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Posts Tagged ‘libraries’

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Somehow, we’ve reached the end of August. I’ve been writing lots of haiku, running, riding bikes with my guy, and trying to figure out what the fall will look like. And reading, of course. Here’s the latest roundup. (Photo of my current library stack.)

The Lions of Fifth Avenue, Fiona Davis
I adore the stone lions outside the New York Public Library – Patience and Fortitude. Davis’ fifth novel links two women who have strong ties to the library (and each other), 80 years apart. I found both women compelling (and frustratingly naive, at times), and the mystery of several book thefts was clever and well done.

Riviera Gold, Laurie R. King
Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell find themselves in Monaco, not quite by accident, after the departure of their longtime housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson. Mary falls in with a group of expats and starts unraveling a mystery involving smuggling, White Russians, a bronze sculptor and (possibly) Mrs. Hudson herself. I love this series and this was a great new installment.

The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War, Delphine Minoui
For four years, the Syrian town of Daraya endured constant siege from Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Minoui, a French journalist living in Istanbul, heard about a secret library in Daraya and tracked down the founders: young men who believed in the power of reading and the potential for peace. This book traces their story and the multiple challenges the citizens of Daraya faced. Heartbreaking, and important. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 3).

Mornings with Rosemary, Libby Page
I read this book when it was published (as The Lido) in 2018, thanks to a colleague’s review at Shelf Awareness. It’s the story of a community pool in Brixton, London, and two women who spearhead a campaign to save it from developers: Kate, a lonely young journalist, and Rosemary, age 86, who has been swimming at the lido all her life. I snagged a remainder copy at the Booksmith recently and loved rediscovering the characters – and the writing is so good.

An Irish Country Welcome, Patrick Taylor
I love Taylor’s warm, engaging series about a group of doctors in rural 1960s Ulster. In this visit to Ballybucklebo, Barry Laverty and his wife Sue are expecting their first child, while sectarian violence is rising nearby. A pleasant visit with familiar characters. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 6).

Clap When You Land, Elizabeth Acevedo
I’ve loved Acevedo’s two previous YA novels, and this novel-in-verse is powerful. Two teenage girls – Camino in the Dominican Republic and Yahaira in New York City – discover they share a father only after he dies in a plane crash. They each struggle to come to terms with his death, the secrets it revealed, and their new relationship. Heartbreaking, sometimes wryly funny, and so good.

500 Miles from You, Jenny Colgan
After witnessing a violent death, nurse-practitioner Lissa is sent to rural Scotland on an exchange program, to help her recover. Cormac, who takes her place in London, is completely overwhelmed by his new surroundings. I loved watching the two of them fall for each other via email and text, and I enjoyed going back to Kirrinfief (this is Colgan’s third book set there). Warmhearted and fun.

Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. LeGuin
In 10 no-nonsense chapters, LeGuin lays out some of the basics of writing: sentences, sound, narrative voice, point of view. Packed with exercises and examples, but my favorite part is LeGuin’s wry, wise voice. Found at Trident.

Tunnel Vision, Sara Paretsky 
Just as V.I. Warshawski’s office building is condemned, she meets a homeless woman who may be hiding out there – and then another woman is murdered in V.I.’s office. Vic’s eighth adventure pits her, as usual, against corrupt local bigwigs while she’s fighting tooth and nail for justice. All her usual helpers – snarky journalist Murray, Viennese doctor Lotty, and her elderly neighbor, Mr. Contreras – show up, too. Grim at times, but so good.

Links (not affiliate links) are to local bookstores I love: Trident, Frugal Bookstore and Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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Happy Tuesday, friends. Here we are in week 11 of this strange restricted life, and the world is turning toward summer. I ran this morning by the water, through haze and humidity and (eventual) bright sunshine. The beach roses are blowing and the purple iris are budding, and I’m wearing my favorite denim shorts and growing herb seedlings in my kitchen window (until I can get some soil to pot them).

We are deep into whatever kind of “now normal” we are all creating for ourselves, and while there’s beauty and joy in that, today I wanted to acknowledge: I miss how it used to be.

Here in Massachusetts, we’re moving slowly into a phased reopening, but masks and social distancing and other restrictions will be part of our lives for a long while. There are some parts of “normal” we simply won’t get back, at least not for the foreseeable future. And that hurts. So, in no particular order, here is a list of things I miss:

  • Hugging my friends.
  • Browsing my favorite bookstores.
  • The library, especially the central BPL branch near my office.
  • Hanging out at coffee shops.
  • Making travel plans, which are all obviously on hold at the moment.
  • Running to the grocery store to grab “just one thing.”
  • Walking outside without a mask.
  • My family in Texas (the Zoom calls are fun, but not the same).
  • Going to friends’ houses for dinner or just to hang out.
  • By the same token: having people over to my house.
  • My colleagues, and the musical chitchat that passes for water-cooler talk at Berklee.
  • Sitting in on workshops and talking to our students.
  • The buzz of commencement season in Boston and Cambridge.
  • Going to yoga classes in a real studio.
  • Going to book events at a bookstore.
  • Walking to Downeast with my guy on a Saturday night to sample ciders and talk to the folks behind the counter.
  • Planning for summer festivals and concerts.
  • Going to the hair salon (they’re starting to reopen, but I’m going to wait a while).
  • My florist.
  • Waking up without the constant low-level (or higher-level) pandemic anxiety.

What do you miss?

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plot thickens boston public library steps

The second half of June has flown by – life is a bit scattered but the books are helping keep me sane. (As is my library – pictured above.) Here’s the latest roundup:

Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir, Ruth Reichl
Reichl, a longtime food critic, became the editor of Gourmet magazine in 1998. This memoir is the inside-baseball story of her years there, Gourmet’s evolution, some of its most famous stories (and personalities), and its eventual end. I like Reichl’s writing, but I want to love her and I don’t quite. I can’t figure out why. Still an entertaining, well-written story for foodies.

The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good, Elizabeth L. Cline
I loved Cline’s first book, Overdressed – a hard look at the fast-fashion culture and what it’s costing us. Her second book lays out methods for clearing out our closets and then shopping consciously: buying less, recycling or donating old clothes responsibly, and buying better-quality clothing made by brands that pay fair wages and treat the earth with care. Lots of common sense, but it’s great to have all this info in one place. Several fascinating Q&As with fashion industry pros. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 20).

The Blue Castle, L.M. Montgomery
I’d only read this little-known Montgomery novel once, and then Jenny co-hosted a read-along on Instagram. I was way too late to join, but loved my second read of Valancy’s story. She’s a delight, and I loved watching her step into exactly the life she wanted.

Today We Go Home, Kelli Estes
When Larkin Bennett comes back home after a tour of duty in Afghanistan, she’s grieving the death of her best friend Sarah and struggling with PTSD. Among Sarah’s possessions, Larkin finds a diary written by Emily Wilson, an ancestor of Sarah’s who lived and fought as a man during the Civil War. Estes’ second novel is a solid dual-narrative story of several strong women, a century and a half apart, fighting to be taken seriously on and off the battlefield. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 3).

The Library of Lost and Found, Phaedra Patrick
Martha Storm, volunteer librarian, spends her time offering to do tasks for other people so she can feel useful. But when she reconnects with her grandmother Zelda–after believing Zelda died 30 years ago–Martha starts rethinking some of her life choices and possibilities. A sweet, engaging, bookish story, though I had trouble believing Martha was quite that naive.

The Scent Keeper, Erica Bauermeister
Emmeline spends her childhood on a remote island with her father in the Pacific Northwest. He keeps drawers full of scents in glass bottles, and they forage for food. But as a teenager, Emmeline is forced into the outside world, where she finds friends but also betrayal. I’ve loved Bauermeister’s previous novels, and this one – despite a slow start – is engaging and lovely. I don’t think the plot is quite as strong as her others, but I loved the characters and the musings on scent and memory.

The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You, Dina Nayeri
Most of us see “the refugee crisis” in the headlines but don’t have a sense of what these individual human experiences are like. Nayeri, a former refugee from Iran, delves into her own experience and that of many others: living in camps, awaiting asylum hearings, living underground (in various countries) after being rejected. She’s blistering in some of her critiques, strikingly human in her storytelling. Compassionate, prickly and compelling. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 3).

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

What are you reading?

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wife maid mistress book soup bread
So many good books this month (including the one above). Here’s what I have been reading:

Crossing to Safety
, Wallace Stegner
I’d heard about this lovely, quiet novel from Anne and others, and am so glad I finally picked it up. It traces the friendship of two couples, the Morgans and the Langs, over several decades. So many subtle, thought-provoking insights on marriage, friendship, work and love. Beautifully written. I’ll be rereading it.

Superfluous Women, Carola Dunn
While convalescing in a country town, Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher reconnects with an old friend – and, of course, gets mixed up in a murder investigation. A quiet but thoughtful look at the issue of “superfluous” (i.e. unmarried) women in England after World War I, and a rather surprising solution to the mystery. (I love Daisy.)

Emerald Green, Kerstin Gier
Gwyneth Shepherd has discovered her destiny as a time-traveler, and met a handsome boy (her partner in crime). But things are getting desperate: they must plot to save themselves and their loved ones from the evil Count Saint-Germain. Fast-paced, funny and romantic; a great finish to this time-travel trilogy. (The magic and world-building are still a little confusing, but the story is so much fun.) A reread.

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress, Ariel Lawhon
I blew through Lawhon’s second novel, Flight of Dreams (out Feb. 23), then picked up this one (her debut). The premise: Judge Joseph Crater disappears in New York City in 1930, and the three titular women each have damaging information about the case. Lawhon skillfully moves back and forth in time, with razor-sharp banter and stylish, telling details. A gripping mystery.

Wouldn’t It Be Deadly, D.E. Ireland
Eliza Doolittle (yes, that Eliza Doolittle) is working as a language teacher and still sparring with Professor Henry Higgins, when her employer (one of Higgins’ rivals) is found dead. Higgins himself is the prime suspect, so Eliza sets out to clear his name. A fun mystery featuring the beloved characters from My Fair Lady.

I Shall Wear Midnight, Terry Pratchett
Tiffany Aching is officially the witch of the Chalk, which means she does all the unglamorous work no one else will do (with help from her friends, the miniature warriors known as the Nac Mac Feegle). But when a malevolent spirit starts spreading anti-witch feeling, Tiffany must face it down once and for all. The plot dragged in places, but I love Tiffany and the Feegles. (Crivens!)

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts, Joshua Hammer
I heard about this nonfiction adventure story on All the Books and was instantly intrigued. (What a title!) It follows Abdel Kader Haidara, a librarian who amassed an astounding collection of ancient Islamic manuscripts in his home country of Mali. As the manuscripts’ safety was threatened by Al Qaeda, Haidara and his colleagues staged a daring rescue operation. The details of military campaigns dragged at times, but I was fascinated by Haidara’s work. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 19).

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, Katarina Bivald
When shy, bookish Sara travels from Sweden to Broken Wheel, Iowa, to meet her pen pal, Amy, she discovers that Amy has died. But Amy’s friends are determined to take care of Sara – and even to do a little matchmaking. Sara opens a bookstore, and both her presence and the store inspire changes in the lives of various townspeople. Fun premise, lots of book-nerd catnip, but all the characters felt like vague outlines to me.

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

What are you reading?

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chai journal pencil case darwins

For one reason and another, I have spent a lot of time working in libraries and coffee shops over the last few months. (If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve probably seen my copious photos of the chai lattes at Darwin’s.)

I love both settings, for different moods and often different kinds of work. But it occurred to me recently that both places offer a way to strike a balance between privacy and being in public.

farnsworth reading room lamont library harvard

In a library, it is of course generally expected that you won’t – or don’t have to – talk to anyone. Though many libraries now offer group study spaces, you can also settle in quite comfortably with your laptop at a table or in a deep armchair.

I spent an hour in Lamont Library (at Harvard) one recent afternoon with about fifteen other people – all of us tucked up in different corners of the Farnsworth Room, typing contentedly away at our computers or scribbling in notebooks. We weren’t oblivious of each other’s presence, but we didn’t have to acknowledge it, either.

The collective presence in the room formed a kind of reassuring cushion for me. Introvert that I am, I still like to know that there are other people out there in the world (or right next to me), working on their own projects, doing their thing. I like knowing I’m part of that collective, without having to talk to anyone.

darwins cafe cup

In a coffee shop, the boundaries are more porous. There’s food and drink, for one thing, and generally also music. (The music at Darwin’s ranges delightfully and eclectically from classic rock to indie folk to the occasional country song.) I’ve learned the names of a couple of baristas, and I know most of the other ones by sight – and I’m sure I surprise no one, any more, when I order a medium chai latte.

At Darwin’s, you still don’t have to talk to anyone – but the general volume is a little louder, the vibe chummier. People do sometimes ask if they can share tables, borrow a chair, or make use of a power strip or outlet. I know a few of the other regulars by sight, and occasionally I bump into a friend or colleague. I listen with pleasure to the baristas’ banter as they sling drinks behind the counter or bring new supplies up from the basement. (It reminds me of my days as a barista at the Ground Floor, long ago.)

Here, too, the background noise forms a sort of comforting baseline: the small noises of footsteps and chatter, the whirr and hum of the espresso machine, blend into a pleasing buzz. I can (usually) detach my brain from following individual noises, letting it rest in the general hum, as I jot down notes (or a to-do list) or type away on my computer. Around me, there’s usually a mix of fellow workers on their laptops, elderly men perusing the newspaper, the guy who brings in his pastels to sketch, and chattering pairs of friends.

I love my solitude, however I can get it: a solo lunch in Harvard Yard, a quiet evening at home alone, even disappearing into a book on a crowded subway train. But I also love this contradictory mix of privacy in public. I like being part of the rhythm of a place, even if – sometimes especially if – my thoughts and words can remain all my own.

Do you like hanging in out libraries and coffee shops?

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harvard yard memorial church view

One of the perks of working at a university: life slows down a little in the summer.

Of course, there are still students around: taking courses, working in the research labs, flying in for brief seminars or leadership programs. The number of high school students goes way up after Commencement, and the tour groups are out in full force.

But some pockets of campus, like the libraries, are quieter than usual. And lately, I’ve been spending some time over at Lamont Library.

donatelli reading room lamont library harvard

Lamont is one of the undergraduate libraries, located off the southeast corner of Harvard Yard, still on the main campus but off the most-trafficked paths. It’s smaller than Widener, the university’s main library, and it feels friendlier, less grand and imposing.

While Widener is composed mostly of dimly lit stacks (which stretch several stories underground), Lamont has a nice mix of shelves and reading rooms. It has lots of windows and more than a few quiet spaces where you can curl up in an armchair (or spread out at a desk) and spend a while working, reading or studying. (I’ve also seen a few students napping in the comfy chairs.)

farnsworth reading room lamont library harvard

I always stop to peruse the New Books shelf near the front desk on my way out, and sometimes I pop downstairs to the media stacks to check out a DVD. But Lamont is also simply a good place to perch for a few hours.

The air-conditioning hums quietly, the summer sun slants in through the windows, and the books, with their colorful spines, make a welcoming background for my work. And the views – especially from the third floor facing north – are quite lovely.

memorial church memorial hall harvard university

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widener library view harvard

One of the cool things about working at Harvard: sometimes you get to peek into beautiful, historic, or otherwise distinguished buildings.

The Square, particularly the Yard, teems with such buildings. But one of the biggest and most famous – and the one that makes my book-nerd heart go pitter-patter – is Widener Library.

The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, named for a Harvard alumnus who went down with the Titanic (funded by his mother), is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. It is (mostly) open to students, faculty, staff and researchers year-round. The stacks go way down beneath Harvard Yard, and they are both fascinating and slightly eerie (if you happen to be down there alone).

But last Friday, the doors were thrown open for a reception to celebrate Widener’s centennial – complete with architectural drawings on display, cupcakes with crimson icing, a jazz trio, and red balloons.

widener library plans harvard

I milled around with other visitors, munching on a cupcake. I loved seeing the photos of the library’s dedication ceremony in 1915, and the blueprints and correspondence laid out for our perusal. But my favorite part was stepping into a room where I can’t usually go.

widener room harvard library flowers

The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Room is modeled after Harry’s study, and it contains his portrait and his personal collection of books. It’s usually open only to the library curator, who comes in weekly to place fresh flowers on the desk, as stipulated by Eleanor Elkins Widener, Harry’s mother and the library’s benefactor. (Legend also has it that Mrs. Widener hoped Harry’s ghost would come and visit his books once in a while.)

The room was crammed with people taking photos, and we could only look at the books, not touch them. But I wandered around, perusing the shelves, delighted to find (among other things) Harry’s collection of Dickens.

books widener library harvard dickens

I understand that digital technology has helped transform learning, libraries and the spread of information. (I’m writing this post on a computer, of course – and my book reviews at Shelf Awareness and Great New Books are all digital.) But I have a deep love for the physical book, and the spaces that house such books. I believe we still need them, even in this social media age.

Widener is grand and imposing and full of history, but it’s also a place where people still come to study and learn and make new discoveries. One hundred years of that vital work is definitely something to celebrate.

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Last week, I posed the question on Facebook and Twitter: “What did ‘summer reading’ mean to you as a kid?” I had several wonderful responses, including Juliette’s vivid tweet: “It meant sittin’ in the passenger seat of Dad’s Oldsmobile, eating Cheez-its and devouring a Beverly Cleary book from the library.”

I didn’t meet Juliette till we were in college, but when I read that, I could smell the Cheez-Its and feel the scratchy upholstery under my bare legs. And I suddenly saw, in colorful detail, the bright paperbacks of Beezus and Ramona, Ramona and her Father, Ramona and Her Mother, and all the other Cleary books I read and reread during the summers.

For me, summer reading was an extension of the reading obsession I nursed during the year – but it often meant a different kind of book. I was always a fast reader and set the school record (twice) for points gained in the Accelerated Reader program, and some of the books I loved were hefty classics for a kid (I first read Little Women at age seven, The Swiss Family Robinson – unabridged! – at about 10). Of course, those long books were worth lots of points, and I read as many as possible, between homework and volleyball practice and jumping on my friend Allison’s trampoline after school.

But I wasn’t a snobby reader – I also loved a lot of the stuff aimed at kids my age. Summer meant time to stock up on the American Girl books (all five series then in existence); the Baby-Sitters Club series (including the fat Super Specials); Nancy Drew; Trixie Belden; the Bobbsey Twins; the Boxcar Children; the Mandie books (mysteries with a Christian twist); Paula Danziger books like Earth to Matthew and Remember Me to Harold Square; books about the Melendys and the Moffats; the B is for Betsy series by Carolyn Haywood; and a fair dose of Lois Lowry and Judy Blume (not to mention anything by L.M. Montgomery and Maud Hart Lovelace).

I read and reread these books in the hot Texas summers (fitting them in around our frequent trips to the pool). I read them sprawled across my bed, curled up on the couch in the living room, on long car trips to visit my grandparents in Missouri and Ohio (though sometimes Mom made me put them aside to play with my sister, who has never quite understood my obsession with books, then or now).

Some of these books have been (rightly) canonized as young adult classics, or classics for all ages; others, not so much, but they were still fun to read. And there’s enormous satisfaction in finishing an entire series of books (though I swear the creators of Nancy Drew and some of those other series did their best to make that impossible). I’ve forgotten a lot of the plotlines and some of the characters’ names, but I remember the delicious feeling of opening up a book (even if it was just a library paperback) and sinking into a new story filled with characters I loved.

It’s your turn. What did summer reading mean to you as a kid?

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“Our library isn’t very extensive, said Anne, “but every book in it is a friend. We’ve picked our books up through the years, here and there, never buying one until we had first read it and knew that it belonged to the race of Joseph.”

Anne’s House of Dreams, L.M. Montgomery

This is another reason I love Anne Shirley so much – she’s hit on the perfect reason for buying a book, and the perfect way to curate a library.

I read voraciously, fast and often, and my reading speed outstrips both my book budget and my storage space. Aside from those practical reasons, I don’t actually want to own every book I’ve ever read. I’d rather own the ones I love, the ones I turn to again and again for comfort, wisdom, laughter or helpful information, the ones I want to lend to friends. And, of course, the ones that hold sentimental value – whether they were picked up in a special location (like the copies of 84 Charing Cross Road and The Two Towers I bought at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris) or passed down to me (like the copy of No Children, No Pets and the set of My Book House tales, given to me by my grandmothers). (These book treasures, heirloom and otherwise, may feature in their own separate post. I’ve got quite a few of them.)

This is why I didn’t keep all my college textbooks, even the novels I read for my literature classes – if I didn’t love it or hadn’t been profoundly affected by it, out it went. This is also why, in my new gig as a reviewer for Shelf Awareness, I end up passing on many of the ARCs I receive – because I (honestly) don’t love them all, and because I (seriously) don’t have room for them all.

This is why I rarely buy books without doing a bit of research first – looking up the author’s website, reading an excerpt online or flipping through it in the bookstore – though I’ll buy anything by a few treasured authors. This is also why, sometimes, after checking out a book from the library, I go to the Brattle or the Booksmith and see if I can find a copy – because it made me laugh (or cry) or touched me so deeply that I want it for my own. (Recent examples of this phenomenon include Alice Bliss, Maisie Dobbs and the Valentine books by Adriana Trigiani.)

I believe – deeply – in buying books, real books, because those books are the lifeblood of the publishing industry, and I want to support those authors who are working so hard (and who sometimes, graciously, come to town to give readings and signings and talk to their fans). I believe in buying those books at real bookstores, because I want those places to be around for years and decades to come.

But I also believe in the beauty of a medium-sized, thoughtfully edited, well-curated library. I want the books on my shelves to be friends of mine. I want to look at my shelves and see the progress of my literary journey, but I also want to see familiar faces, wise elders helping me find my way, warmhearted friends who will let me spend a few hours in their world, and wordsmiths whose work delights me down to my toes.

How do you curate your library?

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