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!

Improving Vocabulary in 2012

When I was in 8th grade, my English teacher, Ms. Giles, made us use a book titled 1100 Words You Need to Know to improve our spelling and vocabulary.  That book was full of PSAT and SAT beauties, like “perspicacious,” “innocuous”, and “erudite,” and each week, we added five more gems to our knowledge base. 

An old, but well used dictionary in my house
Ms. Giles taught vocabulary and the rules of grammar with intimidating and uncompromising exactness.  I still remember the time she praised me in front of the class for a persuasive essay I had written, but ridiculed me for a basic, and unfortunately repeated, error in my writing. 
“How can a reader take you seriously when you mistake ‘loose’ for ‘lose’ more than once in the essay?” she demanded as she waved my paper in front of me.    Although my face burned with humiliation that day, I know now that Ms. Giles gave me a strong foundation for my word nerd tendencies (an obsession with proper grammar and a fascination with word etymology).  Wherever you are now Ms. Giles, thank you. 

Twenty something years later, when I’m reading and I come across a word that I know I should recognize,  I feel the need to look it up and educate myself.   (Do you ever feel that way too, or is this a word nerd issue?)  This year, I’m going to nurture that urge to learn, and I’m going to drag you along with me on the road to improved vocabulary!

The first Friday of every month you’ll find a “Word Nerd Workout” post that features a few of those SAT type words that we need to know, usually from the novels in the 2012 Reading List.  And since we learn best by doing, I’ll also suggest exercises for you to use those vocabulary words in small, creative ways.  For reference, I’ll keep a running list of the Word Nerd Vocabulary in a separate page on the blog.  You’ll find the tab at the top of the home page.

So, let’s get started! 

a samovar
I’m currently reading my book club’s January selection, Winter Garden, by Kristin Hannah.  The narrative repeatedly refers to a mysterious thing  called a “samovar” in the kitchen.  Now that I’ve looked it up, I know that  it comes from a Russian word and that it’s an urn with a spigot at the bottom used (especially in Russia) to boil water for tea. 

Also, on p. 179 of the same novel, it says, “The house was preternaturally silent, as if it too, were waiting.”  Preternaturally means “exceeding what is natural or regular” or “extraordinary” from the Latin praeter naturam (beyond nature).

Ready to exercise?  Try to use one of those words in your own sentence.  Here’s mine:
  •  Watson marveled at how Holmes could preternaturally detect subtle clues at the scene of a crime. 

Now it’s your turn.  Click on the comments button below and add your own sentence, or other vocabulary words, or your general feedback on the idea of a Word Nerd Workout.  Thank you so much for joining in!

And please, feel free to direct high school students preparing for the SATs to my blog!

The Meaning Behind Auld Lang Syne

At the end of one of my favorite movies, Harry Burns asks Sally Albright, “What does this song mean?  My whole life, I don’t know what this song means.”  Now, if you’re old enough, and you like a good comedy, you should know that the movie is When Harry Met Sally, and the song is Auld Lang Syne.  And during New Year’s Eve festivities tomorrow night, you will probably hear, and maybe even sing, the song again and wonder the same thing Harry does.

We can trace Auld Lang Syne back to a Scottish poem written in the 18th century by Robert Burns, although some records show similar lyrics in pieces that predate Burns’ poem.  The tune comes from a pentatonic* (see note below) Scots folk melody that was, most likely, originally used at a faster tempo.  The phrase “Auld Lang Syne” means “old long past,” “old long since,”or, more loosely translated, “old times’ sake.”  It’s similar to the phrase “once upon a time” often found in English literature. 

People in English speaking countries around the world sing Auld Lang Syne at midnight on New Year’s Eve to mark the significance of the passing year.  But the song is also heard at funerals, graduations, or to commemorate the closing of other momentous occasions.  

The World Burns Club website provides a line by line translation of Burns’ poem which basically substitutes the phrase “for old long past” for “auld lang syne”.   Ultimately, the lyrics of the song pose a simple question:  Is it acceptable to forget old times and old friends?

In When Harry Met Sally, Harry Burns, of course, cannot let it go with one simple question.  He rambles about forgetting old acquaintances and difficulty of remembering them once you’ve forgotten them until Sally quiets him with, “Maybe it means we should remember that we forgot them.”
I tend to get sentimental and sappy this time of year as I recount my blessings, miss old friends, and recognize how quickly time passes, as the lyrics of Auld Lang Syne encourage me to do.  But fortunately my kids won’t let me wallow too long.  They’re already planning a “Just Dance 3” competition for our New Year’s Eve festivities.  (However, they don’t realize how well I know songs by A-Ha, Lenny Kravitz, and the Pointer Sisters!)  I’m glad I have them to balance my introspection, because although I believe it’s important to remember “old long past”, it’s just as critical to appreciate the people and events of the present.

Have a safe and Happy New Year!  How will you mark the passing of 2011?  Share in the comments below!

Pentatonix performs on The Sing Off

*Word Nerd Note:  Pentatonic” refers to a musical scale with five notes per octave.  Most major and minor scales have seven notes (heptatonic).  The word pentatonic struck me because I’m also an a cappella nerd, and my favorite a cappella group, Pentatonix, won The Sing Off  this season.  Five members make up the band, so I guess that’s how they got their name, but I wonder if they knew about this musical term as well? 

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Do you know the Herdmans?  Six unruly, unsupervised children who steal, smoke cigars, and set fire to small buildings?  If you’ve read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson, then you’ll know that these mischievous kids are the unlikely messengers for the good news of the Christmas story. 

This year, for various reasons, I decided I needed to read the book, so each night this week I have settled my kids down from their holiday hyperactivity by gathering them together to listen to a chapter from Robinson’s comical yet touching novel for children.

When the Herdmans show up at church looking for free cake and kool-aide, they learn about the annual Christmas pageant and decide to bully their way into all of the main parts.  But once rehearsals begin, it’s obvious that the children have never heard the Christmas story, and that’s when the magic starts. 

As these brazen youngsters express profound compassion for Mary’s plight and outrage at King Herod’s deceit, they give pause to those of us who have heard the story multiple times and have perhaps grown complacent about its implications.  They make us wonder, what would have happened if the Wise Men had returned to Herod, as instructed?

And so, unexpectedly, by the end of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, the wild Herdman children make us see, in a new light, the beauty and miracle of the Christmas story as they discover its wonder for the first time.  As so often in the Bible, it’s the people who make us the most uncomfortable who have the most important message for us. 

At the beginning of Advent, my pastor encouraged the members of our parish to look generously for the good in others, as it would increase the good in each of us.  The Best Christmas Pageant Ever illustrates, with simplicity and humor, how we can find beauty and goodness in the most unlikely places.  I hope you will find it, and share it, this holiday season.

Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Reading List for 2012

I confess that I have some type-A tendencies.  For example, I generated a grocery list on my computer, and I keep printed copies of it in the kitchen.  When I realize I need something, I circle the item on that week’s list- why reinvent the wheel every Thursday? 

So, when I sat down with my Book Club last week, and we decided on our ENTIRE Reading List for 2012, I felt ecstatic!   We’ve NEVER chosen for the whole year before, but we had so many intriguing book suggestions, we couldn’t stop ourselves!  I hope this becomes standard procedure. 

So, here’s our Reading List for 2012.   Please join us next year as we cover lots of historical fiction, a few classics, and an atypical Nicholas Sparks.  If you click on the title of each book, it will lead you to a page on the Amazon website where you will find reviews and purchasing information.

·         January:  Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah.  Two sisters reunite after their father’s death to care for their difficult mother, and they learn new and startling things about her past in Russia.

·         February: Run, by Anne Patchett.  This novel covers 24 hours in the life of a Boston family after a heated argument and an accident in a blizzard.

·         March:  Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand.  This is a true story about a delinquent turned track star turned Army hero and his amazing war time journey after his plane crashes over the Pacific.

·         April:  The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern.  Two magicians compete and fall in love in the dazzling setting of a night circus.

·        May:  The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom.  A white servant girl struggles to find her place in plantation society.

·         June:  Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens.  An orphan mysteriously inherits a fortune, which dramatically changes his life.

·        July:  ”  “

·         August: Little Bee, by Chris Cleave.  No one wants to say much about this book except that it involves an African girl, a wealthy British couple, and a brutal scene on a beach. 

·        September:  The Johnstown Flood, by David McCollough.  The story of the tragic flood in 1889 that killed 2000 people and caused a national scandal.

·         October:  Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte.   The story of a courageous woman and her stormy relationship with the brooding Mr. Rochester.  The first feminist novel- before feminism ever existed!

·        November:  Three Weeks with My Brother, by Nicholas and Micah Sparks.  A memoir that chronicles a three week trip during which the brothers recall their childhood and learn what matters most in life. 

I’ll keep this Reading List posted as a separate page that you can refer to throughout the year.  You’ll find it next to the “About Me” tab at the top of the blog. 

I know we left off December; life’s too busy then.

And, if anyone knows of any potentially disturbing content in the Reading List, please warn me. Well ahead of time.
After my monthly book club meeting, I’ll post a review for each book.  Please add to the on-line discussion by posting comments and questions.  Happy reading!