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mostly books interior abingdon uk bookshop

October began with a much-needed break: a trip across the pond to Oxford, my heart’s home, to see friends and dive into bookshops and drink so much tea. I bought half a dozen books there, of course. Here’s what I have been reading, on my long plane rides and since then:

The Austen Escape, Katherine Reay
Engineer Mary Davies is in a slump at work when her childhood best friend Isabel talks her into joining an Austen-themed country house party in England. Once there, Mary thinks they might actually enjoy themselves, until Isabel has a sudden memory lapse and believes the costume party is real. I like Reay’s sweet lit-nerd novels, though the mental health plotline here felt like a stretch. (NB: I’m married to a therapist.) I did enjoy seeing Mary come into her own. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 7).

The Troutbeck Testimony, Rebecca Tope
Persimmon “Simmy” Brown is celebrating her one-year anniversary of moving to the Lake District and opening a flower shop. But a series of disturbing events, including the body of a dead dog and the murder of a local man, mar her joy and draw her into a tangled investigation. Fourth in a series I hadn’t previously read; I liked Simmy, but found some of the other characters a bit annoying. Still an engaging airplane read. Found at the Oxfam bookshop on Turl Street, in Oxford.

High Tide, Veronica Henry
I loved Henry’s novel How to Find Love in a Bookshop and picked this one up at the Oxfam shop in Summertown, Oxford. It’s a charming story of several people who find themselves in the Cornwall village of Pennfleet, just as summer is turning to autumn. Love and soul-searching and dramatic life changes lie ahead, and I loved each character’s arc – they all felt satisfying, and the tone is so engaging. Light and lovely. (I enjoy a dose of British chick lit once in a while.)

The War I Finally Won, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Bradley’s sequel to The War That Saved My Life (which I adored) picks up with Ada Smith and her brother, Jamie, living in the Kentish countryside with their guardian, Susan. As World War II heats up, Ada and her family find themselves hosting Ruth, a German Jewish refugee. Ada’s struggle to accept Ruth, to trust that Susan will care for her and Jamie, and to reckon with her own losses and fears (war-related and otherwise) broke my heart and mended it again. She is so brave, and this is such a great story. Found at Mostly Books in Abingdon (pictured above) on my trip.

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

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rules of magic book sunflowers

I think it’s safe to say that my one little word this year is a sneaky one.

Back in January, I chose magic for my 2017 word, believing and hoping I needed it after a year (in 2016) that felt hard at every turn. I needed all the gumption I could get last year, and I haven’t stopped needing it this year: many days have required equal parts magic and grit. But my word has always been there, peeking around the corner, surprising me, especially when I’m not looking for it.

I do occasional author interviews for Shelf Awareness, my longstanding freelance gig, and I was thrilled when my editor asked if I’d like to talk to Alice Hoffman about her new novel, The Rules of Magic. It’s a prequel to Practical Magic, which I had not read, but I’d read and adored Hoffman’s novel Faithful, and I was so excited about this one.

Spoiler alert: I loved the book. It’s an utterly enchanting, heartbreaking story of three siblings who have to reckon with their unusual gifts and the very ordinary human experiences of love, loss and figuring out who they really are. And I loved talking to Alice, who was so warm and engaging, and answered my questions patiently. The book comes out today, and to celebrate, I’m sharing a few snippets of the Q&A below.

KG: The magic the characters use [in The Rules of Magic] is a kind of everyday alchemy: there’s a sense that magic is already here in our world, and they can channel it or avoid it via certain “rules.” Can you talk about your concept of magic and magical power?

AH: I’m interested in everyday magic: magic that you could turn a corner and find. I think a lot of that has to do with the books I read as a child, because those are the books that make you a writer. I loved Ray Bradbury’s books, and there’s a real sense of that everyday magic in the here and now. That’s what I’m interested in both as a reader and a writer: magic that is affected by the everyday.

My books have a kind of push-pull regarding magic, and also between the mystical and spiritual and the demands of “real” life. In The Rules of Magic, they’re braided together. The characters really fight against who they are, so that’s another push-pull. The book is ultimately about being who you are, and I think that’s really hard to do, even if you’re not a witch.

It’s hard for a lot of us to be who we are, even if we’re not fighting a family curse.

It really is just that: accepting yourself. It’s true for everyone in the book, and it’s a process. It takes a whole lifetime to learn who you are.

Courage is a thread that runs through the book: choosing courage over caution, being brave above all. Can you talk about that? How does courage relate to magic?

In a certain sense, the characters discovered this thread on their own. The book is really all about courage: the courage it takes to be different, the courage it takes to be in love, and the courage it takes to be human. Most people spend their lives running away from all that. The characters have to learn that.

The book deals with destiny and choice: the characters try to dodge the family curse, and they wrestle with accepting fate versus making their own choices. Can you talk about that?

That’s a big question. But it’s central to the book: the idea of the curse, which affects whether and how the Owens women fall in love. And yet, if you love someone, and open your heart to them, they will ultimately break your heart, curse or no curse. They may betray you; they may not be who you thought they were. Or they may get sick and die, as ultimately we all do.

At some point, inevitably, there is pain involved with love. I think it’s a big leap to make, and I think people are very brave when they do it. I think part of the Owens “curse” is just being human. And along the way, there are beautiful, wonderful things, and that’s part of being human too: such joy.


If you love magic, gorgeous writing or a good story, I highly recommend The Rules of Magic.

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neponset river sky

Mostly we go as far as we dare down the Road that Leads to the End of the World, rounding every corner adventurously and expectantly, as if we were going to find Tomorrow behind it, while all the little evening green hills neatly nestle together in the distance.

—Anne of Windy Poplars, L.M. Montgomery

Since we moved to Dorchester in late July, I’ve been exploring our new neighborhood: trying out the ice cream shop and a couple of restaurants, visiting the nail salon for a pedicure or two, buying potted herbs and cut flowers at the gorgeous garden center nearby. But my favorite thing about our new area might be the walking trail that’s only a block from our house. I’ve spent many weekend hours down there already, lacing up my sneakers and grabbing my earbuds, walking along the curving green path with the Wailin’ Jennys and my thoughts for company.

My first few walks on the trail were short ones: getting a feel for the route along the river, stopping to snap pictures of Queen Anne’s lace and weathered murals, or simply to take in the views. But a couple of weekends ago, I decided to see how far the trail went. I walked for over an hour, past two playgrounds and under several overpasses, enjoying the blue sky and the warmth of the sun on my shoulders.

That section of the trail stops at a small public dock that juts out over the river, and I walked out onto the dock and stood there, breathing in deeply, smelling the marshy salt air, watching a gull or two swing through the sky. And I thought of these words from Anne’s letter to Gilbert, which my friend Caroline mentioned on her blog a few years ago: “as far as we dare.”

katie river trail blue sky earbuds

My life, these days, requires more daring than I sometimes wish it did: I am learning every day, sometimes every hour, to face the vagaries of life by summoning my courage. Some of the challenges are what I call garden-variety chaos: the busyness of emails and meetings and work assignments, delayed trains and surprise thunderstorms, tricky schedules and missed deadlines. Those make me a little nuts, but I can handle them, and laugh them off at the end of the day. But I need more daring, more bravery, for the things I can’t possibly deal with in one fell swoop: the heartbreaking headlines, the complicated politics (both at work and in our nation at large), the daily (but far from everyday) deeper challenges of work and life and love.

It felt good, on that recent Sunday afternoon, to stretch both my legs and my courage, and go as far as I dared down the trail that led east – though I didn’t quite know where it went. But I followed it to its beautiful end, and then turned around and headed home, refreshed. I thought of this a few days later when a friend teased, “It’s always an odyssey,” and I replied, “That’s how you find your way back home.”

In Windy Poplars, Anne and her neighbor, Elizabeth Grayson, go for long evening walks (as mentioned above). They walk “as far as they dare” to escape Elizabeth’s tyrannical grandmother and the schoolwork that’s always waiting for Anne back at her house. But those walks, and each other’s company, help them dare more deeply and more often. They make each other more brave.

The people I love do that for me: they push me, by their loving presence, to dare a little farther, a little deeper. We walk “as far as we dare” side by side, and in so doing, we help each other find our way. But my solo walks on the river trail help me do this, too. Sometimes it’s good to test your own mettle, to find out how far you can go alone. To give a new meaning to “as far as you dare,” and to know that you can. That I can. That I dare.

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leguin book ballet flats

September, like all the months lately, was full: of apples, long walks, yoga, endless emails and work chaos, and a lot of things I can’t quite explain or articulate. But it also contained (thank heaven) a few good books. Here’s the latest roundup:

Dreamland Burning, Jennifer Latham
When Rowan Chase stumbles on a skeleton on her family’s Tulsa property, she uncovers a mystery that leads to some searing truths about the city’s history. A heart-wrenching, well-crafted YA novel that shifts between Rowan’s present-day narrative and the Tulsa race riot of 1921. Powerful. Recommended by Anne and others.

The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom, Helen Thorpe
In Room 142 at South High School in Denver, Eddie Williams teaches an unusual group of students: newcomers to the U.S. from many different countries and conflict zones. Thorpe spent a year in Mr. Williams’ class, learning the students’ stories, and she tells them with skill and grace in this thoughtful, fascinating, meticulously researched book. I fell in love, as Thorpe did, with the newcomers and was captivated by the narrative of their adjustment to life in the U.S. So very timely. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 14).

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
I read this luminous novel years ago and loved it. (I’ve since read its companions, Home and Lila.) Some friends of mine hosted a dinner and book discussion on Gilead recently, so I picked it up again. Took me weeks, but I savored the quiet, melancholy joy of Robinson’s prose, and her characters – narrator John Ames and his loved ones – who felt so real.

A World Without “Whom,” Emmy J. Favilla
Favilla is the copy chief for BuzzFeed, and her book – subtitled The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age – is as snappy and irreverent as you’d expect. But it’s also thoughtful, well-informed and relentlessly commonsense. As an old-school, old-soul English nerd, I admit to cringing a few times, but I also (literally) LOL’d and took down a few cheeky quotes. For grammar nerds both traditional and modern. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 14).

Wonder Woman: Warbringer, Leigh Bardugo
I’ve been a little obsessed with Wonder Woman since the new movie, and I’m wearing her symbol on my wrist these days. I loved this fast-paced YA novel about Diana, Princess of Themyscira, and her quest to help Alia Keralis, a girl from New York who doesn’t know she’s a Warbringer: a powerful descendant of Helen of Troy. Heart-pounding and so much fun, with bravery on every page.

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, Ursula K. Le Guin
“Words are my magic, antiproverbial cake. I eat it, and I still have it.” Le Guin is best known for her speculative fiction, but this sharp-eyed, big-hearted collection of essays, adapted from her blog, is excellent too. I loved reading her thoughts on aging, cats, writing, egg cups, belief and science, and other miscellany. So much fun. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 5).

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

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sunflowers tory row cambridge blue sky

Come with me
into the field of sunflowers.
Their faces are burnished disks,
their dry spines

creak like ship masts,
their green leaves,
so heavy and many,
fill all day with the sticky

sunflowers rockport tall

sugars of the sun.
Come with me
to visit the sunflowers,
they are shy

but want to be friends;
they have wonderful stories
of when they were young –
the important weather,

the wandering crows.
Don’t be afraid
to ask them questions!
Their bright faces,

sunflowers d2 cambridge

which follow the sun,
will listen, and all
those rows of seeds –
each one a new life!

hope for a deeper acquaintance;
each of them, though it stands
in a crowd of many,
like a separate universe,

is lonely, the long work
of turning their lives
into a celebration
is not easy. Come

sunflowers blue vase table

and let us talk with those modest faces,
the simple garments of leaves,
the coarse roots in the earth
so uprightly burning.

—Mary Oliver

I came across this poem in Oliver’s gorgeous collection Blue Iris, which I read, savored and lingered over for weeks this spring. It has stayed with me through a long, hot, crowded summer, especially as the sunflowers began to bloom here in Boston and Cambridge. Some of its lines resonated right away; others have come back to me during difficult or lonely days.

sunflowers darwins cambridge

I love sunflowers: their bright faces and sturdy stalks, their cheery yellow petals, the way they peek over fences and surprise me. There are vases of them – on both my desk at work and my kitchen table – as I type this.

In some ways, I also am a sunflower: I am shy, but want to be friends. I always do my best to seek out the light, though I recognize, increasingly, that “the long work of turning [our] lives into a celebration is not easy.”

perennial sunflowers rockport

I am grateful, this week and in this whole season, for these bright faces peeking out around so many corners. Like all the flowers I love, they offer beauty and hope in a world where we badly need both.

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disappearance damascus book plum

How is it mid-September already? I love this golden month, but my brain is all over the place lately. I have finished a few books, though, and here they are:

The Unlikelies, Carrie Firestone
Sadie Sullivan is bummed: the summer before her senior year looks like a dud. But when she saves a baby from her drunk father (and gets badly beaten up), Sadie becomes a “homegrown hero.” She and four other local teens (the Unlikelies) band together to fight hate and do some good in their town. I read this sweet, sharp, funny YA novel in one night. Recommended by my colleagues at Shelf Awareness.

Blackbird House, Alice Hoffman
I picked up this linked story collection after loving Hoffman’s The Rules of Magic: I just wanted to stay in her world a while longer. The stories wind around the titular house, on Cape Cod, and its occupants over generations. Deeply bittersweet, with a fairy-tale quality and beautiful, melancholy descriptions.

The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, Esther Perel
Infidelity is as common as it is heartbreaking, and Perel, a renowned couples therapist, argues that we need a new conversation around it. She delves into many facets of affairs: secrecy, lies, jealousy, the effects of modern technology, the politics of open marriages and the ways marriage and infidelity shape our sense of identity. Fascinating and thoughtful; a sensitive take on a really sensitive topic. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 10).

A Disappearance in Damascus, Deborah Campbell
Soon after Campbell landed in Damascus on assignment for Harper’s in 2007, she met Ahlam, an Iraqi refugee and “fixer” who worked with journalists and humanitarian groups to help tell the story of Iraqis who had fled to Syria after Saddam Hussein was overthrown. When Ahlam was arrested and imprisoned, Campbell became determined to find her, however long it took. Vivid and compelling. To review for Shelf Awareness (published Sept. 5).

On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana, a minor British royal, ends up in Italy trying to help out a friend and doing a(nother) small errand for the queen. Of course, the house party she’s attending doesn’t go as planned: there’s a murder, and Georgie tries to solve it before the killer strikes again. A really fun entry in this highly entertaining series.

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

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back porch geraniums

Last week, I sat in my usual spot in the chapel of Memorial Church, squinting in the bright morning light, watching it play across the high cream-colored ceilings and the carved wooden pews. Morning Prayers is back in session for the fall term, and I am grateful to rest in it again as part of my daily rhythm.

David Hempton, the dean of Harvard Divinity School, spoke that morning on an achingly timely topic: “belonging at Harvard.” (This was two days after the president’s DACA announcement, about which Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, and others have spoken more eloquently than I can.)

Hempton noted that belonging means something more than networking or connecting or being able to say you visited a place. Many people come to Harvard for exactly those (legitimate) reasons. But for those of us who work and study here – who have made it, in some sense, our home – belonging means more than that. We want to know that this is our community; that we are accepted here, valued, safe. With that comes a deep responsibility to make this community a safe, thoughtful, welcoming place for others.

Belonging, Hempton added, “involves the acceptance of our own frailties and those of others in a spirit of generosity and mutual forbearance. There is no belonging without self-acceptance.”

Those words, in his gentle Irish accent, made tears well in my eyes, and they reminded me of another David, the poet David Whyte, in “The House of Belonging“:

This is the bright home
in which I live,
this is where
I ask
my friends
to come,
this is where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love. […]

There is no house
like the house of belonging.

It takes a long time for most of us to find our own houses of belonging: to accept ourselves and others without judgment and with generosity, to be brave enough to become who we really are. It’s not a linear process, and it is a slow one: it takes a long time to grow into ourselves. But even as we fail and falter, we are still responsible for the other side of community: we must be a place of welcome for others. We must ask how we can help them belong, and help them thrive.

I don’t have the answers for any of this, at Harvard or elsewhere: I don’t always know what it looks like, for me or for my communities. But as Hempton said (and as Rakesh Khurana, the dean of Harvard College, said at Morning Prayers the very next day), I know one thing: we must do this work, of building and welcome, together.

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