Top 10 Books I Read in the Peace Corps

If you know me even a little bit, you know that I love to read. I always have. I credit my parents and few awesome teachers for instilling this love of stories and books in me, it has made me a better human being. I love all genres, but the Harry Potter and Narnia series will always have a special place in my heart (and on my skin! Fun fact: I have a Harry Potter tattoo), and fantasy is particular fun for me as a result.

As you may have gathered from previous blog posts, serving in the Peace Corps can give you a lot of free time. Things just move slower down here. So I’ve read A LOT of books. As of this post, I’ve gotten through well over 100 books in my 2 years on the island. Having a Kindle has allowed me to really plow through them, but I also read physical books and listen to some on audio.

As I wrote in my Star Trek post, I tend to draw a lot parallels between my life and whatever book or TV show or movie I’ve been reading or watching. I think this makes my life all the richer. Each of the following books has shaped me, entertained me, made me think, informed me, and made me pause in some way, however small.

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1. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. I’ve practically become an evangelist for this series. It’s kind of Ocean’s 11 and Robin Hood and Pirates of the Caribbean all in one. Full of intrigue and hijinks, an incredibly charismatic lead character, and some kickass female characters. It’s incredibly atmospheric and wickedly funny to boot. This series really deserves a TV show, but I know they’ll screw it up somehow.

2. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. This scratches of several of my readerly itches- lady scientists, multi-generational family sagas, and 19th century manners. Alma Whittaker is one of the most compelling protagonists I’ve read in a while. This will cause you to think about women’s role in science and make you want travel the world at the same time.

3. White Teeth by Zadie Smith. This is the incredible debut from one of the greatest living novelists, who happens to be half Jamaican. She came to Calabash Festival last year and I got the opportunity to meet her, which was an exercise in self restraint. I wanted to kiss her feet and hug her and be her all at the same time. ANYWAY. White Teeth is hilarious and tragic and a great insight into the immigrant experience, with a little bit of the Jamaican diaspora thrown in.

4. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Another one about culture, identity and the immigrant experience. If you haven’t read a book recently by a person from a different race or nationality as you…well, you should. It’s important to not be an echo chamber in your media choices. This is a great place to start if you’re curious about the African diaspora and the issues surrounding culture and trying to cultivate a community of peers.

5. Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor. I hadn’t read many short story collections prior to Peace Corps, but for whatever reason I’ve read several since being here. O’Connor is famous for her Southern Gothic style, which I just love. These stories center on the grotesque in society, particularly in the Southern US. Themes like racism, religion, and morality are the most prevalent. They’re all beautiful in a grimy sort of way, if that makes sense.

6. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This is not an easy book to get through, but so so worth it. Incredible and lush prose detail the life of a small mythical town of Macondo in Latin America and it’s inhabitants. The plot is famously incoherent, but it’s pure poetry in the end. It contains one of my all time favorite lines in literature: “A short time later, when the carpenter was taking measurements for the coffin, through the window they saw a light rain of tiny yellow flowers falling. They fell on the town all through the night in a silent storm, and they covered the roofs and blocked the doors and smothered the animals who slept outdoors. So many flowers fell from the sky that in the morning the streets were carpeted with a compact cushion and they had to clear them away with shovels and rakes so that the funeral procession could pass by.”

7. Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. If you haven’t seen Brene Brown’s TED Talk, watch it now. The “self-help” genre doesn’t appeal to me in the least and I’m not certain that this book really counts, but dang. This book is about confronting vulnerability and ultimately embracing it. It can change your life if you let it!

8. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The post-apocalyptic genre is way way over played, but this stands hands and shoulder above the rest (almost as good as The Passage, another wonderful book). After a deadly strain of the flu wipes out most of the population, a crew of Shakespearean actors and musicians travels from settlement to settlement, struggling to find meaning in a mostly hopeless situation. Makes you think REAL hard about the value of art.

9. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. This book is getting a WHOLE HEAP of buzz back home, but I honestly don’t know how people are able to read it. It’s written almost entirely in Jamaican patwa, and I had a somewhat hard time getting through some of it. It hit pretty darn close to home sometimes. It’s a somewhat fictionalized account of the assassination attempt of Bob Marley and the chaos and repercussions from the Peace Concert and related political maneuverings. It paints a pretty darn bleak picture of Jamaica in the 1970s, but I think it was ultimately hopeful. (This is a great piece about the author, who is Jamaican but lives in America)

10. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I think this is considered a modern masterpiece and rightfully so. I think I highlighted the whole book. The main character is an aging preacher in Iowa and is writing letters to his young son. The book contains so much rich language and wisdom and is very spiritual in nature. Even if you’re not very religious, you will be a better human being for having read it.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Redshirts by John Scalzi, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, How To Tell Toledo From the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer

About Elizabeth Riley

It's the wonders I'm after, even if I have to bleed for them.
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2 Responses to Top 10 Books I Read in the Peace Corps

  1. Have you read If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler? You’d like it. I’m adding Station Eleven to my list (because you know I adore post-apocalyptic, even now 🙂 )

    • Elizabeth Riley says:

      The Passage by Justin Cronin! Give that one a try. It’s _incredibly_ well written for a post apocalyptic vampire thriller.

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