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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

shoes book harvard yard

(It’s not quite warm enough to lounge in Harvard Yard with a book. But it will be soon!)

I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back: 30 Games in 30 Days on the Best Worst Baseball Road Trip Ever, Ben Blatt and Eric Brewster
The subtitle says it all. Two best friends – one baseball nut and one baseball hater – embark on an epic (some would say completely insane) cross-country baseball road trip. Wryly funny (if repetitive at times). Recommended for baseball fanatics. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 6).

Fingal O’Reilly, Irish Doctor, Patrick Taylor
A fun installment in Taylor’s Irish Country Doctor series, with all the usual colorful characters in the village of Ballybucklebo. I missed Barry, the young doctor who usually works with O’Reilly, but this was good comfort reading.

Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, ed. Jocelyn K. Glei
This short book is packed with productivity tips from 20 authors. Further inspiration to create a schedule for myself and work on blocking out distractions. Recommended by Anne.

Scarlet, Marissa Meyer
This sequel to Cinder follows Cinder’s escape from prison but focuses more on Scarlet, a French farm girl on a search for her missing grandmother (accompanied by Wolf, an enigmatic street fighter). The storylines intertwine in surprising ways. Much darker and more exciting than Cinder. I can’t wait to read Cress (book 3).

Death in a Strange Country, Donna Leon
Commissario Guido Brunetti investigates the death of a young American sergeant stationed near Venice. Brunetti is likable and thoughtful, but the plot of this mystery dragged, and the ending was downright unsatisfying.

Catching Air, Sarah Pekkanen
I devoured this book in a day. Pekkanen tells a warm, relatable (but not predictable) story of two couples who move to Vermont to run a B&B. The men are brothers with a troubled history, but the story belongs to the women, who are each dealing with big questions about children, vocation and love. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 6).

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser
I’ve been meaning to read this book forever. Zinsser’s practical, witty guide is packed with useful advice for journalists, memoirists and business writers – anyone who wants to (or has to) write nonfiction.

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

What are you reading?

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I’ve been an avid reader – and rereader – almost since I learned how to read. (Just ask my parents, who swear they read Ned’s Numbers to me a million times when I was a toddler.) I’ve read – and reread – hundreds of books since then, but a few of them have truly, powerfully changed the way I see the world. This list is not exhaustive, but contains a handful of the gems that marked some important shifts for me. (Inspired by Roxanne’s Books Well-Loved series.)

1. Little Women, first read when I was seven – the first story that completely, wholly absorbed me and made me want to read it again and again. (Which I did.)
2. Walking on Water, my “back-door” introduction to Madeleine L’Engle (now one of my favorite authors) and her oeuvre of beautifully written, thoughtful, moving books. (And, eventually, a topic for my master’s thesis.)
3. Watch for the Light, a book of Advent reflections that has shaped my relationship to liturgy, and indeed my faith.
4. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which constantly pushes me to be more honest in my writing.
5. The Sound of Paper by Julia Cameron: given to me as a college graduation gift by J, it has powerfully shaped my creative life.
6. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, which revolutionized the way I think about food and seasonal eating.
7. The Cool Girl’s Guide to Knitting by Nicki Trench, which helped reinforce a lot of the basics for me.
8. A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren, which introduced me to the concept of postmodern Christianity.
9. The reading list for my World Lit class, my senior year of college – most notably Saramago’s Blindness and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Horrifying, heartbreaking, powerful stories with pitch-perfect writing, and so many different ways of seeing the world.

What books have changed your life?

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After a trip, such as my lovely weekend in New York (complete with children’s lit tour), “normal” life can seem a bit staid, a bit dull, a bit – well – ordinary. Especially when you live in a place that’s no longer new – when you’re more inclined, perhaps, to take things for granted than to see them with fresh eyes.

Last fall, we had just moved to Boston and I was delighting in the Northeast fall – the changing leaves, the crisp days and chilly nights, the apple picking (and apple cider), the cafes and bookshops explored on long golden afternoons when I had nothing to do but wander around my new city.

This fall, I have a day job (and it’s been raining a lot lately), and I am, if not jaded, not always so attuned to the daily wonders of browsing at the Brattle or walking across the Common on my way to work. Sometimes the days can start to seem rather commonplace, or to run into one another with their commutes and errands and to-do lists.

But after a frantic day of emails and meetings this week, I remembered a bit of wisdom from our favorite red-haired heroine, when she arrives home to Ingleside after a trip to Avonlea:

“This is no common day, Mrs. Dr. dear,” [Susan] said solemnly.

“Oh, Susan, there is no such thing as a common day. Every day has something about it no other day has. Haven’t you noticed?”

Anne of Ingleside

Which made me think of a similar exchange between Emily Byrd Starr and her teacher, Mr. Carpenter:

“Stick to facts for three years and see what you can make of them. Leave the realm of imagination severely alone and confine yourself to ordinary life.”

“There isn’t any such thing as ordinary life,” said Emily.

Mr. Carpenter looked at her for a moment.

“You’re right – there isn’t,” he said slowly. “But one wonders a little how you know it.”

Emily Climbs

Good words to carry in my heart, for those not-quite-so-common, never-ordinary days.

May you have a delightfully not-ordinary weekend.

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I like to flatter myself that I’m pretty well-traveled. After all, I’ve been to 24 states and eight countries, and I lived abroad for three semesters (a semester in Oxford as an undergrad and then a year there as a grad student). But I tend to revisit – and read about – the same types of places over and over again. Oxford has my heart, but I adore the UK in general. I never, ever get tired of Paris memoirs; I love stories about Americans forging new lives in Europe because that’s a dream of mine; I drool over Little Brown Pen’s Paris pictures on a regular basis; and yes, I loved Eat, Pray, Love (but the Italy section was my favorite).

Recently, however, I read and reviewed two collections of travel essays – The Best American Travel Writing 2011, and the much more interestingly titled Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar – both of which were extensive tours of places I would never, ever choose to travel. (This is partly because several essays in the first collection, and all the essays in the second one, were set in war zones, where, frankly, I’ve never had any desire to go.) I think the locales in the Best American anthology – Saudi Arabia, Haiti, Moscow, Mumbai, Serbia – provide a clear portrait of where America’s eyes are focused these days (namely: the Middle East, the sites of natural disasters, and rapidly developing countries of all stripes). There was only one gentle European essay, about a man in pursuit of Monet, and while it was lovely, it sort of paled in comparison to the other, more vivid – and usually more shocking – stories.

The map of stories in Mud Crabs reads similarly, though of course conflict is overtly present in every single story, not just hiding behind the scenes. (And the conditions for war-zone journalists are worse than for travel writers in peacetime, however uneasy the peace.) But despite the fact that I would never choose most of these locales to visit (or, usually, to read about), I was totally swept up in the stories of these people, and their keen-eyed observations of cultures so totally different, so completely Other, than my own. It’s a testament, in part, to great travel writing, which evokes a place in a few well-chosen details and conversations. But perhaps it also represents a broadening of my own horizons.

I’m still not sure I want to go to Asia or Africa or the Middle East on my next trip – besides the concerns for safety in some of these places, I suspect I’ll always be an Anglophile at heart. But I’m learning to appreciate stories from all locales, however war-torn or foreign to me, and I think that’s got to count for something.

What places do you like to read about that you’d never choose to go?

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After delving recently into The Story of E.B. White by Michael Sims (which I loved – scroll down for review), I’ve been on an E.B. White kick.

(Image from amsaw.org)

I’ve read Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan, of course, but had only read snippets from White’s essays and letters. But after reading his biography I was fascinated by this wise and witty man, who wrote prolifically for The New Yorker and other publications (and who loved dachshunds as I do). So I’ve been savoring his essays on my daily commute – often smiling, sometimes chuckling, at his observations.

Here, some of the lines that have moved me:

Familiarity is the thing – the sense of belonging. It grants exemption from all evil, all shabbiness. A farmer pauses in the doorway of his barn and he is wearing the right boots. A sheep stands under an apple tree and it wears the right look, and the tree is hung with puckered frozen fruit of the right color. [...] Or so it seems to the homing traveler. (“Home-Coming”)

Children hold spring so tightly in their brown fists, just as grownups, who are less sure of it, hold it in their hearts. (“A Report in Spring”)

I bought a puppy last week in the outskirts of Boston [...]. There had been talk in our family of getting a “sensible” dog this time, and [...] after a period of uncertainty and waste motion my wife suddenly exclaimed one evening, “Oh, let’s just get a dachshund!” (“A Report in Spring”)

All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular, although many men are born upright. (“Bedfellows”)

The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now. (“Here is New York,” written in 1949)

In the fury of the storm, thought was impossible; the future was expunged by wind and water; I lived at last in the present, and the present was magnificent – rich and beautiful and awesome. It gave me all the things I wanted from life, and it was as though I drank each towering wave as it came aboard, as though I would ever after be athirst. (“The Years of Wonder”)

The slowness of rail travel is not because the Horse is incapable of great speed but because the railroad is a gossip; all along the line it stops to chat at back porches, to exchange the latest or borrow a cup of sugar. (“The Railroad”)

If our future journeys are to be little different from flashes of light, with no interim landscape and no interim thought, I think we will have lost the whole good of journeying and will have succumbed to a mere preoccupation with getting there. (“The Railroad”)

[Walden] is distilled from [Thoreau's] vast journals, and this accounts for its intensity: he picked out bright particles that pleased his eye, whirled them in the kaleidoscope of his content, and produced the pattern that has endured – the color, the form, the light. (“A Slight Sound at Evening”)

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I love surprises of the everyday variety; I don’t always relish big life surprises. But here, a handful of the most delightful:

1. Loving my first job out of college – an admin job on campus – as much as I did.
2. Bethany moving back to Abilene, for a year and a half of wonderful “borrowed time.”
3. Finding another family in Abilene (and staying there as long as I did).
4. Becoming a total tea addict. (I never touched the stuff until college.)
5. Interning in Hawaii for a month one summer. (Surprises every DAY.)
6. Learning to navigate traffic on a bike in Oxford, and loving that, too.
7. Moving to Boston – the difficulty and the richness, and lots of other things besides, have surprised me.
8. Actually writing a novel in a month in 2008.
9. The surprise party Jeremiah gave me when I turned 21. (Yes, I was totally surprised.)
10. Singing a brief solo in the Les Miserables medley during a choir concert in college. (I was so sure I hadn’t gotten it – but I ended up with a solo from “On My Own,” my favorite Les Mis song.)
11. Writing a cover story for Radiant magazine – how surprised I was to be asked!
12. Being told (not asked) to learn to play the piccolo for a high school band concert in London.

How about you? Any wonderful life surprises to share?

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Confession: I am a total wimp when it comes to on-screen violence. I often shut my eyes during bloody battle scenes; I can’t watch slasher or horror movies because of the gore (whereas my husband loftily refuses to watch them “because they’re lame”). I get easily creeped out by crime shows (I can’t watch CSI or even The Mentalist). For some reason, I can read about violence with relatively little trouble (though I’d rather not – and when Bethany and I had to read Blindness in college, well, we didn’t want to turn off the lights afterward).

Anyway, since watching violence on screen is not my thing, I wasn’t at all sure I could handle Castle. However, after having watched most of the first (brief) season: I love it.

I love it mostly because of the banter between Detective Kate Beckett (no-nonsense, sharp and yet disarmingly pretty), and writer Rick Castle (a cocky playboy who’s just vulnerable enough to be endearing). Of course, they spend a lot of time solving homicides, dealing with unsavory characters and trying not to get shot, but instead of being a crime show with a side of witty banter, this show is witty banter with a side of crime. The crimes provide the setting and much of the action, but the show is really about relationships – both the one between Castle and Beckett, and their relationships with the supporting cast (packed with more wonderful characters).

Because the show isn’t just about crime, there’s a lot going on outside the crime scenes – from Castle’s deep love for his daughter (and the antics of his hilarious diva mother) to Beckett’s long-buried grief over her mother’s death. The ensemble cast really makes the show tick (I love Beckett’s fellow detectives Ryan and Esposito, and medical examiner Lanie). I often prefer a strong protagonist in the books I read, but in my favorite TV shows (Friends, Gilmore Girls, Mary Tyler Moore) I enjoy a solid ensemble cast.

Finally, of course, I love that Castle’s a writer. Every episode contains a line or two about constructing a plot, about making a story believable, about throwing in a twist. There’s a lot of “if I were writing this…” and quite a few instances of truth being stranger than (or just as complicated as) fiction. While I don’t write crime fiction (or read much of it, except Agatha Christie), I appreciate the nods to Castle’s chosen profession, which is also mine.

Are you a fan of Castle (or other crime shows)?

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I’ve been spending a little time in Deep Valley, Minnesota. Feeling a little harried and craving some comfort (and a fun summer story), I picked up Carney’s House Party to read on the T one morning, and of course it wasn’t long before I was immersed in the high school adventures of my beloved Betsy Ray and her merry Crowd. I’ve been carrying the books around with me, spending my lunch breaks reading about school dances and the Essay Contest, Merry Widow hats and summers on Murmuring Lake, and the group of boys and girls who are so jolly and fun that I want them for my own friends.

(Image via New York Magazine)

These books never fail to delight me with their descriptions of gorgeous party dresses, delicious Sunday night lunches at the Ray house, vivid details of the seasons changing in Deep Valley, and the highly entertaining adventures of Betsy, Tacy, Tib and their posse of friends. Singing around the piano, ice skating on the pond, shopping for Christmas ornaments and drinking coffee at Heinz’s – what fun! But I also love the books for Betsy’s occasional moments of quiet reflection – particularly the ones when she realizes she’s neglected her writing and determines to rededicate herself to it.

I’ve struggled lately to find both inspiration and discipline for my writing, and it’s always heartening to read that Betsy struggled with the same problems, and always overcame them in the end. I love picturing her curled up next to Uncle Keith’s trunk, the print of a long-legged bird on the wall beside her, or floating on a rowboat at Murmuring Lake, scribbling away at a poem or a story with her freshly sharpened pencils.

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The other night, in serious need of some writing inspiration, I picked up Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper. This book was J’s gift to me when I graduated from college, and it’s not an overstatement to say that it has changed my life. Julia, with her thoughtful, wise words on writing and the gently prodding exercises which accompany each essay, became a friend and creative companion, and I read and wrote my way through most of the exercises in this book as I sent out resumes and tried to figure out my life after college. (One of those exercises led to my first published article, and the beginning of my freelance career.)

It’s been a while since I’ve revisited The Sound of Paper (though Julia’s words, particularly about buds, continue to remind me, gently, that I’m not alone on this writer’s path). I decided to start going through the exercises again, and one of the first has (ostensibly) nothing to do with writing. Rather, the instructions are to gather a big pile of magazines, pull out any images that appeal to you, and make a collage with them.

I gathered my pile of Real Simple, Whole Living, Anthology and National Geographic (the standard and Traveler editions), spread out on the living-room rug, and began ripping, cutting, sorting and discarding, then arranging my finds and securing them with Scotch tape. I ended up with so many images I had to make the collage double-sided. Here’s the final product:

As I sat and looked at the collage, several things struck me:

First of all, this was fun. It’s been ages since I did anything with my hands that didn’t involve writing, cooking or knitting. How fun to play with pictures again like a kid, not to worry about white space or overlapping edges or whether anything “matched.” I chose an arrangement that pleased me, of course, but I wasn’t overly worried about how it would look.

This melange is part reality, part ideal – much like the Polyvore collages I see on others’ blogs, or the groupings of items on Pinterest, or the treasuries people make on Etsy. They’re partly things we have, and partly things we want. I own a couple of cute dresses and a few pieces of candy-colored cookware; I’ve certainly eaten my share of ice cream, gelato and sorbet this summer. But I’m longing for trips to exotic, peaceful locations, a neatly color-coded closet, a vintage typewriter, an adorable dog (maybe in our next house, when we have a backyard). Some of those things are out of reach right now, but some of them are probably closer than I think.

As a writer I’m always looking for themes, and there are several in this grouping: abundance (heirloom tomatoes and bright flowers, shelves of books and stacks of dishes); simplicity (clean lines, quiet black-and-white photos, wide blue skies with room to breathe); a bit of play (those puppies, enjoying the breeze, charm me utterly); and elegance (those dresses! Those red lips with chic sunglasses! That carafe of lemonade!). Again, it strikes me: these themes speak partly to the life I have, partly to the life I want.

The trick, as always, is how to get from here to there: how to transform the everyday grind into something charming and joyful, thoughtful and fun? How to take these images from the page and translate them into reality? Or how, more importantly, to learn to find the beauty in what I already have, the moments of abundance and simple joy and peace in my everyday?

It’s a question I’m always asking, and this collage only served to emphasize that. These photos don’t have any answers for me, of course, but it’ll be good to keep them around while I keep pondering – and writing.

What would be on your collage of wishes?

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1. The perfect chai latte.
2. Inner peace and calm. (Constantly.)
3. The perfect journal – lined, medium-weight pages, a pretty-but-not-twee cover, the right heft in my hand.
4. Delicious, healthy, easy recipes for weeknight dinners.
5. A vintage edition of The Hobbit, to match my Lord of the Rings set.
6. High heels that don’t hurt.
7. Skirts that make me feel as chic as Mary Tyler Moore.
8. Energy boosts during the workday.
9. That snapshot from my grandparents’ wedding – in a drawer somewhere, I’m sure of it.
10. The motivation to organize the filing cabinet.
11. Extra money. (Anyone else?)
12. Ideas for blog posts. (Always!)
13. Uncluttered time to write.

What do you try to find?

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