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red christmas books

December is a lovely month, but man, it’s full. Here’s what I have been reading in this holiday season:

Moonlight Over Paris, Jennifer Robson
After recovering from a broken engagement and a near-fatal illness, Lady Helena Montagu-Douglas-Parr moves to Paris in 1924 to reinvent herself as an artist. Robson writes enchanting historical fiction. I didn’t love Helena as much as her previous heroines (she’s rather timid), but still enjoyed this story. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 19).

The Admissions, Meg Mitchell Moore
Nora and Gabe Hawthorne have built a seemingly perfect life for themselves and their three daughters. But as their eldest works on her Harvard application, their youngest (age seven) struggles with reading, and both Gabe and Nora face mounting pressures at work, their carefully calibrated existence seems set to unravel. Funny, incisive and so real, written in Moore’s delicious, addictive prose. I devoured this one. (I also loved Moore’s previous two novels, The Arrivals and So Far Away.)

The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley, Eric Weiner
Why do some places seem to produce dozens of geniuses and brilliant ideas? Eric Weiner travels to seven great cities of ideas – Athens, Edinburgh, Vienna, even Silicon Valley – to explore the concept of genius and the conditions that help nourish it. Fascinating and dryly witty. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 5).

Felicity, Mary Oliver
Oliver turns her attention to romantic love in this new poetry collection – a bit of a departure for her, though the natural world still makes frequent appearances. Slim and luminous.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Melanie Benjamin
New York in the 1950s was a glittering whirl of parties, lunches and social maneuvering. At the center of it all were Truman Capote, flamboyant literary darling, and the socialites he called his “swans” – Babe Paley and a handful of other wealthy, gorgeous, married women. Benjamin explores their tangled, intimate relationships, focusing on Truman and Babe’s friendship, and how it all eventually went south. Richly detailed and full of both catty asides and moments of startling vulnerability. I also adored Benjamin’s previous novel, The Aviator’s Wife. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 26).

Shepherds Abiding, Jan Karon
It’s nearly Christmas in Mitford, and Father Tim Kavanagh is hard at work on a special project: restoring a battered Nativity scene as a surprise for his wife, Cynthia. Meanwhile, other Mitford folks are making their own Christmas plans, and the mystery and wonder of the season sneaks in, often in unexpected ways. I love revisiting this story every year.

White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, Jody Rosen
Written by a Russian Jewish immigrant, “White Christmas” has become the quintessential American secular carol. Rosen explores the life, career and musical heritage of Irving Berlin, and the historical and musical context in which the song became such a massive hit. Interesting, though I wanted more about the eponymous film, which I adore. Found at the Dogtown Book Shop in Gloucester, MA.

Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
I love this gentle, hopeful story of five people who end up in a small Scottish village at Christmastime, each nursing different griefs and finding unexpected joy during their time together. I reread it every December.

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

What are you reading?

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christmas tree living room

I say this every year: I love December.

It’s the one month when I don’t mind a chill in the air, because it feels so very Christmassy. (Though this week has been astonishingly mild.) I love the sensation of hurrying along a busy city street, under twinkling lights, wrapped in my favorite green coat and the winter accessories I haven’t grown sick of yet. And the twinkle lights – plus the festive shop window displays everywhere – make the dark (which comes so early) much more bearable, at least for now.

I also say this every year: I feel like I blinked after Thanksgiving and it’s mid-December already.

This time of year has such potential to be holy, sparkling and peaceful. And let’s be honest: it can also feel rushed, frenetic and hollow. So as I work through various lists (gifts to buy, tasks to cross off, emails to send), I’m relishing a few small things that are saving my life:

  • Kate Rusby’s Sweet Bells album. Quiet yet cheery, and wonderfully Celtic. (Also, I love the way her Yorkshire accent comes out on certain vowels.)
  • The cozy purple wrap I knit for myself last year, which I am wearing all the time.
  • The Magnificat, which I cannot stop humming.
  • The black ankle boots Mom bought me last Christmas, which I’m wearing almost every day.
  • The tiny birch bark reindeer who have taken up residence outside my favorite local flower shop.

birch bark reindeer flower shop

  • Chai in a paper cup from Darwin’s, every weekday. And about once a week, my favorite breakfast sandwich there: eggs over medium, bacon, melted cheddar cheese and avocado. Perfection.
  • This beautiful desktop wallpaper (via Susannah Conway).
  • Instagram photos of Mary Todd Lincoln – not the First Lady, but the tiny dachshund puppy who’s one of the shop dogs at Parnassus Books. (So. Much. Adorable.)
  • Clementines – tiny, bright, delicious hits of citrus. (Bonus: they make my hands smell so good.)
  • A few convivial evenings with friends, trading laughter and stories around a table.
  • Giggles from baby Evie.

evie abi giggles

  • The words of my Advent book, full of hope and longing.
  • Stealing at least a few minutes every night to sit in front of our twinkling tree.
  • The sound of my husband playing Christmas carols on the guitar. (I particularly love his rendition of “Angels from the Realms of Glory.”)
  • A few pages of Winter Solstice and/or Shepherds Abiding, every night before bed.
  • My dachshund slippers.

What’s saving your life this December? (And how many days till Christmas?)

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christian cds nichole nordeman

Until recently, I thought I had grown too cool for Christian music.

Don’t mistake me: I love a good old-fashioned hymn, especially the ones that periodically set up camp in my soul: Be Thou My Vision. Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. I Love to Tell the Story (which I always hear my dad’s voice singing). Amazing Grace.

I’m also deeply attached to a few praise songs I learned as a university student: Holy is the Lord. In Christ Alone. Blessed Be Your Name. And oh, how I love the Magnificat.

But for a few years, the Christian contemporary music that filled my ears and my CD player during my high school and college years got pushed aside. I grew tired of the often formulaic melodies and refrains, the sometimes too-packaged theology. I’ve spent the past decade or so walking into a more complicated faith, one that leaves a lot of room for gray areas and messy edges. The bright, happy sounds of ’90s Christian pop didn’t seem to fit any more.

But earlier this year, Nichole Nordeman – whose music I have loved for nearly half my life – released her first new album in ten years, an EP called The Unmaking. I downloaded it a few weeks ago, and I cannot stop listening to the title track. The musical style is familiar, but the lyrics are wonderfully honest and fresh:

This is the unmaking / Beauty in the breaking / I had to lose myself to find out who You are. 

Even before that, during these last few difficult months, I’ve caught myself humming snatches of other songs I thought I’d forgotten, half-remembered lyrics that, to my surprise, still ring true.

Keep on looking ahead / Let your heart not forget / We are not home yet, from Steven Curtis Chapman (who headlined the first concert I ever went to). I believe that He loves you where you are, from Mark Schultz. Lines from Nichole’s older songs: Gratitude, Healed, Brave, We Build. On the night of the recent Paris attacks, sick with worry and fear, I finally soothed myself to sleep by singing an old Point of Grace line over and over in my head: God loves people more than anything.

These songs wouldn’t always pass muster in a theology class, nor would some of them win any awards for musical style or originality. But I don’t care about that as much as I used to. These familiar words and melodies (and the newer ones from The Unmaking) are bringing me comfort these days. They often say what I can’t articulate, or help succor me when I’m raw and hurting. These singer-songwriters are old friends, and their voices help me feel less alone.

I don’t plan to reconstruct my entire CD library from the early 2000s, but I’m keeping the songs that have come back to me. These are the good ones. And since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I will definitely be humming Nichole’s song “Gratitude.”

I’m linking up with Sarah Bessey for her Out of Sorts book synchroblog. This post was partly inspired by the playlist she made to go along with the book.

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strand books nyc exterior

We’re only nine days into November, but I’ve already read some cracking good books this month. (Hooray!) Here’s the latest roundup:

The Lake House, Kate Morton
In 1933, toddler Theo Edevane disappears from his family’s isolated country estate in Cornwall. His body is never found. Seventy years later, London detective Sadie Sparrow, reeling from a professional crisis, comes to the area on holiday and decides to reopen the cold case. Morton’s latest is full of lush descriptions, family secrets and hidden passions. A richly layered plot – I devoured it.

The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, Nancy Springer
Springer’s second Enola Holmes mystery finds her protagonist living alone in London, dodging her brother Sherlock, helping the poor, and trying to solve a few cases. When a peer’s daughter goes missing, Enola investigates, with surprising results. Another fun middle-grade mystery.

The Stargazer’s Sister, Carrie Brown
The 18th-century astronomer William Herschel was justly famous for his pioneering work with telescopes and discovery of several celestial bodies. But his sister and longtime assistant, Caroline, was herself an accomplished astronomer. In this lyrical novelization of Caroline’s story, Brown explores the limits, sacrifices and rewards of love and dedication. Absolutely beautiful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 19).

Black Ship, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher and her family have moved into a new house near Hampstead Heath. But when a dead body turns up in the garden, Daisy and Alec get mixed up in another investigation. An engaging plot, combining the tricky business of British liquor sales during U.S. Prohibition with the delicate matter of interrogating one’s brand-new neighbors.

The Hours Count, Jillian Cantor
Before Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage, they were simply a Jewish family living in New York. Cantor tells their story through a fictional neighbor, Millie Stein, who is struggling with her own troubled son and unhappy marriage, and is drawn into the Rosenbergs’ lives. Beautifully written and heartbreaking. I also loved Cantor’s previous novel, Margot.

Death on the Cherwell, Mavis Doriel Hay
The unpopular bursar of Persephone College, Oxford, is found dead in her canoe. Four spirited undergraduate ladies investigate. Oxford + mysteries + plucky heroines = my literary catnip. Well written and so much fun. Found at the Mysterious Bookshop in NYC.

Eat The City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York, Robin Shulman
New York City is known as a concrete jungle, but it has supported robust production of various food products – vegetables, meat, beer and wine – over the years. Shulman explores the city’s history through its food producers, past and present. Meticulously researched and fascinating. Found at the Strand on my solo trip to NYC.

The Way to Stay in Destiny, Augusta Scattergood
When Theo Thomas ends up in Destiny, Florida, with his taciturn uncle, he doesn’t plan on staying. But a baseball-crazy girl and a dance-studio piano might just save his summer – and help him find a new home. A sweet middle-grade novel about family, music and finding home. I also loved Scattergood’s previous novel, Glory Be.

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

I’ll be linking up with Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy.

What are you reading?

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rocks waves blue sky two lights state park maine

Every once in a while, usually when I’m not looking, a line from a hymn sneaks into my soul and lodges there, like a bird building a covert nest under the eaves of a house.

This happens with non-religious music too (I’m looking at you, Taylor Swift), but when a hymn lyric sets up camp in my consciousness, it becomes a kind of mantra, or a kind of prayer. Last December, during Advent, it was my favorite four-part version of the Magnificat. This winter, a Lenten hymn caught my attention, and I hummed it over and over as we plodded toward Easter.

memorial church interior

This fall, it’s a line from a hymn I’ve known for years: God of Grace and God of Glory.

I’ve sung the several verses of this song all my life, in the big Baptist church where I grew up and in various other churches since then. I know most of the words by heart, and I love them all, but one line in particular has burrowed into my mind and soul lately:

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days.

I was laid off from my job a few months ago. I have not wanted to talk about it here on the blog, but that simple fact has informed every day of my life since I received the news. The job search has been longer and more difficult than I expected, and I miss the purpose and the camaraderie of my former workplace. I’ve had some interviews and a few promising leads, but it has been hard. And it continues to be hard.

After months of job hunting – the relentless cycle of applications and rejections, the constant worry about whether I’m doing it right or doing enough, the loneliness that comes from missing colleagues and community – I am finding it difficult to pray. There are a host of reasons for this, not all directly related to the job search, but I can’t always make the words come, or even bring myself to believe that it matters.

But this quiet hymn lyric keeps coming to mind, both on the hard days and the not-quite-so-hard days. I catch myself humming it at odd moments, or I find the words floating through my head. (We also sang this song at church yesterday, because my husband – who plans our worship services – is evidently a mind reader.)

Both halves of this line resonate with me. “The living of these days” speaks to a broad swath of struggles and worries, both personal and societal. When I’m wondering how to face these difficulties, I’m always hoping for more wisdom and more courage. And when I’m too tired or too dispirited to form a prayer, this seems to be a pretty good one.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days.

Amen.

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magnolia tree tulips pink boston spring

I loved Ali Edwards’ post last week about 39 little things she’s thankful for right now. We are in the middle of a full, messy time of year – the end of the semester is approaching and there’s a lot going on, both at work and at home.

This is, as Ali noted, one of the best times to stop and take a look around. So here’s a snapshot of my life right now, with several snippets of gratitude thrown in.

Right now – in early May 2015 – I am:

  • walking around Harvard Square on my lunch breaks, enjoying the (sometimes chilly but no longer brutal) spring air.
  • sitting on the steps of Memorial Church and watching the world go by in Harvard Yard, when it’s warm enough.
  • snapping photo after photo of flowers and blooming trees. (See above.)
  • buying tulips twice a week (one bouquet for work, one for home) from my favorite florist in Brattle Square.

tulips

  • texting a friend or two about what is saving my life, what’s driving me crazy, and everything in between.
  • looking forward to (and soon, packing for) a trip to San Diego with the hubs!
  • still eating lots of soup, but mixing in some dishes that include spring veggies.
  • wearing dresses (most of them are striped) with black leggings and my jade green coat.
  • switching between silver ballet flats, black booties and the green loafers that match said coat.
  • reading a fantastic history of the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon (out June 2), and all the cozy mysteries I can handle.
  • drinking David’s Cream of Earl Grey tea by the quart, and ginger steamers with honey and lemon from Crema (the best cure for a sore throat).

crema cup table pussy willow

  • fighting a lingering cough from that cold I caught a couple of weeks ago.
  • watching episodes of Mary Tyler Moore on some evenings, and Call the Midwife once a week.
  • blasting Taylor Swift while I cook dinner or clean.
  • celebrating my husband’s 31st birthday, which is tomorrow.
  • keeping up with the daily duties of church and work and home.
  • hanging out in the Public Garden about once a week – where the trees are blooming and the ducks are quacking up a storm.

public garden tulips may 2015

  • missing my Texas family and wondering when I can get down there next.
  • prepping for the end of the semester and the attendant Commencement craziness.
  • sorting through piles of review books, and curating a short stack of vacation reading.
  • sipping a glass of red wine (usually Cabernet) about once a week.
  • scribbling in my journal when I can.
  • stretching out at yoga class on Monday nights, and doing an occasional at-home session with the app.
  • thinking about making summer plans.

What does life look like for you right now?

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brookline booksmith interior twinkle lights

The Bookman’s Tale, Charlie Lovett
After losing his wife, antiquarian bookseller Peter Byerly is subsumed by grief – until he finds a Victorian watercolor that eerily resembles her. Chasing this mystery leads Peter into a web of intrigue involving book forgery, Shakespeare and murder. Wonderfully inventive, richly detailed.

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
I hadn’t read this novel since high school, but picked up a copy at Foyles in London. I loved watching Elinor – so steady and patient – steer her family through a difficult time. Not my favorite Austen, but still a pleasure.

Driving the King, Ravi Howard
This novel tells the story of Nat King Cole’s childhood friend (and later chauffeur), Nat Weary. The story is heartbreaking and the voice is pitch perfect. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 6).

A Murder of Magpies, Judith Flanders
London book editor Samantha Clair lives a fairly routine life. But when her favorite client goes missing, she begins hunting for clues alongside a handsome policeman. Whip-smart and wickedly funny, though the ending fell flat. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 24).

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Caroline convinced me to buy this book during our day out in London. It is well written, compelling and completely terrifying.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, Eva Rice
This sweet, witty story of love and rock’n’roll in 1950s England is one of my favorite books ever. Loved savoring it on this reread.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith. (It’s also pictured above.)

What are you reading?

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