Monday, October 20, 2014

Writers on writing - Gillian Flynn, Hunter S. Thompson & many on Gangrey

There's a few pieces on the subject of writing that I've seen over the past few weeks and found to be absolutely captivating. The most in-depth by far of the three was the post "Eating Jack Hooker's Cow" from the writing site Gangrey. About the 1997 Esquire story by Michael Paterniti, the Gangrey post really is a master class in writing with many great journalists giving their views on the piece and writing in general.

The other two pieces on writing to note here were much shorter ones with the much more recent being Joe Berkowitz for Fast Company Magazine writing on Gillian Flynn, author of both the book Gone Girl and screenplay of the excellent movie of the same name. Additionally, the site Boing Boing recently posted the highly entertaining "Hunter S. Thompson's 1958 cover letter for a newspaper job" from the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas among other well-known books.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Factory Man by Beth Macy

Factory Man by Beth Macy is an interesting book about offshoring, rural America and where income equality comes from.

The book tells the story of John Bassett III and his Vaughn-Bassett Furniture Company that employs more than 700 people in the South and manufactures entirely in America. While the book provides a largely positive view of both the man and company, which has a section about Macy's book on it's website, it's definitely not a puff piece, but rather an account of a family, company, industry and the costs of globalization on U.S. manufacturing and the works who used to do it.

The book was an excellent one and further information on it can be found in a New York Times review by Mimi Swartz and Businessweek Q&A with Macy.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Interesting sports pieces - by Wickersham, Anderson & Holmes

A couple of great pieces of recent sports writing included work from the Boston Globe, ESPN and Bleacher Report.

Two Bay Area-centric pieces were "Bill Russell, K.C. Jones treated like ‘Rock’ stars at Alcatraz" by Baxter Holmes, who is leaving the Globe to write for ESPN, and the Seth Wickersham story "Jim Harbaugh comfortable in chaos" for ESPN on the 49ers head coach.

Sticking with the football head coach theme (just in this case college and Ole Miss) was an excellent piece by Lars Anderson with "Good Guys Finish 1st: The Hugh Freeze Story" written for Bleacher Report.

Really excellent pieces all from Holmes, Wickersham and Anderson.

Businessweek writing - by Bennett, Stone, Vance & Homans

There's been a number of interesting stories from the past few issues of Businessweek, including one feature and a number of shorter pieces.

The longest of the stories was "What Can the McLaren Racing Team Teach the Rest of Us?" by Drake Bennett and it was a fascinating look at data science and decisions (in racing or any number of other pursuits) being made based on probabilities derived from a constantly expanding number of data points.

The shorter pieces of note included two from Brad Stone with "California Print Magazine Is Born From Pop-Up Storytelling Show" on California Sunday Magazine and "Thync Lets You Give Your Mind a Jolt" on the at first weird to me, but then more logical when the idea of drinking a cup of coffee considered, idea of mild electrical stimulation of the brain to improve cognitive performance.

The other two short pieces to mention here were "Stand Stand: A Portable Standing Desk for the People" from Ashlee Vance on the Kickstarter-funded standing desk company and a review by Jon Homans of the Walter Isaacson book The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Airplane calamity stories - by Langewiesche & Bissinger

Two pieces of phenomenal writing I've seen recently were on airplane calamities with one a feature from the October issue of Vanity Fair and one a Longform reprint of a St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper story from 1981.

For Vanity Fair, William Langewiesche wrote "The Human Factor" on the crash of Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic Ocean, a disaster that's written in this excellent piece as being one that both become more rare with automated flight systems and was caused in part by pilots not being prepared to deal with problems that arise, given due to their reliance on... automated flight systems.

The much older Pioneer Press story by Buzz Bissinger, who later became well known for writing the book Friday Night Lights and I've a few times written about pieces from, was also brilliantly written and fascinating in that the details recounted are almost the counterpoint to those told of in the Vanity Fair story. "The Plane That Fell From the Sky" told the story of TWA Flight 841, one that suffered severe mechanical failure (as opposed to the human failings from the doomed Air France flight) and then required herculean efforts from the captain to try to land the plane safely.

Both stories were remarkable, with the first featuring amazing pieced together detail from flight recordings and the second just amazing events retold really well.

American Hippopotamus by Jon Mooallem

American Hippopotamus by Jon Mooallem was an entertaining Kindle single (estimated by Amazon at 71 printed pages) about the seemingly fictional effort at the start of the 20th century to import hippos to live in the American South and become a cattle substitute.

The story has been optioned to be made into a film and features the larger than life characters of Frederick Russell Burnham, the inspiration for Indiana Jones and model for the Boy Scouts, and Fritz Duquesne, a spy and constant schemer.

The story was written about in a Q&A with Mooallem for Wired and as a Kindle single, it's definitely a short read, but an interesting and true one nonetheless.

Monday, October 06, 2014

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein was an entertaining novel from the author of the excellent 2008 book The Art of Racing in the Rain.

This latest effort from Stein is set in his home city of Seattle about tells a story of family, secrets, ghosts and big choices made by the book's 14-year-old narrator. I don't know I found myself terribly happy with the ending (as opposed to the writer of this Seattle Times review of A Sudden Light who found the finale "immensely satisfying"), but I thought the book an interesting and at times poignant read.

Atul Gawande essays - on Ebola & end-of-life care

Noted surgeon and author Atul Gawande had two solid pieces of writing publish recently in The New Yorker and New York Times, respectively.

I've read three of Gawande's books and posted on his writing a number of times and was particularly interested to see the Times piece as noted a new book Gawande has coming out. "The Best Possible Day" is excerpted from Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End and a fascinating personal story of an end-of-life care approach that came out of taking the time to understand what a patient really wants.

The other recent piece to note here was "The Ebola Epidemic is Stoppable" out of The New Yorker that Gawande is a staff writer for and it's a very measured telling of how the dangerous disease not easily transmitted from person to person.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Writing on fascinating people - by Mooney & Weil

Two recent stories on fascinating people included one on a female explorer and one on a woman's struggle with her sexuality.

For the New York Times, Elizabeth Weil wrote "The Woman Who Walked 10,000 Miles (No Exaggeration) in Three Years" on Sarah Marquis and Michael Mooney for D Magazine wrote "A Changed Woman" on Amanda Barbour. Both stories are remarkable tales of people with their own individual struggles and each piece really well-written.

Deep by James Nestor

Deep by James Nestor was a really interesting book that starts off about freediving and then covers so much more about the ocean and life in it.

Nestor for a 2012 issue of Outside Magazine wrote "Open Your Mouth and You're Dead" on competitive freedivers going down hundreds of feet below the ocean surface on a single breath and Deep reminded me of the great Susan Casey book The Wave (which I wrote about in 2010), but Casey's book probably more about what happens on the surface of the water and Nestor's underneath it.

One of the details covered by Nestor included the distinction between competitive freediving as an odd and somewhat sadomasochistic sport and freediving not for depth records, but as a way to reach and interact with the ocean and life at depth. In this regard, there's great material in the book about freediving for the purpose of studying shark behavior as well as sperm whale communication.

Additionally, Nestor writes about depths that freedivers can't reach, with him journeying over 2,000 feet underwater in a submarine off the coast of Honduras and writing about research done in the hadal zone some 28,000 feet deep. This part was particularly fascinating with writing of how much life down there as a result of hydrothermal vents and a process known as chemosynthetic life.

Really a fascinating and wide-ranging book from Nestor.

Vanity Fair articles on Sam Simon & The Shawshank Redemption

There were two really interesting recent Vanity Fair articles with one on a co-creator of The Simpsons and one on The Shawshank Redemption.

"Always Leave Them Laughing" was written by Merrill Markoe about Sam Simon and an interesting tale of how the co-creator of the hugely successful show The Simpsons spends his final days battling a diagnosis of terminal cancer and supporting multiple animal-rights causes.

The other piece to note here was by Margaret Heidenry with "The Little-Known Story of How The Shawshank Redemption Became One of the Most Beloved Films of All Time." Just really fascinating information from Heidenry about a slow build towards iconic status.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Pieces on writing - about Jeff Pearlman, interviewing subjects & giving yourself permission

There's been a few different pieces I've seen lately that seem to group together as being about both the want to and how to of producing great writing.

The most recent of the pieces was "The Making of a New York Times Bestselling Sportswriter: The Jeff Pearlman Story" by Jon Finkel for the site ThriveWire and it featured the interesting tale of how Pearman became a successful writer. On one hand, I find it somewhat flummoxing to read of someone who knew at a young age what they wanted to do and then did it (I mean, if only we all knew when young what we wanted?!), see Stephen King from his excellent book On Writing, but on the other hand, there was great stuff from Pearlman on both his repeated and creative efforts to eventually get hired at Sports Illustrated and about the importance of reporting, rather than just writing.

This idea of reporting and interviewing very much ties into another interesting piece I've seen recently. "The Art of the Interview, ESPN-Style" was by David Folkenflik for NPR in 2006 and about Jack Sawatsky, a writing professor turned interviewing guru that was hired by ESPN to teach the craft.

The last piece to note here wasn't on the how to in becoming a successful creative, but very much the want to as Brian Koppleman on his person website wrote "Permission Granted!" about career advice he gave to a young writer/director and Koppleman finished his piece with...

"You are the only one who can give yourself permission. I am the only one who can give myself permission. And this young man is the only one who can give himself permission. And that is great news. That is freedom. If we let it be. We just need to listen to ourselves, to speak honestly to ourselves, to permit ourselves. And then, we are off and running."

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Great sports writing - by Moehringer, Van Valkenburg & Rushin

A few different pieces of great recent sports writing included from Sport Illustrated an opus out of the 6oth anniversary issue and from ESPN, a shorter opus on Derek Jeter and feature about offensive football mastermind Hal Mumme.

The Sports Illustrated 60th anniversary review was written by Steve Rushin and unfortunately isn't online now, but the 20,500 word story is a remarkably written piece on the events and people that shaped the world of sports through the past six decades. The piece from Rushin followed up on his SI 40th anniversary piece from 1994 and very much reminded me of the great SI 2012 Sportsman of the Year profile of LeBron James by Lee Jenkins that seems to not be online anymore, but I wrote about here.

The two recent ESPN pieces are both online and excellent work with J.R. Moehringer doing some 9,000 words in "The Final Walk-Off" on Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter and Kevin Van Valkenburg writing "Yoda of the Air-Raid Offense, He Is" on former Kentucky football coach Hal Mumme. This piece by Van Valkenburg was published about a week ago for ESPN The Magazine and brought to mind for me the Chuck Culpepper story "Uniquely Memorable" about former Pacific Lutheran coach Frosty Westering, another coach who worked to have the game be fun for his players.

Interesting business pieces - by Stone, Carr & Ringen

Three compelling pieces of recent business writing included cover stories from both Businessweek and Fast Company as well as an additional Fast Company feature.

The Businessweek piece was "Tim Cook Interview: The iPhone 6, the Apple Watch, and Remaking a Company's Culture" and an interesting look by Brad Stone and Adam Satariano at Apple and it's CEO.

The Fast Company pieces were "The $3.2 Billion Man: Can Google's Newest Star Outsmart Apple?" by Austin Carr on Tony Fadell and Nest as well as "Tastier, Healthier, And Animal-Free: Can Ethan Brown Reinvent Meat?" by Jonathan Ringen on the company Beyond Meat. This last story in particular was a fascinating one with Brown's company offering a becoming widely available substitute for meat that has all the flavor and proteins, but without the negative ramifications of meat. Ringen in his story noted it taking 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of steak, a figure that seems high, but is actually lower than the 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat that was noted in the book Abundance that I reviewed a month ago.

Writing on the CIA and Secret Service - by Leonnig, Burt & Wax-Thibodeaux

Three recent excellent stories seemed to group together with the CIA being the topic of two of them (one a heroic tale and one simply an interesting story) and an extremely poor response by the Secret Service the topic of the third.

The larger and more gravitas-having of the two CIA stories was for Slate by Andrew Burt with "Your Future Is Very Dark," a remarkable tale that carries the subtitle "The incredible story of former CIA agent John T. Downey, the longest held American captive of war." Downey is now a judge and the story of him being held by the Chinese for 20 years until his 1973 release is simply an amazing one.

The other CIA story to note here certainly an entirely different one than that on Downey, but Emily Wax-Thibodeaux wrote a pretty interesting short piece with "At CIA Starbucks, even the baristas are covert" for the Washington Post.

Also published in the Post was "Secret Service fumbled response after gunman hit White House residence in 2011" by Carol Leonnig and it's a sobering tale of bumbled response by those in an extremely important job.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Shadows in the Vineyard by Maxamillian Potter

Shadows in the Vineyard by Maxamillian Potter was an interesting tale with the subtitle "The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World's Greatest Wine."

The book is about the poisoning and ransom demands put to the famed French vineyard Domaine de la RomanĂ©e-Conti and its winemaker Aubert de Villaine. While the book could be interesting to many, it's also an "inside baseball" sort of account of wine, with a ton of compelling to oenophiles material about the industry, famed Burgundy region and RomanĂ©e-Conti, a wine so sought after, bottles can go for thousands upon thousands of dollars.

In a way the conclusion to the story is a bit of a letdown, but seems more a function of just what the story told is rather than anything wrong done in the writing, and Potter wrote an interesting book that would likely be especially appreciated by wine lovers.

Great sports pieces - by Van Natta Jr., Drehs and Thamel

There's been a few sports stories I've seen recently that I found to be excellent, including two long profiles for ESPN and a story for Sports Illustrated that related to a fantastic ESPN video.

The profile pieces were "Jerry Football" by Don Van Natta Jr. on Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and "Two in a Million" by Wayne Drehs on MLB superstars Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout. Two exceptionally well done features from Van Natta and Drehs on compelling people.

The other piece of writing to note here stood out to me due to what it was about with Pete Thamel for Sports Illustrated writing "Boston College uses emotion and its running game to shock No. 9 USC" on the heels of BC honoring at the game Welles Crowther, the former Eagle lacrosse player who perished saving others on 9/11 and the subject of a great ESPN video segment.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Interesting Businessweek writing - by Waldman & Vance

There's been a number of interesting pieces from Businessweek recently with feature stories out of the September 8-14 issue by Ashlee Vance and Peter Waldman and two additional short pieces by Vance.

The story from Waldman was "How to Get Into an Ivy League College—Guaranteed" on Steven Ma and his Bay Area-based ThinkTank Learning. It's a pretty fascinating read that shows the lengths some families will go to in order to help get kids into the best schools.

The Vance feature was "Silicon Valley's Most Hated Patent Troll Stops Suing and Starts Making" and an interesting look at both why the Seattle-based Intellectual Ventures so reviled in tech circles and new initiatives at the company.

Also by Vance, the same magazine issue had the short pieces "As Software and Hardware Advance Together, the Next Innovation Wave Rises" on the great advantage held by companies like Apple, Tesla Motors and Nest (now part of Google) and for the BW website Vance did "Why Microsoft Might Pay $2 Billion for Minecraft," with this last piece bringing to mind Robin Sloan's excellent "The secret of Minecraft" piece for Medium.

Great writing on outdoor danger / adventure - by Sundeen, Murphy & Sanchez

Three really excellent recent pieces of writing that seemed to group together for me were on travel deep into Mexico, attending a wilderness survival course and calamitous flooding in Colorado last year.

For the New York Times, Mark Sundeen wrote "Ignoring the Warnings for a Honeymoon in Mexico" and it's a short piece that pulls the reader in with the question of what's going to happen next. Really well written from Sundeen and brings to mind for me his 2012 feature "Why Noah Went to the Woods" for Outside Magazine.

Another interesting recent short piece was "I Will Survive: Going Wild at the Bear Grylls Survival Academy" by Austin Murphy for the Sports Illustrated website and a great recent lengthy feature was from Robert Sanchez with "The Rising" for 5280 Magazine. Sanchez wrote of the September 2013 cataclysmic flooding of the Big Thompson River near Loveland, CO and it's a great tale of danger and heroism. Seeing the piece in the Denver-based 5280 brought to mind for me the excellent essay for 5280 "Yesterday's News" by J.R. Moehringer about starting out as a writer at the Mountain News.