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Weekend in Nashville

nashville guitar postcard

In mid-February, the hubs and I hopped a plane to Nashville, in an attempt to escape the frozen winter weather that (still) has Boston locked in its icy grip. We must have taken it with us, because we had two nights of near-record lows and a wicked ice storm that delayed our flight home by a day. (The same thing happened to us in West Texas over New Year’s.)

We still had a great time, though – a weekend full of books, friends and good food. Three of my favorite things.

katie bethany coffee shop

My college roommate Bethany (above) lives in Nashville, and she and her husband, Chad, welcomed us with open arms. So did their German shepherd puppy, Luna. She’s adorable – all long legs and jackrabbit ears.

luna puppy

Upon arrival, we headed straight to Pharmacy Burger in East Nashville, for delicious burgers and sweet potato fries. We then drove to a place I’ve been wanting to see since it opened: Parnassus Books.

parnassus books nashville

Two friendly shop dogs, a kids’ section with glowing stars hanging from the ceiling, quirky greeting cards, friendly booksellers, and shelves and shelves of books. It was everything I dreamed. (I bought a lovely novel, Etta and Otto and Russell and James.)

parnassus cooking travel section bookstore

Since I frequently bemoan the lack of good Mexican food in Boston, it was a treat to have dinner that night at Las Maracas. Enchiladas smothered in spicy salsa verde, plus delicious chips and salsa. Yes, please.

The next day, we headed to Tenn Sixteen for brunch – chicken and waffles. I’ve been skeptical about the combination, but these were delicious.

chicken and waffles

After brunch, Bethany and I headed to Edgehill Cafe for tea with the lovely Leigh Kramer.

katie leigh cafe

Leigh and I have been Internet friends for a few years, and we’ve been talking about meeting up for ages. The three of us sipped tea and chatted happily for more than two hours. I only wish we’d had more time together.

Bethany and I caught up with the guys later at the Opryland Hotel. It’s a gorgeous building – but what really captured my attention was the (indoor) landscaping.

opryland hotel

Green plants! Ferns! Orchids! In the middle of winter! (I may be a tiny bit traumatized by all the snow and ice we’ve had in New England.)

For a Valentine’s Day double date that evening, we had crepes at the Red Bicycle in Madison. We were the only customers, and as we were finishing our savory crepes, the cooks brought out this creation:

valentine dessert crepe

Strawberries, chocolate and whipped cream. With hearts. Adorable. (And delicious.)

The next morning, after church and a lunch of Thai food, we headed to Barista Parlor (possibly the most hipster place I’ve ever set foot in).

Bethany had a gourmet hot chocolate flight:

bethany hot chocolate

And the guys amused themselves making hipster faces:

jer hipster face barista parlor

The highlight of the afternoon was seeing our friends Lawson and Lindsey, who drove over to meet us on super-short notice.

katie lawson

Lawson is an old friend from college days. We hadn’t seen each other in several years, but we slipped right back into easy conversation. It was the first time we’d met Lindsey (though we have lots of mutual friends), and she is lovely.

The freezing rain started on Sunday night, so we spent the rest of our trip hanging out at Bethany and Chad’s house. Eating pizza and pancakes and drinking lots of tea. Playing card games and guitar. Watching movies and playing with Luna. And, of course, talking to our hearts’ content.

Bethany and I used to share not only a house, but so much of our lives: friends and a church, a college and a workplace, in a way that’s not possible now. We have built our own lives in different cities, but I miss having her close by. So it was wonderful to step into her world for a few days. We were long overdue for some concentrated time together. And it was lovely.

Nashville, you’re all right. We’ll definitely be back.

memorial church interior

Nearly two weeks ago, I walked across campus through the snow to the Ash Wednesday service at Memorial Church. It was brief: a couple of readings, the litany of repentance, and a slow procession up to the front to have our foreheads smeared with ash.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” the minister said as he made the sign of the cross on my head. Then, softly, he added, “Glory be to God.”

We ended with a hymn I’d never heard before: “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days.” The title of this post comes from the end of the first verse: “Teach us with thee to mourn our sins, and close by thee to stay.”

I didn’t grow up observing Lent, but I’ve experimented with it on and off over the past decade, giving up chocolate or candy, or making an effort to add something in, like a reading or a practice of prayer. I decided this year, after eight feet of snow in three weeks, that giving anything (else) up would make me crazy. Getting through this winter, and reaching Easter, will be sacrifice and reward enough.

Since Ash Wednesday, that hymn has been playing in the back of my mind, its melody keeping me company, as the Magnificat did in December. Two lines have particularly struck me: the one quoted above, and this one at the end of the fourth verse: “Yea, evermore in life and death, Jesus, with us abide.”

Some years, for me, Lent has been about sacrifice: giving something up to see if I could, or because my church community was trying out this ancient but new-to-us practice. Some years, it has been about denial: wanting to skip over the whole dark season and rush forward to Easter and spring.

This year, I keep thinking about those two lines, and I have realized: this Lent, for me, is about abiding.

Lindsey noted last summer on her blog that marriage is about abiding, about remaining near. Several months later, she added that friendship is made of attention. I agree in both cases, and sometimes I also think this is the entire point of the spiritual life: to keep drawing near to God, to pay attention, to keep asking God to abide with us in our messy, walking-around lives.

My favorite hymns these days are the quiet ones, the ones that sidle up to God and ask him to draw near, because this world is dark and complicated and heavy and we can’t move through it on our own. There is a place for the unbridled joy of the praise songs I loved as a college student, but the phrases I keep returning to now are softer, gentler: Abide with me. Come, thou fount of every blessing. Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.

I still find Lent difficult: it is hard for me to look steadily at the darkness of this world, at least without flinching or wanting to run away. I’m already longing for Passion Week, where the darkness grows even darker for a while before the glory of Easter breaks in. I am ready to be there already, to step into the story of Jesus when I know the daylight is around the corner, when the pain and suffering will be worth it because they will finally make sense.

But we’re not there yet. We are here, in the middle of Lent, and the middle of winter (at least here in New England). We have four more weeks to Palm Sunday, five weeks until Easter, who knows how long until spring.

We are here. And it is our job to remain here, to live in this in-between place, and to keep praying the words of the hymn I’m growing to love: Yea, evermore, in life and death, Jesus, with us abide.

february vacation books

Between plane delays, crazy long commutes and cold, dark evenings, I’ve been reading a lot lately. (But then, when am I not?) Here’s what I’ve read (and loved) recently.

The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, Rob Thomas & Jennifer Graham
Veronica Mars is back in her hometown of Neptune, CA, and when a couple of coeds go missing over Spring Break, she’s on the case. Fast-paced, snarky and featuring all the characters I love.

All Fall Down, Ally Carter
Grace Blakely is convinced her mother was murdered, but no one believes her. When she returns to Embassy Row to live with her grandfather, the U.S. ambassador, she starts digging for answers and is shocked at what she finds. An engaging setup for Carter’s newest YA series, though I found Grace kind of bratty.

Queen of Hearts, Rhys Bowen
I love Bowen’s Royal Spyness mystery series following the adventures of Lady Georgiana Rannoch. This eighth entry sees Georgie sailing to America with her actress mother, where they get mixed up with wacky Hollywood types – and a murder. So much fun.

One Crazy Summer, Rita Williams-Garcia
I loved this story of Delphine and her sisters, who go to stay with their activist-poet mother in Oakland in the summer of 1968. They learn a lot about the Black Panthers, their family and each other. Gorgeously written. Recommended by Kari.

The Mapmaker’s Children, Sarah McCoy
I’d never given a thought to abolitionist John Brown’s family – but I loved this novel featuring his artist daughter, Sarah Brown, and her connection to Eden, a modern-day woman struggling with infertility. I liked Sarah’s story better than Eden’s, but both were compelling. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 5).

The Inimitable Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse
Bertie Wooster and his friends are in all kinds of trouble (again), romantic and otherwise. Fortunately, Jeeves is always around to save the day. Highly amusing.

Mrs. Tim Gets a Job, D.E. Stevenson
With Tim still in Egypt after WWII has ended, Mrs. Tim takes a job at a Scottish hotel. She deals with difficult guests, her trenchant (but kindhearted) employer and various small problems. Gentle and entertaining.

P.S. Be Eleven, Rita Williams-Garcia
This sequel to One Crazy Summer finds Delphine and her sisters back in Brooklyn and adjusting to all kinds of changes. But Delphine writes to her mother, Cecile, and receives wise (if sometimes cranky) letters back.

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, Simon Garfield
I love Garfield’s witty nonfiction about various topics, from letters to maps. This exploration of printing and fonts dragged a little, but was still informative and fun.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James, Emma Hooper
83-year-old Etta leaves her home in Saskatchewan, headed for Halifax and the water. Her husband Otto and their lifelong friend, Russell, are left behind, each with their memories. A poignant story of love, war, memory and walking. Reminiscent of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (which I also loved).

The War That Saved My Life, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Ada has lived her life in a one-room flat, hampered by a clubfoot and berated by her mother. But when the children of London are evacuated in 1940, Ada sneaks out to join them and discovers a whole new life. Moving, multilayered and so good. I read it in one night. Recommended by Shelley.

Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer, Heather Lende
As the obituary writer in her small Alaskan town, Heather Lende helps people reflect on their loved ones’ lives. This slim memoir shares anecdotes from Lende’s work and family life, sprinkled with plainspoken wisdom and threaded with a simple truth: find the good. Wise and witty. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 28).

First Frost, Sarah Addison Allen
The Waverley women always get a little restless before the first frost – but this year has them asking big questions about love, career and identity. A sweet story with a little bite, laced with Allen’s gentle magical realism.

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

What are you reading?

purple tulips

I’ve been talking about what’s saving my life a lot lately (because it’s the best way I know to get through this winter with a shred of my sanity intact). Today, I’m over at the Art House America blog, exploring how the act of naming those lifesavers can be a lifesaving act itself. Here’s an excerpt from my post:

This winter, I’m finding it worthwhile — even necessary — to name the things that are saving my life. Sometimes I scribble down a list in my journal (a gift from my sister last Christmas, and itself a lifesaver). Sometimes I take the time to write a blog post, with pictures of those purple tulips or a brave blue winter sky. Most often, I’m trading daily texts with my friend Laura, both of us doing our best to find and name the things that are saving our lives. The act of naming them often becomes a lifesaver, a welcome glimpse into the brighter side of this world. (Though sometimes — full disclosure — we also gripe about the things that are killing us. Sometimes venting can save my life, too.)

Join me at the AHA blog to read the rest. (And please, tell us what’s saving your life these days.)

harvard yard snow blue sky

It’s being awed and intimidated and a little bit thrilled. Me? They picked me?

It’s walking through hundreds of years’ worth of history between the subway station and my office. Which is in the basement. (We call it the “garden level,” but it’s still the basement.)

It’s dodging tour groups on my lunchtime walks through Harvard Yard, and becoming the de facto Harvard tour guide for everyone I know who visits Cambridge. It’s eavesdropping on those official tours, storing up bits of Harvard lore to share on my unofficial ones.

katie memorial church green coat harvard yard

It’s walking Harvard Square, gradually learning which buildings belong to which part of the university. It’s peeking into the secluded quads of the undergraduate houses, learning their names: Eliot, Lowell, Quincy. It’s walking by the music rooms at Adams House and catching a snippet of someone’s piano practice.

It’s going to Morning Prayers at Memorial Church on occasion, to the Harvard Art Museums on Thursdays, to occasional lectures and sporting events for free. It’s roaming the stacks in Widener Library, hardly daring to believe that the resources of this place are at my fingertips. (Sometimes I check out new and notable novels; sometimes it’s obscure English fiction or Veronica Mars DVDs.)

It’s hearing President Faust speak regularly, sometimes in conjunction with world-famous authors, politicians and other celebrities. It’s being amazed at the pomp and circumstance of Commencement. It’s meeting students from all over the world, who are grateful and excited and glad to be here.

widener library harvard convocation

It’s explaining, over and over again, how my job and my office and my school fit into the larger Harvard community. It’s loving the note of pride in my dad’s voice when he says, “My daughter works at Harvard.” (The farther away from Boston you are, the cooler it sounds.)

It’s finding a group of warmhearted, funny, brilliant colleagues to work with and love.

It’s a nine-to-five desk job: email, paperwork, phone calls, meetings. It’s projects and politics and deadlines. It is just like a lot of other universities, and it isn’t like anywhere else in the world.

lowell house tower

I have worked at Harvard for two years today. It is ancient and distinguished and beautiful, and it is also the backdrop for the dailiness of my working life. It’s where I make jokes with my colleagues and answer email and juggle lots of projects. It’s where I get frustrated and tired and overwhelmed, and also where I find joy and satisfaction, as I do my best to do good work.

Harvard Square has become my neighborhood: it has my bank and post office and farmers’ market, my flower shop and bookstores and favorite lunch spots. Sometimes, out and about on an errand, I run into someone I know, which makes this big, crowded city feel like a small town. And sometimes, on my evening walk to the subway, I see the uplit spires of Memorial Hall and Memorial Church, and my breath catches in my chest with gratitude.

after the war is over book coverOver a year ago, I read and reviewed Somewhere in France, Jennifer Robson’s debut novel, for Shelf Awareness. This fall, I did the same for her wonderful second novel, After the War is Over.

The book follows Oxford graduate Charlotte Brown as she resumes her career after World War I, working at a relief agency in Liverpool.

Struggling to find justice for those she helps, Charlotte begins writing impassioned letters to the local newspaper and lands a columnist gig. Meanwhile, she must face her own complicated feelings about the man she has loved for years.

Jen graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the book – and about Oxford, where she and I have both spent time. (The city appears briefly in After the War is Over.) And she’s giving away a signed copy of the book to one lucky reader.

Leave a comment below to enter, and I’ll pick a winner at random later this week.

Can you talk about the genesis of After the War is Over? (Readers of Somewhere in France will recognize Charlotte as a dear friend of Lilly, the main character of that book.)

When I first wrote Somewhere in France, I thought of it as a stand-alone book, but as I worked on later drafts, and the character of Charlotte became clearer, I knew she deserved a book of her own. I included a few details of her backstory, such as her childhood in Somerset and her studies at Oxford, but left myself enough room that I wouldn’t feel too hampered later on when it came time to write her book.

How did you decide what work Charlotte would be doing – i.e. helping the poor and those devastated by the war?

It’s only a small detail in Somewhere in France, but at one point Edward and Lilly talk about Charlotte and what she did after leaving work as Lilly’s governess. I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to send her to Liverpool and put her to work for Eleanor Rathbone, an actual Liverpool politician and social activist. I’m so glad I did, for Miss Rathbone is a personal hero of mine for her pioneering work as a feminist and social activist. As well, Charlotte’s devotion to her, and determination to live up to her mentor’s high standards, became one of the central themes of After the War is Over.

Have you been to the places described in the book – Liverpool, the seaside at Blackpool, etc.? (The chapter on Charlotte’s day out in Blackpool with her girlfriends is particularly vivid.)

I have, although admittedly it has been a few years since my most recent visit. I hope I’ve given my readers a sense of Liverpool and what a fascinating city it is. I did my best to inject points of local color so that people who have visited will recognize a few of the landmarks – I have fond memories of visiting the Phil (the ornate pub where Charlotte and John Ellis have dinner) more than twenty years ago, and was happy to discover, while researching its history, that it has scarcely changed in the past hundred years!

Blackpool is an especially interesting place. Of course its heyday was the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it’s still a very popular destination in spite of competition from overseas holidays and other British resorts. I wasn’t brave enough to swim in the ocean when I visited – even in the summer the water is pretty cold – but I did walk along the seaside and eat some of their local “Blackpool rock” candy. I wasn’t able to overcome my fear of heights, unlike Charlotte, and so didn’t go to the top of the Tower!

I know you’ve spent some time in Oxford – can you talk a bit about your time there?

I lived in Oxford from 1992-95, when I was working on my doctorate in history. I was a student of Saint Antony’s College, which didn’t actually exist when Charlotte was there – it was founded in the 1950s – but my thesis supervisor was at Merton College, and I walked past Somerville every time I went to the Bodleian Library. In fact, Charlotte’s walk through town, when she leaves a note for Edward at Merton, is the exact same route I would take when I went to see my supervisor. I should add that the porters at Merton are perfectly friendly and helpful, despite my portrayal of their very grumpy forebear in my book!

How did you decide to weave Oxford into this book?

When I set out to write After the War is Over, I desperately wanted to begin the book in Oxford in 1907, when Charlotte and Edward are both students there. My editor convinced me, however, that the narrative had to begin no earlier than 1919, which is the point at which Somewhere in France ends. Of course she was right – she’s always right! – but I got around that stricture by weaving a few flashbacks into the action. Naturally one of them had to be set in Oxford, since I’d already done the research for that portion of the book!

Charlotte faces many struggles, personal and professional, in After the War is Over – what would you say is her central or most important challenge?

I think the central struggle for Charlotte is her need to believe that she is worthy. If you’ve already read the book, you’ll know why – I don’t want to give anything away – so I’ll simply say that she feels compelled to be the best possible person she can be and to spend her life in the pursuit of goodness, and while these are laudable aims, they do have the effect of making her quite miserable and lonely at times. Compounding all of this is the very real poverty, privation and misery that surround her at work, and you can see how her search for happiness is a very difficult one at times.

And finally – any plans for your next book that you can share?

I can – happily! Book Three (we’re still trying to decide on a title) is set mainly in Paris in 1924 and early 1925. Its heroine is Lady Helena, Edward’s former fiancée, who has come to France for a year to study art. While she is there she moves on the fringe of the circle we know of now as the Lost Generation – the great writers, poets, musicians, artists and dancers who flocked to Paris after the war – and she becomes friends with many of them. As for a romantic interest? You’ll be happy to know he’s an American, a newspaperman, and (like Helena) a bit of a lost soul. Assuming I manage to turn in my first draft on time, it will be hitting the shelves in early January 2016.

Thanks, Jen!

Leave a comment below (with your email address) to enter the giveaway. I’ll pick a winner later this week.

Winter list update

purple tulips

Last month, I posted a list of fun ideas to get me through the winter. We’ve had plenty of snow (so much snow) and frigid temps, but I’ve been working on the list anyway. Here’s an update:

  • Fill up the journal I started in early January.* Working on it (though my handwriting is truly atrocious these days).
  • Spend some time at the Harvard Art Museums. I’m going over there once a week, and exploring a new gallery each time.
  • Start hunting for a new pair of red ballet flats.
  • Invite friends over for dinner. We’ve hosted three sets of friends for spinach enchiladas and spicy chicken soup.
  • Spend a long weekend in Nashville with my college roommate and our husbands. We had a fabulous time, though bad weather delayed our flight home.
  • Knit myself something cozy. (I finished that cabled wrap.)
  • Watch some good stories. J and I finished Veronica Mars and are loving Grantchester, and I’m still watching Downton solo. (Also Castle, but I have to admit I am not loving this season.)
  • Read a couple of books for the Modern Mrs Darcy Reading Challenge. I’ve crossed off four categories already: a book I’ve been meaning to read (Beauty: The Invisible Embrace), a book published this year (the newest Flavia de Luce mystery), a book from my childhood (The Long Winter), and a book by a favorite author (Wearing God by Lauren Winner).
  • Drink lots and lots of tea. No sweat. I am on a serious Earl Grey kick.

Things that were not on my list but are happening anyway: lots of snow shoveling; many batches of Molly’s scones; several snow days; all the tulips; and fervent prayers for spring.

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