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scribe of siena book chai red

March has blown in like a lion – and good books are helping keep me from blowing entirely off course. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

The Scribe of Siena, Melodie Winawer
Neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato’s deep empathy for her patients is starting to interfere with her job. When her brother Ben dies suddenly, Beatrice travels to Italy to take care of his estate, and finds herself drawn into Ben’s scholarly research on the Plague – then, abruptly, transported to 14th-century Siena. A compelling, vivid story of love, time travel and being torn between different communities. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 16).

Trouble Makes a Comeback, Stephanie Tromly
Zoe Webster thought she’d adjusted to life in River Heights, and life without Digby, her maybe-more-than-a-friend who left town without a word. But now Digby’s back, still on the trail of his sister’s kidnappers, and Zoe and her complicated feelings get dragged along for the ride. Snarky, entertaining YA with a few plot holes. Still fun.

How Cycling Can Save the World, Peter Walker
Cycling is more than just a pleasant hobby: it has the potential to revolutionize our cities and our health. Avid cyclist Walker (who lives and rides in London) explores how governments can make the roads safer for cyclists, and the benefits of improving bike infrastructure and access for all. Sounds dry, but it’s not; made me want to hop on a bike. (I rode all the time in Oxford, and I miss it.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 4).

The Curse of La Fontaine, M.L. Longworth
Newlyweds Antoine Verlaque (a judge) and Marine Bonnet (a law professor) are settling into life together and enjoying a new restaurant in their Aix-en-Provence neighborhood. But when a skeleton is found in the restaurant’s courtyard, the pair find themselves trying to solve an eight-year-old mystery. A charming French mystery with likable characters and lots of good food and wine. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 4).

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, Jennifer Ryan
As World War II heats up, the village of Chilbury in Kent finds itself with very few men. The local choir decides to carry on as an all-female group, and gradually becomes a force for good in the community. Told through the letters and journals of several choir members, this is a heartwarming, well-told story of music, friendship and banding together during tough times. Reminded me of the ITV series Home Fires.

Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living, Shauna Niequist
Niequist, a successful writer and speaker, found herself exhausted and burned out a few years ago, and has been feeling her way back to a slower, more connected life. I appreciated her honest rendering of her journey, and a few of the essays resonated with me. But this book felt less coherent than her others. Took me ages to finish.

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

What are you reading?

morning prayers montage memorial church

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking at Morning Prayers, the brief service held every weekday at Harvard’s Memorial Church, across the Square from where I work.

I’ve been a sporadic attendee at Morning Prayers for a while, a more regular one this year, slipping into a pew to soak up the choral music and participate in the psalm readings, the Lord’s Prayer and the closing hymns. But this was my first time speaking there.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I chose to talk about what is saving my life now: reading a beloved passage by Barbara Brown Taylor, and explaining how that phrase of hers has captured and held my attention for several years. Here’s a snippet of my talk:

What is saving your life now?

It’s not a question I had ever considered in just this way, until I read it in Taylor’s book. I’d heard similar questions, phrased slightly differently: what are you grateful for? What’s making you happy these days?

But this question, with its insistence on what is vital, sneaked into my soul and set up camp there. And I’ve been amazed at the simple power of continuing to ask it. […]

It’s been a hard few months to live in the world – a hard year or so. I find myself need the reminder – and maybe you do too – that what can save our spiritual lives is the physical, embodied, daily experience of life on this earth. We are creatures who walk around in our bodies, breathing the air, dependent on food and drink for our survival, affected by our environment in a thousand ways, no matter how much we try to insist otherwise. As I kept asking this question, I found that, so often, what is saving my life now are the small things. Many of them are physical, tangible. And all of them are related to my daily, walking-around life in this world.

You can listen to the full service – just under 15 minutes – on the Memorial Church website. (My talk starts at about 4:25.) And as always, I’d love to hear about what is saving your life now.

The only thing to do

stronger together heart graffiti three lives

“She couldn’t change the conditions, she couldn’t deny her awareness, and she couldn’t stand in the way of death or love. The only thing to do was to keep moving, to do something, to show courage, to give everything she was capable of giving.”

—Donia Bijan, The Last Days of Café Leila

I came across these words last month in Bijan’s gorgeous first novel (out April 18), and they (especially the second sentence) have lodged in my heart and stayed there. I have kept trying to figure out what to say about them, but I think they are exactly right on their own.

Street art spotted on the wall of Three Lives & Co. in the West Village, a couple of weeks ago.

well read woman display strand bookstore

I can’t believe it’s already March – but I did read some great books in the last half of February. Here’s my latest roundup. (Display spotted at the Strand recently.)

The Gargoyle Hunters, John Freeman Gill
New York City is always reinventing itself: growing, pushing, regenerating – often at the cost of preserving its own past. Gill’s debut novel follows Griffin Watts, a teenager whose mercurial father is obsessed with saving and sometimes “liberating” – i.e. stealing – pieces of the city’s architectural history. A wonderfully imagined slice of New York history, a vivid portrait of the 1970s, a tender father-son story. Irreverent, well written and highly enjoyable. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 21).

A Piece of the World, Christina Baker Kline
Immortalized in Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World, Christina Olson lived a quiet life on her family’s Maine farm. Baker Kline delves into Christina’s story – her razor-sharp mind, her stubborn family, her fierce pride, the degenerative disease that eventually stole her mobility. Luminous, lovely and nourishing, in the way good writing is. I also loved Baker Kline’s previous novel, Orphan Train. (I received an advance copy, but didn’t get to it in time for review.)

Take the Key and Lock Her Up, Ally Carter
On the run from a deadly secret society, Grace Blakely and her friends are trying to untangle the mystery that led to her mother’s death and may lead to Grace’s, if she’s not careful. The third book in Carter’s Embassy Row series never lets up. The plot gets a little muddled at times, but it’s a fun ride.

The Splendid Outcast, Beryl Markham
I love Markham’s memoir, West with the Night, which I read in college (and I enjoyed Paula McLain’s novelization of Markham’s life, Circling the Sun). These short stories (which I found for $2 on the carts at the Strand) explore Markham’s passions: horses, aviation, Africa, romance. A little uneven, but I enjoyed them.

Yours Truly, Heather Vogel Frederick
Truly Lovejoy is slowly adjusting to life in Pumpkin Falls, N.H. – which is more exciting than it first seemed. When Truly discovers a Civil War-era diary hidden in her own home, and two local maple syrup producers find their sap lines cut, there’s plenty to keep her busy. A heartwarming middle-grade mystery. I love Truly’s big, happy family, her group of friends, and the bookstore dog, Miss Marple.

The Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman
Irene is devoted to her work as a spy for the Library, which collects works of fiction from alternate worlds. But when she and her new assistant, Kai, jump to an alternate London, they find lots of chaos and serious dark magic at work. Lots of (sometimes confusing) world-building here, but I liked Irene, Kai and their Sherlock-esque acquaintance, Peregrine Vale.

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

What are you reading?

darwins notebook chai

“It’s only alchemy until you know how it works.”

So said a friend of mine recently, as he stood behind the counter at (where else?) Darwin’s, steaming the milk for my chai latte. That’s admittedly one of the simpler drinks they serve: one part spicy chai mix (which they make themselves), one part milk. But he was talking about the more complicated espresso-based drinks they offer: latte, cappuccino, macchiato, mocha, cortado. He had done a refresher course the day before, and found himself newly fascinated with this everyday alchemy, the process of taking disparate ingredients and blending them into something new.

I understood what he meant. I remembered the same aha! moment from my own barista days, when Barb and Cynthia showed me how to pull an espresso shot, steam a stainless-steel pitcher full of milk, add a dollop of rich chocolate or a smooth cap of foam, and create a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not even a coffee drinker – I love the smell, can’t stand the bitter taste – but I found myself fascinated, then and now, by the process. It does make a new kind of sense when you watch the steps unfold one by one.

As I stood there that morning, though, listening to the whir of the milk steamer, the grind of the espresso machine, the morning music mix on the stereo, I thought: that factual knowledge doesn’t quite cover it.

I understand, empirically, that a shot of espresso plus steamed milk equals a latte, that a cappuccino has more foam, that a mocha includes a shot of chocolate and that chemical reactions explain a lot of the taste and texture (and pleasure) we get from those drinks. But there are also other, less measurable ingredients at play: the sunset-colored walls, the music, the smiles from my favorite staff members. That, too, is everyday alchemy (or magic) – and even though those elements are familiar and ordinary, they delight me every single day.

This applies to more than coffee: I understand most of the science behind the steps I follow to make a pot of soup, marinate and roast a chicken, stir up a batch of scones. But I believe there’s room for wonder alongside our knowledge of how those processes work. It isn’t alchemy in the Nicolas Flamel sense, perhaps – but it’s still everyday magic.

Listening, slowly

becoming wise book sunflowers tea

After I read Krista Tippett’s memoir Becoming Wise last spring, I did something I’d intended to do for a long time: subscribed to her weekly On Being podcast, which is the foundation for her book. I quickly realized a few things: one, the podcast is fascinating and lovely (as I expected). And two, I could never hope to stay “caught up.”

I wasn’t trying to listen to the whole On Being archive – that would take years. But even the current episodes, each nearly an hour long, ask for more time than I sometimes have (at least in one long spell). They also, critically, ask for my attention: these are not conversations during which you can zone out. Krista and her conversation partners – who are poets, physicists, activists, musicians and above all, deeply thoughtful people – are fully engaged in their talks about the big questions of being human. As a listener, I don’t want to miss anything.

My solution? I have been listening slowly.

I’ll turn on an episode of On Being while I cook dinner, some nights: peeling carrots, chopping peppers, stirring a pot of soup on the stove. I’ll listen to a chunk or two – 15 minutes here, 20 minutes there – while I’m running errands in the car, baking a batch of scones, or folding laundry. My head has to be in the right place: open, curious, sometimes a little melancholy. (The episodes, while they wrestle with real and sometimes insoluble issues, always leave me feeling heartened about the state of the world – and usually jotting down the title of a book written or recommended by that week’s guest.)

Generally, I hit the pause button at least once during an episode: when dinner is ready, or it’s time to go pick up my husband from work, or I arrive at yoga class or the library. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to an entire episode at once. But I’m coming to prefer it that way. These conversations contain so much that’s worth mulling over. They are slow, wise, witty, sometimes meandering. And they reward slow listening.

Some of my favorite episodes so far have featured Mary Karr, Michael Longley, Maria Popova and Naomi Shihab Nye. But there’s a wealth of honest, thought-provoking, warmhearted conversation to be found in the On Being archive. If you’re looking for an antidote to the rapid-fire headlines, I’d recommend listening – slowly.

charles river cambridge sunset

Making Peace

A voice from the dark called out,
             ‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
                                   But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
                                       A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
                                              A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
                        A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.

I came across this poem (as I find so many lovely things) via the good folks at Image Journal. It strikes me, reading these lines, that peace – like magic – is something we must actively make.

Like Natalie Goldberg’s “holy yes,” peace is an act of creativity, grace and courage; it is not something that happens automatically. It is a choice, and a long process, and it can be hard, complicated and tiring. But it is also beautiful and necessary. In a world of loud arguments and urgent headlines, it is perhaps more necessary than ever.

May I – may we all – learn to be peacemakers in these days.

hancock tower protest boston refugees