Hops and Skips

Wanderlust Readers: Year-End Review

Back in August, I reached out to Erin with an idea – since we’re both readers and travelers, would she want to help me start a virtual world lit book club? 

And so Wanderlust Readers was born! Everything about this book club would be low-stress. Instead of an advance schedule, we’d pick our countries of focus month-to-month. There would be no single book selection; readers would choose their own book of preference to fulfill the monthly task. We’d meet monthly, virtually, via whichever platform seemed appropriate, and participants could hop on or off each month as their interest or availability allowed. We would use Instagram to promote and build community by sharing our reading and (if applicable) our travel stories in a chosen destination.

Four months in and I’m thrilled with what we’ve done so far. We’ve explored four new destinations through stories discovered with intention and shared fantastic monthly conversation. 

Whether you’re looking to diversify your reads in 2023, explore unfamiliar places and voices, find a new community, or just get in the habit of reading, the Wanderlust Readers door is always open! 

Keep up with our monthly destinations on Instagram using hashtag #iamawanderlustreader, pick a book, and join the discussion! 

Here are the stories I’ve discovered so far:

September | NORWAY

For our book club launch, we selected Norway. The literary world is full of references to “Scandinavian lit” (most famously, its “noir”), but Norway on its own seemed overlooked and under-represented. In addition, Erin had just visited in the summer and could offer a first-hand perspective as well as her own travel tales. I actually read two books for this month’s challenge.

Silence: In the Age of Noise by Erling Kagge

During my search, I found that non-fiction has become a huge literary export for Norway, particularly on subjects of nature – people must want the cozy simplicity of a Norwegian winter vibe. Kagge’s name immediately popped up on lists of Norwegian authors. He’s an explorer (among many other job titles), and Silence stems from ideas he pondered on a solo trip to the South Pole, that there are things we can learn about ourselves and our space when we turn off the noise that seems to always surround us. Notably, it’s about how silence ultimately brings discomfort because it forces us to think inwardly. Facing that unease can be valuable. It’s a quick read under 150 pages with a vignette/essay style that is good for short reading spurts. Definitely lots of thoughts worth pondering.

Berlin Poplars by Anne B. Ragde

I wanted a fiction that wasn’t the standard Scandinavian noir, and this one’s a family drama. The elderly matriarch of a family suffers a catastrophic stroke right before Christmas, and her three sons who lead vastly different lives return home to the family farm in the northern part of the country. There’s a great amount of tension between them and, naturally, family secrets abound. The prologue to this story really drew me in. It’s one of the more captivating introductions to a story I’ve read just because it was very well-written. The rest of the novel is more of a slow burn, a gradual reveal of these characters, their lives, and the roles they play in relation to one another. Each character is well-executed and very much uniquely defined by where they came from. And that nature vibe found in Norwegian nonfiction is definitely woven into the setting and tone of this story.

October | ARGENTINA

For the second half of Hispanic Heritage Month, we took an Instagram poll and the winning result was Argentina. We were excited to delve into the country’s 20th-century political history, and I had my own travel experiences to contribute as content.

The Tango Singer by Tomas Eloy Martinez

The protagonist in this, Bruno, is an American graduate student who heads to Buenos Aires to find Julio Martel, an elusive tango singer who is considered by a certain crowd to be the best of all time. It’s 2001, and the economy of Argentina is collapsing, shaping the city and environment that Bruno finds himself falling further into. The author weaves stories of the city’s history into the narrative through clues that Bruno follows in his search for Martel. These stories are incredibly rich in detail, sharing with the reader the colorful history of Buenos Aires as we followed Bruno’s quest. (I often Googled to find out if these anecdotes were real or works of fiction.) Despite a compelling plot, this book kind of dragged for me. The narration got too frenzied, like it lost focus on the plot that was unfolding. Maybe that was intentional, mirroring Bruno’s spiraling mental state as his search became obsessive. But for me, the reading process just became a slog as I lost faith in where the story was going, tangled in the narrator’s philosophical meanderings. 

November | IRAN

The student-driven political upheaval happening in real time inspired our November pick of Iran. It’s a country featured so often in world news, often portrayed through a particular lens, and we believed there was a lot more that could be learned through literature of the country’s ongoing evolution.

Aria by Nazazine Hozar

This one is a saga (which I love) beginning in the 1950s and spanning 20+ years. Aria is an orphan, taken in as an infant by a poor military driver after he found her abandoned in a trash alley. The Revolution builds momentum alongside Aria’s coming-of-age, so, as a reader, we’re experiencing both a person and a country evolve—and because of the timing, Aria’s sense of world and self are highly influenced by what’s happening around her. It was a serious story in many ways, but it felt light to read. It was neither dark nor heartbreaking, just…real. I think the author did a good job of illustrating the nuances of Iran’s political and cultural shift. Reading with only a surface knowledge, I was not completely lost, and when I went back and did research later, I read many of details the author had included.

December | ANTARCTICA

Having spent the last two months in countries with turbulent political pasts, our December pick was intentionally the opposite. We wanted a destination that was seasonably cold, and Antarctica just felt like a good, random pick worth exploring.

Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent by Gabrielle Walker

I picked non-fiction because I felt there was a lot I could learn about the continent, and I went with this one specifically because it was a woman author – an antidote to all the age of exploration machismo that is most often found in stories of Antarctica.  And wow, I haven’t read a book this fascinating in a long time. Walker is a scientist and shares an engrossing overview of the whole continent, covering everything from early exploration to scientific discovery to life on its handful of research bases. We learn about penguin colonies, evidence of dinosaurs, harrowing survival stories, ice core drilling, how conditions mimic Mars, ice sheet shifting, Argentina’s “research” colony, what it’s like to spend an isolated winter on base…among other things. Her writing is engaging and informative; she covers so many angles and perspectives that, despite getting into great detail with each, the narrative rarely drags. (At only one point did I begin to skim, because I couldn’t particularly get into the science of asteroids.) I learned so much from this book, and I stopped to Google things a million times. Such an interesting profile of a place that is universally recognized but hardly known – highly recommend!

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