Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

winter breakfast poetry

We are deep into the season of down coats and fleece-lined tights, of snowflakes swirling down from white-gray clouds or the poetry of bare branches against a vivid blue sky.

Winter is here, and while it isn’t my favorite season, I do have a few coping strategies, including a stack of seasonally apt books. So, in case you’re shivering too (because it seems that a lot of us are), I thought I’d share my wintry picks with you.

Winter: Five Windows on the Season, Adam Gopnik
I picked up this essay collection a few winters ago, mostly because I loved Gopnik’s memoir Paris to the Moon. Gopnik examines winter from several angles: historical, literary, cultural, philosophical. He admits to being a lover of winter, and his prose evokes the best of the season: walking home under a snowy sky, ice skating on a frozen pond, watching the snow fall from behind the comforting barrier of a windowpane. He explores winter’s potential for recreation and daydreaming, its vital place amid the cycle of the seasons. For those who struggle, as I do, to develop “a mind for winter,” Gopnik’s musings are enjoyable and thought-provoking.

The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder
I read and reread the entire Little House series as a child, but I’ve picked up this book every winter since I moved to New England. Laura is such a keen-eyed, relatable character, and I always hope to channel a little of her indomitable spirit. She also tells a good story – the prose is simple but powerful, and the struggles of that harsh winter are sharply drawn. I especially love the scenes around the table, when Pa plays his fiddle and sings, and his reminders that “it can’t beat us!” Winter, even on the Dakota prairie, doesn’t last forever.

A Mind of Winter: Poems for a Snowy Season, ed. Robert Atwan
This collection is a new acquisition for me; I picked it up at the Bookstore in Lenox, Mass., this fall. I knew I’d need a few reminders of winter’s beauty when the temperatures dropped after Christmas. The poems here are varied and lovely – Frost, Dickinson, Jane Kenyon, Marge Piercy, Mary Oliver and more – and many of them capture images of winter in words as brief and crystalline as snowflakes.

The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey
Based on an old fairy tale about a girl fashioned out of snow, Ivey’s debut novel beautifully evokes the landscape of Alaska: its harshness, its isolation, its often stunning beauty. It’s a story of love: Jack and Mabel, devoted to each other, yearn for a child. When they build a girl out of snow, a young human girl appears as if summoned, and though they come to love her deeply, she can’t be tamed or kept. Heartbreaking and so, so lovely.

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, Maud Hart Lovelace
Most of Lovelace’s books, which are set in Minnesota, contain a few wintry scenes: sledding, ice skating, sleighing parties. This fourth book in the series has some of the best: Betsy’s cozy afternoons in the new town library, bobsled parties under the stars, sipping hot chocolate (with whipped cream, of course) on cold days. And shopping for Christmas ornaments. So fun.

What are your favorite books to read in the wintertime?

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

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library book stack tulips

Several extra-long commutes recently mean I’m getting through a lot of (short!) books. Here’s the latest roundup:

Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women, Sarah Bessey
Sarah is a wise, thoughtful blog-friend, and her first memoir is a clarion call for the equal participation of women in the work of God’s kingdom. There is a lot of blog content here, and not much “meaty” theology, but sound ideas and lovely metaphors. (I’m curious to read her new book, Out of Sorts.)

A Mind of Winter: Poems for a Snowy Season, ed. Robert Atwan
Winter is a tough season for me, but it has inspired some wonderful poetry. This collection contains gems from Frost, Dickinson, Whittier, Marge Piercy, Mary Oliver and more. Gorgeous and quiet. Found at The Bookstore in Lenox, MA.

Prudence, Gail Carriger
Lady Prudence Akeldama (“Rue” to her friends) embarks on a secret mission to India in her new dirigible, The Spotted Custard. Tea, espionage, werewolves and other supernatural creatures abound in this steampunk fantasy novel. Not my usual thing at all – which might be why I found it confusing at times – but witty, snarky and fun.

The Beautiful Possible, Amy Gottlieb
Sol Kerem is a serious rabbinical student, engaged to the beautiful, whip-smart Rosalie, when he meets Walter, a German Jewish refugee and agnostic. Their three lives become braided together in complicated ways. Sol and Rosalie raise their children and lead a suburban synagogue, while Walter explores art and mysticism. Luminous and thought-provoking, though the characters sometimes feel distant. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 16).

A Lady of Good Family, Jeanne Mackin
Beatrix Jones Farrand made a name for herself as a pioneering female landscape designer in the Gilded Age. But as a young woman, she also experienced heartbreak. Mackin takes us on a lushly described tour of Europe with Beatrix and her mother. I liked the premise, but it dragged a bit. Found at The Bookstore in Lenox.

Sapphire Blue, Kerstin Gier
As Gwyneth Shepherd adjusts to her new status as a time-traveler, things get even more confusing: whom can she trust? What is the “ultimate secret” that will be revealed? And does her handsome time-traveling partner, Gideon, really like her – or not? Gwyneth is funny and appealing, and I like watching her gain a bit of confidence in this book.

Window Left Open, Jennifer Grotz
I’d never heard of Grotz’s poetry, but am glad this collection came across my desk. Some lovely, vivid lines. I particularly liked “They Come the Way Flowers Do,” “Apricots,” “Poppies” and “Self-Portrait on the Street of an Unnamed Foreign City.” (Out Feb. 2.)

Julie of the Wolves, Jean Craighead George
Orphaned and unhappily married, Eskimo teenager Miyax (“Julie” to her pen pal) flees into the Alaskan tundra. She befriends a wolf pack and learns to survive on her own, but must decide whether to return to civilization. I read this as a child but had forgotten a lot of the details. An enthralling survival story. (For the Reading Together Family Exploration Book Club.)

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

What are you reading?

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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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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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advent book stack

We’ve come around to the season of Advent again – that quiet, twinkly time of anticipation before the glorious joy of Christmas. As usual, I’m marking the season by humming “O Come O Come Emmanuel” over and over again, and by reading.

Fittingly, I discovered Advent because of a book: Watch for the Light, a collection of readings for Advent and Christmas, which I picked up at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., many years ago. The contributors are a diverse, thoughtful group of scholars, poets, philosophers and theologians, and their words help me live more deeply into this season every year. From essays by Kathleen Norris and Brennan Manning to poems by T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath (yes, really), this collection always wakes me up, reminds me to pay attention – which is what Advent is all about.

Kathleen Norris’ lovely memoir The Cloister Walk is loosely organized around the liturgical year, and I turned back to the Advent chapters last weekend, rereading them by the light of our glowing Christmas tree. She speaks of reading the words of the prophet Isaiah on the first Sunday of Advent at a Benedictine monastery, and being grateful that such poetry exists in the Bible, and that “it tastes so good in [my] mouth.”

Madeleine L’Engle, another one of my guides, wrote an odd, striking memoir-cum-meditation, The Irrational Season, that is also somewhat tied to the liturgical year. Some of it is a little esoteric for me, but the Advent chapter, “The Night is Far Spent,” is quietly moving. Madeleine writes of being wakeful in the night, standing at the window of her New York City apartment with a mug of bouillon in her hands, musing on time, creation and the mystery of Advent. It’s an image I return to every year.

I fell completely in love with Rosamunde Pilcher’s Winter Solstice when my friend Julie handed it to me, several Christmases ago. It’s a quiet, lovely story of five rather vaguely connected people who all end up at an old house in northern Scotland at Christmastime. All of them are struggling with different griefs, and all of them find unexpected joy and redemption during their time together. The ending makes me cry.

Someone has said that poetry gets us closest to the mystery of this season, and for that I like Luci Shaw’s collection Accompanied by Angels, which takes us through the life of Jesus. Many of the poems are short, with striking images. Taken together, they form a mosaic that highlights a few new facets of this Jesus who is so well known and yet so mysterious.

I’ve long loved Father Tim Kavanagh and his adventures in Mitford, North Carolina. Shepherds Abiding, the eighth Mitford novel, is a sweet story of one Advent/Christmas season in which Father Tim restores a derelict Nativity scene as a gift for his wife, Cynthia. Meanwhile, other denizens of Mitford are going about their own Christmas business. Like all the Mitford novels, it’s funny, down-to-earth and quietly hopeful.

I reach for this stack of books every Advent, and their words – especially those in Watch for the Light – have become for me part of the fabric of the season, a way to observe these few liminal weeks between Ordinary Time and Christmas. As the days grow suddenly dark and short, I am watching for the light in both literal and metaphorical ways. These words help light the way for me, every year.

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

What are you reading during this Advent season?

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sunset charles river willow branches

This summer, I read Mary Oliver’s Winter Hours, which includes an essay on the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: his work and life, and the ways they intertwined.

It was (in typical Oliver fashion) a thoughtful, lyrical piece, but one line in particular has stayed in my mind:

But Hopkins was also a man in turmoil. […] No doubt his daily faith was a deeply layered light.

As the light around here has shifted from summer to fall, I have kept thinking about that image.

I think about it as I watch the sunset from my front balcony, the sky ablaze with vivid colors that change from minute to minute, darkened by smoky clouds or lit from behind by the sinking sun’s fire.

I think about it when I walk through Harvard Yard, watching the play of dappled light on the buildings and sidewalks, the autumn sun sifting down through the leaves.

And I think about it every time I walk down by the Charles River, whose undulating waves reflect – and refract – the sunshine, making it, indeed, a deeply layered light.

In the context of faith, “a deeply layered light” is an ambiguous image. It lacks the clear-cut simplicity that defined many of the conversations I grew up hearing, about God and belief and what a virtuous life looks like. Those conversations included images of light and dark, but they didn’t always leave room for layers, for complexity.

I am not sure, honestly, whether Oliver meant that Hopkins’ faith was enriched or diminished by its complications. (The undeniable fact, which she acknowledges, is that Hopkins wrestled mightily with faith for much of his life.)

These days, my faith is also “a deeply layered light.” It still illuminates my life, but there’s much more room for shadow and questions, complexity and doubt, than there used to be. It is no longer the simple, cheerful sunbeam of an untested childhood faith.

I have wrestled with some dark things in the last ten or so years, and I’ve watched many people I love – and the world around me – engage in similar struggles. We often come out bruised and battered. Our faith does not exempt us from asking hard questions, or having to face the darkness.

I don’t know where Hopkins ultimately landed on the question of faith, and I don’t always know what I believe, or why, on any given day. But I also know this: for me, it’s worth it to keep asking those questions, keep participating in a community of fellow believers, keep searching for the light. I believe the layers – the shadows and questions, the complexity and doubts – make my faith richer, deeper, more beautiful.

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fall books flowers mysteries

It’s definitely fall around here, and I’m noticing the shift in various ways. The mornings are crisper, the evenings shorter, the light a different shade of golden.

I’m sipping fall teas, munching apples and burning autumnal candles. But I’m also, characteristically, thinking about fall books.

Not all of my reading is tied to a season, but certain books and genres do resonate more deeply at certain times of year. I reach for Winter Solstice every December, The Long Winter in the frozen depths of February, Jane of Lantern Hill in the tentative first days of spring.

Similarly, the stack above holds a few particular books – and a couple of genres – to which I turn every fall.

Anne of Windy Poplars chronicles Anne Shirley’s three years as a high school principal in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, and though they span all four seasons, the entire book feels like autumn to me. (Anne of the Island, with its collegiate setting and jolly houseful of girls, also fits this season.) I adore Anne in all times and all places, but I love picturing her curled up in her tower room at Windy Poplars during the season of mellow afternoons and crisp twilights.

Robert Frost’s poetry is perfect for autumn. I love his classics like “The Road Not Taken,” but some of my other favorites evoke the mystery and melancholy of a New England fall. Try “After Apple-Picking,” “The Freedom of the Moon,” and “Acquainted with the Night.”

I adore E.B. White’s keenly observed evocations of life on a New England farm, many of which are collected in One Man’s Meat. They, too, encompass all seasons, but I always want to curl up by a warm fire and crunch on apples while I’m reading his accounts of livestock, small-town incidents and lovable, hardheaded dachshunds.

I love a mystery all year round, but Sidney Chambers, that quietly melancholic, inquisitive priest, seems especially suited for autumn. (Maybe it’s because I discovered him last fall.) The first volume of his adventures, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, contains an evocative passage about how autumn reveals the underlying shape of things.

Dorothy Sayers’ mystery series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane contains many gems. But Gaudy Night – set in Oxford among dreaming spires and diligent students, combining academia and mystery with a love story – is my very favorite, and perfect for this time of year.

Finally, Emily of Deep Valley is on my list to reread this fall. It’s about a girl who must make her own way in the world after graduating high school, while her friends head off to college. It’s full of quiet warmth and determination (like Emily herself), and both the cover and the spirit of the book are perfectly autumnal.

What do you like to read in the fall? Any books (or genres) that speak to you especially in the autumn?

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