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

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


Book chat: ‘We’re All Damaged’ by Matthew Norman

We're All DamagedIt’s been a year since Andy Carter’s safe suburban life collapsed. His marriage explodes when his wife leaves him for a neighbor; his ultra-conservative mother has changed completely in her quest to take her talk-radio show to the next level, casting his father in the background. Andy loses his job, then acts a fool at his best friend — and former brother-in-law’s — wedding.

Skipping town seems wise — until the need to see his dying grandfather brings him back to Nebraska. It’s there that he meets Daisy, a young “friend” of his grandfather’s. Daisy has her own complicated background, but she takes a shine to Andy as she took a shine to his granddad. In the midst of this, the Carter family is targeted after his mother makes outlandish and homophobic remarks . . . just before marriage equality is achieved in the U.S. Some unseemly family information is released in the process, leading to further scrutiny.

Is that a light at the far end of the tunnel . . . or just a train?

Having loved Norman’s debut novel in 2011, I went into We’re All Damaged looking for that same sensational spark. The story started out promisingly, what with Andy getting dumped at an Applebee’s (!) and all. Our narrator was obviously going to be down on his luck, maybe a bit of a ne’er-do-well, but hopefully one with a heart?

Something about We’re All Damaged failed to click with me. It felt extremely current, tackling issues like gay rights, the conservative/liberal media, internet ethics . . . and I could appreciate the intent. But it just felt a bit full to me. Full of too many issues, too many characters, too much chaos for me to really lose myself in the story. If we’d had fewer hot-button topics to address, I might have enjoyed focusing more on Andy’s evolution. As it stood, I never broke past the surface.

Andy’s brokenness was endearing at first, but quickly became frustrating — especially as Daisy enters the scene. Daisy is totally a manic pixie dream girl — one I could never figure out, given we knew next-to-nothing about her (aside from her many tattoos, which are addressed constantly). She seems to be a nymph designed solely to help shove Andy out of his post-divorce funk. And that was boring.

Matthew Norman’s sly, biting humor peeks out occasionally, but isn’t used to best effect. I did like the nod to Curtis Violet, famed author/father in his first book, as well as the hilarious passages about Andy’s dad’s paintball assault on the squirrels smuggling goods from his bird feeders. His obsession and description of that battle felt just a little heartbreakingly human to me.

We needed more of that.

Though We’re All Damaged wasn’t memorable for me, I do look forward to meeting up with Norman — a perceptive, skillful writer — again someday.


3 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher/TLC Book Tours for critical consideration


Book chat: ‘Year of Yes’ by Shonda Rhimes

Year of YesI enjoyed the hell out of this book.

I’ll say it again, complete with cursing (and I don’t take that lightly): I enjoyed the hell out of this book.

As a woman. As a writer. As a mother. As a working mother. As a person that struggles with eating. As a human being with thoughts and hopes and feelings.

At the risk of sounding completely cliche, Shonda Rhimes? My spirit animal.

I’ll preface this review (will it be a review? More like nonsensical gushing, I fear . . .) by stating that, prior to picking up Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person, I knew little about Shonda herself. If you are similarly unfamiliar, she is the powerhouse behind Thursday nights on ABC: creator, head writer and executive producer of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” as well as “Private Practice.” She is also executive producer of “How to Get Away with Murder” and “The Catch,” produced by ShondaLand.

Shonda is, in her own words, an FOD: First Only Different. She is an African-American woman who has achieved tremendous success as a blockbuster writer and producer — doing what she loves and is clearly exceptional at: making TV “look like the rest of the world.”

I tend to go into motivational-type memoirs with a skeptical eye, but had a hunch I would like this one: and I did. I loved it. Shonda is personable, engaging, inspiring — as a person and a writer, of course, but also as a mother. With three daughters looking up to her as well as a powerful job, the pressure of doing everything well would crack anyone. Can we do it all?

To hear Shonda tell it: well, no. In one of my favorite chapters in Year of Yes, Shonda admits that excelling in one area of her life (work) often makes her feel like she’s failing in another (home), and vice versa. Over and over again. She gives a powerful analogy about once obsessing over Whitney Houston, wanting perfect hair like Whitney’s — trying anything and everything to achieve that signature look, but still failing.

Years later, a stylist confides not even Whitney had Whitney hair: it was a wig.

A wig.

Shonda talks about how, in acting like we have it all together and not discussing our struggles, we’re doing a disservice to other women. That’s a wig. It’s OK to admit we need help. Shonda’s comes in the form of one Jenny McCarthy: not the actress, but her wonderful nanny by the same name. She freely admits that, without Jenny, she could never keep all the plates spinning.

Yes of Yes arrived at the perfect time for me. Almost a year into motherhood, I’ve struggled with my quick return to work and how to similarly stay afloat with so many responsibilities pulling at me from all sides. After one poorly-timed (but not malicious) question about whether I “feel bad” dropping off my son at daycare each day, I needed Shonda. I needed Shonda to tell me I can do this. That I’m already doing it.

Not perfectly — because no one does, regardless of what they’ll tell you. But I’m trying, and that’s enough.

As a writer, I related deeply to Shonda’s stories of life “in the pantry”: when she was perfectly content to sit amongst the canned goods, staging elaborate battles between the vegetables and sealing herself off from the world. The youngest of six children, Shonda grew up in a loving family outside Chicago and has a close relationship with her siblings: especially sister Delores.

It’s a comment by Delores that sparks Shonda journey: “You never say ‘yes’ to anything.” It was muttered on a Thanksgiving morning, setting off a series of changes that resulted in saying “yes” to the things that would normally scare her. Public speaking was on the list, of course, but so was considering her diet. Morbidly obese at the start of the “Year of Yes,” Shonda realizes she had been putting food on top of feelings: saying “yes” to “fatness,” trying to ease her unhappiness by eating.

She doesn’t play up the weight loss as instrumental to her evolution, but shedding more than 100 pounds will certainly do that to a person. But far more than the physical weight, she says, was the weight of all the difficult conversations she hadn’t wanted to have: with a boyfriend about why she didn’t want to get married (ever, to anyone); to toxic friends she didn’t realize only wanted to see her unhappy. It’s only when begins asking hard questions — of others, but also herself — that she truly transforms.

By the end of Year of Yes, I felt altered with her. I thought of the ways I’d been mistreating myself, both through overindulgence and misplaced guilt about motherhood. About why I write and why I need to write, and why it’s OK to say I want to work and be a working mother.

Maybe I don’t need Shonda to validate my feelings, validate my choices, but I sure feel better having her as a part of my tribe. She mentions her “ride-or-dies” quite frequently — the people she can count on for anything. And she admits that one is technically fictitious, but very real to her: Cristina Yang of “Grey’s Anatomy,” a character written by Shonda and portrayed by Sandra Oh.

So Shonda, if I may be so bold, I’d like to add you to my ride-or-die list: a friend I feel I can always look to for support, guidance and motivation. Your Year of Yes found me at the moment I most needed to hear it, and listening to this book on audio — read, of course, by the author — was an amazing experience. Thank you.

5 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio book borrowed from my local library


Book chat: ‘The Ramblers’ by Aidan Donnelley Rowley

The RamblersAs readers, we’re all looking for that magic.

The spark. The recognition. The connection. Whatever the special ingredient is that pulls us close, that makes it impossible to let go of a story and its characters . . . well, Aidan Donnelley Rowley’s The Ramblers has it.

I’ve been an ardent fan of Rowley’s since Life After Yes, her 2010 debut, and followed the progress of The Ramblers through the author’s Instagram feed. When I learned her sophomore novel was ready to be released in the wild? Er, I might have shrieked a bit. And then it arrived, I petted it, and we got down to business.

Set over the course of one autumn week in New York City, The Ramblers tells the stories of Clio Marsh and Smith Anderson — longtime best friends both set adrift by lovers, family and circumstances, clinging to each other through life’s changes before finally realizing they’re ready to inch into whatever comes next.

Smith and Clio are flawed. They’re struggling. Leaving her roots with a mentally ill mother and distant father, Clio is now a successful ornithologist who also leads bird walks through Central Park in New York City. Smith is Clio’s college cohort, a life organizer — a fixer — who grew up in a blue-blood family . . . but her advantages come with many costs.

Clio is in love with Henry, a hotelier who desperately wants her to move forward — and in — with him; Smith is still smarting from the cataclysmic break-up of her engagement to a doctor her father didn’t deem “suitable.” Clio believes it’s time to confront her grief at her mother’s recent death, but it’s actually her life — their shared lives, disrupted and distorted — that she’s mourning. And Smith has to learn how to snap the gilded strings her parents wrapped around her wrists . . . just in time to attend her younger sister’s wedding.

Here’s the thing about Rowley: her writing is gorgeous, lyrical, intentional. Each word is carefully selected; nothing is left to chance. This could come across as stilted, even condescending — but it doesn’t. The result is a novel of fully-formed characters that endear and irritate. They make an impression.

Described in the publisher copy as a “love letter to New York City,” the setting certainly has a starring role in this story. I knew nothing about the Ramble before diving in, but found myself picturing it beautifully as we moved along. I actually didn’t do any research until after I’d finished; I wanted to save my own mental pictures. They were pretty accurate, it turns out: the Ramble is a 36-acre “‘wild garden'” within Central Park where more than 40 species of birds perch year-round.

Clio’s occupation — and preoccupation — with birds was unique, interesting and never overdone. It’s her choice to lead birdwatching groups through the Ramble that brings her to Henry, crying quietly on a bench — a man who is also a little broken, a little scuffed . . . and the perfect match for her.

This is a love story, but it is not a love story. Though it could get steamy, even sexy, this is really a modern story of two women choosing to unshackle themselves from the past — and prior selves. There is growth, and when you finish? You feel like you’ve really gone somewhere. You’ve arrived.

Recently-separated Tate’s storyline was, in my opinion, the least interesting of the three — but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy getting to know him and how his life would come to intersect, however briefly, with Smith’s.

Fans of thoughtful fiction, lush New York settings and lyrical writing will find much to adore in The Ramblers. There is much more I could discuss, but it’s a novel best enjoyed on its own merits. And after adoring Rowley’s first work so much? Well, it was more than worth the wait.

4.5 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher/TLC Book Tours for critical consideration


Book chat: ‘Food Whore’ by Jessica Tom

Food WhoreTia Monroe knows food.

That passion is what propelled her into New York’s fashionable, dirty, complicated, cutthroat culinary world. A young critic and baker once featured in the New York Times, Tia now hopes to gain an internship with a famed foodie at work on her next cook book. . . until that opportunity crumbles like a days-old cookie.

Left starting in the coat check (!) at an upscale restaurant, Tia makes the acquaintance of Michael Saltz: the Times critic known for making and breaking the city’s top establishments. Michael giveth, and Michael taketh away — until a strange medical issue threatens to take everything away from him.

Rich, powerful and well-connected, Michael Saltz needs Tia’s perspective — and her palate — to uphold the lavish life to which he’s accustomed. And Tia? She’s wooed by the promise of Michael finally connecting her to the mentor she wanted in the first place. (The pricey meals, expense account and hot chefs are a bonus.)

But can she get out from Michael’s grasp without getting burned?

Jessica Tom’s Food Whore was fast-paced, light and entertaining — everything I love in good chick lit. Comparisons to a foodie version of The Devil Wears Prada are pretty spot-on, but I liked Tia’s persistence and willingness to step out to reach her goals.

Even if that meant getting stepped on.

As a narrator, Tia could be frustrating, though. She’s frequently gullible, though I can’t pretend I would know better. The plot line with her college sweetheart was a little irritating, given dude was as interesting as plain vanilla ice cream (let him go, lady), but I liked the push-and-pull Jessica Tom established in Tia’s conscience: settle for the old, or strive for the new?

Though Tia is our main squeeze, Michael Saltz — and his creepiness — seep between every crack in the story. He presents himself as Tia’s savior, a one-man ticket to a better life, but I had the sense he was all bluster from the beginning. We know his intentions aren’t romantic (he’s gay), but his obsession with Tia as the one remaining tether to his lifestyle and prestige is . . . unsettling, to say the least.

Food Whore moves quickly — so fast I finished it in a few days, which is a record for this new mama who rarely reads more than a few pages at a clip. It often kept me up past my bedtime, and I found myself thinking about Tia and her madcap adventures throughout the day.

Fans of women’s fiction, tantalizing food descriptions, New York settings and speedy reads will enjoy Food Whore. I really liked slipping into Tia’s stylish shoes for this adventure through New York’s culinary culture — and I would return in a heartbeat.

4 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided for critical consideration