Saturday, June 04, 2016

Pieces to make you smile - by Mooallem, Frias & Posnanski

Three pieces of writing from over the past few weeks struck me as really well done and smile-inducing, with one from the New York Times Magazine, one from a blog, and one a newspaper.

The NYT Magazine feature was "The Amateur Cloud Society That (Sort Of) Rattled the Scientific Community" by Jon Mooallem and it was a very cool look at Gavin Pretor-Pinney, a Brit who started a Cloud Appreciation Society and spearheaded the successful effort to get a cloud formation official status recognition. Mooallem's writing feels to lean towards the lovely and almost mystical, with his great book Wild Ones (that I wrote about in 2013) an example, and this piece definitely fit the same bill with the conclusion just making the reader feel good.

Another writer whose work can be particularly emotional and thought-provoking is Joe Posnanski and he recently did an awesome blog post that was then posted on the site of his employer, NBC Sports. "Hamilton" is about taking his 14-year-old daughter Elizabeth to see the Lin-Manuel Miranda play in New York and the post is really lovely, and then made all the more so by the story Posnanski tells in the postscript added on.

The final piece to note here is the shortest with "How a firefighter’s dying wish helped start one of Miami’s best pie shops" by Carlos Frias for the Miami Herald and it's a great story of love, friendship, remembrance, and accomplishment.

Neither Snow Nor Rain by Devin Leonard

Neither Snow Nor Rain by Devin Leonard was a really interesting book with the subtitle A History of the United States Postal Service.

In telling a compelling story about something I might not have expected to find as such, the book reminded me of the Beth Macy book Factory Man, which I wrote about in 2014, or to a lesser extent, the Tom Vanderbilt book Traffic, that I wrote about in 2008. Additionally, Leonard's work brought to mind the excellent Esquire article "Do We Really Want to Live Without the Post Office?" by Jesse Lichtenstein.

I liked quite a bit how at both the beginning and end of Neither Snow Nor Rain, Leonard wrote about Evan Kalish, someone who visits Post Offices across the country and chronicles the travels on his blog, Going Postal. Kalish's story struck me as being very cool in having a combination of Americana and a case of some who found a thing they like and dove into it.

In terms of the historical details from the book, Leonard wrote of how in 1737, Benjamin Franklin became Postmaster of Philadelphia and then Postmaster General of America on July 4, 1776. Postal history through the years then included the crusade against immorality by Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock, air mail, rural free delivery, and private delivery services, both hundreds of years ago and in then in the 1970s via FedEx, UPS, and DHL.

Leonard wrote of how in 1947, the Post Office delivered 36 billion items, 114 billion in 1982, peaked at 213 billion in 2006 and was back down to 171 billion in 2010. This drop in volume and accompanying revenue combined with the how the Post Office must operate, with being legally required to provide universal service six days a week to every American home and business and have service costs determined by a Postal Regulatory Commission has led to the current fiscal problems suffered by the Post Office. Related to the Commission, Leonard as a Businessweek writer just did "Making No Cents" on how the cost of sending a first class letter was for some reason recently dropped two cents.

All in all, an excellent book from Leonard and anyone remotely interested in the subject would likely enjoy it quite a bit.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Interesting business writing by Oldham, Leonard, Brustein & Brodesser-Akner

There was few different interesting stories from Bloomberg Businessweek lately, with two features and two short pieces to note here.

The longer stories were "The Real Story of How Amazon Built the Echo" by Joshua Brustein and "Even the World's Top Life Coaches Need a Life Coach. Meet Martha Beck" by Taffy Brodesser-Akner.

The latter of the two particularly stood out to me both due to the compelling first-person writing from Brodesser-Akner towards the end and the insights attributed to Beck, with the two quotes below related to the idea of acting in ways true to oneself...

"If it makes you feel good, do more of it. And if it makes you feel horrible, maybe you should back off a little."

"How did I come to believe this, and does it serve me to continue believing it?"

Two smaller pieces that I found of note were "The Party’s Over in Alaska" by Jennifer Oldham on Governor Bill Walker reacting to the impact of low oil prices on the state's economy and from Devin Leonard"Making No Cents," a story related to his book Neither Snow nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain was an entertaining novel about the surviving members of Bravo Squad, U.S. soldiers back home on a promotional tour of sorts after their actions during a firefight in Iraq.

Set largely in Texas Stadium during a Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game, it's an interesting and contemplative book focused on 19-year-old Billy Lynn and the absurdity of he and his squad mates being feted as heroes prior to being shipped back to war.

It's a fast read from Fountain and while I kept thinking it would culminate in something different, the book struck me as extremely heartfelt and seemed true to life, even as it told the story of a seemingly unreal life situation.

I first heard of the novel in relation to it as the basis of a major motion picture coming out in November, with Steve Martin playing Cowboys owner Norm Oglesby, and am definitely interested in seeing the movie.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Great writing on the effects of violence

Some amazing writing I've seen recently detailed people dealing with the effects of violence, with three of the pieces around guns and one an incomprehensible act on a toddler.

For The New York Times Magazine, C.J. Chivers wrote "A Lone Bullet’s Long Toll" on Dustin (Doc) Kirby, a former Navy corpsman who was hit with a sniper bullet ten years ago in Iraq and Pamela Colloff for Texas Monthly provided "The Reckoning" on Claire Wilson, a victim of the University of Texas Tower shooting in 1966. The feature from Colloff was amazing and brought to mind her 2006 oral history of the shooting, "96 Minutes," also for Texas Monthly.

Two pieces done for GQ were also by great writers, with "Should We Get Used to Mass Shootings?" by Michael Paterniti and "A Positive Life: How a Son Survived Being Injected with HIV by His Father" by Justin Heckert. The Heckert story particularly stuck with me in being just bananas in it's subject, and also really well written.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Great sports stories - by Thompson on Woods & Boyd on Palmeiro

Two amazing recent sports stories both dealt with subjects that have gone through profound (and at least in part self-caused) difficulties, with one piece done for ESPN and the other the Fox Sports website.

"The Secret History of Tiger Woods" was an amazing 12,000 word feature by Wright Thompson and though it didn't generate as much immediate interest as the story on Woods, "The Rise and Fall of Rafael Palmeiro" by Flinder Boyd was excellent, and Boyd seemingly doesn't getting the attention deserved for what a good writer he is.

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson was an entertaining book about traveling throughout his adopted Britain, twenty years after doing so for his book Notes from a Small Island.

Bryson is a guy who has written incredibly widely, with my tremendously enjoying his books One Summer: America, 1927 (which I wrote about two years ago), In a Sunburned Country about traveling in Australia, A Walk in the Woods on hiking the Appalachian Trail, and The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid about himself growing up.

I probably didn't love The Road to Little Dribbling as much as much as I did Bryson's books on Australia and the Appalachian Trail, but found it to be an enjoyable and funny read that further detail can be found on in a New York Times book review.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell

What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell is a book I was interested to read after I thought excellent Bell's book Love Wins, which I wrote about in 2011. While I found this more recent work to be a bit of a slog to read at times, it did have a few things I thought of particular note.

The big idea I took from it was Bell writing on just how mysterious and complex the universe is and how to say that God is simply impossible ignores that mystery and complexity, we simply don't know. Related to this, Bell writes that when we talk about God, we're using words, phrases, and forms to describe something beyond words, phrases and forms. It's like trying to use one construct to describe something that's from a completely different construct.

I was also struck by how Bell in the body of the book as well as appendix mentioned several people whose work I appreciate, including lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson and writers Haruki Murakami, Yann Martel, Christopher McDougall, and Bill Bryson.

The last thing to mention in this post is a story I read recently that deals with the same topic of God, faith and the church. Written for GQ Magazine, "What Would Cool Jesus Do?" was an entertaining and kind of touching story by Taffy Brodesser-Anker about mega-church Hillsong NYC.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Best writing linked to in 2015

I didn't post as often in 2015 as in past years, but there were still some great pieces of writing I linked to and following on to my series of past "best writing" posts, below are my favorite stories linked to last year...

In the category of sports writing were "The Education of Alex Rodriguez" by J.R. Moehringer for ESPN The Magazine and "Officer back on the streets, with a story to tell" by Gregg Doyel for the Indianapolis Star.

My favorite business piece of the year was "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace" by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld for the New York Times.

Two short pieces that struck me as really profound were "An Extra Angel on Top of the Tree" by Jessica Strawser for the New York Times and "Thomas Gray lived six days, but his life has lasting impact" by Michael Vitez for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Also, three additional pieces I linked to in the past year that stood out were all about writers and events in their lives, with "The Friend" by Matthew Teague for Esquire and "The Accident" by Michael Paterniti for GQ both first-person accounts and "Why the Best War Reporter in a Generation Had to Suddenly Stop" done on C.J. Chivers by Mark Warren for Esquire.

There's of course other great stories from last year, I'm sure including ones I've read and neglected to mention here,so a link to note is The Sunday Long Read Best of 2015 list. Sports writers Don Van Natta Jr. and Jacob Feldman send out a compilation of their favorite weekly stories and for anyone interested in great feature writing, it's a fantastic resource to subscribe to.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz

The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz was an excellent work of fiction as the fourth book in the Millennium Series started by Stieg Larsson with his books The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

Larsson died in 2004 and his family commissioned Lagercrantz to write another novel on the characters of Mikael Blomkvist and particularly Lisbeth Salander, with very enjoyable results.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Big Magic by Liz Gilbert

Big Magic by Liz Gilbert was an excellent read with the best-selling author's ruminations on a creative life. She covers a lot of ground in the book and the concepts that I found most interesting and insightful felt to group together into a few different areas…


Gilbert writes that someone should be creative simply because they enjoy being creative. It's not about toiling away in pursuit of a goal, but rather the making of things because they’re fun to make. If they're not fun, then why make them? Additionally she covers how creativity and a creative life isn't necessarily about writing or producing art and Gilbert tells the story of her friend who started figure skating again in her 40's. She skated in the mornings prior to her day and wasn’t winning medals, but did so because she loved to skate.


In writing about her figure skating friend, Gilbert notes that she didn't quit her job to pursue skating, bur rather maintained her responsibilities in life, and skated as a vocation. Also, Gilbert covers how her father would hold down a normal job and then outside of work pursue whatever was interesting to him, with one example beekeeping. The idea covered in the book is that people have responsibilities and once those are met, there's usually still going to be time that can be made available for creative side endeavors that are fun. In fact, Gilbert also writes of how creativity generally shouldn’t be expected to pay the bills as it’s not a fair burden to put on those pursuits.


Another concept that Gilbert writes about is that creative pursuit doesn't have to be about pursuing a passion. If someone is passionate about a particular thing and pursues it in a healthy way (again, with also meeting the responsibilities of life) that’s great, but it's also great to simply pursue things of interest. Through seeing what's of interest, then learning about and working on that thing, a lot of cool learning and work can develop. Maybe it'll become a passion, but maybe remain an interest until that interest replaced by something new that strikes the fancy, and that's totally fine.


Gilbert also covers about when working on something, the result isn’t always going to be great. I found particularly cool her writing about creativity and particularly creative genius not as character traits, but as things, which sometimes you've got and sometimes you don't, no big deal. With this the case, people should be willing to just do and produce stuff and not get too hung up on how great a particular output is. The important thing for someone who enjoys to create is that they just create. Sometimes the work great, but if not, you finish it and then move on to the next thing. Gilbert makes the case that perfection can be the enemy of good and that heck, if there has to be a choice made between them, done is better than good. Related to this, Someone shouldn’t dwell on their failures or successes, but simply create and move on as motion always beats inertia.


Additionally noted in the book is that creativity as a pursuit isn't essential, it’s not medicine or subsistence farming, its fun and people being creative shouldn't take it too seriously. This is especially the case if someone worried about what others might say of their creative work. Gilbert writes that people really aren't paying that much attention so those who want to be creative should relax, find things of interest, learn about and pursue them, make stuff and put it out there for others. Whether others are long captivated by work isn't as important as the person doing the work enjoying the creation of it, and believing that what they do has value. Covered in the book is the importance of someone having a sense of entitlement that they're allowed to be there, and perhaps this sense of entitlement is delusional, but Gilbert writes of how if you're going to live your life based on a delusion, as many of us do, choose a delusion that's helpful to you.

On this topic of people and their reaction to work created by others, Gilbert notes how when something created, people are free to do with it what they may, including completely misunderstand it. The artist free to create what they want, and receiver of the art free to consume it as they want.

The last thing to note about Big Magic is that toward the end of the book, Gilbert writes about her first published story, "Pilgrims" from 1993. She wrote the auto-biographical piece and Esquire bought the finished story, but then needed to cut pages from the magazine and gave her a choice to either cut 30% or hope it would run later. She choose to cut and Gilbert wrote of actually finding value in the process of cutting the story and how the shorter version neither better not worse than what she started with, just different. That story getting published in Esquire, and it may never have if she hadn't been willing to cut it for that particular issue, wound up getting her an agent and on her way to success in writing. All from viewing the story not as a sacred thing that couldn’t be revised, but rather something she enjoyed writing, put out there and then moved on from.

Big Magic was a really enjoyable read for me and one of the things I found I kept thinking throughout was that Gilbert's advice on creativity reminded me of writing on life produced by the late public policy expert John Gardner. With this the case, it was fascinating to me to see that when I wrote in 2013 about Gilbert’s book The Signature of All Things, I referenced part of that novel reminding me of writing from Gardner.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Ghost Soliders by Hampton Sides

Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides was a really good book with the subtitle The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission. Sides is a writer who came across from the 2013 Outside Magazine piece "Wake-Up Call: Surviving an Attack by Flesh-Eating Bacteria" and who then wrote the book In the Kingdom of Ice which I enjoyed quite a bit.

Ghost Soldiers chronicles the fate of several hundred Allied Prisoners of War on the Philippines and while the heroism and selflessness written about was remarkable, also astounding was the cruelty of the Japanese soldiers. The largely inhumane treatment of Allied POWs likely stemmed from the official negative view of capture held by the Japanese, with Sides writing that "armies of Western Nations fighting in World War II typically saw a ratio of four soldiers captured to every soldier killed on the battlefield. In the Japanese Army, the ratio was one soldier captured for every 120 deaths." Sides went on to write in relation to the treatment of POWs that "the death rate of all Allied POWs held in German and Italian camps was approximately 4%. In Japanese-run camps, the death rate was 27%."

It was a story told well by Sides and important reading especially for someone not familiar with the atrocities, sacrifice and heroism of the war.

Interesting business writing - on hacking medical devices, building a self-driving car, and the Tesla Gigafactory

Three different pieces of business writing that struck me as interesting recently included an important look at medical device security and two pieces about automotive innovation.

From Businessweek in November was "It’s Way Too Easy to Hack the Hospital" by Monte Reel and Jordan Robertson with a sobering look at the danger that can arise from minimal security around both medical devices and internet firewalls in hospitals.

The two related pieces were from Business and Fast Company respectively with "The First Person to Hack the iPhone Built a Self-Driving Car. In His Garage" by Ashlee Vance and "Elon Musk Powers Up: Inside Tesla's $5B Gigafactory" by Max Chafkin. The piece by Vance is about a pretty brilliant inventor in George Hotz and for the Fast Company feature, Chafkin was apparently granted the greatest outsider access so far to the Tesla battery factory outside Reno.