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reasonable-miracles-book

And just like that (after a rainy, blustery Halloween), it’s November. Here’s what I have been reading:

A Long Petal of the Sea, Isabel Allende
Amid the chaos of the Spanish Civil War, thousands of refugees fled the continent, some ending up in Chile (thanks to the poet Pablo Neruda). Allende traces the lives of two families, a Spanish refugee couple and a wealthy Chilean family they meet on arrival, from the 1930s to the 1990s. A complex, fascinating, often heartbreaking story. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 21).

The Paris Library, Janet Skeslien Charles
When Odile Souchet lands a job at the American Library in Paris, she’s over the moon – but the Nazis are trying to conquer Europe, and Odile and her cadre of international colleagues are inevitably caught up in their net. Charles interweaves Odile’s story with that of a young teenager, Lily, who lives next door to Odile in 1980s Montana. So engaging, full of wonderful characters and book catnip. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 2).

Miracles and Other Reasonable Things: A Story of Unlearning and Relearning God, Sarah Bessey
Sarah is a longtime Internet friend. Like me, she’s spent the past several years wrestling with the black-and-white certainty of the evangelical faith we both once knew. This book tells the story of a car accident, a trip to Rome to meet the Pope, miraculous healing and chronic pain living side by side. I love Sarah’s writing and while this book wanders a bit (on purpose), it ends with fierce, tender, powerful hope.

Heaven, My Home, Attica Locke
Still reeling from his last complicated case (and his mother’s blackmail), Texas Ranger Darren Mathews is called out to find a missing child – the son of white supremacists – in an East Texas town simmering with racial tension. Locke’s writing crackles and her characters, especially Darren, feel complicated and real.

The Wicked Redhead, Beatriz Williams
Flapper Geneva “Gin” Kelly surprised herself and everyone else by falling in love with a Prohibition agent. In this sequel to The Wicked City, Gin tries to reckon with her new love and care for her orphaned young sister, while a woman named Ella (connected both to Gin and Williams’ illustrious Schuyler family) tries to extricate herself from a troublesome marriage. Deliciously addictive and entertaining (though Ella drove me nuts) – Gin is a stellar character. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 10).

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

What are you reading?

book-knitting-muffin

I’ve blown through half a dozen books recently – which feels good after a stretch of not reading quite as much. Here’s what I have been reading lately:

Heart of Barkness, Spencer Quinn
Chet the dog and his pal Bernie Little, P.I., are back. Their ninth adventure finds them investigating a couple of suspicious deaths involving an elderly country singer. It was slow to start, but I love Chet’s entertaining narrative voice, and the mystery plot was satisfying.

The Bookshop on the Shore, Jenny Colgan
Single mother Zoe is desperate to get out of London, and when she lands two part-time gigs in Scotland, it seems like a good idea. I like Colgan’s fiction and this had more depth than usual, with the motherless children Zoe cares for and the challenges facing her young son. Nina (from The Bookshop on the Corner) features too, but I grew irritated with her. I gobbled this up in two days.

Death in a Desert Land, Andrew Wilson
After her divorce, Agatha Christie heads to Baghdad and Ur to visit an archaeological dig and do some spying for the British government. But she soon finds herself investigating a murder. Wilson’s third mystery featuring Christie as amateur detective (the first one I’ve read) was fast-paced (after a slow start) and engaging.

The Vanderbeekers to the Rescue, Karina Yan Glaser
The five Vanderbeeker kids have all kinds of plans for spring break – which do not include accidentally ruining their mother’s baking business. But they band together to outwit a grumpy inspector, build a tree house and deal with mysterious pets (chickens!) guinea pigs!) that keep appearing on their doorstep. I love this middle-grade series and this third entry was so much fun.

Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown, Michael Cunningham
Set at the very end of Cape Cod, Provincetown has a unique character and mythology. I have several friends who love it there, and Cunningham’s memoir/history is evocative, fascinating and melancholy. I found this at Three Lives in NYC; the manager, whose taste I trust, waxed lyrical about it. Lovely.

How to Love a Country, Richard Blanco
Blanco, who served as President Obama’s inaugural poet, is back with a fierce, vivid, haunting collection exploring what it is to be an immigrant, to live between two worlds, to be gay in this country, to mourn various national tragedies (the Pulse shooting, the Boston Marathon bombings). These poems pull no punches and they’re also beautiful.

A Dangerous Engagement, Ashley Weaver
Amory Ames and her husband, Milo, sail to New York for the wedding of Amory’s childhood friend. But when one of the groomsmen is found murdered, Amory and Milo begin investigating. I love this stylish, well-plotted mystery series and this was a delightful entry.

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

What are you reading?

alchemists-daughter-book-tea

We’re halfway through October, and the library holds are piling up, to my delight. Here’s what I have been reading:

An Irish Country Family, Patrick Taylor
I’ve read and enjoyed several earlier books in this gentle, amusing series set in 1960s Ulster, in the village of Ballybucklebo. Book 14 picks up the story of Dr. Barry Laverty when he was a medical student, and also as he’s trying to start a family with his wife, Sue. The plot also involves the usual small-town drama: births, deaths, local politics, love. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 12).

Dating is Murder, Harley Jane Kozak
An impulse grab at the library – the second mystery featuring greeting-card artist and amateur sleuth Wollstonecraft “Wollie” Shelley. When her friend Annika, a young au pair, disappears, Wollie tries to find her while juggling her part-time jobs (including reality TV). Wacky, fun, sometimes confusing, but enjoyable.

Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, Ada Calhoun
It’s no secret that women are under stress–but Generation X women are particularly so, in every area of their lives. Calhoun takes on work, parenting, marriage and relationships, ambition, physical challenges and more from a witty, honest, thought-provoking perspective. I loved her previous book, Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give, and her O Magazine essay, “The New Midlife Crisis for Women.” This book builds on the latter. I’m either a really young Gen Xer or an old Gen Y/Millennial, but so many of these concerns rang true for me. I will be handing this to so many friends. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 7).

The Bonniest Companie, Kathleen Jamie
I was looking for Jamie’s essays at the Strand (on Roxani’s advice) and found these poems instead. They are luminous and odd with occasional flashes of hope and loveliness, and lots of rugged Scottish landscapes.

The Second Home, Christina Clancy
The Gordon family has spent countless summers in Wellfleet, Cape Cod – but one summer when their kids were teenagers changed everything. As the family’s two grown daughters prepare to sell the house after their parents’ deaths, they must reckon with the long-term effects of that summer. Absorbing, heartbreaking and human; richly evocative. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 2, 2020).

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Theodora Goss
I spotted this series at the Booksmith and decided to start at the beginning. Mary Jekyll is investigating some mysterious documents after her father’s death and finds more than she bargained for, including Diana, daughter of Edward Hyde, and a whole lot of mad-scientist craziness. This mystery-fantasy-girl-power-narrative (which also pulls in Holmes and Watson) was so much fun. I’ll definitely read the sequels.

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

What are you reading?

Here we are in October – the days and nights are starting to draw in, the maples are turning brilliantly red, the occasional cold rains have arrived, and fall events are in full swing.

I’m feeling more settled in my new place, and between commutes and running and cooking dinner, I finally had a bit of time to note what’s saving my life now:

  • Sunflowers, at home and at work. I love their cheerful faces, and they remind me of that Mary Oliver poem.
  • My new Rebel Alliance logo earrings. I am not a hardcore Star Wars geek, but I am a diehard Leia Organa fan. These earrings are sterling silver, subtle and badass, and I love them.
  • Birchbox, which I tried thanks to a recent Cup of Jo post. Getting a few colorful boxes of samples in the mail has felt indulgent and also nourishing, somehow.
  • My brand-new travel mug from my friends at Obvious State, who make the best literary swag.

  • Trader Joe’s essentials: crumbly English cheddar, bags of tiny mandarins, Greek yogurt by the tub, peanut-butter-filled pretzels, and smiles from the staff.
  • Texts from my girlfriends (always) and getting to hug a few of them (local and far-flung) in person.
  • A few recent visiting artist events at Berklee, where I work – I get to listen to fascinating, intelligent, talented, kind folks like rapper Dessa and film composer Pinar Toprak sharing their wisdom with our students.
  • A trip to my beloved florist the other day, for the first time in weeks. I caught up with my people and bought some scarlet tulips tipped with gold.

  • Jen Lee’s Morning, Sunshine videos – doses of kindness and wisdom twice a week. Go check out the series on YouTube.
  • The music of the Highwomen.
  • Sunshine on my shoulders, especially when I take my laptop to the plant-filled conference room at work.
  • Chai from the BPL cafe – best in Back Bay.
  • Poetry, including a whole slew of new-to-me gems via poet Maggie Smith.
  • The quilt my friend Carol made for me, so good for snuggling under on these chilly nights.
  • Ginger peach tea and Earl Grey in the mornings, spiced black tea in the afternoons, peppermint tea or pumpkin spice rooibos at night.
  • Rereading The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, a longtime fave.

What’s saving your life these days?

celebrating Pop

live love Texas sign

My grandfather turned 85 last month. If you asked him about it, he’d likely shrug it off as no big deal – but the rest of us disagree. So we’d been secretly planning a surprise party, spearheaded by my Aunt Cat, for months. (The hardest part was letting my grandmother, whom we all call Neno, in on the secret. She said it was stressful to keep it quiet!)

I flew down to San Antonio (my grandparents live about an hour away), and various family members came in from across Texas and Arizona. I hadn’t seen many of these folks in years, nor been to my grandparents’ spacious house, with its saltillo-tiled floors and stuccoed walls hung with Pop’s original paintings. (He worked in tool design for many years, and is a talented artist and woodworker.) They built this house themselves when they retired to Texas, twenty years ago, and stepping inside felt like coming home.

My parents and I surprised Pop at lunchtime on Friday (thereby pre-empting the surprise party, but Aunt Cat swore it was okay). I was grateful for that extra time around their kitchen table, just the five of us. Neno pulled out a box of beautiful handmade baby clothes (some hers, some Pop’s, some that her kids – my mom and her siblings – had worn). We exclaimed over the embroidery and tiny, meticulous stitches.

neno baby clothes

Later, we ate burgers and watched the birds out the back windows, trading stories and laughing. My sister and her family arrived that night, and it was a gift to hug her and play Uno with my nephews, and trade running tips with my brother-in-law (he’s training for a half marathon).

ryder harrison uno

The party on Saturday was total happy chaos – all of us weaving around one another in the kitchen, making corn casserole and pouring drinks and finding space for the pork ribs, chopped brisket and three huge cheese/fruit/veggie platters. There were two layer cakes, and tiny cups of Blue Bell ice cream, and lots of hugging, and even a surprise guest…

Pop is a huge John Wayne fan (so is Neno), and my aunt and uncle had schemed to have him show up for the party. None of the rest of us knew that was coming, and we were all highly entertained.

I may live in New England now, but I am a Texas girl to my core, and I needed that brief, nourishing time with four generations of my family. I was so happy to chat with my aunts and catch up with my cousins and especially to hug my sweet Neno.

Until next time, Texas. It was good to be back.

Poets Who Write Prose

bargain poetry bookbook nyc

I love a well-crafted poetry collection as much as the next reader. But most often, I’m hankering for a story when I read. True or fictional, I want a compelling narrative, well told. Fortunately, many poets have turned their wordsmithing skills to prose, and their novels and memoirs are some of my favorites.

Marisa de los Santos began her career with the poetry collection From the Bones Out, but has found major success with her fiction, including Love Walked InBelong to Me; and I’ll Be Your Blue Sky. Her prose is simple, warmhearted and truly lovely, as are many of her characters. (I reread those three novels again this spring, when I was heartbroken and badly in need of comfort and hope.)

Former U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith has published four books of poetry, including the 2019 collection Wade in the Water. Her memoir, Ordinary Light, which my friend Colleen gave me a while back, chronicles Smith’s childhood in California, her deep and loving (and sometimes fraught) relationship with her mother, and her journey toward poet as vocation. Her prose is as luminous and (sometimes) as sharp-edged as her poems.

Brian Doyle, the late editor of Portland magazine, wrote anything and everything: poems, prose poems, rambling essays, rollicking or thoughtful novels like Chicago and Mink River, both of which I adored. I’ll read any and all of his work, though my absolute favorite is his essay on how he became a writer. (Also: I reviewed an essay collection he edited a few years ago, and he wrote me a brief, lovely email of thanks, which I still have.)

Poet Ross Gay (Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude) spent his 43rd year capturing ordinary joyful moments almost every day, and spinning them into “essayettes” that became his collection The Book of Delights. Like the subject matter, the result is delightful–both the mosaic of quotidian, unexpected pleasures, and Gay’s commentary on them.

For readers who appreciate a well-turned phrase and an engaging story arc, poets who write prose offer the best of both literary worlds.

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness, where it appeared last week. 

Sometimes, for my day job, I get to sit in on clinics, performances or masterclasses and write about them for Berklee’s website. Once in a while, I get a little starstruck: we get some seriously talented folks here.

Last week, I listened to singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier, best known for “Mercy Now,” as she talked to our students about her music, her struggles with addiction, the restaurant she used to run in Boston, and the co-writing work she’s recently done with veterans and their spouses.

I scribbled notes as fast as I could, soaking up every word Gauthier delivered in her raspy Louisiana drawl and welling up when she played “Mercy Now.” She’s a truth-teller, a storyteller, a rough-edged and empathetic presence, and I could have listened to her all afternoon.

If you’d like, you can read the story and see a few photos on Berklee Now.