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reasonable-miracles-book

And just like that (after a rainy, blustery Halloween), it’s November. Here’s what I have been reading:

A Long Petal of the Sea, Isabel Allende
Amid the chaos of the Spanish Civil War, thousands of refugees fled the continent, some ending up in Chile (thanks to the poet Pablo Neruda). Allende traces the lives of two families, a Spanish refugee couple and a wealthy Chilean family they meet on arrival, from the 1930s to the 1990s. A complex, fascinating, often heartbreaking story. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 21).

The Paris Library, Janet Skeslien Charles
When Odile Souchet lands a job at the American Library in Paris, she’s over the moon – but the Nazis are trying to conquer Europe, and Odile and her cadre of international colleagues are inevitably caught up in their net. Charles interweaves Odile’s story with that of a young teenager, Lily, who lives next door to Odile in 1980s Montana. So engaging, full of wonderful characters and book catnip. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 2).

Miracles and Other Reasonable Things: A Story of Unlearning and Relearning God, Sarah Bessey
Sarah is a longtime Internet friend. Like me, she’s spent the past several years wrestling with the black-and-white certainty of the evangelical faith we both once knew. This book tells the story of a car accident, a trip to Rome to meet the Pope, miraculous healing and chronic pain living side by side. I love Sarah’s writing and while this book wanders a bit (on purpose), it ends with fierce, tender, powerful hope.

Heaven, My Home, Attica Locke
Still reeling from his last complicated case (and his mother’s blackmail), Texas Ranger Darren Mathews is called out to find a missing child – the son of white supremacists – in an East Texas town simmering with racial tension. Locke’s writing crackles and her characters, especially Darren, feel complicated and real.

The Wicked Redhead, Beatriz Williams
Flapper Geneva “Gin” Kelly surprised herself and everyone else by falling in love with a Prohibition agent. In this sequel to The Wicked City, Gin tries to reckon with her new love and care for her orphaned young sister, while a woman named Ella (connected both to Gin and Williams’ illustrious Schuyler family) tries to extricate herself from a troublesome marriage. Deliciously addictive and entertaining (though Ella drove me nuts) – Gin is a stellar character. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 10).

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

What are you reading?

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Libros de España

libros viajes casa del libro sevilla

As regular readers know, earlier this summer, I returned to Spain for the first time in nearly a decade. Naturally, my favorite way to prepare for travel is to dive into a stack of relevant books.

Besides the excellent Lonely Planet Andalucía, which I found indispensable, I discovered several books that made my trip both más fácil (easier) and más divertido (more fun).

Patricia Harris writes with verve and a keen eye for detail about 100 Places in Spain Every Woman Should Go (which I picked up at the Book Catapult in San Diego this spring). Divided by region, Harris’ guide includes all the classics: Granada’s stunning Alhambra, live flamenco performances, tiny tapas bars and sprawling markets. But it’s also full of quirky gems: an olive oil tasting workshop; the house of a former duchess, now a museum; a meditation on the title character of Bizet’s opera Carmen. Harris’s book sparked my enthusiasm and inspired me to take in a few unusual sights.

While I did rent a bike one afternoon in Sevilla, I still stand in awe of British cyclist Polly Evans’s intrepid journey through Spain on two wheels, chronicled with dry wit in her memoir It’s Not About the Tapas (which I read years ago, on another trip to Spain). From San Sebastián to the Costa del Sol, Evans battled fatigue, recalcitrant bike gears and the local wildlife (including goats), as she sampled the food, culture and cycling trails in every region of Spain. It’s a highly entertaining journey through a vivid, fascinating country.

My vacation reading stack included Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, which I’d been meaning to read for years. Though I didn’t visit Barcelona on this trip, Zafón’s utterly bewitching novel of postwar love and revenge–set in a bookshop!–had me spellbound on our bus rides between various cities.

Needless to say, I’m already planning my next viaje a España–and the requisite reading material. ¡Olé!

Note: I originally wrote most of this post as a column for Shelf Awareness, where I’m a regular contributor.

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sevilla buildings yellow

When people ask us what we did in Sevilla this summer, I usually arrive at some version of: we walked. And walked. And walked.

bougainvillea flowers sevilla

Walking is my favorite way to explore a city – whether treading familiar paths in Boston or Oxford or NYC, or discovering entirely new settings in cities I’m visiting for the first time.

sevilla street tower buildings spain

Fortunately, Sevilla is highly walkable, with rambling cobblestoned streets lined with beautiful, brightly painted buildings, and dozens of plazas that appear around unexpected corners.

metropol sevilla blue sky

We walked several miles a day while we were there – through narrow twisting neighborhoods, along broad avenidas, down to the river and back again.

sevilla river bridge spain

My feet were plenty sore by the time we left, but I enjoyed every ramble. Andiamos, indeed.

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cafe con leche cafe hercules sevilla

One of my favorite parts of Spain, this time, was breakfast.

I am both a person who enjoys breakfast and a person who needs it: if I’m up and about for too long without eating anything, I start to wilt and then I crash. It’s not pretty.

Happily for me, the Spanish also love their breakfast. I had nearly the same thing every morning during our time in Spain: una tostada y café con leche.

In my regular life, I am adamantly not a coffee drinker: even my long-ago stint as a barista failed to convert me to coffee, though it did help establish my tea addiction. But I first tried café con leche on a long-ago midwinter weekend in Valencia, and loved it, to my own surprise. So this time, I took full advantage of the opportunity to enjoy it every morning.

tostada cafe hercules sevilla

The other element of breakfast in Spain is una tostada: toasted or grilled bread topped with crushed tomatoes and doused in olive oil. This, as my new friend Karen points out, is the traditional option, but many places offer variations on the theme: con queso, con mermelada, con jamón (cheese, marmalade or jam and sliced ham, respectively). My favorite variation: con aguacate (avocado).

That’s what you see above, at what quickly became my favorite cafe in Sevilla: Café Hércules. They offer several types of bread, then let you mix and match your own toppings. Plus the staff are friendly, the coffee is delicious, and the whole relaxed-funky-local vibe reminded me irresistibly of my beloved Darwin’s.

We tried several other breakfast spots in Sevilla, mostly thanks to Karen’s recs. She’s an American travel writer and blogger whom we met at a yoga class on our first morning there. After class, we all went for desayuno in the nearby plaza, and Karen told me about her blog. By a semi-coincidence, we ran into Karen and her husband, Rich, at Bar Alfalfa – another one of Karen’s faves – a few days later.

My other favorite part of eating out is the people-watching, and desayuno offers a perfect way to do that: sipping a café and munching a tostada in a neighborhood bar means you have a reason to be there and plenty of time to watch the locals come in and out. We always left caffeinated and fortified. And since we got home, we’ve been making our own tostadas on Saturday mornings while we watch the World Cup. A little taste of Spain.

More Spain photos and stories to come.

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alhambra garden fountains roses

Here is the thing about revisiting a place after 14 years: sometimes it feels less familiar than you expected.

I knew that much of our Spain trip, this time, would feel new. I’d never been to Sevilla, never flown straight to Madrid and then Málaga from the U.S., never been to this part of Spain with my husband. Even the neighborhood of Granada where we stayed, the steep cobblestoned streets of the Albayzín, was entirely unknown to me. I expected – even anticipated – dozens of new experiences, new memories.

But I was also expecting something else: the shock of recognition that often comes when you step back onto the ground of a place you have loved.

I am no stranger to this feeling: I’ve had it happen in London, in Washington, D.C., in Prince Edward Island and San Diego and always, always, in Oxford. I am a person who remembers, and I remembered loving Granada, on my first visit there. So I hoped, even expected, it would feel familiar.

And, at first, it didn’t.

I kept waiting to turn down a side street or step into a restaurant or happen upon a square, to glimpse the roofline of a building or the sweep of a view and remember something. And at first – though, as I said, we were staying in a different location and doing new things – I didn’t feel it at all.

I’d glanced through my old photos, the week before we left. I kept remembering snippets of the time I’d spent in Granada with Kyle and Jenny, Elizabeth and Marcela. I remembered a sun-drenched hostel kitchen with saltillo tile on the floor and stacks of toast for breakfast. I remembered tapas and sangria at La Bella y La Bestia. I remembered a group trip to La Alhambra. But I couldn’t make any of it fit with the city I was seeing before me. The architecture matched, but none of it looked like anything I’d seen before.

On our second day in Granada, J and I hiked down and across the Rio Darro, up the opposite hill, to La Alhambra. We had a perfect view of this ancient Moorish palace from our apartment terrace, and I remembered it – palaces, gardens, fountains – as absolutely stunning. And it is. But most of it felt unfamiliar: the labyrinthine garden paths, the intricate tile and plasterwork in the palaces, the views from countless arched windows, the roses. (That last was definitely new: my first visit to La Alhambra was in March, so different plants were in bloom at that time of year.)

We walked on, and I snapped dozens of pictures, but felt sadder and sadder that I couldn’t remember any of it. I’m no longer that girl, twenty years old and wide-eyed, who came to Spain on a whim and a prayer, but she’s still a part of me. I wanted so badly to find some glimpse of her, and I wondered what it meant that I couldn’t.

Near the end of our tour, we walked through the Generalife gardens, which are lush this time of year: tall cedars and red nasturtiums, vivid sweet peas and green arching hedges, so many roses in every color. We wandered into one last palace courtyard, and I all but literally stopped in my tracks because it finally hit me: I was here.

alhambra garden 2004 fountains

The twin fountains on either side of a long, narrow reflecting pool; the whitewashed building at the opposite end; the light and color and feel of the place, even though (as I have said) it was long ago in a different season. I almost started crying, because it was finally true: I remember this.

Suddenly, I could glimpse my friends, or thought I could, out of the corner of my eye. Marcela, squinting into the sun and taking pictures; Elizabeth, with her backpack and sunglasses. Jenny, with her T-shirt sleeves rolled up, and Kyle, gesturing toward every view and saying, with a smile, “Qué linda, no?” (Linda means beautiful, and he was right every time.)

We lingered a few minutes and I snapped half a dozen pictures. Later I would compare them side by side with the one I’d saved from my first trip to La Alhambra, to confirm: this was the place. But I didn’t need to look at the old photo. I knew in my bones that I’d been here before.

The city did not magically unfold itself in memory after that. I only caught a few other glimpses of our first trip, mostly through smells and tastes instead of other sights. But La Alhambra was one of the reasons I fell in love with Granada, one reason I’d insisted to J that we go there this time. So it seems fitting that it was the place where past and present clicked together.

k j alhambra garden granada roses

Just for a moment, I stood in both at once: the adventure I went on as a college student and the life I’ve built as a grown and married woman. The first-time traveler, clueless and eager, and the more seasoned one who’s still searching for something in every place she goes.

I’m no longer that girl, as I said; nor should I be, after nearly a decade and a half. I’ve grown beyond her in many ways, but I still carry her with me. It felt good, and somehow right, to meet her again in a garden and a city we both loved. I breathed a bit easier for the rest of the trip, after that.

More Spain photos and stories to come.

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Ever since the first time I visited Spain, I’ve wanted to go back.

That initial trip came in the middle of a spring semester in Oxford, when my classmates and I took budget flights to the Continent and spent long weekends trekking new cities. We slept in hostel bunk beds, got lost on winding streets with signage in unfamiliar languages, soaked up museums and cathedrals and new foods, and generally had the time of our lives.

spain group 2004

I spent my Spring Break that year with four friends on a ten-day jagged loop of travel that began and ended in Barcelona. We hopped down to Granada and then the south coast for a couple of nights before a train journey to Madrid, which ended prematurely when terrorists bombed several trains in the city that morning. We were still several hours away, but we were substantially delayed, and the city was in shock by the time we arrived.

To many of our loved ones, that last incident came to define the whole trip. We couldn’t get word to our parents and professors for hours, and they were, understandably, terrified. But I have fought ever since to hold on to what came before: a whole week of exploring and soaking up a vivacious, beautiful country, eating tapas and drinking sangria and wandering to our hearts’ content.

I flew back to Spain for a long weekend in the winter of 2008, wandering Valencia with my friend Cole and a group of American students, drinking café con leche and eating fresh oranges and, one night, crowding into the back of a smoky bar to watch live flamenco. The following year, my husband and I took an autumn trip to the Basque country of northern Spain, where we wandered narrow streets in Pamplona and ate our weight in pintxos in San Sebastian, and tried to decipher signs written in Euskara.

Earlier this month – nearly 10 years later – we flew to Andalucía for a glorious 10-day jaunt: to Sevilla, new territory for both of us, and Granada, which I already adored. There are many stories to tell about our trip, and I’ll be sharing some of them with you this summer.

But it starts here: with Kyle saying, “Why don’t we go to Spain?” one night in Oxford, nearly a decade and a half ago. With Marcela, who’s from Honduras, acting as our chief interpreter, and Elizabeth navigating half a dozen unfamiliar cities by paper map. It starts with Jenny’s sweet smile and Kyle’s dad sense of humor, with the wide, colorful chaos of Las Ramblas in Barcelona and the crisp mountain air of Granada. It starts with a hike in the hills near Órgiva, with oranges plucked from tree branches hanging over a fence, with bulky backpacks and plastic grocery sacks of fresh fruit. It starts with crusty baguettes and jamón serrano and slices of queso manchego eaten in public parks at lunchtime. It starts with card games in hostels, with hanging clean laundry to dry on pensión terraces, with glasses of sangria and inside jokes and the wonders of La Alhambra.

Since that first journey, Spain has lived in my bones, and I was absolutely thrilled to go back – again. And while we made lots of wonderful new memories, this trip was part of that larger story. It was my fourth viaje a España, but I very much hope it won’t be my last.

More Spain photos and stories to come.

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libros viajes casa del libro sevilla

Hello, friends. I’m back from a glorious 10-day vacation in Spain, which included (among other things) lots of librerías.

I’m not fluent in Spanish, so I couldn’t read most of the books, but I loved seeing foreign editions of books I know and new-to-me libros in Spanish. This shot is from Casa del Libro in Sevilla.

I brought along a pile of English-language books to read, and here they are:

My Oxford Year, Julia Whelan
Roxanne sent me a link to this book and of course I had to pick it up: a young American woman who’s always dreamed of Oxford goes there as a Rhodes scholar, and falls in love with the city (and more). A little frothy, but with surprising depth, an engaging cast of characters and so many wonderful details about my favorite city.

It Happened Like This: A Life in Alaska, Adrienne Lindholm
Lindholm has always had a taste for wildness and open space – so she moved to Alaska in her twenties, chasing both. She chronicles her journey in an honest, luminous memoir of her years working for the National Park Service and building a life in the backcountry. Thoughtful and compelling and lovely. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 21).

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Barcelona, 1945: Daniel Sempere visits the Cemetery of Forgotten Books with his father and discovers a novel by an obscure author called Julián Carax. As Daniel digs into Carax’s life story, he gets caught up in a twisting narrative of love, revenge and family secrets. An absolutely fantastic, dark, witty, absorbing novel – reading it on bus rides between Spanish cities was just perfect.

Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, Mario Giordano
When she turns sixty, Auntie Poldi retires to Sicily, intending to drink herself peacefully to death. To her surprise, she finds herself enjoying her new hometown. And when her young handyman is murdered, she tries her hand at a bit of amateur sleuthing. A witty, vividly described, slightly madcap mystery romp full of colorful characters. First in a new series. Recommended by Anne (it’s in her Summer Reading Guide).

Jolly Foul Play, Robin Stevens
When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong return to their boarding school, an unpopular fellow student is murdered right under their noses. But who killed her, and why? Who is spreading rumors and secrets around the school? And can Daisy swallow her pride and let a few other friends help with the detecting? Stevens’ fourth mystery had both an excellent plot and some keen insight from Hazel about how people treat one another.

The Secret Ways of Perfume, Cristina Caboti
Elena Rossini comes from a long line of female perfumiers, but she’s fought against making perfume her career and life. At a crossroads, though, she moves to Paris and begins to embrace perfume. This novel started strong (and the scent descriptions are wonderful) but fell a bit flat toward the end. Still fun. Found at Librería Reguera in Sevilla.

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

What are you reading?

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