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Where There Be … Books! Recommendations from Our Team

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Alex Biddle


Senegal Travel Abroad

A Dragons instructor reads by the seaside in Senegal.

When it comes to preparing for any type of travel – I hate to overpack. I even challenge myself to wear or use every item I packed during the trip – at least once… minus the items in the first aid kit. So, when it comes to packing a book for my journey, I don’t want to get it wrong.

At Dragons, we encourage travelers to pack light yet we also encourage learning about the places we visit – and books are an incredible resource for that. Fortunately our well-traveled Admin Team at Dragons shared some of their favorite or most meaningful books while traveling – or stories that have themes related to Dragons mission, vision, and values.

Our biggest recommendation? Just bring one book with you, but choose it wisely. Be open to leaving it behind at hostel or guest house, or trading it with someone you meet along the way. Check out the recommendations below!


Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Recommended by Amina Simon, Admissions Director

Why Amina recommends Braiding Sweetgrass

This book is all about fostering an immersive connection and respect for land, as well as the forces that allow us to survive. It’s also about compassion, and expanding our compassion beyond human people to include animal and plant people, so that we might all prosper. It’s beautiful and touching, and introduces traditional native life-ways to a non-native audience accessibly and beautifully without compromising their sacredness. I think all of which is aligned with what Dragons aims to do with our programs. 


The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz 

Recommended by Graciela Rodriguez, Admissions Associate

Why Graciela recommends The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Narrated by multiple characters, the novel incorporates a significant amount of Spanglish and neologisms, as well as references to fantasy and science fiction books and films.

This is one of my all-time favorite books because it really captures my experience as a Dominican Immigrant and illustrates how some things look in my culture vs. other US-American immigrant experiences—down to the slang, and even descriptions of apartment living rooms. The experience depicted is not exactly of course as the author is a super sci-fi fan, chubby boy from NJ and I am none of those things (well, not really). However, the way Diaz is able to eloquently paint the picture of a Dominican diaspora experience in a universal way in addition to the extensive footnotes that act as a mini history lesson is really RICH and exciting as a reader and as a Dominican-American. I recommend this book so that other can catch a glimpse into a Dominican Diasporic experience here on the East Coast. 


Ishmael by Daniel Quinn 

Recommended by Simon Hart, Partnership Development Director

The novel examines the hidden cultural biases driving modern civilization and explores themes of ethics, sustainability, and global catastrophe. Ishmael aims to expose that several widely accepted assumptions of modern society, such as human supremacy, are actually cultural myths that produce catastrophic consequences for humankind and the environment.

Why Simon recommends Ishmael

I read this book in late high school/early college and it helped me understand the spread of “Western Culture” from a new lens. It gave shape to the understanding of culture as a phenomenon that can evolve, expand, grow and consume other cultures. It points to some of the potential pitfalls of my own cultural worldview as a “westerner” myself. This book is important because I find myself to be a part of the cultural historical group (white, male, Christians of Western European descent) responsible for the colonization and assimilation of other cultures and lands on this planet. The self awareness and perspective this book offers is very helpful in reconciling that difficult truth. 


The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh 

Recommended by Angelica Calabrese, Bridge Year Program Director

Why Angelica recommends The Glass Palace

I picked up this book in the library of a tiny guesthouse in Tiger Leaping Gorge, in China, while wrapping up a Mekong Semester a few years ago. I read it, voraciously, as I finished our travels through China, passed through Thailand, and then traveled through Nepal. I even lugged the tome with me on a trek in Nepal — I fondly recall the cozy nights in tiny mountain guesthouses following long days of hiking, where I collapsed into bed and into reading, immersed in the teak forests of Burma and the rubber plantations of Malaysia. The book is an incisive, nuanced, and human exploration of colonialism, resource extraction, and the history of South and Southeast Asia; I simply couldn’t put it down.


Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke 

Recommended by Reed Harwood, Executive Director

A collection of letters from the famous poet, Rilke, to a university student, discussing how to navigate life with raw honesty and alignment with one’s self and others.

Why Reed recommends Letters to a Young Poet

I read this book while living in an Ashram in Rishikesh, India. I was the age of the university student to which the letters were written. The letters give advice and encouragement to have the courage to be your authentic self, despite dominant culture telling you to fall in line. Dragons, among other aspirations, is about discovering, connecting, and staying true to one’s self. 


The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

Recommended by Beth Eanelli, Staffing Manager

This is the story of Lia, a child born to Hmong refugees living in California, who is grappling with severe epilepsy. The story explains the clash of cultures between Lia’s family and American doctors and paints a picture of what it might mean for a refugee family to enter the United States, particularly in the midst of a health crisis.

Why Beth recommends The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

I read this book when I was deeply immersed into a new culture during the Peace Corps and it completely changed the way that I view health, especially from a medical anthropology lens. This book connects to Dragons in the sense where it uses Lia’s story as a case for the way that we have been conditioned through ethnocentrism in so many ways. It challenges the beliefs that people in positions and in countries of power often have the “right” answers. I used this book as a beacon for the way I practiced and spoke about global maternal health and still revisit it every few years. 


The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Recommended by Alex Biddle, Digital Marketing and Outreach Manager

Why Alex recommends The Bean Trees

I packed this book with me when I joined our Summer Guatemala program a few years ago. Admittedly I didn’t know much at all about the book, but it was slim enough to fit in my backpack, and it’s by Barbara Kingsolver – an author I love. The book was such a quick read and was about a girl coming of age – from rural Kentucky – driving across the country to Tucson, AZ where I live now (originally from rural Ohio). Along the way she becomes close friends with a young couple from Guatemala. There seemed to be so many parallels in my life at the time – living in Tucson and being immersed in Guatemala – that I just devoured this book. It’s a quick read and a beautiful story about the journey, the people we meet along the way, and love. I also recommend pretty much any book by Barbara Kingsolver to be a worthwhile travel companion.


A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold 

Recommended by Christy Sommers, Semester Program Director

Why Christy recommends A Sand Almanac

While Aldo Leopold’s Wisconsin farm is geographically distant from most of the places Dragons travels, his reflections on his home and the experiences he shares teach us all to be in closer relationship with the creatures that share our surroundings, to honor the earth we’re inhabiting, and to admire the earthly joys all around us. While the bur oak and Canada goose are familiar species from my own upbringing in the Midwestern US, A Sand County Almanac modeled how to pay attention and to find wonder wherever I may be. 


Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi 

Recommended by Kevin Porter, Partnership Program Director

Why Kevin recommends Homegoing

Gyasi, who was born in Ghana and immigrated to the U.S. at a young age, drew inspiration for the novel while on a university travel experience to Ghana – her first time back to Ghana since infancy. For me, Gyasi’s personal story, her novel, and my own experiences living in West Africa, inspired much reflection on the importance of story and place – themes that connects so profoundly to the work we do at Dragons. 


The Buried: An Archeology of the Egyptian Revolution by Peter Hessler 

Recommended by Cara Lane-Toomey, Director of College and University Programming

A portrait of Egypt, its people, and the Arab Spring. Using stories from the ordinary people that the author met in an extra-ordinary time, the book takes the reader on a journey through contemporary and ancient Egypt – and the connections between the two. 

Why Cara recommends The Buried

I did my MA in Egypt and completed my degree in the spring of 2011, and had followed the aftermath of the Arab Spring closely. I read this book at a time when I was missing travel (my daughter was just over a year and it had become harder to travel) and the beautiful chaos of Cairo. Whether you agree or don’t with the conclusions of the author, Hessler is a remarkable storyteller and helped me feel I was back in um-al-dunyaa with every page. 


We hope you enjoy some of these books, or at least have some inspiration for your next read. If you have a favorite book you’ve read while travel (or the like) comment below – we’d love to hear it! Happy reading.

One Comment

  1. Megan Fettig |

    I was looking for some recommendations to bring with me on upcoming travels and “Braiding Sweetgrass” was already on my list! Thanks Dragons friends.


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