Boston Book Festival

October 24, 2015


Wednesday, December 03, 2014

These Are a Few of Our Favorite Books of 2014

Yes, the Internet abounds with “best-of” lists, but that doesn’t stop us from adding our own picks to the mix! Here are our staff’s eclectic choices for the best books we read in 2014. We hope one (or more!) of our titles speak to you, and we wish you a very happy new year full of books and reading!

Deborah Z Porter, Founder and Executive Director

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

I just finished Fourth of July Creek, a debut novel by Smith Henderson. It is a story of contemporary America, the American West to be specific. The West’s legacy of individualism, lawlessness, and violence is visible in the story of a decent but flawed man who, as a child welfare worker, strives to save unlucky children from their hapless, deranged, and dangerous parents but who has failed his own child. The story is reminiscent of Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children, but its plot is more complex and touches on many troubling aspects of American society. The prose is beautiful and evocative, precise and at times devastating. It is always tempting to say that the last book I’ve read is the “best,” but for 2014, this actually may be the case.

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Norah Piehl, Deputy Director

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

First, a couple for the kids. Absolutely Almost is an almost perfect book, the kind of poignantly funny story you’re going to want to give to (or, even better, read with) any kids you know who have to work just a little bit harder than everyone else to make it through the day. It can be easy for kids and adults alike to overlook or devalue the kinds of talents Graff’s protagonist possesses—which include being a first-class expert on New York City as well as being, in his mom’s words, “caring and thoughtful and kind.” Absolutely Almost offers the much-needed (and totally non-preachy) message that there are things to be proud of that don’t involve fastest times or perfect scores.

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Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

Another remarkable book for young readers published in 2014, this novel offers an gut-wrenching dog story (no, the dog doesn’t die, but you’ll still want to have plenty of Kleenexes nearby!) and a protagonist whose singular voice and strong sense of right and wrong offer readers a new model of what a hero can look (and talk, and think) like.

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How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

From dawn to dusk, historian Ruth Goodman walks readers through exactly what a day would be like for typical Victorians, both upper- and lower-class, urban and rural. If you enjoy reading Victorian literature or are just fascinated by nineteenth-century life, you’ll be enthralled by the intimate details Goodman provides—and deeply appreciative of how much we still owe to our Victorian forebears' inventiveness and ingenuity.

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Sarah Howard Parker, Director of Operations

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

The 80s! Slow-burning teen love affair! Red-haired protagonist! This book has it all. And, I must confess, it was my first foray into YA (which it turns out is just another name for “good books that people read”). I loved it.

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Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

This is an autobiographical comic (a tragicomic as the front cover tells you) about the author’s upbringing and changing relationship with her family. Really poignant and surprisingly relatable, even given the extreme circumstances detailed within. I’ve been meaning to read this for years, but recently remembered due to the recent press for the upcoming Broadway musical. Fun Home fun fact: the author is the originator of the “Bechdel test.”

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Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg

I haven’t actually read this book yet, but I have read some of the earlier incarnations of the texts on Ortberg’s brilliant site The Toast. It turns out I will read anything she writes, even if it sounds trendy or can be categorized as a “humor” book (another genre that has always frightened me). What am I afraid of? Laughing?

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Mackenzie Kuester, BBF Intern

The Smartest Kids in the World (And How They Got That Way) by Amanda Ripley

I’m a bit of a fanatic about the education system. Going through the International Baccalaureate program, being a “gifted kid,” doing a huge finals project on unschooling … I’m well-versed in the subject of schools. In this book, Ripley manages to deeply analyze the United States’ culture on learning, as well as Finland, South Korea, and Poland. All of these are done with accounts from kids who have studied in both the US and the various countries, giving this research-supported study a narrative arc. The conclusions she draws are legendary and will make you want to do more than just volunteer for the PTA.

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I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley

From a plastic bag of toy ponies gifted to her by ex-boyfriends to a menace of a first boss who used staplers as ammo, Crosley leads you through pieces of her life with a whimsical voice and whip crack sense of humor. This collection of essays is up-front, self-effacing, and somehow both snarky and heartwarming. A great read for anyone willing to repeatedly burst out laughing while reading in public—not that I’m speaking from firsthand experience …

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Niki Marion, BBF Intern

Gaston written by Kelly DiPucchio; illustrated by Christian Robinson

My favorite picturebook this year, and one I truly hope gets a Caldecott nod. DiPucchio’s story of Gaston, a French bulldog who ends up with a family of French poodles, is a smart and comprehensible approach to the nature/nurture debate and a heart-warming tale of adoption, but Robinson’s illustrations steal the book for me. His evocative details—the telling eyebrows of the main pooches in one spread in particular—enhance the personalities of the dogs with deliberate thought. A perfect pairing of art and text makes for a gently funny and comforting read.

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Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

I had never read Card’s 1985 science-fiction novel and was so delighted to have the opportunity to rectify this deficit for a course this year. Card packs so much into fewer than three hundred pages of text, and the rich characterization and self-reflection of the individuals drives the plot forward. Religion, politics, gender and power dynamics, constructions of childhood, psychology, and more combine to make this a truly multifaceted narrative, with potentials to find countless new discoveries upon each rereading. And you will want to reread it.

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Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Newcomer alert! Emily Carroll is a Canadian comic book artist with lots of deserved buzz. Her first graphic novel is a compilation of five short horror stories, complete with bone-chilling cliffhanger endings. Just her cover, with its textured black forest, blue and red accent colors, and reliance on recognizable fairy tale imagery, immediately piques the reader’s interest. Carroll also just made an appearance at the 2014 Massachusetts Independent Comic Expo in October, and meeting her in person made me even more excited to see what she thinks up next!

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Melanie McFadyen, BBF Intern

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Okay, I’ll admit, this was my third reading of of this book in as many years. This story follows Kathy, a student at Hailsham, a private school that shelters its students from the rest of the world. Told in retrospect from an older Kathy’s point of view, the novel shares the story of her upbringing with her friends Tommy and Ruth, as they gradually discover the “open secret” of their future. Beautifully written, with deceptive simplicity through Kathy’s compelling narrative voice, Never Let Me Go is a story that (if you’ll excuse the pun) I will never be able to let go of.

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World War Z by Max Brooks

The zombies are coming, and they look nothing like Brad Pitt. In World War Z, Max Brooks presents a compelling look at how our world would react to a zombie apocalypse in a series of interviews with survivors from all across the globe. Based on real events that have happened throughout history, Brooks raises the all-important question of how can we avoid repeating our own history. If you’re a fan of zombies, or Brooks’s Zombie Survival Guide, you’ll enjoy reading this account of the hypothetical zombie war to come.

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Afterworlds_ by Scott Westerfeld

Okay, so I haven’t actually been able to read this yet, but I am so. excited. about. it. Scott Westerfeld’s most recent novel, Afterworlds tells two different stories: the story of Lizzie, a teen who drifts between our world and the “Afterworld” when she escapes there to survive a terrorist attack, and Darcy, the teen author behind Lizzie’s story. Dedicated to the writers who participate in “NaNoWriMo” (National Novel Writing Month), this story pays tribute to the struggles of a young writer attempting to finish and publish her first novel. As a past participant in NaNoWriMo, and as a huge fan of Scott Westerfeld’s novels, I cannot wait until winter break when I can finally sit down and read Afterworlds.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

BBF 2014: Journeys and Destinations

Historical Map of BostonWe didn’t set out to have a theme for this year’s BBF, but as we began inviting presenters and assembling sessions earlier this year, we noticed the word “journey” cropping up all over. In some cases the journeys were literal, in other cases metaphorical—but the idea of traveling, questing, and finding one’s way is one explored by many of the participants in this year’s festival. Certainly, the theme of the journey is not the only topic of inquiry at this year’s BBF, but it can provide a useful road map through our more than five dozen sessions and activities for kids and adults. Here are a few highlights:

Not one but three of our sessions have the word “Journey” right there in the title. Perilous Journeys brings together writers of three true tales of adventure (and misadventure): Scott Anderson, Vicki Croke, and Carl Hoffman. The memoirists in our Journeys Home and Abroad panel take readers to the far corners of the earth—and on an exploration of personal and family history. And, for younger armchair travelers, there’s Journeys Near and Far, in which Paul Durham, Laura Godwin, S. E. Grove, and Ann M. Martin whisk readers away to the high seas and even through time.

Taking the idea of the journey more broadly, My Memoir My Quest brings together Rebecca Mead, Joanna Rakoff, and Max Tegmark, three writers whose investigations into subjects as varied as mathematics and Middlemarch also prompt journeys of self-discovery. And, for those interested more specifically in the history and future of getting from point A to point B, Finding Our Way explores the evolution of navigation systems.

Several of our sessions offer a global journey of sorts, exploring themes and topics from South Asia, Finland, Africa, and more. In Another Country, novelists Joseph O'Neill, Lily King, and Rupert Thomson set their novels in Dubai, New Guinea, and Renaissance Italy. In a special ticketed event, architect Norman Foster displays the creativity that have made his designs landmarks around the world. And, in our new partnership with the French Cultural Center and the French Embassy in the United States, attendees can celebrate the work of French writers and scholars.

You may find your own GPS coming into play as you navigate toward the French Cultural Center or our other new venues (or you can be old-fashioned—kind of—and download our venue map). For those who prefer the scenic—and educational—route, join Boston By Foot for a literary walking tour of the Back Bay. Even the little ones can take to the streets for our costume parade. Don’t have a costume? No problem! You can make one on the spot.

Whether or not you delve into our accidental “journeys” theme, we like to think that everyone who attends the BBF is embarking on a journey of discovery, inspiration, and lifelong learning. Won’t you join us?

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Guest Post: Jennifer Haigh Interview by Anna Solomon

In 2014, we’re featuring posts by guest bloggers: BBF staff, authors, and friends of the festival. This month, we asked Anna Solomon, 2012 One City One Story author of “The Lobster Mafia Story,” to share a post with us. Thanks, Anna!

Alicia Anstead--1C1S Town Hall
Alicia Anstead leads a 1C1S Town Hall discussion at the BBF

In the fall of 2012, I was lucky enough to attend the Boston Book Festival’s One City One Story Town Hall, where in a packed room people were discussing my short story, “The Lobster Mafia Story.” I say “attend” because, for the first hour at least, that’s what I did: I sat in the audience and listened as people discussed my story. They spoke readily, bravely, some offering interpretations, others posing questions. It was clear that many of them had read the story multiple times, that they had thought hard about it, wrestled with it, and come excited to share their thoughts and hear what their fellow Bostonians had to say. There was a palpable buzz in the air as readers debated the symbolism of particular lines and connected the story’s themes with their own lives. I almost forgot, for a time, that they were talking about my story. It was an amazing example of what literature can do and mean in a community, when it’s distributed widely, promoted smartly, and translated into multiple languages.

That afternoon was one of my most gratifying moments as a writer. So I was excited to talk with the latest One City One Story author, Jennifer Haigh, about the run-up to her festival experience this year, and about her quiet, moving, and provocative story, “Sublimation.”

AS: You and I both know that it’s hard to bring a short story to a wide audience. Even when you publish in a prestigious journal, you’re still talking about a small readership, often made up primarily of other writers. What’s it like knowing this story will be read by tens of thousands of people over the next couple months?

JH: Publishing a short story can be very depressing. The difference between publication and not is very slim. So it’s nice for this one to get a bigger audience, get a second life. I think it’s delightful. It gives me a chance to reach readers who are probably new to my work, who probably haven’t read my novels, and I’m very happy about that. I also think, having just published a collection of short stories this year, for readers of that book, “Sublimation” is quite a different thing, so it’s nice to think of people who think they know my stories getting their hands on this one.

AS: How would you describe that difference?

JH: My story collection, News From Heaven, is linked stories. They’re linked by landscape, and mainly set in western Pennsylvania, in a dying coal town. It’s been a while since I’ve written a story set somewhere else. Baltimore, where “Sublimation” is set, is a city I love.

AS: News From Heaven, I want to mention, has already won the 2014 Massachusetts Book Award and the 2014 PEN/New England Award in Fiction—an incredible feat! My understanding is that these stories were many years in the making. Tell me what the process of writing “Sublimation” was like. Did it come in a rush? Was it a story that grew slowly? I know it can be hard to remember the early life of a story, but what do you recall of how it developed?

JH: Gosh, it is a hard question to answer. This one did not take as long as some of my others. I don’t know, maybe—I was probably writing at it for less than a year. I have some that takes years and years to come together. This one … I guess it was just the image of Bruce and his mother, Dolly, watching Jeopardy!, the two of them in their old spots …

AS: Did you know from the start that it was Dolly’s story?

JH: Yeah. I’m very interested in writing about relationships between parents and adult children. To me they’re endlessly interesting and complicated in a way. We don’t choose the people in our families, and often the only thing we have in common is this blood tie and some history. This situation was interesting to me because Bruce is back home, a place he never thought he’d be. He lost his job and his mother got sick and these are the things that happen sometimes to conspire to bring adult children home. It’s uncomfortable in a lot of ways. Dolly used to live on her own. Bruce used to, too. But here they are, back on the familial couch.

AS: Bruce is a cross-dresser. You reveal this quietly, not by declaring it or showing him in his clothes but by describing the lipstick he leaves on his glass. That choice is critical, it seems to me.

JH: Yes. The cross-dressing, it’s not the primary thing for Dolly. Her relationship to Bruce long predates her discovery that this is a habit of his. This is a fairly recent revelation. She’s known Bruce for forty-five years. She’s in a position of having to reconcile the person she’s always known with this new thing she’s discovered.

AS: I think that’s enough to whet readers’ appetites without spoiling any surprises. Are you excited for the Town Hall in October?

JH: I think the Boston Book Festival is probably my favorite lit event of the year. I’ve gone several times, usually talking about one of my novels. So for me this is going to be an entirely different experience.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Summer Reading Roundup from the BBF

Whether your summer travel plans include trips to the mountains, the beach, or just a well-placed hammock in your own backyard, you should never leave home without packing a great book or two. The BBF staff has rounded up our personal summer book recommendations to inspire your own literary travels this summer. Happy reading!

Deborah Z Porter, Founder and Executive Director

Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn

I just finished Never Mind, the first of the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn. Perceptive and gripping, it is a sometimes painful to read but beautifully told story of one young man’s growing up in the UK among the idle ruling class.

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Thirty Girls by Susan Minot

Thirty Girls, by BBF Keynote Susan Minot, will also haunt you as you contemplate violence and its toll on everyone involved.

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My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

My Life in Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead, is of interest to anyone who can’t get enough of George Eliot.

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The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

The Faraway Nearby, by Rebecca Solnit, is an essay, a memoir, a meditation on the spinning of tales and on the threads of stories that are knitted together to give a life meaning.

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Norah Piehl, Deputy Director

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki, illus. by Jillian Tamaki

If you have a special summer place, take this beautifully illustrated graphic novel with you when you go there this summer. Rose has gone to the same lake house with her parents each summer since she was a little girl. This year, however, everything—-from Rose’s family dynamics to her friendship with a younger girl whose family also summers on Awago Beach—-seems different. Has the place changed? Or has Rose? The Tamakis explore the passage of time and the transformations of adolescence through this bittersweet chronicle of a single summer, depicted in moodily monochromatic purples.

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The Watcher by Charlotte Link

Thanks to the popularity of Scandinavian thriller writers, American audiences are becoming more used to reading novels in translation, and consequently discovering a whole new world of terrific suspense writing. Now the Germans are getting in on the act. The Watcher is blockbuster German author Charlotte Link’s second novel to be translated into English, and I’m betting it won’t be the last. Its panoramic narrative soon focuses in on a handful of characters, all of whom have something to hide—-means and motives remain murky right up until the surprising end.

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Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins

Okay, this book doesn’t actually come out until mid-August, but that gives you just enough time to read the already-published companions (Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door) to this exquisitely swoon-worthy novel. Perkins’s latest stands on its own, but it’s even more satisfying for readers of her previous work. Perkins is a true romantic and a swell writer to boot, making her novels ideal beach-bag material—-just make sure you pack tissues and sunglasses if true love makes you weepy.

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Sarah Howard Parker, Director of Operations

Love Is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield

Sheffield, a writer for Rolling Stone, is probably best known for his appearances on various VH-1 I Love the __’s shows. This incredibly personal memoir, both sweet and devastating, recounts his courtship and early marriage with his wife using songs as touchstones for each chapter. Also, his taste in music is excellent, and (after you stop crying) you can check out the playlist. (Hint: an intrepid Spotify user has already done the work for you.)

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Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke

A BBF colleague who knows my favorite genre (ok, it was Norah!) recommended this novel to me and I couldn’t read it fast enough. It has all my favorite elements: an unreliable narrator, psychological suspense, and an ending that I didn’t see coming! Be warned: this one will stay with you (and not in a good way).

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My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett

A certain member of my household has recently developed an attention span long enough to begin delving into longer bedtime stories. I never knew about this series growing up (the first one was originally published in 1948) but it’s a perfect first chapter book with just enough pictures to keep the pages turning.

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Mackenzie Kuester, BBF Intern

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

As someone studying memoir, I thought My Salinger Year was a great example of focus. Rakoff takes only one year of her life—her first year post-grad, working for the esteemed literary agent of J. D. Salinger—and writes about it with such detail and precision you would’ve thought she traveled back in time.

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

I get it, I get it, I’m late to the party with this one. But between the unconventional style, quirky storyline, and overall rocket-fast pace, I found myself wishing I had invested the time sooner. This book is a great way to spark discussion about relationships, trust, and the new meaning of “normal.”

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Niki Marion, BBF Intern

Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson

The act of reading this book is moving, unnerving, enthralling, and downright invigorating. Winterson always plays with time in unusual ways, and Gut Symmetries is no exception. There are lots of boats and accompanying symbolism involved in the narrative, so you’ll catch a whiff of salty air that will bring you to the seashore no matter where you’re reading it.

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Journey by Aaron Becker

As a master’s student of children’s literature, I am compelled to include a picture book in this list. This particular one inspires all readers to escape the monotonous doldrums and explore the imaginative realm that resides just outside their front door. A perfect way to encourage indoor dwellers into the summer sunlight! (And look for the second installment, Quest, in August!)

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Any Sarah Dessen novels, but particularly The Truth About Forever or This Lullaby.

These books are my ideal YA summer romances. My copies are filled with sea water-warped pages and sand speckles because I always break them out for beach reading. As the tide comes in, Dessen’s protagonists mature and overcome their emotional obstacles, and by the time the sun sets over the ocean, you’ll be ready to take on the world with them.

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Melanie McFadyen, BBF Intern

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

I normally try to avoid reading books based on their popularity, but when I heard some of my most trustworthy book-loving friends raving about Cinder, I knew I had to try it. After all, how could I resist a modern retelling of Cinderella with cyborgs? In terms of fairy tale adaptations (of which I’ve read a lot), this one is easily my new favorite. It is so smart and subtle, modifying not just the settings but the characters, creating richly developed, deeply complex heroines who do much more than sit around and wait for their equally compelling heroes. The first installment of the Lunar Chronicles sets up a story that goes far beyond a shoe abandoned at the stroke of midnight, and I encourage anyone who enjoys fairy tales and/or science fiction to give it a try.

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Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

As a huge fan of Speak, I picked up Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson partially out of curiosity to see if the author’s other books could possibly be as engrossing and powerful (a question that I will never ask again). Wintergirls introduces us to Lia, who is struggling with an eating disorder even after her best friend has died from one. The strong narration allows us to see as Lia sees while also allowing us to see with horrifying honesty what she cannot, the brutal hold an eating disorder can have on someone. With subtle tie-ins to the myth of Persephone, Anderson has once again tackled an extremely difficult topic in a way that few have before.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

In the interests of reading as much as possible this summer (and taking a break from books I might find in my Literature courses), I promised myself to stick to “light reads,” i.e., no classics. I threw that rule out the window almost immediately for Their Eyes Were Watching God, one of those stories that I have always heard of and thought “Yeah, I’ll read that one day.” I’m glad I finally did, because this book introduced me to Janie Crawford, a strong woman searching for her true self, and her true love, willing to defy conventions and follow her own lead. I spent half of the book looking for Post-it notes to mark down my favorite quotes and passages.

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Monday, June 02, 2014

Guest Post: Boston Stories by Kate Racculia

In 2014, we’ll be featuring posts by guest bloggers: BBF staff, authors, and friends of the festival. This month, we asked Kate Racculia, former BBF volunteer and author of the recently-published novel Bellweather Rhapsody, to share a post with us. Thanks, Kate!

Red Line graffitiWhen I came to Boston in 2003, you needed tokens to ride the T. The Greenhouse, with its four-story slices of chocolate cake, was still in Harvard Square, and the Red Sox had yet to break the curse of the Bambino. I came to get serious about writing, to get my MFA from Emerson College, but what I really ended up getting was a ten-year degree in Boston.

I grew up in central New York, in the city of Syracuse and its surrounding suburbs and towns, went to college in Buffalo and spent a year outside Philadelphia, but Boston—or technically, Cambridge—was the most city-like city I’d ever lived in. People walked. It wasn’t unusual, on the way from my first apartment to the T in Harvard Square, for me to overhear conversations in multiple languages. I had never had Indian food like the Indian food here—so rich and comforting, so easy to order that I quickly had a usual, and a delivery guy who came so frequently he noticed when I moved to a new apartment.

My Boston life has been divided into three ages: the age of Emerson; the age of investment marketing, first at Putnam and then at a subsidiary that’s now a part of Bank of America; and the age of Mass General Hospital, where I was most recently a prospect researcher in the development office. During each of those ages, I was writing, working on what would become my first two novels—This Must Be the Place, published in 2010 (and written, largely, at Diesel Café in Somerville), and Bellweather Rhapsody, just out this summer. Both novels are set in central New York, a place I loved and left, a place with a gravity that I couldn’t escape even if I wanted to. Reading is a form of travel—through time and through space, into the imaginations and experiences of other people living, inventing, and describing other lives—but so is writing. One of the great joys of being a writer is the ability to cast yourself back to a world, a place and a time that you knew, that shaped you, that you miss, and bring that world to life for someone who has never been there, for someone who has—or for someone who shared that world with you.

I have discovered this about my writing self: my imagination needs distance. I tend to write from memory—not descriptions of exact events but of feelings and details, stories I’ve collected, experiences I’ve had time to process. I need to leave a place before I can begin to see it as a writer.

This summer, after more than ten years, I am leaving Boston. It’s a typical college town story: I came for school and never left. But as much as I know it’s my time to go, how can my heart not be a little broken? This is the place where I finished growing up, where I wrote my first two books; these are the people who made this city, so unlike anywhere else I’d lived, my home.

But here are the details and the stories I have already collected: the view of the Common from the GrubStreet office. Kicking over a beer in the stands at Fenway. That time I passed out on the T. That feeling, even if it’s raining, that the day of the Boston Book Festival is the sunniest of the year. The smell of rosemary fries wafting from the Clover food truck; the smell of the sea, salty and sticky, from the ferry to the Vineyard. The cool, unreachable paws of the lions at the BPL; the used book basements of the Booksmith and the Harvard Book Store. Walking through the Common into the Public Garden, listening to a song, watching the leaves on the trees, watching the people. Ice cream from Christina’s. The cool rush of air into the bus when you pry open a window. Late at night, riding the Red Line home—crossing the river, watching the city glow.

I will come back to Boston to visit; there are too many people I love here for me to stay away. But I will also return, again and again, in my imagination, in my next novel and all the novels I have yet to write. This place has a gravity that I couldn’t escape even if I wanted to, because this place is a part of me.

I can’t wait to tell my Boston stories.