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Posts Tagged ‘Oxford’

bloodline book christmas tree star wars

The first half of December is always a contradiction in terms: the routine of daily life marches on, laced with twinkly festivity and all the holiday prep. As ever, the reading helps keep me (relatively) sane.

Here’s the latest book roundup:

And the Rest is History, Jodi Taylor
I love Taylor’s series about the wacky, tea-loving time-traveling historians of St. Mary’s Institute in England. This eighth book is full of heartbreak: Max, the narrator/heroine, her husband Leon and their colleagues are in for it, several times. But it’s also witty, fast-paced and entertaining, like the whole series. Smart, fun escapist reading.

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, ed. Joe Fassler
I savored this collection of essays by 46 writers, riffing on lines or passages that have shaped their creative lives. Thoughtful, honest, nourishing perspectives as varied as their authors. Recommended by Lindsey, who especially loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s essay (so did I). Other favorites: Claire Messud, Azar Nafisi, Angela Flournoy, Sherman Alexie.

Fifty Million Rising: The New Generation of Working Women Transforming the Muslim World, Saadia Zahidi
Muslim women are going to work in greater numbers than ever, and they are revolutionizing their homes, families and societies. Zahidi delves into the cultural, social and economic patterns that are shifting across the Muslim world. Packed with statistics, but I really enjoyed the stories of women (many, but not all, millennials) who are blazing a path for themselves. (Serendipity: Zahidi is an alumna of my workplace.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 30).

Star Wars: Bloodline, Claudia Gray
I enjoyed Gray’s new novel about the teenage Princess Leia learning to be a badass. I loved this novel, set before The Force Awakens, even more. It features Leia as a senator in the New Republic: she’s a little jaded, but brave and committed as ever, and hungry for a bit of adventure – which she gets in spades. I relished both the new characters and the appearances by familiar faces (Han Solo and C-3PO).

The Red Garden, Alice Hoffman
Hoffman’s stories weave magic seamlessly into the everyday (or simply point out what’s already there). This collection follows the town of Blackwell, Mass., and the intertwined lives of its families over three centuries. It’s a little uneven, but still enchanting.

Party Girls Die in Pearls, Plum Sykes
Ursula Flowerbutton has high hopes for her first week as a student at Oxford – but they don’t include the murder of a posh classmate. However, Ursula (a budding journalist) and her new American friend Nancy are on the case. A smart, fun, frothy, totally ’80s romp through Oxford. Perfect weekend reading.

H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald
A longtime obsession with birds of prey led Macdonald to acquire a goshawk named Mabel, around the time her father died. She struggles mightily with grief and emptiness while learning to fly her hawk. Luminous, heartbreaking and strange: full of sorrow and magic. I didn’t care much for the exploration of T.H. White’s journey with goshawks, but loved Macdonald’s own story. Bought last year at bookbook in Greenwich Village. Recommended by my friend Jess at Great New Books.

Reading People: How Seeing the World Through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, Anne Bogel
Anne is a longtime blogging friend of mine; we finally met in person last fall in NYC. She’s also a whip-smart personality geek, and her first book explores various personality frameworks. The big takeaway: know thyself – and be willing to question your own assumptions. Thoughtful and informative. (Anne sent me an ARC – it came out in September.)

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

What are you reading?

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shakespeare co nyc autumn window bookstore

I am, it seems, constantly in the middle of five books at once, these days. But I have managed to finish a few lately. (And admire a perfectly autumnal window display at Shakespeare & Co. in NYC.)

Here’s what I have been reading:

Three Daughters of Eve, Elif Shafak
Peri, a wealthy Turkish housewife, is mugged on her way to a dinner party in Istanbul. The thief unearths an old photo, which takes Peri back 15 years to her time as a student at Oxford, and the professor who fascinated her. A well-written novel of a woman caught between several worlds. Peri’s character frustrated me at times, but I enjoyed the glimpses of Oxford, my favorite city. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 5).

Woman Enters Left, Jessica Brockmole
I loved Brockmole’s previous two historical novels, Letters from Skye and At the Edge of Summer. This one moves into the U.S. and the 20th century, following actress Louise Wilde as she drives cross-country in 1952, trying to unravel a mystery involving her mother. (We also get glimpses into her mother’s earlier road trip along a similar route.) An engaging story with three likable protagonists, though I found the ending abrupt.

Hunted, Meagan Spooner
This YA reimagining of Beauty and the Beast (recommended by Leigh) is gorgeous and compelling. When Yeva’s father loses his fortune, begins acting strangely and then disappears, Yeva takes off into the woods, determined to find him and the creature he’s been tracking. What – and who – she finds is surprising. A fascinating take on this familiar story, weaving in Russian folklore and the tale of the Firebird. I loved Yeva and her sisters.

All We Saw, Anne Michaels
I heard about this new collection of poems on love and grief via the Knopf poetry newsletter, and picked it up at the Book House in Summertown, Oxford. It is spare and haunting and jarring and lovely. One of my favorite lines: “forgiveness is not about the past but the future / and needs another word.”

Here is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World, Nate Staniforth
After working for years as a touring magician, Staniforth found himself totally burned out. So he headed to India with a friend and almost no plan, hoping to rediscover a sense of wonder. A highly enjoyable, honest memoir about the hard work of doing what you love, dealing with disillusionment and finding wonder in it again. I liked Nate’s voice and he has some wonderful insights about magic (the non-staged kind). To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 16).

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

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katie st marys tower oxford england

I don’t consider myself a tourist in Oxford.

It is home, and has been home now for over a decade: almost since I first stepped off the bus after an overnight flight, back in 2004. I carry its map in my heart; the streets are full of memories, and I spend a lot of my time there revisiting favorite haunts and catching up with my people.

Every time I go back to visit, though, I can’t resist a few of its tourist attractions. The cobblestoned beauty of Radcliffe Square; the green vistas of University Parks; the shops on the Broad stuffed with T-shirts and postcards (because I always need a souvenir for someone). I roll my eyes at the tour groups as much as the next person, and then I, too, pull out my camera to snap photo after photo of the dreaming spires I love.

My favorite tourist spot, though, is a little higher up: 127 steps, to be exact. It’s the tower at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin: the highest point from which to view the city, and easily my favorite.

radcliffe camera oxford tower sky all souls

Looking north, you can see Radcliffe Square with the iconic Camera (in the foreground), with the bulk of the Bodleian just behind and All Souls College off to the right. If I squint, I can see past the Broad and the Science Center to the towers of St Anne’s and St Antony’s Colleges, up the Woodstock Road. You can’t quite see the North Oxford street where I used to live (and where I stayed this time), but I know exactly where it is: true north indeed.

all souls college view towers oxford

From the eastern side of the tower, All Souls is on full display. The colleges further along the High – Queen’s, University, Magdalen – are a little more coy, hiding themselves behind gates and battlements. Past Magdalen’s tower is the roundabout of St Clements, which leads to East Oxford and Headington Hill, down which the green sweep of South Park rolls like a velvet carpet. The middle road off St Clements leads to Cowley, which was my neighborhood as a graduate student: I lived there in a little chocolate-box house with three British girls who are still dear to me.

magdalen college tower oxford buildings

To the south lies a tangle of college buildings, old even by Oxford standards: Merton, Oriel, Corpus Christi, Christ Church with its famous Tom Tower. Right across from Christ Church is a less famous spire, but one that holds pride of place in my heart: St Aldates, the church where I have found grace and community since my first Sunday in Oxford.

christ church oxford towers south view

The western view, bounded by hills that glow yellow with rapeseed in spring, includes yet more colleges: Exeter, Jesus, Lincoln. I always feel I could step onto the rooftops and dance across them from here, like Bert and his chimney-sweep friends in Mary Poppins. This view of the city feels at once lofty and completely, utterly mine: I can pick out individual buildings I know while appreciating the whole sweep of it at once.

exeter college oxford view towers

I lingered as I always do, snapping photos from every angle, taking deep breaths and letting other visitors squeeze past me, talking in their various languages. Many of them are seeing Oxford from above for the first time, and I smile at their wonder, but it’s different from mine. They are seeing a place that is new and foreign. I am looking down, with love, at my home.

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papaw-grandkids

Last week, my dad sent a group text to my mom, my sister and me, reminding us that it was my grandfather’s birthday. “He loved the three of you very much,” Dad wrote. “I do too.”

I read it and thought about Papaw, a quiet man with kind eyes (pictured above with some of his grandkids in the late ’80s). It seems unbelievable, but he has been gone 16 years now. He died of cancer in the summertime, when I was a high school student, and we drove up to the family farm in southwest Missouri as we did every summer – but this time it was for the funeral.

We gathered with family on a June day at the old farmhouse outside of town where my grandparents raised their three boys. My dad spoke at the funeral and made everyone laugh, telling stories about his childhood and honoring the man who taught his boys to work hard, respect their elders and love one another.

Afterward, we all went back to the farmhouse and I helped my Aunt Carmen, my grandmother’s best friend, clean out the crowded kitchen fridge so we could find room for a dozen deli trays. (I remember us laughing helplessly at outdated jars of mayonnaise and so much sliced cheese, grateful for a moment of lightness amid our grief.)

Even without that text, I would have remembered Papaw this month: he was born on June 2 and later died on June 19, and so this month always reminds me of him.

There are dates that loom large in every life: birthdays, anniversaries, deaths. The births or the funerals of those we love; the days we receive the news that will change our lives, for a moment or forever. As I recently passed the one-year anniversary of my layoff, I’ve been thinking about the smaller anniversaries that also mark us.

I got laid off on the day before my husband’s birthday, which also happens to be the same day he proposed, nine years ago now (we’ve been married for nearly eight). There are other dates I don’t have to mark on a calendar to remember: the August night I got the phone call about my friend Cheryl’s death; the long-ago spring evening I got baptized in the little Baptist church in Coppell. And the night we arrived in Boston, grubby and tired from four days of driving cross-country but still eager to begin a new adventure.

I’ve written before about how my body also seems to remember certain places at certain times of year: the mountains of New Mexico in mid-May, windswept Whitby in February, Oxford at many times and seasons. Time and calendars may be relatively recent human inventions, but I believe our bodies and souls hold these memories, nudge us to remember these anniversaries. It is part of being human, this bittersweet ribbon of memory, the way we are marked by both grief and joy.

I miss Papaw even though he’s been gone a long time: I wish he could have met my husband and my sister’s husband, attended our weddings and our graduations, gotten down on the floor to play with his great-grandsons. He would have loved it, all of it. But I am grateful for him and his memory, and for the quiet reminder in my soul (and, okay, from my dad) every June: a nudge to remember.

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daffodils graceland book mug

My brain has been awfully full this month of non-book things (switching jobs and offices will do that to you). But I’ve still squeezed in a few good books. Here’s what I have been reading:

June, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
When Cassie Danvers loses her beloved grandmother June, she also inherits June’s crumbling mansion in a small Ohio town. The house has a few secrets it wants to tell – and an unexpected inheritance forces Cassie to ask some potentially explosive questions about her family. This absorbing novel shifts back and forth between 1955 and 2015. Full of rich detail, engaging characters and a twisty, satisfying plot. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 31).

Killer Takeout, Lucy Burdette
Key West is ready to party during its annual Fantasy Fest – a week of increasingly raucous, boozy events. But food critic Hayley Snow (naturally) stumbles across a murder during the festivities. When Hayley’s co-worker Danielle is named the chief suspect, Hayley deploys her amateur sleuthing skills to prove Danielle’s innocence. I like Hayley and her supporting cast, and this was a fun installment in the series. (The author sent me an early copy; it comes out April 5.)

The Secrets of Flight, Maggie Leffler
Elderly widow (and former WWII fly girl) Mary Browning has kept her past hidden for years. But when she meets Elyse, a budding novelist, through her writers’ group, Mary hires the teenager to type her memoir, deciding it’s time to tell some of her stories at last. A captivating story of flight, family, conflicting loyalties and the sometimes painfully high price of following one’s dreams. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 3).

A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness
American witch Diana Bishop has avoided using magic since her parents were murdered, years ago. But while she’s doing research in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, a mysterious (spellbound) manuscript and the appearance of a handsome vampire upend her carefully constructed life. I do not like vampires, but Leigh finally convinced me to pick up this book. Some great characters and an interesting storyline – though I found Diana irritatingly passive. (I loved the Oxford bits, obviously.) I will still probably read the sequel.

Jane of Lantern Hill, L.M. Montgomery
This is the perfect book for early spring: the story of Jane Stuart – practical, capable, kind – discovering that her father is alive and spending a glorious summer with him on Prince Edward Island. I adore Jane and the Island, and I love watching both of them blossom in this book.

In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri
I loved Lahiri’s debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, and also enjoyed Unaccustomed Earth. So I was curious about this, her memoir of learning to write (and then immersing herself totally in) Italian. Lahiri is an American, the child of Bengali parents, who has struggled to feel at home in a language and culture her whole life. As she studies Italian – even moving to Rome – she experiences a different kind of alienation and also joy. This is a very interior book – I suppose because it documents an interior journey. Odd, often somber, but compelling.

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

What are you reading?

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queens lane cream tea oxford

It’s been an unusual winter, weather-wise: a few snowfalls, a sub-zero arctic blast over Valentine’s Day weekend, a handful of springlike days in February. (I’ve been snapping pictures of crocuses in joy and disbelief.)

Despite the mild spells, though, we’ve had plenty of what I call Yorkshire weather.

Yorkshire is a place in northern England, of course (home to the lovely town of York and the fictional location of Downton Abbey). But it’s also a tea: a stout, strong black blend sold in green-printed boxes of generously sized teabags. I first encountered it, and fell in love, during a long-ago Oxford winter, when I learned the power of a cuppa (with milk and sugar, please) to combat the damp English cold that seeps into your bones.

The climate in Boston is a bit different from Oxford: we generally have more snow and lower humidity, more crisp, blue-skied days than grey, cloudy ones. But every winter, I can count on at least a few instances of that raw, biting wind that whips right through my green coat and makes me shiver.

Hurrying along the street, my head bent against the cold, I want nothing more in the world than a cup of Yorkshire, brewed strong and laced with milk till it’s the perfect shade of rich, creamy brown. (Sugar optional – but it helps balance out the deep, tannic taste.)

Every time I brew a cup of Yorkshire, pouring the boiling water from my red teakettle, I remember winter in Oxford: skimming down the High Street on my green bike, my hands in their fingerless gloves gripping the handlebars till they grew red and raw with the cold. Tramping with Jacque over muddy meadows to the Trout Inn, past the ponies and the canal crowded with boats and the ruins of Godstow Abbey. Making a pot of Yorkshire in a cluttered, homey kitchen with a half-dozen other American students, rummaging through drawers of mismatched silverware to find enough spoons for the sugar. Or sipping a cuppa brewed by Lizzie or Jo from a blue polka-dotted mug, in the spare but cozy downstairs lounge of the little house in Ablett Close.

I can get Yorkshire tea in the States, fortunately, but my English friend Caroline set me up with a big box last summer, and there’s still plenty left. It takes the chill off after a cold walk home, but it also reminds me of my favorite place, and the people and moments I loved there.

Spring is coming and I couldn’t be gladder. But I’m also fine with a few more days of Yorkshire weather.

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all souls college oxford radcliffe square

It’s no secret: Oxford is my very favorite place. In the world.

I fell in love with it more than a decade ago, when I stepped off the bus (after an overnight flight) as a wide-eyed college sophomore, who couldn’t believe her luck at getting to spend an entire semester in an ancient, lovely university town.

The ensuing four months, and the year I later spent there earning my master’s degree, only made me love it more.

all souls towers oxford england

I’ve been back to visit a few times, most recently a year and a half ago, but I’m always itching to go back. Until the next time, though, I always love (re)visiting it on the page. So here are my favorite Oxford books:

Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers is the first Oxford novel I ever read, and still the best. It’s a mystery, a love story, a feminist novel and a brilliantly rendered evocation of Oxford in the 1930s. Many of the streets and buildings have not changed, so the descriptions still feel utterly fresh. So do the insights on work and love, intellectual and emotional freedom, and whether it is possible for women to remain true to themselves and also be married.

Oxford Revisited is a slim, lyrical memoir by novelist and Oxford alumnus Justin Cartwright, whose love for the university matches my own. He writes about his time as an undergraduate and about Oxford itself: its ancient traditions, complicated architecture and captivating beauty. I got to meet him and hear him speak at the Oxford Literary Festival. He was kind and erudite, which made me love the book even more.

These Ruins are Inhabited was a serendipitous find: a memoir mistakenly shelved in the fiction stacks at the Montague Bookmill. Muriel Beadle was an American journalist whose husband was a visiting professor at Oxford in the late 1950s, and she describes their family’s time there with wit and spirit. Keenly observed and so much fun.

Isolarion by James Attlee charts “a different Oxford journey,” as the subtitle says: the relatively new, wildly multicultural East Oxford neighborhood of Cowley. I lived in Cowley during my second stay in Oxford and found it messy, confusing, sometimes frustrating and often delightful. Attlee brings it vividly to life.

radcliffe camera st mary's tower oxford

These are my faves, but I’ve read and loved a handful of other Oxford-centric books. So here are a few honorable mentions:

Fiction

The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan is hilarious chick lit with a soul. It’s set largely in Oxford, since the two main characters (Nick and Bex, inspired by Will and Kate) meet there.

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay is a highly entertaining mystery romp set in 1930s Oxford – essentially Gaudy Night lite. (With plenty of tea and biscuits.)

The Late Scholar takes Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey (of Gaudy Night fame) back to Oxford, to solve another mystery. I usually don’t like fan fiction, but Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of Sayers’ series is so well done.

rowboats river cherwell oxford

Nonfiction

The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter is a meticulously researched, detailed account of the famous literary group that included (among others) C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. You can hardly walk in Oxford without tripping over a reference to those two, and this is an excellent look at their work and influence.

My History by Antonia Fraser is a coming-of-age story, a Downton Abbey-esque peek into the early 20th century, and a love letter to Oxford, where she grew up.

Surprised by Oxford is Carolyn Weber’s journey of finding faith and love (among other things) in Oxford.

catte street oxford

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

Any favorite books set in Oxford that you’d recommend?

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