some of the exact feelings I had between graduating college and deciding to apply to Peace Corps. Thankfully, I remembered to return my parents’ phones calls more frequently than Franny does.

As I struggled with post-grad life and the responsibilities it entails, I, like Franny, constantly found myself with a relentless desire to live out my dreams. Unlike Franny, my acting abilities are nonexistent, but my dream of doing “important work”, as she calls it, are directly in line with what Franny seeks in NYC. Instead of life in the Big Apple, I had dreams of traveling, living abroad and doing something that, regardless of the outcome, I’d one day look back on and think, “Yeah, I’m glad I did that.” Specifics aside, Franny and I seem to have that whole twenty-something dream thing in common, which made Someday, Someday, Maybe an even more enjoyable read.


January 2017

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(Photo Credit: Penguin Random House)

Title: First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria: How a Peace Corps Poster Boy Won My Heart and a Third World Adventure Changed My Life

Author: Eve Brown-Waite

Published: Broadway Books (2010)

Synopsis: Author Eve Brown uses her creatively titled memoir to tell a tale of exploration, determination, and love. And not just love of the “Peace Corps Poster Boy” she falls in love with and (spoiler alert) marries, but love of foreign places and unfamiliar lifestyles.

The book first tells the story of Eve’s journey with Peace Corps, including that poster boy hunk-of-a-recruiter, John. Eve’s passion to save the world and impress her newfound love interest lead her to Peace Corps service in Ecuador. All at once, Eve finds herself living without the comforts of home, including that dreamy recruiter who’s now her boyfriend. Amid feelings of lost purpose, homesickness and confusion, Eve finds meaning in her self-created project reconnecting homeless children with their families.

After one of Eve’s PCV friends falls victim to assault during their first year of service, Eve deals with troubling memories from her past which eventually force her to return to the USA earlier than planned. Coming home (and back to John) leaves Eve feeling like she’s failed at her attempt to live outside American comforts, especially when she compares herself to “St. John’s” Peace Corps service in Africa. John and Eve eventually marry and quickly find themselves moving to rural Uganda, where John has accepted a job with CARE.

Eve’s stories from life in Uganda tell of the adventures, tribulations, celebrations and lessons learned as an aspiring “do-gooder” living in the Third World. The author uses wit, humor, and full-disclosure to describe a life many people wouldn’t dare to even dream of.

Personal Connections and Reflections: I started this book only minutes after boarding the plane in Appleton, Wisconsin, as I headed to my very own Peace Corps Staging in San Francisco. I mention this little tidbit of personal history because it made the first few pages of First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria incredibly surreal as the author begins the book by described her own Peace Corps application and staging process.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and the lighthearted story it tells, but I’m not sure it’ll be one I read over and over again. The book isn’t as well-written as I expected it to be, but I think part of that may simply be the author’s style. As is evident in her writing, Brown-Waite is a very “tell it like it is” kind of gal, which makes her story read more like an email or letter written from an old friend. In fact, each chapter actually ends with a letter Eve wrote during the story’s timeframe, which adds a unique, personal flavor to the already heartwarming story.

The story’s general flavor is that of challenging cultural misconceptions and miscommunications. The author puts into words the feelings, anxieties, victories, and thoughts Americans may experience when traveling or living abroad, many of which have become a very real part of my new reality as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand. Unlike Eve, however, I did not have the pleasure of meeting my very own poster boy, but who knows what the future holds, right?

Regardless of the story’s quality or storyline, which many reviewers find criticisms in, this book will forever have a special place on my heart’s bookshelf, if only because it calmed my nerves as I embarked on my very own far-off adventure.