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I’m back from a trip out west to see some dear friends, and (no surprise) I did a lot of airplane reading. Here’s the latest roundup:

Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, Madeleine Bunting
I found this one at the Book House in Summertown, Oxford, last fall. It took me weeks: it’s a bit dense in places, but fascinating. Bunting explores the Outer Hebrides off the northwestern coast of Scotland and delves into their complicated histories. Less memoir-y than I wanted, though she does muse on the ideas of home, remoteness and living on the (literal) edge.

To Darkness and to Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming
During a single November day in Millers Kill, N.Y., events unfold that will change multiple lives. A young woman goes missing, a corporate land deal inches toward completion, a few men see their future plans crumbling (for varied reasons). Spencer-Fleming’s fourth mystery charts the complicated web of people affected by these events, including her protagonists, Rev. Clare Fergusson and police chief Russ Van Alstyne. So layered and so good.

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
This YA novel needs no introduction from me: it’s been all over the bestseller lists, and for good reason. Starr Carter, a young black woman, is the only witness to her childhood best friend’s murder at the hands of a white police officer. Starr is already navigating two worlds as a student at a mostly white prep school, but Khalil’s murder smashes her two worlds together. Stunning, heartbreaking, powerful. I was gripped and saddened by the main plot, but I also loved Thomas’ depiction of Starr’s tight-knit, complicated family.

The Alice Network, Kate Quinn
In 1915, a young Englishwoman named Evelyn Gardiner is recruited to spy for the titular network in German-occupied France. In 1947, Charlie St. Clair finds herself pregnant, adrift and searching desperately for news of her French cousin Rose, who disappeared in World War II. Quinn expertly ties Charlie’s and Eve’s stories together, with a propulsive plot, some truly fantastic supporting characters and a ruthless villain. I devoured this on a plane ride (and a passing flight attendant exclaimed, “It’s so good!”). Highly recommended.

All Mortal Flesh, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne are still struggling to navigate their relationship. When Russ’ recently estranged wife is found murdered in her kitchen, events spin wildly out of control. This mystery packed in so much pain and surprise – not just for Russ and Clare but for many of the supporting cast, who are fully realized characters in their own right. Broke my heart, but it was the best yet in this series.

A Desperate Fortune, Susanna Kearsley
I picked up this fascinating novel after loving Kearsley’s The Winter Sea. Sara Thomas, an amateur codebreaker, travels to France to decipher a young woman’s diary from the 1730s. Kearsley weaves Sara’s story together with that of the diary’s author, Mary Dundas, who finds herself mixed up with the Jacobites. I loved both narratives, but especially enjoyed watching Mary adapt to her rapidly changing circumstances and step into her own bravery.

Brave Enough, Cheryl Strayed
My mom gave me this little book of Strayed’s quotes for Christmas, and I’ve been dipping into it. I’m a bit ambivalent about her work, but there is some pithy, no-nonsense wisdom here.

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

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memorial church window light candles

I go for the sunlight shafting through the high windows, sometimes flooding directly into my eyes as I sit or stand. It feels like its own sort of benediction, like a blessing I didn’t earn and can only receive.

I go for the voices of the dozen students dressed in long black robes trimmed with scarlet cord. They sing a different anthem every weekday, and their voices soar clear and pure above the carved pews to the cream-colored ceiling.

I go for MemCafé on Wednesdays after service: a paper cup of Lady Grey tea, a granola bar for the road, a warm smile and chitchat from a college student who has no idea how much his kindness means to me.

I go for the words of the ancient texts: a psalm to begin the service, the Lord’s Prayer near the end. Sometimes I participate in the responsive readings or the prayer, my voice blending into the chorus. Other times I sit and listen, letting the community speak for me.

I go for the talks by members of the Harvard community and guests: always varied, often surprising, usually carrying an insight I didn’t expect.

I go because it’s good to be known and welcomed, to see other familiar faces in the pews even if we never speak to one another.

I go to let the ritual anchor me, to breathe deeply before the workday begins, to find a bit of hope and peace among the crowded tasks of ordinary life.

I go for the benedictions, every day: May the Lord bless you and keep you. May he preserve your going out and your coming in. May the peace of God rest, rule and abide in each of us until we meet again. Amen.

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“I was going to ask if you believe praying can really help at a time like this.”

Clare folded her hands together and pressed them to her lips. She paused. […]

“I believe that God hears our prayers, and cherishes them. I believe He answers by sending His spirit, giving us strength, and peace, and insight. I don’t think He responds by turning away bullets and curing cancer. Though sometimes that does happen.”

Harlene frowned. “In other words, sometimes, the answer is no?”

“No. Sometimes the answer is ‘This is life, in all its variety. Make your way through it with grace, and never forget that I love you.’ ”

—Julia Spencer-Fleming, In the Bleak Midwinter

I don’t usually expect to find theology in mystery novels. Though perhaps I should have seen it coming in this book, the first in a series featuring Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson (flawed but faithful, like all the best human beings I know). I enjoyed the book – a solid mystery set in upstate New York, in which new-to-town Clare solves a murder case alongside longtime chief of police Russ Van Alstyne. But I found this exchange, between Clare and police dispatcher Harlene, particularly moving and deeply human.

I don’t pretend to know what prayer does, or exactly how it works. The older I get, the less sure I am of what God is up to in this world, or how the presence of the divine intersects with our lives. But Clare’s final statement to Harlene rings true to me: when we are faced with life in all its variety, all we can do is try to make our way through it with grace. In spite of the darkness, I still believe this too: we are not alone, but deeply, wholly loved.

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Every year it’s a challenge: to look back over the books I’ve read in a year (nearly 150, this time!) and choose a handful of favorites. I talked about a few gems in my first-half-of-2017 roundup, back in June. But here are the books that shine the brightest in my whole reading year:

Most Enchanting Family Saga: The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman. I’ve gushed about this one a lot, and I even got to interview Hoffman for Shelf Awareness. (She was lovely and wise, and patient with my fangirling.) I fell totally in love with these characters, and a few words about their courage have remained written on my heart.

Deep and Captivating Dive into the Word-Hoard: Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane. I loved every page of this beautiful, keenly observed book about landscapes, the words we use to describe them, and how those things shape each other (and us). A must-read if you’re a walker, a writer or a good noticer.

Loveliest and Most Honest Memoir of Transformation: The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis. An unflinching, beautiful, often heartrending look at what it means to leave behind a faith and a marriage, and navigate new territory without a map.

Funniest Lighthearted Fiction: The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman. I couldn’t stop laughing at this wisecracking, warmhearted novel of grief, love and gardening.

Most Luminous Memoir of Faith and Struggle: In the Shelter by Pádraig Ó Tuama. Wise and lovely: always calling us to pay attention to what is here, what is real, what is full of possibility.

Timely and Vivid Nonfiction: The Newcomers by Helen Thorpe – a vivid account of refugee teenagers and their families struggling to adjust to life in Denver. Powerful, clear and compelling.

Poetry: Blue Iris by Mary Oliver, which contains so many beautiful flower poems – a perfect match to my flower walks and #FlowerReporting this spring and summer.

Favorite Reread: Either The Precious One by Marisa de los Santos or Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I love de los Santos’ warm, thought-provoking family stories, and Gilead is wise and slow (in the best way) and utterly lovely.

Gorgeous, Layered Family Saga: Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. Each section in this novel focuses on a different member of the same extended family, across countries and generations. Bittersweet and absorbing.

Best Title (with Wry, Hilarious Career Advice): Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? by Alyssa Mastromonaco. I really enjoyed this snarky, smart memoir about life in the Obama White House. But the title is almost my favorite part – it’s frighteningly applicable to so many situations these days.

What were your favorite books this year?

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tree lights bookshelf christmas

This Advent, as I said last week, has felt a bit disjointed.

Instead of quiet and hopeful (which is admittedly a stretch, given the headlines lately), I have felt hesitant, restless, even a little angry. So much has shifted, in my life and in the world, this year, and though I’m glad to see Advent come again, my usual traditions aren’t really working. Instead of reading Watch for the Light on a near-daily basis, I’ve picked it up only a few times. I’ve been diving into Star Wars novels instead of my typical Advent stack, and even the carols haven’t been quite as present.

And yet.

At the last Morning Prayers service of the fall semester, Lucy began by reading a passage from 1 Corinthians 16: Be watchful. Stand firm in your faith. Be strong. Be courageous. Let all that you do be done in love. I took those words as a charge, especially the last two sentences. And I believed her when she said, a few minutes later, “The promise of Advent is that we will be met by the One who loves us, no matter.”

Two days later, at church, Emily read aloud from Isaiah: Comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord your God. Centuries before the birth of Christ, Isaiah spoke to a people who were weary and heartbroken. He had harsh words for them, sometimes – but he also offered comfort and hope.

I’ve been thinking, as I often do in Advent, about Mary: reading Laurie Sheck’s words about the “honest grace” of her body, her inability to hide her fear, her acknowledgment that her hands are “simply empty.” She was young and untried, alone and afraid. But as Kathleen Norris says in her essay on the Annunciation, “Mary proceeds – as we must do in life – making her commitment without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will lead.” She walked forward, with courage and love, into a new reality that must have felt uncertain, precarious, dark.

Singing carols this year feels more like an act of tenuous hope than an affirmation of faith or joy: the promise of God’s coming into our midst feels a long way off. But I am still humming O Come O Come Emmanuel, with all its aching longing. I am thinking, like my friend Claire, about the middle verses of beloved carols, which wrestle with the darkness and also seek out the spark of light. I am hearing again the voices of my dad’s friends Buddy and Clay, singing O Holy Night at our church in Dallas when I was a little girl: A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. And I am humming the Magnificat, with Rachel’s words in mind.

Some days, it feels disingenuous to sing these songs: there is so much grieving, so much wrong, so much yet to be made right. But on other days it feels like an act of faith, one tiny candle flickering against the darkness. My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

Amen.

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November was a full month, as they all are lately. I’ve been squeezing in the good books wherever I can. Here’s my latest roundup:

Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies, Brian Doyle
I love Doyle’s work (as I have said before) and enjoyed this collection of slim, bright, often funny, always lyrical, heartfelt essays. He writes about children (his and others), the aftermath of 9/11, faith, grief, birds and a thousand other everyday moments of grace.

The Secret Lives of Introverts: Inside Our Hidden World, Jenn Granneman
As an introvert who sometimes relishes the way I’m wired and sometimes struggles to own it, I enjoyed this straightforward nonfiction look at various facets of introvert life: calling, career, friendships, relationships. Not a lot of brand-new information (Susan Cain’s Quiet is my gold standard for introversion insight), but practical, wise and sometimes funny. Found at the wonderful Three Lives in NYC.

Into the Bright Unknown, Rae Carson
Lee Westfall and her fellow gold prospectors have founded their own town in Gold Rush California. But the shady actions of a San Francisco businessman prompt them to travel there and see if they can take him down. I’ve loved Carson’s trilogy about Lee (who has a magical ability to sense gold). This book wasn’t my favorite, but I wanted to see how her story ended. Bought at Book Culture in NYC (pictured above) last month.

Anne of Windy Poplars, L.M. Montgomery
I often turn back to Windy Poplars in the autumn; it’s one of the most underrated Anne books. I’ve been lingering in Anne’s adventures in Summerside, watching her take walks with little Elizabeth, befriend the widows (really, the entire town) and write letters in her tower room. So lovely and comforting: Anne is always good company.

Next Year in Havana, Chanel Cleeton
Cuban-American writer Marisol Ferrera grew up on her grandmother Elisa’s stories of Havana, where her family enjoyed a privileged life prior to Castro’s takeover. When her grandmother dies, Marisol travels back to Cuba to spread Elisa’s ashes and investigate a few family secrets. A lush dual-narrative story of Cuba then and now; I thought the plot wrapped up too neatly, but I loved both Elisa and Marisol. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 6).

Scones and Scoundrels, Molly MacRae
MacRae’s second Highland Bookshop mystery finds the town of Inversgail (and its bookshop, Yon Bonnie Books) preparing to welcome back Daphne Wood, an eccentric writer and environmentalist who grew up there. Once Daphne arrives, she puts nearly everyone off with her rude and abrupt manner – and then the murders start happening. A solid cozy mystery (with plenty of scones). To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 2).

Leia: Princess of Alderaan, Claudia Gray
I’d never read a Star Wars novel before, though I love the original films and I adore Leia Organa. I thoroughly enjoyed this story of the teenaged Leia serving as a senator-in-training, taking a pathfinding class and learning about her parents’ mysterious work against the Empire. Smart, fast-paced and full of heart. Made me even more excited for The Last Jedi.

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

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roots sky book sunflowers table

July has been full, so far – of sunshine, heat, dinners with friends, yoga classes, and (thank heaven) good books. I’ve been flipping back through Christie’s lovely memoir, as you can see. Here’s what else I’ve been reading:

The Pearl Thief, Elizabeth Wein
This prequel to Code Name Verity (which I loved) centers on Julia Beaufort-Stuart’s last summer at her family’s ancestral home in Scotland. It’s a richly described history/mystery involving an unknown attacker, an archaeologist who disappears, and some valuable river pearls. Full of cracking characters, including two Traveller teenagers who befriend Julie; the town librarian, Mary; and Julie’s family, who are both shrewd and kind. A slow start, but so good.

Molly on the Range: Recipes and Stories from an Unlikely Life on a Farm, Molly Yeh
I picked up this breezy, yummy cookbook off the library’s New Books shelf, and so enjoyed it. I’d heard of Yeh’s blog, but wasn’t that familiar with her. This was a fun, cozy look at her journey from Juilliard to a North Dakota farm, with lots of recipes. We’ve tried the Cauliflower Shawarma Tacos (twice) and the shakshuka. Delicious.

Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane
Macfarlane is a word-lover and a wanderer: fortunately for us, he writes about both well. This book explores the particular landscapes of the British Isles and collects hundreds of expressive, little-known place- and weather-words. He also highlights the work of other nature writers. I loved Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways and absolutely adored this one: it is clear, thoughtful, generous, descriptive and full of wonderful images. Found at Three Lives, last fall.

Lies, Damned Lies, and History, Jodi Taylor
Madeleine Maxwell, disgraced time-traveling historian, is back for a seventh adventure – trying to pick up the pieces from her latest fiasco. I love this series, though this book about broke my heart in half (several times). Dryly witty, full of wonderful characters and absolutely soaked with tea.

In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World, Pádraig Ó Tuama
I discovered Ó Tuama when I listened to his wise, lovely On Being conversation with Krista Tippett. His memoir explores the wisdom and challenges of saying “hello to here”: looking steadily at the truth of where and who we are, and doing our best to live well in the world. He writes about faith, coming to terms with his sexuality and doing the work of reconciliation in Belfast. So many luminous lines that spoke to my soul, and each chapter ends with a poem. Tippett called it “incandescent” and I agree with her.

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

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