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Posts Tagged ‘Mary Oliver’

Hi friends. April is nearly over, and I’m back from a stint of dog-sitting in Cambridge (down the street from my beloved Darwin’s, so of course I treated myself – see above).

Here’s what I have been reading:

The 24-Hour Cafe, Libby Page
I adore Page’s debut novel, Mornings with Rosemary, and finally ordered this one from my beloved Blackwell’s in Oxford because it’s not out in the U.S. It follows Hannah and Mona, flatmates and friends who work at the titular cafe and are each facing career crossroads (Hannah is a singer, Mona a dancer). It’s lovely and bittersweet – Page really digs into the complexities of female friendship – and I loved glimpsing the lives of their colleagues and customers, too.

God Spare the Girls, Kelsey McKinney
Pastor’s daughter Caroline Nolan has always lived in the shadow of her adored big sister, Abigail. But she’s starting to question both her faith and the rules of the community she grew up in. When the sisters find out their father has had an affair–weeks before Abigail’s wedding–they retreat to their grandmother’s ranch. McKinney is a fellow transplanted Texan and she writes so well about summer heat and tangled church politics. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 22).

A Woman of Intelligence, Karin Tanabe
Katharina “Rina” Edgeworth speaks four languages, has a graduate degree from Columbia – and is bored stiff with her life as a Manhattan society wife. When she’s recruited by the FBI to work as an informant, she says yes so she can find a purpose again. An interesting, complicated novel in McCarthy-era New York; Rina’s inner journey is stronger than the external plot. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 20).

How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope, ed. James Crews
I found this lovely anthology at the beginning of April and have savored its entries about delights, gratitude, family, the natural world and other loveliness. Poignant and lovely. (I wanted more poems from poets of color, but know I need to seek them out on my own.)

Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor, Anna Qu
As a teenager, Qu was forced to work in her family’s Manhattan sweatshop, and treated as a maid at home. She eventually calls child services on her mother, and as an adult, tries to piece together the fragments of her growing-up years. This was powerful at times but felt really disjointed; parts of the narrative seemed to be missing. I received an ARC from the publisher; it’s out Aug. 11.

All Things Bright and Beautiful, James Herriot
This second volume of Herriot’s memoirs picks up when he’s a newlywed and hitting his stride in veterinary practice. I love the familiar characters – Siegfried, Tristan, Helen – and the local folk they encounter. Charming and gentle.

You Have a Match, Emma Lord
Abby sent away for a DNA test in solidarity with her best friend, Leo, who’s searching for info about his birth family. But Abby’s the one who ends up with a surprise sister – Instagram sensation Savannah. They all head to summer camp and shenanigans ensue: tree-climbing, kitchen duty, family secrets and first love. This was my post-vaccine impulse buy at Target and I regret nothing. So much fun.

A Killer in King’s Cove, Iona Whishaw
After World War II, former intelligence agent Lane Winslow has moved to rural British Columbia for some peace and quiet. She’s just getting to know her neighbors when a stranger comes to town and ends up dead – and she’s a suspect. I loved this smart first entry in a series and will definitely read more.

Blue Horses, Mary Oliver
This was one of the only Oliver collections I hadn’t read. I loved spending a few mornings with late-life Mary and her keen, unsentimental eye. She writes so well about nature: its beauty, its darkness, its details.

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

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Here we are at the end of September – the weather feels like summer this week, but the light and the leaves say it’s definitely fall. Here’s what I have been reading:

Hard Time, Sara Paretsky
V.I. Warshawski stumbles on the body of a young Filipina woman who turns out to be a prison escapee. But how did she make it back to Chicago – and why are so many powerful people insistent on covering up her death? This ninth entry in the series was slow to start, but then it gripped me.

Good Harbor, Anita Diamant
When Kathleen Levine is diagnosed with breast cancer, her peaceful empty-nest life is upended. Then she meets Joyce, a writer who’s feeling restless and lonely. The two women bolster each other through long walks on Good Harbor Beach. I found this lovely book in Gloucester (where it’s set) and so enjoyed it.

Echo Mountain, Lauren Wolk
Ellie’s family has lost nearly everything in the stock market crash, and they’re building a new life on Echo Mountain. When her father is hit by a falling tree and slips into a coma, things look bleak. But Ellie – curious, stubborn and a born healer – is determined to try everything she can to make him well. I love Wolk’s writing and especially loved the characters Ellie meets on the mountain.

A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver
I am definitely deep into my “revisiting Mary Oliver” phase. This 2012 poetry collection is a bit opaque, but still lovely. Oliver writes so well about nature and paying attention.

Running, Natalia Sylvester
Fifteen-year-old Mariana Ruiz has always been proud of her politician father. But when he launches a presidential campaign, Mari starts to feel she has no privacy anymore. And then she finds out she may not agree with some of his policies. A sharp, well-written, engaging YA novel about the complications of family, politics and friendship.

A Royal Affair, Allison Montclair
Iris Sparks and Gwen Bainbridge, running a marriage bureau in post-World War II London, are asked to undertake an investigation for the Queen. (Discreetly, of course.) They trace a cache of letters that may cast doubt on the suitability of Prince Philip as a suitor for Princess Elizabeth. Witty and wry, though the plot lost me a couple of times. A fun series.

The Heir Affair, Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
This sequel to The Royal We (which I loved) picks up when royal newlyweds Nick and Bex are hiding out from scandal in Scotland. Eventually they have to go home and face the music: the Queen, Nick’s brother Freddie, and the British public. This was juicy and fun (though it got weird toward the end) and I enjoyed seeing all the familiar characters.

The Sea Gate, Jane Johnson
After her mother’s death, Rebecca finds a letter from an elderly cousin in Cornwall, who is in danger of losing her home. When she arrives, she finds Cousin Olivia – a tough old bird – in hospital, and both the woman and the house are hiding some secrets. A sweeping dual narrative of war and love, betrayal and art. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 5).

Big Dreams, Daily Joys, Elise Blaha Cripe
I used to read Elise’s blog faithfully, and really enjoyed this practical, wise, no-nonsense book about goal-setting and getting things done. I need a little kickstart this fall and am hoping to try some of her ideas.

Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them, Adrienne Raphel
If you’re a puzzle geek, I highly recommend this thoroughly researched history of the crossword (with frequent appearances by Will Shortz and other cruciverbalists). Informative, engaging and so much nerdy fun.

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

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We are halfway through September (tomorrow is my birthday), and I’m struggling to find a fall rhythm. Here’s what I have been reading:

The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World, Laura Imai Messina
Since Yui lost her mother and her daughter in the 2011 tsunami, she has been paralyzed by grief. But then she hears about a phone booth in a garden by the sea: a place for people to come and talk to their lost loved ones. When she starts visiting the phone booth, Yui meets others who are grieving, and they form a kind of community. Lovely and poignant. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 2021).

Windy City Blues, Sara Paretsky
I flew through this collection of short stories featuring my favorite Chicago detective, V.I. Warshawski. Many familiar characters – her neighbor, several friends – make appearances, and the cases are entertaining.

Her Last Flight, Beatriz Williams
In 1947, photographer Janey Everett heads to Spain in search of downed pilot Sam Mallory. What she finds there leads her to rural Hawaii, in search of the woman who was his flying partner and possibly his lover. Williams writes lush, satisfying historical fiction with wry dialogue, and I enjoyed this story.

Ways to Make Sunshine, Renée Watson
Ryan Hart, age 10, is juggling a lot: her family’s new (old) house, her fear of public speaking, her irritating older brother, the school talent show. But she’s smart, spunky and creative, and I loved watching her face her problems with grit and joy.

The Arctic Fury, Greer Macallister
Boston, 1853: a wealthy Englishwoman recruits experienced trail guide Virginia Reeve and a dozen other women for an all-female Arctic expedition. A year later, Virginia is on trial for murder. Macallister expertly weaves together two timelines, delving into each woman’s viewpoint and building to a few terrible reveals. Compelling, if gruesome at times. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 1).

The Switch, Beth O’Leary
Leena Cotton needs a break after blowing a big presentation at work. Her grandmother, Eileen, needs a change of scenery, too. So they switch lives: Leena goes to rural Yorkshire and Eileen goes to London. I loved watching these two women live each other’s lives: Leena dives headfirst into planning the May Day festival and Eileen discovers online dating, among other things. Sweet, warm and funny.

Evidence, Mary Oliver
Oliver’s poems have been keeping me company over breakfast this summer. This collection includes musings on flora and fauna, heartbreak and joy, and so much keen-eyed noticing. Lovely.

One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder, Brian Doyle
I adore Doyle’s rambling joyous exuberant prose and “proems.” I once reviewed an anthology he had edited, and he sent me a lovely email about it. This posthumous collection of his essays is vintage Doyle: warmhearted, keen-eyed, sharp and sweet and compassionate.

In Praise of Retreat, Kirsteen Macleod
In our ultra-connected world, retreating is both frowned upon and immensely appealing. Macleod weaves her own story of various types of retreats (yoga ashrams, cabins in the woods) together with research and musings on retreat as a practice. Thoroughly researched and interesting, but reading this one during semi-quarantine was kind of a slog. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 30, 2021).

By the Book, Amanda Sellet
Bookish Mary Porter-Malcolm knows all about the pitfalls awaiting young ladies who are trying to find eligible men. But when she’s thrust into the social politics of 21st-century high school, she starts to realize real life doesn’t always match the books. I loved this YA novel – Mary is both smart and endearingly clueless. Her big, loud family and professor parents were so much fun, and the dialogue is hilarious. Found at The Book Shop of Beverly Farms.

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

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tulips flowers stone church Cambridge

I Worried

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not, how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

—Mary Oliver

tulip magnolia tree bloom blue sky

I love Mary Oliver, as regular readers know, but either hadn’t read this poem or had forgotten about it, until my friend Louise shared it on Instagram.

There is so much to worry over in the world – the second stanza especially hits me right in the heart, these days. But there are also so many reasons to sing.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year.

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Harvard yard November light trees fall blue sky

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,
and I did not die.

[…]

Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it—
books, bricks, grief—
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

—from “Heavy,” Mary Oliver

I read this poem in Thirst a few years ago, but heard it read aloud this week at Morning Prayers. I listened to the words and thought, not for the first time lately, that gratitude—along with courage and books and yes, grief—can be a heavy burden to bear.

For me and for many of the folks I love, this has been a year of coming close to grief: closer and closer until we are right in the middle of it. We have navigated trauma and transition; we have wept, sometimes privately, sometimes together. We have been sustained—never doubt it—by friendship and sunshine, hot drinks and fresh flowers and occasional blinding joy.

geraniums window red flowers kitchen

But I cannot come up to Thanksgiving without first pausing to acknowledge: there has been so much, this year, to carry.

Even the good gifts this year have sometimes felt prickly, as my friend Micha put it years ago. My new job at Berklee, where I am glad to be, came at the expense of leaving Harvard, which I love. My husband has seen the end of one nonprofit he runs and the beginning of another: a professional success, but a stressful one. I have multiple friends who have navigated moves, loss, job changes, seeing their lives upended and rearranged. Sometimes it comes by choice; often it is a product of circumstances. Always, it requires summoning courage.

We carry our griefs, like other burdens, as best we can; we shift and strain and sometimes we ask for help. And alongside the heartache is the constant reminder: there is so much, in this world, that inspires thanks.

I am grateful for—among other things—the vivid sunrises out my kitchen window, and the cheery red geraniums that turn toward the light as I do. I’m grateful for pleasant workdays at Berklee, and the snatched hours I still spend in Harvard Square. I am grateful, in both places, to have found home: the one I am working to build, the other I am determined not to lose.

I’m grateful for countless long runs on the trail, for Monday night boot camps with Erin and company, for yoga in a green-walled studio, for the chance to step into my own strength. I’m grateful for good books and thought-provoking articles, and the connections I’ve made via both, online and off.

Most of all, I am grateful for the stalwart loved ones who have supported me through another year of challenge and change. Some of them are bound to me by blood or vows, but all of them are family.

If you are celebrating: I wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving. If you are carrying grief: I see you. And if, like me, you are doing both, I wish you joy and strength for the road ahead.

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sunflowers tory row cambridge blue sky

Come with me
into the field of sunflowers.
Their faces are burnished disks,
their dry spines

creak like ship masts,
their green leaves,
so heavy and many,
fill all day with the sticky

sunflowers rockport tall

sugars of the sun.
Come with me
to visit the sunflowers,
they are shy

but want to be friends;
they have wonderful stories
of when they were young –
the important weather,

the wandering crows.
Don’t be afraid
to ask them questions!
Their bright faces,

sunflowers d2 cambridge

which follow the sun,
will listen, and all
those rows of seeds –
each one a new life!

hope for a deeper acquaintance;
each of them, though it stands
in a crowd of many,
like a separate universe,

is lonely, the long work
of turning their lives
into a celebration
is not easy. Come

sunflowers blue vase table

and let us talk with those modest faces,
the simple garments of leaves,
the coarse roots in the earth
so uprightly burning.

—Mary Oliver

I came across this poem in Oliver’s gorgeous collection Blue Iris, which I read, savored and lingered over for weeks this spring. It has stayed with me through a long, hot, crowded summer, especially as the sunflowers began to bloom here in Boston and Cambridge. Some of its lines resonated right away; others have come back to me during difficult or lonely days.

sunflowers darwins cambridge

I love sunflowers: their bright faces and sturdy stalks, their cheery yellow petals, the way they peek over fences and surprise me. There are vases of them – on both my desk at work and my kitchen table – as I type this.

In some ways, I also am a sunflower: I am shy, but want to be friends. I always do my best to seek out the light, though I recognize, increasingly, that “the long work of turning [our] lives into a celebration is not easy.”

perennial sunflowers rockport

I am grateful, this week and in this whole season, for these bright faces peeking out around so many corners. Like all the flowers I love, they offer beauty and hope in a world where we badly need both.

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belong to me book tulips mug

April has brought the craziest weather so far: six inches of snow, torrential rain, mild sunshine. Here’s what I have been reading:

Last Ride to Graceland, Kim Wright
Blues musician Cory Beth Ainsworth has always known her mama spent a year as a backup singer for Elvis – but she’s never known the details. After her mother dies, Cory stumbles upon a vintage Stutz Blackhawk in her stepfather’s shed: a car that belonged to the King himself. Fueled by a need to know more about her own history, Cory takes to the road, driving the Blackhawk from South Carolina to Memphis. A sweet road-trip story, though Cory is seriously flaky. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 24).

Belong to Me, Marisa de los Santos
During a serious reading slump, I picked up this book and fell head over heels (again) into this luminous, funny, utterly genuine story about a few families whose lives become intertwined. I adore Cornelia, who also narrates Love Walked In, and I love how her world gets bigger and richer in this book. I am amazed at de los Santos’ deep compassion for her characters, even prickly Piper (Cornelia’s neighbor).

West Wind, Mary Oliver
I need a Mary Oliver fix every once in a while (especially during National Poetry Month). This collection of poems and prose poems is luminous and lovely. Some favorites: “Fox,” “It is midnight, or almost,” and the last poem, “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches.”

Audacity Jones to the Rescue, Kirby Larson
Audacity Jones is whisked away from Miss Maisie’s Home for Wayward Girls as part of a top-secret mission involving President Taft – but neither the mission nor its consequences are what she expects. A fun, fast-paced middle-grade novel with a spunky, clever heroine. (I love her name!)

The Song of Hartgrove Hall, Natasha Solomons
After World War II, the Fox-Talbot estate in Dorset (Hartgrove Hall) is falling apart, and the family’s three sons work to try and save it. Harry, the youngest, is a gifted composer and avid folk-song collector, but he’s also in love with his brother’s girlfriend. Solomons’ writing is gorgeous – she evokes both music and the English countryside so well – though the love triangle didn’t feel quite believable to me. (I loved her earlier novel The House at Tyneford.)

The Saturdays, Elizabeth Enright
The four Melendy children – Mona, Rush, Randy and Oliver – live with their father in a comfortable, shabby brownstone in 1940s New York City. They decide to pool their allowances so they can have adventures on Saturdays, and do they ever! I love this book – the writing is simple and lovely and the characters are so much fun. First in a series.

Under a Painted Sky, Stacey Lee
After Samantha Young loses her father and her home, she finds herself fleeing town in the company of a runaway slave, Annamae. The two girls disguise themselves as boys and strike out for the Oregon Trail, hoping to outrun their problems and chase their dreams to California. A smart, vivid YA novel with two brave heroines and some really fun supporting characters (human and animal). Reminded me a bit of Walk on Earth a Stranger.

A Front Page Affair, Radha Vatsal
Capability “Kitty” Weeks has ambitions of being a journalist, but she’s stuck writing for the Ladies’ Page of the New York Sentinel. But when a man is murdered at a society picnic on her beat, Kitty finds herself drawn into a twisty conspiracy. This one had a slow start but picked up later on. Kitty is a likable heroine and the setting (1915 NYC) will appeal to lovers of historical mystery. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 3).

The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim
Four Englishwomen, unacquainted and all variously miserable for their own reasons, rent a charming Italian villa for the month of April. A winsome comedy of manners with plenty of wit and many amusing misunderstandings. (Also: gorgeous descriptions.) Utterly delightful. Recommended by my pen pal Jaclyn.

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

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sunset charles river willow branches

This summer, I read Mary Oliver’s Winter Hours, which includes an essay on the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: his work and life, and the ways they intertwined.

It was (in typical Oliver fashion) a thoughtful, lyrical piece, but one line in particular has stayed in my mind:

But Hopkins was also a man in turmoil. […] No doubt his daily faith was a deeply layered light.

As the light around here has shifted from summer to fall, I have kept thinking about that image.

I think about it as I watch the sunset from my front balcony, the sky ablaze with vivid colors that change from minute to minute, darkened by smoky clouds or lit from behind by the sinking sun’s fire.

I think about it when I walk through Harvard Yard, watching the play of dappled light on the buildings and sidewalks, the autumn sun sifting down through the leaves.

And I think about it every time I walk down by the Charles River, whose undulating waves reflect – and refract – the sunshine, making it, indeed, a deeply layered light.

In the context of faith, “a deeply layered light” is an ambiguous image. It lacks the clear-cut simplicity that defined many of the conversations I grew up hearing, about God and belief and what a virtuous life looks like. Those conversations included images of light and dark, but they didn’t always leave room for layers, for complexity.

I am not sure, honestly, whether Oliver meant that Hopkins’ faith was enriched or diminished by its complications. (The undeniable fact, which she acknowledges, is that Hopkins wrestled mightily with faith for much of his life.)

These days, my faith is also “a deeply layered light.” It still illuminates my life, but there’s much more room for shadow and questions, complexity and doubt, than there used to be. It is no longer the simple, cheerful sunbeam of an untested childhood faith.

I have wrestled with some dark things in the last ten or so years, and I’ve watched many people I love – and the world around me – engage in similar struggles. We often come out bruised and battered. Our faith does not exempt us from asking hard questions, or having to face the darkness.

I don’t know where Hopkins ultimately landed on the question of faith, and I don’t always know what I believe, or why, on any given day. But I also know this: for me, it’s worth it to keep asking those questions, keep participating in a community of fellow believers, keep searching for the light. I believe the layers – the shadows and questions, the complexity and doubts – make my faith richer, deeper, more beautiful.

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poetry books

No poet ever wrote a poem to dishonor life, to compromise high ideals, to scorn religious views, to demean hope or gratitude, to argue against tenderness, to place rancor before love, or to praise littleness of soul. Not one. Not ever.

On the contrary, poets have, in freedom and in prison, in health and in misery, with listeners and without listeners, spent their lives examining and glorifying life, meditation, thoughtfulness, devoutness, and human love. They have done this wildly, serenely, rhetorically, lyrically, without hope of answer or reward. They have done this grudgingly, willingly, patiently, and in the steams of impatience.

They have done it for all and any of the gods of life, and the record of their so doing belongs to each one of us.

Including you.

—Mary Oliver, Rules for the Dance

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tulips table book bowl curry lunch

It is bleak (snowy) midwinter over here – the season for strong cups of tea and lots of books. Here’s what I’ve been reading so far this month:

The Bees, Carol Ann Duffy
This poetry collection was a Secret Santa gift from a colleague. Duffy’s language is stunning and often highly political. Poems about bees are woven throughout. Lovely.

Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Reading and Writing Metrical Verse, Mary Oliver
I love Oliver’s poetry and found much to ponder in this exploration of metrical verse. She explains the technical terms but also drops in some beautiful words about why poetry matters.

Recipes for a Beautiful Life, Rebecca Barry
A wry, insightful, often hilarious memoir of marriage, home renovation, life with young children, and the slow realization that chasing your dreams is hard work. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 7).

Mrs. Tim Carries On, D.E. Stevenson
World War II has broken out, and Mrs. Tim is bravely carrying on, despite having to manage her own troubles and everyone else’s. I loved this second installment of her adventures – witty, amusing, occasionally poignant.

The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder
I’ve never seen anything like the snow we’re getting this winter – but at least I’m not stuck in a tiny, isolated prairie town, living on wheat. I love every page of the Ingalls family’s adventures, and the ending makes me cry.

Murder at the Brightwell, Ashley Weaver
Unhappy in her marriage, socialite Amory Ames agrees to go on a seaside holiday with an old friend – only to encounter a web of murders and lies. A sparkling, witty 1930s mystery with a wonderful narrator. A perfect snow day read.

Salt & Storm, Kendall Kulper
Avery Roe has always believed it’s her destiny to become the sea witch of Prince Island. But when a troubling dream shows her another fate, she must figure out how to stop it – if she can. Fierce, luminous and gorgeously written.

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

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