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Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

book catapult bookstore interior san diego books

We’ve had April showers, April snow, April bright sunshine…I don’t know anymore, y’all. But I know the books are saving my life, as always. Here’s the latest batch:

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
I dove back into L’Engle’s classic after seeing the visually stunning new film. (I have thoughts about the film, but that’s another post.) I was surprised at how many details I’d forgotten, many of which director Ava DuVernay included. I love Meg Murry, and this time, her realization that no one else will save her rang especially true to me.

A Howl of Wolves, Judith Flanders
London editor Sam Clair is a reluctant (at best) theatregoer, but she drags her cop boyfriend, Jake, to a West End production starring her neighbor and friend. When the show’s director ends up hanged onstage, Sam and Jake are drawn into the resulting investigation. Well plotted; I like Sam and her dry wit. A solid fourth entry in this series. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 15).

The Wild Woman’s Guide to Traveling the World, Kristin Rockaway
Sophie Bruno is a meticulous planner in her professional and personal life. But when her best friend ditches her during a Hong Kong vacation, Sophie meets a dreamy artist guy and ends up making some drastic changes. I liked the premise, but found Sophie irritating – though I cheered at her eventual career move. Found at the Book Catapult in San Diego (pictured above).

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, ed. Manjula Martin
I picked up this essay collection at McNally Jackson last year, and dove into it as part of my nonfiction #unreadshelfproject. It’s uneven but fascinating: varied takes on the perils, rewards and frustrations of earning a living as a writer. Standouts: essays by Nina MacLaughlin, Meaghan O’Connell, Daniel José Older and Martin herself.

The Case for Jamie, Brittany Cavallaro
Jamie Watson hasn’t seen Charlotte Holmes for a year, since a confrontation on a Sussex lawn that left someone dead. Back at his Connecticut boarding school, Jamie suspects the Moriartys are up to their old tricks. Cavallaro writes especially well about what happens in a relationship after a rupture. A fast-paced, heartbreaking, stellar third book in this series.

My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
I’d been meaning to read this slim novel (my first Strout) for a while, and snagged it on remainder at the Harvard Book Store. It’s spare and luminous, with beautiful sentences and insights on grief, mother-daughter relationships and class divides. I didn’t love it as many others did, but it was worth reading.

Mary B, Katherine J. Chen
Mary Bennet, as everyone knows, is the plain sister: not beautiful, witty or talented. But she has a story, and Chen’s debut gives her the chance to tell it. The first few chapters dragged (does the world really need another Pride and Prejudice rehash?), but things pick up after that. Warning: this remake does not treat the other Bennets kindly. I had mixed feelings about this one, but it was certainly interesting. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 24).

The Splendour Falls, Susanna Kearsley
I fell in love with Kearsley’s historical novels this winter, and this one – set in Chinon, France – was wonderfully atmospheric. It’s much earlier than the others I’ve read, so the writing and plot are not nearly as accomplished. But I still found it engaging.

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

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katie lin-manuel miranda interview microphone

It’s been ten days and I still can’t believe I get to say this: I got to interview Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I do not, generally, get starstruck very often. The exceptions to that rule tend to be the authors I love (like Alice Hoffman, who was very kind when I spoke to her on the phone last fall). But I am a musical theatre geek from way back, and I have spent untold hours over the past two years listening to Hamilton.

So when I found out Lin-Manuel was coming to speak at the Harvard Kennedy School (where I work), I just about hit the ceiling. I know for a fact I wasn’t the only one.

Lin-Manuel flew in for a Thursday evening to kick off America Adelante, a conference for Latino students and leaders. I begged everyone I had to beg – namely, my editors at the Harvard Gazette and my colleagues who organized the conference – to let me be the one to write the story. I’d have begged Drew Faust herself (Harvard’s president) if I had to.

All I was expecting was a seat at Lin’s keynote – a literal seat in the room where it happened. I did not dream of what you see above: ten minutes, give or take, with the man himself.

I’d scribbled notes all through his keynote, which was fantastic, then listened in as my colleague Matt interviewed him for the HKS podcast. When he turned to me with that grin after wrapping up with Matt and said, “Who are you writing for?,” I nearly lost all my words. (But I managed to recover a few of them.)

katie lin manuel miranda

I asked him first about democracy. Hamilton is the origin story of democracy, and some of Lin’s prolific activism on Twitter is about urging people to get involved in democracy today: registering to vote, calling their reps, making their voices heard. “We’re seeing such an accumulation of ordinary voices,” he said.

We talked, too, about art and activism: both are vital parts of his work. He mentioned being inspired by the Parkland students, and making “the Marvel/DC crossover” with Ben Platt of Dear Evan Hansen to encourage them. (Their collaborative song, Found Tonight, gives me chills.)

I admire Lin’s creative genius, but I also love how generous he is, how much he cares about making a difference in the world. He was funny and engaging, and even though I’m sure he was tired, he really listened to my questions and offered thoughtful answers. (And he talks with his hands! So do I.)

katie lin manuel miranda hand gesture

My favorite question was the last one I asked: “What’s the last great book you read?”

He paused – “Ooooh!” – then admitted, “I’m sort of in a prison of my own making.”

The reason? His New Year’s resolution was to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, and “I’m so behind,” he confessed. “I’ve had a busy few months!” That was the understatement of the night.

But then – then! – he waxed eloquent about reading the sonnets, and “the freedom he [Shakespeare] finds within the form.” In classic Lin fashion, he concluded, “Reading the sonnets was pretty dope.” I nearly died of English-major nerd bliss.

I’d forgotten my copy of the Hamiltome, but I asked Lin to sign my journal, and he graciously complied. The inscription, under my name and above his signature?

“See you in the room where it happens.”

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yellow crocuses light leaves flowers

March blew in like a lion with two wild, wet nor’easters back to back, and no lack of responsibilities at work and at home. As I navigate these blustery days, here’s a handful of tiny things, like bits of glitter, that are saving my life now:

  • That first sip of Darwin’s chai in the morning, after I lift the cup off the bar and before I put the lid on. It’s hot, spicy and life-giving.
  • Catching the trolley or the Red Line without having to wait.
  • The first (!) golden crocuses, spotted in the yard of a pink house on Cambridge St. (The man who lives there cut some of his roses for me last summer.)
  • Good pens, and ink-stained fingers.
  • Letting the sunlight flood full into my face as I look out the kitchen window, step outside my office building or sink into my favorite pew at Mem Church.
  • Brian Doyle’s rambling rollicking jubilant heartbreaking sentences in Mink River. They read like the Irishman he was: tender and clear-eyed, vivid and joyous.
  • The first scent of spring on an evening run last week: not just damp earth, which I also love, but the distinct smell of fresh blooming things.
  • The chalk heart that someone draws over and over again on the river trail.
  • Seeing my work in Shelf Awareness, which never fails to thrill me. If you love books, you should subscribe – it’s free, fun and informative.
  • A few places in my life where I am sure of a welcome: my florist’s shop, my boss’ office, my Thursday-morning haunt on the sixth floor. And – say it with me now – Darwin’s. (Though that’s not such a small thing at all.)

Some of these lifesavers are tiny indeed. But they anchor me and bring me joy, over and over again.

What’s saving your life these days? I’d love to know.

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bloodline book christmas tree star wars

The first half of December is always a contradiction in terms: the routine of daily life marches on, laced with twinkly festivity and all the holiday prep. As ever, the reading helps keep me (relatively) sane.

Here’s the latest book roundup:

And the Rest is History, Jodi Taylor
I love Taylor’s series about the wacky, tea-loving time-traveling historians of St. Mary’s Institute in England. This eighth book is full of heartbreak: Max, the narrator/heroine, her husband Leon and their colleagues are in for it, several times. But it’s also witty, fast-paced and entertaining, like the whole series. Smart, fun escapist reading.

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, ed. Joe Fassler
I savored this collection of essays by 46 writers, riffing on lines or passages that have shaped their creative lives. Thoughtful, honest, nourishing perspectives as varied as their authors. Recommended by Lindsey, who especially loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s essay (so did I). Other favorites: Claire Messud, Azar Nafisi, Angela Flournoy, Sherman Alexie.

Fifty Million Rising: The New Generation of Working Women Transforming the Muslim World, Saadia Zahidi
Muslim women are going to work in greater numbers than ever, and they are revolutionizing their homes, families and societies. Zahidi delves into the cultural, social and economic patterns that are shifting across the Muslim world. Packed with statistics, but I really enjoyed the stories of women (many, but not all, millennials) who are blazing a path for themselves. (Serendipity: Zahidi is an alumna of my workplace.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 30).

Star Wars: Bloodline, Claudia Gray
I enjoyed Gray’s new novel about the teenage Princess Leia learning to be a badass. I loved this novel, set before The Force Awakens, even more. It features Leia as a senator in the New Republic: she’s a little jaded, but brave and committed as ever, and hungry for a bit of adventure – which she gets in spades. I relished both the new characters and the appearances by familiar faces (Han Solo and C-3PO).

The Red Garden, Alice Hoffman
Hoffman’s stories weave magic seamlessly into the everyday (or simply point out what’s already there). This collection follows the town of Blackwell, Mass., and the intertwined lives of its families over three centuries. It’s a little uneven, but still enchanting.

Party Girls Die in Pearls, Plum Sykes
Ursula Flowerbutton has high hopes for her first week as a student at Oxford – but they don’t include the murder of a posh classmate. However, Ursula (a budding journalist) and her new American friend Nancy are on the case. A smart, fun, frothy, totally ’80s romp through Oxford. Perfect weekend reading.

H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald
A longtime obsession with birds of prey led Macdonald to acquire a goshawk named Mabel, around the time her father died. She struggles mightily with grief and emptiness while learning to fly her hawk. Luminous, heartbreaking and strange: full of sorrow and magic. I didn’t care much for the exploration of T.H. White’s journey with goshawks, but loved Macdonald’s own story. Bought last year at bookbook in Greenwich Village. Recommended by my friend Jess at Great New Books.

Reading People: How Seeing the World Through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, Anne Bogel
Anne is a longtime blogging friend of mine; we finally met in person last fall in NYC. She’s also a whip-smart personality geek, and her first book explores various personality frameworks. The big takeaway: know thyself – and be willing to question your own assumptions. Thoughtful and informative. (Anne sent me an ARC – it came out in September.)

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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brave necklace coral scarf

Last fall, it was a line from Hamilton: “Summon all the courage you require.”

This spring, it was a sentence from Donia Bijan’s lovely novel, The Last Days of Café Leila: “The only thing to do was to keep moving, to do something, to show courage, to give everything she was capable of giving.”

Right now, it’s a few lines from Alice Hoffman’s stunning new novel, The Rules of Magic, which comes out in October. It is the story of the Owens women: Franny, her sister Jet and their aunt Isabelle. I fell particularly in love with Franny, redheaded and prickly, and this line (about her) I wanted to write on my skin: “Above all she was brave.”

“Let’s see what you’ll have,” Isabelle says to Franny at the end of one summer, pointing to two pots of fresh tea. “Courage or caution?” Franny doesn’t hesitate: “Courage, thank you.”

Many years later, Franny admits to her aunt, “Maybe I’m afraid of love. It’s too powerful.” Isabelle scoffs at her: “Who chose courage [over caution]? You’re stronger than you know.”

As we head into September – a month I always love and which, this year especially, carries its own challenges – I am doing my best to choose courage, every single day.

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anne's house of dreams book cover sea pei north shore

A few weeks ago, the hubs and I drove up to Prince Edward Island, for a quiet, blissful stretch of days (our third) on the Island’s north shore.

We first visited PEI a few summers ago, but I have known and loved it for a long time: through the beloved books of L.M. Montgomery, who introduced me to such heroines as Jane Stuart, Emily Byrd Starr, Sara Stanley, and – of course – Anne Shirley.

My mom handed me the first three Anne books when I was a child, and I read and reread them until the corners of the paperbacks were worn soft. I later did the same with the remaining five books in the series, and I still have most of my beat-up Bantam copies (though I had to replace the first one after it went missing). I’ve picked up various beautiful editions of several Anne books over the years, and I’d love to buy the entire set in the recent lovely Sourcebooks and Tundra incarnations. But when I want to find a particular passage or dive into a whole book again, I always reach for my childhood copies, their heft comforting in my hands.

I took a stack of books to PEI. This is typical vacation behavior for me, but it’s especially tempting when we drive, because luggage and space limits aren’t a problem. On our first trip to PEI a few years ago, I tucked a couple of Anne books into my suitcase on a whim. I hadn’t reread them in a while, but I thought I might want to flip through them while I was there.

What I hadn’t quite expected: I hardly wanted to read anything else.

Montgomery is a master of the elegant description, and her love for the Island comes through in the voices of her heroines – all of whom are deeply rooted in the Island’s rust-red soil. The green fields with their soft red furrows, the glimpses of blue sea around so many corners, the fields and woods and rolling hills, the rocky and sandy beaches of the north shore, were at once entirely new and utterly familiar to me.

I spent hours on that first trip rereading passages from a couple of Anne books and Jane of Lantern Hill, and I did the same thing when we went back last summer. This time, I dove straight into Anne’s House of Dreams, and I didn’t even regret ignoring the other books sitting in my tote bag. (I suppose I should have known this would happen – but I couldn’t not bring them. Just in case.)

house of dreams page sea pei north shore

For three days, I was right where I wanted to be: on the Island’s north shore in body and spirit. Sinking my toes into the sand, wading in the surf, and also walking and talking with Anne and Gilbert, Leslie Moore and Miss Cornelia and Captain Jim. I pictured Anne and Gilbert’s little white house of dreams, with its glorious garden, more vividly than ever before. And I watched the sky and the waves and the sunsets with as much love as Anne herself, I feel sure.

There’s magic, sometimes, in reading a book in the place where it’s either set or was written. I have read A Moveable Feast in a Paris hotel room, Gaudy Night in Oxford parks and cafes, Daphne Kalotay’s novels while learning the particular Boston streets she describes.

There can also be magic in utter escape from your current reality: I’m too fond of Harry Potter and Jodi Taylor’s time-travel series not to know that. But when you visit a place you’ve loved for so long, and the real, physical truth of it is just as wonderful as you imagined, it can be lovely to luxuriate in being right where you are, on and off the page.

Have you ever visited a place just because you’ve read about it – or purposely matched your reading material to your location? I’d love to hear about it, if you have.

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