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In Boston, she had made a patriotic pilgrimage…Faneuil Hall, the Cradle of Liberty, the State House, and the Old South Church.

“If I lived in Boston I’d wear red, white, and blue costumes and eagle headdresses,” she wrote her family.

She went through the Public Library and inspected the Art Museum. She marveled at the narrow twisting streets and walked elatedly across the Common.

Betsy and the Great World, Maud Hart Lovelace

Betsy Ray’s day in Boston was just a brief prelude to her adventures in Europe. But I like to think of her walking around my stomping grounds downtown, taking in everything with those bright, inquisitive hazel eyes of hers, and saving it all up to put into a story later.

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Earlier this summer, I wrote a gushing review (scroll down) of Laura Harrington’s beautiful debut novel, Alice Bliss. Then I listed it among the best books I’ve read so far this year. (Not because anyone asked me to; just because I loved it.) Then I got to meet the author and have her sign my book when I went to hear her read at the Boston Public Library (along with Rebecca Makkai, whose debut novel The Borrower I quite enjoyed). And then, last week, I heard about a new campaign Laura’s conducting to send Alice Bliss out to as many states, countries and continents as possible.

If you’re a book blogger, you’re invited to request a free copy of Alice Bliss through Laura’s website. It will come with a Bookcrossing ID plate attached; follow the instructions to register your book on Bookcrossing, then “release” the book in a public place and see where it goes! You can follow the project on Tumblr and Twitter, and track your book’s journey with its Bookcrossing ID. I think this sounds like such fun – and I can’t wait to see where Alice ends up.

In case you aren’t familiar with Alice Bliss, it’s the story of a girl whose father is deployed to Iraq, and how she learns to cope with that – but it’s also a story of young love, separation and grief, the ways we cling to – and learn to release – those who leave us, and the ways families lean on each other. It’s beautifully written and so real, and it honestly provoked both laughter and tears as I read it.

I’m waiting for my copy to come in the mail (I didn’t want to “release” my signed edition), and I’m wondering where to “release” it. An empty bench on the Common? A coffee house? What do you think? I’d love to hear your ideas!

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1. If the train is delayed/the line is long/I’m stranded somewhere, I have something to do.
2. I can block out annoying noises/situations if I’m immersed in a good story.
3. It makes me look smart.
4. It lets me get through more books each month – a page or two here and there does add up.
5. I can avoid staring awkwardly at people on the train. (Or anywhere else.)
6. Occasionally, it’s a conversation starter.
7. I feel naked without one. Seriously.

Do you carry a book everywhere you go? (If not, WHY NOT?)

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If you’re a reader, a writer, a reviewer or just a book junkie, you’ve probably heard the news about Borders – after closing a few dozen stores this winter in a desperate effort to stay afloat, the company has filed for bankruptcy and is liquidating its 399 remaining stores. Sadly, this includes the two-story behemoth in Boston’s Downtown Crossing area – easily one of the company’s biggest stores, and the only one close enough (since they closed the Copley Square store) for me to browse on my lunch break.

As much as I love my indies – the Brattle, the Booksmith, the Concord Bookshop, the Harvard Book Store and any other indie I happen upon – I’m still sad to see Borders go. For one thing, as so many folks have said, fewer bookstores always means bad news for the book industry – fewer outlets for books to reach readers. (This is, of course, particularly bad news for little-known authors.) For another, many towns will now be bereft of their only physical bookstores, which simply breaks my heart. I grew up in a town whose only bookstore is Barnes & Noble, and went to college in a town with only Books-a-Million – and I would grieve if either of my hometowns were left completely without a bookstore.

Perhaps most importantly, I have good memories of time spent and books purchased at Borders stores – which were there for me when I needed a bookstore in several different states and even across the ocean. I used to stop in at Borders in Oxford on my way home from the grocery store (it was open later than Blackwells or Oxfam), and browse the 3-for-2 tables or the new bestseller lists or the plentiful magazine selection. I still have the copies of Jane Austen’s Guide to Dating and Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days (the gorgeous UK edition, of course) bought there. Sometimes I’d meet a friend at the little Starbucks in the back, and we’d sit at a round table and drink chai lattes to ward off the misty chill outside.

When I spent a month interning in Honolulu one summer, Borders provided me with good beach reading and a quiet, bookish escape when I needed some solo time. I’d grab the keys to the church van (known affectionately as the “blue whale”), back out of the driveway and head to Volcano Joe’s for a chai latte or a smoothie, or to Borders to grab a new book. My copy of The Second Summer of the Sisterhood (Traveling Pants #2) from that summer still has sand in it, I think.

And finally, I’ve enjoyed browsing the Borders in Downtown Crossing once in a while since we moved to Boston a year ago. I loved its solid, steady presence overlooking a bustling square, which contains the Irish Famine Memorial, the Old South Meeting House, and plenty of street musicians, pigeons, businesspeople and tourists. The area will be poorer without it, and I’ll no longer have a place to pick up a new book if I decide I just have to have it today (as I did a couple of months ago with The Penderwicks on Gardam Street).

I’ve been to the closing sale once or twice – but the chaos, with Caution tape everywhere, just makes me sad. (And so far, the discounts aren’t enticing enough to make me buy books there instead of at my other favorite bookish places.) I hope the store doesn’t stand empty long – but I wish it weren’t closing at all.

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Last week, I posed the question on Facebook and Twitter: “What did ‘summer reading’ mean to you as a kid?” I had several wonderful responses, including Juliette’s vivid tweet: “It meant sittin’ in the passenger seat of Dad’s Oldsmobile, eating Cheez-its and devouring a Beverly Cleary book from the library.”

I didn’t meet Juliette till we were in college, but when I read that, I could smell the Cheez-Its and feel the scratchy upholstery under my bare legs. And I suddenly saw, in colorful detail, the bright paperbacks of Beezus and Ramona, Ramona and her Father, Ramona and Her Mother, and all the other Cleary books I read and reread during the summers.

For me, summer reading was an extension of the reading obsession I nursed during the year – but it often meant a different kind of book. I was always a fast reader and set the school record (twice) for points gained in the Accelerated Reader program, and some of the books I loved were hefty classics for a kid (I first read Little Women at age seven, The Swiss Family Robinson – unabridged! – at about 10). Of course, those long books were worth lots of points, and I read as many as possible, between homework and volleyball practice and jumping on my friend Allison’s trampoline after school.

But I wasn’t a snobby reader – I also loved a lot of the stuff aimed at kids my age. Summer meant time to stock up on the American Girl books (all five series then in existence); the Baby-Sitters Club series (including the fat Super Specials); Nancy Drew; Trixie Belden; the Bobbsey Twins; the Boxcar Children; the Mandie books (mysteries with a Christian twist); Paula Danziger books like Earth to Matthew and Remember Me to Harold Square; books about the Melendys and the Moffats; the B is for Betsy series by Carolyn Haywood; and a fair dose of Lois Lowry and Judy Blume (not to mention anything by L.M. Montgomery and Maud Hart Lovelace).

I read and reread these books in the hot Texas summers (fitting them in around our frequent trips to the pool). I read them sprawled across my bed, curled up on the couch in the living room, on long car trips to visit my grandparents in Missouri and Ohio (though sometimes Mom made me put them aside to play with my sister, who has never quite understood my obsession with books, then or now).

Some of these books have been (rightly) canonized as young adult classics, or classics for all ages; others, not so much, but they were still fun to read. And there’s enormous satisfaction in finishing an entire series of books (though I swear the creators of Nancy Drew and some of those other series did their best to make that impossible). I’ve forgotten a lot of the plotlines and some of the characters’ names, but I remember the delicious feeling of opening up a book (even if it was just a library paperback) and sinking into a new story filled with characters I loved.

It’s your turn. What did summer reading mean to you as a kid?

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“Our library isn’t very extensive, said Anne, “but every book in it is a friend. We’ve picked our books up through the years, here and there, never buying one until we had first read it and knew that it belonged to the race of Joseph.”

Anne’s House of Dreams, L.M. Montgomery

This is another reason I love Anne Shirley so much – she’s hit on the perfect reason for buying a book, and the perfect way to curate a library.

I read voraciously, fast and often, and my reading speed outstrips both my book budget and my storage space. Aside from those practical reasons, I don’t actually want to own every book I’ve ever read. I’d rather own the ones I love, the ones I turn to again and again for comfort, wisdom, laughter or helpful information, the ones I want to lend to friends. And, of course, the ones that hold sentimental value – whether they were picked up in a special location (like the copies of 84 Charing Cross Road and The Two Towers I bought at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris) or passed down to me (like the copy of No Children, No Pets and the set of My Book House tales, given to me by my grandmothers). (These book treasures, heirloom and otherwise, may feature in their own separate post. I’ve got quite a few of them.)

This is why I didn’t keep all my college textbooks, even the novels I read for my literature classes – if I didn’t love it or hadn’t been profoundly affected by it, out it went. This is also why, in my new gig as a reviewer for Shelf Awareness, I end up passing on many of the ARCs I receive – because I (honestly) don’t love them all, and because I (seriously) don’t have room for them all.

This is why I rarely buy books without doing a bit of research first – looking up the author’s website, reading an excerpt online or flipping through it in the bookstore – though I’ll buy anything by a few treasured authors. This is also why, sometimes, after checking out a book from the library, I go to the Brattle or the Booksmith and see if I can find a copy – because it made me laugh (or cry) or touched me so deeply that I want it for my own. (Recent examples of this phenomenon include Alice Bliss, Maisie Dobbs and the Valentine books by Adriana Trigiani.)

I believe – deeply – in buying books, real books, because those books are the lifeblood of the publishing industry, and I want to support those authors who are working so hard (and who sometimes, graciously, come to town to give readings and signings and talk to their fans). I believe in buying those books at real bookstores, because I want those places to be around for years and decades to come.

But I also believe in the beauty of a medium-sized, thoughtfully edited, well-curated library. I want the books on my shelves to be friends of mine. I want to look at my shelves and see the progress of my literary journey, but I also want to see familiar faces, wise elders helping me find my way, warmhearted friends who will let me spend a few hours in their world, and wordsmiths whose work delights me down to my toes.

How do you curate your library?

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families of four

I grew up with one sister. We’re 17 months apart, so I can’t remember when she wasn’t around. She’s an outgoing, tall, blonde businesswoman who always beats the boys at whatever sport she’s playing. I’m a quieter, petite brunette who prefers books and knitting to golf and pickup basketball.

We’re not quite opposites – we both love dogs, our parents, Tex-Mex food, chick flicks, the Midland High Bulldogs, Christmas music, country music, chocolate, board games, our dear Christian college, and each other. I can’t imagine my life without her.

I never wanted any more siblings – one was just fine with me, and our friends filled in the gaps pretty well. But I’ve recently noticed how often children’s literature features families with four children. There are the four March sisters, of course; the four Ingalls sisters; and (I’ve recently discovered) the four Penderwick sisters. On the coed side, the list grows long: the Melendys (of The Saturdays and sequels); the Moffats; the Murrys of A Wrinkle in Time and sequels; the Austins (of Meet the Austins and sequels); the Pevensies (of the Chronicles of Narnia). The Boxcar Children; the Logans (of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and sequels); the Tillermans (of Homecoming and sequels).

(Several series also feature groups of four girlfriends – The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Mother-Daughter Book Club, The Miracle Girls. But that’s a post for a different day.)

I wonder if authors often write about four children because it’s an even, manageable number. It’s easy to keep four characters straight, but harder if you throw in, say, six (like Anne Shirley Blythe’s children) or eight (like the Pike clan in The Baby-Sitters Club books). Four divides easily into two pairs, of course; it’s also big enough to feel like a “large” family, but small enough that no one gets lost in the shuffle. And – most importantly, I think – it allows the author to develop four distinctive character types.

It amazes me how many combinations of character types are possible with four characters. Of course, the oldest child is generally the responsible one, either by force of personality or circumstance. There’s at least one character everyone loves and/or spoils (often the baby, but not always). One of the “middle” children usually feels alone, rebellious or unloved, like Jo March, Laura Ingalls or Edmund Pevensie. (Occasionally, the oldest child is the rebellious one – like Meg Murry.) But not one of these families is exactly like another. They all start out with four children, then go all kinds of different places.

I often see myself in these oldest siblings, who take care of everyone and get good grades, who follow the rules and try to keep things tidy. But sometimes I see myself, too, in the quirky second child – Jo March with her scribbling in the attic, Vicky Austin with her feelings of awkwardness and deep desire to belong, Laura Ingalls with her stubbornness. I know birth order has a profound effect on family dynamics, real or fictional, but although I am a classic first child (see above), I often identify deeply with these “middle” children (many of whom, it should be no surprise, want to be writers).

What do you think about fictional family dynamics? Which sibling do you tend to identify with in fictional families? Is it similar or different to your real-life birth order? (And if you’re an only child, do you think I’ve got the wrong theory altogether?)

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The red-haired yoga teacher with the Indian accent did catch my attention with one thing he said: “Those of you who are really bad at yoga, you’re in the right place. I hope everyone will allow themselves to be really crappy today, to walk away from being perfect. The real yoga isn’t in the perfect pose; it’s in the crappy pose that you are really feeling. You want to feel it from the inside out, rather than make it perfect from the outside in.”

[…] I had a sudden thought: What if the opposite of good wasn’t bad? What if the opposite of good was real?

-Claire Dederer, Poser

While I enjoyed the whole book, this line from Dederer’s memoir about yoga, motherhood, writing, marriage and coming to terms with your childhood hit me squarely in the chest.

I’ve spent my whole life trying to be good – e.g., to be cheerful, helpful, smart, kind, easygoing, capable, stylish, put together, nice. There are a number of reasons for this: I am an oldest child; I am a woman; I was labeled a bookworm/smart kid almost from the time I could read; I was raised (happily) in a conservative Christian home; I am a people pleaser. Perhaps most critically, these are the attributes that translated as “good” in my family and church and social milieu. Some of them, obviously, come more naturally than others. And trying to maintain them all is exhausting.

Lately, trying to be good has looked more like trying to be efficient, cheerful (that one is annoyingly persistent), productive (at work and at home), helpful (also persistent), non-needy, nice. This set of attributes, while a little shorter, is also exhausting.

For much of my life I have equated being good with being nice – perhaps because so many of the truly good folks I know are also truly nice and kind; perhaps because “Be nice” was a phrase frequently heard in our home. But lately I’ve come to believe that always being good and/or being nice can sometimes put up barriers to being seen. You can’t really get to know someone if they skim over the surface of everything, or hide behind false cheer or politeness. And aren’t we all more interesting when we’re messy than when we’re polite?

Not surprisingly, this carries over into my writing, which is far sharper and juicier and more vivid (like a good steak) when I let myself be messy and real than when I stay polite and nice. Of course, there are boundaries, and I sincerely never intend (in writing and life) to cause anyone pain. But I love the idea of throwing off the proper, tailored, suffocating mantle of goodness, and exchanging it for a wildly patterned, beautifully imperfect life of realness.

How do you deal with the good/real divide – or is it a divide in your life?

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I’ve had a hard time transitioning back into normal life after Bethany’s beautiful wedding. For one thing, arriving home on Sunday, tired and mussed with a suitcase full of dirty laundry, and then having to go to work on Monday feels like a cruel joke. For another, we had yet more chilly rainy days last week (I am so over the chilly rain). And finally, we had to say good-bye to a couple of friends this weekend – Scott and Beth, some of our best Boston pals, are moving soon. To Montana. Which is just ridiculously far away.

But, as she often does, Sarah came to the rescue yesterday, with a lovely post on the little lifesavers – the things that just make you feel good, that allow you to stop and breathe in and enjoy, and forget for a moment about the to-do list and those piles of clutter that never seem to go away and that stubborn sink that just stays full of dishes. She listed her little lifesavers, which (of course) inspired me to list mine. So here they are:

1. Splurging on brand-new, delicious hardcover books. I don’t do this often, but it’s always satisfying.
2. Children’s lit. This week it’s the books about the Moffats. So fun.
3. Sitting on our wee balcony, with my journal and the flourishing patio garden.
4. Trying a new recipe (last night: oil and garlic pasta sauce from Cooking with My Sisters. YUM).
5. Fresh nectarines.
6. Fruity summer candles.
7. Good pens.
8. Phoning a friend.
9. Tea at my desk.
10. Taking the long way to work across the Common, and breathing in the fresh green smells.
11. My Norah Jones Pandora radio station.
12. Shopping my closet for new outfits. (Amazingly satisfying when I pull it off.)
13. A new shawl pattern for some delicious yarn.
14. Looking forward to a Cape Cod getaway.

What are your little lifesavers – this week, or all the time?

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The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, Jeanne Birdsall
I’m a sucker for a fun, well-written children’s story – and I loved The Penderwicks, which begins the chronicle of Rosalind, Skye, Jane and Batty. So I picked up the sequel, and loved it too. From spying on the new neighbors to writing plays about Aztecs to setting their father up on dates, the girls are always thinking up new adventures. The Penderwicks simply don’t believe in dull moments – and there aren’t any.

Seeds, Richard Horan
A fun idea for book and nature lovers – a scavenger hunt for the seeds of trees beloved by famous American authors, or located near their homes. I admire Horan’s passion and tenacity, though I got fed up with his verbose, self-consciously clever writing style.

Picnic, Lightning, Billy Collins
Collins is probably my favorite poet – so this was pure pleasure reading. The best of these poems are also collected in Sailing Alone Around the Room, but it was fun to revisit them. (I also love his collection The Trouble with Poetry.)

The Little Women Letters, Gabrielle Donnelly
I’m a longtime Little Women fan, so I’m a bit protective of Jo March and her sisters. Anyone attempting to piggyback off their story – much less write in Jo’s voice – had better do it right. And Donnelly does – the letters from Jo sound awfully like her. And I loved her modern-day characters – sisters Lulu, Sophie and Emma, who are supposedly Jo March’s great-great-granddaughters. Such a fun, heartwarming, spunky read. Loved it.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender
I had high hopes for this one – and the writing is beautiful. But I found it hopeless and empty, much like the lemon cake of the title. When it comes to food and magical realism, I think Joanne Harris (Chocolat, Blackberry Wine, etc.) does it better.

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, Jeanne Birdsall
This third Penderwick story is another fun ride – this time to Maine, for an eventful summer vacation. I missed Rosalind, the oldest sister, but loved watching Skye, usually second in command, rise to the occasion as the OAP (Oldest Available Penderwick). Lots of fun beach adventures and a sweet subplot involving a long-lost father and son.

Winona’s Pony Cart, Maud Hart Lovelace
This was the only Deep Valley book I hadn’t yet read – it was a pleasant way to spend my morning commute. I like spunky, sassy Winona (though she is a bit spoiled), and this was a fun trip to a fictional town I love. (Also: it’s always interesting to see Betsy Ray from her friends’ perspective.)

A Vintage Affair, Isabel Wolff
Lush descriptions of vintage clothes, a little romance (with the wrong guy and then with the right one), and a long-buried World War II secret both heartbreaking and lovely. I quite enjoyed this feel-good story. (And – as always – I love me some British spellings and expressions. Happy sigh.)

The Saturdays, Elizabeth Enright
I hadn’t read this in years…until a blog reader reminded me of how much I’d loved it (thanks, Allison!). The story of Mona, Rush, Randy and Oliver Melendy, and their Saturday adventures in New York City, is so fun and utterly charming.

The Four-Story Mistake, Elizabeth Enright
This sequel to The Saturdays is equally charming…the Melendys move to the country, into a large, rambling house with a cupola, a cellar and a hidden room (!). And they have more adventures, beautifully written and lovingly detailed.

Then There Were Five, Elizabeth Enright
The Melendys continue their adventures, which include meeting a lonely orphan boy named Mark and taking him to their hearts, literally and figuratively. So fun to see each child pursuing his/her interests, from Mona’s radio show to Rush’s piano compositions to Randy’s dances and drawings to Oliver’s fascination with bugs and moths. They are growing up, but not yet too grown up, thank goodness.

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