Due Date: A Birth Story and a 100 Days Celebration

Well, today didn’t go as planned. 

Back in July, when I circled today’s date on the calendar with colored ink and drew a little heart beside it, I remember being pleased by the symmetry – our family would stretch to four with one birthday in each season. And if you came on your due date, you and your sister would both have birthdays on the 24th of your respective months. 

After an incredibly difficult move back from Hong Kong, you were a bright ray of hope that I clung to. Your daddy and I marveled at the ways this timing seemed ideal. I found out I was pregnant with you two weeks after we bought our first house and two days after I started a new job that was a perfect fit for me. A birthday in late March meant your dad would have a week of Spring Break soon after your birth, and that he’d be getting off work for the summer just as I’d be returning to work from maternity leave. You and your sister would be exactly 2 years and 5 months apart. 

Of course, I knew you might come a bit sooner or later. These things are never that precise. But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that today we’d be celebrating 100 days of you. 

In Hong Kong, where your sister was born, there is a special celebration for a baby’s 100th day of life. The 100th day celebration has its roots in a time when a baby’s first few months were a very vulnerable period. Reaching 100 days was a milestone that marked the baby’s true entrance into the world and society and included a party or feast to introduce the new life to the community. It seems appropriate to introduce you here for the first time on your 100th day.

You are Lucy Emmanuelle Dunn. Lucy. “Light.” Emmanuelle. “God is with us.” You were born on December 14, 2021 at 25 weeks and 5 days. You weighed 1 lb. 10 oz. and they told us you had a 70% chance of survival. Your odds were better than average, but far from the 99.5% rate of a full-term baby.


After a completely normal pregnancy, I started bleeding with no warning and no pain on Monday, December 6th. I went to the hospital and was diagnosed with cervical ectropion – a condition where cervical tissue grows outside of the cervix. The hospitalist told me this tissue can be very delicate and can be aggravated by stress or activity. He said my cervix was closed and there was no indication that the bleeding was coming from the uterus. Since I had just come off a weekend running a big event, he assumed I had been on my feet too much and just needed to rest. I went home and rested. The next day I went to my doctor for a regular check up. The bleeding had slowed down and everything seemed normal. I went home and rested for the rest of the day, believing everything was fine.

That evening I began to feel some very mild tightening and loosening in my abdomen. I thought it was Braxton-Hicks. By the time I woke up at 6 AM the next morning (December 8th) I knew I was having contractions, and I was slowly leaking fluid. Although part of me was panicking, another part of me was sure that I would go to the hospital, and they would stop the labor. I thought the worse-case scenario was that I would be sent home and put on bed rest. 

By the time I arrived at the hospital, the contractions had calmed down, but it was clear that my membranes had ruptured. With ruptured membranes, I would have to stay in the hospital on bedrest until you were born. Statistically, they told us, it was likely you would come within a week, but the goal was to keep you in until you reached 34 weeks. At just 24 weeks and 6 days, that seemed a lifetime away. When they told us that your sister Junie would not be allowed into the hospital to visit, your Daddy and I held each other and sobbed. It was one of the worst moments of my entire life. I knew that to keep you safe, I needed to stay in the hospital as long as possible, but I also knew that I was leaving my other baby suddenly and without warning and possibly for months.

Baby, I did everything I could to keep you safe inside. For 6 days I laid in bed on total bedrest with my legs in pressurized cuffs that tightened and loosened constantly to keep the blood circulating while I was immobile. I had infusions of magnesium sulfate that made me feel like I had the flu and steroid shots to help your lungs develop. I went on course after course of antibiotics to stave off infection. I had what felt like every vein in my hands, wrists, and arms, pierced for blood-draws every few hours to check my hematocrit levels as I bled and bled. (It wasn’t until later that I understood how close I’d come to needing a transfusion). I sacrificed all semblance of dignity and used a bedpan, struggling to haul my pregnant body on and off of it a dozen times a day. 

Every morning I woke up and my first thought was, “Thank you God that I’m still here.” Followed quickly by tears and the thought, “Oh God, I’m still here,” while I ached for my baby at home.

When I woke up in the wee hours of December 14th wracked with contractions and sitting in a pool of blood, there was nothing left to do. Lisa, a deacon at our church, had visited me a few days before. Knowing how torn I was between my desire to keep you safe and my desire to be home with Junie, she had prayed that God would keep you in the womb until it was safe for you to come out. Now you were on your way, and I had to trust that it was safe for you to come out. 

I called your Daddy and he came to the hospital. They gave me pitocin to help you arrive as quickly as possible so you wouldn’t endure too much stress. Unlike with your sister, I was offered an epidural which I gladly accepted. A nurse named Kristin held me against her chest with so much tenderness I could have wept while the doctor placed that needle into my spine. I laid back in the bed, reached for your Daddy’s hand, and we waited. 

My delivery nurse, Miranda, said, “This baby is very small. If you feel any pressure at all, you need to call me.” About 30 minutes later I felt the slightest twinge of pressure. It was so minimal that I felt silly mentioning it, but I hit the call button anyway. Two nurses came in and checked me. “Baby is right there. Cross your legs, girl,” the nurse said while Miranda frantically called the doctor. “You need to hurry,” I heard her say into the phone. The NICU team came in and prepared for your arrival. I’d been in active labor for an hour and half.

The doctor arrived out of breath. She had sprinted from the elevator. She pulled on gloves and moved me into position. “On your next contraction, I want you to push,” she said. I remembered pushing from when I delivered your sister. I knew what to do. I had barely started my first push when she said, “Baby is born.” I saw you for just a moment, raw and red and mercifully wriggling as they whisked you straight to the NICU team. “Baby girl!” I heard them call from across the room. “She’s breathing.” 

I couldn’t see what was happening to you, but your Daddy’s gaze flitted back and forth across the room. There was a slight complication. As the doctor delivered the placenta, it tore apart. She had to manually reach in and dig out all of the pieces, an experience that was very painful in spite of the epidural. 

Finally it was over and the NICU team had successfully intubated you. They wheeled you over in your isolette so that we could see you before they took you away. “How much does she weigh?” I asked. When they told me 1 lb 10 oz I choked back a sob. You were smaller than any baby I had personally known. You barely looked human.

For the last 100 days you have grown outside of my body. Through the incredible care of the NICU doctors and nurses and by the overwhelming grace of God, you have survived and you have thrived. I do not take this for granted. 

Just a few days ago I was devastated to learn that another baby in the unit who had been born at 22 weeks, but had survived for 4 months, had passed away. This could so easily have been you, Love. I will never know why my baby lived when this other mother’s did not. I only know how to say, “Thank you.” 

Every day for the last 100 days your dad and I have been at the hospital with you to hold you and read to you and sing to you and watch you grow. Your dad has been working full-time, and I have graciously been given an extended leave during this time. I’m so thankful because going to the hospital, caring for your sister, and pumping milk for you every 3-4 hours since you were born has proven to be more than a full-time job.

In the beginning, you were slow to gain weight. After 6 weeks, you were only 2 ½ lbs. You went on and off the ventilator a few times. And then you developed an abscess on the back of your hand that turned out to be MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant strain of staph infection. There were moments when we worried about your kidney function. It took you ages to completely wean off oxygen.

But today you are 100 days old. You weigh 6 lbs 10 oz. You have no long-term medical issues that we are aware of. You are working on bottle and breastfeeding. Right now you are able to take about 40% of your feedings this way. Once you reach 100% for 48 hours, you can come home. 

Lucy, you have been absolutely drowned in prayers and love from our families, our friends, our church, and even from people who extend far beyond our immediate circle. We’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of so many people who have helped to take care of Junie while we came to be with you. Who provided meals for us and donated to help cover your medical expenses. Who cleaned our house and raked our yard.

All life is precious and all babies are special. But you? You are a marvel. You are an answer to the prayers of so many people. The reality is that you should not be alive. If you’d been born 100 years ago, you would not be alive. If you’d been born in another part of the world, you might not be alive. But here you are. In all of your wriggling, grunting, copper-headed glory. 

Here you are, and the whole world lies before you.

Welcome, Darling. Welcome.

Repatriation: Three Months Back in the US

We left Hong Kong on Easter Sunday. I cried when we left the apartment. I sobbed when we left Beverly, our helper who lived with us and took amazing care of our daughter. My dear friend, Sherna, helped us get to the airport, and I cried when we left her. And then we got on a plane, and we flew for a day or so. And then we were in Louisiana. My parents picked us up from the airport. We all cried some more.

Beloved Auntie and Juniper Evangeline

The first thing I noticed upon re-entry into the US was how huge Americans are. Overweight, yes, (and I am myself in that category, so I’m not saying that from some high horse) but also just tall and broad and loud, taking up space in a jarringly different way than most of the people I’d been surrounded by for the past three years. The second thing I noticed was that my 17-month-old could wear a mask more correctly than half the people around me. And then, frivolously perhaps, I noticed the huge difference and fashion and style. Hong Kong is a people-watcher’s paradise where the majority of people dress intentionally. Sure, there are the people dressed to the nines in perfectly tailored clothes, but even people who appear to be casually dressed have a carefully crafted aesthetic. Don’t be surprised if those sagging jeans and holey shirt cost more than your monthly salary. American style is sorely lacking. 🤣

We spent three weeks with my parents, adjusting to the time difference and making up for some of the time we’d been apart. Juniper was an absolute champ and was totally acclimated to the 13-hour time change within 4 days. She has adjusted to each phase of the past few months with such tenacity, we’ve been completely blown away. She also adjusted brilliantly to new surroundings and new people.

After we bless our meal, Juniper always puts both hands in the air and says, “Amen!”
Juniper and my beautiful Mama/Junie’s Nana.

I adjusted slightly less brilliantly. Those first three weeks I was so incredibly happy to see my parents and my youngest sister who still lives in my hometown. Seeing them fall in love with Junie and watching her begin to develop relationships with them was an absolute dream. But apart from that I was deeply, profoundly miserable. I fell into the most severe depression I think I have ever experienced. I cried so hard and so often you would have thought I’d a loved one. And in some ways I had. I’d lost my home. I took the highest dose of anti-depressants I was allowed to. I slept as much as I possibly could.

The grief weighed on me so heavily that I could not imagine ever being happy again. At least not in the US. Coming back to the Deep South was an especially intense culture shock. All I could think was that aside from my family and a few close friends, this was not where I wanted to be, and these were not the people or the values or the culture I wanted to raise my child around. I often cried until I was physically sick, and I could not be comforted.

During these weeks Jonathan interviewed for approximately 1 million teaching jobs in Columbia, South Carolina and Charlotte, North Carolina. We lived in Columbia during Jonathan’s Master’s program before moving to Hong Kong and still have strong ties there. We also have close friends in Charlotte, NC, about 1 1/2 hours away from Columbia, who we’d like to be close to. We had decided before leaving Hong Kong to settle in one of these two cities and to focus on Jonathan’s job search first. This process was incredibly draining and I am so proud of Jonathan for all of the tenacity and grit he showed through it all.

At the beginning of May we drove to Ohio, stopping for a couple of days in Columbia, South Carolina, where we saw a few friends and Jonathan did an in-person interview. Those few days were the first time I started to envision a life for us in the US that wasn’t all doom and gloom. We stayed with friends and imagined what it might look like to have a little house in a quiet neighborhood and to return to the church we’d been a part of before going to Hong Kong.

Junie and my sweet friend, Rachel, who (along with her husband Chris) let us stay at her house with only a few hours notice.

We arrived in Ohio and spent a month with Jonathan’s parents. We also got to see Jonathan’s brother and sister during this visit. It was really wonderful to share Junie with them and see how much they loved her. Nevertheless, I continue to be weighed down by a heavy depression. Jonathan continued to interview for jobs. I spent my time reading, taking care of Junie, and trying to make myself useful around the house.

Junie and Grammy feeding the birds

Finally, at the end of May, Jonathan started to receive job offers. He received multiple offers, but ultimately took a job teaching 11th and 12th grade English with Richland One school district in Columbia.

We had discussed the possibility of buying a house with the money we had saved working in Hong Kong. We’ve been married for 11 years and have never owned our own home. For a long time I thought it wasn’t in the cards for us. For one thing, I couldn’t imagine being in the same place long enough to buy. For another, I couldn’t imagine saving up enough for a down payment. But as we prepared to leave Hong Kong we realized we might be able to afford a house. And then we heard about the housing market and how houses were selling like hotcakes at well over their list prices. We didn’t know if it even made sense to buy in that kind of market.

The day Jonathan received his first job offer, I got on Zillow and started looking at houses. We had not spoken to a realtor or to a lender and had only a very rough idea of what our budget would be. I found a few houses that were underwhelming. I found a few more that were great, but were too expensive. And then I found a precious little house with yellow door and a huge backyard. I showed it to Jonathan and said, “This is it. This is our house. I want this house.” And he got mad at me.

In his defense, it had been less than an hour since he’d gotten his first job offer after a grueling application and interview season all while handling the stress of living out of suitcases with a toddler, having no permanent home, and also having a severely depressed wife. He just wanted one minute to be happy and at peace about something before moving on to the next thing. “I just got a job offer an hour ago. We are not ready to buy a house. You’re going to fall in love with this house and then get your heart broken when it’s sold in the next two days.”

He was right. It was off the market within two days. I was disappointed, but I wasn’t devastated. Frankly, it was hard to feel genuine excitement about anything, and it’s hard to be devastated about something you couldn’t feel that excited about in the first place. But I was less excited about looking at houses in general by that point.

A few weeks later Jonathan had officially accepted a job offer. We were leaving his parents’ house and heading back to Louisiana to stay with my family for a few more weeks. We decided to break up the 15 hour drive by stopping in Charlotte, NC to visit some friends and then spending a few days in our new home town, Columbia. By this point we had spoken to a realtor and to a lender. We’d been pre-approved for a mortgage, but were still expecting to have a long house hunt. We’d reconciled ourselves to the idea that we might not be able to buy right away. Our plan was to look at a few listings as well as some apartments we could rent while we continued the search.

The day before we were supposed to go to Charlotte, our friends got in touch to say their kids were getting over norovirus and that we might want to delay our visit. We made a last minute decision to go to Columbia first. Our realtor said she was available to show us some listings the next day. We got in the car and drove 8.5 hours to Columbia.

While we were driving I got a notification in my email that a house I had previously viewed was back on the market. I opened the email. It was the house with the yellow door and the great yard. I started hyperventilating.

I texted the realtor to ask if we could see it, and also, why was it back on the market?! Meanwhile I told myself, “Be cool, be cool, be cool.” Our realtor (shoutout to Mary Ellen Maloney) did some digging and found out that the initial contract fell through because of the buyer’s financing, not because of anything wrong with the house.

The next morning we viewed four houses, ending with the House with the Yellow Door. It was even more wonderful than in the pictures. We put in offer in that night. We were under contract the next morning. It was a complete whirlwind in the best way. I was (and am) in complete awe of how God orchestrated our getting this house down to the last detail.

We told our friends jokingly (sort of) that we were so thankful they’d gotten sick when they did. If we’d stuck to our original timeline, the house would likely have been sold to someone else by the time we got to town. Thankfully, our friends had recovered from the virus by that point and we were able to go up to Charlotte to visit them for a few days before driving back down to Louisiana to be with my family.

Over the weeks we were back in Louisiana, I slowly started to feel more hopeful. I saw a few old friends and their children. I worked out with my mom and my sister at the Crossfit gym they own and run. I started a book podcast with my sister. I started to imagine a life in the US that could be good. I planned to start tutoring again and thought I would start looking for a part-time job.

Breakfast with my Granny and Paw Paw. Junie’s great-grandparents!

And then I got an email from one of my best friends. She was forwarding an email from the rector of the church we attended in Columbia before moving to Hong Kong. The email said the church was looking for a full-time children’s ministry director. They wanted someone with a background in education. Someone with classroom teaching experience. Someone who was theologically curious. They were having trouble finding the right candidate. I hadn’t even started my job search. I hadn’t sent in a single application. This was nowhere on my radar. I sent in my resume that day.

Last Friday I officially accepted the job of Children’s Ministry Director at Church of the Apostles. This past Tuesday, we closed on our house and moved in. We are officially homeowners and residents of Columbia, South Carolina. In the space of three months we have two full-time jobs and a have bought our first house.

Our house. With the yellow door.

These three months have probably been the most difficult of my entire life. I began this period feeling like I had lost everything. I am still grieving the loss of a city, friends, and a whole life that was unspeakably dear to me. But I am also in awe of how God has provided. I am deeply grateful. And with that gratitude has come a bright ray of hope. Great is his faithfulness.

Of Grief and Gratitude: On Leaving Hong Kong

Yesterday, I blinked back tears as I handed in my notice. The principal in her smart black blazer and Adidas sneakers stopped me and said,“No sad! You make the children here very happy. I wish you and your family to be happy. Big hugs.” Her words were spare and earnest, her kindness both a comfort and another crack in my breaking heart.

On Facetime, friends and family say, “I-can’t-wait-to-see-you,” and, “You-must-be-so-excited.” And I wonder, Must I be?

Of course I want to see them. This family, these friends—they are the entire reason we are returning to the U.S. Because we’ve found ourselves on the other side of the world with this vibrant, gorgeous, hilarious, child who has never even met most of her family. Many of our dear friends back in the US are neck-deep in the daily liturgy of keeping tiny humans alive. We always dreamed we’d do this part together with them. Because we believe that we cannot do it alone. We believe in the value of raising children in a community who will love our children like their own. And we want our daughter to know and be known by the people who have shaped us.

I believe all of these things to the core of my being. And yet…I don’t know how to explain that this does not feel like coming home so much as it feels like leaving it.

I have faith that a year from now, life will be sweet in ways I can’t even foresee right now. But believing that does not make this transition any easier.

We have done the picking up and moving thing so many times now, but each time it’s been harder. This is without a doubt the hardest one yet. I love this city. I love the mountains and the harbor and the islands and the beaches, the neon signs and the brilliant skyline. I love the dim sum and the trolley and the markets and the egg tarts. I love the women in their carefully curated, perfectly tailored outfits, each piece costing about as much as my entire wardrobe. I love the elderly people who play old Chinese pop music aloud while they hike. I love that my friends here are from all over the world, and that they constantly challenge me to think differently about politics, priorities, faith, and what deep friendship looks like.

I love all 450 sq ft of the home that we’ve built together. First as a family of two and then swelling and stretching to fit first Juniper and then our beloved auntie, Beverly. It frightens me to think of taking Juniper away from the only home she has ever known. It makes me physically sick to think of taking her away from Beverly, both for Junie’s sake and for Beverly’s. They adore each other.

Most days, sad does not feel like a big enough word for what I feel. It’s something closer to grief. It is a visceral pain in the place where my ribs join my sternum, by turns sharp and dull, like a cough drop lodged in my trachea, difficult to breath around. For more than a year now we’ve talked and prayed and talked and prayed about this decision. Even after we’d made a decision, part of me thought if I just ignored it, it wouldn’t really happen. And now it’s six weeks away.

So I move through the motions. Take pictures of items to sell online. Force myself to respond politely to a dozen messages trying to negotiate a discount on the pieces of my life. Force myself not to scream, “Don’t you understand? This is what I wore while I carried my daughter (safely inside my body) through a year of tear gas and riot gear and fire. And this? This is the mat where my baby learned to roll over, where she learned to bat at toys, her fingers splayed wide like a starfish, where she smiled at me for the first time. These moments were holy. No, you cannot have a discount on my existence.”

Today there was a moment when the grief hit me so hard it took my breath away. And then I thought, I don’t want to spend my last precious days here being miserable. And I thought of an essay by Andre Dubus that I first read eleven or twelve years ago. At the age of 49, Dubus was in an accident that resulted in the loss of one of his legs and paralysis in the other. He had stopped to assist another motorist who had been in an accident and, while pulling the survivor out of the wreckage, he was hit by a passing car. In “A Country Road Song,” Dubus writes about his memories of running, not with bitterness, but with profound gratitude.  

 “When I ran, when I walked, there was no time: there was only my body, my breath, the trees and hills and sky…I always felt grateful, but I did not know it was gratitude and so I never thanked God. Eight years ago, on a starlight night in July, a car hit me…and in September a surgeon cut off my left leg… It is now time to sing of my gratitude: for legs and hills and trees and seasons…I mourn this, and I sing in gratitude for loving this, and in gratitude for all the roads I ran on and walked on, for the hills I climbed and descended, for trees and grass and sky, and for being spared losing running and walking sooner than I did: ten years sooner, or eight seasons, or three; or one day.”

“A Country Road Song” Meditations from a Movable Chair

I remembered this passage and I thought, If I cannot stop the grief, let me sink into the gratitude as well.

And so. It’s time to mourn and to sing in gratitude for Hong Kong. For loving this place and these people. For the mountains and the beaches, for the monkeys and the pink dolphins, for the dazzling skyline, for the temples with their countless golden Buddhas, for my students, for my coworkers, for my friends, and for the family I grew here. I sing in gratitude for all of this and for being spared losing it any sooner than I am: two years sooner, or nine months, or three; or one day.

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.


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:


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


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


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


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