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Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

brattle bookshop doors boston

Fall is the time to dig into new books (though, really, that’s every season around here). The doors above are from the outdoor sale lot of the fabulous Brattle Book Shop in Boston, and the books below are what I’ve been reading lately:

A Very Special Year, Thomas Montasser
I heard Liberty talk about this novel on All the Books and picked it up at Three Lives & Co. Valerie takes over her aunt Charlotte’s bookshop after Charlotte disappears. Despite her career plans, Valerie (of course) finds herself utterly seduced by the shop’s books and readers. A truly delightful slim novel, in the vein of The Haunted Bookshop or The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

Outlander, Diana Gabaldon
I’d heard about this sweeping time-travel romance series from a dozen friends, plus my mom. Claire Randall is traveling with her husband in the Scottish Highlands after WWII when she steps through a circle of standing stones and finds herself in 1743. It’s a wild (often violent) ride as Claire adapts to an entirely different world and becomes tightly linked to the clan MacKenzie and a young outlaw called Jamie Fraser. Powerful storytelling, fascinating history and dry wit, though with waaaay more sex and violence than my usual fare.

Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms, Katherine Rundell
Wilhelmina “Will” Silver relishes her life running wild on the farm her father manages in Zimbabwe. But after his death, she’s sent to England and finds herself completely unequipped for the foreign, catty world of boarding school. I found the book’s African scenes much more fully realized than the English ones, but I loved Will’s fierce, bold spirit and Rundell’s writing. Found at Book Culture.

The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, Richard Hugo
I’d never heard of Hugo’s poetry, but I found this essay collection at Book Culture and loved much of his wry, thoughtful advice on writing poetry and being a poet (two different things). Witty, aphoristic and encouraging, if a little uneven. A good read to start off the fall.

First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies, Kate Andersen Brower
The role of First Lady is visible, public and largely undefined – so each woman who takes on that mantle truly makes it her own. Brower draws a sharp, thoroughly researched, fascinating portrait of First Ladies from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama. Really well done (and, obviously, so timely).

The Bell Family, Noel Streatfeild
I discovered Streatfeild via You’ve Got Mail, so I was delighted to find this novel at Book Culture on the Upper West Side (shades of The Shop Around the Corner!). The Bell family lives in a crowded vicarage in the East End of London, and their adventures are funny, sweet and altogether delightful.

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

What are you reading?

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journal gelato sweetness

I spent a while sitting on the front porch this evening, with my journal and the mint-chip gelato that I cannot get enough of. It was a clear evening, with a pink and gold sky.

Summer sweetness, and a welcome deep breath in the midst of moving chaos.

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journal handwriting poetry elizabeth alexander

I do a lot of typing these days, but I still keep a handwritten journal. Much of what I write there is not meant for public consumption. But I wrote down these lines by Elizabeth Alexander, which have been in my head for months, and wanted to share them with you.

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darwins portrait red lipstick

Several years ago, when I was still living in Texas, I took a writing workshop taught by my friend Shelly. I’ve forgotten most of the workshop’s content (sorry, Shelly!), but I remember one writing exercise. We began with the phrase “A person who…” and created a one- or two-sentence description of a character, using telling details. Then we went around the circle and read our descriptions aloud.

I’ve thought of that line occasionally over the years, because I often describe myself, or someone else, as “a person who.”

I am a person who reads (on average) two or three books a week. I am a person who collects black rollerball pens and lined journals with whimsical, colorful covers. I am a person who drinks a cup of tea every single morning, winter or summer, rain or shine, preferably brewed in my favorite cobalt blue mug. (I am also a person who loves a good daily routine.)

tea mug scone

Some of these descriptors, like the ones above, are true and even illuminating. But they can also be limiting.

For example: I thought I was a person who didn’t like hip hop (until I recently joined the ranks of Hamilton fans). I was a person who rarely spent money on fresh flowers, until I discovered how much joy they bring me (and how affordable they can be). I struggled mightily with a professional identity crisis after being laid off last year – because suddenly, I was no longer a person who worked at Harvard, or who had a job at all. (I have reclaimed both of those descriptors, though, and I’m deeply happy about that.)

Some aspects of my identity are fundamental and unlikely to disappear altogether: I am a reader, a writer, a musician, a person of faith. I am also a daughter, a sister, a wife, a friend. But I’d argue that it’s worth considering how our assumptions can influence the stories we tell ourselves. If I am a person who has firmly entrenched likes and dislikes, or even prejudices, I risk missing out on new experiences, new friends, new ways of believing and being.

I still find Shelly’s exercise useful in thinking about fictional characters. But for my own part, it might be worth pausing before I say I am (or she is or he is) a person who does this or likes that. Because I want to be a person who is open to surprises. Even from myself.

(NB: I am also a person who is going on vacation, so I’m taking the next week off from the blog. See you back here soon, friends.)

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rick castle kate beckett

Recently, the hubs and I watched the series finale of Castle, which has dominated our Monday nights for several years now. The show has suffered over the last couple of seasons, amid writer/producer turnover and a few casting changes. But we love Rick Castle and Kate Beckett and their ensemble cast, and we wanted to watch the end of their story.

In case you’re not familiar with it: Castle features Rick Castle, bestselling mystery writer, and Kate Beckett, NYPD homicide detective, who are thrown together when Castle begins shadowing Beckett as inspiration for his novels. Nathan Fillion plays Castle to cheeky, charming, boyish perfection, and Stana Katic is Kate Beckett: sharp, intense, brilliant, good with a gun. The supporting cast is equally beloved at our house, especially Beckett’s fellow detectives Kevin Ryan (Seamus Dever) and Javier Esposito (Jon Huertas).

We fell in love with Castle after our friend Nate practically shoved the DVD of Season 1 into my hands, telling me, “You’ll love it. He’s a writer!” And it’s true: one of Castle’s unique pleasures is its focus on, and delight in, good stories.

Especially in the early seasons, Castle is often able to help solve a homicide by thinking of it as one of his mystery plots. At least a dozen episodes include the line “If I were writing this story…” and feature Castle pacing around the 12th precinct or his apartment, trying to fit the clues into a narrative arc. Beckett – ever the practical cop – sometimes gets impatient with this line of thinking, but Castle’s narrative framework often leads them to a solution. Sometimes it provides the episode’s final twist, when the case seems to be neatly wrapped up, but the story is missing something.

As the show continued, its narrative arc expanded beyond each episode’s murder and solution: Beckett recommenced her longtime quest to track down her mother’s killer, and Castle wrestled with a few of his own demons, writing-related and otherwise. The show has traced his relationships with his whip-smart daughter Alexis, his ebullient actress mother Martha, and Beckett herself: what was at first a grudging partnership (on her end) became a dramatic love story. Meanwhile, the wisecracks from Ryan and Esposito made me laugh every week, and their quiet, steadfast loyalty to Beckett and each other has often made me cry.

After sticking with these characters through some serious highs and lows (and a mind-boggling number of homicides), I was hoping for a satisfying finale. We did get some resolution of a few major plot threads, but the ending was…not great. As the final credits rolled, the hubs and I looked at each other and said (almost in unison), “If I were writing this story…”

Maybe we didn’t get (exactly) the ending we wanted. I know that Hollywood studio politics, and the last-minute decisions of producers, had a great deal to do with that. It didn’t feel smooth or coherent or clean, and I’m also sad that I won’t be spending Monday nights with these characters any more. We’ll still quote episodes and watch reruns occasionally (and Esposito’s trademark “Yo!” is now a staple at our house). But it won’t be the same.

I love shows that make me laugh and make me think, and Castle has done both, in spades. I’m going to miss the folks at the 12th precinct. But I’m grateful for the hours of enjoyment, and the insights into what makes a good (heart-pounding, witty, compelling, highly entertaining) story.

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my kitchen year book pie flowers

I’ve been reading Ruth Reichl’s glorious cookbook-cum-memoir, My Kitchen Year. The book includes 136 recipes spread over four seasons, and each recipe is accompanied by a short essay. Most of the essay/recipe combinations begin with one of Reichl’s tweets, which are almost haiku-like: brief, clear, vivid renderings of her moods, meals, and where she finds herself at that precise moment.

My Kitchen Year was born out of a difficult time in Reichl’s life: the year after Gourmet magazine closed down, suddenly and unexpectedly. Reichl, the magazine’s longtime editor, found herself jobless, unmoored and totally unsure of where to go next. (I nodded my head as I read those passages: my layoff last spring induced similar feelings.)

She took refuge, perhaps unsurprisingly, in her kitchen, and the resulting book contains many mouthwatering recipes. But I loved it most for its simple, lyrical record of her journey through that year. Reichl writes with grace and honesty about feeling lonely and uncertain, about trying new ingredients and projects, and retreating to comforting familiar favorites. Her prose evokes quiet mornings at her house in upstate New York; afternoons spent browsing cheese and butcher shops amid the colorful bustle of New York City; reuniting with Gourmet colleagues for long evening meals and spending hours by herself, in cafes or on city sidewalks.

My Kitchen Year is about food, certainly, but it’s also grounded in a particular place and time: field notes from a year when food and a few key relationships were Reichl’s only anchors.

Ten years ago (!) this month, for my college graduation, I received a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper. My then-boyfriend (now my husband) plucked it off the shelf at our local Books-a-Million, knowing I loved books about writing and thinking perhaps I’d enjoy this one. He could not have known – nor could I – how powerfully Julia’s short essays, about writing and living and beginning again, would resonate with me.

Like Reichl, Cameron (though I call her “Julia” in my head) writes in first person, grounding her ideas in a specific place and context. She begins many of her essays with a note about the weather: a “gray, dreary, socked-in day” or a morning of blue skies and budding trees. She writes about her New York City apartment overlooking the Hudson River; the house she loves in Taos, New Mexico; the music and books that inspire her. Her ideas about building a life conducive to creativity, a rich and artful life, are broadly appealing, but they are also field notes, full of crisp sensory details. She invites us to notice each day along with her.

I think that’s how blogging and social media began: as a way to share field notes from our lives, a way to reach out to one another across the vast spaces of modern life and say, “Here I am. This is what I’m noticing today.” I have met so many wonderful people (some of whom I’ve eventually met in person) this way: through the small, quotidian details we’ve shared online, the ways we have chosen to record and remember the stuff of our lives.

I have an ongoing text conversation with a dear friend that functions in a similar way. We share small notes on of our days: traffic and commutes and weather, lunch and errands, meetings with friends and colleagues. We talk about big ideas too, and what’s making us laugh, and sometimes we share what is saving our lives. Some of it probably is universal. But much of it is blessedly particular: field notes from these specific, mundane, glorious days.

I write sometimes here about the Big Things: the struggles of the job hunt; the prickly ache of missing my family; the quiet glory of my marriage; what it means to be a person of faith. But I am just as likely, on any given day, to be writing about the small, vivid, particular things. To be sharing field notes from right where I am.

Thanks for reading. As Lindsey noted recently, there is a lot of kindness that shows up online, and I’m grateful for every bit of it here in this space.

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tulip magnolia buds blooms

Spring is still struggling to tug itself forward. So am I. Outside my writing window, it is drizzling, and my mood matches the atmosphere—dribs and drabs of depression, a light misting of malaise. What’s wrong with me is what’s wrong with spring: I am not all here yet. Some part of me is still caught in yesterday’s winter, and that chill grip on my ankle will not let go.

—Julia Cameron, The Sound of Paper

“Everything right now feels tentative, uncertain, transitional,” Lindsey wrote recently on her blog, and I felt a quiet thump of recognition when I read those words. Yes.

After a winter that did not overpower us like last year’s, I think we were all expecting an early spring. But the weather in New England – whatever else it may be – is rarely predictable.

A couple of late snowstorms (six inches of snow in early April!) and attendant cold snaps have pulled us up short, reminded us that winter isn’t quite gone yet. The evenings are longer, the light sharper and more golden, but the air still carries a bite. On most days, I’m still wearing my winter uniform of black leggings, ankle boots, green wool coat. I have been yearning for a vacation to somewhere warm, but that wasn’t in the cards this year.

During these breezy, capricious spring days, I have also been in transition at work (again): adjusting to the rhythm of a new office, six floors above the ground in Harvard Square. New colleagues, new duties and dynamics, a slight shift in work hours, a different angle on the neighborhood and the university I love so well.

I have struggled to be “all here” in this season, to live in my new-for-now reality instead of missing the one I left, or worrying over the lack of permanence. Meanwhile, various other uncertainties, large and small, keep knocking me off balance.

“We are always swept this way and that,” Jessica Fechtor writes in her gorgeous memoir, Stir, which I read last week. “We create the life we want to live, yes. Then, in return, that life creates us. We follow the tides; we have no choice. We splash about beneath the brightest of moons, then the darkest of skies, tug hard from the surface on anchors that refuse to budge, and then, if we are very brave, dive deep.”

Some seasons, as Lindsey noted in her post, feel particularly off-kilter, uncertain. And yet this is the way life is, though we don’t always realize it. We spend our days in the liminal spaces, moving from change to change. We follow the tides, as Fechtor says: sometimes floating and splashing on the surface, sometimes diving deep. I know that all these things are true, and yet I am always searching for anchors, a safe place to rest, a still point or two in a turning world.

I find it hard sometimes to look for the beauty in transition: it’s much easier to appreciate budding trees and unfurling tulips than it is to make sense of deep personal struggles. But the in-between places are where our lives take shape, and there is – I know – lots of joy to be found there.

“My job, and I do not always like it, is to imitate the season unfurling outside my window,” Julia Cameron writes in the essay quoted above. As I walk through this slow and lovely spring, I am trying to emulate the trees and flowers: to pay attention to the light, and (as Julia concludes) “to push on through the gray into greater blossoming.”

early tulips public garden boston spring

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