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Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Somehow, it’s 2020 – and I’m still catching up from Christmas break. Here’s my last list of reads for 2019:

Red Letter Days, Sarah-Jane Stratford
When the House Un-American Activities Committee begins blacklisting writers, Phoebe Adler flees to London after receiving a subpoena. There, she begins working for Hannah Wolfson, a fellow exiled American who’s creating a new hit show. But both women are in more danger than they realize. A well-plotted historical novel with great characters – I wanted to meet Phoebe, Hannah and all their friends for a cocktail. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 25).

The Second Chance Club: Hardship and Hope After Prison, Jason Hardy
Hardy spent four years working as a parole officer in New Orleans. This book gives an insider’s account of the probation and parole (P&P) system, which aims to keep offenders from relapsing into addiction, going back to jail or prison, or hurting themselves or other people. Hardy wrestles with the lack of resources, the staggering problems facing most of his offenders, and his own privilege. A thoughtful, timely, compelling account. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 18).

Ayesha at Last, Uzma Jalaluddin
This fun Pride and Prejudice retelling, set in Toronto’s Indian Muslim community, came recommended by Anne and others. I loved Ayesha, the Elizabeth Bennet character, and her supporting cast, especially her Shakespeare-quoting grandfather. Witty, entertaining and sweet, with some fresh twists on the classic story.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown
Brown is well known for her work on race relations, and her memoir shares her experience with race and faith, and poses some tough questions. Well-written, hard-hitting and powerful; I’ll be processing this one for a while.

The Queen Con, Meghan Scott Molin
MG Martin, comic-book writer and costume designer extraordinaire, gets drawn into a second mystery involving a local superhero vigilante. But this time several of her friends, including drag queen Lawrence, may be in danger. The plot gets a bit convoluted, but this series is full of nerddom and great characters.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling
Harry’s third year at Hogwarts starts (and in some ways ends) with Sirius Black, a notorious wizard who has escaped Azkaban, the wizard prison. This book is one of my favorites in the series – especially the last bit, where everything (thanks in large part to Lupin and Hermione) blows wide open. So much fun.

Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA, Amaryllis Fox
I blew through Fox’s memoir on my plane ride home. She gives a clear, thoughtful account of her career in the CIA, and the ways an undercover life prevented her from building a true marriage or family. Fascinating and thought-provoking – parts of it read like a spy thriller.

25 Days ‘Til Christmas, Poppy Alexander
This was an impulse buy at Trident, and it was the perfect sweet, witty, British Christmas read. Widowed mum Kate is struggling to make Christmas merry for herself and her young son, Jack, while facing harassment at work. Daniel, grieving his sister’s death, is also struggling. I loved the ways their stories intertwined, as well as Daniel’s efforts to support a group of local businesses.

Blind Search, Paula Munier
Mercy Carr, former military police officer, and her retired bomb-sniffing dog Elvis are back on the case. This time, it’s multiple murder in the Vermont woods, with an autistic boy as the only witness. The writing is a bit labored, but I like Mercy and the other characters, including game warden Troy Warner.

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

What are you reading?

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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Ivey book slippers twinkle lights

January has been unpredictable, weather-wise: frigid, icy, blustery, mild, wet, sunshiny. As always, the books are getting me through. Here’s the latest roundup:

The Island of Sea Women, Lisa See
The women of Jeju, an island off the south coast of Korea, traditionally made their living as haenyeo, deep-sea divers. See explores the island’s matriarchal culture and the powerful changes wrought by the 20th century (wars, occupation, new technologies) through the story of two haenyeo, Kim Young-sook and Han Mi-ja. Young-sook recounts their childhood friendship, their years of diving together and the heart-wrenching losses they suffered. Really well done; See is prolific but I hadn’t read her before. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 5).

Christmas on the Island, Jenny Colgan
Colgan returns to the Scottish island of Mure for a Christmas-themed novel. I find Flora and Joel (the main couple) frustrating, but I like Flora’s family, her teacher friend Lorna, and Saif, the Syrian refugee doctor. Entertaining, though not my favorite Colgan.

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway: A Year of Gardening and (Wild)Life, Kate Bradbury
The tiny back garden of Kate Bradbury’s flat in Brighton, England, was covered in decking when she bought it. She set out to revive it: ripping up the decking, planting ground cover and shrubs, finding flowers to attract bees and birds. She writes movingly about her childhood garden memories, the loss of habitat for wildlife in the UK, and her mother’s illness. Keenly observed; slow in places. Took me weeks, but it was lovely. Found, as so many good things are, at Three Lives (in December).

To the Bright Edge of the World, Eowyn Ivey
In 1885, Colonel Allen Forrester heads out into the (mostly) unmapped Alaska Territory with two men, while his wife Sophie must stay behind. Ivey tells their story, and that of the Colonel’s encounters with Alaska and its people, through journal entries and letters. I loved Ivey’s debut, The Snow Child, but loved this one even more. Ivey’s writing is stunning, and I adored Sophie (bright, curious, determined and so human) and the Colonel’s keen eye and compassion.

Mistletoe and Murder, Robin Stevens
Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are spending Christmas (1935) in Cambridge, where, predictably, a murder finds them. Hazel narrates their fifth adventure in this fun British middle-grade series. I find Daisy a bit irritating, but I like Hazel and the mysteries are always good fun. I also liked the deft handling here of race and immigration in the UK – not a new issue but an important one.

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, Sonia Purnell
Losing her leg in a hunting accident didn’t slow Virginia Hall down: she would go on to become a key force for the Allies in World War II, working undercover in France to coordinate and support the Resistance. Purnell delves deeply into Virginia’s (formerly classified) story to weave a gripping tale of an extraordinary woman. Fascinating, well-researched and cinematic at times. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 9).

This Much Country, Kristin Knight Pace
Reeling from a broken heart, Kristin Knight agreed to spend a winter in Alaska caring for a team of sled dogs. To her own surprise, she fell in love with the dogs and the place, becoming a dog musher and eventually opening her own kennel. She found romantic love again, too. Her memoir is a bit uneven, but the setting is captivating, and there are some wonderful lines. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 5).

Becoming, Michelle Obama
This memoir was on so many “best of 2018” lists (and broke all kinds of publishing records). It’s a wise, warm, thoughtful account of Obama’s childhood on the South Side of Chicago, her experiences at Princeton and beyond, and life as the First Lady. But it’s also more than that: a graceful meditation on how we become ourselves, a plainspoken tribute to all the folks who have supported her, and a call for all of us to keep investing in children who need it. Well written and just so good.

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

What are you reading?

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jer ryder legos Christmas tree

The middle of our Christmas journey is always just that: the middle.

By which I mean: it is messy and rich and full, crowded with some of my favorite holiday traditions and the constantly-in-motion bodies of my two nephews. We are already a little tired, having flown 1,700 miles and driven nearly another 400.

blue sky highway Texas

This year, the drive happened on Christmas Eve – blue sky, long straight highways, Sara Bareilles and Mumford on Spotify, boy-band holiday music when we started to go a little crazy. It ended with my dad greeting us at the door: “We have to leave for church in 45 minutes!”

There was a mad scramble to wrap the last few gifts, kneeling on the guest room floor surrounded by Scotch tape and scraps of wrapping paper. I barely had time to brush my hair before we piled into the car. J and I snapped a photo in front of the lobby Christmas tree before heading inside, hoping we could get a seat – the 4:00 service tends to be crowded.

k j Christmas tree church fbc

Somehow, in spite of the lead-up, I was able to relax then: to exhale into one of my favorite church services of the year. You can count on a few things at my parents’ church: glittering, glorious Christmas trees; Doris on the pipe organ; familiar faces from my childhood and teenage years; and all the verses of as many carols as possible.

candles Christmas Eve silent night fbc

This was Christmas: relishing the third verse of Joy to the World and holding hands with my mother as we lifted our candles during Silent Night. This was Christmas: listening to a string quartet, my husband’s tenor voice, the babbles and cries of so many babies.

This was Christmas: coming, perhaps, no closer to understanding how or why God came into our midst, but choosing to acknowledge and celebrate. We cannot explain, but we rejoice.

moms tree gifts

We headed back to my parents’ for a pre-gift-exchange smorgasbord: cheese and charcuterie, apple slices and carrot sticks, square pretzels topped with chocolate and mint M&Ms. My nephews, decked out in their Santa shirts, could hardly wait to get to the unwrapping, but first we snacked, and then we listened to my sister read the story that still moves me, every year. “For unto you is born this day.” Unto us a child is born, and nothing will ever be the same.

nephews unwrapping presents gifts Christmas

This was the year of the Legos: the boys are obsessed, and they received sets from multiple family members. (Their other favorite thing was a pair of tiny laser guns – a gift for my dad, who still loves to get toys at Christmas.) We had presents that night and stockings the next day, and there were chocolates and new socks, scarves and Starbucks cards and fancy tea (for me).

The weather – after a freak dust-and-rainstorm, complete with tumbleweeds – continued mild, and we spent two afternoons in my sister’s backyard playing football and baseball and climbing on the swing set. We grilled burgers and ribs and did full justice to all the traditional holiday sides (most of them potato-based). I went for a few solo runs in my parents’ neighborhood, looping through the familiar roads under (mostly) bare branches and blue sky.

sneakers rocks running west Texas

The hubs, fighting sinus trouble, won the Best Uncle Award for playing every kind of sport (and Lego) we could squeeze in. My brother-in-law showed off his model train, and more quietly, his grilling skills. I slipped out onto my sister’s front lawn to snap pictures of the sunsets. And the best, as always, was being together.

If you celebrated, I hope your holidays were lovely. Now: onward into 2019.

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