Favorite Books of 2017

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I’m a sucker for a “Best of” list and this time of year there are plenty to go around. It was a good year for good books. Stories are my drug of choice and I lost myself in a few really great ones this year.

Before the holidays kick into full swing, here are a few of my favorite reads in 2017. Whether you need a good distraction from your family gatherings, or if you have readers on your gift list this year, I hope this helps make book-buying a little easier.

Fiction
The Leavers – Finalist for many awards this year and it is well deserved. I know little about the immigrant experience, but The Leavers inches us all a little closer to how hard it is to move to this country.
Exit West – Is a subtle page-turner a thing? If so, this fits the bill. I was so invested in the lives of the main characters. A story about a refugee experience, but with magic portals.
Lincoln in the Bardo – This won’t be for everyone, in fact, it took me a couple of tries to finish it. Stylistically this book reads like a play and can be hard to follow. LOTS of characters and many, many plotlines. But this is one of the most unique books I’ve read in a long time. Truly, truly an original.
Magpie Murders – A dash of modern-day Sherlock Holmes mixed with the book industry. The end is a little extra, but I enjoyed it as a whole.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo – I could not put this book down. I loved and hated Evelyn. A mix of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, her character is beautifully, beautifully written. There is a twist at the end I NEVER saw coming.

Non-Fiction
American Kingpin – I could NOT put this book down. Short chapters and absolutely riveting story. Spoiler alert (not really, you find this out in the first couple of pages), Ulbricht is in jail, but the way they caught him is worth the entire ready.
Braving the Wilderness – In a fractured and factional world, this is as needed as it is challenging. This is one of my favorite Brene Brown books.
When the Heart Waits – An older book by Sue Monk Kidd (written while she was living in Anderson, SC. Whoop!) and I’ve wept my way through it. If you or someone you know is in a season of waiting, I cannot recommend this book enough.

Memoir
Born a Crime – Late to the party on this one, but it is wonderful.
Born to Run – Warning, this is a long book. I did not grow up a Springsteen fan, but this book is so well written, by the end I had half the book underlined. A genius with words.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body -It took me a few weeks before I could talk about this book. Roxanne Gay has been stirring up hearts and minds for a while. I saw so much of myself in her story and am so thankful for her honesty.

Surprises
Genesis Trilogy – I’ve been a long-time fan of Madeline L’Engle and feel like we will discovering whole books she had stowed away in drawers and files for years. I was so surprised and delighted to find these gems. With her signature biting charm, these books mix accounts from Genesis with stories from her life. Written in the early 2000s but have been recently re-released.
All the YA – I fell down the YA hole in 2017. I read this and this and loved them both. I want to read this one too. And a YA book tops my best of the best of the year.

Best of the Best – If I could put these in the hands of everyone I know, I would. 
The Hate U Give – I obviously have no idea what it is like to be an African American in this country, but Angie Green is so brilliant I felt like I KNEW Starr. I felt like I was in her neighborhood, living her life. One of the most important books of the year.
Sing, Unburied, Sing – Newly crowned National Book Award winner and the honor is more than deserved. I am in awe of this book. There are no traditional heroes in these characters. In fact, I spent most of the book feeling sorry for the entire family and wanted to help them, give them rest. But it is so worth the time. This book will stay with me for a long, long while.

Bonus: I’m reading this right now to walk me into the Christmas season. If you are a fan of Wicked, this is the new book by author Gregory Maguire.

I am more grateful than ever for authors with the courage to do the hard work of weaving beautiful stories.

So tell me. What were your favorites of 2017?

Happy Thanksgiving, friends!

 

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If you’ve ever been bruised, bloody and pushed back out to fight again….

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The day I lost my job at NewSpring, Katelyn knocked on my door with a bag full of Chick-Fil-A stress food. I was in shock, not yet as sad as would be, not yet feeling anything. I believe I cried a bit, but nothing like what would come.

I lived in a condo on Lake Hartwell and the living room faced the water. Katelyn sat on one couch, me on the other. I remember staring at the water. I just remember looking through the trees at the water.

I worked at NewSpring for nearly eight years. I tight-fisted that idol-job until it broke me. I sported the self-inflicted wounds of pride, perfectionism, fear and I can still smell the relational carnage I left in my wake.

Now, here we were on a day in mid-March watching the sunset over the water, taking the tiniest steps toward healing. Food wrappers littered around and the light fading away, Katelyn broke a silence.

“Do you want an easy life or do you want a better story?”

“A better story,” I said.

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Hello? Hello? Is this thing on?

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Hello? Hello? Is this thing on?

It’s been a while. I’m still alive.

Very much so: I started a new job, tried to buy a house, aborted said house plan, rented another, moved and started another brand new shiny job.

Would all major life events please form an orderly queue? One at a time please.

 

My hair is a bit grayer and my eyes a more tired, but onward.

It will be much too complicated (read, boring) to detail the two-jobs-in-four months deal, but I will say that both have been huge blessing, both coming at the exact time. And my previous employer understood exactly why I had to leave to take my current job. I had to leave because I had to write.

And that’s the bottom line of it all. I spend most of every day writing and telling stories. I talked to a lovely lady today, tomorrow I’ll chat with another person with another interesting story. Hopefully the next day and the next and the next as well.

I’ve been writing, but just not here.

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Brave and Behold

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Welcome 2017 with all your fresh, blank-page, newness.

Here we all sit, with journal lines, computer screens, new books and plans.

Ask around and I bet we can find a few people who have set a “word of the year.” I think it’s our way of breaking free of New Year Resolution bondage. I wonder if we set these words over our years because they have been bouncing around in our hearts for a while and it is only post-holidays that we give ourselves space enough to breath and take inventory. The things that are lacking ten to show themselves a bit more. We were anxious for most of last year, so our word for 2017 needs to be peace, for example.

It’s never been that way for me. When I pray and listen, the  words, phrases or verses the Lord gives me will make little to no sense here at the start.

This is terrifying.

Several years ago I could not let go of the word JOY and as cheery as that sounds, it was one of the hardest years of my life. Joyful yes, but extremely hard. Lasting fruit is often forged in this most desperate circumstances. I never saw the battle of that year coming as I sat on my comfy couch in January.

This blog is a place of accountability for me. I want to tell stories, mine, yours, strangers, whomever. And I want to grow this little space this year. The question I ask myself before posting is, “would I tell this around a table?” and if so, I want to flesh it out – all the good and bad honest. If I’m telling a story, or talking about books or recipes, it’s evidence I’m writing, reading, cooking, and listening. If I’m writing about it, I’m showing up and actually experiencing life.

This means I need to be brave.

I am not brave.

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Favorite Books of 2016

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Disclaimer: I’m not a critic (though if anyone is looking for a willing reviewer, I’m raising my hand) but I love books and I read some really fantastic writing this year.

I did not get to every book I wanted to read this year. I have some highly recommended books I’ll start over Christmas (more on those later) but listed below are the favorites of the ones I did read this year. I’ve also included a section on books I didn’t love, love, love, but maybe you will. Just because a book wasn’t for me doesn’t mean it isn’t for you.When we have a spare chunk of time or brainpower, it can be overwhelming to narrow down the choices of books. My hope is you can jump off from the recommendations here and find something you will love. Books are investments of time. We all want to invest well.

Here are my favorite reads of 2016:

Fiction

Americanah – I’ve said lots of words about my love for this book. Not just a favorite of 2016, but a favorite of all time
The Wonder – I don’t want to say too much about this other than it is so compelling and worth every second of time.

Another Brooklyn – Jacqueline Woodson. Gah. I just can’t get over anything she writes. This book beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

Honorable mention: Last Ride to Graceland – Like a road trip through my childhood. If you are from the south, this book will ring lots of bells.

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Gritty and Magical – For mom’s big week

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This is a big week for my family.

My parents are two homebodies. But mom has a bit of wanderlust about her. She’s always dreamed pretty big but never allowed herself the budget or the time to satisfy her curiosity.

Until this week.

Today mom and her best friend are traveling to New York City. It’s the first time for my mom and only one of a handful of times for her friend. They picked a beautiful time. The tress in Central Park are at their fall finest. Broadway just started a new season. I’ve read the Rockefeller tree is in place and though the Christmas bustle isn’t quite in full effect, I’m a bit jealous.

New York has become one of my favorite places. I love places that swallow you whole. I love places I can’t out-dream. Nothing can ever be big enough in New York and something about that spurs me on to a God that is bigger than any of us could fathom.

It’s all very gritty and magical. There are not many places that are both.

Mom is worried about the amount of walking. She’s worried about public bathrooms and catching the plague from the handrails down to the subway. She’s worried about a million things.

She’s excited about Time Square and Broadway. She’s excited about the city tour on those double decker buses. She wants to buy something fake – anything – in China Town.

I’m excited for her. For the woman who has given my brother and I not just what we needed but what we wanted too. We learned early on to stop mentioning shoes or watches or clothes we were eyeing as somehow they would end up in our hands, even if it cost mom a great deal. If I could gather all the money and things she gave us over the years instead of doing something for herself, it would equal hundreds of trips to New York.

We will start with this trip. Today.

Mom, I’m not an expert on the city, but here is what I hope for you:

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Forty-two Years

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That’s my dad. The little one is me. This is shortly after Tommy changed his name to dad. This is shortly after marriage and Vietnam and a host of other living. My parents settled into a little house in West Columbia, I was born, my brother five years later. Dad went to work as an electrician and for forty years has never stopped.

It’s been forty-two years of heavy steel-toed boots. Forty-two years of middle of the night phone calls, emergency repairs, of swing shifts and blue uniforms. Forty-two years of physically demands, scaling staircases, standing for countless hours, intricate work with his hands.

It’s been forty-two years of endless hours – early, early mornings, sometimes late evenings as the work required. My brother and I marked the days of the week by dad’s presence in the morning. It was the weekend or a holiday when we woke up, stumbled into the den and saw dad in his Lazy Boy watching the morning news. Every other day, he packed a small Coleman cooler with lunch, snacks, unread parts of the paper and would go out into the morning dark to put in the very definition of an honest day’s work, the house still faint with the smell of his coffee.

It’s been forty-two years of self-sacrifice. Dad drove an old rust colored Ford truck that embarrassed the heck out of my snooty middle school self, but served our family well. Our entire childhood, that truck rumbled from dad’s work to our schools. Most days dad got off of work early enough to pick us up, that faithful truck waiting in the pick up line with scores of SUVs and sedans. Dad drove the old truck into the ground so that we could have the nicer, newer cars paid for with hours of his work. If he ever pined after another car, we never knew. He was content with that truck, content to let us dream, content to let us have the finer things.

It’s been forty-two years of homework and dinner duty. After standing for hours on end, he stood at the stove and sink, of algebra, spelling test and state capitals. He never complained. I cannot remember a single complaint.

Dad retires today, after forty-two years. He says his body just can’t sustain the grind and we can see that. His knees trouble him, hands ache, and he’s kept a heating pad close for his back for years. He has spent himself for us. He has given away nearly everything he has, down to his very joints. The day dad signed the retirement paperwork, he texted me, “Been blessed for a long time with a good job to support the family.”

Dad, here’s to rest. Here’s to healthy knees, hands and back. Here’s being compelled to doing absolutely nothing, should you choose. Or if you do choose to take up a hobby or another job, may it be something you love. Here’s to seeing things you’ve never seen and doing things you’ve never done.

Thank you, dad. I will never know anyone who has worked as hard as you have on behalf of their family. You cast a tall shadow and a long legacy. You’ve loved us well.

And we love you.

The Cruelest Month

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This fall JCrew catalogue is in the trash.

It’s too beautiful and it’s hard to be aspirational now. There doesn’t seem to be enough space in my heart these days to know what I’m missing. In the trash it goes.

October is my least favorite month. Most of my high summer talk is less a love of the sun and more of a fear of fall. The hardest parts of life seem to fall in the month of October and for that reason alone I can’t love it. There is too much residue. It’s dusty and hard.

And yet here we are. October is here.

I’m moving this month. I moved two years ago in October. I move five years ago in October. I moved eight years ago in October.

Last year I started a temporary job in October with the hopes of expansion to a full-time position by the turn of the year. Three weeks in much of the workforce was laid off and for me, the writing placed on the wall. Another temporary position ends this month too.

I have friends struggling through any number of things and though they are brave and full of faith, there are tears at times. There are moments it all seems too much.

Dusty and hard.

I have been unemployed now for a year and a half. Extended unemployment is a lot of things, one of the more difficult being the gradual slipping away of what I once knew, like watching the leaves fall off a tree one by one. There is no mystery of how this will end. I’ll be pretty barren for a while. Barren bank account, barren house. Today I regret turning down job opportunities that seemed less than the best. Today those decisions seem haughty. Had I said yes, maybe October would sting a little less.

Several months ago I scheduled a haircut. I did the math and just could not make my bank account numbers work to afford it. I picked up my phone to cancel and wanted with all the world to tell her I was sick and couldn’t come in. But instead I was honest. I told her the days had been tight and I couldn’t swing it but I would reschedule for a later date and asked her to pray I would get over the vanity of a few gray hairs. Instead she told me to come, the haircut was on her, and what did I want from Chick Fil A? Breakfast would be waiting when I got there. I doubled over in tears at her kindness.

I made a decision that day. I decided regardless of how hard it seemed, regardless of how much I wanted to hide, I would show up and tell the truth. I would not try to be too strong or proud. I would raise my hand and admit I needed help. I decided the burden of holding it together hurt way more than the temporary sting of humility.

Here is the truth as I know it today: I am in my thirties, unmarried, childless, homeless and unemployed. I need to pack and move in the next few weeks and nothing rattles my sense of stability like moving. I’ve cried a lot. I need help because as it turns out, I cannot pick up a couch by myself, but I hate asking for help because help is all I’ve needed in the past year. I don’t know how I’m going to pay for a U-haul or storage unit. Moving is hard. Unemployment is hard.

These things are also true: The industrious American dream is not the boss of me. My life may look backwards and bleak, but I know with all that’s in me I followed Jesus right into the dusty and hard and that’s ok because Jesus walked straight into the hard too. Endurance and patience are holy. People are kind and I don’t deserve an ounce of it.

The most true of all, I have hope.

I want to believe that if I ask for bread I will not be given a stone. My faith is weak some days, especially when it feels as if I am carrying a load of rocks. For this day, maybe just this minute, I’m choosing to believe these are stones of a story. This October I’ll kneel down in the mud and build an Ebenezer out of these rocks. For this far you have brought me.

Coffee, blankets, fires, and books

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It is no secret I’m a fan of summer.

Fall is ok, I guess.

I love football. I’m ok with the somewhat cooler temperatures. I do love a good pair of boots. My plan is to the make the most of the season with loads of coffee and blankets, maybe a fire or two and a good stack of books.

Here are the books I’m looking forward to this fall:

Underground Railroad – The whole world seems to be talking about this storyline. Not a book I would normally read – it’s fantastical and weird – but that’s the beauty of books, right?

Before the Fall – I didn’t love the whole “Gone Girl” “Girl on a Train” book phase. But I do love a good thriller, minus the whole girl-gone-out of her mind-crazy-on-a-train thing. This seems to fit the bill.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven – I’m a sucker for a European World War II story. I’ve started this book and really like it so far.

My Name is Lucy Barton – This book has been on hold on our library’s Overdrive forever. Based on the popularity and on the recommendation of a few trusted friends, it seems this one will be a great read.

Another Brooklyn – Gah, I love Jacqueline Woodson. Her book Brown Girl Dreaming – a memoir of Woodson’s childhood in Greenville and Brooklyn – is unlike any other story I’ve read. Another Brooklyn is a fictional account of an adolescent girl in the NYC borough.

The Broken Way – Please, please take a look at Ann Voskamp’s blog. Her writing is simply beautiful and full of truth. Her new book releases on October 25.

I’m currently finishing two books – Homegoing and A Gentleman in Moscow . So far I would recommend them both.

And I can’t close out this post without mentioning Present Over Perfect, Shauna Niquist’s new book. If I would write a book describing the past year for me, it’s this one – though I could not nearly touch her writing talent. If life has gotten away from you a bit, if a frantic pace is eating you alive, please read this one.

Happy pumpkins, leaves, coffee, sweaters, apples, boots, and books! Happy Fall friends.

Summer Reading Recap – The good and not so good

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Today we wave goodbye to summer.

This month, Starbucks officially moves on to fall and soon we will grow a little weary of the word “pumpkin.” We will watch football and roast marshmallows. We will pull out our boots and flannels.

But these are the last days to squeeze the last little bit of goodness out of pool parties, boat rides, and longer days.

Did you read any great books this summer? Did you squeeze in a few reads between Memorial Day and Labor Day? In May, summer reading lists are EVERYWHERE, but in September, I wonder if we actually liked anything we read?

So here’s what I read this summer, some good and some not-for-me. What’s not for me may be for you, so no hardline judgement here. Just a few humble opinions. Most of us have stacks of books we will get to eventually. If any of these books are queued up on your nightstand or Kindle, here’s a little help to narrow the field.

Eligible – A chick-lit adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, there isn’t much to hide in this plot. If you know the story of Eliza Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy at all, this modern day telling will lack the element of surprise. It was entertaining and I blazed through the book

Sweet Bitter – I wanted to like this book, but it wasn’t for me. Highly touted, highly publicized, Sweet Bitter is a behind-the-scene look at the high-end restaurant industry and the peeled back layers where not particularly pretty. I cringed through most of it. The seediness of the industry seemed unnecessarily over glorified. Stephanie Danler writes well, but this wasn’t a story I particularly cared to read no matter how well crafted.

Essentialism – Many, many people have read and benefited from this book and rightfully so. This is less of a “how to do/have less”, Marie Kondo-esq book and more heart-behind. If you find yourself overly booked/stressed/worked this book will be helpful and well worth the time.

My Brilliant Friend – This is the first novel in the four book, extremely popular Neapolitan Series. I can see why so many people love these books. The characters are not perfect, but you pull for them. You feel for them. The two girls at the center of the books are completely different from one another and their dynamic works. There is a grittiness to the book. Life isn’t perfect, but real and the two girls are experiencing everything together. This book was translated from Italian to English and takes a while to get used to how the author writes, but if you can stick with it, it is a great read.

The Girls – The story of the girls of Charles Mason’s compound and the events leading up to the Sharon Tate murder, this book wasn’t as disturbing or scary as I initially thought. The Mason character does not feature heavily as the book centers mostly around the females in his compound. But there are a few disturbing scenes I scanned over. If you approach this book as a character study with interesting pictures of the people involved, this book will be a good read. If you need a major plot twist or the fictional outcome to be different from the true events, this book may be disappointing.

The High Mountains of Portugal – This is latest book from Life of Pi author Yan Martel and is just as quirky and weird. Animals and religious themes feature heavily as in Life of Pi. The characters are strange and the story is wandering. In the middle of these epic journey stories, Martel writes profound, beautiful sentences that stay in your mind for days. If you liked Life of Pi, you will like The High Mountains of Portugal. But if you have a hard time suspending reality and need a more straight forward story, this might not be to your taste.

I hope you found some good stories this summer. I hope you got a little lost in a book or two. If you read anything you loved, I would love to hear about it.

Next week, I’ll post what books I can’t wait to read this fall.