Deck the Halls, or It Wouldn’t Be Christmas Without …

Of course it’s the Christmas tree that is the centerpiece of any holiday decorating.  I’ve always been partial to Douglas or Frasier firs, with their dusty green, waxy boughs. And since we live near a local green grocer that has a gorgeous selection of trees, we’ve always done it the Christmas Story way, not the Christmas Vacation way. Unfortunately, with our pet menagerie, I fought needle drop every time the lab walked by the tree and wagged her tail or one of the cats swatted at some pretty bulb that caught her eye. Seriously– I’d keep the vacuum out so I could easily sweep up pine needles from the carpet three times a day. This year we took the plunge and bought a gorgeous artificial tree—Christmas heresy to some, I know, but I’m decidedly less Grinchy about the tree this year. In addition to the tree, nothing says “Deck the halls” with Christmas memories  than these lovelies.

  1. Crèche. I have the same crèche we had when I was growing up. (We called it a manger scene back
    then, though.) It isn’t a fancy imported olive wood nativity from the Holy Land or a trendy Willow Tree crèche—nope, I can remember when my mom drove to Montgomery Wards catalogue department in Akron to pick it up. The figures are plaster, some with facial features slightly askew (“hand painted in Italy” says the box). The human cast of characters is pretty standard, but it’s the dog with ears and tail standing at attention and the 3-legged lambs (those spindly little plaster legs don’t stand up to any dropping or mis-packing) I love most. When I was little I’d spend hours rearranging what was a kind of Christmas dollhouse to me.
  1. Garland. Nothing says celebration to me like a droopy, loopy garlands and I’ve loved them even before the pennant craze I see on Etsy and Pinterest. I have a felt and burlap “Merry Christmas” across the sliding door to the deck, a wooden “Let it snow” with snowmen, hearts, and snowflakes over the kitchen sink, and a pine cone garland draped on the bookcase. Our house is small, but that’s okay since I can deck each room on the main floor with a garland.
  1. Snowmen. They’re kind of my thing. Of course we have some snowmen ornaments on the tree, but it’s my snowman collection that is dear to me—and even better, since they’re not just for Christmas, I can leave them out through January. A few tin snowmen, a wooden snowman or two, a soft little fleece guy—those tiny mittens and carrot noses and twig arms and neck scarves make me smile every time.
  1. Train. Two months ago my dad died. In his salad days he was a model railroader and his O-gauge railroad ran along the entire wall of the basement with hills and tunnels and turnarounds. The countryside and cityscapes were populated with billboards, stores, and cars remembered from his childhood. Dad even wore an engineer’s cap sometimes when he was out and about. But since neither my brother or I had the time, space, or expertise to carry on Dad’s hobby, my step-mom sold most of the collectibles to a dealer. But not before I took a Lionel locomotive, green boxcar, and red caboose for under my Christmas tree. And there it runs, much to the chagrin of our beagle dog who thinks it’s a mad marauder from the hinterland, come to pillage our hearth and home.
  1. Books. Most of you know when my children were young (before my life as a teacher), I worked in a children’s book store. Each year I’d buy a new Christmas book and add it to the pile in a gold wicker basket. Each year I’d haul out that basket and I think even as teens the kids would page through their favorites. Now it’s waiting for grandbabies to be old enough to love those stories.
  1. Sled. When I was five we moved to a small little white ranch at the top of a hill. That Christmas there was a sled under the tree—a beautifully restored Flexible Flyer that had been my dad’s as a boy, now repainted red and white, with re-varnished side rails, stenciled with L A U R I E. I’m not about to take it for a slide anymore, but I do attach some greens and a big red bow and that old girl decks my front stoop each year.

So there you have it–when it’s Christmas in our house, you can be sure I’ll deck the halls with these Christmas memories. What can’t your home be without during the holidays?

A favorite at Christmas: Christmas from the Heart of the Home (review)

The stockings are hung (although sadly, there’s no chimney), the candles lit, and creche arranged–it’s the most wonderful time of the year! And every year for the past twenty-something, I’ve added Susan Branch’s Christmas From the Heart of the Home to the stack of holiday books on my coffee table. Branch inks and watercolors every inch of every page so that reading her Heart of the Home books is like reading her journal.

The book is everything I want at Christmas: a little whimsy, a lotta charm, family and friends, and homey goodness. And it’s my favorite book  Christmas book for the home. This little gem has some great recipes, from appetizers (chicken pate and Christmas oysters, anyone?) to a traditionalfavorite Christmas book Christmas turkey (or goose if you’re brave enough!), along with delicious sweet goodies and holiday beverages (spiked and not).

One of my family Christmas cookie favorites is something we call butter nut balls. Branch’s Mary’s Mother’s Snowballs are similar–except that the dough is wrapped around a Hershey’s kiss. My daughter insisted we include these little treasures in our cookie baking next week. Eaten still slightly warm they are to die for. Seriously.

But Christmas From the Heart of the Home is much more than a recipe book. I find myself turning the pages of this favorite for ideas to Deck the Halls—lots of candles, garlands of pine, and Christmas trees everywhere (even the kitchen!). Or how about taping Christmas cards around a doorway (I do!). The pages dedicated to the Magic of Snow are probably best understood by those of us who live in northern climes (Branch on Martha’s Vineyard, me in the Great Lakes)—the greatest love-hate story of them all. And throughout, those family memories and traditions, all delightfully illustrated and painted to size.

Need a Christmas treat for yourself? Check out Susan Branch’s blog, store, and news about anything from the Heart of the Home. I, of course, especially love her books. I usually get myself a little somethin’ somethin’ after the holidays, and I think this year it will be Autumn From the Heart of the Home, because, let’s face it–after Christmas, northern Falls are the best. (Sadly, Christmas From the Heart of the Home is out-of-print, but I found plenty of copies on ebay)

So whether my Christmas is lean or lush (and it’s been both over the years, believe me) I can depend on Christmas From the Heart of the Home to reassure me that heart and home are truly what matter most.

Books for bitty babes

A little over a week ago I welcomed my first grandchild—little J gave his momma a run for her money, but he is (like any good Grammy would say!) the most perfect baby ever.

And just like I did with his IMG_1144 (1)momma and his uncles, I’ll be reading to him from the start. This English language of ours is beautiful and rhythmic, largely written and spoken in iambs, a rhythm that pulses through so much of what we hear—the da DUM of our heartbeat, the bah bo LINK of a backyard bird, the scritch HOP of a skip. Babies, listening to that rhythm in their water world for nine months, are finely tuned, I believe, to respond to iambs. And what better way to introduce them to our wide and wonderful world, but to cuddle them on our laps, snuggle them close, and read?

Which books are must-haves will change by age, but these are mine favorites for bitty babes. You’ll notice that there’s not a Disney book in the mix (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but if you want to choose books whose poetry and prose will sing to those little ears, these few will become a welcome chorus.  (And all are available as board books for tiny hands to touch) You can be sure at least a couple of these titles will show up under little J’s Christmas tree this year!

Goodnight Moon (by Margaret Wise Brown)

Pat the Bunny (by Dorothy Kunhardt)

Brown Bear Brown Bear what do you see? (by Eric Carle)

Each Peach Pear Plum (by Janet and Allan Ahlberg)

Let’s Play, Sleepy Time, and Babies—or any board book written and illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa

How I choose my next read

I’ve already established in another post (link) that I’m a picky reader. Best Seller Lists (even the revered New York Times BSL)

love books
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don’t help me much, nor do the Staff Recommends shelf talkers in bookstores.  In my book selling days, I relied on my managers and publisher’s sales reps to pass on good titles, usually as an Advanced Readers Copy.  So what’s a book junkie to do? Here are my top choices (in no particular order) for finding my next read.

  1. Friends. Okay, not just any friends, but inquisitive, sometimes-daring readers whose tastes run close to mine, but who aren’t necessarily my reading clone. Someone who will encourage me try something a little out of my comfort zone. For me right now, that’s friend Denice, my book store compadre and a school librarian in her previous lives. You can read her blog here (link). And friend Mary, who reads anything nonfiction, especially historical.
  1. NPR. Hands down my go-to place for reviews. I’m a big fan of their lists: Summer Books, Best Books Of …, etc. They often feature the recommendations of independent booksellers (yay!) and this blog is rich with titles I’ve found on NPR, like this, and this, and even this. I’m such a fan I was once tempted to bid on the Nancy Pearl action figure on eBay. I find the book reviews that run on All Things Considered and Fresh Air to be a bit uneven—let’s face it, it’s NPR and some of the titles run a little on the sophisticated side for my tastes. But the lists? Hands down winners.
  1. Amazon. Whatever algorithm they use to get the recommendations for the Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought list of books is usually spot on. Enter a title you’ve loved in the search bar and scroll down until you reach Customers Who … I have taken a few risks and haven’t been disappointed. Like this one and this.
  1. Twitter. I’ve recently started following Huff Post books on Twitter. Great source for reviews, but also a treasure trove of all things bookish—author features, memes, video interviews. I have just begun following some of my favorite writers and bloggers, but I can already tell Twitter will lead me to more than a few good reads.
  1. Goodreads. I know, I know. More of a Facebook-for-readers, so go ahead and snub your nose at this suggestion if you must. But I like Facebook, so why not? Finding the right readers to follow takes a bit of time. I troll over bookshelves and look for titles I love and can usually find a title or two to add to my to-read shelf.  Goodreads has also given me a few opportunities to comment back and forth with authors, something that gets me quite twitterpated (which also reminds me that I also follow Goodreads on Twitter!).
  1. DRCs (Digital Reader’s Copies). NetGalley and Above the Treeline’s Edelweiss. This particular source may not work for everyone. Both websites offer booksellers, librarians, educators, and bloggers the opportunity to request and read titles before publication, just like those ARCs I used to enjoy as a book seller. It’s helpful to have a good feel for publishers and authors. But I have taken a risk on some titles and not been disappointed.

 And since it’s the season for gift giving, this list might also give you some ideas for gifting the best. present. ever. Or, when the weather and shopping or yet another holiday celebration seem just a little too much, a present to wrap yourself around for a few hours of bliss.

Stopping the story: WBN and me

I woke up this morning to the sad news that World Book Night had suspended operations because the event was too costly to continue, this despite “significant financial and time commitment from

WBN 2012: Glass Castle

publishers, writers, booksellers, librarians, printers, distributors, shippers.” It seems that the book community and individual donors had come together to support WBN, but that the organization lacked “significant, sustainable outside funding.”

For those of you who aren’t familiar with World Book Night, it is was an incredible event. Writers and publishers agreed to donate titles that were specially printed for WBN and distributed by “Book Givers” on April 23 all over the country–over one and a half million books in since 2012. A-maz-ing.

I am a high school English teacher in a very small (traditionally) blue collar suburb outside a moderately-sized city in the Midwest. Pretty much middle America. But I feel as though every year I must dangle some sort of carrot to get my kids to read literature … and then I ask them to read some more. Sometimes it’s incredibly rewarding, but other times not so much. So when I heard about World Book Night three years ago (thank you, Denice!) I worried whether or not giving at school was really a good idea. After all, maybe the folks downtown at the soup kitchen where I volunteered would be more appreciative. Or maybe even at the bus stop at the end of my street? But books and teens and I have walked this readin’ road for over twenty years and we’ll be walkin’ it several more, so despite my hesitation, it seemed like a good fit.

WBN 2012: Glass Castle

Because everyone needs a book of their own. (Or, if you’re me a couple thousand books of my own, but that’s another story.) A book to smell and riffle through and maybe mark in and dog ear and–most important of all–write one’s own name in the front cover. I fussed and fretted over the titles, but, in the end, trusted the Universe to get the non-fiction books I chose into the right hands. And maybe the kids would read the book, and maybe they wouldn’t. At least not right now. But some day, that title might speak to them.

The over 600 comments on Facebook are down-hearted; I’m guessing most are former Givers like me.  More than a few have suggested Kickstarter. (If Lavar Burton can do it for Reading Rainbow, why not someone for WBN?!) The organization will remain staffed through the summer to continue social media, so you can still check them out here.

Frank Herbert said it perfectly (my husband will appreciate this reference!): “There’s no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.” So World Book Night might be stopping the story but with over one and a half million books out there, “there’s no real ending.”