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Earlier this summer, one of my dear friends moved away (sniff), and we made a serious effort to soak up some time together before she left town. One afternoon in late June, she texted with a question: would I like to join her and her daughter at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum that week? Of course, the answer was yes.

The Gardner is one of my favorite semi-hidden Boston gems; it’s tucked away in the Fenway neighborhood, built around a central courtyard that’s full of lush plantings year-round. Mrs. Gardner, as the docents still call her, was an avid collector of art, furniture and curiosities, from around the world. Her acquisitions are still arranged just as she specified – in multilayered, sometimes overwhelming splendor – at the mansion/museum she called Fenway Court.

The first few times I went to the Gardner, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of art: there are thousands of objects, including paintings, textiles, furniture, dishes, sculptures, sketches, letters, tapestries and who knows what else. It took me a while to realize the goal isn’t to see or learn about everything: it’s to walk through and experience the total effect, the layers of history and different origin stories and artistic styles, all brought together by one woman’s passion for collecting. These days, I wander through, pausing when a piece catches my eye, but less focused on the details than on the whole.

This time was different, for several reasons: first, we enjoyed a snack at the cafe before our museum tour. I’d never been to the (relatively) new Cafe G before, but I have to say, the citrus pound cake was delicious (and felt fancy).

The three of us wandered around, starting at the top floor of the museum (for something different) and winding our way back down to the ground floor. I loved being there with 12-year-old Lucy, who noticed things I’d never have picked up on, and asked excellent questions (my favorite: “What would you want to ask Isabella, if you could?”).

In light of the current conversations around artistic objects, their provenance, and the recent encouraging trend of museums considering returning stolen objects, I also wondered about the collection at the Gardner. Where did all these objects come from? Who brought them to Isabella? Were they given freely (in exchange for money, of course) or stolen from their original homes? What happened to the people, buildings and communities who created them? I never used to consider these questions when I visited museums, but I am thinking about so many things differently now. (I am also, as ever, curious about the heist in 1990, which has never yet been solved.)

Every time I go to the Gardner, I find myself drawn to the windows in every room, gazing out onto the courtyard, which I find both restful and beautiful. (I’ve never seen the famous nasturtium plantings there, but it’s on my list for this winter.) Mostly, I was grateful to share a lovely afternoon with two women I love, in a place we all enjoy.

What local adventures are you having, these days?

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We are halfway through January (almost) and the books have been saving my life, especially in this isolation period. Here’s what I have been reading:

Incognegro, Mat Johnson
My partner lent me this graphic novel, in which a (very) light-skinned Black reporter passes as white so he can report on lynchings in the American South. When he goes down to try and help his brother out of a murder accusation, things get (even more) dangerous. Compelling, heartbreaking, deeply unsettling.

If You Ask Me, Libby Hubscher
Advice columnist Violet Covington finds out her newspaper column is up for syndication – then comes home to find her husband in bed with a neighbor. She goes off the rails a bit trying to process the news and figure out how she wants to handle this new stage of life. I relished this smart, funny, mostly closed-door rom-com; the romance is fun but I also loved Violet’s relationships with her mother, her boss/college roommate and several friends. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 8).

An Eternal Lei, Naomi Hirahara
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Leilani Santiago and her sisters find a woman unconscious on a beach in Kaua’i. Leilani – an amateur sleuth – digs into the woman’s life and uncovers a few connections to their island community. A fun mystery with lots of Hawaiian details; the food especially reminded me of my trip there in college. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 22).

The Weekday Vegetarians, Jenny Rosenstrach
I love Jenny’s blog and her down-to-earth newsletters; I own her first cookbook, though I haven’t used it in a while. So naturally I was primed to enjoy this cookbook packed with recipes and tips for going vegetarian during the week (or any time). I’ve already made a couple of the recipes. Many of them are better shared with others, but I like her style and appreciated the inspiration here.

Home/Land: A Memoir of Departure and Return, Rebecca Mead
Increasingly worried by Trumpism in the U.S., Mead and her American husband (with their teenage son) decide to pull up stakes and move to London. Mead writes thoughtfully about her family history and her life split between two cities: her youth on England’s south coast, her two decades in NYC and the ways in which she discovers you can (and can’t) go home again. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 8).

Sisters of Night and Fog, Erika Robuck
As World War II sweeps Europe, two very different women find themselves working against the Nazis. Calm, quiet Virginia d’Albert Lake is determined to survive the war alongside her French husband, while fiery young French-British widow Violette Szabo will stop at nothing to destroy the regime that took her husband. Robuck weaves a gripping tale of the women’s stories, which intersect when both are captured by the Nazis. Well done, though heartrending at times. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 1).

Most Likely, Sarah Watson
Ava, CJ, Jordan and Martha have been BFFs since kindergarten. One of them will become president of the U.S. in 2049. But which one? Watson takes us through the girls’ senior year in high school, showing us their challenges, triumphs and deep bond. I loved this smart, warmhearted YA novel. Found at the wonderful Crow Bookshop in Burlington, VT.

Search, Michelle Huneven
Somewhat to my own surprise, I devoured this novel of a Unitarian Universalist pastoral search committee in California. It was both familiar and different from my own church experience; it was also funny, sharp and an insightful look at human nature. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 26).

The First Rule of Punk, Celia C. Pérez
Malú (don’t call her Maria Luisa!) is not happy about moving to Chicago with her mom. But gradually, she finds her way at her new school – forming a band, making friends, messing up and learning to own her mistakes. A sweet, funny middle-grade story.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson
I’ve been reading this one slowly for months; it is dense but readable, fascinating, multilayered, packed with good storytelling. Wilkerson brings the Great Migration to vivid life through the stories of her three protagonists, who all left the South for different regions. Just as thoughtful and important and interesting as everyone said it was.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

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How is it the end of March already? Then again, we’ve been stuck in a strange time warp for a year. Here’s what I have been reading:

How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, Clint Smith III
Poet and educator Clint Smith visits eight locations with deep ties to the history of slavery, to explore how the U.S. has (and has not) reckoned with the brutality and the deep scars. He’s such a good writer–this book is thoughtful, clear and evocative, though obviously heavy, given the subject matter. Highly recommended. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 1).

This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing, Jacqueline Winspear
I love Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs mystery series. This memoir chronicles her childhood in rural Kent, but also explores her family dynamics and the effects of two wars on her elders (a theme she continually returns to in her novels). Elegant, thoughtful and full of rich period detail.

84 Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff
A friend mentioned the lovely film adaptation of this book and I pulled out my old copy, above (bought at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, years ago). Hanff struck up a friendship with the booksellers at Marks & Co. in London, and their letters make for warm, amusing reading. So much fun.

You Go First, Erin Entrada Kelly
Charlotte’s dad just had a heart attack. Ben’s parents are getting a divorce. Through their online Scrabble game, they help each other navigate a seriously tough week (plus the usual middle school ugh). This was cute, but I wanted more from the connection between the characters.

A Deadly Inside Scoop, Abby Collette
Bronwyn Crewse is thrilled to be reopening her family’s ice cream shop. But when a dead body turns up and her dad is a prime suspect, she turns her attention to amateur sleuthing. This premise was cute, but Win’s best friend Maisie, who helps her solve the case, was seriously obnoxious. So-so, in the end.

Murder-on-Sea, Julie Wassmer
It’s nearly Christmas in Whitstable, and Pearl Nolan is juggling work and holiday plans when several of her neighbors receive nasty Christmas cards and ask her to investigate. The plot of this one was so-so, but I like Pearl and her cast of supporting characters.

Perestroika in Paris, Jane Smiley
I adored this charming tale about a curious filly–Paras, short for Perstroika–who noses out of her stall one night and finds her way to Paris. She joins up with Frida, a savvy dog; Raoul, a voluble raven; a pair of ducks and a lonely young boy, Etienne. A delight from start to finish.

Most links are to Trident and Brookline Booksmith, my perennial local faves. Shop indie!

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This is the summer, as I said recently, of antiracist reading (along with sunflowers and bike rides and strawberries). On a recent Monday afternoon, a friend and I decided to explore with both our feet and our brains: we met up in Beacon Hill to walk the Boston Black Heritage Trail.

I’ve lived in Boston for a decade now, and I used to wander Beacon Hill frequently when I worked at Emerson College. But I didn’t know this trail existed until recently, and the more sites we found and the more snippets I read aloud from the National Park Service website, I wondered: why not?

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Like many American schoolchildren, I learned certain parts of Boston history: Paul Revere’s famous ride, the Boston Tea Party. I walked most of the Freedom Trail as a newcomer to Boston, ten years ago. I knew Boston was a center for the abolitionist movement (though it is also persistently racist). But I didn’t know about so many of the folks we learned about on the Black Heritage Trail: their names or their occupations or their contributions to the ongoing fight for Black freedom.

The trail comprises about a dozen sites, starting at the memorial to the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, a volunteer infantry regiment made up of Black soldiers (made famous in the movie Glory). The memorial itself is closed for restoration right now, but there’s a great temporary exhibition wrapped around the fencing, so you can still learn about the soldiers of the 54th.

Most of the trail’s other sites are former homes of Black people who fought for the abolition of slavery, helped house people escaping enslavement, helped integrate schools and churches in Boston, and played other important roles in Black community life. There are two former schools along the trail: the Abiel Smith School, the first Black public school in Boston, and the Phillips School, which became one of Boston’s first integrated schools.

The trail ends at the Smith Court Residences and the African Meeting House (now the Museum of African American History), which seem to have been the epicenter of Black life in Boston in the late 19th century. But even as we walked, we saw plaques on other buildings noting people who had lived and worked for abolition and Black rights in the neighborhood.

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I might never have seen these plaques, or any of these houses, if I hadn’t been looking for them – and I kept wondering: why not? Why aren’t we taught these stories, alongside those of Paul Revere and Samuel Adams and John Hancock? Why had I never heard of Lewis and Harriet Hayden or George Middleton or Elizabeth Smith? I want to find out more about them now – but their stories should not be tucked down a side street. They should be highlighted, celebrated.

So much of the work of adulthood, for me, is paying attention: noticing the details of each day, really listening to my loved ones when we’re talking, not simply scrolling or sleepwalking through this life. The work of anti-racism also involves paying attention: seeking out the stories we don’t know, the ones that have been ignored or erased or shunted aside. This walk, this trail, is a small beginning. I’m glad we went, and I’m committed to finding out more.

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cp-book-ratatouille

April has felt like the longest, strangest month ever. But we’ve (nearly) made it to May – and whatever it may bring. Here’s what I have been reading (with ratatouille, sometimes):

The Whistling Season, Ivan Doig
I picked this novel up months ago at our street’s Little Free Library (which is now closed). It’s set in rural Montana in 1909, when a widower with three sons hires a housekeeper, and her arrival – along with her brother’s – has all kinds of effects on the community. Warm, witty and absorbing; Doig evokes place so well and I loved his narrator’s voice.

Inbound 4: A Comic Book History of Boston, Boston Comics Roundtable
My guy is a comic-book geek from way back, and he lent me this quirky collection of comics about incidents in Boston history. I’ve lived here for nearly a decade and I’m a history nerd, but I learned a lot from this collection, and chuckled several times. Link to the Million Year Picnic comic shop in Harvard Square, where it came from (and to whose owner it is dedicated).

I Was Told It Would Get Easier, Abbi Waxman
Single-mom lawyer Jessica and her teenage daughter, Emily, embark on a weeklong college bus tour of the East Coast. They see a lot of campuses, but spend even more time learning about themselves and each other. I like Waxman’s fun, quippy novels and this one was enjoyable, especially the witty dual narration. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 16).

Use the Power You Have: A Brown Woman’s Guide to Politics and Political Change, Pramila Jayapal
Jayapal, a congresswoman from Seattle and a longtime activist, recounts her career and lays out her passionate arguments on several big issues: U.S. immigration policy, Medicare for All, a national $15 minimum wage. She’s whip-smart, warm, compassionate, super prepared and compelling – and so is her book. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 30).

This Won’t End Well, Camille Pagán
After chemist Annie Mercer quits her job over her boss’s sexual harassment, and her fiancé tells her he needs to go find himself (in Paris), she swears off new people altogether. But that’s before Harper, a glamorous but mysterious young woman, moves in next door, and also before Mo, an annoyingly cheerful amateur PI, shows up too. I loved this sweet, witty novel about a woman trying to make sense of her life in the wake of big changes (sound familiar?). Recommended by Anne.

Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery
I adore this underrated final book in the Anne of Green Gables series, set during World War I. This story stars the grit and gumption of the women of Ingleside, especially Anne’s youngest daughter Rilla, faithful cook-housekeeper Susan (whose wit is second to none) and local schoolteacher Miss Oliver. I needed its wisdom and warmth during these weeks of quarantine.

Making Space: Creating a Home Meditation Practice, Thich Nhat Hanh
I’m not big on mediation, but I am looking for ways to bring peace into my space these days, so I dipped into this slim book over the last few weeks. I like the notion of bringing peace to every aspect of one’s home – even a studio apartment – though the mantras themselves didn’t really work for me.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstores, Brookline Booksmith and Trident.

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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.

What are you reading?

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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.

What are you reading?

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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.

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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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