10 Favorite Boston Books

Image from the Paul Revere House.
Image from the Paul Revere Memorial Association.

I had a different post planned today, but this morning I remembered that it is Patriots’ Day (also known as “Marathon Monday”) in my birthplace, Massachusetts. Patriots’ Day commemorates the opening battle of the Revolutionary War — remember the opening lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem?

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

Massachusetts observes Patriots’ Day on the third Monday in April. It’s typically a festive day in Boston, with battle reenactments, the Red Sox playing at home, and of course, the marathon. Last year, Patriots’ Day fell on April 15. It was a busy day for me — we were cohosting Chris Bohjalian at a nearby library for the paperback release of his spectacular novel about Armenian genocide, The Sandcastle Girls, and I had to file my taxes. So I had no idea what my daughter, who lives in Boston, was talking about that afternoon when I finally saw her texts: “Don’t worry, I’m fine!”; “Ran all the way home and staying inside”; “Call me!” I knew that her office was closed for the day and she was planning on watching the marathon. I finally reached her and found that she and her friends were in a bar near the finish line when the bombs went off. They didn’t know what had happened, and simply headed for safety as quickly as possible. Today, she and her friends are cheering for the 36,000 runners from all over the world whose participation in the marathon is a tribute to last year’s bombing victims.

The only marathon I can imagine participating in is a reading marathon. (Just in case you’re interested, there’s one planned next weekend — Dewey’s Read-a-Thon.) In honor of the Boston Marathon, I’d like to share a list of my favorite books set in and around Boston.

9780670021048HCaleb’s Crossing (Geraldine Brooks)
Brooks (also the author of March, the story of the absent father in Little Women, among other historical novels) brings to life the story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk,  the first Native American graduate of Harvard.

Townie (Andre Dubus III)
Growing up in tough neighborhoods north of Boston and largely abandoned by his famous father, Andre Dubus III learned the best way to protect himself was to throw the first punch. Over time, he transformed himself from a violent youth into an empathetic writer. Last year, Dubus was on a college trip to Boston with his daughter on the day of the marathon bombings. In a moving account written for Boston magazine, he refers to the “old rage” he felt when confronted with the tragedy that took place:

. . . For rage only brings more rage in return. So then what must we do? We must run again. And if we cannot run, we should walk or wheel ourselves, but we must go out in the street and begin training, each in our own way, for that Monday in April next year when one of the finest cities on earth opens her arms to all those who strive. And if my daughter decides to come to Boston in the fall, I will stand behind her completely, for she must continue to live her life with joy and gratitude and resolve. We all must. For this is a city that demands and deserves it, one I have always loved, but now, well, I love it more than ever before.

9780670015658HNorth of Boston (Elisabeth Elo)
Elo’s debut is a literary thriller featuring Pirio Kasparov, a hard-as-nails  Boston perfume executive who has the amazing ability to survive for long periods in very cold water. After the lobster boat she is on is rammed and sunk by a freighter, Pirio is convinced the tragedy was no accident.

The Heretic’s Daughter (Kathleen Kent)
Kent, a descendant of one of the accused Salem witches, mines her family’s history. The New York Times reviewer says:

Granted, the based-on-my-family-­history novelization is too often a product of a weekend writers’ workshop and the misplaced belief that the stories Grandpa told are immensely, immensely interesting. Maybe that’s just jealousy talking. Why couldn’t any of my ancestors have gotten themselves hanged as witches? But The Heretic’s Daughter overcomes this and several other obstacles . . . It is a powerful coming-of-age tale in which tragedy is trumped by an unsinkable faith in human nature.

I was born in Salem, and also (or so I’ve been told) am descended from an accused witch, so this book absolutely fascinated me. (I’m always careful to say “accused witchThey weren’t really witches, after all.

The Given Day (Dennis Lehane)
The Given Day takes place at the end of the First World War, culminating in the Boston police strike. It brings to mind E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, with celebrities and politicians of the time (Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge, Eugene O’Neill) mixing with the novel’s fictional characters.  The sequel to The Given Day, Live by Night, is set in Prohibition-era Boston, and is being made into a movie (produced by Ben Affleck) for 2015 release. Lehane’s mysteries are excellent as well, particularly Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone. Lehane published an article in the New York Times the day after the 2013 marathon, entitled “Messing With the Wrong City”:

But I do love this city. I love its atrocious accent, its inferiority complex in terms of New York, its nut-job drivers, the insane logic of its street system . . . Bostonians don’t love easy things, they love hard things — blizzards, the bleachers in Fenway Park, a good brawl over a contested parking space. Two different friends texted me the identical message yesterday: They messed with the wrong city.

All Souls: A Family Story from Southie (Michael Patrick MacDonald)
MacDonald grew up in a housing project in South Boston and lost four siblings to violence. The story of his survival reminds me of Angela’s Ashes.9780670451494H

Make Way for Ducklings (Robert McCloskey)
I had to include this classic picture book on the list. When my children were little, no trip to Boston was complete without a visit to the Public Garden to see the statue of Mrs. Mallard and her ducklings.

Run (Ann Patchett)
I love everything Ann Patchett has ever written. Run takes place over 24 hours in the life of Bernard Doyle, former mayor of Boston, and his two adopted sons, Teddy and Tip.

With or Without You (Domenica Ruta)
A good companion to Townie, Ruta’s memoir is, according to the New York Times, “a recovery memoir in which the most vivid character doesn’t recover”. That character is Ruta’s mother, a drug user and dealer — and a toxic mother. The Times article explores Ruta’s background:

In person Domenica, 33, is a lot like her book. She’s sharp, intense, funny in that darkly sarcastic way that working-class New Englanders so often are, and given to bursts of strong feeling. She now lives in Brooklyn, but last week she came back to Danvers, the town where she grew up. Turning off the highway, she suddenly said: “My heart always beats really fast right here. I don’t know why.” A few moments later she became ironic and added, “Welcome to the mean streets of Danvers, those hardscrabble streets.” In fact Danvers is an unfancy and mostly unremarkable North Shore suburb, whose greatest distinction is that in the 17th century it was where the Salem witches came from.

9781616203160The Art Forger (B.A. Shapiro)
In 1990, 13 paintings and drawings were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The crime has never been solved, and if you visit the museum today, you’ll see blank spaces on the walls where the works of art should hang. In Shapiro’s entertaining and enlightening novel, one of the paintings apparently resurfaces.

There are many mysteries set in Boston; probably the best known is Robert Parker’s Spenser series. Also popular are series by Linda Barnes, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and Tess Gerritsen. I’ve never read any of these, since I’m not a huge mystery fan, but maybe I should expand my horizons.


My daughter and a friend at the 2014 Boston Marathon.
My daughter and a friend at the 2014 Boston Marathon.