2019: My Year in Books

Total Books: 171

This year I read fewer books than in 2018, but since I invested in some truly long and/or challenging works, I guess it mostly evens out.

Total Pages: 49,427

The longest book I read this year was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, at which point my workflow exploded and my series re-read derailed. I plan to circle back in 2020 and finish up, though.

Breakdown by Category

Please enjoy some highlights from my year in books. I’ve arranged the categories in descending order according to how much time I spent in each.

Christian Theology/Spirituality

Glorious Weakness: Discovering God in All We Lack by Alia Joy is both beautiful and poignant. The author has an important message, and she communicates it so skillfully and with such grace that I wish the book were twice as long. I read it early in the year, but I continue to ponder the message and will likely do so for a long time.

Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity and Jackson Wu’s Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission paired so well together. Both books are keen and thoughtful, clearly underscoring just how deeply embedded in Western thinking my biblical understanding has been. Through these reads, I’m able to grasp now more than ever all the ways in which rather than allowing the Bible to impact my culture, I’ve allowed my cultural practice to inform my understanding (and therefore application) of the Bible. The past two years have been a journey for me in this particular area, a journey that will likely only continue in 2020.

Another great book pair I took in this year: Mary Beth Swetman Matthew’s Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism between the Wars and Paul Harvey’s Bounds of Their Habitation: Race and Religion in American History. I could easily have listed these two books in my section accounting for historical reads; however, what I learned in their pages had such a deep impact on my understanding of how American history, ecclesiology, and theology have intertwined, that I name them here.

The contents of these books are prime examples of what I mentioned in the paragraph above: all too often, rather than letting theology impact culture, American churches have been guilty of letting cultural practice inform their understanding and practice of theology.

Honorable Mentions:

Identity Theft: Reclaiming the Truth of our Identity in Christ, multiple authors, edited by Melissa Kruger

God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

General Adult Fiction

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha did a number on my emotions. As I read, I felt angry, sad, worried, grieved. The characters felt real to the bones, and I was totally hooked and invested in their stories from Chapter 1. Though this is a work of fiction, the facts align so closely with real events (that of the ’92 LA Riots) that it’s particularly unsettling. Recommended for those who can handle heavy themes.

I’ve been making up for lost time with Zora Neale Hurston, and this year marked the first time I read Their Eyes Were Watching God, at least as an adult. (I no longer consider the half-hearted read I gave it in high school because it’s clear to me now I must have understood next to nothing.) Janie is a powerful character, and I’ll be thinking about her for a long time. Incidentally, I’m currently living very close to the area where the latter half of the book plays out (Belle Glade), and that only intensified my enjoyment in this read. Hurston captures the essence of South Florida (and hurricanes!) quite accurately.

Honorable Mentions:

Silence by Shūsaku Endō

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

There There by Tommy Orange

Biography/Autobiography/Memoir

This year, I devoured memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies like never before. I’m not sure why, to be honest. Much like food cravings, book genre cravings come and go seemingly of their own volition. For whatever reason, it was a wonderful and fruitful year for this category.

In June of this year, I visited the Rosa Parks museum in Montgomery, Alabama. That’s when I got the first inkling that her legacy as I’d learned it in school was partially mythologized. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis confirmed it. She’s quite different from what I’d assumed. Complex, interesting, and largely misunderstood in the mainstream historical imagination.

It was on that same trip that two friends sat across from me at a breakfast cafe and delivered an impassioned defense for Tara Westover’s Educated. Now that I’ve read the book, I understand why they couldn’t stop talking about it. Westover’s experiences are so raw and painful. I ache for her trauma. There are limits to all memoirs, and the author’s limited perspective, while fully acknowledged by her, likely runs deeper than she realizes. Several comments she makes toward the end especially drive this thought home to me. But still, this has proven one of my most memorable reads of 2019.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah is another of this year’s reads that I would never have picked up on my own. Thankfully, after multiple recommendations from people whose reading taste I admire, I checked it out. I’m so glad. I knew little of Noah going in (other than that he’s a TV personality) but was instantly hooked by his engaging narrative voice and the way in which he details his relationship with his mother, whom he clearly loves deeply. The affectionate antagonism between the two was, for me, the stand-out feature of the book; but I also appreciated the depth afforded by Noah’s observations of life in South Africa, both before and after Apartheid. Compulsively readable and surprisingly poignant. I walked away wishing I could be best friends with his mom. (Also: I fail the pencil test.)

I don’t often cry over books, but I cried over Rachael Denhollander’s What Is a Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics. The trauma inflicted on these women and girls, the amount of absolute mountain-moving strength and tenacity required to seek justice, and the world’s willingness to turn a blind eye–it’s all devastating. My respect for Rachael Denhollander has been high since first hearing her deliver her victim impact statement at Nassar’s sentencing; but after reading this book, it’s through the roof. I thank God for her even as I grieve that this happened to her (and to so many others). Please read this book and confront the critical question posed by the author: “What is a girl worth?”

Honorable Mentions:

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

History

My enjoyment in Michael Breen’s The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation was only heightened because I read it while preparing for (and then while on) a trip to Korea. As an English consultant and journalist who’s spent decades in Korea, Breen brings to the table a wealth of experience and insight. He also has a positively delightful turn of phrase.

Even though I’ve spent the last few years reading up on these matters, some of the details in The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby still surprised me. Tisby provides much-needed context to conversations I’ve participated in myself and watched unspooling online over the past few years. Without properly understanding history, we’re much less capable of analyzing the present. This is a great resource toward advancing the conversation by bridging that gap.

The Comfort Women: Japan’s Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War by George L. Hicks is the second book I’ve read in recent years concentrating solely on the plight of the WWII Comfort Women. The other book (Silenced No More: Voices of Comfort Women) was published more recently, and therefore contained updated information on government responses and moves toward reparations. However, Hick’s book did a great job of showing the big picture.

Honorable Mentions:

Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, & Criminal in 19th-Century New York by Stacy Horn

Narrative Non-Fiction

Mitchell Zuckoff’s newest offering Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 is a clear, comprehensive, and compassionate account, both of individual stories and of the large-scale event. Zuckoff masterfully captures the chaos and confusion of that day. It’s just heartbreaking. I didn’t expect to have such visceral emotional reactions while reading, but between the grisly details, the overwhelming scope of the tragedy unspooling page by page, and the personal emotional resonance experienced as my own memories of that time came bubbling back up, I honestly had a hard time getting through it.

It is with great sadness that I discovered Spying on the South Travels with Frederick Law Olmsted in a Fractured Land is the final book we will have from Tony Horwitz. (He died while on tour promoting it.) That said, this book is so great. Literally following in the footsteps of another writer (Olmstead) who traveled the American South pre-Civil War, Horwitz revisits the locations highlighted in Olmstead’s Cotton Kingdom, providing thoughtful and timely commentary. Truly wonderful work.

Peter Hessler‘s books never disappoint. I’ve read them all and kept loose track of his career since his River Town days. He’s only grown as a storyteller and observer since then. In The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, Hessler outlines the lives of specific, ordinary Egyptians post-Arab Spring, framing his observations within the context of Egypt’s ancient historical roots. I toyed with listing this new one in my history section; but honestly, in keeping with his other books, he’s really only using Egyptian history as a jumping-off point to understand modern issues. I’m always eager to see what/who he will use as a framing device to shape his larger narrative and found his choices this time around particularly compelling.

Honorable Mentions:

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story f the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar

Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football’s Forgotten Town by Bryan Mealer

Young Adult Fiction

After having my hair blown back last year by Angie Thomas‘s The Hate U Give, I made time for her second book, On the Come Up. I loved the relatable inner conflict of trying to be yourself in the face of people’s crushing expectations. I also loved the rhymes, and I liked the central character, Bri. Despite the fact that the plot is largely driven by her impulsive, teenagerish mistakes and tunnel-vision choices (or perhaps because of that), Bri comes across as very relatable. I found the secondary characters likable and well fleshed out. The overarching external story goal (will Bri make it as a rapper?) felt a bit less compelling than her inner journey (will she find a way to be true to herself?).

To date, I’ve adored every Stacey Lee book I’ve read, including The Secret of a Heart Note, which is a simply lovely story centering the most classic YA themes imaginable: friendship, first love, and finding yourself. In Lee’s hands, however, nothing feels worn or trite. It’s all big feelings, warm fuzzies, deep insecurities, and the occasional belly laugh.

Psychology/Sociology/Politics

Early in the year, a friend who’d read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion loaned me her copy and asked me to read it so we could discuss it together. And what a lively discussion it was, with each of us finding points of agreement and disagreement with Haidt. Haidt’s research uncovers some fascinating tendencies in human behavior, and he’s a clear and interesting writer, so despite the length of the book and the intellectual footwork necessary to keep up, I didn’t have much trouble making my way through the text in a couple of days. But though I fully engaged with the ideas in Part 1, my interest in successive sections waned. I’m glad to have engaged with this material, however, if only because it’s helped me understand just a bit better how (and why) people reach differing moral conclusions.

I wish I could make The Problem of Slavery in Christian America by Joel McDurmon required reading. I read this whole book slowly and carefully (including the appendices!) and found it incredibly helpful in informing my understanding of what went on theologically in America down through various historical periods. This is a nation that purported itself “Christian” and in favor of liberty and justice for all–yet cherished chattel slavery. How did people like Whitfield and Edwards (and so many others) justify their behavior? There’s much here to lament, as well as eye-opening parallels to how the generational repercussions of slavery are being addressed (or not) by Christians today.

Honorable Mention:

“Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity by Beverly Daniel Tatum

LitCrit/Language/Writing

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch was so, so enjoyable. Informative, witty, and observational, it’s one of the few books I read this year that actually made me SAD when I realized it was ending and the rest of the pages were notes and citations rather than more material. If you’re into analyzing language and culture, don’t let this one pass you by.

I’m rarely one to turn down a book about books, which is why Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books has been on my radar since it launched. I finally got my beady eyes on a copy and was delighted. Even the essays focusing on books and short stories I haven’t yet read were enjoyable.

In Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, the author connects key events in Orwell’s life to the development of his best-known work. I found the final chapter the most enlightening, in which Lynskey underscores Orwellian thought and processes alive today; and since this is a new release, the social and political implications all feel very fresh.

Honorable Mentions:

Images and Idols: Creativity for the Christian Life by Thomas J. Terry and J. Ryan Lister

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

Fantasy/SciFi/Steampunk/Dystopia

Most of this year was absorbed in re-reading the full Narnia series, plus restarting Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Honestly, I have no idea what prompted this, but I’m enjoying revisiting these worlds and plan to complete the latter two series in 2020.

Other than those gems, the only thing that stood out for me in this category was Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, which read as fun, geeky wish fulfillment. The story took a while to get rolling, and some of the 80s cultural references were lost on me (I’ve never been a gamer), but the overall plot kept me invested. Would have gladly traded some of the lengthy descriptions of in-game shenanigans for more character development, though.

Essays/Short Stories

I don’t read a lot of short stories, but I make an exception for Ha Jin. The stories in The Bridegroom are set in China post-Cultural Revolution, but it was hard to narrow down a more exact time frame. (No specific years are noted, but the book first released in 2000, and there’s mention of Deng Xiaoping.) As always, I find his writing beautiful but unsettling. I always want happier endings for his characters than what they get, though what they get usually feels realistic. Sometimes depressingly so.

Honorable Mentions:

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Books by Friends

This is a catchall category for actual close friends and friendly internet connections I technically haven’t met “in real life” just yet. Sort yourselves into categories: you know who you are!

If you follow me on Goodreads, you may have noticed that sometimes when I read books by friends, I forego giving star ratings. That’s because I have very complicated feelings about awarding stars to people I know in person. Hopefully in 2020, I’ll sort myself out emotionally and figure out how to do this without breaking out in hives.

Dangerous to Know by Megan Whitson Lee – One thing I love about Megan is her consistent willingness to tackle complicated topics. In Dangerous to Know, she gives us a fictionalized retelling of Lord Byron’s marriage to Annabella Milbanke. It’s difficult to watch central character Isabella Bankmill deal with her marriage to Lord Bromby, but it’s also relatable. Who among us doesn’t have at least one friend or loved one dealing with a complex relationship to a challenging spouse? I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say I’m satisfied with it from a storytelling perspective because I think it’s the most realistic scenario that could have played out under such circumstances.

The Reactionary (The Rogues #3) by Kristen Hogrefe – Book 3 had some surprises in store along with satisfying developments to wrap up the trilogy nicely. I was a bit thrown by the viewpoint shifts (a change in this installment from the first two books); but honestly, that didn’t mar my enjoyment of the trilogy as a whole. I’ve enjoyed watching Kristen’s career develop over the last few years and look forward to what she has in store for us next.

Desolate Paths by Erin Unger – As someone who doesn’t typically read romantic suspense, this read was outside the norm for me, but I did enjoy it. I especially loved the uniqueness of the concept. What a fresh setup!

Flowers from Afghanistan by Suzy Parish – This is definitely a tear-jerker, but a bittersweet story leads to a satisfying end. Aside: All the mentions of treats and coffee drinks gave me serious snack attacks. Even now as I’m typing this, I think about how this book gave me coffee cravings the entire time I was reading. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

The War in Our Hearts by Eva Seyler – So much about this book was completely unexpected (which, if you know the author, is not unexpected! LOL.) It’s such a unique blend of gentle emotion and the brutality of war. I wouldn’t have picked it up if not for our personal connection, but I’m glad I read it.

A Serial Killer’s Daughter by Kerri Rawson – Exactly as the subtitle suggests, this is one woman’s journey of faith, love, and overcoming as she attempts to reconcile what she understands about the father who raised her with the man he actually was behind the mask. My heart truly goes out to Kerri.

Christian Mission: A Concise, Global History by Ed Smither – In this slim volume, Smither lays out a no-frills overview, perfect for gaining big-picture perspective.

Prophesy Hope! An Advent Reflection on Hope, Peace, Love, and Freedom by Danté Stewart – I actually got my hands on this early and read it in the days leading up to Advent. Danté draws heavily on the Black American church tradition for this rich Advent offering.

Off-Script & Over-Caffeinated by Kaley Rhea and Rhonda Rhea – This isn’t a genre I read very often, but I stumbled upon Turtles in the Road (the first book from this writing duo) last year and happily queued up for an early-release copy of their second offering. The same wit, charm, and warmth are all here in good measure. If you’re in the mood for a fun set-up, relatable characters, and great dialogue, this might be your next read.


On the lookout for your next good read?

edi-libedinsky-711483-unsplash

Join us for 2020: A Year of Books!

Each month during the next year, I’ll be sending a recommended set of titles for you to consider. No forced discussions, no homework, or anything like that. Just fresh reading recommendations casually delivered to your inbox on the first day of every month: fiction, non-fiction, classics and new releases, accessible Christian theology, well-known authors and debut writers, you name it.

Come join us!

Let’s make 2020 our best reading year ever.


Happy New Year, everyone!

May your 2020 be filled with satisfying work, enjoyable recreation, and tons of great books.

Decade Retrospective: Things That Happened, Good and Bad

We’ve reached the tail end of 2019, which also marks the close of a decade. That means instead of getting a year-in-review retrospective, you’re getting a decade in review, minus the boring bits.

All things considered, the past ten years have been a mixed bag. Witness the following accomplishments and events from the last decade, both good and bad.

Between 2010 and 2019

  • launched a writing career, publishing six books, four plays, and four sacred scripts, all while amassing an avalanche of rejections
  • started running, progressing from that first exciting 2-miler to 5k to 8k to 10k to half marathon to Ragnar Relay to this year’s full marathon (completed only after a short stint lying on my back crying at the top of a bridge)
  • lost several toenails (see above)
  • reunited with my best friend from middle school
  • sneezed my gum out of my mouth
  • survived multiple Atlantic hurricanes
  • broke a tooth
  • tried internet dating (I almost said “tried and failed” but if you’ve ever internet dated, you know surviving the experience is a win)
  • snake fell on my head
  • visited the American Southwest
  • called 911 while on a run because I thought someone was being assaulted but it was just two little kids play/scream-fighting in a hot tub
  • bee flew into my mouth
  • slowed down significantly on overseas travel, but sneaked in some visits to old haunts and new favorites: Israel, England, Scotland, France, New Zealand, Haiti, Korea
  • broke my ankle falling off a bucket (and leveraged the experience for the plot of my debut novel)
  • started wearing reading glasses
  • first international showing for one of my plays (Enter Macbeth, Dubai)
  • made the switch to half-caff coffee
  • dropped my entire dinner-on-the-grounds contribution in the church parking lot one Sunday before even getting out of the car
  • earned a master’s degree in theological studies
  • lost friends and connections to old age and sudden death
  • attended funerals
  • wrote and performed original music with a friend from church
  • woke up with half a spider stuck to my neck and the other half under the fingernails of my right hand
  • said “Okay, I love you, BYE!” at the end of a Skype lecture to a high school class
  • frog jumped on my head
  • audiobook I’d loaded on my phone started playing at full volume in the middle of church (not a sacred text)
  • intermittently treated for chronic pain, neuropathy, and inflammation
  • surprise medical tests, contemplated my own mortality
  • read nearly 2,000 books (official count started in 2011 – 1,712 as of today)
  • developed a long list of historical boyfriends (see above)
  • touched an alligator
  • stopped working with the church youth group and started teaching adult women
  • opened an umbrella in the car directly into my own face (twice)
  • finally joined Spotify (please welcome me to the twenty-first century)

2019 finds me in a place that 2010 Ruth would never have imagined. To be honest, I have mixed feelings. I’m thankful for the successes but am ever mindful of the disappointments, struggles, and pain. Life is a beautiful, ridiculous, and messy mystery.

God’s grace keeps me steady.


What’s your decade been like? What items would you include on your list?

Comment below or shoot me a message on social media. I’d love to hear points of comparison and departure in our experiences.


Coming Soon

2020: A Year of Books

joanna-kosinska-470407-unsplash

Each month during the next year, I’ll be sending a recommended set of titles for you to check out. No forced discussions, no homework, or anything like that. Just fresh reading recommendations casually delivered to your inbox on the first day of every month: fiction, non-fiction, classics and new releases, accessible Christian theology, well-known authors and debut writers, you name it.

Join us for 2020: A Year of Books!


I’ll be back next week to post my 2019 reading retrospective.

Until then, I hope you savor the last few days of 2019 and enjoy a wonderful holiday week with your family, friends, and loved ones.

Merry Christmas from me to you!

Whales, Umbrellas, and the Power of Language: Vignettes from Korea

I recently wrote about my trip to Korea and how everyone kept asking why I would vacation there.

As promised, I’m back with a few vignettes from the trip.


My friend Pricilla and I arrived at Seoul’s Incheon International Airport after nearly 24-hours of uninterrupted travel. After a bit of bumbling around the airport, we managed to find the correct counter to purchase a bus ticket for the 1.5-hour ride to Namsan.

We were two of only four passengers on board the clean, air-conditioned bus. Our flight had landed late in the afternoon; and as we bumped along, the sun slowly setting in the hazy sky, I struggled to keep my eyes open. My one goal was to stay awake long enough to find my friend Robby, take a shower, and maybe eat a little supper before falling asleep.

I leaned my head against the window and gazed across the Han River. The Seoul skyline slowly flickered to life against the darkening sky.

Suddenly, from the middle of the river right next to our bus, a whale breached, setting off a chain reaction of foamy waves. What an amazing sight! Water sloshed across the highway and misted the bus window.

Wow! We had only been in Korea a few hours, and already we were seeing amazing sights! I knew this trip would be unforgettable, but I had no idea something like this would happen.

I turned to make sure Pricilla had seen the whale and jerked myself awake. There was no whale; nor was I even sitting against the window. I was slumped over in my seat, gently drooling, backpack clutched to my chest and hoodie draped over my torso like a blanket. It was now totally dark outside, and I’d been dreaming.

Because of course.

There are no whales in the Han River.

At least, not that I personally witnessed.


We’d left Florida one day after a close brush with Hurricane Dorian and arrived in Seoul just in time for a sideswipe from Typhoon Lingling.

Hence our first full day in Korea, we were met with strong bursts of blustery wind, periodic rain bands, swaying tree branches, and pelting clumps of wet leaves. Classic “stay at home” conditions, which of course we were not going to do. We hadn’t flown halfway across the world to sit in Robby’s apartment while it rained.

But we weren’t totally insane. We switched up our original plan for the day and decided to spend it mostly indoors at the Seoul Museum of History.

“Don’t worry,” Robby said. “I have plenty of umbrellas.”

Maybe he didn’t say that exactly. But he did seem to have plenty of umbrellas because he had enough for himself, Pricilla, and I to take one each as we headed out to catch the bus.

All went well enough until we hopped off in front of the museum. The wind, which had been nominal to that point, suddenly picked up, accompanied by bursts of needle-sharp rain. We fumbled with our umbrellas as we hustled toward the entrance.

Robby and Pricilla snapped theirs open and ducked underneath like the normal people they are. I, however, began the first of what turned out to be multiple Korea-based, umbrella-related debacles.

It had all started so normally. I’d gripped the umbrella handle with one hand and used the other to push the round plastic runner up toward the spring at the top. That’s where things went awry. The wind got under the umbrella, flipped it inside out, and then by sheer force, snapped the canopy away from the shaft completely. I snatched at it, attempting vainly to reattach it before anyone noticed, but both hopes were in vain.

Pricilla and Robby were already wheezing from under the comfort of their properly opened umbrellas while I flailed about in the rain in my soggy, slapstick attempts to piece the umbrella back together.

I’d been in the country fewer than twenty-four hours, and I’d already broken something.

At least it wasn’t a bone.


Later in the day, before parting ways with us, Robby handed off his functioning umbrella. He wouldn’t let me pay for the broken one.

“It’s fine,” he said. “I have plenty of umbrellas.”

Which did seem to be the case.

Once again with a 1:1 umbrella-to-person ratio, Pricilla and I set out to check a few more sights off our to-do list before making an early evening of it and escaping the foul weather.

“It’s actually not that far to walk from here,” I said in a fit of enormous stupidity. “Why don’t we walk down, and if the weather gets bad again, we can always take the bus back.”

We had only made it a few blocks before the wind and rain kicked back up. People around us scurried into nearby shops to wait out the worst of it. Not us. We were made of sterner stuff. Plus, we had come prepared.

“Umbrellas up!” I crowed to Pricilla.

I wasn’t going to let history repeat itself. I took a firm grip on the handle at the bottom and fitted my hand around the plastic runner, pushing it gently but firmly toward the top of the canopy.

In that moment, the wind got under more than just the umbrella. It also got under my shirt. As I stumbled forward, wrestling the umbrella into submission, the hem of my shirt blew up and plastered itself directly against my collar bones. Desperate not to break a second umbrella in as many hours, I refused to release my death-grip.

“Help!” I crowed foolishly, inadvertently ensuring that the maximum number of people left on the sidewalks would turn to gawk.

They were joined by the line of onlookers who had ducked inside a nearby glass-fronted bookshop to escape the rain, gazing wide-eyed at the hapless foreigner twirling nearly topless down the sidewalk beneath a flapping umbrella.


No matter our plans for each day, Pricilla and I got in the habit of stopping somewhere for afternoon coffee.

Often we chose a Starbucks since they were familiar and also ubiquitous in Seoul; but we also tried a few local chains, one being Angel-in-Us. There, the staff members all wore jaunty brown fedoras with gold bands; and with a mix of English and Korean, we managed to order items more-or-less in line with what we thought we were ordering.

We were in the Sincheon-dong district of Seoul that day. The coffee shop was packed, and the people-watching excellent. Young couples had scooted their seats close together and were sharing Airpods. Clusters of upscale-looking housewives and middle-aged intellectuals engaged in lively discussions. Next to us, a dad and his miniature daughter FaceTimed the grandparents.

It was a whole scene.

In the midst of all this commotion, an oasis of silence.

A twenty-something young man sat at a small table all by himself, one leg crossed neatly over the other, bent studiously over a white-covered hardback novel. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen someone reading with such obvious deliberation. No matter how the sound swelled around him, he never raised his head, never broke his focus.

He also never turned the page.

I leaned forward and squinted.

Oh, yes. That makes more sense.

He’s totally asleep.


For months leading up to our trip, Pricilla and I worked to learn Korean.

Since we only planned to be in the country for ten days, we didn’t have any illusions of making friends or having meaningful conversations, but we did want to avoid being completely helpless. We wanted to ask for directions, make purchases, and understand a bit of what was happening around us.

Our efforts proved successful.

One day, while buying water near Bukchon Hanok Village, I tried out my meager Korean on a store clerk.

Assuming (rightly) that I’m a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language, he started out by nodding at my water bottle and ringing it up. I planned to pay for Pricilla’s water as well and decided now would be the best time to put my language studies to good use.

The rest of this conversation took place in Korean.

Me: Two of them.

Him: (surprised) wahhh!

Me: Please.

Him: [You] speak Korean!

Me: No. Very little.

Him: Very good!

Me: [I’m a] Korean person.

Him: wahhh!

Me: No, [I’m an] American person, LOL.

Him: LOL!


I found that speaking even the tiniest bit of Korean to wait staff, shop keepers, and people on the street seemed to bring out something personable and kinder in each of them. I mean, I guess it makes sense. But it always touched me to see people warm to even our most awkward attempts.

One day, when Pricilla and I stopped for lunch at a sukiyaki restaurant, the woman serving us seemed stand-offish (even a bit surly) until I spoke a few words in Korean. Then her face softened, she looked us directly in the eyes, and she came over to mix my sukiyaki for me as if I were a helpless infant.

Which, by that jet-lagged portion of the afternoon, I actually sort of was.

When we left, she had to chase me down to give me my phone (which I’d left on the table), and we were down the stairs and out on the street before I remembered I’d also left my umbrella in the umbrella stand.

Because for whatever reason, umbrellas in Korea were never not a problem for me.


There’s so much more I could write.

I came home with pages and pages of notes, scribbled furiously in my travel journal at the end of each long day. I love re-reading them. They remind me of what a fun, relaxing, and truly restful holiday this trip to Korea turned out to be.

Umbrellas or no umbrellas.


Guys, somehow it’s mid-November already.

You know what that means.

You get a new book from me in less than a week!

Head Back to School with Rachel Cooper (4)

Unseasonable: A Novel of Sisterhood, Storms, Sunblock, and the Occasional Christmas Celebration releases November 20, 2019.

I can’t wait for you guys to read this one. It was a treat to write, start to finish, and I loved revisiting these beloved characters–especially with Ann in charge.

If you pre-order the e-book today, you will be among the first to clamp your beady little eyes on it when it releases next Wednesday!

Until then, I hope everyone is enjoying a productive and happy fall.

May your hearts be warm, your coffees hot, and (if you’re in Florida, at least), your air conditioners ice cold.

 

 

Why Korea

Last month, I took a ten-day trip to Korea.

Seoul’s a fantastic city to visit. It’s easy to navigate, welcoming, and relatively clean and safe. It was definitely one of the most enjoyable and restful trips I’ve taken in a while.

In the run-up to the trip, however, as I announced my plans, I was faced with an almost universal question: “Why?”

Why the Why?

I’ve traveled internationally a bit. Most places I go, nobody asks why.

The last few years took me to Scotland, New Zealand, England, and France. People invariably told me to have fun seeing the castles, say hi to the Hobbits, pack an umbrella, enjoy the cheese, and take lots of pictures.

“You’re going to have so much fun,” they told me, and “That sounds amazing.”

I did, and it was.

Practically no one spoke this way about my trip to Korea. Instead, they asked why I was going.

Beneath the Question

As to what’s driving the why question, I have a theory.

As a member of Generation X, I came of age in a school system teaching a version of World History that was basically Euro-centric with a few global frills. Our curriculum did reference Asian or African countries, but only as their timelines intersected with the overarching Western narrative. Most of the mentions were war-related and negative.

Until I started traveling the world, I had no sense of the gaps in my education.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve been playing catch-up. I read where I travel and travel where I read.  Sometimes I forget how wide my gap used to be.

Until I’m asked repeatedly why I’m going to Korea.

There’s More

Someone actually articulated it to me like this, “The only thing I know about Korea is the Korean War.”

If war is all you know about a place, then sure. The why question makes sense.

But Korea’s more than a place where a war happened.

Most places are.


My next post will be a series of vignettes from the Korea trip. Things we did, what we saw, and what happened along the way. I just want to clear everything with my travel partner first. Though she’s responsible for zero of the truly embarrassing incidents, she deserves a say in what goes public.


For now, please enjoy a few snippets from my daily travelogue.

Friday, September 6, 2019

4-hour flight, then 14-hour flight, then 1-hour bus ride.

Whole day was a blur. More like a smear.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

We only got lost(ish) twice!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

We walked the route down to the main road correctly for the first time, but because we’d done it wrong so many times, we thought we were lost because nothing looked familiar.

Monday, September 9, 2019

My overconfidence got us lost.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

There’s a Popeye’s near the DMZ! Didn’t get to check if they have the sandwich.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Ramyun, sweet fried chicken, dumplings, hotteok, bindaetteok, knife-cut noodles. Perfect broth, sublimely chewy! I forgot everything else about today except that I have a huge blister.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

A woman in a public restroom at the park gave us paper towels from her purse to wipe our hands with.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Wasted a bunch of time because I thought we were locked out of a building when really the door was push instead of pull. Still want to die as I think about this.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

We sucessfully hiked Bukhansan! Well, I bit it pretty early.  But I didn’t hurt myself. So that’s a success.


The whole trip was a success, really. Other than the push/pull situation. And all the times we got lost.

Plus two incidents with umbrellas.

But that’s for next time.

Seeing What’s There

Last month, two friends and I took a road trip to Montgomery, Alabama.

Our intent was not simply to eat, drink, and be merry, though we did manage to fit those things in as well. Our main purpose was to fill in some gaps in our knowledge of American history. We’d centered this particular trip around hitting some of the historical stops along the Civil Rights Trail.

I’ve always enjoyed seeing locations I’d previously only read about in books. Inevitably, I come away with lessons that only experience can bring. It’s why I so often read where I travel and travel where I’ve read. The realtime learning cycle makes eureka moments nearly inevitable.

On this trip, my keenest realization came not from anything I read in the museums or saw at the memorials. It arose from a deep sense of place.

The evening we arrived in Montgomery, we walked down to the waterfront. On our way back up Commerce Street, I had the first inkling of what was to become my major takeaway.

You don’t need a tour guide to tell you that the city of Montgomery had originally been centered around a single focal point.

Market Square.

As it appears today, the intersection presents as a wide, innocuous traffic circle with a fountain in the center. The night we first approached, it was relatively free of traffic. Quiet and peaceful.

Historically, Market Square was home to Montgomery’s thriving slave market.

This was once the nexus of the city, and when standing in its center, you’re afforded a clear line of sight down Commerce Street to the waterfront, where still rest the crumbling foundations of city’s enormous cotton slide. Pivoting only slightly grants a view up Dexter Avenue to the state Capitol Building at the top of a hill, looming over all.

Standing there in Market Square, I felt the wheel of history slowly swing around us. Laws and regulations handed down from the capitol, goods and slaves streaming up from the waterfront, cotton flowing down the slide.

Though America’s chattel slavery system has been dismantled, Montgomery’s original design still clearly reflects its legacy.

These things weren’t done in a corner, in Montgomery and beyond. The slavery system wasn’t a footnote. It was a focal point.

And it left its mark.

I know I promised you a summer blog series, and here we are at the end of August. It’s not that I forgot. It’s just that my summer took some unexpected turns and disrupted my best-laid plans.

You know how life does.

But look! We’re all still here, and I’m just as happy with the prospect of a fall series as a summer one. My current schedule is much more coherent than my summer one was, and I look forward to leveraging that cohesiveness for our mutual advantage.

Catch you on the flippity flip!

Publication Announcement

New Book

You asked. I listened.

Coming in December 2019 from Pelican Book Group:

Unseasonable: A Novel of Sisterhood, Storms, Sunblock, and the Occasional Christmas Celebration

Ann Cooper does not panic. From her demanding job training horses to her family role of keeping tabs on her high-maintenance sister, Ann remains cool, calm, and collected at all times. This holiday season, however, Ann’s fortitude will be tested like never before. Not only is she pondering a potential shift in an important relationship, but she’s also facing the prospect of riding out an unseasonable hurricane with the doubtful help of her sister Rachel. This December, Ann’s patience and faith will both be stretched. Will the risks involved in taking a leap of faith outweigh the possible rewards?

Fans of the Collapsible trilogy can look forward to meeting plenty of old friends in these pages, as well as some fresh faces; but since this is a straight-up spin-off, new readers will have no trouble quickly orienting themselves in Ann’s world. (Ann’s world is extremely oriented.)

This book was an absolute treat to write, and I can’t wait to get it in front of your beady little eyes.

More info when I have it!

(Tip: Subscribers always know first.)


You’ve all been very patient as my blogging frequency dropped during the first half of 2019. Now that you know why I trust you’ll forgive me.

Because NEW BOOK!

I look forward to posting some reflections from my recent trip to Montgomery and a short series before the summer is over.

Happy Friday, everybody! Until we meet again, may your A/C be cool, your coffee hot, and your hearts warm.

 

5 Original Poems for Literary Lonely-Hearts

We’re creeping up on Valentine’s Day 2019, and I’m celebrating by posting some original poetry. It’s mostly satirical and based on literary spoilers, so manage your expectations accordingly.


Read Between the Lines:

A Love Song for Literary Lonely-Hearts

Scrooge is in his counting house, counting all his money;

Pooh is down at Rabbit’s place, eating all the honey;

Pippa’s singing her sweet song, tripping through the dew;

While I’m still sitting lonely here thinking, dear, of you.

Catherine’s up to her old tricks, wandering ‘cross the moors;

Aragorn’s at the Black Gate, kicking down the doors;

The Mariner still tells his tale of bird and ship and sea;

While I’m still pining, dear, for you. Can’t you pine for me?

Atticus is in the road, sighting down the barrel;

Mary’s Apple Cart Upset left her with Yellow Peril;

Beowulf foams ‘cross the waves, plowing the whale-road;

While I’m still sending signals, dear, in hopes that you’ll decode.

Poirot strokes his long mustaches, chasing a loose end;

Viola’s dressed like a boy, but it’s just pretend;

Fred and George go out in style, kicking up a fuss

While here we be, still you and me. When will we be us?


Stopping by Woods on a Saucy Evening:

A Frost/Millay Mashup

Whose lips I’ve kissed, I think you know.

My husband’s still home sleeping, though.

He will not see me stopping here,

Recalling long-forgotten beaux.

My heart throbs quietly with pain,

Rememb’ring those brave lads again.

Now they’ve all vanished, one by one:

Like flitting birds, they’ve come and gone.

Where once their summer sang through me,

Now stand I here, a frost-stripped tree.

These woods are lonely, dark and deep,

And I have promises to keep

To my new bridegroom, home asleep.

To my new bridegroom, home asleep.


The Doomed Romance of Fiction

Rochester proposed to Jane

With his wife upstairs.

Rapunzel’s storied love led her

To sacrifice her hair.

Macbeth’s sweet spouse seduced him

Into grisly, blood-soaked killing.

Dimmesdale didn’t merit love,

But Hester Prynne proved willing.

Alas, for luckless Oedepus,

Who gouged out his own eyes

Upon the revelation

That his wife’s his mom.

(Surprise!)

Oh, single friends and married friends

And those midway ‘tween labels,

Enlist in this, my festal song.

(Please harmonize, if able.)

Lift loud and long in lusty praise

And highly-stylized diction

In thanks that we, at least,

Don’t bear the doomed romance of fiction.


Ladies, Best Stay Single:

An Ironic Love Song Based on Literary Spoilers

Sir Percy’s vows to Margurite

Were based on a deception.

Darcy and Elizabeth

Embodied misconception.

While Rochester wooed gentle Jane,

He hid a wife upstairs.

If these be paragons of love,

Then, ladies, say your prayers.

Poor loving Desdomona

Was strangled by her mate.

Petruchio retained the right

To boss and roughhouse Kate.

When Juliet wed Romeo,

It ended in her death.

If these be paragons of love,

Then, girls, don’t hold your breath.

Alex/Angel (pick a name!)

Ruined Tess’s life.

Claudio shamed Hero

‘Stead of taking her to wife.

Benedick and Beatrice

Let love and hate comingle.

If these be paragons of love,

Then, ladies, best stay single.


Love Song for a Very Specific Type of Nerd

Tesla was a little nuts;

Also, he is dead.

Faramir has passed to myth.

Captain Wentworth’s wed.

Chamberlain sleeps in the grave.

“M’sieur le maire” is fake.

If they were only here and now,

What valentines they’d make!

Ida Wells? A total boss.

Harriet Tubman? Same.

Alas! They’re gone – like Boudica,

One even Rome can’t tame.

Earhart’s vanished; Ella’s dead;

Farewell, Madame Curie.

If they were only here and now,

What valentines they’d be!

Marguerite St. Just, Nat Eaton,

Ned, Galadriel.

Aragorn of Arathorn,

Sayers, Sabriel.

Nathan Coulter, Frederick Douglass,

Flannery O’Connor.

If they were only here and now,

I’m sure we’d all be goners!


If you’ve followed me around blogging platforms over the years, you’ll no doubt recognize a few of these poems from Valentine’s Days past. This year, I thought it would be fun to pull them together into one place. Feel free to share them with fellow literary lonely hearts and add your own poems to the pile. Whether love songs or laments, they’re all welcome here!

In other news, this month Amazon selected my novel Collapsible: A Novel of Friendship, Broken Bones, Coffee, Shenanigans, and the Occasional Murder as a featured Kindle Monthly Deal. The e-book will be discounted to $1.99 through February. It’s a good time to snag your copy or recommend the books to friends!

Who's ready for a trip to Florida_

Happy Monday, everyone! May your coffee be hot, your tempers cool, and your toes snug in some fuzzy socks. For my Florida friends, enjoy this beautiful winter weather. For my Polar Vortex friends, please stay warm!

Or, you know, come see us.

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