Let’s Get Radical by Having a Civil Conversation

With this post, I am going to attempt the impossible: Deliver a constructive opinion that everyone can support. I hope the message is clear, rational and agreeable. However, what I write here also might make some people uncomfortable. That is far from my intention. I will not be taking any sides on political issues. Some people will have a problem with that. All I ask is that you read the entire post.

American culture has become one of hardline stances. In the fall of 2018, I attended the popular Digital Summit in Detroit, a congregation of hundreds of digital marketers. One of the presenters said that as a brand, you need to take a stance. “If you are for something,” he said, “then you are against something else.” I can’t deny that the thought of living in a simple, black-and-white world would be far preferable to the type of senseless, unreasonable chaos where we currently live. Unfortunately, that is not the reality. Our world is gray. It always has been and it will continue to be.

But because of our tendency to take these hardline stances, we have stopped listening to one another. I see it every day. Videos posted online showing two parties trying to out-shout each other. A Facebook rant that ends with, “If you don’t agree, you can unfriend me.” Social media companies building in a feature to “unfollow” or “mute” other accounts, so as not to hurt feelings while building your echo chamber of likemindedness. The internet is a good place to shout into the void.

The solution, of course, is as simple as the problem itself: Rather than argue, or debate, or even come to physical violence, just listen to one another. Don’t talk over someone else — that’s a bad habit that I see everywhere now, even between people who are in agreement on an issue. When other people are stating their feelings, don’t spend your time crafting your rebuttal in your head. Listen to what they are saying. Try to understand why they feel the way they do.

Ready for the radical part? Not everyone who disagrees with the Black Lives Matter movement is racist. It’s possible to think that the movement is misguided. If you disagree, find someone who thinks this way and ask them for their opinion. Not to try to shame them or label them. To understand why they feel that way.

To that same tune, just because someone says “black lives matter” does not mean that they are demeaning the lives of other races or creeds. If you disagree, if you think that saying “black lives matter” is merely a shrouded political statement for an ulterior agenda, then talk to someone who is saying it and try to understand why they feel the way they do.

I realize that saying all of this can seem self-righteous to some. Who I am, after all, to sit at my computer and peck out some words about how everyone is crazy and how I have the key to a more peaceful future? Of course I do not believe that I somehow am more enlightened than the rest of the country. But perhaps if you take the time to read my thoughts you will have a better understanding for why I feel the way I do.


What do I have to gain from writing about this? What’s the benefit? The risks are great these days. Risk ridicule. Risk losing readership. Risk people disregarding your authority on any other issue. Risk being labeled by those in disagreement. Sadly, risk alienating yourself in certain personal relationships.

But if this post positively changes the actions of just one reader, I will consider it a success. Reason and sensibility are missing in the United States in 2020, to be frank. Over the last three decades, the country has become progressively more polarized politically. During that time, according to Pew Research, “The share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled.” The percent of each party that views their rivals as a threat to the nation’s well-being also continues to rise.

But civil conversations can move us forward.

As part of our pre-marriage classes that our church required us to take, my wife and I met with a communications specialist. I expected this evening session to be centered around our faith, but it surprised me to learn just how practical it was. “You two are going to disagree,” the instructor stated obviously. “But you have to have good communication if you want to have a happy marriage.”

He had us practice an exercise where one of us spoke for two minutes about our feelings on a topic while the other just listened. When the two minutes were up, the other had to summarize what they had said. And then we switched roles. There was no debate. There was no argument. There was only listening and trying to understand. From there, you can begin to formulate a sensible path forward toward resolution together.

One of the dangers of close-mindedness is its ability to cloak itself in open-mindedness. I know some people who whole-heartedly believe they are some of the most open-minded individuals around. But being open-minded means having a willingness to embrace all ideas, not just those with which you agree. This close-mindedness leads to more of the same unproductive tendencies: ignorance, labeling, generalizations.

I spoke with someone last year who said she had been to my hometown. Not realizing at the time that I lived there, she made the statement that “the worst people live in [that town].” I asked her what happened that made her feel that way, and she said she couldn’t even talk about it. Surely whatever happened was traumatic. But let me point out the danger of her generalization. This perpetuates untruths that lead to more untruths. Ignorance breeds ignorance. Generalizations lead to all liberals being labeled as socialists and all people who voted for Trump being labeled as racists. They are unproductive and destructive.

Had my conversation with her about my town continued, what I would have said was that anecdotal evidence should not be used to judge an entire population. And, if you disagree, then use this bit of anecdotal evidence instead: All of our interactions have been very pleasant and I live in that town, so next time you can say “some great people live in [that town].”

The fact of the matter is that people look for information that supports their existing worldview. This is human nature. The open-mindedness that is constantly preached from both sides of the aisle is far less abundant than they would let you believe. If this weren’t true, we wouldn’t be so polarized. This is the same in real life as it is in marketing, since marketing just attempts to take advantage of existing worldviews for financial benefit.

Seth Godin, famed marketer and bestselling author, explains this in his book All Marketers Are Liars. While the title is ironic — with the primary message that marketers should in fact tell the truth in compelling ways — he also writes extensively about how people gravitate towards brands whose marketing reinforces their existing worldview. We don’t necessarily believe the truth, but rather “We believe what we want to believe.”

If that doesn’t scare you, it should.


A few weeks ago I received a text from a friend with a link to a new episode of Sam Harris’s “Making Sense” podcast. The episode was called Can We Pull Back From the Brink? and it discussed the state of our country with the protests and civil unrest. In the text, my friend called it “probably the most important podcast episode released this year.” Naturally I listened to it. And then the next day, I listened to it again. And I’ve since read the entire transcript. What it does better than anything else I have read or listened to in recent memory is provide clarity to our irrationality. It’s sensible.

Harris begins by acknowledging where we are as a society. He sums it up nicely:

“We appear to be driving ourselves crazy. Actually, crazy. As in, incapable of coming into contact with reality, unable to distinguish fact from fiction—and then becoming totally destabilized by our own powers of imagination, and confirmation bias, and then lashing out at one other on that basis.”

Throughout the episode Harris asks important questions, such as:

Is this a profound moment of human bonding that transcends politics, or is it the precursor to the breakdown of society?

How representative are these [social media] videos of what’s actually going on? Is there much less chaos actually occurring than is being advertised to us?

What should we do to build a healthier society?

Why is all of this happening now? 

What would real progress on the problem of racism look like?

Can [racial difference] become less significant by being granted more and more significance?

Why do I bring this up? Because the questions he asks about race relations in America can be applied to any social or political difference. At the end of the podcast, he sums up the point I am trying to make nearly perfectly:

We have to pull back from the brink here. And all we have with which to do that is conversation. And the only thing that makes conversation possible is an openness to evidence and arguments—a willingness to update one’s view of the world when better reasons are given. And that is an ongoing process, not a place we ever finally arrive.


I was raised to understand that there are two sides to every story. That doesn’t mean that both sides are right; sometimes one side is in the wrong. But it’s important to understand the full story before jumping to conclusions. For some reason, we believe we have the right to judge one another based on anecdotal evidence. I want to challenge this practice. Ask questions. Be able to understand the full picture before we become so outraged that our anger blinds us to reality. Once the anger takes over, reasonability is lost.

Encourage people who think differently from you to express their opinions. The next time someone presents an opposing viewpoint, do not judge them. Ask questions. Have a civil conversation. Do not debate them; you are more than likely not going to sway their opinion, just like you know that they likely will not sway yours. But perhaps you can understand one another. That is the only way forward as I see it.

This message I am trying to communicate is not meant to be political. It’s far from radical. Problems have never been solved by shouting into a void. But the internet is good for that. Perhaps I should have learned from my own lesson.


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5 Recent Movies About Authors That All Writers Should Watch

As a writer, you should focus on reading books. Reading well helps you to become a better writer. But sometimes we need to change up the medium. And what better way to recharge from the page than with an engaging film. There are so many great movies that all writers should watch.

I’ve spent a lot of time watching films, having worked in the entertainment industry for a few years and simply being a fan of the screen. But not every movie leaves you thinking, wondering, motivated to go out and create your own art. It takes a special film to do that.

Now, there are plenty of film adaptations of great books—To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great GatsbyThe Shawshank Redemption, to name a few—but that’s not what I was looking for with this list. That could be an entirely separate list altogether. No, these are movies, all fairly recent, that left me thinking, simply, “I need to sit down at my computer and write.”

Honorable Mentions:

Movies that were close, but didn’t quite crack the Top 5 include The Ghost Writer, Papa Hemingway in Cuba and Stranger Than Fiction. All worthy films about writing. Now, let’s get to the list.

5. Spotlight

I know it’s about journalists and not novelists, but writing is writing. There’s a reason this film won Best Picture—it’s powerful and shows the vital importance of investigating a story and telling it accurately.

4. Genius

This biopic explores the life of Thomas Wolfe and his relationship with famed Scribner editor Maxwell Perkins. It takes you back into the 1920’s and 30’s publishing world of New York, and it makes you appreciative of the value a good editor brings to the table.

3. The Words

A story inside a story inside a story. This is just a plain good writing movie. When the world rejects your work, what are you willing to do to make your dreams a reality?

2. Midnight in Paris

This 2011 film feels like a classic from the get-go. Owen Wilson is a screenwriter who is trying to make the leap into the world of literature with a new novel. While on vacation in Paris, he meanders the streets late at night and in a strange twist of magic, he ends up alongside literary icons such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein.

1. Salinger

To put it simply, no film has inspired me more to be a writer. First of all, J.D. Salinger as a man is an incredibly interesting story. The trauma he faced in his younger years, his perseverance in the literary world, and then the instant phenomenon with The Catcher in the Rye—and then to virtually disappear.

Salinger is unlike the other movies on this short list. It is not fiction and it’s not a biopic. This is a two-hour documentary that makes you think how unbelievably brilliant—and a little nuts—you have to be to write something like Catcher. But it leaves you understanding that, aside from the fame and the book signings and the royalty checks, the most important aspect of being a writer is staying true to the work.

For a biopic version of this movie, check out the 2017 movie The Rebel in the Rye.


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What makes a book a Great American Novel?

The elusive Great American Novel. You’ve heard the term. What does it mean to you? A masterful book by an American author? A story that tells a relatable tale to any American? A novel that holds a mirror up to current American culture with precision?

A while back, I read an article in the New York Times called “Why There’s No ‘Millennial’ Novel.” The main argument, it seemed, was that America has become such a progressive and diverse country that there is no single voice that can speak for an entire generation. The author, Tony Tulathimutte, first argues that “the ‘voice of a generation’ novel never existed to begin with,” and then asks the question, “why did we ever pretend novels by straight white guys about straight white guys spoke for entire generations?”

I believe this is a gross oversimplification.

During the second semester of my junior year at the University of Michigan, I took a class from Jeremiah Chamberlin called Rust Belt Narratives. It seemed appropriate for a student interested in both literature and the Midwest. Over the course of the semester we read books that explored the industrial cities in the Rust Belt and their histories, triumphs and downfalls. These were the cities that I knew, such as Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

I have to hand it to Professor Chamberlin, the books he chose for the course were thought-provoking. One in particular spoke to me. It was a debut novel from a relatively unknown author. I wasn’t sure what to think of it at first, with its stream-of-consciousness style, but as I dove deeper into it, Philipp Meyer’s American Rust proved to be an exceptional work.

At its core, American Rust tells the story of several characters in the crumbling fictional steel town of Buell, Pennsylvania, in the aftermath of the declining manufacturing industry in the United States. There was something more to it, though. It created an empathy for the characters, as if you were reading a nonfiction book about what used to make America so great. It was heartbreaking and at the same time mesmerizing.

Less than a year after that course, I heard that Meyer was publishing his second book, The Son, a multi-generational epic that traces one family’s history from 2012 back into the mid-nineteenth century. The book explores the “creation myth” of America, as Meyer puts it, in telling about the anglo conflict with Mexico and the Comanche, as well as the coming to power in the Texas oil industry.

I had high expectations for this second book. It did not disappoint. All it did was go on to become a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. There was so much detail, but unlike many novels where the detail seems to serve only for convincing the reader that the author actually did research before writing, this detail never distracted from the story. You felt like you understood what life was like living in Texas in the early twentieth century. You understood what it was like to be part of a Comanche tribe in the mid-nineteenth century. You understood the blessings and struggles of a family graced with fortune and inflicted with pain. It told, in a nearly 200-year history, what it takes to live the American Dream and what comes after it’s been achieved.

So what constitutes a Great American Novel? It isn’t an exact science. General consensus sees it as an American novel that accurately captures and examines a unique American cultural experience. Novels such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird have long been considered Great American Novels.

I would like to add two novels to the list: Philipp Meyer’s American Rust and The Son. There is a depth to his novels that cannot be ignored. He captures the place. He captures the people, and the culture, and the language, and most of all the important issues that have helped make America — for better or worse — what it is today.

Good luck on novel number three, Mr. Meyer.

Now, I don’t believe setting the goal of writing the next Great American Novel is particularly productive for a writer. After all, it’s not like a certain number of criteria can be met and therefore your work is deemed worthy. At the end of the day, the distinction is still a matter of opinion. But for those authors who have made the dynamic list, we should all tip a cap to the insight, passion and talent with which they wrote.


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What are the benefits (and cons) of using a pen name?

How many times have you seen a book and thought, is that the author’s real name? And why, if it’s not, would they decide to use a pseudonym for publishing? What’s the advantage to doing that?

If you’re an author, the strategy has likely crossed your mind at some point. It has certainly crossed mine: Should I change my name when I publish this book?

The notion of using a pseudonym — or a pen name, or a nom de plume — is nothing new. Authors have been doing it for as long as words have been written. (Do we really know who Shakespeare was?) Then there was Samuel Clemens, or should I say Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, or more famously Mark Twain — the final pen name coming from years of working on a riverboat on the Mississippi. Or how about some current famous authors who have written under phony names — J.K. Rowling, Stephen King and Nora Roberts all come to mind.

Rowling, as you may know, has recently published multiple adult mystery novels under the name Robert Galbraith. King, one of the greatest horror novelists of all time, penned a series of short books under the name Richard Bachman in the beginning of his career. And Roberts, a romance writer, has used multiple pseudonyms over the course of her career, most notably J.D. Robb.

But the point here is not the fact that authors choose to use alternative names in their publishing, but why? What are the advantages — and disadvantages — to using a pen name? Are there clear benefits? Here I list some pros and cons to using a pseudonym.


ADVANTAGES OF USING A PEN NAME

1. Creating an author brand

Some authors know their genre from the very start of their careers, but others dabble in two, three, sometimes four genres before ultimately deciding to be a multi-genre writer or settle into their strongest. Regardless, it’s rare (though not unheard of) for one author name to appear on books in multiple genres. This is where the branding aspect of pen names comes in.

In order to establish brand consistency, credibility and trust with readers, it can be advantageous for writers to publish in different genres using different names. This is much the route that J.K. Rowling went after the Harry Potter series when she wanted to write mystery novels.

QUICK READ: 5 Books About Writing That Will Make You a Better Writer

Another good example is a guy many outside the state of Michigan may not know: Christopher Wright, or should I say Christopher Knight, or Johnathan Rand. Under the surname Knight, Wright publishes his adult novels, and he uses Johnathan Rand while publishing his famous American Chillers and Michigan Chillers books for kids.

Does this sound like you? Want to bounce between romance and children’s books? Mysteries and literary fiction? It may be wise to look into a pen name (or two).

2. The ability for a “fresh start”

Write a bland first novel? Or maybe it flopped altogether, garnering less-than-desirable reviews and seemingly derailing a writing career before it begins?

A pseudonym can be a great way to hit the reset button on your career.

Look, not all authors strike it big with their first novels. For that matter, many debut books are nothing to write home about. But just like with any other career, you build upon your strengths and eliminate your weaknesses over time, on your way to developing more and more skills in the trade.

QUICK READ: How Busy People Can Find More Time to Read

One poor performance shouldn’t discourage you from pursuing your passion. Leave the last book in the past and start fresh with a nom de plume.

3. Providing a disguise

When you decide to publish a book, the process goes from private writing to very public reading. Not all authors want their true identity to be known, to put it plainly. There are many reasons: maybe you’re shy, or are worried about your friends and family reacting to your work, or maybe you want to keep your personal life and writing life separate.

It’s all valid. How many erotica authors use their real names? A few, maybe?

Some authors also want to conceal their true identity simply to eliminate another factor of judgement from readers. It’s well known that J.K. Rowling used initials (though the ‘K’ isn’t actually her initial), rather than her first name, when first publishing Harry Potter because she (and her publisher) didn’t want people to judge her work as a female writing about a male character. That’s not to say people are right for making those judgments, but rather than fighting back it may be easier to use a pseudonym and focus on the writing.

And though rarer, it works the other way as well — if a male writer wants to gain more credibility with his readers when using a female main character in his work, he could choose to use initials in his pen name to take the gender issue off the table completely.

In the end it’s about the work, isn’t it? And a nom de plume is a way to let that be the focus of any book.

4. To write more

Isn’t every writer looking for an opportunity to write more? Sure you are.

This advantage isn’t as prominent as the others, but sometimes when authors crank out books too often, readers begin to get weary about the quality of the work or the intentions of the author — mainly, is he or she just trying to make more money by producing more books?

Back at the beginning of Stephen King’s career, it wasn’t widely accepted in the publishing industry for one author to release multiple books per year, and so in order to produce more writing he was forced to take up a pen name.

Times have changed, of course, and some authors today can publish many books per year. Just look at James Patterson and Danielle Steel. But in order to avoid some of the criticism that comes with that type of “book factory,” it may be to your advantage to use a pen name.


DISADVANTAGES OF USING A PEN NAME

1. Keeping voices straight

Using multiple pen names for publishing across genres can be strategic, but be careful about losing your voice as a writer. This is probably a disadvantage for writing in multiple genres in general, regardless of whether you use different pseudonyms or not.

QUICK READ: 3 simple tips for writing around a busy schedule

In today’s publishing world, you no longer only communicate with readers through the pages in your book. There’s social media, publicity appearances and interviews. Being able to maintain your unique voice while switching between writing identities can be challenging.

Is it impossible to do? No way. But it will be one obstacle to overcome.

2. Twice the identities, twice the marketing

You work hard to write your books, but unfortunately they don’t sell themselves. As the book is being published, it requires a marketing push. It shouldn’t matter what your pen name is, right, because each book still requires a marketing campaign?

Well, the beauty about developing a writing career is that you can build upon each release with larger readership. The marketing, just like your writing, should grow over time as you gain readers. But when you split your writing between two pen names — two writing identities, essentially — it requires creating multiple reader bases.


When it comes time to publish, you need to do what’s best for you as an author. Sometimes it’s just a preference. Do any of the reasons mentioned above hit home particularly hard for you? If so, maybe there’s now a reason to use (or not use) a pseudonym with your next book.

People will try to take it, but only you should have total control over your career. Make the best decision possible about using a pen name and enjoy the ride.


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Read These 5 Books About Writing to Become a Better Writer

If you are anything like me, you are constantly looking for ways to become a better writer. You may turn to advice from successful writers. Or watch movies about writing. Or strategize your day to allow for more writing time. In the end, though, one of the best ways writers can improve is to read more.

Reading any type of book can help you become a better writer. If you’re a fiction writer, read more fiction (it sounds obvious, but far too few writers actually prioritize reading). If you write non-fiction, pick up a new book on history (or, heck, diversify and read a mystery novel — it won’t hurt!).

One thing I have prioritized in recent years was ensuring I was consistently exposing myself to more books about writing, usually written by successful authors.

The short list below are suggestions, based on books about writing that I have read over the last few years, that I believe will help make you a better writer.

On Writing by Stephen King

First up is the obvious book that every “books about writing” list includes, so I figured I would get it out of the way early. Plainly, if you have never picked up Stephen King’s On Writing and you consider yourself to be a writer, this needs to be your new weekend plans. Considered by many to be essential reading for any writer, in fewer than 300 pages King details his own path to writing success and offers invaluable advice across the craft, from his own reading suggestions to grammar tips.

Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann

Shamefully, I will admit that (at the time of this writing) I have never read one of Colum McCann’s novels. However, that did not stop me from ordering and reading this short, handy guide for writers. Written in a series of short (like, usually two or three pages) pieces of advice, he touches on everything from creating characters to writing dialogue to the importance of a good editor. One of my personal favorites was his suggestion to always read your writing aloud, for it may impact your words to hear them spoken.

Probably his best advice: “Just keep your arse in the chair. Arse in the chair. Arse in the chair.”

A quick but useful read, this is one that will be easy to return to over and over, and can be consumed one piece of advice at a time. Grab it when you need it.

Draft No. 4 by John McPhee

Much more literary than the first two books on this list, John McPhee expounds on a long and fruitful career writing for The New Yorker. In a series of essays that were previously published in the magazine, this book helps shift your mindset from the big picture to truly understanding and focusing on the process of writing. 

One of the interesting lessons he discussed regarding writer’s block was extremely practical. He advises that when you do not know how to start a story, write a letter to someone close to you explaining the topic that you are writing about. Once you get past the pleasantries and the introductions, you will find yourself writing what you were meant to write all along. (Then you go back and delete the beginning of the letter and you have yourself a story.)

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

This is a book I had never heard of, but then it appeared on my Instagram feed one day. And then another day. And then on my Twitter. It seems this book infiltrated the writing community rapidly, and for good reason.

In a series of essays, much like what John McPhee did with Draft No. 4, this book is part advice, part memoir. It is wholly entertaining and helpful, though. Give it a shot.

Everybody Writes by Ann Handley

The most straightforward “how-to guide” on this list, Everybody Writes is a practical book for someone who does more professional writing than perhaps publishing novels. The author, Ann Handley, is a longtime marketer who specializes in creating unique and engaging content that will help your business or your freelance writing career. 

We live in a world where, as I’m sure you’ve heard innumerable times, “content is king,” and Handley’s book keeps that mindset on the forefront. This is a useful guide for anyone whose writing job is not just about quality, but also quantity. Write fast, but write smart and strategic.


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Bookshop.org: An indie alternative to online book shopping

During these strange and uncertain times, I find it helpful to escape from the world through a good book. That leads me to an important PSA: If you are going to make the effort to read more, do so by supporting your local bookstores.

In that vein, I have a second important announcement: A new online book retailer, Bookshop.org, launched in January 2020 with one goal, to support indie publishing and local bookstores in a world where Amazon is taking over the bookselling industry.

I first heard about the site while reading an article in Poets & Writers. The magazine deemed the new online book retailer as “An indie alternative to Amazon,” which was enough to hook me.

Now, before I go any further I want to be clear: there are no affiliate links in the post. And yes, while I, like most people, continue to shop on Amazon for its prices and convenience, I strongly believe it’s time we take a look at alternative online retailers for purchasing books. 

Few places in life are as comforting as walking into a local, indie bookstore. I have some of my favorites — which I detailed in a separate post — as I’m sure you do. They always seem to have the friendliest booksellers on staff, along with some of the most genuine and personal recommendations — compared to the largest book retailers that simply cater to the New York Times Best Seller lists.

Bookshop.org is unique in its quest to support local bookstores while providing a quality online book-shopping experience. According to the website, their mission was “to create an easy, convenient way to get your books and still support local bookstores.” Right on the home page, there is a running tally of the financial support that they will be providing to local bookstores (at the time of writing this, that was approaching $60,000). 

Now, more than ever, it is important to support local bookstores, if we want to help ensure their survival. Some of my favorites, which offer online shopping and cheap shipping, are Literati Bookstore and McLean & Eakin Bookstore, both in Michigan.


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Never Pass a Pub With Your Name On It: An Irish-American Story

We pulled up like it was our local watering hole. I swerved our rented Opel into the first parking spot out front and then my wife and I went inside.

Murray’s Pub — this Murray’s Pub — was in County Mayo, in a small town on the west side of Ireland. We had been here before. Not in the flesh. A month earlier, we sat on our basement couch thousands of miles away and took a virtual tour of our upcoming vacation. There were several Murray’s bars that we’d found on Google Maps and had hatched a plan to hit them all.

This one felt like walking into someone’s home. Historic photos hung on the walls. A black fireplace still had a pile of ashes spilling out. In the corner, by the door, a cane leaned against an empty bench seat, like the old-timer would be right back.

About halfway through our trip around the country, I had already had many Guinnesses, but I vowed to drink one in every pub we visited, so I placed the order. The bartender was like me: A twenty-something guy, wearing a t-shirt and jeans. For some reason that caught me a little off-guard. I suppose I expected an old Irishman, like you see in movies.

He stepped behind the bar and made my wife a Bailey’s coffee while he waited for my Guinness to settle. We sat at a small, round table and observed the scene. Amazon Music was streaming quietly over the speakers: Britney Spears, Motown, Dr. Dre, Chris Stapleton. Pretty much everything except traditional Irish music. At the end of the bar, the only three other patrons was a group of old men who looked like this weekday afternoon gathering was more a ritual than a rarity. Perhaps they were simply talking too fast, or perhaps they were speaking a local dialect of true Irish language. Regardless, I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. Nor could I understand our bartender when he served our drinks and thanked us for stopping in.

But when I took that first sip of Guinness — something I had done several times in the months and days prior — it was clear to both my wife and me that we had finally made it where we wanted to be.



Eight years earlier, during the winter semester of my freshman year at the University of Michigan, we were blessed with seventy-degree weather on St. Patrick’s Day. As one can imagine, the parties on campus raged. To that point, I had never tasted a Guinness — my beer knowledge went about as far as the Keystone that filled the frat kegs. My roommate at the time asked me if I’d ever had a Guinness before. When I told him I hadn’t, he walked me down to the corner store, went inside and bought a single can. “You’re gonna hate it,” he told me. And I did. We each took a sip or two, and then ditched the can in the trash.

In honesty, I cannot pinpoint when my tastebuds began changing in favor of Guinness. Over the years, I tried them here and there. I took some Irish Car Bombs with friends. What changed, truthfully, was not my love for Guinness — rather, it was a deepening appreciation for my ancestry, for understanding where I came from.

Part of that appreciation blossomed each St. Patrick’s Day. My father’s side of the family, the Irish side, would get together, wear green, drink green beer, sing the Irish Rovers. We didn’t do it because we needed an excuse to party. We did it because we genuinely loved celebrating our heritage.

Early in our relationship, when we were fresh-faced college kids, I dragged my wife with me to one of these St. Paddy’s bashes. She’s far too polite to admit the strangeness of an entire family chanting “Way, hey, up she rises!” in my grandparents’ basement. But what happened was far more special: my wife’s interest in her Irish heritage was also piqued.

The summer before our wedding we welcomed our first puppy home. We named him Rory, which means “red-haired king” in Irish. Rory is a red-tri Miniature American Shepherd.

Two years into marriage, the itch to finally visit Ireland became too nagging not to scratch. In March 2019, we lay in bed and booked our flights. We spent months planning the trip. It was all we thought about, talked about — I’m sure family and friends grew annoyed of us quickly. But this trip was more than just a vacation to an interesting place. It was a chance to live the history that formed our families.



When I told my boss about our planned vacation, she recommended a book called McCarthy’s Bar. She had read it a few years earlier when she went to Ireland. The author, Pete McCarthy, writes about a trip he took to the west coast of Ireland, during which he lived by one rule: “Never pass a bar that has your name on it.”

Inspired, I made a list of all the Murray’s Pubs I could find on Google. The list came to six or seven. My goal was to visit all of them. Did we end up doing it? No, we didn’t. We hit two — the tiny pub in County Mayo and a large bar in the heart of Dublin.

But along the journey, we circled the entire island, driving on the wrong side of the road, the wrong side of the car. We went to Kilkenny and Waterford and Cork and Blarney. We drove through Killarney National Park, up to the small coastal town of Lahinch. After the Cliffs of Moher, we headed up to Galway and over to Kylemore Abbey, driving through the beautiful Connemara Mountains, sheep in the road and everything — authentic Ireland. Heading north, we went through County Mayo and into Sligo and eventually up into Northern Ireland to see Mussenden Temple, the Giant’s Causeway and the Dark Hedges. Our hotel that night was downtown Belfast, where we visited the Titanic Museum before heading back to finish the trip in Dublin the following day.

That’s a lot — I certainly don’t expect that you know all of those places. What’s important is that we made some incredible memories, memories of a lifetime. On a trip to discover and celebrate our ancestry, my wife and I traveled hand-in-hand as best friends. We fell in love again in Ireland.

Less than three weeks ago, we welcomed our daughter into this world: Maeve Marie.

Maeve, in Irish folklore, was the warrior queen of Connacht. Connacht, of course, is home to County Mayo. And in County Mayo, my wife and I sat in a small Irish pub with our name painted above the door and lifted our glasses to life: past, present and future.


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7 writing lessons: What a home renovation taught me about writing a book

Writing lessons are everywhere…

Our basement was fine. When we moved in a few years ago, sure, it was a little dark and musty. We got some new, brighter light bulbs. We laid down a remnant. We bought a dehumidifier. It was fine.

I was sitting in that basement watching TV this past summer when my wife came downstairs with a suspicious smile. She was holding a coffee mug, which she carried over and handed to me. Being late afternoon, and not having asked for any coffee — a kind gesture just for kind gesture’s sake?! — I thought something odd was going on.

“Thanks,” I said, still a little skeptical.

She smiled wider but didn’t say a word. I held the mug for a moment, glancing back and forth between it and my wife. Finally I turned it slightly and noticed there was writing on the other side.

“World’s Best Dad.”

My world froze. I was going to be a dad.

Following a long celebration with my wife, I tried to calm myself and let that sink in. I was going to be a dad. I looked around the basement again.

It was not fine.

I spoke with my wife. “We need a comfortable place where we can roll around on the floor with our baby,” I told her. She agreed, offering her blessing so long as I was confident it could be done.

Over the next several weeks, I consulted with people who had taken on projects like this before. They all agreed it was doable — the only reassurance I needed.

One Saturday in mid-October, I started ripping paneling off the walls. There was no going back.

But what does this have to do with writing lessons?

If you are anything like me, you frame most things in life around how the situation would unfold if it were a writing project. This basement renovation was no different. Along the way, I learned many lessons — most good, a few more difficult.

Here, for you, I will summarize those writing lessons.

1. Have a purpose

What’s your motivation? For my basement renovation it was simple: I did it for my daughter. Did I have plans to one day renovate the basement into an entertainment space with a bar and card table, walls littered with sports memorabilia and beer signs? Absolutely. But it turns out making a space for my daughter to crawl around and play was far more motivating.

When it comes to writing, think deeply about what is motivating you to put pen to paper (or, more accurately, begin typing). Is it enough to motivate you throughout the entire process, or just enough to get you started? I can tell you from experience that both forms of motivation have led me to complete projects that I’m proud of, though the former is a far better predictor for how successful a project will ultimately be.

Once you have discovered that motivation, it’s time to get started.

2. Craft a plan

A detailed plan before you start work goes a long way. With my basement renovation, I began by consulting people who had experience in various home contracting projects, as well as watching YouTube videos and reading articles online. Once I felt confident about the project as a whole, I began planning out all the steps of the project, how much assistance I would need for each, and how much each would cost. Then I totaled it all up to get a rough estimate of cost — both financial and time.

For a large writing project, this would be the brainstorming phase. That’s not to say you couldn’t jump right into writing — I’ve certainly done that. But the longevity of the manuscript usually depends largely on being productive, which is far easier to accomplish when you know where the story is going each day. This includes plot, subplots, character personas, settings, structure, etc.

Once you have the entire thing brainstormed, or at least enough to give you confidence to move forward, set yourself a writing schedule.

3. Set a schedule

Setting a schedule is the best way to ensure you keep your productivity high. It’s a commitment to the work that needs to be done, prioritizing it above time-wasters like social media and Netflix.

When I began working on my basement, I pledged two hours per night and at least six every weekend working. Given the nature of the work and the timeline for when I wanted it completed, I ended up working many more hours each day than originally scheduled. But if I didn’t have the discipline to start work each day, I may have procrastinated to the point that the project never got completed.

When you are motivated, it’s amazing how you can find time to get work done. Time I previously had never realized existed.

I remember thinking, as I framed walls and mudded drywall, that I hoped I could convert this productivity into my writing once the basement was finished.

Even with good time management, it’s difficult to find success without also being resourceful.

4. Be resourceful

As I have previously mentioned, both prior to beginning the project and all throughout I consulted with people who had experience in this field. It’s vital to understand what your capabilities are and when you need to seek advice from others. That usually came in the form of technique, process or even tool recommendations.

The same rings true for writing. You hear all the time that being a successful writer means reading often. If you are taking on a memoir, read other memoirs to get a feel for flow, structure, voice. If you want to write a thriller, understand how successful mystery authors have developed their plots to keep readers on the edges of their seats.

But being resourceful doesn’t have to stop at reading books. Take an online course. Read articles about the craft of writing. Network with other writers online. Attend a writing conference. Hire an editor to proofread or copyedit your work. There are numerous ways you can be resourceful to take your writing project to the next level.

Do anything and everything to support your manuscript, and then make sure you are prioritizing what is most important.

5. Prioritize what’s important

As I started this project, consulting with a friend at work, I was told “caulk and paint make you what you ain’t.” Meaning, of course, you can always fix minor details later. I needed to focus on making the walls structurally sound. The drywall needed to be hung securely. 

When mapping out your manuscript, make sure you are giving your book “good bones.” The voice of the characters. Consistency in their behavior. Understanding the overall plot and setting.

Once you have a firm grasp on all of those things, put your head down and dedicate yourself to the work. Get yourself to the finish line.

6. Don’t let setbacks derail the entire project

For any kind of significant project to go flawlessly from start to finish would be nearly impossible. So when something doesn’t go exactly to plan, it’s important to evaluate the setback and devise a plan to overcome it and continue onward.

I experienced several setbacks in the basement — from working around electrical wiring, to extended timelines and increased costs. With each, I revised my plan and time and cost estimates, and then I continued working.

The same can be applied to writing a book. Let’s say you are halfway through a historical fiction novel when you realize you have gotten some facts wrong about the time period. Those could be small facts, such as what the character is wearing. Or they could be large facts, like an event that helps shape the plot. Either way, setbacks can be corrected. 

Stop, think through them. Develop a plan to remedy the situation. And then get back to work.

7. Finish strong

When the project looks done, always take (at least) one final look back at your work. Touch up what needs to be touched up. Make sure that when you finally wash your hands and call it a day, you can be proud of the final result.

At the start of the project you had a vision. Now is the time to recognize that all the hard work was worth it.

In my basement, that meant touching up drywall mud, a little bit of sanding, some paint touchups, running a few beads of caulk, installing the new vent and outlet covers.

For your writing project, that could mean consulting with an editor. It could mean printing a copy and reading through it yourself. It could mean both. It could mean setting the work aside for a few weeks and coming back to it fresh. It could mean passing out copies to beta readers to get outside opinions.

Whatever approach you take, make sure that you are proud to sign your name on the final product.


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Writing advice from famous authors: Should you listen?

When it comes to hashing out your next draft, where will you turn to find great writing advice? If you’re anything like me, you look all around when trying to become inspired to writing something that matters.

Sometimes it comes in everyday situations, standing in line at a coffeeshop or driving down the road, and you overhear someone talking or something on the radio that just seems to strike a chord. Other times, inevitably, we writers look to the most successful authors in the industry for advice — a quote, a brainstorming strategy, or even sometimes just a little piece of motivation.

And why not? Whatever they have done has obviously led to a fruitful career, so why not learn from their successes and try to apply them to your own work?

RELATED: Taking a look inside my writing process

It’s only natural to think this way. I certainly do. When Elmore Leonard says, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” or when Joyce Carol Oates says, “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written,” it’s difficult not to take those words and apply them to your own process.

But all writing advice should be vetted, regardless of who it comes from, to ensure it will benefit your writing process. If it does, run with it. If it doesn’t, take what you can from it and move on.

Here’s my piece of writing advice: look for lessons everywhere you turn, but be conscious about what works for you. Write every day, and make today’s words better than yesterday’s.

There’s no secret formula to writing well. Sure, it takes years of practice, late nights reading as many books as possible and gathering ideas of best practices from other writers, but in the end you have to make your writing your own. Absorb all the writing advice you can from the successful authors who came before you, weed out the things that don’t work, use the things that do and fine-tune them to fit your writing routine or style.

And then, of course, put the pen to paper.


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3 simple tips for finding the time to write

Forget about crafting a novel — sometimes it’s difficult finding the time to write even a blog post. Years ago, when I first started taking this whole “writing” thing seriously, I read online that only five percent of novelists earn a living from their work — and that was before the self-publishing explosion. That’s right: at least 95 percent have a day job (whether we like to admit it or not). So if you’re having a difficult time finding a spare hour here and there to write, you’re not alone.

We live busy lives, and they only seem to be getting busier. So on top of everything else, where in the world can we also find time to do that thing we love?

The key to success writing, just like with anything else in life, is increasing efficiency. Here are a few easy, yet helpful tips for using your writing time wisely.

1. Don’t empty the creative well

This piece of advice comes directly from Ernest Hemingway (I felt like maybe he knew what he was talking about).

“I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”  – Ernest Hemingway

One of the most difficult times to write is when, simply put, you don’t have anything to write about. When you are working on an exciting project or a particular part of a manuscript that you can envision perfectly in your mind, don’t continue writing until you’ve left it all on the page. Leave part of that scene to come back and finish. The next time you sit down to start writing again, it will be that much easier to jump back into it.

I can admit, this is a piece of advice that I’ve had a difficult time implementing. When you’re motivated and on a roll, it’s hard to step away. But I can honestly say that when I do use this method, the next time I sit down at my computer I’m right back to writing, rather than staring at a blank screen wondering what comes next.

2. Taking notes is key

If you’re anything like me, you constantly think of ideas that make you want to jot down notes. When they strike, they seem like magic that must be documented before they can flutter away.

My advice is to take as many notes as possible, but make sure you keep them organized for how they can be used. If they are for completely new story ideas, file them away. If they are to be used toward your current project, make sure you understand how they can be applied to your other research and brainstorming and let them help you to jump back into the writing when you have a chance to sit down at your computer.

RELATED: Simple advice for aspiring writers

Saving creative ideas for future projects, rather than finding a way to incorporate them in your immediate project, does not come recommended by me. You may think that it doesn’t work with your storyline, but good ideas need to be used before they disappear forever — because usually when they’re gone, they’re gone for good.

Your next great idea won’t be far behind. If you take your writing seriously, there should be no shortage of ideas for later projects. So save those for the future and take notes now and utilize your ideas as they come.

3. Create a writing schedule

This last piece of advice may seem straightforward, but it’s more difficult to do than most realize. Creating a schedule for writing can be challenging. You have a million things on your calendar, plus you have to take your car into the shop. And your kid is sick. And you have to work late. And you have to clean for the company you have coming over. Yadda yadda yadda.

Life’s crazy.

But there’s always an excuse not to write. Creating a schedule can help you eliminate those excuses and turn them into the reason why you need to write.

When can you realistically find a spare ten minutes, or thirty minutes, or hour? Does it mean waking up a little earlier? Does it mean writing on your lunch break? Maybe just before bed?

Whenever works for your busy schedule, pick a time and commit to it. Once the routine is set, you can focus less on the distractions and more on the words.


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Book Review: Mitch Albom’s Newest Book ‘Finding Chika’ Tells Heartfelt Story

Sometimes, the people we least expect to enter our lives have the greatest impact. It’s a lesson we learned in the international bestseller Tuesdays With Morrie, and it’s extremely evident in Mitch Albom’s newest book Finding Chika.

Finding Chika tells the true story of a little girl named Chika from the Haitian orphanage that Mitch Albom and his wife, Janine, run. Not long after Chika joined the group of children that the Alboms were caring for, she began showing signs of illness — drooping cheeks, an altered gait.

Following a doctor visit in Port-au-Prince, during which the physician told them that Chika had a brain tumor and that “there is no one in Haiti who can help her,” Mitch and Janine flew back to Detroit with Chika in hopes of finding a cure.

What ensues is a heartfelt story about a bubbly little girl, her fight for a future and the impact she had on the lives of a middle-aged couple who never had children of their own.

As with all good Mitch Albom books, this one hits hard from the first page. Albom is sitting at his office desk talking to Chika, who is lying on the floor playing. It’s told in present tense — this is something that is occurring now. And then, two paragraphs in, he hits you:

“But she doesn’t do that anymore. Chika died last spring.”

Mitch Albom is a very spiritual man. That is clear with his memoir Have a Little Faith, along with novels such as The Five People You Meet in Heaven, The Next Person You Meet in Heaven, For One More Day and The First Phone Call From Heaven.

Finding Chika is spliced with stories that jump through time, some present day and some of months or years past. Some of the most powerful, however, are when Albom describes scenes of him continuing to see and speak with Chika, even months after she passed away.

The way Albom describes Haiti, what the children — many of whom were survivors of the devastating earthquake — have to endure on a daily basis and the attitudes they carry through life, will simultaneously break your heart and uplift it.

This book felt like the culmination of something profound in Albom’s life. With references to his experiences with Morrie, stories of his own father, moving prose about the way Chika completely changed his life — as if he had a child of his own — the book goes beyond just telling a story. It was a monumental, overdue chapter in an incomplete life.

At the heart of this story are lessons that universally teach us all about the importance of precious life, the large impact of small acts and the power that love plays during life’s most trying times.

Being non-fiction, you presume that everything Albom includes in this book is true. But as only he can do, Finding Chika weaves a delicate balance between believable and unbelievable — in the best possible way.

Because it’s the extraordinary that keeps hope alive.


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See Also: Ranking the Best Mitch Albom Books

What’s the importance of word count in writing?

Is it too long? Too short? Just right? Who’s to say? Maybe it’s the analytical side of me that takes over when the creative side has had its run of the place for a while. Eventually, while I am writing, I begin to worry about that little thing that’s surely crossed all writers’ minds at one point or another: word count.

Sometimes it can feel like a needless worry, but then you hear horror stories about publishers and editors degrading a piece because of its word count. Is there a sweet spot? What if my work is deemed too short? What if it’s too long? My answer to those questions, and I find this a very practical answer, is not to worry.

Sure, editors have the final say. If they have reservations about word count then your work is scrapped. But in my experience, the importance of the writing should always come first. If you need to include more detail, include more detail. If a scene needs more (or less) dialogue, then make it so.

The reason for writing is not to get rich and famous (but if that is your motivation, you may want to find a different hobby). There needs to be a purpose to the writing. You need to feel compelled that your story needs to be told. When thinking about this, also remember that writing is an art, a craft. Publishing, on the other hand, is a business. If an editor critiques your work and wants to make changes, listen. Editing is an extremely important part of the writing process. However, do not add words or remove words simply to hit a word count mark. Writing is qualitative. Do not make it quantifiable.

Still, the question of word count lingers. It’s happened to me. When I was writing my first novel, I thought about it far too often. I was constantly checking the word-counter on Microsoft Word, watching the tally increase slowly. That’s when I began researching word counts of famous novels. I found that, in large part, my 60,000-word manuscript was shorter than many novels. It discouraged me, if only briefly. Should I add a few chapters? Should I extend a few scenes? How do I make it longer? And then I had the realization: It doesn’t need to be any longer. I’ve written the story in full.

The issue of word count remains a large part of the writing world. Submission guidelines will list word count requirements. Publishers will make note of word counts. Industry experts will categorize books based on their word counts.

Generally speaking, there are defined word counts that distinguish one type of work from another. Under 7,500 words is considered a short story. Between 7,500 and 17,500 is considered a novelette. A novella is 17,500 to 40,000. And the novel is anything longer than 40,000 words. These, of course, are still only guidelines. Many people consider Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (~27,000 words) to be a novel. Many people also consider John Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men (~30,000 words) to be a novel. 

So what is the significance of word count? Whatever you let it be.

Don’t let it be a distraction from the work. Don’t let word count write the story. It should be, for all intents and purposes, an after thought.


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Showtime to produce ‘American Rust’ TV series from Philipp Meyer novel

What has been years in the making, Showtime announced in summer 2019 that Philipp Meyer’s first novel will be adapted to screen as an American Rust TV series. The show, which will simply be titled Rust, does not yet have a premiere date or an estimated episode count.

Jeff Daniels will star as police chief Del Harris and also executive produce the show. Dan Futterman, who collaborated with Daniels on the Hulu miniseries The Looming Tower back in 2018, will also executive produce and write multiple episodes for the American Rust TV series.

Philipp Meyer’s American Rust — his first novel, published back in 2009 — tells the story of a small, fictional Pennsylvania steel town in the downtrodden years that followed decades of a flourishing economy. Through the perspectives of six characters — all friends or family — Meyer explores this forgotten Rust Belt region through stream-of-consciousness prose that has often been compared to William Faulkner.

Described as both a family drama and a mystery, the interwoven, conflicted lives of these characters are upended when Poe, a former star football player at the local high school, is accused of murder. Daniels’ character, Harris, is then put into a complicated position as the man who both runs the police department and has fallen in love with Poe’s mother.

I first read this novel in a class at the University of Michigan called Rust Belt Narratives back in 2011. And I am glad that I did, because it quickly became one of my favorite books (along with Meyer’s second novel, The Son). With over 8,000 reviews by the time the American Rust TV series was announced, the Goodreads average rating was 3.7 out of 5 stars, which, while respectable, in my opinion is still low. I gave it a solid 5 stars and have read the book several times over the years (and I will definitely read it once more before the series debuts).

My expectations for this new American Rust TV series are high, which is seldom a positive. Unrealistic expectations often lead to disappointment. But back in 2017, when AMC adapted Philipp Meyer’s The Son into a two-season TV show, I was surprised by how closely the series tied to the book. Given that success, I am confident that — as long as Meyer can be involved with the show’s creation, like he was with The Son — this new American Rust TV series will also be outstanding. Not to mention, of course, my faith in Showtime’s ability to produce quality shows — like they have with Shameless, Homeland, Dexter and many others.

SEE ALSO: Philipp Meyer’s ‘The Son’ Picked Up By AMC

SEE ALSO: ‘American Rust’ Examines America’s Blue Collar Middle Class

SEE ALSO: Has Philipp Meyer Written a Great American Novel?

SEE ALSO: Paul Howarth’s ‘Only Killers and Thieves’ Reminds of ‘The Son’

Philipp Meyer reads from American Rust:

10 Best Non-Fiction Books to Add to Your Reading List

Typically, I read fiction. Novels, short story collections, even the occasional novella. I go through periods where I’ll pick up mystery novels, and then stretches where all I read are classics, like Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. Then, of course, there are the occasional times when each book has a tie to my home state of Michigan, like with many Jim Harrison books, or Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River. But recently, however, I’ve focused on a new genre. And from that genre, I’ll list the best non-fiction books that I have recently read and that are definitely worth your time as well.

I’ll start with a caveat: These best non-fiction books are not all new or even recent releases. In fact, some are several years old. However, they all appeared on my bookshelf within the last year or so and that is when I read them all. That’s one of the best aspects of books and music and movies: regardless whether they are old or new, the first time you consume them can still be unforgettably impactful. Heck, even the second, third, fourth time you read them, they can still be just as inspiring and influential.

For some reason (maybe it’s that I’m exploring writing some non-fiction of my own), my reading tendencies shifted toward true stories over the last year or so — and I’m grateful they did.

The list below is just that — a list. This is not a ranking, for all of these books are so unique.


The Best Non-Fiction Books for Your Reading List

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)

One of the best books of any genre I’ve ever read, this story came at the perfect time. Have you ever gone through a reading slump? It’s kind of like writer’s block. You read a few mediocre books in a row, and then it makes you put books down a little quicker. Books that you thought would be amazing just never quite stole your attention. It’s a miserable time, really. All you want is to read a good book.

And then I stumbled upon this masterpiece. I cannot pretend that it was always a happy read — in fact, there were many emotional moments. But it is told through such precise, interesting prose.

The premise is pretty simple: Kalanithi, a healthy thirty-something medical resident, receives a devastating lung cancer diagnosis. From that moment, we learn all about the man — both past and present — as he battles the disease and contemplates his own mortality.

This is one of those books that lingered. I thought about it constantly for weeks. And the final pages — sometimes I will just reread them, because they are that powerful.

The Man I Never Met by Adam Schefter (2018)

I won’t lie to you: the reason I first gave this one a shot was because Adam Schefter is a University of Michigan alumnus. But I’m darn glad I did.

See, Schefter’s wife, Sharri Maio, was a 9/11 widow. Her husband, Joe, was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Centers. A handful of years later, Sharri and Adam were introduced, began dating and eventually married. Over the years, Adam and Sharri continued honoring Joe’s memory as they embarked on their own life together.

This memoir is Adam’s tribute to his wife’s late husband. And it is worth your time.

Grit by Angela Duckworth (2016)

OK, OK, this isn’t exactly what you would call “non-fiction” in the traditional sense of the genre. It’s not a narrative, but rather a psychological study on what drives success in our society — what Angela Duckworth calls “grit,” which she describes as the combination of passion and perseverance.

At times it feels a little academic, but she does a great job of two things. First, she frames her argument continuously under real life scenarios. And secondly, this book is full — and I mean full — of little inspirations. At the end of each section, I felt motivated to go out and live a grittier life.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (2016)

Please, take the politics out of it. For some reason, when I mention this book people either applaud its implied conservatism or condemn it. In that way, it is much like many other issues in this country right now — that is to say, people are constantly looking for a reason to be divisive.

For me, that’s not at all what this book was about. My wife has family that lives in a similar region of Appalachia, in the northern foothills of Tennessee. I’ve gotten peeks into the world that Vance describes in this memoir. And let me tell you: the struggles are real. I think if you truly give this book a fair shot, you can see a distinct, level-headed, critical examination of a very large subset of America. And to me, being open-minded means learning as much as possible about all American subcultures.

At its core, this is a memoir about one family’s experiences in southern, blue collar Ohio, as well as the hills of Kentucky. Vance also takes these observations and stories a bit further at times, interrogating broader issues in the region.

(I would also like to note that, given Vance’s Buckeye roots, it was tough for me to pick up this book, let alone read it, enjoy it and recommend it.)

On Writing by Stephen King (2000)

Stephen King’s On Writing is often hailed as one of the most important books a writer can read, and I completely agree. While King is pretty much a horror author (though he’s dabbled in other genres), the lessons that he outlines in this memoir are universal for any aspiring writer.

The book is broken out into several sections, from his own story of becoming a writer and finding success, to concrete writing advice and lessons.

Since I first bought this book two years ago, I have already read it three times. It’s the kind of memoir that you can read annually and never tire of it.

Hemingway in Love by A.E. Hotchner (2015)

Hemingway in Love by A.E. Hotchner was an impulse purchase, which isn’t common for me when it comes to books, as my to-read list is usually very lengthy. But my wife and I were in one of our favorite bookstores, Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, and I saw this on the shelf. Literati always has such authentic recommendations that I can trust the selection they choose to display on promotional tables.

As you likely know already from the numerous times I’ve written about Hemingway (like his childhood in northern Michigan or his best books or his feud with William Faulkner), I am a huge fan of the legendary author. Hotchner was a close friend of Hemingway’s in the 1940’s and 50’s, and this book was an intimate portrait of Hemingway’s affection for his first wife, Hadley.

Quite honestly, this is a story that could only be told by someone who was there, as Hotchner was. And if you’re even the slightest bit interested in the personal lives of famous authors, this one is genuinely worth your time.

The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan (2016)

I first bought The Immortal Irishman when it was released in 2016, read it and enjoyed it. But this past year as my wife and I planned a trip to Ireland, I picked it back up. In those couple years in between, I had forgotten how good it was.

Timothy Egan is such a talented researcher and storyteller, taking the life of a relatively unknown Irishman from hundreds of years ago and making it not only engaging, but lasting. Packed with interesting historical info, this book not only kept me turning the pages, but also taught me a ton about Irish-American history.

It does what all great historical books do: it fills in the blanks you never realized were missing, and makes you begin to recognize the impact that other cultures have on your life.

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover (2018)

For anyone who has visited a bookstore over the last two years, you should be well aware of this book — as it debuted as a #1 New York Times Best Seller and now, nearly 90 weeks later, is still on the list.

Simply put, Tara Westover takes a miserable childhood in the mountains of Idaho and brings it to the page for everyone to better understand what some people endure in this world (and it also helps us realize how lucky we are).

The memoir was recommended reading by both Bill Gates and Barrack Obama. Hopefully that’s all the justification I need to include it here.

Signs of Life by Natalie Taylor (2011)

This one is a little personal for me. Without getting into too much detail, the sudden and tragic death of Josh Taylor had a direct impact on my life. I witnessed the horrific pain that it caused firsthand. Josh and his wife Natalie were both from my hometown of Royal Oak, Michigan. In this very honest and personal memoir, Natalie spills her life onto the page — beginning with the heartbreaking event, and onward down her path of self-examination and healing.

For anyone who has experienced an unimaginable loss, this book is an empathetic unifier.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt (1996)

I’ll end this list of best non-fiction books with a classic that you’ve either already read but should read again (because you couldn’t read this one too many times) or that you’ve heard of and need that final push to get it onto your nightstand.

Angela’s Ashes fit particularly well into my life over the last year — my wife and I had been longing to take a trip to Ireland (which we finally did back in June), and I’ve been trying to learn more about the Great Depression era for another project. While this book is certainly not about the lush rolling green hills, pub tours and cozy bed & breakfasts that colored our trip to the Emerald Isle, it is a raw, detailed look into the life of a man who endured the worst of times with the sternest perseverance.


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Ranking the 5 Best John Steinbeck Books

There’s a group of writers I almost always lump together, constantly comparing their works and where they stand both in the landscape of classic American literature and on my own bookshelf. All born around the turn of the last century, the group includes Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe and John Steinbeck. Though each was great in his own right, this list will focus solely on the best John Steinbeck books.

Previously I published my ranking of best Ernest Hemingway books. Let me be upfront about why I put these lists together: I don’t believe that my opinions (and that’s what this is, an opinion) are the ultimate, but rather I am trying to offer a resource for people trying to dive into these books, give them a place to start, create a conversation or keep one going.

Steinbeck has always been an author who has intrigued me. During my freshman year of high school, we read Of Mice and Men. That was my first experience reading Steinbeck. A year later, we read The Grapes of Wrath. But as with most of the great classics that I was forced to read in school, it wasn’t until years later, in college and afterward, that I truly began to appreciate how brilliant these books were.

Born in Salinas, Calif., in 1902, Steinbeck published 27 books over the course of his life, many of which focused on the trials and tribulations of America’s everyman, making him a popular author among the rural community.

If you’re a fervent fan, or if you’re wondering which of his books to give a try first, here is a list of the 5 best John Steinbeck books.


Top 5 Best John Steinbeck Books

5. Tortilla Flat (1935)

In 1935, John Steinbeck was still an author determined to put his name on the map. Then he published Tortilla Flat.

The book took off, receiving critical acclaim and selling wildly. This slim novella follows a man named Danny and his paisanos in the years following World War I. With a cast of characters enjoying wine and shenanigans in the hills above Monterey, California, Tortilla Flat was the first recognized Steinbeck book in a long line that explore the hardships and perseverance of America’s everyman.

4. Cannery Row (1945)

Written following the enormous successes of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and MenCannery Row is a classic Steinbeck book that witnesses down-on-their-luck characters attempt to overcome the everyday struggles that so many endured during the Great Depression. 

One of the main characters, Doc, was actually based on one of Steinbeck’s close friends, Ed Ricketts, and the real-life road where the story took place, Ocean View Avenue in Monterey, California, was eventually renamed Cannery Row to honor the Steinbeck book. 

Much less daunting than some of his other works (see: The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden), Cannery Row is 200 pages of classic Steinbeck.

3. The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

This masterpiece coming third on the list of best John Steinbeck books may be surprising to some, but that’s not to say it isn’t one of the greatest American novels ever written. Winning Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize in 1940, The Grapes of Wrath is arguably his most famous work.

Coming at the tail-end of the devastating Great Depression and following a book with a similar setting (Of Mice and Men), The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joads, a poor farming family from Oklahoma who were forced to relocate to California following the Dust Bowl. 

Inspired through his personal observations during the time period, this is a novel that will be taught in schools for generations.

2. Of Mice and Men (1937)

I have to be honest: this was an extremely difficult decision. Of Mice and Men is one of my favorite books, not just by Steinbeck, but by any author. Though not intimidating in length, coming in at just 30,000 words, the slim novella is genuine Steinbeck. The story is simple yet powerful, weaving artistic Steinbeck imagery with honest action and epic consequences. And the characters, lest we forget, George and Lennie, are as engrained in the canon of American literature as the likes of Holden Caulfield and Jay Gatsby.

If you’re a fan of film, you can check out the several adaptations that were produced between 1939, just two years after the book was released, and 1992.

1. East of Eden (1952)

Sure, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men were unforgettable classics, but it’s hard to disagree with John Steinbeck himself about which of his books was his best. “I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this,” Steinbeck said of East of Eden.

And rightfully so. The 608-page epic set largely in his home of Salinas Valley, California, tells the stories of two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, and takes place over the course of several generations. Though Steinbeck’s unique ability to describe place in many of his other works is remarkable, it is on the greatest of display in East of Eden.

While I consider this 1952 masterpiece Steinbeck’s greatest work, I would by no means recommend this be any reader’s introduction to the author. With so many short novels and novellas to read first, East of Eden is definitely one to work up to.

But I can assure you: it’s well worth your time.


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Hemingway Up in Michigan: The Birth of Nick Adams and a Literary Legend

Throughout his life, Ernest Hemingway traveled the world, leaving his mark everywhere he lived or visited.

In Cuba, they called him Papa. You’d find him fishing for marlins or drinking whiskey or daiquiris in a local watering hole. He would do the same in Key West.

In East Africa, you’d find him big game hunting, the concluding photograph captured with the legend kneeling above a lion or antelope.

In France, he’d be writing in a small upstairs room, or sipping coffee and walking along the Seine. In July, he’d travel with friends to Pamplona, Spain, to witness the running of the bulls.

Back in the United States, he’d walk his property in the mountains of Idaho, bird hunting and enjoying the tranquility.

Some would argue that Ernest Hemingway the celebrity was even bigger than Hemingway the writer—an argument levied justly, given the man’s life story. But where did it all start? Surely someone running from continent to continent in search of grand adventure must have a history, a childhood that sparked the curiosity.

For Hemingway, it didn’t start in his hometown near Chicago. It began in northern Michigan—the place from which he was running his entire life.

HEMINGWAY’S NORTHERN MICHIGAN

Take a drive to Walloon Lake today. You’ll see a gorgeous body of water, beautiful vacation homes lining its shore, tucked between the trees. Walk the streets of Petoskey. The weekend traffic rolls into town. Tourists crowd the sidewalks. SUVs clog the normally quiet streets.

Now take a trip back in time, one hundred years ago. See the town that inspired The Torrents of Spring, Hemingway’s first book, or the streams and woods where the young boy fished and hiked. In many ways, it’s an entirely different place. At the same time, not much has changed.

Start with the population. Around 1920, Petoskey was home to 5,064 people. In the 2010 census, the population was 5,670. Pretty similar, but that measurement may be misleading. The city now spills out into once-rural parts of the county, areas that were thick forests in the early twentieth century. The GR&I Railroad no longer runs through town, but the will of eager tourists needs only to take them into the driver’s seat in order to reach the popular destination today.

Still, there is much about the Petoskey area that remains from Hemingway’s childhood. The Horton Bay General Store still stands, as does the Perry Hotel, where Hemingway stayed in 1916. How about the City Park Grill, a downtown Petoskey landmark that Hemingway frequented in his teenage and young adult years. Or the small family cottage, called Windemere, that is on Walloon Lake.

Perhaps the most unaltered aspect of northern Michigan from Hemingway’s days are the woods and streams, which remain largely untouched. Reportedly in an effort to avoid his mother, with whom he did not always get along, the boy Hemingway would escape the Walloon Lake area and trek through the woods to prime fishing spots, such as Horton Bay on Lake Charlevoix or the connecting Horton Creek. Those are the places where the writer’s love for fishing and hunting and hiking began, in the Schulz Nature Preserve area and the Horton Creek Nature Preserve area.

As Michael R. Federspiel, a Hemingway historian, told John O’Connor in an interview for The New York Times last year, “Northern Michigan was (Hemingway’s) first Eden, and it got seared into his emotions. From that came great stories.”

LOVE IN A NORTHERN TOWN

First he fell in love with northern Michigan, and then he fell in love with Hadley Richardson.

Hadley was eight years older than Hemingway, and on a trip she took to Chicago to stay with a friend, they were introduced. Hemingway fell for her immediately. When she left, he continued to write her letters. The two visited one another—Hemingway going to St. Louis and Hadley to Chicago. Six months after meeting, in June 1921, the two were engaged, and then came time to plan the wedding.

So they headed north to the place that meant the most to Hemingway, so he could share it with his new love. The couple was married on the shores of Lake Charlevoix in Horton Bay on September 3, 1921, and then paddled the short distance across nearby Walloon Lake afterward for their honeymoon.

Soon after the wedding, the couple moved back to Chicago and then to Paris. But that was where they met their demise, and divorced in January 1927. Hemingway—who was to blame for the divorce after his affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, who would become his second wife—spent the rest of his life filled with regret. Just before his suicide in 1961, he wrote about Hadley in A Moveable Feast: “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”

Longtime friend of Hemingway, A.E. Hotchner, also recently shed light on the writer’s love for Hadley. In his book Hemingway in Love, Hotchner wrote that Hemingway said Hadley was “The best and honest and loveliest person I had ever known.” In his own words, Hotchner added, “No man has ever loved a woman more or written about that love so tenderly,” as well as describing Hadley as Hemingway’s “heavenly companion.”

One wonders how often Hemingway recalled the memory of marrying Hadley in northern Michigan, where love was pure.

LEGENDS NEVER DIE

Pick up a copy of The Nick Adams Stories. Read a few. Hemingway is right there, getting married in Horton Bay. Fishing in the Upper Peninsula. Drinking in the Petoskey bars. Those stories, along with many other Hemingway books, are what scholars call “roman à clef,” a French term for a true story that is written through a fictional lens. That was how he wrote.

One of Hemingway’s good friends, director Orson Welles, said of the writer in a 1974 interview, “There’s hardly a word of humor in a Hemingway book, because he’s so tense and solemn and dedicated to what’s true and good.” What’s true and good. That was how Hemingway thought. Maybe he took it too literally.

His group of friends in Paris, upon reading The Sun Also Rises, became angered at the amount of truth in the book about their personal lives and abandoned his friendship. But that never stopped the writer from continuing to ink his own legacy, his own way—uniquely Hemingway.

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY

The Petoskey area is riddled with Hemingway references. Every October the Michigan Hemingway Society throws a Hemingway-themed weekend. The local bookstore, Mclean and Eakin, dedicates an entire section to Hemingway books. Just north of Horton Bay, there is a 44-acre area designated as the Nick Adams Nature Preserve. The nearby Terrace Inn & 1911 Restaurant even has a “Chicken Hemingway” dish on the menu. To say the region is proud of its Hemingway tie would be an understatement.

But this pride is warranted. When Hemingway moved to France in the mid-1920’s, he had yet to write a Nick Adams story. Young Adams was still only a childhood memory for the writer. Sitting in his room in Paris, Hemingway took up his pen and started writing. What came weren’t stories of grand travel or the dangerous war during which he was injured. He wrote about a young boy in northern Michigan. He wrote about what he knew and loved.

These stories persisted—he didn’t simply use them as ammunition until better or more interesting subjects could take their place. In the final year of his life, Hemingway was still writing stories about Nick Adams in northern Michigan. Yet for as often as he visited northern Michigan in his writing, he failed to return in the final four decades of his life. One may ask why. A place so special. A place with so much sentimental value.

To Hemingway, just like to many Michiganders today, northern Michigan was pure, untouched, innocent yet wild, and most of all it was true. It’s where he discovered his passions that would carry him through the rest of his life. And it was where he married Hadley, his first true love.

Until his final day, that’s how northern Michigan was able to remain in Hemingway’s mind: true.


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How to find writing inspiration: My personal journey

You could ask any writer. I’m sure they could tell you how they begin their writing process. But where do they find their writing inspiration?

Maybe inspiration strikes like lightning — the entire story, right there in their mind, neatly wrapped with a bow. Maybe they have a nugget of an idea and begin to expand from there. Maybe they have a notion of an interesting main character and build the plot around him or her.

For me, writing inspiration starts with place.

The most crucial aspects to the stories that I write regard the development of the characters and the setting. Many authors would disagree with this. They would argue that plot development is key, and from there you need to create characters and place around it. To each his own, I guess.

Northern Michigan is where I am inspired. It is far underrepresented in literature, in my opinion. Sure, you can read Hemingway’s The Torrents of Spring, or Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight series, or Mitch Albom’s The First Phone Call From Heaven, or Jim Harrison’s True North, or Travis Mulhauser’s Sweetgirl. For the most part, though, authors tend to stay away from the region. That is something I am intent on changing.

Though most of my writing is set in northern Michigan, I do not consider myself a regional author. Any issues you can find in cities across the country you can find in northern Michigan as well. I simply prefer to explore and interrogate these issues through the fictional lens of northern Michigan. There are passionate people. There are endless lakes and rivers and rolling hills and thick forests. There are hard times and triumphs, and there are laughs and tears.

Everyone needs a place to clear their mind, a respite from the troubles weighing us down. For me, nothing washes away the stresses of the world like the northern shores of the Great Lakes.

And once my own struggles disappear, I write.

Ranking the Top 10 Best Mitch Albom Books

Being from Metro Detroit, Mitch Albom seems to be everywhere. From his Sunday column in the Detroit Free Press, to countless sports articles over the years, to his numerous charities, and even to his popular afternoon radio broadcast on WJR. What’s interested me most, though, have been his books — and there have been some fantastic reads. With Albom recently publishing a new book and with a new one always seemingly on the horizon, I thought I’d take the opportunity to count down the best Mitch Albom books.

For this list, I have only included his three non-fiction books and seven novels. The various column collections and sports books were not included.

As with the other “best books” lists that I’ve written, this is strictly my opinion and in no way definitive. (Unless you 100% agree…then we’ll call it definitive!)


The Top 10 Best Mitch Albom Books

10. The Time Keeper (2012)

Kicking off this list of best Mitch Albom books, The Time Keeper was one of his quieter releases over his career. The first of three “magical realism” novels in a four-year stretch, this book was Albom’s second-lowest rated on Goodreads. With that said, none of his books are rated low. Most authors would love a 3.86 score out of 5 on the social media platform. That just goes to show how talented Albom has been over his writing career.

This particular book tells the story of the inventor of the world’s first clock, known as Father Time, who is confronted with a difficult task of saving a teenage girl and an old businessman. If you haven’t read any Mitch Albom books, this would be a good one to start with — because while it’s still very good, you will end with the comforting feeling that there are still nine better Mitch Albom books out there to explore.

9. The Next Person You Meet in Heaven (2018)

This is a tough one for me. Ranking The Next Person You Meet in Heaven No. 9 on this list of best Mitch Albom books says much more about the eight books ahead of it than it does about this book — I can promise you that. As a follow-up from his 2003 bestseller The Five People You Meet in Heaven, which comes later on this list, Albom revisits both of his main characters — Eddie and Annie — during their heavenly reunion.

While I don’t think this is close to Albom’s best book, it is still an enjoyable magical realism journey and well worth the read. After a year on the shelf, more than 18,000 readers rated the book a 4.3 out of 5 on Goodreads, which is an impressive feat. As with many of Albom’s books, this one is short enough to read in just a few sessions if you’re into it, so I’d save it for a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

8. The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto (2015)

One of Mitch Albom’s more recent books, The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto is also one of his highest-rated on Goodreads.

Like many of his other books, Albom creates a magical world in this novel with the story of Frankie Presto, the greatest guitar player who ever lived. Albom is an avid musician and even plays in a band with the likes of Stephen King, so this book was a chance for him to mix two of his great loves and talents.

Unlike many of his other books, this is not a one-sitting or even a one-day read, coming in at more than 500 pages. However, it will definitely be worth your time.

7. Have a Little Faith (2009)

One of only three non-fiction books that Albom has written about non-sports subjects, Have a Little Faith follows Albom’s mission of reconnecting with his faith after his old rabbi asks him to give his eulogy. In the process, Albom also begins forming a relationship with a Christian pastor in Detroit — a convict and former drug dealer. As two worlds intersect, the Christian and Jewish, Albom tells the true story of how we are all more similar than commonly believed.

Ultimately, according to the publisher, “Have a Little Faith is a book about a life’s purpose; about losing belief and finding it again; about the divine spark inside us all. It is one man’s journey, but it is everyone’s story.”

Albom has built his career on telling true stories, first with his sports writing and then with his Sunday columns and finally with Tuesdays With Morrie, and this is another gem well worth your time.

6. The Five People You Meet in Heaven (2003)

Albom’s second book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, was not only a terrific commercial success — appearing at the top of the New York Times Bestsellers list and being made into a movie — but also serves as the inspiration for one of his more recent novels, The Next Person You Meet in Heaven.

The book centers around one event at a carnival. An old maintenance worker named Eddie, seeing a ride malfunction and begin plummeting toward the ground, risks his life by attempting to push a little girl out of the falling cart’s path. We don’t see what happens to Eddie directly, but he is suddenly in heaven on a new journey meeting five people from his past.

From the Goodreads description: “One by one, from childhood to soldier to old age, Eddie’s five people revisit their connections to him on earth, illuminating the mysteries of his ‘meaningless’ life, and revealing the haunting secret behind the eternal question: ‘Why was I here?'”

Albom’s first fiction book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven is a must-read.

5. The Stranger in the Lifeboat (2021)

The newest addition to this list of best Mitch Albom books, The Stranger in the Lifeboat reads much more like an unfolding mystery than some of his other novels. In the way that only Albom can, this book incorporates faith, fate, love and mystery as its primary pillars.

Set in the aftermath of a yacht explosion in the Atlantic Ocean, a group of passengers find themselves adrift on a life raft. That is when they pull a stranger from the sea who announces that he is the Lord. What ensues on that raft is captured in a journal by one of the survivors. The story jumps back and forth between the events on that raft and an investigator on a Caribbean island who discovers the journal a year after the wreck.

Ultimately, how the reader enjoys and connects with this book — as with most of Albom’s books — will depend on his or her ability to believe. If you have read and loved other books on this list of best Mitch Albom books, then this one is a must-read.

4. The First Phone Call From Heaven (2013)

If you know anything about me, you should know that I have a strong affinity for my home state of Michigan. So seeing The First Phone Call From Heaven — a book set in a fictional town in northern Michigan — ranked fourth on this “best Mitch Albom books” list should be no surprise. And yes, I will certainly admit my bias is likely the reason this one came in so high. But that doesn’t change the fact that it was an outstanding novel.

The premise is like many of Albom’s other fictional books: Some sort of magical, yet oddly believable phenomenon occurs (in this case, people in a small northern Michigan town begin receiving phone calls from deceased loved ones), and then the story of the importance of faith ensues.

By the time Albom wrote this novel, he had already penned three other “magical realism” books, and it’s clear he has mastered the craft.

3. Finding Chika (2019)

Mitch Albom’s newest non-fiction book, Finding Chika tells the heartwarming story of a little girl from Haiti who Mitch and his wife, Janine, took into their own home in an attempt to find a cure for a deadly brain tumor Chika had been diagnosed with.

At once heartbreaking and uplifting, this book rivals Tuesdays With Morrie, in my opinion, as Mitch Albom’s best non-fiction memoir. It goes somewhere that his other books don’t. For the first time, we don’t just see Albom helping others cope during difficult times. In this book, Mitch, Janine and Chika are all suffering together. There’s a vulnerability from Albom that is rarely shown. 

A winner, if I’ve ever read one. You can read my full review here.

2. Tuesdays with Morrie (1997)

This was Albom’s first non-sports book, and it’s safe to say this is the one that put his name on the map, nationally. The bestseller tells the true story of Albom’s visits to his former college professor, an old man named Morrie Schwartz, as he battled ALS. Every Tuesday, he flew from Detroit to the east coast to meet with his old professor in what ended up being his final months.

The book, which seems to teach valuable life lessons through ordinary conversations, has touched millions of lives. Morrie may have put it best when he said, “Maybe death is the great equalizer, the one big thing that can finally make strangers shed a tear for one another.”

If you’re a fan of non-fiction, this should be the next book you read. (Heck, regardless, this should be the next book you read.)

1. For One More Day (2006)

If you’ve read any of Albom’s non-fiction books or Detroit Free Press columns, you already know that he is extremely talented at telling a true story. That’s really what he’s made a career of doing. With For One More Day, he somehow manages to take a fictitious tale and make it seem remarkably believable, as if, somehow, this could be true. Of course it’s not, but he lures you in with first-person narration and that tempting notion of being able to spend one more day with a lost loved one.

What’s probably most seizing about this book, at least for me, is that more than any of his other fiction, I wanted this one to be true. It was Ernest Hemingway who said, “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened.” That’s For One More Day.

Give it a read.


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Ranking the 5 Best Ernest Hemingway Books

For whatever reason — maybe it’s that I can start over fresh, or the inspiration from seeing other writers getting to work on new projects, or the long and cold winter — when a new year rolls around, I find myself reaching for the same books, over and over, by some of my favorite authors. These are generally the classics, such as Steinbeck or Hemingway books, but also include novels by contemporary writers like Philipp Meyer and Mitch Albom.

When it comes to my own writing, I think all of these writers have had an influence. For example, while I was writing Somewhere More Than Free, I was reading a lot of Hemingway — a man who has ties to the same area of northern Michigan that I love to visit. Before I wrote Between Two Slopes, I read Philipp Meyer’s American Rust twice.

Prior to reading books by any of these authors, I did what many readers do: Looked online for recommendations, whether that be in the form of individual reviews by notable publications, reviews from fans or lit website ranking lists. Now, some of these critiques were spot on — others, not so much.

I thought in the spirit of inspiration, I’d countdown some of my favorite Ernest Hemingway books. Whether you agree or disagree with my list, feel free to sound off in the comments below!

Honorable Mention: Hemingway In Love by A.E. Hotchner

Okay, this isn’t technically a Hemingway novel, but it was written by one of his close friends and it offers some interesting insight into the lost love that the famous author grappled with for most of his incredible life. It’s a quick memoir, but definitely worth a read.


The Top 5 Ernest Hemingway Books

5. For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)

By far Hemingway’s longest book on this list, For Whom the Bell Tolls tells the story of a young American soldier during the Spanish Civil War. Much like many of his other works, the characters and setting of this novel come from first-hand experience — as Hemingway spent time in the war as a correspondent. Similarly to The Old Man and the Sea, this book is written from a third-person narration.

All in all, it might be Hemingway’s best — if, of course, he didn’t write four other masterpieces.

4. The Nick Adams Stories (1972)

Alright, I will rightfully admit that this book lands in the fourth spot on this list due to my northern Michigan bias. I picked up a copy of this one at the McLean and Eakin bookstore in Petoskey, Michigan, and this was the first Hemingway I ever read (believe it or not, we never read any Hemingway books in school). What first drew me to it were the short stories that took place in those same woods in which I vacationed as a kid. The Hemingway family cottage was on Walloon Lake, only a short drive from Petoskey.

Nick Adams is an interesting character and semi-autobiographical. Hemingway developed him in some of the first stories that he wrote while abroad in Paris, and Adams continued to appear in stories even shortly before the author’s death. If you haven’t read any of these, I recommend you give them a try.

If you’re interested in Hemingway’s connection to northern Michigan, I wrote an article about it last year.

3. A Farewell to Arms (1929)

McLean and Eakin has an entire section in the front left of the store that is solely dedicated to Ernest Hemingway, so when I was inspired to pick up a copy of A Farewell to Arms, I waited until my next trip to Petoskey to make the purchase.

This book surprised me. I had read plenty of reviews beforehand, and I had also read plenty of articles comparing Hemingway books to one another. I knew I was going to like this — I just didn’t realize how much.

The first-person narrative was likely the biggest reason for my enjoyment. Hemingway is famous for his unique voice, so when he writes in the first-person it feels like a more personal experience reading one of his books.

Though not quite as long as For Whom the Bell Tolls, this is still a more lengthy Hemingway book, so you have to be committed to reading his style before you open this one.

2. The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

Winning him the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, The Old Man and the Sea is essential reading for any Hemingway fan — and it’s a breeze at only 128 pages. What stands officially as a novella at under thirty-thousand words, the book was the famed author’s final masterpiece published in his lifetime.

It tells the story of an old man who grapples with a giant marlin off the coast of Cuba. In many ways, it was the story of Hemingway coming to terms with the stage he’d entered in his writing career and life.

There’s not much more to say about this little book. If you haven’t read any Hemingway, maybe start here to get your feet wet.

1. The Sun Also Rises (1926)

Of his famous novels, this was the first one I read, which I thought made sense given that it was the first one he wrote. Hemingway was only 27 when the novel was published, giving rise to a promising literary career and introducing the world to a man who would become a global celebrity.

If you check out the honorable mention on this list, Hemingway In Love, A.E. Hotchner gives some interesting detail about the time period in Hemingway’s life when he was writing and publishing this book.

At the end of the day, this book — at least to me — felt the most real. It felt like he put himself into it completely and the result was a very personal novel that was uniquely Hemingway.


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Paul Howarth’s ‘Only Killers and Thieves’: An Honest Book Review

What first drew me to Paul Howarth’s debut novel, Only Killers and Thieves, were the numerous comparisons to Philipp Meyer’s The Son. Of course, if you parse through some of my older blog posts you’ll clearly see my admiration for Meyer’s writing. Simply by reading the synopsis, it was evident how similar this new novel would be to The Son, just replace the fields of Texas with the late nineteenth century Australian Outback.

Only Killers and Thieves tells the story of two teenage brothers who face a devastating future after their family is attacked. The boys then are left with a difficult obligation: Hunt down the people responsible. The plot itself is fairly predictable. Sure, there are moments of brief surprise, but the book is almost written in a way where Howarth did not intend to deceive. He paced the plot well; in fact, for its length (just over 300 pages), this was one of the best-paced novels I’ve read in a while. While written in wonderfully descriptive language, there were no wasted words or unnecessary scenes.

This debut novel was written with and for a purpose. It interrogates an important—and often lost—history of the relationship between the white settlers and aboriginal tribes of Australia. In that way, it is appropriately compared to The Son and its examination of white and Native American interactions. There was one quote, late in the text, that really struck home. It read, “The guilt is collective, the responsibility shared. In a hundred years no one will even remember what happened here and certainly no one will care. History is forgiving.” That passage says it all.

The book is aptly titled. Consciences are few and far between in the story, though I suspect the characters were accurately depicted given the race relations during the time period in rural Australia.

At the end of the day, this is a debut novel not only worth reading, but should be pushed to the top of your list. It’s brutal, beautiful and brooding. Much like after finishing Meyer’s first novel, American Rust, I am most interested now in seeing how Howarth follows up this exceptional debut.