the book you want to read now:
Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth
(and a give-away)

163560For sixteen years I had what was arguably the best job in the world. It certainly was the best job for me. As a first-time mother of an infant, I wanted nothing more than to be at home with my new baby. At the same time, I’d loved my career as a literary editor and I still had to earn a living. By some miraculous stroke of luck and grace, the universe afforded me the chance to do both.

A week after my baby was born, I got word that I’d been chosen to be the new series editor of The Best American Short Stories, an annual anthology beloved by readers and writers alike. Three months later, I hired some help, bought my first desktop computer, set up a system to keep track of everything (magazines logged into FileMakerPro, the stories themselves written up by hand on file cards), and got down to work. It was amazing — I was getting paid to read.

I dressed for my new job in stretchy old black leggings and sweatshirts spotted with baby drool. I had no set hours and three deadlines a year. The magazines arrived by the box load and the babysitter came for a few hours every morning. While she was there, and while my son slept, and in every other spare moment of the day, I read short stories.

Sixteen years flew by. During that time, two little babies grew up into teenagers and sixteen volumes got published and I read thousands and thousands of stories. I had the joy of “discovering” such new voices as Amy Bloom, Junot Diaz, Akhil Sharma, Edith Pearlman, and Nathan Englander, and helping to introduce them to wider audiences. Meanwhile, I also had the privilege of working closely with some of our most accomplished writers — chatting about what made certain stories work and others miss the mark with the likes of Louise Erdrich, Tobias Wolff, Garrison Keillor, Barbara Kingsolver, E. L. Doctorow and many others. Co-editing with John Updike The Best American Short Stories of the Century allowed me not only the happy, prodigious task of reading every story ever published in the series since its inception in 1915, but also the privilege of engaging in an intensive, congenial, two-year correspondence with one of my lifelong literary heroes.

But without doubt the greatest good fortune that befell me as the editor of BASS was my enduring friendship with writer Ann Patchett, guest editor of the final volume of my tenure. After working together for over a year, getting to know each other by email and phone and letter, we finally met in person for the first time in Harvard Square at a PEN reading for The Best American Short Stories of 2006. It was a bittersweet night for me. Handing off the editorial baton to my successor seemed like the end of an era, the end of my professional identity, the end of steady income, the end of structure to my days. I had no idea what I’d do next. [continue…]

the shape of a year
and a book to win

booksIt’s snowing again, for the third time in a week. In New England, and certainly here in our part of New Hampshire, it’s a season of enforced respite from the comings and goings of our busy everyday lives. We can fight the weather (not much of a contest there!), or we can embrace the challenge of an uncompromising northern winter, layering on fleeces and wool socks, planning ahead, slowing down. I choose to acquiesce to this season of storms, keeping more food in the refrigerator, making pots of soup and chili that last for days, shopping less, driving less, snowshoeing more, writing more, reading more, gazing out the window more.

IMG_2045This morning, it’s pretty wild outside — a bitter, relentless wind drives vast, swirling curtains of powder across the meadow and sends silent clumps of snow crashing from tree limbs. With the temperature dropping steadily and the snow already hip deep, it would be easy to view yet another four or six or sixteen inches of snow as an annoying inconvenience. But I’m seeing this latest storm as a muffled blessing, an invitation to stay put today—no place to go and nothing to do, at least until the roads are cleared.

Looking up from my stool in the kitchen, I spot the empty bird feeder swinging in the wind and a sturdy cardinal, all puffed up and hunkered down in a nearby snowdrift, bright as a jewel against the blanket of white, patiently waiting for his breakfast. We all need to eat.

cardinalI slip on Steve’s tall black boots to trudge out and fill the birdfeeder, scattering some extra nibbles along the top of the snow-covered stonewall — a sunflower seed buffet for the squirrels and the jays. A pair of chickadees arrives before I’m even back to the door, the two of them too hungry to be shy. I stand there quietly for a moment, close as I dare, to watch them take turns plucking seeds from between the wires. But my fingers are already numb with cold. I’ll skip the long walk today.

IMG_2034Back inside my cozy kitchen, second cup of coffee in hand, I pick up my book.

More and more these days, I want to close my computer, silence my phone, and steep in the silence. [continue…]

Laurie Colwin — my mentor in the kitchen & on the page

photo copy 2 - Version 2I once bought a black speckled canning pot, two boxes of Ball jars, and twelve pounds of dusky Italian plums in memory of an author I loved.

For years, I’ve suspected I was one of a few remaining Laurie Colwin aficionados, a smallish but loyal band of readers of a certain age and sensibility who still hold her close in our hearts, afford her books prime space on our shelves, and continue to make her signature dishes in our kitchens.

So it was rather wonderful, though a bit startling, to discover in the pages of the New York Times this week that I’m not alone after all. That in fact, in the more than twenty years since her death, Laurie’s following has only grown, attracting “a new, cultishly devoted generation of readers,” many of whom are in their thirties or even younger.

Turns out, Laurie Colwin is bigger than ever. Her books, never out of print, are selling briskly. Some of her most zealous disciples today were toddlers when she died in 1992. Somehow, knowing about her expanding fan base gives me hope — not only for this new generation of readers, secret romantics, and home cooks, but also for the survival of such humble institutions as tea parties, afternoon picnics, and family dinners. [continue…]

Glitter and Glue

201402-omag-obc-14-284xfallI was sitting at my kitchen table answering email last Monday when a note from Kelly Corrigan popped into my inbox.  I don’t know Kelly personally, but somewhere along the way I must have signed up to be on her mailing list.

The note was casual, hastily typed, without so much as a capital letter – the kind of quickie email I’d expect to get from a close friend:

22 years ago i started writing a book about a family i lived with in australia and how that radically upended many opinions i held of my mother. 

Below, there was a link to a reading Kelly had done the week before, in a friend’s living room in California — an essay that serves (quite brilliantly) as a trailer to her new book, Glitter and Glue.

And so it happened that I was one of the first 100 or so people last Monday to click over to YouTube and watch Kelly talk about how her goal coming out of college was to become Interesting, with a capital “I.”

Convinced that “things happen when you leave the house,” Kelly sets off with her college roommate to travel around the world.  But it’s not long before she runs out of money, her dream of being a hippie explorer derailed by lack of funds by the time she hits Australia.  Instead of trekking in Tasmania, she winds up caring for two newly motherless children in a suburb north of Sydney.

It’s a coming-of-age story with pictures, condensed into five minutes, and it makes for great video. I was still wiping away tears as I shared the link on Facebook.  And then, without really thinking about it, I sent Kelly an email in return.  “Love the video,” I wrote. “And we share some territory.”

A reply flew back within a minute: “Of course I know you!”  Two days later, two books arrived from her publisher.  One for me to read and keep, and another for me to give away to one of you.

And here’s the amazing thing.  As I sat down on my sofa and began to read Glitter and Glue, it actually did feel as if I were settling in for a good long talk with my best friend.

Such is the magic of Kelly Corrigan.  The spell she casts – an irresistible  mix of vulnerability, heart, humor, bad-girl charm, racy language, and hard-won wisdom – draws you in close and holds you tight.  Her words weave an invisible inner circle, and there’s no place you’d rather be than right at the center of it with her, sharing a second cup of coffee, leaning in close so you won’t miss a word, getting down to the heart of the stuff that really matters.

So, I should warn you now: You will not read the first pages of Glitter and Glue and then set it down to go off and tend to other things.  [continue…]

A Religion of One’s Own

IMG_9798The first thing I did when I found out I was pregnant, twenty-five years ago this winter, was get in my car and drive to Harvard Square to buy a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting.  I am a book person, a life-long reader.  And so my first response to anything new or challenging in my life has always been the same: go find a book on the subject.

For a few years, as I became a mother to first one son and then another, I read my way through an entire shelf of parenting titles.  I read books about every age and every stage, about attachment and achievement, discipline and diet.

But the book that finally set me on my own path, both as a mother and as a person, wasn’t a parenting book at all.  It was a book called The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life by a writer named Thomas Moore.

Most of us have a handful of books we consider seminal, books that make such profound, deep, and lasting impressions that we remember, even years later, exactly where we were and how we felt as the words landed in our hearts.

I was in a lawn chair at my parents’ house in Florida, savoring quiet. [continue…]