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July is (almost) over, and while sweating through a heat wave, here’s what I have been reading:

The Mimosa Tree Mystery, Ovidia Yu
As World War II rages, the Japanese have occupied Singapore, and Chen Su Lin finds herself coerced into helping them solve the murder of her neighbor, Mr. Mirza. Much grimmer than Su Lin’s first three adventures, this is a sobering look at life under Japanese occupation and a compelling mystery.

The Murder of Mr. Wickham, Claudia Gray
I loved this fun mystery (recommended by Anne) that brings together the main characters from many of Jane Austen’s novels for a house party hosted by Emma and George Knightley. Mr. Wickham (that cad!) shows up uninvited, and before long he ends up dead. Juliet Tilney, Catherine’s daughter, and Jonathan Darcy, son of Elizabeth, band together to find the killer. Witty and entertaining, with some interesting subplots. I’d absolutely read a sequel.

Welcome to the School by the Sea, Jenny Colgan
I usually enjoy Colgan’s gentle British rom-coms, often set in charming small towns. This is an older book of hers, reissued, and it shows: there are some fun moments, but the character development is thin, and there is so much fat-shaming. First in a series.

Where There’s a Whisk, Sarah J. Schmitt
Peyton Sinclaire believes she has one shot to escape her trailer-park life in Florida: winning the Top Teen Chef reality show competition. But when she arrives in Manhattan and starts navigating the show’s cooking challenges and interpersonal dynamics, she learns a thing or two she didn’t expect. I loved this sweet, foodie YA novel, especially the way it wrapped up.

Finding Me, Viola Davis
I’ve been impressed by Davis as an actor, but didn’t know her story. She tells it at a sometimes breakneck pace – from growing up in abject poverty in Rhode Island to college to Juilliard to success on stage and film, to marriage and complicated family dynamics. A brutally honest account of her life; so much trauma, so much grit and hard work, and finally some joy. Recommended by Anne.

For the Love of the Bard, Jessica Martin
Miranda Barnes – literary agent, middle child, YA writer under a pseudonym – goes back to her Shakespeare-obsessed hometown for its annual Bard festival. While there, she has to deal with scary health news for a family member, festival committee politics, and – oh yeah – the guy who broke her heart back in high school. I loved this theater-nerd romance with complex sibling dynamics, totally relatable life struggles and a swoony romance. Found at the wonderful Phoenix Books in Burlington, VT.

They Called Me a Lioness: A Palestinian Girl’s Fight for Freedom, Ahed Tamimi and Dena Takruri
Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi made international news after a video of her slapping an Israeli soldier went viral. This memoir recounts her childhood, her family’s life under the Israeli occupation, her arrest and imprisonment (and other traumas), and her continuing fight to liberate Palestine. Short, but heavy and heartbreaking. An important perspective we don’t often get in the U.S. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 6).

The Marlow Murder Club, Robert Thorogood
I picked this one up on a whim at the library and blew through it in two days. Judith Potts, age 77, is swimming naked in the Thames (her daily ritual) when she hears a gunshot from her neighbor’s garden. It turns out he was murdered – but by whom? Judith joins forces with local dog walker Suzie and the vicar’s buttoned-up wife, Becks, to solve the case. Witty and clever and so British. I loved it.

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

What are you reading?

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Back in the winter, Lyric Stage (my favorite local theater company) tweeted about needing volunteer ushers for their early spring production, The Book of Will. I’d never even thought about ushering before that, but I signed up and happily showed up early to hand out programs, direct patrons to their seats, and see the show for free. One of my fellow ushers said she’d been doing this for years: “It’s a whole scene!” she told me. I resolved to look into it.

Since then, I’ve ushered at two more Lyric Stage productions, and last month, I expanded my efforts to other theaters: the Huntington, which was showing the brand-new production Common Ground Revisited, and the ART in Cambridge, which just finished its run of the fantastic revival of 1776. I spent three out of four Friday nights in June ushering at local shows, and I have to say, it’s the best volunteer gig in town.

I love live theater, and I missed it sorely during the worst of the pandemic: streaming a play or two online, as I did, just isn’t the same thing. There’s something visceral and immediate – and so much fun – about being in a space with live actors, watching them tell stories in real time.

Volunteering has allowed me a glimpse behind the scenes, too: I’ve met a few staff members as well as fellow volunteers, and watched the audience stream in, excited or indifferent or anxious to find their seats, and settle in for an evening (or an afternoon) of storytelling. It’s a delight to be a small part of making the show happen, and (of course) the reward is wonderful: getting to see the show for free in exchange for a bit of time.

Several of Boston’s theaters are dark for the summer right now, but you can bet I’ll be ushering again this fall. I’m so thrilled to have discovered this new-to-me slice of the city I live in and love.

What local adventures are you having, these days?

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One of the things I’ve missed during this pandemic year is collective experiences: the chance to be among a group of people, enjoying the same thing at the same time (and not through a screen). I particularly missed live theatre, so I was thrilled that Shakespeare on the Common is back this year.

My guy and I made a midweek date to see The Tempest – which we had both read in high school, but not really interacted with since then. I met him after work and we picked up a feast from BarTaco, which does delicious tacos and salsa with flavor and heat.

We arrived early and snagged a good spot with a view of the stage – though I’d definitely bring or rent chairs next time, as the ground gets hard after a while. But it was a perfect, clear evening, and we settled in to watch the cast (including John Douglas Thompson, whom I remembered seeing in Carousel on Broadway a few years back).

Both the men who taught me Shakespeare – Mr. Walker in high school and Dr. Wade in college – used to insist, I think rightly, that his plays are meant to be watched, not read. The story has so much more power (and the jokes are so much funnier) when you’re watching it unfold in real time. I had forgotten, or perhaps never realized, how much of The Tempest is about power: who has it, who ought to have it, what it means to have (or choose to give up) authority over another person, or to assert your own.

Of course there’s the love at first sight between Ferdinand and Miranda, and Prospero’s schemes to ostensibly keep them apart. There’s the bumbling pair of jokers from the shipwrecked crew, and their plot to overthrow Prospero (not very well planned). And there are Ariel and Caliban – who are treated very differently by Prospero, but are ultimately bound to him until he sets them free.

We laughed and clapped and marveled at the cast’s artistry, and savored being together. An entirely joyous experience, and a wonderful return to live theater.

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katie lin-manuel miranda interview microphone

It’s been ten days and I still can’t believe I get to say this: I got to interview Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I do not, generally, get starstruck very often. The exceptions to that rule tend to be the authors I love (like Alice Hoffman, who was very kind when I spoke to her on the phone last fall). But I am a musical theatre geek from way back, and I have spent untold hours over the past two years listening to Hamilton.

So when I found out Lin-Manuel was coming to speak at the Harvard Kennedy School (where I work), I just about hit the ceiling. I know for a fact I wasn’t the only one.

Lin-Manuel flew in for a Thursday evening to kick off America Adelante, a conference for Latino students and leaders. I begged everyone I had to beg – namely, my editors at the Harvard Gazette and my colleagues who organized the conference – to let me be the one to write the story. I’d have begged Drew Faust herself (Harvard’s president) if I had to.

All I was expecting was a seat at Lin’s keynote – a literal seat in the room where it happened. I did not dream of what you see above: ten minutes, give or take, with the man himself.

I’d scribbled notes all through his keynote, which was fantastic, then listened in as my colleague Matt interviewed him for the HKS podcast. When he turned to me with that grin after wrapping up with Matt and said, “Who are you writing for?,” I nearly lost all my words. (But I managed to recover a few of them.)

katie lin manuel miranda

I asked him first about democracy. Hamilton is the origin story of democracy, and some of Lin’s prolific activism on Twitter is about urging people to get involved in democracy today: registering to vote, calling their reps, making their voices heard. “We’re seeing such an accumulation of ordinary voices,” he said.

We talked, too, about art and activism: both are vital parts of his work. He mentioned being inspired by the Parkland students, and making “the Marvel/DC crossover” with Ben Platt of Dear Evan Hansen to encourage them. (Their collaborative song, Found Tonight, gives me chills.)

I admire Lin’s creative genius, but I also love how generous he is, how much he cares about making a difference in the world. He was funny and engaging, and even though I’m sure he was tired, he really listened to my questions and offered thoughtful answers. (And he talks with his hands! So do I.)

katie lin manuel miranda hand gesture

My favorite question was the last one I asked: “What’s the last great book you read?”

He paused – “Ooooh!” – then admitted, “I’m sort of in a prison of my own making.”

The reason? His New Year’s resolution was to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, and “I’m so behind,” he confessed. “I’ve had a busy few months!” That was the understatement of the night.

But then – then! – he waxed eloquent about reading the sonnets, and “the freedom he [Shakespeare] finds within the form.” In classic Lin fashion, he concluded, “Reading the sonnets was pretty dope.” I nearly died of English-major nerd bliss.

I’d forgotten my copy of the Hamiltome, but I asked Lin to sign my journal, and he graciously complied. The inscription, under my name and above his signature?

“See you in the room where it happens.”

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Heartened

red gold leaves ground

By the brilliant, joyful student performance of In the Heights I saw at Berklee College of Music on Friday night. And the powerful, lovely original song the cast performed after the curtain call (written by Zaid Tabani, who played Usnavi and is wicked talented).

By the wise, thoughtful voices of faculty members at my workplace, who are drawing on their expertise and experience to help make sense of what happened and what is next.

By conversations with friends and strangers, and the quiet sense that we are taking care of each other in small ways.

By the gentle, steadying atmosphere at my local yoga studio, where I have been showing up more frequently this month.

By the conversation I overheard the other day between two young men, one of whom is a playwright, about the responsibility and power of art and artists at a time like this.

By the friendly, supportive, determined conversations on Twitter and elsewhere that have helped me process my feelings and also figure out a few practical things to do. (First and foremost: so much listening.)

By the oak leaves in every shade of gold, red, russet and deep brown. I was afraid we wouldn’t have much color after a dry, hot summer, but the trees this fall are stunning.

By a brief conversation I had with the mayor of Providence, R.I., about the good work being done in government at the local level. (He was visiting campus for a conference, and probably has no idea how much his words encouraged me.)

By the spindly, twinkly “giving trees” on the steps of Memorial Church in Harvard Yard, covered in messages of hope. (And this separate message of hope, below.)

refugees welcome sign trees

Nearly two weeks post-election and it still feels like a new, fragile reality around here. We are heading into the holidays, which I love, but also into the shortest and darkest days of the year, which are hard for me. (I have never been more ready for Advent, which, for me, is a way to look the darkness steadily in the face and then light candles against it.)

I am still sad, frustrated and heartbroken, but I’ve also found myself heartened by the glimmers of hope I shared above. We have – I keep saying – so much work to do. As we move forward together (and head into Thanksgiving week here in the U.S.), I’d love to hear what is bolstering you up, these days.

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peter and the starcatcher set

The curtain goes up,
The curtain goes up,
It’s a wonderful moment,
When the curtain goes up…

—Maud Hart Lovelace, Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown

On Friday, the hubs and I met up downtown after work, to catch the Lyric Stage Company’s opening night performance of Peter and the Starcatcher. It’s a fast-paced, witty, hilarious prequel of sorts to Peter Pan, and we loved every second of it. Elaborate wordplay, swashbuckling fights, wildly colorful mermaid costumes, and a story with friendship and magic at its heart. (Because you can’t have Neverland without either one, really.)

I didn’t know much about the play beforehand, but I knew that the Lyric Stage puts on fabulous shows, since I took my parents to see their production of My Fair Lady last fall. That show is an old favorite of mine – my dad and I can quote Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering for hours – and their version felt both familiar and wonderfully fresh. Both nights reminded me of something I often forget: how much I love live theatre.

my fair lady set

Aside from a drama class in ninth grade and a few church plays, I don’t have much acting experience. But I love the immediacy of live theatre: the way it binds audience and actors together in a vital dynamic. In this age of carefully produced everything – Instagram filters, sharply cut films, painstakingly edited music – live theatre still holds the potential for surprise.

I know it takes a lot of work to get to opening night, and I know these actors and crew members spent weeks perfecting the set, the lighting, the lines and the blocking. But after all that preparation, each performance – the thing itself – is a glittering, singular entity all its own. Telling stories and listening to them is a deeply human act, and live theatre brings stories into the open, in all their glorious particularity.

There wasn’t an actual curtain on Friday night: the Lyric Stage space (see above) is small and intimate, and the audience simply waits for the lights to come up. But I still felt like Betsy Ray in the Deep Valley Opera House, alive with anticipation:

It’s like Christmas morning,
Stealing down stairs,
It’s like being hungry,
And saying your prayers.

It’s like being hungry,
And ready to sup,
It’s a wonderful moment,
When the curtain goes up.

Betsy, as usual, had it exactly right. As the cast came bounding onstage for the first scene, my eyes filled with sudden tears. This is what it means to be human: telling each other our stories, and delighting in them. (And maybe catching a few stars along the way.)

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christmas book stack charlie brown

The reading is haphazard this month. But it’s happening. (Above: the Christmas picture books I put out every year.)

 An Appetite for Murder, Lucy Burdette
When aspiring food writer Hayley Snow follows her new boyfriend to Key West, she falls in love with the island – and gets dumped. When her ex’s new girlfriend turns up dead, Hayley decides to investigate. A light, well-plotted cozy mystery.

Topped Chef, Lucy Burdette
Hayley Snow gets tapped to judge a foodie reality TV show. When one of her fellow judges is murdered, Hayley starts sniffing around for clues – hoping she isn’t next on the killer’s list. The mystery was a little thin, but I like Hayley and the cast of supporting characters.

Act One, Moss Hart
Moss Hart tells the story of his struggle to become a playwright – from working as a theatre office boy to directing theatrical summer camps, and finally his first hit. Warm, witty and big-hearted. Bought at Three Lives & Co. on our NYC trip.

Shepherds Abiding, Jan Karon
This Mitford Christmas tale makes me cry every year, as Father Tim works to restore a battered Nativity scene as a gift for his wife. So sweet and hopeful.

The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit, Helena Attlee
Attlee tells the long, convoluted tale of citrus production in Italy, covering its history, cultivation, connections to the Mafia, and unbeatable flavor. Fascinating, though a little dense. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 5).

Letters from Father Christmas, J.R.R. Tolkien
I’m a longtime Lord of the Rings fan, but this collection of handwritten, gorgeously illustrated letters is new to me. Tolkien wrote to his children as Father Christmas from 1920-1943 (with notes from his assistant, the North Polar Bear). Hilarious and inventive. Found at Blackwells in Oxford.

The Blood of Olympus, Rick Riordan
“To storm or fire the world must fall” – and a group of demigods must prevent an all-out war, before Gaea wakes. Fast-paced and fun, with lots of zany jokes and surprising depth.

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

What are you reading?

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stone soup books interior camden maine

Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater, Michael Sokolove
Touted as the ideal suburb when it was built, Levittown, Pa., is today a depressing, dead-end place. But in its high school theater program, generations of students have come alive under the direction of Lou Volpe, theater teacher extraordinaire. The author, a former student of Volpe’s, returns to his hometown to observe Volpe in action and watch his students develop several challenging, powerful shows. Fascinating and fun; took me back to my years watching all my best friends perform in high school plays. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 26).

Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home, Susan Hill
While searching for an elusive book on her shelves, novelist Susan Hill encountered dozens of books she’d never read or wanted to reread. This collection of bookish, quirky, opinionated essays is a wonderful, often nostalgic tour through her shelves and her reading life. Catnip for fellow bookworms like me – so much fun.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg
Sandberg’s memoir-cum-business-book needs no introduction from me. I found it chock full of great stories from working women (Sandberg and others) who have struggled to balance career, family, and the ever-present guilt that comes from even attempting the balancing act in the first place. Sandberg freely admits her own privileged status, but I found many of her insights applicable to a broad range of women and workplace levels. A quick read, but deeply thought-provoking.

Songs of Willow Frost, Jamie Ford
In Depression-era Seattle, William Eng lives at the Sacred Heart orphanage with other children whose parents are dead or unable to care for them. While attending a movie (a rare treat), he sees a Chinese actress who looks like the mother he remembers. Is Willow Frost, the actress, really Liu Song, William’s mother? He embarks on a quest to find out. Shifting between the 1920s and the 1930s, Ford’s narrative exposes the often difficult lives of Chinese people in the Northwest at that time. Heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful – though the ending felt a bit abrupt to me.

This post contains IndieBound affiliate links.

What are you reading?

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Recently, J and I hopped down to New York for a long weekend. I didn’t visit the city for the first time until about three years ago, and I find it endlessly alluring, no matter the season. It’s fast-paced, but there are pockets of quiet even in such a teeming metropolis. And there are a seemingly infinite number of historical landmarks, dazzling theatrical shows, delicious restaurants, fascinating bookstores, charming cafes…the list goes on and on.

We rented a lovely little third-floor walk-up apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, complete with wee kitchenette (and teakettle!):

teakettle stove kitchen

On our first evening, we wandered the neighborhood and visited, among other spots, the Greenlight Bookstore – a light-filled space packed with fascinating books of all genres. (I snagged Ruta Sepetys’ new novel, Out of the Easy – wonderful young adult fiction set in 1950s New Orleans.)

greenlight bookstore brooklyn

greenlight bookstore interior brooklyn

After some (rather disappointing) Italian food, we headed to the Chocolate Room in Park Slope, because chocolate cures many ills:

chocolate room brownie sundae

That’s a delectable brownie sundae, and we both ordered hot chocolate to go with it.

chocolate room spiced hot cocoa

Warm and woozy from our dessert coma, we headed back to the flat and fell asleep.

The next day, we did a “vertical tour” at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, in Morningside Heights near Columbia. Madeleine L’Engle, my heroine, was the librarian there for many years, and I’ve always wanted to see it.

st john the divine cathedral nyc

We walked up (and up and up) a staircase that took us to the top of a buttress, eye-level with gorgeous stained-glass windows, and eventually up to the roof:

st john stained glass

After a stroll through Columbia’s campus, we settled on lunch at Deluxe, which we finished by splitting a strawberry milkshake:

milkshake

We then headed down to the Upper West Side, popping into Book Culture on West 112th on the way:

book culture shop interior nyc

A chill wind and tired feet led us to stop for tea and a muffin at Arte Around the Corner:

NYC 069

Refueled, we wandered over to the Museum of American Folk Art near Lincoln Center (a fun, quirky little find), then ate some delicious Indian food on the West Side and bought a few Insomnia Cookies to take back to the flat.

Sunday morning found us wandering the Brooklyn Flea, housed for the winter in the beautiful old Williamsburg Savings Bank building:

brooklyn flea nyc interior

Then we met our friends Duncan and Allison for brunch at Whym in the West Fifties. This was my choice – mixed-berry stuffed French toast, with raspberry curd. Heaven.

NYC 077

We spent the afternoon seeing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a hilarious musical adaptation of an unfinished Dickens murder mystery. The audience gets to vote for the killer! Campy and fun, in the style of Clue. Afterward, we headed to The Little Pie Company for fresh berry pie and tall cups of tea.

NYC 082

The wind had kicked up by then – it was too cold to walk around, but we weren’t hungry for dinner yet. Allison suggested the Harry Potter exhibit at the Discovery Center in Times Square. It’s a little pricey, but such fun for Harry Potter nerds – it showcases props and costumes from the Potter films, including Quidditch gear, robes and wands, Hermione’s textbooks, several Horcruxes, and a huge glass case of sweets from Honeydukes and Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes.

hedwig harry potter nyc

We shivered our way down to Don Giovanni’s for some yummy pizza, a glass of sangria, and some truly delectable chicken noodle soup, with spinach and tomatoes. Perfect for the bitter weather.

Our bus left on Monday afternoon, so we spent a leisurely morning strolling Park Slope (popping into cafes for tea when it got too cold). An utterly charming New York weekend. (Though I hope the weather’s warmer next time I go.)

brownstones brooklyn nyc red

What are your favorite NYC spots, if you’ve been there?

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Like millions of fellow fans, I recently saw Les Miserables in the theatre. Despite a few flaws, I loved the film – I teared up half a dozen times, and both my husband and I wept at the end. (I fully expected to do so, but he never cries at movies.) But as I stood in the darkened theatre afterward watching the credits, I was thinking about Kate.

les miserables 10th anniversary concert soundtrack

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Kate lived down the street from me when we were growing up, and she and her big sister, Brooke, introduced me to (among other things) Ace of Base, Rent, Chinese food, and Les Mis. When Kate played Brooke’s copy of the soundtrack for me one day, I was enthralled by the story of Valjean and Fantine and Javert. I begged to borrow the double CD, and kept it for weeks, even taking it on the youth group ski trip over Christmas break. I spent hours on the bus with my Discman in my lap, staring out the window, absorbed in the music, swept up in its power.

Later, I bought my own copy of the soundtrack: the same version Brooke owned, the 10th anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall. (This means I was thrilled to see Colm Wilkinson, who plays Jean Valjean in that performance, reappear as the Bishop in the film.) During my first semester in Oxford, two girlfriends and I squeezed into a box in a London theatre and watched the stage musical, leaning over the edge to catch every word.

The story of Les Mis is powerful in its own right. But it takes on additional significance when I remember how I came to it in the first place, who introduced it to me, the memories associated with hearing and seeing it for the first time. It’s inextricably tied up with dear friends, a city I love, and that delicious sense of discovering a story you can live in.

Not all my favorite stories have such specific memories attached to them: many of them simply came to me from my parents or were discovered at school or in a bookstore. But I’ve talked at length about how Valerie was responsible for my introduction to Harry Potter. My dad, and the first brilliant film, catapulted me into a deep love of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I found an advance copy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in an Oxford bookshop, before I really knew what advance copies were and before the book became a fan favorite. And a dear friend handed me Winter Solstice at just the right time, six Christmases ago.

When I write my frequent book roundups, I find myself noting where I discovered a book, or who told me about it, or whose review convinced me to pick it up. I believe those “origin stories” can deepen our enjoyment of books and films and music, while we still appreciate the things for themselves. My attachment to Les Mis began, and has certainly been enriched, because of Kate and Brooke, and that long-ago afternoon lounging in Kate’s room, listening to the people sing.

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