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plot thickens boston public library steps

We recently took some visiting friends on a tour of the renovated Boston Public Library, and found this wonderful staircase. I love a good literary pun – and I adore the BPL. Here’s my latest reading roundup:

Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions, James E. Ryan
Jim is the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I used to work. This book is based on his 2016 Commencement speech, which went viral, and it’s good stuff. He explores five essential questions (plus a “bonus question”) to ask in tough situations. Lots of wisdom and humor (and I could hear his voice in my ear, telling these stories). A short, worthwhile read.

Shuffle, Repeat, Jen Klein
June Rafferty can’t wait for high school to be over. Oliver Flagg is soaking up every minute. When these two seniors end up riding to school together every day (thanks to their moms), they start a competition: whoever can prove that high school does or doesn’t matter gets to add a song to their car playlist. Despite their wildly divergent musical tastes (and other differences), they become friends – and possibly more. I loved this sweet, funny YA novel (and June’s hilarious BFF, Shaun). Recommended by Anne.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?, Jodi Taylor
Madeleine Maxwell is back for a sixth adventure: this time as the training officer for five historians-to-be at St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. With the help of her stalwart crew (and so much tea), Max takes the trainees on some truly wild time-travel adventures and faces some agonizing decisions. (The answer to the titular question is “nearly everything.”) Witty, fast-paced, unexpectedly moving and so much fun, like this entire series. Can’t wait for book 7.

The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days, Michele Weber Hurwitz
Nina Ross is feeling a bit lost as summer begins: anxious about starting high school, worried that her best friend is changing too fast, missing her beloved grandma (who died last year). On an impulse, Nina decides to do one good thing every day over the summer, and the results – for herself and her neighborhood – are surprising. Sweet and hopeful without being saccharine; a lovely middle-grade novel.

The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues, Edward Kelsey Moore
When wandering blues man El Walker returns to his hometown of Plainview, Indiana, he shakes things up: for his estranged son, James; James’ wife, Odette, who can talk to ghosts; and Odette’s best friend Barbara Jean, whose damaged mother, Loretta, knew El when they were young. Meanwhile, Odette, Barbara Jean and their other best friend, Clarice, are dealing with other major struggles. A heartfelt, heartwarming novel of friendship and music and learning to forgive (even when you don’t want to). To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 20).

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

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tulips table oranges book

It has started snowing over here – not my favorite weather, but it’s good for curling up with books. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg
I’ve enjoyed Klinkenborg’s columns in the New York Times, and loved this wise, thoughtful, wry, thought-provoking book on writing. I savored it over a couple of weeks. Bought at the wonderful Three Lives & Co. in NYC.

Paper and Fire (The Great Library #2), Rachel Caine
After being trained as foot soldiers for the Great Library of Alexandria, Jess Brightwell and his friends are staging a rebellion – if they survive that long. Caine’s sequel to Ink and Bone is fast-paced, bold and really well done. I can’t wait for book 3.

No Time Like the Past, Jodi Taylor
Madeleine Maxwell and her gang of time-traveling historians are back for a fifth adventure, which takes them to the Great Fire of London and Thermopylae, among other destinations. This series is so much fun – madcap, smart, hilarious and tea-soaked. This book was especially witty.

The Last Days of Café Leila, Donia Bijan
Since Noor left her homeland of Iran for the U.S. at 18, she’s missed her father and their family’s café – a neighborhood institution. After discovering her husband’s infidelity, Noor heads back to Tehran with her teenage daughter, Lily, in tow. The world they discover is both familiar and unknown to Noor, and totally new to Lily. A gorgeous novel of family, food, love and loss. (I also loved Bijan’s memoir, Maman’s Homesick Pie.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 18).

Lay Down Your Weary Tune, W.B. Belcher
With his love life and career both foundering, musician-cum-writer Jack Wyeth gets the chance to write the biography of his folk-music idol, Eli Page. But when Jack arrives at Eli’s rural farmhouse, he finds an enigmatic, irascible man reluctant to divulge his secrets. This one started slowly, but it’s a thoughtful, lovely novel about music, identity, family and the secrets we all keep. Found (for $6!) at the Center for Fiction in midtown Manhattan.

Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future, Rob Dunn
Scientific food-growing techniques have wrought a series of transformations in our diets: we are increasingly dependent on a small number of crops grown on a massive scale. Dunn recounts the narrowing of our plates and warns of the dangers we face. Thoughtful and well-researched, though occasionally rambling. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 14).

Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson
In a series of lyrical flashbacks, Woodson evokes the experience of “growing up girl” in 1970s Brooklyn. Her narrator, August, navigates the world alongside her brother, her father and her three best friends. Poignant and beautifully written. (Julia recommended this one at Great New Books.)

The Sun is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon
Natasha is an illegal Jamaican immigrant whose family is about to be deported. Daniel is a dreamy Korean-American teenager who wants to write poetry instead of going to Yale and becoming a doctor. They meet one day in Manhattan, and their lives will never be the same. Funny and heartwarming – the epilogue took the whole book up a notch. I also loved Yoon’s debut, Everything, Everything.

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

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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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lamont quad light sky

I expected to be so ready for Advent this year.

After a full, demanding fall semester and a bruising election cycle, I thought I’d be eager to sink into my favorite liturgical season: the readings, the carols, the longing and candlelight and hope. But at church on the first Sunday of Advent (after our wonderful Turkeypalooza), I still felt hopeless and tired and sad, even as we sang “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”

That evening, sitting on the floor at my friend Amy’s house, I admitted how I felt. We were working on the backdrop for the church Christmas pageant: hot-gluing uneven blocks of dark green felt to a bolt of midnight blue fabric, scattering handfuls of sticky, glittery stars overhead. “I think I need to sit in the darkness a while longer,” Amy said, and I nodded. I didn’t feel ready to start lighting candles yet.

The next day, I walked across the Yard to Morning Prayers, where a divinity student gave a talk on tenderness. “Let us be raw a while longer,” she said gently, urging us to sit with our pain – and the world’s – rather than glossing over it. We also sang “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and I hummed it as I walked to work afterward, the Civil Wars version in my earbuds.

It feels right for Advent to come slowly this year: we are working through more pain and darkness, on a national scale, than I can remember in a long time. The questions raised by my favorite Advent writers – Henri Nouwen, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L’Engle, Alfred Delp – feel more pertinent than they ever have. I have been reluctant to skip over the ache to the joy, even as I’ve loved seeing twinkle lights and Christmas trees appear around Cambridge and in my friends’ homes.

Since I discovered it as a high school student, Advent has given me a way to wrestle with the questions of my faith: to look the darkness of this world steadily in the face, and to appreciate why we need the Light. I usually relish the ache of it, the haunting, lovely longing for Christ to come, for God to burst into the world and begin making all things new. But this year, everything already feels so dark. And I keep wondering: what good can our candles, anyone’s candles, possibly do?

Despite my weariness (and wariness), Advent keeps sneaking in, sidling up with quiet steps when I’m not quite paying attention. There is the Sylvia Plath poem whose inclusion in my favorite Advent book surprises and delights me every year. There are the annual Advent readings hosted by my friends Hannah and Chris, where we gather for poetry and hot cider and good talk in their cozy living room. There are the quiet carols (my favorite ones), which end up in my head almost by accident. And there are moments of connection with colleagues and friends, even in the midst of daily tasks and deeper sadness.

I am (finally) edging into the season: we put up our tree this weekend, and hung the greenery at church on Saturday. I am humming a few beloved carols, dipping into my Advent books, and watching for the light, whether literal (as above) or metaphorical, any place I can find it.

How are you finding the light – whether you’re observing Advent or not – in this season?

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red leaves green flats harvard yard

I wrote this line from Hamilton in my journal last week, sitting on a bench outside Darwin’s at lunchtime. I sipped broccoli cheese soup from a paper cup, dipping in a hunk of baguette, taking a few deep breaths under a blue October sky.

I’ve heard that line a few hundred times since May, when I started listening to Hamilton nonstop. But lately, in the middle of a full, demanding, often harried season at work and at home, it has caught my attention particularly. As I face the challenges of each day – work projects, church responsibilities, the utter madness of the current political cycle – it has resonated like a deep, echoing gong, or the deep breath before a duel.

Autumn is always a crowded time: the academic year revs up with events and classes, and I plunge headfirst into fresh assignments while keeping up with the daily obligations of my life. This fall found me adjusting to a still-new job and an even newer apartment, with all the changes both have entailed. The past several weeks have included some beloved rituals like apple picking and some other things I was excited about: a book club poetry potluck, a few dinners with people I love, an evening of glorious sacred music at a friend’s church downtown. Coming alongside all that heart-stirring loveliness have been many challenges, too numerous to list briefly and too personal (some of them) to explore publicly here.

In the middle of this fast and furious season, when heartache, to-do lists and big life questions have felt equally clamorous and insistent, I have been going quiet, turning inward, thinking hard. I’m reaching for my tried-and-true grounding rituals: weekly trips to the florist and the farmers’ market, daily walks to Darwin’s for sustenance and smiles, the weekday Morning Prayers service in a small chapel just off Harvard Yard. I have been scribbling madly in my journal, talking things out with my husband and a few trusted friends. And I am reaching for this Hamilton line, and other good words about courage, to shore me up, to fortify me.

I’ve never gone to war against an invading army, or faced down an enemy with a pistol. I’ve certainly never tried to build a brand-new nation out of a loose confederation of fractious colonies. But the story of these wild, visionary rebels is among the things saving my life these days. They were flawed, hotheaded and sometimes foolish, but they were also passionate and brave. Throughout the Revolution and the years that followed, they summoned the courage required of them, over and over again.

As I walk through these gorgeous, demanding fall days, I’m doing my best to do the same.

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Remembering George

 

water clouds light

“Why is it so hard to acknowledge that we all walk through life with grief for which there is, today, no compensation?”

I read these words on Christie’s blog last week, at the end of a summer that has held chaos and change and all sorts of upheaval. Transitions are difficult, no matter the kind, and they bring with them their own, often bittersweet grief. But Christie’s words also came as I, and many people I love, are mourning the death of our friend George.

I always find it hard to write about these losses, not only because of the sadness, but because it feels impossible to convey the life, the spirit, of a person through a handful of sentences.

I could tell you that George was the music minister at my family’s church in West Texas for 23 years. I could tell you that he was a talented, accomplished musician, always willing to highlight and encourage others’ gifts while modest and humble (to a fault) about his own. I could tell you that he had four children, a wife he adored, five grandsons and dozens – no, hundreds – of friends. But all that would go a short way toward honoring the memory of the man himself.

George came back to Midland to work at our church (where he had grown up) when I was in the fourth grade. His son Wade is the same age as my sister, and they became firm friends. George directed the Sunday morning choir, in which my mother sang; the youth choir, in which my sister and I both participated; and the sweeping, elaborate Easter pageants that were a formative part of my teenage years (and which came to involve my entire family).

For years, George led worship at youth retreats and Vacation Bible School, at candlelight services on Christmas Eve and at four services every Sunday: three in the morning, one at night. He managed pianists and organists, praise bands and orchestras, pastors and PowerPoints, thousands of details no one ever knew about. His fingerprints are all over that building and that community: quiet but indelible, the definition of the word faithful. But my favorite thing about George was this: he always had time for everyone.

“A friend told me he had the greatest capacity for love [they had] ever seen,” George’s wife, DiAnn, wrote on Facebook recently. “He belonged to everyone.” And it’s true: George had as many things to do as most of us (maybe more), but I never saw him turn away anyone who had a question or needed a smile. During all those rehearsals for summer musicals and mission trips and Easter pageants, I never saw him lose his temper. If I close my eyes, I can hear his clear tenor voice and see his practiced gestures, guiding us through ancient hymns, nineties praise songs and soaring choral anthems with his signature humor and grace. He loved his work and he loved his community, and I am – we are – so grateful that he was ours.

“Time is cruel because it carries us so far from the people and places and things we have loved and lost,” Christie wrote in that blog post. In a certain sense, George is far away from us now: death has a way of creating distance. It feels final and inevitable, and I know it will come home to me again, some Sunday when I’m standing in those familiar pews and he isn’t there. We grieve, and we are right to do so: it means we have loved.

Grief is complicated, and so is faith: I don’t pretend to have any answers about what happens after we die. But I believe, and hope, in a time when everything will be made new: when, as Christie wrote, “all the fragments of our lives, all the broken bits and pieces, will be gathered up.” I know George believed that too, and I hope to see him again one day.

Rest well, good and faithful friend. I am grateful for all the songs you taught me, and I will keep singing them until we meet again.

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strand bookstore awning nyc

My reading pace has been fairly slow (for me) this month. New apartment, still-new job, lots of other things crowding into my brain. But I’ve still found a few good books. Here they are:

A Sense of Wonder: The World’s Best Writers on the Sacred, the Profane and the Ordinary, ed. Brian Doyle
An eclectic, luminous, often demanding collection of essays first published in Portland Magazine. My favorites are by Heather King, Robin Cody and Pico Iyer, but they are all worth reading. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 15).

Crowned and Dangerous, Rhys Bowen
This 10th entry in Bowen’s Royal Spyness series, which I love, finds Lady Georgiana Rannoch unexpectedly in Ireland with her beau, Darcy, trying to exonerate his father of a murder charge. Frothy, fun and smart, like this entire series. (I adore Georgie.)

The House of Dreams, Kate Lord Brown
Journalist Sophie Cass interviews artist Gabriel Lambert about his experience as a refugee in Marseille during World War II. The true story of Varian Fry and others at the Emergency Rescue Committee, who worked tirelessly to get artists out of France, is fascinating. But the novel’s framing story was less so, and I did not like the ending. (I loved Brown’s previous novel, The Perfume Garden.)

Love for Sale: Pop Music in America, David Hajdu
Music critic (and self-professed music geek) Hajdu takes readers on a tour of pop music in the U.S., from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway, 45s to LPs to mixtapes and MP3s. Smart, entertaining and surprisingly deep. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 18).

The Queen’s Accomplice, Susan Elia MacNeal
Mathematician-turned-spy Maggie Hope returns to WWII London and gets pulled onto a gruesome Scotland Yard case: a Jack-the-Ripper copycat serial killer targeting young professional women. I like Maggie (this is her sixth adventure), but this book was daaark. Also, the comments on the treatment of women felt heavy-handed. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 4).

Faithful, Alice Hoffman
Since the night of the accident that left her best friend in a coma, Shelby Richmond doesn’t believe she deserves to live. Faithful is the slow, rich, heartbreaking story of how Shelby finds her way, with help from her stalwart mother, a few stray dogs and a few highly unlikely friends. Bleak and gritty at times (Shelby messes up over and over), but also beautiful, and ultimately hopeful. Hoffman has written many books, but I’d never read her before. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 1).

The Boy is Back, Meg Cabot
Pro golfer Reed Stewart hasn’t been back to his Indiana hometown in a decade. But when his parents end up in the news (and in financial trouble), he returns to try and help out – which means facing his ex, Becky Flowers. Cabot tells this hilarious story through emails, texts and newspaper articles. Fluffy and really fun – smart chick lit. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 18).

Wonder Women: 25 Inventors, Innovators and Trailblazers Who Changed History, Sam Maggs
We are hearing a lot lately (it’s long overdue!) about brilliant, brave women whose stories have been overlooked. Sam Maggs writes bite-size biographies of 25 such women in this snappy, girl-power book. The colloquial tone got a little wearing, but these women – inventors, spies, scientists – are amazing. Would pair well with Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, which I loved. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 18).

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

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