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Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

darwins cider sign red leaves

This fall, as I mentioned recently, has been more than a little hectic. Lots of demands at work and at home, plus two wonderful trips – one to NYC and one to Texas for a college reunion – have left me feeling frazzled.

I’ve done some highly cathartic venting to a few friends, but one of them reminded me the other day that it’s also helpful to focus on the good. And there is so much good, even while things are crazy. So here, a list of what’s saving my life this fall:

  • Early-morning writing sessions in one of the libraries on campus. If I wake up on time and catch the early bus, I often have 15 or 20 minutes to curl up in an armchair and scribble in my journal, or stare out the window. I like the quiet company of students (though occasionally someone is snoring!), and watching the leaves change through the windows. And writing is so good for my soul.
  • Walking through the Yard, or anywhere in Harvard Square, and marveling at the changing leaves. My three favorite red maples, the harbingers, are all but bare now, and the yellow leaves are out in full force. I’m stunned by the colors every year.
  • The weekday Morning Prayers service on campus, which this semester is meeting in Holden Chapel, is full of good words and gorgeous music. I’ve been making it over there most mornings, and I love listening to the choir, hearing speakers from around campus, and sight-reading unfamiliar but lovely hymns.
  • Darwin’s, about which I have talked often here, continues to save my life at least twice a day. The chai, the cookies, the warm sunset walls, the sandwiches and soup, and most of all, the friendly chitchat with my people. It is my place and I am so grateful.
  • My Thursday writers’ meetings up on the sixth floor, which are hilarious, sarcastic and always informative. (And which also involve some of my people.)
  • Jen Lee’s posts about her new project, which have given me so many good words on the price of courage and being enough.
  • Debriefing the days with my husband, whenever and however we can.
  • A few stalwart friendships, local and far-flung, which provide wisdom, joy and so much love.
  • My fall uniform: striped dress, black leggings and ankle boots, bright scarf, fingerless gloves, my favorite green coat. (See also: not overthinking it.)
  • Antacid pills and lots of water. Boring but true.
  • The Hamilton soundtrack, which has a line for every situation.
  • My colleagues, who are smart, funny and caring, and who make the craziness much more bearable.
  • Seeing so many people get excited about voting (though I am so ready for this election to be over).
  • Good books. I’m not reading at my usual pace or volume right now, but I recently loved Beneath Wandering Stars, A Word for Love and Books for Living.
  • This mantra from a colleague: “Never deny a positive impulse.” I love that.

What’s saving your life this fall? I’d really like to know.

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shakespeare and co bookstore upper east side nyc

The hubs and I spent a recent long weekend in NYC, dipping into a few bookstores as we hopped around the city. This is the lovely Shakespeare & Co. on the Upper East Side, and here’s my latest reading roundup:

The Kite and the String: How to Write with Spontaneity and Control—And Live to Tell the Tale, Alice Mattison
Mattison, a novelist and poet, gives practical, down-to-earth advice and shares her own experience as a writer. I liked her dryly humorous voice; some wise advice here, though more centered on fiction than nonfiction. Recommended by my writer friends Hannah and Elena.

Books for Living, Will Schwalbe
I loved Schwalbe’s first memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club. In this book, he writes brief essays on the books that have resonated throughout his life – relating to such topics as Napping, Connecting, Remembering, and Choosing Your Life. Witty, wise, totally unpretentious and so good. I’d love to get coffee and talk books with Schwalbe. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 27).

The Champagne Conspiracy, Ellen Crosby
Crosby’s seventh Wine Country mystery (the first I’ve read) finds vintner Lucie Montgomery trying to untangle a mystery involving murders past and present, complicated family relationships and blackmail. A light mystery with a compelling plot and a likable protagonist. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 1).

Grape, Olive, Pig: Deep Travels Through Spain’s Food Culture, Matt Goulding
Goulding, an American food writer living in Barcelona, takes readers on a tour through Spain’s regional cuisines: tapas, paella, migas and much more. My favorite parts are his anecdotes of memorable nights in this or that Spanish city, and his deep love for his Catalan wife, Laura. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 15).

Just One Damned Thing After Another, Jodi Taylor
I heard Liberty mention this one on All the Books. Madeleine Maxwell (“Max”) joins a coterie of time-jumping historians at St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, and all hell quickly breaks loose. Dinosaurs, romantic tension and a nefarious conspiracy, told with dry wit, lots of (literal and metaphorical) explosions and countless cups of tea. So much fun. First in a series.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, Alan Bradley
Flavia de Luce, chemist and sleuth, is back in England from Canada, and back to solving mysteries after she finds an elderly woodcarver hung upside down from his bedroom door. I love Flavia’s narrative voice, though her loneliness (which she never admits) breaks my heart.

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

What are you reading?

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strand bookstore awning nyc

One of my favorite things about traveling alone: I can go to as many bookstores as I want. My husband is a patient man, but when we’re traveling together, he occasionally wants to see something other than the inside of a bookstore. (I can’t imagine why.)

On my solo trip to NYC in mid-August, I indulged my book-browsing habit to the tune of five bookstores in four days. I came home with a dozen new-to-me books (stuffed into the Strand tote bag I had prudently carried along), and a full bookworm heart.

three lives co bookstore nyc front

I stayed at the Larchmont Hotel in the West Village, so my first stop was Three Lives & Co., just a few blocks away. It’s a cozy, well-curated space with shelves that reach nearly to the ceiling.

three lives bookstore interior

I eavesdropped on a bookseller who was talking novels with a customer, and chimed in to second his recommendation of Where’d You Go, Bernadette. (My purchases: Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks and Thomas Montasser’s charming novel A Very Special Year.)

Last time I visited Idlewild Books, they were in a second-floor storefront near Union Square, but they have moved to a spacious ground-floor shop in the West Village. I went in for a browse and picked up a quirky New England travel guide. The a/c was on the fritz and the box fans were blasting, but I loved nosing around the stacks and dreaming of trips I’d love to take.

idlewild books nyc interior

Up on Bleecker Street, also in the Village, bookbook provided another break from the heat and a fascinating place to browse. I picked up some good nonfiction at 50% off, including The Empathy Exams and H is for Hawk.

bookbook bookstore bleecker street west village nyc

I spent a good portion of my Sunday wandering the Upper West Side, and Book Culture on Columbus Ave. was a must. I love their huge ground floor full of gorgeous fiction, fascinating nonfiction and beautiful gifts, and their cozy children’s section in the basement is perfection. I came away with a whole stack: fiction, nonfiction and a couple of children’s books. And I loved this display toward the front of the store.

book culture women display

The Strand, with its 18 miles (!) of bookshelves, wasn’t far from my hotel, but I didn’t make it there until Sunday night – too busy wandering. I slipped in for a browse just before closing time and bought The Art of Slow Writing, which Addie had recommended. And then – because I could – I went back the next morning before my train left, and came away with a journal and a couple of gifts.

strand bookstore nyc exterior

I’m heading back to NYC later this fall, and a couple of these stores will definitely be on my list. If you’ve got other favorite NYC bookstores, let me know – I’m always looking for more bookish places to enjoy.

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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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