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book catapult bookstore interior san diego books

I love a good book about books, bookworms and/or an independent bookstore. Think The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, How to Find Love in a Bookshop, Jasper Fforde’s wildly inventive Thursday Next series. And when I read Abbi Waxman’s debut novel, The Garden of Small Beginnings, I could not stop laughing at the witty lines and reading them aloud to my husband.

So when I had the chance to review Waxman’s upcoming third novel, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill – about a bookseller – and interview the author herself, I jumped at it. (Spoiler alert: the book and Abbi are both witty, warm and delightfully irreverent.)

Here’s part of my extended Shelf Awareness review, and a few snippets from my Q&A with Abbi, who was such a joy to talk to:

Bookseller and consummate introvert Nina Hill lives alone (with her cat, Phil) in a small guest cottage in L.A.’s Larchmont neighborhood. She earns a living working at Knight’s, an independent bookstore nearby. When she’s not selling books or reading them, she spends her evenings killing it at trivia competitions (as part of the crack team Book ‘Em, Danno) and intending to go to yoga or spin classes.

Raised chiefly by her beloved nanny while her Australian photographer mother travelled the world, Nina has never felt the lack of a family. But when her estranged father, William Reynolds, dies suddenly, his lawyer tracks down Nina and drops several bombshells, starting with the fact of her parentage. Now, Nina stands to gain both a potential inheritance and a large, unruly extended family that she isn’t sure she wants. At the same time, Nina meets Tom, a fellow trivia whiz who might just prove interesting–and sexy–enough for Nina to embark on an actual relationship.

Nina’s story unfolds in a series of intended-to-be-ordinary days, annotated frequently by pages torn out of her day planner. These are crisscrossed with notes, information, grocery lists and aspirations (including those spin classes), and they provide a clue to Nina’s emotional state, especially regarding the new relationships she’s juggling. Waxman captures the internal back-and-forth between Nina’s rapacious intellect, her fairly sturdy self-esteem and her high levels of anxiety, which has led her to seek out constant ways to stimulate her brain.

As Nina gets to know her family, she comes to understand there’s more at stake than a simple fight over an inheritance. William Reynolds was married three times and had children by at least four different women, and he seemed to be an entirely different man in each incarnation of family life. Every one of his ex-spouses and their children, understandably, have strong (and strongly expressed) opinions about their particular version of William, while Nina, never having met him, ends up sifting through the conflicting reports and trying to make up her own mind.

Waxman has the gift of writing wisecracking, breezy novels that nevertheless contain some real growth for her characters. Nina is forced to re-examine the carefully constructed boundaries of her introverted life, and decide for herself which ones she wants to loosen and which ones she wants to keep. She doesn’t undergo a radical personality change, nor does Waxman (or indeed anyone else) suggest that she should. But by the book’s end, Nina is more able to function in the world as herself–and she’s getting better at explaining to other people when she just needs a moment (or a day) alone.

KNG: Nina struggles with severe anxiety, but she’s mostly learned to manage it. How did you write a protagonist with anxiety, but address it in a fairly light-hearted way?

AW: Anxiety is so common, and we don’t really talk about it–though maybe we are starting to talk about it more, as a society. Nina has essentially sorted out her life in a way that works for her, so she’s mostly able to manage her anxiety.

I wanted to write a character who was happily introverted and didn’t feel any pressure to change who she was. There’s nothing wrong with being an introvert, and being the kind of person who prefers her own company to that of other people. I wanted to write a character who was comfortable with herself, not just trying to fit in.

Certainly there are struggles–and you always have to ask yourself, “What does your main character want?” Nina, at the beginning, just wants to be left in peace. To be left alone. But then she meets a man who she maybe wants to spend more time with, and the struggle is within herself. Can she get out of her own way enough to try something new?

Nina is a trivia whiz. Tell us about this part of her personality.

I think millennials consume media and creative output of all kinds in a more meta way than my generation did. They’ll go see a movie and then they’ll read lots of reviews about it, and discuss it online. With the constant news cycle, trivia has become like conversational glue–like squirrels sharing nuts, little nuggets of cultural information. For Nina, it’s a self-soothing activity as well.

Nina’s day-planner pages appear throughout the book, and they are so entertaining–a window into her emotional state at times.

I’m glad you think so. Sometimes it was easier for me to show what was going on than to write it. Nina’s trying so hard to sort everything out, and I thought readers could read into the way she was doing things. I could show rather than tell that she’d had a big fight with someone, for example, and was going to turn over a new leaf. And then real life intervenes, inevitably.

Nina’s workplace faces a crisis, but–mild spoiler–she is able to save the day in the end.

I had to go for a happy ending. It’s a bit clichéd, but it’s fun. And I hope people like Nina and feel empathy for her. She’s inspired by all the booksellers I meet when I go around to bookstores. They are without fail intelligent, thoughtful, snappily dressed young women. I would have liked to be like them when I was their age. Ultimately, the novel is sort of a love letter to independent booksellers, and young women in particular.

The kind of books I like to write are a little bit funny, a little bit sad, and with a happy ending. All of my books are the books that you pick up, read and then loan to a friend. I want to be escapist! That’s the best possible outcome for me. I ask myself: Is this a pleasure to read? Is it a pleasure to write? And if my sister thinks it’s funny–that’s the ultimate test–then we’re good.

I originally conducted this interview and wrote most of this review for Shelf Awareness. Nina’s story comes out July 9. 

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What Bears the Light

What bears light best is broken—
sea-glass, sand-scattered,
mica fleck-pressed into stone,
tessera tile bits glinting under plaster.
The shattered mirror throws a thousand
faces through the air.
What bears best is broken—
Light spills, splinters, wanders
through wave-crest, in ripple-riven
surfaces of lakes disturbed by wind.
What bears best is broken—
the heart, broken. The bread.
The robin-blue shell and crocus bulb
bear beauties, and every spring renew
their breaking open.

—————————-

Found via my friend Kari, who shared this poem on Instagram. It seems particularly fitting for this Good Friday.

You can listen to the poet reading this poem aloud, or read more of her work at her website.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year.

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memorial church window light candles

The Lord bless you and keep you. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Go and be the church this week. Or even simply: Amen. 

I’ve fallen in love again lately with the words at the end of church services.

The ministers I know tend to take special care with their closing words. They are sending us out, after a brief space of time or a whole morning together: back into the world, where we live our lives and do our jobs and try our best to be kind.

They know, I think, that most of us need something to carry with us on our way. So they offer up a few words or a phrase to hold onto. And many of the ministers I know have a signature benediction that reflects their theology, their hopes, or simply what they love.

When Alanna gets up to close out Morning Prayers at Mem Church, she looks around the congregation, lifts her hands, and says, “As we go into this day: may the Lord bless you and keep you.” It goes on from there: the familiar words from Numbers that many of us know so well.

When Wes stands in the pulpit, he too lifts his hands, and says, “May the Lord keep you from evil, and may the Lord preserve your going out and your coming in.” When it’s KMarie’s turn, she says, “May the Lord grant you the desires of your heart, and bring you peace, joy, forgiveness and love.” (Sometimes she adds “grace,” “hope,” or any number of other good things.)

When Aric gets up there, he says, “May God’s peace rest, rule and abide in each of your lives, and mine, until we meet again.” And Lara repeats one I haven’t quite memorized yet, but it begins, “May we live this day…” and always ends with “…generous in love.”

When my husband and I were ministers, one of us – most often him, but occasionally I – would usually speak the benediction. It varied from week to week, but we invariably ended with “Go and be the church.” A reminder: when you leave these four walls, you carry the church with you, because we are the church, the people of God in this world.

My friend Randy, back in Abilene, has my favorite of all: those same words from Numbers (“May the Lord bless you and keep you”) followed by a few lines from Jude (“Now to him who is able to keep you from falling…”). He, too, lifts his hands and looks around the room, at the people he loves and serves alongside, and speaks those ancient words as though they’re fresh and new.

No matter where I’m heading afterward, I carry these words in my heart: words of blessing, love, hope. In this Holy Week – and always – we need more of all of the above.

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reeds river blue sky

A Truth That Tells You

I wish for you a small, portable truth you can take
anywhere—no foreign adaptors needed,
no translation required and nothing lost in it.

Once, looking at a map, my daughter said,
A river is a line the world drew for us. I wish for you
a truth that stays true across any line drawn

by the world or its people, a truth that tells you
wherever you arrive, you are welcome.

———————–

I found this poem via the #PocketPoems project at the wonderful New York Public Library. They’re sharing one poem a day this month – all brief and powerful, some utterly delightful.

I don’t know Smith’s work well, except “Good Bones,” which was everywhere a couple of years ago. But now I want to check out more of her writing.

I love the last line especially: I want it to be true for me, and I want to help make it true for others.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year.

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hyacinth flower daffodils leaves plants

Right now, in mid-April 2019, I am:

Watching the flowers pop up all around town – hyacinth, daffodils, late-but-gorgeous forsythia, early tulips. And keeping an eye on the budding magnolia trees. Also: this weekend I will be watching the Masters.

Proofreading just about everything you can think of, at work: event posters and programs, the alumni magazine, so many email announcements and newsletters, and various webpages.

Eating alllllll the clementines and berries, lots of granola and yogurt, Trader Joe’s tomato soup, sharp cheddar, avocado toast and whatever else I can whip up.

Drinking so much Earl Grey, chai when I can get it, and lots of water.

phoenix dog puppy

Dog-sitting for a friend in East Boston, and loving the snuggles and walks with Phoenix. Isn’t he adorable?

Running the Harborwalk there (sometimes with Phoenix) and the East Boston Greenway, when I can. I miss my river trail, but it’s really fun to explore a new neighborhood.

Reading some great fiction: Marjan Kamali’s gorgeous new novel (out in June), a fun novel about West Texas high school football, a family saga set in 1980s NYC. And Reshma Saujani’s nonfiction book Brave, Not Perfect – which is as fierce as its lipstick-red cover.

Seeing the Boston Marathon prep come to life: scaffolding, bleachers, signs and adverts, so much blue and yellow around this area of town. (I work down the street from the marathon finish line.)

Sneaking over to Mem Church for prayers a couple of mornings a week.

Listening to back episodes of All the Backlist! (and All the Books! when I have time). I’m a hopelessly irregular podcast listener, but I like catching up with Liberty and her cohosts.

Walking around Eastie with Phoenix, through the West End on some mornings, around Back Bay in the afternoons.

Wearing my winter uniform (still) of striped dresses, a scarf and black fleece-lined tights. Switching it out for jeans and a sweater on the milder, drier days. Pulling on my favorite running/yoga gear, whenever possible.

Scribbling in my latest Obvious State journal all. the. time.

Needing some new running shoes.

Getting as much sleep as I can. It’s been an exhausting stretch – a lingering cold, work craziness, general craziness – and my body is tired.

Enjoying fresh flowers on my desk, my newish Everlane backpack, the light in the apartment where I’m staying, texts from friends checking in.

Inspired by Ali Edwards’ “Currently” post earlier this week.

What does life look like for you right now?

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Charles river ribbon light Boston blue sky

The Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

I’d come across this poem before, but never really paid attention, until Jill Lepore read – nay, declaimed – its first few lines in a brilliant Morning Prayers talk at Harvard back in February. I looked it up immediately, and have read it over many times since.

A few lines keep ringing in my head: I am not who I was. Some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray. I am not done with my changes. 

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year.

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Wonder Woman run San Diego

Since I started running, I’ve done a few short races, mostly local: there’s the Halfway to Dot Day 5K, held every December on my beloved Neponset River trail. The hubs and I also ran a 5K in neighboring Quincy (where we used to live) last spring, and I stretched myself to run an 8K through downtown Boston on a seriously hot, humid Labor Day last fall.

We recently flew to San Diego to visit friends and escape the lingering winter chill here, and spent a Saturday morning doing a different kind of 5K: a costume run. Superhero-themed, naturally.

superhero run words shield

I’ve been kind of obsessed with Wonder Woman since the 2017 movie, and the hubs has bought me a pair of amazing socks (with their own star-spangled capes!) and a full-on costume, parts of which I pulled out for the run (see above). He donned a Captain America T-shirt, and we both wore the shiny capes that came with race registration: blue for him, red for me. I kept saying, “Don’t tell Edna” – because we all know she doesn’t approve of capes.

The course wound around the Embarcadero, next to the bay, past boats and hotels and the water glinting in the sunshine. It was a glorious sunny morning, and I ran to – what else? – my Wonder Woman playlist.

Wonder Woman race close up

There were lots of kids (and adults) decked out, and lots of Wonder Woman gear, which made me so happy. I was fighting a wicked cold, so had to spend the afternoon on the couch after the race. But the experience was entirely worth it.

If you’re a runner, have you done a costumed run? I’d happily do this again – such a great atmosphere, and an excellent chance to impersonate my favorite Amazon warrior.

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