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Posts Tagged ‘magic’

rules of magic book sunflowers

I think it’s safe to say that my one little word this year is a sneaky one.

Back in January, I chose magic for my 2017 word, believing and hoping I needed it after a year (in 2016) that felt hard at every turn. I needed all the gumption I could get last year, and I haven’t stopped needing it this year: many days have required equal parts magic and grit. But my word has always been there, peeking around the corner, surprising me, especially when I’m not looking for it.

I do occasional author interviews for Shelf Awareness, my longstanding freelance gig, and I was thrilled when my editor asked if I’d like to talk to Alice Hoffman about her new novel, The Rules of Magic. It’s a prequel to Practical Magic, which I had not read, but I’d read and adored Hoffman’s novel Faithful, and I was so excited about this one.

Spoiler alert: I loved the book. It’s an utterly enchanting, heartbreaking story of three siblings who have to reckon with their unusual gifts and the very ordinary human experiences of love, loss and figuring out who they really are. And I loved talking to Alice, who was so warm and engaging, and answered my questions patiently. The book comes out today, and to celebrate, I’m sharing a few snippets of the Q&A below.

KG: The magic the characters use [in The Rules of Magic] is a kind of everyday alchemy: there’s a sense that magic is already here in our world, and they can channel it or avoid it via certain “rules.” Can you talk about your concept of magic and magical power?

AH: I’m interested in everyday magic: magic that you could turn a corner and find. I think a lot of that has to do with the books I read as a child, because those are the books that make you a writer. I loved Ray Bradbury’s books, and there’s a real sense of that everyday magic in the here and now. That’s what I’m interested in both as a reader and a writer: magic that is affected by the everyday.

My books have a kind of push-pull regarding magic, and also between the mystical and spiritual and the demands of “real” life. In The Rules of Magic, they’re braided together. The characters really fight against who they are, so that’s another push-pull. The book is ultimately about being who you are, and I think that’s really hard to do, even if you’re not a witch.

It’s hard for a lot of us to be who we are, even if we’re not fighting a family curse.

It really is just that: accepting yourself. It’s true for everyone in the book, and it’s a process. It takes a whole lifetime to learn who you are.

Courage is a thread that runs through the book: choosing courage over caution, being brave above all. Can you talk about that? How does courage relate to magic?

In a certain sense, the characters discovered this thread on their own. The book is really all about courage: the courage it takes to be different, the courage it takes to be in love, and the courage it takes to be human. Most people spend their lives running away from all that. The characters have to learn that.

The book deals with destiny and choice: the characters try to dodge the family curse, and they wrestle with accepting fate versus making their own choices. Can you talk about that?

That’s a big question. But it’s central to the book: the idea of the curse, which affects whether and how the Owens women fall in love. And yet, if you love someone, and open your heart to them, they will ultimately break your heart, curse or no curse. They may betray you; they may not be who you thought they were. Or they may get sick and die, as ultimately we all do.

At some point, inevitably, there is pain involved with love. I think it’s a big leap to make, and I think people are very brave when they do it. I think part of the Owens “curse” is just being human. And along the way, there are beautiful, wonderful things, and that’s part of being human too: such joy.


If you love magic, gorgeous writing or a good story, I highly recommend The Rules of Magic.

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disappearance damascus book plum

How is it mid-September already? I love this golden month, but my brain is all over the place lately. I have finished a few books, though, and here they are:

The Unlikelies, Carrie Firestone
Sadie Sullivan is bummed: the summer before her senior year looks like a dud. But when she saves a baby from her drunk father (and gets badly beaten up), Sadie becomes a “homegrown hero.” She and four other local teens (the Unlikelies) band together to fight hate and do some good in their town. I read this sweet, sharp, funny YA novel in one night. Recommended by my colleagues at Shelf Awareness.

Blackbird House, Alice Hoffman
I picked up this linked story collection after loving Hoffman’s The Rules of Magic: I just wanted to stay in her world a while longer. The stories wind around the titular house, on Cape Cod, and its occupants over generations. Deeply bittersweet, with a fairy-tale quality and beautiful, melancholy descriptions.

The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, Esther Perel
Infidelity is as common as it is heartbreaking, and Perel, a renowned couples therapist, argues that we need a new conversation around it. She delves into many facets of affairs: secrecy, lies, jealousy, the effects of modern technology, the politics of open marriages and the ways marriage and infidelity shape our sense of identity. Fascinating and thoughtful; a sensitive take on a really sensitive topic. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 10).

A Disappearance in Damascus, Deborah Campbell
Soon after Campbell landed in Damascus on assignment for Harper’s in 2007, she met Ahlam, an Iraqi refugee and “fixer” who worked with journalists and humanitarian groups to help tell the story of Iraqis who had fled to Syria after Saddam Hussein was overthrown. When Ahlam was arrested and imprisoned, Campbell became determined to find her, however long it took. Vivid and compelling. To review for Shelf Awareness (published Sept. 5).

On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana, a minor British royal, ends up in Italy trying to help out a friend and doing a(nother) small errand for the queen. Of course, the house party she’s attending doesn’t go as planned: there’s a murder, and Georgie tries to solve it before the killer strikes again. A really fun entry in this highly entertaining series.

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

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book geraniums captains daughter sandals porch flowers

My reading slowed waaaay down in August, but I read some fantastic books. Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Salt Houses, Hala Alyan
When Salma Yacoub reads her daughter Alia’s tea leaves on the eve of Alia’s wedding, she sees trouble – unrest, displacement, grief – and also luck. From there unfolds the rich, layered, multigenerational saga of the Yacoub family, who are uprooted from Palestine during the Six-Day War of 1967. Over five decades and at least as many countries, Salma’s family continue to live: they struggle, they migrate, they work, they fight, they love. A powerful and absolutely gorgeous novel about family, belonging, restlessness, the secrets we keep and the selves we become. Recommended by my colleagues at Shelf Awareness.

The Rules of Magic, Alice Hoffman
The Owens women aren’t like other women: they have certain unusual powers, but they’re also under a longstanding curse. Hoffman tells the story of Franny, her sister Bridget (known as Jet) and their aunt Isabelle. I loved this book; it broke my heart and mended it, over and over, and gave me a few good words about courage. Lush and gorgeous and moving and powerful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 10).

Epiphanies & Elegies, Brian Doyle
My Brian Doyle kick continues: this is a slim, whimsical collection of poems on Ireland, animals, “wild holy children” and more. My favorites: “Instructions to the New Puppy,” “Lilies,” and “Goose Arrested at the Corner of Winter & Summer.”

The Captain’s Daughter, Meg Mitchell Moore
I love Moore’s insightful, honest novels about family and finding our place in the world. This one focuses on Eliza Barnes, who is called back to her tiny Maine hometown when her lobsterman father is injured. Eliza worked hard to build a different life for herself and she’s proud of that, but being back home makes her question her choices, and she also befriends a local teenager, Mary, who is facing her own crisis. Powerful and lovely and real.

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

What are you reading?

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steel and rye lights sunset

Back in January, I decided my one little word for 2017 would be magic.

I’d had a year that required a lot of gumption (my word for 2016), and I wanted something a little lighter, more whimsical, for 2017. Between the headlines (which are constantly crazy-making), the months-long adjustment to a wonderful but demanding new job, and the annual challenges of winter in New England, I knew I could use some magic.

We’re (slightly over) halfway through 2017, and I found myself thinking about my word the other day. More accurately, I found myself wondering: is magic really the word for this year?

Let’s be honest: 2017 has not been an easy road, so far. It has contained a lot of beauty – flowers and good books, long walks with friends, many lifesaving encounters at Darwin’s and elsewhere – but it has also brought new and ongoing challenges. It has, in short, required a lot of grit.

Grit is a popular word in higher ed circles right now, and a favorite word of Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard (where I work). I tend to think of it in both the verb and noun forms: grit as in gritting your teeth and hanging on, and grit as in the humble but honest dirt that collects in the floorboards of a house, or gives something the texture needed to grip it.

This year has contained a lot of both kinds of grit. I’ve had to wrestle with even the good gifts, and summon all my courage to get through even the beautiful days.

roots sky book sunflowers table

At the end of her lovely memoir, Roots and Sky, my friend Christie Purifoy writes about late-summer chaos: a gust of wind scattering the kids’ chore charts, a stray elbow sending a jar of gold star stickers all over the kitchen floor. “I intended them to march in rows across our charts, but now they sparkle among the dust bunnies,” she writes. “When [my son] Beau suddenly runs through the screen door, gold stars shine from the bottoms of his dirty feet.”

That image keeps coming back to me: it seems to perfectly capture the interplay of magic and grit. They are present, side by side, in unexpected places. They are frustrating and undeniably real, glorious and utterly ordinary. They both stick to the soles of my feet and insist on their place in the story of this year. So I am letting them both in, as I walk through these long, full summer days.

We’re moving again at the end of the month, to a different apartment in the next town over. More change is on the horizon: at work, at church, in other areas. I have no doubt all of these changes will require more grit. But – I hope and am trying to believe – they’ll also contain magic. At least, they will if I have anything to say about it.

The answer to my original question, it turns out, is “yes, and.” Magic is definitely present in this year, and so is grit. I can’t separate them, and it turns out I don’t really need to. Because they are both necessary, and both – sometimes to my surprise – life-giving.

Are you following a word (or more than one) this year? How’s it going? I’d love to hear.

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darwins notebook chai

“It’s only alchemy until you know how it works.”

So said a friend of mine recently, as he stood behind the counter at (where else?) Darwin’s, steaming the milk for my chai latte. That’s admittedly one of the simpler drinks they serve: one part spicy chai mix (which they make themselves), one part milk. But he was talking about the more complicated espresso-based drinks they offer: latte, cappuccino, macchiato, mocha, cortado. He had done a refresher course the day before, and found himself newly fascinated with this everyday alchemy, the process of taking disparate ingredients and blending them into something new.

I understood what he meant. I remembered the same aha! moment from my own barista days, when Barb and Cynthia showed me how to pull an espresso shot, steam a stainless-steel pitcher full of milk, add a dollop of rich chocolate or a smooth cap of foam, and create a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not even a coffee drinker – I love the smell, can’t stand the bitter taste – but I found myself fascinated, then and now, by the process. It does make a new kind of sense when you watch the steps unfold one by one.

As I stood there that morning, though, listening to the whir of the milk steamer, the grind of the espresso machine, the morning music mix on the stereo, I thought: that factual knowledge doesn’t quite cover it.

I understand, empirically, that a shot of espresso plus steamed milk equals a latte, that a cappuccino has more foam, that a mocha includes a shot of chocolate and that chemical reactions explain a lot of the taste and texture (and pleasure) we get from those drinks. But there are also other, less measurable ingredients at play: the sunset-colored walls, the music, the smiles from my favorite staff members. That, too, is everyday alchemy (or magic) – and even though those elements are familiar and ordinary, they delight me every single day.

This applies to more than coffee: I understand most of the science behind the steps I follow to make a pot of soup, marinate and roast a chicken, stir up a batch of scones. But I believe there’s room for wonder alongside our knowledge of how those processes work. It isn’t alchemy in the Nicolas Flamel sense, perhaps – but it’s still everyday magic.

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katie green coat black ink

A color story:

For several years, my favorite coat has been the jade-green wool one I found at a consignment shop in downtown Boston. It matches my eyes (like a certain Boy Who Lived, I have my mother’s green eyes) and it is warm, stylish and comfortable. It also garners compliments – from friends and strangers – like no other article of clothing I’ve ever owned.

When I started showing up at Darwin’s every day, some of the staff came to know me initially as “the girl in the green coat.” (They know my name now, and they also know my fondness for their chai lattes, shortbread cookies and soups of every kind.)

My green coat – with a warm scarf, fleece-lined tights and appropriate footwear – is perfect for many, if not most, winter days in Boston. But occasionally, we have arctic blasts (or blizzards) that send the temperatures dropping to near zero. That means I need to pull out the big guns: my knee-length, hooded, quilted down coat, which is red. (In the mornings, when I look around the subway platform, I’m often the only person not wearing black or gray.)

katie-red-coat-snow

A few weeks back, I walked into Darwin’s on a single-digit day wearing my red coat, and chatted with a friend behind the counter before going up to place my order. The staff member working the register stared at me for a moment in utter disbelief.

“Katie!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t even know who you were when you walked in!” I laughed out loud, and reassured her that the green coat would be back soon.

I told my husband this story that night. His comment? “Only you could wear a red coat and go incognito.”

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daffodils desk

If you’re a regular reader, you know that I periodically turn back to the question of what is saving my life now. (I got it from Barbara Brown Taylor’s luminous memoir Leaving Church.)

Even pausing to think about the question – or jot down list in my journal at the end of a long day – can help shift my perspective. There’s always something saving my life, even on the days when it feels like everything is killing me (and there are a lot of those, lately).

As she’s done in midwinter for the past few years, my friend Anne Bogel at Modern Mrs. Darcy is inviting everyone to share what’s saving their lives in this cold, bleak season. I’m sharing my list below, because I need the reminder to look for the lifesavers (or the bits of magic) that are all around. Bonus: I love the snapshot it provides of how my days look (and how they are brightened) at a given moment.

Here, in early February of a year that’s already been a wild ride, is what’s saving my life now:

  • The La La Land soundtrack, which is full of swingy jazz, melancholy piano music and a couple of songs that make me cry.
  • $3 daffodils for my desk (see above), and chats with my florist.
  • My magic green coat, which garners compliments from strangers all. the. time.
  • Red lipstick, especially on a grey day.
  • My daily walks to Darwin’s, and checking in with my people there.
  • Verlyn Klinkenborg’s wise, practical book on writing, which I am savoring on my morning commutes.
  • The mornings I get to catch a ride to the train station with my husband. Those few minutes in the car together are precious.
  • Texts from a few friends who are my lifelines.
  • Long (or short) walks around Harvard Square: beloved streets, fresh air, the chance to stretch my legs and clear my head.
  • Fleece-lined tights as the temperatures drop again.
  • Piles of bright orange, tangy clementines.
  • Hot water with honey and lemon, on the nights when I need a mug of warm (non-caffeinated) comfort.
  • The colorful quilt made by my husband’s grandmother, which we sleep under all winter long.
  • My happy lamp, Vitamin D pills, two desk lamps and all the sunshine I can get. (The days are slowly getting longer…)
  • Weekly yoga classes at my local studio, where I am known by name.
  • The fleece-lined plaid slippers I got for Christmas – so cozy.
  • The Hamilton soundtrack, which helps me summon my courage.
  • Scribbling in my journal when I can – even a few lines can help me sort out my thoughts.

Feel free to share your lifesavers in the comments, or hop over to Anne’s blog to join the linkup.

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