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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Ivey book slippers twinkle lights

January has been unpredictable, weather-wise: frigid, icy, blustery, mild, wet, sunshiny. As always, the books are getting me through. Here’s the latest roundup:

The Island of Sea Women, Lisa See
The women of Jeju, an island off the south coast of Korea, traditionally made their living as haenyeo, deep-sea divers. See explores the island’s matriarchal culture and the powerful changes wrought by the 20th century (wars, occupation, new technologies) through the story of two haenyeo, Kim Young-sook and Han Mi-ja. Young-sook recounts their childhood friendship, their years of diving together and the heart-wrenching losses they suffered. Really well done; See is prolific but I hadn’t read her before. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 5).

Christmas on the Island, Jenny Colgan
Colgan returns to the Scottish island of Mure for a Christmas-themed novel. I find Flora and Joel (the main couple) frustrating, but I like Flora’s family, her teacher friend Lorna, and Saif, the Syrian refugee doctor. Entertaining, though not my favorite Colgan.

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway: A Year of Gardening and (Wild)Life, Kate Bradbury
The tiny back garden of Kate Bradbury’s flat in Brighton, England, was covered in decking when she bought it. She set out to revive it: ripping up the decking, planting ground cover and shrubs, finding flowers to attract bees and birds. She writes movingly about her childhood garden memories, the loss of habitat for wildlife in the UK, and her mother’s illness. Keenly observed; slow in places. Took me weeks, but it was lovely. Found, as so many good things are, at Three Lives (in December).

To the Bright Edge of the World, Eowyn Ivey
In 1885, Colonel Allen Forrester heads out into the (mostly) unmapped Alaska Territory with two men, while his wife Sophie must stay behind. Ivey tells their story, and that of the Colonel’s encounters with Alaska and its people, through journal entries and letters. I loved Ivey’s debut, The Snow Child, but loved this one even more. Ivey’s writing is stunning, and I adored Sophie (bright, curious, determined and so human) and the Colonel’s keen eye and compassion.

Mistletoe and Murder, Robin Stevens
Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are spending Christmas (1935) in Cambridge, where, predictably, a murder finds them. Hazel narrates their fifth adventure in this fun British middle-grade series. I find Daisy a bit irritating, but I like Hazel and the mysteries are always good fun. I also liked the deft handling here of race and immigration in the UK – not a new issue but an important one.

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, Sonia Purnell
Losing her leg in a hunting accident didn’t slow Virginia Hall down: she would go on to become a key force for the Allies in World War II, working undercover in France to coordinate and support the Resistance. Purnell delves deeply into Virginia’s (formerly classified) story to weave a gripping tale of an extraordinary woman. Fascinating, well-researched and cinematic at times. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 9).

This Much Country, Kristin Knight Pace
Reeling from a broken heart, Kristin Knight agreed to spend a winter in Alaska caring for a team of sled dogs. To her own surprise, she fell in love with the dogs and the place, becoming a dog musher and eventually opening her own kennel. She found romantic love again, too. Her memoir is a bit uneven, but the setting is captivating, and there are some wonderful lines. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 5).

Becoming, Michelle Obama
This memoir was on so many “best of 2018” lists (and broke all kinds of publishing records). It’s a wise, warm, thoughtful account of Obama’s childhood on the South Side of Chicago, her experiences at Princeton and beyond, and life as the First Lady. But it’s also more than that: a graceful meditation on how we become ourselves, a plainspoken tribute to all the folks who have supported her, and a call for all of us to keep investing in children who need it. Well written and just so good.

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

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You don’t need me to say it: by any measure, the last two years in American politics have been turbulent, if not downright disorienting. As politicians engage in shouting matches on social media (and elsewhere), I’ve been turning to an unlikely source of comfort: memoirs by staffers from the Obama White House. (This is a little easier to do now that I no longer work inside the maelstrom of politics every day.)

It isn’t just nostalgia, or denial. Whether they’re youthful idealists like David Litt (Thanks, Obama), who jumped on the former senator’s campaign and ended up spending years working for him, or veteran public servants like Wendy R. Sherman (Not for the Faint of Heart), whose career spans multiple administrations, these voices have helped me in two key ways. They remind me of what it was like to live in slightly saner–if no less complicated–political times. And they help explain, with their insider views of the Obama administration’s triumphs and failures, how the U.S. reached its current moment.

Ben Rhodes, who spent nearly a decade working on foreign policy and communications for Obama, chronicles the complex issues, impossible decisions and flat-out unbelievable moments of his political career in The World As It Is – one of my favorite books of 2018. His thoughtful accounts of the Arab Spring and the reopening of U.S.-Cuba relations make a great pairing with Sherman’s blow-by-blow of negotiating the Iran nuclear deal and Litt’s breezy but sharply observed rendering of life as a speechwriter for Obama. These memoirs, plus Alyssa Mastromonaco’s Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?, which I read last summer, offer insights on leadership and show their authors’ staunch commitment to hard work and public service.

Mastromonaco wins for best title (and most wry humor), but all four books provide fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpses into the daily lives unfolding alongside massive world events. Even more importantly, they remind me that even in fraught and divisive times, the American experiment of democracy is still–à la Mastromonaco–an excellent idea.

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness for Readers, where it appeared a couple of weeks ago.

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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.

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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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