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the long run book snow menzies-pike

I know we’re more than halfway through the year, but I still thought it would be worthwhile (and fun!) to share the best books I’ve read so far this year. Technically I’d read 102 books by the end of June, so here are the real standouts from the first half of 2018:

Most Eloquent, Relatable Memoir of Running and Grit: The Long Run by Catriona Menzies-Pike. I think of lines from this witty, beautiful book regularly while I’m running.

Candid, Witty Essays on Marriage: Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give by Ada Calhoun. Honest and funny and so real – perfect for reading after a decade of marriage.

Most Compelling Mysteries with a Side of Faith: Julia Spencer-Fleming’s brilliant series featuring Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne. I cannot shut up about these books: the mystery plots are solid, but the characters and their complex relationships are on another level.

Best Twisty Tale of Badass Female Spies: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. Just so good.

Most Blazing, Gorgeous Novel of Love and Heartbreak: Love and Ruin by Paula McLain. I did not think I could read another Hemingway novel, but Martha Gellhorn’s narrative voice grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

Most Vivid and Heartrending Refugee Story: The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. (I liked Exit West too, but this dual narrative with its two scrappy female protagonists stole my heart.)

Best Reread: A Wrinkle in Time, which I picked up after seeing the new film. I liked the movie, but L’Engle’s classic has more depth and heart and grit – and oh, I love Meg Murry.

Best Travel Memoir That’s About So Much More: Lands of Lost Borders, Kate Harris’ luminous, gritty memoir of spending nearly a year cycling along the Silk Road.

Most Perfect Gothic Novel to Read in Spain: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Twisty, atmospheric, witty, packed with great characters and surprise moments.

Your turn: what are the best books you’ve read so far this year?

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waves neponset summer

I keep hearing that phrase in my grandfather’s voice, these days.

To be clear, I am hearing it inside my head: Papaw died when I was 16, before I’d ever faced problems bigger than a difficult history exam or a temperamental band director.

He was my dad’s dad, a quiet man from Mississippi who spent his adult life in small-town Missouri. He was mostly deaf in one ear as a result of his time serving in Korea, and he wore plaid shirts that snapped up the front, and black-framed glasses, and baseball caps when he went golfing.

When my sister and I were young, we would try to arm-wrestle him, and though I’d push with both hands and throw all my weight against his big hand, I never managed to move it an inch. This made him throw back his head and laugh, a raspy, joyous sound that I loved to hear.

I don’t ever remember hearing Papaw say “It’ll all work out” when he was alive. My mom told me, not long ago, that he used to say it, and immediately I heard it in his voice, infused with the simple, rock-solid faith that I associate with him and my Mimi. They didn’t say much about their faith, but they helped out their neighbors and served their church and raised their three sons to love God and love others.

This summer, I am searching for a new job: combing job boards and sending out applications and trying my absolute best not to panic. I don’t know what is next, and I don’t like that at all. I am a person who likes to have a plan.

There’s no magic formula to quiet my soul when the fear sets in, though I am using all the good, healthy tricks I know, like yoga and running and lots of tea. But sometimes, Papaw’s voice floats through my head, saying this one simple phrase that I never heard him say in life. And it settles me, in a way I can’t quite explain: to know that if he were alive, he would say it to me, believing that I’ll find my next right step.

I don’t know if Papaw ever had doubts or dark nights of the soul. I’m not sure how I could explain to him the work I do, how I worry, what I’m hoping to find. I don’t quite believe he’s speaking to me from beyond, not that way.

But sometimes I hear him say these four words. And it helps me believe they are true.

neponset river light water bridge sky

We’re halfway through July, and y’all, it has been hot.

I grew up in West Texas, where the temps regularly climb above 100 from about May to September, but heat and humidity in Boston can be a whole different beast.

Since we don’t have central a/c in our third-floor apartment, and since I’m not working in an air-conditioned office at the moment, I’ve had to come up with a different arsenal of tricks for surviving a heat wave – especially the weeklong furnace blast we endured earlier this month.

In case you’re sweltering too, or expect to be, here are my expert tips:

  • Go to the movies. We’ve seen three movies in the last six weeks (Ocean’s 8, The Incredibles 2 and Solo) both because we wanted to see them and because of the air-conditioning. Bonus: matinees are cheaper and they get you out of the house during the hottest part of the day.
  • Make gazpacho. We’d tried this chilled veggie soup in Spain, and the hubs has been asking for it regularly ever since. When it’s too hot to turn on the stove or the oven, this makes a filling, healthy dinner.
  • Drink something hot (yes, really). I won’t give up my hot tea in the morning even on scorching days, and I’m convinced it really does cool me down.
  • Seek out air-conditioning.  This one seems obvious, but it’s a lifesaver on these broiling days. I am ever more grateful for coffee shops and libraries, for so many reasons.
  • Eat spicy food. It really does help cool you down – not that we needed another excuse to eat Tex-Mex food around here.
  • Exercise in the morning. I’ve been getting up early to go running (who am I?) on some mornings when the forecast is particularly scorching. There’s more shade and less heat on the trail then. I’m still doing yoga at various times of day – but the studio has a/c and ceiling fans.
  • Box fans. These saved our lives during my childhood summers in Ohio, and they’re saving my life (and my husband’s) on these hot nights. One in the kitchen, one in the bedroom. Plus ceiling fans.
  • Front porch sitting. Our back porch is an oven in the late afternoon, but the front porch gets the shade and the breeze at that time of day. I swear it can make a 10-degree difference.

What are your best tricks for getting through a heat wave?

invisible ghosts book cherries lemonade

My reading has slowed down a little as I adjust to a new rhythm (and fewer commutes). But I’ve still read some great books recently. Here’s the latest roundup:

Invisible Ghosts, Robyn Schneider
Rose Asher has gotten used to being invisible, spending most of her time watching Netflix with the ghost of her dead brother, Logan. But when her former neighbor Jamie moves back to town – and it turns out he can see Logan too – lots of things begin to change. A sweet, funny, moving YA novel about grief, love and moving on. A serendipitous find at the Harvard Book Store.

Virgil Wander, Leif Enger
I won an ARC of Enger’s new novel (out in October) from the publisher. (I loved his first novel, Peace Like a River.) This is a quiet story of some odd, likable, utterly human people living in a forgotten Minnesota town. The narrator/title character runs the nearly-defunct movie house. Full of lovely sentences and vivid details, like the intricate kites one character makes by hand. I didn’t love the ending but the rest of it was wonderful.

Death on the Menu, Lucy Burdette
I like Burdette’s cozy Key West mystery series, narrated by quirky, nosy food critic narrator Hayley Snow. This eighth entry involves a big catering event gone awry, Hemingway’s Nobel Prize medal, and (of course) murder. Fun and a bit zany, though some of the recurring plot threads are getting a little tired. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 7).

Love & Gelato, Jenna Evans Welch
Reeling from her mother’s death, Lina goes to Tuscany to spend the summer with the father she’s never met. Once there, she finds a journal her mother kept during her art-student days in Florence, which may hold clues to Lina’s own story. Sweet and romantic, if a little predictable. Made me crave gelato, of course. Recommended by my girl Allison.

The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane
I love Macfarlane’s keen-eyed, lyrical nonfiction about walking and wildness. This book traces his journeys through various wild places – forests, mountains, islands – in the British Isles. Luminous, thoughtful, keenly observed, like all his work.

My Years at the Gotham Book Mart, Matthew Tannenbaum
Matt owns and runs the wonderful Bookstore in Lenox, MA, which I recently (re)visited. This is his slim, rambling self-published memoir of working at the now-defunct Gotham Book Mart in NYC. I picked it up mostly because I love talking to him (and I got him to sign it). So fun.

Save the Date, Morgan Matson
Charlotte “Charlie” Grant’s big sister is getting married, which means Charlie’s whole family will be back together at their house for the first time in a while. But once the wedding weekend gets underway, everything starts to go wrong. A hilarious story of wedding disasters, and an insightful look at how even the people we love are more messy and complicated than we might expect. Matson’s YA novels are so much fun, and this one was no exception.

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

What are you reading?

mostly books interior abingdon uk bookshop

In my work for Shelf Awareness, I occasionally get to interview authors, and we always talk about good books: theirs, and usually others. But this conversation might have been the most bookish one yet. I was talking to James Mustich, co-founder of the book catalogue A Common Reader and the author of the wide-ranging, ambitious compendium 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die.

If that sounds daunting, let me reassure you: Mustich isn’t out to shame anybody for the books they “should” be reading. Instead, his book is an invitation to explore and discover. Here’s a bit of the extensive review I wrote for the Shelf:

Many avid readers have a “book bucket list”: that hefty classic they’ve always meant to tackle, that series they’ll get around to someday, that book their mother or husband or best friend loves that they’ve just never managed to try. But 1,000 books to read before you die? Sounds intimidating, to say the least.

Fear not. James Mustich, a longtime bookseller, voracious reader and a co-founder of the acclaimed book catalogue A Common Reader, has taken has taken on the task: he’s compiled a massive, eclectic, surprisingly accessible list of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. Organized alphabetically, it runs the gamut of taste and time: classic novels, myths and plays; beloved mysteries and children’s books; acclaimed contemporary fiction; seminal works of cultural criticism and much more. But it is not, as Mustich insists in his introduction, a canon or a prescriptive list.

Rather, it’s an invitation to explore. Begin at the beginning, the end, or anywhere you like. Flip through the entries; search for your favorites or for what might be missing. And–almost certainly–enjoy a few moments of serendipity along the way.

The best way to use this book is, in fact, to wander: flip through a section or two, go back and forth looking for something you thought you saw. Read the endnotes, skip a few entries or whole sections, only to find them again later. In short, “Read at whim!” as the poet Randall Jarrell entreated his readers. Mustich invokes Jarrell in his introduction, and it’s good advice: with a list this extensive, whimsy is not only enjoyable but absolutely necessary.

And here’s a bit from the Q&A:

How did you decide what to include in the compilation?

I did a lot of research, and I wrote about each book to the best of my ability. I want to share my enthusiasm about books people love, or books readers may know about but might not have taken the plunge into. I’ve been a bookseller for many years, so I’ve also had lots of conversations with book buyers. All of that mixed with some degree of literary style is built into the entries in the book. It’s not a canon or a prescriptive list, but more of an invitation: Here’s a big bookshelf of interesting things. Find something that interests you and pull it off.

Book lists are flourishing in our culture–from the Pulitzer winners to BuzzFeed listicles and every outlet in between. How do you expect people will react to this particular (long!) list?

I’ve spent 14 years writing this book, and I expect to spend the next 14 months traveling the country on book tour, having people tell me what I left out! But I’m excited about that. The book is meant to engage people’s passions. It’s an invitation to engage with your own shelves and start conversations around what books people should be reading. We can lose a lot of that in the book business, or in online bookselling, which is more transactional. But when you walk into a bookstore, you’re walking into this big conversation, and I wanted to capture some of that here.

How did you ever narrow down the list?

I thought of it in a couple of ways. One: we read the way we eat. One day we want a hot dog, and the next day we want to go to a fancy restaurant. Or sometimes both on the same day! And I also kept imagining: If I had a bookstore with a thousand books in it, and I wanted to have all the books I love, plus the usual suspects of classics and so on, plus something surprising for everyone who came in, how would I put that together? That kind of organized it for me.

Are there any books you love that you absolutely couldn’t squeeze in?

There’s a picture book called Burnt Toast on Davenport Street by Tim Egan. I was in Books of Wonder, a fantastic children’s bookstore in Manhattan, with my younger daughter, Iris, who was maybe three or four. She marched over to the shelf and said, “Daddy, I want this one.” We took it home, and I subsequently read it to her several hundred times. She made a great choice. And I couldn’t get that one in here. But that’s another book, where I’d like to write about those books that have been meaningful to me emotionally.

You can read the full review and interview at the Shelf Awareness website. If you’re looking for summer reading inspiration, this is a great place to start.

Such as I pray

trail sunset summer sky

So, how do you pray? he’d asked her once.

She’d thought about it a long moment. She always listened, always took his questions seriously. Say what you believe, she said. Say what you’re thankful for. Say what you love.

—Julia Spencer-Fleming, I Shall Not Want

I don’t find myself doing a lot of praying these days.

For a person raised, as I was, in the Southern Baptist church, where we toss around phrases like a little talk with Jesus and you can ask God anything and prayer is a conversation, this is (nearly) tantamount to heresy.

I don’t know when it began to slow down, exactly: maybe somewhere between the heart-cracking headlines (which are still getting worse all the time) and the many smaller, quieter griefs of the last few years. I’d never really understood about prayer, anyway, never quite been sure what it did, what it was supposed to do. I was tired of asking and pleading, hearing only silence.

So I slowed down, until I almost stopped altogether.

It’s not that I have stopped believing, exactly. I can’t quite seem to quit God, even when I think life might be easier or at least make a little more sense if I could.

I have, however, stopped believing in many of the platitudes I used to hear about prayer, because who really knows how it works, anyway? Like most conversations, it does not have a guaranteed outcome. Like most things we do, it is not formulaic. Like most of our attempts to be honest and faithful, it does not always make a lot of sense.

I have (mostly) stopped saying I’m praying for you to people, because sometimes it is a lie anyway, and I also (see above) have lots of questions about what that means. I have (mostly) stopped asking my friends and family to pray for me, though I know and appreciate that some of them do. I have more faith in their prayers, sometimes, than my own.

The irony here is that I still, most Sundays, lead the public prayer at our tiny church, taking requests from the handful of souls in the pews and offering them up to God or whoever is listening. I am perhaps not the best person to do this, at the moment, but it is my job and I love this community, so I get up, pen and bulletin in hand, and stand in front of these faces, familiar and unknown.

I usually begin with a line borrowed from my friend Amy, who can often be found in the front pew with her husband and twelve-year-old twins: we are so grateful for all that we have been given. I continue with a paraphrase of an old song I sang as a child: we know that you see and love the whole world.

And then, usually when my voice starts to crack under the strain of it all, I invite everyone to join me in the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t have to think of the words for this part, and the community’s voices often help carry mine. Depending on the week, certain lines can make me break into tears: on earth as it is in heaven. Forgive us our trespasses. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.

Such as I pray, then, it can look like that: coming together with my community to follow Clare Fergusson’s advice in the Spencer-Fleming quote above. We say what we believe, what we’re thankful for, what we love. And I suspect I have not stopped believing in prayer altogether, or those lines – from the Lord’s Prayer and elsewhere – would not move me the way they sometimes do.

Such as I pray outside of church, though, it looks different.

It can look like texting a friend who lost a loved one recently, or checking in on another friend who’s going through a lot. It can look like sharing joys with loved ones, via text or in person, because prayer isn’t only sadness and asking; it is praise, too, or at least it can be.

It can look like the tasks I do around the house that ground me: folding piles of laundry, standing at the kitchen sink washing stacks of dishes. Sometimes, as I stand there scrubbing and rinsing, I end up humming one of the hymns that have lived in my bones since I was a little girl.

Sometimes I pray one of Anne Lamott’s few essential prayers: help or thanks or simply wow. Often I run right out of words altogether. I don’t know when they will come back. But then I remember Clare’s simple, solid advice, and I think: I can usually find something I love.

I don’t know if prayer moves the world, or even tilts it forward. I don’t know much about it at all, these days. But maybe it, too, is a form of love.

Maybe that’s all it needs to be.

cafe con leche cafe hercules sevilla

One of my favorite parts of Spain, this time, was breakfast.

I am both a person who enjoys breakfast and a person who needs it: if I’m up and about for too long without eating anything, I start to wilt and then I crash. It’s not pretty.

Happily for me, the Spanish also love their breakfast. I had nearly the same thing every morning during our time in Spain: una tostada y café con leche.

In my regular life, I am adamantly not a coffee drinker: even my long-ago stint as a barista failed to convert me to coffee, though it did help establish my tea addiction. But I first tried café con leche on a long-ago midwinter weekend in Valencia, and loved it, to my own surprise. So this time, I took full advantage of the opportunity to enjoy it every morning.

tostada cafe hercules sevilla

The other element of breakfast in Spain is una tostada: toasted or grilled bread topped with crushed tomatoes and doused in olive oil. This, as my new friend Karen points out, is the traditional option, but many places offer variations on the theme: con queso, con mermelada, con jamón (cheese, marmalade or jam and sliced ham, respectively). My favorite variation: con aguacate (avocado).

That’s what you see above, at what quickly became my favorite cafe in Sevilla: Café Hércules. They offer several types of bread, then let you mix and match your own toppings. Plus the staff are friendly, the coffee is delicious, and the whole relaxed-funky-local vibe reminded me irresistibly of my beloved Darwin’s.

We tried several other breakfast spots in Sevilla, mostly thanks to Karen’s recs. She’s an American travel writer and blogger whom we met at a yoga class on our first morning there. After class, we all went for desayuno in the nearby plaza, and Karen told me about her blog. By a semi-coincidence, we ran into Karen and her husband, Rich, at Bar Alfalfa – another one of Karen’s faves – a few days later.

My other favorite part of eating out is the people-watching, and desayuno offers a perfect way to do that: sipping a café and munching a tostada in a neighborhood bar means you have a reason to be there and plenty of time to watch the locals come in and out. We always left caffeinated and fortified. And since we got home, we’ve been making our own tostadas on Saturday mornings while we watch the World Cup. A little taste of Spain.

More Spain photos and stories to come.