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11 Great Books: Perfect Gifts for the Hard-to-Buy-For

Library at Strahov Monastery, Prague: A setting in my work-in-progress novel, Water Lily

A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.  -Franz Kafka

Library at Strahov Monastery, Prague: A setting in my work-in-progress novel, Water Lily
Library at Strahov Monastery, Prague: A setting in my work-in-progress novel, Water Lily

It’s December, and we’ve arrived at the final days of 2011 (already!). Every year, here on my blog, I reflect on the books that I have read and enjoyed over the past year, and post the names and titles. After all, books make the best gifts, especially for the hard-to-buy-for friend or family member, because a great book sticks with us long after we’ve turned the last page to The End.

Here, my top 11 list of books I’ve read in 2011: (linking to books on Barnes and ( because I love their clean and easy to navigate site)

For Women:

  1. The Violets of March by Sarah Jio  (debut novel, part mystery, part love story)
  2. Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman  (deep South fiction, coming-of-age, uplifting)
  3. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton  (love Kate Morton’s work, part mystery, part literary family saga)
  4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern  (magical circus, incredible setting)
  5. A Place Called Freedom by Ken Follett  (sweeping Scottish historical)
  6. Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum  (a tough read, on the Holocaust and its survivors, but deeply moving)

Classics I Love:

  1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte *the movie, Jane Eyre 2011, was fabulous!*
  2. The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher
  3. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (great book for young readers, especially girls age 9-12)
  4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  5. Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney *all-time favorite children’s book*

Other book recommendations for Boys (a whole post from June 2011, 10 Books to Hook Your Boys)

Looking ahead to 2012:

I am setting a goal to read more than the 30 books I read this year in 2011 … hoping to read 50 books in 2012. I love to read, and look forward to spending more time with my nose in a book this coming year! As I have for the past couple of years, I post my reading and reviews of books I like at Goodreads. Join me over there– Goodreads is becoming a great place to talk about books with friends (like a giant book club).

Also, several writer friends of mine have books coming out in 2012:

I look forward to interviewing them here as their publication dates approach! (The best way to support an author you love is to write a review of their book, paste it into the review section of online store sites, and to click their Facebook fan pages to stay up to date with their newest work.)

For you: What are your reading goals for the coming year, 2012? What books have been your favorite reads of 2011? I’d love to hear what you have to say! Thanks for leaving a comment!


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Mentors: Helping Us to Be More Than We Could Be On Our Own

a Sorbet Peony, dew-kissed, at first light

I carry your heart with me; I carry it in my heart. -e.e.cummings

a Sorbet Peony, dew-kissed, at first light
a Sorbet Peony, dew-kissed, at first light

In 1992, I enrolled in the Mechanical Engineering program at Purdue University … a tough program, to say the least. I graduated with my engineering degree four and a half years after I started, though it wasn’t because of me. I had been lucky / blessed to be involved with a mentoring group within engineering, and I feel it was the relationships that I formed within that program that helped to pull me through.

Even today, I stay in close contact with some of the women I worked with at Purdue. And it is through these friendships, and one mentor in particular, that I am who I am today.

With the help of others, of people who act as grand gifts to our lives, who stretch us and believe in us,  we are pulled up further than we could be on our own. We become more of who we were truly meant to be. It is to these friends and mentors that I say thank you. I carry your heart onward with me.

One big hope I have for my life is to be able to mentor others, to give back and pay forward the tremendous encouragement that I have been given …

Do you have mentors in your life who have helped you to become more than you could’ve been on your own?

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Japan, Why We Can Help, and My Experience Living There

Jennifer and Leslie Bibb, in their Tokyo apartment

“… the March 11, 2011 9.0 earthquake, tsunami, and resulting nuclear disaster becomes an epic devastation …”

Today, in light of recent devastation in Asia, I am changing my weekly post order to reflect on what is happening in Japan. I lived in Tokyo for three months in 1990, and I grieve for the people there and their great losses. Sharing some of my experiences there …


Jennifer and Leslie Bibb, in their Tokyo apartment
In our Tokyo apartment

Why I lived in Japan at age 16:

In 1989, I was 15 years old and 5’10” tall. In a combination of being at the right place at the right time, and being the right height, I was part of the ensemble of young women who gathered in Paris for Elite Model Management’s annual Look of the Year, a contest for a few dozen girls around the world to compete for modeling contracts with Elite.

As it turned out, I was selected for one of those contracts, and, during one of the many late-night parties that went on as part of the LOTY, I met Hiromi, the head of Elite Japan. She asked if I would consider going to Tokyo to model for them the next summer. I don’t remember much of the decision-making from those years, but I do remember boarding the plane for Japan. It’s not often a sixteen-year-old flies around the world for a summer on her own.


Leslie Bibb, Tokyo Tower, 1990
Leslie Bibb, Tokyo Tower, 1990

The first thing I remember in Japan was the measuring tape. They practically greeted me with it as I disembarked the plane. Actually, within the first ten minutes of being in the Elite office in Roppongi. Luckily, I passed, and soon after, a sweet college grad brought me to my apartment, in Roppongi, just steps from the Tokyo Tower.

The most memorable thing about Japan: the earthquakes. We had many that summer–the worst one being very small compared to the March 11 quake–but I will never forget my bed bouncing across the floor as I woke from the rumbling ground. Scary, even when they’re small.

The apartment was a standard issue “models apartment”—about three-hundred square feet, amazingly fitting three “bedrooms” and a miniscule bathroom. I shared the apartment with my roommate, Leslie Bibb, of movie fame now like Iron Man and Talladega Nights. She was also sixteen at the time. She happens to be in all of my photos … which seems funny now, but I suppose we were always together when we weren’t working.


Leslie Bibb, Jennifer Lyn King, Japan, Elite Models, 1990
Jennifer and Leslie in Japan, 1990

That summer I learned so much—I could write a few books about it all. Shopping (in a non-English environment), transportation (in a bustling Tokyo all written in Japanese), cooking (on a two-burner stove), eating (foods that had no explanation for what they were)—the education was endless. And it all was gentle and kind to an American teenager just trying to figure out where the next go-see was.

Japan, from my 1990 summer experience, is a beautiful country full of hard-working and forward-thinking people who are kind and gracious.

Above all, the Japanese people taught me that despite our differences, we are the same. We share similar values: we love our children and our lands, the warmth of family, good foods and drinks, and the beauty of a stunning sunset.


At Kamakura Beach, Japan, Leslie Bibb
At Kamakura Beach, Japan (Leslie with the cool cat glasses)

Despite other differences, we are all of one world—one earth where nature vents her wrath, and we can’t know why. God has His reasons and His power, and in the thousands of heartbreaking images we can see from events like this, we are reminded of just how small and fragile we really are. But when we band together and help each other, we can be strong and rise up as one. And it is then that human beings can really sing.

Japan needs our help. She is our neighbor.

We don’t know what the future may bring, but we do know that when we help each other, we can be more of who and what we were created to be. We need to help.

Watch this Tsunami Footage by James MacWhyte from the first tsunami wave arriving in a town to complete decimation 6 minutes later. Unbelievable. We are so fragile.

Places to help:

The Red Cross:

World Vision:

Do you have other links and ways to help Japan? (Leave a comment below– thanks!)

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A More Beautiful Place

A few years ago, we enjoyed a summer vacation in Maine, the camping kind involving a tent and hiking boots. Since it was not the first time we’d traveled around Maine, we had an idea of what to look forward to—the rocky coastline, the sleepy clapboard villages, the saltsprayed restaurants serving mouthwatering blueberry pie and to-die-for lobster, the lighthouses marking way to safe harbors, the wildlife and wildflowers and pristine wilderness. Maine has a way of stealing a heart, or at least capturing the wild at heart. And so, we ventured back to Maine for another summer vacation not knowing we were in for more than we had imagined.

That summer, not only did we see a Bald Eagle and a moose in action close range, but we again explored the majestic Acadia National Park and dug up even more hidden treasures. There, beside a tiny village on Somes Sound, we happened upon a breathtaking field of lupine. For moments standing in the lupine meadow, I realized that the natural beauty would stay with me forever. The photographs I took (including the one above) stand to remind me of that day.

Afterward, a dear Boston friend gave us a remarkable picture book entitled Miss Rumphius, written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney, which won the American Book Award. The story contained within the book, with its gentle images and serene cadence, is hauntingly beautiful, another reminder for me of the lupine meadow.

In the book, Alice, the main character, sits on the knee of her grandfather, who tells her of three things she must do in her life: travel to faraway places, live beside the sea, and do something to make the world more beautiful. As a result, Alice Rumphius makes her way through life … and eventually discovers her own way of making the world more beautiful. Full circle in the end, as Miss Alice Rumphius, now old, tells her young niece of the three things, they look out on the surrounding Maine hills covered with lupine meadows, all which started with a single seed scattered by Miss Rumphius.

It is amazing to imagine, with a world full of people rife with gifts to share that life would be much richer if we were to open up our lives to impacting the world for good. I’m perpetually inspired by World Vision ( and their work on behalf of the extreme poor in the world, and more recently by Michael Hyatt ( and his traveling companions just arriving back from a trip to Ethiopia. Certainly traveling to faraway places has a way of opening our minds to more than just ourselves and our hearts to helping others. I find vacations by the sea to be unsurpassed, and would love to someday live with the waves crashing at my doorstep. But truly, finding our unique place in the world, finding the place where we can share our lives and experiences and gifts with the world around us, opening our minds by experiencing faraway places (whether it is around the corner or around the world), that is the place I think where we begin to make the world more beautiful, the sum of all three, the point, I think, of Miss Rumphius. Perhaps by offering our lives to help others, we can truly make the world more beautiful. In my mind, nothing can be more significant and worthwhile than that …

… It all begins with one small seed.

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A Little Lagniappe

When we lived in New Orleans, I picked up a word from our N’Awlins native neighbors—lagniappe. Though I haven’t much heard the word used north of Interstate 10, I think the concept is applicable everywhere. Lagniappe is a good thing, loosely defined as an unexpected bonus. Like the baker who slips in an extra cookie with your dozen or the extra encore a band plays at the end of their set, lagniappe is always a good thing, something to make others smile, something to warm cold hearts, something like a little gift. Unexpected. And good.

A smile to greet the scowl, an ear to listen despite a busy schedule, a flower to greet the sunshine, a shimmering moon across water—life and living is filled with lagniappe. Life and living is enriched by giving gifts. How special it feels to receive a present, even a simple one, tied carefully with a bow and given as if time and thought had gone into the gift. Gifts are important. There is nothing like a gift.

Could each day be a gift? Is it possible to think of each day as another opportunity to give of ourselves to those around us and those we love? Because if today is a gift, and if the above statements about giving gifts may be true, then putting time and thought into the day and the gift in the present must be important, as well.

Maybe, with thought and care, each task we go about in every day could become a way of giving of ourselves, of offering lagniappe. Maybe, with consideration on how we interact with others, we could put energy into ensuring the recipient of our time feels as if they have received something more than the end of our ropes—more than a gift shoved into a plastic grocery bag. Perhaps one of my favorite clothing store’s slogans carries truth plastered into the bottom of their shopping bags—“Be the Gift.”

Could it be that we might try to be our best each day, and offer ourselves to the world in which we interact with love? Could we be a gift to those around us? A little taste of lagniappe?

Something once said in encouragement to our children has stuck with me, “Never stop trying to be your very best.” If that could be true for adults even, we could take each day and try to be our very best. The key word is Try. Sure, it’s hard to give of ourselves, and even harder to live to be our very best. But if we try to be our very best, try to give of ourselves to others, try to live today as a gift, then by the merit of trying we have succeeded. Lagniappe.

Gifts are important. There is nothing like a well-given gift, to lift the spirits and to smooth the rough edges of life. Today, we can try to be our very best and offer a little lagniappe to others, to soften the hard edges of these times.
Today is a gift, with plenty of opportunities to give and find lagniappe.

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The Irrepressible American Spirit

I know I promised to post next with more about the gardens, but I’m inserting an extra set of thoughts in here based on what I’m thinking about today … to compensate, an extra photo for aesthetic beauty. 🙂 Looking forward to this kind of summer in the bone-chilling and bleakest days of this winter!

It was somewhat surreal to be talking to my husband this morning on the phone and listen to him tell the story of the US Airways jet that crashed yesterday into the Hudson River. An incredible and miraculous story, for sure. It is more amazing to hear that story told from the other side of the world, as Brian is in Northern India right now. Listening to him retell it from the rest of the world’s perspective hit me in a different light.

We all marvel at the incredible feat and modern-day miracle that occurred when Captain Sullenberger landed an entire jet filled with people in an almost-frozen river running beside New York City. And, I think, we all marvel at the speed of the local ferries and boats which responded to the emergency immediately. That a handful of civilians would rush to help in blisteringly-cold weather demonstrates the amazing, irrepressible, American spirit.

On a local scale, yesterday, I had the awesome opportunity to witness the enthusiasm bubbling up from within a class of fourth-graders as they learned more about writing stories and realistic fiction. All around the room, hands popped up and waved like flags as the kids eagerly awaited their turn to contribute to the class discussion. Every child in the twenty-five student class participated in grand ways.

Being just a bystander on the education process, I marvel at the dedication and tenacity of our teachers as they go about the massive task of educating children. Not only do they endure crowded classrooms and interesting attitudes, but they also make do with less in response to diminishing budgets. For the sake of investing one of life’s greatest riches into the lives of the next generation, our teachers give, and live out daily the American Spirit.

For me, it is the little things, like the ferry-driver’s decision to fire up the engines and help someone in need, or the teacher’s daily decision to stand before a class full of energetic tweens, that define the American Spirit. And it is with these small and courageous acts of the real neighbors around all of us that I look with hope into the future. That by these small acts our children might learn to give of themselves for another, and that in doing so, we might all discover the truest sense of living—giving to help another—the irrepressible American Spirit.

Even in the face of these tough economic times and the uncertainty of the coming years, it is with hope I look forward to our future … God bless America.

One last thing—on the 23rd, I’m hosting a friend and fellow writer to talk about her new book entitled Rest, author Keri Wyatt Kent. Looking forward to that!

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Last Sunday, the sun shone bright though the weather here in Ohio was frigid and snow covered the ground. At church that morning, the stained glass windows glowed with an exceptional brilliance. Certainly the sun and its effect on the blanket of snow had something to do with the blues and reds and yellows and purples blazing in living colors and etching an imprint into my mind. But also, the beauty of the light coming through the glass felt significant because of our Pastor’s sermon. He mentioned that in a day when the dark comes at us in the form of diminished bank accounts and home values, and the dark advances in the gloom and doom of the job market and a recessed economy, we are ever more in need of the Light coming to us at Christmas. The gospel of John begins with the Light—“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” What good news for us and in our times!

Somehow, in the beauty of the stained glass, a connection can be made to life—maybe that we were created, each of us with a different hue and cut to offer the world. But when we join our lives and work together to bring light into the darkened world, a beauty of a new kind can be seen.

Several years ago, we thought as a family that we’d like to help a child in need, so we did some research and found a fantastic website that connects ordinary people with children in need, World Vision, found at We decided to cut back on a few things like Happy Meals and other trinket toys and use that monthly money toward supporting a child. When that child wrote us his first letter and sent a photograph, we were hooked. Barton in Kenya became part of our family. When World Vision gave us the chance to send an extra monetary gift for Christmas, we decided to cut back on the things we could get for ourselves and share some of that money with Barton and his family. Later, when we received a photograph showing how they’d used that Christmas gift money to meet their immediate needs, we were stunned. Not only had Barton’s family purchased a cow, but also two goats, a pair of work boots for the dad, a set of school clothing for Barton, a bag of rice, and a new stack of school books. We still have the photograph, along with the others from years in between, hanging on our refrigerator.

This Christmas season might be different than the rest. Sure, money all around is tighter for most. And the darkness seems to be getting the upper hand for many. But when we take our small and insignificant lights and put them together, the impact we can make on the dark is enough. Enough to make a difference in the world. Enough to bring new light into another’s life. And sometimes, from a simple gift, we can gain the gift of a whole new perspective and experience the immense joy of giving. Like a stained glass, the simple gifts, when added up and combined together, can change the landscape of the world.

Thank you in advance for sharing your stories in comments of the joy you found by sharing!
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Great Books for Giving

Shopping is not my favorite thing to do. In fact, I think I’m not a very good shopper. These past twelve years, I have to admit I’ve wholeheartedly adopted Brian’s shopping method: have a list, find the items on the list, buy them and get out … quick. I tend to go as long as possible without setting foot in a store besides the grocery, and the mall comes in absolute last. So this shopping season, I’m spending my time on things I enjoy (being with the family, writing, entertaining) instead of things I don’t. And the shopping is getting done in quick spurts.

Given this year’s floundering economy, the publishing industry has come up with a few catchy campaigns to get people to buy books as gifts and bestselling book lists are easy to find. For me, Amazon is my top book source because of its infinite selection of books from which to choose and for their free super saver shipping offer. Amazon is almost a pain-free shopping experience.

To me, Books make great gifts because 1) they’re easy to wrap, 2) they’re easy to buy, and 3) they make great keepsakes when the giver signs inside the cover. So, to start some ideas flowing for great Books to give as Gifts for the 2008 Christmas season, I’m jotting down a few of my favorites and the link to buy them:

For kids:
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney: A great classic story with beautiful illustrations; one of my lifelong favorites
Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin: Hysterical read every time

The Gold n’ Honey Bible: We’ve all learned so much from this well-written children’s Bible storybook
The Doppleganger Chronicles by G.P.Taylor: A great new illustra-novel that all kids will love
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson: The all-time classic favorite at our house … can’t read it enough!

For adults:
Leadership Promises for Every Day by John Maxwell
Ordering Your Private World by Gordon McDonald
Mistress of the Revolution by Catherine Delors: Both Brian I loved this historical fiction novel—right now it’s bargain priced at Amazon for $6.99!
The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner: One of Publishers Weekly’s favorites for the year
The One Year Mini for Busy Women by me, Jennifer King: Not that I’m biased as the author, but I have to be J: For the busy woman of any age

Happy (Quick) Shopping this year!