Book Review: Educated

Educated was my second audiobook of 2019 and the fourth book I finish this year! It was also the first memoir I have ever read.

Educated is the story of Tara Westover who was raised in rural Idaho in a family of survivalists. For someone who did not have an extreme religious upbringing, this story seemed stranger than fiction at times. But I did grow up religious, so it was not hard for me to empathize with how some people perceive the world.

Tara Westover didn’t set foot in a classroom until she was seventeen, and she did so at university. She never went to school as a child, but was “homeschooled” by her mother, who had given up trying to teach her children math. Her childhood instead, was spent preparing for the end of the world, which her father was absolutely sure was bound to happen soon. She also spent her days running around the mountains and fields near her home and working at the junkyard her father owned.

Her parents didn’t believe in government education, afraid they might brainwash their minds, and thus when she decided to go to college, she did so against her parent’s wishes, which is why I admire Tara so much. By doing this, she was leaving behind who she was, her family, her upbringing, her education.

Educated is a fascinating story, but not because it’s hard to believe people might have such extremist religious beliefs, not trusting hospitals and schools. For me, it was fascinating story because of where Tara took herself, seeking the education she had never received. She graduated from Brigham Young University with honors and then went to study at Cambridge and Harvard. She taught herself mathematics and science to be accepted. It was her journey to find knowledge and truth that took her as far away from her home as she could’ve gone, to places she had never heard of or had imagined herself being at.

This is a story of endurance, bot physical and mentally, as Tara was abused constantly by her older brother. She had to overcome the physical barriers her family had imposed over her, as well as the mental ones. She did, and this is why this story is so impressive.

My review: 5/5 stars ★ ★ ★★ ★

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Book Review: Hidden Life of Trees

This was my first audiobook of the year! I started listening to audiobooks last year after I started driving to and from work, and it has been great.

The Hidden Life of Trees was eye opening, but it left me with bittersweet feelings. Peter Wohlleben is a forester and in his book he tries to explain the world of trees from their perspective, something completely new to me. We don’t usually think of trees the same way we think of animals or other humans, but Peter argues in his book that trees are capable of suffering, that they can communicate with other trees and they form communities. His account of this Hidden Life is beautiful and I enjoyed very much learning about them.

I was left with a bittersweet taste after listening to it, because this was the first time I stopped to consider trees. Of course I always advocated for them, deforestation and forest fires break my heart, and I enjoy being surrounded by trees. I have often joked with my husband about how much I like trees and I like to believe it is in my blood, as the name of the country I was born and grew up in, Guatemala, translates to Land of Trees. I can say that some of my favorite characters in literature are the Ents in Lord of the Rings. But The Hidden Life of Trees made me think a lot more about them. I used to never worry about city trees, but now I know they struggle to grow with roots under paved roads and with dogs peeing all over them. I now consider trees that are planted solitarily in a park or a back yard, or maybe accompanied only by other trees of a different species with whom they cannot communicate and thus cannot form “communities” with.

The study of trees still has a long way to go and we do not completely understand, and might never understand, everything that goes on with them. The Hidden Life of Trees makes a great job at starting a conversation, at sparking our curiosity. I certainly will think more and do more research before I plant a tree in my house someday, or before I cut some branches off. I will definitely keep learning about them, and bring it up in conversations.

I have always liked trees, and after reading this book, I like them even more.

My review: 5/5 stars ★ ★ ★★ ★

 

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January Books: First 3 books of the year!

2019 has been off to a great start, only in January I started and finished three books!

Here is a small review of them:

 

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

After the Netflix movie was announced, I wanted to read it before watching it, so I downloaded it to my Kindle, and a week later I had finished reading it. I had been expecting a warm story, but I felt cold the whole time reading it. Set in the seaside English town of Hardborough, a widow named Florence decides to open a bookshop. But the town is not very keen on it and she constantly finds trouble because of it. When I said I felt cold, I mean this was not a heartwarming story, but actually heartbreaking and a bit frustrating.

The story was fine, even if it, spoiler alert, doesn’t really have the happy ending I was expecting, but the language used threw me off a little bit, it was harder to read than other books, with long, boring sentences. Perhaps the language itself reflected the feelings of the inhabitants of Hardborough.

My review: 3/5 stars ★ ★ ★☆☆

 

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben

This was my first audiobook of the year! I started listening to audiobooks last year after I started driving to and from work, and it has been great.

The Hidden Life of Trees was eye opening, but it left me with bittersweet feelings. Peter Wohlleben is a forester and in his book he tries to explain the world of trees from their perspective, something completely new to me. We don’t usually think of trees the same way we think of animals or other humans, but Peter argues in his book that trees are capable of suffering, that they can communicate with other trees and they form communities. His account of this Hidden Life is beautiful and I enjoyed very much learning about them.

Continue reading my review here.

My review: 5/5 stars ★ ★ ★★ ★

 

The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories by Penelope Lively

Without planning it, my third book of the year was written by another woman called Penelope.

I picked this book solely based on its beautiful cover at Books Inc. on California Street, here in San Francisco. I have never read many short stories, though I enjoy writing them, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Many of Lively’s stories were heartwarming, others made me laugh, some surprised me with their endings but something mostly all had in common was how relatable they were.  A lot of the stories are set in everyday England, over the past century, some of them travel back in time, but others take place in the present.

The stories kept me engaged and I couldn’t put the book down until I was finished with one, and sometimes wanted to start the next one right away.

Lively’s words flow with ease and her stories are very human, making it easy for me to enjoy them. I now want to find more of her books to read!

My review: 5/5 stars ★ ★ ★★ ★

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Getting Ready for NaNoWriMo 2018!

Image result for nanowrimo

 

The National Novel Writing Month is almost here. Every November, writers around the world start scribbling with the goal of completing a 50,000 word long novel in a month.

I am getting ready to do it this year. I have been trying since 2013, but things have never worked out. I have been close to finishing novels, I have given up on a story halfway through or I have been too busy to dedicate some time.

I cannot tell if this year will be different, it might not, but I still want to try it out since I’ve been working on a new story idea for the past couple of months.

This year I have decided to prepare in October, so that come November, I can focus on writing, writing and writing.

Here are some of the things I’m doing:

 

  1. Writing down a small summary of each chapter. I might end up combining some or adding more, but this is a great way of knowing beforehand all the things I want to write about. Planning a novel might not work for everyone, but I want to give it a try!
  2. I am spending some time with preliminary writing of some chapters or parts of the story. I don’t think it’s cheating, if inspiration is coming right now, I won’t make it wait for a month!
  3. Setting time on my calendar to write. This is super important because I start visualizing myself doing it, instead of realizing each day I have not written and I will have to write double the next day. I want to develop a writing discipline and NaNoWriMo might help me do it!
  4. Getting excited! I’m really excited about this year’s book. This is the first time that I will try to write something that is not for children and that is not fantasy. I am stretching my boundaries and exploring what I can achieve.  Who knows? something really good might be coming from it!

 

I’ll be updating the blog with my progress, and sharing sneak peaks to my story soon!

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Book Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao surprised me. I did not expect to read it as quickly as I did, but the storyline kept me turning the page (or swiping since I read it on a Kindle).

I had never read a story with an antiheroine, a character who is so self absorbed you don’t want to see her succeed. But you kind of want to with Xifeng. She is the perfect woman, with flawless beauty and intelligence. She is the girl who just by her beauty is destined to conquer many hearts. At the beginning of the story, however, we meet her and her abusive Guma, her aunt, so you sympathize for Xifeng. Her love story with Wei is beautiful and I just wanted to see her crowned empress. As the story progresses, however, she starts becoming more of a character that is easy to hate, which is what made this story so unique.

In a way, this is a story where evil conquers, in other ways, there is still the hope that love and justice will prevail.

This book was unique in many ways. It was refreshing to see characters based on different mythologies and cultures. The story is fantasy, but it is very easy to think yourself in Asia. The images were beautiful and the characters lovable. I wanted to see some of them avenged and I wanted to learn more about others.

There were many mysteries and backstories that seemed to be lacking in this book, but the story kept me engaged enough to not give up on it.

I would not have picked this book if it was not on this month’s book club discussion, and even though I really enjoyed it, I did not love it enough to read the sequel, which is why I give it a three star review.

My review: 3/5 stars ★ ★ ★☆☆

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Book Review: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker was my thirteenth book of the year. I am one book behind schedule if I want to read 20 books by the end of the year!

This book was chosen as the August book for the Bay Area Ladie’s Fantasy Book Club, but I didn’t finish it on time. I did however, not give up on it and read it this past month!

I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, it promised everything I look for in a story: magic, adventure, world building and a strong female character, on the other hand, the book seemed lacking depth and tried to accommodate too many storylines at once.

The book starts in our world with a character who seemed very familiar and almost normal, but she soon enters not only one, but two new worlds, and things start going downhill.

I loved the world building in this book and I wanted to learn more about its origins, the different people and wanted to know more about the main characters, the magicians Aruendiel and Hirizjakanis (yeah, no idea how to pronounce that), but as readers, we never got to.

So many different things happened, and the book kept going on and on without any particular plot line actually developing. When we finally got one, the book ended on a cliffhanger, but I am not sure if that was enough for me to read the sequel.

I loved the premise, but not the execution. I just wish there hadn’t been so many different things to consider, so many completely different worlds and that it had been just fantasy set in a medieval-like world, not a combination of Middle Earth, The Great Gatsby parties, zombies and grad school. It just felt like too much.

I did, however, like it more as I persisted through it and finished it. Perhaps if the story had started halfway where it did, I would have enjoyed it more.

 

My review: 3/5 stars ☆☆★ ★ ★

Finished the book on September 12, 2018.

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Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

A colleague recommended this book and I had already seen it reviewed by a couple people I follow on Goodreads. It seemed like the perfect book to take with me on a short trip I had, so I got a copy on Kindle.

Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive – but not how to live. Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything. One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life. Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely any change is better than. . . fine? 

The book description didn’t prepare me for the beautiful story I had ahead of me and the amazing characters I would come to know. I think Eleanor is everything a heroine should be: brave, beautiful and humble. I don’t think I know a character that has had a more difficult past, but Eleanor still comes through and overcomes. But this is not a fairy tale, Eleanor is an everyday character and has to cope with life in 2017 while having more on her shoulders.

*spoilers ahead*

Raymond becomes her friend almost by accident and I loved how he is a representation of a true friendship, which is hard to find late in your twenties or early thirties, like Eleanor is. It was incredible how he didn’t become a romantic partner, but he stayed a faithful friend, because Eleanor does not need a romantic partner right now, she needs to know she is not alone in the world by finding strong relationships that will help her grow.

Eleanor had the misfortune of having a maniac for a mother who made her childhood a difficult one, and with this, a difficult adulthood as well. But she had decided not to give up and try to live a life where she had control. This is until she gets a crush on a musician and her whole life changes as the bubble where she tries to hide, bursts.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a beautiful and refreshing story where everyday characters can overcome great difficulties.

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Book Review: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

(This review might contain spoilers)

This year I finally joined a bookclub in the city: an all women, science fiction and fantasy books bookclub! It’s been great to meet with girls who have similar interests and love talking about books.

The Penelopiad is the third book I read for the club and I really enjoyed it! It was an easy read and I finished it in under a week.

I’ve always enjoyed the Greek stories, but I cannot say I am an avid Classics reader. However, the Odyssey is one that I really enjoyed reading and studying while in college. Of course, a retelling of this great story, but from the point of view of those who were left behind, immediately caught my attention.

The Penelopiad is the story of Penelope, Oddyseus faithful wife, as she stays behind as her husband has to leave to fight in the War of Troy, but even when the war is over, he doesn’t come back immediately and all she gets back are rumors of him being out having adventures, sleeping with goddesses and fighting monsters.

This story took a very feminist point of view, which I enjoyed. After all, why is it that Odysseus is usually praised, but not Penelope who had to endured years of not knowing if her husband would ever come back.

There is also another interesting element added to her story, that of how she has lived her whole life in the shadow of her beautiful cousin Helen and how most of her misfortune comes from her. In Margaret Atwood’s story, Penelope never truly finds happiness, because even she knows that she was second best, never the prettiest, always the one that easily burst into tears and even if her husband does come back to her, they both know he is not madly in love with her and will never be.

I liked thinking of Penelope as an everyday girl, someone I can relate to, and of course I loved thinking of the classical story from a totally different point of view.

 

My review: 4/5 stars ★ ★ ★ ★

Finished the book on August 16th, 2018. The eleventh book of the year.

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12 thoughts on my first year living in the United States

  1. I’m not out of place. I’m an immigrant and I look different. But so does everyone else.
  2. The immigration process was not horrible even during the current political climate. I was able to file all the paperwork myself, without paying any lawyers to do so, and everything went smoothly and as expected. The process times were reasonable and the service excellent. Seriously, I could track my case online like I would an Amazon package being delivered.
  3. I was told there would be seasons. All this talk about how the farther north you went you would find this thing called Summer and this other thing called Winter. Then I moved to San Francisco, and the weather changes less than it does in Guatemala.
  4. Speaking of weather. A lot of people assumes Guatemala is hot. Is it because it’s south of here? Is it because it’s the third world? I’m not sure, but like any other country, Guatemala does have places that are warmer, but most of the country is mountainous. Like where I lived, which was at 2 miles in elevation.
  5. Haircuts are ridiculously expensive.
  6. Appliances, computers, and anything material, really, is ridiculously cheap.
  7. It’s so easy to gain weight in this country. I have nobody to blame but myself, but it feels like everything edible is filled with sugar, carbs and unnecessary fat. Also, what’s up with people stocking up on “snacks”? Our pantry growing up was boring with the essentials like rice, flour, sugar, pasta, beans and spices. It never had snacks and the times I found a bag of chips on my lunchbox were rare and it meant my mom was rewarding me for some reason. And no, we were not poor.
  8. Vegetables and fruits are expensive, specially organic. Back home I never had to wonder if what I was eating was organic, I guess I knew it was. And it was cheap. Also available year round. I could get five avocados for USD $.25. Those were the days.
  9. Sending letters is one of those little pleasures I never knew my life was missing. A postal service that works is incredible and makes a country move forward.
  10. On the matter of the mail: Same Day Delivery. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine a place where that was a possibility.
  11. Two words: National Parks. I never knew how many there actually were and how I could find them almost everywhere. This country has natural beauty and it’s great to be able to explore it so easily.
  12. And because I love nature and being outdoors: REI. This country has REI and I am forever grateful. What an amazing place where I can easily picture myself in the great outdoors and then get the stuff to make it extra wonderful. As long as I actually go out and use that stuff. Which I have. See number 11.
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Guatemala and a trip to the heart of the Mayan World

I’m definitely biased, I won’t lie. Guatemala has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Some of the sights I grew up with. There are volcanoes everywhere you look.

Growing up there I might not have appreciated it as I could have. My American husband visited more places in Guatemala in the two years that he lived there than I did in twenty-three. So now, after traveling for a while and living far away, I want to make the most of my trip whenever I go back.

I planned a trip to Petén, in the north side of the country and the heart of the Mayan world. I’m not kidding. In just this region there are more than fifty Mayan archaeological sites and they keep discovering more and more.

I started planning where most of my trips have started: on Airbnb. I was lucky to find a beautiful house which is part of the upscale Hotel Bolontiku. Since we were planning our trip for the Holy Week, I knew I’d better act fast. In Guatemala both Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are national holidays, plus it’s the time when the temperatures get to the highest, right before the rainy season starts, so a lot of people go out on vacation. I started looking in late December and booked in January for the trip in late March.

The living room on our Airbnb.

Second, after having plane tickets to Guatemala City ($398.49 from SFO), we needed to figure out how to travel to Petén. There are not many options, sadly, and infrastructure is still one of the country’s biggest challenges. None of the bus lines were running on Good Friday, which was the day we wanted to come back to the city, and we were not sure we wanted to drive for eleven hours. We finally bought plane tickets on TAG airlines.

After a weekend outside of Guatemala City, where my family lives, and hanging out in Antigua, (that awesome Unesco Heritage colonial town surrounded by three volcanoes), we started our real vacation in Petén.

TAG delivered. We flew on an 18 seater Embraer 110 for about an hour. The plane was safe, a little loud, but totally fine.

The Airbnb was glorious. The house was huge, with rain showers, fully equipped kitchen and air conditioning. We had access to all the amenities at the hotel, a pool, kayaks, a shuttle boat back and forth to the Island of Flores, as well as drinks waiting for us every time we got back. If we had stayed there, we would have had a great time, no doubt, but we did not make it all the way here to not do some exploring in the middle of the jungle.

Though a trail in the jungle, you arrive to the temples!

First was Tikal, the most famous Mayan site in Guatemala. I had only been as a toddler, so even if it’s more touristic, I wanted to see it.

I had no idea how big the park was, with trails through the jungle that lead to half uncovered structures, with spider monkeys following you from the tree limbs above until you finally reach the main square where the pyramids stand tall.

Tikal

On Thursday, however, we visited a lesser known park: Yaxhá. After 12 kilometers over a crazy unpaved road, you finally arrive. The park is smaller than Tikal, but I found it more mysterious and with a lot more to learn from. It’s a big city with main roads that lead to the acropolis, aqueducts, ball game courts and the big ceremonial pyramids. There are many structures which have been left underground because of a lack of government funding to preserve them once uncovered. The ones that have been dug up, however, are marvelous. We did the sunset tour and went up the main pyramid of the eastern acropolis. From up you’re surprised by the immensity of the jungle, spreading as far as your eye can see. The howler monkeys howling, or actually, growling, all around us and to the west, a view of lake Yaxhá took our breath away.

There is so much history and so much to learn and explore from the ancient Maya civilization and I went back with a lot of questions and a sense of curiosity to learn more about my ancestors who built these impressive and complex city states.

View of Lake Yaxhá from the top of the pyramid at sunset.

Four days relaxing with mojitos in hand, eating out in the island and exploring the sites and jungle are not enough. This was the first time I took a real vacation in a while and I’m already planning the next one.

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