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Since June began, I’ve flown to Texas and back, endured flight delays and up-and-down weather, taken on all the new writing assignments at work, and squeezed in half a dozen books. Here they are:

Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares, Aarti Namdev Shahani
Like so many immigrants, the Shahani family came to the U.S. for a better life. When Aarti was a young teenager, her father and uncle were accused of selling electronics to a notorious cartel. The case dragged on for years and had a powerful effect on the whole family. She brings it to vivid life: both her family’s experience and the glaring failures of the U.S. immigration and legal systems. Powerful and timely. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 1). I also got to interview Aarti, who is now an NPR correspondent, and she was lovely.

The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah
France, 1940: the world is at war, the Nazis are suddenly everywhere, and many Frenchmen are conscripted. Sisters Vianne and Isabelle, who have long had a contentious relationship, must figure out how to survive. I finally read this novel at my sister’s (repeated) urging. A super slow start, and Vianne and Isabelle both drove me crazy for a while, but it was a compelling look at women in France during the war. (The ending will break your heart several times over.)

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, Kim Michele Richardson
Cussy Mary Carter is the last of her kind: a rare blue-skinned people living in the hills of Kentucky during the Depression. She’s also a Pack Horse librarian, delivering books and magazines (via her mule, Junia) to people in isolated rural communities. I loved learning about the Pack Horse librarians (who were real people), but some of the plot was a bit lacking.

The Last Romantics, Tara Conklin
Fiona Skinner, youngest of four children and renowned poet, is asked about her most famous work and its origin. She goes back to a time they called the Pause: after her father died, her mother remained bedridden for nearly three years. The events of the Pause affect Fiona, her sisters and their brother for years to come. Conklin is a strong writer (I loved her first novel, The House Girl). This one kept me turning pages, but I wasn’t sure I really knew the characters by the end.

Love Sugar Magic: A Sprinkle of Spirits, Anna Meriano
Leo Legroño is trying to learn magic, keep her older sisters happy, and be there for her best friend, Caroline. When Leo’s deceased abuela and several other spirits accidentally cross into this world from the other side, Leo and Caroline must figure out how to send them back. A sweet, funny, magical second entry in this middle-grade series.

The Floating Feldmans, Elyssa Friedland
Annette Feldman is turning 70, and she’s determined to have the perfect family vacation to celebrate. But forcing her husband, two bickering grown children, their partners and her daughter’s two teenagers onto a cruise ship has unexpected results. A fast, funny, often bitingly witty novel about family and secrets. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 23).

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

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book apple bench sunlight

And just like that, it’s June. I’m still catching up from a very full May – so here are the books I’ve been reading lately. It’s a short list, but a good one:

The Chelsea Girls, Fiona Davis
Hazel Ripley is expected to follow in her actor father’s footsteps, especially after her brother is killed in WWII. But a USO tour to Italy sparks her budding creativity as a playwright. Davis tells the story of Hazel, her fellow actress and friend Maxine, and the legendary Chelsea Hotel in NYC. A solid historical novel about female friendship, ambition and secrets. (I like Davis’ work.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 30).

Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past, Sarah Parcak
Space archaeology sounds like a cross between Indiana Jones and Star Wars – but it’s a real thing, and it’s changing the face of archaeology. Parcak shares stories from the field and explains how high-tech satellite imagery can make a real difference to the future of her field. Engaging, smart nonfiction. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 9).

God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America, Lyz Lenz
America is divided: we hear this all the time, and many of us are living some version of it. Lenz, a journalist who’s lived in the Midwest for years, saw her marriage and her church fall apart in the wake of the 2016 election. She’s spent time with many Christian pastors and congregants to try and understand what’s going on. The story, as you might imagine, is complicated. I’m a Texan living in New England and I have small-town Midwestern roots, so Lenz’s reporting and her personal experience resonated deeply with me. So insightful and honest. To review for Shelf Awareness (out August 1).

Sherwood, Meagan Spooner
Robin of Locksley is dead, and his people – including Maid Marian – are devastated. When Will Scarlet is thrown into prison, Marian impersonates Robin to help get him out. But her actions create a ripple effect, and while she loves her new role as Robin, she must keep it secret for various reasons. A clever YA take on the Robin Hood myth – though I didn’t love a couple of the plot elements. (I did love the Merry Men, especially Alan-a-Dale, and Marian’s maid, Elena.)

Unmarriageable, Soniah Kamal
Literature teacher Alys Binat, the second of five daughters, has sworn never to marry. But when she meets one Valentine Darsee, that may change. Kamal’s Pride and Prejudice retelling, set in early-2000s Pakistan, is funny and fresh. I especially loved Alys’ relationship with her best friend Sherry, and a few scenes between Alys and her father. Recommended by Anne.

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

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light leaves village nyc

I have what I call “the Liberty problem” when I really love a book: I want to do what Liberty Hardy sometimes does on All the Books! and gush, “It’s so good. It’s SO GOOD!” It’s challenging, though, when I have to review a book I love that much – and write about it (somewhat) intelligently.

That’s how I feel about The Dearly Beloved, Cara Wall’s debut novel about two ministers and their wives who live and work in Greenwich Village, starting in the 1960s. (Bonus: the church in the book is inspired by Wall’s childhood church, First Presbyterian in NYC – or at least located on the exact same spot. It’s in the part of the Village I love dearly, and I’ve walked by it many times; I even went to a Christmas fair there, back in December.)

I got to read an advance copy of The Dearly Beloved and interview Cara for Shelf Awareness. Below is part of my review, and some excerpts from our email conversation.

—————————-

The son of a respected classics professor at Harvard, Charles Barrett has always expected to follow in his father’s academic footsteps. During his undergraduate years as a history major, he is caught off guard by two seismic events. First, he realizes, suddenly and irrevocably, that he wants to be a minister, for reasons he can’t entirely explain. At nearly the same time, he meets Lily, a brilliant, reserved orphan studying at Radcliffe. She captivates Charles, though she tells him immediately that she can never believe in God. Over the next several years, Charles convinces Lily to build a life with him, despite knowing that she will always stand resolutely apart from his faith.

James MacNally, the youngest son of a drunken father and a worried mother, has hardly thought about God until a distant uncle offers him the chance to go to college, to escape his bleak Chicago neighborhood. Growing impatient with abstract philosophy and rhetoric, he moves toward the church as a way to confront the injustices he sees in the world. He meets Nan, a Southern minister’s daughter studying music, and they marry. When, in 1963, Charles and James are jointly called to pastor a Presbyterian church in Greenwich Village, these four lives become inextricably and permanently intertwined.

As the church–historically comfortable, white and middle-class–struggles to adapt to the turbulent 1960s, its two young ministers must adjust to their new jobs, their multifaceted joint responsibilities and to each other. Jane Atlas, the long-time, no-nonsense church secretary, guides them both with a steady hand. But they must learn to navigate the politics of ministry on their own, and work in tandem while respecting one another’s vastly different perspectives.

Wall uses the backdrop of professional ministry and the pressing questions of faith and vocation to expertly explore the layers of connection that exist within each marriage and between the two couples. Over the years, James, Charles and Nan each grow into a deep personal faith, but all of them wrestle mightily with doubts and fears, especially when one of Charles and Lily’s twin sons, Will, is diagnosed with autism. Charles, to his own shame, finds it particularly difficult to accept his son as he is, but all four adults ultimately respond to Will in ways that make them more compassionate, more human.

Wall probes the deep love that exists in each marriage, and the (non-religious) faith both pairs of spouses must place in one another. Through decades of heartbreak, happiness and many ordinary days, they build lives and families the best way they know how; with honesty, compassion and as much grace as they can give themselves and one another. At the end of the book, they have all become people “who had loved and hoped and worked and lost and failed and made amends.”

Quiet, sharply observed and stunning in its simple compassion, The Dearly Beloved is a powerful meditation on friendship, calling, marriage and what happens when faith meets truly hard times.

KNG: Tell us about your inspiration for The Dearly Beloved.

CW: I didn’t set out to write a story about ministers. I was reading Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin, which is about two couples. I loved the way she wrote about marriage and explored what happens after the traditional “happily ever after” wedding moment.

I grew up in a church with two ministers. One was very tall and the other was fiery. They were both dignified, commanding and august. This book is inspired by my memories of them, which are full of reverence and the tiniest sprinkle of fear.

My family history is steeped in religion. My mother and father were raised as Nazarenes–my paternal grandmother converted when she had a vision of an angel on the other side of the washing line. It was a strict religion–no drinking, dancing or listening to music outside the church. But my grandparents’ churches were also warm and welcoming.

Lily tells Charles early in their relationship that she can never believe in God. But he loves her and builds a life with her anyway. Can you talk about this central disagreement in their marriage?

I see Charles and Lily as very much alike. They are both intellectuals, and both make deliberate decisions about the way they want to live their lives. They both grew up in loving families but felt isolated because they were more serious than everyone around them. Charles hadn’t experienced tragedy in the way Lily had, but he was familiar with her feeling of isolation. He and Lily respond to that loneliness in each other–they understand it intuitively. To me, the central issue in their marriage is not religion, per se–it is that Charles wants Lily to be happy, and Lily has accepted the fact that she will never be happy. She lives in pragmatism and he lives in hope.

Also, Charles didn’t discover God until just a few years before he met Lily. His faith is still forming as he courts her, and it grows around her in the same way trees will grow around boulders and fences. Her atheism causes him to constantly re-evaluate his life. He is never on autopilot, because he is always deciding what it means to be a minister whose wife does not believe in God. If he were married to a believer he might be less substantial, his faith lighter and easier. His relationship with Lily makes his faith–and his life–richer and more nuanced. More challenging, certainly, but a challenge that makes him stronger and better able to lead a church.

The book tells the story of Charles’s and James’s work, and how the church responds to them as ministers. That response is sometimes contentious.

The biggest misconception about churches is that everyone gets along. This is not true! A church is like a co-op building–it has a board and voting members. It’s a hierarchy, which causes power struggles. For every member, church is one of the most important places in their lives, which means they’re intensely invested in how it’s run.

Charles and James come into a divided church, in a divided time, in a divided society. They are caught between preserving the historical identity of a respected institution while steering it through the cultural changes of the 1960s in a way that makes it relevant to modern times. This is like turning a cruise ship: there is more than one propeller to redirect, and it takes a long time to head in a new direction. Charles and James make choose that new direction for their church. This is not, generally, the way Presbyterian churches make decisions, so they get in some trouble. But James’s inherent need to take action made it plausible that he would bypass tradition for what he thought was right.

Three of the four main characters are people of deep faith, but their faiths are quite different from one another. How did you approach writing about their varied struggles with belief and doubt?

I have every one of the struggles with belief and doubt that these characters have. I parcelled out my own, varied experiences with faith between them. Writing about four different religious lives was freeing for me–I often feel like I have to make up my mind about faith and religion, but while writing this book I was allowed to embrace my indecision. I had the chance to think deeply about the ways our faiths of origin affect the way we see the world and the way we live our lives. Some people follow their childhood faith without thinking, some tweak it, some completely disavow it. Whatever we do, it remains embedded in us.

————-

It was a pleasure to talk to Cara, and if you’re looking for an insightful novel about real people grappling with faith and love and calling, I highly recommend The Dearly Beloved. 

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velocipede races book

May is a whirlwind when you work in higher ed (I say this every year). Here are the books I’ve been dipping into on my commutes, at lunch, before bed and whenever else I can:

The American Agent, Jacqueline Winspear
1940: London is under siege as the Blitz takes hold, and an American broadcaster is found murdered in her flat. Two shadowy government agencies call Maisie Dobbs onto the case; she’s also volunteering as an ambulance driver and hoping to adopt Anna, a young evacuee. I am a longtime Maisie fan, and I loved this 15th (!) entry in the series. Solid writing, a well-done plot and so much British grit.

The Velocipede Races, Emily June Street
Emmeline longs to compete in bicycle races like her twin brother. But aristocratic women are forbidden to ride, much less race. When she’s forced into marriage to a rich man, she sees a chance to pursue her dreams secretly–but several surprises are in store. A friend snagged this novel for me at a cycling conference. Emmy is frustrating at times, but the plot is fun – especially if you love bikes.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey, Robert Macfarlane
I will read anything Macfarlane writes. He’s a brilliant nature writer who renders physical details beautifully, but sees under them, into the shape of things. This book – his latest and longest – is a sort of inversion of his previous work: an exploration of caves, crevices, burial grounds and other hidden places. I struggled with the subject matter a bit, but his adventures are fascinating. (I highly recommend his previous books: I particularly loved Landmarks.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 4).

Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble, Anna Meriano
Leo (age 11), the youngest of five daughters, stumbles on a secret: all the women in her family are brujas (witches) whose magic comes out through their baking. Naturally, she’s dying to experiment, with sometimes disastrous results. A sweet, funny middle-grade story of family, baking and magic. Found at Trident.

In Another Time, Jillian Cantor
Max, a bookseller, and Hanna, a Jewish violinist, meet in Germany just as Hitler is coming to power. They fall in love, and then Hanna wakes up in a field in 1946 with a decade of her memory gone. She tries to build a new life, not knowing what has happened to Max. I’ve liked Cantor’s previous historical novels, but this one had a plot element that really didn’t work for me. I did love Hanna’s bond with her nephew, and appreciated her fraught but loving relationship with her sister.

The Beautiful Strangers, Camille Di Maio
“Find the beautiful stranger.” That’s what Kate Morgan’s granddad begs of her when she hops a train from San Francisco to San Diego, to work on the set of Some Like It Hot. Soon Kate discovers a mystery surrounding the Hotel del Coronado, including a ghost who shares her name. I love Coronado Island – I’ve stayed there several times – and this sweet love story evokes it perfectly.

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

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Rachel held Evans headshot

Like many people I know, online and off, I’ve spent the past week beginning to mourn Rachel Held Evans‘ death.

Rachel came across my radar nearly a decade ago, just before she released her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town. She was already writing online about faith in a way I’d rarely seen before: asking hard questions, wrestling with the tenets of the Christianity she’d grown up with and the layers of (often frustrating) evangelical messages attached to it.

After a warm email exchange, Rachel sent me an advance copy of Monkey Town. I read it avidly and found myself nodding at almost every page. Our experiences, as women raised in southern evangelical churches around the same time, were strikingly similar, and she rendered hers so well.

I kept reading Rachel’s blog, sometimes tweeting about her work or to/with her, for years afterward. I watched her grow bolder and more powerful in calling out the abuses of power (and abuse of many other kinds) perpetrated by churches and church leaders. She had the energy for the kind of online engagement I often shrink from, but I was (am) in awe of her voice and the way she used it. She wrote three other books, all of which I read and found well worth reading. She was no plaster saint: I watched her speak in impatience and anger sometimes, and I watched her listen and apologize and try to do better.

Rachel believed, fiercely, in the kind of Love that makes room for resurrection and redemption for all people. She championed the voices of women and LGBT people in the church. She made space for so many of us to grieve and doubt and ask questions – especially those who are refugees from a certain kind of evangelicalism, but who have not been able to stop wrestling with this story. She admitted, always, that she did not have all the answers.

We were all hoping and praying Rachel would get better after she went into the hospital with an infection a few weeks ago. My heart aches for her husband and two small children, her parents, and all those who knew and loved her. (Like Rachel, I am one of two sisters who are very different but love one another deeply, and I especially hurt for her sister Amanda.)

I’ve been amazed, in the last week, by how many people in different parts of my life have spoken about Rachel and what she meant to them. We miss her deeply, already. She was smart and fierce and thoughtful, kind and funny and faithful and brave. I never got to meet her in person, but she was my friend. May she rest in deep peace and love.

(Image from Rachel’s site)

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My favorite colors are the colors of the sea, blue and gray and green, depending on the weather. My brother William is a fisherman, and he tells me that when he is in the middle of a fog-bound sea the water is a color for which there is no name.

—Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia MacLachlan

When I was a child, I read this book – slim and spare, with a pale pink cover – over and over again. I loved the story of Sarah, who comes from Maine to the wide plains of the Midwest, to be a new wife for Jacob and a stepmother for Anna and Caleb. She brings her cat, Seal, and they all learn to live with one another. The children, who have never seen the sea, listen enthralled to Sarah’s stories about Maine.

My beloved Neponset river trail, here in Dorchester, winds along marshes and brush and through several public parks, with views of water and trees (and also bridges and roads). Nearly every time I’m out there, especially when it’s overcast, I think of Sarah’s words, the rhythm of them: blue and gray and green.

Katie trail blue gray water

 

The water is sometimes blue, of course, though it’s often gray (the same goes for the sky). The grass and trees are greening up, right now, and the broken slabs of granite along the shoreline are always gradations of gray. Sometimes the sky glows pink or orange, streaked with sunset fire or smudged with purple. Sometimes, the light on the water glitters gold.

In the winter, the trail is often edged – occasionally submerged – with fresh white snow, turning the color scheme into blue and white and brown. But in all other seasons, it is blue and gray and green. The combinations shift, depending on the weather. I have run it in all seasons, in bright morning sunlight and pitch winter dark and every time of day in between, and I love noticing the changes, subtle brushstrokes shifting with the light and the time of year.

My favorite color, as most people know, has long been red – and I’ve not lost my love for a bright flash of scarlet or deep crimson. But my favorite landscape, these days, is blue and gray and green.

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book puzzle flowers table ranunculus

Somehow, it’s nearly May. I am deep in the pre-Commencement swirl at work, but am snatching reading time where I can. Here’s the latest roundup:

Ask Again, Yes, Mary Beth Keane
Brian Stanhope and Francis Gleeson meet on the job as rookie cops at the NYPD in the 1970s. They end up being next-door neighbors in the suburbs, and a shattering incident one night changes both their families forever. A thoughtful, heartbreaking novel about family and forgiveness. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 28).

The Favorite Daughter, Patti Callahan Henry
Ten years ago, Lena Donohue found her fiancé kissing her sister on the morning of her wedding. She fled her small South Carolina town and has never looked back. But when her dad’s memory starts to go, her brother calls her to come home. Lena–now Colleen–and her siblings must confront the past and try to mend their strained relationships. A warmhearted, poignant family saga. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 4).

Field Notes on Love, Jennifer E. Smith
Hugo is all set to travel the U.S. by train with his girlfriend Margaret before they start university, until she breaks up with him. The tickets are in her name, so he finds another Margaret (Mae, a filmmaker from the Hudson Valley) to go with him. They spend a week together, contemplating their futures (and, of course, each other). I enjoy Smith’s sweet, funny, highly improbable YA love stories. I especially loved the group texts with Hugo’s five siblings (he’s a sextuplet) and Mae’s wise Nana.

Swimming for Sunlight, Allie Larkin
Reeling from her divorce, Katie Ellis takes her rescue dog, Bark, and moves back in with her grandmother in Florida. Nan’s friends welcome her back, and soon Katie is designing costumes for an underwater mermaid show. A sweet, engaging novel about anxiety and family, love and moving on.

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

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