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Posts Tagged ‘essays’

red geranium flower close up

Delight, according to poet Ross Gay, is underrated: its very existence, the multiplicity of delights present in the world, the noticing and celebrating of said delights. (For what it’s worth, I agree with him.)

Between his 42nd and 43rd birthdays, Gay decided to capture as many delights as possible, and spin them out into a series of “essayettes.” The result, The Book of Delights, is a kaleidoscopic collection of joy–an accumulation of blessings that, piled up, create a larger enchantment.

I interviewed Ross via email for Shelf Awareness after reading The Book of Delights – the paragraph above is the first part of my review. His answers to my questions, not surprisingly, were a delight, so I wanted to share them with you. (And I highly recommend the book itself, which came out last week.)

KNG: Tell us about the inspiration for The Book of Delights.

RG: I was–this is not a joke–walking back to the castle I was staying in for the month of June in Umbria, at an artists’ residency. I was delighted, and acknowledged it. I was like, “Oh, this is really delightful!” It might have been the wildflowers at my feet swooning with bees, or the fig trees (unripe) everywhere, or the way Erykah Badu singing in your headphones usually makes things more delightful. Or the castle, I guess.

But I think catching myself in delight that day made me think it would be interesting and challenging and fun to do every day for a year. It was close to my birthday, so that was an easy form: birthday to birthday. And, too, the fact that I am always hungry, like deeply hungry, for writing about and thinking about and theorizing about and singing about that which I love.

How did you decide which delights to capture and expound upon? (You note that stacking delights is itself a delight, but at the same time, you cant write about them all!)

Today, outside my window, is what looks like a weird kind of poppy shrub–a cardinal just flipped by, and there goes her fella–which amazes and delights me, you know, because it’s January and, thank god, very cold outside, much too cold for a poppybush to be growing, whatever a poppybush is.

Then I realized I’d chucked a couple clementine peels out of the car when I was coming home from the store, and the way they landed behind the bald shrub, and from this distance, makes it look as though they are flowers on the tree, as though they are a poppybush, which they are. And one of those cardinals is so bright, looking right into this window from across the street, that he looks like a red light bulb. I mean, I don’t know. There is, along with all else, so much to delight upon, the way I see it.

I remember trying to write about things that really delighted me, but they just kind of spun out as essayettes and didn’t go anywhere. So probably I needed the delight to take me somewhere, which could mean associative wandering, or musical wandering, or digging really hard on a thing. But I guess the delights needed to offer a certain amount of puzzlement in addition to delight. They often had to make me ask why a thing delights me, which often took me far from delight–often took me nowhere I would have anticipated.

You talk about delight, and the noticing of it, as a muscle that can be strengthened, or a radar that grows more sensitive over time. Tell us about about the process of finding more delight as you went along.

I think I was prepared for a kind of scarcity of delight. To need to be scouring my life for delight to write these essayettes. And then, as I turned it on, it was like this is what Im doing, attending to my delight.

I found, with that attention, that I am often kind of delighted. And often delighted by things I didn’t realize delighted me. And that is a gift–to be like, “Oh, shoot, I love that jade plant that my student gave to me and I have spent all these years never realizing how much I love it!” Or, “I love that candy because it reminds me of my father, who could be so ridiculously sweet to us.” To do that again and again. But it took me giving myself the task of attending to and articulating the experience of delight to myself to realize that. Because, the truth is, my inclination has been kind of melancholic plus.

Delight, or at least the public celebration of it, has often been denied to black people in the U.S. Can you talk about writing a book of black delight. Daily as air?”

I think there’s a very clear desire (and industry) by some to crush the experience, or to imagine the experience, of black people into, simply, suffering and pain. Like if it isn’t pain, it isn’t black. If it isn’t about pain or reacting to or resisting pain, it isn’t black. Something like that. That’s bullsh*t, and it’s poisonous, all around. (Black pain as a salable product, a good, that’s familiar, huh?)

I’m interested in the full, weird, complex, surprising, tender humanity of my life, our lives. Which includes delight. (And I recommend Kevin Quashie’s book The Sovereignty of Quiet.)

Theres a perception that delight, joy or playfulness arent serious, or that celebrating them forces people to ignore the harsher realities of life. But your collection draws together the dark and the light, and takes joy and pleasure seriously. Were you consciously trying to strike that balance or was it more organic?

It’s a mistake to imagine that what is brutal or awful is the only thing worth talking about. Primarily because the brutal and the awful and the harsh are not the only thing.

I mean, what is the world in which the only thing worth talking about or thinking about or meditating on or studying, the only thing worthy of our fullest attention, is that which sucks? What are the results of thinking and counseling that joy–which, in my opinion, comes from the realization that we are utterly interdependent, we are utterly connected (part of that connection being that we all die)–is not worth studying? F*ck that.

I want to study the zillion ways we care for each other so that I can get better at caring. I want to study the ways we collaborate, the ways we interdepend, whether we acknowledge it or not, which we damn well better do.

Do you have advice for readers who may be inspired to start their own delight-noticing projects, or write about their delights?

I’m not that good for advice, but I will say there was something useful to me about dailiness, about making writing these delights a practice. I also think having a little time constraint was useful for me; it helped me to think in a looser, non-precious way. I loved writing them by hand, too–that helps me to think more bodily, which I think is more delightful, frankly. And then you can have these notebooks full of meditations on things that have delighted you–how lucky!

I originally conducted this interview and reviewed this book for Shelf Awareness, where both pieces appeared last week. 

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still book stack table ranunculus flower

So far this month, I’ve been flipping through old favorites and diving deep into new books. Here’s the latest roundup:

I’ll Be There For You: The One About Friends, Kelsey Miller
I’m a longtime Friends fan, though I came to it late. I blew through this smart, well-researched, loving look at the origin, history and cultural impact of one of my favorite shows. Miller adores the show, but she’s not afraid to question its more difficult parts. Fascinating and so much fun.

Four Gifts: Seeking Self-Care for Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength, April Yamasaki
Sarah Bessey chose this book to kick off a yearlong challenge to read spiritual formation books by people of color. My go-tos in this genre are all white women, so I appreciated the nudge. Yamasaki is wise and thoughtful. Lots of her advice is common sense – but we all need a reminder sometimes.

What Now?, Ann Patchett
I love Patchett’s essays and some of her novels (and Parnassus, the Nashville bookstore she founded). This quick read is based on her commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College. Warmhearted, wise advice for college grads and anyone who’s ever wondered about their winding path (which I bet is most of us).

Wishtree, Katherine Applegate
I picked up this slim middle-grade novel at Porter Square Books. It’s narrated by Red, a red oak tree who serves as the neighborhood “wishtree” – people tie wishes to its branches. When a young, lonely girl moves in next door, Red becomes determined to help her find a friend. A sweet story with gorgeous illustrations (and I loved Bongo the crow).

Belong to Me, Marisa de los Santos
After rereading Love Walked In last month, I turned back to this sequel-of-sorts, which finds Cornelia in the suburbs, struggling with new challenges. This book is full of warmth and vivid detail and characters I want to be friends with – even Piper, Cornelia’s neighbor, who is hard to like at first, but I’ve come to adore her. So many good and true lines.

Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith, Sarah Bessey
Reading Four Gifts (see above) spurred me to (finally) pick up Sarah’s second book, on her struggles with church and faith and how she found her way back. I love the sorting metaphor, and it feels particularly apt right now as I am between churches. Her words on community and grief and calling are so good.

The Golden Tresses of the Dead, Alan Bradley
Flavia de Luce is back for a 10th adventure, involving a human finger found in her sister’s wedding cake and a couple of mysterious deaths (naturally). I like this series, though I think it’s struggling a bit lately. Really fun escapist British mystery.

Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace, Christie Purifoy
Christie is a gardener, a writer and an Internet friend of mine. This, her second book, examines the places she’s lived and loved (each chapter has a different tree motif) and her efforts to care for them. So much here about loss, grief, joy, transition, community and how we shape and are shaped by our places. I loved it. To review for Shelf Awareness(out March 12).

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

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Saturday evening girls club book Christmas tree

I started the new year in a serious reading slump – nothing on my stacks looked or sounded good. Fortunately, these books helped pull me out of it. Here’s the latest roundup:

The Saturday Evening Girls Club, Jane Healey
I grabbed this one at the library and flew through it in a day. An enjoyable, well-told story of four young women who belong to the titular club in early 20th-century Boston. I loved the North End setting, the details about culture and traditions in Russian Jewish and Italian families, and the fierce friendship of the four main characters.

The Age of Light, Whitney Scharer
I’m sort of sick of these woman-behind-the-famous-man stories. But Scharer tells this one well: it’s the story of Lee Miller, Vogue model and muse to Man Ray who became a writer and photographer in her own right. Starting in the 1960s, Scharer flashes back to Miller’s time in Paris with Man, and her later work as a war photographer. I wanted more of the latter, but this is still an evocative novel. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 5).

The Book of Delights, Ross Gay
Delight, Gay insists, is worth celebrating, and he does – to the tune of several dozen small essays, written over the course of a year. So many quirky, everyday moments and blessings, which also draw in race, family, work, memories, gardening and all of life. Aptly, the book is itself a delight. Wonderful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 12).

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton
This twisty mystery is exactly as billed: Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day, with a dash of Twin Peaks. Aiden Bishop wakes up every morning in the body of a different host at Blackheath, a crumbling, spooky English estate. He has eight days (and hosts) to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle, which keeps happening every night. Meanwhile, he’s trying to help a mysterious woman named Anna and not lose his mind completely. Jaclyn and I agree: this one is BONKERS, but a lot of fun.

On Turpentine Lane, Elinor Lipman
I like Lipman’s sharp, funny romantic comedies, and this one was highly entertaining. Faith Frankel buys a house whose previous owner may or may not have killed her husbands (!) in it. Meanwhile, her fiancé is walking across America (why?), her father is having a midlife artistic and personal crisis, and her handsome coworker needs a place to crash. Witty and amusing.

The Rain in Portugal, Billy Collins
I’ve loved Collins’ work since I was a student, and (belatedly) picked up his latest collection at Trident. Whimsical, sometimes wistful, often funny. He has a gift for observing the ordinary. Not my favorite of his, but it has some wonderful lines.

Love Walked In, Marisa de los Santos
This novel is one of my very favorites, and I savored it over a series of cold nights. I love everything about it: Cornelia’s warm, rambling narrative voice; her insight and empathy; and her deep mutual bond with Clare, 11 years old and in desperate need of love. Nourishing and lyrical and so well done.

The Tiny Journalist: Poems, Naomi Shihab Nye
Shihab Nye writes powerful, sharp-eyed poems about our common humanity. The titular poem, and several more, refer to Janna Jihad, a young Palestinian girl who films her daily life under Israeli occupation. Shihab Nye (a Palestinian-American) explores the connections between Janna’s work, her late father (a journalist), her own creative work, and the ways in which all people deserve to live safe, healthy lives. I find poetry tough to write about, but Shihab Nye is always worth reading. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 9).

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

What are you reading?

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strand bookstore cookbook shelves

I read 191 books in 2018. So many of them were good ones – not least because I got to review a few dozen gems (and interview a few authors) for Shelf Awareness, my longtime freelance gig.

I shared some favorites halfway through the year, but looking back over all of 2018, these are the ones I couldn’t stop talking about. (A few from my half-year roundup are reposted below.)

Best Feminist Reimagining of Mythology: Circe by Madeline Miller. A fantastic, well-written story of a “minor” sorceress who steps into her own power.

Best Antidote to the Current Political Madness: The World As It Is, Ben Rhodes’ memoir of the near-decade he spent working on communications and foreign policy for President Obama. So insightful and interesting.

Most Essential Reading on Race: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, which weaves together marriage and mass incarceration; and Black is the Body by Emily Bernard, an incisive essay collection about family, race and womanhood.

Best Conversation Starter: The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle. Who would you have at your ideal dinner party? This one was fun and surprisingly moving.

Best Reread: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which grabbed my heart just as it did when I was protagonist Francie’s age.

Most Blazing, Gorgeous Novel of Love and Heartbreak: Love and Ruin by Paula McLain. I did not think I could read another Hemingway novel, but Martha Gellhorn’s narrative voice grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

Most Vivid and Heartrending Refugee Story: The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. (I liked Exit West too, but this dual narrative with its two scrappy female protagonists stole my heart.)

Most Eloquent, Relatable Memoir of Running and Grit: The Long Run by Catriona Menzies-Pike. I think of lines from this witty, beautiful book regularly while I’m running.

Most Compelling Mysteries with a Side of Faith: Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series featuring Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne.

What were your favorite books of 2018?

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watch for the light book bed Christmas tree

December reading is always a crazy mix of airplane reading, the last few review books of the year, and a couple of Advent/Christmas staples. (Above: the book of readings that has shaped my experience of Advent since 2001.) Here’s the last roundup of 2018:

Harry’s Trees, Jon Cohen
I grabbed this novel at the library after Anne raved about it. A slow start for me, but I fell in love with Harry Crane, a Forest Service employee who escapes to the woods after his wife dies. I loved the people he meets – Oriana, a young girl who’s lost her father; Amanda, her relentlessly practical mother; and Olive, the elderly pipe-smoking librarian who gives Oriana a book that changes everything. Magical and moving.

Darius the Great is Not Okay, Adib Khorram
Leigh and Kari both loved this book, and I really enjoyed it. Darius is an Iranian-American teen (and tea lover) who travels to Iran for the first time. His relationships with his dad and little sister were so well drawn and real, and I loved watching him make a real friend and bond with his grandparents.

Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London, Mohsin Hamid
Hamid is better known for his novels – like Exit West, which I loved – but this collection of his essays is wise and thought-provoking. I learned a lot about Pakistan from the “Politics” section, but found more to enjoy in “Art” and “Life.” Found (on sale) at the charming Papercuts JP last month.

Running Home, Katie Arnold
Arnold became a runner as a kid, almost by accident – at the urging of her photographer dad. She chronicles her journey with running (and later ultrarunning), interwoven with her dad’s illness, his death, and their complicated but deeply loving relationship. So many great lines about writing, life, family, and how we shape the stories we tell ourselves. I loved it as a runner and a writer, but I think even if you’re neither, it’s well worth reading. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 12).

Star Crossed, Minnie Darke
Justine is a whip-smart Sagittarius with journalistic ambitions and little regard for astrology. Her childhood friend Nick is an aspiring Aquarian actor who trusts the stars for major life decisions. They reconnect – and Justine starts dabbling in astrology – in this fun Australian novel. I loved all the intertwined stories and Darke’s sharp observations about various star signs. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 21).

Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, Barbara Brown Taylor
Teaching Religion 101 to undergraduates in Georgia for nearly two decades, Taylor (a former Episcopal priest) found much to admire and even envy in Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam. She explores her experiences alongside her students’, and muses on what “holy envy” may have to offer those who are still deeply committed to their own faith. Thoughtful, insightful and so well done, like all Taylor’s books. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 12).

Summer at the Garden Café, Felicity Hayes-McCoy
I loved Hayes-McCoy’s memoir about Ireland and enjoyed her first novel set there. This, the sequel, is charming and fun. It follows the lives of several people in a small village in western Ireland: librarian Hanna, her daughter Jazz, their colleagues and friends.

Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
I received this book as a gift over a decade ago, and I still revisit it almost every December. It’s a story of five loosely connected people who end up in the north of Scotland one Christmas, and the ways they bring hope to each other. So good.

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

What are you reading as we head into 2019?

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glass ocean book tea cafe

We’re headed for December already – and between the feasting, the commuting, the running and the rest of life, this month included some fantastic books. Here’s the latest roundup:

Black is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, Emily Bernard
“Brown is the body I was born into. Black is the body of the stories I tell.” Bernard, an author and professor, explores race and family history in these powerful essays. Incisive and moving and so compelling. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 29).

The Matchmaker’s List, Sonya Lalli
Still single at 29, Raina Anand reluctantly agrees to let her Indian grandmother play matchmaker. Secretly, she’s still in love with her ex, who reappears while Raina is helping plan her best friend’s wedding. A fun story of clashing cultural expectations (Canadian and Indian), with a likable (if frustrating) protagonist. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 22).

Can’t Help Myself: Lessons & Confessions from a Modern Advice Columnist, Meredith Goldstein
Goldstein writes the Love Letters column for the Boston Globe. This memoir is about that work, her mother’s illness, her own struggle to find love, and the surprising community she’s found through Love Letters. Funny, warm and surprisingly insightful.

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites, Kate Christensen
Christensen has a complex relationship with food: finding comfort in it, avoiding it, exploring it in new contexts. She recounts her peripatetic childhood, her lost teenage years, her fierce love for her sisters and mother and her romantic travails, with accompanying food experiences and occasional recipes. Some delicious moments (and a lot of ill-advised decisions). Found last month at the wonderful Print: A Bookstore in Portland, Maine.

The Huntress, Kate Quinn
In the aftermath of the Nuremberg trials, most people want to move on from war stories. But British journalist Ian Graham has made hunting down war criminals his life’s work. His estranged Russian wife, former pilot Nina Markova, joins Ian and his partner in a quest to track down the titular huntress. Their story becomes intertwined with that of Jordan McBride, a young aspiring photographer in Boston, and her family. A gripping narrative of war, revenge and love – even bigger, darker and deeper than Quinn’s excellent The Alice Network. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 26).

Not For the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power, and Persistence, Wendy Sherman
Sherman is a distinguished diplomat and a faculty member at my former workplace, the Harvard Kennedy School. Her memoir chronicles her deep involvement in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, as well as her background in social work and the lessons she’s learned as a woman in high-stress workplaces and unexpected situations. A solid, thoughtful political memoir.

The Glass Ocean, Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White
I enjoyed The Forgotten Room by these three authors (and I’ll read pretty much anything Williams writes). I also enjoyed this compelling novel of three women: two aboard the RMS Lusitania and one historian trying to piece together their story a century later. Tess, the young con woman trying to go straight, was my favorite.

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

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id rather be reading book flowers Anne bogel

I’m not quite sure how September is half over (I say this every month), but here’s the latest reading roundup. I’ll be linking up with Anne Bogel and others for Quick Lit, and in a moment of serendipity, the first book is hers…

I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life, Anne Bogel
Anne is a longtime Internet friend (and we met IRL in NYC a couple of years ago). She sent me a copy of her brand-new book of essays on reading and the bookworm life. As expected, it was delightful, and I saw myself in many of its pages. A perfect gift for the book fanatic in your life.

Four Funerals and Maybe a Wedding, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana Rannoch may finally get to marry her intended, Darcy – but, of course, a spot of murder will intervene first. I’ve enjoyed this series, but this wasn’t my favorite entry: several key characters were largely offstage, and the mystery was confusing. Still, Georgie and her world are a lot of fun.

The Endless Beach, Jenny Colgan
Flora MacKenzie is trying to make a go of both her seaside cafe and her brand-new relationship. But as she prepares for her brother’s wedding and tries to balance accounts, she’s facing romantic trouble too. The setting (the Scottish island of Mure) is enchanting, but I was far more interested in the secondary characters, including a Syrian refugee doctor, than Flora or her (irritating) boyfriend.

Sound: A Memoir of Hearing Lost and Found, Bella Bathurst
Bathurst is a British journalist who lost much of her hearing in her mid-20s, and dove into all sorts of research about hearing loss, deaf culture and remedies for deafness. She has since regained much of her hearing via surgery. This slim memoir was slow to start, but was a fascinating look at various aspects of sound, listening, audiology and the simple things hearing people take for granted. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 2).

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
Celestial and Roy, a young black couple in Atlanta, are newly married and on their way up the career ladder when Roy is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. The book traces their relationship over the next five years, until Roy gets out of prison (early) and they both must reckon with the changes those years have wrought. I read this novel with my heart in my throat; powerful and stunning don’t quite do it justice. It speaks with equal potency to this racial moment and to the inner intricacies of a marriage.

Little Big Love, Katy Regan
This was an impulse grab at the library, and I loved it: a big-hearted, funny, bittersweet British novel about a boy named Zac who goes on a quest to find his dad. It’s narrated by Zac; his mum, Juliet; and Juliet’s dad, Mick. All three of them are hiding secrets. It weaves together themes of family, loss, fitness and body image, and love in many of its forms.

The Summer Wives, Beatriz Williams
I love Williams’ elegant novels about love and secrets, often involving the sprawling, blue-blood Schuyler family. This one takes place on Winthrop Island in Long Island Sound: the story of a fateful summer and all that came after. An engaging story of love and jealousy and murder, though Miranda (the main character) struck me as a bit passive.

Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship, Kayleen Schaefer
Women are often stereotyped as catty and competitive – but for many of us, female friendship is a saving and sustaining grace. Schaefer explores the evolution of female friendship over the last half century or so, via her own experience and a bit of sociology. I liked her honesty and enjoyed a lot of her modern-day references, but wanted more context (and more diversity).

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
My husband read this book a few weeks ago, and I’ve never heard him laugh so hard over anything he’s read. So I picked it up and blazed through it in a day. It was…baffling. There were some truly funny moments, but overall it wasn’t quite my bag.

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

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