Colgan, take me away

500 Miles from YouYou know how sometimes a book just finds you at precisely the right moment? Our current lives, so disrupted by COVID-19 and politics and the accompanying worries of just … everything, well … I’ve been reading again. Reading like I’m not the overextended mom/wife/essential worker that I am.

In short: I’ve needed a mental escape. Enter Jenny Colgan’s 500 Miles from You, a sweet tale of two nurses — one English, one Scottish — who spend about 300-ish pages communicating primarily through text and email. Cormac and Lissa are strangers, but they’re connected through a job swap initiated after Lissa is a first responder at a terrible crime.

Sensing she needs a complete change of scenery, the NHS reassigns her to a tiny village in the Scottish Highlands. She trades roles with Cormac, a community paramedic, and the pair are dropped into each other’s worlds: Lissa to Cormac’s cottage in a town where everybody knows your name; Cormac to Lissa’s utilitarian flat in London, where he finds himself suddenly (and delightfully?) anonymous.

IMG_5793_originalThe plot is relatively simple: Lissa helps others in Kirrinfeif as she heals herself; Cormac experiences life outside the familiar paths and rolling hills of home. The two learn much about each other throughout their ongoing chats … chats about their patients, obviously. Of course. The patients.

The story branches in other directions (there’s a court trial, PTSD, the scene-stealing friendship with Kim-Ange), but its heart is certainly the growing closeness — however geographically complicated — between Cormac and Lissa. Which was genuinely sweet and believable.

Colgan knows how to build romantic suspense. And you know where else she excels? Scene-setting, because lord I wanted to cash in all the credit-card miles accrued from daycare bills and high-tail it back to the Highlands. Living vicariously in Kirrinfeif has recently taken the sting out of some long days.

My love of London is serious, too, but Lissa’s thread and the Scottish scenes were definitely my favorites. Only after finishing 500 Miles from You did I learn this was actually the third book in a series — though obviously reading it as a stand-alone was no problem.

So the good news? I get to go back!

Can’t wait.

4/5

Review copy provided by publisher
in exchange for my honest review

Swept up in ‘The Man Who Caught the Storm’

Man Who Caught the StormI thought I was a writer until I read Brantley Hargrove.

Well, scratch that: I am a writer, but I am not Brantley Hargrove.

Pick up The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Storm Chaser Tim Samaras and you’ll know precisely what I mean.

In a book that is equal parts biography and thriller, the beloved film “Twister” rendered in beautiful language outside of Hollywood, journalist Hargrove delves into the life of Tim Samaras, a self-taught engineer who changed the course of tornado science with his brilliance, grit … and pure appreciation of twisters.

I get it. Family members relate with fondness the years in which I could recite the upcoming weather forecast for the next 10 days by heart. I once asked Santa to bring a Doppler radar for Christmas. While cousins at Grandma’s begged for Nickelodeon, I insisted on round-the-clock Weather Channel. Around age 10, I remember tracking a hurricane until I fell asleep, then waking at the crack of dawn to hurriedly check its progress near Florida. I was glued to the screen. How high was the storm surge?

In short, I’m a weather geek.

I might have pursued being a meteorologist had I not decided, sometime around middle school, that I was “terrible” at math. I wasn’t, in hindsight; it just didn’t come naturally to me, and I wasn’t used to working hard.

My own obsession with tornadoes never wavered, though. I’ve watched hours of footage of classic twisters over the Great Plains — and researched extensively the shocking F4 tornado that leveled large parts of the town next to my own in 2002. (I idolize the Capital Weather Gang. Dream job, man.)

Basically, I came to Hargrove’s The Man Who Chased the Storm already predisposed to love it. It had all the elements that would combine into a gripping, memorable page-turner that would dominate my waking hours for the days it took me to tear through it. Love it I did.

Shockingly, I wasn’t familiar with Tim Samaras before I started reading this account of his life and work; I approached with fresh eyes and was completely immersed in his world. Samaras reminds me very much of my own husband — enough that I immediately pushed my finished copy into his hands. Ham radio operator, electronics buff, brilliant with both his hands and mind … there’s much to admire about Samaras.

Tim Samaras

Though the book has no choice but to end on a sorrowful note, so much about Tim demands to be celebrated. Hargrove does a fantastic job of balancing the famous storm chaser with Tim the father, husband, colleague, and friend.

As we ride along with this crew of dedicated storm chasers, saying you “feel like you were there” through Hargrove’s incredibly well-researched book is an insult to the term. Take this, from its very opening pages:

Fog clings to the low swells of eastern-Colorado rangeland as dawn breaks. The mist walls off the far horizon, and for a few short hours the high plains feel a little more finite. The still air is cool and heavy, almost thick enough to drink. This is how these days often begin. The atmosphere is primed, the air a volatile gas. All it needs is a match. …

[Tim] is already en route to the plains from his home in suburban Denver. As the sun reaches its peak, his hail-battered Datsun pickup enters the storm chaser’s cathedral. … Once the sheltering Front Range fades from the rearview mirror, he’s naked to the lungs of the earth, in an unadorned country where the passage of miles can feel more like a few hundred yards.

I could really just quote, like, the entire book, but I want you to go read the book. It really is just that good — and quite the wild, memorable ride.

Perfect for:

  • Weather geeks who crave the data and the drama
  • Non-fiction lovers who want to learn while reading their bios
  • Readers ready to laugh, cry … and open new Google tabs to research while reading

5/5

Personal copy gifted by my sister; not sent for review.

Escaping with ‘Running Away to Home’

Running Away to HomeWhen it became apparent that we were all going to be settling in for the long haul during COVID-19, I immediately looked for an escape.

Not a literal escape because, you know: quarantine. But definitely a bookish one.

With my kids increasingly tolerant of Mom’s reading time, I’ve been able to devour quite a few stories recently. Jennifer Wilson’s Running Away to Home: My Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters is easily my favorite of the lot — the most engaging and delightful book I’ve read in ages.

It certainly helps that I relate deeply to Jennifer: writer, wife, and mom to two young kids — a son and daughter — who, along with her husband Jim, realized that the rat-race life in suburbia was leading to stuff, but little satisfaction. Or happiness.

Armed with the limited knowledge Jennifer has of her great-grandparents, who immigrated from a small village called Mrkopalj, the Wilson-Hoff family leaves Iowa to spend four months in a town of 800 people — where everyone knows everyone, the homemade alcohol is freely flowing, and lessons about abundance, scarcity, and friendship are abundant.

I knew I was in for a treat as soon as I cracked the cover … even if it took me eight years to get to this point. After finishing Running Away to Home yesterday, I immediately clicked over to send a quarantine copy to my mom, who identifies strongly with our Polish roots. Poland isn’t Croatia, but there were so many similarities in the stories (and recipes!) shared by Jennifer, I knew Mom would love this tale of roots and wings.

That’s when I saw the helpful “You’ve purchased this before!”-style note on Amazon. When I ordered it? Dec. 16, 2012, the day Spencer proposed. I purchased Wilson’s memoir along with a copy of The Wedding Book! (In a world before Amazon Prime, gotta get that $25 free ship.) Seven-plus years later, it finally called loudly enough to me from my bookshelf. If it’s any indication of how the past few years have gone, this memoir was perched next to Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction (helpful book, by the way).

So. Right. Running Away to Home found me at a good time.

A4B61D47-ACEC-4E9D-9D58-5E612AAA2AEDIt’s hard to put into words just why I loved it so much. Certainly tons of credit goes to Wilson’s funny, warm, astute and tight writing, which drew me in immediately and never let go. Beyond Jennifer, Jim, and young Sam and Zadie, the cast of characters in Mrkopalj — particularly Robert, their landlord/bartender/friend — were endearing and unforgettable. Everyone had so much personality … because, well, I’m sure, they do have so much personality.

When Jennifer is able to connect with lost relatives who still live nearby, I was taken back to my own long afternoons in the sitting rooms of elderly relatives in Pennsylvania, where my own grandparents grew up. We made these pilgrimages every summer, around the time of my great-grandmother’s birthday, playing nearby as the adults reminisced over meals in family-favorite restaurants.

The world Jennifer draws is at once familiar and foreign. It was impossible not to imagine my own great-great-grandparents making the decisions that led to their voyage to America (from Podkarpackie Voivodeship, Poland, sayeth 23andMe).

Running Away to Home is full of revelations about family — the ones who made us, and the one we create ourselves — without ever becoming preachy, condescending, or eyeroll-inducing. Jennifer and Jim wanted to connect with their children, with the land, with others, with each other … and they did, often in ways they did not expect.

Finishing Wilson’s book definitely had me eager to:

a) Learn to officially make my grandmother’s cabbage rolls,
b) Start a garden and grow my own herbs, and
c) Plan a post-COVID vacation to explore my roots abroad.

Recommend highly to readers who are…

  • Fans of memoirs and family sagas
  • Interested in ancestry/genealogy
  • Looking to travel without leaving the couch
  • Like entertaining stories with heart, and no tragedy

In short, what I mean to say is … I loved itAnd eight years after its initial publication, it totally holds up.

Get it for your Kindle. Grab it on audio. Borrow it from your library. I don’t care how you get here, just … get here if you can.

5/5

Book chat: ‘Midnight in Chernobyl’

Midnight in ChernobylWhat do you know about Chernobyl?

What do you think you know about Chernobyl?

I’ll go first: until a few weeks ago, next to nothing. As the wife of a physicist, I’ve been with Spencer as he “talks science” on many occasions. He’s great at breaking things down when I ask questions, but I usually have to get him to start at the beginning. As an English nerd, I’ve always fashioned myself to be someone only moderately capable of understanding something like a positive void coefficient.

Adam Higginbotham’s stunning Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster changed all that. Not only am I apparently capable of understanding scientific principles a decade-plus after I last set foot in a classroom, but I can enjoy it, too. When Higginbotham is at the helm, at least.

Midnight in Chernobyl opens with the key players of the infamous April 1986 disaster — and that’s fitting, of course, given how many people and oppressive power structures all contributed to the eventual failing of the No. 4 reactor at the power station in Ukraine, then a part of the USSR. I already felt lost in the roll call, but my husband convinced me to stick with it. The names — unpronounceable, at first, to my western ear — all soon came sharply into focus: Akimov. Dyatlov. Brukhanov. Legasov.

It’s not about one person . . . not several people. Not a single system or single failure. Not just a single finger on one fateful button. “The holes in the Swiss cheese lined up,” as they say. And since zero people need a dissertation on Chernobyl from me, I’ll leave you to much wiser folks if you’re interested in the subject matter.

Better yet — read this book! It’s loads more fun than a bunch of Wikipedia entries, I assure you. Even if it is very interesting to see corresponding photos of everything Higginbotham describes.

What’s amazing about that, though, is I already had a thick stack of mental pictures: of the dark, water-filled tunnels beneath the reactor and its deep, burning throat; of the reactor hall blown open, and the people scrambling in its wake. Of the radioactivity so thick that it actually shrouds the bottoms of photos in something like fog. Higginbotham describes everything so poetically, it’s easy to forget we’re talking about nuclear meltdown. About science. This? It reads like literature.

I was hooked.

It’s no surprise that the author is a journalist. The book describes everything in stunning detail; his passion for the subject is evident. The level of research must have been insane. I loved when, toward its final pages, Higginbotham himself entered the narrative, describing the settings of his interviews with Chernobyl scientists still living or spouses left behind, picking up the radioactive wreckage all these years later.

Chernobyl2Now suitably intrigued by Chernobyl, like so many before me, I’ve started watching the acclaimed HBO miniseries after the kids go to bed. Spencer has already watched the whole thing through once (twice?), and it’s not exactly light bedtime viewing . . . it’s disturbing, of course. Incredibly well done and memorable, but not relaxing.

It’s hard to stop once you’ve started, though. From the evacuation of Pripyat — now an extreme tourist destination — to the government cover-ups and human toll eventually collected in Moscow’s Hospital No. 6, it’s impossible to look away from this terrible slice of history.

The show is great, but I didn’t need it to deepen my understanding of Chernobyl. Everything depicted in the show is as I’d imagined from Higginbotham’s writing. Midnight in Chernobyl paints such a vivid picture that I scarcely needed to “see” anything at all.

I won’t forget it. You won’t, either.

5/5

See more on Goodreads

write meg!’s reading honors for 2019

Since becoming a mom, I’ve struggled to read and write the way I once did (see Exhibit A: this entire blog). But as my kids get older, I feel little pieces of myself — my “old” self — bubbling up to the surface.

And almost without warning this fall, I … started reading again.

I was nervous at first. Could I keep this up? Was it a fluke? But after I cracked open my Kindle day after day, night after night, I felt it: that intoxicating pull of a good story … a draw much stronger than playing the 418th level of Candy Crush on my phone. My reading mojo had returned. I’m back.

While I don’t make new year’s resolutions, per say, I’m definitely trying to be more intentional with my time and attention. And I’ve realized something that was missing through my exhausting days (months, years …) as a new mom: the ability to tune out, even for a little while.

For me, like many of you, that portal comes through reading. It centers me.

Though my official count for 2019 only comes to 25 books, I’m proud to have read so much just in the last few months. I’ve lost touch with what’s buzz-worthy here in the book blogosphere, so my recent favorites are not necessarily … recent.

Still, here’s what I loved most in 2019:

how to walk awayHow to Walk Away by Katherine Center, who creates characters that are so relatable you look for them in Target. As usual, this novel was gripping and addictive — impossible to quit, with a well-built and believable love story set in a hospital during the main character’s rehabilitation after a plane crash.

Sounds … well, really over-the-top to write it out like that, but I swear Center is a magician! She is such a beautiful, heartfelt writer, and I’ll be coming for Things You Save in a Fire in 2020.

girl you leftThe Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes, transitioning between time and place with a haunting refrain. Loved the angle of art and the providence of works, which dovetailed nicely with my newfound interest in the Gardner Museum heist (have you listened to the Last Seen podcast yet?!).

Moyes’ historical tale isn’t as beloved as the blockbuster Me Before You and its follow-ups, but I still think she’s hugely talented with some truly memorable passages here.

Overdue LifeThe Overdue Life of Amy Byler by Kelly Harms — like reading a transcript of my own life. It was almost too much sometimes … like Harms had peeked behind the curtain that is my overly-caffeinated exterior to share private pieces of my soul.

Single mom Amy, long saddled with the responsibilities of her household after her husband unceremoniously flees their family, is a character most (all?) of us can relate to. She’s tired. She’s trying. I loved the redemptive transformation here. Read it in a few sittings and couldn’t wait to return between breaks.

I'm FineI’m Fine and Neither are You by Camille Pagán, with its ripped-from-the-headlines feel. The whole story was absolutely painful to read at points … so painful that, at 2 a.m., I had to force myself to put it down lest I read until morning and do nothing about the terrible ache in my best.

Still, it was life-affirming, too: powerful and relatable. As with Amy Byler above, there’s plenty of Penny in all of us. And pretending to be fine doesn’t mean we are fine. Accepting that is the first step to real change. I dig it, man.

Raising Your SpiritedRaising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, which has changed the way I parent our four-year-old son: totally a spirited child. Just having that moniker — “spirited” — changed how I think about and relate to my son. Not wild. Not difficult. Not stubborn. Just … different. Spirited.

Kurcinka’s compassion and practical advice have helped me to examine my own impatience as a parent so I can be my best self for my intense son. It also helped me see that I’m not, in fact, a bad or lazy mother … one who would rather give in to have peace than fight to be “right.” 

Basically, parenting is freakin’ hard. But the suggestions provided here have helped restore a measure of peace to my house. I definitely view my relationship with Oliver differently now, and have been able to take a step back and get myself together many times thanks to the practical examples in this book. If anyone out there thinks they might have a spirited child (you’ll know if you do…), highly recommend this one. Thanks for the recommendation, Mom!

So what’s up in 2020? I’m not sure, but I feel optimistic about what my reading year might bring. I plan to continue in my no-pressure way, finding stories that interest me and help me grow as a person, reader and mom. And plenty of fun ones, too! (I’m reading American Royals now, for example — escapism to the max.)

It’s all about balance. And coffee.

And reading with coffee.

… Now we’re talking.

My kids’ favorite books — and my favorite kids’ books

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When I daydreamed about becoming a mom, the vision of reading to my curly-haired children (who do, in fact, have curly hair!) often included a book in my hands. I did the whole “read to your belly” thing when pregnant, even though that felt awkward. And I started collecting children’s books long before I had the children themselves.

It’s taken a little while, but for the most part? I think we’re raising readers, which makes me so happy. My daughter, in particular, loves to share stories; she’s always schlepping into our “library” (now more of a giant toy box, let’s just be honest) to grab a book and plop into my lap. Oh, the joy. Alllllll the heart-eye emojis.

Hadley is now two and a half, and Oliver is four. Both have Fire tablets (I know, I know!), which tend to occupy their attention … but my husband and I have been pretty diligent about controlling their time spent in front of screens, even though it’s just so dang easy to let them zone out while I do … well, anything. Like cook dinner. Or go to the bathroom. Or answer the group text that’s gotten out of hand.

But I don’t want glassy-eyed zombie kids sprawled out in the living room. The tablets have their time and place — but we read to the kids nightly, and try not to reserve stories simply for bedtime. I say this not to be smug, but to really say that we’re making an effort! I think that’s my mom motto: making an effort. Trying. Striving.

So here’s what they’re loving lately . . . and what I’m loving, too. Because let’s be honest: there’s nothing fun about re-reading PAW Patrol: To the Lookout for the 97th time!

Just try telling that to my son.

 

Hadley’s Faves

I Love You Just Like This by Sesame Workshop: The “Sesame Street” love is still going strong at our house, and this sweet story about how much Elmo’s mom loves him has great illustrations and all those beloved characters. I will totally own that I tear up at the end, too.

Five Little PumpkinsFive Little Pumpkins by Tiger Tales and Ben Mantle: OK, how adorable is this? I have such fond memories of this story told in song form when my sister and I were in elementary school. I bought this book for Ollie as a baby and can’t resist its charms. Neither can Haddie.

Pop-Up Surprise Haunted House by Roger Priddy: Cute rhymes, captivating (and spooky!) pop-up characters — Hadley can’t get enough of this one. Our record is fives times in a row.

 

Oliver’s Faves

The Little School Bus by Margery Cuyler and Bob Kolar: Driver Bob picks up students en route to school, and I love how inclusive and sweet this story is. (Also, Bob drinks coffee faithfully — I feel you, Bob.) Ollie just loves all the vehicles and enjoys finding kids who “look like Uncle Eric.” The whole series is really fun!

Oliver book.jpegOliver Who Would Not Sleep by Mara Bergman and Nick Maland: Ohhh, the irony. Not terribly surprising that my son loves a book spearheaded by a little boy named Oliver who refuses to go to bed, preferring his adventures in outer space. We read this nightly, and the cadence of the story is soothing.

Goodnight Tractor by Michelle Robinson and Nick East: This book is a total snoozefest — and I mean that in the best way. It’s like a drug. I barely get to the halfway point when my rambunctious guy will pass out cold. It’s melodic, fun to read (and listen to), and definitely perfect for tractor lovers.

 

My Faves

truffula treesI’ve been trying valiantly to get the kids into Dr. Seuss, pulling out all my childhood favorites in the process. I had some success with The Lorax after they watched the recent version of the film with its candy-colored Truffula trees. One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish is next on my list! Man, that book captured my imagination as a kid.

I’m guessing this will be surprising to exactly no one, but I can still barely through through On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman without breaking down into tears born of love, fear, and everything in between. Reading it to Ollie takes me back to the night he was born, finally coming into the world at almost 10 p.m. Phew — read at your own risk.

/ / /

What books are you sharing with the little ones in your life? 

Do you have a favorite Seuss classic?

Are you weirdly surprised to see me posting on a random day in September?

I swear I’m still chugging along, though I do find myself spending less time on social media and being more thoughtful about what and how I’m sharing online. Not out of fear, per say … but an awareness that I’ve been putting my life out there for a long time, and sometimes it feels right to reserve a little something for my family … and myself.

Does that make sense? I don’t know. One thing hasn’t changed: I’m still tired and drinking way too much coffee. But I’m home with a stomach-sick Hadley boo today, so it felt like the right time to check in. I’m still here, and you can also catch me on Instagram. Hi!

Book chat: ‘The Hopefuls’ by Jennifer Close

the-hopefulsBeth can’t say she entered into her marriage with Matt ignorant of his political aspirations. But when her husband relocates them to Washington, D.C., as part of his work for President Obama, the tedious, seedy and, yes, often dull side of politics takes over her day-to-day life.

A friendship with Ash, a Texan also in the city due to her husband’s presidential connections, adds levity and companionship to Beth’s life — but Ash’s husband, Jimmy, has political goals of his own. When Matt and Jimmy become entangled in “turning Texas blue” as part of Jimmy’s campaign to earn a spot in local government, jealousy and indignation threaten to derail more than just their friendship.

Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls caught my eye because, hello, I adore the cover. I’m also a Marylander who lives within breathing distance of Washington and am always swept up in politics, both local and national, and I’ll admit to being a bit wistful regarding the halcyon days of the Obama Administration. The story opens at the start of his first term, and it was actually bittersweet — especially given the current state of affairs — to think about how different life was then.

The Hopefuls had my attention early, gaining good ground even with the constant digs against D.C. (yes, it’s hot and humid; yes, everyone here talks about their job as a way of gaining status), but my enthusiasm for the story flagged by the time Matt and Beth departed for Texas to help with a weirdly unattainable political campaign put on by Jimmy.

Told from Beth’s first-person perspective, I expected … more of Beth in this story? As it stands, she’s merely an observer — and not a terribly interesting one at that. Though we’re told she’s a writer, she spends her time in Texas complaining and wandering around the house she and Matt now share with Jimmy and Ash, “helping” with the campaign here and there but ultimately doing nothing but seething with rage as Matt comes increasingly distant.

There was so much potential in a subplot regarding whether Beth actually wants to have the child she knows her husband longs for, especially as all of their coupled friends start families … but it never really goes anywhere, at least not in a satisfying way. Beth has an opportunity to look inward regarding the source of her anger as her closest girlfriends become mothers, but the novel just stays on-the-surface throughout. That disappointed me.

I enjoyed Close’s examination of adult friendships and liked brash Ash (hey, that rhymes), but her dynamic with husband Jimmy was pretty sad — and Matt and Beth’s marriage ultimately flounders, too. As a look at how changing priorities can impact — and damage — relationships as marriages mature, I think The Hopefuls works. But it’s just a little depressing, too.

3 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for review consideration