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shadowshaper flowers book

Another month, another reading roundup. Somehow it’s May already (!). Here’s the latest batch of good reads:

Home By Another Way, Barbara Brown Taylor
A friend gave me this collection of Brown Taylor’s sermons last summer. That sounds dry as dust – but as I already knew, she’s anything but. I love her luminous memoirs, and these sermons are brief, thoughtful reflections on scripture and life. They’re pegged to the church year, and I think they’ll be worth coming back to. (Part of my nonfiction #unreadshelfproject.)

Literally, Lucy Keating
Annabelle Burns has her senior year all planned out – color-coded, even. But when an author named Lucy Keating visits her English class, Annabelle learns she’s actually a character in Keating’s new novel. Does she have any control over her choices – even regarding the new boy who’s literally perfect for her? A fun, very meta YA novel, though the ending fell a bit flat.

Tell Me More: Stories about the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say, Kelly Corrigan
I love Corrigan’s wise, witty memoirs, and this one cracked me up and made me cry. She builds it around 12 essential phrases: “I was wrong,” “I love you,” “No,” “Yes” and others, with funny, honest vignettes from her life. My favorite line is in the first chapter: “Hearts don’t idle; they swell and constrict and break and forgive and behold because it’s like this, having a heart.”

Shadowshaper, Daniel José Older
Sierra Santiago expected to spend her Brooklyn summer painting murals and hanging with her friends. Never did she dream of getting caught up in an epic battle between spirits involving members of her own family. But Sierra is a shadowshaper, heir to a kind of magic channeled through art, and she must figure out how to stop the spirits before they destroy everyone she loves. A fantastic beginning to a YA series with great characters. I’ll be reading the sequel, Shadowhouse Fall.

Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude, Stephanie Rosenbloom
I love a solo trip, so I expected to enjoy Rosenbloom’s memoir of traveling alone. She visits Paris, Istanbul, Florence and her hometown of New York, reveling in the pleasures of solitude in each city. This was pleasant and charming; I wanted a bit more from some of her experiences, but really enjoyed it. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 5).

Jane of Lantern Hill, L.M. Montgomery
This novel is less well known than Montgomery’s beloved Anne series, but I love it, and I’ve returned to it every spring for several years now. Jane is a wonderful character – wise, practical and kind. Watching her discover Prince Edward Island, her estranged father and herself all at once is an utter delight.

Shopgirls, Pamela Cox and Annabel Hobley
I picked this one up in Oxford last fall (for £2!). It’s a fascinating nonfiction history of women working in shops and department stores in Britain. There’s a lot here: unionization, national politics, sexism, drastic changes in business practices and social norms, the impact of two world wars. Really fun and well-researched. Also part of my nonfiction #unreadshelfproject.

The Lost Vintage, Ann Mah
As she’s cramming (again) for the arduous Master of Wine exam, Kate Elliott returns to her family’s vineyard in Burgundy. Helping her cousin clear out the basement, Kate discovers a secret room filled with Resistance literature and valuable wine. Mah weaves a layered, lush, gripping story of family secrets, wartime and terroir. I loved Mah’s memoir, Mastering the Art of French Eating, and savored every sip of this delicious novel. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 19).

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

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alice network book chai red

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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not just jane book darwins

In the wake of my NYC trip and the presidential transition, here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling
Multiple secret plots, Horcruxes, Quidditch and so much snogging: I love this sixth installment of Harry’s story. It is, in many ways, his last chance to be a teenager. The ending makes me weep every single time, but it’s still so good.

The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables, David Bellos
I adore Les Mis: I fell head over heels for the musical as a teenager and loved the book when I read it a few years ago. Bellos chronicles the inspiration, writing process and publication of Hugo’s masterpiece, with fascinating asides about language, color, coinage, politics and more. Accessible and interesting for Les Mis fans. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 21).

The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, Adam Gidwitz
An engaging, often funny medieval tale of three French children with unusual powers – plus a greyhound who just might be a saint. Fun, clever and moving. (Also: best subtitle ever.) Recommended by Liberty on All the Books!.

The Satanic Mechanic, Sally Andrew
Tannie Maria van Harten, who writes the recipe and love advice column for her local newspaper, gets drawn into a police investigation when she sees not one, but two, men murdered before her eyes. An engaging mystery set in South Africa, which is as much about Tannie Maria’s life and relationships as it is about catching the killer. Lots of Afrikaans words and delicious food descriptions. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 28).

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling
The final, grim, heartbreaking, wonderful installment of a story I adore. It felt astonishingly timely, and as usual, I didn’t want it to end. Lupin’s words on Potterwatch struck me particularly this time: “Everything for which we are fighting: the triumph of good, the power of innocence, the need to keep resisting.”

Not Just Jane: Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature, Shelley DeWees
Everyone knows about Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters – and they are amazing. But before (and concurrently with) Jane and Charlotte, there were other groundbreaking British writers who were female, feminist, wildly talented and generally badass. A fascinating, highly readable account of seven such women. So good. Also recommended by Liberty on All the Books!.

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

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get your jingle on sign christmas

The holiday season is in full swing over here, and the reading has slowed waaaay down. But here’s what I have been reading lately, when I’ve had the chance (and the brain space):

The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA, Doug Mack
What, exactly, is a U.S. territory? What rights and privileges do its residents have? Should the U.S. even have territories if it calls itself a leading democracy? Mack delves deeply into the convoluted history of Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa (and travels to all of the above) to find out. Witty, thoughtful and very informative. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 14, 2017).

A Second Chance, Jodi Taylor
Madeleine Maxwell (“Max”) and her crew of time-jumping historians are at it again – this time headed to Bronze Age Troy. This third book in Taylor’s series skips around wildly in history, often to confusing effect – still fun, though sometimes frustrating.

The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, Emily Esfahani Smith
What is the key to a meaningful life? Smith explores four “pillars” of meaning – belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence – and shares lots of data and case studies to explore how people can seek and find meaning. Thoughtful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 10, 2017).

Finding Fontainebleau: An American Boy in France, Thad Carhart
I adored Carhart’s first memoir, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. This book recounts the three years Carhart spent in Fontainebleau (near Paris) as a young boy in the 1950s, when his dad was a NATO officer. The memories are interspersed with reflections on the history and ongoing restoration of the Château de Fontainebleau. Charming, thoughtful and vividly described. (Bought at the gorgeous Albertine Books in NYC.)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling
This is – I’ve said it before – the book that breaks this series wide open. It all builds up to the last 70 or so pages, when suddenly everything is darker and bigger and wildly different than you thought it was. (It also introduces two of my favorite characters – Remus Lupin and Sirius Black.) LOVE.

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

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9/11, fifteen years later

sept 11 memorial reflection

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

—William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

I heard these words of Faulkner’s again on a recent gray morning, as I stood in the doorway of a wood-paneled chapel on Harvard’s campus, a few steps from the Yard.

Speaking at the first Morning Prayers service of the fall semester, President Drew Faust invoked Faulkner to remind us that what we do with the past is our responsibility. It is, she said, “the essential material with which we can build a better future.”

As we marked the 15th anniversary of 9/11 this weekend, Faulkner’s words resonated in a different way.

Sept. 11, 2001, has passed into history, and yet it is still immediate, insistent. It is, after a decade and a half, part of my past and our national memory. But it is far from dead or irrelevant. It continues to affect my life and my world, both in ways I can point to and ways I can’t quite articulate. And it comes home to me again every fall.

sept 11 memorial flowers

I was a high school senior in West Texas on 9/11: happily absorbed in honors classes and marching band, excited about my new role on our school’s student diplomatic team, four days away from turning 18. I was curious and eager, on the brink of young adulthood, and I was completely undone by the news on the TV that morning. I walked around for days in a state of shock: tense, strained, saddened in a way I had never been before. It felt like a jolt into adulthood: a loss of innocence, a grim, sudden knowledge of how the world could be.

I’ve read a few books, in the years since that day, that include 9/11 as an element of the plot or setting. I couldn’t believe how long it took for the attacks and their aftermath to become a part of any fictional narrative instead of the gaping, overwhelming whole. Long after that day, the attacks dominated any discussion they entered. It took us years to absorb that story into the larger narrative of our lives.

Last week, I interviewed a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, where I work, about the far-reaching effects of 9/11, especially in the field of homeland security (her specialty). I asked her what the U.S. has learned, what we could have done differently, how daily life has changed for most Americans. I tried to reflect, in my questions, an awareness of the passage of time and of both President Faust’s and Faulkner’s words. Not simply Where were you that day? (though I always want to know), or Isn’t it awful that this happened?, but How can we move forward?.

In a sense, that is the question I have been asking for 15 years: how can we acknowledge the grief and fear, the complexity of such an event and its ripples, and carry it forward with wisdom and grace? How can we remember and honor the day itself, and yet move ahead with courage?

I don’t have many answers for this, but as always, I think telling our stories helps.

I’d welcome your stories, in the comments, and I’d also recommend a few of those novels I mentioned: Nichole Bernier’s The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Kathleen Donohoe’s Ashes of Fiery Weather. They treat this event and its aftermath with care and good sentences, which is often all a writer can do. And sometimes, that’s enough.

(Images are from the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan, which I visited a few years ago.)

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hamilton book mug

Last week, on my way to the kitchen at work, I passed by a colleague’s office and heard – or thought I heard – a familiar snippet of music. When I walked back by a few minutes later, I stuck my head in the door. “Is that Hamilton?”

My colleague looked up with a grin. “I cannot stop listening to this musical,” he confessed.

I laughed, and made a confession of my own: I downloaded the soundtrack at the end of May. And I can’t stop listening either.

If you’re a Broadway fan – or a hip-hop fan, a Twitter user, or someone who pays attention to trends in pop culture – you don’t need me to tell you about Hamilton, the smash musical about the life of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton that has taken the world by storm. If you (somehow) haven’t heard about it by now, I am both amazed (how?) and here to tell you: it is incredible.

My friend Valerie, she of the impeccable taste in TV shows (and the person responsible for introducing me to Harry Potter), raved about Hamilton when she saw it in New York last summer. I’d heard about it all over the Internet, especially since the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a prolific and highly entertaining Twitter user, and since I have a lot of friends who share my love of Broadway musicals. But I’m not really a hip-hop fan – or I didn’t think I was – and so I shrugged off the show’s popularity for a while, thinking it wasn’t for me.

As you may have guessed, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I’ve been living with Hamilton for three months now, and I mean that literally: I have memorized nearly the entire first act and significant chunks of the second. The songs run through my head from the time I wake up in the morning until I go to bed at night. I listened to it for hours walking around NYC last weekend, and I entered (and lost) the lottery to see the show three times. My consolation prize was the small but fascinating Hamilton exhibit at the New York Public Library.

hamilton exhibit nypl

I’ve spent days listening to the whole cast album and also replaying three- and four-song sets over and over again, marveling at the multiple layers of history, politics, love and ambition that intertwine to form the show’s narrative. My ear has become attuned to the vocal nuances of Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Christopher Jackson, Renée Elise Goldsberry and the rest of the original Broadway cast, who perform on the album. I watched the TV broadcast of the Tonys just so I could see the cast perform live. (I cried.) And I am ridiculously proud that I can rap (almost) as fast as Daveed Diggs, who spits rapid-fire lyrics as the Marquis de Lafayette. (“I never pegged you for a rapper,” my husband said recently. Trust me: I didn’t either.)

Hamilton has generated a lot of ink (online and off) about its origins, its racially diverse cast, its mind-blowingly complex marriage of musical forms, its unflinchingly honest take on the story of a nation that continues to struggle with its own complicated history. My friend Alissa Wilkinson wrote a fantastic piece for Books & Culture about the show, and there are hundreds of other articles out there. I’ve struggled, myself, to explain what keeps me coming back to it – and the answer, like the show, has multiple layers.

Like any great narrative, Hamilton contains multitudes: love, ambition, honor, jealousy, revenge, the bloody founding of a nation and its messy first few years of self-governance. But it’s also a wonderfully particular human story. Miranda’s lyrics bring Hamilton, George Washington, Aaron Burr, the Schuyler sisters and other characters to vivid, precise, colorful life.

Instead of marble busts or engraved portraits on our currency, these are people: flawed, hopeful, impulsive, gloriously brave. They fall in love; they wrestle their own demons (and fight with each other, sometimes fatally). They aim to give their children a better life than the one they had. They grapple with big ideas: independence, friendship, legacy. They do their best to build something that will outlive them. They are towering historical figures, and they are also us. Their story, especially for Americans, is ours.

During these crazy, turbulent months of job changes and moving, I’ve had Hamilton in my earbuds and in my head almost constantly. I haven’t been this obsessed with a musical since I fell in love with Les Misérables back in high school. In addition to asking important questions and sparking much-needed conversations, this show tells a damn good story. And it is so much fun.

Have you listened to Hamilton? (Or read the book about the show, above?) I’m always up for geeking out with fellow Hamilfans.

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boston-skyline-boats

I wasn’t very familiar with Boston when I moved here. I had visited once, as a college student, and I knew it had played a key role in the American Revolution and that Bostonians harbored a bizarre passion for the Red Sox. (See below.)

ducklings beards red sox public garden boston

Naturally, I began reading everything I could get my hands on about the city, the area and its (rich, layered, deeply convoluted) history. And I have found some truly wonderful books about this gorgeous, frustrating, complicated place.

Here are my top picks:

Fiction

Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay
Kalotay’s gorgeously written first novel explores the career of Nina Revskaya, a former Soviet ballerina who chooses to sell off her jewelry collection. Both Nina and her jewelry harbor a number of secrets, and Kalotay unravels them in luminous prose. Set partly in Boston’s Back Bay, it was one of the first Boston novels I read after moving here, and it evokes the neighborhood perfectly. (Kalotay’s second novel, Sight Reading, is also partly set here.)

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
Howe’s novel is a delicious blend of history, ghost story and self-discovery. Graduate student Connie spends the summer in her grandmother’s house in Salem (north of Boston, site of the notorious witch trials). The plan is to get it ready to sell, but Connie discovers a trove of family history that grabs her and won’t let go. Slightly creepy (perfect for October, when I read it) and so compelling. Howe’s second novel, The House of Velvet and Glass, is also set in Boston.

The Secret of Sarah Revere by Ann Rinaldi
I found this (rather obscure) YA novel at a library book sale not long after moving here. It gave me a window into a critical piece of the American Revolution through the eyes of Sarah Revere, daughter of Paul, and was one catalyst for my Boston book obsession.

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
Brooks writes sweeping, richly detailed historical fiction, and this novel (inspired by a true story) follows a young Native American man who attended Harvard in the 17th century. It tells of a very different Boston and Cambridge than the one I know, but the new has its roots in the old, of course, and this is a glimpse of a fascinating slice of history.

Tiny Little Thing by Beatriz Williams
I love Williams’ deliciously scandalous novels about the Schuyler family, and this one has some gorgeously rendered scenes in Boston and also on Cape Cod. (I also adore Christina, the narrator.) A book to sink into (and then you’ll want to read all Williams’ other books).

harvard yard autumn light leaves

Nonfiction

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick
No one does New England history like Philbrick (he wrote Mayflower, In the Heart of the Sea and Away Off Shore, among others). Bunker Hill tells the story of the famous battle, in the context of the colonies’ desperate struggle for freedom. John Adams and his family are key players in this story, and I live just a few miles from their houses, so I found it particularly fascinating. Well-researched and highly readable. (Bonus: this is the book that started my first conversation with my librarian friend Shelley – on an airplane a few years ago!)

Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin
This memoir was my favorite book of 2015 – a gorgeously written, pithy, fascinating account of a woman who becomes a carpenter’s apprentice. MacLaughlin lives and works in Boston, and she vividly describes streets and neighborhoods that I know. An insightful window into the culture of this place, plus a wonderful meditation on how to build a good life.

As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, ed. Joan Reardon
These letters cover so many topics: food, marriage, the Foreign Service, Paris (of course) and various other exotic locales. But they are full of Boston, where Avis lived and Julia eventually moved. Sharp-eyed, often funny and utterly fascinating.

And, of course, no Boston book list is complete without Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey. I have a deep love for those ducklings – in book and statue form – and every spring I delight in watching their real-life counterparts quack and swim their way around the Public Garden.

ducklings mama duck public garden boston

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

What are your favorite books set in Boston? I’m always looking for new gems to add to the list.

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