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strand bookstore cookbook shelves

I read 191 books in 2018. So many of them were good ones – not least because I got to review a few dozen gems (and interview a few authors) for Shelf Awareness, my longtime freelance gig.

I shared some favorites halfway through the year, but looking back over all of 2018, these are the ones I couldn’t stop talking about. (A few from my half-year roundup are reposted below.)

Best Feminist Reimagining of Mythology: Circe by Madeline Miller. A fantastic, well-written story of a “minor” sorceress who steps into her own power.

Best Antidote to the Current Political Madness: The World As It Is, Ben Rhodes’ memoir of the near-decade he spent working on communications and foreign policy for President Obama. So insightful and interesting.

Most Essential Reading on Race: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, which weaves together marriage and mass incarceration; and Black is the Body by Emily Bernard, an incisive essay collection about family, race and womanhood.

Best Conversation Starter: The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle. Who would you have at your ideal dinner party? This one was fun and surprisingly moving.

Best Reread: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which grabbed my heart just as it did when I was protagonist Francie’s age.

Most Blazing, Gorgeous Novel of Love and Heartbreak: Love and Ruin by Paula McLain. I did not think I could read another Hemingway novel, but Martha Gellhorn’s narrative voice grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

Most Vivid and Heartrending Refugee Story: The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. (I liked Exit West too, but this dual narrative with its two scrappy female protagonists stole my heart.)

Most Eloquent, Relatable Memoir of Running and Grit: The Long Run by Catriona Menzies-Pike. I think of lines from this witty, beautiful book regularly while I’m running.

Most Compelling Mysteries with a Side of Faith: Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series featuring Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne.

What were your favorite books of 2018?

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strand bookstore cookbook shelves

Early December always leaves me breathless. But – thank goodness – there are the books. (Photo from my recent trip to the Strand.)

Here’s the latest roundup:

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, Abbi Waxman
I loved Waxman’s debut, The Garden of Small Beginnings. (I was ambivalent about her second novel, Other People’s Houses.) And I liked this, her third novel following introvert, bookseller and trivia whiz Nina Hill as she deals with various unexpected pieces of news. Really witty, though a lot of the characters felt two-dimensional. I liked seeing Lili and her daughters (from Small Beginnings) again. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 9, 2019).

How to Be a Heroine: Or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much, Samantha Ellis
In her thirties, Ellis began to wonder: did the literary heroines she’d loved as a child still have something to teach her? The answer, of course, is yes. I loved Ellis’ memoir of finding her way as a person and a writer, and revisiting characters like Sara Crewe, Scarlett O’Hara and others. Some are my heroines too (Anne Shirley!) and some are newer to me, like Lucy Honeychurch and Scheherazade. So much fun.

Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future, Pete Buttigieg
Buttigieg is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and his memoir traces his journey to public service and his experience in the mayor’s office. He’s a Harvard grad, a Navy reserve veteran, a data-driven geek and a warm, thoughtful writer. City government may not sound exciting, but I found his narrative so compelling and hopeful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 26).

The Proposal, Jasmine Guillory
Freelance writer Nikole Patterson is blindsided when her actor boyfriend proposes via the JumboTron at a Dodgers game – and he spells her name wrong! When Carlos and his sister rescue Nik from a camera crew, Carlos and Nik become friends and then something more. But what, exactly? A really fun romance with lots of tacos, cupcakes and women’s empowerment messages. The latter felt a bit heavy-handed, but I enjoyed the story – especially since I knew (and liked) Carlos from Guillory’s debut, The Wedding Date.

A Borrowing of Bones, Paula Munier
After a tour in Afghanistan where she lost her fiancé, Martinez, Mercy Carr has retreated to rural Vermont along with Martinez’s working dog, Elvis. When they find an adult skeleton and a baby girl (very much alive) in the woods, Mercy teams up with game warden Troy Warner to find the baby’s mother and the identity of the victim. A well-plotted, thoughtful mystery; first in a new series. Reminded me a bit of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mysteries, which I adore.

Hope Never Dies, Andrew Shaffer
After the 2016 election, former VP Joe Biden is bored and restless. But when his favorite Amtrak conductor dies under suspicious circumstances, Biden and his old friend Barack Obama team up (with Obama’s requisite Secret Service escort) to solve the mystery. A fun, often witty bromance and a pretty good mystery. (I love the premise almost more than the execution.)

So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo
Conversations about race are often fraught, and Oluo, a black activist and writer, pulls no punches in this primer about how to talk and listen. It’s meant (mostly) for well-meaning white folks like me. Powerful and thought-provoking.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith. If you’re shopping for holiday gifts, please consider supporting indie bookstores – either in your community or by ordering from them online. 

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book apple bench sunlight

Halfway through October and I can’t believe it, as ever. Here are the books I’ve been reading on the train, before bed, and on (rare) sunny lunch breaks:

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, Rachel Held Evans
I’ve been following Evans’ work since the publication of her first book, Faith Unraveled. We’re about the same age and we come from similar evangelical backgrounds. Her latest book is an exploration of the Bible as the messy, often frustrating, powerful text it is, rather than the tidy answer book some folks would like it to be. I loved Evans’ reimaginings of well-worn biblical stories, and appreciated her broad-minded perspective on what the Bible can be.

An Act of Villainy, Ashley Weaver
Amateur sleuth Amory Ames and her dashing husband, Milo, are drawn into a mystery involving the players in a theatrical production. The director is a friend of theirs (and the leading actress is his mistress). When murder ensues, Amory and Milo work to unmask the killer. I like this elegant series, set in London between the wars; Amory is an engaging narrator and this fifth entry was fun.

Digging In, Loretta Nyhan
Two years widowed, Paige Moresco is struggling: she and her teenage son are still grieving and now her graphic design job is in jeopardy. On impulse, she digs up half her backyard and plants a garden, to the horror of her neighbors. A fun novel about digging (literally) through grief, though I wanted more depth. Reminiscent of The Garden of Small Beginnings; not as strong, but still really enjoyable.

The Lost for Words Bookshop, Stephanie Butland
Loveday Cardew has spent her whole adult life (so far) working in the same York bookshop and avoiding her past. But the appearance of a handsome magician and copies of her estranged mother’s favorite books throw all that into question. This book broke my heart with every chapter; it’s well done and lovely but so, so sad.

The Wedding Date, Jasmine Guillory
Two people meet in a stalled elevator and end up going to a wedding together; he needs a date, and she thinks he’s cute. But, of course, it doesn’t end there. This delightful, sexy novel follows Drew and Alexa as they navigate a modern-day, long-distance relationship and face their own fears (and Alexa digs into a major work project). Sweet and spicy and so much fun.

The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, Ben Rhodes
One of my coping mechanisms in the current political climate is reading these Obama staffer memoirs. Rhodes worked on communications and foreign policy for Obama for a decade. This thoughtful, fascinating, well-written insider account recalls a saner time in national politics and helps explain how we got to where we are now. Lots of flashbacks to my last job at HKS; Rhodes’ days – not the setting but the focus and the rhythm – bore some striking parallels to mine.

Our Homesick Songs, Emma Hooper
As the fish disappear from Newfoundland’s waters in the 1990s, the local families leave to find work. Ten-year-old Finn Connor, left almost alone, hatches a plan to bring the fish back. Meanwhile, his parents are taking turns leaving the island to work, and his older sister Cora is trying to find her own way. Haunting and beautiful and sad; started off slowly but I ended up loving it. I also adored Hooper’s debut, Etta and Otto and Russell and James.

Help Me!: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Your Life, Marianne Power
I’m a little tired of “stunt” memoirs, but gave this one a go. British journalist Power recounts her year-plus of reading and trying to follow one self-help tome per month. Predictably, she does not turn into a perfect, worry-free version of herself – but she does learn some important lessons, often with hilarious effects. Dragged in the middle (when she became a bit self-obsessed), but I thought it ended well. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 15 in the U.S.).

The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden, Karina Yan Glaser
When their elderly neighbor has a stroke, the Vanderbeeker kids want to do something good for him, so they begin turning an abandoned lot into a garden. Challenges and hilarity (as well as the threat of a condo complex) ensue. A heartwarming sequel to the first Vanderbeeker book. These siblings are the 21st-century Harlem version of the Melendys, whom I adore. So much fun.

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

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shortest way home book anemones flowers

In like a lion, as they say. Early March has included three (!) nor’easters: snow, wind, rain and flooding. Plus the first crocuses. And good books, as always.

Here’s the latest roundup:

Through the Evil Days, Julia Spencer-Fleming
I read this eighth mystery featuring Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne with my heart in my throat. A whopping ice storm, a missing girl, a meth-cooking operation – Spencer-Fleming amps up the tension on every level. The case gets solved, but an unrelated cliffhanger left me even more impatient for the next installment.

The Shortest Way Home, Miriam Parker
Hannah Greene has landed her dream job right out of business school, and she and her boyfriend have their lives all planned. But on a weekend in Sonoma County, Hannah falls in love with a local winery and jettisons her NYC plans. A charming novel about upending expectations (your own and everyone else’s) to make your way. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 31). I got to chat with the author, too, and she’s a darling.

Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years, David Litt
Former speechwriter Litt reminisces about his years on the Obama campaign trail and the White House in this wry memoir. He’s witty, self-deprecating and sometimes insightful about the boondoggle that is American politics, and the mix of hope, frustration and ennui that can plague workplaces like his. Plus fun insider stories, in the vein of Alyssa Mastromonaco’s Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?. Recommended by Rebecca on All the Books!.

The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species, Carlos Magdalena
Magdalena is a man on a mission: to care for and propagate the world’s disappearing plants, and to spread the gospel of conservation. A Spaniard who now works at London’s Kew Gardens, he’s crisscrossed the world on botanical adventures. This memoir got a little science-geeky at times, but it’s full of good stories and enthusiasm. (The man loves him some water lilies.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 10).

American Panda, Gloria Chao
Mei Lu, 17-year-old MIT freshman, wishes her Taiwanese parents would stop being so overprotective – especially since she wants to change her major and date a (gasp!) Japanese-American boy. A sweet, funny YA novel about family, independence and cultural clash. (And some pretty epic pranks.)

Mink River, Brian Doyle
I picked up this novel (Doyle’s first) at McNally Jackson last year, and have been lingering in it for weeks. Through brief vignettes and small everyday moments, he evokes the texture of life in Neawanaka, a tiny town in Oregon. I loved the characters; the plot rambles till it finally revs up near the end, but the charm of Doyle’s work is following his meandering joyous dizzying insightful sentences. Wise and hilarious and I’m reminded of what a treasure he was.

The Forever House, Veronica Henry
Estate agent Belinda Baxter matches people up with their perfect homes, while longing for a permanent home of her own. When she lands the commission for Hunter’s Moon, a local house with lots of history, her day job and her personal life intersect in surprising ways. I love Henry’s sweet British novels; a girlfriend brought me this one from the UK. I savored the past-present storyline and the likable characters. Very satisfying.

Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert’s Guide to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home), Morra Aarons-Mele
I heard Aarons-Mele on a podcast with Karen Walrond recently. This, her nonfiction book on work and networking for introverts (and/or hermits), is practical, insightful and honest. She shares tips for making helpful connections, setting your own schedule, and faking it when you have to.

Amina’s Voice, Hena Khan
Amina Khokar is struggling to adjust to middle school: suddenly, friendships and expectations are shifting. And she wants to sing a solo in the school concert, but she’s too shy. A sweet middle-grade novel of a Pakistani-American girl finding her voice in more ways than one. Recommended by Jaclyn.

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

What are you reading?

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Learning to protest

boston library protest

Yesterday afternoon, my husband and I took the subway downtown with some friends, to join thousands of our fellow Bostonians in Copley Square. We were protesting the recent executive order banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, which (as you know if you’ve been reading the news) has resulted in people being detained at airports and denied entry to the U.S.

This was my second protest in as many weeks – my second protest ever, to be honest. I have a feeling it will not be my last.

muslim sign protest boston public library

I’m deeply afraid, on many levels, that this is only the beginning of the terror and injustice we’ll see under Trump’s administration. I am furious, heartbroken, fearful, and determined not to simply stand by in silence. So I’m learning – as are so many others – to protest. (It makes my bookish heart glad that both protests I’ve attended so far have happened on the steps of public libraries.)

Protesting, as you might have guessed, doesn’t come easily to me. I’m not inclined, by temperament or by cultural training, to rock the boat. And what I really want to do, in light of every single horrifying headline we’ve seen lately, is to gather up the people I love and hug them until we all feel a little less afraid. But that’s not physically possible – my loved ones are scattered far and wide – and it won’t stop the evil coming out of Washington. So I am listening, reading, asking questions, writing postcards. And protesting.

I know these marches are only a beginning: there are many ways to use our voices, and we also need our elected officials to step up and use theirs. (I’m proud of my Massachusetts senators for doing just that.) I welcome ideas and advice from folks who have been doing this longer than I have. This bigotry and injustice didn’t start with this election, and it won’t end here. But we can – and must – speak out against it.

hancock tower protest boston refugees

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jfk jr forum balloons hks

LEWIS ROTHSCHILD: Mr. President. You’ve raised a daughter – almost entirely on your own – and she’s terrific. So what does it say to you that, in the past seven weeks, 59 percent of this country has begun to question your family values?

A.J. MACINERNEY: The President doesn’t answer to you, Lewis.

LEWIS: Oh, yes, he does, A.J. I’m a citizen. This is my President. And in this country, it is not only permissible to question our leaders – it’s our responsibility.

The American President (1995)

I watched The American President again this fall, the way I do every election year, when I need a break from the TV ads and the ugly mudslinging and the constant ranting from both sides of the aisle. It’s billed as a love story, and the romantic plotline is charming. But I love it most for its thoughtful, incisive words about leadership and character, and the bond between the tightly knit group of staffers who work with the President, played by Michael Douglas.

Every time I watch it, I’m amazed at how it holds up. The casting is fantastic and there are so many great lines (this is Aaron Sorkin, writing pre-West Wing), but the last one above, delivered by a young, fiery Michael J. Fox, has been ringing in my head for weeks.

I’ve done a lot of questioning since the election. I am asking why we elected a man whose lack of experience in governing I find troubling and whose actions in his personal and professional life I find repugnant. I am asking, along with my colleagues, what role the news media played in this election and what our responsibilities are in reporting on the work of the Trump administration. (I am not a newspaper reporter, but I work in communications for a school of public policy, so my work is absolutely affected by who sits in the Oval Office and what they do there.)

Most of all, I am asking how I can participate actively in making this country a safer place for people who are threatened by the rhetoric of our president-elect. And I am absolutely questioning what Trump is saying and doing these days.

Before you stop reading, let me say: this is not (entirely) about partisan politics.

As citizens of a democracy, it is our responsibility to question our leaders at every level of government, no matter their policy positions or party affiliations. All our leaders, from the President on down, answer to every one of us. “America,” as Michael Douglas says near the end of The American President, “is advanced citizenship.” It is hard and complicated work. It’s why I have (for a start) been adding my name to petitions calling for an audit of the vote, supporting my Massachusetts senators who have spoken out against some of Trump’s hiring choices, and calling the House Oversight Committee to demand a bipartisan review of Trump’s finances and potential conflicts of interest.

Full disclosure: I am brand-new to any kind of political activism, even these small steps. I have always voted, but I’ve never before gotten involved in government beyond casting my ballot. I’m fumbling around here, trying to figure out what I can do to make a difference, to let my voice be heard. I am listening to people who have way more at stake (and way more experience) than I do, and trying to follow their lead.

If you usually come here for the books, the tea and the posts about what is saving my life now, don’t worry: I’ll keep writing about those things, especially as we head into the holidays. This blog will probably never be all politics, all the time. But in the wake of an election season that has rocked this country to its core, I had to say this: please join me in asking the questions.

Your questions, and the people and issues you are questioning, might be different from mine. We may not – in fact, we probably won’t – like a lot of the answers we get. But the asking, and the listening to both questions and answers, is vitally important. It is part of what democracy looks like. And when we ask, we can also decide what to do about the answers, the problems and the issues. That, too, is our responsibility.

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brattle bookshop doors boston

Fall is the time to dig into new books (though, really, that’s every season around here). The doors above are from the outdoor sale lot of the fabulous Brattle Book Shop in Boston, and the books below are what I’ve been reading lately:

A Very Special Year, Thomas Montasser
I heard Liberty talk about this novel on All the Books and picked it up at Three Lives & Co. Valerie takes over her aunt Charlotte’s bookshop after Charlotte disappears. Despite her career plans, Valerie (of course) finds herself utterly seduced by the shop’s books and readers. A truly delightful slim novel, in the vein of The Haunted Bookshop or The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

Outlander, Diana Gabaldon
I’d heard about this sweeping time-travel romance series from a dozen friends, plus my mom. Claire Randall is traveling with her husband in the Scottish Highlands after WWII when she steps through a circle of standing stones and finds herself in 1743. It’s a wild (often violent) ride as Claire adapts to an entirely different world and becomes tightly linked to the clan MacKenzie and a young outlaw called Jamie Fraser. Powerful storytelling, fascinating history and dry wit, though with waaaay more sex and violence than my usual fare.

Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms, Katherine Rundell
Wilhelmina “Will” Silver relishes her life running wild on the farm her father manages in Zimbabwe. But after his death, she’s sent to England and finds herself completely unequipped for the foreign, catty world of boarding school. I found the book’s African scenes much more fully realized than the English ones, but I loved Will’s fierce, bold spirit and Rundell’s writing. Found at Book Culture.

The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, Richard Hugo
I’d never heard of Hugo’s poetry, but I found this essay collection at Book Culture and loved much of his wry, thoughtful advice on writing poetry and being a poet (two different things). Witty, aphoristic and encouraging, if a little uneven. A good read to start off the fall.

First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies, Kate Andersen Brower
The role of First Lady is visible, public and largely undefined – so each woman who takes on that mantle truly makes it her own. Brower draws a sharp, thoroughly researched, fascinating portrait of First Ladies from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama. Really well done (and, obviously, so timely).

The Bell Family, Noel Streatfeild
I discovered Streatfeild via You’ve Got Mail, so I was delighted to find this novel at Book Culture on the Upper West Side (shades of The Shop Around the Corner!). The Bell family lives in a crowded vicarage in the East End of London, and their adventures are funny, sweet and altogether delightful.

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

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