Christmas Eve 2020


Cradled in morning’s solitude
by sofa cushions
and the sleeping dog,
I watch bright rays stretch over rooftops
while tasting cold, creamy cereal
and warm, tangy tea.
I hear the carol
waltz out of the speakers,
feeling emotion rise on the melody
and fall in wet drops of relief
and gratitude
at the annunciation:
          “Sing it out loud
          Sing it out clear
          Christmas is here”1
I needed this assurance
in a year of misgiving.


Spurred by the clamoring chimes,
I chop cranberries,
zest oranges,
cream butter and sugar.
Thrilled by the sweet silver bells
          “Throw cares away
          Christmas is here
          Bringing good cheer”2
I abandon the mixing bowl on the kitchen counter
and blithely dance to the
ding, dong – ding, dong.
I’m not efficient in my baking, but
I am deliciously happy.


Driving across the plateau into the hills,
I marvel.
The half-moon’s expectant glow
makes the cold dark shimmer.
Jupiter and Saturn slow dance
as their conjunction’s afterglow lingers.
A gentle hand reaches for mine.
          “Do you see what I see?
          Do you see what I see
          Way up in the sky little lamb?”3
My Beloved’s presence begets conversation
and contented silence
through the hours of travel.
I am favored
to make this holiday pilgrimage.


Standing tall and broad behind me
after supper
Dad cloaks me in a hug.
Held in his embrace,
I am found safe,
generously fortified,
just for the virtue of being here.
          “Grateful for this sheltered place
          With light in every window
          Saying welcome, welcome share this feast”4
I would endeavor any journey
for such a homecoming.


Deserting the slumber party
of cousins, aunts and uncles
camped around the Christmas tree,
Beloved and I retreat.
Downstairs the vacant den welcomes us
and we celebrate
our sweet tradition:
          two books
          one chocolate bar,
          exchanged and shared
          between us alone.
In mutual society
we are life partners,
book lovers,
and dark chocolate devotees.
We savor
Bourbon Cask Aged Raaka.
We set off
literary fireworks with volumes of weird fiction and poetry.
We revel
in delighting the one heart knit to our own.
          “Come darkness, come light
          Come new star, shining bright
          Come love to this world tonight
I am awed by this holy day.


1 “Christmas Is Here” by Geron Davis
2 “Carol of the Bells” by Peter J. Wilhousky
3 “Do You Hear What I Hear?” by Noel Regney
4 “Thanksgiving Song” by Mary Chapin Carpenter
5 “Come Darkness, Come Light” by Mary Chapin Carpenter

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The Four Sisters

2020June28There is a stand of trees just a little way off in the neighbor’s yard. I call it The Four Sisters. Not counting the brilliant sunsets and the holy moon, these trees are the most captivating piece of nature in my view from the guest house patio. I can tell they are deciduous, but I don’t recognize the shape of these trees. Since I can’t get closer to glean more details, The Four Sisters flaunt an air of mystery as they nod to each other.

Last Friday was a good day in many respects. Getting to exercise is always a good start for my days and in addition to that, I managed to make a quick stop at the grocery store and still get to work early. All of my work appointments went well and I finished all the paperwork that was due that day. I ate dinner at the office so I wouldn’t miss meeting up with some friends via Zoom at the appointed time.

While all these external aspects of life went well, for much of the day my internal emotional landscape was tumultuous, a churning storm of sadness with flashes of anger and rumbles of despair. It made it difficult to engage in the dinner conversation at times. It made me restless and agitated on the drive back to the guest house afterward.

Arriving home for the night, I stepped out of my van into an irresistible summer night. So after unloading my things, I headed for the back patio. The waxing crescent moon provided a surprising amount of light and I easily navigated out into the grassy yard. Then I heard it–the voices of The Four Sisters, rising and falling on the wind. Enthralled by the sound, I made my way to the lone pine tree near the north fence. Together we stood silently, listening to the irregular meter of the gentle lullaby The Four Sisters chanted. Soon my restless emotions stilled and I felt grounded again, grateful to be held in nature’s embrace.

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Book Review: American Panda by Gloria Chao


My personal rating: 5 out of 5

My three sentence synopsis: Mei Lu is doing her best to stay on the track her Taiwanese parents set for her: attend an Ivy League school, become a doctor, and marry a successful Taiwanese man. But the longer she’s at MIT, the more difficult this becomes as Mei struggles with her overwhelming fear of germs and her growing attraction to Darren Takahashi, a handsome Japanese classmate. Figuring out how to honor the sacrifices her parents made for her without forfeiting herself is not so black and white for this Taiwanese-American girl.

The first morsel of prose: The stench of the restaurant’s specialty walloped my senses as soon as I entered. Even with seventeen years of practice, I didn’t have a fighting chance against a dish named stinky tofu. I gagged.
My mother sniffed and smiled. “Smells like home.”
Mmm. Who doesn’t love the scent of athlete’s foot with lunch? I held a fist to my face, desperately inhaling the pomegranate scent of my hand sanitizer.
She swapped my hand down. “Don’t touch your face, Mei. Give yourself pimples for no reason. There are no ugly women. Only lazy women.”
In my head, I counted to ten in English, then Mandarin. Two more hours, three tops.

The reason I chose this book: Four weeks ago I was attempting to get home in the wake of the lockdown being used to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. I wanted a book that would take my mind off the long hours of airplane travel, make me laugh, and remind me that happy endings do exist.

My experience with this book: I loved this book! Despite being twice as old as Mei and my family having lost their immigrant identity generations ago, her journey of coming to terms with her parents’ expectations and her own desires for herself really resonated with me. I think we can experience the friction of expectations (from society, institutions, or family members) vs our personal values and identities in many seasons of life, not just adolescence. Author Gloria Chao enabled me to really live inside Mei’s skin (one of the perks of good fiction). Chao also gets points from me for making the romance sweet and believable, not eye-roll inducing. I loved that the story showed the evolution of several of Mei’s relationships, not just her and Darren, as she began to live more authentically.

I highly recommend listening to this as audiobook. Emily Woo Zeller made the Chinese words and phrases come alive for this non-Mandarin reader. Zeller’s delivery also highlighted the humor of Mei’s internal monologue and verbal jabs.

I will offer one caveat for this book: if you prefer your language in books to be G or PG-rated, this may not be your cup of tea. There’s a fair amount of f-bombs, sh*t, and similar phrases throughout.

What this book is about: Finding the courage to answer the question, “What do I want?” and be honest about that; reconciling different experiences and parts of yourself.

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Some art classes include an exercise in which a photograph is place upside down in front of the students and they have to draw or paint the photo from that perspective. At the end, the photo and the art pieces are all turned right side up and the students can see how well they’ve represented what the photographer captured. Often, students find they were better able to copy this photo than previous examples. That’s because when we encounter objects we recognize, we don’t really “see” them in all their unique aspects and components; we see our mind’s idea or label of them. Turning a photo upside down makes the objects in it less recognizable and we’re forced to look at things as they actually are instead of what we assume or expect them to be.


Our whole way of life has been turned upside down in this pandemic. For some of us, aspects of our lives are jarringly altered. For others, our whole lives are almost unrecognizable from what they were before. It’s scary and stressful. We feel grief at the loss of the familiar in our present lives along with the grief of shattered expectations for the future. It is hard to navigate our lives in the upside down.


One of the ways I am coping with this altered experience of daily life is taking time for reflection. Peering into this gazing pool of sorts, I begin to question my assumptions as I am forced to examine aspects of my life from a new angle. The different rhythm of these days gives me space to notice what I didn’t allow time for in the past and how things truly affect me instead of being too busy to see the correlations between what’s going on in my life and how I’m feeling. In reflection, I find better ways of doing and being, discover what I drawn to when a significant amount of expectations are removed. I am grateful for this silver lining in the pandemic that has clouded the last three weeks.

In the midst of the pain and fear, I encourage you to grasp whatever moments of reflection you can. You may discover incredibly valuable treasures you can carry with you on the other side of this crisis. As Dave Hollis said, “In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.”


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Loose Ends


Tails of brown, lavender, and mint green yarn along the edge of crocheted afghan, my latest creation.

I’m a sucker for the number “1″, especially if it’s on a calendar page. It’s the siren song of beginnings for me, a chance for a fresh start on new adventure or a renewed attempt at a previously failed project. Like an fresh blanket of trackless snow, the first day of the month excites me with all it’s unblemished potential!

But in reality, the calendar is an artificial construct. It’s a (mostly) agreed upon convenience for cataloging our journey through time. The calendar has no portent of in and of itself, but only the significance we bestow on it. And sometimes I let other people assign their significance and standards to my days. It may be something silly like buying donuts on the first Friday of June for National Donut Day. But sometimes it feels more important like the motivational videos that claim if I want to make this year better than last year I have to make a plan January 1st and start working on it immediately!

One of the lessons I was given in 2019 that I’m still working to master is the importance of choosing to live my own life, not the life some other person or society at large thinks I should live. As a perfectionist being obsessed with THE Right Way to do anything, I was often trying to validate myself by meeting external standards, usually without regard for what I truly wanted or even needed. As a recovering perfectionist, I recognize there are many ways to do any given thing, and I’m setting aside the question “What is THE Right Way to do ___________?” Instead, I ask myself, “Is this what I truly want to do? If it is, what is a way to do it that works well for me?”

Case in point, starting a bunch of new things in January doesn’t work well for me. It’s not that I don’t have new ideas for what I want to do this year, but rather that I need to tie up some loose ends and put some old things to rest so I am free to fully pursue the new dreams I have. So while my pot of dreams for 2020 simmers on the back burner of my mind, I’m putting away Christmas decorations, cleaning out my office, and finishing an incomplete blog post from 2019. I’m even tying up some literal loose ends on the last baby afghan I crocheted. As I do these things, my feelings of being overwhelmed diminish, my discouraging self-talk fades, and I find myself gaining momentum and optimism for new projects. With any luck, I’ll be able to give my full attention to those 2020 dreams on February 1st. But if not, I’ll start on the 9th, because it doesn’t matter what number I start on; it only matters that I get started!

So here’s my blessing on your New Year: may you do what works well for you in this season of your life, regardless of what other people are doing in this season.

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A New Scarf for Me!

It all started with this.


A luscious cake of rainbow striped yarn!

A skein of vibrant blue, purple, pink, yellow, and orange fuzzy yarn. The kind of yarn that begs to be touched and caressed against your cheek.

I should have been working on Christmas stockings. But I’d been working on them for more than a year and every time I thought about sitting down with this project last fall, it felt like…more work. I needed a break. Something fun. Something for me. (The vast majority of my crochet projects in recent years have been gifts for other people.) So I bought this Restful Rainbow skein of Lion Brand Shawl In A Cake and began scouring the internet for the “Perfect Pattern” for this bewitching yarn.

I knew I wanted a scarf (as opposed to a shawl) and once I found the Spring Market Mod Scarf pattern, it was easy to imagine wearing my own version with this gorgeous self-striping yarn. I began diligently crocheting this new project in an effort to finish my scarf in time to get back to completing the stockings before Christmas.

As the scarf took shape, the yarn worked up just as beautifully as I’d hoped! In my excitement, I even justified buying a new sweater in “just the right shade of blue to set it off”. Alas, it soon became apparent that the yarn the pattern was originally designed with created taller stitches than the yarn I was using did. Thus my scarf would be far short of the length needed to wear it in the way I’d envisioned. I tried adding extra rows (24 to be exact!), but in the end, even that addition didn’t create the full length of the original pattern. Plus, 12 of those extra rows contained increases, which made the center of the scarf wider than I wanted. It was with great disappointment that I frogged the entire scarf (rip-it, rip-it, rip-it-out) and resumed finishing the last of my nieces’ stockings for Christmas. (It was down to the wire as I finished assembling the final stocking on midnight Christmas Eve, but done at the last minute is still done. Huzzah!)


Four Christmas stockings made from crocheted granny squares.

After the holidays, I considered my options for going forward with this “Scarf of My Dreams” project. I quickly rejected the idea of switching to a traditional rectangle scarf pattern. I already had several scarves in that style and I wanted something different. Besides, I hadn’t envisioned wearing a rectangle scarf with the new sweater; I’d pictured the shape of the Spring Market Mod Scarf on that perfect blue background. I would either make the Mod Scarf work or I wouldn’t wear my new sweater! (A ridiculous ultimatum, to be sure, but my genuine feeling none the less.)

Thus, I began my second attempt to make this pattern work with my yarn which involved substituting treble crochet for double crochet in the pattern. This changed the drape and body of the scarf significantly, so I quickly abandoned that idea and only had to frog a dozen or so rows. Thankfully, the third time was the charm and changing the rows of single crochet to half-double crochet worked beautifully. I still added an extra 12 rows to the pattern (6 increasing, 6 decreasing), but this only increased the width by 1″ and put my final length at the pattern’s exact measurement of 68″.


My completed Spring Market Mod Scarf

Despite it taking multiple attempts to adapt it to my chosen yarn, I really like this pattern. As long as I completed the pattern’s 6-row repeat before stopping any given crochet session, it was easy to keep my place. Megan’s instructions were clear and her PDF printed beautifully if you choose to purchase it like I did. (You can also read to the full pattern on for free.) Honestly, it’s a credit to Megan’s technical writing skill that I was able to effectively adapt this pattern. It was totally worth all the effort and I couldn’t be happier wearing the result!


Jennifer K. wearing her new scarf with her Just-the-Right-Shade-of-Blue sweater.

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Unexpected Clarity


Zentangle Art by Jennifer K.

Last week I had a snow day–that magical event in childhood that becomes increasingly rare in adulthood. Plans were cancelled, travel suspended, obligations put off. I was excited by the opportunity to get a lot of writing done. Instead I vacuumed the house and spent four hours on Facebook. That last hour as I was scrolling through absurd memes, it felt like I was trying to create a reason to beat myself up. As I turned off lights in the living room and headed for the bedroom, bleary-eyed and numb, the light mantle of shame draped over me seemed almost comforting. The berating whispers in my mind caused a small thrill, like the voices of old friends do.

I climbed into bed with my journal to write out what the whispers were saying so I could clear my mind for sleep. This wasn’t the writing I’d excitedly envisioned earlier in the day. “But something is better than nothing,” I muttered to myself as I picked up my pen to give shape to the emotions swirling inside me.

“See what foolishness your dreams are, silly girl,” the whispers chided. “You don’t have what it takes to forge some new path. Why, you can’t even manage to make good use of day with no obligations. You had a day of complete freedom and accomplished nothing important. How can you possibly think you can forge a new career track in the midst of the daily grind?”

And a part of me felt some sense of relief at this. Some part of me responded with, “See? I’ve failed so completely today there’s really no point in trying to pursue these scary dreams of being an artist and a writer. It will take lots of work and today proves that I’m not a hard worker. I’m a lazy, undisciplined girl with no follow-through. My words and my art couldn’t possibly inspire anyone. Whew! What a relief that I don’t have to try this scary, new path you’ve been fantasizing about. That’s all it is really–a fantasy. It would be like LARPing; you trying to live as an artist is just a game of make-believe. How foolish! Glad we’ve got that sorted and can go back to trying to get your real life responsibilities in order–which, I might point out, you’ve been doing horrible at lately.”

How illuminating to see this interior chatter laid out in black and white! And so I found myself grateful for a day of blowing fuses to such an extreme extent because it brought to light what was hidden in the shadows of my heart. These fears, half-truths, and lies have been weighing me down as I’ve tried to move forward. I could feel them, but couldn’t see what they were until that night. And now, with hope shining from my eyes and gentle amusement rounding up the corners of my lips, I can say, “But none of that is true. These dreams and aspirations are real treasures worth pursuing. And I am competent and capable of pursuing them. I am a powerful and beautiful human being so I can dance in the irregular meter of life gracefully with purpose. I do not need a perfect day in which to do great things. Little steps each day will add up to great leaps on the path that I have chosen. Thank you for helping me see this more clearly!”

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Reflections on Last Year’s Reading Challenge



Three of the books I completed in my 2018 Reading Challenge

So this is the first of my year-in-review posts as I reflect on 2018. As you may have noticed, this blog tends to go on hiatus in December and January as holiday activities take up all available time in the former and I spend the latter catching up on all the things the fell by the wayside in the holiday hustle. But some semblance of order has been restored and I am eager to resume writing (even if the Christmas tree is still up)!

As a list maker, I’ve always been intrigued with reading challenges and have collected several reading lists on Pinterest. Many of these require a daily reading discipline or a reading speed that I do not currently possess. Some lists include categories that seem silly to me or books that I have no desire to crack the spines of. But Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Reading Challenge for 2018 had categories that were compelling and a quantity that seemed achievable, so I decided to give it a go. Here is what I read (or attempted to read as the case may be):

A book you can read in a day

The Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke

I listened to this one-hour audio book on the drive to my parent’s house early last January. I thought it an appropriate choice since we were on our way to celebrate “Second Christmas” with my family after spending Christmas proper with my husband’s parents. It’s a charming story about a Magi who wanted to make the pilgrimage to honor Jesus’ birth, but missed the rendezvous with the rest of the wise men because he stopped to help someone in need. Arriving in Bethlehem after Mary and Joseph have fled to Egypt, this other wise man spends the rest of his life trying to find Jesus.

A book that’s more than 500 pages

The Little Country by Charles de Lint

It was a dark and stormy night in January–perfect for curling up with a new book. I chose this one and loved it! I was so impressed with the dialog. It’s tricky to distinctive voices for individual characters and use dialect in a way that doesn’t distract, but Charles de Lint does it masterfully. It wasn’t just the dialog, though–I loved the characters, the ideas, and the magic. I highly recommend this contemporary fantasy set in Cornwall, England, about Janey Little, folk musician and book lover, who finds a lost manuscript by her favorite author and discovers not just a new story, but an old form of magic. While Janey is captivated by the story, someone else is desperate to possess the magic. But can this long-bound magic even be controlled–let alone possessed–once it begins seeping out of the books pages?

A book by a favorite author

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

This is one of the few instances where I can compare the experience of reading a book in print and listening to it as an audiobook. When I read The Body in the Library a few years ago, I thought it was fine, but not one of my favorite Christie novels. Stephanie Cole’s performance of the book gave me a new appreciation for the story and I enjoyed this audiobook more than reading the novel myself. Stephanie Cole has become my favorite actress to portray Miss Marple and I wish she would record all the novels featuring Agatha Christie’s spinster sleuth!

A memoir, biography, or creative non-fiction

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

I picked this up at my local book exchange. It’s an inspiring memoir that a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon wrote as a legacy to his children after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Randy Pausch reinforced to me that even if life is hard, different than you expected, or shorter than you wanted, it can still be good, you can still enjoy it, and you can still accomplish your dreams.

A classic you’ve been meaning to read

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I posted a longer review of this book last year (but it does have spoilers). Fitzgerald’s execution of the story and the way he set up the themes it contained are what I admire most about this novel. If you haven’t done so already, it’s worth your time to read this story about a poor nobody who makes a fortune and builds a house in an ostentatious neighborhood to impress the love of his youth who is currently married to someone else. Even if it doesn’t end up being one of your personal favorites, part of Fitzgerald’s genius is his brevity, so it’s not a long slog.

A book nominated for an award in 2018

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

This novella won the Hugo Award for Best Novella last year. (Yay! This is the second year in a row that the novella I was rooting for won!) This is a fun story about a security robot who hacks his governing system so he can gain autonomy but continues to follow (most) protocols in order to avoid being tagged as “Rogue” and disassembled. I enjoyed the humor in this book, but the line that really resonated with me was more contemplative: “I don’t know what I want yet, but I know that I don’t want other people telling me what I should want.”

A book by an author of a different race, ethnicity, or religion than you

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This book evoked several contradictory responses from me. I found it fascinating throughout, yet by the time I was halfway through the book, I was ready to be done and move on to something else. It was very grounded in the nitty-gritty details, human tragedy, and personal triumphs of everyday life, yet it ended up feeling like a fairy tale to me (though to be fair, the happy ending worked–from a writing stand point–better than some romance novels I’ve read). I really enjoyed reading the book, and I didn’t like the story. (I wish I’d read this as a part of a reading group–the potential for discussion here is fabulous!) Still, I’m truly glad to have read this book and thus experienced, in a small way, the life of someone very different from me–a Nigerian girl who comes to the United States for college, ends up living and working here for 15 years, and becomes an American citizen before returning to Nigeria.

A banned book

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

It was worth doing this reading challenge for this book alone. I would not have gone looking for it otherwise and it would be such a shame not have this gem in my literary collection. I was enthralled by Janie’s journey through life in Florida a decade or so after the Civil War, not just because it’s a time and place I’m less familiar with, but also to see how Janie came into her own as a woman. Hurston’s writing is impressive and poetic. I took a little break from reading novels after finishing this one; I just wanted to sit with Hurston’s story for a while and think about lines like this: “Love is like de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”

A book of poetry, a play, or an essay collection

Poems 1965 – 1975 by Seamus Heaney

So technically I finished this book. But I was listening to it at night to keep my mind off the torture device–I mean, contour device the physical therapist prescribed me to spend 15-20 minutes a day on to restore a healthy curve to my cervical spine. On the one hand this strategy was effective in helping me be compliant with the recommended time, but Heaney’s Irish lilt sometimes put me to sleep. I’d wake up when the timer went off and discover that I’d missed several poems. Sometimes I’d rewind for the next night; sometimes I didn’t. Nevertheless, I like the sound of Heaney’s poetry and found his imagery compelling. I’ve bought a print copy of this collection and hope to do a more thorough reading of it this year.

A book in translation

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

This is definitely a book lover’s story–it makes me want to rescue forgotten books! A coming-of-age novel set in Barcelona as the city deals with the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, this novel is thick with portent and consequences, rye humor, colorful characters, and wonderful quotes. It makes you consider how the stories we love shape us. Maybe that effect is the unrecognized magic in our mundane world. Although, this story also makes a case for love being the true magic in our world, and like all magic, it comes with a price.

A book recommended by someone with great taste

Dune by Frank Herbert

A book recommended by a librarian or indie bookseller

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Perhaps if I hadn’t taken that break from fiction after finishing Their Eyes Were Watching God, I might have gotten through these last two books. Then again, Dune is not a quick read. Maybe I’ll get around to these stories in 2019.

So those are my thoughts on the books from my 2018 Reading Challenge. Did you do a reading challenge last year? If so, what was the best book you discovered from that list?


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Double Book Review: The Great Gatsby and No One Is Coming to Save Us


The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My personal rating: 4 out of 5

My three sentence synopsis: In the 1920s, Nick Carraway leaves the Midwest city where his family has been prominent for three generations and sets out to make a life for himself selling bonds in New York City. Choosing to live in a commuting town outside of the city puts Nick at a curious intersection of upper and lower class society, of people who have always been on top and people who are trying to move up the ladder. It also gives Nick a supporting role in the drama that unfolds when his neighbor, Jay Gatsby, meets up with Tom and Daisy Buchanan.

The first morsel of prose: In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.

Why I chose this book: This year I’m participating in the 2018 Reading Challenge posted on I chose this novel for the category “A Classic You’ve Been Meaning to Read” for two reasons. First, because my husband read it in high school and didn’t like it, but then revisited it a few years ago and was impressed with it. Second, more than one review for No One is Coming to Save Us compared it to The Great Gatsby so I wanted to make sure I was familiar with the earlier novel so I could appreciate the literary allusions in the recent story.


No One Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts

My personal rating: 4 out of 5

My three sentence synopsis: JJ Ferguson grew up as a foster kid in Pinewood, North Carolina, and few people expected him to survive, let alone amount to anything. But when he returns, he has enough money to build a house on Brushy Mountain Road, the section of town where “the people are rich and their lives are so removed from yours you almost expect them to speak another tongue.” This display of fresh wealth unsettles the declining factory town in general and has more direct consequences for three specific people: Ava, JJ’s high school sweetheart; Henry, Ava’s husband; and Sylvia, Ava’s mother.

The first morsel of prose: The house he’s building is done mostly. All that’s missing now is the prettying, stain on the sprawling deck, final finishing inside. At least that’s what they say. This house has been the talk around our small town. Not much happens here but the same, same: a thirteen-year-old girl waiting for the baby her mother’s sorry boyfriend gave her; the husband we wanted to believe was one of the good ones found out to be the worst kind of cheater with a whole other family two towns over. The same stupid surprises, the usual sadnesses. But this thing is strange. The boy we all saw grow up came back to us slim and hungry-gaunt like a coal miner. With money. JJ Ferguson made it. The poor child who lived with this grandmother, dead for years now, the ordinary boy we all fed when he wouldn’t leave at dinnertime, looking like he was waiting for somebody to ask him to play. We had no idea.

Why I chose this book: The title arrested my progress through the bookstore. Curious, I read the blurb and the reviews on the cover. When I suddenly found myself halfway through the first chapter, I decided I wanted to read it in the comfort of my living room.

Spoiler Warning: Normally, I try to keep my reviews spoiler-free, but I wanted to do a compare and contrast essay on these two books with the freedom to discuss anything that struck my fancy. So this is your spoiler warning. If you have not read these books and want to experience the twists and turns of the stories for yourself, then know that I recommend both these books and stop here. If you have read the books or don’t care about spoilers, by all means, continue on to the next section.

My experience with these books: Both of these writers are excellent at their craft. In fact, that’s really what kept me going through the first half of The Great Gatsby. Every night after I finished reading a section, my husband would eagerly ask, “What to you think so far?” and the first few nights my response was the same, “Fitzgerald’s writing is impressive, but I’m not sure what to do with the story–especially with these characters.” There wasn’t really anyone in the story who managed to win my sympathies. Everyone was so miserable with varying degrees of shallowness and cruelty. Granted, that was part of Fitzgerald’s point and I think it’s brilliant that he didn’t let the story drag on until you were beyond caring when the Mrs. Wilson is killed and everything falls apart. Despite my lack of affinity for the characters, once they set out on the fateful car trip, I was riveted. Fitzgerald’s execution of the story and the way he set up the themes it contained are what I admire most about this novel.

Both of these books have the same premise: a poor nobody makes a fortune and builds a house in an ostentatious neighborhood to impress the love of his youth who is currently married to someone else. But whereas Fitzgerald wrote about white people in New York in the 1920s, No One Is Coming to Save Us is set in a black community in present day North Carolina. And while some of Watts’ characters have similar motivations as their counterparts in The Great Gatsby, they are different people who have had different life experiences so when all the dominoes in this game are finally lined up and the first one is pushed, they fall in different directions. And I loved that! Ava is a more independent person than Daisy, so I was thrilled that when she realized JJ and Henry were more interested in proving themselves to each other than building the life she wants, Ava rejected them both. Watts’ characters were far more sympathetic to me than Fitzgerald’s cast, so I didn’t mind reading three times as many pages in No One Is Coming to Save Us. I think I was rooting for every character at some point in the story.

I was fascinated by Watts’ ability to shift from present to past in a character’s reverie the way we often experience memory in real life. I enjoyed seeing characters grapple with who they are versus who they want to be and how different characters deal with feeling trapped in their lives. Unfortunately, I don’t think Watts’ ending came anywhere close to being as masterful as Fitzgerald’s bombshell that paid off the building dread of last half of his book. Thus The Great Gatsby lost points based on my personal enjoyment of the book and No One Is Coming to Save Us lost points for a weak ending, so they both earned a 4-star rating from me.

If you’ve read one or both of these books, I’d love to hear your thoughts about them!

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Re-imagine What’s Possible

For as long as I can remember, every autumn in our backyard the dogwood tree colors itself burgundy. With a red so deep mottled with a darker green and set with bright dogberries, the branches seem better suited for Christmas sprays than autumn banners. Our dogwood tree is ancient and each year another large limb dies. We remove it and the burgundy canopy gets smaller by degrees. We considered replacing the tree all together this year, but other home improvements seemed more urgent. So as the weather cooled, I once again expected to see the burgundy flags waving at me through the patio door.

Now you will understand my compete surprise in the last few weeks as the sun’s arc angled southward and it’s beams began illuminating a robe like Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors. This year our dogwood tree wore a myriad of red shades, strokes of orange, flashes of yellow, and lingering stains of the light summer green. I’ve never seen the like from my patio door!


A branch of colored dogwood leaves.

Our dogwood tree that is undeniably in the last stages of it’s life did something completely different, created a new kind of beauty for itself. Without giving advance notice or requesting permission, it broke expectations and established patterns. In doing so, it inspired this on-looker to re-imagine what is possible in and for myself. As Jen Hatmaker wrote in Of Mess and Moxie, “You don’t have to be who you first were.”


The dogwood tree glowing red and yellow in the morning sun.

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