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It’s no secret I love a good spy story – especially if it features a badass female protagonist. This column originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Spies are paradoxically famous for flying under the radar. Both their livelihood and their success depend on remaining undetected. For women, their gender often provides an additional layer of disguise: many men overlook women or doubt them to be capable of a spy’s cunning and deceit. (They’re wrong.)

Kate Quinn’s 2017 novel The Alice Network brings to life the work of female spies in occupied France during World War I. The titular network revolves around whip-smart Alice Dubois (an alias, of course), who smuggles information up the Allied ranks via hairpins, skirt seams and her web of crackerjack female agents. Though Quinn’s protagonist Eve Gardiner is fictional, “Alice” and her compatriots really existed, and the novel is a fitting homage to their courage.

Spanish seamstress Sira Quiroga finds herself swept up and then abandoned by a charming man in Maria Duenas’s powerful novel The Time in Between. Stranded in Morocco, Sira hones her sewing skills and becomes a successful couturier whose designs eventually catch the eye of Nazi diplomats’ wives. As war swirls on the Continent, first in Spain and then everywhere, Sira passes coded information through her elegant gowns, stitching herself into the complex worlds of high fashion and espionage.

Mrs. Virgil (Emily) Pollifax is used to being underestimated: as a retired widow, she’s also downright bored. Presenting herself at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., she argues her way into a position as an undercover agent, launching an unorthodox career that has her crisscrossing continents throughout the Cold War (though her neighbors never know it). Dorothy Gilman’s series, which spans 14 novels, lives up to the name of its first book, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, in delightful fashion.

In fiction as in real life, female spies are often underrated–but their stories are reliably fascinating.

Who are your favorite lady spies – real or fictional?

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Hello, friends. I know March isn’t quite over, but I’ve been out of town and back again, so I have a slew of books to share with you. And so many of them are excellent. Here’s the latest roundup:

Love, Hate & Other Filters, Samira Ahmed
Maya Aziz loves filmmaking: capturing the perfect shot, whether at an Indian wedding (under protest) or an ordinary Tuesday. But Maya’s film-school dreams, and her daily life in small-town Illinois, are shattered when a hate crime  makes her a target. A powerful exploration of what it means to be a brown Muslim teen in the U.S., and also a sweet, wry, witty coming-of-age story with some romance thrown in.

Encore Provence, Peter Mayle
A friend gave me her extra copy of this book a while back. Mayle’s gentle, witty, thoughtful essays on Provence – olive oil, truffles, gardens, the joys of meandering – were the perfect snow-day (and commute) escapism. Lovely.

Waiting for the Light, Alicia Suskin Ostriker
I picked up this poetry collection at Porter Square Books recently; Ostriker’s poem on crocuses sold me. Many of the others were more opaque, but it’s always worth exploring (and supporting!) a new poet.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, Karina Yan Glaser
I’d been hearing about this charming middle-grade novel everywhere. When the five Vanderbeeker kids learn that their crotchety, mysterious landlord (the Beiderman) isn’t renewing their lease, they embark on a hilarious campaign to convince him that they should stay. A wonderful, warmhearted family story – a bit like the Melendys, in 21st-century Harlem.

Beauty in the Broken Places, Allison Pataki
Novelist Pataki and her medical-student husband, Dave, were on a plane headed for Hawaii when Dave had a massive stroke. Pataki chronicles their love story and Dave’s incredible recovery in this heartfelt memoir. The narrative dragged a bit in the middle, but it’s still an inspiring true story. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 1).

The Secrets Between Us, Thrity Umrigar
After abruptly leaving her longtime job as a maid, Bhima struggles to support herself and her granddaughter, Maya, while living in the slums of Mumbai. She sets up a vegetable stand with Parvati, another down-on-her-luck woman who’s hiding secrets of her own. A compelling, evocative and often heartbreaking portrait of two women living on the knife edge of poverty. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 26).

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
I’d heard about this slim novel for months, and finally picked it up for my book club. It follows young lovers Nadia and Saeed, who escape their city as life there becomes increasingly untenable. A lovely but harrowing novel of refugees, with a bit of magical realism. (Like Jaclyn, I trust President Obama’s reading taste.)

Girl Runner, Carrie Snyder
As a young woman, Aganetha Smart made history running for Canada in the 1928 Olympics. As a wheelchair-bound centenarian, she’s left with only her memories, until two young people show up at her nursing home. A tough, lyrically written novel of hardship, family and running. Recommended by Liberty.

The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, Alan Bradley
I bought this latest Flavia de Luce novel in Boise and saved it to read on my recent vacation. Flavia and her sisters are on holiday when they find a corpse floating in the river. Flavia dives into investigating his death, alongside the family’s faithful retainer, Dogger. This series is so much fun; Flavia’s narrative voice is witty and wry, though my heart breaks for her sometimes. A well-plotted mystery.

The Map of Salt and Stars, Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
After her father’s death, 12-year-old Nour has returned to Syria (from NYC) with her mother and sisters. But when their home is bombed, they become refugees, on the move throughout the Middle East with millions of others. Joukhadar weaves Nour’s story together with the legend of a female mapmaker’s apprentice from medieval times. A stunning dual narrative about crossing borders and finding home. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 1).

Bruno, Chief of Police, Martin Walker
In the French town of St. Denis, crime is rare and murder is unheard of – until an elderly north African man is brutally killed. The town’s lone titular policeman investigates, discovering links leading back to World War II. A (mostly) gentle setup to a series; Bruno is a likable character and St. Denis is charming, though the ending left me unsettled. Recommended by Leigh.

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

What are you reading?

nonfiction tbr book stack

Like so many bookworms, I buy more books than I can read right away.

Part of this is intentional: I like having a stack of books waiting for me. Part of it’s a natural consequence of browsing bookstores at home or on vacation: sometimes I just can’t resist a good-looking book or five. And part of it just seems to happen, especially when I receive books as gifts.

I shared this photo on Instagram back in November: this was, at the time, my nonfiction TBR (to-be-read) stack. Generally speaking, nonfiction takes me longer than fiction, and I have Shelf Awareness review deadlines (and often, library deadlines) to meet each month. So the non-urgent nonfiction tends to pile up.

Six of these books were given to me by friends. The top two came from my trip to Oxford in October. Anne generously sent me a copy of her book, Reading People, when it came out last fall. And the other four I’d picked up on previous travels: one in London, three in New York.

All of them had been sitting there a while.

So when I heard about #theunreadshelfproject via my bookworm friend Leigh, I decided my reading goal for 2018 would be to make my way through this nonfiction stack. It sounded doable: 13 books spread over 12 months. (By the time 2018 rolled around, it was down to 11: I read and loved H is for Hawk and Reading People in December.)

I’ve since read three (more) of the books pictured here: Love of Country, Ordinary Light and Encore Provence. I’ve also added a bonus novel: Brian Doyle’s Mink River, which sat on my shelf for months after I bought it at McNally Jackson last winter. I’m in the middle of Scratch, and hoping to tackle Shopgirls or Crossing the Unknown Sea next.

With any luck, by the end of the year I’ll have either read all of these or decided they need a new home somewhere else. (But even if I don’t love Pigtails and Pernod, I might keep it around: it reminds me of a wonderful afternoon spent browsing the bookshops of Charing Cross Road with Caroline.)

Did you set any reading goals for yourself this year? Do your stacks tend to pile up like mine?

heart sneakers trail

I’ve been reading a lot of great books about marriage lately, and decided to highlight a couple of them for a recent column in Shelf Awareness, which appears below.

They may go together like a horse and carriage, as the song has it. But love, when it’s meant to last a lifetime, can be messy, painful, even deadly dull. Two new books offer a complicated take on marriage that’s much more genuine – and more interesting – than the traditional fairy-tale narrative.

Essayist Ada Calhoun admits the truth: marriage is foundational and nourishing, but it’s also frustrating and just plain hard. Calhoun’s collection Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give delves into the facets of marriage that starry-eyed couples don’t always want to acknowledge. These include paying (literally) for a spouse’s mistakes, daydreaming about other partners (and other lives) and slogging through what she bluntly calls “the boring parts” of wedded bliss.

“Dating is poetry,” Calhoun writes. “Marriage is a novel. There are times, maybe years, that are all exposition.” Her mock “toasts” brim with wit, wisdom and gut-level honesty about the trials of staying married and the quiet rewards of remaining faithful, however imperfectly.

Renowned couples therapist Esther Perel explores a more dramatic but no less sticky aspect of long-term commitment–infidelity and its fallout–in The State of Affairs. Drawing on her years of work with couples (of various ethnicities and sexual orientations) who have dealt with infidelity, Perel explores the reasons people seek extramarital relationships and analyzes their effects.

Despite the pain they cause, she insists that affairs provide “a window, like none other, into the crevices of the human heart.” Her clients’ stories have many different endings, but most, encouragingly, are still in progress: an affair can expose the fault lines in a marriage, but doesn’t have to mean total destruction.

Both Calhoun and Perel present clear-eyed yet ultimately hopeful perspectives on marriage as a tough, flexible and ultimately life-giving endeavor.

Have you read either of these authors? What are your favorite books about marriage?

hks desk rose itn computer

That’s what I say when my husband asks me what’s on tap for my Monday.

“You should trademark that,” he joked recently, as we did our morning dance in the bathroom: brushing teeth, blow-drying hair, shaving, slathering on moisturizer. It’s often our only chance to get a sense of each other’s days before he drives to the office and I walk down the street to catch the trolley.

J’s days are usually packed full of meetings: with clients (he’s a marriage and family therapist), supervisees (he helps train new therapists), co-workers. Mine often include meetings too, but the Monday scramble is slightly different: I see it as the deep breath, the pull of the lever that throws the week into gear.

I pack my bag the night before with books, workout gear, a snack or two. In the morning I add my water bottle, lunch if I’m bringing it, any last-minute essentials. When I get to the Square, I head to Mem Church (if I’ve made it in time), then walk a few blocks over to the office. And the gearing-up begins.

I sift through the weekend’s emails, put together the daily news roundup (see above), check my work calendar, write down to-do lists and reminders for the week. I jot down notes for our Monday-afternoon meeting and remind myself of where I left various projects on Friday. I send out a couple of weekly emails and draft another one. Mid-morning, if I can swing it, I push back my chair and head to Darwin’s for some chai. Caffeine is a vital part of this machinery, as are the smiles from my favorite baristas.

Many of these tasks happen every day in some form, but Mondays are a chance to hit reset: to look at the week as a whole and take stock before diving in. Of course, sometimes the chaos takes over, and unexpected things crop up all the time. But if I’m lucky, the Monday scramble helps me unscramble the rest of the week – or at least do some damage control.

How do you start off your weeks? Is there a “Monday scramble” – or something similar – in your world?

shortest way home book anemones flowers

In like a lion, as they say. Early March has included three (!) nor’easters: snow, wind, rain and flooding. Plus the first crocuses. And good books, as always.

Here’s the latest roundup:

Through the Evil Days, Julia Spencer-Fleming
I read this eighth mystery featuring Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne with my heart in my throat. A whopping ice storm, a missing girl, a meth-cooking operation – Spencer-Fleming amps up the tension on every level. The case gets solved, but an unrelated cliffhanger left me even more impatient for the next installment.

The Shortest Way Home, Miriam Parker
Hannah Greene has landed her dream job right out of business school, and she and her boyfriend have their lives all planned. But on a weekend in Sonoma County, Hannah falls in love with a local winery and jettisons her NYC plans. A charming novel about upending expectations (your own and everyone else’s) to make your way. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 31). I got to chat with the author, too, and she’s a darling.

Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years, David Litt
Former speechwriter Litt reminisces about his years on the Obama campaign trail and the White House in this wry memoir. He’s witty, self-deprecating and sometimes insightful about the boondoggle that is American politics, and the mix of hope, frustration and ennui that can plague workplaces like his. Plus fun insider stories, in the vein of Alyssa Mastromonaco’s Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?. Recommended by Rebecca on All the Books!.

The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species, Carlos Magdalena
Magdalena is a man on a mission: to care for and propagate the world’s disappearing plants, and to spread the gospel of conservation. A Spaniard who now works at London’s Kew Gardens, he’s crisscrossed the world on botanical adventures. This memoir got a little science-geeky at times, but it’s full of good stories and enthusiasm. (The man loves him some water lilies.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 10).

American Panda, Gloria Chao
Mei Lu, 17-year-old MIT freshman, wishes her Taiwanese parents would stop being so overprotective – especially since she wants to change her major and date a (gasp!) Japanese-American boy. A sweet, funny YA novel about family, independence and cultural clash. (And some pretty epic pranks.)

Mink River, Brian Doyle
I picked up this novel (Doyle’s first) at McNally Jackson last year, and have been lingering in it for weeks. Through brief vignettes and small everyday moments, he evokes the texture of life in Neawanaka, a tiny town in Oregon. I loved the characters; the plot rambles till it finally revs up near the end, but the charm of Doyle’s work is following his meandering joyous dizzying insightful sentences. Wise and hilarious and I’m reminded of what a treasure he was.

The Forever House, Veronica Henry
Estate agent Belinda Baxter matches people up with their perfect homes, while longing for a permanent home of her own. When she lands the commission for Hunter’s Moon, a local house with lots of history, her day job and her personal life intersect in surprising ways. I love Henry’s sweet British novels; a girlfriend brought me this one from the UK. I savored the past-present storyline and the likable characters. Very satisfying.

Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert’s Guide to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home), Morra Aarons-Mele
I heard Aarons-Mele on a podcast with Karen Walrond recently. This, her nonfiction book on work and networking for introverts (and/or hermits), is practical, insightful and honest. She shares tips for making helpful connections, setting your own schedule, and faking it when you have to.

Amina’s Voice, Hena Khan
Amina Khokar is struggling to adjust to middle school: suddenly, friendships and expectations are shifting. And she wants to sing a solo in the school concert, but she’s too shy. A sweet middle-grade novel of a Pakistani-American girl finding her voice in more ways than one. Recommended by Jaclyn.

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

What are you reading?

the long run book snow menzies-pike

My one little word for this year is grit. Two and a half months in, it’s already proven quite apt.

I’m running several times a week these days, and that takes grit. Getting myself out onto the trail after a long workday can be tough, but it’s rewarding.

There’s also the literal grit that collects in the treads of my running shoes (and, subsequently, on my kitchen floor). And the grit required to power through the boot-camp workouts I’ve been doing on Monday nights with Erin and a handful of other women. We do bursts of cardio – high knees, jumping jacks – interspersed with lunges and squats, weight training and push-ups.

Sometimes – I won’t lie – it’s hard. But it, too, is rewarding.

I’ve been on the lookout for words about grit, and I found the first ones, fittingly, in Catriona Menzies-Pike’s wonderful memoir, The Long Run.

Like me, Menzies-Pike is a lifelong bookworm who never expected to become a runner. Also like me, she fell in love with the sport and was amazed at the changes it wrought in her body and soul. She writes about pushing through, trying and failing, building up endurance and coming face to face with her own limits. “While I might not be sporty, I sure as hell was gritty,” she asserts. I’ve thought about that line during a couple of hard runs on the trail.

I came across more words on grit in Love and Ruin, Paula McLain’s stunning novel about journalist Martha Gellhorn and her tempestuous love affair with Ernest Hemingway. The book contains many beautiful, blazingly honest passages about love and loss and war.

Early, on, as Gellhorn talks to a group of republican rebels during the Spanish Civil War, she realizes: “they didn’t have an endless supply of bravery, because no one ever did. When courage failed them, they would find a way to stand their ground anyway and fight on spirit alone. They had that in spades—grit rather than bravery.”

The word grit caught my eye, as did the comparison to courage: these two things as related, but distinct. Much later in the book, Gellhorn—now working as a war correspondent in besieged Finland—says simply, “I didn’t feel brave, though. It wasn’t bravery when you did what you had to do.”

Grit is doing what you have to do, and also what you know you should do. For me, it’s often about the daily tasks that require not only courage, but stick-to-it-iveness. Sometimes I fail at these, or run out of steam, but I’m doing my best to keep going.

So often, these days, grit is required: to do my work and take care of my people and simply keep on going. Good words help with that, and I’m grateful for these.

Are you following a word or phrase this year? How’s it going?