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an amaryllis story

Back in mid-December, I bought a potted amaryllis kit from Stephen at my beloved Brattle Square Florist. I always admire the red blooms in the dead of winter, but had never grown one before. And then the pre-holiday madness hit, and the bulb sat in its box on my kitchen shelf for several weeks.

I removed it right after the New Year to find that it had sprouted – but, with no sunlight, the stems and bud were pure white. I panicked, feeling like Charlie Brown with his poor little Christmas tree. Had I killed it with my neglect? Was there any hope for growth or blooms?

I potted it anyway, and set it in a sunny spot near my little African violet, which is loving the winter sunshine and blooming away. And, with some water and a few days of sunlight, a miracle happened.

Look! Bright green healthy stems, gorgeous red blooms, and more on the way.

I am grateful to whatever magic (or scientific wizardry) made the plant sprout on its own, and amazed at the simple alchemy of soil, sunlight and water. And I’m so glad I decided to try potting it instead of giving up.

I’ve got a few paperwhite bulbs in tall vases, and will be watching for them to bloom next.

Here we are, two weeks into a new year, and it’s time to share what I have been reading:

Hannah’s War, Jan Eliasberg
As World War II rages on, an international team of brilliant scientists are working on a top-secret bomb in the lab at Los Alamos. Among them is Dr. Hannah Weiss, who fled Berlin in the wake of Nazi persecution. Major Jack Delaney, sent to catch a spy, begins investigating Hannah, but finds himself drawn to her instead – and they’re both hiding secrets. I read this in one day; it’s gorgeous, compelling and thought-provoking. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 3).

Time After Time, Lisa Grunwald
Anne recommended this last summer, and I grabbed it at the library. It’s a bittersweet love story set in NYC’s Grand Central Terminal – Nora, a young woman who died in a 1925 subway crash, keeps reappearing in the terminal, where she falls in love with Joe, a train leverman. I loved the period details, the vivid characters, the honest way they dealt with the complexities of love. Still thinking about the ending.

Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson
I’m several years late to Woodson’s gorgeous memoir-in-verse. I both devoured and savored her lyrical, plainspoken, vivid memories of childhood with her brothers and sister, her grandparents’ love, their transition from Greenville, S.C., to Brooklyn, and the beginnings of her desire to be a writer. Powerful and lovely.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling
Harry and his friends are back at Hogwarts – and he finds himself competing in the Triwizard Tournament, somewhat against his will. The story grows darker, and I love how Rowling draws us deeper into the wizarding world. Also, Rowling’s wit (and the Weasley twins’ ingenuity) shines: “Just then, Neville caused a slight diversion by turning into a large canary.”

The Case of the Wandering Scholar, Kate Saunders
Widowed clergyman’s wife Laetitia Rodd takes on a second case, this one involving a scholar/hermit living near Oxford. She’s trying to track him down to deliver a message from his dying brother – but then, two local priests (one a friend of hers) are murdered, and it’s all connected somehow. Mrs. Rodd is a sharp, compassionate, no-nonsense amateur sleuth and this mystery (whose setting reminded me of Lark Rise to Candleford) was thoroughly enjoyable.

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

What are you reading?

Jhumpa Lahiri next to Flavia de Luce. Agatha Christie stacked atop Anne Lamott. E.B. White’s essays, cheek by jowl with Anne of Green Gables.

My bookshelves look totally different these days, since I moved to a new apartment this summer and agreed to let my sister color-code them. (It took several hours and at least two bottles of wine.)

I was skeptical. What type-A bookworm wouldn’t be? I’d always arranged my books carefully by genre, then by author. I thought I wouldn’t be able to find anything. But the new arrangement is both gorgeous and surprisingly accessible. (I stand corrected.) Bonus: I’m rediscovering some titles when they catch my eye from their reshuffled positions. 

Favorites from several years ago, like Rebecca Pacheco’s Do Your Om Thing or Andi Teran’s Ana of California, wink at me constantly these days. I’m rereading the Harry Potter series again, and searching for each multicolored spine (I have the British editions) is a mini-treasure hunt. And my poetry collections (heavy on the Mary Oliver) are scattered throughout, prompting me to pull them out and read a poem or two.

It’s especially fun when a friend asks about a book: let me see where that is. Oh, yes, the cover is blue, but the spine might be red. (I’m looking at you, As Always, Julia.)

Some series, like Laurie R. King’s excellent Mary Russell mysteries, are scattered all over the place. A few, like my Penguin-orange Thursday Next adventures, are happily, haphazardly stacked together (with Ann Patchett’s essays and Life of Pi). And on the fireplace, a tower of black-spined classics (like The Count of Monte Cristo) shares space with newer stunners, including Kate Quinn’s The Huntress

My bookshelves are still a snapshot of my reading life, but these days, the picture is a much more colorful one. I’m savoring the rainbow it creates along my walls, and the unexpected pleasure of beloved volumes, seen in a vivid new way. And I’m sharing snapshots of each colorful shelf, and highlighting a few favorites, over on Instagram each Monday. 

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness, where it ran last week. I am one happy bookworm these days. 

the Gardner by night

Tucked away on a side street near the Fens, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is one of Boston’s hidden gems. I’ve been there a few times, with my parents or visiting friends, but I hadn’t been back in several years.

The museum is open late on Thursdays, with jazz and samba music winding through the galleries and evocative shadows dancing in the corners. I spent the evening there last night with someone dear to me who had never been before (though he’s lived in Boston for years).

We wandered through the galleries, marveling at intricate tapestries, delicate handmade lace, elaborate marble statues and tile work, and gorgeous paintings. In each room, I always end up at the windows, gazing down into the central courtyard, which is amazing from every angle.

The museum is a different place at night: arranged exactly as it is in the daytime, but with more mystery in its corners. We wondered about the origins of some pieces, and noted a few empty frames (which held the pieces stolen in the Gardner’s 1990 heist). Different details catch my eye every time: a medieval portrait of an anonymous woman, an impressionist painting of gladioli, a bronze sculpture of Diana the huntress.

There’s far too much art to take in all at once, and so you don’t have to try, which is what I love about the Gardner: you can simply wander through and experience the art and the place.

I’d never spent an evening at the Gardner before: I’d always been on a weekend afternoon, with the attendant crowds (and sunshine pouring through the skylight). But this was a lovely way to enjoy a beautiful space. I can see more evenings there in my future.

 

Every December, I pack a big suitcase and travel down to Texas to spend the holidays with my family. (I make this journey two or three times a year, but Christmas is the big one.)

It’s always something of an odyssey, and it’s never without a headache or two. But there are a few things that save my life, every time. Here are the ones from this trip:

  • My refillable water bottle, and water stations/fountains in every airport. These are a money-saver and a welcome antidote to that dry airplane air.
  • Clementines, granola bars and any other healthy snacks I can find in the airport newsstands.
  • The in-flight magazines, which I truly enjoy. I also sometimes treat myself to a magazine from one of those newsstands; this time it was Runner’s World. 
  • Pleasant and helpful gate agents, who helped me tremendously when I mislaid my boarding passes (on the way to Texas) and ran into long flight delays (on the way back).
  • The yoga room at DFW Airport. I’d heard about this newish trend, but this was my first time seeing it in action. It felt so good to dump my stuff and stretch out on a mat for a few minutes.
  • Sweet seat mates, like the woman traveling with her toddler son on my flight to Dallas. We chatted about food and travel and Boston winters, and her wriggly little redhead gave me a few smiles.
  • Layovers long enough to catch my breath.
  • Strategically placed outlets throughout the gate areas.
  • A place to get some decent Earl Grey – whether it’s Starbucks or a local cafe in the airport.

What saves your life when you fly? Any tips? I’m always up for more ways to make it easier.

Somehow, it’s 2020 – and I’m still catching up from Christmas break. Here’s my last list of reads for 2019:

Red Letter Days, Sarah-Jane Stratford
When the House Un-American Activities Committee begins blacklisting writers, Phoebe Adler flees to London after receiving a subpoena. There, she begins working for Hannah Wolfson, a fellow exiled American who’s creating a new hit show. But both women are in more danger than they realize. A well-plotted historical novel with great characters – I wanted to meet Phoebe, Hannah and all their friends for a cocktail. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 25).

The Second Chance Club: Hardship and Hope After Prison, Jason Hardy
Hardy spent four years working as a parole officer in New Orleans. This book gives an insider’s account of the probation and parole (P&P) system, which aims to keep offenders from relapsing into addiction, going back to jail or prison, or hurting themselves or other people. Hardy wrestles with the lack of resources, the staggering problems facing most of his offenders, and his own privilege. A thoughtful, timely, compelling account. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 18).

Ayesha at Last, Uzma Jalaluddin
This fun Pride and Prejudice retelling, set in Toronto’s Indian Muslim community, came recommended by Anne and others. I loved Ayesha, the Elizabeth Bennet character, and her supporting cast, especially her Shakespeare-quoting grandfather. Witty, entertaining and sweet, with some fresh twists on the classic story.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown
Brown is well known for her work on race relations, and her memoir shares her experience with race and faith, and poses some tough questions. Well-written, hard-hitting and powerful; I’ll be processing this one for a while.

The Queen Con, Meghan Scott Molin
MG Martin, comic-book writer and costume designer extraordinaire, gets drawn into a second mystery involving a local superhero vigilante. But this time several of her friends, including drag queen Lawrence, may be in danger. The plot gets a bit convoluted, but this series is full of nerddom and great characters.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling
Harry’s third year at Hogwarts starts (and in some ways ends) with Sirius Black, a notorious wizard who has escaped Azkaban, the wizard prison. This book is one of my favorites in the series – especially the last bit, where everything (thanks in large part to Lupin and Hermione) blows wide open. So much fun.

Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA, Amaryllis Fox
I blew through Fox’s memoir on my plane ride home. She gives a clear, thoughtful account of her career in the CIA, and the ways an undercover life prevented her from building a true marriage or family. Fascinating and thought-provoking – parts of it read like a spy thriller.

25 Days ‘Til Christmas, Poppy Alexander
This was an impulse buy at Trident, and it was the perfect sweet, witty, British Christmas read. Widowed mum Kate is struggling to make Christmas merry for herself and her young son, Jack, while facing harassment at work. Daniel, grieving his sister’s death, is also struggling. I loved the ways their stories intertwined, as well as Daniel’s efforts to support a group of local businesses.

Blind Search, Paula Munier
Mercy Carr, former military police officer, and her retired bomb-sniffing dog Elvis are back on the case. This time, it’s multiple murder in the Vermont woods, with an autistic boy as the only witness. The writing is a bit labored, but I like Mercy and the other characters, including game warden Troy Warner.

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

What are you reading?

in 2019 I have…

What a year, y’all. I say that every year, but this one has brought so much change I didn’t see coming.

Here is my annual non-exhaustive list of what has happened this year. As always, it’s a limited tool, but an interesting one.

In 2019, I have…

  • marked a year (and some change) at Berklee, where I get to write about our students, faculty, alumni and guest artists making music and doing various cool music-adjacent things.
  • moved to East Boston after spending a lot of time there this spring, and falling completely in love.
  • Related: moved into my own apartment for the first time in more than a decade.
  • run several 5Ks, one of them in a cape and one in a Wonder Woman costume.
  • run my first 10K, this summer – a triumph.
  • flown to Texas several times, once to celebrate my grandfather’s 85th birthday with the whole fam.
  • spent hours and hours on the Neponset River trail, the Charles River Esplanade and the East Boston Harborwalk and Greenway, running to my heart’s content.
  • done a lot of yoga, at three different studios: Healing Tree in my old neighborhood, Erin’s shiny new Savin Hill Fitness Studio, and The Point in my new neighborhood.
  • read more than 150 books, and reviewed 58 (I think) for Shelf Awareness. (Still the best.)
  • Related: interviewed nine authors for the Shelf, all of whom were lovely and fascinating.
  • attended my first Newport Folk Festival and had a fabulous time.
  • filled up half a dozen or so journals (and – gasp – I got rid of at least six boxes of old ones when I moved).
  • started going to therapy.
  • gone through a divorce.
  • spent many weekday mornings at Mem Church, and a few Sundays at assorted churches here and there.
  • drunk so many chai lattes, mostly from the Boston Public Library and (of course) Darwin’s.
  • bought and enjoyed countless bouquets of flowers, most of them from my beloved Brattle Square Florist.
  • taken a number of BlueBike rides across town and along the river.
  • spent a weekend in rural Pennsylvania with my friend Christie and her family – so good for the soul.
  • hosted my longtime friend Abigail in my new digs for a glorious long weekend.
  • spent Thanksgiving with my friends Joe and Lauryn, and assorted other friends old and new.
  • taken Phoenix, the sweetest mini golden doodle, on many walks through East Boston. (And cuddled him a lot.)
  • followed thrive as my one little word, to sometimes unexpected places.

What has 2019 looked like for you?