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still book stack table ranunculus flower

So far this month, I’ve been flipping through old favorites and diving deep into new books. Here’s the latest roundup:

I’ll Be There For You: The One About Friends, Kelsey Miller
I’m a longtime Friends fan, though I came to it late. I blew through this smart, well-researched, loving look at the origin, history and cultural impact of one of my favorite shows. Miller adores the show, but she’s not afraid to question its more difficult parts. Fascinating and so much fun.

Four Gifts: Seeking Self-Care for Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength, April Yamasaki
Sarah Bessey chose this book to kick off a yearlong challenge to read spiritual formation books by people of color. My go-tos in this genre are all white women, so I appreciated the nudge. Yamasaki is wise and thoughtful. Lots of her advice is common sense – but we all need a reminder sometimes.

What Now?, Ann Patchett
I love Patchett’s essays and some of her novels (and Parnassus, the Nashville bookstore she founded). This quick read is based on her commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College. Warmhearted, wise advice for college grads and anyone who’s ever wondered about their winding path (which I bet is most of us).

Wishtree, Katherine Applegate
I picked up this slim middle-grade novel at Porter Square Books. It’s narrated by Red, a red oak tree who serves as the neighborhood “wishtree” – people tie wishes to its branches. When a young, lonely girl moves in next door, Red becomes determined to help her find a friend. A sweet story with gorgeous illustrations (and I loved Bongo the crow).

Belong to Me, Marisa de los Santos
After rereading Love Walked In last month, I turned back to this sequel-of-sorts, which finds Cornelia in the suburbs, struggling with new challenges. This book is full of warmth and vivid detail and characters I want to be friends with – even Piper, Cornelia’s neighbor, who is hard to like at first, but I’ve come to adore her. So many good and true lines.

Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith, Sarah Bessey
Reading Four Gifts (see above) spurred me to (finally) pick up Sarah’s second book, on her struggles with church and faith and how she found her way back. I love the sorting metaphor, and it feels particularly apt right now as I am between churches. Her words on community and grief and calling are so good.

The Golden Tresses of the Dead, Alan Bradley
Flavia de Luce is back for a 10th adventure, involving a human finger found in her sister’s wedding cake and a couple of mysterious deaths (naturally). I like this series, though I think it’s struggling a bit lately. Really fun escapist British mystery.

Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace, Christie Purifoy
Christie is a gardener, a writer and an Internet friend of mine. This, her second book, examines the places she’s lived and loved (each chapter has a different tree motif) and her efforts to care for them. So much here about loss, grief, joy, transition, community and how we shape and are shaped by our places. I loved it. To review for Shelf Awareness(out March 12).

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

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Ivey book slippers twinkle lights

January has been unpredictable, weather-wise: frigid, icy, blustery, mild, wet, sunshiny. As always, the books are getting me through. Here’s the latest roundup:

The Island of Sea Women, Lisa See
The women of Jeju, an island off the south coast of Korea, traditionally made their living as haenyeo, deep-sea divers. See explores the island’s matriarchal culture and the powerful changes wrought by the 20th century (wars, occupation, new technologies) through the story of two haenyeo, Kim Young-sook and Han Mi-ja. Young-sook recounts their childhood friendship, their years of diving together and the heart-wrenching losses they suffered. Really well done; See is prolific but I hadn’t read her before. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 5).

Christmas on the Island, Jenny Colgan
Colgan returns to the Scottish island of Mure for a Christmas-themed novel. I find Flora and Joel (the main couple) frustrating, but I like Flora’s family, her teacher friend Lorna, and Saif, the Syrian refugee doctor. Entertaining, though not my favorite Colgan.

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway: A Year of Gardening and (Wild)Life, Kate Bradbury
The tiny back garden of Kate Bradbury’s flat in Brighton, England, was covered in decking when she bought it. She set out to revive it: ripping up the decking, planting ground cover and shrubs, finding flowers to attract bees and birds. She writes movingly about her childhood garden memories, the loss of habitat for wildlife in the UK, and her mother’s illness. Keenly observed; slow in places. Took me weeks, but it was lovely. Found, as so many good things are, at Three Lives (in December).

To the Bright Edge of the World, Eowyn Ivey
In 1885, Colonel Allen Forrester heads out into the (mostly) unmapped Alaska Territory with two men, while his wife Sophie must stay behind. Ivey tells their story, and that of the Colonel’s encounters with Alaska and its people, through journal entries and letters. I loved Ivey’s debut, The Snow Child, but loved this one even more. Ivey’s writing is stunning, and I adored Sophie (bright, curious, determined and so human) and the Colonel’s keen eye and compassion.

Mistletoe and Murder, Robin Stevens
Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are spending Christmas (1935) in Cambridge, where, predictably, a murder finds them. Hazel narrates their fifth adventure in this fun British middle-grade series. I find Daisy a bit irritating, but I like Hazel and the mysteries are always good fun. I also liked the deft handling here of race and immigration in the UK – not a new issue but an important one.

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, Sonia Purnell
Losing her leg in a hunting accident didn’t slow Virginia Hall down: she would go on to become a key force for the Allies in World War II, working undercover in France to coordinate and support the Resistance. Purnell delves deeply into Virginia’s (formerly classified) story to weave a gripping tale of an extraordinary woman. Fascinating, well-researched and cinematic at times. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 9).

This Much Country, Kristin Knight Pace
Reeling from a broken heart, Kristin Knight agreed to spend a winter in Alaska caring for a team of sled dogs. To her own surprise, she fell in love with the dogs and the place, becoming a dog musher and eventually opening her own kennel. She found romantic love again, too. Her memoir is a bit uneven, but the setting is captivating, and there are some wonderful lines. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 5).

Becoming, Michelle Obama
This memoir was on so many “best of 2018” lists (and broke all kinds of publishing records). It’s a wise, warm, thoughtful account of Obama’s childhood on the South Side of Chicago, her experiences at Princeton and beyond, and life as the First Lady. But it’s also more than that: a graceful meditation on how we become ourselves, a plainspoken tribute to all the folks who have supported her, and a call for all of us to keep investing in children who need it. Well written and just so good.

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

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heart-trail-dusk

As regular readers know, there are few things I love more than a long walk, in any season and almost any weather. My walking and reading inform each other: the books I’m reading often provide fodder for ambulatory reflection, but some books capture the pleasures of walking itself.

Scottish author Robert Macfarlane (whose work I adore) collected hundreds of “land-words” for his book Landmarks. Each section begins with a lyrical essay about a type of landform in the British Isles (mountain, coastline, forest), and contains a glossary of related words. Walkers and word nerds – or those who are both – will find much to love in Macfarlane’s treasures from “the word-hoard.”

For those who particularly relish a walk on a wet day, Melissa Harrison’s Rain: Four Walks in English Weather is a celebration of misty treks through various landscapes and seasons. I picked it up, fittingly, at Blackwells in Oxford last year.

The octogenarian title character of Kathleen Rooney’s novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, embarks on a different kind of journey: a zigzagging walk around Manhattan on New Year’s Eve 1984. Narrating her odyssey with the wry zingers that defined her advertising career, Boxfish takes readers on a tour of 20th-century New York on her way to a good steak at Delmonico’s. I’d walk with her any time.

And finally, Emma Hooper’s spare, lovely debut novel, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, follows Etta as she treks across the plains of Canada, determined to walk until she finds the ocean. Like Lillian, she is elderly, a bit lonely and fiercely stubborn. Like Macfarlane and Harrison, she walks with purpose and a sharp, observant eye.

These books celebrate the particular joys of a journey, whether it’s a stroll around the block or a cross-country peregrination. The call to interested readers is the same: let’s go.

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

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think deeply be kind sign words window lights

You don’t need me to say it: by any measure, the last two years in American politics have been turbulent, if not downright disorienting. As politicians engage in shouting matches on social media (and elsewhere), I’ve been turning to an unlikely source of comfort: memoirs by staffers from the Obama White House. (This is a little easier to do now that I no longer work inside the maelstrom of politics every day.)

It isn’t just nostalgia, or denial. Whether they’re youthful idealists like David Litt (Thanks, Obama), who jumped on the former senator’s campaign and ended up spending years working for him, or veteran public servants like Wendy R. Sherman (Not for the Faint of Heart), whose career spans multiple administrations, these voices have helped me in two key ways. They remind me of what it was like to live in slightly saner–if no less complicated–political times. And they help explain, with their insider views of the Obama administration’s triumphs and failures, how the U.S. reached its current moment.

Ben Rhodes, who spent nearly a decade working on foreign policy and communications for Obama, chronicles the complex issues, impossible decisions and flat-out unbelievable moments of his political career in The World As It Is – one of my favorite books of 2018. His thoughtful accounts of the Arab Spring and the reopening of U.S.-Cuba relations make a great pairing with Sherman’s blow-by-blow of negotiating the Iran nuclear deal and Litt’s breezy but sharply observed rendering of life as a speechwriter for Obama. These memoirs, plus Alyssa Mastromonaco’s Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?, which I read last summer, offer insights on leadership and show their authors’ staunch commitment to hard work and public service.

Mastromonaco wins for best title (and most wry humor), but all four books provide fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpses into the daily lives unfolding alongside massive world events. Even more importantly, they remind me that even in fraught and divisive times, the American experiment of democracy is still–à la Mastromonaco–an excellent idea.

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness for Readers, where it appeared a couple of weeks ago.

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Saturday evening girls club book Christmas tree

I started the new year in a serious reading slump – nothing on my stacks looked or sounded good. Fortunately, these books helped pull me out of it. Here’s the latest roundup:

The Saturday Evening Girls Club, Jane Healey
I grabbed this one at the library and flew through it in a day. An enjoyable, well-told story of four young women who belong to the titular club in early 20th-century Boston. I loved the North End setting, the details about culture and traditions in Russian Jewish and Italian families, and the fierce friendship of the four main characters.

The Age of Light, Whitney Scharer
I’m sort of sick of these woman-behind-the-famous-man stories. But Scharer tells this one well: it’s the story of Lee Miller, Vogue model and muse to Man Ray who became a writer and photographer in her own right. Starting in the 1960s, Scharer flashes back to Miller’s time in Paris with Man, and her later work as a war photographer. I wanted more of the latter, but this is still an evocative novel. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 5).

The Book of Delights, Ross Gay
Delight, Gay insists, is worth celebrating, and he does – to the tune of several dozen small essays, written over the course of a year. So many quirky, everyday moments and blessings, which also draw in race, family, work, memories, gardening and all of life. Aptly, the book is itself a delight. Wonderful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 12).

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton
This twisty mystery is exactly as billed: Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day, with a dash of Twin Peaks. Aiden Bishop wakes up every morning in the body of a different host at Blackheath, a crumbling, spooky English estate. He has eight days (and hosts) to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle, which keeps happening every night. Meanwhile, he’s trying to help a mysterious woman named Anna and not lose his mind completely. Jaclyn and I agree: this one is BONKERS, but a lot of fun.

On Turpentine Lane, Elinor Lipman
I like Lipman’s sharp, funny romantic comedies, and this one was highly entertaining. Faith Frankel buys a house whose previous owner may or may not have killed her husbands (!) in it. Meanwhile, her fiancé is walking across America (why?), her father is having a midlife artistic and personal crisis, and her handsome coworker needs a place to crash. Witty and amusing.

The Rain in Portugal, Billy Collins
I’ve loved Collins’ work since I was a student, and (belatedly) picked up his latest collection at Trident. Whimsical, sometimes wistful, often funny. He has a gift for observing the ordinary. Not my favorite of his, but it has some wonderful lines.

Love Walked In, Marisa de los Santos
This novel is one of my very favorites, and I savored it over a series of cold nights. I love everything about it: Cornelia’s warm, rambling narrative voice; her insight and empathy; and her deep mutual bond with Clare, 11 years old and in desperate need of love. Nourishing and lyrical and so well done.

The Tiny Journalist: Poems, Naomi Shihab Nye
Shihab Nye writes powerful, sharp-eyed poems about our common humanity. The titular poem, and several more, refer to Janna Jihad, a young Palestinian girl who films her daily life under Israeli occupation. Shihab Nye (a Palestinian-American) explores the connections between Janna’s work, her late father (a journalist), her own creative work, and the ways in which all people deserve to live safe, healthy lives. I find poetry tough to write about, but Shihab Nye is always worth reading. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 9).

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

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strand bookstore cookbook shelves

I read 191 books in 2018. So many of them were good ones – not least because I got to review a few dozen gems (and interview a few authors) for Shelf Awareness, my longtime freelance gig.

I shared some favorites halfway through the year, but looking back over all of 2018, these are the ones I couldn’t stop talking about. (A few from my half-year roundup are reposted below.)

Best Feminist Reimagining of Mythology: Circe by Madeline Miller. A fantastic, well-written story of a “minor” sorceress who steps into her own power.

Best Antidote to the Current Political Madness: The World As It Is, Ben Rhodes’ memoir of the near-decade he spent working on communications and foreign policy for President Obama. So insightful and interesting.

Most Essential Reading on Race: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, which weaves together marriage and mass incarceration; and Black is the Body by Emily Bernard, an incisive essay collection about family, race and womanhood.

Best Conversation Starter: The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle. Who would you have at your ideal dinner party? This one was fun and surprisingly moving.

Best Reread: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which grabbed my heart just as it did when I was protagonist Francie’s age.

Most Blazing, Gorgeous Novel of Love and Heartbreak: Love and Ruin by Paula McLain. I did not think I could read another Hemingway novel, but Martha Gellhorn’s narrative voice grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

Most Vivid and Heartrending Refugee Story: The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. (I liked Exit West too, but this dual narrative with its two scrappy female protagonists stole my heart.)

Most Eloquent, Relatable Memoir of Running and Grit: The Long Run by Catriona Menzies-Pike. I think of lines from this witty, beautiful book regularly while I’m running.

Most Compelling Mysteries with a Side of Faith: Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series featuring Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne.

What were your favorite books of 2018?

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watch for the light book bed Christmas tree

December reading is always a crazy mix of airplane reading, the last few review books of the year, and a couple of Advent/Christmas staples. (Above: the book of readings that has shaped my experience of Advent since 2001.) Here’s the last roundup of 2018:

Harry’s Trees, Jon Cohen
I grabbed this novel at the library after Anne raved about it. A slow start for me, but I fell in love with Harry Crane, a Forest Service employee who escapes to the woods after his wife dies. I loved the people he meets – Oriana, a young girl who’s lost her father; Amanda, her relentlessly practical mother; and Olive, the elderly pipe-smoking librarian who gives Oriana a book that changes everything. Magical and moving.

Darius the Great is Not Okay, Adib Khorram
Leigh and Kari both loved this book, and I really enjoyed it. Darius is an Iranian-American teen (and tea lover) who travels to Iran for the first time. His relationships with his dad and little sister were so well drawn and real, and I loved watching him make a real friend and bond with his grandparents.

Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London, Mohsin Hamid
Hamid is better known for his novels – like Exit West, which I loved – but this collection of his essays is wise and thought-provoking. I learned a lot about Pakistan from the “Politics” section, but found more to enjoy in “Art” and “Life.” Found (on sale) at the charming Papercuts JP last month.

Running Home, Katie Arnold
Arnold became a runner as a kid, almost by accident – at the urging of her photographer dad. She chronicles her journey with running (and later ultrarunning), interwoven with her dad’s illness, his death, and their complicated but deeply loving relationship. So many great lines about writing, life, family, and how we shape the stories we tell ourselves. I loved it as a runner and a writer, but I think even if you’re neither, it’s well worth reading. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 12).

Star Crossed, Minnie Darke
Justine is a whip-smart Sagittarius with journalistic ambitions and little regard for astrology. Her childhood friend Nick is an aspiring Aquarian actor who trusts the stars for major life decisions. They reconnect – and Justine starts dabbling in astrology – in this fun Australian novel. I loved all the intertwined stories and Darke’s sharp observations about various star signs. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 21).

Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, Barbara Brown Taylor
Teaching Religion 101 to undergraduates in Georgia for nearly two decades, Taylor (a former Episcopal priest) found much to admire and even envy in Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam. She explores her experiences alongside her students’, and muses on what “holy envy” may have to offer those who are still deeply committed to their own faith. Thoughtful, insightful and so well done, like all Taylor’s books. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 12).

Summer at the Garden Café, Felicity Hayes-McCoy
I loved Hayes-McCoy’s memoir about Ireland and enjoyed her first novel set there. This, the sequel, is charming and fun. It follows the lives of several people in a small village in western Ireland: librarian Hanna, her daughter Jazz, their colleagues and friends.

Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
I received this book as a gift over a decade ago, and I still revisit it almost every December. It’s a story of five loosely connected people who end up in the north of Scotland one Christmas, and the ways they bring hope to each other. So good.

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

What are you reading as we head into 2019?

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