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Posts Tagged ‘womanhood’

Thirty-nine. Almost 40. I’m still amazed by that reality, especially since I sometimes feel 17 or 22 or eight years old inside. But as I say often (quoting Madeleine L’Engle), I am every age I’ve ever been.

Thirty-nine is getting up and going for a run most mornings, even when I don’t feel like it, because I know I’ll be a better person the rest of the day. Thirty-nine does her best to hydrate, moisturize, make the bed, wash the dishes – all those acts of self-care that sometimes seem boring but are actually so important. Thirty-nine does a fair bit of yoga and walking, eats a ton of yogurt and granola, drinks black tea like it’s my job, indulges in a cider once a week or so.

Thirty-nine moves more cautiously, these days, after some serious shakeups the last few years. Thirty-nine does her best to lean into the present, to be here now, living with heart and commitment, while also realizing that things can change drastically at any moment. Thirty-nine loves her current life and is starting to dream about making some changes. Thirty-nine is grateful – as a teacher of mine once said – that not only have I survived through great upheaval, but I’ve thrived.

Thirty-nine has seen her life and world shift in ways she never imagined a few years back. Some of those changes she chose and orchestrated; some came out of nowhere and left her staggering, for a while. Thirty-nine is still healing, still grieving; learning to name and acknowledge the wounds that linger longer than we think they will, while also making space for new and vivid joys.

Thirty-nine still writes for Shelf Awareness, still texts a few stalwart friends nearly every day, still loves chai from Darwin’s and flowers from Brattle Square, still reads piles of books and still needs a dose of Texas once in a while. Thirty-nine is trying, always, to live with grace and courage and wisdom. Thirty-nine knows it’s important to be both brave and kind.

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September is flying by so far – amid work and daily adventures, here’s what I have been reading:

The Lost Summers of Newport, Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White
I enjoy Team W’s richly detailed historical novels (and I’ve devoured nearly all of Williams’ books). This one follows the intertwined stories of three women connected to the same Newport, R.I., mansion during different eras: architectural preservationist Andie, music teacher Ellen, and Italian-American socialite Lucia. Rife with family secrets and dripping with diamonds – great escapist reading.

The House of Eve, Sadeqa Johnson
Ruby Pearsall is on track to be her family’s first college student – but a forbidden love may derail her plans to escape her rough neighborhood. Meanwhile, Eleanor Quarles, a brilliant young woman from small-town Ohio, struggles to find her place at Howard University and with her rich boyfriend’s family. Their lives collide in an unexpected way. A powerful, sometimes wrenching novel about the struggles of Black women in the mid-1950s. So much here around shame and womanhood and making choices. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 2023).

Love, Lies & Spies, Cindy Anstey
Miss Juliana Telford is more interested in publishing her research on ladybugs than diving into the London Season. Mr. Spencer Northam is far more preoccupied with espionage than with matrimony. But all this might change when they encounter one another by chance. A witty, hilarious, romantic tribute to Jane Austen and a really fun love story. Recommended by Anne.

Blood from a Stone: A Memoir of How Wine Brought Me Back from the Dead, Adam McHugh
After years as a hospice chaplain, McHugh found himself burned out, and needing not just an escape but a whole life change. His love of wine led him – several times – to California’s Santa Ynez Valley, where he began a career working in wine. An honest, sometimes snarky, well-researched, thoughtful memoir about wine and transformation. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 11).

Viviana Valentine Gets Her Man, Emily J. Edwards
Our titular heroine loves her job as secretary/girl Friday to NYC private eye Tommy Fortuna. But when she finds an unconscious man in the office and Tommy disappears – right after taking on a case for a wealthy client – Viv must marshal all her wits to solve the case and stay alive. A fun romp with an engaging heroine, though the dialogue read almost like a send-up of 1950s phrases. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 8).

Bicycling with Butterflies: My 10,201-Mile Journey Following the Monarch Migration, Sara Dykman
I picked up this memoir last fall at the Harvard Book Store and have been reading it sloooowly. Dykman takes a months-long solo journey starting and ending in Mexico at the monarchs’ overwintering grounds, following their trail and giving presentations about the importance of these beautiful creatures. She’s a lovely writer, though the trip logistics dragged sometimes (as I’m sure they did in real life!). Fun bonus: she went through my dad’s tiny hometown in southwestern MO.

What Comes from Spirit, Richard Wagamese
I picked up this collection at the wonderful Savoy Bookshop in Westerly, R.I., in June. Wagamese was an Indigenous Canadian writer who wrote extensively about his journey away from and back to his Native identity, as well as noticing the natural world, building community and paying attention. Short, lovely meditations – exactly my kind of thing for slow morning reading.

The Star That Always Stays, Anna Rose Johnson
When Norvia’s parents divorce, she and her siblings move from rural Beaver Island to a small Michigan city with their mother. Norvia must navigate a new school, a tricky blended family and her own shyness and anxiety, while striving to be a heroine. A sweet middle-grade story (though the middle dragged a bit); I loved Norvia’s family, especially her spunky younger sister, Dicta. Reminded me of Emily of Deep Valley.

Saving Main Street: Small Business in the Time of COVID-19, Gary Rivlin
Americans idolize small business – though we give a lot of our money to the colossal chains. It’s common knowledge now that small shops were hit hard by COVID-19. Veteran reporter Rivlin follows several business owners, including a restaurateur, a pharmacist, a Latina hairstylist and three Black brothers making chocolate, through the first 18 months or so of the pandemic. Full of fascinating anecdotes and a thorough explanation of the government’s confusing (but ultimately sort-of-effective) struggle to help small businesses. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 18).

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

What are you reading?

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I love a good reinvention narrative. There’s something empowering about watching a character, especially a real person, steer their life in an entirely new direction. But some of my favorite reinvention stories aren’t necessarily 180-degree turns. Rather, they involve a series of changes (some drastic, it’s true) that lead the protagonist to become more fully the self she’s always been meant to be. 

Trina Moyles had always loved the Canadian boreal forest where she grew up, but she never expected to spend multiple summers there, spotting smoke from atop an isolated fire tower. Moyles’ gorgeously written memoir, Lookout, dives into the logistical and emotional challenges of that life of deep solitude. She charts not only the ground around her fire tower, but her own internal growth during a difficult but formative season. (This was an impulse buy at Sundog Books and one of my favorites of 2021.)

Growing up in rural Maine, Erin French spent a lot of time at the diner her dad owned, but she wasn’t planning (then) on running her own restaurant one day. French’s memoir, Finding Freedom, chronicles her journey of culinary and personal discovery, and the founding of The Lost Kitchen, the restaurant she now owns in Freedom, Maine. 

Memphis-born Elizabeth Passarella didn’t leave behind her Southern identity when she became a New Yorker. Rather, her adult life–and her memoir, Good Apple–centers on learning to reconcile the two, or at least laugh at the tension between them. In short, punchy essays, Passarella takes readers through the highs and lows of her life in Manhattan: rats in her bedroom, public marital disputes, the Rockettes, and the trickiness of navigating politics (electoral and cultural) with grace. (I forget where I heard about this one, but it made me laugh so hard and say “Amen” every few pages.) All three women write with humor and insight about the situations that have shaped them into their truest selves. 

What are your favorite reinvention stories?

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness, where it ran this past December.

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We are halfway through November (already?) and the leaves are still gorgeous, thought the nights are getting colder (and darker!). Here’s what I have been reading:

Our American Friend, Anna Pitoniak
First Lady Lara Caine, a Russian and former model, has always been a bit of a mystery. When she invites journalist Sofie Morse to write her biography, Sofie’s not sure what to think – but she finds herself drawn into Lara’s world. A twisty, fascinating novel – part thriller, part Cold War history, part meditation on making one’s way in the world as a woman. Clearly inspired by Melania Trump, but very much its own thing. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 4).

The Whispers of War, Julia Kelly
As Europe hurtles toward another war, three friends – two Englishwomen and a German immigrant – struggle with the implications for their lives and friendship. Kelly writes warm, engaging novels about female friendship, and this one was really well done. Found at the Book Shop of Beverly Farms.

Red is My Heart, Antoine Laurain, illus. Le Sonneur
I have loved several of Laurain’s whimsical novels about life and love in Paris. This one is different – snippets of musings from a man going through a breakup, illustrated by street artists Le Sonneur. A bit enigmatic, a bit pensive. I received an advance copy; it’s out Jan. 18.

The Magnolia Palace, Fiona Davis
New York, 1919: artists’ model Lillian Carter needs a new career, and stumbles into a position as private secretary to Helen Clay Frick (whose father created the Frick Collection). In 1961, a young English model named Veronica finds herself stranded at the Frick in a snowstorm and uncovers a mystery. I love Davis’ richly detailed historical novels – this one was engaging and fun. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 25).

Call Us What We Carry, Amanda Gorman
Like a lot of people, I found out about Gorman when she wowed us at President Biden’s inauguration. Her new collection is piercingly honest and deeply felt – about race, the pandemic and the vagaries of being human. Lyrical and healing; her skill amazes me. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 7).

Her Path Forward: 21 Stories of Transformation and Inspiration, ed. Chris Olsen and Julie Burton
My Tuesday morning writing group has saved my life during the pandemic. Chris (a member) and Julie (who runs ModernWell) have co-launched Publish Her Press, and this is their first project. (And several of my friends are in it!) A wide-ranging collection of stories by and about women finding their way.

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

What are you reading?

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Last fall, on a whim and a discount code, I decided to try Birchbox, one of those seemingly ubiquitous beauty-subscription boxes. (This post is not sponsored or perked – I don’t even subscribe anymore. I’m simply musing about my experience.)

At the time, I was still in the throes of my divorce and my move to East Boston, and in stereotypically American-female fashion, I thought a little pampering might help. (Though I wasn’t sure it would, honestly. I’m hardly a beauty-product junkie; I dye my own hair from a box every few weeks, and I haven’t had a manicure since 2011. But I love a good lip gloss and I adore getting fun mail.)

I went online, filled out the quiz with details about my hair type, skin type, preferences, etc., and waited for my first box to arrive. When it did, I was charmed by the colorful packaging, breezy info card detailing how to use each product, and the fun array of samples: lip gloss, highlighter (what is that?), moisturizer, mascara. I was surprised, in fact, by how delighted I was.

As a lifelong bookworm, an English major and a feminist who grew up in Texas, I embody a few contradictions: I want people to love me for my brain and heart before my body, and I’d rather browse a bookstore than Sephora any day. But I was raised by a mother who never leaves the house without makeup, and I believe in the importance of both self-care and looking put together. Even during quarantine, I’ve been blow-drying my hair and putting on makeup most days: both routines help signal that I’m ready for whatever the day brings.

As I played around with Birchbox samples of eye cream, lipstick, primer (which I had never used before) and a gold-foil face mask that made me look like Iron Man, I realized something else: I had internalized some serious snobbery about women who self-soothe with beauty products. I still reach for a book and a cup of tea first when I’m stressed or sad, but I had discounted the fun of sticking on sparkly eye pads or trying a new shade of blush. Sometimes, frankly, pampering does nothing at all – but sometimes it helps me see myself a little differently, or just adds a shot of whimsy to the day.

The products didn’t all feel like me, and I ended up passing on a few extras to my mom, sister and girlfriends. (I haven’t used mousse since the eighties, and I’m not sorry about it.) But I found a few favorites that I still use, and several more that I enjoyed trying out on a limited basis. I’ve got a stockpile of still others in the bathroom, waiting for the day I need a pick-me-up and decide to try out that shade of eyeshadow or new face scrub. (Bonus: I haven’t had to buy mascara in months.)

This isn’t quite the because-you’re-worth-it narrative familiar to any woman who’s ever watched a L’Oreal commercial (though I am worth it, in case you were wondering). It’s more about trying something just because I wanted to, and being surprised and delighted by it. Birchbox even made it onto one of my lifesaving lists, because the boxes and their contents were sources of joy. I eventually stopped my subscription because I had enough products for now, but I’m still glad I tried it out. (And I am now a serious fan of Kiehl’s moisturizer and Dr. Lipp lip gloss.)

Have you tried Birchbox or something similar – and/or been forced to confront your own snobbery about makeup? I’d love to hear your stories.

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It’s been…a year. Somehow, amid all the upheaval, I have read more than 150 books, and as usual, I’m highlighting a few of the best to share with you. Here are my faves:

Most Honest, Insightful Book on Women Entering Midlife: Why We Can’t Sleep by Ada Calhoun. This one comes out next month and if you are, or if you love, a woman in her 30s or 40s, please go get yourself (or her) a copy. I will be talking about this one with lots of my girlfriends.

Most Eye-Opening, Validating Book About Sexuality: Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski. I was late to the party on this one and I am still so glad I read it. Smart, funny, packed with valuable information and absolutely fantastic.

Best Reread: either I’ll Be Your Blue Sky by Marisa de los Santos or The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice. The latter is charming and British and lovely, and the former felt like a friend holding my hand through a rough time.

Most Inventive WWII Love Story: Lovely War by Julie Berry, narrated largely by Aphrodite as she stands trial (after a fashion) in a Manhattan hotel room. It’s wonderful.

Truest Novel About Friendship and Faith: The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall, about which I have already gushed. So good.

Best Celebration of Joy: The Book of Delights by Ross Gay, which is full of robust, irreverent, real delight.

Most Powerful Memoir of Making Change: The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power. Thoughtful, wise, fascinating, so interesting.

What were your favorite books this year?

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Ivey book slippers twinkle lights

Among explorers, hunters and fishermen, Alaska was long perceived as a man’s world. Women have often had to fight for the chance to love this harsh, beautiful land and prove they can handle its challenges. I’ve never been to Alaska, but I’ve ended up reading a spate of books about it recently – all written by, and featuring, strong women.

Sophie Forrester, military wife and aspiring photographer, is initially denied her chance to see Alaska when her husband Allen is assigned to explore the Yukon Territory in 1885. But she faces her own challenges at the barracks in Vancouver, and (mild spoiler) does eventually get to see Alaska. Eowyn Ivey tells Sophie’s story in her stunning second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World. I raved about this book earlier this winter – my first five-star read of 2019.

For memoirist and obituary writer Heather Lende, Alaska is home: she’s spent decades living and working there. Her three books (If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name; Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs; Find the Good) offer a welcome balance to Alaska’s lonely wildness: the warm, colorful community of fellow residents that is necessary for survival.

Kristin Knight Pace ended up in Alaska almost by accident, as a heartbroken divorcee. But her initial five-month stint turned into a decade, and now she runs a dog kennel with her husband. She chronicles the wonder, challenges and the grit required to complete two storied 1,000-mile dog races (the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest) in This Much Country. (I was particularly gripped by the contrast between her Alaskan life and her childhood in suburban Fort Worth, Texas.)

Adrienne Lindholm was unprepared for the rigors of backcountry life when she moved to Alaska after college. Nearly two decades later, she’s carved out a home for herself and wrestled with fundamental questions about identity and motherhood. Her luminous memoir, It Happened Like This, chronicles her journeys out and back in, exploring her efforts to live and thrive in a gorgeous, demanding inner and outer landscape. (I read Lindholm’s book in Spain last summer – a different kind of gorgeous and demanding landscape, at least for me.)

I originally reviewed three of these books and wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness for Readers, where it ran last week.

 

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dog jack book blanket

I’ve had a couple of real duds lately: books I got pretty far into and then decided to jettison. But here’s the good stuff:

A Dog Called Jack, Ivy Pembroke
I love a sweet, witty chick-lit story once in a while – even better if it’s British. I grabbed this one at the library and happily curled up with it on a snowy weekend. It’s the story of Jack, a dog left behind by his previous owners who wins the hearts of a whole street in London. So lovely and fun.

Gmorning, Gnight!: Little Pep Talks for Me and You, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jonny Sun
It’s no secret I’m a Lin-Manuel fangirl (I even got to meet him last year). My husband gave me this warm, witty book of his good-morning and good-night tweets, illustrated. I’ve been flipping through it at night and – no surprise – it is so fun and encouraging.

The Weight of a Piano, Chris Cander
It took me a while to get into this novel – about two women, one in modern-day California and the other in 1960s Soviet Russia, who are linked by the Blüthner piano they both love. Despite the slow start, it’s a compelling story and the writing is really good. Especially enjoyable if you’re a musician.

The Farmer’s Son: Calving Season on a Family Farm, John Connell
Returning to his family’s farm in Ireland, John Connell wasn’t sure he wanted to stay. But helping his father (with whom he often clashes) through a calving and lambing season helped change his perspective. Beautifully written; a bit like a modern-day, more sober-eyed James Herriot. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 7).

On Being 40(ish), edited by Lindsey Mead
Lindsey is a lovely Internet-to-real-life friend of mine, and I’m so proud of her work in editing this collection of smart, funny, honest essays. They address the experience of turning 40, navigating the next decade or so, and looking back on the experiences that led to 40. I’m 35, so I’m a little younger than the contributors, but I found much to ponder and relate to here. My favorite essay was Veronica Chambers’ “A Game of Two Halves.”

Correspondents, Tim Murphy
Since high school, Rita Khoury, the daughter of a large Lebanese-Irish Boston family, has longed to be a journalist. In the wake of 9/11, she’s sent to Beirut and then Baghdad to cover the U.S. occupation and its effects on ordinary Iraqis. She becomes close to her interpreter, Nabil, and a handful of other colleagues. Murphy tells their story with warmth and compassion. Vivid, compelling and so deeply human – highly recommended. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 14).

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

What are you reading?

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Katie polka dots porch selfie

I turned thirty-five this past weekend. And I have to admit: this one freaked me out a little.

I don’t often worry about birthdays: turning another year older beats the alternative, as my mom says. My (fairly healthy) reaction to turning thirty, a few years ago, was to take my first trip to Canada. But this birthday – falling squarely in the middle of ordinary life and a job change – felt big, somehow, in a way I didn’t quite feel able to process.

I’d debated about having a party, but in the end we celebrated with friends, pulling together a brunch in our top-floor apartment: mimosas and fruit, jazz on my old stereo, scrambled eggs and stacks of French toast made by my husband. Sierra walked in and handed me a bouquet of sunflowers; Aaron brought a bread pudding made with honey cake; 14-month-old Colette toddled around in a pink plaid dress with cupcakes on the smocked yoke. Everyone greeted me with bear hugs and best wishes. They pulled open the cabinets for coffee mugs and Fiestaware plates, and made themselves at home on the living room couches and around the kitchen table, talking, laughing, enjoying one another. It was exactly what I wanted.

sunflowers books mimosas birthday

I’m only a few days into thirty-five, of course, but wanted to capture a few snapshots, literal and figurative, of what it looks like so far.

Thirty-five is about a dozen gray hairs (I stopped counting after three). So far I’m happy to let them coexist with the brown and the pink streaks; you can see some of all three above. I am even a little bit proud: I’ve earned every single one.

Thirty-five is adjusting to the rhythms of a new job, in a new neighborhood across the river from my Cambridge home. Thirty-five is struggling with this change, and also trying to turn toward gratitude.

Thirty-five is still learning to own the broken pieces and wonky seams of this life, to step into both strength and vulnerability, to let herself be seen.

Thirty-five is stepping into my identity as a runner, getting out on the river trail several days a week. Thirty-five loves both the measured pace of yoga class and the change-it-up high intensity of a boot camp workout in Erin’s backyard.

Thirty-five is always reading a handful of books at once: something for review, brain-challenging nonfiction, something with heft and depth (fiction or nonfiction), a damn good story, something just for fun. (These categories often overlap.)

Thirty-five repeats a few good phrases to herself over and over again: everyone is learning. You are loved. The only thing to do is to keep moving. Summon all the courage you require

Thirty-five eats a lot of granola and peanut butter crackers, drinks copious amounts of black tea, tries to stay away from sugar and eat more vegetables (she has no trouble eating lots of fruit). Thirty-five tries to stay off the computer in the evenings, and winds down with a book before bed.

Thirty-five tears up often and laughs every single day. Thirty-five wears the same few pieces of jewelry that have become talismans: a necklace stamped with brave, a Wonder Woman bracelet, a matching set of wedding and engagement rings.

Thirty-five thought she’d have more answers to a few big questions by now. Instead, she is facing the reality that we are always becoming. That few things are set in stone. That even the most foundational relationships will change. Thirty-five would refute the sunny-side optimists who insist that change is always good, but is trying to agree with the friend who often says, “Change is how we grow.”

Thirty-five has learned that love and life are bigger and harder and more complicated than she ever thought possible. Thirty-five is in the middle of a messy, rich story. Thirty-five is doing her best to be honest about, and grateful for, the all of it.

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katie memorial church green coat harvard yard
“I sometimes wish I were a morning person,” I confessed recently to a friend. I loved – and embraced – my natural inclination toward being a night owl in college and graduate school, but the truth is that early commutes and nine-to-five day jobs don’t always jibe well with a love of late nights. I like the idea of being a morning person, but I always want to hit the snooze button one more time.

“I sometimes wish I were an extrovert,” he replied.

My response was immediate and knee-jerk: I have never, not once, wished I were an extrovert.

Certainly I have wished I were less shy, more at ease among strangers. Cocktail parties and networking events – really, anything that requires me to walk alone into a roomful of people I don’t know – are among my worst nightmares.

But I’ve always been fundamentally satisfied to live in my quiet, introspective world. I love being a bookish deep thinker, a writer, a ruminator. I love a cozy night in on the couch, with a good book or a favorite TV show and a cup of tea. I have never not wished those traits were a part of who I am.

red journal chai darwins

I have, at times, wished I were taller, thinner, more athletic, more daring. (I do have an adventurous streak – which mostly manifests itself in my love of travel.) And I do wish I could whistle.

But I have never wished I were blonde, male, a party girl, a coffee drinker (I’m a tea addict). I have never not wanted to be a bookworm, or a writer. I’ve always preferred one-on-one nights out (or in) with a friend to loud, large parties. I’ve always been comfortable with a few key parts of my identity.

My friend’s comment got me thinking about the things we cannot change – and the things we sometimes wish we could. Part of me does wish I woke up earlier and more easily. (I’m not exactly cranky in the morning, just a slow starter.) But those other traits – my bookishness, my introversion, my deep love of quiet time alone or with friends – are integral and cherished parts of who I am.

As I settle into my thirties, I find myself growing more and more comfortable in my own skin. (Though I admit I’d like to be more comfortable at networking events.)

What do you wish you could change about yourself? What are the deep fundamental traits you’d never change – even if you could?

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