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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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piece of the world book candle

Immortalized in Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World, in which she crawls across a field toward her family’s Maine farmhouse, Christina Olson lived a quiet, private life. She was hampered and eventually crippled by a degenerative muscular disease, but insisted on living independently (with the help of her brother, Alvaro) for as long as she could. Christina Baker Kline delves into Christina’s story – her razor-sharp mind, her stubborn family, her fierce pride, the degenerative disease that eventually stole her mobility – in her sixth novel, A Piece of the World.

Christina, with keen powers of observation and completely without self-pity, shares the details of her life with readers: geraniums “splayed red like a magician’s handkerchief,” the sweep of the sea beyond the fields of her family’s farm. She relays her family’s seafaring history, her own love for Emily Dickinson’s poetry, the ill-fated love affair with a summer visitor who eventually stopped writing back. And she delights–cautiously at first–in her friendship with Andy, the young artist who finds himself drawn back again and again to the humble Olson farmhouse.

I’m over at Great New Books today, sharing my thoughts on A Piece of the World. Please join me over there to read the rest of my review.

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well read woman display strand bookstore

I can’t believe it’s already March – but I did read some great books in the last half of February. Here’s my latest roundup. (Display spotted at the Strand recently.)

The Gargoyle Hunters, John Freeman Gill
New York City is always reinventing itself: growing, pushing, regenerating – often at the cost of preserving its own past. Gill’s debut novel follows Griffin Watts, a teenager whose mercurial father is obsessed with saving and sometimes “liberating” – i.e. stealing – pieces of the city’s architectural history. A wonderfully imagined slice of New York history, a vivid portrait of the 1970s, a tender father-son story. Irreverent, well written and highly enjoyable. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 21).

A Piece of the World, Christina Baker Kline
Immortalized in Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World, Christina Olson lived a quiet life on her family’s Maine farm. Baker Kline delves into Christina’s story – her razor-sharp mind, her stubborn family, her fierce pride, the degenerative disease that eventually stole her mobility. Luminous, lovely and nourishing, in the way good writing is. I also loved Baker Kline’s previous novel, Orphan Train. (I received an advance copy, but didn’t get to it in time for review.)

Take the Key and Lock Her Up, Ally Carter
On the run from a deadly secret society, Grace Blakely and her friends are trying to untangle the mystery that led to her mother’s death and may lead to Grace’s, if she’s not careful. The third book in Carter’s Embassy Row series never lets up. The plot gets a little muddled at times, but it’s a fun ride.

The Splendid Outcast, Beryl Markham
I love Markham’s memoir, West with the Night, which I read in college (and I enjoyed Paula McLain’s novelization of Markham’s life, Circling the Sun). These short stories (which I found for $2 on the carts at the Strand) explore Markham’s passions: horses, aviation, Africa, romance. A little uneven, but I enjoyed them.

Yours Truly, Heather Vogel Frederick
Truly Lovejoy is slowly adjusting to life in Pumpkin Falls, N.H. – which is more exciting than it first seemed. When Truly discovers a Civil War-era diary hidden in her own home, and two local maple syrup producers find their sap lines cut, there’s plenty to keep her busy. A heartwarming middle-grade mystery. I love Truly’s big, happy family, her group of friends, and the bookstore dog, Miss Marple.

The Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman
Irene is devoted to her work as a spy for the Library, which collects works of fiction from alternate worlds. But when she and her new assistant, Kai, jump to an alternate London, they find lots of chaos and serious dark magic at work. Lots of (sometimes confusing) world-building here, but I liked Irene, Kai and their Sherlock-esque acquaintance, Peregrine Vale.

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

What are you reading?

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time to read clock mv

May is a crazy month when you work in higher education. This May is especially so, since I’m temping at the Harvard Gazette and we are in the thick of Commencement madness. (Three days to go!)

Here, the books that are keeping me sane:

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett
Tippett is the longtime host of On Being, a radio show that examines the big questions of what it means to be human. This memoir beautifully distills what she has learned from her conversation partners over nearly 15 years. Her insights are grouped into five big categories: words, flesh, love, faith and hope (which all overlap). Lots of quotes from On Being guests, who range from physicists to poets (and everyone in between). Tippett writes in luminous, wise prose. Absolutely stunning on every page. If I could give it six stars (out of five), I would.

Geek Girl, Holly Smale
Harriet Manners is a geek – a fact she mostly embraces, though it occasionally causes her great social pain at school. But when she gets “spotted” by a modeling agency, Harriet wonders if this is her chance to reinvent herself. Smart, British, wacky and so much fun. Found at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on Martha’s Vineyard.

Thursdays with the Crown, Jessica Day George
Princess Celie, her siblings and their friend Prince Lulath end up in a different world by accident, and must outsmart two evil wizards to get back home (with a load of griffin eggs). These characters are fun and engaging, though the magic in this book didn’t really hold together. Book 3 in a series.

Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, ed. Mary Savig
This book is exactly what it sounds like: full-color scans of handwritten letters by visual artists, each accompanied by a brief essay from a scholar or curator. Engaging and unusual. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 14).

First Comes Love, Emily Giffin
Sisters Josie and Meredith have always had a fractious relationship, made more so by their brother’s tragic death 15 years ago. Now Meredith is at a crisis point in her marriage and Josie is contemplating single motherhood. Giffin deftly explores the complex bonds between sisters and the ways we can both wound and heal each other. I’ve read three of her other books (my sister loves them) and I thought this one (her eighth) was a big leap forward. She’s really matured as a writer. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 28).

The Forgotten Room, Karen White, Beatriz Williams and Lauren Willig
I picked up this historical novel (which shifts between three different periods and narrators in NYC) because I love Williams’ elegant, witty novels about the Schuyler family. This one doesn’t glitter quite like her others, but it’s a rich, engaging story of three women who are all connected (to each other and the Schuylers) I saw several twists coming a mile away, but there were a couple I didn’t expect. I particularly liked Dr. Kate Schuyler, fighting to make her way as an independent woman in 1944.

Fridays with the Wizards, Jessica Day George
Princess Celie and her friends are safely home in Sleyne. But trouble strikes when an evil wizard disappears and then starts making mischief in Celie’s beloved Castle. Book 4 in a series.

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

What are you reading?

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art august break leaves

Pressed red leaves from my first fall in Boston; a red shelf from a favorite shop in Texas that holds a few treasures; and a print of Sally Lunn’s Buns in Bath, England, bought there on a freezing day trip long ago.

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isabella stewart gardner museum courtyard boston

On a frigid (but sunny) Saturday in February, I met my friend Kristin in the Fenway neighborhood of Boston. During a previous outing, she’d mentioned the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which sits just around the corner from the Museum of Fine Arts, tucked between it and Simmons College.

“I’ve never been there,” she said. “Is it cool?”

My response? “We’re going.”

isabella stewart gardner museum courtyard statue boston

The Gardner is the former home of its namesake, Isabella Stewart Gardner – a Boston socialite and heiress whose art collection fills three floors of gorgeous, airy rooms. She collected everything: paintings, statuary, delicate handmade lace, elaborate candlesticks, furniture from various countries and periods. Leather-bound books and letters from famous people fill glass-fronted cases, and the walls are hung with tapestries, paintings and mirrors.

Mrs. Gardner (that’s what the museum guides call her) was a magpie, but a wealthy one with good taste. As specified in her will, the collection is left as she arranged it (with the exception of 13 pieces stolen in 1990, in one of the biggest unsolved art heists ever).

The central courtyard is the only part of the museum you’re allowed to photograph – and it’s stunning. Although the art in every room is amazing, I always find myself walking over to the windows to look out into the courtyard, again and again. The roof is enclosed by skylights, which give it a greenhouse feel. (Those orchids!)

gardner museum courtyard blue sky

I’ve been to the Gardner several times – it’s a great place to take friends who come to visit. But it’s nearly impossible to see everything (the rooms are crammed), so I’m always happy to go back.

We wandered the rooms, reading some of the guide cards that provide information about the pieces, and soaking up the atmosphere. A flautist stood by the piano in one of the upstairs galleries, and her music, like liquid silver, followed us all the way down the hall.

I don’t consider myself an art aficionado. But I will always say yes to an afternoon spent among beautiful things, with a good friend. Mrs. Gardner’s museum is the perfect place to spend such an afternoon.

Have you been to the Gardner Museum? Any favorite museums where you live?

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This fall, the Harvard Art Museums finally reopened after a six-year, extensive renovation.

harvard art museum courtyard

I met my husband and a friend there one day in November. They’d had lunch in Harvard Square, and J’s friend wanted to see the museums while he was in the neighborhood. But we didn’t have much time, and we only got a glimpse of the galleries. (Though we did get to marvel at the gorgeous central courtyard, which alone is worth the price of admission.)

I like to have a mission during my winter lunch breaks, when it’s often too cold to spend the whole time outside. The art museums are across campus from my office, a 10-minute stroll through Harvard Yard. It’s a gorgeous walk, and not too far if it’s frigid out. So I’ve put it on my calendar for the winter: on Thursdays, I go to the museums.

pear tree gustav klimt painting

I don’t consider myself an art aficionado – though I enjoy a good museum, particularly when I’m traveling. But the art museums are almost literally in my backyard. I get in for free, as a Harvard staff member, and I want to enjoy the treasures on display – even if I don’t appreciate all of them equally. (Abstract art usually leaves me cold.)

So far, I’ve been to the museums four times, and I’ve made some beautiful discoveries. I fell in love with a Klimt painting (The Pear Tree, above) on my first solo excursion.

luster tiles harvard art museums

I ended up transfixed by a display of medieval Persian luster tiles on my second trip. They remind me of my visit to the Alhambra in Spain, long ago.

Last week, I stumbled onto Monet’s gorgeous rendition of Charing Cross Bridge in London.

monet charing cross bridge fog london painting

The photo does not do justice to its moody loveliness. Also, it hangs just a few yards away from Degas’ Little Dancer.

degas little dancer sculpture

I like reading the captions and descriptions of the pieces, of course, but I am also doing my best to look – to simply pay attention to the paintings and vases and other pieces, rather than feeling like I have to learn everything about them. For a word girl like me, this is difficult, but also rewarding.

I’ve only seen about half of the galleries so far. But I like knowing I can take my time and come back whenever I want. And it gives me something to look forward to every week – a key winter survival tactic.

Are you a museum person, or an art lover? Any good museums in your neighborhood?

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