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Posts Tagged ‘Oxford’

bookstore gloucester ma

It’s been a zany month so far, between houseguests, work obligations and prepping for travel. Here are the books that have kept me sane:

Nine Coaches Waiting, Mary Stewart
A young, orphaned Englishwoman is hired as governess to a French child in an isolated château, but begins to suspect that her charge is in danger. Lyrically written and suspenseful at first, but the second half felt flat and predictable.

That Summer, Lauren Willig
When Julia inherits a house from her unknown great-aunt, she returns to England, intending to sell up. But a mysterious Pre-Raphaelite painting, a handsome antiques dealer and Julia’s own troubled past give her reasons to stay. Compelling and fun, with a bit of historical mystery.

Ben Le Vay’s Eccentric Oxford, Benedict Le Vay
The lovely Caroline gave me this book when she visited Boston this summer. As an Oxford devotee, I already knew some of these wacky stories, but many tidbits were new to me. Quirky, fun and quintessentially English.

Walking the Woods and the Water, Nick Hunt
A longtime fan of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Hunt retraces Paddy’s journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul. The eight decades between Paddy’s walk and Nick’s have brought many changes to each country Nick visits, and he describes them in lucid detail. I loved the anecdotes of kind strangers and the gorgeous descriptive prose. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 28).

A Poisoned Season, Tasha Alexander
Lady Emily Ashton’s second adventure finds her pursuing a cat burglar and dealing with a rather unnerving secret admirer. Witty, well plotted and much better than the first book – I’m planning to continue with the series.

Windows on the World: Fifty Writers, Fifty Views, Matteo Pericoli
Working from photographs, Pericoli creates detailed sketches of fifty windows, through which fifty writers gaze as they work. From city apartment houses to small towns and a few remote islands, the views are varied and stunning. Brief essays by each writer accompany his or her window. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 13).

The Lace Makers of Glenmara, Heather Barbieri
Fleeing a broken heart and other griefs, Kate Robinson finds herself in a tiny Irish village, where she learns lace-making from some local women. I really wanted to love this book, but I just didn’t – it felt flat and stereotypical. Pass.

The Sound of Paper, Julia Cameron
This is one of my favorite books on writing (and life), and I’ve been reading it slooooowly for the last eight weeks or so. It helped greatly in my August writing project, and it always restores my faith in myself as a writer. Highly recommended.

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

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Return to Oxford

st johns front

After a long, lazy, sun-drenched summer, we have officially made the leap to fall around here.

September began with a slow, quiet Labor Day weekend, and quickly revved up to include my birthday; two sets of houseguests (including my sister); a work event that demanded great quantities of time, energy and mental bandwidth; and all the daily details of life. This past weekend, we went apple picking with friends, and the hubs has a work retreat coming up.

And later this week, I’m hopping a plane to Oxford.

radcliffe square radcliffe camera oxford england

If you’ve been reading this blog for longer than about five minutes, you know I harbor a deep love for Oxford. I never tire of its golden stone and winding streets, its crowded bookshops and its soaring, ornate, dreaming spires.

gold spring sunset

I spent a semester there as an undergraduate, then went back to spend a year and earn a master’s degree, and it remains my favorite city in the world.

all souls college oxford towers

I haven’t been back to Oxford in five years, which is simply too long – and the timing, while never perfect, seems pretty good this fall.

A dear American friend who lives there has a new baby I need to meet (and a room where she can put me up). Another American friend (and fellow Oxford devotee) has just moved to the UK and will be coming up to spend a weekend. My former housemate Lizzie lives in Oxford (and we are looking forward to several long chats over cups of tea). And yet another American friend and her family are spending the semester there. (Bonus: I’m planning to meet up with Caroline during a day out in London.)

I can tick off all these reasons, but the real, gut-level reason is much simpler: Oxford is my home.

south parks mauve sunset

Almost since I stepped off the bus back in 2004, Oxford has been the place where I feel most like myself. It is the first place I chose and made my own that was wildly different from my hometown in West Texas. It is where I discovered the deep pleasure of walking a city, the joys of living independently (but connected to a few dear friends), and the inestimable comfort of a cup of tea.

queens lane

The dreaming spires (above) are an indelible part of my heart’s landscape. And every so often, I need to get back there for a little while.

In his lyrical book about Oxford (aptly titled The Secret Garden), Justin Cartwright muses, “Oxford has a kind of wildly enhanced significance for me because I was young and almost ecstatically happy here.” When I met Cartwright at the Oxford Literary Festival in 2008, I was both young and ecstatically happy in Oxford – and he, kind man, listened to me gush about the city and agreed with me about its charms. I still have my signed copy of his book, and that sentence rings as true as it ever did.

In short: Oxford is the city of my heart, and I’m so glad to be going back there. Photos and stories to come.

If you’ve been to Oxford, did it capture you as it has me? Or is there another place that seems to belong to you? (I believe many people have a place like this.) Do share in the comments!

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My teatime ritual

queens lane

Strong black Yorkshire Gold with milk and a spoonful of sugar. Bergamot-tinged Earl Grey with a swirl of milk. Sachets of black tea flavored with orange peel, stone fruits or cinnamon, brewed strong and drunk unadorned. Paper bags of peppermint or lemon-ginger tea drunk plain, with a squeeze of honey added if I have a sore throat.

Teatime. It’s my morning-daytime-evening ritual.

I grew up in hot, dry West Texas, the land of endless summers and pitchers of dark, strong Lipton iced tea. I am still one of the only Texans I know who will turn down a glass of iced tea for a sweating glass of ice water. I like my tea hot, in a ceramic mug, and it had better not be Lipton.

I’m over at TRIAD magazine today, talking about my several-times-a-day tea habit. Click over there to read the rest of my essay.

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longfellow garden radcliffe yard

I have worked in Harvard Square for almost a year now, and in that time I have traversed what feels like every inch of it, most of those inches more than once. I spend most of my lunch breaks and other scattered pockets of time tramping down streets whose historic names are now familiar: Brattle, Dunster, Holyoke, Plympton. Oxford, JFK, Mount Auburn, Bow (which runs into Arrow, a tiny detail of a joke that always makes me smile). I am constantly filling in my mental map of the area with new detail. I had visited Harvard Square often before I took a job here, but now this is my neighborhood.

Sometimes I walk purposefully, like the local I am now, a denizen of this bustling metropolis filled with students and university employees and tourists. I go to the bank and the post office, head to the farmers’ market in warm weather, shop at the Harvard Book Store or the Curious George Store for birthday gifts or books. Sometimes I have errands to run, and I head out into the bitter cold on a mission, often rewarding myself with half an hour in a cafe and a cup of tea.

tealuxe interior cambridge ma

But sometimes I pull my camera out and gawk like any tourist. I snap photo after photo of the hidden and public angles of Harvard Square, such as snow-topped roofs on red brick buildings, some of them older than the state I call home.

snow harvard yard gate

The white spire of Memorial Church, tipped with a flying gold banner, beautiful against a sky of blue or gray or sunset pink.

memorial church harvard yard blue sky

Fresh tulips outside a florist’s shop, a musician busking in Brattle Square.

tulips harvard square

The sunken garden on Appian Way, adjacent to my building, and the larger expanse of Harvard Yard, the beating green heart of Harvard College.

harvard yard cambridge ma

I am learning to name the spires of Harvard as I learned to name the spires of Oxford: instead of Christ Church, Magdalen, Corpus Christi and St Aldates, there are Eliot, Adams, Dunster, Memorial Church.

The tallest one is also my favorite: Lowell House, bright blue and gold reaching into the endless sky. I love it because of the story of the Russian bells that fill its tower, and because I have actually been up inside it: my professor friend Ryan took me on a tour long ago.

lowell house tower

I walk around Cambridge the way I used to walk around Oxford: sometimes on an errand, but chiefly for the sheer pleasure of ambling, watching, enjoying, tasting, being.  It’s not always a postcard scene or a calendar photo. But it is bustling and vibrant, endlessly changing, endlessly fascinating. It’s beautiful and maddening and wonderfully interesting. And it’s mine.

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We put up our big, beautiful Christmas tree this past weekend, listening to Elvis, George Strait and Charlie Brown while we did so (it’s tradition).

christmas tree

My husband picked up takeout from our favorite Indian restaurant, while I unraveled and strung the lights.

lights christmas tree decorating

I am my mother’s daughter – I love small white lights, lots of them – and also my father’s daughter, because I love the mismatched, heirloom, handmade, funky ornaments on my tree.

Most of our ornaments have stories, and every year, I snap a few photos to share with you. Here are this year’s gems:

fenway ornament apple

I bought this ornament for J the first year we lived in Boston, from a handmade craft market downtown. It makes me smile, especially in light of this year’s World Series win. (Hanging above it is an apple that I think came from my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Drake.)

angel christmas tree ornament

This angel also came from a teacher – Mrs. Hicks, who directed a pull-out program called Project Challenge at the school I went to in first grade. My name and the year are on the back.

suitcase travel christmas ornament

My mom gave me this suitcase last year. Three of the four cities (Rome, Paris and New York) are places I’ve visited and love.

moose christmas ornament

During my year in Oxford as a graduate student, I had an American friend whose nickname was Moose. I found these silver moose ornaments at Northlight, a Scandinavian housewares shop on the High Street, and bought one for him and one for myself. (They’re difficult to photograph, because they reflect everything.)

telephone booth christmas ornament

This ornament came from a Christmas shop in my West Texas hometown, but it represents my love for the UK (and its red phone boxes).

Do your ornaments have stories? I’d love to hear them.

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all souls college oxford towers

There, eastward, within a stone’s throw, stood the twin towers of All Souls’, fantastic, unreal as a house of cards, clear-cut in the sunshine, the drenched oval in the quad beneath brilliant as an emerald in the bezel of a ring.

Behind them, black and grey, New College frowning like a fortress, with dark wings wheeling about her belfry louvres; and Queen’s with her dome of green copper; and, as the eye turned southward, Magdalen, yellow and slender, the tall lily of towers; the Schools and the battlemented front of University; Merton, square-pinnacled, half hidden behind the shadowed North side and mounting spire of St. Mary’s.

Westward again, Christ Church, vast between Cathedral spire and Tom Tower; Brasenose close at hand; St. Aldate’s and Carfax beyond; spire and tower and quadrangle, all Oxford springing underfoot in living leaf and enduring stone, ringed far off by her bulwark of blue hills.

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers

oxford towers wisteria queens lane

I harbor a deep love for Oxford, this city of towers and walled gardens, of books and cafes and quiet afternoons and long, winding, often cobblestoned streets. It is a city of dreams and realities, often mixed together so thoroughly that it becomes difficult to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

I read and loved Gaudy Night during my first semester in Oxford, as part of a class in which we discussed the architecture, history and literature of Oxford through the centuries. It proved just as brilliant and captivating on my recent reread. Nine years has only increased my love for Oxford and its denizens. I adore Sayers’ feisty writer-sleuth, Harriet Vane, and her love interest, the gentleman detective Peter Wimsey, but my favorite character in the novel remains Oxford itself.

Sayers was born in Oxford and later earned a degree from Somerville College; a wall on Brewer Street bears a round blue plaque with her name and dates. She knew Oxford’s streets, towers and libraries intimately, and wrote about them with deep respect and love.

Gaudy Night is set in a fictional Oxford college, but its surroundings are entirely real, and the scene quoted above, set atop the Radcliffe Camera, provides a panoramic view of the city’s heart. I know every one of the colleges Sayers names; I have walked in their gardens and snapped pictures of their towers, drinking in the interplay of green and gold, shadow and light, sky and stone.

I haven’t been back to Oxford in several years, but tramping through it again with Harriet Vane — through the Bodleian and down the Isis and across Magdalen Bridge — felt, as it always does, like going home.

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book culture shop interior nyc

(Photo of Book Culture in NYC)

The Last Word, Lisa Lutz
The Spellmans, a wacky family of PIs who love to spy on one another, are back for a sixth adventure. Isabel Spellman is struggling with her employees (read: parents) after her hostile takeover of the family business, while trying to solve a few cases and avoid her three-year-old tyrant of a niece. Fun to see the crew of familiar characters, but I didn’t love this book. Most of the characters were drifting, and I want Izzy to do some real growing up already.

Attachments, Rainbow Rowell
Beth and Jennifer email each other constantly at work – even though they know their company’s security officer is reading their email. Lincoln, the security officer, reads their flagged messages and then finds himself falling in love with Beth, who doesn’t know he exists. How can he ever hope to meet her for real? A sweet, funny love story and a fun twist on You’ve Got Mail, with plenty of late ’90s/Y2K cultural references.

A Brief History of Montmaray, Michelle Cooper
Sophia, princess of Montmaray (a fictional sovereign island in the Bay of Biscay), receives a diary for her 16th birthday in 1936. She chronicles daily life with her oddball family on their windswept island, which takes a dark turn when two Nazi officers land on their shores. Sophie is naive and sometimes wishy-washy, but I liked her and her family enough to be interested in the sequel.

How to Be Alone, Tanya Davis, illus. Andrea Dorfman
A lovely print evocation of Davis’ video poem – a paean to the pleasures of solitude and a call to pay attention not just to oneself, but to the world. Whimsical, colorful watercolor illustrations add to the charm. (I feel guilty calling it a real book since it’s one poem, but I am reviewing it for Shelf Awareness! Out Oct. 8.)

The View from Penthouse B, Elinor Lipman
Since her husband died, Gwen has lived with her divorced sister, Margot, in the titular NYC penthouse while both of them figure out how to move on. They take in a cupcake-baking roommate, Anthony, and things get wacky when Margot’s white-collar-criminal ex (on parole for good behavior) moves in downstairs. A warm, witty novel about sisterhood, unexpected joy, and opening oneself to love again. My first Lipman book, and now I want to read her others.

When We Were On Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over, Addie Zierman
Addie is a blog-friend, a voice of wisdom and grace in my Internet life. And her memoir – about her experience growing up in a particular evangelical subculture – is lovely. She acquires a lot of baggage (much of it related to boys and her own self-worth), rebels passionately against it, spirals downward and eventually begins to heal. So many of her experiences were also mine; I laughed and grimaced and welled up in recognition. Beautiful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 15).

Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers
A mystery set in Oxford, with a pair of detectives I love, equals perfection. When Harriet Vane, mystery writer and amateur sleuth, returns to her old Oxford college, a series of poison-pen letters and other pranks begin to disturb the community. She returns to track down the perpetrator, while working on a novel and trying to sort out her feelings for Lord Peter Wimsey, gentleman detective. Brilliantly plotted; full of erudite quotes, musings on love and the intellect, and descriptions of my favorite city. I read this nine years ago, during my first semester in Oxford, and returning to it (for my book club) was pure pleasure.

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