Downtown View:Good Reads

By Karen Cord Taylor

Every year about this time I recommend a few books about Boston or by Boston authors that might make good holiday gifts for your friends or relatives. Here are three for you to consider.

Winter Storms by Elin Hilderbrand

This book is not literature. But it is also not junk, as I feared. It was quick and fun.

The story follows an extended family whose members have complicated, theatrical lives. One has two boyfriends, one is at war, another is in jail, still another is a news anchor. All are in touch with one another—old lovers, step-children, former spouses, half siblings. All have a base in Nantucket, where the author must spend much time. She also lives in downtown Boston.

The story has a strong sense of place, which is both good and bad. The book captures the spirit of Nantucket. Beacon Hill also gets a mention, but the distance between one character’s home and Whole Foods is wrong. Readers lose the narrative when they follow a character through well-known terrain if the author doesn’t get it right.

This is the third book in a trilogy, but it is easy to get up to speed on the characters. If you lived in a family like this you’d be exhausted from the drama. But as a read, this family provides imaginative entertainment. This book would be a nice gift for a female friend who likes some fluff—but good fluff—in her life.

Boots on the Ground; Flats in the Boardroom by Grace Crunican and Elizabeth Levin

Few women worked in the transportation sector when the authors began their careers. This book tells the stories of some of these pioneering women. They were business majors, planning specialists, community organizers, political neophytes, civil engineers. They ended up running airports, railroads, consulting companies and transit authorities.

Similar threads weave through the stories. All faced low expectations, discrimination and unfair treatment. They also found mentors, both female and male, who helped them develop their skills and find new connections. They usually give their parents credit for their drive. Their family life often suffered from their job responsibilities. Their connections served them well when they wanted or needed to change jobs. One of the biggest obstacles to their success was counteracting the attitude of many public officials that transportation for the public deserved little respect—it was for the “other.” Some officials call those of us who use public transportation the “transit dependent,” as if we were in need of an intervention or a 12-step program. The reader quickly understands that to those officials, the people who matter drive cars.

The stories are compelling even though they are laced with the alphabet soup of transportation acronyms. The authors helpfully include at the end of the book a guide to these pesky strings of letters. The stories are short, which is both an advantage and a problem. The reader gets an interesting, fast-paced telling of a person’s professional life. But skipping over certain details means leaving questions unanswered. “Then-husbands” come and go, and we’d like to know more. Especially frustrating is former MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott’s portrayal. She came to Massachusetts well-prepared, with success behind her. When the 2015 winter blizzards crippled the T, Scott took the fall for the agency, which surely had been in disarray prior to her arrival. But we don’t understand what happened from Scott’s point of view.

In addition to Scott, several women who are profiled came from or worked in Massachusetts, so this book could have great interest for those who want to be reminded of the state’s history over the last 30 years. It would be a good gift for those people and also for teenage or college-age girls contemplating a career in transportation.

The Lively Place by Stephen Kendrick

I wish this delightful book about Mount Auburn Cemetery were a coffee table book, though that might have been too expensive to produce. The writing is eloquent, picturesque, all about nature as well as death. Photographs would have illustrated the writer’s already vivid prose, especially since the book’s structure is based on the seasons. As it is, we’ll make do with the rich interweaving of Mount Auburn’s facets and the charming black and white drawings.

The author is the minister of the First Church of Boston and has acquainted himself well with Mount Auburn. While he describes the people who have walked its paths and occupied its earth, he also muses on the history of horticulture, the history of Boston, the beginnings of Transcendentalism, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the nature of decay, the obsession with birding, the pleasure of walking and the innovation in burials that created Mount Auburn and that continues even today with the cemetery’s “green” burials designed to assist in the movement from dust to dust.

            Almost anyone with an inquiring mind will like this book, so bestow it liberally this holiday season.

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