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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Review of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Add this thriller to the top of your list.

Rachel. Megan. Anna. They’re three women whose lives are woven together in known and unknown ways. Rachel is the divorcee of Tom. Anna is the homewrecker now married to Tom. Megan lives down the street from Rachel’s former and Anna’s current home. The train line cuts behind both houses, and it’s from the train that Rachel watches the life she wished was hers.

Until one day, Rachel sees Megan’s face in the paper. She’s missing.

Paula Hawkins’ debut novel landed #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for good reason. With simple language that firmly grounds you in the modern British setting and carries the story without unnecessary confusion, The Girl on the Train is a story that’s too frighteningly believable — and well worth your time.

Hawkins’ words don’t paint lush portraits or jump to poetic heights. They’re too busy drawing you close to the characters, especially Rachel whose perspective begins and ends the book. As you read, you immerse into the complexity that is a human being whose past she both regrets and can’t leave behind.

Girl on TrainYou won’t want to trust Rachel’s narration — she doesn’t even trust herself — but you will hold your breath and hope for her. You’ll grimace and groan when she messes up again. You’ll yell at her not to go back. You’ll care about her in spite of yourself, in spite of her.

The Girl on the Train is about assumptions. Assumptions and speculations that people make about others, especially when they see them from a distance, literally or figuratively. It’s about how our assumptions, and the hopes behind them, blind us to reality (at best) and put us in dangerous positions (at worst). Maybe we can trust ourselves, maybe we can trust others, but we can’t trust our assumptions or speculations.

The Girl on the Train is driven by the internal monologue of the three characters. Each chapter is from another woman’s perspective, with Megan’s set several months behind (made clear by a dateline at the beginning of the chapter).

The changing perspectives didn’t jar my experience, but it took me forever to keep the men straight: is Scott the one Rachel was married to? Or was that Tom? I have a ridiculously hard time remembering character names and I blame my ongoing confusion on them both having one-syllable names with an “O” in the middle. (It’s a decent excuse.)

That’s my main complaint, though. In the future, I’d hope Hawkins would work toward more depth and complexity in her male characters and more emotional strength in her female characters, but the characters in The Girl on the Train only bothered me at the level they were supposed to. I hated who I was supposed to hate, and I liked who I was supposed to like.

The book isn’t super quotable, but I copied down these lines near the beginning. They’re both from Rachel’s perspective:

“I have never understood how people can blithely disregard the damage they do by following their hearts. Who was it [that] said that following your heart is a good thing? It is pure egotism, a selfishness to conquer all.” p. 31

“I will never begrudge him happiness — I only wish it could be with me.” p. 43

Who’s this book appropriate for?

I’d set it at 17+. It’s written for adults and has some sexual content that, while not being explicit or gratuitous, I wouldn’t want my 15-year-old self (or my 15-year-old sister, for that matter) reading. I’d recommend it to both men and women, because the story itself could spark a lot of introspection in both parties, but it might be too emotionally driven for the stereotypical man to be interested.

8 writing lessons I (re)learned through revision

I spent the majority of this week and last wrangling a story. The first 1,600-word draft — written to follow an outline I thought was solid and completed at approximately 6:30 p.m. last Friday (that’s 1.5 hours late to the weekend) — read like a list of events. No emotion, no thought progression. Just, this happened, then this happened, then this happened, then this, and then they got a cool letter. The end.

I’m not sure if the three-day weekend (Happy belated Memorial Day!) helped or hindered the revision process. I returned to the office on Tuesday, looked over Friday’s draft, heard Peter Parker’s editor in my head:

Megacrap
Spider-Man (2002)

And decided to trash it. Back to the drawing boards.

(Almost literally, actually, since my first outline evolved out of a color-coded mess of whiteboard notes.)

Here’s what I (re)learned through this particularly frustrating revision process:

1. If you begin in the wrong place, nothing about the draft will seem right.

When I sat down to write from my new outline, I realized my planned beginning was still wrong (cue fists slamming on the desk) and I couldn’t write anything else until I got that right.

Writing tips for when you're stuck on a story

One of my most-used pieces of writing advice (courtesy of Sarah Dessen) is:

When you’re stuck on a story, go back to the last place things were going well and take a different course.

I apply this to nonfiction on a regular basis and, when I can identify the stuck spot and devise an alternate route, it works like a charm. With this piece, devising an alternate route took more effort than usual, but once I figured it out, the wheels on the bus went round and round and the story got moving.

2. Be willing to go back to square one. 

I was annoyed that I’d written nearly 2,000 words of what I thought was unusable draft, and I was immensely frustrated that I had to outline all over again.

Once I have an outline, I’m usually convinced I have the story figured out. In this case, I was wrong and I was convinced I’d have to trash the entire draft.

But when I re-outlined and started writing, I found that I was wrong again: a lot of what I’d already written was usable — it just needed more narrative around it, more actual storytelling instead of just rehashing events.

Embrace the process. Go back to square one.

3. Get up close with your notes.

If you don’t know which page to flip to for that one quote or anecdote, you haven’t studied your notes enough.

I have this tendency — when a story involves talking to a lot of people at different times about the same thing — to think I know the material inside-out after I transcribe the interviews and read through, highlight, color-code my notes once. This tendency, I’m learning, is actually laziness I have to fight for the quality and integrity of my work.

I need to be as familiar with those notes as I am with my Bible.

When a quote comes to mind that could fit in this section about people’s perceptions of prison inmates, I need to know exactly where in my notes I can find it. If no quotes are coming to mind, I have a lot more studying to do.

4. Take the time to narrow your notes down, so you have a more concise reference that is tightly focused around the same things your story is focused on.

When you’re working with pages and pages of notes, it’s easy to get so overwhelmed by the information, you lose sight of the story.

When I sat down on Tuesday, I opened my notes — on paper and the same document on my computer — and, as I read through them, I copied and pasted what related to my story into a new document. This cut my active notes in half.

Doing this for investigative journalism will be more complicated, of course, but the principle holds regardless of what type of story you’re writing:

Cut your notes down to what is related to the story.

Remove anything you know you won’t use. If you’re so overwhelmed that you have no idea what you will or will not use, keep studying your notes and question whether or not you’ve done enough research.

5. Be patient, but keep pushing.

It’s okay to show signs of exasperation.

Examples:

  • Slamming your hands on your desk
  • Muttering, You have got to be kidding me!
  • Crumbling every sheet of paper you’ve written on in pursuit of this story. Okay. Maybe don’t do that.

But whatever you do — unless you happen to be a verbal processor, which is rare for writers — don’t vent to people.

Venting turns into talking as if you hate the work. You don’t hate the work. You’re just frustrated that it’s not going smoothly. Channel your frustration into the work, and eventually things will move the way they should, even if the movement is slow and clumsy.

6. Kill your darlings. Or at least be willing to.

If you’re a writer, you’ve heard this advice countless times. Like most cliches, it’s been repeated over and over because it’s right.

When a draft is under revision, everything’s on the chopping block. In order to stay, it has to prove it belongs. If a beautiful line, scene, description, word, gets in the way of the story, the only choice is to cut it.

If it’s any comfort, remember this: being willing to cut something — laying that beautiful line on the chopping block — doesn’t mean it will actually be cut in the end. When my new draft started flowing, I was thrilled to discover that a scene I thought I’d lose actually got to stay (points if you can correctly identify it).

7. Keep pushing.

I repeat myself, because the push is a necessary part of the struggle. Without it, you’re not struggling, you’re accepting defeat.

If writing is your job (like it is for me — one post-college life win!), accepting defeat makes you a bad employee. If writing’s not your job, it just makes you a bad writer. Which if you’re actually a writer, you are not okay with. So push on.

8. When you finish the piece to satisfaction (which you will), celebrate the way writers do.

Read. Subscribe to another magazine. Buy a load of books off Amazon. Search for your next story.

And if you need some weekend reading, check out the piece that in some backhanded way inspired this blog post:

Five Thursdays in Prison

This spring, six exercise science students and their professor traveled to New Castle Correctional Facility to gather data for a research project. They left with more than numbers.

Comment if you find the scene I was afraid I’d lose — or if you have writing lessons of your own to share.

Photo credit: Notebook via photopin

Good Reads: Mental illness, segregation, and daredevils

This post is part of a series recommending longform, narrative nonfiction (as well as other worthwhile writings).

The Real Story of Germanwings Flight 9525 by Joshua Hammer, GQ

Mental illness and airline pilots. I recently wrote a story about Taylor University’s Ethics Bowl team, and this was one of the ethics bowl cases. You see, if a pilot is honest about his struggles with mental illness, he’s likely to lose his job. But if he’s silent about it and goes untreated, he could go the way of Andreas Günter Lubitz, the young pilot who crashed Germanwings Flight 9525 into the Alps on March 24, 2015. This piece traces the story of the crash and introduces you to the other individuals impacted by the tragedy.

Mustang Green, Part One: A Season of Hope in a Segregated City by Michael Graff, Charlotte Magazine

The first of a three-part series, this piece introduces the main characters in the real life setting of high school football in a diverse — racially and economically — southern town. I’m a big fan of football movies. I just rewatched We are Marshall, and I practically have Remember the Titans memorized. The best football (and just sport) movies aren’t really about the sport — they’re about the characters. The sport is just a vehicle to get those characters moving. It’s a lot easier to write a story about events than it is to write one about characters and the depth of their emotions and struggles. It’s clear in this first part of the series, though, that the characters are what Graff is focusing on. Part Two builds on Part One.

This Will End Well: Our greatest daredevil stares down middle age by Katherine Laidlow, The Walrus

Will Gladd is an adventurer, a climber, a risk taker. He thrives on challenges, both physical and mental. Now, he’s staring a new one: age. It’s not common for individuals his age to still carry sponsorships up the side of cliffs. But he is. And he’s not planning on stopping anytime soon.

Photo Credit: Swiss alpine panorama I via photopin (license)

Good Reads: Life and death on the high seas

This post is part of a series recommending writing you should read — especially nonfiction.

Good writing can transport you to any time or place so seamlessly that you feel like you were actually there, actually experiencing those things. Since I learned to read at five years old, doing phonetic worksheets to a cassette tape in the kitchen and watching countless episodes of Come Read with Me, I’ve marveled at the ability of compiled shapes on a page to take me places I’ve never been.

Places like the high seas.

For some reason, I’ve always been drawn to nautical tales like Moby Dick and Treasure IslandTen Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was one of my favorite books in ninth grade and then, of course, there are the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, among various other seafaring films.

So when I found out about Nathaniel Philbrick’s book about the historical events that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick, In the Heart of the Sea quickly rose to the top of my reading list.


I would not classify In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex as narrative nonfiction — though the book is written well and it does follow the basic arc of a story. In the Heart of the Sea is very much a historical account. Philbrick goes into detail about the whaling industry, the growth of Nantucket, and various scientific and historical realities that relate to what the men of the Essex experienced before and after the whale plowed into their ship. It’s a dense book — there’s a lot of information to digest — but it’s not a long, slogging read. Philbrick’s writing keeps things pacing ahead.

Where In the Heart of the Sea falters are the places Philbrick takes editorial tangents. He at times overplays the contrast of Nantucketers as peace-loving Quakers on land and bloodthirsty killers at sea. He projects a twenty-first century sensibility on an island’s historical means of economic survival, which to me undercuts his credibility as a historian. (This treatment of cultures that kill animals to survive is, of course, nothing new.) This also doesn’t give the readers enough credit — we would make the connection ourselves as long as the contrast was demonstrated clearly enough. Part of the joy of reading is making connections the author intended you to make without the author telling you to make them.

On a five-star scale, I’d give In the Heart of the Sea three and a half stars, because the writing is solid and the subject matter is interesting. But if you’re looking for a book to send you on a journey, I’m not sure this one will do the trick. It’s more history than human narrative.


For more of a narrative experience, I recommend:

The Sinking of the Bounty by Matthew Shaer, The Atavist Magazine

This piece tells the true story of the Bounty, a real ship modeled after an 18th century ship by the same name (Mutiny on the Bounty ring any bells?), which sunk in the Atlantic during Hurricane Sandy. Tracing the steps and missteps of captain and crew, Shaer paints a vivid account of what happened bolstered by the backstory of ship and shipmates.

Have you read any nautical writing lately?

Good Reads: Pieces from 2015 that are still worth your time

This post is part of a series recommending longform, narrative nonfiction (as well as other worthwhile writings).

I know it’s already February and there are plenty of pieces with a 2016 timestamp to read and recommend, but here are a few pieces I read toward the end of last year that are each significant or touching in their own ways:

Unfollow: How a prized daughter of Westboro Baptist Church came to question its beliefs by Adrian Chen, The New Yorker

Megan Phelps-Roper used to man Westboro Baptist Church’s Twitter account. She was the teenager at the helm of the hate-spewing, so-called congregation’s online megaphone to the rest of the world. That’s where she began questioning what she’d been taught.

As a Christian who does not believe Westboro preaches the truth of the Gospel, it was hard for me to read this piece and see that Megan’s understanding of Scripture is still the twisted interpretation she was taught growing up — she no longer believes that interpretation is right, but that’s still what she thinks the Bible teaches. Still, reading about how she ended up leaving Westboro is powerful. It makes you wonder, if I were in a similar situation, would I have the courage to jump off the bandwagon?

What would cool Jesus do? by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, GQ

This piece is an upclose look at Hillsong NYC, the church whose pastor Justin Bieber spent several weeks with. The church known for its Millennial crowd of “hipster Christians”. It’s an upclose look, but it’s an outsider’s perspective. The author is a non-practicing Jew who doesn’t really claim any religion. Through the piece, the reader gets a peek at not only Hillsong, its pastor, and its mission, but also a peek into the author’s life, as her process of uncovering the story forces her to reflect on her own beliefs.

Contrast Study by Leslie Kendall Dye, Vela

The title of this piece really sells it short — but pay attention while you read, because the title is more profound than you might assume. This piece is beautifully written in the first person and it’s about (basically) the author handling her mother’s dementia. There’s a lot more going on, but I don’t want to spoil it. Just read it. It’s worth your time.

One brief tangent: I keep track of what I’m reading (and liking) with the Pocket app. I have the app on my phone and the plugin attached to my computer browser. When I find something I want to read, but don’t have enough time to read it now, I save it to my Pocket for later. And then I read it later.

Apparently, I did this a lot last year because Pocket told me I was in the top 1% of their readers. Which is, you know, pretty cool. See the best of what I read last year.

Photo Credit: Reading the TV novels summary via photopin (license)