Books

Review: 'When History is Personal' may inspire budding writers

We all have stories to tell, and non-fiction author Mimi Schwartz graciously shares 25 of her own in “When History is Personal,” a collection of essays out this month from University of Nebraska Press.

Schwartz writes in a bright, swift style, moving from her girlhood in Queens, N.Y., where she was raised the child of German-Jewish immigrants; to her early marriage (and near disastrous first Thanksgiving); to a battle with breast cancer and the passing of her beloved husband.

“I write to capture the world inside and outside my window, with an eye toward finding ‘the extraordinary in the ordinary’ as Cynthia Ozick calls our daily surprises,” she writes in the introduction. “Each essay focuses on a moment that mattered to me with an eye to the history, culture, and politics that have shaped it.”

The amount of space given over to these larger issues, including anti-Semitism, racism, and end-of-life issues, varies widely depending on the essay, and the narratives that pack the greatest emotional punch seem to lean on these wider topics sparingly, such as the book’s later essays, which focus on Schwartz’s life after age 60.

Here she cheerfully performs physical therapy exercises at home to save money and her tennis game; she joins a community theater and applies the improv mantra “yes, and” to her life; there are tattoos to consider, deaths to grieve. Big topics, yes, but Schwartz’s chatty style keeps things moving, resulting in an experience akin to chitchatting with an interesting neighbor, a new friend, bouncing easily from one topic to the next until a fully realized picture begins to take shape.

It’s all here — a whole life — and one imagines Schwartz’s family must feel immense pleasure in having such a complete record to pass down to further generations.

And while some essays, such as “Off the King’s Highway,” may be too familial for a general audience, Schwartz’s work certainly could serve as inspiration for those keen to write memoirs of their own.

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