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Posts Tagged ‘summer’

Earlier this summer, one of my dear friends moved away (sniff), and we made a serious effort to soak up some time together before she left town. One afternoon in late June, she texted with a question: would I like to join her and her daughter at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum that week? Of course, the answer was yes.

The Gardner is one of my favorite semi-hidden Boston gems; it’s tucked away in the Fenway neighborhood, built around a central courtyard that’s full of lush plantings year-round. Mrs. Gardner, as the docents still call her, was an avid collector of art, furniture and curiosities, from around the world. Her acquisitions are still arranged just as she specified – in multilayered, sometimes overwhelming splendor – at the mansion/museum she called Fenway Court.

The first few times I went to the Gardner, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of art: there are thousands of objects, including paintings, textiles, furniture, dishes, sculptures, sketches, letters, tapestries and who knows what else. It took me a while to realize the goal isn’t to see or learn about everything: it’s to walk through and experience the total effect, the layers of history and different origin stories and artistic styles, all brought together by one woman’s passion for collecting. These days, I wander through, pausing when a piece catches my eye, but less focused on the details than on the whole.

This time was different, for several reasons: first, we enjoyed a snack at the cafe before our museum tour. I’d never been to the (relatively) new Cafe G before, but I have to say, the citrus pound cake was delicious (and felt fancy).

The three of us wandered around, starting at the top floor of the museum (for something different) and winding our way back down to the ground floor. I loved being there with 12-year-old Lucy, who noticed things I’d never have picked up on, and asked excellent questions (my favorite: “What would you want to ask Isabella, if you could?”).

In light of the current conversations around artistic objects, their provenance, and the recent encouraging trend of museums considering returning stolen objects, I also wondered about the collection at the Gardner. Where did all these objects come from? Who brought them to Isabella? Were they given freely (in exchange for money, of course) or stolen from their original homes? What happened to the people, buildings and communities who created them? I never used to consider these questions when I visited museums, but I am thinking about so many things differently now. (I am also, as ever, curious about the heist in 1990, which has never yet been solved.)

Every time I go to the Gardner, I find myself drawn to the windows in every room, gazing out onto the courtyard, which I find both restful and beautiful. (I’ve never seen the famous nasturtium plantings there, but it’s on my list for this winter.) Mostly, I was grateful to share a lovely afternoon with two women I love, in a place we all enjoy.

What local adventures are you having, these days?

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Hello, friends. It has been hot here in Boston (though I hear some relief might be on the horizon), and my workplace is still operating on a hybrid model. I like the flexibility of having a work-from-home day each week, but I can’t spend all day in my studio apartment without going a bit mad – especially when the temps are in the 90s. So I’ve been heading to (where else?) the local library on Tuesday afternoons to work.

I love the Eastie branch library: it’s airy, open and welcoming, with a cadre of friendly librarians whose faces I know now. It has air-conditioning, free wi-fi, and (of course) lots of books nearby. I bring my laptop and settle in at one of the tables, getting up occasionally to stretch or refill my water bottle. The people-watching, when I need a break from work emails, is always excellent: Eastie is truly multicultural, and the folks who use the library are multigenerational, too. There are worker bees with laptops, like me; folks who come in to use the public computers and printers; children coming in and out for summer reading programs; and lots of teenagers, who drift in and out during the afternoon.

I love both the idea and the reality of third places – those locales, neither work/school nor home, that bring people together and foster connection, as well as serving other purposes. My beloved Darwin’s in Cambridge was my third place for a long time; ZUMIX, my workplace, is a vital third place for the young people we serve. I love watching and participating in the library as a third place, too, and seeing my community thrive here.

Yes, it gets a little loud sometimes – but the presence of other people is often the whole point. I’m grateful the library is just a short bike ride away.

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This past weekend, I spent a day at Boston Fan Expo – known popularly, if not officially, as Boston Comic-Con – with my guy. He’s a comic-book geek from way back, and he and his son have been going to this event together for more than a decade.

It was my first con event ever, and I decided – after a fun but seriously overstimulating day – that it was sort of like traveling to a foreign country.

Why? First of all, it took a little effort to get there: for me, one stop on the train and then a bike ride to the convention center. G made sure to give me the lay of the land (not quite a guidebook, but close) before we went inside. But there was a lot he didn’t know, even after years of doing this, and a lot I had to figure out for myself.

Once inside, we explored and wandered. The costumes, languages and locals I saw spanned the gamut from familiar to totally unknown. I’m fairly fluent in Harry Potter, for example, and I speak a bit of Star Wars and some Lord of the Rings. But I only know a little Marvel, and even less DC (except for Wonder Woman, of course), and I don’t speak anime (or horror) at all. It reminded me of being in Spain: I could decipher some of the main language, with patience. But several of the dialects, and other languages such as Catalan and Euskara, remain totally unfamiliar to me after multiple trips there.

The people-watching, as advertised, was excellent: one vendor had a live parrot on her shoulder, and another had gone full hobbit, with pointy ears and a green Elven cloak fastened with a leaf clasp. I saw so many tattoos and costumes whose meanings I couldn’t begin to guess at, and mostly I saw a ton of folks having fun, in a world they inhabit and love.

We made sure to hydrate and take breaks, and I came away with a few fun souvenirs, including a Gryffindor keychain. I loved chatting with the locals (i.e. a few vendors) and exploring a part of G’s world alongside him. But by the end – I have to say – I was very ready to go home. We picked up tacos from a favorite local spot, headed back to my house, cracked open a new cider, and crashed.

Have you been to a con or other event like this? Did it feel like a foreign country to you?

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August has, so far, been hot and full and lovely. Between (and during) weekend adventures and heat waves, here’s what I have been reading:

Horse, Geraldine Brooks
I love Brooks’ thoughtful fiction that takes readers to unexpected places – all her novels are so different. This one deals with a discarded painting, a horse skeleton, a Civil War-era Black horse trainer and an NYC art dealer, among other things. I especially loved the sections about Jarret, the trainer. Rich and thought-provoking, like all her books.

Flying Solo, Linda Holmes
After calling off her wedding, Laurie Sassalyn returns to small-town Maine to clear out her elderly aunt’s house. She finds a carved wooden duck buried in a blanket chest, and tries to figure out how it got there. This is a sweet story with a bit of a mystery, but it’s mostly Laurie coming to terms with what she wants from her life. I loved the side characters like Laurie’s best friend June and actor brother Ryan, and I appreciated the musings on how womanhood and relationships don’t have to look the same for everyone.

By Any Other Name, Lauren Kate
Editor Lanie Bloom prides herself on handling crises at work, and snagging the perfect guy who fits her (long) list of criteria for a mate. But when Lanie gets (provisionally) promoted and finally meets her reclusive top-tier author, everything she thought she knew about life and love is thrown into question. I loved this sweet, witty publishing rom-com – shades of Nora Ephron, for sure – especially the subplot involving an elderly couple picnicking in Central Park. (Reminded me of this.)

Blurb Your Enthusiasm: An A-Z of Literary Persuasion, Louise Willder
Blurbs are “the outside story” of a book – and there’s more to them than most people think. Veteran copywriter Willder takes readers through the (literal) A-Z of blurbs, touching on publishing history, literary snobbery, racism, gender politics, puns (so many puns!) and other entertaining absurdities. Smart, nerdy and so much bookish fun. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 11).

The Key to Deceit, Ashley Weaver
London, 1940: Ellie McDonnell, locksmith and sometime thief, has (mostly) gone straight since getting caught by British intelligence. When Major Ramsey comes asking for her help again (albeit reluctantly), Ellie gets swept up in a mystery involving a young drowned woman, espionage, and more. I love Weaver’s elegant Amory Ames series and enjoyed Ellie’s first adventure; this one was even better.

Wise Gals: The Spies Who Built the CIA and Changed the Future of Espionage, Nathalia Holt
The CIA as we know it is relatively new – it was founded after WWII, and a small cadre of sharp, accomplished women was instrumental in its founding and early years. Holt peels back the curtain on five “wise gals” who shaped the agency, fought for equity and did critical work. Insightful, compelling and so well researched – a brilliant slice of mostly unknown history. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 13).

The Cannonball Tree Mystery, Ovidia Yu
As the WWII Japanese occupation of Singapore drags on, Chen Su Lin is translating propaganda articles, cooking for Japanese officials and trying to stay alive. When a relative of hers – a known blackmailer – ends up dead, Su Lin gets drawn into the case, especially when she realizes it might involve sensitive photos and info relating to the war. This mystery was still fairly grim, but a bit more hopeful as Su Lin reconnects with a few friends and the tide of the war begins (slowly) to turn.

Summer Solstice: An Essay, Nina MacLaughlin
I loved MacLaughlin’s thoughtful, lyrical memoir, Hammer Head, and picked up this slim essay at the Booksmith. She writes about summer’s fullness, its nostalgia, its mythical status as a season, its beauty and lushness and even its end. Lovely.

Vinyl Resting Place, Olivia Blacke
Juniper “Juni” Jessup has just moved back to her hometown to open Sip & Spin, a record shop she co-owns with her sisters. But when a local young woman is found dead after the opening-night party – and their uncle, suspiciously, skips town – Juni and her sisters investigate. A fun cozy mystery; first in a new series. I liked Juni and the Texas setting, though the other characters were a little thin. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 27).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

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It’s suddenly August (how??) and between work, a couple of weekend getaways and serious summer heat, here’s what’s saving my life right now:

  • Poetry Unbound. I had missed the most recent season, but am catching up, and it’s a joy to hear Padraig’s lilting Irish voice and discover new-to-me poets.
  • Daylilies, echinacea and sunflowers – it’s hot, but these beauties (like me) are hanging on.
  • The teeny tiny cherry tomatoes I’m growing on the back patio.
  • Sitting out back in the evenings with a book and some lemonade, when I can.
  • My favorite denim shorts, my trusty Allbirds sneakers and a few new tops from a friend, which amounts to a mini wardrobe refresh.
  • Lots and lots (and lots) of water.
  • Tea, always tea: MEM ginger peach, Trader Joe’s watermelon mint, the occasional iced chai.
  • Texts from a couple of lifesaving faraway friends.
  • Planning a couple of August adventures.
  • Watermelon facial mist from Trader Joe’s, which sounds ridiculous but is very refreshing.
  • Ukulele fun at my workplace: “Ode to Joy,” Bruno Mars’ “Count on Me” and assorted other tunes.
  • Fun books: rom-coms, mysteries, middle grade, a super nerdy nonfiction book about blurbs.
  • An occasional walk to the neighborhood park to watch the sunset (see above).

What’s saving your life in these deep summer days?

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We’ve arrived in mid- to late July, and thus the annual summer heat is here. June was dry but temperate this year, with most evenings falling to the 60s overnight: what my New England friends call “good sleeping weather.”

I love summer, with its fresh produce, abundant bright flowers and long, light evenings. But even for this Texas girl, a true heat wave can be rough. Here are some of the signs:

  • I’m running both box fans in my apartment 24/7, and pulling down the shades when I leave for work. At night, I turn on the tiny green fan next to my bed for an extra breeze.
  • I’m sleeping on top of the covers, and remembering childhood summer nights at Neno’s, when my sister would flop onto the bed dramatically and exclaim, “It’s too hot to live!”
  • I’m still running in the mornings (yes, I am), but I can wring out my headwrap in the bathroom sink when I get home, and a cool shower sounds quite appealing.
  • It’s iced chai weather – I’ve been frequenting Travelmug, the local coffee cart, and also getting a weekly smoothie from my friends at Eagle Hill Cafe.
  • I’m trying not to turn on the stove, except to boil water for tea, or to make that chickpea thing I’m eating almost every week lately.
  • I’m tending my cherry tomatoes (in pots, on the back patio) carefully, which right now means watering them almost every day.
  • I’m sipping Trader Joe’s limeade (in addition to lots of water) and eating raspberry sorbet in the evenings.
  • I’m strategically seeking out air-conditioning: at work, of course, but also at the yoga studio, the library, the grocery store or indoor cafes.
  • I’m trying to catch a sea breeze wherever I can: in the park, by the waterfront or even in my own backyard. It helps.
  • I am (of course) reading fun, summery books: YA and mysteries and lighthearted fiction. Preferably outdoors, and/or with a cool drink to hand.

How are you beating the heat this summer?

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On a recent Saturday afternoon, I took myself to Boston’s North End for some wandering, before meeting a friend and her kids for ice cream nearby. I’ve long enjoyed an occasional meal out there – the neighborhood is justly famous for its Italian food – but in the 12 years I have spent in Boston, I’ve rarely gone there simply to explore. It felt good to wander around while not worrying about making a dinner reservation, and I found a few new spots to enjoy.

My first stop, as you can tell from the photo, was I AM Books – a delightful Italian-American bookstore, which moved to its new home on Salem Street last fall. I’d never visited its first incarnation, to my shame, but this one is glorious. It has tons of space and an amazing selection of books about Italy, books in Italian, books on Italian food and culture, and books by Italian-American authors. I picked up a food memoir and some expensive (but delicious) chili-spiced chocolate.

The neighborhood has more than a few small shops, and I dropped into several: a funky vintage store, a sweet gift shop, a venerable wine shop with an incredible selection, a market called Going Bananas. There were lots of tourists around (it was a Saturday in July, after all), but it was fun to wander the streets as a local, picking up an item or two for dinner and noting restaurants I’d like to try soon.

My last stop was Salumeria Italiana, which my guy and I discovered only recently. Their sandwiches are delicious (and affordable!), but I was after something else: the briny mixed olives from their deli counter, which G loves. I picked up a bag of Tuscan crackers to go with them, and headed home via the T. I think I’ll save my next North End excursion for when the tourist traffic calms a bit – but it was still fun to explore a corner of my city in a way I rarely do.

What local adventures are you having, these days?

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Last month, my guy and I headed to the MFA on a Saturday (thank goodness for library passes). Both the permanent collection and the rotating exhibits there are stunning, and we love an occasional afternoon spent strolling among the art.

We spent most of our time in the New Light exhibit, which brings together new pieces and older artworks, placing them side by side and in conversation with one another. I saw more pieces than I can possibly tell you about here, but I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of art in different media, from different eras, telling different sides of a story or simply highlighting the various angles of a subject or topic.

There were paintings, of course, and sculptures, and mixed-media pieces made of textiles and paper and wood. There were pieces clearly inspired by other artists’ work, and a tiny scale model of a gallery that an artist had used to virtually showcase others’ pieces during the height of the pandemic. There was a sculpture of Fred Hampton’s door, a powerful piece calling attention to the brutality so often faced by Black Americans. There were detailed botanical drawings next to a piece by Lui Shtini that combined a recognizable flower with some fantastical elements. And there were a number of pieces that simply identified the artist as “Artist once known.”

That, perhaps, caught me more than anything else: a way to acknowledge the fact that artists unknown to us (many of them female, Indigenous or marginalized) were once known, and important, to their loved ones and communities. Someone knew this quilter, this painter, this sculptor, this folk artist who took such care to carve or draw or assemble a piece. Their identities, while maybe lost to us, are still important, and still vital to acknowledge. It brought those “unknown” artists a little closer to me, and reminded me that art is always saying something: it highlights beauty, records and analyzes events, calls out injustice, names and honors complicated emotions.

The neon sign above, which hangs in a different gallery of the MFA, reminds me of that, too: the museum encourages visitors to look, feel, talk, communicate, interact with the art. You don’t have to be an artist or an art historian to do any of those things, to engage with art on a human level. I’m grateful to the MFA for reminding me of that, in different and thought-provoking ways.

What local adventures are you having, this summer? How do you like to engage with visual art?

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My guy and I love a good bike ride, and he, in particular, can rarely resist a new trail. So when a friend of his told G about a recently completed project that links Cambridge with Watertown – and takes you from a busy retail area to the quiet of Fresh Pond – we had to check it out.

We started in Watertown on a humid Sunday, picking up the trail behind the Arsenal Mall and riding it through neighborhoods neither of us had ever seen. The area is a mix of residential and old industrial buildings, and it’s all suddenly lush with early-summer green. We crossed a few streets G knew, but so much of it was unexplored territory to him, and it was all fresh to me.

We took a snack break near Fresh Pond, eyeing the sky because a storm was rumored to be blowing in. The wind did kick up, but we decided to take our chances, and it was a beautiful ride (my first) around the pond.

I’ve been riding in Boston for several years, but there’s still so much I don’t know about the bike paths in the area. It was a particular treat, though, to explore a trail that neither of us knew – G’s delight in discovery was evident at every turn.

We’ll be riding more this summer, of course, and having other local adventures. I’m looking forward to every single one.

What local adventures are you having, these days?

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This weekend, my guy and I took a Sunday bike ride from his house to Harvard Square. We wandered the weekend farmers’ market, savored BLTs from our beloved Darwin’s, and checked out a new arts and vintage market (where I scored a gorgeous pair of earrings). He headed home after that, but I had one more stop to make: the brand-new location of a favorite Harvard Square institution, Brattle Square Florist.

As regular readers know, I’ve been stopping by Brattle Square since 2013, when I worked at Harvard and bought myself flowers at least once a week. Since I left the university, I’ve done my best to keep dropping in when I can, buying peonies and tulips and daffodils, iris and ranunculus and bright anemones – whatever is in season. I’ve bought amaryllis bulbs and sunflowers and multiple African violets, and Stephen, the kind-eyed owner, has tucked many an extra rose into my bouquets.

I was sad when I heard they were moving – but relieved that they found a new space right down the street, near the Ed School and now bright with flowers and houseplants. They moved in last week, and though the new space is smaller, it feels a bit like the old: exposed brick, buckets of blooms, some of the carved wooden angels from the old shop, and Stephen’s smile.

I sniffed and explored and bought a vivid bouquet: orange roses and three Coral Charm peonies, which change color as they bloom. I hugged Stephen and rode home, thrilled to see an old favorite transplanted and flourishing in a new place.

What local adventures are you having, these days?

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