Book Review: A Fifty-Year Silence by Miranda Richmond Mouillot

A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in FranceA Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France by Miranda Richmond Mouillot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Miranda Richmond Mouillot was young, romantic, and naive when she set out to retrace her grandparents’ story, one she imagined to be like a fairy tale, full of love but with stars crossed that tore the two apart. What she found was much more complicated.

Mouillot’s grandparents were Jews in France during Nazi occupation in World War II. They successfully escaped to Switzerland where they stayed in refugee camps. Her grandmother was a doctor; after the war, her grandfather worked as an interpreter in the Nuremberg Trials.

Mouillot grew up in the United States, and as a child did not associate her grandparents with each other. They were never in the same place at the same time, and whenever her grandmother was spoken of around her grandfather, he scoffed and said something hurtful. When her grandfather decided to sell a ruined house in France — bought by her grandmother; the deed was in her name — a spark ignited in Mouillot to find out exactly what had happened between her grandparents. That’s what this book is about.

Written in smooth, vivid prose, A Fifty-Year Silence, tells the story of Mouillot’s efforts to solve her grandparents’ mystery while also finding and living a life of her own. It’s a beautiful book that makes the time period real to the reader. This isn’t just another book about World War II. It’s the story of real people with real lives who lived through a real, horrifying time in France and Switzerland.

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Book Review: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond FearBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A refreshing read for the discouraged creative soul, Big Magic is essentially a long, written pep talk encouraging you to stop quivering in fear about your creative projects and go out and make stuff already, for no reason other than:

a. It’s fun.
b. That’s what humans have always done.

I copied down quote after quote from Big Magic’s pages, on everything from trusting and surrendering to the process, to pushing past fear and perfectionism and refusing to accept that creative living is an inherently miserable way of life.

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Book Review: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Manhattan BeachManhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

New York City during World War II. A father who disappeared after getting tangled up with the mob. A daughter with secrets of her own trying to become a diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Manhattan Beach is about a father and daughter and the secrets that divide them — from each other and from everyone else around them. Richly textured with details that make you feel as if Jennifer Egan lived the story herself, this piece of historical fiction is expertly woven with complexity, strands from three core characters coming together to form a single narrative. No one is all good or all bad. Each character is given a depth that enables you to see them as three-dimensional human beings.

“It’s a pity we’re forced to make the choices that govern the whole of our lives when we’re so goddamn young,” a supporting character says late in the narrative, and that quote is essentially the theme of the book. However, even with the characters’ mistakes that can’t be undone, there is a presence of hope and redemption.

Manhattan Beach is not a quick read by any means, but it is a smooth read, one that keeps you engaged as soon as you crack it open. It’s one of those novels that makes you feel smarter after reading it, and not just because it’s so well-researched — Egan’s observations of humanity are worth paying attention to.

I recommend Manhattan Beach to the mature reader who is not bewildered by sexual content (the sexual content pertains to the story, but it is more detailed than some might be comfortable with).

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Book Review: Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee

Draft No. 4: On the Writing ProcessDraft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A must-read for anyone who wants to write nonfiction, Draft No. 5 is a collection of essays about the writing process by John McPhee, long-time staff writer for The New Yorker. With smooth writing that makes reading effortless and vivid anecdotes from his writing life, McPhee covers different aspects of the writing process, with repeated themes of clarity, precision, and omission. I found myself copying down paragraphs into my journal, including particularly resonant passages on writer’s block and self-doubt. Here are a few favorites:

  • “Young writers find out what kind of writers they are by experiment. If they choose from the outset to practice exclusively a form of writing because it is praised in the classroom or otherwise carries appealing prestige, they are vastly increasing the risk inherent in taking up writing in the first place. It is so easy to misjudge yourself and get stuck in the wrong genre.”
  • “If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.”
  • “The adulating portrait of the perfect writer who never blots a line comes Express Mail from fairyland.”

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Book Review: 1947: Where Now Begins by Elisabeth Asbrink

1947: Where Now Begins1947: Where Now Begins by Elisabeth Åsbrink

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is exactly what its title describes: a look at the year 1947, where the world as we know it begins. From the establishment of Israel to the smuggling of Nazis to South America, this book communicates both the history and humanity of the immediate aftermath of World War Two. Asbrink also doesn’t pull any punches. Without telling the reader what to think, she puts forth example after example of (I think) every nation mentioned practicing something that could be seen as a precursor to genocide or, to put it more gently, failing to care for the vulnerable and in many cases increasing their vulnerability. One of the most fascinating parts for me was learning about Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term “genocide” and fought for the UN to recognize this crime, hoping that at some point the death of thousands would mean as much to humanity as the death of one innocent person (I’m planning to read more about him).

Each chapter of the book covers one month of the year, with the exception of “Days and Death” which is the middle chapter and hones in on the author’s father, who was a young child at the time. The chapters are broken up into sections titled by location, giving an around-the-world view of that point in time. What was happening in Sweden? Argentina? Egypt? India? The United States? Russia? Thoughtfully written and immensely thought-provoking, this book is a sobering account of humanity’s failures to clean up the messes we continue to make. Highly recommend.

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A word for 2018: Diligence

Diligence. Careful and persistent work. Slow, plodding, steady effort that isn’t crushed by setbacks. Keep moving forward.

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Rocky’s got it.

As soon as I finished college, I started learning the disappointing lesson that big achievements don’t just happen. Maybe if you went to an Ivy League school and had the right connections, you got your dream job right after graduating, but for most of us, job #1 isn’t the one we always wanted. And neither is job #2, #3, #4. (Or maybe we get the dream job, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be and we’re left scrambling for purpose, because what we idolized for so long didn’t follow through.)

Right now, I’m actually okay with that. I’m okay with having limited reach and responsibility so I can continue to practice and learn and improve, especially in writing.

Ideas often come to me in the shower, and that’s how diligence ended up being my word for 2018. I was thinking about the coming year as I rinsed shampoo out of my hair, and diligence literally just popped into my head. I’ve never had a word for the year before, but as soon as it came to me, I knew it was right.

2018 will be about diligence. Setting myself to work steadily each day, taking small, seemingly insignificant steps toward long-term goals.

My goals this year will require that I work diligently, rather than swinging back and forth from all-hands-on-deck productivity to lethargic stagnation.

Here’s what I’m aiming to accomplish by the time 2019 rolls around:

  1. Write 300 words of unnamed work of fiction every day for total of 109,500 words.
  2. Get 10 articles published in actual publications.
  3. Make a sustainable living doing just freelance writing and editing.
  4. Receive 300 pitch rejections.
  5. Get more efficient at researching, writing, and submitting story pitches.
  6. Start building a freelance network/support/friend group.
  7. Get back into CrossFit and compete at least once.
  8. Be a responsible adult: Get a physical and go to the dentist—use my insurance.
  9. Stay faithful with Scripture reading all year long.
  10. Intentionally memorize a verse or passage each month.
  11. Hike regularly (maybe do a 14er).
  12. Write three one-act plays.
  13. Read plays (see above). Suggestions welcome.
  14. Read one biography, more narrative nonfiction (books and magazine stories), and at least five good novels, for a total of at least 20 books. Suggestions welcome.
  15. If financially feasible, go to the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.

Bonus: Get a short story published.