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Happy New Year, friends. I hope your holidays were wonderful. Mine involved our usual Texas tour: lots of family time, Tex-Mex food and twinkliness. (Then a quiet New Year’s weekend to recover.)

Here are the books I read in the second half of December – mostly on our vacation:

Ghosts of Greenglass House, Kate Milford
Milo Pine is looking forward to a quiet Christmas with his parents. But for the second year in a row, that’s not happening: the titular hotel where they live is invaded by a pair of thieves and a mysterious group of carolers (the Waits). I enjoyed this sequel to Greenglass House, though the magic got a little muddled at times.

You Bring the Distant Near, Mitali Perkins
Spanning four decades (1970s to present day), this YA novel unfolds the saga of the Das family as they move between India and the U.S., through the voices of five women. A great story of sisterhood and the push and pull between tradition, family and making your own way. I read it in one sitting on a flight.

A Casualty of War, Charles Todd
The Great War is nearly over, but for nurse Bess Crawford, there’s still much to be done for the soldiers in her care. The plight of one such soldier, a Captain Travis, sends Bess and her friend Simon Brandon to Suffolk to investigate his family history. I’ve enjoyed this series, but the previous few books have stalled a bit. This one, however, was excellent.

Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery, Jenny Colgan
As Christmas approaches, baker Polly Waterford is struggling: she’s exhausted at work, ambivalent about her boyfriend’s marriage proposal and worried about her pregnant best friend. I like Colgan’s cheery chick lit; this one wasn’t my favorite, but I enjoyed seeing these characters again.

The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper
I’d never read this fantasy novel, but picked it up when Robert Macfarlane (whose nonfiction I adore) announced a readalong on Twitter. I loved the story: full of beautiful lines, ancient magic and bravery, as 11-year-old Will Stanton discovers he’s part of a mysterious circle that must hold back the Dark. It’s set at midwinter/Christmastime, which felt so apt. Now I want to read the rest of the series.

Leopard at the Door, Jennifer McVeigh
I grabbed this at the (rather uninspiring) DFW airport bookstore, and spent my flight home wholly absorbed in it. Rachel Fullsmith returns home to Kenya after six miserable years in an English boarding school. Her widowed father has taken up with a cold, manipulative woman, and there is increasing unrest among the Kenyan laborers. Vivid images, gorgeous writing and a heart-wrenching story of those caught up in the Mau Mau uprising. (I also enjoyed McVeigh’s debut, The Fever Tree.)

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

What are you reading in this brand-new year?

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In 2017 I have…

not afraid shirt ocean brave

It’s been a year, hasn’t it, friends?

These past months have been crowded and stressful, both in the world and in my own life. But they’ve also held beauty and laughter and joy. Here’s my annual (long but non-comprehensive) list of what has happened this year.

In 2017, I have:

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  • spent a long October weekend introducing my parents to New York City.
  • returned to PEI with the hubs for our third blissful stretch of days there.
  • spent a week wandering Oxford, city of my heart.
  • tried my first boot camp workout – a six-week series taught by my favorite yoga instructor – and loved it.
  • surprised myself by taking up running.
  • run my first 5K (in the snow!).
  • moved (again) and settled into our new apartment, a lovely third-floor eyrie in Dorchester.
  • fallen in love with the river trail near our house.

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midtown nyc skyscrapers blue sky

  • gone on a few weekend escapes with the hubs: a Florida beach, a wee Connecticut town, the Maine woods.
  • spoken (once) and listened (on many days) at Morning Prayers at Memorial Church.
  • done a lot of church work, as ever: sending emails, organizing events, reading Scripture, washing dishes.
  • learned a thing or two about protesting.
  • marked nine years of marriage.
  • helped my best friends pack up their apartment, and sent them on their way to Idaho with many tears.
  • finished paying off our little silver car (we call her Adele).
  • celebrated my eighth (!) Turkeypalooza with church friends.
  • filled up half a dozen journals.

I’m looking forward to turning the calendar on 2018: I love the idea of a fresh start, but there’s also some good stuff I want to carry over from 2017. Wishing you a peaceful, hopeful start to the New Year.

clue film cast

The hubs and I recently watched Clue, for the first time in a while. We quote it incessantly (“Flames on the side of my face!” “Well, to make a long story short…” “Too late!”) but it had been several years since we’d enjoyed it in full. If you love the board game, the ’80s or ridiculously campy humor, I highly recommend it.

Afterward, I mentioned a trend I’ve noticed recently: Most of our favorite movies involve a lot of yelling.

I don’t mean my favorite movies (You’ve Got Mail, The Sound of Music) or his favorite movies (Schindler’s List, Field of Dreams). I mean our favorite movies: the ones we love to watch together. The ones we quote on a daily or weekly basis. The ones that make up a substantial part of our vernacular, along with a few beloved TV shows: Friends, Castle and Modern Family, which also frequently get loud.

A partial list: The Emperor’s New Groove. (“Yay! I’m a llama again!”) Pirates of the Caribbean. (“Why is the rum gone?!”) Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (“I don’t know that!”) The Princess Bride. (“Inconceivable!”) The original Star Wars films, both for the battle scenes and C-3PO’s incessant cries of “We’re doomed!” And, of course, anything and everything involving the Muppets. Even White Christmas, thanks to Danny Kaye, has its fair share of shouting. Honorable mentions include The Money Pit, Singin’ in the Rain (Cosmo Brown!) and the old Pink Panther films starring Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau.

Some of it’s a function of the genres we watch together. Adventure and comedy films inevitably involve a fair bit of noise: explosions, shouting matches, attempts to save the world – or just the day – gone horribly wrong. (The Muppets’ adventures tend to include all of the above.) There’s also a lot of winking at the camera: whether the characters overtly break the fourth wall (or smash right through it, in the case of the Muppets), the audience is almost always in on the joke.

I can’t forget the nostalgia factor, of course – we’ve loved and quoted a lot of these movies, especially New Groove, Pirates and Clue, since our college days. And honestly, a lot of times it’s pure escapism. I usually don’t have a socially acceptable reason to scream at the top of my lungs, but it cracks me up when my favorite characters do it: “They don’t KNOW we know they know we know!”

I love a sweet romantic comedy or a beautifully shot epic saga as much as the next viewer. My husband is partial to dark psychological thrillers, which, frankly, creep me out. But if we’re on the couch together, you can usually find us watching something funny. And cracking up when things get loud.

Do you notice any oddball themes in your favorite movies?

My Favorite Books of 2017

mostly books interior abingdon uk bookshop

Every year it’s a challenge: to look back over the books I’ve read in a year (nearly 150, this time!) and choose a handful of favorites. I talked about a few gems in my first-half-of-2017 roundup, back in June. But here are the books that shine the brightest in my whole reading year:

Most Enchanting Family Saga: The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman. I’ve gushed about this one a lot, and I even got to interview Hoffman for Shelf Awareness. (She was lovely and wise, and patient with my fangirling.) I fell totally in love with these characters, and a few words about their courage have remained written on my heart.

Deep and Captivating Dive into the Word-Hoard: Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane. I loved every page of this beautiful, keenly observed book about landscapes, the words we use to describe them, and how those things shape each other (and us). A must-read if you’re a walker, a writer or a good noticer.

Loveliest and Most Honest Memoir of Transformation: The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis. An unflinching, beautiful, often heartrending look at what it means to leave behind a faith and a marriage, and navigate new territory without a map.

Funniest Lighthearted Fiction: The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman. I couldn’t stop laughing at this wisecracking, warmhearted novel of grief, love and gardening.

Most Luminous Memoir of Faith and Struggle: In the Shelter by Pádraig Ó Tuama. Wise and lovely: always calling us to pay attention to what is here, what is real, what is full of possibility.

Timely and Vivid Nonfiction: The Newcomers by Helen Thorpe – a vivid account of refugee teenagers and their families struggling to adjust to life in Denver. Powerful, clear and compelling.

Poetry: Blue Iris by Mary Oliver, which contains so many beautiful flower poems – a perfect match to my flower walks and #FlowerReporting this spring and summer.

Favorite Reread: Either The Precious One by Marisa de los Santos or Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I love de los Santos’ warm, thought-provoking family stories, and Gilead is wise and slow (in the best way) and utterly lovely.

Gorgeous, Layered Family Saga: Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. Each section in this novel focuses on a different member of the same extended family, across countries and generations. Bittersweet and absorbing.

Best Title (with Wry, Hilarious Career Advice): Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? by Alyssa Mastromonaco. I really enjoyed this snarky, smart memoir about life in the Obama White House. But the title is almost my favorite part – it’s frighteningly applicable to so many situations these days.

What were your favorite books this year?

The words of this Advent

tree lights bookshelf christmas

This Advent, as I said last week, has felt a bit disjointed.

Instead of quiet and hopeful (which is admittedly a stretch, given the headlines lately), I have felt hesitant, restless, even a little angry. So much has shifted, in my life and in the world, this year, and though I’m glad to see Advent come again, my usual traditions aren’t really working. Instead of reading Watch for the Light on a near-daily basis, I’ve picked it up only a few times. I’ve been diving into Star Wars novels instead of my typical Advent stack, and even the carols haven’t been quite as present.

And yet.

At the last Morning Prayers service of the fall semester, Lucy began by reading a passage from 1 Corinthians 16: Be watchful. Stand firm in your faith. Be strong. Be courageous. Let all that you do be done in love. I took those words as a charge, especially the last two sentences. And I believed her when she said, a few minutes later, “The promise of Advent is that we will be met by the One who loves us, no matter.”

Two days later, at church, Emily read aloud from Isaiah: Comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord your God. Centuries before the birth of Christ, Isaiah spoke to a people who were weary and heartbroken. He had harsh words for them, sometimes – but he also offered comfort and hope.

I’ve been thinking, as I often do in Advent, about Mary: reading Laurie Sheck’s words about the “honest grace” of her body, her inability to hide her fear, her acknowledgment that her hands are “simply empty.” She was young and untried, alone and afraid. But as Kathleen Norris says in her essay on the Annunciation, “Mary proceeds – as we must do in life – making her commitment without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will lead.” She walked forward, with courage and love, into a new reality that must have felt uncertain, precarious, dark.

Singing carols this year feels more like an act of tenuous hope than an affirmation of faith or joy: the promise of God’s coming into our midst feels a long way off. But I am still humming O Come O Come Emmanuel, with all its aching longing. I am thinking, like my friend Claire, about the middle verses of beloved carols, which wrestle with the darkness and also seek out the spark of light. I am hearing again the voices of my dad’s friends Buddy and Clay, singing O Holy Night at our church in Dallas when I was a little girl: A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. And I am humming the Magnificat, with Rachel’s words in mind.

Some days, it feels disingenuous to sing these songs: there is so much grieving, so much wrong, so much yet to be made right. But on other days it feels like an act of faith, one tiny candle flickering against the darkness. My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

Amen.

bloodline book christmas tree star wars

The first half of December is always a contradiction in terms: the routine of daily life marches on, laced with twinkly festivity and all the holiday prep. As ever, the reading helps keep me (relatively) sane.

Here’s the latest book roundup:

And the Rest is History, Jodi Taylor
I love Taylor’s series about the wacky, tea-loving time-traveling historians of St. Mary’s Institute in England. This eighth book is full of heartbreak: Max, the narrator/heroine, her husband Leon and their colleagues are in for it, several times. But it’s also witty, fast-paced and entertaining, like the whole series. Smart, fun escapist reading.

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, ed. Joe Fassler
I savored this collection of essays by 46 writers, riffing on lines or passages that have shaped their creative lives. Thoughtful, honest, nourishing perspectives as varied as their authors. Recommended by Lindsey, who especially loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s essay (so did I). Other favorites: Claire Messud, Azar Nafisi, Angela Flournoy, Sherman Alexie.

Fifty Million Rising: The New Generation of Working Women Transforming the Muslim World, Saadia Zahidi
Muslim women are going to work in greater numbers than ever, and they are revolutionizing their homes, families and societies. Zahidi delves into the cultural, social and economic patterns that are shifting across the Muslim world. Packed with statistics, but I really enjoyed the stories of women (many, but not all, millennials) who are blazing a path for themselves. (Serendipity: Zahidi is an alumna of my workplace.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 30).

Star Wars: Bloodline, Claudia Gray
I enjoyed Gray’s new novel about the teenage Princess Leia learning to be a badass. I loved this novel, set before The Force Awakens, even more. It features Leia as a senator in the New Republic: she’s a little jaded, but brave and committed as ever, and hungry for a bit of adventure – which she gets in spades. I relished both the new characters and the appearances by familiar faces (Han Solo and C-3PO).

The Red Garden, Alice Hoffman
Hoffman’s stories weave magic seamlessly into the everyday (or simply point out what’s already there). This collection follows the town of Blackwell, Mass., and the intertwined lives of its families over three centuries. It’s a little uneven, but still enchanting.

Party Girls Die in Pearls, Plum Sykes
Ursula Flowerbutton has high hopes for her first week as a student at Oxford – but they don’t include the murder of a posh classmate. However, Ursula (a budding journalist) and her new American friend Nancy are on the case. A smart, fun, frothy, totally ’80s romp through Oxford. Perfect weekend reading.

H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald
A longtime obsession with birds of prey led Macdonald to acquire a goshawk named Mabel, around the time her father died. She struggles mightily with grief and emptiness while learning to fly her hawk. Luminous, heartbreaking and strange: full of sorrow and magic. I didn’t care much for the exploration of T.H. White’s journey with goshawks, but loved Macdonald’s own story. Bought last year at bookbook in Greenwich Village. Recommended by my friend Jess at Great New Books.

Reading People: How Seeing the World Through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, Anne Bogel
Anne is a longtime blogging friend of mine; we finally met in person last fall in NYC. She’s also a whip-smart personality geek, and her first book explores various personality frameworks. The big takeaway: know thyself – and be willing to question your own assumptions. Thoughtful and informative. (Anne sent me an ARC – it came out in September.)

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

What are you reading?

candle books snowflake peace

We are nearly halfway through Advent, the quiet, candlelit season leading to Christmas (which is often beset by the noise of daily life, on all sides). While I’m usually eager to step into Advent, this year I stood waiting at the door, so to speak, for days.

I am exhausted after the rush and press of a hectic fall, distressed by the news headlines, worried and saddened by the heaviness of the world and my own heart. As Rachel Held Evans observed recently, the usual ethos of Advent – the stillness and hope – has not felt quite right, this year.

We still showed up at church on a Saturday morning, though, to drape pine garland around doorways and ledges, to fill window boxes with cyclamen and green boxwood. That night, I finally pulled out the tiny coat-hanger tree that my friend Tiffany made for a Secret Santa exchange, twenty years ago. Every year, I hold my breath as I plug it in, hoping the colored lights will still shine. Every year, they wink out at me from the blue-green branches, the wires and foil held together by masking tape and hope.

kitchen stove kettle tree

The next day at church, we sang the hymn that encapsulates Advent’s longing for me: “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” I rubbed my fingers across the pine wreaths my friend Sarah had brought, and inhaled their sharp green scent. It smelled like Advent: like the promise of something fresh and bracing, even as the world outside grows quiet and dark.

Later, I stood behind the pulpit to welcome everyone, and borrowed a line from another Sarah. As my husband lit the first purple candle, I talked about how Advent is for the ones who grieve; who long; who hope. This year, maybe more than ever, we are stumbling forward in the dark, unsure whether we will find our way. But we believe that the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

That afternoon, I took a long walk on the river trail, along paths that have grown familiar, past benches and bare trees and slender, waving reeds. The morning’s sunshine had all but disappeared: a blanket of grey clouds covered the sky. As I turned toward home, it was rapidly growing dark. Yet the edges of the clouds still held a faint glow: I knew there was light behind them, even though the day had grown dim.

We hauled the tree up out of the basement that night, and unraveled eight strands of lights while listening to the King’s College singers. It sat in the living room, unadorned, for an entire week: the ornaments waited in their boxes for an evening when we had the time and inclination to unwrap them. The tree looked a little sad to me at first, but I came to enjoy its quiet glow, its patient waiting.

christmas tree lights snoopy

Advent is about acknowledging this difficult truth: not everything is as it should be, not yet.

I keep thinking of Nichole Nordeman’s words, which I wrote about after Thanksgiving: surely you can see that we are thirsty and afraid. They mingle in my head with a line from “O Holy Night:” a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. Somehow, at the same time, both of these things are true.

We are tired and thirsty, weary and fearful; we are not sure how, or when, or even if God will come. At the same time, our hearts quicken with a hope we can’t explain or understand: a quiet undercurrent, a bubbling thrill of joy.

Advent is about these contradictions: walking forward in the darkness, clinging to the promise of the Light. It’s about acknowledging the hurt and the fear, the injustice and the gaping need, the despair that threatens to overwhelm us. And it is choosing to believe the words we read again every year: Comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord your God. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. Behold, I am making all things new. 

We choose hope, despite all evidence to the contrary. We sing, even when the words feel make-believe rather than true. We wait and watch, together in the darkness, lighting candles and looking for the light that hovers just behind the clouds. And we pray: Come, Lord Jesus. Make all things new.