shakespeare and co bookstore upper east side nyc

The hubs and I spent a recent long weekend in NYC, dipping into a few bookstores as we hopped around the city. This is the lovely Shakespeare & Co. on the Upper East Side, and here’s my latest reading roundup:

The Kite and the String: How to Write with Spontaneity and Control—And Live to Tell the Tale, Alice Mattison
Mattison, a novelist and poet, gives practical, down-to-earth advice and shares her own experience as a writer. I liked her dryly humorous voice; some wise advice here, though more centered on fiction than nonfiction. Recommended by my writer friends Hannah and Elena.

Books for Living, Will Schwalbe
I loved Schwalbe’s first memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club. In this book, he writes brief essays on the books that have resonated throughout his life – relating to such topics as Napping, Connecting, Remembering, and Choosing Your Life. Witty, wise, totally unpretentious and so good. I’d love to get coffee and talk books with Schwalbe. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 27).

The Champagne Conspiracy, Ellen Crosby
Crosby’s seventh Wine Country mystery (the first I’ve read) finds vintner Lucie Montgomery trying to untangle a mystery involving murders past and present, complicated family relationships and blackmail. A light mystery with a compelling plot and a likable protagonist. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 1).

Grape, Olive, Pig: Deep Travels Through Spain’s Food Culture, Matt Goulding
Goulding, an American food writer living in Barcelona, takes readers on a tour through Spain’s regional cuisines: tapas, paella, migas and much more. My favorite parts are his anecdotes of memorable nights in this or that Spanish city, and his deep love for his Catalan wife, Laura. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 15).

Just One Damned Thing After Another, Jodi Taylor
I heard Liberty mention this one on All the Books. Madeleine Maxwell (“Max”) joins a coterie of time-jumping historians at St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, and all hell quickly breaks loose. Dinosaurs, romantic tension and a nefarious conspiracy, told with dry wit, lots of (literal and metaphorical) explosions and countless cups of tea. So much fun. First in a series.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, Alan Bradley
Flavia de Luce, chemist and sleuth, is back in England from Canada, and back to solving mysteries after she finds an elderly woodcarver hung upside down from his bedroom door. I love Flavia’s narrative voice, though her loneliness (which she never admits) breaks my heart.

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

What are you reading?

red leaves green flats harvard yard

I wrote this line from Hamilton in my journal last week, sitting on a bench outside Darwin’s at lunchtime. I sipped broccoli cheese soup from a paper cup, dipping in a hunk of baguette, taking a few deep breaths under a blue October sky.

I’ve heard that line a few hundred times since May, when I started listening to Hamilton nonstop. But lately, in the middle of a full, demanding, often harried season at work and at home, it has caught my attention particularly. As I face the challenges of each day – work projects, church responsibilities, the utter madness of the current political cycle – it has resonated like a deep, echoing gong, or the deep breath before a duel.

Autumn is always a crowded time: the academic year revs up with events and classes, and I plunge headfirst into fresh assignments while keeping up with the daily obligations of my life. This fall found me adjusting to a still-new job and an even newer apartment, with all the changes both have entailed. The past several weeks have included some beloved rituals like apple picking and some other things I was excited about: a book club poetry potluck, a few dinners with people I love, an evening of glorious sacred music at a friend’s church downtown. Coming alongside all that heart-stirring loveliness have been many challenges, too numerous to list briefly and too personal (some of them) to explore publicly here.

In the middle of this fast and furious season, when heartache, to-do lists and big life questions have felt equally clamorous and insistent, I have been going quiet, turning inward, thinking hard. I’m reaching for my tried-and-true grounding rituals: weekly trips to the florist and the farmers’ market, daily walks to Darwin’s for sustenance and smiles, the weekday Morning Prayers service in a small chapel just off Harvard Yard. I have been scribbling madly in my journal, talking things out with my husband and a few trusted friends. And I am reaching for this Hamilton line, and other good words about courage, to shore me up, to fortify me.

I’ve never gone to war against an invading army, or faced down an enemy with a pistol. I’ve certainly never tried to build a brand-new nation out of a loose confederation of fractious colonies. But the story of these wild, visionary rebels is among the things saving my life these days. They were flawed, hotheaded and sometimes foolish, but they were also passionate and brave. Throughout the Revolution and the years that followed, they summoned the courage required of them, over and over again.

As I walk through these gorgeous, demanding fall days, I’m doing my best to do the same.

idlewild books nyc interior

It’s been quite a month around here – which has meant, among other things, less reading than usual. But the books are still helping keep me sane, so here’s the latest roundup:

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and Jack Tiffany
I am a longtime, avid Harry Potter fan, and I had mixed feelings about this new story/script, before and after reading it. Fun to spend more time in Rowling’s world, and the characters are (mostly) still beautifully themselves. But it lacked the depth and power of the original seven books. I’m still glad I read it.

Precious and Grace, Alexander McCall Smith
I enjoy McCall Smith’s gentle mystery series about Precious Ramotswe, who runs the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana. I am less fond of her assistant, Grace Makutsi, but the dynamic between the two women is always interesting. This one wasn’t really a mystery, more a gentle reflection on life and forgiveness, but it was charming. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 11).

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is placed under house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel and sets about building a life for himself within the hotel’s walls. A witty, philosophical, engaging story – Rostov is charming and so is his supporting cast. I especially loved the hotel’s chef, Émile, and maitre d’, Andrey. (I also relished Towles’ debut, Rules of Civility.)

To Capture What We Cannot Keep, Beatrice Colin
Widowed and penniless, Caitriona Wallace takes a job as a companion to two young people heading to Paris in 1887. There, all three of them become entangled with Émile Nouguier, an engineer working with Gustave Eiffel to build his tower. Beautiful descriptions, though I found every single character (except Eiffel himself) frustratingly passive. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 29).

The Shattered Tree, Charles Todd
This eighth entry in Todd’s Bess Crawford series finds Bess (battlefield nurse and amateur sleuth) tracking down a mysterious soldier in October 1918. These books are somber but well written, and I like Bess (though she does insist on thinking she’s invincible). A solid historical mystery.

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

What are you reading?

This is thirty-three

katie mirror larchmont

I turned thirty-three a couple of weeks ago. It was, in many respects, a completely ordinary Thursday: I brewed a cup of tea and ate a scone for breakfast, spent my commute reading, walked across Harvard Yard to Morning Prayers before heading to the office.

From there, the day unfolded as so many of them do: full of emails, tasks, small triumphs and frustrations, along with the two standing meetings I have on Thursdays. I walked many of my favorite, familiar paths through Harvard Square, from the Yard to the office to Darwin’s and back again, going about my day under a vivid, arching, bold blue sky.

The day also felt special in some ways: my husband and several sweet friends made sure I felt celebrated, and my colleagues fêted me (between meetings) with croissants and a card they had all signed. One of the joys of social media is receiving birthday wishes from friends near and far, and I checked in a few times during the day to savor those. My parents were visiting from Texas, so they treated J and me to dinner at Pomodoro in the North End.

Last year on my birthday, I was in my fourth month of job hunting: frustrated, lonely, tired, deeply sad. I hadn’t yet landed the temp gig that would lead to the job I have now, and I was struggling mightily with my sense of identity and self-worth. So this year, when a friend asked why I was at work on my birthday, I was able to tell her: coming to work that day was exactly what I wanted.

My friend Lindsey wrote a couple of years ago that her fortieth birthday was all about real life: simple tasks and routines, family dinner, daily joys. Her words resonated in my head this year as I answered email, wrote and rewrote to-do lists, talked with colleagues about work projects and politics, and slipped away to Darwin’s at lunchtime for black bean soup and chitchat with my people there. I sat on a bench outside later that afternoon, sipping an iced tea and taking deep breaths to clear my head. And I thought, again, of Lindsey’s words: more of this.

Thirty-three is a place both rich and demanding: I have responsibilities at work, church and home, which often means trying to juggle a lot of balls. Thirty-three is gradually learning to ask for help with the juggling. Thirty-three is grateful that my husband and others are willing to step up and help me – but I still have to ask, and keep asking.

Thirty-three is speaking up more often, stretching out to take up a bit more space in this world. Thirty-three is leaning into my daily routines, my trusted relationships, my work neighborhood, and treasuring them all while leaving room for surprises.

Thirty-three is reading a lot of books and blogs (always) but also learning to step away from the constant information barrage: to take a long walk with my thoughts for company, or sit outside watching the sky.

Thirty-three is more aware of this world’s heartache than I’ve ever been, and also asking what I can do to make a small daily difference where I am.

Thirty-three is doing a lot of listening, and also a lot of talking, about the big questions: vocation and adulthood, politics and faith, marriage and friendship. Thirty-three also knows that the small things can save our lives every single day.

Thirty-three is growing more confident in my own skin, more accepting of my flaws (and other people’s), more and more grateful for this rich, messy, heartbreaking, quietly miraculous life.

strand bookstore awning nyc

One of my favorite things about traveling alone: I can go to as many bookstores as I want. My husband is a patient man, but when we’re traveling together, he occasionally wants to see something other than the inside of a bookstore. (I can’t imagine why.)

On my solo trip to NYC in mid-August, I indulged my book-browsing habit to the tune of five bookstores in four days. I came home with a dozen new-to-me books (stuffed into the Strand tote bag I had prudently carried along), and a full bookworm heart.

three lives co bookstore nyc front

I stayed at the Larchmont Hotel in the West Village, so my first stop was Three Lives & Co., just a few blocks away. It’s a cozy, well-curated space with shelves that reach nearly to the ceiling.

three lives bookstore interior

I eavesdropped on a bookseller who was talking novels with a customer, and chimed in to second his recommendation of Where’d You Go, Bernadette. (My purchases: Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks and Thomas Montasser’s charming novel A Very Special Year.)

Last time I visited Idlewild Books, they were in a second-floor storefront near Union Square, but they have moved to a spacious ground-floor shop in the West Village. I went in for a browse and picked up a quirky New England travel guide. The a/c was on the fritz and the box fans were blasting, but I loved nosing around the stacks and dreaming of trips I’d love to take.

idlewild books nyc interior

Up on Bleecker Street, also in the Village, bookbook provided another break from the heat and a fascinating place to browse. I picked up some good nonfiction at 50% off, including The Empathy Exams and H is for Hawk.

bookbook bookstore bleecker street west village nyc

I spent a good portion of my Sunday wandering the Upper West Side, and Book Culture on Columbus Ave. was a must. I love their huge ground floor full of gorgeous fiction, fascinating nonfiction and beautiful gifts, and their cozy children’s section in the basement is perfection. I came away with a whole stack: fiction, nonfiction and a couple of children’s books. And I loved this display toward the front of the store.

book culture women display

The Strand, with its 18 miles (!) of bookshelves, wasn’t far from my hotel, but I didn’t make it there until Sunday night – too busy wandering. I slipped in for a browse just before closing time and bought The Art of Slow Writing, which Addie had recommended. And then – because I could – I went back the next morning before my train left, and came away with a journal and a couple of gifts.

strand bookstore nyc exterior

I’m heading back to NYC later this fall, and a couple of these stores will definitely be on my list. If you’ve got other favorite NYC bookstores, let me know – I’m always looking for more bookish places to enjoy.

Drawing a deep breath

orinoco glasses lights fence

After work on Friday evening, I caught the bus from Harvard Square to a house on a hill in Lexington, where my friend Hannah lives. I had a bottle of (boxed) rosé in my bag, and a poem to share with the women in my book club (we dubbed this meeting our “poetry potluck”). I walked up Massachusetts Avenue from the bus station in the soft evening light, the first act of Hamilton in my headphones.

When I pushed open the screen door, I found Hannah and our friend Rachael standing in the kitchen, chopping apples and kale, seeding pomegranates, laying figs and prosciutto out on a cutting board. I greeted them (and Percy the cat), then joined the action: whisking eggs for an omelet, slicing cheddar cheese, pouring water. The three of us gathered around a small round table, munching and laughing, talking about TV shows and weddings, work and friendship, the stuff of daily life. Two other members joined us later, and the five of us moved into the living room, curling up on chairs and couches, barefoot, utterly at ease together.

We took turns reading our chosen poems aloud: words by Billy Collins, Wislawa Szymborska, Elizabeth Alexander, Kevin Young. We dipped black bean chips into spicy salsa and poured out the last of the rosé, and heaved open the windows to listen to (and smell) a glorious fall rain. Much later, Louisa and I caught an Uber back to Cambridge together, and I walked the few blocks from her street to Central Square, listening to the rain patter on my umbrella.

The whole evening felt like a gift – a deep breath I badly needed.

This September has been crowded and insistent, hot and demanding – at work, at home, all over the place. The national news has been full of raw grief, and I have also been dealing with some heartaches (my own and other people’s) closer to home. Last week felt particularly hard and helpless, so much so that I couldn’t even write about it here. Hope and peace have been difficult to find.

That evening of poetry and rich conversation did not erase my problems: none of us left Hannah’s that night with a magic solution to our own struggles or the continuing (seemingly intractable) problems of race relations and civil discourse in this country. The pain and fear are still present: they have not disappeared, and neither have the smaller daily trials we all must face. But those hours in that living room, laughing and listening and holding space for each other’s stories, were a balm to my soul. They are lingering in my memory, bolstering me up as I face another week. And I am grateful.

Wishing you a peaceful week, friends – with lots of deep breaths.

brattle bookshop doors boston

Fall is the time to dig into new books (though, really, that’s every season around here). The doors above are from the outdoor sale lot of the fabulous Brattle Book Shop in Boston, and the books below are what I’ve been reading lately:

A Very Special Year, Thomas Montasser
I heard Liberty talk about this novel on All the Books and picked it up at Three Lives & Co. Valerie takes over her aunt Charlotte’s bookshop after Charlotte disappears. Despite her career plans, Valerie (of course) finds herself utterly seduced by the shop’s books and readers. A truly delightful slim novel, in the vein of The Haunted Bookshop or The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

Outlander, Diana Gabaldon
I’d heard about this sweeping time-travel romance series from a dozen friends, plus my mom. Claire Randall is traveling with her husband in the Scottish Highlands after WWII when she steps through a circle of standing stones and finds herself in 1743. It’s a wild (often violent) ride as Claire adapts to an entirely different world and becomes tightly linked to the clan MacKenzie and a young outlaw called Jamie Fraser. Powerful storytelling, fascinating history and dry wit, though with waaaay more sex and violence than my usual fare.

Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms, Katherine Rundell
Wilhelmina “Will” Silver relishes her life running wild on the farm her father manages in Zimbabwe. But after his death, she’s sent to England and finds herself completely unequipped for the foreign, catty world of boarding school. I found the book’s African scenes much more fully realized than the English ones, but I loved Will’s fierce, bold spirit and Rundell’s writing. Found at Book Culture.

The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, Richard Hugo
I’d never heard of Hugo’s poetry, but I found this essay collection at Book Culture and loved much of his wry, thoughtful advice on writing poetry and being a poet (two different things). Witty, aphoristic and encouraging, if a little uneven. A good read to start off the fall.

First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies, Kate Andersen Brower
The role of First Lady is visible, public and largely undefined – so each woman who takes on that mantle truly makes it her own. Brower draws a sharp, thoroughly researched, fascinating portrait of First Ladies from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama. Really well done (and, obviously, so timely).

The Bell Family, Noel Streatfeild
I discovered Streatfeild via You’ve Got Mail, so I was delighted to find this novel at Book Culture on the Upper West Side (shades of The Shop Around the Corner!). The Bell family lives in a crowded vicarage in the East End of London, and their adventures are funny, sweet and altogether delightful.

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

What are you reading?