Ann Patchett’s Run: A Call to Responsibility

February selection from the Reading List

Americans frequently speak about their rights; Ann Patchett wants them to think about their responsibilities.  In an interview printed in the back of the novel Run, Patchett says that we have lived so long in this beautiful country without having to give anything up that it has made us lazy.  She wrote Run to encourage us to think about what we owe to each other, our families, and our society.

Synopsis  In her novel Run, Patchett throws strangers together on a cold, snowy night in Boston and then slowly unveils the connections between them.  Doyle, the former mayor of Boston, has cajoled his two adult sons to come out to hear Jesse Jackson speak.  Tip and Teddy have acquiesced, again, but by the end of the evening, Tip, the older son, decides he’s had enough.  He argues with his father, steps out into the snow covered street, and narrowly escapes a terrible accident.  A black woman standing nearby does not, and her daughter is left to cope by herself at the scene of the accident. 

By the way, Doyle is white, and Tip and Teddy are his adopted black sons.  The EMTs assume the black girl belongs to Tip and Teddy and leave her with the young black men.  And then, the story unfolds.

Discussion points This character drama provides thoughtful insights into racism, politics, and family dynamics.  One of my favorite passages reads:

Politicians never mentioned the details of life because of course the details that appealed to one person could repel another, so what you wound up with in the end were a long string of generalities, stirring platitudes that could not buy you supper. 

This rang so true for me, since I have been listening to the speeches of the Republican presidential hopefuls for weeks now and have heard little about real policy. 

In regard to families, Run weighs the value of perception over fact, the force of nature compared to that of nurture.   Every character has something to run from or toward, not the least of which is responsibility.  It had me thinking, perhaps Patchett is saying that family has less to do with biology and more to do with choices.

Recommended for…   If you like character driven stories, as well as themes of family and politics, you’ll probably like this book.  Although I enjoyed Patchett’s writing and appreciated her skill in character development and revelation, I did long for a more fulfilling plot. 

And back to the issue of responsibility- are we, as Patchett implies, lazy?  Have we gotten soft over the past few generations because we have not endured losses like The Great Depression or the two World Wars?  Do we understand sacrifice and civic duty?   January’s book, Winter Garden, sparked similar questions, and I have decided, yes, we Americans have gotten spoiled.

Do you agree or not?  Please click on “comments” to add your thoughts on Run or the issue of responsibility in modern American society.  Thanks so much.


The Future of Books Depends on Barnes and Noble

Bookstores feed my craving for peace, calm, and intellectual stimulation.  I love walking slowly past the quiet shelves as I search for the familiar cover of an old favorite or pause to flip through a promising new novel.    But unfortunately, bookstores in America now face an uncertain future.  According to a recent New York Times article, the nation’s largest “physical” bookseller, Barnes and Noble, is currently fighting for its life against Amazon and digital media.

Ironically, Barnes and Noble used to be the bad guy: a large chain that killed off all of the small, independent booksellers.  However, now that Borders has collapsed, Barnes and Noble remains the only hope for traditional publishers who depend on space in brick and mortar bookstores to market printed books.   If Barnes and Noble fails, pessimists predict that Amazon and iPads will do to books what iTunes did to vinyl records: make them obsolete.

But William J. Lynch, Jr., CEO of Barnes and Noble, scoffs at that idea.  He believes that he can use advances in electronic media to hold interest in his stores and the printed books that they sell.  Although the Nook got a late start, it has recently snatched a large chunk of the e-book market away from Amazon.  However, Amazon still has more money and more power.  Recently, it acquired contracts with well-known authors who will write e-books solely for publication through Amazon.

All of this makes me nervous, as a reader and a writer.  On the one hand, it’s a wonderful time to be writing, as e-books and social media have opened up new pathways to publication and have given authors more control over their “product.”  However, writers now spend much more of their own time and money promoting their books.  Also, I worry that ePublishing, for various reasons, will devalue the written word.  For more on the writer’s perspective, see Kristen Lamb’s blog.

Yet, I must admit that I regularly shop at Amazon.  My small town doesn’t have many stores, so I frequently turn to Amazon for books, gifts, and most recently, movies. Last month I decided that the $79 Prime Membership would pay for itself in saved shipping costs, so I joined.  But Amazon doesn’t give me the tactile experience that Barnes and Noble does. I need both.

I cannot imagine a world without printed books, especially children’s books.  Knuffle Bunny and Where the Wild Things Are simply will not look good on an eReader.  In the YA dystopian novel Matched, the characters don’t use books, only tablets, and they never even learn how to write letters!  I would hate to see this become reality.

I’ve written about this before: in short, I want physical andelectronic book formats to endure.

How do you feel about this as a reader?  Do you care if Barnes and Noble survives?  How do you envision the world of reading in the future?  Will your opinions drive your purchasing choices?  Please click on “comments” below to share your thoughts.  Thanks!


Word Nerd Workout: Figurative Language and Vocabulary

Welcome Word Nerds!  Are you ready to stretch your literary muscles?  First this week, I’d like to explore plays on words, or figurative language.  Last weekend I went BY MYSELF (translation: my husband watched kids all day!) to the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, where several presenters sparked creative ideas about the craft of writing.

Jim Minick has written and published The Blueberry Years, a memoir, and several books of poetry, including Burning Heaven.  On Saturday he encouraged writers in his workshop to use fresh, creative metaphors.  “Good writing,” he said, “is writing against cliché.” 

Let’s review.  Webster’s defines metaphoras a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness between them.  Jim pointed out that the word comes from Greek roots meaning over or beyond (meta), and to carry (phor).  So, with a good metaphor, an author carries a reader over to another way of looking at something.  A simile does the same thing, except it often introduces the comparison with “like” or “as.” 

You’ve heard plenty of overused metaphors and similes, for example, “Like a fish out of water,” or “skinny as a rail.” These do help us form a visual image, but fresh comparisons evoke a stronger response.   I can find several examples in this month’s book, Run, by Ann Patchett:

Kenya watched the workers like the foreman of a construction site.

Teddy looked down at the girl who was tucked under his arm like a permanent resident… 

The figurative language helps us understand more about the characters without saying it directly.  We know that Kenya watched very carefully, and we realilze that the girl under Teddy’s arm has no intention of leaving.

Workout assignment: Try to think of a fresh metaphor/simile to describe something.  Here’s mine:

The energetic toddler moved through the house like a funnel cloud through a city, bringing destruction to everything he touched.

On to vocabulary.  So far, I’ve found two words in Run that I want to add to the Word Nerd Vocabulary List.  Here they are quoted in context:

From the moment of their childhood in which Bernadette’s sisters figured out who looked like the statue they had sung a never-ending chorus of petulance behind her…

Bit by bit, Jackson took over Doyle, washed him down in the waves of mellifluous repetition until the speaker and the listener were one. 

Petulance \’pech-e-len(t)s\ From Latin petulans, petere to go to, attack; the state of being rude or insolent in speech or behavior
Mellifluous \me-‘lif-le-wes\ From Latin mel honey + flere to flow having a smooth, rich flow, as in a mellifluous voice
Petulance is definitely one of those I should know this! words; I had the sense of it, but wanted to confirm my gut feeling.  Here’s how I apply it:
  • Martha noted the petulance in her daughter’s reply and prepared for battle.

Now it’s your turn, and you have two exercises this week.  Click on the comments below and use one of the above vocabulary words in a sentence AND come up with a fresh metaphor or simile.  I can’t wait to read your responses!  If you can do that in one sentence, I’ll be impressed!

Walter Dean Myers: Ambassador for Young People’s Literature

I didn’t know we had an “Ambassador for Young People’s Literature” until I heard an NPR interview with Walter Dean Myers earlier this month.  His term began January 10, 2012, and the theme of his ambassadorship is Reading is Not Optional.

Myers told NPR’s David Green that in today’s society, reading shouldn’t be considered a hobby; it should be treated as a necessary skill.  He pointed out that his father couldn’t read, but he worked as a janitor, so it didn’t matter.  Today, even factory workers must read well.
Walter Dean Myers talks with a fan

During his two year post as Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Myers will encourage parents to start reading to their children while they are very young, and he will also work to diminish the stigma felt by teenagers who can’t read well.

Now aged 74, Myers has published over 100 books, and several of them have won awards, including Monster and Lockdown.  In his writing, Myers explores gritty, difficult topics, such as teenage drug use and urban violence.  He tells his stories in straightforward, powerful prose, and he has a loyal following.

Life has given Myers plenty of material to use in his writing.  He grew up in Harlem with foster parents and early on developed a love for reading.  As a teenager, he went to a special high school for gifted learners, but he skipped class, got in fights, and spent too much time playing hoops on the streets.  As a result, he never finished high school or attended college, but he always read avidly and wrote well. 

Myers is the third author to serve as Ambassador, a position sponsored by The Library of Congress’s Center for the Book and The Children’s Book Council and its foundation Every Child a Reader.  He follows Joe Scieszka of Guys Readand Katherine Paterson, one of my favorite authors, who wrote Bridge to Terabithia.   (Incidentally, Myers has contributed a short story to the recent Guys Read collection, Thriller.)

You can learn more about Walter Dean Myers by going to his website, by reading this recent article from the Washington Post, or by viewing the transcript from his NPR interview.

I emphatically agree with Myers about the importance of early exposure to books.   I have always read to my children, even while they were still in the womb, and judging by the stacks of books we bring home from the library, it helped!  So when a toddler picks up Good Night Moon for the 50thtime (our copy, a board book, is held together with duck tape), remember that Reading is Not Optional.

What have you seen or used to encourage literacy in young people in your family or community?  Click on comments below to add your thoughts.  Thanks!

Word Nerd Note:  In the Post article, it says that Myers was “preternaturally bright”.  Do you remember what that means?  If not, check the Word Nerd Vocabulary Page. 

Book Review: Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah

January Selection from the Reading List

Introduction  When Caroline recommended Winter Garden to our book club, she warned us that it was cold, but I didn’t grasp how truly she meant that until I started reading.  Sure, the setting for the narrative shifts between Washington State, Russia, and Alaska, plenty of snow everywhere.  But that’s not all- the characters are cold as well, and the story is about how they learn to thaw.

The Whitson girls, Meredith and Nina, adore their father, but they have never felt close to their mother Anya, a Russian woman their father met and married after WWII.   When their father dies, the sisters, by then adults, realize they must try to reconnect with one another, and their elderly mother, or their family will fall apart.  

The only time the girls ever felt an emotional bond with their mother while they were young was when she told an old Russian fairy tale about a dark lord and a prince.  So the adventurous, younger sister Nina decides that to honor her father’s dying wish, she will break through her mother’s emotional wall, and she will use the fairy tale to do it.  And a few shots of vodka.

St. Petersburg Church of the Savior on Blood
Winter Garden moves quickly as the contemporary narrative alternates with Anya’s retelling of the mysterious fairy tale, and the reader discovers clues, along with the sisters, about Anya’s tragic past.  The details about the siege of Leningrad will break your heart, especially for those of us who live comfortably in modern America.  Even in the midst of an economic crisis, our lives are heaven compared to what the women of Leningrad endured.    

Discussion points  These characters have a frustrating inability to express love, even to the people closest to them.  But as Winter Garden progresses, you understand their motivations and personality quirks.  I can relate too well to Meredith, the older sister who chooses a caregiver role, who always tries to control and organize the people and events around her.  I often get bitter, like Meredith, that I’m the one taking care of household details while the rest of my family plays.  At 40, Meredith looks back on her life and wonders why she isn’t in more of the family photos, why she didn’t have more fun.  One sentence from the book summarizes how I think many mothers feel:  “The minutiae had consumed the whole.”  Although it’s often sad, Winter Garden reminds us how important it is to appreciate the people we love.

Recommended for…  This book will appeal to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, especially about World War II or Russian history.   Readers who like character driven stories or themes of family dynamics, the solidarity of women, or the importance of spoken and unspoken words in relationships should pick up this book.      

Book Club suggestions  You can find recipes for stroganoff and pierogi on Kristin Hannah’s website or in the back of some editions of the novel.  My book club boldly decided to “play the game” that the women in Winter Garden play each night before dinner: drink a shot of vodka and share three things about yourself.  Well, our shots were more like splashes, and we couldn’t even choose a favorite song!  I recommend preparing ahead of time!

Share your thoughts on the book by clicking on the comments link below.  Thank you!

Helping Guys Read

Do you know a guy, young or old, who doesn’t like to read?  Who wrinkles his nose when you suggest a book and then turns on the TV or the gaming system?  Then you really need to direct that dude to the Guys Read website. 

The mission of Guys Read is to help boys become self-motivated, life-long readers.  The website provides reading suggestions for boys of any age, and the books are broken down into typical categories (thriller, adventure, comedy) as well as a few particularly “guy like” genres, including “Dragons,” “How to Build Stuff”, “People Being Transformed into Animals,” and my favorite, “Classics that Actually Hold Up.”    

Future word nerds!
Finding enticing reading material for boys is very important, as boys in the United States are lagging behind girls in reading.  The Guys Read website cites a sobering statistic: over the past 30 years, every year boys have scored worse on reading tests than girls, in all age groups.   If we want our sons, grandsons, nephews, and friends to pursue lifelong reading, we need to hook them early!

Why do boys shy away from reading?  Guys Read offers several suggestions.  Boys typically have an active, competitive learning style that isn’t supported by reading and writing.  (My seven year old boy always complains that there is “too much writing” at school.)  And, most guys think reading isn’t masculine and that book clubs are for girls, or their mothers.

So how can we encourage boys to pick up a book?  Find something to grab their interest- sports, humor, building, and ACTION!  Let boys know that magazines and graphic novels count as reading!  There are so many options to choose from these days, and Guys Read helps you find them.

Guys Read also puts out collections of short stories that center on a particular genre.  The first one, Guys Read: Funny Business, has original pieces from Eoin Colfer (Artemis Fowl), Kate DiCamillo (The Tale of Desperauex), and Mac Barnett  (The Brixton Brothers series), among others.  I read these stories out loud with my kids, and even though I didn’t like all of the humor (too much “physical comedy”), my boys did.  Here are the first few lines from “Artemis Begins”, a piece in the collection written by Eoin Colfer: 

I have four brothers.  That’s five boys altogether living in one small house, which is a recipe for major property damage at the very least. 

The humor hooked me and my kids from the beginning, and Colfer’s story provides a comical, yet truthful, depiction of family life.   My 11 year old went on to read any Eoin Colfer book he could get his hands on, and there are plenty. 

In October 2011, a second collection came out, called Guys Read: Thriller.  It features stories by  Margaret Peterson Haddix (the Missing series), Anthony Horowitz (the Alex Rider series), and James Paterson (Witch and Wizard series). 

My two older boys love to read, but my husband has typically preferred “screen” entertainment.  Fortunately, since I bought him his Kindle, he now reads each night before he goes to sleep.  He’s just finished Inheritance and is actively seeking another book.  I smile with pride- this word nerd has done her job. 

Help Guys Read!  Please click on the comments below and add any other books or sources you think might support the cause, and share this post with anyone who knows a young guy who needs to read.   Thank you!