Delight: My One Word or My Plan to Make 2021 Not Suck Balls

A year ago, we all counted down to midnight feeling like we were standing on the edge of something capital “I” Important. We flung ourselves into a new decade wild with hope. I stumbled into 2020 in the dazed, exhausted, love-drunk stupor of a new mom, thinking there had never existed anything as tiny and precious and exquisite as my infant daughter.

By March, it seemed the whole world was crashing and burning. By June, we started counting down the days until it would be over. We made 2020 a four-letter word and told ourselves we just had to get through it. We talked about self-care and mental health and praised the superhuman powers of frontline medical workers and elementary school teachers. And we crossed the days off on our calendars.  

Now here we are in 2021, and it turns out there was no evil curse that broke at midnight on December 31st. Overall, things are the same as they were in December. Some things are actually worse. In 2020, we all spent a lot of time talking about how hard it all was. How tired we were of it all. How we couldn’t wait for things to get back to “normal.” 

I’ve got some bad news.

Normal life is hard.

2020 was hard because life is hard. It has always been hard. It is always going to be hard. Yes, it’s hard in different ways for different people, and it’s harder at certain times than it is at others, but it’s hard all the same. 

Most of us are addicted to our own comfort. We cannot bear the thought of sitting with discomfort, let alone real pain, so our priority is finding ways to numb the pain or to pass the time until it goes away. We forget that hard does not have to mean hopeless. Difficult is not always the same as bad. 

For the last year, it’s felt like nobody can have a conversation without the need to acknowledge how crap everything is. In a sense, we need that. We need to be honest about it instead of pretending everything is rosy. But we also need to remember that we have a remarkable capacity to live with contradictions. 

Humans have a unique ability to feel multiple emotions simultaneously. It’s part of what makes us so gorgeously complex.It is what makes me able to feel sick with grief about the brokenness of the world, and a breath later to feel wild with joy when my daughter calls me “Mama” for the first time.

My Facebook feed is peppered with articles about how it is OK to not be OK right now. How we’re all doing great just by making it through the day and we need to give ourselves some grace. And of course, that’s completely true. But I think some of us (me) might also need the reminder that it’s also OK to be OK. It’s even OK to be happy. What if the most daring and subversive thing that we can do in this moment is to have the courage to risk delight? 

Confession: It is really easy for me to be unhappy. Even on antidepressants, the chemicals in my brain need very little excuse to tell me I’m not OK. What is much more difficult for me is to let myself feel pain, even grief, without letting it win. 

One of my favorite poems is “A Brief for the Defense” by the brilliant poet Jack Gilbert who writes, “We must have/the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless/furnace of this world. To make injustice the only/measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” (You can read the whole poem here). 

Embracing gladness in the midst of suffering has always been a high and holy calling. (“Rejoice in the Lord, always: and again I say, Rejoice!”) This does not mean that we ignore evil and concentrate on self-indulgence. It means we march and we vote and we write and we preach and we call out injustice in ourselves, in our communities, in our policies. It means we seek to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly. It means we continually learn how to be better. And when we know better, we do better. But it also means we sing while we do it, just because we can. We dance because moving our bodies is a gift. We delight because we are here to care about any of it at all. 

For many years, rather than making resolutions, I have set a single word as an intention for the year. I haven’t done this in the past few years, but this year I feel drawn to do it again. So here it is.

Delight.

Not because 2021 is better than 2020. Not because the suffering is over. But because it isn’t. And yet… “there will be music despite everything.” I want to be brave enough to sing along.

Best Books of 2020: Literary and Historical Fiction, Plus Some Geeky Reading Stats (and Pie Charts!)

In 2020, I read 205 books this year totaling 67,188 pages. I know reading was all over the place for a lot of people, but for me this was my best reading year on record, both in terms of quantity and quality (as evidenced by the plethora of 4 and 5 star ratings). At the same time, I genuinely think I was harsher with ratings than ever before. If I didn’t like something, I felt no pressure to pretend otherwise. If you want to see everything I read in 2020 and follow what I’m reading in 2021, check out my Reading Challenge on Goodreads. Also just be friends with me on Goodreads in general because I want to see what you’re reading and talk about it!!!! 

I’m going to start with some stats because I think it’s interesting, but if that’s not your jam, skip down to the book list!

Of the 205 books I read in 2020

156 were Fiction, 46 were Nonfiction, and 3 were Poetry collections.

164 were by female authors, 36 were by male authors, and 5 were by nonbinary authors or more than one author.

142 were by white authors and 63 were by authors of color

In terms of genre, 57 were general contemporary fiction or contemporary literary fiction, 36 were mystery/thriller/crime, 28 were memoir, 18 were general nonfiction,17 were romance, 15 were fantasy/sci-fi/speculative fiction, 14 were historical literary fiction, 9 were horror, 8 were YA, and 3 were poetry collections.

For reviews, I gave 43 5-star reviews, 84 4-star reviews, 62 3-star reviews, 12 2 star reviews, and 4 books I did not rate.

Now that my nerdiest self is satisfied, on with the rest of my favorite books of 2020!

I’ve divided my favorite literary fiction into historical literary fiction (meaning anything set before the present day) and contemporary literary fiction. I’m also tacking on my favorite romance and favorite fantastical/speculative fiction books at the end.

Best Literary Fiction (Historical)

The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali

It’s 1953 and Tehran is a hotbed of political turmoil and activism. Mr. Fakhri’s neighborhood stationery shop is an island of calm in the middle of it all. When Mr. Fakhri introduces his two favorite customers, Roya and Bahman, romance blossoms. The teenagers are giddy with joy, but on the night before their secret wedding, tragedy strikes. The couple is caught up in the violence of the coup d’etat and are separated…possibly forever? Heartbroken, Roya moves forward, eventually moving to California and building a life there. But when a chance encounter brings Bahman back into her life 60 years later, everything comes rushing back.

The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall

This book is not going to be for everyone, but this might have been my favorite book of the whole year.. If you have no background in the Christian church or interest in Christianity, I doubt this will interest you, but it spoke perfectly to my own spiritual history and struggles with faith. The Dearly Beloved tells the story of two couples who are brought together in 1963 when the two husbands are hired to co-pastor a church. Charles is an academic who was struck profoundly by the unwavering sense of truth . His faith transcends understanding and is strong and unwavering. Meanwhile, his wife Lily is an avowed atheist. He does not try to change Lily’s mind, and she does not try to undermine his beliefs and his career. Meanwhile, James is an activist and an idealist with a passion for social justice. Although he isn’t sure he believes all the tenets of the Christian faith, he has come to believe that the church is the best vehicle for him to serve people in need. His wife Nan on the other hand is a devout believer from a long line of devout believers. This is a quiet, but beautiful story about these two couples over a long period of time as they each wrestle with their beliefs, support and challenge one another, and experiences the trials and triumphs of life together.

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

This book really took me by surprise. I am not typically drawn to historical fiction, particularly not set in Biblical times, but I gave this a try because I adore Sue Monk Kidd. This is the story of the fictional wife of Jesus, a woman named Anna. Not only was I engaged by the beautiful writing and storytelling, the character of Jesus the man as he is portrayed through the eyes of Anna was so compelling. I especially loved how Kidd took the words of Jesus from the gospels and wove them gently into conversations in a way that made me see Jesus as a real person instead of this disembodied voice reciting aphorisms. There is also a big feminist slant to this book since it is told from the perspective of a woman in a time when women were often treated as property. It’s really just lovely. 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

I don’t know what there is to say about this that hasn’t already been said. It is worth the hype. Identical twin sisters Desiree and Stella grow up as light-skinned black girls in the small town of Mallard, Louisiana (Side note: Mallard is a fictional town, but the characters actually go to the town where I went to high school several times in the book, so that was fun). At the age of 16 the twins run away to New Orleans where they end up forging separate lives. Desiree ends up returning to Mallard with her dark-skinned daughter years later after escaping from an abusive husband. Meanwhile, Stella has made her own life in California where she has been passing as white, marrying a white man and keeping her past a secret. This book is a fascinating exploration of racism, colorism, identity, and family. It’s expertly crafted and (in my opinion) it deserves all the praise it’s been receiving. 

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Gyasi’s Homegoing is one of the best books I have read in recent years, so I was eagerly anticipating her new release. Transcendent Kingdom is nothing like Homegoing, yet I found it equally moving and provocative. Gifty’s beloved older brother died from a drug overdose after getting hooked on painkillers following a knee injury. Her mother ebbs and flows through tides of severe depression. Gifty sees the way her mother suffers and the way her brother suffered and has channeled her own pain into studying the science behind addiction at Stanford Medical School. Transcendent Kingdom follows Gifty through the past and into her present as she tries to use science to make sense of what she has seen and experienced. It explores themes of grief and love, of science and faith, of addiction and depression, of despair and hope. Part of my love for this book has to do with my personal connection to some of the characters’ experiences, specifically the extremely religious upbringing and having a sibling with an addiction, but I think this would be a compelling read even without those extra connections. 

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

This was one of several eerily apt books about pandemics to come out in 2020. This follows nurse Julia Powell working on an improvised maternity/influenza ward during the Spanish Flu epidemic in Ireland as she does her best to serve her patients in the midst of utter chaos. When help arrives in the form of Bridie Sweeney, a volunteer helper who knows absolutely nothing, Julia resigns herself to making do. But Bridie surprises and inspires her with her quick intellect and unflagging energy. Set over 3 days at the hospital, the story is equal parts hope and heartbreak as patients die rapidly from this aggressive new flu and new babies enter the world, sometimes at the same moment.  

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller 

This is a gorgeous retelling of The Iliad which imagines the same events with Patroclus and Achilles as lovers. Achilles is kind of a douche, but Patroclus is such an endearing character, you can’t help but love him. The writing is beautiful and evocative and the story (especially the ending) is even more compelling and devastating than the original. I don’t think you need to be super familiar with The Iliad to enjoy this, but maybe look up a character list or something to keep all the characters straight. 

Best Contemporary Literary/General Fiction

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

This is the story of two families in LA, one Korean-American and one African-American, who have both been rocked by the same incident. Grace Park’s sister Miriam hasn’t spoken to her mother in years, but Grace has never really understood why. She sets out on a quest to reconcile the two most important women in her life. Meanwhile, a police shooting of a black teenager has brought Shawn Matthews back to the murder of his own sister years earlier. As LA erupts in racial tensions and violence, the Matthews and the Parks are brought together in an unexpected way.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

It’s been several years since I read Olive Kitteridge and now I want to reread it. Olive, Again is Elizabeth Strout at her best. This follows her typical format, reading more like linked stories than a traditional novel. She continues the story of Olive Kitteridge, a widow and retired school teacher living a quiet life in Crosby, Maine, while weaving in stories from the members of her community. Olive is no-nonsense and even a bit prickly at times, but ultimately she is looking for what we all want – connection, community, and meaning in our lives. I think I liked this even more than the first one.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid 

This is another book that everyone and their mother has talked about this year. When I first read it I thought it was just OK, but over the year it has continued to stick with me. Emira is a young black woman navigating the confusing world of her early 20’s while working as a babysitter for a wealthy white family. When Emira’s boss, Alix Chamberlain, calls her on a night out with friends begging her to come over last-minute, Emira jumps at the chance to make some extra cash. Emira takes 3-year-old Briar to a local supermarket while the Chamberlains deal with a family emergency, but the night takes a turn when a security guard at the supermarket accuses Emira of kidnapping Briar. Alix Chamberlain is outraged on Emira’s behalf. Although Emira shrugs it off and moves on, Alix can’t seem to let it go. The novel turns into an interesting commentary on performative allyship and what happens when good intentions become self-serving. 

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman. 

Backman’s newest novel is about the world’s worst bank robber. It’s about a hostage crisis. It’s about a father and son police team learning to work together. It’s about grief. It’s about how to make a marriage last. It’s about connection and empathy and hope. It’s funny. It’s tender. It’s almost unbearably sweet. And I just loved it.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

It took me two tries to actually get through this book because I found it so disturbing, but it’s supposed to be disturbing. I am so glad I came back to it and finished it. When Vanessa Wye  was 15-years old, she was seduced by her 42-year old high school teacher, Jacob Strane.  17 years later, Strane is being accused of sexual abuse by another former student who contacts Vanessa hoping that she will come forward as well. But even after all of these years, Vanessa is unable to accept that what happened to her could have been abuse and  not a genuine experience of first love. 

This book is a riveting, brutal portrayal of how trauma can shape a person’s life. It explores the psychology of grooming, the abuse that is inherent in relationships with a power imbalance, how people can become trapped in cycles of abuse and even be unable to see and understand their own trauma for what it is. It is a brilliant depiction of a topic that will (and should) horrify you.

Best Fantasy/Speculative Fiction

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Shwab

I have a hard time calling this a straight-up fantasy because there aren’t like dragons or wizards or made up lands or anything like that. It is set in our world, but has fantastical elements, so I think people who aren’t into high fantasy would still like this. 

It’s 1714, and Addie LaRue wants a different life from the one carved out for her – marriage, family, housekeeping. She wants something more for herself. Mostly, she wants freedom to make her own choices and live how she wants. On the day of her wedding she escapes into the forest where she begs any powers that are listening to save her. When the Darkness answers her, she trades her soul for the chance to live a free life for as long as she wants. Her dream turns into a nightmare when she realizes her bargain also includes a curse – everyone she meets forgets her as soon as she moves out of their sight. We follow Addie back and forth over 300 years as she reconciles her life of freedom with the need to leave a mark and discovers ways around the curse.  

The characters (particularly Addie) were so well-drawn. The prose is lovely – immersive without being overly flowery. The magical elements weren’t too over the top. It’s a beautiful meditation on mortality and memory and to what degree the meaning of our lives lies in our connection to the world and to other people and our ability to leave a mark. I intentionally slowed down when I got near the end because I just didn’t want it to be over.

Best Romance

Beach Read by Emily Henry

January Andrews is a best-selling romance writer who’s not sure she believes in love anymore. She owes her publisher a new manuscript, but she is grieving the death of her father and reeling from the discovery that he had been having a long-term affair with an old high school sweetheart. In his will, he left the lake house he shared with his lover to January. Now January has moved into the lake house to get it ready to sell while she works through her grief and betrayal and tries to write her book. What she isn’t expecting is for her old high school rival to end up next door.

Augustus Everett is a serious literary fiction writer who is going through his own writing slump. He’s got an idea for a novel based on a real-life death cult, but can’t seem to get it off the ground. When January and Augustus realize they are in the same predicament, they decide the best way to break their writer’s block is to try to write outside of their usual genres. Augustus will write a romance, and January will write serious literary fiction. Shenanigans ensue. It’s so great. I laughed; I cried. I already want to read it again.

And that is IT! What’s the best thing you read this year?

My Top 10 Crime/Thriller/Mystery/Suspense/Horror Books of 2020

Merry Christmas (a little belatedly)! Hope you are all well and healthy and have had nice celebrations even if they looked a bit different this year. I’m trying to get all of my best books of the year posts up before we hit January 1st, but it looks like I won’t quite make it. Nevertheless, I am cracking on today with my favorite Mystery/Crime/Thriller/Horror books. I read 43 books in those combined genres, and these were my top 10.

This year I challenged myself to try out some genres I don’t typically read, specifically horror and romance (more on that later). In the past I would have said that horror was not a genre that interested me because I’m pretty easily scared and have very vivid dreams, and I’m not really into giving myself nightmares. However, I do like a certain type of thriller or crime novel, and I’ve realized there is some genre crossover with horror. Since even I have trouble differentiating which genre some of these fit into, I’m going to mash them all together and explain a bit more in the blurbs.

Best Mystery/Thriller/Crime

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell (Domestic Thriller)

Before 2020 I had only read 1 Lisa Jewell novel (Then She Was Gone) but I remembered enjoying it, so I decided to give her new one a go. The Family Upstairs is a bit different to most of her other novels and fans seem to either love that or hate it. I (obviously) loved it. I went on to read 3 more Jewell books this year (so total of 5) and this is still my favorite.

Libby Smith has been waiting her whole life to find out the identity of her birth parents and who she really is. When Libby turns 25 she receives a letter that tells her not only who her parents were, but also that she is the sole inheritor of their Chelsea mansion. Libby quickly learns that the house has been abandoned for twenty-five years, ever since police found a healthy ten-month-old baby clean and fed in her crib while three dead bodies lay downstairs in the kitchen. What really happened to her parents? And what about the other four children who supposedly lived at the house and who vanished without a trace?

The Night Swim by Megan Goldin (Crime Thriller)

Rachel Krall is an investigative journalist turned true-crime podcaster, has just arrived in small-town Neapolis, North Carolina to cover a high-profile rape case for the new season of her show. Neapolis is a tight-knit and tight-lipped community and they aren’t all that pleased to have Rachel there. To make things even more uneasy, someone unrelated to the trial appears to be stalking her, and they desperately want her help to solve a twenty-five year old case that happened in the same town.  

I found the characters and the scenario to be believable. I liked the medium of the true crime podcast as I am an occasional listener of them. Goldin did an excellent job of balancing action scenes with summary and exposition using the podcast as interludes for commentary in a way that made sense within the narrative. It felt very relevant, though it may mean that the book doesn’t age well. I think the questions Rachel raises in her podcast are timely and important as we continue the work of the #metoo movement and challenge the systemic silencing of women’s pain and women’s voices.

Long Bright River by Liz Moore (Crime Mystery)

Kacey and Mickey are sisters who grew up as close as they come, but as adults they find themselves on opposite ends of the opioid crisis. Kacey is gripped by addiction and lives on the streets in Philadelphia. Mickey, meanwhile, patrols those same streets as a cop. Things come to a head when Mickey begins investigating a mysterious string of murders in her neighborhood and finds out that Kacey has also disappeared. While this has all of the elements of a typical crime thriller, it doesn’t read like one, which makes it much more memorable. The pacing is much slower and it is much more about character development than just plot. 

All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny (Crime Mystery)

I’m a huge fan of Louise Penny, and Chief Inspector Armand Gamache has my heart forever. This is the 16th book in a series and I definitely recommend reading them in order because the richness of these books comes from the character development and the relationships between characters. This newest installment takes us away from the village of Three Pines in Montreal (where much of the series takes place) and over to Paris where the Gamache’s are visiting their children and grandchildren. The story centers on Gamache’s fraught relationship with his son along with the usual intrigue of uncovering high-level corruption with danger at every turn. I found the exploration of Gamache’s relationship with his son particularly compelling as it centers on is how two people in a relationship can interpret the same events in vastly different ways and assign motivations to the other person that are wildly different from what that person intended. These characters are deeply human and we see them, warts and all, and still walk away with the sense that there is goodness in the world.

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo (Crime Thriller, but graphic…so also Crime Horror?)

I’ve heard about this book for years and finally picked it up. On the day of the first snowfall in Oslo, Jonas’ mother goes missing. The only clue left behind is her scarf wrapped around the neck of a snowman in the yard – a snowman Jonas did not build. Police investigator Harry Hole suspects there is a link between this woman’s disappearance, and those of several other women. Hole begins the hunt for a brutal serial killer known only as The Snowman because he always attacks at the first snow of the year and  leaves behind a calling card – a snowman. This is technically the 7th book in the Harry Hole series. Although I’m sure the other books would give you more context for the relationships between recurring characters, I don’t think you need to read the others to appreciate this one. Also, fair warning, there are a LOT of characters in this book, so you might need to draw yourself a chart or something.

Best Horror/Suspense

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey (Zombie Thriller)

This is a zombie novel, which is not my thing at all. And yet, it really got me in the feels. Every day, Melanie gets strapped into her wheelchair and wheeled to school where she learns about the world from her beloved teacher Miss Justineau. And when school is over, she and the other children are strapped back into their wheelchairs and brought back to their cells with loaded guns trained on them all the while. Melanie is the brightest of the bunch, but she still can’t understand what everyone is so afraid of.

Home Before Dark by Riley Sager (Paranormal Thriller)

When Maggie Holt was a young girl, her parents moved into Banebury Hall. They made it three weeks before fleeing for their lives in the middle of the night. Maggie doesn’t remember much about her time in the house, but her father recorded his version of events in his bestselling (supposedly) nonfiction book House of Horrors. Now twenty-five years have gone by and Maggie’s father has recently passed away. She is shocked to learn that her father still owned Banebury Hall, and that he has left it to her. Now a professional restorer, Maggie decides to tackle the job of revitalizing the abandoned house and getting it ready to sell. And while she’s there, she’ll try to uncover what really happened in the house all those years ago.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Psychological/supernatural horror)

Mexican Gothic is what it says on the tin – a Gothic horror novel in the vein of Rebecca or The Haunting of Hill House, but set in 1950’s Mexico. Noemi is a beautiful young socialite living it up in Mexico City. When Noemi’s father receives a letter from her cousin, Catalina implying that all is not well with her, Noemi is sent to investigate. Catalina has recently married a mysterious Englishman after a whirlwind courtship. Now she is living in his isolated mansion in the Mexican countryside cut off from her family and friends. After Noemi arrives at High Place, she realizes that the house and its inhabitants are not as they appear.

While I wouldn’t say overall that this was super scary, it is very unsettling, and I admit there were a few moments where I got the shiveries.  Also, the cover is to-die-for.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid (Psychological suspense/horror)

Jake and his girlfriend have only been dating for a couple of months. They are on their way to meet his family at their isolated farm. But she isn’t so  sure about the relationship. In fact. She’s thinking of ending things. When they arrive at the family home things begin to get…weird…and when they take an unexpected detour to an abandoned high school things get…weirder. This was a very fast read that was the right amount of weird and creepy for me to feel spine tingles but not have nightmares. Having said that, some parts of this felt very tangential. And the ending, while creepy, felt a little overlong. Like after you realized what was going on it kept going on for a little too long. But it was also kind of fun…? And I liked the character development…but did I? I am perplexed.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix (Creature/Body Horror)

Patricia Campbell is your typical southern housewife. She spends her days caring for her two teenage children, her doctor husband, and her declining mother-in-law. She once dreamed of a bigger life, but instead she’s found herself solidly entrenched in the mundane world of the upper middle-class in Charleston, South Carolina. The only thing she really looks forward to are meetings with her book club, a group of women who have carved out space away from their regular lives to talk about the sordid details of the harrowing true crime they read together. When a stranger moves to the neighborhood, Patricia is initially excited. Until children begin to go missing, and she suspects there is more to her new neighbor than meets the eye.

I really loved the descriptions of southern society ladies which reminded me so much of people I knew when we lived in South Carolina. This is a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously and invites the reader to lean into the campy-ness of it all. I didn’t feel particularly afraid at any point in reading this book. Having said that, there are some pretty gross scenes involving body gore/horror. There is also a scene that describes a cockroach burrowing into Patricia’s ear and she has to just sit still and let it because she’s hiding and I just about lost it. And yet…I had fun!

Have you read any of these? What did you think? Have I inspired you to pick anything up?

Best Books of 2020: Nonfiction and Memoir

This year has been a wild one for all of us. Unsurprisingly, a lot of our reading lives have been affected by 2020. I have friends who have read less than ever before, and I also have friends who have read more than ever before. I’ve been on the latter end, using reading as a form of escape from all of the things that feel too much about the world right now. In fact, I just finished my 200th book of the year. With 9 days left to go, we’ll see where I end up after the holidays. Even I don’t really know how I managed to work a full-time job and raise an infant while reading that much apart from admitting I have no social life and I don’t watch TV.  

With such a large pool of books to choose from, it seemed a little overwhelming to write about my best books of the year all in one post, so I’m splitting my posts into categories starting with General Nonfiction and Memoir.

This year I read 44 nonfiction books and memoirs. Most of these were genuinely 4 or 5 star reads for me. One nice thing about reading so many good books is that you know the ones that stand out even among other 4 and 5 star reads were really something special.

Best Nonfiction

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

I read quite a few books this year about institutional racism and systems of oppression and injustice. This book is a fantastic place to start your antiracist education. One of the central ideas is that it is not enough to not be racist, we must be actively antiracist. Being racist or antiracist is not defined by a single action or belief, rather we are all constantly making choices that are either racist or antiracist and we all have moments of being racist as well as moments of being antiracist.  Another major argument is that racism is a problem with policies and institutions as much (or more) than it is a problem with individuals. We are complicit in racism when we uncritically support and benefit from policies that marginalize others. 

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

This is the seminal text for more of a deep dive into mass incarceration and particularly how the War on Drugs and unfair sentencing laws have effectively been used to subjugate a generation of Black and Brown people (mostly men). It is incredibly well-researched and detailed. It is impossible to walk away from this book without knowing that this system as it exists today is deeply flawed and inherently racist. 

Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall

If you consider yourself a feminist but you haven’t read this book, stop whatever you’re doing and go read it. This is all about intersectional feminism, and specifically reframing issues we don’t often think of in conjunction with feminism (i.e. food security, poverty, medical care, racism) as inherently feminist issues. I learned so much from this book, but in a way that was very accessible and engaging. 

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez

This was equal parts fascinating and infuriating. It was honestly staggering to be confronted with the overwhelming number of ways women’s specific needs are not taken into consideration in so many everyday parts of society from public transportation schedules, to medical drug trials, to car safety, to the fit of standard uniforms for many jobs, to the lack of adequate maternity leave and its effect on women’s ability to be in the workforce. 

One of the biggest takeaways for me was that women do 75% of the world’s unpaid labour (i.e. housework, cooking, grocery shopping, childcare, etc.) which are necessary parts of human life for men and women alike. Not only is this work often unacknowledged, but it is actually penalized in dozens of ways. 

This book is chock full of facts and figures, and while it may be difficult to retain all of it, the overall message is clear – women need to be represented in decision making at all levels. Because even well-meaning men simply don’t have the same concerns and considerations. The world as it is is designed by men and for men, and that has to change. 

Atomic Habits by James Clear

As far a self-help book goes, this hit all the right notes for me. It was informative, but also super practical with clear examples of how to implement each principle in your everyday life regardless of which habits you are trying to make or break. The tone is conversational and Clear comes across as confident and knowledgeable without being condescending. I did have a few moments when he was writing about his own method of self-reflection on his habits and goals that left me feeling a little like, “I don’t think that level of intensity is for me,” but as it wasn’t a major part of the book, it didn’t take away from the overall message. 

Best Memoirs

The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

I’m so glad I finally read this. I’m not super well-versed in graphic novels, but I’m starting to really love graphic memoirs. Given that it is not a medium I read often, I was amazed by how impactful this was. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. 

The art style is simple, almost cartoonish, which I felt underscored the seriousness of the topic and suited the comedic, sometimes sarcastic narrative tone. This book gave me invaluable knowledge of the history of Iran during and after the Cultural Revolution as well as the experience of those living under the regime (particularly those who weren’t drinking the Kool-aid). I loved it. My only complaint is that the ending felt abrupt.

On Living by Kerry Egan

This memoir is about Kerry Egan’s work as a hospice chaplain walking beside people who are dying and their families as they grieve. If you’re thinking that sounds super depressing, you’re not wrong. But it’s also remarkably hopeful. Full of simple, beautiful insights into what it means to live and to love and what we can learn by giving others the space to talk. It is a memoir about our shared brokenness as people, but also about the gift we can offer one another by recognizing the inherent dignity in each human and the importance of every story. This is such a beautiful, moving little book.

Inferno: A Memoir of Motherhood and Madness by Catherine Cho

Inferno tells the story of Cho’s harrowing experience with postpartum psychosis, her stay in an involuntary psychiatric ward, and her recovery, but it is so much more than that. The narrative flashes back and forth between the present timeline where she is in the psych ward and back through the events of her life that brought her to this moment. 

The writing is excellent. It’s descriptive and elegant without being bogged down by lots of meaningless fluff added in to sound more poetic. What really blew me away was how well crafted it was. I read a lot of memoir and have occasional aspirations to write one myself someday, and the thing I find most difficult is how to identify the singular moments and scenes out of a whole life that will illustrate exactly what you mean to say. This book does that brilliantly. Every scene, every piece of dialogue, every snippet of Korean mythology or folktales served a precise purpose. 

This book is riveting. Terrifying, electrifying, and compulsively readable. I genuinely could not put it down. 

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

This raw memoir about an abusive relationship is equal parts difficult to stomach and deeply moving. The structure and the writing is immaculate. It manages to be inventive and imaginative and yet easy to understand. It’s very emotional, but feels like it’s been written from a place of healing and reflection rather than a place of active pain and anger. 

Machado sheds a light on the reality that abusive relationships can and do exist between same-sex couples in the same way they do within heterosexual couples. One thing that really stood out to me was the fear the author and others in the LGBTQ community seemed to feel that exposing abuse within gay or lesbian relationships would open new doors of hatred and criticism. It shouldn’t have to be said that abusive dynamics can happen within any kind of relationship and it’s obviously not a reflection of ALL heterosexual relationships or ALL homosexual relationships. This book is a tremendous accomplishment and I cannot wait to read more from this author.

A Knock at Midnight by Brittany K. Barnett

This book gets 5 stars for the content which is important and moving. Barnett is a young black attorney who gave up a promising career in corporate law to petition for clemency and reduced sentences for incarcerated individuals serving unjustly harsh sentences for minor drug crimes. The writing is fine – very straightforward-but the individual stories and the collective argument they make for major justice system reform is compelling. I would highly recommend this as a companion read with The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness since it is primarily about individuals affected by the issues brought to light in that book. I would also recommend it for fans of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy.

I would love to chat about any and all of these books as well as anything you read in these categories that you really loved and would recommend! Be on the lookout for my favorites in literary fiction and genre fiction over the next week or two!

The Things I Used to Believe: In Gratitude for Becoming

I’ve been thinking a lot this year about what it means to live out my beliefs and convictions. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about what it looks like to speak up for what is right and to speak out against what is wrong. At the bare minimum, I think it looks like having difficult conversations with people in our families and social circles, pushing ourselves and others to really consider why we think and act and speak and vote the way we do.  

But, I will admit that I often find myself shying away from these conversations. I know people who have thought deeply about different issues and still have different opinions or convictions than I do. For the most part, I can respect that. But I also know many people who operate on a system of “inherited beliefs.” They have absorbed and adopted beliefs from their families, churches, or communities without ever really examining them. Yet they hold these inherited beliefs in a vice grip. They are unwilling or unable to consider that just because something has been done a certain way for a long time doesn’t make it right. 

To be honest, I tend to think of those people as hopeless cases who aren’t worth my energy. But lately I’ve been reminded of how much my own beliefs and convictions have changed in the past 15 years. When I think of who I was 15 years ago, and who I am now, I am so very grateful for the many, many people who were willing not to write me off, but who challenged me to consider other perspectives and who modeled for me different examples of what a faith-filled life could look like. It is the memory of these people and the impact they’ve had on my life that make me want to share some of my own journey. 

I grew up in a world that was black and white. You were saved or you were not. You were righteous or you were evil. You were pure or you were tainted. Everyone and everything could be easily categorized. 

I was taught how to defend my faith in a debate, but not how to empathize or engage with people who were different from me. I was taught to judge people’s hearts based on my interpretation of their actions rather than to reserve judgment and extend compassion. 

I left home when I was 18 years old believing that I was a light in a dark, dark world. I believed unquestioningly that my convictions came from God himself. 

Fifteen years later, my beliefs about many things are wildly different from what they were at 18. I am deeply grateful for my upbringing – for my parents devoting themselves to my spiritual formation from a young age. And I am equally grateful that as I have grown and matured, they have seen my beliefs change and seen those beliefs shape my life, and had the grace to do nothing but encourage me. 

This post is a celebration of the ways I have grown closer to being the person I was made to be. It is also a reminder to myself to remain open to people who challenge my beliefs. I have not arrived. I am still becoming.

Things I Used to Believe:

I used to believe that Catholicism was something people needed to be “saved” out of and that liturgical, traditional churches were dry and “spiritually dead.” Now I believe there are many authentic expressions of faith and that we all have a lot to learn from each other.

I used to believe that (American) Christians could only be Republican. Growing up, I didn’t know a single person who voted Democrat – at least no one who was vocal about it. Now I believe there are Christians represented in every party and in no party. But mostly I believe that no Christian should identify so strongly with a political party that that identity becomes synonymous with their faith. 

I used to believe that the United States was the greatest country on Earth. Now I believe that the United States has many qualities that make it desirable and unique among the nations of the world. But I do not believe it is “the best” country in the world. Nor do I believe it should strive to be.

I used to believe that racism was a condition of the heart. That it was limited to a few individuals who were overtly hateful to people of color. Now I believe that racism is also embedded in our country’s policies and systems and that you do not have to be hateful towards any particular group to be complicit in racism. 

I used to believe that all of our resources should go towards criminalizing abortion in order to prevent it. Now I believe the best way to reduce the abortion rate is to provide affordable comprehensive healthcare for women including access to contraception and maternal care, as well as comprehensive postnatal support including paid maternity leave and affordable childcare once a child is born.  

I used to believe in the war on drugs. Now I believe it is responsible for the United States having the largest industrial prison complex in the world and that it is the modern equivalent to Jim Crow laws – criminalizing for (mostly black) people of color what is excused in white people.

I used to believe that affirmative action and diversity quotas were ways of handing out university spots and jobs to people who didn’t necessarily deserve them, robbing more deserving candidates who happened to be white. Now I believe that the only way to begin to equal the playing field after generations of inequality and make amends is to give people of color equal access to opportunities afforded to the white and the wealthy. And it’s not equal access if some people start from behind.

I used to believe that homeless people and beggars were to be pitied, but mostly because of their own bad choices. I also believed there were many people choosing homelessness and poverty in order to take advantage of government assistance. Now I believe that addiction is an illness, prostitution is often a choice that does not feel like a choice at all, and that there are more people suffering from a Welfare system that provides too little than there are people taking advantage of it.

I used to believe that women were responsible for men’s inability to control their lust. If a woman was dressed provocatively or acting promiscuously, she was at least partly to blame for anything that happened to her. Now I believe that men should be held responsible for their own thoughts and actions. Period.

I used to believe that illegal immigrants were getting what they bargained for. They knew the risks and they still decided to enter the country illegally. Now I think, “They knew the risks, and they still decided to enter illegally. How unspeakably terrible must their situation in their homeland have been? What would be horrible enough for me to risk my family that way?” 

*************

For those of you who are grappling with changes in your own beliefs, I hope this can be empowering to you. For those who are set in your beliefs, I hope this can be challenging for you. For those who are trying to engage with others who have different beliefs, I hope this can be encouraging for you. 

For Christians and non-Christians alike, I hope this reminds you that not all Christians have the same views. 

For myself, it is a reminder of who I have been, who I am now, and who I still hope to become.

When You’re Not Proud to be an American: Reflections of an Expat on the Fourth of July

Last week I spent the 4th of July outside of the United States for the 8th time in the last 15 years. I went to work as usual and watched my Instagram and Facebook feeds fill with pictures of families decked out in red, white, and blue. I didn’t feel nostalgic or homesick. Mostly, I felt relieved that I wasn’t there. That I didn’t have to participate in a holiday celebrating the birth of a nation I am less and less proud to call home.

Before I go on, I want to say that I am aware of and deeply grateful for the many unearned advantages I have had because I am an American citizen. Even having the opportunity to live and work internationally is due in large part to my American passport and to being a native English speaker. I am deeply grateful for the men and women who came before me, dreaming of a better world and a better future. I am grateful to my family members and friends who have served in the military and to so many other people who have sacrificed in countless ways for me to have the life I have today. But I can be grateful for all that my country has given me and also feel grieved over what she has become.

I grew up in a conservative environment–politically, socially, and religiously. It wasn’t until college that I began to consider other ways of thinking and living. Yet for as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be somewhere else in the world. I was born with an unquenchable curiosity about other lands and other people.

Even in my less-examined life, when I believed that the United States upheld the ideals of liberty and justice for all, I also believed there was much to be learned from the rest of the world. At this point, I have lived a significant part of my adult life outside of the US. I have also had the great privilege of traveling extensively. I have long since lost any belief that the United States is the “best” country in the world (whatever that means) or that their way of doing things is necessarily right or better. This goes against a fairly typical American sentiment that assumes that what the United States has is both superior and desirable.

Last June my parents came to visit us in Hong Kong and we took a short trip to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. At one point I listened to my dad discussing Cambodia’s recent political history with our local guide. The guide expressed his feelings about their recent election – a nod to democracy that was undermined by the fact that there was only one party on the ballot. My dad responded by saying that they were making progress and not to be discouraged because achieving true democracy takes time.

My dad’s basic assumption was that American-style democracy was the ideal that a developing country like Cambodia must be aiming for. I think this a stereotypically American way of looking at the world – that we as a nation have achieved something desirable to other countries, and that they must naturally look to us as an example to follow.

There may have been a time when that was true, but I’m not the only one who has had a shift in perspective. I used to meet people in other parts of the world who spoke of the United States with admiration or at least curiosity. And now? As the world watches the U.S. deal (or not deal) with Covid-19, migrant detention centers, and Black Lives Matter? Now the world looks at us and says, “These are the most selfish people on the planet.”

Some are openly disdainful, but many (especially in places that formerly idealized the US) are baffled and betrayed. This? This is the most powerful country on the planet? This country whose citizens are so divided they spew hatred at each other day in and day out? This country whose BIPOC citizens live in fear for their lives from the very people who are supposed to protect them? This country whose citizens are happy to let the most vulnerable among them die because they are too selfish to be inconvenienced by a scrap of cloth? Why would we want to be like them?

Americans are (often rightfully) perceived as both ignorant and arrogant. Confident in our superiority but with shockingly little understanding of our own history. At least we come by it honestly. We are fed a false narrative of exceptionalism from our preschool days. Part of what makes the United States exceptional, we are told, is that it was built upon the idea that all men are created equal. We conveniently ignore that these very words were penned by white men who bought and sold black men, women, and children as if they were animals. Who did not even consider allowing women to own property, have a voice or a vote. Not to mention that the very land this new nation was built upon was stolen with force and violence from indigenous people.

A country is not great because it insists it is already the best. It is not great because it refuses to acknowledge its flaws. It is not great because it sticks its head in the sand and ignores anything that challenges its fantasy narrative of freedom and equality. A truly great country, like a truly great human, is one that is able to confront difficult truths about itself, to confess the things it has done poorly, and to actively seek a better future. For ALL of its citizens.

I do not think the United States is the best country in the world. Frankly, I do not think the United States needs to be the best country in the world (whatever that even means). But I do think the United States can and should become a good country. One whose institutions treat its citizens with equity. Whose people care about the real needs of others in their community over their own convenience or pride. And one who uses its vast wealth and resources to promote justice worldwide.

I’m not proud to be an American today, but I have hope that one day I will be again.

Black Lives Matter: 91 Books by Authors of Color

As an American living abroad, I am watching my homeland with equal parts disgust and hope. Disgust at the hatred, the evil, and the willful ignorance so rampantly on display in recent weeks. And (wildly) hope. Hope that this is the moment when real change begins.

The US is not unique in its widespread culture of racism and systemic injustice. It is unique in that it is one of a few countries with the influence and authority to denounce human rights violations in other countries while willfully ignoring the human rights violations “lawfully” carried out on American soil every single day.

I do not think the world needs to hear my voice right now except to say that I fully support Black Lives Matter. I believe that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. I believe that change requires work, and I believe that those of us who are uncomfortable with this are the ones who need to hear it most.

There are many excellent resources that speak directly to systemic racism, the criminal justice system, police brutality, and the lived experiences of Black Americans. I’m not one of them. The one small thing I have to offer here is a list of books written by authors of color that I have personally read and can recommend.

I am not speaking from a place of authority and certainly not from some moral high ground. There is so much I do not know or understand. All I want to do is share one small change I’ve made in one small area. Over the past few years I have made an intentional effort to read more diversely. In 2014 I am ashamed to say that out of the 62 books I read, only 2 were by authors of color. For the past few years, 25-30% of the books I’ve read were by non-white authors. I can still do so much better, but I have found it personally enriching and rewarding to read voices and perspectives from authors who do not look like me, sound like me, live like me, or believe like me. I have also found the more I’ve read that almost all books written by authors of color implicitly, if not explicitly address race and racism.

The words/thoughts/messages/perspectives we consume, even for entertainment, influence our thoughts and beliefs. Our thoughts and beliefs dictate our actions.

Books in bold are those I highly recommend.

Books by BIPOC Authors:

Nonfiction

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

Heavy by Kiese Layman

Notes From a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuache

From Scratch by Tembe Locke

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clementine Wamariya

Hunger by Roxanne Gay

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Becoming by Michelle Obama

We are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Year of Yes by Shonda Rimes

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Fiction

Children of Blood and Bone by Toni Adeyemi

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jessmyn Ward

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

Poetry and Short Stories

What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Leslie Arimah

How Long Til Black Future Month by N. K. Jemison

Love Poems by Nikki Giovanni

Non-Black Authors of Color

Nonfiction

Good Talk by Mira Jacobs

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

Yes, My Accent is Real by Kunal Nayyar

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

Fiction

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

The Boat People by Sharon Bala

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

There There by Tommy Orange

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

The Immortals of Tehran by Ali Araghi

Family Trust by Kathy Wang

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali

A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Exit West by Moshin Hamid

The Wangs Vs. The World by Jade Chang

Poetry and Short Stories

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

The Undressing by Li-Young Lee

Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur

The Coronavirus Diaries: Adventures in Virtual Teaching

I know many of you have just experienced your first few days of distance learning with your kids. Others of you are teachers like me, spending hours and hours trying to learn an entirely new platform and figure out how to best translate your material into this new medium. I feel for you all.

I’ve been teaching online classes for about 6 weeks now.  I am a reading specialist so I am primarily working with younger students on phonological awareness, the mechanics of reading, and later reading comprehension and writing. The majority of my students are 3-6 years old and English is their second (or third) language (although I’m not teaching ESL).

With my youngest students, we do interactive and play-based learning. For some LOLs, check out this promo video that was shot 10 days before I gave birth.

 

Now imagine trying to translate that onto an online platform.

Along with the challenges of trying to deliver engaging and effective lessons online, there are also totally new challenges. Like trying to keep a three-year-old’s attention when they get up and walk away from the computer. Below is a collection of things I’ve observed and experienced of the past six weeks.

Observations:

  • Lots of my students’ parents wear their pajamas at all hours of the day.
  • There are two types of parents to watch out for:

1. The Over-Involved Parent

Me: What is the first sound of ‘cat’?

<offscreen> MASON! YOU KNOW THIS ONE! ANSWER THE TEACHER! WHAT IS FIRST SOUND OF CAT? IT IS ‘C.’ SAY ‘C.’ SAY IT!

Me: Thanks, Mason’s Mom. One point for you.

2. The Under-Involved Parent

Me: Hey, Hanna, where did you go?  Come back! Hey… Hanna’s mom? Or dad? Or grandpa? Anyone?

Hanna’s dad: Where is Hanna?

Me: I mean…I don’t know…she just kind of ran away. Isn’t she with you?

Hanna returns: I WAS IN THE TOILET! I WENT POOPOO.

Me: Wow. Thank you for sharing.

Hanna: You’re welcome!

  • I have sooooo many more chins than I realized. Also very huge and expressive eyebrows.
  • Every child in Hong Kong has something with Elsa or Optimus Prime on it.
  • Mute buttons are glorious and we should have them in real life.
  • Technology is amazing. Except when it’s the worst. Which is at least once every day.

Experiences:

  •  I have one 3-year old student who attends class along with everyone in her household. I think they connect the computer to their TV screen. And then Sasha and her mom and her baby brother Lloyd and her grandma and her two helpers all attend the class together.
  • I have several students whose moms or helpers (Helpers are like nannies. They are also called aunties.) are sitting off-screen shoving food into their mouths through the whole class. Can they not sit through a 30-minute class without eating?!
  • One of my coworkers had a student attend a class while he was going through airport security. Another attended from what seemed to be a restaurant bathroom. Another friend had a student attend while in the backseat of a taxi.
  • My older students (like first to third grade) actually behave better online than they do in person. I suppose because they can’t flick erasers at each other and stuff like that?
  • Some kids become very tight-lipped while others overshare. In a class of 3-4 year olds…

Me: In today’s story, we heard about a boy who was very naughty. Are you ever naughty?

Gladys: No.

Me: Oh, ok. That’s good.

Scarlett: Sometimes yes.

Me: Ok, what happens when you’re naughty?

Scarlett: I cry.

Me: Oh. Does your auntie ask you, “What’s wrong, Scarlett?”

Scarlett: …No…

Me: Does she say, “It’s Ok. Don’t cry.”

Scarlett:…No…

Me: Ok. What about you, Natalie?

Natalie: Well…I am not naughty. Except only sometimes my auntie says, “Natalie! You are a troublemaker!” and I say, “Whachyou talking ’bout?” I’m not a troublemaker, except sometimes only I am supposed to go to sleep, and I don’t want to sleep, I just want to eat.

Me: Wow. So does your mommy say, “No, Natalie! You have to sleep?”

Natalie: No.

Me: Really?

Natalie: No. Because we are Chinese people. So she doesn’t say, “No,” like that in English.

Touche, Miss Sassypants

***

This is a learning process for all of us, so no matter which side of this you’re on, can we all agree to give each other grace? You don’t judge us for our lessons being a bit hodge-podge or the online platform glitching, and we won’t judge you for bribing your kid with M&M’s to get them to sit down for class. Deal?

 

 

 

The C Word: Life After Eight Weeks of Coronavirus

Over the past week I’ve watched as the United States and Europe woke up to the reality that we in Hong Kong (and other parts of Asia) have been living with since late January. Coronavirus…Covid-19… Wu-monia…whatever you want to call it. We are all in the same boat now.

I admit that it’s a little irritating to see people suddenly panicking. We all have a tendency to ignore that which does not seem to affect us, and Americans are notorious for this on a national level.  It’s not that I want anyone to be panicking, and I certainly am not happy that the virus is spreading, but I can’t help feeling a little like, “Welcome to the party.”

If you’re like me, you are equal parts sick-to-death of hearing about it and simultaneously reading everything you can find. I wanted to share some thoughts about my experience so far. I’m not in any way unique here, but I hope it helps someone to hear that life can and will go on while practicing social distance.

****

Here in Hong Kong, we are 573 miles from the epicenter of the virus in Wuhan, China. Which is basically the distance between Washington D.C. and Charleston, SC. To paint a clearer picture, it takes 10 minutes by high-speed train to cross the border from Hong Kong into mainland China. Chinese and Hong Kong citizens are able to easily pass back and forth over the border without visas or passport stamps.

Hong Kong ranks between 2nd and 3rd in the world for population density with 17,311 people per square mile. Compare this with the US’s 92.9 people per square mile to understand how staggering that is. In my own home we have 3 adults and a baby living in slightly less than 450 square feet.

I remember first hearing about the virus as “a kind of pneumonia” a few days before our school closed for the Chinese New Year holidays. By January 24th, the first day of our holiday, 75% of people out and about seemed to be wearing masks. Juniper had just turned 3 months old and we had been hoping to get out and enjoy some Chinese New Year festivities. On January 25th, the Hong Kong government declared a virus emergency, cancelled all Lunar New Year events, and began restricting access from mainland China.

The Lunar New Year is the biggest holiday of the year for Hong Kong and literally millions of people travel to see family in mainland China during this time. As those travelers moved back and forth, the virus spread to Hong Kong.

For two weeks everything shut down. Many things were closed and we hardly left home. We went from 75% of people wearing masks to 99.9% of people wearing masks. This also led to a mask shortage. Prices were hiked. People lined up for actual miles to buy masks, hand sanitizer, soap, and cleaning supplies from stores. The toilet paper crisis started.

The Education Bureau announced the extension of the Chinese New Year Holiday to February 17th. A week later it was pushed to March 1st. Then March 17th. Then April 20th. As of this writing, the report is that schools will not reopen on April 20th, but a new tentative date has not been set.

Jonathan and I are both teachers, but we work for independent learning centers that are for-profit businesses. We have to abide by the Education Bureau’s decisions, but if our company does not make enough money, they can shut down and we can lose our jobs.

At this point we have been teaching online classes for 6 weeks. Many of you are probably experiencing online school now, whether as a teacher, a student, or a parent. In whatever capacity you are experiencing online teaching…it is both a marvel of modern technology…and an absolute pain in the rear. Whenever you think it is impossible to make online learning work, please remember…I have been trying to teach 4 year olds how to read. Oh, and also, English is not their first language.

Some of our students have continued classes, but some have suspended indefinitely. This means that our schools are actively trying to recruit new students to join our classes all the time. To encourage this, they offer two free classes. The result is that we have a core group of students who have stayed and a revolving door of students who come for a few classes and leave. On the one hand it feels pointless to stall the rest of the class to try to explain what’s going on to these students who will more than likely attend their two free lessons and then leave. But at the same time, if you don’t stop and give them some extra time and attention, what chance do you have at getting them to enroll? It’s very challenging as an educator whose job is also dependent on student enrollment.

Unfortunately, at this point we are still required to go in to work to do our teaching from there. Which means I don’t get to spend my between-class-time with Sweet Juniper.

This is what daily life looks like:

We go to work. The doorman at my office building takes my temperature every morning when I arrive at work to make sure it is not above 37.5.  We come home. On the weekends we sleep, we cuddle our baby, we take walks. We read books. We watch shows. We do the New York Times crossword every day. We occasionally see friends. Rinse and repeat.

Whenever we go out we wear masks. As Westerners, this is not a cultural norm. We don’t necessarily believe they are effective in protecting us from others, but it does make sense that it helps keep people who are carrying the disease from spreading it as much. Mainly, we wear them because it has become socially unacceptable not to. In other words, it makes other people feel safer if we wear them.

Here is some good news:

All that social distancing seems to be working. Hong Kong has had 181 cases only 85 of which are currently active.

Fourteen of those cases were confirmed in the last 24 hours and all but one were imported infections. A significant number of people left Hong Kong when the crisis began and are now trying to come back because things are better here than wherever they fled to. And some of them have brought the virus back with them. Hong Kong now has mandatory quarantine for all arrivals, thank goodness.

The toilet paper crisis is over. Because it was not real to begin with. A rumor started that there would be a shortage of paper products coming in from China and people started panic-buying. I can only assume that word of our experience spread to other places until everyone for some reason thought: Coronavirus means toilet paper shortage. And they too did panic-buying. THERE IS NO TOILET PAPER SHORTAGE, PEOPLE. YOU CREATED THE SHORTAGE BY BUYING MORE THAN YOU NEED. If you are experiencing this now, don’t worry. In a few weeks, you will no doubt find that there is ample stock of toilet paper and hand sanitizer again.

I plan to do a few more posts over the next week or two with some adventures in online teaching, tips for dealing with anxiety, and book recommendations while you hunker down.

For now, I’ll just leave with this thought – we are all living in unprecedented times. We are all experiencing things we have never dreamed of. We will remember these days for the rest of our lives. Our children will remember these days for the rest of theirs. So let’s make them worth remembering.

Tickle your kids. Kiss your partner. Inhale your baby’s sweet smell. Let your dog sit in your lap a few minutes longer. Light a candle. Play your favorite song with the volume up loud. Dance if you want to dance.

After all, how we spend our days is how we spend our life. Even these days. Especially these days.

 

 

 

 

What I Read in January

I started off my reading year with a bang and managed to finish 20 books in January. If that sounds like a lot that’s because…it is. I have an infant, so I am up all hours of the night breastfeeding and listening to audiobooks to try to stay awake and not drop the baby. I was still on maternity leave until January 14th, but our helper had already started working, so I wasn’t doing the full load of childcare and housework on my own.  I went back  to work for a week and a half in the middle of January, but then was back on holiday break for the Chinese New Year holiday from January 24th. And then coronavirus hit and everything shut down, so there was nowhere to go and nothing to do even if I wanted to. All of that to say, if you want to get a lot of reading done, just shut down a whole city!

Regular schools here are closed until March 2nd. Although I am going in to work at my center, we will not have face-to-face classes until March, so I’m hoping to put my downtime to good use and get a lot of reading done in February too!

Here’s what I read this month, grouped by star-ratings. Side note: I don’t know if I’m getting more generous in my old age or if I just really picked good books this month, but the majority were 4 and 5 star books for me.

5-Stars

91z6aLzcgfL._AC_UY436_QL65_ML3_Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.
It’s been several years since I read Olive Kitteridge and now I want to reread it. Olive, Again is Elizabeth Strout at her best. This follows her typical format, reading more like linked stories than a traditional novel. She continues the story of Olive Kitteridge, a widow and retired school teacher living a quiet life in Crosby, Maine, while weaving in stories from the members of her community. Olive is no-nonsense and even a bit prickly at times, but ultimately she is looking for what we all want – connection, community, and meaning in our lives. I think I liked this even more than the first one.

 

91M-7mC4i9L._AC_UY436_QL65_ML3_Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Quietly beautiful, this short novel reads almost like a long short-story. Addie Moore and Louis Waters have been neighbors for years without knowing each other especially well, but they have some things in common: their children are grown, their spouses have passed away, and they are lonely. When Addie comes to Louis with an unconventional proposal, he decides to take a chance. This was a moving book about the desire to be seen and the courage it takes to let ourselves be known. I read it overlapping with Olive, Again and thought the two made great companions.

 

UnknownDear Edward by Ann Napolitano
A new release based on a true event about a 12-year-old boy who is the sole survivor of a commercial plane crash. The narrative alternates between following characters on the plane in the moments leading up to the crash and moving forward with Edward through the years following the crash. The premise is sad, of course, but the overall effect is earnest and hopeful.

 

 

51zphfsrQfL
The Stationery Shop 
by Marjan Kamali
In 1953, Roya and Bahman meet and fall in love in Tehran. As the political situation grows tenser, their only method of communication is hiding letters inside the pages of books in stationery shop which are passed on by the sympathetic shop owner, Mr. Fakhri until one day, Bahman disappears altogether. Sixty years later, Roya and Bahman are reunited in the US having built separate lives, only to learn that they were wrong about what really happened so many years ago.

 

 

41k3O0L7vXL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon
This book is intense, but so provocative and necessary. I keep trying to write a blurb for it, but I don’t think I can do any better than whoever wrote the Goodreads summary, so I’m borrowing that. “In Heavy, Laymon writes eloquently and honestly about growing up a hard-headed black son to a complicated and brilliant black mother in Jackson, Mississippi. From his early experiences of sexual violence, to his suspension from college, to his trek to New York as a young college professor, Laymon charts his complex relationship with his mother, grandmother, anorexia, obesity, sex, writing, and ultimately gambling. By attempting to name secrets and lies he and his mother spent a lifetime avoiding, Laymon asks himself, his mother, his nation, and us to confront the terrifying possibility that few in this nation actually know how to responsibly love, and even fewer want to live under the weight of actually becoming free.”

41EiCk6nu7L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Lit by Mary Karr
This was one from my backlist that I’m so pleased to have finally made a priority. Karr’s talent as a writer and storyteller shines through in the story of her struggle for sobriety,  her journey into motherhood, and her reluctant faith.

4-Stars

41tSu0tEvNL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware. I’ve been a little “meh” with Ware’s other books, but  I’m kind of a sucker for creepy nanny stories. Also smart houses, which are objectively always creepy. This definitely has some (I assume intentional) Turn of the Screw vibes.

 

 

51DXf7zXlVL._AC_UL640_QL65_ML3_

No Happy Endings by Nora McInerny
I actually saw part of Nora McInerny’s TED talk about a week before picking up this book. I didn’t even realize it was the same person until I recognized some of the details of her story. In the TED talk she spoke about how foolish it is to expect people to “move on” from grief. McInerny lost her father, her husband, and a pregnancy all within a few weeks of each other. Her memoir is by turns funny, sarcastic, achingly raw, and above all honest. It doesn’t paint her as a hero or as a martyr, just as deeply human. It is an example of the kind of vulnerability the world desperately needs.

51VZcGvvN7L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell
I read Maggie O’Farrell’s nonfiction book I Am, I Am, I Am in 2018 and have been wanting to read her fiction ever since. This is a common enough story -adult children come together at the family home for the first time in years, in this case, to deal with the sudden disappearance of their farther. O’Farrell portrays each family member with wit, warmth, and grace that draws you straight in to the story.

 

 

Unknown-1Summer of ’69 by Elin Hilderbrand
Look, Elin Hilderbrand is the queen of the summer beach read. This is her first foray into a more historical setting and I thought it was one of her best. The four Levin children navigate a summer full of personal crises, political tensions, and social unrest.

 

 

 

Unknown-2The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey
I do not read zombie books or watch zombie movies or shows. But this was great. Every day, Melanie gets strapped into her wheelchair and wheeled to school where she learns about the world from her beloved teacher Miss Justineau. And when school is over, she and the other children are strapped back into their wheelchairs and brought back to their cells with loaded guns trained on them all the while. Melanie is the brightest of the bunch, but she still can’t understand what everyone is so afraid of.

 

Unknown-3A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi
Sixteen-year-old Shirin has developed a tough exterior. As a young Muslim girl in post-9/11 America, she has come to expect people to be racist, ignorant, rude, and even dangerous. She copes by distancing herself from others and working on her breakdancing. When she meets Ocean James, she has no interest in letting down her guard. It turns out the only thing more terrifying than people who are intentionally cruel is someone who genuinely wants to know her.

 

 

41yZvlGPZOL._SY346_The Most Fun We Ever Had by Clarie Lombardo
These kinds of books are my jam. A multi-generational family saga about the Sorenson family: Marilyn and David, who remain wildly in love after 40 years of marriage, and their four adult daughters, each with their own struggles and victories. From Goodreads: “As the novel moves through the tumultuous year following the arrival of Jonah Bendt—given up by one of the daughters in a closed adoption fifteen years before—we are shown the rich and varied tapestry of the Sorensons’ past: years marred by adolescence, infidelity, and resentment, but also the transcendent moments of joy that make everything else worthwhile.”

51v37qUjgrL._SY346_Truly, Devious by Maureen Johnson
Other than the Charlotte Holmes series, I don’t think I’ve ever read a specifically YA mystery. Ellingham Academy is a boarding school for the brightest and the best. Each student has their own special niche. Stevie Bell’s passion is solving crimes, specifically the unsolved historical kidnapping of founder Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter by someone who called himself ‘Devious.’. As Stevie investigates the mystery, Truly Devious returns and claims a new victim. This is the first in a series, so more to check out in the future.

 

41QxLdr5bOL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell
This was so creepy and I was really into it. On her 25th birthday, Libby Jones inherits a house from the birth parents she never knew. The house has been abandoned for twenty-five years, ever since the day police arrived to investigate reports of a crying and found ten-month-old Libby alone in her room while down in the kitchen were three dead bodies. The four teenagers who lived in the house were never found. Libby is determined to find out about her past and what really happened in the house.

 

3-Stars

Unknown-4The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. This book felt weighty and important more than it was enjoyable. It tells a multi-generational story of a family in India. It is part family tragedy, part love story, part examination of intricate family relationships, and part indictment of society, particularly of the caste system. I found the storyline a bit difficult to follow because of the jumps back and forth in the timeline. Without spoiling anything I will say that I understood the symbolic significance of the ending, but I still didn’t like it.

 

 

71bkQswznpL._AC_UY436_QL65_ML3_A Window Opens by Elizabeth Egan. Alice Pearse is just your average woman trying to have it all-a husband, kids, friends, and a meaningful career, in this modern world. This was delightful in it’s relatability, but precisely for that reason it will probably not age well. An especially fun read if you like books about people who love books.

 

 

 

 

Unknown-5Pretty Baby by Mary Kubica. Pretty standard psychological/domestic thriller.

 

 

 

 

 

40645634._SX318_Notes From a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi. I don’t watch Top Chef so I wasn’t familiar with Onwuachi before reading this, but I’m all about chef memoirs. My main criticisms are just that, as it says on the cover, he is a young chef. He doesn’t have a ton of experience in the kitchen or the restaurant industry and he comes off as arrogant at times in the book given how little experience and training he actually has.

 

 

2 Stars

Unknown-6Treasuring Christ When Your Hands are Full by Gloria Furman. I am sure this book would mean a lot to some people, it just wasn’t for me.
Pros: This book is not a self-help book. It is chock-full of Scripture and theological truths and every page is pointing to the message of the gospel.
Cons: I could not relate to the author at all and it was a dry read.
I knew this book was not for me when the author told a story from her own life where her washing machine broke and she let out a cry of frustration (not a curse, mind you, just a frustrated noise) that brought her children running. And she immediately repented of her sin in being short-tempered and thanked God for the opportunity to model repentance in front of her children thereby pointing them to eternity.

Look, Gloria, you and I, we’re not the same thing. Being convicted for losing your temper? Sure. But then you took it a step too far. I’m not saying she’s wrong in her feelings and thoughts at all. I’m saying I found her to be extremely difficult to relate to.
Mainly, I just didn’t feel like this lived up to the title. It’s not a bad book. I think it might mean a lot to holier women than I. It just wasn’t for me.

***

Have you read any of these? Do tell! I love talking about books almost as much as I love reading them. Also, don’t forget that you can follow me on Goodreads!