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spirit of 76 bookstore interior

We’re halfway through August already (!) and I’m trying to hang on – and diving into all the books, naturally. Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home, Natalie Goldberg
I heard Natalie read from this, her newest memoir, last month in Lenox, Mass. She was a delight, and this book about her journey with cancer contains both great pain and moments of joy. Short, lyrical chapters trace Natalie’s diagnosis, treatment and wrestling with her own mortality, all while her partner was also fighting cancer. I carried it in my bag for weeks, reading it slowly. It’s heartbreaking, sometimes lovely, fiercely honest all the way through.

Island of the Mad, Laurie R. King
When a college friend of Mary Russell’s asks Mary to locate her missing aunt, Russell and Holmes find themselves wandering Venice, which (in 1925) is brimming with both carefree aristocrats and grim Blackshirts. I love Russell’s narrative voice – so smart and insightful. The case and the elaborate parties (and Cole Porter!) are extremely diverting.

Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster, Stephen L. Carter
Few people know that a black female lawyer – Eunice Hunton Carter – was part of the team that took down NYC mobster Lucky Luciano in the 1930s. Stephen Carter – her grandson – sets out to tell her remarkable story. A deeply researched, insightful biography of an extraordinary woman. (I also enjoyed Carter’s novel The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln a few years back.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 9).

Tango Lessons, Meghan Flaherty
Flaherty first fell in love with tango as a teenager visiting Argentina, but it took her years to try it for herself. She chronicles her journey into New York’s tango scene, and the ways tango has challenged her ideas about dance, desire, taking risks and many other things. Well written and engaging, if occasionally too self-conscious.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
I picked up this old favorite and fell instantly back in love with Francie Nolan’s story of growing up in Brooklyn in the early 20th century. Francie is smart, thoughtful, keenly observant – so many of her insights still ring true. I also love her fiercely hardworking mother, Katie, and her generous aunt, Sissy. This is a story of deep poverty and struggle, but it’s also about fighting to make your way in the world, being proud of where you came from, and the joys and disappointments of love (romantic and otherwise). So good.

Forever and a Day, Anthony Horowitz
Marseilles, 1950: The original 007 has been killed by three bullets, and the British intelligence service has sent a new man – James Bond – to find out who killed him and why. This prequel gives Bond an intriguing first assignment, complete with a mysterious woman (of course) and associates who may or may not be what they seem. Well done, though the ending fell a bit flat. I’ve never read the original Ian Fleming novels, but now I want to. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 6).

The Valley at the Centre of the World, Malachy Tallack
To most people, Shetland is the end of the world – but to its residents, it’s the titular center. Tallack’s novel follows the intertwined lives of a few people living in the titular valley. Beautiful and quiet. Possibly to review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 6).

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

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lands of lost borders book red flats

We’ve made it through May, which is always a whirlwind. But it did include a batch of good books:

Caroline: Little House Revisited, Sarah Miller
I read and reread the Little House on the Prairie books as a kid, and have rediscovered The Long Winter as an adult. I loved this novel that retold the Ingalls’ journey to Kansas from Ma’s – Caroline’s – perspective. Compelling, bittersweet and beautifully written. Found at the wonderful Bay Books on our San Diego trip.

The Corpse at the Crystal Palace, Carola Dunn
When Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher takes her children and their cousins on an outing to the Crystal Palace, she’s shocked when their nanny goes temporarily missing. After she turns up, the nanny can’t remember why she disappeared – nor why there’s a corpse in the ladies’ room, dressed in a nanny’s uniform. Naturally, Daisy can’t resist a bit of sleuthing. A really fun entry in this highly enjoyable series. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 3).

Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road, Kate Harris
Kate Harris has always wanted to be an explorer: to test the boundaries of the known world, to go where few others have gone before. This, her debut memoir, is a lyrical, brilliant, sharply observed paean to wanderlust and an account of the year she spent cycling as much of the ancient Silk Road as possible. (Bonus: she’s spent time at Oxford and MIT, so two of my cities make appearances.) So many gorgeous lines about borders, boundaries, the hunger to explore, the ways we create our world. Made me want to hop on a bike immediately. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 21).

Live and Let Chai, Bree Baker
Everly Swan has just opened her dream iced-tea shop and cafe in her charming seaside hometown. But when a cranky local councilman is found dead next to one of Everly’s signature tea jars, she must fight against a wave of suspicion, plus an anonymous vandal who begins targeting her shop. A sweet Southern cozy mystery and an engaging setup for a new series. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 3).

The Late Bloomers’ Club, Louise Miller
Nora Huckleberry (what a name!) has been running the Miss Guthrie Diner in her tiny Vermont town for years. But when she and her freewheeling sister Kit receive an unexpected inheritance, along with some debt, Nora faces difficult decisions on several levels. Full of warmhearted characters – I especially loved Kit’s boyfriend, Max. I also loved Miller’s debut, The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 17).

Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing, Ursula K. Le Guin with David Naimon
Le Guin needs no introduction from me: she was justly famous for her novels, poetry and incisive nonfiction. These interviews with Naimon cover each genre and more besides. Thoughtful and thought-provoking. To review for Shelf Awareness (it came out April 3).

The Penderwicks at Last, Jeanne Birdsall
Birdsall returns to her charming children’s series about the Penderwick family for one last adventure at Arundel, the estate where it all began. A wedding, a huge dog, a sheep, six siblings and various friends join together in a swirl of magic, chaos and fun. Delightful – the setting is contemporary but it feels old-fashioned, and it’s a treat to see the older Penderwick girls as grown-ups.

From Twinkle, with Love, Sandhya Menon
Twinkle Mehra is used to going unnoticed, but she dreams of changing the world through her films. As she prepares to make her first full-length movie, she writes letters to well-known female filmmakers, chronicling her work, her hopes and the everyday dramas of relating to family, friends and boys. I loved Menon’s debut, When Dimple Met Rishi. This one was a slower start for me, but I did enjoy it (and I loved Sahil, Twinkle’s producer/love interest).

Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, David Whyte
I like Whyte’s poetry and was delighted when a colleague passed on this nonfiction book. He muses on work as fundamental to our human experience, and shares part of his journey toward making creative work his full-time job. I thought this wandered a bit, but then, we all do on this journey. Lyrical, honest and thoughtful. I particularly liked the sections on being a creative “outlaw.” Part of my nonfiction #unreadshelfproject.

Pashmina, Nidhi Chanani
This sweet graphic novel follows Priyanka Das, an Indian-American girl, as she discovers a pashmina hidden in her mom’s closet that may unlock some family secrets. Whimsical and warm and lovely, and the illustrations are wonderful. Found at the fascinating Million Year Picnic.

Piecing Me Together, Renée Watson
Jade is a black teenager (and talented collage artist) in Portland who takes every opportunity she’s offered. But sometimes she gets tired of being the person people want to “fix.” A fascinating, thoughtful, honest novel about a girl learning to own her voice and navigate a complicated world. Recommended by Anne.

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

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heart sneakers trail

UNREST IN BATON ROUGE

after the photo by Jonathan Bachman

Our bodies run with ink dark blood.
Blood pools in the pavement’s seams.

Is it strange to say love is a language
Few practice, but all, or near all speak?

Even the men in black armor, the ones
Jangling handcuffs and keys, what else

Are they so buffered against, if not love’s blade
Sizing up the heart’s familiar meat?

We watch and grieve. We sleep, stir, eat.
Love: the heart sliced open, gutted, clean.

Love: naked almost in the everlasting street,
Skirt lifted by a different kind of breeze.

Smith is the current U.S. poet laureate. This poem is from her newest collection, Wade in the Water, which came out last week (April 3). I also enjoyed Smith’s memoir, Ordinary Light. And the New York Times had a fantastic piece about her this week.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year.

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ordinary light book journal

This February was up and down: weather-wise, work-wise, sleep-wise (the Olympics messed with that last one). But it included some fantastic books. Here’s the latest roundup:

Love and Ruin, Paula McLain
I loved McLain’s novel The Paris Wife, about Hadley and Ernest Hemingway, but frankly wasn’t sure I was up for another novel about the man. But the narrative voice of Martha Gellhorn, a fiery journalist who became his third wife, captivated me. McLain charts their passionate, stormy relationship and Martha’s fierce battle to build her career while living in Ernest’s shadow. Great writing, lots of drama (world and personal) and a searing portrait of complicated love. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 1).

Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill
This short novel garnered a lot of hype a few years ago, and I finally read it for my book club. It’s a string of vignettes and musings by a highly anxious woman in NYC whose marriage hits a rough patch. The viewpoint flips about halfway through from first to third person. I can see why others found this one compelling, but it didn’t work for me.

Ordinary Light, Tracy K. Smith
Smith, the U.S. poet laureate, turns to prose in this memoir, which chronicles her childhood in California and her mother’s powerful influence on her life. It started slowly for me, but I took my time and enjoyed it, especially the later sections. A few beautiful passages (one set in Lamont Library) and a thoughtful exploration of loss, belief and growing into ourselves. I also read Smith’s striking new collection, Wade in the Water (out in April), for review.

I Shall Not Want, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Russ Van Alstyne is grieving a great loss, and Clare Fergusson is balancing ministry and her assignment in the National Guard. They and the Millers Kill PD, including brand-new officer Hadley Knox, are swept up in a case involving undocumented immigrants, drug smuggling and murder. I can’t get enough of this series; this book was possibly the most powerful and honest yet.

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
This novel opens with teenage arson: a shocking act in most places, but especially in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a meticulously planned, rule-following community. Ng explores the interplay of two contrasting families: the stable, self-assured Richardsons, and newcomer Mia Warren (an itinerant artist) and her daughter Pearl. A page-turner with some compelling characters. I loved Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told You, and this is a solid second novel.

To Be Where You Are, Jan Karon
I’m a longtime repeat visitor to Mitford, Karon’s fictional North Carolina town. In this latest novel (#14), retired priest Father Tim finds himself with a new job, as his son and daughter-in-law struggle with their own challenges. I always love visiting Mitford; it’s small and homey, but the struggles are very real. Funny, comforting and wise.

One Was a Soldier, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Clare Fergusson is struggling to readjust to civilian life after a year in Iraq. She joins a local veterans’ group, and when one of her compatriots ends up dead, she (of course) dives into the investigation. Meanwhile, the other group members are wrestling their own demons, and it’s a small town, so it’s all connected. Powerful and heartbreaking; the seventh in a fantastic series.

Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory, Deena Kastor (with Michelle Hamilton)
I’m a novice enthusiastic runner; Kastor is a pro and an Olympic medalist. I was fascinated by her memoir of running: her early career, the wisdom she gained from coaches and teammates, and her focus on mental toughness. She’s relentlessly positive but not trite, and I loved following her journey. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 10).

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

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james baldwin quote books

Here in the middle of Black History Month, I have to start with a disclaimer: any reading list I can offer will be woefully incomplete.

I am reading more books by and about people of color these days, but I have a lot of catching up to do. While I recognize the gaps in my reading list, and the absurdity of highlighting black history during only one month of the year, I wanted to share a few titles that have helped me see beyond my own experience.

These books celebrate the accomplishments of black Americans, ask difficult questions about race and responsibility, and tell a good story – fiction or nonfiction. (For a list of great kids’ books on this theme, see my librarian friend Shelley’s recent post.)

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly is the fascinating true story of the brilliant black women who worked for NASA (doing complicated math the likes of which I can’t imagine) during World War II, the Cold War and the space race. It focuses on their accomplishments but doesn’t minimize the discrimination they faced. I also loved the movie version, starring Octavia Spencer and a knockout cast. Meticulous research + engaging writing + fantastic real-life characters = a brilliant launch.

I’ve recently discovered the work of Tracy K. Smith, who was named U.S. poet laureate last summer. I read Smith’s new collection Wade in the Water (out in April) for review; it’s thought-provoking, often searing, with some gorgeous lines. Then I picked up her memoir, Ordinary Light, which I just finished. It’s beautifully written, and powerful. (I appreciated Smith’s admission that she didn’t want to deal with the hard truths about her heritage for a long time.)

I love young adult fiction, and I’ve recently read several spectacular novels that feature young black women:

  • Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham is a dual-narrative novel that tells the story of the Tulsa race riots of 1921 and also hits on present-day issues.
  • Nicola Yoon’s second novel, The Sun is Also a Star, has one protagonist who’s terrified she’s about to be deported back to Jamaica, where she can barely remember living, when she meets (and falls for) a Korean-American boy.
  • Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give needs no introduction from me. It’s a horrifying portrait of the aftermath of a shooting (from the viewpoint of a witness), but I also loved it for its rich, complicated depiction of family life.

An oldie but a goodie: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was the first book I ever read (at around age 10) that featured a black protagonist who wasn’t a slave. Cassie Logan lives in Mississippi in the 1930s; her family owns their land, but is still dealing, every day, with the legacy of slavery, sharecropping and pervasive, damaging racism. I loved Cassie and her family, and my heart also broke for them every few pages. The sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, is also great.

Fast forward to a recent discovery for me: Brittney Cooper, whose essay collection Eloquent Rage is out this week. Cooper tips her hat to bell hooks, Audre Lorde and other giants of black feminism, but her tone and approach are very much her own. So much here to ponder; so much that made me uncomfortable, for good reason.

I recently read A Perilous Path: Talking Race, Inequality and the Law (out in March), a transcript of a conversation at NYU Law School by four leading black thinkers and activists: Sherrilyn Ifill, Loretta Lynch, Bryan Stevenson and Anthony C. Thompson. It’s short, but thought-provoking, and reminded me that I still need to read Stevenson’s Just Mercy.

You probably don’t need me to tell you about Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jacqueline Woodson, Jesmyn Ward or Colson Whitehead. Or about James Baldwin, whose quote (above) I found in the bathroom at McNally Jackson in NYC. Some of these authors are still on my to-read list. And they are only the beginning. I know, above all, that I still have so much to learn.

What are the most essential books you’ve read by and about people of color? Please share in the comments.

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alice network book chai red

I’m back from a trip out west to see some dear friends, and (no surprise) I did a lot of airplane reading. Here’s the latest roundup:

Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, Madeleine Bunting
I found this one at the Book House in Summertown, Oxford, last fall. It took me weeks: it’s a bit dense in places, but fascinating. Bunting explores the Outer Hebrides off the northwestern coast of Scotland and delves into their complicated histories. Less memoir-y than I wanted, though she does muse on the ideas of home, remoteness and living on the (literal) edge.

To Darkness and to Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming
During a single November day in Millers Kill, N.Y., events unfold that will change multiple lives. A young woman goes missing, a corporate land deal inches toward completion, a few men see their future plans crumbling (for varied reasons). Spencer-Fleming’s fourth mystery charts the complicated web of people affected by these events, including her protagonists, Rev. Clare Fergusson and police chief Russ Van Alstyne. So layered and so good.

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
This YA novel needs no introduction from me: it’s been all over the bestseller lists, and for good reason. Starr Carter, a young black woman, is the only witness to her childhood best friend’s murder at the hands of a white police officer. Starr is already navigating two worlds as a student at a mostly white prep school, but Khalil’s murder smashes her two worlds together. Stunning, heartbreaking, powerful. I was gripped and saddened by the main plot, but I also loved Thomas’ depiction of Starr’s tight-knit, complicated family.

The Alice Network, Kate Quinn
In 1915, a young Englishwoman named Evelyn Gardiner is recruited to spy for the titular network in German-occupied France. In 1947, Charlie St. Clair finds herself pregnant, adrift and searching desperately for news of her French cousin Rose, who disappeared in World War II. Quinn expertly ties Charlie’s and Eve’s stories together, with a propulsive plot, some truly fantastic supporting characters and a ruthless villain. I devoured this on a plane ride (and a passing flight attendant exclaimed, “It’s so good!”). Highly recommended.

All Mortal Flesh, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne are still struggling to navigate their relationship. When Russ’ recently estranged wife is found murdered in her kitchen, events spin wildly out of control. This mystery packed in so much pain and surprise – not just for Russ and Clare but for many of the supporting cast, who are fully realized characters in their own right. Broke my heart, but it was the best yet in this series.

A Desperate Fortune, Susanna Kearsley
I picked up this fascinating novel after loving Kearsley’s The Winter Sea. Sara Thomas, an amateur codebreaker, travels to France to decipher a young woman’s diary from the 1730s. Kearsley weaves Sara’s story together with that of the diary’s author, Mary Dundas, who finds herself mixed up with the Jacobites. I loved both narratives, but especially enjoyed watching Mary adapt to her rapidly changing circumstances and step into her own bravery.

Brave Enough, Cheryl Strayed
My mom gave me this little book of Strayed’s quotes for Christmas, and I’ve been dipping into it. I’m a bit ambivalent about her work, but there is some pithy, no-nonsense wisdom here.

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

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daffodils books ruth fitzmaurice

January was a long month – which, thank goodness, contained so many books that I needed a third roundup, for the first time in a while. Here’s the last batch:

A Perilous Path: Talking Race, Inequality, and the Law, Sherrilyn Ifill, Loretta Lynch, Bryan Stevenson and Anthony C. Thompson
In February 2017, these four brilliant black thinkers gathered at NYU for a conversation on systemic racism in the U.S.: its long history, the complicated gains under President Obama and their fears of what might happen under Donald Trump. This book is a transcript of that conversation: it’s short, but powerful and insightful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 6).

Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give, Ada Calhoun
I loved Calhoun’s candid, witty, clear-eyed essays on the long game of marriage. With chapters like “The Boring Parts,” she delves into the nitty-gritty of staying not only physically near, but committed to and considerate of – even devoted to – one person. I’ve been married nine (and a half) years, and Calhoun’s perspective rang so true. Inspired by her Modern Love essay, and recommended by Rebecca on All the Books!.

The Inheritance, Charles Finch
Reading The Woman in the Water (the upcoming prequel to the Charles Lenox series) reminded me that I’d missed this latest installment. Lenox’s 10th adventure involves an old school friend, the Royal Society of naturalists and a mysterious inheritance. I always enjoy spending time with Lenox and his supporting cast, and this was a pleasantly twisty case.

Out of the Deep I Cry, Julia Spencer-Fleming
This third mystery featuring Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne finds them trying to solve two missing-persons cases: one present-day, one decades-old. A layered plot involving land use, vaccinations and family secrets. I’m loving this series, which (so far) is compelling and also honest about the struggles of living a faithful life.

I Found My Tribe, Ruth Fitzmaurice
Ruth’s life changed drastically when her husband Simon was diagnosed with motor neuron disease (MND). She’s kept her sanity by chasing her five rambunctious children, wrangling a never-ending stream of nurses, and jumping into the frigid Irish Sea with her two dear friends. This memoir of swimming, grief and never-ending change is fragmented but lovely, like the sea glass her son Arden gathers on the beach. Honest and tender, sometimes raw, often beautiful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 6). I also enjoyed Simon’s memoir, It’s Not Yet Dark.

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

What are you reading this winter?

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