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

Review — or let it simmer?

At my core, I’m a writer. One of the things I love best about reading — and having a book blog — is the ability to read and immediately write about a novel. Whether it’s chatting on how terrible it was, how stunning, or just hashing and re-hashing my favorite moments, I love sharing my thoughts — and review books almost immediately after finishing them, typically early the following morning.

I’m realizing something strange, though. As I continue to chronicle my reading adventures and review each book I finish, weeks can go by — months, maybe — before I think about a book again. Then, when I’m scanning my book reviews archive or reading challenges, a title will jump out at me and I’ll think, “Oh yeah. I remember that one. It was . . . good?”

how_i_live_nowAnd I won’t quite know. I won’t remember.

I read the book. In many cases, I loved the book. But the details? Well, the details will have faded into obscurity — characters, places, times. Nothing much remains. And when I go back to see what I wrote, I’ll barely contain my surprise at having raved about something I can barely recall later on. Lu at Regular Rumination recently posted on Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, a book I finished last August. As I was reading Lu’s review, all the things I disliked about it — the things that frightened me — came rushing back, swamping any positive feelings I could conjure up. But after I pulled up my own review, I was shocked by how much I liked it.

So the little wheels in my brain are turning. How different would my review of the young adult novel — which centers around an American teen trapped in England after the onset of a mysterious world war — have changed if I’d discussed it weeks later, instead of the following morning? And that particular morning, as I recall, I was dead exhausted from having stayed up until 2 a.m. or so to finish. It was horrifying; I couldn’t tear myself away. And then, of course, I couldn’t calm down long enough to sleep.

If I were to talk about the book now, my review would be very different — and probably not as positive. And I have a feeling that’s true of many of the novels I’ve read.

So which reaction is the “true” reaction? Is it better to review a book when it’s fresh and freshly in my mind, when I’m probably emotional from having finished it? When I love a book so much and then write a review immediately, I have a tendency to gush. Are those reviews “better” than the ones I might have written had I let the book simmer, giving me time to analyze my feelings and discuss it in a more logical way?

As I’m sure it apparent, I adore writing about books. And if I had to wait to write about them, I feel like they would lose something powerful in the meantime. Those gut reactions to a book are, to me, some of the most interesting . . . and honest. But I know that not everyone feels that way.

So do you review promptly, or let it simmer?
What are the advantages and disadvantages to both?

Booking Through Thursday: A positive spin

booking_through_thursToday’s Booking Through Thursday question addresses a topic that’s been pretty hot in the blogging community lately. It comes from JM:

“I receive a lot of review books, but I have never once told lies about the book just because I got a free copy of it. However, some authors seem to feel that if they send you a copy of their book for free, you should give it a positive review.

Do you think reviewers are obligated to put up a good review of a book, even if they don’t like it? Have we come to a point where reviewers *need* to put up disclaimers to (hopefully) save themselves from being harassed by unhappy authors who get negative reviews?”

In my opinion and in many cases, the review itself says more about the reviewer than the book. If someone were to submit a mystery thriller novel to me for review on my blog or wherever, I’m sure I wouldn’t bring the same perspective to it that a diehard James Patterson fan would. I read mostly young adult, chick lit and contemporary fiction. If I wrote a young adult novel and sent it to the diehard Patterson reader, he/she probably wouldn’t enjoy it the way I had “intended.”

I know that’s tricky, too. Because if a good book is a good book, shouldn’t it stand alone? I don’t know. People have opinions and tastes about everything. Just because you dislike the book doesn’t mean someone else will. Heck, look at all of the Christopher Paolini and Stephenie Meyer fans — and those that dislike them so much, they write entire diatribes condemning them.

No, a free book does not mean you’ll automatically receive a positive review. Everyone is entitled to feel the way they feel about a book. Like all art, it’s completely subjective. As long as the reviewer has given it an honest, serious read and formulated an intelligent response to the book — which all sincere book bloggers would — reviewers can do as they please.

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