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Here we are in October – the days and nights are starting to draw in, the maples are turning brilliantly red, the occasional cold rains have arrived, and fall events are in full swing.

I’m feeling more settled in my new place, and between commutes and running and cooking dinner, I finally had a bit of time to note what’s saving my life now:

  • Sunflowers, at home and at work. I love their cheerful faces, and they remind me of that Mary Oliver poem.
  • My new Rebel Alliance logo earrings. I am not a hardcore Star Wars geek, but I am a diehard Leia Organa fan. These earrings are sterling silver, subtle and badass, and I love them.
  • Birchbox, which I tried thanks to a recent Cup of Jo post. Getting a few colorful boxes of samples in the mail has felt indulgent and also nourishing, somehow.
  • My brand-new travel mug from my friends at Obvious State, who make the best literary swag.

  • Trader Joe’s essentials: crumbly English cheddar, bags of tiny mandarins, Greek yogurt by the tub, peanut-butter-filled pretzels, and smiles from the staff.
  • Texts from my girlfriends (always) and getting to hug a few of them (local and far-flung) in person.
  • A few recent visiting artist events at Berklee, where I work – I get to listen to fascinating, intelligent, talented, kind folks like rapper Dessa and film composer Pinar Toprak sharing their wisdom with our students.
  • A trip to my beloved florist the other day, for the first time in weeks. I caught up with my people and bought some scarlet tulips tipped with gold.

  • Jen Lee’s Morning, Sunshine videos – doses of kindness and wisdom twice a week. Go check out the series on YouTube.
  • The music of the Highwomen.
  • Sunshine on my shoulders, especially when I take my laptop to the plant-filled conference room at work.
  • Chai from the BPL cafe – best in Back Bay.
  • Poetry, including a whole slew of new-to-me gems via poet Maggie Smith.
  • The quilt my friend Carol made for me, so good for snuggling under on these chilly nights.
  • Ginger peach tea and Earl Grey in the mornings, spiced black tea in the afternoons, peppermint tea or pumpkin spice rooibos at night.
  • Rereading The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, a longtime fave.

What’s saving your life these days?

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book stack pink table

August was a whirlwind, and I capped it off with a quick solo trip to NYC. Between working, running and settling into my new place, here’s what I have been reading:

City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert
Vassar dropout Vivian Morris moves to Manhattan to live with her eccentric Aunt Peg, who runs a down-at-heel theatre company. Amid the glitz and heartbreak of the city, Vivian and her compatriots find, lose and reinvent themselves many times over. This novel is a champagne cocktail with some unexpected depth (and occasional bite). I loved Vivian (much more once she gained a little self-awareness) and the theatre crew, especially Peg and Olive, her stalwart secretary-general. So much fun.

Celine, Peter Heller
Private eye Celine Watkins is handed an intriguing cold case: that of a National Geographic photographer who disappeared in a national park years ago. She and her husband, Pete, take off in her son’s camper van to figure out what became of Paul Lamont. Witty and well plotted, with wonderful characters; I’d read a whole series about Celine. Recommended by Anne and Jaclyn.

Good Husbandry: Growing Food, Love and Family on Essex Farm, Kristin Kimball
I loved Kimball’s first memoir, The Dirty Life, about how she met and started a farm with her husband, Mark (entirely contrary to her former life plan). This, her second, digs deeper (ha) into their years of working the farm and making it sustainable in various ways (physical, financial, etc.). I love her warm honesty, her crisp, vivid prose, and the way she weaves together the day-to-day of farm life with the big questions of love, work, parenting and identity. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 15).

Waiting for Tom Hanks, Kerry Winfrey
Aspiring screenwriter Annie Cassidy is waiting: for her hair to calm down, for her life to improve, for her perfect rom-com hero (a la ’90s Tom Hanks) to materialize. But when she gets an assistant job on a movie set, the guy she meets isn’t quite what she expected (and neither is anyone else). Sweet, fast and funny; perfect weekend reading. Recommended by Anne.

Why Can’t I Be You, Allie Larkin
Jenny Shaw gets dumped on her way to a business conference – then gets mistaken for a stranger in the hotel lobby of said conference. Before she knows it, she’s swept up in pretending to be Jessie Morgan, attending her high school reunion and finding real connection with Jessie’s friends. But of course, the illusion can’t last. This one was equal parts fun and cringe-y for me, though I loved the supporting cast.

Mudlark: In Search of London’s Past Along the River Thames, Lara Meiklem
The River Thames has long been a repository for lost things, accidentally or on purpose. Meiklem is a veteran “mudlark”–a scavenger who’s fascinated by the river’s trash and treasure. Her book charts her own journeys on the Thames foreshore, the objects she finds and their histories, and so much fascinating backstory about the river, the city and its people. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 5).

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

What are you reading?

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fire-on-high-book

I feel like I blinked and it’s mid-August. I’m still settling into my new apartment and all the life changes (thank you for the kind comments on my recent post about that). Here’s what I have been reading, when my overstuffed brain will allow:

Where the Light Enters, Sara Donati
Donati’s sequel to The Gilded Hour (which I haven’t read) picks up the lives of her characters, notably two female physicians (who are cousins) in 1880s New York. Sophie is grieving the death of her husband, trying to decide whether to resume practicing obstetrics, and planning to establish a scholarship for young women of color to study medicine. Anna is struggling with various personal and professional challenges. Both of them are called in by Anna’s cop husband, Jack, to consult on a tricky case of multiple murders of pregnant women. A sweeping, complicated, engaging novel set largely in my favorite tangle of streets in the West Village. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 10).

American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson
I grabbed this at the library after reading a review in the Shelf. Marie Mitchell is a frustrated FBI agent in 1980s NYC who is tapped for a mission involving Thomas Sankara, the president of Burkina Faso. A young, intelligent black woman, she’s perfect for the role, but she feels uneasy about it, especially since one of her handlers has a connection to her deceased sister. An ambitious spy thriller and family drama – Marie is a great character – but the ending was far too abrupt.

With the Fire on High, Elizabeth Acevedo
A high school senior and gifted chef, Emoni Santiago has a lot to juggle, including caring for her young daughter and helping out her abuela. When she gets the chance to take a cooking class, it might catapult her dreams forward–but she’s keenly aware of her obligations. A vivid, thoughtful, sweet, funny, engaging YA novel about a teen mom who’s much more than that. So good.

The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste
Ethiopia, 1935: the country is bracing for an Italian invasion, and Hirut, a young servant girl, is caught up in her masters’ plans to raise an army. She becomes a warrior and a guard, and her path crosses with an Italian Jewish photographer who isn’t sure he wants to be a soldier. Powerful, complicated and dark; I didn’t know about this piece of history and it’s a brutal one. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 10).

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

What are you reading?

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We’re halfway through July – in the thick of summer – and here are the books I’ve been devouring whenever I get a chance.

Ask Me About My Divorce: Women Open Up About Moving On, ed. Candace Walsh
My friend Kristin has an essay in this smart, moving, often hilarious kaleidoscope of essays by women about divorce, and life after divorce. I loved most of them, and found all of them genuine and wise. “The Love List” might be my favorite.

A Deadly Feast, Lucy Burdette
Food writer and amateur sleuth Hayley Snow is prepping for her wedding when a woman dies on a local food tour. Was it food poisoning or something more sinister? I like this series – fun cozy mysteries set in wacky Key West. Sent to me by the author.

The World That We Knew, Alice Hoffman
As the Nazis persecute German Jews, a woman named Hanni makes a terrible bargain to save her daughter, Lea. Hoffman’s narrative follows Lea, her protector Ava, a rabbi’s daughter named Ettie and the people they love as they try to survive the war, stay alive and care for one another. Powerful, dark, moving and ultimately lovely. (I adore Hoffman’s work.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 24).

Razor’s Edge (Star Wars: Empire and Rebellion), Martha Wells
The Rebel Alliance is struggling: they need supplies to build a base on Hoth, but when pirates get involved, divided loyalties make it hard to know who will survive. I love an occasional Star Wars novel, as long as it involves Princess Leia (and Han Solo). This one, set just before The Empire Strikes Back, is fast-paced, wry and a lot of fun.

Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love, and Food, Ann Hood
Food can be memory, story and love, and Hood writes about – and shares recipes for – all three. I loved her evocations of her Italian-American childhood, the meals she taught her kids to make, and the dishes that have healed her heart in rough times. Short and sweet.

Now a Major Motion Picture, Cori McCarthy
Iris Thorne’s grandmother wrote a major fantasy trilogy. But Iris wants nothing to do with it, until she (reluctantly) goes to Ireland for the filming of the adaptation with her little brother. When she meets the cast and crew, including a cute Irish boy and the powerhouse female director, Iris starts to get interested in spite of herself. A sweet, fun YA novel about family, fantasy and the stories we tell ourselves. I loved Iris’ bond with her brother, and the romance is so sweet. Recommended by Anne.

The Reckless Oath We Made, Bryn Greenwood
Zee Trego is struggling: she’s dealing with a hip injury, barely scraping by waiting tables, and then her sister gets kidnapped by a couple of the inmates at the prison where she volunteers. Against her better judgment, Zee sets out to rescue her sister with the help of Gentry Frank, an acquaintance of hers who believes himself to be her champion (and is handy with a sword). This novel was nothing like I expected, and I couldn’t put it down. Zee’s dry, straight-talking narrative voice makes the book. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 20).

Far From the Tree, Robin Benway
Grace has always known she was adopted, but never tried to find her biological mother. But when Grace gets pregnant and decides to give her baby girl up for adoption, she decides to look for her birth mom – and meets her bio siblings, Joaquin and Maya. Each of them are dealing with serious life changes, and I loved the way they bond and look out for one another. Sweet, funny and snarky – especially Maya’s voice – and the ending made me cry.

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

What are you reading?

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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.

What are you reading?

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sass harrison christmas fire truck

We are easing back into routine over here: wrapping up against frigid temps; shoveling snow; making lots of soup (and huevos); drinking tea and answering email. It felt so good to hit pause on the responsibilities of work and church for a while, but now we’re back to it, albeit not quite at full throttle yet.

I am – I think – recovered from our annual 10-day holiday odyssey across Texas, and I’ve been thinking about the gifts it brought: not only the wrapped presents under various trees and the time with our families and friends, but a few surprises that sneaked in under the radar, and reminded me that this is a season of joy, love and – yes – magic.

In no particular order, here are the unexpected gifts I savored this Christmas season:

  • A dozen homemade gingersnaps, hand-delivered by J’s sweet Aunt Joy when we met her for lunch.
  • Singing O Holy Night at Christmas Eve service. It’s ambitious for congregational singing, but the new music minister at my parents’ church urged us to attempt it, “with gusto!” So we did.
  • Three blue-sky morning runs through my parents’ neighborhood, past houses decked with Christmas decor, with the Jennys in my ears.
  • Running into a longtime friend at a new-to-us pizza place in Abilene, and discovering later that she’d paid for our lunch.
  • My nephews, snuggled up on either side of me and listening with (mostly) rapt attention as I read the Christmas story aloud.
  • Laughing with my brother-in-law on Christmas Day about homemade sourdough pretzels and the dough that wouldn’t rise. (They were still delicious!)
  • Cuddling with my sister on the couch that night as everyone traded stories and sipped wine.
  • Playing baseball in the driveway with my dad, my husband and my older nephew, Ryder.
  • A couple of sunsets so stunning that we all piled out of my sister’s living room and onto her front porch to gaze at them.

texas sunset sky december pump jack

  • Waking up with Do You Hear What I Hear? in my head the week before Christmas. We sang it every year when I was in youth choir, and it made me think of George.
  • The moment when my niece’s hair ties ended up in one of my (bald!) dad’s Christmas presents – my husband exclaimed, “That’s where those went!” and everyone burst out laughing.
  • Half an hour to myself in front of the Christmas tree one night, journaling and reading The Dark is Rising.
  • Coconut eggnog pie, with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, as the denouement to a dinner with dear friends.
  • Picking up a novel I loved at the DFW airport bookstore.
  • Cracking up with J’s high school choir friends as we sang Christmas carols: “Johnny wants a pair of skates, Susie wants a shed…”
  • A wee girl named Genevieve Noelle, born to some of my best friends on Dec. 26. (We knew she was coming, of course, but we didn’t quite know when.)
  • The sentiment handwritten in my Aunt Cathy’s Christmas card: “And seriously, peace on earth.” (Hear, hear.)
  • Running straight into a few friends from high school at Christmas Eve service. I’ve been gone from my hometown a while, but it’s still and always where I’m from.
  • Singing hymns in the hallways of a hospice unit one night, with old friends.
  • A hilarious game of Scrabble with my in-laws.
  • The glass heirloom fruit bowls my Neno gave me.

There were plenty of gifts I was expecting this year: so much food and laughter at my parents’ house, time with beloved friends in Abilene, chips and salsa whenever we could squeeze them in. Those gifts were sweet and nourishing, and they filled me up. But these surprises have a magic all their own.

I hope your holidays included a few unexpected gifts, too.

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oxford book stack red daisies flowers table

The second half of October, like the first, was a whirlwind of golden leaves and email and travel. I’d barely recovered from my Oxford trip (and the subsequent head cold) before we headed to NYC for a long weekend with my parents. Here’s what I have been reading, in between all that activity:

The Reporter’s Kitchen, Jane Kramer
For food writer Kramer, writing and cooking are inextricably linked—though she sometimes uses one to avoid the other. This collection of her pieces from The New Yorker includes chef profiles, food history and a few personal essays (my favorites). She’s warm, witty and practical. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 21).

First Class Murder, Robin Stevens
The third book in Stevens’ Wells & Wong middle-grade mystery series finds Daisy and Hazel aboard the famous Orient Express. Naturally, a murder occurs and they have to investigate. An homage to Christie’s classic, but also a fun, well-plotted story. Found at the Book House in Summertown, Oxford.

The Music Shop, Rachel Joyce
In a down-at-heel street in a nondescript British city, Frank’s record shop doesn’t just sell vinyl (and only vinyl), but it gives people the music they don’t know they need. When Ilse Brauchmann, a mysterious woman in a green coat, visits the shop, Frank finds himself both drawn to Ilse and utterly baffled by her. A wonderful novel about music, loss, healing and love, with vivid characters and so many brilliant sentences. (I also adored Joyce’s debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 2).

Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, Melissa Harrison
Like many English people, Harrison is an avid walker, even—nay, especially—in the rain. She chronicles four rainy walks in different seasons and locations, musing on how rain has shaped the climate and psyche of the British Isles, and recording details of habitat and weather with a keen, lyrical eye. So lovely. Found at the amazing Blackwells Bookshop in Oxford.

The Disappearances, Emily Bain Murphy
When Aila Quinn’s mother, Juliet, dies unexpectedly, Aila and her brother are sent to Juliet’s hometown to stay with friends. But they are greeted with suspicion: the town lies under a curse, and some people blame Juliet. Aila digs into her mother’s history (and a mysteriously annotated volume of Shakespeare) to clear Juliet’s name. An enchanting, thought-provoking YA novel; I especially loved Aila and her friend Beas. The dialogue felt almost too modern (it’s set in the 1940s), but the central conceit is wonderful. Recommended by Liberty on All the Books!.

The Luster of Lost Things, Sophie Chen Keller
Walter Lavender Jr. doesn’t talk much, but he’s got a keen observer’s eye and a knack for finding lost things. When the mysterious Book that is the lifeblood of his mother’s West Village bakery disappears, Walter and his golden retriever, Milton, embark on a search that takes them up and down Manhattan. An utterly magical novel full of heartbreak and love; the writing sings and the city itself is a character. Found (fittingly) at Shakespeare & Co. in NYC. Recommended by my colleague Kat at Shelf Awareness.

Poems to Live By in Troubling Times, ed. Joan Murray
I’ve needed poetry lately, and have lingered in this slim, often heartrending anthology of poems on war, terror, grief, healing and peace. Uneven, like many anthologies, but I did find a few gems. Bought at the Brattle on a walkabout day this summer.

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

What are you reading?

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