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The books (and the rest of life) are coming thick and fast this month, friends. (Photo from the wonderful Dogtown Books in Gloucester.)

Here’s what I have been reading:

Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Ferocious Courage and Rule-Breaking Kindness That Can Heal the World, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis
Lewis is a minister and speaker dedicated to ubuntu – the Zulu concept of interdependence, humanity and compassion. She shares her own experience as a Black woman and a minister, and calls repeatedly for her readers to pursue both joy and justice. The parts about her own story resonated with me the most. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 9).

Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story: Remaking a Life from Scratch, Erin French
Annie recommended this memoir about food and love and mistakes and finding one’s way to a calling. I read it in two days – French’s writing is compelling, with lots of gorgeous food descriptions and some hard, honest reflection on her family and herself. Lovely.

The Parker Inheritance, Varian Johnson
I loved Johnson’s YA novel The Great Greene Heist. This (much more serious) middle-grade story follows two Black kids in a small Southern town who stumble on a mystery. What they dig up deals with sports, pervasive racism, an heirloom bracelet and a former tennis coach and his family who got run out of town decades ago. Compelling, though a bit confusing at times.

Castle Shade, Laurie R. King
Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes find themselves in the depths of Roumania, investigating rumors of vampires (as one does). I loved this 17th installment in the series; it deals with village secrets, the effects of war and the challenge (for Russell and Holmes) of being married to a prickly, independent person. So fun.

Merci Suarez Changes Gears, Meg Medina
Sixth grade is no joke for Merci Suarez – homework is getting tougher, the school’s queen bee has it out for her, and she can’t play soccer this year. Her beloved Lolo is also acting strange lately. I loved this warm, funny, thoughtful middle-grade novel about family and change and growing up.

Life is Like a Musical: How to Live, Love, and Lead Like a Star, Tim Federle
Former dancer and current writer/screenwriter Federle shares the wisdom he’s gained from a life in the theater. These bite-size essays are full of fun anecdotes and musical references, and basically boil down to: work hard, be a good person and celebrate when you can. Lots of fun.

The Defiant Middle: How Women Claim Life’s In-Betweens to Remake the World, Kaya Oakes
Women often find themselves caught between conflicting expectations and even more complicated realities. Journalist Oakes examines the lives of women of faith – mostly women from the Bible, and saints – to make the point that feminine identity has always been transgressive and complicated. Thought-provoking– the chapters on “Barren” and “Alone” struck me especially. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 30).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

this is thirty-eight

I’m 38 today. And as I have said several times in the last week – to a friend who was joking about being “forever 29,” to another friend’s daughter who started to ask me how old I was and then hesitated, to my partner on the phone one night – I am proud to be 38. If you ask me how old I am, I will tell you. No dissembling, no hesitating. It may not always be that way, but it is that way today.

I have earned every one of these years: every gray hair, every smile line, every scar both visible and invisible. I have especially earned the last three years, which have included (among other things) my divorce, some serious church trauma, a move, two job changes, a new (wonderful) relationship, and a pandemic.

Since my this is thirty-five post, I have navigated challenges I could never have imagined. I have spent most of a year in my apartment by myself (or running through my beloved East Boston neighborhood). I have dealt with furloughs and layoffs and career/identity angst. I have chosen to blow up my life (read: leaving my marriage) and start again, and I have also dealt with changes I did not choose, repeatedly. I have held so much loss, and also so much love. I have not solved nearly everything, and I am still trying to let go of the idea that “solving” anything (except the New York Times crossword) is the goal.

Thirty-eight might be middle-aged, or close to it – but as Nora McInerny pointed out recently, middle age is the goal. Growing old is the goal. I want many more delicious years on this beautiful earth, and I want to live them as fully and bravely as possible. I want to care less (much less) about what people think, and more about creating joy and loving my people fiercely, and becoming a stronger writer, runner and human. (And I’d like to do some more international travel, too, once that feels like a good idea again.)

Thirty-eight looks like morning tea in one of my several favorite mugs, scribbling in my journal before heading out on a run. Thirty-eight is still adjusting to life at ZUMIX, dealing with the constant questions and uncertainty that come with any work (but especially youth-centered work) during a pandemic. Thirty-eight is yoga classes on some evenings and walks with my guy on others, regular text exchanges with a few close girlfriends and weekly phone calls with my parents. Thirty-eight has made New England her home for more than a decade, but is still and always a Texan.

Thirty-eight is still grieving the end of a marriage and an imagined future, and also reveling in the deep love I have found with a man I never expected. Thirty-eight is on a serious nineties country music kick and mixes in some Broadway tunes and folk music on the regular. Thirty-eight is learning to hold so many tensions, to accept and acknowledge that life is often both-and, to name the fear and worry and other hard emotions and then keep going through them. Thirty-eight snaps pictures of flowers every day, reads five or six books at once, eats a ton of granola and Greek yogurt and occasionally cooks real meals for one.

The upheavals of the last few years have made it challenging to plan, or even dream; so many of my former ideas about my life have been completely wiped away. But thirty-eight is starting to dream again.

I blinked and the first week and a half of September sped by. In between working and running, here’s what I have been reading:

Really Truly, Heather Vogel Frederick
Truly Lovejoy’s third adventure finds her going to mermaid academy on Cape Cod, trying to solve a couple of mysteries and dealing with boy-related feelings. I love this cozy series set in small-town New Hampshire; Truly is a great character and I love her big, warm, crazy family.

The Only Black Girls in Town, Brandy Colbert
Seventh-grader and avid surfer Alberta is thrilled when Edie and her mom move in across the street – their small California town is extremely white. The girls become friends, navigate tricky middle school social politics and discover a mystery surrounding a box of old journals in the attic. I loved this warm, thoughtful middle-grade novel.

The Lord God Made Them All, James Herriot
Since watching the All Creatures TV series this winter, I’ve been savoring Herriot’s books again. (Season 2 is coming soon!) This fourth volume continues the stories of his work and family life in Yorkshire, as well as some travel he did as a ship’s vet. Warm and funny and so soothing.

Instructions for Dancing, Nicola Yoon
Evie doesn’t believe in love anymore – not since her dad cheated on her mom and moved out. But then two things happen: she starts seeing visions of how other people’s relationships begin and end, and she meets a boy named X at a ballroom dance studio. A fun, engaging YA novel – I wanted more dance and I didn’t love one of the plot twists, but overall really well done.

The Last Winter: The Scientists, Adventurers, Journeymen, and Mavericks Trying to Save the World, Porter Fox
Avid skier and climatology journalist Fox is worried about the end of winter – and he set out to interview the folks who are measuring, researching and trying to prevent it. A fascinating (though at times dense) travelogue/climate study/memoir about the world’s frozen places and the threat of climate change. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 2).

A Kind of Paradise, Amy Rebecca Tan
Jamie Bunn made a big mistake right as seventh grade ended, so she’s stuck volunteering at the library all summer. But the longer she’s there, the more she comes to love the place – and she learns a few things about moving on from your low moments. A warm, engaging middle-grade story and a love letter to libraries.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

We are, somehow, at the end of August: poised on the edge of a new season, none of us quite sure what’s next. As we head into September, here’s what I have been reading:

Swimming to the Top of the Tide, Patricia Hanlon
I found this lovely memoir at Trident and dove in headfirst (ha). Hanlon and her husband frequently swim the creeks and salt marsh near their home north of Boston. She writes with a painter’s eye about color and seasons, and with concern about climate change. Lyrical and lovely.

Luck of the Titanic, Stacey Lee
Valora Luck has dreams of an acrobatic career with her twin brother, Jamie. But when she tries to board the Titanic, she learns Chinese people aren’t allowed in America. So Val stows away and tries to figure out a new plan. A fast-paced, compelling YA story inspired by real Chinese people on board the doomed ship.

The Guncle, Steven Rowley
Semi-retired actor Patrick loves being the fun “guncle” to his niece and nephew – occasionally. But when they come to spend the summer with him after losing their mother, it’s an adjustment for everyone. Took me a bit to get into this novel, but I ended up loving this funny, unusual family story. Recommended by Annie.

The Lost Spells, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris
I love everything Macfarlane writes and adored this pocket-size, gorgeously illustrated book of acrostic “spells” about birds and beasts and flowers and trees. Utterly lovely.

A Match Made for Murder, Iona Whishaw
On their honeymoon in Arizona, Lane Winslow and Inspector Darling stumble onto a murder case – and some complications involving an old colleague of Darling’s. Meanwhile, back in King’s Cove, Sergeant Ames and his new constable are dealing with vandalism and murder. A wonderful installment in this great series. (I received a free copy from the publisher.)

On Juneteenth, Annette Gordon-Reed
I remember learning about Juneteenth as a child (like Gordon-Reed, I grew up in Texas), but it’s gotten national attention recently. These essays blend memoir with history about Texas independence and statehood, Black people in Texas and the Juneteenth holiday itself. Fascinating and so readable – I learned a lot.

The Shape of Thunder, Jasmine Warga
Cora and Quinn, former best friends, haven’t spoken in a year since a tragedy divided them. But then Quinn leaves Cora a birthday present that starts the girls on a journey toward time travel. A powerful, often heartbreaking book about grief and friendship, race and adolescence. Really well done.

Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us, ed. Colleen Kinder
We all have them: those brief encounters with strangers that echo throughout our lives. Kinder, cofounder of Off Assignment magazine, collects 65 essays exploring that topic in this book. A lovely, often poignant, kaleidoscopic collection. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 5).

Roll with It, Jamie Sumner
Ellie Cowan dreams of being a professional baker – but her problems (like being the kid in a wheelchair) are more immediate. When Ellie and her mom move to Oklahoma to help out her grandparents, Ellie finds some unexpected friends – and new challenges. A sweet, funny middle-grade novel that gets real about disability and prejudice.

Wholehearted Faith, Rachel Held Evans with Jeff Chu
Rachel (whom some of you may remember) was a passionate thinker, writer and speaker who wrestled mightily with faith, and insisted on God’s big, deep, ungraspable love. This, her last posthumous book for adults, is a collection of her writings on faith, doubt and Christian community. Jeff Chu did a masterful job of weaving her words together, and I loved the epilogue by Nadia Bolz-Weber. There’s some familiar and some new material, but it all sounds like Rachel. Warm, thoughtful and honest, just like her. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 2).

A Rogue’s Company, Allison Montclair
After solving a murder, the Right Sort Marriage Bureau is getting back on its feet. But the arrival of a new African client and the return of Gwen’s tyrannical father-in-law from his travels spell trouble for Gwen and the bureau. An adventurous, witty installment in a really fun mystery series.

Eighty Days to Elsewhere, kc dyer
Travel-shy Romy Keene loves working at her uncles’ East Village bookstore. But when a new landlord threatens the shop, she takes off on a round-the-world adventure (trying to score a lucrative new job). The problem? The landlord’s nephew is her main competitor for the job – and he’s really cute. I found this one on the sale table at Trident and flew through it – so much fun, with some insights about travel and privilege.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

It’s no secret I love a solo trip to NYC. Some of my favorite memories of the Big Apple are from weekends spent wandering the streets by myself. My last trip there, though, was kind of a failure: it was January 2020, just days after my divorce court date. I thought I wanted an adventure to look forward to, but once I was there, all I wanted was to be back home. I came back early and didn’t regret it, but I’ve been wanting to revisit NYC alone (and basically unable to do so) ever since.

I hopped down to NYC a few weekends ago for my shortest trip to date: I was there for just over 24 hours, and it was a hot, humid whirlwind. But I loved wandering my favorite tangle of streets in the West Village, browsing bookstores and drinking my weight in iced tea. Here, a few highlights:

My beloved Three Lives & Co. is in a temporary space due to renovation, but I made sure to walk down West 10th to visit their new digs. I had a long browse and a lovely conversation with Nora, one of the booksellers, and bought a fabulous compendium of essays about Manhattan.

I headed straight for Bryant Park (see above) when I arrived, for lunch and a lemonade. But once I made my way to the Jane, where I stayed, I stuck to Chelsea and the Village all weekend.

I walked and walked – to Pink Olive, to Chelsea Market (above), to various shops that looked intriguing. I popped into cafes for iced tea and took photos of flowers and street art. And I had dinner at Roey’s (the most fantastic burrata pizza), and sat outside on one of my favorite corners in the city, sipping a gin cocktail and scribbling in my journal until nearly closing time.

Sunday morning meant a long run through the Hudson River Park (the High Line wasn’t open yet, but I loved discovering a new-to-me running route). Then I had a fantastic sandwich (with iced chai) at Three Owls Market, and wandered up to 192 Books, where I’d never been.

I grabbed some snacks for the train, walked around some more, and headed back to Penn Station to catch my train home. I was exhausted and delighted, and so glad I went. The city is waking back up, and it felt like mine again.

Last Saturday, I took my bike down to Franklin Park for the Ride for Black Lives. Since last summer, a group of us have been meeting there for monthly protest rides through the streets of Boston. The rides began in the wake of George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s deaths, and they have continued (with a winter hiatus) as the racial conversations in this country have shifted, quieted and occasionally flared up again.

This month’s ride drew a much smaller crowd: a few dozen instead of the several hundred we often had last summer. It was a hot day, and there were several other events happening at the same time; people are also taking vacations while they can. More worryingly, it seems some folks have simply moved on from wanting to talk or hear (or ride) about racial justice. (Though I know showing up to an event is far from the only way to participate.)

I often wonder if what we’re doing matters: if a bike ride (or five) will make any difference in the struggle for racial equality. For me personally, it’s often important and moving to show up and hear Black people share their experiences, but these rides are absolutely not about me. My partner is on the organizing committee, so of course I show up for him, too. But sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it. If what we do matters at all.

Last week, our speakers were several young people who have worked with Bikes Not Bombs, which (among other things) trains young people in bike mechanics and leadership skills. I was astounded by their bravery in sharing with us, and their vulnerability in admitting how hard life can be when you’re a Black teenager. Their stories (and one poem) reminded me: we are riding because their lives, and other Black lives, matter.

One of the speakers talked about his experience in mostly white schools, how there are so many spaces where he doesn’t feel he can be himself. Another one said simply that his experience is probably “typical” for a Black teenager, and listed a few of the slights he’s received. And another read a poem called “Can You Hear Me?”, a river of spoken word urging us – the adults in the room – to listen to the teenagers we often overlook.

We ride – I was reminded – for them. For the students who spoke and the students we serve at ZUMIX, where I work, and my partner’s son, who leaves for college this week. We ride, and continue the conversation, so that these young people can be their full selves in a country that is theirs as much as it is mine. We are thinking about how to expand our work, starting with a backpack and school supply drive. (We would love your support, if you’re able.) We keep showing up because no matter what the headlines say, it is unjustly hard to be a Black person in this country, and that should change.

I have more of a personal stake in this than ever before: loving a Black man makes a difference, even when you already believe in justice and equality in the abstract. I am proud to stand beside my guy and the others who make these rides happen. I am humbled and honored to fight alongside them. And I – we – will keep doing the work. Which includes, but is in no way limited to, these rides.

My guy and I love Salem, that famously witchy town a bit north of Boston. We spent a few weekends there in 2019, but hadn’t been back since March 2020, for the obvious pandemic and life reasons. But a couple of weeks ago, we decided to just go for the day – hopping on the commuter rail in the morning and coming back in time for dinner. It was, in a word, fabulous.

We started the day with iced chai and treats from Caffe Ducali (see above) and then hopped on the train. When we arrived, we did some browsing of favorites old and new: the bike shop, the comic-book shop, the fabulous consignment shop Re-find (where I always find the best stuff). We ran into an old friend of G’s and chatted a minute, then headed down the street for hot dogs. I almost never eat hot dogs unless I’m at a ballpark, but I made an exception for these:

Thus fortified, we wandered some more (stopping at Front Street Coffee for iced tea – it was hot!), then headed out on a bike ride. I love exploring new parts of familiar places with G, and we adore a good long bike ride. We ended up at Winter Island, which has campgrounds, a beach and ocean views.

We rode back to town and headed to Far From the Tree, Salem’s wonderful local cider house, for some sampling (G) and an old favorite (me). We have a cider-focused Instagram account these days, and it’s so fun to taste different ciders and compare notes.

After a ride back on the commuter rail, we ended the day where we began it: at Ducali for a delicious dinner. It was so lovely to revisit one of our favorite towns together. I want to go back (again).

Continuing the theme of collective experiences: I have sorely missed live music during the pandemic. I wasn’t ready to go back to Newport or another festival this year (though I thought about it), but I’ve been spending a few Sunday nights soaking in live music closer to home.

ZUMIX, my new employer, is a nonprofit that offers free and low-cost music lessons, ensembles and other creative opportunities for young people. We also put on a number of community events, including a summer concert series in Piers Park, down the hill from my house. I loved going to these concerts when I moved to Eastie in 2019, and then they were cancelled last summer (like everything). So it’s been a real joy to be back.

Everyone brings lawn chairs and picnic blankets and snacks; the kids run around blowing bubbles and dancing and generally having fun. Several of our ZUMIX students run the sound board, and others provide the opening acts for our local headliners. It’s a fun neighborhood outing and a great way to (finally) be back together in person.

We’ve got a few more concerts left this month and I’m crossing my fingers for good weather – and more chances to wave at (and maybe dance with) my neighbors.

We’re sweating in a heat wave over here – and nearly halfway through August. I’m finally getting a little reading (and reviewing) mojo back. Here’s what I have been reading:

Finlay Donovan Is Killing It, Elle Cosimano
Annie recommended this one as “an absolute blast” and she was right. Struggling author and recently divorced mom Finlay Donovan is meeting with her agent when a woman mishears their conversation and assumes Finlay is a contract killer. Suddenly Finn and her nanny (Vero, whom I adored) are scrambling to stay ahead of the mob while tangled in a murder investigation. I loved this smart, zany romp and can’t wait for the sequel.

Fearless, Mandy Gonzalez
Monica and her abuelita have come all the way to NYC for Monica’s big shot at a Broadway show. But the Ethel Merman Theatre might be cursed – and it’s up to Monica and her new castmates to save their show. A cute middle-grade theater story from one of the stars of Hamilton and In the Heights.

Goldenrod: Poems, Maggie Smith
It’s no secret I am a Maggie Smith fan: her tweets and her book Keep Moving have helped save my life this past year. Her newest poetry collection is full of startling images and hard-won wisdom and flashes of beauty. Some poems spoke to me more than others.

No Memes of Escape, Olivia Blacke
Odessa Dean is loving her life in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But then her traveling aunt comes home early, and Odessa and her friend Izzy are (almost) witnesses to a murder in an escape room. I enjoyed Odessa’s second adventure (the sequel to Killer Content); she’s a quirky, fun amateur sleuth. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 5).

Hooked: How Crafting Saved My Life, Sutton Foster
This fun memoir is exactly what it sounds like: an exploration of Foster’s life and career through the lens of crafting. She shares her adventures in crochet, collage and cooking, alongside anecdotes from her time on Broadway and TV, her love life, her journey to motherhood and her complicated relationship with her agoraphobic mother. Breezy and enjoyable. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 12).

The Year of the End, Anne Theroux
In January 1990, Anne Theroux and her husband Paul decided to separate. Anne kept a diary that year, and in this memoir, she revisits what was really happening behind and around those brief entries. A thoughtful, poignant exploration of divorce and rebuilding a new life; also a detailed snapshot of a moment in time. Quiet and moving. I received an advance copy; it’s out Oct. 12.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

One of the things I’ve missed during this pandemic year is collective experiences: the chance to be among a group of people, enjoying the same thing at the same time (and not through a screen). I particularly missed live theatre, so I was thrilled that Shakespeare on the Common is back this year.

My guy and I made a midweek date to see The Tempest – which we had both read in high school, but not really interacted with since then. I met him after work and we picked up a feast from BarTaco, which does delicious tacos and salsa with flavor and heat.

We arrived early and snagged a good spot with a view of the stage – though I’d definitely bring or rent chairs next time, as the ground gets hard after a while. But it was a perfect, clear evening, and we settled in to watch the cast (including John Douglas Thompson, whom I remembered seeing in Carousel on Broadway a few years back).

Both the men who taught me Shakespeare – Mr. Walker in high school and Dr. Wade in college – used to insist, I think rightly, that his plays are meant to be watched, not read. The story has so much more power (and the jokes are so much funnier) when you’re watching it unfold in real time. I had forgotten, or perhaps never realized, how much of The Tempest is about power: who has it, who ought to have it, what it means to have (or choose to give up) authority over another person, or to assert your own.

Of course there’s the love at first sight between Ferdinand and Miranda, and Prospero’s schemes to ostensibly keep them apart. There’s the bumbling pair of jokers from the shipwrecked crew, and their plot to overthrow Prospero (not very well planned). And there are Ariel and Caliban – who are treated very differently by Prospero, but are ultimately bound to him until he sets them free.

We laughed and clapped and marveled at the cast’s artistry, and savored being together. An entirely joyous experience, and a wonderful return to live theater.