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Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Here we are at the end of this strange, long year. I may have more to say about 2021 soon, but for now, I wish you a gentle transition into 2022. Here’s what I have been reading:

25 Days ‘Til Christmas, Poppy Alexander
This was an impulse buy at the Trident in 2019, and I loved it just as much this time. Widowed mum Kate is barely making ends meet with her job selling Christmas trees, while Daniel is struggling after the death of his sister. They meet, become friends (and maybe something more) and help each other figure out how to move forward. Sweet, witty and heartwarming.

Swimming with Seals, Victoria Whitworth
I found this at the Booksmith a while back and have been reading it sloooowly over breakfast. Whitworth is an archaeologist and cold-weather swimmer who chronicles her swims on Orkney, along with musings on the island’s ancient cultures, her relationship with her mother, and humankind’s relationship to the sea. It dragged a bit at times but the writing is lovely – so many good sentences.

Peach Blossom Spring, Melissa Fu
As the Japanese army advances through China, a young woman named Meilin flees with her son, Renshu, and their family. This absorbing novel tells their family’s story: Meilin’s constant efforts to keep Renshu safe and happy; his eventual emigration to the U.S.; and the life he builds there as a scientist and a father. Thoughtful and vividly described; a haunting tribute to immigrant families and being caught between worlds. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 15).

All I Want for Christmas, Wendy Loggia
Bailey Briggs, Christmas fanatic, can’t wait for the holiday – but she wants to kiss someone under the mistletoe. This YA rom-com features plenty of cheer, though the plot is a little thin. Still fun – Bailey works in a bookstore, and her friends and family are sweet. Found at the charming Book Shop of Beverly Farms and saved for this season.

Marvelous Manhattan, Reggie Nadelson
I picked up this collection at the wonderful Three Lives (my favorite NYC bookstore, which is featured!) in August, and have been sloooowly reading it since. Nadelson gives an insider’s tour, peppered with history (some of it personal), cultural commentary and yummy food descriptions. I want to try a lot of these places. Mouthwatering and enjoyable.

The Body in the Garden, Katharine Schellman
English widow Lily Adler is trying to figure out what to do with herself after her husband’s death – and stumbles (literally) on a dead body. I enjoyed this first outing in Lily’s adventures; the Regency London details are fun and I like Lily herself and the other characters. (I read the sequel, Silence in the Library, earlier this fall.)

The Twelve Days of Dash and Lily, Rachel Cohn & David Levithan
It’s 12 days before Christmas and Lily’s holiday spirit has all but disappeared – so Dash hatches a scheme with Lily’s brother, Langston, to bring back the cheer. I loved this sequel to Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares – sweet, funny, full of NYC Christmas magic, and a sensitive exploration of how the holidays can be tough when you’re struggling, for whatever reason.

The Bookshop of Dust and Dreams, Mindy Thompson
Poppy Fulbright adores her family’s magical bookshop, Rhyme and Reason – she feels safe there. But strange things start happening when her brother’s best friend is killed in the war and her father falls ill. A bookish middle-grade fantasy novel with an engaging protagonist.

Intimations, Zadie Smith
I heard about Smith’s pandemic essay collection a while ago, but I wasn’t ready for it then. But I picked it up at the delightful Crow Bookshop in Vermont this week and read the essays in one sitting. I think she does tiny details – tulips in a New York City garden, the small encounters in “Screengrabs” – better than high philosophy. But she also writes well about love and work and isolation.

The Last Chance LibraryFreya Sampson
Shy librarian June Jones has rarely left her home village or tried anything new – especially since her mother’s death, eight years ago. But when June’s beloved library is threatened with closure, June joins a ragtag group of protesters fighting to keep it open. An engaging British story about a woman finding her own voice and (of course) the power of libraries. Found, fittingly, at the BPL.

These Precious Days, Ann Patchett
Patchett needs no introduction from me. I picked up her new essay collection at my beloved Three Lives in NYC. These warm, wise, tender essays explore friendship, marriage, dogs, her relationship with her father (and father figures), her love of literature and so much more. A perfect book to end the year.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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December has been rushing past, and between work craziness (so many thank-you letters!) and trips to the post office, I’ve been reading. Here’s the latest roundup:

The Man Who Died Twice, Richard Osman
The Thursday Murder Club is back on the case! An ex of Elizabeth’s shows up, spinning an interesting tale (he does that) involving stolen diamonds and international intrigue. People start dying, naturally, but this crew of elderly folks (plus their police compatriots) are on it. A really fun second outing for these characters, and so very British.

God Rest Ye, Royal Gentlemen, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana is preparing for her first Christmas as a married woman when she’s summoned to Sandringham by the queen. With family in tow, Georgie and her husband Darcy spend Christmas with Darcy’s eccentric aunt and an odd mix of guests – and of course there are a few murders. I love this series and this was a jolly Christmas entry.

The Lincoln Highway, Amor Towles
I loved Towles’ two previous novels so I was excited about this one. It follows several young men (and one younger boy) on a road trip gone sideways. I enjoyed the characters and some pieces of the story, but didn’t really feel like the whole of it came together.

The People We Keep, Allison Larkin
I’ve enjoyed Larkin’s previous novels and loved this one, about a young woman who scrapes together a career as a singer-songwriter in 1990s New York. The details (especially the coffeehouse where she works) felt so real, and many of the characters were so well drawn. Heartbreaking sometimes, but ultimately hopeful, and lovely.

Shepherds Abiding, Jan Karon
I love this Mitford Christmas story – it’s sweet and funny and makes me cry every year. This year I had some extra sympathy for Father Tim and the overwhelm of the season. A lovely December reread.

The Bright Side Running Club, Josie Lloyd
Keira is feeling pretty good about her life: happily married, mother of three, owner of a thriving small business. But then she’s diagnosed with breast cancer and things begin to spin out of control. Keira joins a running group made up of women dealing with cancer, and her new friends – not surprisingly – help her get through not only treatment, but some other struggles. Heartwarming and witty despite the heavy subject matter. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 8).

It’s a Wonderful Woof, Spencer Quinn
Chet and Bernie are back just in time for Christmas – with a tricky case involving a fellow private eye, a deconsecrated church and the painter Caravaggio. Not to mention a little romantic trouble for Bernie, and plenty of treats for Chet. This series is so much fun and this was a great installment.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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Last Monday, I threw on my green coat over my pajamas and went out for a walk instead of my usual morning run. My running coach and many other wise people remind me regularly that rest days are important, and I also know I always feel better when I move.

I walked down the hill under grey misty skies, past the community garden with tidy beds mostly dug up for winter. There are a few roses, ragged and papery but still bright red, clinging to a bush up against the fence. I love them in all seasons, but this year I am particularly taken by the fact that they’re hanging on in the face of frosts and bitter winds.

Although I’d forgotten my headphones, I found The Civil Wars’ version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and played it on repeat as I walked through the park. Every year there’s at least one morning in December when I listen to it over and over again, the haunting harmonies melding perfectly with the lyrics and their longing: O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by Thine advent here. O come, Thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh. We used to start every Advent service at my former church with that hymn, the a cappella notes soaring up into the high-ceilinged sanctuary, setting the tone for the time of year when we watch for the light as the world grows dark.

I am where I often find myself in mid-December: slowly tiptoeing into the season, putting up my two Christmas trees (one tiny, one medium-size) but waiting a few days to add ornaments to the branches. I am listening to quiet Christmas music (Kate Rusby, Nichole Nordeman, Sarah MacLachlan) and some brighter melodies (She & Him, Broadway carol renditions on Spotify). I am rehearsing twice a week in a dusty church sanctuary with a group of friends for a Christmas carol performance, and singing those pieces – some familiar, some new – to myself as I wash dishes or walk to work. This year, we are singing the Magnificat (my idea), and those familiar lines weave in and over and around these days that feel both twinkly and edged with deep dark.

Here we are, I say every year in mid-December, mid-Advent: aching and tired and desperate for hope, working hard to make magic and grab hold of joy and balance our daily lives with the special moments of the season. Here we are, still mid-pandemic, still treading carefully but yearning to celebrate, still waiting for Emmanuel to come. Here we are, praying God will be with us, stubbornly nurturing that flame of hope amid wars and rumors of wars, disease and pain. Here we are: weary, anxious, but alive. I want to stay awake, alert to those flickers of hope, attuned to those whispers of joy.

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I rewatched While You Were Sleeping around Christmastime – which is when I usually watch it, since it takes place during Christmas week. I cracked up at all the best lines – “These mashed potatoes are so creamy!” “New Year’s Eve hasn’t been the same since Guy Lombardo died!” “I got Ice Capades!” – and reveled in the happy cacophony of the Callaghan family’s holiday celebrations. But this time, I was focused on a different aspect of the story: the loneliness.

When the movie opens, Lucy Moderatz (Sandra Bullock’s character) sits all day in a CTA booth taking subway tokens from strangers. She’s single, childless, without family since her dad’s passing, and her boss is asking her (again) to work on Christmas. Although she spends a lot of the movie interacting with the Callaghans (and trying to figure out how to tell them she’s not actually engaged to their comatose son), there are a number of scenes where she’s alone in her apartment, with her cat and the Christmas tree that broke the window early in the film. She’s so desperate for connection that she goes along with a lie, and nearly ends up marrying the wrong man just so she can be part of a family.

I read an article this winter about how While You Were Sleeping is the perfect movie for a pandemic: many of us, like Lucy, have spent the past year missing the communities we used to have (or wanted to have, or thought we were supposed to have). Lucy has never been part of a big family, but she’s thrilled to be welcomed into the Callaghan clan. She accepts hugs, chokes on Christmas eggnog, and cradles her wrapped present as the others tear into theirs; having spent years starved for community, she doesn’t want to miss savoring even a moment of it.

That scene made me well up: after I’ve spent so much of the past 14-ish months alone in my apartment, Lucy’s loneliness hit much closer to home. I have been grateful for every scrap of community I’ve found this year, including my online writing class, the few neighborhood friends I’ve been seeing, and in-person time with my sweet guy. But I have missed other connections: time with my family; in-person interactions with coworkers and other friends; the chance to build on new neighborhood relationships I had just started forming when the pandemic hit.

Ultimately, Lucy – and I – must make some choices about the kind of community that’s really worth pursuing. She decides, in the end, to tell the truth rather than end up married to a man she doesn’t love (and barely knows), even if that means losing the family she’s recently gained. As I continue to navigate life post-divorce (and as we all emerge slowly from the pandemic), I have to make choices, too. Which relationships are worth continuing to foster, and which ones do I need to let go? Was I hanging onto some connections – or the idea of them – long past their sell-by date? Where I can I find, or continue to seek, community that lets me be seen and loved?

After New Year’s, Lucy gets her happy ending – including a honeymoon to Florence with her beloved Jack. I’m hopeful, these days, that more connection is coming for me, too. But I think it’s worth remembering that loneliness isn’t limited to times of great isolation, and that we can all work to provide (and ask for) connections to those we love or those we encounter. (It is also, of course, worth remembering that Argentina has great beef, that Guy Lombardo didn’t play the clarinet, and that John Wayne was tall.)

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We are nearly at the end of this bizarre year (and I agree with Oscar the Grouch – 2020 can scram). Here’s what I have been reading as we head for a (hopefully) brighter new year:

Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change, Maggie Smith
It’s rare that I read the same book twice in a year, but 2020 is unusual (as we all know). I read Maggie’s book back in the spring, reviewed it for Shelf Awareness, and bought myself a finished copy when it came out. I’ve been rereading it slowly since October. (I also bought it for a friend or two for Christmas.) Her notes and essays about loss, hope, despair, divorce, change and moving forward are exactly what I need right now.

A Winter Kiss on Rochester Mews, Annie Darling
It’s December in London, and pastry chef Mattie and bookshop manager Tom, both of whom hate Christmas, are not pleased with their colleagues’ merriment. But as the bookshop struggles toward Christmas – helped along by record snow, staffing problems and a very pregnant (and neurotic) owner – Mattie and Tom are forced to band together to help the shop survive. A sweet, witty British rom-com with great characters and dialogue. An impulse buy at the Booksmith – totally worth it.

The List of Things That Will Not Change, Rebecca Stead
I like Stead’s thoughtful middle-grade novels. This one features Bea, whose dad is getting remarried, and her struggles to welcome her new stepsister, Sonia, and also be sensitive to Sonia’s feelings. Funny and sweet and so real.

Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
My friend Julie gave me this book years ago, and I reread it nearly every Christmas. It’s a lovely, absorbing story of five people who find themselves in a Scottish village at Christmastime. I love living in it for a few weeks every December.

A Deception at Thornecrest, Ashley Weaver
Preparing to welcome her first child, Amory Ames is shocked when several visitors, including a previously unknown relative, show up on her doorstep. Then two suspicious deaths happen in the village, and Amory – as always – can’t resist a bit of sleuthing. A fun mystery, but not as compelling as some of the others in this series.

A Promised Land, Barack Obama
I love a thoughtful, compelling political memoir, and I truly enjoyed the first volume of Obama’s presidential memoirs. Clear-eyed and compassionate, with flashes of humor and so much fascinating behind-the-scenes info. I learned a lot about his first term, and gained even more respect for the man himself and many of his colleagues.

Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way, Caseen Gaines
In the 1920s, Broadway was lily-white, and Black performers were often relegated to vaudeville. Shuffle Along, the first all-Black show to hit Broadway, helped transform the industry. Gaines meticulously tells the story of the show, its creators and its afterlife. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 25).

The Hiding Place, Paula Munier
Mercy Carr’s third adventure finds her digging into the cold case that haunted her sheriff grandfather (now long dead). When the man who shot him breaks out of prison, and Mercy’s grandmother is kidnapped, Mercy and game warden Troy Warner (and their dogs) must act fast to solve the case and save several lives. I like this fast-paced mystery series. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 30).

Links (not affiliate links) are to Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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Hello, friends. Here we are, two days before Christmas, and I am feeling all the emotions: seesawing between loneliness and hope, heavy sadness and sharp, sudden joy.

On the long list of things that are different this year, my holiday traditions (like most people’s) have been upended. I’m not in Texas with my family, and I am also still figuring out life (and Christmas) after divorce. I love December and all its rituals, large and small, and this year I have had no choice but to adapt and remake so many of the traditions I love.

I wrote last week about how I put up my tiny tree, not the same as the big one we had for years, but still twinkly and lovely. Many of my ornaments remain packed away, for now, but the ones I’ve chosen all have deep and sweet associations. I cried when I found our old stockings packed away in a box, but I pulled out the snowflake hangers, and my guy and I bought new stockings, for a new season.

When J and I sent Christmas cards, we’d pick out a photo, design a card on Shutterfly, order stacks of them, then hand-address them all in one go, sitting at the kitchen table with Christmas music playing. This year, that honestly felt like too much. (I didn’t send cards at all last year.) I bought a few different sets of letterpress cards and have been addressing them in small batches, scribbling notes to faraway family and friends and sealing each one with a poinsettia sticker. The ones I’ve received are Scotch-taped to the doorframe, reminding me of the folks I love and wish I could hug.

There will be no Christmas Eve service in Texas this year, but I’ll tune into a Zoom listening party for the carol choir I’ve participated in. We won’t have a traditional menu, because we are making this part up as we go along. I won’t go running in my parents’ neighborhood or bump into friends from high school, but I’ll run along the Eastie trails I love, and wave at the few local friends I can still see in person.

It won’t look like this forever, I know. But this is how it looks now. And some days, it’s enough to simply acknowledge that it looks different, and keep on making it new.

Merry Christmas, if you’re celebrating. See you next week.

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This year, I’ve been pulling out my favorite Christmas albums, most of which I still own on CD: Sarah McLachlan, James Taylor, Elvis and (of course) Charlie Brown. But on my morning runs through the snow, I’ve been listening to a newer favorite: Nichole Nordeman’s Christmas album, Fragile.

I’ve loved Nordeman’s music since I was in high school, when I saw her open for Avalon and bought her second album, This Mystery. I rediscovered her a few years ago when she released an EP, The Unmaking, but didn’t pay much attention to Fragile when it came out last year. Now, though, in the quiet of these days before Christmas, it has been a balm to my soul.

My favorite Christmas albums mix traditional carols with the artist’s own interpretations and sometimes an original song or two. Nordeman’s voice shines on classics I love, like O Holy Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem and O Come O Come Emmanuel, but I also love her remix of What Child is This? with a song called Fragile (originally performed by Sting, of all people). The few original songs – Maybe, How Love Comes and We Watch, We Wait, – capture the longing and heartbreak of Advent against the good news we are all waiting for. Her voice is reverent and lovely and so familiar: it is a voice of truth to me, and has been for twenty years.

Between my divorce, my own church grief and the pandemic, I haven’t been to church in a long time, nor do I expect to go for a while yet. But on Sunday morning, running along the snowy trails, Nichole’s voice in my earbuds felt like the closest to church I’ve come in a long time. I am grateful, this Advent, for the writers and artists and voices who hold the beauty and the brokenness, and help the rest of us do the same.

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This year, it seemed that fully half my friends (at least, the ones who post on Instagram) hauled their Christmas decorations out in early November. I couldn’t fault them for it: as my sister and others have said, 2020 needs all the joy it can get. My mom famously decorates early every year (my parents have three Christmas trees), but everyone else seemed to jump on that bandwagon this year. It made a lot of sense to me, but I just was not ready to put up my own decorations.

Decorating the tree is one of my favorite Christmas traditions: I am one of those people who loves tons of (small, white) lights, and for whom nearly every ornament has a story. But since my divorce, that ritual is a bit fraught. Last year, I had my friend Lauryn come over and help me decorate, and this year, I asked my guy to help me do it.

We hauled my little tree and assorted decorations out of the basement on a Saturday night, and assembled it on the fireplace. I strung the lights that night (he provided moral support and Christmas music), and we waited another week to do the ornaments. I sort of like the look with just the lights, and it felt like a small acknowledgment of Advent: waiting, letting the process take its time.

Last weekend, we unwrapped a few cherished ornaments (plus two new ones I bought at Albertine Press), and hung them on the tree. And we also bought stockings at Target, and hung them on the snowflake hangers I’ve had for years. Old alongside new.

I can’t erase the memories of Christmases past, nor do I entirely want to. But we are moving forward, and I’m so pleased with the effect. It’s cozy and twinkly, and since I’m home all the time these days, I get plenty of chances to enjoy it.

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‘Tis the season for treats – because it’s cold outside (good baking weather), because the holidays are coming, and because we are in month fourteen thousand of this pandemic year. (And because we got over a foot of snow here in Boston last night/today.)

I’ve been doing a bit of baking myself – mostly scones and superhero muffins – but have recently found myself the glad recipient of cookies made by friends. A girlfriend handed me a container of margarita shortbread cookies (with plenty of citrus and salt) on a recent walk in Cambridge. The following week, another friend texted to say she’d dropped off a tin of cookies (above) on my front porch. It contained crinkly chocolate cookies dusted with powdered sugar and, underneath, some classic sugar cookies. I stretched them out over nearly a week, to make them last.

The loneliness is hitting hard this week, but I am – as always – grateful for kind gestures from friends, which add sweetness to my life in more ways than one.

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We’re halfway through December of the strangest year ever. As always, I’m reading – albeit sporadically, these days. Here’s the latest roundup:

Why We Swim, Bonnie Tsui
Swimming attracts and fascinates humans the world over, and Tsui (an avid swimmer and surfer) explores some of the history, science and psychology behind why. I loved her interviews with famous swimmers like Dara Torres, and her personal stories of swimming from childhood to now. Recommended by Libby Page, whose newsletter is the cheeriest thing lately.

Mimi Lee Gets a Clue, Jennifer J. Chow
Mimi Lee has finally opened her own pet-grooming business, Hollywoof – and things get interesting right away, with a talking cat named Marshmallow, a murdered Chihuahua breeder, and a cute young lawyer. An impulse buy at the Harvard Book Store – totally ridiculous and really fun.

Killer Content, Olivia Blacke
Odessa Dean is enjoying her summer in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, house-sitting for her aunt and waitressing at a local bookstore/cafe. But when one of her coworkers ends up dead (coinciding with a flash mob gone wrong), Odessa begins nosing around for clues. Fast-paced and funny, with a great setting. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 2).

The Soul of a Woman, Isabel Allende
Bestselling novelist Allende is a passionate feminist, and this slim memoir details her own experiences as a woman and her beliefs about women’s value, worth and power. She is charmingly cranky, often wryly funny and makes a cogent case for putting women in charge. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 2).

The Next Great Jane, K.L. Going
Jane Brannen, aspiring novelist, is thrilled when a real live writer moves to her tiny Maine town. But the author’s son is so annoying, and Jane’s mostly-absent mother turns up unexpectedly, with her filmmaker fiance in tow. A super fun middle-grade novel and a sweet homage to Jane Austen. Recommended by Anne.

Hardball, Sara Paretsky
V.I. Warshawski, private eye, picks up a 40-year-old missing-persons case right as her young cousin shows up in Chicago to work on a political campaign. Of course, they are connected, and Paretsky weaves in race, class and Chicago history. This one was powerful and intense – especially the ending – and so good.

Shepherds Abiding, Jan Karon
Christmas is coming in Mitford, and Father Tim ends up restoring a derelict Nativity scene as a surprise for his wife, Cynthia. Meanwhile, change is afoot at Happy Endings Books, and various townspeople are getting ready for Christmas. I love revisiting this book every year.

Links (not affiliate links) are to local bookstores I love: Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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