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Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

december books 2016 christmas tree

Happy New Year, friends. How were your holidays? I hope they were lovely.

I spent the first part of my Christmas break sick in a hotel room (ugh), but did manage to squeeze in a lot of reading, both while I was sick and after I got well. So as we head into 2017, here’s the last reading roundup of 2016:

My (Not So) Perfect Life, Sophie Kinsella
Katie Brenner is living her dream life in London – and trying to rise above the non-Instagrammable parts. When she’s let go, she heads home to Somerset to help her dad launch a glamping business. Everything is fine until her high-maintenance ex-boss, Demeter, shows up. Fluffy and fun with a few deeper insights. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 7).

A Study in Scarlet Women
, Sherry Thomas
When Charlotte Holmes is caught in flagrante delicto with a married man, it’s the end of her reputation – but only the beginning of her career as Sherlock Holmes. This was a clever take on the Sherlock Holmes story, with a highly entertaining “Watson.”

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling
Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts is chock full of adventures – the Quidditch World Cup, the Triwizard Tournament – but the shadow of Lord Voldemort draws ever closer. I’m rereading these books in tandem with a friend this time around, and it is so much fun.

Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
I reread this gentle Scottish novel every December. This year I lingered in it, sometimes reading only a few pages a day. I love this story of heartbreak, quiet hope, and the ways community saves us.

A Cast of Vultures, Judith Flanders
London book editor Sam Clair is juggling cranky colleagues, nosy consultants and an epic hangover – and that’s before she gets drawn into a mystery involving arson, missing neighbors and potential drug dealing. Witty and well plotted; better than its two predecessors. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 21).

The Left-Handed Fate, Kate Milford
Lucy Bluecrowne is utterly at home on her father’s privateering vessel, the titular Left-Handed Fate. But as the Fate sails the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars, Lucy and her crew are drawn into intrigue with the French, the Americans and the mysterious citizens of Nagspeake. A great adventure story with a hint of magic. (I also loved Milford’s previous novel, Greenglass House.)

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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emily advent reading

So said my husband a couple of weeks ago, as he opened a church service in which both the worship leader (him) and the preacher (our friend Robert) were struggling with coughs and raspy voices. We congregants crowded into the first few rows, and moved the small podium forward between the front two pews. (It’s a difference of maybe 20 feet, but when you’re fighting to be heard, every little bit helps.) The red, foil-wrapped poinsettias, flanking the altar, cast a warm glow onto the white wood.

Emily (who did not have laryngitis) read aloud the words of the prophet Isaiah: A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding. And, a few verses later, They will not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain. (That phrase always gives me chills.)

Advent is a time for listening to prophetic voices: Isaiah, John the Baptist, the angel Gabriel. It is a time for acknowledging what is far from right in our world: the injustice, the sadness, the hurt and the evil that threaten to overwhelm us, threaten to quench the hope we carry around. But the words of John’s Gospel, read aloud at Morning Prayers later that week, brought sudden tears to my eyes: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. These words are no less true in such dark times.

It became a running joke this month at church: three of our preachers (we have a regular rotating cast) were struggling vocally on the days they were asked to speak. J, who leads the singing most weeks, has been coughing and sneezing intermittently for nearly a month. And I lost my voice entirely on the weekend of the church Christmas party, which meant I couldn’t participate as we sang carols in Joe and Kelly’s living room. I simply had to sit and listen. But that felt like Advent in its own way.

In the wake of the past few months – not only the election, but Orlando and Berlin and so many hard things, both public and personal – I have been bombarded by a lot of noise. We live in a loud society, a clamoring and strident world, and people are angry right now, and scared. Worried for their loved ones, anxious about the future. I know I am. The voices of the prophets – whoever they are – can be muffled, or at times silenced altogether.

As we head into Christmas week (and as I struggle to regain my physical voice), I am doing my best – since I can’t talk much – to listen.

I am rereading the words in my Advent book, from Henri Nouwen, Gail Godwin, J.B. Phillips and others, about waiting for God and (meanwhile) doing our part to bring his kingdom about in this world. I am remembering the good words I’ve heard at Morning Prayers this fall, from a variety of voices I might have never encountered otherwise. I am thinking back on conversations with a few friends, who serve as prophetic voices in my own life. And I am reading, online and off, the stories of people whose experiences are wildly different from mine. (We must – I keep saying – be of interest to each other.)

I heard, recently, an unusual meditation on Mary, the mother of Jesus: the speaker named her “desperate and fearful and running for her life, yet brave, courageous, the mother of God.” I have long loved the image of Mary from the end of Luke 2, when, overwhelmed by momentous events and new circumstances, she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” In a time when I often feel desperate and fearful, and when there is so much to ponder, I am trying to be like Mary: brave and thoughtful, and willing to listen for the hope I know is there.

If you’re celebrating this week, merry Christmas, friends. And no matter what holidays you observe (or don’t), I wish you joy and peace – and the full use of your voices – as we head into the end of 2016.

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get your jingle on sign christmas

The holiday season is in full swing over here, and the reading has slowed waaaay down. But here’s what I have been reading lately, when I’ve had the chance (and the brain space):

The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA, Doug Mack
What, exactly, is a U.S. territory? What rights and privileges do its residents have? Should the U.S. even have territories if it calls itself a leading democracy? Mack delves deeply into the convoluted history of Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa (and travels to all of the above) to find out. Witty, thoughtful and very informative. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 14, 2017).

A Second Chance, Jodi Taylor
Madeleine Maxwell (“Max”) and her crew of time-jumping historians are at it again – this time headed to Bronze Age Troy. This third book in Taylor’s series skips around wildly in history, often to confusing effect – still fun, though sometimes frustrating.

The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, Emily Esfahani Smith
What is the key to a meaningful life? Smith explores four “pillars” of meaning – belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence – and shares lots of data and case studies to explore how people can seek and find meaning. Thoughtful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 10, 2017).

Finding Fontainebleau: An American Boy in France, Thad Carhart
I adored Carhart’s first memoir, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. This book recounts the three years Carhart spent in Fontainebleau (near Paris) as a young boy in the 1950s, when his dad was a NATO officer. The memories are interspersed with reflections on the history and ongoing restoration of the Château de Fontainebleau. Charming, thoughtful and vividly described. (Bought at the gorgeous Albertine Books in NYC.)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling
This is – I’ve said it before – the book that breaks this series wide open. It all builds up to the last 70 or so pages, when suddenly everything is darker and bigger and wildly different than you thought it was. (It also introduces two of my favorite characters – Remus Lupin and Sirius Black.) LOVE.

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

What are you reading?

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ornaments light book

Somehow, we’ve landed in mid-December, which is proving both twinkly and hectic, as per usual. Here’s what’s saving my life, as we move through the last stretch of quasi-normal days before the Christmas break:

  • The Sylvia Plath poem from which this post takes its title.
  • “O Come O Come Emmanuel” (the Civil Wars version), on repeat.
  • Hot, spicy chai and a buttered English muffin from Darwin’s in the mornings.
  • Striped dress + black leggings + boots + scarf + magic green coat = warm, stylish winter uniform.
  • Sunshine and blue skies, even when it’s frigid out. (Related: walks in the fresh air, any time I can get them.)

charles river cambridge sunset

  • A couple of evenings in a friend’s living room, eating popcorn and drinking mulled cider and reading Advent poetry.
  • Snatching time to write in the library before work, and exchanging smiles with the security guard.
  • Yoga classes whenever I can squeeze them in. (Namaste.)
  • Krista Tippett’s On Being interview with Mary Karr, which is warm and wise and so honest.
  • A much-needed catch-up with a friend over hot chocolate the other day.
  • The particular blue of these early December mornings, glimpsed from the bathroom window.
  • Pumpkin chai from David’s Tea, brewed strong in a purple travel mug. Plus one of Molly’s scones and a crisp apple, every morning. (See also: not overthinking it.)

darwins sign winter snow

  • Twinkle lights: on my desk at work, on the trees in Harvard Square, on my two Christmas trees (one big, one tiny).
  • A few pages of Winter Solstice before bed, even when I can barely keep my eyes open.
  • Community of all stripes and in all places, from church to work to my daily rounds in the Square. It has been a turbulent year, to say the least, but I am deeply grateful to have found several places where I know I belong.

What’s saving your life this December? Please share, if you’re willing.

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lamont quad light sky

I expected to be so ready for Advent this year.

After a full, demanding fall semester and a bruising election cycle, I thought I’d be eager to sink into my favorite liturgical season: the readings, the carols, the longing and candlelight and hope. But at church on the first Sunday of Advent (after our wonderful Turkeypalooza), I still felt hopeless and tired and sad, even as we sang “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”

That evening, sitting on the floor at my friend Amy’s house, I admitted how I felt. We were working on the backdrop for the church Christmas pageant: hot-gluing uneven blocks of dark green felt to a bolt of midnight blue fabric, scattering handfuls of sticky, glittery stars overhead. “I think I need to sit in the darkness a while longer,” Amy said, and I nodded. I didn’t feel ready to start lighting candles yet.

The next day, I walked across the Yard to Morning Prayers, where a divinity student gave a talk on tenderness. “Let us be raw a while longer,” she said gently, urging us to sit with our pain – and the world’s – rather than glossing over it. We also sang “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and I hummed it as I walked to work afterward, the Civil Wars version in my earbuds.

It feels right for Advent to come slowly this year: we are working through more pain and darkness, on a national scale, than I can remember in a long time. The questions raised by my favorite Advent writers – Henri Nouwen, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L’Engle, Alfred Delp – feel more pertinent than they ever have. I have been reluctant to skip over the ache to the joy, even as I’ve loved seeing twinkle lights and Christmas trees appear around Cambridge and in my friends’ homes.

Since I discovered it as a high school student, Advent has given me a way to wrestle with the questions of my faith: to look the darkness of this world steadily in the face, and to appreciate why we need the Light. I usually relish the ache of it, the haunting, lovely longing for Christ to come, for God to burst into the world and begin making all things new. But this year, everything already feels so dark. And I keep wondering: what good can our candles, anyone’s candles, possibly do?

Despite my weariness (and wariness), Advent keeps sneaking in, sidling up with quiet steps when I’m not quite paying attention. There is the Sylvia Plath poem whose inclusion in my favorite Advent book surprises and delights me every year. There are the annual Advent readings hosted by my friends Hannah and Chris, where we gather for poetry and hot cider and good talk in their cozy living room. There are the quiet carols (my favorite ones), which end up in my head almost by accident. And there are moments of connection with colleagues and friends, even in the midst of daily tasks and deeper sadness.

I am (finally) edging into the season: we put up our tree this weekend, and hung the greenery at church on Saturday. I am humming a few beloved carols, dipping into my Advent books, and watching for the light, whether literal (as above) or metaphorical, any place I can find it.

How are you finding the light – whether you’re observing Advent or not – in this season?

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betsy boys presents christmas

I never quite know how to write about Christmas, once it’s over. The presents have all been opened and admired, the holiday cards (finally) sent out, the suitcases packed and repacked and finally unpacked. We’re back in the routine of work and winter and daily life, and the 10 days we spent in Texas, driving up and down I-20 to see people we love, seem very far away.

This year will go down as the year of not-quite-normal: so many of our usual family traditions were altered or skipped over altogether. My sister has two small boys and was hobbling around in a knee brace this year (see above), so we opened family presents at her house instead of at my parents’ on Christmas Eve. For the same reason, J and I drove to Christmas Eve service by ourselves, slipping into a center pew to listen to a sermon by an unfamiliar minister. My dad, despite his best efforts, could not find any eggnog, so we missed having our annual cup together. And the small-child chaos was such that we completely forgot to read Luke 2 aloud before diving into the presents.

My husband’s family moved to a new house in a new town this summer, so we spent the first weekend of our trip navigating unfamiliar territory – a string of small towns in the East Texas countryside. The weather swung wildly from unseasonably warm (73 degrees on Christmas Day) to icy sleet and snow two days later. Our favorite Mexican restaurant was closed on the day we tried to go, and I had a 24-hour bug earlier in the week that prevented me from enjoying another Tex-Mex meal with my parents. All in all, it felt – I have to say – a little weird.

And yet.

On a breezy Monday night, J and I stood in a semicircle and sang Christmas carols a cappella with a few of his choir buddies from high school. The notes of those familiar tunes – “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” an absurdly complicated arrangement of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” – touched something deep inside me. This was our second time at this choral reunion, and though I am technically an outsider, they welcomed me like an old friend. Afterward, we walked to a local bar for snacks and cocktails, and told stories and laughed late into the evening.

My in-laws may have changed their address, but we are always sure of a welcome there: from J’s parents, his sister, the two cats, and three-year-old Annie, who jumped on J the minute we walked in the door and hardly let go for three days. She danced around, effervescent with joy, trying out her new rocking horse while clad in a pink princess dress. “Look at me, Uncle Miah! Watch me, Aunt Katie!”

jer annie shoulders smiles

It felt odd to be at Christmas Eve service without my parents, but their church, where I grew up, is still and always my favorite place to be on that night. We found seats in front of some family friends and lit our candles during “Silent Night.” Our beloved music minister, George, led the service with his customary joie de vivre. I slipped through the crowd to give him a hug afterward. And that felt – unmistakably – like Christmas.

My grandparents drove up from their house near San Antonio, and Pop brought me a gorgeous bookcase that he’d worked on for months. Neno brought a stack of old photos for Betsy and me to look through, and we spent a happy afternoon in Betsy’s kitchen, riffling through them and laughing and telling stories while we snacked on Pop’s guacamole and took turns making dishes for Christmas dinner.

We had all our traditional favorites: smoked brisket with Neno’s barbecue sauce, sweet potato casserole, Mom’s cranberries suspended in Jell-O, peanut butter kiss cookies. We ate several meals around the table that Pop made for Betsy, with my nephews in their high chairs and all of us squeezed in elbow to elbow. We had stockings at Mom and Dad’s on Christmas morning, with Mom’s three Christmas trees twinkling, and Dad and I sneaked in our favorite parts of Christmas Eve on Sesame Street.

cookie monster christmas eve telephone

“The best is being together, even if it is chaotic,” I said to Mom after Christmas, when we were discussing this year’s craziness. And it might sound cliched, but it’s true.

The best was sitting on the big sectional couch in Betsy’s living room, telling stories and cracking up at inside family jokes and hugging my nephews (when they stood still long enough). The best was catching up with multiple friends in Abilene, cramming in so many stories from the past year, sitting around a table until nearly midnight and laughing until our sides hurt. The best was chicken and dumplings around Frankie’s table, homemade pizza with Laura and Bill, cups of chai with Lisa and Mike, hugs from Shanna and Calvin and Gail.

The best, always, is heading two thousand miles south and west, knowing what’s at the end of that road: home. (And those small, wiggly cuties we love.)

jer harrison christmas

I hope your holidays were wonderful, and that 2016 is treating you right so far.

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tiny christmas tree bookshelf

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men

And in despair, I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth, I said
For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

Then pealed the bells, more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

After the headlines of the last few weeks, this carol is resonating more deeply than ever.

I’m taking a few days off to celebrate Christmas with my family. Wishing you peace and joy in this season, friends.

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