Book Review: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and RedemptionUnbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A lot of nonfiction books get so bogged down with detail that they have no narrative drive. Unbroken doesn’t have this problem. From the beginning, Hillenbrand’s writing sets the story in driven, organized motion, drawing the reader in emotionally and painting clear portraits of characters, events, and settings. You get to know Louis Zamperini, an Italian-American with unequivocal speed and a childhood marked by thievery. Hillenbrand traces Zamperini’s life from childhood to adulthood, track race to Olympic trials to military service in the Pacific, where his plane goes down and he’s faced with a new war aimed at survival. Along the way, Hillenbrand writes about the necessity of maintaining dignity in the face of suffering and abuse. Human resilience is one essential theme. There’s also the theme of forgiveness, which dominates Part V.

Unbroken is long, but not droning. Every word and passage is merited, there for a purpose and carrying detail and development essential to the (true) story line. It’s a feat of nonfiction story construction that testifies of the author’s incredible understanding of her subject. The story moves at varying paces, but never left me bored. Like all great writing, it’s not just interesting, it’s thought-provoking and spurs inward reflection.

Highly recommend.

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Good Reads = crazy true stories + great writing

Some of my favorite longform stories from the last few months.

The Girl Detectives by Marin Cogan, Topic
A student club at the University of Pittsburgh takes on unsolved, real world mysteries — and just happens to be dominated by women.

Escaping Kakuma by Louis Bien, SB Nation
I hadn’t read an SB Nation feature in a while, so I sought this one out. It’s an up-close account of soccer in a refugee camp where the sport seems like the most likely route to a better life.

The teenage whaler’s tale by Julia O’Malley, High Country News
When a celebratory post following an Alaskan teen’s successful whale hunt goes viral, it draws much worse than criticism. This story shows the other side: life in a remote Alaskan village, the necessity of the hunt, and a glimpse of the hunter as a young man trying to find his way in the world.

What Goes Up: The daredevil, his helicopter, the risk of flying too high, and the birth of modern news by Jack Hitt, Epic
Epic is one of those publications that you can always count on to deliver well-written, designed, and produced stories that provide you, the reader, with a textured experience you’re unlikely to forget. This story might by my favorite on this list. There are layers, lots of moving people, compelling characters, and broader questions that left me pondering. Read it.

My Family’s Slave by Alex Tizon, The Atlantic
This is a must-read for 2017 (and had it been published earlier, it should have been required for 2016). The author, Alex Tizon, opens up about the woman his family kept as a slave since before he was born. There’s a complexity in this story that you don’t often find in pieces involving such black-and-white issues. Tizon draws out the gray areas in this particular case, without white-washing the wrong or making excuses for his family. Beautifully done.

The Improbable Life of Paula Zoe Helfrich by Julia Cooke, The Atavist
I’ve never been disappointed by an Atavist story (that’s why I bought their book for my birthday last year — highly recommend), and this one stuck to suit. Paula Zoe Helfrich is not a woman who can be reduced to a few lines or words. What’s true about her? What’s not? This story tries to figure those things out.

Book Review: Fighting for Life by S. Josephine Baker

Fighting for LifeFighting for Life by S. Josephine Baker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First of all, Sara Josephine Baker lived an incredible life. Second of all, she has a totally relatable way of sharing her story.

Originally published in 1939, this autobiography tells firsthand the story of a woman doctor (at a time when that brought strange looks) who engineered the saving of thousands of infant lives in New York City slums at the turn of the century and became the first woman to earn a Doctor of Public Health through the program at NYU (because, when she was asked to lecture in the program that only accepted men, she refused to do so unless she could also enroll for the degree, opening the door for other women to enroll as well).

I originally read an excerpted version of her memoir (in Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women <– highly recommend). I enjoyed the excerpted version so much, that I almost immediately ordered her book.

The beginning takes a little while to get into, but soon enough, you’re following her to New York as she enrolls in medical school and later sets up her own practice with a fellow woman doctor and then gets involved with preventive public health and on and on it goes, as she steps into different roles and situations and seeks to fill the gaps she finds.

Baker has a no-nonsense style to her writing. Don’t come to this book seeking lyrical prose or a literary masterpiece. Her writing flows, as if she’s sitting and talking with you, recounting her life. I learned a ton — about her, her work, and the world as it was back then (think, women’s suffrage, “little mothers,” Soviet Russia — oh, and baby care).

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone who enjoys learning, values the work of women in the world, and is curious about history.

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Book review: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Before the FallBefore the Fall by Noah Hawley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A private plane crashes in the middle of a short flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York City. Before the Fall tells the stories of the characters involved: the painter who survived, swimming the four-year-old child to safety; the flight attendant and the copilot; the media magnate and his political friend; the wife and mother, now survived by one child and a sister married to a struggling writer. This is a story told in scenes and glimpses. Hawley cuts back and forth through time and space, from character to character, weaving the complexity that, though fiction, is convincing enough that it could be reality. Why do accidents happen? Or do they? Is there truly such a thing as an accident? Was this plane crash intentional on some earthly or cosmic level?

I highly recommend this book. Hawley’s prose is textured with detail that paints vivid portraits of people and events without weighing down the story. Chapters vary in length, but all of them move quickly, and you’re left wondering, “What if …?” This was a book I had to discipline myself with late at night, forcing myself to stop and go to bed even though I could have kept reading and reading. I’m about to track down more books by Noah Hawley because one was definitely not enough.

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Good reads: Magazine pieces you shouldn’t miss

Every month, week, day, I’m adding more stories to my to-read list. Here are a few favorites from the past few months:

What Bullets Do to Bodies by Jason Fagone, Highline
An up-close portrait of the work of Dr. Amy Goldberg, a trauma surgeon in North Philly who’s seen more bullet wounds in the past 30 years than one person should see in a lifetime.

“Sometimes You Have to Build a Wall Around Your Heart” by Robert Sanchez, 5280
Denver is no better off than the rest of the country in terms of today’s opioid epidemic. 5280 staff writer Robert Sanchez introduces readers to those on the front lines trying to do something about it and others suffering from addiction. Key characters: Colorado state Representative Brittany Pettersen and her mother, a heroin addict.

In the Shadow of a Fairy Tale: On becoming a stepmother by Leslie Jamison, The New York Times Magazine
A thoughtful consideration of our cultural narrative about stepmothers, from a stepmother fighting desperately hard to be a good one. Beautiful writing. Thought-provoking essay.

The Mysterious Death of a Muslim Marine Recruit by Alex French, Esquire
Raheel Siddiqui joined the Marines to pursue better life for his family. Not even two weeks into basic training, he died from a fall that no one who knew him believes was suicide.

How Chobani’s Hamdi Ulukaya is Winning America’s Culture War by Rob Brunner, Fast Company
The story of Chobani’s founder, an immigrant entrepreneur whose company is making positive impact in the United States and around the world. (Full disclosure: I’m biased toward anything involving Chobani because it’s brought economic growth to Upstate New York, where I grew up.)

How the World’s Heaviest Man Lost It All by Justin Heckert, GQ
The title explains it. The writing makes it real. Read the story.

Can We “Cure” the Men Who Pay for Sex? by Brooke Jarvis, GQ
In King County, Washington, a state-funded program seeks to rehabilitate men, all based on the premise that the men’s twisted ideas of sex prevent them from having healthy romantic relationships with women.

How the National Park Service is failing women by Lindsey Gilpin, High Country News
An investigative account of sexism and misogyny at varying levels within the National Park service.

Dr. Death by Matt Goodman, D Magazine
The terrifying true story of a doctor whose years of malpractice took far too long to catch up with him. Crazy story.

Quotes from books I’ve read so far this year

“One friend with whom you have a lot in common is better than three with whom you struggle to find things to talk about.”

~ Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

“It is one of the tragedies of life that one cannot have all the wisdom one is ever to possess in the beginning.”

~ Zora Neale Hurston, Written by Herself

“There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.”

~ Zora Neale Hurston, Written by Herself

“I began to reflect upon life rather seriously for a girl of twelve or thirteen. What was I here for? What could I make of myself? Must I submit to be carried along with the current, and do just what everybody else did? No: I knew I should not do that, for there was a certain Myself who was always starting up with her own original plan or aspiration before me, and who was quite indifferent as to what people generally thought.”

~ Lucy Larcom, Written by Herself

“It was the ancient superstition that unhappiness resides in the country without, not within, and that one may cure a broken heart by a simple change of address.

~ Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow, Written by Herself

“To fall in love is very easy, even to remain in it is not difficult; our human loneliness is cause enough. But it is a hard quest worth making to find a comrade through whose presence one becomes steadily the person one desires to be.”

~ Anna Louise Strong, Written by Herself

“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom had pronounced necessary for their sex.”

~ Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

2017: Fresh year, fresh set of goals

Getting more sleep wasn’t one of my New Year’s resolutions, so here I am, starting this blog post at 10 p.m., the night before I have to go back to work.

December 31, 2016, after my nieces, brother, sister-in-law, and brother’s mother-in-law left me alone on the couch where I spent the last few nights of the year, I opened my journal and thought through 2016. I made a list of what I remembered in terms of significant moments, achievements, or events. I did my best to focus on the positives, what I did well, rather than where I embarrassed myself or didn’t do as much as I could.

A key lesson I learned in 2016 was to be kinder to myself.

I set the bar really high because I need to be challenged, but when I can’t jump high enough to reach it, my first instinct is to berate myself for not doing better. Guess what: berating doesn’t breed success, just bruises and less confidence.

I was encouraged by steps I made in my writing in 2016. In February, I did Figment’s daily writing challenge and, afterward, starting poking at a couple stories those prompts had started. I got back into journaling and saw distinct ways it improved my life and demeanor. I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time since 2008 — and successfully reached 50,000 words over thirty days.

Outside of writing, I traveled. To Boston. To Portland, Maine. To Turkey Run State Park in Indiana, where I hiked with friends and finally went camping. I was a surrogate aunt to my friends’ foster kids. I bought a mountain bike and bike rack and used them. I went rock climbing for the first time since high school. I finally started doing CrossFit. I successfully read the entire Bible over the course of the year. And, just this past week, I welcomed my new niece into the world.

Yeah, 2016 had bad things. And many of its bad things are continuing into 2017. But when it came to what I could control, in my personal life, it wasn’t all bad.

So what’s on my plate for 2017?

Just a few things:

  1. Go to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for this writing conference and stay a whole week to see the Tetons, etc.
  2. Successfully complete Creative Nonfiction’s Science Writing course.
  3. Diligently work on unnamed book-length work of fiction so I can spend November 2017 reading and self-critiquing.
  4. Read 30 books (minimum), including: Jane Eyre, The Book Thief, Blind Descent, Ashley’s War, Proust and the Squid, Moby Dick, The Other Slavery, Blood in the Water, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, The Underground Railroad, The Huntress: The Adventures, Escapades and Triumphs of Alicia Patterson, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I’m aiming for variety: classics, bestsellers (fiction and nonfiction), offbeat books on seemingly random topics.
  5. Get personal training certified with ACSM.
  6. Do some freelance writing and editing.
  7. Get a pull up by March, five by May, ten by August.
  8. Do topical Bible studies on justice, light and darkness, living water, and the heart.
  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.
  10. Play more classical compositions on piano. Progress in the more difficult keys.
  11. Go real camping (in a tent not surrounded by RVs and campers).

Why do I set so many goals for a year if I easily slip into berating myself for my failures?

Because without goals, I go about life aimlessly.

I’m someone who needs to regularly stop and consider her life. If I don’t — especially in this period of my adult life — I spend every day going through the motions and then when I do look back, I see a lot of wasted time. I don’t want to live haphazardly or accidentally. I want to live on purpose. Making goals and regularly checking in to see how I’m doing is key to keeping myself on track.

I’ve now written these goals in three different places and I’ve charted out what I’m aiming to tackle over the month of January. Which I’m already two days into. Which means now is probably the perfect time to sign off and try to get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be a busy day.

The burden of knowledge

I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank in school. I remember reading Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place and fictional stories set during the Holocaust like Number the Stars. I remember reading those things with the not-quite-fully-realized idea that the Holocaust was a real thing that happened to real people.

I distinctly remember Number the Stars and the Jewish girl staying with the non-Jewish family and, when the Nazis come, the family pulling out a photo album where they had photos of their older daughter as a child with dark hair like the Jewish girl’s.

I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank and being fascinated by the secret annex. I remember reading The Hiding Place and being stung when the Ten Booms were betrayed to the Nazis.

I haven’t read any of these books in more than ten years, but I remember them better than many of the books I’ve read since. They’re stories that simultaneously horrify and inspire. They leave readers both bewildered at the horrors carried out by humanity and empowered to stand in the way of such horrors should they ever come around again.

We’re living in a perplexing and, yes, bewildering time.

To only scratch the surface:

The city of Aleppo, Syria, has been the key battleground of the Syrian civil war for four years. President Assad’s Syrian regime is backed by Russia, which has routinely bombarded the city with no concern for civilian safety. November 19, it was reported that all hospitals had been destroyed. The civil war, which has been further complicated by Western involvement and ISIS, spawned the current refugee crisis, with hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing for their lives. It’s impossible to know how many civilians have been killed in Aleppo alone, but in April a special UN envoy estimated 400,000 Syrians have been killed during the civil war. That’s men, women, and children, not just rebel fighters.

To be clear: killing civilians is a war crime. It’s not war as usual (as if that should even be a thing).

In the meantime, the United States had a bizarre presidential election with results that, while they may not have been entirely surprising, have left many fearful. This was no normal Donkey-versus-Elephant election cycle. The republican candidate, now president-elect, neither holds conservative values (in terms of government, morals, or ethics), nor does he consistently stand on anything except his own ego. He harnessed the anger and frustration of a demographic that feels unheard and, even after winning, continues spewing baseless vitriol at anyone who dares challenge or disagree with him on his favorite of all social media platforms: Twitter. (Not to mention the regular untruths published by his team, like that he won the election by the greatest number of electoral votes ever. In case you were wondering: that’s not what happened.)

I won’t bother touching his despicable treatment of women, his sexual assault allegations, or his crooked business practices. Google exists for a reason.

Then, there’s all the racial tension, which has existed under the surface for decades but is now out in the open — both a good thing and a bad thing. Good because you can’t clean an infection if you don’t acknowledge it first. Bad because a certain president-elect has emboldened racist thought, speech, and action.

In college, I became a person who reads the news — or at least keeps up with it by following journalists and news organizations on Twitter.

This past year, I’ve found myself avoiding not just the news, but even longform stories about current events. Longform stories which I love reading, which I aspire to write, which I shared regularly on this blog on an almost biweekly basis not too long ago.

When the Syrian refugee crisis came to more mainstream attention last year, I felt personally connected to the issue because I had already read so much in-depth reporting on the people in those situations. Over the past year, as things escalated internationally and domestically (particularly with the election), I started feeling overwhelmed so I made an unconscious effort to be less informed. In other words, I started avoiding the news.

I don’t think that was right. It’s one thing to put down a book of history, like The Diary of Anne Frank or The Hiding Place, or a fictional story like Number the Stars, and move on with your life. It’s entirely different to decide to close yourself off to what real people are enduring in this world right now.

No, I can’t carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. No, I can’t solve the Syrian conflict or give a home to every refugee. No, I can’t keep the racists of America from abusing fellow image-bearers. No, I can’t make the president-elect a less despicable human being.

But I’m in this world right now. I was created for such a time as this. The reason may remain a mystery until my time here ends, but I know for a fact that I’m not on earth to cover my eyes when the wretchedness of this world spills over.

To him who knows to do good and does it not, to him it is sin. (James 4:17)

This is a verse I don’t think I’ll ever get past. It’s one that preaches to me about cleaning the recyclables and putting them in the bin instead of the trash. It’s one that gets me pushing the wandering grocery carts into the parking lot corral. It’s one that challenges me to stop avoiding certain people at church and work and in the gym.

Recently, this verse has been prodding me to stop closing the browser windows that are open to real things. Navigate away from the YouTube CrossFit tutorials. Don’t scroll past that article. Don’t just add it to your list. Stop. Click. Read.

In His first coming, Jesus announced His kingdom on earth:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19)

Christian theologians refer to the period we’re now in as the already-not-yet of God’s kingdom on earth. The Gospel is here, actively transforming lives, but justice and righteousness are not yet flowing as a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).

Before Jesus went to the cross, He prayed for His disciples:

I pray not that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil. (John 17:15)

Evil in this verse could be defined a number of ways. The “be careful little eyes what you see” interpretation might call it evil to seek out information about the world’s atrocities. There’s no argument that the atrocities themselves — governments slaying their own citizens, for example — are evil, but it is good to know what is happening in the world. Especially when it’s ugly. In fact, if anyone should know what’s going on in the world, it should be people whose hope is found elsewhere.

We’re not on earth to hold our breath waiting for life to get better. I wasn’t saved to live a comfortable life in a razor-free bubble of my own design. “With great power comes great responsibility,” and if I truly have God on my side, I have great power.

It’s a burden, knowing what’s happening on the other side of the world, feeling powerless to do anything about it.

A hundred years ago, our knowledge was limited by technology. One newspaper, maybe two. Radio programs. Television hadn’t been invented yet, much less computers. Now we’re carrying the world’s collective knowledge in our back pockets.

We could turn it off. I’m a staunch supporter of social media fasts. I grew up in a household without Internet that had regular no-screen weeks (usually as disciplinary measures). But if we’re turning it off to avoid discomfort, if we’re stepping back so we can get on with life as usual while people are being slaughtered in their hometown for no reason, while reporters are receiving death threats for asking challenging questions, while parents have no viable options for keeping their children safe from their own government, then our “fast” is just another exercise in selfishness.

To him who knows to do good and does it not, to him it is sin.

If I just hear about the ugliness in the world and shrug my shoulders, I am sinning. If I’m turning away from the news because it will awaken me to a responsibility — to pray, to give, to act — that I wouldn’t otherwise be aware of, then I am sinning.

To turn away from the ugliness of this world is to shirk my responsibility — not just as a citizen of this country and this earth, but also as a citizen of heaven. To hide my face from the brokenness that surrounds me is to fail to take up my cross and follow Christ, who left His heavenly home to be broken for me. And if I hide my face from the horrors of a land far away, what will I do when similar things come to the place I live?


Photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video via photopin (license)

What I don’t know

The biggest thing I’ve learned in the two-plus years since I graduated college is how little I know about, really, anything. And this isn’t meant to be self-deprecating. The world is just so big and old and complicated that what little bits I know are pinpricks of light on a canvas the size of the universe.

Take, for example, the realization that came to me during today’s workout:

All of the despicable things we heard Donald Trump say in that recording from 2005 — that is exactly the sort of talk and treatment that enslaved African-American women endured in silence from their owners. For centuries.

I knew about slave owners raping their female slaves, but I’d never thought of it in those terms before. And it took more than a week since hearing those comments to draw the connection between 21st century misogyny and historic brutality toward women legally rendered less than human. Suddenly, what those women endured is more real to me, more terrifying, more bewildering.

I tend to go through phases. I’ll create for a while, write a lot (relatively), squeeze out my soaked sponge on some small corner of the world. Then, I’ll withdraw — sometimes, out of fear that I’ll break something; sometimes, because I’ve run out of things to say. In all cases, because (whether I know it or not) I need to listen. I have so much more to learn than I have to teach.

Lately, I’ve been in sponge mode, trying to soak up as much as possible. Over the past month, I’ve subscribed to a minimum of two podcasts each week, signed up for so many TinyLetters and email newsletters that MailChimp makes me wait five minutes before subscribing again.

I’m immersing myself in information, some of it wrapped up in stories, narratives that flow beautifully from beginning to end, but just as much of it rendered loosely, unpolished. Most of the podcasts I’m listening to are conversations, ones I wish I could be part of. Much of what I’m reading is short, but thought-provoking. Much of it is opening doors into corridors I’ve hardly known were there.

Podcasts I’m listening to:

The Limit Does Not Exist: Dedicated to the intersections and overlaps of so-called right and left brain subjects and disciplines, this Forbes podcast places hosts Christina Wallace and Cate Scott Campbell in conversations with individuals whose lives and professions don’t fit in a tidy little box. Wallace and Campbell’s voices are sometimes too conscious of the microphone (that is, overly intoned), but it’s worth muscling through that audible discomfort to hear their conversations with people who can’t be limited to one adjective.

The Moth Podcast: Drawing stories from its live storytelling event series, The Moth Podcast is all true stories told by the people who lived them. They’re funny and shocking, heart wrenching and, at times (as all good stories are), uncomfortable. Not necessarily G-rated, but neither is life.

Kill Fee: Targeted toward writers who are trying to make it in the magazine world, especially as freelancers, Kill Fee is a new podcast by Jason Fagone, a freelance writer based in the Philadelphia area. Fagone interviews writers and editors with the goal of mining advice for those of us who have no idea how people actually write freelance for a living — and he doesn’t shy away from questions regarding dollars and cents.

Timothy Keller podcast: Listening to sermons as I make dinner is now a thing that I do (thanks, Mom). Timothy Keller is my favorite prominent pastor and the only one I listen to semi-regularly. He’s dedicated to orthodox Christianity, but not in a fundamentalist “I’m-right-you’re-wrong” way. His teaching brings fresh light to familiar Scripture passages, and he effectively employs cultural works (like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) to expound the text, while weaving in the full biblical story of redemption. (His books are pretty good, too.)

What I’m reading:

Crime Syndicate, a TinyLetter by Michelle Dean and Reyhan Harmanci: Crime Syndicate is a weekly newsletter that shares bizarre true crime stories that simultaneously make you wonder what the heck is this world I live in? and how do people get like that? and what would I be like if I were in their shoes? On the surface, the newsletter is just weird stories, but there’s more thought to it than that. You’ll learn things on a superficial, factual level, but if you allow a little reflection, you’ll also be pushed to acknowledge these criminals’ humanity. A TinyLetter is an email newsletter, so unless you subscribe to Crime Syndicate yourself, the only way you’ll be able to read it is if someone (like me) forwards it to you.

Adventuress, a TinyLetter by Rachel Syme: This one hasn’t really started, yet. Syme sent out the first one this week — a beautiful essay reflecting on our tendency to mythologize places and people and relationships, rather than facing the textured reality that they’re more complicated than that — but this isn’t what Syme plans the letter to be. The plan is for each edition to “romp through the life of a woman who is now dead.” My recommendation comes based on Syme’s writing in the first installment. Great sentences, unexpected but precise word choice. I’m excited to read more.

What I’ve read (outside of the longform/Good Reads vein):

Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.: How I’ve never read this until now, I have no idea. It should be required reading for anyone participating in the national conversation around race. I might start reading it on a yearly or semi-monthly basis. Martin Luther King Jr. . . . man, we’ve simplified him so much that the general understanding of him is nothing more than a stick figure drawing when propped up next to the real man. This letter is simultaneously a philosophical treatise, cultural commentary, core-shaking challenge, and work of art.

The Sentimentality Trap by Benjamin Myers: Along the same lines of oversimplifying things to make them easier to embrace, this essay incisively criticizes the flowery, easy artwork the Christian community too often applauds. “Forgetting the direction toward honesty, many Christians seem to believe that what Scripture means by ‘pure’ and by ‘lovely’ is merely the pleasant and the naive, the Hallmark Channel, not the reality of a world in need of redemption.”

Annotation Tuesday: Brooke Jarvis and “The Deepest Dig”: I recommended “The Deepest Dig” in a Good Reads post over a year ago, so this was fun. It’s an interview with Brooke Jarvis, who wrote The California Sunday Magazine piece, and it walks through the whole story, asking Jarvis about different aspects of the reporting and writing process. (And, even better, it’s part of an ongoing Nieman Storyboard series, with an interview like this published each week.)

What are you learning?

Photo credit: NGC-2174 in Multi-Band-Color Heritage via photopin (license)

Everyone Leaves Behind a Name: True Stories by Michael Brick

This past spring, I ordered a copy of Everyone Leaves Behind a Name after hearing about the book and its author, Michael Brick, on Gangrey: The Podcast. I frequently listen to podcasts like Gangrey, which interviews working narrative journalists, but this episode was different because instead of interviewing the headlining writer, all 51 minutes were a conversation about Brick between three other journalists.

Brick died of colon cancer in February. The Gangrey episode was done in his memory. Everyone Leaves Behind a Name is a collection of his work from places like The Dallas Morning NewsThe New York Times, and Harper’s. Proceeds from selling the book benefit Brick’s family.

A collection of true stories

brickAnthology became my favorite word when I learned it in grade school. The idea of a bunch of stories mashed together into one book so you could easily carry a bunch of quick reads got me excited the way some kids get about candy. Anthologies are now some of my favorite things.

Everyone Leaves Behind a Name stands apart from many anthologies because . . .

– it’s a collection of true stories
– many of which were written for daily newspapers and
– could have been super dry, boring news writing, but
– actually breathe life into their subjects and
– make the mundane and everyday somehow profound.

Brick’s heart aspiration was to write music and his sentences often feel more like lyrics than prose. I had to read slowly to make sure I actually comprehended his work, because the words would pick me up and go and I’d finish a piece dazzled but unaware what the story was actually about (the irony: wordlover comprehension problems).

The pieces vary in length, setting, and subject matter, but all of them reach past the surface-level events and personalities into bigger questions about life and what it means to be human on this crazy spinning ball. The writing is dense with meaning, so a coherent brain is necessary for full comprehension. If your brain is like that right before bed, go ahead and curl up with it. I quickly learned I needed to read it during daylight with as little distractions as possible. Otherwise, my attempts to read were just disrespectful Brick’s work.

Brick’s writing is distinct from anything else I’ve ever read. A lot of narrative nonfiction goes in and out of narration for short bits of reflection, but Brick’s wove reflection into everything. His keen observation, not only of sensory action but of profound contradictions and character complexity, was present in every paragraph and sentence. It made me wonder if I’m as observant as I think I am. Would I pick up on those things or would I be too busy with my head down taking notes?

If you’re a writer trying to find your way in the written world, Everyone Leaves Behind a Name should be added to your reading list. Here is a man who stepped into reporting completely green, learned the trade, and put his own beautiful spin on writing for a beat. As an anthology, the book doesn’t require a commitment. You can pick it up for a few minutes, put it down for a few weeks or months, come back to it and not have to catch yourself up. It’s not an easy read — like I said, dense with meaning — but it’s rich and interesting.

(My favorite piece is “The Big Race”, one of the longer works which starts on page 123.)