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

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: ‘Why Not Me?’ by Mindy Kaling

Why Not MeActress and writer Mindy Kaling is my vision of a talented Everywoman.

Confident but approachable, warm and vivacious, Mindy is someone I aspire to be more like. I love her sass, her wit, her style . . . and also love that she “doesn’t look like most women on TV,” a statement Mindy herself ponders in Why Not Me?, her second memoir.

I went into this book hoping the Mindy I know and love — wise, funny, a little quirky — would shine through, and she absolutely does. Her memoir is a collection of short stories about many topics, including her days on “The Office”; the hard work and long hours behind “The Mindy Project,” her (awesome) TV show recently picked up by Hulu; and many anecdotes about friendship, college, growing up, looking for love, self-confidence and more.

Though the only uniting thread seems to be Mindy’s insistence that we should be ourselves regardless of what anyone thinks and work hard for what we want, that was enough. That totally worked for me. This 240-page book left me feeling motivated and renewed, like I’d just had a cleansing cryfest with an old friend.

Plus? It’s funny, but in a warmhearted way. Mindy is hilarious. I especially appreciated that, while she is grateful women see her as a realistic role model, she’s not afraid to admit that, at times, she does wish she were thinner, bolder, more confident or [insert societal standard or adjective here]. That vulnerability is appealing — and also comforting. It’s more than okay to love and accept ourselves while still striving to improve.

If you’re a fan of Kaling, Why Not Me? is a book you’ll likely savor. Having not read her first book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) (I know: way behind), I can’t compare the two — but this short, easily digestible and enjoyable series of stories definitely feels like you’ve invited Mindy over to give you advice on being a bad boss lady while she still owns up to some of her foibles. I totally dug it.

4 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Copy borrowed from my local library


Book thoughts: Memoirs from Lena Dunham & Amy Poehler

Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham

I spend a great deal of time in the car these days. With the addition of driving to Oliver’s day care each weekday, I’m commuting at least 40 minutes daily — so I can plow my way through an audiobook or two a week.

Which is awesome, actually . . . given I’ve had so little energy to read physical stories since Ollie came home. I’m often determined to settle down with Jennifer Weiner or Meg Cabot before bed, thinking that tonight is the night I’m going to finally read for goodness’ sake, but something comes up.

Or, more accurately, the eyelids come down.

Through plenty of trial and error, I’ve come to realize that my favorite audiobooks are memoirs — particularly when read by the author. I’ve checked out all sorts of non-fiction I wouldn’t normally read in print, but adored them as audios.

But I didn’t need any convincing to read Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl and Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. They arrived on hold for me at the library at the same time, and I didn’t have the heart to leave either lady there. Good thing I didn’t, either; I’d finished both in three weeks, a new record, and desperately missed them both when their stories were done.

So. Lena.

Dunham, a 29-year-old New Yorker, is a polarizing figure. Known for being the creator, writer, director, producer and star of HBO’s “Girls,” Lena has no problem putting it all out there — literally and figuratively. Some declare her the voice of our generation; others label her a self-important drama queen. I happen to be in the former category, and I’ve watched “Girls” for years. The show isn’t perfect, but it’s thoughtful and entertaining. Lena’s Hannah is messed up and whacky and self-absorbed, but she’s refreshingly realistic in her obsession with writing and love. I relate to her. Not all of her, but enough.

In reality, Lena is not Hannah . . . but, in some ways, she is. Not that Kind of Girl is Lena’s life-story-in-vignettes with tales of her awkward adolescence, search for acceptance, demanding of respect and growth. There are some squicky moments, yes, and it’s not for me to debate the level of their squickiness. But I think Lena is mostly guilty of oversharing. (Can you overshare in a memoir? Probably.)

Look: Lena can be brash. She’s controversial. She’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s okay. From a feminist standpoint, I appreciate hearing her voice above the din and look up to her for all that she’s accomplished before 30.

Her memoir is quick, pithy, easy on the ears and often very funny. There are some deeper, disturbing moments, but it’s not a depressing story. If I’m honest, I’d normally be super jealous of an under-30 talented takes-no-prisoners writer lady who is actually younger than me, but really? I’m just kind of proud of her. In a big sister kind of way.

And then we have Amy Poehler, who’s Yes Please was the perfect companion to my morning drives. Like pretty much everyone in America, I was introduced to Amy through “Saturday Night Live” and was a mega-huge fan of the often-underappreciated “Parks & Recreation,” which I watched religiously with my dad. Leslie Knope is it.

Poehler’s memoir is part motivational speech, part biography, part behind-the-scenes glimpse at the shows and people who helped boost her to monumental success over the years — and I really enjoyed all of it. Like Lena, Amy comes across as a down-to-earth but badass lady who has me totally rethinking what it means to be deemed “bossy.”

Bossy women get stuff done.

Amy is like your cool aunt who admits to recreational drug use while still cautioning you against it, and comes across as deeply knowledgeable about life because she’s probably “been there.” Growing up in Massachusetts, Amy later moves to Chicago to begin working in improv and eventually marries and divorces Will Arnett, has two sons, achieves great success on “SNL” and “Parks & Rec” and then, when it’s over, must find what’s next again.

She sounds like an amazing friend, colleague, daughter and mom, and you get a sense of all those roles while listening to Yes Please. I loved her stories of and take on working toward success — and it doesn’t have anything to do with it happening overnight. Overall, her memoir was equal parts funny and empowering: a perfect recipe.

Both Lena and Amy narrate their own books, as you’d hope and expect. Each does a wonderful job. These women are storytellers, and these are their stories. Who else could possibly tell them?

By the time I’d finished both audios, I felt like I’d just sent a new friend off on a long vacation with no way to get in touch. Amy and Lena have both further endeared themselves to me, and I’d definitely recommend their stories to anyone who wants to think about life, snort into their commuter-friendly coffee mug and feel good about the road ahead.

Four stars, both of ’em!

Not That Kind of Girl / Pub: 2014 / 265 pages
Yes Please / Pub: 2014 / 329 pages


Book chat: ‘The Dirty Life’ by Kristin Kimball

The Dirty LifeKristin Kimball’s transition from tenacious New Yorker to muddied farm wife is lovingly documented in The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love — and it almost made me want to get dirty myself.

I’m a suburban girl with no experience around animals or agriculture. Though surrounded by farms — the last vestiges of Maryland’s tobacco past — growing up, my knowledge of farming practices and experience with homegrown food is incredibly limited. I don’t like to be sweaty or hot, basically; the idea of slaving away all day in the sun pulling tubers from the ground isn’t appealing.

And yet, on some level . . . it is?

It’s hard to describe the immense satisfaction we get from a hard day’s work — far away from a computer. Kristin and her then-fiance, Mark, take over a rundown farm in Essex, New York, with the idea of creating a CSA (community-supported agriculture) and living off the land.

While Mark has extensive farming experience, Kristin does not. She’s just a woman tired of fighting the good fight in New York’s cutthroat journalism world . . . and when she meets muddy, sincere, unassuming Mark, the pair fall into easy conversation. And love.

I felt for Kristin from the beginning, relating to her lack of experience but her drive to learn. She starts out visiting Mark for a story and, with time, finds she enjoys her hours spent on the farm with the crew — especially when it comes to the fresh, organic and healthy meals they’re served. It’s farm-to-table on a literal level, and the authenticity of it all stands in stark contrast to Manhattan’s manufactured happiness.


Farm


The Dirty Life chronicles Kristin and Mark’s early courtship and the origins of Essex Farm, which starts as nothing but bare fields and slowly becomes a booming, productive enterprise that brings the community together. I’ve long been interested in the concept of CSAs, and Kristin makes the idea of joining one immensely appealing.

One of the most interesting parts of the story is the idea that, when times are tough, people return to the land. Published in 2010, The Dirty Life arrives in the thick of the recession — and I thought a bit about how and why farming is still considered the noble American profession. While farmers themselves have seen their numbers dwindle significantly over the decades, we all still need to eat. This food must come from somewhere. So why not Essex Farm?

Increasing attention is paid to what we’re eating, where it’s coming from and why. Shoppers seeking “organic” foods have more options at the grocery store than ever before, and farmers’ markets — especially in and around my hometown — seem to be booming. It’s appealing to shake hands with the man or woman who grew your tomatoes, you know? It’s refreshing to hand cash over to farmers living, working and supporting your own community.

So it’s easy to see why Kristin and Mark — with their passion, drive and hard work — would eventually succeed. Her story is quick, interesting and entertaining. The steep learning curve Kristin faces while working with Mark on their great farming adventure is realistic and human. I loved that she did not romanticize all the long hours, exhausting work and painful sacrifices, but she’s not complaining, either. She acknowledges both the slog and tremendous reward of working side-by-side with your family in a place you love. How they have really built something together.

Kristin feels like that cool, bold friend who leaps first and figures it out later . . . and, by the close of the story, I found myself proud by proxy of all she and Mark have accomplished. The Dirty Life is a very enjoyable read — especially for those interested in agriculture.

I might be just a girl from the suburbs, but I do love a good cow story.

4 out of 5

Pub: 2010 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio book borrowed from my local library