Celebrate Black History Month with a book!

A couple years ago I decided to make a concerted effort to read more fiction and non-fiction written by people of color (POC). So much is and has been left out of our history books about their true American experience, and so much can be learned by reading their stories.

Over the years, I’ve read Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Langston Hughes, and other beautiful classics. But now I was doing some serious soul-searching. I came across The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. Du Bois, written in 1903, and The Hate You Give, by Angie Thomas, written in 2017. Although over a century separates them, they reflect in striking ways how little has changed for POC. They are probably my two favorites as far as opening my eyes and heart. Links and synopses to several of the others I recommend are below. Have you read any of these? Are there others you would recommend not shown here?

Besides the fact that it is Black History Month, few times have been more pressing to do what we can to hear the heart cries of POC, and heart cries are indeed what you’ll find in these books. Some will make you laugh, and some will make you cry. And all of them will make you think. I challenge you to choose one to read this month–if not one of these, then one of your own choosing. Let me know what you read!

One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
― W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk



An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones.
Newlyweds, Celestial and Roy, are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive and she is artist on the brink of an exciting career. They are settling into the routine of their life together, when they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together. This stirring love story is a deeply insightful look into the hearts and minds of three people who are at once bound and separated by forces beyond their control. An American Marriage is a masterpiece of storytelling, an intimate look into the souls of people who must reckon with the past while moving forward- with hope and pain- into the future.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.” In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?

I’m Still Here, by Austin Channing Brown.
From a powerful new voice on racial justice, an eye-opening account of growing up Black, Christian, and female in middle-class white America. In a time when nearly all institutions (schools, churches, universities, businesses) claim to value “diversity” in their mission statements, I’m Still Here is a powerful account of how and why our actions so often fall short of our words. Austin writes in breathtaking detail about her journey to self-worth and the pitfalls that kill our attempts at racial justice, in stories that bear witness to the complexity of America’s social fabric–from Black Cleveland neighborhoods to private schools in the middle-class suburbs, from prison walls to the boardrooms at majority-white organizations.

Memorial Drive, by Natasha Trethewey.
At age nineteen, Natasha Trethewey had her world turned upside down when her former stepfather shot and killed her mother. Grieving and still new to adulthood, she confronted the twin pulls of life and death in the aftermath of unimaginable trauma and now explores the way this experience lastingly shaped the artist she became. Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Natasha Trethewey explores this profound experience of pain, loss, and grief as an entry point into understanding the tragic course of her mother’s life and the way her own life has been shaped by a legacy of fierce love and resilience. Moving through her mother’s history in the deeply segregated South and through her own girlhood as a “child of miscegenation” in Mississippi, Trethewey plumbs her sense of dislocation and displacement in the lead-up to the harrowing crime that took place on Memorial Drive in Atlanta in 1985.

Ruby, by Cynthia Bond.
Full of life, exquisitely written, and suffused with the pastoral beauty of the rural South, Ruby is a transcendent novel of passion and courage. This wondrous page-turner rushes through the red dust and gossip of Main Street, to the pit fire where men swill bootleg outside Bloom’s Juke, to Celia Jennings’s kitchen where a cake is being made, yolk by yolk, that Ephram will use to try to begin again with Ruby. Utterly transfixing, with unforgettable characters, riveting suspense, and breathtaking, luminous prose, Ruby offers an unflinching portrait of man’s dark acts and the promise of the redemptive power of love.

Kindred, by Octavia Butler. 
The first science fiction written by a black woman, Kindred has become a cornerstone of black American literature. This combination of slave memoir, fantasy, and historical fiction is a novel of rich literary complexity. Having just celebrated her 26th birthday in 1976 California, Dana, an African-American woman, is suddenly and inexplicably wrenched through time into antebellum Maryland. After saving a drowning white boy there, she finds herself staring into the barrel of a shotgun and is transported back to the present just in time to save her life. During numerous such time-defying episodes with the same young man, she realizes the challenge she’s been given…

You Can’t Touch My Hair, by Phoebe Robinson.
Phoebe Robinson is a stand-up comic, which means that, often, her everyday experiences become points of comedic fodder. And as a black woman in America, she maintains, sometimes you need to have a sense of humor to deal with the absurdity you are handed on the daily. Robinson has experienced her fair share over the years: she’s been unceremoniously relegated to the role of “the black friend,” as if she is somehow the authority on all things racial; she’s been questioned about her love of U2 and Billy Joel (“isn t that . . . white people music?”); she’s been called “uppity” for having an opinion in the workplace; she’s been followed around stores by security guards; and yes, people do ask her whether they can touch her hair all. the. time. Now, she’s ready to take these topics to the page and she s going to make you laugh as she s doing it. As personal as it is political, “You Can’t Touch My Hair” examines our cultural climate and skewers our biases with humor and heart, announcing Robinson as a writer on the rise.”

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson.
In this epic, beautifully written masterwork, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life. Wilkerson brilliantly captures their first treacherous and exhausting cross-country trips by car and train and their new lives in colonies that grew into ghettos, as well as how they changed these cities with southern food, faith, and culture and improved them with discipline, drive, and hard work. Both a riveting microcosm and a major assessment, The Warmth of Other Suns is a bold, remarkable, and riveting work, a superb account of an “unrecognized immigration” within our own land. Through the breadth of its narrative, the beauty of the writing, the depth of its research, and the fullness of the people and lives portrayed herein, this book is destined to become a classic.

Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid.
In the midst of a family crisis one late evening, white blogger Alix Chamberlain calls her African American babysitter, Emira, asking her to take toddler Briar to the local market for distraction. There, the security guard accuses Emira of kidnapping Briar, and Alix’s efforts to right the situation turn out to be good intentions selfishly mismanaged.

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward.
A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch’s father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesn’t show concern for much else. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn’t much to save. Lately, Esch can’t keep down what food she gets; she’s fourteen and pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull’s new litter, dying one by one in the dirt, while brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child’s play and short on parenting. As the twelve days that comprise the novel’s framework yield to the final day and Hurricane Katrina, the unforgettable family at the novel’s heart—motherless children sacrificing for each other as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce—pulls itself up to struggle for another day. A wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty, “Salvage the Bones” is muscled with poetry, revelatory, and real.

In which I write about 2020 even though I don’t feel like it, favorite books of the year, 2021 TBR list, a new release, and my One Word.

New Year’s Day, 2021.

Outside, ice pelts the window and slicks the sidewalks, and the gray skies wrap my little world with a gloomy sort of comfort as I sit on my bed with my pup and my brand new calendar/planner.

The ambivalence of looking back over the unimaginable past year causes a wrench in my gut I’ve grown accustomed to…an ache of dread, my whole body overwhelmed with the lactic acid build-up of a year of bracing myself for whatever hell is looming around the next corner.

When my husband and youngest son and I watched the ball drop in Times Square last night, the relief felt strange and temporary. After all this time spent emotionally—even physically—hunkering down against the 2020 tsunami, I’m finding it difficult to straighten myself enough to look up, let alone ahead.

One of my all time favorite books is Mudhouse Sabbath, by Lauren Winner. In the chapter on grief, Lauren describes the Jewish tradition of praising God in the midst of grief and mourning, even and especially when you don’t feel like it. By continuing to speak truths about God’s goodness and faithfulness, we eventually come around to feeling that goodness and faithfulness again.

Today, I don’t feel like celebrating. I don’t feel like writing my annual turn-of-the-year blog post. My soul is just plain raw from being a healthcare worker in the midst of this pandemic, from the normal, everyday effects of this pandemic, from the heart-rending social unrest in our country, and from a few other significant and personal losses of 2020. And yet, my head knows God has been so good and merciful to me and my family through it all.

So I’m writing this blog today anyway.

I may not be steadfast, but my God is.

First off, my favorite reads of 2020.

Frustratingly, I fell far short of my 75 book goal for 2020. I read over 90 in 2019, so I thought 75 was modest and obtainable. But I only got around to 41. Even then, I regret that I didn’t even really like most of the ones I read. Maybe in another year I would have liked some of them better, but I doubt it. Picking up books in 2020 felt like picking chocolates out of a Whitman’s Sampler box and getting all the nasty ones.

They weren’t all bad, though. Seven stood out to me:

1. Cutting for Stones, by Verghese: This one actually made it to my all-time favorites list. Just so beautifully written and engaging and thought-provoking; even life changing.

2. The Dutch House, by Patchett: Beautiful, descriptive prose, and set in Brooklyn, NY, which I had the chance to visit on the verge of the pandemic. Loved the story. Love that city.

3. A Time For Mercy, by Grisham: Pure entertainment, consistent with his earlier and better work. Also, the return of Jake Brigance. how can you not love a book that makes you picture Matthew McConaughey as the protagonist the whole time you’re reading?

4. The Guest List, by Foley: Again, pure entertainment. A great mystery that kept me guessing. It’s rare that I find a book I can’t put down, and this was one for sure.

5. Such a Fun Age, by Reid: A solid story and enthralling plot that spoke convictingly to the societal, racial issues of today without being preachy. Loved it.

6. House Calls and Hitching Posts, by Hoover: A heartwarming read when I needed my heart to be warmed. The true stories of a doctor to the Amish that reminded me all over again why I love being a nurse.

7. You Can’t Touch My Hair, by Robinson. In a year in which book sellers bombarded us with must-read books on race (many of them very angry and not even written by POC), I found this one to be at once convicting, honest, and inspiring, because it really helped me see what life is like for POC. Robinson made me feel like she was talking to me as a friend, and at the end of the day, that is the kind of language that will help heal our nation.

These seven were definitely great reads.

I’m looking forward to more and better books in 2021…

…and here is my stack of priority reads on my bedside table. Strout, Robinson, and Kingsolver are three of my all time favorite authors, not to mention inspirations behind my writing.

I am continuing to read more books on race, and the parts I’ve read of Memorial Drive and I’m Still Here are really, really good so far. There are also a couple of nature books and books for research for a new novel I’m beginning to write.

This stack of books alone is good reason for me to look forward to 2021.

New book release!

What I’m most excited about is the release of THIS book in early June, 2021: 40 Days of Hope for Healthcare Heroes! I literally cried my way through writing this book of devotionals in the height of the pandemic this summer. It is a prayer and an offering to every health care worker I have ever had the privilege to work alongside, and I cannot wait until it hits the shelves! (Available for pre-order now from your favorite book seller!)

And finally, my One Word for 2021.

I enjoy the tradition of choosing a word as a sort of umbrella of conviction and inspiration for my year. For a long while I didn’t feel like I’d be able to identify one, but then RESTORE jumped out at me and I am clinging to it.

What better word for 2021, after all? The weariness is multifaceted for all of us, isn’t it? We long for restoration for our bodies, our minds, our spirits, our souls.

The best part of this word is that it just so happens to be the theme of my all-time favorite Bible verses, Joel 2:25:

“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—the great locust and the young locust,
the other locusts and the locust swarm…”

Years ago I went through a dark time and planted a locust tree in our back yard as a way to remind me of this verse. Skinny and sparse at the time, it now provides shade across our entire patio, allowing us to sit outside in the heat of the summer.

The whole chapter of Joel 2 speaks to how God redeems a time that seemed irredeemable and inescapable for Israel. Not only does He redeem, he pours out His love and grace and peace out on His people on the other side of that time.

If you’re like me, maybe you don’t feel right now that any part of 2020 is redeemable. Maybe you feel like the doom and gloom of it are clawing at your heels in their attempt to cling and hijack their way into the new year.

But feelings are fleeting, friends.

Our God is faithful.

He will restore and redeem and renew.

So, happy new year, dear friends!

Praying peace and RESTORATION for each of you in 2021 and beyond!

Favorite books of 2019!

I was incredulous at the number of books I was able to read–nearly ninety! Much of this is thanks to my library’s audio book service, as well as having three sons in college and frequent road trips to and from their schools. Having an audio book going while I drive, do housework, walk my dog, and more, has enabled me to read far more than I could have otherwise. Do you use your library’s audio book services?
You can check out all the books I read over at my GoodReads page. (It’s so much fun “talking” books over there with friends!)

Did you read any of the same books I did?

Narrowing this list down to my very favorites was really tough. So many of them were soooooo good, and for many reasons. Some were “meh,” and others, well, I just couldn’t finish. Overall, though, it was a delightful year of reading. I’d love to know what you thought if you read any of the same ones.

Here are my top ten eleven (because I couldn’t whittle it to ten!) in no particular order:

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett Beautifully written. A must-read for anyone who writes or loves writing.
Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder Incredible story of survival, strength, and the heartbreaking realities of what the wars in Africa have done–and continue to do–to people.
eden I’ve loved Of Mice and Men since I read it in high school English class, and Steinbeck has long been one of my very favorite classic authors. Grapes of Wrath recently made it on my favorites list, too. I’m still reading this one, and already it has become another favorite.
The Hate U Give by Angie ThomasA powerful and important book for anyone who wants to know what the reality of racism is like for far too many in America. This book broke–and is still breaking–my heart.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi A beautiful and achingly real story of someone faced with a terminal illness and their struggle to find hope and make sense of it all. As a nurse, I especially appreciated Kalathani’s raw and honest story.
Promise by Minrose Gwin I read this book early in the year, and it has stuck with me. It’s the fictional story of a family that survives a tornado that hits Tupelo, Mississippi, in The Great Depression. Thoroughly enjoyed.
Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson What a wild ride this one was! Terrifying suspense, mixed with Jackson’s trademark gifts of sarcasm and humor. Loved it!
The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger Intriguing, super well-written, and ultimately heartbreaking, because this could easily happen (and does) in many a suburb in America.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens  This one is probably my very favorite of the year. The story reminds me of the sort of books and characters I like to write, infused with nature, a little mystery, and a lot of hope. I’m so glad to see so many other readers have liked it, too.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson I read this shortly after a family vacation to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where we walked a few feet of the AT. Absolutely loved this story of this man’s try of it!
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward I can see why this one was awarded the National Book Award in 2011. A heart-rending story of a motherless family in Mississippi, and how they survive Hurricane Katrina and so much more in the midst of desperate, rural poverty.

Up and coming 2020 books I recommend:

One of the perks–actually, privileges–of being an author is reading books before they are available in stores. The following three books will be released in 2020 by dear friends, and they are truly exceptional stories. Be sure to add all three to your TBR (to-be-read) list!

teachestThe Tea Chest, by Heidi Chiavaroli

Boston, 1773
Emma Malcolm’s father is staunchly loyal to the crown, but Emma’s heart belongs to Noah Winslow, a lowly printer’s assistant and Patriot. But her father has promised her hand to Samuel Clarke, a rapacious and sadistic man. As his fianc�e, she would have to give up Noah and the friends who have become like family to her–as well as the beliefs she has come to embrace.
After Emma is drawn into the treasonous Boston Tea Party, Samuel blackmails her with evidence that condemns each participant, including Noah. Emma realizes she must do whatever it takes to protect those she loves, even if it means giving up the life she desires and becoming Samuel’s wife.Present Day
Lieutenant Hayley Ashworth is determined to be the first woman inducted into the elite Navy SEALs. But before her dream can be realized, she must return to Boston in order to put the abuse and neglect of her childhood behind her. When an unexpected encounter with the man she once loved leads to the discovery of a tea chest and the document hidden within, she wonders if perhaps true strength and freedom are buried deeper than she first realized.
Two women, separated by centuries, must find the strength to fight for love and freedom. . . and discover a heritage of courage and faith. (less)
vogt

The Best We’ve Been (Thatcher Sisters #3), by Beth Vogt

How can you choose what is right for you when your decision will break the heart of someone you love?

Having abandoned her childhood dream years ago, Johanna Thatcher knows what she wants from life. Discovering that her fiancé was cheating on her only convinces Johanna it’s best to maintain control and protect her heart.

Despite years of distance and friction, Johanna and her sisters, Jillian and Payton, have moved from a truce toward a fragile friendship. But then Johanna reveals she has the one thing Jillian wants most and may never have―and Johanna doesn’t want it. As Johanna wrestles with a choice that will change her life and her relationships with her sisters forever, the cracks in Jillian’s marriage and faith deepen. Through it all, the Thatcher sisters must decide once and for all what it means to be family.

pawverbs

Pawverbs: 100 Inspirations to Delight an Animal Lover’s Heart, by Jennifer Marshall Bleakley

A charming and wise collection of lessons from Proverbs . . . taught by teachers with paws.

Many of us believe a house isn’t a home unless there is fur on the floor. 
Pawverbs, a collection of 100 short stories featuring real-life animals, presents the godly wisdom of Proverbs in a whimsical way–inviting us to explore deep spiritual truths alongside tales of our lovable pets. In this book you will meet:
  • Guinea pig sisters with celebrity status.
  • A street-smart cat who finds his way home.
  • A black Lab with a rap sheet.
  • A dog and dolphin who are best friends.
  • A bearded dragon who enjoys a good soak.
  • A lifesaving Great Dane, and many more.
Like little fuzzy, hairy, scaly, or feathery ambassadors, animals are a gift from God to point us to Himself–to the One who promises to never leave us, is always available to listen, and who loves us more than we can fathom. If you are looking for encouragement and inspiration, or even just a kibble-sized morsel of wisdom, Pawverbs is sure to delight your pet-loving soul. 

Here are most of the rest of the books I read this past year. Let me know what you read–and which were your favorites–in 2019!

teachest