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Posts Tagged ‘maps’

map of salt and stars book

I’ve always loved maps. Since I was a child sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, tracing our summer road-trip routes on the pages of my dad’s United States atlas, I’ve been fascinated by those collections of lines and space. They help us navigate the physical world, but they tell us so much more than where we’ve been and where we’re going.

For Nour, the twelve-year-old narrator of Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s novel The Map of Salt and Stars, maps are her mother’s livelihood and her family’s lingua franca. But one map in particular may guide her to a brand-new home.

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I read The Map of Salt and Stars back in March; it came out in early May. I loved every page of Nour’s story, which is interwoven with the legend of Rawiya, a young woman who apprentices herself to a famed medieval mapmaker.

I’m sharing my full review over at Bookclique, a site run by my friend Jessica Flaxman. Please head on over there to read the rest of my thoughts.

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scotland st books alexander mccall smith

Regular maps have few surprises; their contour lines
Reveal where the Andes are, and are reasonably clear
On the location of Australia, and the Outer Hebrides;
Such maps abound; more precious, though,
Are the unpublished maps we make ourselves,
Of our city, our place, our daily world, our life;
Those maps of our private world
We use every day; here I was happy, in that place
I left my coat behind after a party,
That is where I met my love; I cried there once,
I was heartsore; but felt better round the corner
Once I saw the hills of Fife across the Forth,
Things of that sort, our personal memories,
That make the private tapestry of our lives.

—Angus Lordie, in Love Over Scotland, Alexander McCall Smith

I’ve been working my way through the 44 Scotland Street series. So far, each entry in the series has concluded with a party at the titular address, at which Angus Lordie, eccentric portrait painter, sometime poet and owner of Cyril, the gold-toothed dog, stands up to deliver a poem.

Angus muses, as McCall Smith does throughout the books, on the small, everyday interactions and decisions that make up our lives. In most chapters, nothing particularly grand or dramatic happens to the characters as they move through Scotland Street and the rest of Edinburgh. Rather, they go to work or school, visit their favorite cafes or bars, interact with family members and friends, face the small crises and irritations we all face in the course of a given week. This series is no epic tale: it is a tribute to the small beauties of the quotidian, the “private tapestry of our lives.”

Since moving to Boston, I have been piecing together my own mental map of the city, first as a means of navigating unfamiliar terrain: this subway line will take you here, these streets intersect at a certain point, this highway exit will lead me home. When I began working downtown, spending my weekdays close to the Common, the map grew infinitely more detailed and colorful. I can point you to my favorite hill on the west side of the Common, my favorite stand at the Copley Square farmer’s market. I grew to recognize the employees at my favorite bookshop, the corner burrito joint, the Starbucks in my building. I have a particular knowledge of that tangle of streets I roamed for two years.

Since starting my new job in Harvard Square, I have been drawing a new map: different routes to work from the subway station, good places to grab lunch or a cup of tea or a chai latte, bookshops and boutiques to browse. Now that the weather is warming up, I am noticing budding trees, electric yellow forsythia, bright pink azaleas. Every week I discover something new. None of these discoveries are particularly earth-shaking, but they are important, and they are mine.

budding trees gutman library harvard square

Last week’s terrible events left me, along with other Bostonians, shaken and bewildered, tense and sad. We still don’t understand (we may never understand) why Boston, why the Marathon, why the bombs. But we are back at work, riding the subway, walking across the Common and Harvard Square, cheering on the Red Sox at Fenway, going about our lives. We are pulling out, and adding to, those maps of our private worlds, so quotidian and also so precious. We are heartsore, but we are still here, still living. And we are grateful.

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Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices, Leonard S. Marcus
I wrote my master’s thesis on Madeleine’s memoirs, with nods to A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels. So I found this collection of 50 interviews, with Madeleine’s family, colleagues, students and friends, fascinating. Some people praise her to the skies, while others seem determined to prove she had feet of clay. While Madeleine was wise and brilliant, she was no saint: she could be stubborn and demanding. Recommended for fellow L’Engle fans.

Excellent Women, Barbara Pym
Mildred Lathbury, thirtyish English spinster, meets her new neighbors (a rather eccentric, glamorous couple) and gets drawn into their marital troubles. Meanwhile, she provides comfort, a listening ear and cups of tea to various friends (all of whom assume she has “nothing better to do” since she’s single). Some amusing moments, but overall I found the story rather dull. Set in the same era as Miss Read’s tales, but not nearly as much fun.

The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen, Mitali Perkins
When Sunita’s grandparents come to visit from India, she struggles to reconcile her family’s traditional roots with her modern, California teenage life. (Mitali is herself an Indian transplant to the U.S.) I loved Sunita’s wise grandfather, Dadu, and her straight-talking best friend Liz, though Sunita came off a bit bratty sometimes. A sweet, thoughtful exploration of feeling caught between two cultures.

Renegade Magic, Stephanie Burgis
Kat Stephenson, 12-year-old Regency-era magical Guardian, returns. After Kat’s enemy Lady Fotherington nearly ruins her oldest sister’s wedding, Kat’s stepmother packs the family off to Bath, hoping to find a fiance for Kat’s other sister before any scandal can leak out. But Kat senses “wild magic” in the air around the Baths, and both her new friend Lucy and her foolish brother Charles get caught up in a dangerous game. I like Kat’s spunk, though her magic is not very well explained. Still an enjoyable story. (Second in a trilogy.)

The House on Willow Street, Cathy Kelly
In the tiny Irish town of Avalon, four women – sisters Tess and Suki, postmistress Danae, and Danae’s niece Mara – help one another navigate personal crossroads. Tess’ marriage and antique shop are both struggling; Suki is fleeing a dirt-digging biographer; Mara is healing from a broken heart and Danae wonders if it’s time to tell the secret she’s kept for 18 years. A heartwarming story with charming small-town characters – cozy and hopeful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 8).

On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, Simon Garfield
I love maps, and I found Garfield’s book utterly fascinating. He covers ancient maps (as much theology as geography), the age of exploration, the American Civil War, polar voyages, traveling by map in the movies (from Casablanca to The Muppets), GPS, guidebooks, even mapping the brain. Crammed with interesting facts, but written in a witty, compelling style. Garfield also muses on how maps reflect our perceptions of ourselves, and our quest to find our place in the world.

House of Light, Mary Oliver
I love Oliver’s work, and enjoyed this slim collection of quiet, luminous poems. It contains “The Summer Day,” which I already adored, but I found some new gems, including the end of “The Ponds”: “Still, what I want in my life / is to be willing / to be dazzled.” Lovely and honest scenes from nature, and musings on our “place in the family of things.”

The Lost Art of Mixing, Erica Bauermeister
A gorgeous sequel to The School of Essential Ingredients (which I adored), about chef Lillian and the people whose lives intertwine at her restaurant. Sous chef Chloe and dishwasher Finnegan are both healing from heartbreak of different kinds; Isabelle is struggling against memory loss; accountant Al takes refuge in numbers as his marriage falls apart; and Lillian herself faces a new, unexpected challenge. Luminous writing, and characters I wanted to meet. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 24).

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
I’d never read this classic, and finished it in a day. An odd, dark, yet hopeful story of censorship, war and preserving the written word against all odds. I didn’t connect deeply with any of the characters, but the message is powerful (and oddly prescient, considering it was written in the 1950s). Not a favorite, but I’m glad I read it.

What are you reading lately?

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Elrond has sent the company out from Rivendell, and they have made it to the slopes of Caradhras, only to be defeated and turn back across the land of Hollin, to the doors of Moria. These books are so geographical that I find myself constantly flipping back to the maps in the front…sort of like Joshua and the Chronicles of the Old Testament. Since I now have my Tolkien dictionary, I sometimes flip through and translate names of rivers or lands, or Elvish phrases.

Throughout the books, Tolkien writes of Middle-earth familiarly, as I would write of West Texas – as though it were a land he knew intimately and loved. Peter Beagle, who wrote the Introduction to my edition (the 1978 Ballantine Books printing) of the trilogy, points out that “in the end it is Middle-earth and its dwellers that we love, not Tolkien’s considerable gifts in showing it to us. I said once that the world he charts was there long before him, and I still believe it. He is a great enough magician to tap our most common nightmares, daydreams and twilight fancies, but he never invented them either: he found them a place to live.” Some fantasy books are written abstractly, distantly, and the reader never forgets that they are reading a story, something that could never really happen. Tolkien’s warm treatment of the hills and fields of Middle-earth pull the reader in, making us believe that we could really journey there.

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