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hopefuls book stack books

We are all drawing a few deep breaths after Commencement, and I’m diving into summer reading – woohoo! Here’s the latest roundup:

The Hopefuls, Jennifer Close
After Obama wins the presidency in 2008, Beth moves with her husband (a campaign staffer) to D.C. As Beth struggles to find her place in a new city, she and Matt meet a charismatic couple, Jimmy and Ash, who quickly become their best friends. But like so many friendships, this one is complicated, and Close expertly explores the shifting loyalties and the fault lines in both marriages. So well done. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 19).

Notes from an Accidental Band Geek, Erin Dionne
Elsie Wyatt is a top-notch French horn player, determined to get into a prestigious summer music program. But this means she has to (gasp!) join marching band. Elsie is a brat at first, but I loved watching her fall in love with band. (I’m a proud band geek from way back.) Super fun.

Girl in the Blue Coat, Monica Hesse
Hanneke spends her days finding and distributing black-market goods in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. But when a customer asks for her help in finding a missing Jewish girl, Hanneke is drawn into a web of Resistance activities. A compelling evocation of bravery, cowardice and betrayal during wartime – tense and well crafted.

Gone Crazy in Alabama, Rita Williams-Garcia
Sisters Delphine, Vonetta and Fern travel from Brooklyn to Alabama to spend the summer with relatives. Being black in both places carries a particular challenge in 1969, and the girls struggle to adjust while listening to the (warring) family stories from their great-grandmother and her sister. Delphine’s voice is smart and so engaging.

Understood Betsy, Dorothy Canfield Fisher
I’d never read this classic but picked it up after it featured prominently in Mother-Daughter Book Camp. Elizabeth Ann, sheltered and timid, is sent to Vermont to stay with cousins she’s never met. To everyone’s surprise – including her own – she blossoms there. A sweet, gentle story.

Before We Visit the Goddess, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
This is one of the picks for Modern Mrs. Darcy’s online Summer Reading Club. It’s a bittersweet story of mothers and daughters, spanning three generations and shifting in time, place and point of view: India to California to Texas, mother to daughter to granddaughter. Lovely and melancholy, though I wanted more resolution at the end.

Graveyard of the Hesperides, Lindsey Davis
Davis’ fourth novel featuring Flavia Albia, a private informer in ancient Rome, finds Albia approaching wedded bliss with her beloved, Manlius Faustus. But they get sidetracked when the remains of six bodies turn up in the garden of a bar he’s renovating. The plot meanders, but Albia is a sharp-tongued, engaging narrator. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 12).

Nine Women, One Dress, Jane L. Rosen
Everyone is desperate to get their hands on the little black dress of the season – and it changes the fortunes of nine women, including a runway model, two saleswomen at Bloomingdale’s, an aging Broadway diva and more. Light and frothy and highly entertaining. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 12).

The Seafront Tea Rooms, Vanessa Greene
A journalist researching tea rooms, a young mother at the end of her rope, and a French au pair bond over tea and struggles in Scarborough. Light, refreshing and lovely. Fun for Anglophiles.

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

What are you reading?

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memorial church memorial hall harvard university
I was left to my own devices
Many days fell away with nothing to show

And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love
Great clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above

But if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all?
And if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?

How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?

—Bastille, “Pompeii”

I fell in love with this song about a year ago, when my husband started performing it with his a cappella group, the Mass Whole Notes. (I know I’m a little late to the Bastille party. J is constantly discovering brand-new music, the way I am always finding new books. But my musical tastes skew several years behind the times.)

“Pompeii” entered J’s performance repertoire around the time I lost my job (which happened a year ago this week). I have found myself humming it often this year, because it captures perfectly the in-between state in which I find myself.

Some things – in fact, many important things – in my life have not changed since last May: I live in the same light-filled apartment. I go to the same tiny church. I call my mother once a week, text my sister about Friends lines and my nephews, talk about golf and movies with my dad. I read scads of books and write lots of reviews. I am married to the same generous, funny, understanding man.

I also spend my weekdays in the same neighborhood where I’ve worked for three years now. Every morning, I sling the same two bags over my shoulder and head for the Red Line subway platform near my house. I get off in Harvard Square, looking up at the same brick buildings and tall, gracious towers. I head to Darwin’s for a spicy chai latte before walking to my office.

If I close my eyes – though that is dangerous when navigating a Cambridge sidewalk – I can almost pretend that nothing has changed.

harvard yard autumn light leaves

And yet.

This spring finds me working in a sixth-floor office, with new colleagues, in a temporary role. This job is different both from the one I lost last spring and the other temp gig I held from Thanksgiving until mid-March. All three roles have been at Harvard, doing communications work, but there are varying duties and projects, distinctive office cultures to navigate, constantly shifting expectations. I am a person who likes to have a plan, and the past year has made that difficult.

I have been constantly surprised by how the job hunt has played havoc with my sense of self: as an individual, a writer, a career woman, a part of the Harvard community. Previously, I had never thought of myself as a person defined by her career. But the lack of a job, a title, a defined place in a working community, has made me question so many facets of my identity and the stories I tell myself. Also, inevitably, it has caused a shift in my relationships, most notably the ones with my former co-workers. I don’t blame anyone for that; it is simply what happens when things change.

On some days, the refrain of “Pompeii” thrums through my head in a depressing rhythm: How am I gonna be an optimist about this? That question is harder to answer when I’m struggling with (more) rejection, or simply having a tough day. I don’t always know how to be an optimist about this. I do remember, usually, how to keep going forward (make a cup of tea, write another paragraph, answer another email), so mostly, that’s what I do.

On some days, though, I am able to simply be grateful for what is now: this job, this office, this paycheck. This group of quirky, sarcastic, whip-smart colleagues. This routine, which still contains so many things and people I love. This neighborhood, with its uneven brick sidewalks and colorful local businesses and budding spring flowers, that has become a part of me. This chance to spend my days doing meaningful work – even if I don’t know quite where it will lead.

Some days I teeter on the edge of nostalgia, and it’s tempting to slip inside it, like a familiar cardigan. If I close my eyes and burrow down into it, I can pretend for a moment that nothing has changed at all. But the truth – the harsh, rich, complicated, often beautiful truth – is that things have changed, both in ways I can point to and in ways I still can’t quite articulate.

For now, although I’m sure I’ll keep humming this song, I’m adopting a slightly different approach. Because after this turbulent year, I am still here. I still get to walk through the city I love – dark clouds, tumbling walls and all. It’s not always easy, but I’m doing my best to keep my eyes wide open.

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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.

What are you reading?

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Sanctuary

yoga mat leggings

A few weeks ago on a chilly Monday night, I was in my usual Monday-night place: lying on my back on a green yoga mat, in a dim, quiet wood-floored studio with early spring dusk coming in through the windows.

We had just finished an hour of yoga practice: warrior poses and sun salutations and deep breaths in downward facing dog. Meredith’s usual class playlist – acoustic guitar and mellow peace-on-earth lyrics mixed with a little rock ‘n’ roll – thrummed through our muscles and our eardrums. As we lay there, breathing in savasana (the final resting pose), a new song came over the speakers, a song I hadn’t heard in years.

Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary
Pure and holy, tried and true…

The singer’s voice slid over the familiar words, eliding the “l” in “Lord” until the word became a simple “o” sound. I knew what was coming next:

With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living
Sanctuary for you.

We talk a lot in yoga class about being present in our bodies, about making space for breath and peace and good things. About letting go of tension and worry and the unhelpful stories we tell ourselves. I have never heard the word “sanctuary” used explicitly in a yoga context, but the concept is definitely there. I couldn’t help smiling, though: my memories of the song “Sanctuary” come from a very different place.

I was one of those Jesus-freak kids in high school: the ones who wore WWJD bracelets and T-shirts emblazoned with catchy Christianese, who led Bible studies before school and knew all the words to the latest DC Talk and Newsboys albums. In small-town West Texas, this did not make me a total outsider, but it did make me a little odd. And, on Thursdays during lunchtime, it meant that I wolfed down taquitos and Bagel Bites with other students in a church gymnasium down the street from my high school, and then got up on a makeshift stage to lead a few praise songs.

Most people, I realized, came for the free food, instead of the spiritual enrichment offered by a prayer and a handful of worship choruses. The songs with goofy hand motions – “Peace Like a River,” for example – were the most popular. But during my senior year, “Sanctuary” became the sleeper hit. We usually sang a song or two and then took requests, and a few kids I knew slightly from marching band would shout, “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” from their seats at the back of the room.

Maybe they liked the sound of the word (or were channeling Quasimodo). Maybe they liked the melody, played on guitar – different from the piano or the organ that accompanied the hymns they heard on Sundays when their parents dragged them to church. Maybe they just wanted to see if we’d actually sing the same song every single week. I never asked them, so I don’t know. But I stood up there and sang it every time, hoping that somehow it would bring them a little peace or light or whatever they needed. Because I understood even then that we can sometimes be sanctuary for each other.

I never expected to hear that song in a non-religious yoga studio south of Boston. I don’t know if Meredith, my instructor, is a Christian, or if she came across the song and liked the way it sounded. But that studio, with its leaf-green walls and smooth wood floors, has become a kind of sanctuary for me. And it is true that what we do on our mats – those deep breaths and stretches and difficult-but-empowering poses – prepares us for what we do out in the wider world.

Meredith’s playlist varies from week to week, so I don’t know when “Sanctuary” will come up again. But I like both the word and the idea (not to mention the song’s soothing melody). I like the thought of both finding a safe place for ourselves and being one for those who need it. Because heaven knows we could all use a little sanctuary in our lives.

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maisie paris planner red books

Winter is the perfect time to hunker down with lots of books. As the snow swirls outside, here’s what I have been reading:

Journey to Munich, Jacqueline Winspear
After a stint working as a nurse in a remote Spanish village, investigator Maisie Dobbs returns to England. But the Secret Service taps her for a sensitive mission: retrieving an engineer imprisoned by the Nazis. I adore Maisie and her supporting cast, and found the setting (Germany in 1938) fascinating. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 29).

The Shepherd’s Crown, Terry Pratchett
Pratchett’s final novel follows Tiffany Aching as she continues to serve as the witch for her home district, amid multiple challenges. I like Tiffany and her fellow witches, though the plot (and the magic) wandered a bit.

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, Rebecca Traister
There are more single women in the U.S. than ever before; they are gaining in power, but they still face numerous challenges. Traister explores the history of single womanhood, how single women have agitated for social change, and how far we still have to go. Keenly observed, well-researched and whip-smart. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 1).

Move Your Blooming Corpse, D.E. Ireland
Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins are off to Ascot – where they find themselves in the thick of another mystery. I liked watching them try to solve multiple murders, though I guessed the killer before they did. Fun, but not as good as its predecessor.

Walk on Earth a Stranger, Rae Carson
Leah “Lee” Westfall has a secret: she can sense the presence of gold. When her parents are murdered, Lee runs away from her greedy uncle, disguising herself as a boy and joining a wagon train headed for California. A sweeping historical YA novel full of vividly drawn characters (with a hint of magical realism). I loved Lee, her best friend Jefferson and many of their compatriots on the trail. This is the first in a trilogy and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Rachel Held Evans
I’m a longtime reader of Rachel’s blog and I liked her first two books, Faith Unraveled and A Year of Biblical Womanhood. But this book is far and away her best yet. An account of Rachel’s complicated relationship with church, told through the lens of seven sacraments, it is sensitively and beautifully written (though the last sections felt rushed). I found myself nodding my head often, saying, “Me too.”

The Trouble with Destiny, Lauren Morrill
Drum major Liza Sanders knows her band has to win a performing arts competition on their spring break cruise or they’ll get the ax due to budget cuts. But once they board the Destiny, everything goes wrong: power outages, flaring tempers, misunderstandings galore. I found the romantic storyline predictable, but Morrill hits all the right notes of the band nerd experience. Fun.

Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War, various
The Armistice came on Nov. 11, 1918 – but it didn’t end the war for everyone. Nine authors explore the hope and grief of the war and its end through an anthology of short stories. A bit uneven, but a compelling (and heartbreaking) mosaic of the experiences shared by soldiers, nurses and those who loved them. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 1).

Brooklyn, Colm Toibin
This quiet novel follows Eilis Lacey, who emigrates from her small Irish town to Brooklyn in the 1950s. She works in a department store, takes bookkeeping classes and even falls in love. But when she is unexpectedly called home, she must choose between her old and new lives. Lovely and well drawn.

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

What are you reading?

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red christmas books

December is a lovely month, but man, it’s full. Here’s what I have been reading in this holiday season:

Moonlight Over Paris, Jennifer Robson
After recovering from a broken engagement and a near-fatal illness, Lady Helena Montagu-Douglas-Parr moves to Paris in 1924 to reinvent herself as an artist. Robson writes enchanting historical fiction. I didn’t love Helena as much as her previous heroines (she’s rather timid), but still enjoyed this story. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 19).

The Admissions, Meg Mitchell Moore
Nora and Gabe Hawthorne have built a seemingly perfect life for themselves and their three daughters. But as their eldest works on her Harvard application, their youngest (age seven) struggles with reading, and both Gabe and Nora face mounting pressures at work, their carefully calibrated existence seems set to unravel. Funny, incisive and so real, written in Moore’s delicious, addictive prose. I devoured this one. (I also loved Moore’s previous two novels, The Arrivals and So Far Away.)

The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley, Eric Weiner
Why do some places seem to produce dozens of geniuses and brilliant ideas? Eric Weiner travels to seven great cities of ideas – Athens, Edinburgh, Vienna, even Silicon Valley – to explore the concept of genius and the conditions that help nourish it. Fascinating and dryly witty. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 5).

Felicity, Mary Oliver
Oliver turns her attention to romantic love in this new poetry collection – a bit of a departure for her, though the natural world still makes frequent appearances. Slim and luminous.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Melanie Benjamin
New York in the 1950s was a glittering whirl of parties, lunches and social maneuvering. At the center of it all were Truman Capote, flamboyant literary darling, and the socialites he called his “swans” – Babe Paley and a handful of other wealthy, gorgeous, married women. Benjamin explores their tangled, intimate relationships, focusing on Truman and Babe’s friendship, and how it all eventually went south. Richly detailed and full of both catty asides and moments of startling vulnerability. I also adored Benjamin’s previous novel, The Aviator’s Wife. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 26).

Shepherds Abiding, Jan Karon
It’s nearly Christmas in Mitford, and Father Tim Kavanagh is hard at work on a special project: restoring a battered Nativity scene as a surprise for his wife, Cynthia. Meanwhile, other Mitford folks are making their own Christmas plans, and the mystery and wonder of the season sneaks in, often in unexpected ways. I love revisiting this story every year.

White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, Jody Rosen
Written by a Russian Jewish immigrant, “White Christmas” has become the quintessential American secular carol. Rosen explores the life, career and musical heritage of Irving Berlin, and the historical and musical context in which the song became such a massive hit. Interesting, though I wanted more about the eponymous film, which I adore. Found at the Dogtown Book Shop in Gloucester, MA.

Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
I love this gentle, hopeful story of five people who end up in a small Scottish village at Christmastime, each nursing different griefs and finding unexpected joy during their time together. I reread it every December.

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

What are you reading?

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christmas tree living room

I say this every year: I love December.

It’s the one month when I don’t mind a chill in the air, because it feels so very Christmassy. (Though this week has been astonishingly mild.) I love the sensation of hurrying along a busy city street, under twinkling lights, wrapped in my favorite green coat and the winter accessories I haven’t grown sick of yet. And the twinkle lights – plus the festive shop window displays everywhere – make the dark (which comes so early) much more bearable, at least for now.

I also say this every year: I feel like I blinked after Thanksgiving and it’s mid-December already.

This time of year has such potential to be holy, sparkling and peaceful. And let’s be honest: it can also feel rushed, frenetic and hollow. So as I work through various lists (gifts to buy, tasks to cross off, emails to send), I’m relishing a few small things that are saving my life:

  • Kate Rusby’s Sweet Bells album. Quiet yet cheery, and wonderfully Celtic. (Also, I love the way her Yorkshire accent comes out on certain vowels.)
  • The cozy purple wrap I knit for myself last year, which I am wearing all the time.
  • The Magnificat, which I cannot stop humming.
  • The black ankle boots Mom bought me last Christmas, which I’m wearing almost every day.
  • The tiny birch bark reindeer who have taken up residence outside my favorite local flower shop.

birch bark reindeer flower shop

  • Chai in a paper cup from Darwin’s, every weekday. And about once a week, my favorite breakfast sandwich there: eggs over medium, bacon, melted cheddar cheese and avocado. Perfection.
  • This beautiful desktop wallpaper (via Susannah Conway).
  • Instagram photos of Mary Todd Lincoln – not the First Lady, but the tiny dachshund puppy who’s one of the shop dogs at Parnassus Books. (So. Much. Adorable.)
  • Clementines – tiny, bright, delicious hits of citrus. (Bonus: they make my hands smell so good.)
  • A few convivial evenings with friends, trading laughter and stories around a table.
  • Giggles from baby Evie.

evie abi giggles

  • The words of my Advent book, full of hope and longing.
  • Stealing at least a few minutes every night to sit in front of our twinkling tree.
  • The sound of my husband playing Christmas carols on the guitar. (I particularly love his rendition of “Angels from the Realms of Glory.”)
  • A few pages of Winter Solstice and/or Shepherds Abiding, every night before bed.
  • My dachshund slippers.

What’s saving your life this December? (And how many days till Christmas?)

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