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stronger together heart graffiti three lives

Today is just another Monday in many places. But here in my adopted city of Boston, it’s Marathon Monday.

It’s been five years since the bombing near the finish line that marked Boston, and the marathon, forever. We are a little wary these days, a little battle-weary, a little scarred. There is still joy in the marathon, but it’s layered with grief, and a fierce, stubborn gladness. This city, and the runners who descend on it every year, possess grit in spades. And they – we – are determined to keep going.

This year, as a novice runner, I understand the marathon in a new way. For the first time, I have a small sense of what it’s like to lace up your running shoes and get out there even when you don’t feel like it, even when the weather sucks, even when you’d rather stay inside.

I also have a small sense of the joy that comes from pushing yourself, from settling into the rhythm of a run, from sweating and moving and pounding the pavement (or in my case, the river trail). I am learning all the time about sore legs and stretching, about warming up and cooling down, about layers and sports bras and the importance of a good playlist. (It will surprise no one that I love to run to Hamilton.)

selfie gray hat river trail

I don’t pretend to know the particular challenges of being an elite runner or even a marathoner. The longest race I’ve ever (yet!) run is a 5K. But I’m prouder and more excited than ever for the marathon this year, because now I’m a runner. In a small way, I’m one of them.

I am cheering on every single person running today, from the leading elites to those who will limp across the finish line. (I am especially proud of my former colleague Jim Ryan, dean of Harvard’s Ed School.)

This is their race and this is our city. Together, we are Boston Strong. And if you’re running, we are all rooting for you.

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love hate other filters book mug scone tea

Hello, friends. I know March isn’t quite over, but I’ve been out of town and back again, so I have a slew of books to share with you. And so many of them are excellent. Here’s the latest roundup:

Love, Hate & Other Filters, Samira Ahmed
Maya Aziz loves filmmaking: capturing the perfect shot, whether at an Indian wedding (under protest) or an ordinary Tuesday. But Maya’s film-school dreams, and her daily life in small-town Illinois, are shattered when a hate crime  makes her a target. A powerful exploration of what it means to be a brown Muslim teen in the U.S., and also a sweet, wry, witty coming-of-age story with some romance thrown in.

Encore Provence, Peter Mayle
A friend gave me her extra copy of this book a while back. Mayle’s gentle, witty, thoughtful essays on Provence – olive oil, truffles, gardens, the joys of meandering – were the perfect snow-day (and commute) escapism. Lovely.

Waiting for the Light, Alicia Suskin Ostriker
I picked up this poetry collection at Porter Square Books recently; Ostriker’s poem on crocuses sold me. Many of the others were more opaque, but it’s always worth exploring (and supporting!) a new poet.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, Karina Yan Glaser
I’d been hearing about this charming middle-grade novel everywhere. When the five Vanderbeeker kids learn that their crotchety, mysterious landlord (the Beiderman) isn’t renewing their lease, they embark on a hilarious campaign to convince him that they should stay. A wonderful, warmhearted family story – a bit like the Melendys, in 21st-century Harlem.

Beauty in the Broken Places, Allison Pataki
Novelist Pataki and her medical-student husband, Dave, were on a plane headed for Hawaii when Dave had a massive stroke. Pataki chronicles their love story and Dave’s incredible recovery in this heartfelt memoir. The narrative dragged a bit in the middle, but it’s still an inspiring true story. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 1).

The Secrets Between Us, Thrity Umrigar
After abruptly leaving her longtime job as a maid, Bhima struggles to support herself and her granddaughter, Maya, while living in the slums of Mumbai. She sets up a vegetable stand with Parvati, another down-on-her-luck woman who’s hiding secrets of her own. A compelling, evocative and often heartbreaking portrait of two women living on the knife edge of poverty. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 26).

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
I’d heard about this slim novel for months, and finally picked it up for my book club. It follows young lovers Nadia and Saeed, who escape their city as life there becomes increasingly untenable. A lovely but harrowing novel of refugees, with a bit of magical realism. (Like Jaclyn, I trust President Obama’s reading taste.)

Girl Runner, Carrie Snyder
As a young woman, Aganetha Smart made history running for Canada in the 1928 Olympics. As a wheelchair-bound centenarian, she’s left with only her memories, until two young people show up at her nursing home. A tough, lyrically written novel of hardship, family and running. Recommended by Liberty.

The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, Alan Bradley
I bought this latest Flavia de Luce novel in Boise and saved it to read on my recent vacation. Flavia and her sisters are on holiday when they find a corpse floating in the river. Flavia dives into investigating his death, alongside the family’s faithful retainer, Dogger. This series is so much fun; Flavia’s narrative voice is witty and wry, though my heart breaks for her sometimes. A well-plotted mystery.

The Map of Salt and Stars, Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
After her father’s death, 12-year-old Nour has returned to Syria (from NYC) with her mother and sisters. But when their home is bombed, they become refugees, on the move throughout the Middle East with millions of others. Joukhadar weaves Nour’s story together with the legend of a female mapmaker’s apprentice from medieval times. A stunning dual narrative about crossing borders and finding home. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 1).

Bruno, Chief of Police, Martin Walker
In the French town of St. Denis, crime is rare and murder is unheard of – until an elderly north African man is brutally killed. The town’s lone titular policeman investigates, discovering links leading back to World War II. A (mostly) gentle setup to a series; Bruno is a likable character and St. Denis is charming, though the ending left me unsettled. Recommended by Leigh.

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

What are you reading?

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the long run book snow menzies-pike

My one little word for this year is grit. Two and a half months in, it’s already proven quite apt.

I’m running several times a week these days, and that takes grit. Getting myself out onto the trail after a long workday can be tough, but it’s rewarding.

There’s also the literal grit that collects in the treads of my running shoes (and, subsequently, on my kitchen floor). And the grit required to power through the boot-camp workouts I’ve been doing on Monday nights with Erin and a handful of other women. We do bursts of cardio – high knees, jumping jacks – interspersed with lunges and squats, weight training and push-ups.

Sometimes – I won’t lie – it’s hard. But it, too, is rewarding.

I’ve been on the lookout for words about grit, and I found the first ones, fittingly, in Catriona Menzies-Pike’s wonderful memoir, The Long Run.

Like me, Menzies-Pike is a lifelong bookworm who never expected to become a runner. Also like me, she fell in love with the sport and was amazed at the changes it wrought in her body and soul. She writes about pushing through, trying and failing, building up endurance and coming face to face with her own limits. “While I might not be sporty, I sure as hell was gritty,” she asserts. I’ve thought about that line during a couple of hard runs on the trail.

I came across more words on grit in Love and Ruin, Paula McLain’s stunning novel about journalist Martha Gellhorn and her tempestuous love affair with Ernest Hemingway. The book contains many beautiful, blazingly honest passages about love and loss and war.

Early, on, as Gellhorn talks to a group of republican rebels during the Spanish Civil War, she realizes: “they didn’t have an endless supply of bravery, because no one ever did. When courage failed them, they would find a way to stand their ground anyway and fight on spirit alone. They had that in spades—grit rather than bravery.”

The word grit caught my eye, as did the comparison to courage: these two things as related, but distinct. Much later in the book, Gellhorn—now working as a war correspondent in besieged Finland—says simply, “I didn’t feel brave, though. It wasn’t bravery when you did what you had to do.”

Grit is doing what you have to do, and also what you know you should do. For me, it’s often about the daily tasks that require not only courage, but stick-to-it-iveness. Sometimes I fail at these, or run out of steam, but I’m doing my best to keep going.

So often, these days, grit is required: to do my work and take care of my people and simply keep on going. Good words help with that, and I’m grateful for these.

Are you following a word or phrase this year? How’s it going?

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yellow crocuses light leaves flowers

March blew in like a lion with two wild, wet nor’easters back to back, and no lack of responsibilities at work and at home. As I navigate these blustery days, here’s a handful of tiny things, like bits of glitter, that are saving my life now:

  • That first sip of Darwin’s chai in the morning, after I lift the cup off the bar and before I put the lid on. It’s hot, spicy and life-giving.
  • Catching the trolley or the Red Line without having to wait.
  • The first (!) golden crocuses, spotted in the yard of a pink house on Cambridge St. (The man who lives there cut some of his roses for me last summer.)
  • Good pens, and ink-stained fingers.
  • Letting the sunlight flood full into my face as I look out the kitchen window, step outside my office building or sink into my favorite pew at Mem Church.
  • Brian Doyle’s rambling rollicking jubilant heartbreaking sentences in Mink River. They read like the Irishman he was: tender and clear-eyed, vivid and joyous.
  • The first scent of spring on an evening run last week: not just damp earth, which I also love, but the distinct smell of fresh blooming things.
  • The chalk heart that someone draws over and over again on the river trail.
  • Seeing my work in Shelf Awareness, which never fails to thrill me. If you love books, you should subscribe – it’s free, fun and informative.
  • A few places in my life where I am sure of a welcome: my florist’s shop, my boss’ office, my Thursday-morning haunt on the sixth floor. And – say it with me now – Darwin’s. (Though that’s not such a small thing at all.)

Some of these lifesavers are tiny indeed. But they anchor me and bring me joy, over and over again.

What’s saving your life these days? I’d love to know.

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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.

What are you reading?

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sunday sunset river trail neponset

Regular readers know that I periodically turn back to the question of what’s saving my life now. I got it from Barbara Brown Taylor, and I always find answering it a helpful exercise, especially in the winter.

My friend Anne agrees. And today, at the halfway point of winter, she’s gathering all of us to share what’s saving our lives these days.

Here’s my list:

  • Paperwhite narcissus in my kitchen window. I started a new pair of bulbs last week and they are growing a bit every day.
  • The sunrise out that same window, every morning (when it’s not snowing).
  • Related: any scrap of blue sky I can find.
  • Tulips and daffodils for my desk and my kitchen table.
  • The weekly chats with my florist. Dear man.

ranunculus pink orange flowers

  • Spicy chai and scones from Darwin’s, and checking in with my people there. (Always.)
  • My winter gear: snow boots, warm gloves, hats, scarves and my two coats.
  • The days when I can wear real shoes to work. (Related: clear sidewalks, when I can find them.)
  • Tangy, bright clementines.
  • Fleeced-lined tights on frigid days.
  • Any time I can spend on the river trail: walking, running, taking deep breaths.

selfie gray hat river trail

  • The sleeveless gray sweater I found in Oxford this fall: the coziest thing I own. I’m wearing it almost every day, usually over a striped dress.
  • Good books: the latest Marisa de los Santos novel; Ada Calhoun’s wise, candid essays on marriage; lots of mysteries.
  • My favorite podcast: All the Books!, which features Rebecca and Liberty talking books and all sorts of randomness. Makes me laugh out loud on the regular.
  • The Wailin’ Jennys, in my ears on the river trail.
  • Lots and lots of water.
  • So much tea: ginger peach, Earl Grey, peppermint for the late nights.
  • My light box and Vitamin D pills, for the grey days.
  • Texts from a couple of dear friends.
  • The occasional glass of red wine or cup of strong tea with a girlfriend.
  • Monday night boot camp + yoga, both taught by the inimitable Erin.
  • Huevos on Mondays after that doubleheader workout.
  • A couple of upcoming trips I’m excited about. Having something to look forward to always helps.
  • Listening to Acoustic Sunrise as the hubs and I drive to church on Sunday mornings.
  • Good pens, and a minute to scribble in my journal here and there.
  • My Thursday morning writers’ meetings across the street: sarcastic and fun and so informative.
  • Season 8 (yes, we’re behind) of Modern Family, which makes my husband laugh harder than anything, these days.

What’s saving your life now? Please share in the comments, and/or hop over to Anne’s site to read her list of lifesavers and more.

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the winter sea book cover lights bare feet

It’s still cold: it is January in Boston, after all, though most of our recent snow has melted. I’m switching between getting out in the weather (commuting, running, seeing friends) and curling up inside with good books. Here’s the latest roundup:

The Long Run: A Memoir of Loss and Life in Motion, Catriona Menzies-Pike
Menzies-Pike describes herself as a “gin-addled bookworm” who traded late nights for long runs, to her own surprise. She took up running almost on a whim, and it has transformed her sense of how she moves through the world. I recognized myself (I’m a novice runner) in this wry, insightful, whip-smart memoir about running, grief, moving forward, and the politics of running as a woman. Fantastic, and the perfect book for me right now.

The Winter Sea, Susanna Kearsley
Novelist Carrie McClelland heads to the ruins of Slains Castle, north of Aberdeen, to research her latest historical saga. She invents a heroine, naming her Sophia after a distant ancestor, but soon finds she’s writing down details she couldn’t have read elsewhere. Kearsley intertwines Carrie’s story with Sophia’s journey and the history of the Jacobites. Perfect midwinter reading – I loved the characters (especially the Countess of Erroll and Colonel Graeme), the romance and the setting.

Moxie, Jennifer Mathieu
I heard about this YA novel from Shelf Awareness, Sarah and Kari. Vivian is a good girl in small-town Texas who gets fed up with the egregious sexism at her high school from male students and administrators. Inspired by her mom’s Riot Grrrl zines, she makes her own – called Moxie – and starts a movement. I loved the fierce girl-power vibe, but also how messy and real it felt: Viv and her friends struggle to take a stand and reach across lines of race, class and cliques. Inspiring, fresh and often funny.

A Fountain Filled with Blood, Julia Spencer-Fleming
This sequel to In the Bleak Midwinter finds the Reverend Clare Fergusson and chief of police Russ Van Alstyne dealing with a rash of hate crimes in their small New York town. We learn more about their respective military experiences, and the plot deals (somewhat obliquely) with homophobia. Not as gripping as the first one, but I like these characters, especially Clare.

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, Brittney Cooper
“Owning anger is a dangerous thing if you’re a fat Black girl like me,” Cooper writes. But she owns her rage in these powerful essays, with brilliance, bravery and wit. We need – I need – more voices like Cooper’s, as we grapple with questions about race in this country. She urges us to own our complicity, ask good questions and join the fight for justice. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 20).

I’ll Be Your Blue Sky, Marisa de los Santos
I adore de los Santos’ luminous novels about family, and loved this dual-narrative one about Clare, whom I know from Love Walked In. Days before her wedding, Clare meets an elderly woman named Edith, who gives her some wise advice (which leads to Clare calling off the wedding) and later leaves her a house and a mystery to solve. Lovely and insightful – vintage de los Santos – and I loved revisiting these familiar characters. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 6).

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

What are you reading this winter?

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