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…

WHY BE CREATIVE

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.

CREATIVITY RELATED TO EVERYDAY LIFE

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.

SOURCES OF CREATIVITY

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.

EXPECTATIONS OF CREATIVE WORK

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.

THE IMPORTANCE OF CREATIVE WORK

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.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall

Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall is his latest book, following on the heels of Born to Run from 2011, and I enjoyed Born to Run quite a bit and also found Natural Born Heroes to be a really interesting read.

The subtitle this recent book is How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance and, as McDougall notes in the afterword, it blends together two stories, one of heroic action with the capture of a WWII German General on the occupied island of Crete and one of how to set oneself up physically to be useful, and potentially heroic.

In terms of this idea of staying healthy and being someone who contributes, the descriptions of three things from Natural Born Heroes all tie together, a fighting art and self-defense based on fascia or connective tissue in the body, exercise that’s around natural movement of the body, and an approach towards nutrition that eschews simple carbohydrates and enables us to tap into more healthy fat reserves while exercising rather than just burning sugar.

About self-defense, McDougall writes of how the body twist, or utilization of one's fascia, can be the central movement to winning a fight, with mention of Wing Chun, a martial art, practiced by Robert Downey Jr. and related to the fighting art of Pankration, centered around the idea of power spiraling up through the center of the body. Additionally in the book is the story of Norina Bentzel, who in 2001 held off someone with a machete in an elementary school, in part by bear hugging him and utilizing this idea of twist power.

McDougall also notes that utilization of one's fascia works off the idea of muscle memory, teaching the body how to do a movement and that movement can then be called upon instinctively rather than through deliberate thought. This idea is mentioned as applying to something like firing a weapon and how just firing is likely going to be more effective than taking the time to aim and how in a fight, someone should throw the opponent off balance, charging when they expect a retreat and fighting dirty when they expect civility, basically treating self-defense as a survival and not spectator sport.

Around exercise, McDougall, writes of Natural Movement, which came out of Georges Hebert, a French naval officer in the early 20th century and his notion of heroic action and being useful through the Natural Method of training, and relates to the sport of Parkour with an emphasis on skipping and bouncing around outside. As part of this, McDougall notes the modern day practitioner of Natural Movement Erwan Le Corre, his idea of exercise as problem solving and staying alive and his YouTube video The Workout the World Forgot.

The last area McDougall covers in Natural Born Heroes is nutrition, with details on Dr. Phil Maffetone and the problem of processed carbohydrates, typically high in sugar, and how high fat foods and other staples of the Paleo Diet are much better for the body.

- Bad foods: pizza, juice, rice, bread, granola, cereal, beer, soy, fruit, beans, pasta, milk, yogurt.
- Good foods: meat, fish, eggs, avocados, vegetables and nuts (such as cashews), cheese.

McDougall notes how Maffetone prescribes a two week test of a changed diet and how we can in fact alter the body so it craves the food we've hunted and gathered, not processed foods and also mentioned in the book is that drinking too much water, especially during strenuous exercise, can actually be dangerous as diluting the blood sodium concentration can lead to brain swelling.

Tying this idea of nutrition back to exercise, Maffetone’s notion is to get your body to burn fat, not sugar, and to accomplish this, one keep the heart rate low (goal should be should be at age subtracted from 180) when exercising as if the body strains, it will dip into using sugar stored up. It can take the body some time to get used to having the heart rate low and workouts will be slow at first, but this idea of long, lower-impact training should lead to a higher level of fitness.

There was definitely a lot of material covered in the book and while I probably found the story in Born to Run more compelling, Natural Born Heroes was an excellent read with interesting ideas to consider.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Great stories on life & death - by O'Connor, Dubois, & Rosin

Three different pieces of writing I've seen over the past few weeks grouped together as being very profound and well written.

The two stories most closely related with both about reaction to a tragedy are each short pieces, with one for the National Post in Canada and one a book excerpt from a former staffer in the Barack Obama White House.

The Post story is "'If a star fell each time we thought of her, the sky would be empty': A Christmas lights tribute to dead teen" by Joe O'Connor about how a couple honors their daughter and the other piece "What the President secretly did at Sandy Hook Elementary School" for the site Vox Populi. Taken from the Joshua Dubois book The President’s Devotional, it covers the President meeting one after the other families of Sandy Hook victims two days after the mass shooting.

The third piece to note here is for The Atlantic with Hanna Rosin (who wrote "The Overprotected Kid" for the same magazine last year) with "The Silicon Valley Suicides: Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?" It's an important story from Rosin that reads as being really thoroughly reported and very inquisitively written.


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Writers on writing - with pieces by Saunders, Murakami, Jones, Van Valkenburg & Fagone

There's been a number of excellent pieces I've seen over the past couple of months around the craft of writing, including ones on becoming a writer, the process of creating, and how to pitch stories.

In terms of becoming a writer, there were two great pieces from The New Yorker I've seen recently, with George Saunders doing "My Writing Education: a Timeline" and Haruki Murakami from 2008 providing "The Running Novelist." Both are compelling first-person pieces about starting out in writing and Murakami's missive brought to mind his great memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which I previously posted on.

The pieces about creating to note here were actually each transcripts of speeches given, with Chris Jones for the annual Power of Storytelling conference in Bucharest doing "Nine Rules for Creative Work" and Kevin Van Valkenburg providing "Why Storytelling Matters" from his role as a visiting professor at the University of Montana Journalism School. There's great material in each talk and Van Valkenburg's address carried the additional heft of also being about his late friend from school, Anthony Pollner.

Also on the craft of writing, specifically on how to have it be a viable work endeavor, was "How do you pitch a freelance story to a site or a magazine?" Written by Jason Fagone, it's a short and seemingly very solid guide from an excellent freelance writer.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Four pieces of excellent writing - by Follman, Kristof, Fagone, and MacGregor

A few pieces of great recent writing to note here included ones that are important, uplifting, disconcerting, and just plain smile-inducing.

What felt to be the most important of the four was by Mark Follman for Mother Jones with "Inside the Race to Stop the Next Mass Shooter," a fascinating look at how police and school staff can identify and assist those youth that potentially could be a threat to others. The piece is thoroughly researched, covers the horrible fact of how Columbine viewed as a blueprint by some, and told through the lens of looking at one troubled Oregon teen who was kept tabs on and guided while in school, and then left that environment and eventually caused great harm.

The uplifting piece was from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof with the fairly short "In Five Minutes, He Lets the Blind See." About Nepali ophthalmologist Dr. Sanduk Ruit, the pioneer of a low-cost cataract surgery that he's performed to restore sight for some 100,000 people, it's an awesome story.

Squarely in the disconcerting camp was a well-written feature by Jason Fagone for the New York Times Magazine with "The Serial Swatter" about internet stalking, particularly of females. Featured in the piece was one disturbed Canadian teenager whose methods would include digging up private information on others, taunting them with it, and making fake 911 calls that would send SWAT teams with guns drawn to the house of his harassment victims.

On a much, much lighter note, another great piece to mention was a cool story by Jeff MacGregor for Smithsonian Magazine with "Meet Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Genius Behind "Hamilton," Broadway's Newest Hit." The piece makes Miranda and his play sound very interesting and entertaining.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Great feature story by Eli Saslow on a high school football death

There was really an amazing story in the latest ESPN The Magazine with Eli Saslow writing "Why Him? Why Me?" on a recent death during a Louisiana high school football game, and how that horrific event linked to another football calamity from 1989.

The player who died in September of this year was Tyrell Cameron, a 16-year-old from Franklin Parrish High School of who broke his neck after a clean block from Cody Seward on the Sterlington High team. The story of the two is gut-wrenchingly told by Saslow and also brings in Brad Gaines, someone who could relate to the anguish faced by Seward as Gaines while playing for Vanderbilt decades ago was in a collision with Ole Miss player Chucky Mullins where Mullins went helmet-first into the back of Gaines as was paralyzed, with those injuries then leading to a blood clot two years later that took his life.

The rolling together of the story about Cameron dying, the grief of his mother, the pain felt by Seward and attempt by Gaines to help him move forward is beautifully done by Saslow, someone who I've previously posted on great work by him for both ESPN and the Washington Post.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Pitching Around Fidel by S.L. Price

Pitching Around Fidel by S.L. Price was an interesting book from 2000 with the subtitle A Journey Into the Heart of Cuban Sports. Price is a writer who I've posted on a number of times, both from pieces he's written for Sports Illustrated and two other books of his that I enjoyed a great deal, Heart of the Game: Life, Death, and Mercy in Minor League America and Far Afield: A Sportswriting Odyssey.

Price is currently writing a book that will be a much expanded version of his 2011 SI story "The Heart Of Football Beats In Aliquippa" on the small Pennsylvania town and while I had heard of Pitching Around Fidel, what compelled me to read this now 15 year old book was Price on a podcast discussing how sports can very much be a lens into society.

Pitching Around Fidel was both a travelogue of Price's time in Cuba and detailed such interesting lives the athletes in Cuba led, both adored and often penniless. The concept of amateurism championed by Fidel was an interesting one and people were rewarded based on their athletic successes, but oftentimes in an arbitrary manner and punished for haphazard reasons, like the regime fearing someone would defect and taking away their ability to compete in a sport, effectively making them more likely to want to defect. Price chronicled his interactions with a number of people in Cuba and two that compelling me to research what they're doing now are baseball player Yasser Gomez and U.S. fugitive Charles Hill.

One thought that I had from reading the book was that at least at the time the book was written, if sports about money in the U.S., it was about life in Cuba. Also, apart from sports, it was fascinating reading of the sense of desperation many had and made me curious whether it better or worse there now.

A fascinating book from Price and I'm looking forward to reading the forthcoming one on Aliquippa.