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Posts Tagged ‘E.B. White’

magic is something you make brushstrokes

My one little word for 2017 is magic.

After a year that required all the gumption I could muster – which is to say, I frequently felt like I was hanging on by my fingernails – I wanted something different for 2017. I thought about vitality, which Ali chose for her word a few years ago, or rest, which I could certainly use more of this year.

Mostly, I wanted a word to help me live more fully into my everyday. Since I started choosing a word with brave back in 2010, this practice has become a way for me to pay better attention to my life. (Fittingly, attention was my word in 2013.)

I also wanted a word that would spark a little joy. 2016 was a hard and scary year, and I ended it completely worn out: exhausted, anxious, weary and fearful (though also deeply grateful for some good changes). There are lots of challenges ahead in 2017, I know, and I want to face them with bravery and hope: to walk forward expectant and unafraid.

All this reminded me of something Elise Blaha Cripe wrote a few years ago, when she chose magic for her word: “magic is something you make.” (The image above is from her site.)

Elise noted that magic doesn’t just happen to us, though it is there for the noticing: it often results from our choices, from the work we put in, from the way we choose to see the world. I was reminded, too, of Ali’s post from last year about making our own magic. Her post was related to the holidays, but I think it applies all year round.

Magic also feels a little sneaky, a little unexpected – like a much-needed antidote to the grim realities we’re all facing. To be honest, it also feels a little frivolous, and I wondered if I should choose something more grown-up and respectable. But then I remembered: I am always arguing in favor of the small things, the tiny, often overlooked moments that can turn a whole day around.

lamont quad light sky

The scrap of blue sky, the vase of red tulips on my desk, that first sip of hot, spicy chai in the morning. My favorite green coat, which has become my winter trademark. The pendant stamped with brave that I wear around my neck. The simple, small pleasures of daily life, and the lovely moments of connection with strangers and friends. Those “spasmodic tricks of radiance” are everyday magic, if anything is, and I firmly believe we need to notice them and also work to create more of them.

After I decided on my word, I went downtown to meet a friend one night last week. I got off the train early so I could walk through Beacon Hill, making my way down a dark, quiet, twinkly Charles Street with a cup of Earl Grey in my hand. And if I needed any further confirmation of my word, it came in this sign, spotted in a shop window: perfect words from one of my favorite writers.

presence wonder eb white

Wonder and magic are closely related, and I’ll be looking out for both of them this year. In a world that often feels fraught and dangerous, there’s still a great deal of light and loveliness to be found. I invite you to join me in looking for magic, and in making a little magic of our own.

Are you following a word this year? (I know I asked this question last week, but feel free to share if you haven’t already.)

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Dec 2012 003

Rather suddenly, it’s December, and I am a bit behind on the reading updates. But here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

Iron Cast, Destiny Soria
Ada and Corinne are best friends in 1920s Boston who work for a notorious gangster in exchange for his protection. (Both girls are hemopaths: they have a blood condition which allows them to perform magic, but causes a strong aversion to iron.) Rich, complex characters, a twisty plot and a setting I adored, plus strong women in spades. (From the staff recs shelf at the Harvard Book Store.)

Letters to a Young Muslim, Omar Saif Ghobash
Ghobash is the UAE’s ambassador to Russia and the father of two teenage sons. In a time when Islam is beset by extremism and anger, Ghobash shares his personal journey as a Muslim and some wise advice for his boys. Thoughtful, engaging and so timely – we all desperately need to hear from people who aren’t just like us, in this moment of fear and upheaval. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 3, 2017).

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
I love this series so much, and it’s been a few years: it was time for another reread. The first book always goes fast, and it’s fun to discover the wizarding world right along with Harry and his friends.

The Wicked City, Beatriz Williams
After discovering her husband cheating, Ella Gilbert moves out – to a building in the West Village that might be haunted. Williams uses Ella’s narrative to frame the story of Geneva Rose “Gin” Kelly, who escaped backwoods Maryland to build a life in 1920s NYC. But Gin’s bootlegging stepfather, Duke, won’t let her alone. Witty and deliciously scandalous, like all Williams’ books – though I found Gin’s story much more compelling than Ella’s. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 17, 2017).

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling
Rowling’s second book delves more deeply into the wizarding world, the (first) rise of Lord Voldemort and the odd similarities between Voldemort and Harry. (Plus it’s so much fun. Flying cars! Quidditch! More spellwork! And Fawkes the phoenix.)

Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White, Melissa Sweet
It’s no secret that I love E.B. White’s work – both his classic children’s books and his wry, witty letters and essays. Sweet tells White’s story through collage and illustration in this lovely children’s biography. (Bonus: adorable dachshunds!) Bought at Three Lives & Co. in NYC.

Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, David Whyte
I love Whyte’s poetry and also enjoyed this collection of brief, lyrical essays on words such as “solace,” “work,” “courage,” “heartbreak,” “Istanbul” and many others. A little esoteric and very lovely.

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

What are you reading?

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central park yellow flowers nyc

Confession: I had a hard time at first coming up with books for this post.

There are a million books set in NYC, but the New York in my head is the New York of TV and movies: Friends, Castle, pretty much every Nora Ephron film ever made. (I once spent an entire solo vacation pretending to be Kathleen Kelly.) Plus, New York is always changing: every book set there captures a slightly different city, filtered through a different historical era or narrator’s perspective.

I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t gather up a handful of books about this beautiful, gritty, bewitching city. So here are my New York favorites for you. Please add yours in the comments!

Children’s Lit/Classics

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
I loved this book as a child – dreamy Francie, her hardworking mother and exuberant Aunt Sissy, and the hope and heartbreak of growing up in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn.

The Saturdays, Elizabeth Enright
I adore this first book in the Melendy series, about four siblings who live in a big, comfortably shabby brownstone with their father and their housekeeper-general, Cuffy. The siblings take turns exploring the city by themselves on Saturdays, and the sense of wonder and independence is exactly right.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L. Konigsberg
Claudia and her little brother Jamie run away from home – to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as one does. When I visited the Met for the first time as an adult, I thought about them sneaking through the halls at night and scrounging coins from the fountain.

Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh
Harriet’s childhood was so different from mine: a brownstone with a dumbwaiter! Ole Golly! Tomato sandwiches and chocolate egg creams! It all seemed fantastically exotic to me. But Harriet is a New York girl through and through.

Remember Me to Harold Square, Paula Danziger
This fun middle-grade novel is built around a New York scavenger hunt undertaken by three kids – so it contains lots of city trivia. But it’s fast-paced, funny and highly entertaining.

strand books nyc exterior

Nonfiction/Memoir

Here is New York, E.B. White
White wrote this long essay in 1949, after the city and the world had been transformed by two world wars. But reading it in the wake of 9/11, it still feels eerily relevant. He evokes so well the combination of hope and possibility and fear, the vibrant rhythm of the city streets. (I found my copy at the Strand, pictured above.)

Act One, Moss Hart
An inside look at the mid-century NYC theatre world from one of the great playwrights. Hart’s voice is wry, witty and warm. (I picked this one up at Three Lives & Co. in the West Village.)

My First New York, various authors
New York is beautiful and brutal, and it glitters with possibility. This collection of about 50 essays captures the dazzling range of New York experiences: gorgeous, bewildering, always exciting. (I bought my copy at Shakespeare & Co. on the Upper East Side.)

Eat the City, Robin Shulman
Despite its reputation as a concrete jungle, NYC teems with food production: gardens, breweries, farms. Shulman explores the city’s history through its food producers, past and present. (Another Strand find.)

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, Laurie Colwin
Colwin writes with wit and grace about food, love, and tiny New York apartments. I especially love “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant.”

Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl
Reichl visited dozens of restaurants as the New York Times food critic, often in disguise. This is a rarefied New York, but it’s so much fun (and mouthwateringly described).

brooklyn brownstones light

Fiction

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles
A glittering tale of high society, love and ambition in 1930s New York. Gorgeously written.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Melanie Benjamin
A razor-sharp, elegantly written imagining of Truman Capote and the circle of wealthy socialite “swans,” notably Babe Paley, who were his darlings in 1950s NYC.

The View from Penthouse B and The Family Man, Elinor Lipman
Lipman writes witty comedies of manners, and these two novels both draw New York in quick, loving strokes.

Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown, Jean Kwok
Kwok’s novels both feature Chinese-American protagonists struggling to make their way in NYC. She draws the sharp contrasts of New York – enormous privilege next to great poverty; immigrant traditions and the siren call of the new – so well.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
This novel is tragic, moving and sometimes very funny . It is an incredible mosaic of New York: all the lives and the loneliness (and the post-9/11 cocktail of fear, love and loss).

Brooklyn, Colm Toibin
Eilis Lacey emigrates from her small Irish town to Brooklyn in the 1950s, struggling to build a life for herself. This is a lovely evocation of a vanished New York, with a quietly appealing main character.

Bunheads, Sophie Flack
A well-written YA novel about a young ballet dancer in New York – who starts to wonder if the world of ballet is where she truly belongs. Captures the constant possibility that thrums through the city.

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

What are your favorite books about (or set in) NYC?

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Over on Instagram this month, I’ve been enjoying Jessica’s #31bookpics challenge. She came up with an eclectic list of bookish photo prompts, and I’ve relished looking through my shelves for books to fit each one.

Early in the month, the prompt was “underrated,” and I pulled together this stack.

underrated books yellow roses

These are all books by authors who are much better known for their other work: Anne of Green Gables (Montgomery), A Wrinkle in Time (L’Engle), Charlotte’s Web (White), All the Light We Cannot See (Doerr). I have no quibbles with this – I’m a lifelong Anne fan and I loved All the Light (and who doesn’t adore Charlotte?). The fame, in every case, is well deserved.

But there’s something delicious about knowing and loving an author’s more obscure work, whether you come to it after reading the better-known books or discover the author through the “back door.”

For me, Montgomery, Doerr, White and Maud Hart Lovelace belong in the first category: I read and reread Anne of Green Gables and the first few Betsy-Tacy books as a little girl. (My sister is named after Betsy Ray.) It took a while for me to move on to Montgomery’s other work and Betsy’s high school (and later) adventures, but when I did, I adored them.

I’d only peripherally heard of Doerr before All the Light swept the bestseller lists. But after reading that, I snagged a beautiful hardcover copy of Four Seasons in Rome in a used bookshop in San Diego, and loved it just as much. And my E.B. White obsession, though it began with Charlotte and Wilbur, has expanded to include pretty much everything the man ever wrote.

In other cases, though, I read the lesser-known works first, and they’re still my favorites.

I bought Walking on Water, L’Engle’s wonderful book on faith and art, from a college friend who was selling off some of her books. I loved it so much I sought out A Circle of Quiet and L’Engle’s other memoirs before I ever read A Wrinkle in Time. Julia Cameron is best known for The Artist’s Way, but my college boyfriend (now my husband) plucked The Sound of Paper off a bookstore shelf and gave it to me for graduation, so I read it first. It is still true north for me.

I realize it’s an ultra-hipster-trendy move these days to insist that you loved a book before it was cool, or knew about an author before he or she became popular. But as I said above, I adore these authors’ more popular works. I am happily in the majority of readers who follow the interstellar adventures of Meg Murry or wish they could spend an afternoon in Avonlea with Anne.

But I’m always so pleased to discover an author’s overlooked work, or to introduce some lesser-known favorites to fellow bookworms who may never have heard of Rilla of Ingleside (Montgomery) or Emily of Deep Valley (Lovelace). For me, it simply expands the pleasure of reading. And really, anyone who hasn’t read E.B. White’s pitch-perfect essays is missing out.

What are your favorite overlooked books?

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fall books flowers mysteries

It’s definitely fall around here, and I’m noticing the shift in various ways. The mornings are crisper, the evenings shorter, the light a different shade of golden.

I’m sipping fall teas, munching apples and burning autumnal candles. But I’m also, characteristically, thinking about fall books.

Not all of my reading is tied to a season, but certain books and genres do resonate more deeply at certain times of year. I reach for Winter Solstice every December, The Long Winter in the frozen depths of February, Jane of Lantern Hill in the tentative first days of spring.

Similarly, the stack above holds a few particular books – and a couple of genres – to which I turn every fall.

Anne of Windy Poplars chronicles Anne Shirley’s three years as a high school principal in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, and though they span all four seasons, the entire book feels like autumn to me. (Anne of the Island, with its collegiate setting and jolly houseful of girls, also fits this season.) I adore Anne in all times and all places, but I love picturing her curled up in her tower room at Windy Poplars during the season of mellow afternoons and crisp twilights.

Robert Frost’s poetry is perfect for autumn. I love his classics like “The Road Not Taken,” but some of my other favorites evoke the mystery and melancholy of a New England fall. Try “After Apple-Picking,” “The Freedom of the Moon,” and “Acquainted with the Night.”

I adore E.B. White’s keenly observed evocations of life on a New England farm, many of which are collected in One Man’s Meat. They, too, encompass all seasons, but I always want to curl up by a warm fire and crunch on apples while I’m reading his accounts of livestock, small-town incidents and lovable, hardheaded dachshunds.

I love a mystery all year round, but Sidney Chambers, that quietly melancholic, inquisitive priest, seems especially suited for autumn. (Maybe it’s because I discovered him last fall.) The first volume of his adventures, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, contains an evocative passage about how autumn reveals the underlying shape of things.

Dorothy Sayers’ mystery series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane contains many gems. But Gaudy Night – set in Oxford among dreaming spires and diligent students, combining academia and mystery with a love story – is my very favorite, and perfect for this time of year.

Finally, Emily of Deep Valley is on my list to reread this fall. It’s about a girl who must make her own way in the world after graduating high school, while her friends head off to college. It’s full of quiet warmth and determination (like Emily herself), and both the cover and the spirit of the book are perfectly autumnal.

What do you like to read in the fall? Any books (or genres) that speak to you especially in the autumn?

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Cold weather

There has been more talk about the weather around here this year than common, but there has been more weather to talk about. For about a month now we have had solid cold—firm, business-like cold that stalked in and took charge of the countryside as a brisk housewife might take charge of someone else’s kitchen in an emergency. Clean, hard, purposeful cold, unyielding and unremitting. Some days have been clear and cold, others have been stormy and cold. We have had cold with snow and cold without snow, windy cold and quiet cold, rough cold and indulgent peace-loving cold. But always cold.

—E.B. White, “Cold Weather,” from One Man’s Meat

boston common snow winter february

White’s words sum up how I feel about this winter. And even though I know it’s not over, I am over it.

Come on, spring. Whenever you’re ready.

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From mid-September to early November, E.B. White’s collected letters lived on my bedside table. At nearly 700 pages, it’s too heavy to carry on the subway and hold in one hand, so I kept it at home, dipping into it morning and evening.

After reading a fascinating biography of White and then his essays last fall, I found his letters at the Brattle (complete with newspaper clippings from 1977 featuring an interview with White and a New Yorker tribute to his wife, Katharine, after her death). Intimidated by the collection’s size, I let it sit on my shelf for a year.

e.b. white writer dachshund dog minnie

(Image from amsaw.org)

Once I finally picked it up, I found myself charmed again by White’s keen eye, dry humor and gift for understatement. His life may have been quiet, but it was peopled with fascinating characters, including Katharine; Harold Ross, longtime editor of The New Yorker; fellow writers; his family members; and Ursula Nordstrom, the longtime children’s editor at Harper’s, whose letters I also read and loved.

As I read White’s letters, chuckling at his witty observations (and frequently reading the choicest bits aloud to J), I kept thinking of a scene from The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle. Polynesia, the Doctor’s wise parrot, is talking to the narrator, Tommy Stubbins, a boy who will become the Doctor’s new assistant. She dismisses his worries about never having been to school, but when he wonders if he could learn animal language, she asks him a vital question:

Are you a good noticer? Do you notice things well?

White often doubted his own skill as a writer, even as he wrote weekly essays and shorter pieces for The New Yorker, and worked on his three books for children. He never quite understood all the fuss people made over him and his work. He harbored a deep love for New York, where he was born and raised, even writing a gorgeous, elegiac essay about it. But as he grew older, he spent more and more time on his farm in Brooklin, Maine, raising chickens and pigs and various other animals, followed around by his dogs.

White was, at times, a poet, a social critic, a quixotic dreamer, a children’s novelist, a newspaperman, a humorist, an amateur cartoonist and an essayist. But at all times, in all places, he was a good noticer. His precise observations of daily life, his keen insights into human nature, all hinged on his powers of observation. His noticing, and the care he took in writing down his noticing, are what makes his letters so much fun to read.

Do you enjoy reading collections of letters? (I love them.) And are you a good noticer?

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