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My Favorite Books of 2014

brookline booksmith interior twinkle lights

As the end-of-year book lists flood blogs and newspapers, I’ve looked back over this year’s (long) reading list and handpicked a few favorites. Not all of these were published in 2014, but I read them all for the first time (except Best Reread) in 2014.

Best Road Trip with a Cranky Narrator: Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck. I loved every page of Steinbeck’s wry, witty observations as he and Charley (a dignified elderly poodle) crisscrossed the country together in 1960. (It was also my top pick in our Great New Books roundup.)

Most Evocative Wartime Fiction: a tie between After the War is Over by Jennifer Robson (out Jan. 6) and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Very different novels, both stunning in their exploration of the effects of war on ordinary people.

Best Insights on Food and Marriage: Delancey by Molly Wizenberg. Her story of building a pizza restaurant with her husband was fascinating, and her musings on how hard it can be to support your spouse rang so true.

Most Beautifully Written Classic: The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather. I love Cather’s prose and her skill is on full display in this early novel (though My Ántonia is still my favorite Cather novel).

Wittiest Adaptation of a Classic: The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet by Bernie Su and Kate Rorick. (I also loved the YouTube video series.)

Best Love Story With Playlists: Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson. Made me want to hop in a car with a handsome boy and drive for miles with the windows down.

Fanfiction That Actually Works: Jill Paton Walsh’s novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. There are four so far, and three of them are really good.

Yummiest Cozy Mystery Series: the Hayley Snow novels by Lucy Burdette. A food writer gets mixed up in various mysteries on Key West.

Loveliest Meditation on Ireland and Life: The House on an Irish Hillside by Felicity Hayes-McCoy.

Favorite Elderly Spy: Definitely Mrs. Pollifax.

Best Reread: Bel Canto, whose elegant prose and engrossing story swept me up all over again. Though I also loved revisiting To Kill a Mockingbird and some Jane Austen.

What were your favorite books this year? I can always use more recommendations – though the TBR stacks are teetering, as ever.

great new books favorite books of 2014

I’m so pleased to be part of the review team over at Great New Books, as I’ve mentioned before. It’s a group of smart, thoughtful women, and I love reading everyone’s weekly recs (and sharing my own).

This week, we’re all sharing our top picks from 2014 at the GNB site. We’re a group of avid bookworms (obviously), and we read a LOT – so it was tough to choose our favorites, but we managed it. Head over there to read all about our faves – and share yours!

katie memorial church green coat harvard yard

My soul magnifies the Lord
My spirit rejoices in God my Savior
My soul magnifies the Lord
My spirit rejoices in God

It is the week before Christmas, that strange in-between time where real life continues even as we hurtle toward festivity. For those of us who travel long distances to celebrate, the holiday is a clear separation from routine, a break made more definite by two thousand miles on an airplane, suitcases stuffed with clothes and presents, then three hundred miles of long, gray Texas highway.

As the calendar ticks closer to our departure date, I’m living two parallel lives: one largely normal week of work and home and daily routine, one week of lists and preparations and giddy anticipation of seeing loved ones I haven’t seen for months, or a year.

Glory be to God the Father
And glory be to God the Son
Glory be to God the Spirit
Glory be to God

This week, I still hit the snooze button in the mornings, throw on my green coat and ride the subway to Harvard Square. I answer emails, wrap up work projects, then walk down to Darwin’s for some chai and breathing space. On Monday afternoon, I sat on the steps of Memorial Church, my back resting against one of its wide wooden columns, letting my brain spin out while I gazed at the deep blue sky.

This week, I am still making soup, eating leftovers, sitting in front of the Christmas tree with a mug of tea in my hands. I’m clinging to my routine, with its built-in space for solitude, because it’s about to be disrupted for two whole weeks. I’m looking forward to the disruption – I’m aching to see my parents and sister, meet my brand-new nephew and hug my friends – but I also know it will be exhausting.

He has been mindful of his servant
He has been mindful of me
I will be blessed forever, forever
I will be blessed by the Lord

The celebrations are rushing by: the office holiday lunch with its Secret Santa exchange, a few last lunches and coffee dates, the church Christmas party. I am making Texas plans: dinner with family friends in Dallas, the Christmas Eve service at my parents’ church, some much-needed time with friends in Abilene. Nephew cuddles, quiet days with our families, and lots and lots of Mexican food.

God alone is mighty, mighty
Our God alone has done great things
God alone is worthy, worthy
Holy is his name

Here, late in Advent, I am humming the Magnificat, a simple four-part a cappella song based on Mary’s hymn of praise in the first chapter of Luke. We’ve been singing it at church lately, the soprano and tenor, bass and alto parts weaving around and over and through one another.

I have heard and sung many choral versions of the Magnificat over the years, but this one is my favorite. My friend Frankie loves it too, and I think of her every time we sing it, her warm alto voice matching mine.

advent scripture wreath church

We are still waiting for Christmas, waiting for Christ to come, amid frightening headlines and soul-weariness and constantly growing to-do lists. But during my long, frenetic workdays, the Magnificat plays steadily in the back of my mind, like a heartbeat. A quiet reminder that, behind everything else, there is this: wonder, humility and praise.

Don’t overthink it.

something good polka dot mug

I’ve been thinking a lot about decision fatigue lately – because I have it, big-time.

For many of us, each day holds (potentially) a thousand small decisions: what do I wear? What do I eat? What do I read or watch or listen to? How do I tackle projects at work, and in what order? Do I make this phone call, respond to that email, engage in this online conversation? And what on earth do I buy everyone for Christmas?

I’m easily overwhelmed by lots of options. The exception is a bookstore, where the browsing – for me – is a big part of the fun. (My husband, on the other hand, likes to pick one book and read it till I’m done perusing the shelves.)

brookline booksmith interior twinkle lights

In most areas of my life, the decisions can start to crowd my brain until it feels like there’s no mental space left. I like to have choices (and I’m often terrified of being bored), but in this busy season, I’m trying not to waste all my energy on small decisions. So the answers to a few key questions lately are nearly the same every day.

  • What am I wearing? Some version of my winter personal uniform: black leggings and boots with a dress and cardigan, a cozy scarf and my jade-green wool coat. (I’m putting off the switch to the down coat as long as I can.)
  • What am I brewing in the morning? Santa’s Secret black tea with peppermint, usually in my old cobalt blue mug from the Ground Floor. It feels just right in my hands.
  • What am I reading? My Advent book, over breakfast. Working through the review stack, on my commute. And Winter Solstice, before bed.
  • What am I eating for lunch? Leftovers, leftovers, leftovers. Sometimes boring, but reliably tasty. (Bonus: they’re free!)
  • What am I cooking? Simple, tasty meals: pasta with veggies, chicken burritos, lots and lots of soup. (Bonus: leftovers!)
  • What am I listening to? This one’s easy: Christmas music, all the time.
  • What color am I painting my toenails? A festive, rich crimson – until I can make time for a pedicure.
  • What am I ordering at Darwin’s? Chai. Always chai.

Maybe I’ll mix it up a little after the New Year. But for now, this is what’s working.

Are you an overthinker, like me? Do you thrive on routine, or do you relish the chance to make every day different?

christmas book stack charlie brown

The reading is haphazard this month. But it’s happening. (Above: the Christmas picture books I put out every year.)

 An Appetite for Murder, Lucy Burdette
When aspiring food writer Hayley Snow follows her new boyfriend to Key West, she falls in love with the island – and gets dumped. When her ex’s new girlfriend turns up dead, Hayley decides to investigate. A light, well-plotted cozy mystery.

Topped Chef, Lucy Burdette
Hayley Snow gets tapped to judge a foodie reality TV show. When one of her fellow judges is murdered, Hayley starts sniffing around for clues – hoping she isn’t next on the killer’s list. The mystery was a little thin, but I like Hayley and the cast of supporting characters.

Act One, Moss Hart
Moss Hart tells the story of his struggle to become a playwright – from working as a theatre office boy to directing theatrical summer camps, and finally his first hit. Warm, witty and big-hearted. Bought at Three Lives & Co. on our NYC trip.

Shepherds Abiding, Jan Karon
This Mitford Christmas tale makes me cry every year, as Father Tim works to restore a battered Nativity scene as a gift for his wife. So sweet and hopeful.

The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit, Helena Attlee
Attlee tells the long, convoluted tale of citrus production in Italy, covering its history, cultivation, connections to the Mafia, and unbeatable flavor. Fascinating, though a little dense. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 5).

Letters from Father Christmas, J.R.R. Tolkien
I’m a longtime Lord of the Rings fan, but this collection of handwritten, gorgeously illustrated letters is new to me. Tolkien wrote to his children as Father Christmas from 1920-1943 (with notes from his assistant, the North Polar Bear). Hilarious and inventive. Found at Blackwells in Oxford.

The Blood of Olympus, Rick Riordan
“To storm or fire the world must fall” – and a group of demigods must prevent an all-out war, before Gaea wakes. Fast-paced and fun, with lots of zany jokes and surprising depth.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

Advent: now and not yet

memorial church moon harvard yard cambridge

I walked through Harvard Yard one evening last week, my breath clouding in the frigid air. The Yard is dark and empty at that time of day, but I was drawn by the sight of Memorial Church, a tiny light in its bell tower, illumined both by floodlights and the rising misty moon.

I stopped to snap the photo above, thinking about the news lately: protests, disease, injustice, wars and rumors of wars. I wanted to go and sit in the church and pray, but instead I stood there, shivering, thinking: this is Advent. We want so badly for everything to be all right, and it isn’t. Not at all.

light candles memorial church

This weekend, my friend Laura (who is spending this fall in Oxford) wrote on Facebook: “Tonight as I stood in St. Mary’s church listening to the Hallelujah Chorus being performed, I watched the blue lights of an emergency vehicle illuminate the stained glass. And it occurred to me, this is Advent. Now, and not yet.”

On Sunday, my friend Desiree called as we were leaving the house: “The power’s out at church. Can you guys pick up some coffee?” It was too late to cancel the service, so instead we huddled in the front few pews, two tall purple candles on the Advent wreath burning merrily, winter light slanting in through the windows. It was chilly and dim, but the red poinsettias splashed the sanctuary with color, and Abi read aloud the words of the prophet Isaiah: Comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord your God.

advent scripture wreath church

We sang a few Christmas carols – O Come O Come Emmanuel and O Little Town of Bethlehem, O Come All Ye Faithful and Amy’s favorite, the haunting Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming. I stood between Kelsey, whose soprano soared on the high notes, and Betsy, whose rich alto voice matched the notes I was singing. And I looked around at this group of people, some of whom I love and some I barely know, and I thought: this, too, is Advent.

It has been a difficult few weeks around here, whether I’m watching the news or checking in on sick relatives or simply trying to get through the day. I worry about the injustice that is still so prevalent in this country, and I remind my husband to call the dryer repairman. I check in on a friend who has had pneumonia, and I hum carols as I chop veggies for dinner or answer work emails. I hurt and I pray, for the world and for concerns closer to home, and I buy gifts and send Christmas cards. I text my sister to see how she’s doing, and I sit in front of our twinkling tree, filled with quiet awe and wonder.

This is Advent. Now, and not yet. Tension, and aching, and longing for the promise to be fulfilled – the promise of redemption and renewal. The waiting, and the tentative hope. The quiet solidarity of walking this road together.

Most days, the fulfillment of the promise seems a long way off. But there is beauty, and deep joy, in the waiting.

red door wreath cambridge christmas

I love so many things about this festive season: the traditional decorations and music, the fun of buying gifts for friends and family, the Christmas cards that show up in my mailbox,  the reverent preparation of Advent.

I know Christmas is beset by commercialism these days (the sale emails are piling up in my inbox), but I confess I love a festive shop window (or outdoor display). And the streets of Harvard Square, where I work, are bursting with holiday spirit.

The Brattle Square Florist has piles of fresh-smelling greens, which spill out onto the sidewalk:

brattle square florist christmas reindeer

I love the little birch reindeer.

The barbershop down the street has Linus, Lucy, Frosty the Snowman and the whole gang from the Claymation version of Rudolph. (Yukon Cornelius! Hermey the elf!)

rudolph christmas barbershop cambridge

I spotted this deconstructed reindeer outside a landscaper’s office.

abstract reindeer cambridge christmas

The cupcake shop Sweet has gotten into the spirit:

pink christmas tree sweet cambridge

At Black Ink, the display is subtle but festive. (I could spend hundreds of dollars in here.)

christmas cards window black ink cambridge

And the Anthropologie windows, as always, are sheer magic.

anthropologie christmas window cambridge

What does this season look like in your neighborhood? Any fun window displays?

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