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And just like that, it’s October – the asters are out, the nights are drawing in and we’re nine days away from our big fundraising gala at work. Here’s what I have been reading, to cap off September:

The Littlest Library, Poppy Alexander
After her beloved Mimi dies, Jess Metcalfe moves to a tiny country cottage on a whim. When she creates a little library out of the red phone box near her cottage, Jess finds herself becoming part of the community – but can she stay there? A sweet British rom-com – I found the ending a bit disappointing, but it was still fun.

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, Aimee Nezhukumatathil
I loved these vivid essays about various “wonders” – trees, insects and other creatures – mixed with the author’s personal experiences. Nezhukumatathil is a poet, and you can see it in her language. Beautiful, thoughtful and often unexpected.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid
Everyone from my sister to my book-blogging friends recommended this novel about a reclusive Hollywood star who finally decides to tell her life story to an up-and-coming reporter. I blew through it in an evening – Hollywood glamour, compelling storytelling, some well-drawn characters – though it ultimately made me really sad. Marriage was always a calculation for Evelyn, and her decisions ended up hurting a lot of the people she loved. Still a fascinating story.

The No-Show, Beth O’Leary
Three different women are stood up by the same man on Valentine’s Day – what’s going on? Is he a cad, or is there more to the story? O’Leary’s fourth rom-com follows Miranda, Siobhan and Jane as they deal with the implications of his actions. Really fun and clever; I liked this one a lot better than The Road Trip, but not as much as The Switch.

The Gilded Girl, Alyssa Colman
When Emma Harris comes to Miss Posterity’s school of magic, she finds it challenging, but things are going okay – until her father dies and she’s forced to work as a servant. With the help of Izzy, a servant girl with magic of her own, Emma searches for ways to keep learning magic. This had a fun premise but was just okay; very much inspired by A Little Princess. I loved Tom, the newsie who befriends the girls. Found at Phoenix Books in Burlington, VT, this summer.

Animal Life, Audur Ava Olafsdottir
As a historic storm approaches Iceland at Christmastime, Domhildur reflects on her own midwifery career and that of her great-aunt, who left behind a series of manuscripts musing on coincidences, birth, humankind and light. This slim novel was both odd and oddly charming; I couldn’t quite make sense of it, but enjoyed the journey. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 6).

The Wind at My Back: Resilience, Grace, and Other Gifts from My Mentor, Raven Wilkinson, Misty Copeland
I enjoyed Copeland’s first memoir, Life in Motion, and have the greatest admiration for her work. This book pays tribute to Raven Wilkinson, a trailblazing Black ballerina who mentored Copeland for several years. Copeland charts her own growth and struggles alongside stories of Raven’s career, and calls out the enduring racism in the ballet world. Thoughtful, vivid and warm. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 15).

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

What are you reading?

Friends! It’s finally happening! After talking and thinking about it for months, I’m launching a newsletter – a slightly quieter place to share words and connection, plus links to what I’ve been reading (books and otherwise), daily joys, and perhaps a recipe or two.

Many of my favorite authors, from Mary Oliver to E.B. White to Lauren Winner, talk often about the practice of paying attention. I love the idea of being “a good noticer” – a phrase I first picked up from The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle as a child – and my newsletter will focus each month on what I’ve been noticing lately. I’ll also share links to things I’ve been reading and listening to, ideally words and music that help me pay attention, get closer to the heart of what my friend Micha Boyett calls The Really Real. 

You can sign up here to receive the first issue – coming soon! I hope you’ll join me.

Whew – September has been a ride. I turned 39, hosted my parents for a few days, drove to Amherst with a girlfriend and had a few other adventures. In the midst of all that, here’s what I have been reading:

The Midnight Orchestra, Jessica Khoury
Amelia Jones is finally settling in at Mystwick School for Magic. But then her school enters a high-stakes competition, and the pressure’s on Amelia to compose a fabulous spell. This second Mystwick novel goes much deeper into the world-building, Amelia’s complicated family history and her friendships with other students. Twisty, musical and lots of fun.

Marmee, Sarah Miller
I loved Miller’s previous novel, Caroline, which focuses on Ma from the Little House books. This one is a first-person narrative of Marmee March from my beloved Little Women. We follow the March family through war, illness, Mr. March’s absence, a couple of weddings and lots of everyday life. Margaret (Marmee) is a wonderful narrator, and I loved how Miller hits these familiar beats from a new angle. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 25).

Nora Goes Off Script, Annabel Monaghan
Screenwriter Nora Hamilton has just sold a movie that could be her big break – though it’s about her husband leaving. When movie star Leo Vance, who plays Nora’s ex in the movie, begs her to let him stay on after filming, she reluctantly relents, and falls in love. But then Leo disappears, and Nora (plus her kids) must deal with the fallout. A witty, warmhearted, fun novel about love, family and second chances.

The Perfumist of Paris, Alka Joshi
Radha spent her childhood following her older sister Lakshmi around Jaipur, mixing henna for Lakshmi’s clients and – eventually – getting tangled up with a rich, careless boy. Now, she’s a grown woman and a budding perfumer in Paris, married with two children. A big assignment at work coincides with some long-held family secrets bubbling up. I loved this third installment in Joshi’s series that began with The Henna Artist: lushly described, with compelling characters (I loved the aging courtesans!) and lots of questions about work and womanhood. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 2023).

Last Call at the Nightingale, Katharine Schellman
Vivian Kelly spends her days stitching dresses for the rich, and her nights dancing and drinking at the Nightingale. But when a man ends up dead in the alley out back, the club’s owner asks Vivian to sniff around for information. I like Schellman’s Regency-era Lily Adler series, and really enjoyed this start to a new series – Jazz Age NYC, complicated sisterly bonds, interracial friendships, an interesting love triangle.

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

What are you reading?

Reclaiming Julia

Julia Roberts. Julia Child. Julia Cameron. A writer friend with whom I’ve recently reconnected. My yoga instructor, for a few months on Saturday mornings. And the name of my ex-husband’s new partner – indeed, the only name I knew her by, for a long time.

It’s not an uncommon name, Julia – especially here in the U.S., over the past century or so. I can think of other actresses (Stiles, Ormond, Louis-Dreyfus) and I’m sure I’ve met other women with that name, over the course of my life. For months after my marriage fell apart, the name hit me in the chest every time I heard it, whether or not it was referring to the woman whose last name I still didn’t know. (I didn’t ask for a lot of details; I figured – still figure – that for me it’s better not to know too much.)

I wondered, at the time: will I hate this name for the rest of my life? Would it make my heart clench every time I heard it? The name Julie, so similar but different, inspires nothing but warm feelings in me: since high school I’ve had at least one friend named Julie, women of courage and grace and great kindness, one or two of whom are still in my life. But I knew I didn’t want to recoil from every person I met named Julia. It’s a small detail of divorce I didn’t expect, this quiet reckoning with and reclaiming of a name that took something from me.

The reclaiming has been gradual, and it’s still in progress: it began with those Saturday morning yoga classes, a dark-haired nurse named Julia standing at the front desk, greeting all of us with a smile, learning my name. She moved to Florida a month or two ago, and I never told her – couldn’t figure out how to tell her – about this role she played in my life. In addition to sun salutations and child’s poses and deep warrior lunges, she brought a pleasant association with a name that had brought me sadness and grief.

Julia is also the name of a childhood friend’s daughter. Born a preemie, she’s now preschool age, spunky and slight, always on the go, if her mom’s Facebook photos are any indication. I haven’t met this wee Julia in person yet, but she and her brothers light up my feed when they appear, as does the joy of their parents and grandparents. We were all once afraid she might not make it this far, and now I think her folks worry more about keeping up – a joyous problem to have.

There’s no neat and tidy conclusion to this process, no total redemption (at least not yet) of this name and its difficult part in my story. But I’m learning to layer the good memories on top of the hard ones, not to hide them but to remind myself it all exists; it all belongs. These women I know, or have met, or whose work has influenced me, are part of the story of that name in my life, as much as the woman whose invisible presence hurt me so much. Tiny Julia; writer-from-Maine Julia; yoga instructor Julia; the redheaded actress whose cackling laugh I adore. The chef played so fabulously by Meryl Streep in a movie I love. And the writing teacher whose books have shaped my life so powerfully – thanks, in part, to that same ex-husband, whose presence in my life will never wholly disappear.

They all are part of the story of this name. I’m grateful that now, most days, it is a story of joy – even if the pain still stings once in a while.

this is thirty-nine

Thirty-nine. Almost 40. I’m still amazed by that reality, especially since I sometimes feel 17 or 22 or eight years old inside. But as I say often (quoting Madeleine L’Engle), I am every age I’ve ever been.

Thirty-nine is getting up and going for a run most mornings, even when I don’t feel like it, because I know I’ll be a better person the rest of the day. Thirty-nine does her best to hydrate, moisturize, make the bed, wash the dishes – all those acts of self-care that sometimes seem boring but are actually so important. Thirty-nine does a fair bit of yoga and walking, eats a ton of yogurt and granola, drinks black tea like it’s my job, indulges in a cider once a week or so.

Thirty-nine moves more cautiously, these days, after some serious shakeups the last few years. Thirty-nine does her best to lean into the present, to be here now, living with heart and commitment, while also realizing that things can change drastically at any moment. Thirty-nine loves her current life and is starting to dream about making some changes. Thirty-nine is grateful – as a teacher of mine once said – that not only have I survived through great upheaval, but I’ve thrived.

Thirty-nine has seen her life and world shift in ways she never imagined a few years back. Some of those changes she chose and orchestrated; some came out of nowhere and left her staggering, for a while. Thirty-nine is still healing, still grieving; learning to name and acknowledge the wounds that linger longer than we think they will, while also making space for new and vivid joys.

Thirty-nine still writes for Shelf Awareness, still texts a few stalwart friends nearly every day, still loves chai from Darwin’s and flowers from Brattle Square, still reads piles of books and still needs a dose of Texas once in a while. Thirty-nine is trying, always, to live with grace and courage and wisdom. Thirty-nine knows it’s important to be both brave and kind.

September is flying by so far – amid work and daily adventures, here’s what I have been reading:

The Lost Summers of Newport, Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White
I enjoy Team W’s richly detailed historical novels (and I’ve devoured nearly all of Williams’ books). This one follows the intertwined stories of three women connected to the same Newport, R.I., mansion during different eras: architectural preservationist Andie, music teacher Ellen, and Italian-American socialite Lucia. Rife with family secrets and dripping with diamonds – great escapist reading.

The House of Eve, Sadeqa Johnson
Ruby Pearsall is on track to be her family’s first college student – but a forbidden love may derail her plans to escape her rough neighborhood. Meanwhile, Eleanor Quarles, a brilliant young woman from small-town Ohio, struggles to find her place at Howard University and with her rich boyfriend’s family. Their lives collide in an unexpected way. A powerful, sometimes wrenching novel about the struggles of Black women in the mid-1950s. So much here around shame and womanhood and making choices. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 2023).

Love, Lies & Spies, Cindy Anstey
Miss Juliana Telford is more interested in publishing her research on ladybugs than diving into the London Season. Mr. Spencer Northam is far more preoccupied with espionage than with matrimony. But all this might change when they encounter one another by chance. A witty, hilarious, romantic tribute to Jane Austen and a really fun love story. Recommended by Anne.

Blood from a Stone: A Memoir of How Wine Brought Me Back from the Dead, Adam McHugh
After years as a hospice chaplain, McHugh found himself burned out, and needing not just an escape but a whole life change. His love of wine led him – several times – to California’s Santa Ynez Valley, where he began a career working in wine. An honest, sometimes snarky, well-researched, thoughtful memoir about wine and transformation. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 11).

Viviana Valentine Gets Her Man, Emily J. Edwards
Our titular heroine loves her job as secretary/girl Friday to NYC private eye Tommy Fortuna. But when she finds an unconscious man in the office and Tommy disappears – right after taking on a case for a wealthy client – Viv must marshal all her wits to solve the case and stay alive. A fun romp with an engaging heroine, though the dialogue read almost like a send-up of 1950s phrases. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 8).

Bicycling with Butterflies: My 10,201-Mile Journey Following the Monarch Migration, Sara Dykman
I picked up this memoir last fall at the Harvard Book Store and have been reading it sloooowly. Dykman takes a months-long solo journey starting and ending in Mexico at the monarchs’ overwintering grounds, following their trail and giving presentations about the importance of these beautiful creatures. She’s a lovely writer, though the trip logistics dragged sometimes (as I’m sure they did in real life!). Fun bonus: she went through my dad’s tiny hometown in southwestern MO.

What Comes from Spirit, Richard Wagamese
I picked up this collection at the wonderful Savoy Bookshop in Westerly, R.I., in June. Wagamese was an Indigenous Canadian writer who wrote extensively about his journey away from and back to his Native identity, as well as noticing the natural world, building community and paying attention. Short, lovely meditations – exactly my kind of thing for slow morning reading.

The Star That Always Stays, Anna Rose Johnson
When Norvia’s parents divorce, she and her siblings move from rural Beaver Island to a small Michigan city with their mother. Norvia must navigate a new school, a tricky blended family and her own shyness and anxiety, while striving to be a heroine. A sweet middle-grade story (though the middle dragged a bit); I loved Norvia’s family, especially her spunky younger sister, Dicta. Reminded me of Emily of Deep Valley.

Saving Main Street: Small Business in the Time of COVID-19, Gary Rivlin
Americans idolize small business – though we give a lot of our money to the colossal chains. It’s common knowledge now that small shops were hit hard by COVID-19. Veteran reporter Rivlin follows several business owners, including a restaurateur, a pharmacist, a Latina hairstylist and three Black brothers making chocolate, through the first 18 months or so of the pandemic. Full of fascinating anecdotes and a thorough explanation of the government’s confusing (but ultimately sort-of-effective) struggle to help small businesses. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 18).

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

What are you reading?

If you know me, you probably know that I usually have several books going at once: at least one for review at Shelf Awareness, a fun or meaty novel, some thoughtful nonfiction, a middle-grade or YA novel, maybe a memoir or some poetry. (These categories often overlap.)

I love reading this way: I have maintained for years that different books feed different parts of my brain. I’m a fast reader, and can blow through a medium-sized novel in a day or two if I want to. But I’ve been thinking lately about another kind of reading: the slow kind that creates space.

Earlier this summer, I picked up What Comes From Spirit, a collection of short selected pieces by Canadian Ojibway author Richard Wagamese. I’ve been lingering over it, reading a piece or two in the mornings, trying to let the words sink in before I dash off (sometimes literally) to start the day. It isn’t always Wagamese, of course: sometimes it’s Mary Oliver, or a piece from an essay collection, or flipping through a beloved book on writing.

I like taking my time with writing like this: slower and contemplative, with more spaces between the words. I am (generally) in no rush to finish these books and check them off a list; I find the slower pace helps them sink in more deeply. And it’s a nice contrast, sometimes, to racing through a fast-paced spy novel or YA romance.

Do you read books at different speeds? I’m curious to hear!

I love a good spy story – even better if it involves a canny female protagonist racing against the clock and a formidable enemy. So I jumped at the chance to review Ava Glass’ debut thriller, Alias Emma, which introduces intelligence officer Emma Makepeace. This interview originally ran in Shelf Awareness.

Tell us about the inspiration for Alias Emma.

It’s fair to say Alias Emma was inspired by real life. Britain has always been a hotbed of espionage. Perched at the edge of Europe but a strong ally of the U.S., it’s a magnet for spies from around the world. People are murdered here with poison-tipped umbrellas, radiation in tea cups, nerve agents on door knobs–these are the headlines I’m reading. How could I not want to write about this? It’s crying out to be explored.

Besides the headlines, how did you originally become interested in spies and espionage?

Before I started writing books, I worked for the British government in the department that’s sort of the equivalent of the U.S. Homeland Security agency. My job brought me into glancing contact with spies, and that gave me just the merest glimpse of their world. Before then I’d been a journalist and an editor, so I knew nothing at all about espionage or intelligence work. I was a complete innocent in that way. During that time, I met a young female intelligence officer. She was in her 20s and so smart and fearless; she seemed decades older than her age, and incredibly capable. Alias Emma is my opportunity to imagine what her life might be like.

Modern-day intelligence work often relies on technology: mobile phones, tracking devices, surveillance systems. Tell us how you explore those technologies–either using them or eliminating them–as part of this story.

This is always somewhat tricky. In Alias Emma, the job Emma’s assigned is extracting Michael, the son of a Russian spy who has defected to the U.K. The Russians want their asset back, so she and her husband are taken into protective custody [by British officials], but their adult son refuses to go with them. If Emma can’t get him to safety, he’ll be killed. He doesn’t understand the danger he’s in. During this rescue, Emma is ordered to use no technology that can be tracked. So, she can use no phones, bank cards, computers or tablets. At the same time, London’s extensive CCTV system has been hacked by the Russians who are using the cameras to hunt for Emma and Michael. Technology is everywhere (including the CCTV cameras), but Emma can’t access any of it.

Britain and Russia are old enemies (the Great Game and the Cold War both come to mind), but this story is set in the 21st century and feels very fresh. Why a British/Russian conflict?

I believe the Great Game never ended. We all thought it stopped when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed, but we were wrong. It went on. That became quite clear when a former Russian FSB agent named Alexander Litvenenko was murdered by his ex-colleagues with polonium placed in a teapot in an expensive London hotel in 2006. That was followed by a spate of mysterious deaths of Russian exiles and former spies and government officials in the U.K. until, finally, a Russian exile named Sergei Skripal and his daughter were attacked with nerve gas in a leafy town (near where I live) in 2018. That was when it occurred to me that this secret war might make an interesting subject for a series of novels.

Much of this story is about identity. There are false identities, conflicting identities, Michael’s reluctance to leave the life he’s built for himself behind. Can you speak to that?

To an extent. In my time, I’ve changed careers, towns, even nations. Each move always feels like an opportunity to reinvent yourself. And yet, in my experience, no matter how far you travel, you can’t escape yourself. The past tags along. No matter how hard you try to leave it behind, it always packs itself in your luggage. And this is one lesson that Emma Makepeace is learning in Alias Emma. She can change her appearance, her name, even her eye color–but she will always be shaped by her past.

Will we see Emma in future adventures? Can you give us a teaser?

I’m actually writing the last chapters of book two now! The second book takes Emma out of London and into an undercover operation on an oligarch’s yacht in the Mediterranean. An MI6 analyst has been murdered in a bizarre way that looks like a hallmark of the Russian spy agency GRU. The Agency believes the analyst got too close to revealing a conspiracy by Russian businessmen in London to sell chemical weapons to rogue nations. But the conspiracy may run much deeper than Emma thinks. And it will take her to very dangerous places.

Another month has flown by! As we wrap up August, here’s what I have been reading:

Just Another Love Song, Kerry Winfrey
Sandy Macintosh has built a life for herself in her Ohio hometown – she’s even happy, most of the time. But when her first love Hank Tillman (now a successful musician) comes back to town with his son in tow, Sandy’s emotions go haywire. I love Winfrey’s warmhearted feel-good romances, and this one was sweet – full of fun summer vibes and serious questions about figuring out what you truly want.

The Lonely Stories: 22 Celebrated Writers on the Joys and Struggles of Being Alone, ed. Natalie Eve Garrett
Solitude and loneliness are, of course, not the same – but they often go hand in hand, and they’re both nearly universal experiences. This anthology explores loneliness in many forms – it is sad and lovely and extremely validating. Bittersweet and worthwhile.

Argyles and Arsenic, Molly MacRae
The women of Yon Bonnie Books are looking forward to helping host the local knitting competition in tiny Inversgail, Scotland. But when the director of the local museum is poisoned at a party, they can’t help but investigate (of course). I like the setting of this series, but the plot of this one didn’t do it for me – plus a super irritating plot device didn’t help.

Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting, Clare Pooley
I loved Pooley’s first novel, The Authenticity Project, and also loved this one – about a group of strangers on a London commuter train (led by the titular Iona) who enter each other’s lives and become good friends. Sweet, heartwarming and so beautifully human. I loved vibrant Iona, shy Sanjay, gawky Martha and the kindness in all of them.

Essential: How the Pandemic Transformed the Long Fight for Worker Justice, Jamie K. McCallum
We all spent the first part of the pandemic applauding essential workers (sometimes literally). But despite arguing and agitating for better wages and conditions, a lot of essential jobs are truly terrible. McCallum dives into the labor strikes, walkouts and other campaigns of the pandemic, connecting them to the long history of labor organizing in the U.S., and urgently calling for higher wages, government support and better working conditions for nurses, food service workers and others. Insightful and thought-provoking. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 15).

Death at the Manor, Katharine Schellman
Lily Adler is delighted to be visiting her aunts in Hampshire, with friends. But their visit takes a turn when a local elderly woman is murdered – ostensibly by a ghost. This third mystery featuring Lily had a bit of gothic flair; I thought the plot dragged for a while, though the conclusion was interesting.

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

What are you reading?

Earlier this summer, one of my dear friends moved away (sniff), and we made a serious effort to soak up some time together before she left town. One afternoon in late June, she texted with a question: would I like to join her and her daughter at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum that week? Of course, the answer was yes.

The Gardner is one of my favorite semi-hidden Boston gems; it’s tucked away in the Fenway neighborhood, built around a central courtyard that’s full of lush plantings year-round. Mrs. Gardner, as the docents still call her, was an avid collector of art, furniture and curiosities, from around the world. Her acquisitions are still arranged just as she specified – in multilayered, sometimes overwhelming splendor – at the mansion/museum she called Fenway Court.

The first few times I went to the Gardner, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of art: there are thousands of objects, including paintings, textiles, furniture, dishes, sculptures, sketches, letters, tapestries and who knows what else. It took me a while to realize the goal isn’t to see or learn about everything: it’s to walk through and experience the total effect, the layers of history and different origin stories and artistic styles, all brought together by one woman’s passion for collecting. These days, I wander through, pausing when a piece catches my eye, but less focused on the details than on the whole.

This time was different, for several reasons: first, we enjoyed a snack at the cafe before our museum tour. I’d never been to the (relatively) new Cafe G before, but I have to say, the citrus pound cake was delicious (and felt fancy).

The three of us wandered around, starting at the top floor of the museum (for something different) and winding our way back down to the ground floor. I loved being there with 12-year-old Lucy, who noticed things I’d never have picked up on, and asked excellent questions (my favorite: “What would you want to ask Isabella, if you could?”).

In light of the current conversations around artistic objects, their provenance, and the recent encouraging trend of museums considering returning stolen objects, I also wondered about the collection at the Gardner. Where did all these objects come from? Who brought them to Isabella? Were they given freely (in exchange for money, of course) or stolen from their original homes? What happened to the people, buildings and communities who created them? I never used to consider these questions when I visited museums, but I am thinking about so many things differently now. (I am also, as ever, curious about the heist in 1990, which has never yet been solved.)

Every time I go to the Gardner, I find myself drawn to the windows in every room, gazing out onto the courtyard, which I find both restful and beautiful. (I’ve never seen the famous nasturtium plantings there, but it’s on my list for this winter.) Mostly, I was grateful to share a lovely afternoon with two women I love, in a place we all enjoy.

What local adventures are you having, these days?