Book Review: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains EchoedAnd the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a difficult book to describe in a nutshell. Beautifully written, but not fast-paced, it’s one you sink your teeth into and relish. Only nine chapters, but they’re long and told from different perspectives as you travel from Afghanistan to Paris to Greece to California and elsewhere. Hosseini doesn’t just tell a story — he truly weaves it, pulling at different threads until they come together in a tapestry meditating on the human condition and how we hurt the very ones we love the most. If you start this book, stay with it until the end. The last pages made my heart well with a sad kind of joy that only a master storyteller can achieve.
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Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“All the Light We Cannot See” is a rich, evocative novel set during World War II. The third person narrator primarily follows two characters: a blind French girl whose father is a locksmith at a museum in Paris, and an orphan boy who is part of Hitler Youth and then conscripted into the Nazi military due to his mechanical gifting, particularly with radios. Doerr is a master of showing, rather than telling, and creates a world with as much texture as the real one. His characters are three-dimensional, conflicted, believably inconsistent. And the story that he weaves between them is equally heart-warming and heart-wrenching, stirring contemplation about how we fit into the world we’ve been given and what it means to have a choice regarding how to live our lives.

It’s only August, but this will probably be the best book I read all year.

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If you’ve read this book, I recommend reading this interview with the author.

Reassessing my goals for 2018

When 2018 kicked off, I set an insane amount of ambitious goals for myself—most insane and ambitious of all being to receive 300 pitch rejections over the course of the year.

What possessed me to choose a number that high after failing to receive 20 pitch rejections in the last quarter of 2017, I have no idea. But I set the goal and I figured, hey, even if I get halfway there that’s good.

Well, it’s the third of August, we’re more than halfway through 2018, and I am nowhere near halfway to 300 pitch rejections. In fact, I haven’t even broken double digits. This hasn’t been for a complete lack of trying—I’ve submitted more pitches than I’ve received rejections for (meaning silence, not acceptance, is a typical response)—but recently, I haven’t even bothered to submit pitches because I know I’m not going to reach 300 in 2018. I probably won’t reach 100.

I’ve been talking to a lot of people about goals lately. In recent interviews with different CrossFit athletes—BackCountry CrossFit’s team that is currently competing at the CrossFit Games and Zack Ruhl, an adaptive athlete and physical trainer based in Texas—a consistent theme has been the importance of setting small, attainable goals. Ruhl told me, when he’s working with wheelchair athletes, he only lets them set small goals.

Small goals enable you to celebrate victories along the road toward the ultimate goal, so even if you don’t achieve the big goal, you can look back and appreciate how far you’ve come.

My huge goals have been paralyzing me lately—particularly the goals related to freelance writing, the very thing I want to be my long-term profession. The unreachable goals have aided my procrastination. I’ve hardly moved at all because “there’s no way I’m going to reach that,” and I now find myself in only a slightly better position freelance-wise than I was eight months ago.

“Lower the unit of what you need to accomplish so much that it’s hard to believe you’d feel much resistance to writing,” says Laura Vanderkam, author of I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, in this piece from The Atlantic.

(Feel free to change “writing” to whatever it is you need to get done.)

Realizing my own problem with procrastination and the discouraging height of my goals, I decided this morning to reassess all 15 goals I set at the beginning of this year. I made some adjustments, scrapped some goals completely, and this is what I ended up with:

Eight new and improved goals for the rest of 2018

  1. Spend 45 minutes each day working on my book (fiction).
  2. Submit a minimum of one researched pitch each week (nonfiction).
    • Be diligent about following up on pitches.
    • Pitch may be chosen from a batch of ideas I’ve been researching.
    • Resubmitted pitches do not count—but be sure to re-pitch rejected ideas.
  3. Go to literary/journalism events, connect with people, and stay connected. Invite potential freelancer/writer friends to lunch or coffee.
  4. Return to 100% physically (long story, but yes, I hurt myself).
  5. Get a physical and go to the dentist (same as original goal 8).
  6. Stay faithful with Scripture reading all year long (same as original 9).
  7. Memorize five new verses (essentially the same as original 10).
  8. Read one biography (done), more narrative nonfiction, and at least five good novels (done), for a total of at least 20 books (same as original 14; I currently have six more books to read in order to reach the goal, which I plan to overshoot).

“Lower the unit of what you need to accomplish so much that it_s hard to believe you_d feel much resistance to writing._

Original goals that I scrapped entirely:

Goal 12: Write three one-act plays. (One can only handle so many writing goals.)
Goal 13: Read plays. (I may end up reading plays as part of my regular reading, but I decided plays aren’t a high priority.)
Goal 15: If financially feasible, go to the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. (This conference already happened and was not financially feasible. Maybe next year.)

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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