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 physical 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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The fall JCrew catalog 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 with 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.

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. 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 backward 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.