Books are a year-round pleasure in this house.
I always have a bedside pile (okay, tower) of books I am currently reading, and I read aloud to my children (yes, even my twelve-year-old) nearly every day. But something happens to my book love when we feed the last of the porch pumpkins to the chickens and go in search of our Advent wreath.
It becomes an obsession.
Perhaps it’s the early darkness and cold and all those hours to fill indoors. Perhaps it’s the discipline of Advent observance. Perhaps it’s the anticipation of Christmas. Maybe it’s because I am buying so many books to give as gifts. Or, maybe it is for every one of these reasons.
However I account for it, our December days are marked by the turning of pages.
During Advent, my reading takes on a heightened focus. I don’t read anything “just because.” For instance, this is the month when I reread Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher.
I think of this novel, set in snowy Scotland in the days leading up to Christmas, as my version of those sentimental holiday movies so many enjoy this time of year. It’s a great, warm, afghan of a novel, but it’s made of high-quality Scottish wool. Nothing cheap or slap-dash here. Pilcher’s story is full of love and sentiment but never sentimental. I am always so glad to pick it up again.
One of our favorite recent read-alouds would make a great stocking stuffer (it really is just the right size! and price!). It’s The Children of Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren, of Pippi Longstocking fame.
I bought this book after enjoying her picture book Christmas in Noisy Village (Picture Puffin) for years. The Children of Noisy Village features the same children but describes their activities not only at Christmas but all through the year on a traditional Swedish farm. It’s a chapter book, but the chapters are brief. It’s pretty much an ideal bedtime read.
I think anything Scandinavian is perfect for the Christmas season, but I am recommending this book because my two sons, one a reluctant reader and the other a reluctant reader and reluctant listener, both adored it. The storytelling is simple and so true to childhood. It’s all about food and games, special celebrations and traditions, childish friendships and milestones as momentous as being given the responsibility for shopping at the village store entirely on your own.
We finished the book weeks ago, but when my nine-year-old quoted one of the lines from the book last night at dinner, the boys and I were practically rolling on the floor with laughter.
I love to read through a daily Advent book and usually alternate between Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas and God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas (Readers Edition). But there are so many wonderful, possibilities for a daily devotion. This would be the perfect time of year to begin one of my favorite books, Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season (The Crosswicks Journal, Book 3).
The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name has exactly twenty-four stories from Old Testament beginning to the birth of Jesus and makes ideal Advent reading with small children. I have also enjoyed Ann Voskamp’s beautifully illustrated Advent devotional Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas with my older kids.
I know that for many, December begins with a Christmas tree. We won’t cut down our tree for a few weeks yet, but our anticipation begins when I pull out our collection of Christmas storybooks. I’ll gather those books from a shelf in the third floor-closet on Sunday afternoon (something that will require at least four trips up and down those narrow, old stairs) and tell you about a few of them next Saturday.
If you have small children or grandchildren, Advent is the perfect time of year to begin a Christmas picture book collection. I’ve included amazon affiliate links in this post, but one of my favorite sources for beautiful, meaningful holiday books is Chinaberry.
When my kids were small, I began buying two or three Christmas books each year (I found many of them at our local thrift store) and that collection is now my very favorite thing to pull out each year. Better even than the familiar tree ornaments made with macaroni and glitter.
Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, is one of our favorite family books no matter the season. Over the summer, our family visited the original Wilder homestead in Malone, NY. I recently wrote about that visit (and so much more) for Art House America. You can read all about my harvest of memory right here.
(This is a summer installment in my occasional series of book recommendations. The following post contains affiliate links. You can find previous recommendations right here.)
I adore summer, but I was not made for summer.
I was made for curling up with a book on snowy days. I was made for the slow, careful glide across ice. I was made for the silence of the whole world hushed by snow.
But I love summer. I love raised beds for vegetables and 3 chickens fighting for one worm. I love sun-warmed tomatoes with cracked pepper and babies sticky with a first popsicle. I love that one white lily picked from my flowerbed fills nearly the entire house with its scent.
Summer is sensory overload.
Which means I am having a hard time reading. A novel, especially, is a whole new world of sights and sounds and emotions and ideas. But my small world is full to bursting with those things. At least in summer. And I can’t handle any more.
I tried reading The Expats: A Novel by Chris Pavone. Someone recommended it to me, though I’ve forgotten who. It seems clever and thrilling. Hip and suspenseful. I only managed a chapter (maybe half?) before I set it aside. It’s summer, and I have no room in myself for cleverness or hipness. I’ve taken to rereading my favorite essays in Amy Leach’s wonderful Things That Are, instead. Somehow, they are clever in a way that moves me deeper into what is right in front of me, like sunflowers grown taller than my husband and a woodchuck who nibbles my daylilies despite the cat stalking him from behind the baby plum tree.
Jonathan and I watch the cat/woodchuck drama while we rinse and load the dinner dishes. Then we go and watch British television shows on YouTube. Comfort-food television like Restoration Home and Great British Garden Revival.
My nightly reading with the kids is also a serving of comfort and nostalgia. Tumtum & Nutmeg: Adventures Beyond Nutmouse Hall by Emily Bearn is a new book, but it reads like an old favorite. This is an English countryhouse novel for kids, and even my boys love it. The firstborn and I dream of genteel mice making a kind of summer home in a child’s dollhouse, and the boys cheer on General Marchmouse as he advances against the cartoonishly evil Aunt Ivy.
The baby and I are reading Adventures with Barefoot Critters by Teagan White. The illustrations and typography are lovely in this just-released picture book. With its adorable animals in adorable clothes doing adorably fun things, you might call it Tumtum & Nutmeg for the toddler set.
And when everyone is in bed? No, they aren’t asleep. It is summer, after all. But as long as they are in their rooms, and the door is muffling all the not-so-subtle sounds of a sibling “sleep-over,” then you will find me curled up with Empress of the Garden by G. Michael Shoup (an enormous coffee-table book of antique roses) or Private Edens: Beautiful Country Gardens by Jack Staub (another coffee-table-sized treasury of garden inspiration), or maybe The Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty from Brandywine Cottage by David Culp (this one weighs a little less and is as practical as it is inspiring).
In other words, in summer, you will either find me in the garden or reading about gardens.
Because there are three other seasons for smart novels and broadening your horizons and ticking items off of must-read lists.
Happy summer, friends.
I think this is the first Friday evening when I have not been excited to sit down and give you another peak at my bookshelves. The reason? I’m in the middle of a new book, and I would really rather be reading.
My internet connection was out all day, and I was secretly thrilled. It meant I felt a little less guilty propping the baby in her bouncy seat and getting back to Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson.
However, since I have one of you to thank for this book recommendation, and I want to keep the good times rolling, here are three more books for your reading pleasure.
Today, I’m giving you characters.
When I read novels what I want more than anything – more than a great plot or beautiful language – is character. I want human beings who are so fully realized, so perfectly flawed yet sympathetic, that I struggle to believe they have been created out of nothing more than the alphabet.
Cassandra Mortmain is a marvel of a narrator. She is the wonderfully awkward heroine of Dodie Smith’s 1948 novel I Capture the Castle. The incredible thing about this novel is that the narrator, who hovers somewhere between childhood and adulthood, does not know herself and yet she fully reveals herself to us. We have only her words, but we know things she is only slowly discovering.
This novel is sweet, funny, and over-the-top in so many good ways. We have a crumbling English castle, first love, eccentrics around every corner, and poverty that is a little worse than genteel. Cassandra, like the story she tells, is a gem.
And no bathroom on earth will will make up for marrying a bearded man you hate. – Dodie Smith
Next, I give you a character who is much darker and more mysterious. He is a young, Irish police detective, and he is the narrator of In the Woods by Tana French.
French writes what some have called “literary mystery thrillers.” Literary is a rather inadequate word, but what it should tell you is that French is an incredible writer. In particular, she has a gift for characters.
Although the plot will keep you turning pages late at night (my life pretty much comes to a standstill whenever French publishes a new book), if you value plot (especially those of the neat and tidy variety) you may be disappointed.
I think I love French’s books because, though they are atmospheric and wildly creative, I find them to be more honest than most mysteries. French gives us compelling characters and page-turning stories, but she does not pretend that all mysteries can be solved, that all questions can be answered, or that the past can always be known.
What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this – two things: I crave truth. And I lie. – Tana French
I am always amazed that one small island can produce so many gifted writers. Here is another: the Irish writer Colm Toibin. Brooklyn: A Novel is told by Eilis Lacey. She is a young woman who has grown up in a small Irish town just after the second world war. Sponsored by a priest, Lacey leaves her family and goes, alone, to make a new life in America.
This is a quiet book. Beginning it, you may find it too easy to put it down and forget to pick it up again. Don’t do this: you are in the hands of a master. Turning pages you will begin to care for Eilis, you will see the world through her naive but curious eyes, and you will know, having turned the last page, that you have been richly rewarded.
‘She has gone back to Brooklyn,’ her mother would say. – Colm Toibin
Tell me, who are the characters you especially love?
You can find earlier recommendations here: week one, week two, week three, week four, week five, week six, week seven, and week eight.