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Several years ago, when my sister had her first baby, I knitted a surprise for his first Christmas: three ornaments in the shape of Weasley sweaters, each with a monogrammed initial, of course. Even my brother-in-law, who isn’t a Harry Potter fan, was delighted, and they’ve hung on the tree every year since.

Harrison, my second nephew, was born two and a half years later, and every December since then I’ve gotten a text from my sister, reminding me: we need another Weasley sweater. (She’s not a knitter, but she is excellent at reminding people about stuff.)

I finally got my act together this year and made Harrison his own Weasley sweater, to match the other three. I’d forgotten how easy and fun they are to knit. And how cute the final result is.

I’m thinking I need to knit myself one to hang on my own tree – maybe next year. (Also in Gryffindor colors, of course.)

In case you’re wondering, the pattern is from Alison Hansel’s Charmed Knits, though I used another knitter’s mods to make them top-down instead of knitting them in pieces and seaming them. Much easier, and so cute.

My Favorite Books of 2019

It’s been…a year. Somehow, amid all the upheaval, I have read more than 150 books, and as usual, I’m highlighting a few of the best to share with you. Here are my faves:

Most Honest, Insightful Book on Women Entering Midlife: Why We Can’t Sleep by Ada Calhoun. This one comes out next month and if you are, or if you love, a woman in her 30s or 40s, please go get yourself (or her) a copy. I will be talking about this one with lots of my girlfriends.

Most Eye-Opening, Validating Book About Sexuality: Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski. I was late to the party on this one and I am still so glad I read it. Smart, funny, packed with valuable information and absolutely fantastic.

Best Reread: either I’ll Be Your Blue Sky by Marisa de los Santos or The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice. The latter is charming and British and lovely, and the former felt like a friend holding my hand through a rough time.

Most Inventive WWII Love Story: Lovely War by Julie Berry, narrated largely by Aphrodite as she stands trial (after a fashion) in a Manhattan hotel room. It’s wonderful.

Truest Novel About Friendship and Faith: The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall, about which I have already gushed. So good.

Best Celebration of Joy: The Book of Delights by Ross Gay, which is full of robust, irreverent, real delight.

Most Powerful Memoir of Making Change: The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power. Thoughtful, wise, fascinating, so interesting.

What were your favorite books this year?

Singing the season.

One essential part of the holiday season for me is the music.

I know I’m not alone in this: you can hardly walk into a store in December without hearing tinny remixes of classic carols or Mariah Carey belting out “All I Want for Christmas is You.” (I confess to a certain affection for Mariah, mostly because my sister loves that song. She and her college housemates used to slide in their socks down the hallway, singing it at the tops of their lungs.)

I have been steeped in the familiar carols all my life: “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Away in a Manger,” “Silent Night” and others. We always began Advent services at Brookline with “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and I know multiple verses of so many carols (including that one) by heart.

Every year, I remember the long-ago rendition of “O Holy Night” sung by two of my dad’s friends at our church in Dallas: a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. At least once each December, I wake up humming “Do You Hear What I Hear,” and think of George, who patiently led our church youth choir through it again and again. I have favorite versions of “Go Tell it On the Mountain” (James Taylor) and “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” (Ella). And I wait all year for the chance to sing anything involving a Gloria.

This year, thanks to some local friends, I joined a carol choir in my neighborhood. We’ve been meeting on Thursday and Sunday nights since early November, gathering at a nearby church or in Peter and Giordana’s dining room. The music we’re singing is an eclectic mix of well-known classics (“The First Noel” and “Adeste Fideles”), slightly lesser-known carols (“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” and “The Friendly Beasts”), and several pieces I’d never heard of, including one in Latin and one in Spanish.

I’d forgotten how much fun it is to sing with a choir, to hammer out melodies and harmonies one note at a time until it starts to sound something like music. I’ve loved standing between Melanie and Ann-Marie, all of us sipping herbal tea from Giordana’s collection of mugs, as we stumble our way through “Puer Nobis Nascitur” or “A la Nanita Nana.” I’ve been amazed at Anna’s soaring soprano descants and sense of humor, and deeply appreciated Gillian’s handy pitch pipe and her wry, sharp musical commentary. And Peter, who steers this ship every year, has brought us through the last few weeks with skill and grace.

I’ve been humming these tunes as I walk from the train to my office or putter around the apartment, making tea or washing dishes. I’ve also been playing the King’s College Cambridge carols album on repeat, and I went over to the glorious Harvard carol service last week, and sang my heart out standing next to someone I love.

I had wondered if, this year, the music of the season would sound like loss: the loss of several communities where I used to sing. But I am happy to report that the songs are still there, and so is the community. It just looks different. This year, it looks like Elsa’s sweet smile and Rudi’s quiet warmth. It sounds like Joe’s jokes from the back row and Jessica’s able piano playing. It feels like Steve and Chrissy giving rides and making people welcome. It looks like Xeroxed sheet music, and it sounds like joy.

This is not a gift I ever expected, but it is one I’m happy to savor. (And, of course, Mariah is still sneaking in there too, sometimes.)

I am (it’s no secret) in love with my new neighborhood of East Boston, tucked between the water and the airport. I’ve spent nearly five happy months here now, and I’ve loved watching my neighbors get festive for the holidays.

The Italian restaurant around the corner was one of the first to decorate:

My neighbors are putting up wreaths of all kinds, including this shiny silver one:

Fences are draped with twinkly lights, including this display down the street from my house:

Even the yoga studio has gotten into the spirit, with this tiny, charming tree:

The wreath at the top is from the park near my house, which also put up a lighted tree last week. I love walking down the dark streets after work and seeing all the festive trees and decorations in people’s windows. And, of course, I’ve done a bit of decorating of my own.

It is that famously hectic week before Christmas, with work projects and holiday parties and last-minute details galore. But just like every year, I’m trying to slow down and notice the sparkle. I hope it’s looking cheery (or quiet and peaceful) where you are.

Due to review deadlines, library deadlines and general pre-holiday craziness, my brain feels scrambled lately. Here’s what I have been reading – much of it several months ahead:

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling
Harry’s second adventure at Hogwarts is as much fun as the first. I love seeing the characters grow, and the narrative of the series begin to build. Fast, fun and highly enjoyable.

Politics is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change, Eitan Hersh
Most people who are engaged in political hobbyism – following, and wringing their hands about, the news – aren’t doing work to make real, appreciable change. Hersh investigates the history of political engagement in the U.S., interviews grassroots activists (the strongest part of the book) and asks how to truly get involved in local politics. Interesting, though a bit tedious at times. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 14).

The Golden Hour, Beatriz Williams
Widowed journalist Lulu Randolph is sent to Nassau in 1941 to write a society column focusing mainly on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. While there, she falls in love – but when her new husband becomes a POW, she goes to London to try to rescue him. The narrative shifts between Lulu’s story and that of her husband’s German mother, Elfriede, in the early 1900s. Lush, compelling, slightly scandalous.

Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America’s Stolen Land, Noé Álvarez
The son of Mexican immigrants, Álvarez grew up poor in eastern Washington. Feeling aimless as a college student, he joined the Peace and Dignity Journeys to run a punishing 6,000-mile ultramarathon through North America, in a quest to honor indigenous peoples and their stories. This memoir is beautifully written and contains some compelling ideas, but I couldn’t always find the through line of his insights. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 3).

Siri, Who Am I?, Sam Tschida
A young woman wakes up in the hospital wearing a yellow Prada gown, with nothing in her possession but a tube of Chanel lipstick and an iPhone. She can’t even remember her own name (Mia), but gamely tries to reconstruct her life via Instagram. A snarky, fast-paced take on the selfie culture – fun, though I wanted more depth. I really liked Mia’s sidekick/love interest, Max the “Black Einstein” neuroscientist. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 5).

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

What are you reading?

Twinkly.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that December in the Northeast (and at many latitudes) is dark.

We are here: two weeks from the solstice, at the beginning of winter, digging out from our first real snowstorm of the season. We’ve had some grey days, too, making natural light even harder to find. And, of course, this season comes with particular emotional challenges, for me and for a lot of folks I know.

I’m not going all out on the decor this year: for one thing, too much glitz and glitter would overwhelm my studio apartment. For another, it feels truer to look for, or create, some pinpricks of light here and there. The twinkly effect of the tree candleholders on my mantel, or my tiny Christmas tree made from coat hangers, garland and colored lights, feels gentler and more real than anything big or bright or flashy.  (It also – and this is no coincidence – feels more like Advent, the season we are in, and my favorite part of the church year.)

This week, my friend Lauryn came over to help me put up the little tree I’ve had since I lived alone as a recent college grad, and have carted around to every house since. We strung lights and listened to Christmas carols, and I pulled out a couple dozen favorite ornaments. The tree is shining softly on the fireplace, where it lights up the whole living area.

tree-fireplace-books

I’m enjoying twinkle lights around town, too: in shop windows, on bare-branched trees, in my neighbors’ living rooms, shining through the curtains. The light shines in the darkness, and it feels hopeful and cheery and brave.

Where are you finding light in this season? Please share, if you like.

Many of my knitting friends will tell you: sometimes a skein of yarn takes a while to figure out what it’s going to be.

Some years ago now, Sonia came to Boston for a conference, and we met up in the South End and walked around, eating pastries from Flour and talking about our lives. She lives in the Pacific Northwest and we became friends via Ravelry, but had never met in person before. She brought me a gorgeous crimson skein of Cassiopeia yarn from Pigeonroof Studios, and I immediately started browsing potential patterns.

The yarn has a bit of cashmere and silk in it – so it stretched waaaay out with the first pattern I used, Regina. I frogged that attempt and made a gorgeous Cocoon Cowl next, but I rarely wore it. (I like my cowls big and cozy in the wintertime, and this one was more on the small and dainty side.)

A few years later, I used some of the skein to make a Gin & Tonic hat for my friend Laura, but I’d had the rest of it kicking around all this time. But it has now found its final form: a cozy, cabled Queensland Beach headband.

I tried it out on our first proper snow day, yesterday, and I’m so thrilled with it. And it reminded me: sometimes you have to try a few paths/possibilities before you find the right one.