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oxford book stack red daisies flowers table

The second half of October, like the first, was a whirlwind of golden leaves and email and travel. I’d barely recovered from my Oxford trip (and the subsequent head cold) before we headed to NYC for a long weekend with my parents. Here’s what I have been reading, in between all that activity:

The Reporter’s Kitchen, Jane Kramer
For food writer Kramer, writing and cooking are inextricably linked—though she sometimes uses one to avoid the other. This collection of her pieces from The New Yorker includes chef profiles, food history and a few personal essays (my favorites). She’s warm, witty and practical. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 21).

First Class Murder, Robin Stevens
The third book in Stevens’ Wells & Wong middle-grade mystery series finds Daisy and Hazel aboard the famous Orient Express. Naturally, a murder occurs and they have to investigate. An homage to Christie’s classic, but also a fun, well-plotted story. Found at the Book House in Summertown, Oxford.

The Music Shop, Rachel Joyce
In a down-at-heel street in a nondescript British city, Frank’s record shop doesn’t just sell vinyl (and only vinyl), but it gives people the music they don’t know they need. When Ilse Brauchmann, a mysterious woman in a green coat, visits the shop, Frank finds himself both drawn to Ilse and utterly baffled by her. A wonderful novel about music, loss, healing and love, with vivid characters and so many brilliant sentences. (I also adored Joyce’s debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 2).

Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, Melissa Harrison
Like many English people, Harrison is an avid walker, even—nay, especially—in the rain. She chronicles four rainy walks in different seasons and locations, musing on how rain has shaped the climate and psyche of the British Isles, and recording details of habitat and weather with a keen, lyrical eye. So lovely. Found at the amazing Blackwells Bookshop in Oxford.

The Disappearances, Emily Bain Murphy
When Aila Quinn’s mother, Juliet, dies unexpectedly, Aila and her brother are sent to Juliet’s hometown to stay with friends. But they are greeted with suspicion: the town lies under a curse, and some people blame Juliet. Aila digs into her mother’s history (and a mysteriously annotated volume of Shakespeare) to clear Juliet’s name. An enchanting, thought-provoking YA novel; I especially loved Aila and her friend Beas. The dialogue felt almost too modern (it’s set in the 1940s), but the central conceit is wonderful. Recommended by Liberty on All the Books!.

The Luster of Lost Things, Sophie Chen Keller
Walter Lavender Jr. doesn’t talk much, but he’s got a keen observer’s eye and a knack for finding lost things. When the mysterious Book that is the lifeblood of his mother’s West Village bakery disappears, Walter and his golden retriever, Milton, embark on a search that takes them up and down Manhattan. An utterly magical novel full of heartbreak and love; the writing sings and the city itself is a character. Found (fittingly) at Shakespeare & Co. in NYC. Recommended by my colleague Kat at Shelf Awareness.

Poems to Live By in Troubling Times, ed. Joan Murray
I’ve needed poetry lately, and have lingered in this slim, often heartrending anthology of poems on war, terror, grief, healing and peace. Uneven, like many anthologies, but I did find a few gems. Bought at the Brattle on a walkabout day this summer.

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

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autumn sign leaves chalkboard

“Autumn seemed to arrive suddenly that year. The morning of the first of September was crisp and golden as an apple.”

—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

September is here and so is fall, suddenly: classes have started, events are ramping up, and the mornings feel crisp and cool. The light in Cambridge has shifted to its autumn self: clear, lucid, heartbreakingly golden. I learned a new word this summer: komorebi, which is Japanese for “light filtered through leaves.”

komorebi harvard yard tree sky

As is often the case in the autumn, everything feels big and immediate and full.

In the midst of heartrending headlines (hurricanes, DACA, nuclear threats) and so many responsibilities (my to-do list is as long as my arm), I figured it was time for another list: what’s saving my life now.

I need the reminder to name the good things, and maybe you do too. So here they are:

  • Ginger peach tea in a purple travel mug, Earl Grey from my barista friends at Darwin’s, and lots of water all day long.
  • Seeing my red geraniums on the back porch every morning, and watching the sunrise through the kitchen windows.
  • Moving around in the new apartment and feeling like it belongs to us.
  • A few truly wonderful books: Salt Houses, The Captain’s Daughter, The Rules of Magic.

book geraniums captains daughter sandals porch flowers

  • Making new connections with folks at Harvard and around the Square, and running into people I know and love: this is my neighborhood.
  • Community in all its forms: our first dinner guests; a new-to-me book club; long walks with a dear friend; rich conversations over text and Twitter and email with loved ones who are far away.
  • End-of-summer flowers: Queen Anne’s lace, black-eyed Susans, multicolored hydrangeas, the first few asters.

black eyed susans

  • Harmonizing with the Wailin’ Jennys, whose music is in my earbuds and my heart every day.
  • Looking forward to some travel later in the season.
  • Burt’s Bees lemon butter cuticle salve, which I am using for everything these days.
  • My favorite clothes: happy red pants, go-with-everything flats, a scarf my sister gave me long ago, the malachite ring I bought in NYC last summer, and that brave necklace I never take off.
  • Yoga: once or twice a week at Healing Tree, and occasionally on my mat at home.
  • The Thursday morning writers’ meetings I love: sarcasm + sanity.
  • Morning Prayers at Memorial Church, as often as I can make it there.
  • The walking trail near our new house, and the first red leaves, spotted there on a solo walk this weekend.

red leaves neponset trail

As we plunge into fall, what is saving your life now? Please share, if you want.

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snapdragons salad book essence of malice table

I know, I know – we’re a week into August. But I have a good excuse: I’m poking my head up out of a sea of boxes (we moved!) and I’ve been shelving all the books in addition to reading a few.

Here’s what I have been managing to read lately:

The Essence of Malice, Ashley Weaver
Amory Ames and her husband, Milo, are enjoying a holiday on Lake Como – but then Milo’s former nanny summons them to Paris to investigate her employer’s death. A witty, well-plotted mystery involving a powerful parfumier and his family. I love Amory’s narrative voice and enjoyed this, her fourth adventure. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 5).

Summer of Lost and Found, Rebecca Behrens
When Nell Dare’s botanist mom drags her to Roanoke (from NYC) for a summer research trip, Nell expects to be bored. But she quickly becomes fascinated by the lost colony and starts digging for clues to its history. A sweet middle-grade novel with an engaging protagonist and some lovely insights. Found at the Bookstore of Gloucester.

The Encore: A Memoir in Three Acts, Charity Tillemann-Dick
Opera singers know drama: they have to, to pour themselves into demanding, heart-stirring roles. But Charity didn’t expect her own personal drama to include two double lung transplants. A compelling memoir of illness, recovery and the incredible love and support of Charity’s family, doctors and fiancé. I wanted more music, but enjoyed this one. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 3).

Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing, Daniel Tammet
Tammet’s brain processes language a bit differently than mine: he’s a high-functioning autistic who’s also brilliant, bilingual and slightly synesthetic. He dives into multiple facets of language: telephone grammar, Esperanto, lipograms, disappearing dialects and more. Witty, thoughtful and erudite; probably best suited for language nerds, but highly accessible. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 12). I also enjoyed Tammet’s book Thinking in Numbers.

It’s Not Yet Dark, Simon Fitzmaurice
Fitzmaurice, an Irish filmmaker and writer, was diagnosed with ALS several years ago. This luminous memoir tells his journey in brief, vivid snippets. Slim and lovely. My favorite line: “Those I count as friends are the brave.” To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 1).

Chicago, Brian Doyle
A young aspiring writer moves to Chicago after graduating college, and falls completely in love with the city he lives in for five seasons. I love Doyle’s big-hearted, rambling voice (I imagined this unnamed protagonist as his twentysomething self), and I loved every page of this novel. Found at the Strand, on a solo late-night browsing trip this winter.

The Precious One, Marisa de los Santos
I adore de los Santos’ fiction and this one hooked me from the first page: “a sky the color of moonstones and raspberry jam.” This was a reread, and I found I remembered the outlines but had forgotten many of the details. I loved the story of Taisy, her half sister Willow, their complicated family, and love in all its forms just as much the second time around.

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

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summer sunset view porch

I hear a bird chirpin’ up in the sky
I’d like to be free like that, spread my wings so high
I hear the river flowin’, water runnin’ by
I’d like to be that river, see what I might find

—”Bird Song,” The Wailin’ Jennys

I stood at the kitchen sink late one night last month, plunging my hands in their purple rubber gloves under the stream of hot running water. I was tired from a long workday, answering emails and wrangling story assignments, and a long evening at home, taking care of other tasks.

I reached for a turquoise sponge, scrubbing bits of food off crusted plates and greasy pans. My smartphone sat on the ledge above the sink, playing this song on repeat, Heather Masse’s voice lilting along the familiar lyrics. Every time I hear her sing it, I can see her in a blue dress, swaying onstage at the Indian River Festival in PEI, three summers ago. My shoulders drop, and I exhale.

My musical taste tends toward the soulful and quiet: most of my favorite musicians are singer-songwriters who tell true stories with their notes and words. (The notable exception to this is Hamilton, but I tend to eschew the driving rock beats and funky mashups my husband loves.) I have a particular fondness for a handful of bands and solo artists, whose words and tunes have wound around my heart, knit themselves into the fabric of my soul.

This year, I’ve found myself turning often to a few beloved songs, as a balm, a solace when the world is too much, too fast, too insistent, too loud. I’ve begun to think of them not simply as my favorites, but as grown-up lullabies.

We sing lullabies to children, of course: to soothe a fractious baby or smooth a fidgety toddler’s way toward sleep. My nephews ask, over and over again, for the songs they have heard all their lives: “Edelweiss,” “General Froggie,” “Three Little Kitties.” My dad used to sing the latter two to my sister and me: his mother, my Mimi, also sang them to him and his brothers when they were small. (I love that these old folk lullabies are three generations strong in my family.)

It’s been years since anyone sang me a lullaby in the usual sense. But these days, “Bird Song” and a handful of other quiet, lilting songs are my lullabies: they soothe my anxious soul when the hurt and the frustration are beyond logic, beyond explaining.

Some of them are gentle folk ballads, sung by the Wailin’ Jennys, Grace Pettis, Hem, or my college friends Alex and Kara (known as the Light Parade). Some are old hymns that live deep in my bones: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” “I Love to Tell the Story,” or “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.” Some are the last remnants of the Christian pop music I loved as a teenager and have never entirely outgrown: words from Nichole Nordeman and other wise voices. And a few are newer songs that periodically lodge in my soul: the Magnificat, in particular, never fails to soothe me, and Annie Lennox’s “Into the West” has a kind of distant magic.

These songs aren’t an instant cure for what ails me, or the world: I know singing a few verses won’t heal all wounds. But they are a salve for my weary soul, a way to quiet my running mind and gentle my anxious heart. I sometimes find myself matching my steps to the rhythm of these familiar voices, or swaying slightly as I stand at the kitchen sink, as though I were rocking a baby to sleep.

I’ve come to believe that grown-ups need nurturing too, and we often have to provide it for ourselves. These lullabies, and the peace they bring, are saving my life these days.

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garden of small beginnings

How is it July already? (I seem to be asking that question every month lately.) Here’s what I have been reading, in a summer that has been fast and full so far:

Girls in the Moon, Janet McNally
Phoebe and Luna Ferris have grown up in the shadow of their parents: musicians whose band broke up when their marriage did. Luna’s trying to make it as a musician in NYC, while Phoebe might be a songwriter – she’s not sure yet. A trip to Brooklyn to visit Luna (and track down their dad, Kieran) gives Phoebe a chance to seek answers to her questions. A music-soaked, beautifully written, bittersweet YA novel of sisterhood, first love and trying to find our places in the world. Recommended by Leigh.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop, Veronica Henry
Julius Nightingale’s cozy bookshop in the Cotswolds was his lifelong dream. But after his death, Julius’ daughter Emilia struggles to deal with her grief and save the shop from financial ruin. A lovely, honest novel about moving forward, being brave, and (of course) books. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 15).

The Garden of Small Beginnings, Abbi Waxman
Lilian Girvan lost her husband, Dan, in a car wreck four years ago. She’s pulled it together, working full-time and caring for her two little girls (with lots of help from her sister). But when Lili’s boss signs her up for a gardening class, she finds she might be interested in the instructor, which terrifies her. A clever, warmhearted novel studded with gardening tips and hilarious one-liners. I cracked up every few pages. Also (highly) recommended by Leigh.

Anne’s House of Dreams, L.M. Montgomery
I started rereading this book on the red sand beaches of PEI – the perfect place, since it follows Anne as she marries Gilbert and moves to Four Winds on the Island’s north shore. I love watching her come into her own as a married woman, and I adore the supporting cast at Four Winds: Miss Cornelia, Captain Jim and Leslie Moore. Plus the descriptions (always Montgomery’s strong suit) are exquisite.

Cicada Summer, Maureen Leurck
Alex Proctor has taken on her biggest home renovation project yet: a beautiful historic house with a million problems. She’s also still trying to move on after her divorce, and care for her young daughter. A sweet, predictable but enjoyable novel about second chances and rebuilding (both houses and lives). To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 25).

Blue Iris, Mary Oliver
I love Oliver’s poetry and this collection might be my favorite yet: it is full of quietly stunning flower poems, perfect for this time of year. Some favorites: “The Sunflowers,” “Poppies,” “Peonies,” “A Blessing.” I’ve been lingering in it for weeks, not wanting it to end. (Found at Three Lives. I often buy poetry there.)

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

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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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