book review

Favorite Books I Read This Year

Happy New Year’s Eve!

I have some reflective posts in the works coming into the new year, but I thought it might be fun to finish up 2017 with a wrap-up of what I was doing in all the time I wasn’t writing – reading all the books.

In 2017 I read 124 books (though part of me is dying to spend the rest of today reading so that I can make it 125 which somehow seems more satisfying. We’ll see how it goes). Here’s a roundup of my favorite reads of the year. Favorite for me can mean a few different things – either that I really enjoyed it for it’s entertainment value, or that I thought it was an important book because of the subject matter, or that I thought the quality of the writing was exceptional, or in some cases, all three.

I did a decent amount of reading this year on audio. Not all books are good on audio, so recommending good audiobooks is somewhat separate from recommending good books in general. I can do a separate post on that at some point if any of you are interested. But for now…

Favorite Fiction

HomegoingHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This was the second book I read in 2017, which meant I set the bar for the year pretty high. The book begins in Ghana in the 18th century with two women who are half-sisters, although they do not know each other. One is captured and becomes a slave, the other is married off to a wealthy English slave trader. The book follows the two sisters’ families for the next 8 generations. This is a heartbreaking but incredibly important and well-crafted book that shows the ways that slavery and dehumanization impact generations far into the future. It’s not a happy book, but it is unforgettable. Trigger Warnings for violence and sexual assault
The Nature of the Beast, A Great Reckoning, Glass Houses  Louise Penny. These are the latest three in the (ongoing) Chief Inspector Gamache series. They just keep getting better and better. I love that these are set in Canada rather than New York or England. I love the richness of the characters and the world Penny has created. I love Armand Gamache and I want to be his best friend. That is all.
The MothersThe Mothers by Brit Bennett. In a close-knit black community in Southern California, seventeen-year-old Nadia Turner is left grieving and confused after her mother’s suicide. She finds comfort in the arms of the pastor’s twenty-one year old son, Luke. But her unplanned pregnancy, and the measures the community takes to cover it up, will haunt Nadia for the rest of her life. One of the unique and compelling features of this story is the voice of “the mothers” who are the collective community of older black women from the church who sometimes step in to tell the story from their perspective.
Behold the Dreamers
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. You will probably be seeing a theme with my books by now – I tend to be most drawn in by books about how people deal with hardships, whether those are physical, emotional, economical, relational, or all of the above. This is an all of the above. Jende Jonga moves to New York City from Cameroon in search of a better life for his wife and son. He hits the jackpot when he is hired as a driver for an important Wall Street executive. Eventually, his wife Neni also finds employment with the Edwardses. But when the financial crisis hits and the Edwards family falls apart, Jende and Neni have to decide which dreams are worth fighting for.
This is How it Always IsThis is How It Always Is by Lisa Frankel. Every time I try to describe this book to people, especially more conservative people, they tend to wrinkle their noses in distaste. What is phenomenal about this book is the raw, honest way it delves into a family whose members are all trying to do the right thing, without there being any clear answer as to what the right thing is. The polarizing issue with this book is that it deals with a family whose youngest son, Claude, begins to proclaim at a very young age that when he grows up he wants to be a girl. While the central issue in this book is how Rosie and Penn (who are one of the most real and authentic couples I have seen on paper) and their three other sons, navigate how to make decisions for a child who is not old enough to make them for themselves and what happens when we keep secrets. It is a book I will think about for years to come.
Rich People ProblemsRich People Problems by Kevin Kwan. The third book in the Crazy Rich Asians series (soon to be a movie!), this is just pure voyeuristic, indulgent fun. This one happens a few years after China Rich Girlfriend when the impending death of the matriarch brings the Youngs and all of their assorted family members back to the ancestral home.
My Lady Jane
My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows. I do not even know how to describe this book because all descriptions sound ridiculous to the point of stupidity…and yet…it is delightful. Absurd. Hilarious. Wonderful. Exceptionally good on audio. Think Princess Bride. This team of writers decided to take a classic piece of England’s history, the story of Lady Jane Gray who ruled for only 9 days during the Tudor period. Except also, half of the characters have the ability to turn into animals. Some at will, others not so much. I cannot even tell you how much fun this was and I am delighted that the authors intend to make this a series about different “Janes.” I believe the upcoming one is a retelling of Jane Eyre.
Bear TownBeartown by Fredrik Backman. Backman became a favorite author of mine this year. I had previously read A Man Called Ove and this year I read his three other major works in translation, Beartown, My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry, and  Britt-Marie Was Here. I highly recommend all of these, but thought Beartown was the standout for m this year. For being a book that revolves around the fate of a junior ice hockey team (a subject I could not care less about), I found this amazingly compelling. This was partly because the real story here is about a dying town with one thing to rally around – the hockey team – and what happens when the fate of the hockey team (and therefore the town) is put in peril by the accusations of a teenage girl of violence at the hands of the team’s star player. It is an exploration of community, of rape culture, of how we choose who and what we believe and what we are willing to ignore. It is gut-wrenching, but it is also a story of courage. Trigger Warning for sexual assault.


The Lightkeepers.jpgThe Lightkeepers by Abbi Geni. I honestly don’t understand why nobody is talking about this book. I heard about it from my dear friend and partner in all things book-related, Lorien, but she is the only person I know who has even heard of it. This is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve ever read. The writing is lyrical and haunting, but the thing that struck me most was the sense of place. Every time I picked up this book I had the sense of being transported. Miranda is a nature photographer who has come to the Farallon Islands off of the coast of California to do landscape photography. The only natural inhabitants of these stark and forbidding islands are the animals. She joins a group of biologists each of whom has come to the islands for their own purposes. The inciting incident is an assault that Miranda experiences at the hands of one of her companions. The plot thickens when her assailant’s body is found a few days later, possibly of mysterious causes. In some ways this is a mystery, but much more than a whodunit, this is a story about trust and suspicion, loss and recovery, and the power of natural beauty.
Little Fires EverywhereLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Ng has quickly become one of my favorite up and coming authors. While not everyone would agree, my love of somewhat sad domestic dramas made her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You a favorite of mine last year. I do think Little Fires Everywhere is a little less sad, if that’s a thing for you, but hits all the same great notes of exploring the multi-dimensional relationship dynamics within a family. Mia and her teenaged daughter Pearl have moved around a lot. When they move into a rental property owned by the wealthy Richardson family, Pearl becomes friends (and maybe more than friends) with their four teenage children. Meanwhile Izzy, the youngest and most misunderstood Richardson child, apprentices herself to free-spirited artist Mia. An Asian baby is found abandoned in their affluent Cleveland suburb and a prominent white family who are friends of the Richardsons attempts to adopt her, but when the birth mother comes forward and wants to take her baby back, members of the Richardson family, and Mia and Pearl, take sides. For Pearl, the adoption brings up questions about her own origins that she has never dared to ask. For others, it is questions of heritage and culture – what part of her cultural identity will an Asian child lose by being raised by white parents? This book manages to be incredibly accessible, fast-paced and engaging while dealing with a slew of complicated issues.

Favorite Non-Fiction

Braving the WildernessBraving the Wilderness by Brene’ Brown. Brene’ Brown has a profound way of hitting the nail right on the head. This book is very similar in tone to her last two books, Daring Greatly, and Rising Strong. To be completely honest, the amount of brand new content in this book was not enough to really justify an entire stand-alone book, but everything in it is so good that I still count it as a favorite of the year. The part that hit me hardest (in a good way) was when she wrote about not dehumanizing people we don’t agree with and how this has to work both ways. “Here is what I believe: 1. If you are offended or hurt when you hear Hillary Clinton or Maxine Waters calledbitch, whore, or the c-word, you should be equally offended and hurt when you hear those same words used to describe Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway, or Theresa May. 2. If you felt belittled when Hillary Clinton called Trump supporters “
‘a basket of deplorables’ then you should have felt equally concerned when Eric Trump said ‘Democrats aren’t even human.’…We must never tolerate dehumanizations–the primary instrument of violence that has been used in every genocide recorded throughout history.”
51piNDg89UL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Little Princes: One Man’s Promis to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal  by Conor Grennan. Connor Grennan was a regular Joe hoping to see the world and have fun doing it. As a way to seem like less of a selfish jerk to the people back home he decided to start his trip around the world by volunteering for a few months in Nepal, because who can argue with that? In the end, the children of Nepal captured his heart and upset his entire life. You may have qualms about whether or not Grennan went about his work in the best way. You can argue that he should have worked with existing NGO’s instead of creating yet another. You could argue that there’s a bit of a “white man coming in to save the poor Nepali” to this story. I don’t care. It’s still a story about a young man who allowed himself to be moved by the needs of others to the extent that it changed his entire life. May we all be so bold in pursuing with passion the causes that are most dear to our hearts.
EvictedEvicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. This book was an absolutely eye-opening (and somewhat horrifying) look at the way the housing and social service system is designed so that landlords in impoverished communities directly and intentionally profit from the misfortunes of others without every giving them a fair chance to improve their situation. There are people living in my own neighborhood who I believe are in these kinds of situations and understanding everything they are up against was both enlightening and disheartening. This is such an important book, especially for people who believe that homelessness is always the product of an individual’s bad choices.
A Mother's ReckoningA Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold. I am not sure what it was that sparked a sudden interest in Columbine, but I first read Dave Cullen’s more journalistic account of exactly what happened in the Columbine shootings (which was also very interesting, especially seeing the way the media handled the situation and the blatant misinformation that has remained attached to the incident to this day) which led to this account written by shooter Dylan Klebold’s mother. This is heart-wrenching in many ways, but more than anything, it reads like a cry to other parents to recognize signs of adolescent depression which can be much different than depression in adults. At the end of the day Sue Klebold was left in one of the hardest positions of all. She lost her baby to suicide never having known the depth of pain he was in, but she also had to live with the knowledge that he had killed other children too. While she does not excuse this in any way, I think this account is truly valuable because, unlike Eric Harris, the other shooter and arguably the mastermind behind the shootings, Dylan Klebold was not a psychopath. While it is scarier to accept that “regular” people can come to such a point of pain and confusion that they could do something so horrific, it is important to understand. It is also important to remember that the loss of a life is a tragedy, no matter what the person’s sins were.
The Sound of GravelThe Sound of Gravel  by Ruth Wariner. This was my favorite nonfiction book of 2017. I admit that I have a fascination with polygamist cults. This book was riveting, not only because the situation is so bizarre and fascinating, but because the writing is exceptional. Ruth Wariner was born Ruth LeBaron, the 39th of her father’s 42 children from seven wives. This is the story of Ruth and her family trying to survive after the murder of her father, about Ruth’s growing into adulthood and awareness of all that is not right with her world and the values she has been taught to hold onto, and her eventual dramatic escape from the cult. It is mesmerizing, and heartbreaking, and hopeful. One of the most amazing things is how tenderly she writes about her mother and other adults in her life who were primarily responsible for her growing up in such an unhealthy environment. While she does not excuse their actions, she writes with an empathy that can only come from genuine forgiveness which is why I think her book is so powerful.
Hillbilly ElegyHillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance. This book has received a lot of hype after making the New York Times bestseller list, partly because of its timeliness in our current political landscape. Though this is not a book about politics. It is a book about the salt of the earth people of rural Kentucky and Ohio. Vance grew up as one of these people and later went on to join the Marines and graduate from Yale Law School. Returning to his childhood and the people and culture that raised him, he tenderly unpacks the beliefs and motivations of a people who believed themselves to be overlooked and unable to attain the American dream and how these feelings and ideas have played into some of the social and politcal opinions held by the vast majority of people in these communities. It is insightful and compassionate and worth the read.
You'll Grow Out of ItYou’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein. This book surprised me. With the exceptioin of the essay on porn (not my jam) I found this collection of essays, which I anticipated being mostly comic in nature, to be insightful and perceptive and to speak to the many facets of what it means to be a woman in the world today. It is fun and funny, but also full of moments that I could resonate with and it left me with a lot to think about.
Cork DorkCork Dork Bianca Bosker. This was my most recent nonfiction read and while I will admit that it took me while to work through, I still found it fascinating. If you watched and enjoyed the Netflix documentary, Somm then this is for you. Booker quit her job as a technology writer in order to delve into the world of sommeliers–the wine elitists who spend not only their careers, but nearly all of their waking hours studying, smelling, tasting, and breathing wine. She delves into their inner world until she actually joins in when she decides to dedicate herself to the task of passing the exam to become a certified sommelier.
So there you have it. Have you read any of these? What did you think? What were your favorite reads this year?

What I’m Into: July 2016 Edition

In July, I jumped full-swing into my new job, planned and cooked what felt like 1,000 meals that are Whole30 compliant (today is day 28!!!!), and drove all over the Carolinas trying to visit friends before summer ends. I’m linking up with Leigh Kramer to share this post.

What I’m Reading:

When my stress level is high (and when I have long solo drives and access to audiobooks) I escape into reading, and this month I read 12 books. I’ll mention all of the titles, but won’t go into much detail or this will get crazy-long.

All of Us and Everything by Bridget Asher. Quirky family drama about the eccentric Rockwell women. Funny and heartwarming. 3.75 Stars

Who Do You Love? By Jennifer Weiner. I like some of Jennifer Weiner’s books, but this one was a bit of a slog to me. Rachel Blum and Andy Landis meet when they are eight years old. Then they spend the next 30 years falling in and out of each other’s lives. 2 Stars.

No One Knows by J.T. Ellison. This thriller starts on the day that Aubrey Hamilton’s husband is declared dead, five years after he disappeared. But things may not be what they seem. Fast-paced summer read. 3 Stars

Furiously Happy: a Funny Book about Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson. Jenny Lawson writes comic essays about serious things. In this book, she tackles elements of life with mental illness. Her sense of humor is irreverent and isn’t for everyone, but some of the serious moments were really poignant. 3 Stars.

All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda. Another summer thriller about two girls who disappear from the same small town 10 years apart. The story is told backwards over a 15 day period. At first I thought this was gimmicky, but in the end I liked it. 3.5 Stars.

Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi. Lakshmi writes (very well) about her life in India, as an immigrant in America, as a model in Europe, as the wife of Salman Rushdie, and as a judge on Top Chef. In each part of her life, food plays an important role. I actually loved this, especially for Lakshmi’s honesty, even when it portrayed her unflatteringly. The food writing was great and her experiences were fascinating. 4 Stars.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. Sweet story about a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl living in Seattle, Washington just as America enters WWII. Henry’s father hates the Japanese and forbids Henry to have anything to do with them, but Henry forms a strong bond with Keiko, the only other non-white person at his school. When she and her family are rounded up and moved to an internment camp, Henry vows to bring her home. 4.5 Stars.

Year of Yes: How to Dance it Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes. Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder, writes about the year she challenged herself to say yes to all the things that scared her and embrace the opportunities that came her way. She writes just like Olivia Pope and Annaleise Keating speak, so that’s fun, especially on audio. 3.5 Stars.

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood. This was great. 104-year-old Ona Vitkus is alone in the world until an 11-year-old boy scout is sent to help her out. Ona tells him about her life and he shares his encyclopedic knowledge of world records. One day, the boy stops showing up. In his place is his father, Quinn, there to fulfill his son’s obligation. Together, Ona and Quinn teach each other above love and regret. 5 Stars.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. Twenty-two year old Tess moves to New York City and becomes a waiter at a prestigious restaurant. She is exposed to the intoxicating world of the restaurant business as well as some of its darker character. So much cocaine. So many dysfunctional relationships. I wasn’t connected to the character but there was great atmosphere in the restaurant and food writing parts. 3 Stars.

Rising Strong by Brene’ Brown. The follow-up to Daring Greatly, this book explores the process of how we get up again once we’ve fallen on our faces and why vulnerability is still the way forward. Not necessarily a fun book, but an important one. 4 Stars.

Before We Visit the Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. I loved this multi-generational story of three Indian women (and the other people whose lives intersect with theirs) whose stories of running from the mothers who can’t understand them, reveals how little we often know about what’s really going on in the lives of others. 4 Stars.

Currently Reading: Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal and A Fatal Grace (Chief Inspector Gamache #2) by Louise Penny. Follow me on Goodreads for more of what I’m reading.

What I’m Watching:

I binge-watched Season 2 of Jane the Virgin when it hit Netflix. I love this show so much. But I have no idea if I’m team Michael or team Rafael. It changes constantly.

What I’m Eating:

Jonathan and I are on day 28 of Whole30 which is no grains, no dairy, no sugars, no soy, no artificial flavors, additives, or preservatives. The good part of this is detoxing from 3 weeks of pasta and pizza and gelato (and many previous months of not eating as well as we could). The hard part is that it takes a lot of work and planning to eat three Whole30 compliant meals every day and it has more or less killed our social life because it is very hard to eat out or eat at a friend’s house. You have to read the label on everything you eat and it matters what oils things are cooked in, etc. We are beyond ready to be done. At this point I would say I will continue to eat this way more or less when cooking at home, but I don’t think I’ll ever do Whole30 again. It’s like living life in black and white.

I did find some really delicious new recipes though. My favorite has been this pan-seared mahi-mahi over coconut cauliflower rice with fresh mango salsa. Recipe here. Follow me on Pinterest for more of what I’m eating.


What I’ve Been Up To:

Right after returning from our trip, I took the 4th of July weekend to fly down to Louisiana and visit my family, specifically my sister Anni who was about to leave to study abroad in Australia for the semester.


We spent a significant amount of our time reading in her bed. Seesters.

The next weekend, Jonathan and I drove to Raleigh to visit my best friend from college, Christina, and her husband Andy who recently bought their first house. We also got to see our friends Nathaniel and Jerusha while we were there. We stayed with Andy and Christina overnight on Friday and while we were there, our mutual friend Asharae (who lived with Christina and me during college) went into labor in Charlotte. Asharae and her husband Tim had chosen not to find out their baby’s gender before the birth, so Christina and I were eagerly awaiting the news. The minute we heard they’d had a healthy baby boy, we raced out to buy tiny baby boy clothes for him.


The next day, Jonathan and I were able to go to Charlotte to visit Asharae and Tim in the hospital and to meet tiny Beckett Elijah. My heart is so full for these sweet friends.


Sweet Little Family


Ecstatic Auntie and Uncle!

The following weekend I got to help throw a baby shower for Kelly, another dear friend of mine here in Columbia expecting a son in September. I Pinterest-ed a recipe for cake pops which turned out mostly well except that the candy melts I used for the coating kept turning out too thick, so the coating wouldn’t go on smoothly.


How cute is Kelly?! And also that alligator towel.

I also got to spend an afternoon at the zoo with my friend Kristen and her boy, Callum. My favorite part was the gorillas who, like me, were totally over it.


I took a solo overnight trip to Wilmington, NC where I got to see one of my best friends from home in Louisiana who lives in a charming house there with her handsome firefighter husband, their massive dog Grizz, and their new Dalmatian puppy, Koda. She is one of those friends that I can reconnect with immediately, even if it’s been months since we’ve talked. We tried to go to the beach, but it was too crowded, so instead we bopped around town and looked for secondhand bargains.


Last week, Jonathan’s parents came to visit for a few days. It’s been near 100 degrees here every day all summer, so we are limited on how much activity we can do, but we enjoyed playing board games and talking.

This past weekend while Jonathan was working at the baseball park I took another short solo trip up to Stanfield, NC, the town outside of Charlotte where Asharae, Tim, and baby Beckett live.



Beckett has epic hair.

My new job involves me finding host families for our international students, arranging their transportation and move-in, organizing a week-long orientation, and teaching ESL class once school begins on August 18th. Since my students start arriving this weekend, I know the month of August will be a crazy one, which is why I’ve made it a priority to see my friends over the past few weeks, even if it means traveling every weekend.

I’m still working on telling all of our travel adventures. Parts 1 and 2 are up already, but look for Part 3 about our time in Rome in the next few days!

What have you been into?




What I’m Into: January 2016 Edition

For some reason January always feels like a long month to me. Maybe it’s because the time leading up to Christmas seems to go so quickly that when we get back to regular life it feels slower and more drawn out. I’m linking up with Leigh Kramer to share what I’ve been into these past 31 days.

What I’m Reading:

The Thousand Dollar Tan Line (Veronica Mars #1) by Rob Thomas. I actually read this entirely in December and finished it New Year’s Eve, but I’d already finished last month’s post at that point so I’m including it here. This was written by the creator of the Veronica Mars TV show and picks up right where the VM movie leaves off. If you are a fan of the show and the movie you will like this book. It’s very fun. 

A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg. This is a unique blend of memoir and food writing by the author of acclaimed food blog, Orangette. The book moves through significant moments in the author’s life as they connect with specific recipes, and each chapter ends with a recipe. It’s a fun, easy read that will make you want to cook.

Glitter and Glue, by Kelly Corrigan. I really enjoyed this one. I read Corrigan’s first memoir The Middle Place, last year and found it moving and funny and poignant. In this memoir Corrigan writes about her experience working as a nanny in Australia as a young 20-something. As she cares for two children who have lost their mother she finds herself emulating her own mother, someone she never got along with or appreciated much. I could especially relate because of my own years spent working as a nanny.

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. I have no idea how to write about this book. The first thing I’ll say is that it’s marketed as a YA book and it is about teenagers and coming of age, but I would never give this book to my teenager. It is….intense. The best part of this book is probably the language which is vibrant and heavily imagistic. I love what this book had to say about art, why we create it and what makes it necessary. Noah and Jude are twins (Jude’s a girl, btw) who have always shared a special connection until some time in their 14th year, something breaks them apart. The story is told in alternating sections from Noah’s and Jude’s perspectives. Noah’s part of the story is told in the past, while Jude’s portions are told three years later. You get bits and flashes of what happened between them from each side until it all comes together in the end. Noah is strange and isolated, drawing constantly, misunderstood by his peers and desperately in love with the boy next door. Jude is rebellious and fiery, ready to crash and burn if that’s what it takes. Something tears them apart in a way that changes them completely, but they each only have half the story.

Delicious! by Ruth Reichl. I really wanted to love this novel. It had so many things going for it – it’s by a famous food writer and it’s about a girl who works for a food magazine and hides a tragic secret in her past. There’s tons of cooking involved which I loved. And there’s a historical mystery involving long lost letters written during WWII. Like I said, it had fantastic elements, but I just never felt connected with the main character. She felt emotionally distant and I never really attached to her, even when she told her whole sad back story. I also sort of felt like the book was trying to do too many things – there was the historical aspect and the cooking element and a romance and the personal family drama and what felt like an excessive number of minor characters. It’s not a bad book, it just didn’t quite pull everything together for me.

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer. This is the second book in the Lunar Chronicles, a YA series that takes classic fairy tales and incorporates them into a futuristic story about a world where Earth is being ravaged by an incurable plague and the emperor is locked in a power struggle with Luna, the colony on the moon now populated by a race with special mind control powers. The first book had a Cinderella-type plot, except the Cinderella character was a cyborg. This book picks up where the first one left off, but incorporates a Red Riding Hood character complete with a wolf. I love re-imagined fairy tales, but I’m not usually into super futuristic settings. These books have charmed me anyway.

I’m also about halfway finished with Sarah Bessey’s Out of Sorts so that will be on next month’s review. Follow me on Goodreads for up-to-the-moment updates.

What I’m Watching:

This month I watched all of the Netflix original series Marvel’s Jessica Jones. I really liked it, but it is pretty dark for a superhero show. And more graphic than I expected it to be. So fair warning. I’m also nearing the end of the third season of Revenge on Netflix. I need to figure out a way to watch Downton Abbey before someone spoils it for me. Jonathan I have been watching Brooklyn Nine Nine and New Girl as they air, but we’ve also just discovered a love for The Grinder starring Rob Lowe and Fred Savage.

Jonathan went to see a few movies in theaters this month, but I opted out, both because these particular movies didn’t appeal to me all that much and also because I needed to take a little break from movie theaters which were triggering panic attacks. We did watch two movies at home, The Walk, which is about the man who tight-rope walked between the twin towers of the World Trade Center with no safety harness (he was loco) and The Scorch Trials, the second Maze Runner movie. The Walk was interesting if somewhat horrifying and Joseph Gordon Levitt is brilliant and does an impressive French accent, but Scorch Trials was underwhelming. For whatever reason I just can’t get into the Maze Runner trilogy the way I did with The Hunger Games or Divergent.

What I’m Eating:

In an effort to eat healthier, but not be completely bored by baked chicken and vegetables at every meal, I’ve been trying out some new recipes. (Follow me on Pinterest for more of what I’m eating). Here are a few of my favorites so far:

Moroccan Beef Stew (hint: only use 1 lemon!)

Spicy Italian Sausage and Sweet Potato Soup

Spicy Sausage Sweet Potato Soup 5 - Website

What I’m Writing:

My biggest writing news was a piece I had published by Marie Claire at the beginning of this month. I didn’t mention it here because unfortunately, they took the liberty of adding a title and deck to my article that completely misrepresent what I said and what it’s about. They did leave the body of the article intact though, so if you read it, just keep in mind that I didn’t write the title and deck.

On the blog this month I wrote about my One Word for 2016 and about my wicked case of FOBO (Fear of Being Ordinary). I wrote about mindfulness twice with my attempts to watch TV mindfully and to practice mindful eating. I wrote a guest post for my friend Kelsey’s blog about how I see makeup as a form of self-care. I started a new series I plan to continue sporadically showing you what’s on my bookshelf. And I shared what’s on my “To Don’t” list.

I’ve written a few more interior design pieces for Modernize too if you want to check them out:

A Beginner’s Guide to Accent Walls

4 Upsides to Downsizing

All Decked Out: 10 Ways to Take Your Deck from Plain to Polished

The Non-Artist’s Guide to Mixed Media Gallery Walls

2016 Kids’ Bedroom Trends

On the Internets:

I found so many great things on the internet over the past few months. Starting with this video of Adele doing Carpool Karaoke with James Corden. The whole video is great if you have time to watch it (I think Adele’s accent is so great because she looks like she’s so posh, but her accent betrays her. I love it.) At least watch for James Corden’s impressive harmonizing skills.

This article (with photos) about “What if Guys did Boudoir Photo Shoots?” cracked me up. And grossed me out a little.

This more serious article my sister sent me about Donald Trump and the Christian Obsession with Masculinity is fascinating. And disturbing.

And this really challenging piece from Ann Voskamp on How to Make Time & Space for the Life You Really Want.

And just to leave you on a light note, this music video Kristen Bell and Dax Shephard made of themselves is pretty great. Because they are the cutest couple living.


What I’ve Been Up To:

We did precisely nothing for New Year’s Eve (I was in bed at 10 I believe), but on New Year’s Day we went to our friends Lorien and Will’s house where we participated in the annual New Year’s Day 10-course Asian feast. We even had kimchi. It was like being home.

We spent our last weekend of vacation exploring downtown Greenville, a cute town about 1 1/2 hours drive from where we live.

The next week I started back at work tutoring and subbing while Jonathan enjoyed his last week of winter vacation. That weekend we had a blast hosting two sets of our closest friends who both live in the Charlotte area. We ate tons of food and took walks and played a million board games and rubbed Asharae’s baby bump in utter amazement at how she is growing a person while we all sit around doing nothing. It was excellent. They are our people and we love them! (But we didn’t take any pictures together. Fail).

I hit a bit of a slump mid-month and went through about a week where I just felt so down and so incredibly tired all the time that I did almost nothing except show up for my tutoring appointments and sleep. It feels like a lost week because the whole thing was kind of a fog. It sucked. But I’m feeling better now.

We finished our month with a quick trip to Raleigh to see friends and reminisce about when we used to live there. On Friday we stayed with our friends Jerusha and Nathaniel and their 5-month old daughter Edith who is a complete doll. On Saturday we met up with our friends Justin and Mary and their 3-month-old daughter Evelyn who has an awesome head of hair and is working hard on keeping her head up. And on Saturday night we stayed with my best friend and college roommate, Christina, and her new husband Andy who have been married for 4 whole months already!

We also had the chance to visit some of our old haunts like the lake where I did so much of my running when I was training for marathons and half marathons. Raleigh holds a special place in our hearts and it was great to visit again. Who knows, maybe we’ll end up living there again someday!


I’ve run many a mile around this lake.

Ooh, also, I’ve gotten super into my planner. Like I take out scrapbooking materials and decorate it every week. Like a dork. It’s excellent. Right up there with adult coloring books.



What have you been into and up to this month?


Advent Reflections from the Valley of the Shadow of Death

This Sunday marks the first Sunday of Advent, the season of anticipation that leads up to Christmas. Last year, I wrote a post about why Advent isn’t a season of peace and joy, but one of holy longing.

“People are angry about the injustice in the world, disappointed with circumstances in their own lives, or frustrated with their own busyness. All of this disillusionment seems to center on the idea that this is not how the Christmas season should be. I’ve seen a lot of comments along the lines of, ‘This is supposed to be a season of joy, a season of peace, a season of contentment and closeness to our families, a season of celebration.’

I think we may have gotten it wrong.

I don’t think Advent is primarily about peace and joy and all the other warm and fuzzies we think we’re meant to feel. I think Advent is about longing.

It is about longing for a world that is not broken. Longing for justice for the victims of terrorist attacks and police brutality. Longing for restored relationships with our families. Longing for a world where people cannot be bought and sold as commodities. Longing for comfort for the friend who has lost her child. Longing for rest from a world that is moving so fast we feel like if we pause for a moment we’ll get left behind. It is about longing for the hope that we are not abandoned.

Most of us are very uncomfortable with longing. We live in an instant-gratification world, one where it is unacceptable for a need to go unmet or a wish to go unfulfilled, so when we feel emptiness in ourselves, we rush to fill it. Sometimes the desire to satiate longing manifests itself in materialism – the need for the next new thing. Sometimes it shows up in our relationships and we use and abuse other people in our desire to satisfy our longings.

My own attitude towards longing is usually, ‘How can I make this go away?’ But I think we have two choices when it comes to longing – we can lament the discomfort we feel and try to make the feelings go away, or we can embrace those longings and let them change the way we live and love.”

51sESY8dZZL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_Last week I had the privilege of reading and reviewing Stephanie Ebert’s short collection of Advent reflections, In the Valley of the Shadow, Light Has Dawned: Advent Thoughts in the Wandering. The collection has 5 short readings for each week leading up to Christmas. All I can say is that Steph gets it. As a South African-American she has spent her life in places broken by racism and in desperate need of social justice.  In the introduction to the book she writes:

“Like all Christian celebrations, Advent is acknowledging darkness and remembering light. It’s celebrating and it’s waiting. It’s sweet, but there’s still a trace of bitterness.”

She goes on to say, “If you’re looking for some feel-good Christmas spirit, I apologize: this is not the book for you. But if you’re wandering, or wondering, or grieving, or hurting, or angry, or confused, or fed-up, or used up, maybe there’s something in here for you.”

Each week has a theme with five short readings (except for the last week, which has only two because, as Steph says, “Nobody has time right before Christmas”).

Week One: The Land Where Death Casts His Shadow
“We’re still living in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, but we have a bit of light now.”
Week Two: God With Us: The Incarnation
“God-with-us wasn’t tainted by the common-ness /of skin and flesh and bones./He made skin and flesh and bones holy.”
Week Three: Peace: Wholeness
“But Jesus does everything upside-down. The Kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed, not a machine-gun.”
Week Four: Light Has Shined: Hope in the Face of Darkness
“When we spend our time creating and celebrating the good, we cry out to all the hurt people in the world: This is the way it is supposed to be!”

If you’re looking for a way to acknowledge darkness and still celebrate light, this little book will resonate with you. With discussion questions at the end of each section, it’s a great resource for a small group or a family. But mostly, Steph’s writing is beautiful and her stories and poems and ramblings are worth reflecting on. You can order it here or go over to Steph’s blog for more information about her and her writing.


Full Disclosure: I was provided a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion. I am not under any obligation to review it for you here and have chosen to do so because I genuinely loved it. 




Friday Book Chats: Searching for Sunday Book Review

searching for sundayI had been eagerly waiting for Rachel Held Evans’ new book Searching for Sunday to hit the shelves ever since I heard that it was in the works. While I’m only an occasional reader of her blog, which is more issue-focused and, frankly, sometimes too abrasive for me read consistently, I was deeply impacted by her first book Faith Unraveled, which told the story of her transition from an utterly confident (sometimes judgmental) completely sure-of-her-own-rightness Christian to one who wanted to wrestle with hard questions rather than write them off. So many of her stories and experiences and reflections were uncannily similar to my own and that book was like water in the desert to my soul.

When I learned that her new book would be specifically about her loving, leaving, and finding church again, I couldn’t wait to read it. All I can say is that it was even better than I was expecting it to be. Once again, I felt like I was reading my own diary at so many moments. To the point that if someone wanted to know where I’m at with the church, I would probably just hand them this book and say, “She says it better than I could.”

For the past few years I’ve struggled with church. And even as I’ve tried to remind myself that church isn’t primarily about what I can get out of it and that not all churches are the same, I’ve felt an increased disinterest in participating in the church. This has become more of a concern recently as we prepare to move back to the US, a move which will necessitate our finding a new church. I’ve found myself reluctant to even try. By the time I finished this book, I felt understood, even validated. But I also felt hope.

In the introduction, Evans’ pinpoints the reasons for the dissatisfaction that so many of our generation are feeling with the church:

“We don’t want to choose between science and religion or between our intellectual integrity and our faith. Instead, we long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. We want to talk about the tough stuff – biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, sexuality, racial reconciliation, and social justice – but without predetermined conclusions or simplistic answers. We want to bring our whole selves through the church doors, without leaving our hearts and minds behind, without wearing a mask….

We can’t be won back with hipper worship bands, fancy coffee shops, or pastors who wear skinny jeans. We Millennials have been advertised to our entire lives, so we can smell b.s. from a mile away. The church is the last place we want to be sold another product, the last place we want to be entertained.

Millenials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity. We are looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity. Like every generation before ours and every generation after, we’re looking for Jesus –the same Jesus who can be found in the strange places he’s always been found: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these.”

The rest of the book is structured around the seven sacraments – Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Communion, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage – but if that sounds dull and dry, don’t be fooled. This isn’t a book of theology. This is a very vulnerable and personal story masterfully woven together with the story of the church and with some breathtaking theological truths. Take for example this profound reminder that

“…what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out, but who it lets in….

Grace got out of hand the moment the God of the universe hung on a Roman cross with outstretched hands looked out upon those who had hung him there and declared ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’

Grace has been out of hand for more than two thousand years now. We best get used to it.”

Evans writes about stepping away from the church for a while as she wrestled with questions that no one seemed to want to discuss and becoming critical and cynical about the body as a whole. I saw myself in this, the way I began to feel when I went to my parents’ church or my in-laws’, or visited a new church with my husband.

“I expected the worst and smirked when I found it. So many of our sins begin with fear—fear of disappointment, fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of death, fear of obscurity. Cynicism may seem a mild transgression, but it is a patient predator that suffocates hope…”

For years I found myself growing more and more cynical about the church to the point that it was sometimes a struggle for me to admit that it could ever do any good at all, and this cynicism made it very difficult for me to accept that God is still using the church today. That, as Evans’ says,

“Church is a moment in tie when the kingdom of God draws near, when a meal, a story, a song , an apology, and even a failure is made holy by the presence of Jesus among us and within us.”

I can’t claim that I agreed 100% with every single word and idea in this book, but that really doesn’t matter to me because I agreed wholeheartedly with the spirit of this book which was like an empathetic companion in my grief, an understanding friend, and sustenance for my sometimes starving faith.

To me, the most beautiful thing about this book is that while it fully acknowledges the many problems with the church, particularly the evangelical church, it also leaves the reader with hope that maybe church can still be worth it. Maybe there is still value in this broken body. Maybe there is something so essential about the church that it’s worth investing in, in spite of all her failures.

Evans concludes, “God surprises us by showing up in ordinary things: in bread, in wine, in water, in words, in sickness, in healing, in death, in a manger of hay, in a mother’s womb, in an empty tomb. Church isn’t some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, Pay attention, this is holy ground; God is here. Even here, in the dark, God is busy making all things new.” 

Once after attending a service at my in-laws (genuinely lovely) church I turned to my husband and said, “I just can’t do it. If that’s what it has to look like for me to be a Christian, then I don’t want to be one. I don’t fit with the floral clad church ladies making small talk, I’m not moved by the choir, and I refuse to laugh at jokes that aren’t funny just because the pastor said them. I’m sorry, but I can’t ever do church like this.”

But this church that Evans writes about, this is a church I just might want to be a part of.