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Earlier this summer, one of my dear friends moved away (sniff), and we made a serious effort to soak up some time together before she left town. One afternoon in late June, she texted with a question: would I like to join her and her daughter at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum that week? Of course, the answer was yes.

The Gardner is one of my favorite semi-hidden Boston gems; it’s tucked away in the Fenway neighborhood, built around a central courtyard that’s full of lush plantings year-round. Mrs. Gardner, as the docents still call her, was an avid collector of art, furniture and curiosities, from around the world. Her acquisitions are still arranged just as she specified – in multilayered, sometimes overwhelming splendor – at the mansion/museum she called Fenway Court.

The first few times I went to the Gardner, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of art: there are thousands of objects, including paintings, textiles, furniture, dishes, sculptures, sketches, letters, tapestries and who knows what else. It took me a while to realize the goal isn’t to see or learn about everything: it’s to walk through and experience the total effect, the layers of history and different origin stories and artistic styles, all brought together by one woman’s passion for collecting. These days, I wander through, pausing when a piece catches my eye, but less focused on the details than on the whole.

This time was different, for several reasons: first, we enjoyed a snack at the cafe before our museum tour. I’d never been to the (relatively) new Cafe G before, but I have to say, the citrus pound cake was delicious (and felt fancy).

The three of us wandered around, starting at the top floor of the museum (for something different) and winding our way back down to the ground floor. I loved being there with 12-year-old Lucy, who noticed things I’d never have picked up on, and asked excellent questions (my favorite: “What would you want to ask Isabella, if you could?”).

In light of the current conversations around artistic objects, their provenance, and the recent encouraging trend of museums considering returning stolen objects, I also wondered about the collection at the Gardner. Where did all these objects come from? Who brought them to Isabella? Were they given freely (in exchange for money, of course) or stolen from their original homes? What happened to the people, buildings and communities who created them? I never used to consider these questions when I visited museums, but I am thinking about so many things differently now. (I am also, as ever, curious about the heist in 1990, which has never yet been solved.)

Every time I go to the Gardner, I find myself drawn to the windows in every room, gazing out onto the courtyard, which I find both restful and beautiful. (I’ve never seen the famous nasturtium plantings there, but it’s on my list for this winter.) Mostly, I was grateful to share a lovely afternoon with two women I love, in a place we all enjoy.

What local adventures are you having, these days?

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August has, so far, been hot and full and lovely. Between (and during) weekend adventures and heat waves, here’s what I have been reading:

Horse, Geraldine Brooks
I love Brooks’ thoughtful fiction that takes readers to unexpected places – all her novels are so different. This one deals with a discarded painting, a horse skeleton, a Civil War-era Black horse trainer and an NYC art dealer, among other things. I especially loved the sections about Jarret, the trainer. Rich and thought-provoking, like all her books.

Flying Solo, Linda Holmes
After calling off her wedding, Laurie Sassalyn returns to small-town Maine to clear out her elderly aunt’s house. She finds a carved wooden duck buried in a blanket chest, and tries to figure out how it got there. This is a sweet story with a bit of a mystery, but it’s mostly Laurie coming to terms with what she wants from her life. I loved the side characters like Laurie’s best friend June and actor brother Ryan, and I appreciated the musings on how womanhood and relationships don’t have to look the same for everyone.

By Any Other Name, Lauren Kate
Editor Lanie Bloom prides herself on handling crises at work, and snagging the perfect guy who fits her (long) list of criteria for a mate. But when Lanie gets (provisionally) promoted and finally meets her reclusive top-tier author, everything she thought she knew about life and love is thrown into question. I loved this sweet, witty publishing rom-com – shades of Nora Ephron, for sure – especially the subplot involving an elderly couple picnicking in Central Park. (Reminded me of this.)

Blurb Your Enthusiasm: An A-Z of Literary Persuasion, Louise Willder
Blurbs are “the outside story” of a book – and there’s more to them than most people think. Veteran copywriter Willder takes readers through the (literal) A-Z of blurbs, touching on publishing history, literary snobbery, racism, gender politics, puns (so many puns!) and other entertaining absurdities. Smart, nerdy and so much bookish fun. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 11).

The Key to Deceit, Ashley Weaver
London, 1940: Ellie McDonnell, locksmith and sometime thief, has (mostly) gone straight since getting caught by British intelligence. When Major Ramsey comes asking for her help again (albeit reluctantly), Ellie gets swept up in a mystery involving a young drowned woman, espionage, and more. I love Weaver’s elegant Amory Ames series and enjoyed Ellie’s first adventure; this one was even better.

Wise Gals: The Spies Who Built the CIA and Changed the Future of Espionage, Nathalia Holt
The CIA as we know it is relatively new – it was founded after WWII, and a small cadre of sharp, accomplished women was instrumental in its founding and early years. Holt peels back the curtain on five “wise gals” who shaped the agency, fought for equity and did critical work. Insightful, compelling and so well researched – a brilliant slice of mostly unknown history. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 13).

The Cannonball Tree Mystery, Ovidia Yu
As the WWII Japanese occupation of Singapore drags on, Chen Su Lin is translating propaganda articles, cooking for Japanese officials and trying to stay alive. When a relative of hers – a known blackmailer – ends up dead, Su Lin gets drawn into the case, especially when she realizes it might involve sensitive photos and info relating to the war. This mystery was still fairly grim, but a bit more hopeful as Su Lin reconnects with a few friends and the tide of the war begins (slowly) to turn.

Summer Solstice: An Essay, Nina MacLaughlin
I loved MacLaughlin’s thoughtful, lyrical memoir, Hammer Head, and picked up this slim essay at the Booksmith. She writes about summer’s fullness, its nostalgia, its mythical status as a season, its beauty and lushness and even its end. Lovely.

Vinyl Resting Place, Olivia Blacke
Juniper “Juni” Jessup has just moved back to her hometown to open Sip & Spin, a record shop she co-owns with her sisters. But when a local young woman is found dead after the opening-night party – and their uncle, suspiciously, skips town – Juni and her sisters investigate. A fun cozy mystery; first in a new series. I liked Juni and the Texas setting, though the other characters were a little thin. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 27).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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Back in the winter, Lyric Stage (my favorite local theater company) tweeted about needing volunteer ushers for their early spring production, The Book of Will. I’d never even thought about ushering before that, but I signed up and happily showed up early to hand out programs, direct patrons to their seats, and see the show for free. One of my fellow ushers said she’d been doing this for years: “It’s a whole scene!” she told me. I resolved to look into it.

Since then, I’ve ushered at two more Lyric Stage productions, and last month, I expanded my efforts to other theaters: the Huntington, which was showing the brand-new production Common Ground Revisited, and the ART in Cambridge, which just finished its run of the fantastic revival of 1776. I spent three out of four Friday nights in June ushering at local shows, and I have to say, it’s the best volunteer gig in town.

I love live theater, and I missed it sorely during the worst of the pandemic: streaming a play or two online, as I did, just isn’t the same thing. There’s something visceral and immediate – and so much fun – about being in a space with live actors, watching them tell stories in real time.

Volunteering has allowed me a glimpse behind the scenes, too: I’ve met a few staff members as well as fellow volunteers, and watched the audience stream in, excited or indifferent or anxious to find their seats, and settle in for an evening (or an afternoon) of storytelling. It’s a delight to be a small part of making the show happen, and (of course) the reward is wonderful: getting to see the show for free in exchange for a bit of time.

Several of Boston’s theaters are dark for the summer right now, but you can bet I’ll be ushering again this fall. I’m so thrilled to have discovered this new-to-me slice of the city I live in and love.

What local adventures are you having, these days?

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Last month, my guy and I headed to the MFA on a Saturday (thank goodness for library passes). Both the permanent collection and the rotating exhibits there are stunning, and we love an occasional afternoon spent strolling among the art.

We spent most of our time in the New Light exhibit, which brings together new pieces and older artworks, placing them side by side and in conversation with one another. I saw more pieces than I can possibly tell you about here, but I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of art in different media, from different eras, telling different sides of a story or simply highlighting the various angles of a subject or topic.

There were paintings, of course, and sculptures, and mixed-media pieces made of textiles and paper and wood. There were pieces clearly inspired by other artists’ work, and a tiny scale model of a gallery that an artist had used to virtually showcase others’ pieces during the height of the pandemic. There was a sculpture of Fred Hampton’s door, a powerful piece calling attention to the brutality so often faced by Black Americans. There were detailed botanical drawings next to a piece by Lui Shtini that combined a recognizable flower with some fantastical elements. And there were a number of pieces that simply identified the artist as “Artist once known.”

That, perhaps, caught me more than anything else: a way to acknowledge the fact that artists unknown to us (many of them female, Indigenous or marginalized) were once known, and important, to their loved ones and communities. Someone knew this quilter, this painter, this sculptor, this folk artist who took such care to carve or draw or assemble a piece. Their identities, while maybe lost to us, are still important, and still vital to acknowledge. It brought those “unknown” artists a little closer to me, and reminded me that art is always saying something: it highlights beauty, records and analyzes events, calls out injustice, names and honors complicated emotions.

The neon sign above, which hangs in a different gallery of the MFA, reminds me of that, too: the museum encourages visitors to look, feel, talk, communicate, interact with the art. You don’t have to be an artist or an art historian to do any of those things, to engage with art on a human level. I’m grateful to the MFA for reminding me of that, in different and thought-provoking ways.

What local adventures are you having, this summer? How do you like to engage with visual art?

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Suddenly, it’s July – the heat is here, as are the occasional summer thunderstorms. Nine days to Walk for Music; a couple weeks until a getaway I’m looking forward to. As we close out June, here’s what I have been reading:

Dinners with Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships, Nina Totenberg
Totenberg, a longtime NPR reporter, met Ruth Bader Ginsburg early(ish) in both their careers. Her memoir traces their five-decade friendship, but it’s also a broader meditation on friendship, community, Washington insider politics and the challenges of being a woman in Washington’s highly rarefied environment. Thoughtful and insightful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 13).

In a New York Minute, Kate Spencer
Franny Doyle is having a terrible day: she got laid off, then her dress ripped in the subway door. Then a handsome guy offered her his suit jacket and their “love story” went viral. But is there maybe a spark there after all? I loved this sweet, sassy rom-com that’s also a love letter to NYC and a tribute to stalwart friendships (for both main characters). So much fun. Recommended by Annie.

The Last Mapmaker, Christina Soontornvat
Sai has spent her life (so far) struggling to rise above her family’s low-class background. When she gets a chance to join an exploratory voyage as a mapmaker’s assistant, she jumps at it. But on board ship, she discovers that so many things – including the voyage itself – are more complicated than they seem. A Thai-inspired adventure that asks some interesting questions; dragged in the middle but ultimately was really fun. Recommended by Karina Yan Glaser, whose books I adore.

My Beloved World, Sonia Sotomayor
I admire Sotomayor, but didn’t know much about her before reading this wonderful memoir of her early life and career. She tells a compelling, warmhearted story of her early life in the Bronx, her Puerto Rican family, her journey to Princeton and Yale and her career as a lawyer and judge. Thoughtful, insightful and fascinating. Recommended by my friend Allison, who also loved it.

Portrait of a Thief, Grace D. Li
I loved this Ocean’s Eleven-esque heist novel that follows five Chinese-American college students as they attempt to steal back several priceless bronze pieces that Western museums have looted from China. I liked the characters, the fast pace and especially the questions about ethics, colonialism and who gets to decide where certain treasures belong. Fun and thought-provoking. Recommended by Anne.

So Many Beginnings: A Little Women Remix, Bethany Morrow
It’s 1863 and the March women are building a life for themselves in the freedpeople’s colony of Roanoke Island, Virginia. I loved this thoughtful remix of a beloved story; the sisters are recognizably themselves, but also distinct from Alcott’s characters. The warmth of family love and the past trauma of enslavement are strong, and I appreciated the questions Morrow’s characters ask about equality and freedom. Excellent. Also recommended by Anne.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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We are halfway through November (already?) and the leaves are still gorgeous, thought the nights are getting colder (and darker!). Here’s what I have been reading:

Our American Friend, Anna Pitoniak
First Lady Lara Caine, a Russian and former model, has always been a bit of a mystery. When she invites journalist Sofie Morse to write her biography, Sofie’s not sure what to think – but she finds herself drawn into Lara’s world. A twisty, fascinating novel – part thriller, part Cold War history, part meditation on making one’s way in the world as a woman. Clearly inspired by Melania Trump, but very much its own thing. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 4).

The Whispers of War, Julia Kelly
As Europe hurtles toward another war, three friends – two Englishwomen and a German immigrant – struggle with the implications for their lives and friendship. Kelly writes warm, engaging novels about female friendship, and this one was really well done. Found at the Book Shop of Beverly Farms.

Red is My Heart, Antoine Laurain, illus. Le Sonneur
I have loved several of Laurain’s whimsical novels about life and love in Paris. This one is different – snippets of musings from a man going through a breakup, illustrated by street artists Le Sonneur. A bit enigmatic, a bit pensive. I received an advance copy; it’s out Jan. 18.

The Magnolia Palace, Fiona Davis
New York, 1919: artists’ model Lillian Carter needs a new career, and stumbles into a position as private secretary to Helen Clay Frick (whose father created the Frick Collection). In 1961, a young English model named Veronica finds herself stranded at the Frick in a snowstorm and uncovers a mystery. I love Davis’ richly detailed historical novels – this one was engaging and fun. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 25).

Call Us What We Carry, Amanda Gorman
Like a lot of people, I found out about Gorman when she wowed us at President Biden’s inauguration. Her new collection is piercingly honest and deeply felt – about race, the pandemic and the vagaries of being human. Lyrical and healing; her skill amazes me. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 7).

Her Path Forward: 21 Stories of Transformation and Inspiration, ed. Chris Olsen and Julie Burton
My Tuesday morning writing group has saved my life during the pandemic. Chris (a member) and Julie (who runs ModernWell) have co-launched Publish Her Press, and this is their first project. (And several of my friends are in it!) A wide-ranging collection of stories by and about women finding their way.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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We’re halfway through February and it’s snowing (again). I’ve been hunkering down with all the good books – here’s what I have been reading:

A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow, Laura Taylor Namey
Lila Reyes has big plans to take over her abuela’s bakery in Miami. But when three big griefs hit her at once, her family ships her off to Winchester, England, for the summer. Determined to be miserable, Lila nevertheless finds herself giving a Cuban twist to British pastries and making new friends – including a dreamy boy. I loved this sweet YA novel with its mashup of Miami and England.

New Yorkers: A City and its People in Our Time, Craig Taylor
I’ve been reading e-galleys since March (one of the many changes wrought by the pandemic). But y’all, I got a print galley of this collection of interviews with the unsung heroes who make up New York: elevator repairmen, bodega managers, homeless people, nannies, ICU nurses, aspiring actors and singers, cops and firefighters. Joyous, cacophonous, loud, varied and wonderful. (Can you tell I miss NYC?) To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 23).

All the Greys on Greene Street, Laura Tucker
Twelve-year-old Olympia, known as Ollie, loves hanging out at her dad’s art restoration studio and sketching everything in her neighborhood. But when her dad disappears with a valuable piece of art, and her mom goes to bed and won’t get up, Ollie and her two best friends have to figure out what to do next. A vivid, sensitive, compelling middle-grade adventure set in 1980s SoHo.

Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape, Lauret Savoy
I found Savoy’s work in Kathryn Aalto’s Writing Wild, and Roxani also recommended her. This is a thoughtful, layered exploration of how family and national histories are bound up with the land itself, and how race and silence and erasure all play roles. Savoy is mixed-race, with roots in several parts of the country, and she weaves her own story in with several deep dives into the physical landscape. So good.

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, Katherine May
Everyone seems to be reading this book right now, amid our endless pandemic winter. May writes honestly and thoughtfully about her own personal winters–chronic illness, her son’s anxiety, job angst–as well as physical winter and the way different cultures deal with it. I found some nuggets of wisdom to be more illuminating than the whole. Quiet and very worthwhile.

In a Book Club Far Away, Tif Marcelo
I enjoy Marcelo’s warmhearted fiction about strong women. This book features Adelaide, Sophie and Regina, three former military spouses (Regina is also a veteran) who met at a past posting in upstate New York. Ten years later, Adelaide sends her friends (now estranged from each other) an SOS. Sharing a house for two weeks, the three women must confront each other and their past secrets. Very relatable; by turns funny and moving. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 6).

The Love Story of Missy Carmichael, Beth Morrey
Millicent Carmichael, age 79, spends her days mostly alone, mourning her losses: estranged daughter, absent husband, son and grandson in Australia. But then an acquaintance asks her to look after a dog, and gradually, everything changes. Missy’s loneliness was hard to read about sometimes–it struck so close to home–but I loved the characters, especially Missy’s friend Angela, and watching Missy gradually open herself up to connection.

Mergers and Acquisitions: Or, Everything I Know About Love I Learned on the Wedding Pages, Cate Doty
Former society reporter Doty takes us inside the world of writing wedding announcements for The New York Times. Along the way, she muses on her own early obsession with weddings (influenced by her Southern roots), her doomed early-twenties love story, and the onetime coworker who became (spoiler) her lifelong love. Witty, warmhearted and at times juicy (though she doesn’t name names). So fun. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 4).

The Last Bookshop in London, Madeline Martin
Grace Bennett has never been a great reader. But when she moves to London with her best friend in pursuit of a new life, she lands a position at a dusty bookshop. As Grace seeks to improve the store’s sales, the Blitz comes to London, and she and her new circle of acquaintances must dig deep to find the courage to get through. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 6).

Links are to Trident and Brookline Booksmith, my perennial local faves. Shop indie!

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One of my favorite things about running is the way it lets me move through the landscape, whether it’s a new-to-me city (or neighborhood) or my comfortingly regular harborwalk-to-greenway loop. I love the constant nudges to pay attention: to the feel of the road under my sneakers, the air on my skin, the changing leaves and flowers nearby, the dog walkers and rabbits and squirrels on the path.

But this summer, I got seriously lucky: the folks at PangeaSeed partnered with half a dozen local artists (like Imagine876, above) to create new, colorful murals in my part of Eastie. For a couple of weeks, I watched the murals evolve day by day on my morning runs, and I’m loving the gorgeous colors now that they’re finished. This one is in the shipyard, on the building that houses Downeast Cider, and you can see its vibrant colors from all the way across the harbor.

The mural at the top of this post is on the greenway, where I often run; it’s a celebration of the salt marsh sparrow, which is in danger of extinction due to rising sea levels. I’ve seen more of Sophy Tuttle’s work around Boston, and I love the bold colors and detailed depictions of the natural world. There are several more murals in the series, and they’re a welcome splash of color on grey days.

I love public art, especially when it combines beauty with purpose, and these murals definitely fit the bill (like this one, above, by Artists for Humanity Boston). They are all done by women and/or artists of color, and they call us insistently to treasure and protect the natural world. They make my runs more enjoyable, certainly, but I hope they also keep inspiring me – and others – to pay attention to, and care for, the world in which we live.

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Since the schools and daycare centers closed, my neighbors have been looking for ways to keep their kids occupied. Especially as the weather warms, I’m seeing a lot of sidewalk chalk in the neighborhood.

Rainbows are a popular theme (they’re in lots of windows, too, including mine). One family scrawled “Quarantine” on the brick wall of their house, and played some tic-tac-toe games on the sidewalk nearby. They also wrote all their names, which I found both lovely and heartbreaking: we are here. 

My friend Ally and her kids have created a couple of epic hopscotch games, involving directions like “Spin 3 Times” and “Dance Party” (see above). And last week, I saw a heartfelt complaint next to the hockey courts at the end of my street: “Mayor Walsh took our hockey nets! We our [sic] very upset!” Someone else had printed an answer beneath: “We are all not happy about how things are going, but we will get through this.”

I have yet to invest in my own sidewalk chalk (maybe I should?), but for now, I’m enjoying the messages I find on my runs and walks, like this one:

That’s all we can do. Love all, wash our hands, keep telling our stories, get outside in the sunshine when we can. And keep going. Somehow we’ll make it through.

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Tucked away on a side street near the Fens, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is one of Boston’s hidden gems. I’ve been there a few times, with my parents or visiting friends, but I hadn’t been back in several years.

The museum is open late on Thursdays, with jazz and samba music winding through the galleries and evocative shadows dancing in the corners. I spent the evening there last night with someone dear to me who had never been before (though he’s lived in Boston for years).

We wandered through the galleries, marveling at intricate tapestries, delicate handmade lace, elaborate marble statues and tile work, and gorgeous paintings. In each room, I always end up at the windows, gazing down into the central courtyard, which is amazing from every angle.

The museum is a different place at night: arranged exactly as it is in the daytime, but with more mystery in its corners. We wondered about the origins of some pieces, and noted a few empty frames (which held the pieces stolen in the Gardner’s 1990 heist). Different details catch my eye every time: a medieval portrait of an anonymous woman, an impressionist painting of gladioli, a bronze sculpture of Diana the huntress.

There’s far too much art to take in all at once, and so you don’t have to try, which is what I love about the Gardner: you can simply wander through and experience the art and the place.

I’d never spent an evening at the Gardner before: I’d always been on a weekend afternoon, with the attendant crowds (and sunshine pouring through the skylight). But this was a lovely way to enjoy a beautiful space. I can see more evenings there in my future.

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