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watch for the light book bed Christmas tree

December reading is always a crazy mix of airplane reading, the last few review books of the year, and a couple of Advent/Christmas staples. (Above: the book of readings that has shaped my experience of Advent since 2001.) Here’s the last roundup of 2018:

Harry’s Trees, Jon Cohen
I grabbed this novel at the library after Anne raved about it. A slow start for me, but I fell in love with Harry Crane, a Forest Service employee who escapes to the woods after his wife dies. I loved the people he meets – Oriana, a young girl who’s lost her father; Amanda, her relentlessly practical mother; and Olive, the elderly pipe-smoking librarian who gives Oriana a book that changes everything. Magical and moving.

Darius the Great is Not Okay, Adib Khorram
Leigh and Kari both loved this book, and I really enjoyed it. Darius is an Iranian-American teen (and tea lover) who travels to Iran for the first time. His relationships with his dad and little sister were so well drawn and real, and I loved watching him make a real friend and bond with his grandparents.

Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London, Mohsin Hamid
Hamid is better known for his novels – like Exit West, which I loved – but this collection of his essays is wise and thought-provoking. I learned a lot about Pakistan from the “Politics” section, but found more to enjoy in “Art” and “Life.” Found (on sale) at the charming Papercuts JP last month.

Running Home, Katie Arnold
Arnold became a runner as a kid, almost by accident – at the urging of her photographer dad. She chronicles her journey with running (and later ultrarunning), interwoven with her dad’s illness, his death, and their complicated but deeply loving relationship. So many great lines about writing, life, family, and how we shape the stories we tell ourselves. I loved it as a runner and a writer, but I think even if you’re neither, it’s well worth reading. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 12).

Star Crossed, Minnie Darke
Justine is a whip-smart Sagittarius with journalistic ambitions and little regard for astrology. Her childhood friend Nick is an aspiring Aquarian actor who trusts the stars for major life decisions. They reconnect – and Justine starts dabbling in astrology – in this fun Australian novel. I loved all the intertwined stories and Darke’s sharp observations about various star signs. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 21).

Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, Barbara Brown Taylor
Teaching Religion 101 to undergraduates in Georgia for nearly two decades, Taylor (a former Episcopal priest) found much to admire and even envy in Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam. She explores her experiences alongside her students’, and muses on what “holy envy” may have to offer those who are still deeply committed to their own faith. Thoughtful, insightful and so well done, like all Taylor’s books. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 12).

Summer at the Garden Café, Felicity Hayes-McCoy
I loved Hayes-McCoy’s memoir about Ireland and enjoyed her first novel set there. This, the sequel, is charming and fun. It follows the lives of several people in a small village in western Ireland: librarian Hanna, her daughter Jazz, their colleagues and friends.

Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
I received this book as a gift over a decade ago, and I still revisit it almost every December. It’s a story of five loosely connected people who end up in the north of Scotland one Christmas, and the ways they bring hope to each other. So good.

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

What are you reading as we head into 2019?

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In 2018 I have…

Katie post bike ride selfie

I never quite know what to say about a whole year. That’s been especially true of the last several: so full of challenge and change, transition and unexpected moments. A list seems inadequate, at best, but it’s one of the tools I have, so here’s a list of (some of) what I’ve done this year.

In 2018, I have:

  • run my second, third and fourth 5Ks – on a gorgeous April day, a sunny November Sunday and a freezing December morning, respectively.
  • dyed my hair for the first time – I put a few pink streaks in it this spring, and liked it so much I’ve kept refreshing the color.
  • flown to Idaho to visit my dear friends and meet their new baby girl.
  • hosted those same friends for a lovely weekend in Boston this fall.
  • drunk so many chai lattes, mostly (are we shocked?) from Darwin’s.
  • spent my third glorious stretch of days in San Diego.
  • mourned the loss of a dear family friend.
  • met and briefly interviewed Lin-Manuel Miranda.
  • taken a 10-day vacación to Spain with my husband, to celebrate a decade of marriage.
  • toasted my beloved boss as he retired from HKS.
  • savored my sixth Commencement at Harvard.
  • heard the news that my job there was ending.
  • spent a summer freelancing and job hunting (again).
  • started a new job across the river at Berklee.
  • run my first 8K on a hot, humid, sunny Labor Day.
  • taken my first ride (and many more) on a Blue Bike, and become completely addicted.
  • read nearly 200 books.
  • reviewed several dozen of those books, and interviewed six authors, for Shelf Awareness.
  • tended a few geraniums and a basil plant (at home) and a couple of low-light desk plants (at work).
  • bought countless bouquets of flowers, many from my favorite florist.
  • run miles and miles and miles on my beloved trail.
  • seen a few great concerts: the Wailin’ Jennys, the Boston Conservatory orchestra, Five for Fighting, various Berklee students (who really know how to jam).
  • hosted my parents for their annual visit to Boston.
  • spent a couple of whirlwind weekends in NYC.
  • navigated a few losses I’m not ready to talk about yet.
  • celebrated Thanksgiving with friends old and new in East Boston.
  • turned 35, hosted my own birthday brunch and reflected on it.
  • embraced the weekly boot camps I started last year.
  • kept on doing yoga about once a week.
  • spent many mornings in a pew at Memorial Church.
  • learned how to podcast.
  • tried to figure out how to stitch together the old life and the new.

I’ve got a few plans and a lot of hopes for 2019 – though I’m increasingly aware that I don’t know what’s coming next. I’m trying to navigate that with greater ease as we head into a new year. But first I’d love to know: what has 2018 looked like for you?

birch bark reindeer

On Monday morning, I dropped off a thick stack of Christmas cards at the post office.

The hubs and I sat at the kitchen table the night before, listening to Christmas music, surrounded by sticky labels and the ever-changing list I print off and then mark up every year. We both reached for our phones several times to text friends for new addresses. As I said to Jaclyn, the act of virtually asking for a physical address seems to capture December in the modern world. (That might go double for Jaclyn herself: we met online, have exchanged many snail-mail letters and even met in person a few times, and are mostly keeping up via text and blogs these days.)

I only write down many of these addresses once or twice a year: my aunt and grandparents near San Antonio, my housemates from grad school in England. A cluster of houses in southwest Missouri, where my dad grew up and his family (by blood and by choice) still lives.

Some of these folks I don’t talk to all that often, and haven’t seen for years. But their addresses, and the physical act of writing them by hand, are in there. And sending Christmas cards – choosing a photo, scrambling to update the list, finding an hour to scribble notes on the back of each card to our loved ones – is one of the small but important rituals of the season.

Christmas tree snoopy

Last week, on a rare weeknight at home together, we watched The Muppet Christmas Carol over bowls of spicy carrot-ginger soup, delighting in the songs and silliness and cracking up at the asides by Rizzo and Gonzo. This weekend, we ordered takeout from our favorite Indian place and watched White Christmas. I giggled at Danny Kaye’s facial expressions, marveled at Vera-Ellen’s footwork, and welled up when the General walked down the stairs in his uniform. (Every year.)

So much (I keep saying) has changed in the last few years: my job(s), our address(es), the way we navigate so much of our daily lives. This year, Advent has felt hard and different; I’ve missed some of my usual traditions, like the church Christmas pageant and the a cappella notes of O Come O Come Emmanuel.

But some of the season’s tiny rituals remain the same. J has hung the felt mistletoe ball in the doorway between the dining and living room. The words in my Advent book are still there, sustaining and comforting and sometimes shaking me awake, as I page through them before bed. The cyclamen and poinsettias at my florist are vivid and glorious. The shop windows all over town are sparkly and festive. I’m fighting (hopefully defeating) my annual December cold, and laughing at my sister’s photos of her Elf on the Shelf, Oliver, and his antics.

poinsettias brattle square florist red flowers Cambridge

We are making travel plans, packing, doing laundry, finishing up the Christmas shopping. I am humming the familiar carols, and singing them with others, when I can. (We spent Sunday morning at a lessons and carols service that fed my soul and made my heart sing.) We bought (more) wrapping paper and Scotch tape this weekend, and the tiny coat-hanger tree I’ve had for twenty years is sparkling away on top of the microwave.

Some of our neighbors have set electric candles in their windows, and the sight warms me when I glance outside after dark. Before I go to bed, I pause in the kitchen to glance out the window at the quiet street, then in the living room to take in the glow of the Christmas tree before unplugging it for the night. So much of each day feels hurried and hectic, but just for a moment each night, there is peace.

Advent is about the waiting, the longing, the gaps between what ought to be and what has not yet come. We are waiting, we are hurting, we are tiptoeing toward Christmas. And while we wait, I am savoring every bit of joy.

strand bookstore cookbook shelves

Early December always leaves me breathless. But – thank goodness – there are the books. (Photo from my recent trip to the Strand.)

Here’s the latest roundup:

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, Abbi Waxman
I loved Waxman’s debut, The Garden of Small Beginnings. (I was ambivalent about her second novel, Other People’s Houses.) And I liked this, her third novel following introvert, bookseller and trivia whiz Nina Hill as she deals with various unexpected pieces of news. Really witty, though a lot of the characters felt two-dimensional. I liked seeing Lili and her daughters (from Small Beginnings) again. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 9, 2019).

How to Be a Heroine: Or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much, Samantha Ellis
In her thirties, Ellis began to wonder: did the literary heroines she’d loved as a child still have something to teach her? The answer, of course, is yes. I loved Ellis’ memoir of finding her way as a person and a writer, and revisiting characters like Sara Crewe, Scarlett O’Hara and others. Some are my heroines too (Anne Shirley!) and some are newer to me, like Lucy Honeychurch and Scheherazade. So much fun.

Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future, Pete Buttigieg
Buttigieg is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and his memoir traces his journey to public service and his experience in the mayor’s office. He’s a Harvard grad, a Navy reserve veteran, a data-driven geek and a warm, thoughtful writer. City government may not sound exciting, but I found his narrative so compelling and hopeful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 26).

The Proposal, Jasmine Guillory
Freelance writer Nikole Patterson is blindsided when her actor boyfriend proposes via the JumboTron at a Dodgers game – and he spells her name wrong! When Carlos and his sister rescue Nik from a camera crew, Carlos and Nik become friends and then something more. But what, exactly? A really fun romance with lots of tacos, cupcakes and women’s empowerment messages. The latter felt a bit heavy-handed, but I enjoyed the story – especially since I knew (and liked) Carlos from Guillory’s debut, The Wedding Date.

A Borrowing of Bones, Paula Munier
After a tour in Afghanistan where she lost her fiancé, Martinez, Mercy Carr has retreated to rural Vermont along with Martinez’s working dog, Elvis. When they find an adult skeleton and a baby girl (very much alive) in the woods, Mercy teams up with game warden Troy Warner to find the baby’s mother and the identity of the victim. A well-plotted, thoughtful mystery; first in a new series. Reminded me a bit of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mysteries, which I adore.

Hope Never Dies, Andrew Shaffer
After the 2016 election, former VP Joe Biden is bored and restless. But when his favorite Amtrak conductor dies under suspicious circumstances, Biden and his old friend Barack Obama team up (with Obama’s requisite Secret Service escort) to solve the mystery. A fun, often witty bromance and a pretty good mystery. (I love the premise almost more than the execution.)

So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo
Conversations about race are often fraught, and Oluo, a black activist and writer, pulls no punches in this primer about how to talk and listen. It’s meant (mostly) for well-meaning white folks like me. Powerful and thought-provoking.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith. If you’re shopping for holiday gifts, please consider supporting indie bookstores – either in your community or by ordering from them online. 

What are you reading?

This is December

wreath old south church Boston

It’s a cold, diamond-bright December, with sharp blue skies and angled shadows that stretch long beginning in the early afternoons. I hurry along the sidewalk in my green coat and fleece-lined tights, avoiding the loose tiles and listening to the repeated entreaties from the homeless guys. I dig in my purse for the bright pink strap that holds my work ID, nod to the security guy and the construction crew in our building. Every week the work looks different: dangling wires, fresh plywood, so many cables and work boots and dust.

Katie selfie mirror post bike ride

There hasn’t been much snow so far. If I bundle up well enough, pull on a vest and two pairs of gloves and a blue fleece-lined headband, I can still hop a Blue Bike across the river from Harvard Square in the early mornings. I’ve come to enjoy skimming down Mt. Auburn St. to Mass Ave, then across the bridge by MIT, heading for the skyline, from the old neighborhood to the new.

commonwealth avenue brownstones Boston blue sky

We finished up Morning Prayers with a week of Advent hymns: Comfort, comfort ye my people. Watchman, tell us of the night. People, look east, the time is near. On Friday, after the final service of the term, we crowded into the kitchen downstairs for coffee and blueberry cake. I took my husband to the carol service on Sunday night, red poinsettias and thundering organ music and clear voices ringing out from the balcony. We stood with the congregation and sang a few of my favorites: Silent Night, Hark the Herald, Angels We Have Heard on High with its trilling Gloria.

red poinsettias flowers church

I’m thumbing through my Advent book again, reading wisdom from Sylvia Plath and Kathleen Norris, poetry and plainspoken prose, awe and wonder, longing and praise. For the first time in years, we are adrift this Advent, unmoored from a church community, except for my mornings at Mem Church. It feels strange and hard, and also this is where we are: right in the middle of more change and transition, of messy, ordinary life.

My florist’s shop is bursting with poinsettias and cyclamen, with miniature trees and tiny birch-bark reindeer. I stop in weekly, still, for roses and red tulips and a hug from Stephen. At home, we’ve finally decked our tall tree with ornaments, a colorful hodgepodge of old and new. The Christmas shopping is half done, the cards ordered and received but not sent, the packing not even thought about. We are living in the in between.

snoopy tree lights Christmas

I watch the sun rise out the kitchen window, my elbow brushing the geranium still stubbornly bursting with scarlet flowers. I sink into bed at night with a book, the glow of the Christmas tree from the living room just visible through the doorway. I take solace in a hot cup of chai, in the smile of a friend. I keep moving, because that is, as always, the only thing to do.

New York in December

wreath tree NYC Christmas

It’s no secret that I love New York City: in the fall, in the spring, even in a sweltering summer heat wave. But I’d never seen the city decked out for Christmas, and I’d always wanted to. So, when my husband told me he had a work conference in Chicago, I made plans for a quick solo trip: 48 hours to wander on my own. It was, as you might expect, glorious.

Every time I go to New York I fall in love. This time, it was with crisp Snapdragon apples and pumpkin cookies at the tiny farmers’ market in Abingdon Square; with the stands of freshly cut Christmas trees on so many corners, tunnels of prickly green. I even fell in love a little bit with the tree-seller who called “Merry Christmas!” and actually tipped his hat.

high line view NYC blue sky

I fell in love with running on the High Line: bold blue skies and views across the Hudson, public art and the sharp angles of skyscrapers and the pounding of my own feet. After my run, I stopped at the Hudson Cafe for oatmeal and a cup of strong Earl Grey, and fell in love with a little dog named Stella. Her owner invited me to sit down and chat, and we talked public transit and city life and unexpected career moves. “How long have you lived in the neighborhood?” I asked her. She grinned, a little wickedly. “A hundred and fifty years!”

Cornelia street cafe awning NYC

I fell in love with the cheery red-striped awnings at the Cornelia Street Cafe just off Bleecker, and with their excellent eggs Florentine (oh my). I fell in love with the stunning array of artisans in the maker space at Chelsea Market, and with the quiet, unpretentious Epiphany Library branch on East 23rd Street. I ended up there when I needed a place to rest my feet and charge my phone (because Hermione is right: when in doubt, go to the library).

red decor west village

I bought a rush ticket to Saturday night’s Live from Here with Chris Thile at the Town Hall. And while I knew I loved Thile’s mandolin music (I’m a Nickel Creek fan from way back), I fell completely in love with his warmth and charm onstage. When he invited the audience to sing along with a few lines from a John Denver song about home, it felt both magical and holy. I’ve been humming those lines ever since.

Some trips to New York are full of new discoveries, and some are about revisiting old favorites. The best are a bit of both, and this was no exception: I made sure to pop into Three Lives for a browsing session and a bit of eavesdropping on the friendly booksellers. I visited Pink Olive and refueled later with Earl Grey at Joe. I went back to Bar Six, back to the Strand, back to the Bryant Park holiday market at the main NYPL branch. I went back, most of all, to the city whose streets I find endlessly fascinating.

I didn’t make it to Rockefeller Center or walk down 5th Avenue to see all the decked-out department stores. But I did get a little of that holiday sparkle. And I did my favorite thing to do in New York: wander to my heart’s content. It was, as always, exhausting and lovely.

glass ocean book tea cafe

We’re headed for December already – and between the feasting, the commuting, the running and the rest of life, this month included some fantastic books. Here’s the latest roundup:

Black is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, Emily Bernard
“Brown is the body I was born into. Black is the body of the stories I tell.” Bernard, an author and professor, explores race and family history in these powerful essays. Incisive and moving and so compelling. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 29).

The Matchmaker’s List, Sonya Lalli
Still single at 29, Raina Anand reluctantly agrees to let her Indian grandmother play matchmaker. Secretly, she’s still in love with her ex, who reappears while Raina is helping plan her best friend’s wedding. A fun story of clashing cultural expectations (Canadian and Indian), with a likable (if frustrating) protagonist. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 22).

Can’t Help Myself: Lessons & Confessions from a Modern Advice Columnist, Meredith Goldstein
Goldstein writes the Love Letters column for the Boston Globe. This memoir is about that work, her mother’s illness, her own struggle to find love, and the surprising community she’s found through Love Letters. Funny, warm and surprisingly insightful.

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites, Kate Christensen
Christensen has a complex relationship with food: finding comfort in it, avoiding it, exploring it in new contexts. She recounts her peripatetic childhood, her lost teenage years, her fierce love for her sisters and mother and her romantic travails, with accompanying food experiences and occasional recipes. Some delicious moments (and a lot of ill-advised decisions). Found last month at the wonderful Print: A Bookstore in Portland, Maine.

The Huntress, Kate Quinn
In the aftermath of the Nuremberg trials, most people want to move on from war stories. But British journalist Ian Graham has made hunting down war criminals his life’s work. His estranged Russian wife, former pilot Nina Markova, joins Ian and his partner in a quest to track down the titular huntress. Their story becomes intertwined with that of Jordan McBride, a young aspiring photographer in Boston, and her family. A gripping narrative of war, revenge and love – even bigger, darker and deeper than Quinn’s excellent The Alice Network. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 26).

Not For the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power, and Persistence, Wendy Sherman
Sherman is a distinguished diplomat and a faculty member at my former workplace, the Harvard Kennedy School. Her memoir chronicles her deep involvement in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, as well as her background in social work and the lessons she’s learned as a woman in high-stress workplaces and unexpected situations. A solid, thoughtful political memoir.

The Glass Ocean, Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White
I enjoyed The Forgotten Room by these three authors (and I’ll read pretty much anything Williams writes). I also enjoyed this compelling novel of three women: two aboard the RMS Lusitania and one historian trying to piece together their story a century later. Tess, the young con woman trying to go straight, was my favorite.

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

What are you reading?