Saturday, August 20, 2016

Hellhound On His Trail by Hampton Sides

Hellhound On His Trail by Hampton Sides was a great book about the manhunt for James Earl Ray, the killer of Martin Luther King Jr. The book starts with the escape of a prisoner in April, 1967, one year before the assassination of King, and there's fascinating detail in it about Ray, his actions and the times.

Sides covers well King and his Poor People's Campaign to occur Washington D.C., the enmity towards King by J. Edgar Hoover, longtime director of the FBI, and former Alabama governor George Wallace running for President on an isolationist and segregationist platform. Much of the book is a coming together of people and events and King was shot maybe 40% of the way through it. After this, Sides covers Ray fleeing Memphis, and the incredibly thorough and old fashioned pounding the pavement detective work that went into identifying and searching King's killer.

Details about the 65 day manhunt included Ray going to Atlanta, his car being discovered there, then clothes of his being traced to a Los Angeles area dry cleaner, which led to the FBI discovering a fingerprint match that established his identity. After this, police found that he had spent time in Canada under an assumed name. Then Canadian authorities poured over passport applications, found that Ray went Europe and alerted authorities there. Even with that alert going out, Ray was only apprehended trying to leave London as the result of authorities noticing he had a second passport, cancelled due to misspelling in the name, and someone then connecting that he was a fugitive. Incredibly, after Ray was returned to America and sent to state prison for the murder of King, he escaped and was caught in the mountains after 54 hours on the run.

It's a remarkable story told with great detail by Sides and I enjoyed it at least as much as I did two other excellent reads from Sides, Ghost Soldiers, and In the Kingdom of Ice.

The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant

The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant was an interesting book from 2005 about the illegal felling of a giant tree off the Northwest coast of Canada.

I previously enjoyed quite a bit Vaillant's later book, The Tiger, and in The Golden Spruce, he does the same excellent job of blending together stories about a fascinating region and things that occurred within it.

It was a fast read and a much longer than this one review of the book was done for the Seattle PI by John Marshall.

The Lost Carving by David Esterly

The Lost Carving by David Esterly was a solid book about a year Esterly spent restoring wood carvings damaged in a 1986 fire at Hampton Court Palace in England. The limewood carvings were done in the late 1600s by Grinling Gibbons and depicted Gibbons' primary subject area of flowers, fruits and foliage.

Esterly at the time of the fire was one of the few professional carvers working in limewood and as a young man was an academic at Cambridge, then left for America and took various teamsters jobs. He became interested in carving after seeing a Gibbons exhibition and the book describes the craft as a sort of duality between mind and body. I found interesting the description from Esterly of carving involving the two hands working against each other to accomplish a goal and in many ways, The Lost Carving is a meditative book about creation and creativity that comes through the form on working with your hands.

Two things I loved at the end of the book were a quote from Benjamin Franklin that "well done is better than well said" and Esterly writing that it's better at bedtime to be physically tired than mentally exhausted. Also about the craft of carving, Esterly wrote on spending time carving areas in the back of a piece of work, places that people won't see. The term Esterly uses for this type of endeavor is conscientiousness and there's quite a bit in the book about his quest to do right by the work. Along with the effort put into the carvings, Esterly covered the political decisions he had to navigate through, with an example being whether to have the carvings remain light as Gibbons did them or have a varnish to make the carvings look more like they did at the time of the fire.

It's really a cool book for anyone interested in creativity and making things.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Not Fade Away by Laurence Shames and Peter Barton

Not Fade Away by Laurence Shames and Peter Barton was an excellent book from Barton, former CEO of Liberty Media, co-written with writer and journalist Shames about Barton's life and his death from stomach cancer in 2002 at the age of 51.

The subtitle to the book is "a short life well lived" and Shames in it noted how Barton in response to a question of why spend time on it while dying said that he wanted his kids to know more about who he was and what he valued and I found compelling Barton's thoughts on both his life and career.

When writing about his childhood, Barton noted that he became a good student when he realized that school is basically a game, and as with any game, it's more fun if you win. Barton also very much did what he felt he should, even if it seemed less than traditional, and left his masters program in International Relations at Columbia just shy of graduating as he realized it was leading him to work he didn't want to do.

After then working in the Public Sector, including a stint with the Governor of New York, Barton went to Business School and coming out of that, wanted his next job to be one that was (A) in an up and coming industry, (B) working directly for the head of a company, and (C) working for someone he thought wildly smart. Barton sent letters to 231 CEOs in Boston, San Francisco and Denver offering to work for free for 90 days, had 123 respond, and wound up with the cable company TCI, led by John Malone. The company became Liberty Media under Malone and Barton and in the book, Barton wrote of work as being something that should not being in the spirit of trading time for money, but with the joyful ambition of creating something. Barton also noted that while his approach to business could seem reckless at times, he was prepared, knew where he wanted to wind up, and worked towards that.

After Barton retired from Liberty at 45, and a year before he got diagnosed with cancer in 1998, he would take his kids and their friends on what he called Real World Outings to see how people made their livings. Each excursion had a theme, including one on luggage, where they went and saw people who made it, sold it, and those who handled it at the airport.

Barton wrote in the book how he realized while in a particularly difficult time with his cancer that finding a point to continue fighting became the point and just prior to the epilogue, wrote of his life, "I really tried. I did my best."

An excellent book, highly recommended.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald was about the author training a goshawk after the recent death of her father and a creative and almost lyrically written book.

It's close to equal parts a meditation on grief and appreciation of the natural and wild world as the process of training her hawk, Mabel, closely intertwines with the loss she experienced. Macdonald became somewhat of a recluse during the training period and when about halfway through the book she wrote of Mabel that "she's forgotten how not to be scared of people," the author could have been writing of herself as well.

While I don't know I would call it a particularly enjoyable read, it was an impressive effort and felt to sum up well in the acknowledgments with Macdonald writing "I would like to thank my father who taught me how to love the moving world, and to thank my beautiful hawk who taught me how to fly in it after he was gone."

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Tribe by Sebastian Junger

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger was a solid book about the important topic of how divided as a society we can be.

Junger writes of how these divisions typically fall away during times of great stress such as war or natural disaster as people are in it together, as a "community of sufferers." He additionally notes how the mental health of individuals also can improve during these times, with the bombing of London during WWII and more recently in Sarajevo cited as cases where people living in war zones generally weren't depressed, just resolute and living their lives. There was a collective cause, even if that cause was simply surviving.

Also covered in the book is how there's such a disconnect between modern society and combat veterans returning to it. For people who haven't served in wartime, the large majority of those here in the US, it's difficult to understand what vets went through, and veterans often don't have outlets where they can speak about their experiences, both educating others and unburdening themselves.

It's a short book, with Junger describing it an a Time Magazine interview as a screed, and interesting reading about this concept of Tribe and how many in modern society simply don't feel part of one.

The Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck

The Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck was an entertaining and in many cases heart-warming road trip book about Buck and his brother Nick traveling the Oregon Trail, from St. Joseph, Missouri to Baker City Oregon, via covered wagon.

A trip such as this almost certainly hadn't been done in the past hundred years and Buck at the end of chapter one wrote of how "it was crazyass passion that would deliver me to the trail" and the 50 to 60-some year-olds were led by three mules, Beck, Jake, and Bute, roughly 2,000 miles over four months.

The book was part travelogue, history lesson, and remembrance on family, with Buck writing about his late father. During the trip, Buck and his brother had a sign on the back of the wagon apologizing to other travelers for the delay because they wanted to "see America slowly," an almost identical sign to what his family had during an East Coast covered wagon trip in 1958.

The stories of the travel to Oregon were compelling reading, with the two, along with Nick's dog Olive Oyl, meeting strangers, fixing problems, and sleeping outside, Rinker on a mattress in the back of the wagon and Nick in whatever barn or enclosed space he could find. Related to this, Buck notes towards the end of the book how many times in the west they would overnight in public spaces, with the mules in public corrals, areas like national parks designed to provide for the citizens.

The anecdotes of the people they met were great, with so many enchanted by the idea of the trip and helping immeasurably, and the brothers definitely had some hairy moments on the trail, but soldiered through them. Tying back to their father, I liked the mention of him decades prior telling a young Rinker how he was accomplishing something by simply not quitting.

I found myself at times skimming through some of what Buck wrote about the history of the Trail and people who rode it, but felt it an excellent book that struck me as at least somewhat romantic and quixotic in the telling of a quest tale.

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.