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.

Take the first step: A look back on 2017 and my crazy list of goals

Red snow-dusted tent in front of a stand of evergreen trees.

I know it’s early to be talking about the end of the year—we have eleven more days! But with travel plans and being home with my family for the first time since last Christmas, my status on these goals will be overwhelmingly the same when New Year’s rolls around (except I might read another book).

When I wrote out my goals for 2017, I had no idea where I would be today. I was looking back on a year that had gone decently and looking ahead with a longing to take bigger steps toward my professional and creative goals.

In the resulting post, I wrote that in 2016 I’d learned to be kinder to myself. This year, the overarching theme has been:

Take the first step.

Usually we stop before we begin. Whether in friendship or creative pursuits or on our way into something we’ve never done, some place we’ve never been, we stop before we start. We reject ourselves before anyone else has the chance to.

My list of goals for 2017 was long. I shared eleven of them on this blog and kept a couple others under wraps.

I accomplished less than half of my goals, but in no way was that a failure. A glance over the last twelve months makes clear why.

2017 goals:

  1. Go to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for this writing conference and stay a whole week to see the Tetons. I didn’t go to this conference, because I moved to Colorado at the beginning of June, two weeks before the conference would have taken place.
  2. Successfully complete Creative Nonfiction’s Science Writing course. Almost as soon as this course started, I realized I wasn’t interested in it, so I switched to a different course on beating writer’s block. The course did not dramatically impact my life.
  3. Diligently work on unnamed book-length work of fiction so I can spend November 2017 reading and self-critiquing. I did not do this, but I worked on some of my own nonfiction work which you can read here and here.
  4. Read 30 books (minimum). I did not successfully read 30 books, but according to my GoodReads log, I read 20 which is significantly more than I read in 2016. Most impactful was Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women. Nonfiction favorites: The Woman Who Smashed Codes and Love and Ruin. Fiction favorite: Before the Fall.
  5. Get personal training certified with ACSM. I did not do this, but I started working toward it by taking a CPR certification course after I moved to Colorado. I don’t know if I still want to pursue this certification. If I ever end up doing it, it will most likely be for my own self-education, not so I can work as a personal trainer.
  6. Do some freelance writing and editing. YES. Shortly after I moved to Colorado, I veered away from applying to full-time jobs and set my sights on being able to freelance full-time. I am now doing ongoing editing work for a couple different companies, and I recently was brought on to do some writing for a CrossFit blog that I’ll mention by name after my first pieces go up.
  7. Get a pull up by March, five by May, ten by August. I was super close to one strict pull up when I moved. Then I didn’t do CrossFit consistently for … the rest of the year. My muscles noticeably shrunk. However, just today, I did two single reps of 110 pounds on the lat pulldown machine in my apartment’s microgym, so I could be to a strict pull up soon!
  8. Do topical Bible studies on justice, light and darkness, living water, and the heart. I did just one of these studies, going through Scripture and studying all passages containing a form of the word “justice”.
  9. Do in-depth Bible studies of Joshua, Ruth, Nehemiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Hosea, Nahum, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 & 2 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John. According to records in my planner, I successfully studied the books of Joshua and Ruth. Soon after I moved, I started working through Acts, which I did not finish. More recently, I read through all of Isaiah following a reading plan from She Reads Truth. Next year, I want to be better about staying in Scripture all year long without it feeling like a chore.
  10. Play more classical compositions on piano. Progress in the more difficult keys. I started the year strong in this arena, but when spring rolled around and I decided to leave Taylor University (and its music building where I often played piano over my lunch break), I started playing less. I haven’t played piano since being in Colorado, and listening to instrumentals is a unique form of torture: Every recording makes me want to play piano which I can’t do right now because I don’t have access to a real piano and I’m too much of a snob to make do with a keyboard.
  11. Go real camping (in a tent not surrounded by RVs and campers). Yes. I camped in the snow back in September. I love the smell of campfire.

Red snow-dusted tent in front of a stand of evergreen trees.

Secret goal: Switch jobs and do serious graduate school research.

This is the one I’m proudest of. I decided this spring to leave my job and move to a place I’d never visited. In the process of making that decision, I decided that graduate school is not for me—at least, not yet.

Something I’ve struggled with since finishing college is wanted to write long, complicated stories, both fiction and nonfiction, but feeling that I don’t have anything to say. I’ve felt that my lack of life experience limits my ability to write anything worth reading, and I have no interest in being a hack.

Where do you get life experience?

Some might be able to find it in a classroom, but as much as I love learning, the life experience I crave is out in the world, where everyday people are living incredible lives.

Colloquial writing advice is “write what you know.” I’m more interested in writing about what I don’t know.

Step one to being able to write about what you don’t know:

Leave what you know.

Book Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's EnemiesThe Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My expectations for this book were pretty high: I’ve followed Jason Fagone’s magazine work for a while and know him as a strong writer and evocative storyteller. I bought The Woman Who Smashed Codes for myself as a birthday gift and was excited to crack it open.

Let me tell you: It delivered above and beyond my expectations.

First, let’s just look at the physical hardback. Published by Dey St., an imprint of HarperCollins, the book is 444 pages thick (don’t let that scare you — notes and the index occupy a sizable chunk) and is beautifully designed. Many of the chapters have an accompanying photo on the first page and a quote to set the tone for the oncoming narrative. The typeface is welcoming to the eyes, and the paper is soft and thick.

Now, the writing. Fagone’s nonfiction narrative draws you into the story and introduces you to scenes and characters in a way that makes you want to keep reading and reading. The book is divided into three sections, each of which encompasses a specific period of time in Elizebeth Smith’s (later, Friedman’s) journey in codebreaking and in life with William Friedman. Each chapter ends with questions that drive the narrative forward, propelling the reader into the next chapter and then the next.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is truly narrative nonfiction. Thoroughly researched (with pages of notes to prove it) and grounded in history, it doesn’t at all read like a textbook. It reads like a story. One with surprises, mystery, intrigue, and even romance in various corners. The narrative about Nazi spy operations in South America was especially interesting to me, as I wasn’t familiar with that part of history, and the drama around U.S. government agencies, particularly the FBI versus everyone else, was fascinating.

This book followed through on the promise to educate and inform regarding World War II history and a particular woman codebreaker, while also entertaining and delighting on a storytelling level — from overarching narrative all the way down to the sentence level. I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks they know everything about World War II, has an interest in women’s history, or simply enjoys a good book.

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Book Review: Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

Music for Wartime: StoriesMusic for Wartime: Stories by Rebecca Makkai

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I bought this book after attending a reading by Rebecca Makkai and connecting with her writing. This collection of short stories marries creativity and originality with compelling characters in sometimes absurd situations. Stories vary in length and subject matter, but all connect somehow to the theme described in the title, “Music for Wartime.” I’ve read collections before where every story is melancholy and depressing; this is no such collection. Some end sadly or on bittersweet notes, but all of them challenge the reader’s narrow vision of herself and others. And several of the stories wrestle with the question of forgiveness and when it can, cannot, should, or should not be extended to: Nazis, false lovers, relatives who carried out unquestionable wrongs. Highly recommend.

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Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nonlinear narrative composed of straightforward, at times lyrical, writing, The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a slave girl whose escape of the plantation leads to conflict and loss and love and meditations on what it means to be free. Whitehead’s writing is solid, but it took me a while to get into The Underground Railroad due to the conflict evoked in my brain by his portrayal of the railroad as an actual railroad running underground. Other than that detail, the story is richly textured with historical accuracies, many of which stirred up anger in myself toward the brutal history of this country and the so-called peculiar institution. I haven’t read much historical fiction since upper elementary and middle school, when I was basically obsessed with Ann Rinaldi’s work, so it was interesting to jump back into the genre as an adult reading historical fiction written for adults. This work was eye-opening in a way that makes me want to go back and relearn history, which isn’t a bad idea considering the times we’re living in. Told in third person with sections devoted to different characters, but the core of the story being Cora’s journey out of slavery and into freedom, The Underground Railroad takes you along for the journey. I recommend climbing aboard.

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You may have noticed almost all of my reviews have 4 or 5 stars. That’s because I don’t finish books I don’t like. Life’s too short to read bad books. I only review the good ones.

Good reads: Quests, real and hypothetical

Longform stories I’ve read lately and enjoyed.

Keepers of the Secrets by James Somers, The Village Voice
Step into the archives at the New York Public Library and meet “the most interesting man in the world.” He’s 39 and knows the archives more intimately than many parents know their own children. Those boxes of paper artifacts may look like tinder for your campfire, but this keeper of secrets knows they tell stories just waiting to be told.

My Journey to the Heart of the FOIA Request by Spenser Mestel, Longreads
FOIA. Freedom of Information Act. It’s the piece of legislation that makes government “secrets” available to the people. All you have to do is submit a request. And wait for the bureaucracy to handle it. This piece is an interesting look at the history and current state of FOIA, and the process required to receive a response.

Writer-in-Residence at a Homeless Shelter by John Cotter, Guernica
Join author John Cotter as he spends a month in a Colorado facility for the homeless, where he teaches a writing class and doesn’t go home at night. This is a moving, well-written consideration of homelessness and the people impacted by it. There are parts that brought tears to my eyes.

Dwayne Johnson for President by Caity Weaver, GQ
Last week, I dreamt that I completely forgot about an interview I’d scheduled for a story I’m working on because Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, was hanging out with my family in our living room. This piece may have helped The Rock invade my subconscious. It’s a fun introduction to Johnson, who is apparently a big teddy bear who works out a lot.

What have I missed? If you’ve read something excellent lately, tell me about it by commenting below.

a poem for a world of wrongs

the world needs more pretty words
less ugly deaths

more dandelion wreaths and butterfly kisses
less flying vitriol and bullets

more hearts beating in unison as we look across seas of faces and realize
our differences are nothing in comparison to our sameness.

Book Review: The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

The Shock of the FallThe Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A stream-of-consciousness narrative tackling dual themes of mental illness (schizophrenia, in particular) and grief, “The Shock of the Fall” follows 19-year-old Matthew Homes as he seeks to write his story, partly on his treatment program’s computer and partly on the typewriter his grandmother gave him. He’s grappling with the death of his older brother a decade earlier — a tragedy he’s always blamed himself for. His brother had Down’s Syndrome. Matthew felt (and was often held by his parents as) responsible for Simon. Now, he’s gone. Actually, he’s been gone since a nighttime fall (hence, the book’s title).

This book moves quickly in chapters of varying lengths, moving back and forth in the time frame. It takes a little while to adjust to the non-linear storytelling style, but the style keeps you on your toes in a way that makes the book more intriguing. You’re in Matthew’s head, which is a fascinating, sometimes confusing, sometimes frightening place to be. And even though it’s a book about mental health that doesn’t try to tie things up in a pretty bow, the ending is satisfying, not hopeless. I, personally, felt better for having read it.

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