Year in Review: Books

Somehow I managed to do quite a bit of reading this year–in spite of being a grad student. The month of May helped tremendously–with a reduced work schedule and the kind of weather that made the deck an inviting place to sit and read. According to, I’ve finished 22 books so far this year (ahead of my 18 from last year). I’m hoping to push that number to 25, but I may or may not have the time to make that happen.

Anyhoo…..I thought I’d share my recommendations for books from what I read this year. Here goes, in no particular order.

1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.

I must confess that I listened to this book–I thought it might make navigating all the Swedish names a little easier. I can’t be sure the publisher included a pronunciation guide. Besides, Simon Vance is a phenomenal reader for an audio book. He has a wonderful British accent (which makes any book easier to read, I think) and delineates the characters beautifully as he narrates. The plot itself–though not family friendly–truly is captivating and it’s hard to step away. Mikael Blomkvist is a once-respected independent journalist who drastically alters his life when his profession crumbles. Amid an offer from an old-school tycoon who can help clear Blomkvist’s name is a job requiring Blomkvist to find answers surrounding the disappearance of the tycoon’s family member who’s been gone nearly four decades. Blomkvist also begrudgingly enlists the help of one Lisbeth Salander, a misunderstood genius with a penchant for technology and body ink. If you learn nothing else about Lisbeth, it’s that you want to stay on her good side.

My vote: either pick it up and read it or download from Audible or iTunes and enjoy. The only regret is that Larsson is no longer alive to keep bringing us such complex and layered books that one simply cannot put down.

2. Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America by Helen Thorpe

I picked this up on a whim I think. I was looking for books that dealt with gender issues, and this one included some multi-culturalism, too. I just didn’t think I would get as sucked in as I did. As the title suggests, Thorpe follows 4 adolescent girls as they make their way through high school in the Denver area (which has a shockingly large number of Mexican immigrants). Two girls are here without documentation–having come across the border with their parents when they were children. Two girls are here with documentation. All four are bright and driven, with their own ideas about the shape of their futures. The problem is, when you’re undocumented, your future is limited. Thorpe balances the narratives of these four girls with the political issues at play in Denver, in Colorado and in the rest of the country. This book, in its sum total, also provides a rationale for why legislation such as the DREAM Act is important.

Just like us was a delightful surprise to read. It was eye-opening and infuriating to know that bright, driven young men and women who came to this country illegally as children (because they came with adults who made the decision to do so) have no means to citizenship or a productive future. It also gives a unique argument for immigration legislation that’s as fair as it can be.

3. Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale by Ian Morgan Cron

You may already know about this book because I read it as a reviewer. The adjective for the year (captivating) applies here as well. Megachurch pastor Chase Falcon has recently begun to question not only his faith but also his role as lead pastor in a large evangelical church where pat answers no longer suffice. The church leadership has suggested that Chase take some time off to get his head on straight. After a few days, Chase packs his bags and heads to Italy, off on a pilgrimage of chasing and learning from the life of St. Francis of Assisi. With the help of some easy-going and colorful friars, a church member who’s the mother of the child who recently died (prompting the shake-up of Chase’s faith), and the writings of Francis himself, Chase discovers more about himself and a new kind of faith–a faith that can take him home and sustain him–even as the church leadership–and a manipulating youth minister–make some decisions regarding Chase’s job.

If you’ve ever questioned your faith, been kicked around by church, been kicked out of or disgruntled by church or need a virtual pilgrimage to renew your own faith–and challenge you in ways you might never have expected–this book is worth reading…perhaps even more than once.

4. War by Sebastian Junger

I’ve chosen several books lately that give more insight into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This one and one other make the list for this year–but there are more on the shelf…so stay tuned.

Working as a mental health provider–and potentially doing an internship in a counseling center that services the military (among others), I thought getting some more insight into the war in Afghanistan would be helpful. Even if the same is not true for you, this book delivers–in many different ways. Junger goes on the ground with a platoon of the 173rd Airborne brigade in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley–the hottest region in the war. He proves to us that war is, indeed, hell, but that it’s also captivating to many who choose to fight. Junger tells the stories of these men–and his experiences with them–and gives the reader a glimpse into the psyche of a soldier in combat–and why it’s so hard to leave the Valley and return home to their mundane lives stateside. It’s also not hard to understand why so many soldiers return with PTSD. Living in a corner of hell while constantly having to be hypervigilant–because you never know when the insurgents will start firing–is enough to make the sanest man crazy after a time. If you want to know more about what it’s like for our troops in Afghanistan, pick this one up and read it. You won’t regret it.

5. Unhooked by Laura Sessions Stepp

I put this one in the stack with my gender reading that I started this summer. If you’ve been a college student–or spent time with women who are–in the past 10 years, you are probably well aware of the culture of “hooking up” that is so prevalent among adolescents everywhere. Hooking up is a loose phrase that encompasses anything from making out with the guy or girl you just met at the bar or frat party to heading home for a one-night stand–or friends with benefits. The problem is, sex is more than a physical act–and engaging in sexual activity on a whim actually influences the nature of romantic relationships experienced by this age group–and not necessarily for the better.

Stepp follows several girls–both in high school and in college (some at nearby Duke U.)–as they experience this culture of hooking up and what it means for them as young women and as young women seeking a long term relationship some day. If you work with young women or have a daughter, this book is a MUST read. And hopefully it will provide more insight than it does freak you out.

6. Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men by Michael Kimmel

Just as Unhooked gave insight into at least a portion of the world of adolescent girls, Guyland goes one better and runs the gamut for adolescent boys. Starting with a definition of the Guy Code (including the infamous Bros before Hos), Kimmel runs the gamut of boys in high school, hazing rituals, binge drinking, sports, pornography, hooking up and even predatory sex/party rape. For those of you who are men who have navigated this part of your lives, you will probably not be at all surprised at what you find here. For those of you who are women, it’s an eye-opening description of what it means for young men to come of age here and now. It’s a complement to Unhooked and other books about young women, and this and Unhooked should probably be read in tandem. The two provide a lot of insight about each gender and the ways we can help them come of age–and relate to the other–in a way that is healthy. Again, if you work with adolescent boys in any capacity, if you parent one, if you have a daughter who’s interested in one, READ THIS BOOK.

7. The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids by Alexandra Robbins

I picked this one partly for professional reasons. It resonated for personal ones. Robbins–as per her style–follows and shares the stories of several high school students working to get into college (and some once they’re there). It’s shocking what parents will do to and for their children to ensure they have the option to attend the best colleges. It’s  not so shocking (because I watched it in my own high school) what students themselves will do to make themselves the most attractive candidates. Peppered with facts, figures, and some commentary on test scores, college rankings, AP classes and parental pressure, The Overachievers delivers a compelling story and argument for re-evaluating the emphasis on becoming the best and the brightest. Because in the end, it seems that much of what these kids do is never, ever enough.

8. Imaginary Jesus by Matt Mikalatos

The Apostle Peter punches Jesus in the face and then runs out of a coffee shop. And that’s just the first few pages. It’s the “not quite true” story of Mikalatos himself as he interacts with–and sometimes chases–various Jesuses, in a quest for a more meaningful relationship with the living, historical Jesus of Nazareth. Meanwhile, the reader gets to meet a talking donkey, Magic 8 Ball Jesus, Harley Jesus and Liberal Social Services Jesus–among others. It’s at times irreverent and probably not as gutsy as it could be. It’s funny and poignant and thought-provoking in a unique way, calling the reader to consider one’s own version of Jesus–and how that manifestation makes us comfortable (or not) with the faith life we have–as well as the faith life we could have if we’d only dispense with our imaginary Jesuses.

9. Sniper One: On Scope and Under Siege with a Sniper Team in Iraq by Dan Mills

This one was also on that list of books about Iraq and Afghanistan. Sniper One actually follows a British unit stuck with the not so easy task of policing al-Amarah–the center of support for Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. It was supposed to be a peacekeeping mission. It turned into full on combat. Mills eloquently describes what it’s like to work as a sniper team and how different troops deal with their job. Sniper One is another look into the psyche of troops living in a place that seems to never be at peace–but loving their job all the while. Sprinkled with the irreverent humor of snipers and combat troops, and describing military operations in which you want to stand up and cheer when the “enemy” takes a hit, this book proves that, even in November of 2003, this war was far from over.

10. The Mark of the Assassin by Daniel Silva

I became interested in Daniel Silva when I read the plot summary for Moscow Rules, which centers on the spy Gabriel Allon. But I like to go in order when there’s a specific protagonist, so I started at the beginning of Silva’s work (The Unlikely Spy–nothing to do with Allon but still a great book about WWII spies). This was his second published work and was just as thrilling as the first one. Here, CIA agent Michael Osborne attempts to locate the terrorists who shot down an airliner of the coast of Long Island. The problem is, there’s an assassin on the loose who has Osborne on his list…and a love story at the center as Osborne tries to reconcile his past with his present…and his wife. This book takes you all over the world with stops in Cairo, Amsterdam, London and DC. It’s a great romp that keeps you hooked from the beginning and doesn’t let go. I can’t wait to read the next one.

Honorable mention:

Literacy and Longing in LA by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack

It’s an honorable mention because I’m only half-way through it…but I have enjoyed feasting on this brilliant piece of chicklit. Twice divorced, former reporter 35 year old Dora is depressed, leaving her house only to stalk her former second husband and buy books. Some people drink. Some people shop. Some people binge eat. Dora goes on book binders, sequestered in her apartment amid stacks of books she’s reading–or re-reading. On one of her trips to the bookstore, Dora meets and begins a courtship with Fred, one of the employees. Although I’m not there yet, it seems like it might not be so much her relationship with Fred as with his mother that saves her in the end.

Paragraph of the book so far:

“I collect new books the same way my girlfriends buy designer handbags. Sometimes, I just like to know I have them and actually reading them is beside the point. Not that I don’t eventually end up reading them one by one. I do. But the mere act of buying them makes me happy–the world is more promising, more fulfilling. It’s hard to explain, but I feel, somehow, more optimistic. The whole act just cheers me up.”

I get that. And if you are a bibliophile, you do, too.

Happy reading and stay tuned for my list for next year…which will likely include books from this year because I certainly didn’t get to all of them.


2010 Year in Review

My 30th year (or the 2010 year in review)

This year seems to have passed by, quickly and under the radar…and when I think about all that’s happened, I shouldn’t be too surprised. So here goes the 2010/age 30 round-up:

I did my first marathon…got my first tattoo…survived a semester with two practica…attended soccer games for my child…ran my first 10K in Charleston…smashed my 10K time in VA Beach…finally got my child the resources he needs to catch up and be successful in school…took a family trip to Williamsburg…took another trip to DC…finally went to the Holocaust museum (I’d been wanting to go since it opened my junior year in high school)…saw the Newseum…revisited powerful monuments…took in the city…navigated my family through the metro…went to the beach…survived the hottest summer on record of late…lost some weight…found some muscle…read some really good books…started a dissertation…had it scrapped four months later…fought (and lost) more dissertation battles (I’m just hoping to win the war)…was introduced to Anusara yoga by my sister in love and have gone to a class almost every week since…sent my child off to high school…got ready to attend wrestling matches and then he broke his arm…cleaned out the closet in my home office twice (and it needs another two rounds)…had a lot of family time…squeezed in a half-marathon…did a total of five races this year…celebrated Thanksgiving in a different way…had work done on our house…broke the book embargo…started shifting my taste buds away from coffee and to hot tea…discovered the beauty of Brooks shoes…made new friends…renewed bonds with old friends…finished my last required class for this degree…met a lot of new babies (all girls)…left church…found church…saw my husband get a job that went along with his calling…did honest to God therapy in a university counseling center…beat my head against a wall…and a desk…posted links…shook my fist at the Wake Co. school board, NC voters and Westboro Baptist Church…increased the tweeting…started Insanity…had the best birthday (31st) I’ve had since Mom died…got selfish…reached out…prayed a little more…opened to grace…mellowed a bit…borrowed books from others I have yet to return…did a Warrior Dash…contemplated giving up football…discovered the beauty of the salted caramel hot chocolate…had only one pumpkin spice latte…broke bread with some really great people…spent more time in the kitchen…realized my level of competence…and how far I have to go…

Counter Culture Christmas

It’s Christmas morn (for another 4 minutes or so), and everyone at my house is watching Casino Royale. Because nothing says Christmas like James Bond.


I’m contemplating the differences in this Christmas compared to those past. Ryan was the designated elf who sifted through the presents to hand them out–and there seemed to be fewer this year. Or smaller. I’m not sure…maybe both. Al and I purchased our gifts for one another early. One we’ve taken advantage of already, and the other (a massage) will be used at some point soon. Ryan only asked for a handful of things, and was remarkably easy to shop for. Al passed around his Amazon wish list. I asked for people to donate to a charity of my choosing.


So I didn’t have any presents under the tree. Well…except for one. Dad found a present that he said he couldn’t pass up–a very special one that reminded him of Mom and I. And so I had a present. A very special, meaningful, bring tears to my eyes present.


It occurred to me on Christmas Eve–and again this morning–that I wouldn’t have a present to open. And I felt, very honestly, conflicted by that. Growing up, even when things were tight, I never knew it on Christmas morning. My parents were always very generous with me. Now, as an adult, I like lavishing gifts on others. And perhaps I did that more for my extended family this year than my immediate one. But I’m OK with that. The immediate family gathered here is quite content with their gifts–and James Bond.


My point is, this Christmas this year doesn’t feel lavish–in terms of what was under the tree. But maybe that’s the way it should be. It is, after all, our very consumerist, marketing society that suggests the importance of all the stuff. And perhaps we’ve taken a page from the playbook of the first Christmas, where lots of extravagant planning and events came together–and we want to re-create that magic. Nothing wrong with that.


I did feel a little let down by the lack of present opening or piles of wrapping paper after the scourge. But only a little. Because it was fun to make my child happy and give fun and meaningful gifts to others–and receive a meaningful gift in return. And to know that a children’s home in another part of the world can pay part of their heating bill.


In talking with a friend this year, she shared that she wanted family to give her children experiences as opposed to stuff. I like that idea. And I’m gonna steal it. We actually were on the receiving end of that this year, with friends giving the three of us an all day pass to everything the US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte has to offer. And we can’t wait.


So more of that. More experiences. More giving to people who really need it. More giving meaningful stuff. Less stuff overall. Because I think that’s more of what this season is about. Even if I am in the minority…on this point.


Where I fell into the majority: I did buy into the busyness of the season. I did accept my limitations and scrap the Christmas letter. However, the marathon cookie baking took place–even more so at marathon pace this time. Everyone in my house has been sick and I feel like I’ve been steamrolled by the whole thing. I was again the one to wrap the presents, bake the cookies, do the grocery shopping–and the present shopping/ordering. Begrudgingly at times. Which is not at all what Christmas should be about. Apparently, I need to take a page from a different playbook on that one. Hopefully I will. Next year.


I keep hoping that the more I try to change my approach to Christmas, the more natural it will feel to do so.

Races and a Racing Bucket List

I think I promised this a month or so ago…finally I have a chance to write it.


I’m getting together with Robin next week to have lunch and shop and do what we do…but we’re also pulling out calendars to talk about next year’s races.

On my docket for spring:

Krispy Kreme Challenge–even ESPN gets in on this action. Run 2 miles, scarf a donut or 12, run 2 miles back. The challenge: Keep it down.

American Tobacco Trail 13.1–the inaugural half/full marathon was this past March and it got great reviews from folks. The t-shirt design could use a major improvement, but the course is flat and pretty fast…perfect for that 13.1 PR.

Cooper River Bridge Run (10K)–if you’ve never run this race, you should. It’s one of the largest races in. the. world. And taking out that bridge is a great feeling.

Tarheel 10-miler–ends in Kenan Stadium…enemy territory. Fortunately, they let supporters of other ACC teams crash the party. You can bet I’ll be blowin’ in with my red, white and black.


And that’s all I got right now. Which means, according to Rob, that we gotta find a January race…and another one in May. We’ll see about that. I like that I’m keeping it local-ish for the spring. And I guess I should start registering for some of this nonsense.


And now for the list of races I want to run some day:

The Goofy Challenge: Run the Donald Duck 13.1 on Saturday and then run the Mickey Mouse 26.2 the next day. The pay-off: THREE medals…one Donald, one Mickey and one Goofy. Oh…and I think you might even get three shirts, too….


The Flying Pig Marathon (Cincinnati): you get a t-shirt with a flying pig on it. Why WOULDN’T you?


The Portland Marathon (Oregon): mostly flat, the city’s waterfront, cool temps, a bridge (surprisingly, I don’t hate them after this year), Mt. Hood, Mt. S. Helens, and really great schwag. And maybe I can work in a Kane concert at Dante’s, too.


Army 10-Miler (Washington DC): It sells out in about 30 hours. That’s saying something. Start at the Pentagon, cross the Potomac, run the mall, see the monuments, head back over the river. And it’s only 10 miles, unlike….

The Marine Corps Marathon (also DC): I really like DC. And you get to see more of the city on foot this way. And a marine drapes the medal around your neck at the finish line.

And speaking of medals…

Nike Women’s Marathon (San Francisco): The finisher’s medal is a Tiffany necklace. It’s put around your neck by a fireman in a tux. Hills? What hills?


ING New York City Marathon: “If there’s a chance you’ll run only one marathon, it has to be New York.” Well, I said that about Disney, but EVERYONE says that about New York. Guess I’m gonna have to make it happen some day. Besides, I’ve never been to the Big Apple.

***Note, I will not qualify. I will fund raise or enter by lottery. May I remind you all that I’m an ox?


Boston Marathon: I thought I’d never be able to run this one. Ever. (See previous note about qualifying) But then I learned you can fund raise your way in. Score. I’ll be sure to hit all of you up for donations.


The Publix Georgia 13.1. It’s sponsored by Publix and it’s in Atlanta. I call that a no-brainer.


Myrtle Beach Mini-marathon. By mini, they mean 13.1 miles. But the medal this past year was a surf board that doubled as a bottle opener.


Virginia is for Lovers 14K: it’s part of the J & A Racing group‘s race line-up in VA Beach. It’s flat and they have REALLY good schwag.

Speaking of VA Beach: I’m thinking one year I need to do the race challenge: Wicked 10K, Surf-N-Santa 10 miler, VA is for Lovers 14K and Shamrock 13.1 or 26.2. You do all that, and the prize this time around was a cooler and a pint glass.


I will run for some schwag. And beer. There has to be good beer.


Men’s Health Urbanathlon: Road race meets obstacle course from hell. It looks AWESOME.


And maybe some day I’ll tackle a half-ironman. Maybe.


So there’s the list. And there may be more to come. I have some people trying to suck me into the USMC Mud Run in SC and the Tough Mudder (Google that SOB…unh uh).

Any takers?

Chasing Francis

Chasing Francis by Ian Cron is a novel about a burned out pastor (Chase) of an evangelical mega-church who embarks on a pilgrimage on the other side of the world–chasing St. Francis of Assisi. Along the way, he learns what it means to broaden his view of the Divine, how to find God in all things, that we’re all connected in strange and mysterious ways, that worship is important but doing it in a space with stadium seating isn’t, Catholics and Protestants have much to learn from one another, that God is intimately concerned with all of God’s creatures (that we should be too), and that sometimes you have to leave the old to make something new.


This book was powerfully endorsed by folks such as Phyllis Tickle (“absolutely seductive…a feast for the soul as well as a great, churning, joyful romp for the spirit”), Marcus Borg (“I was powerfully and wonderfully moved by this story”), and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams (“I’ve now read it twice and found it equally compelling both times”).


It lived up to these endorsements and more.


Perhaps it’s because of my own stage of life and faith that made me open to this book and that made this book so compelling to me. I was captivated by Chase’s story–because I, too, am disgruntled with the current institution we call church. I was captivated by his journey and the notion of pilgrimage for myself. I was reminded of the way in which the saints before us–and those living among us–care for the poor every day, in ways that I don’t know if I ever could but am called to try. I found this book to be a captivating narrative as a novel and a thought-provoking commentary on church and the differences in the ways we are called to live and how we actually do live.


A great read and one I’ve already recommended to a half dozen people whose stories may benefit from the weaving of this one.


This is a book review for Speak Easy. No money exchanged hands for this review, but I do get to keep my (free) copy of the book. Hot dang.