Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"Public Parts" by Jeff Jarvis

Took me a while to make it through it, but I a few days ago finished Public Parts by Jeff Jarvis.

I enjoyed quite a bit the prior Jarvis book What Would Google Do? and while I didn't get quite as much out of Public Parts, found it still to be an interesting read. Book carries the subtitle How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live and has some really solid content about how information is now exchanged. Jarvis writes about us living in the age of links and offers an examination and endorsement of Twitter that reminds me a great deal of the Clay Travis website post "2011 Belonged To Twitter, So Does the Future of Sports Media." Quite a few similarities in the extolling of Twitter's virtues, with the immediacy of news (such as on the Tahir Square events in Cairo, Egypt) being foremost.

Additionally, Jarvis examines the overarching question of public vs private and while it seemed to drag at times, did provide good historical context around things like the printing press as well as geographic context in looking at German push back against Google Street View mapping.

All in all, was a good book for those interested in public vs private as well as Information Technology (more to the point, Information Dissemination), where its at and where its headed.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Outside Magazine Pieces - by James Nestor & Brian Mockenhaupt

There were two stories that stood out as particularly interesting and well written from the March issue of Outside Magazine.

The first piece was "Open Your Mouth and You're Dead" by James Nestor and chronicles the 2011 Freediving World Championships held in Greece. It was an engaging piece on people pushing themselves to the limit (not just "giving 110% on the field", but at times almost dying limit) in a sport that doesn't really pay financially. I don't know that I've seen any of Nestor's work previously, but his writing really had an element of suspense to it and it made for a tremendously interesting story.

Also in this issue was "As Long As They Both Shall Live" by Brian Mockenhaupt, someone whose work I've seen previously (in Esquire). Its solid writing that features the subtitle "Professional daredevils Rex and Melissa Pemberton were drawn together by a mutual passion for risk and adrenaline. Now they have a marriage based on love, trust, and the strange, stoic acceptance that their life partner could die at any moment." The Pemberton's seem to do better financially than the Freediving athletes, but also appear to live and work with greater risk as evidenced by their friends who have died while in aeronautics (Melissa's specialty) or extreme sports pursuits.

Comparing this piece to the one by Nestor, his work perhaps has more of a building of tension throughout and Mockenhaupt does a great job of relating how the risk taken on both by Rex and Melissa becomes more profound given that one could die and leave the other behind.

Excellent Sports Writing - from Ballard, Lake, Bamberger & Hruby

There have been a number of sports pieces I've come across lately that featured really solid writing worth noting.

Personal favorite was "Man in Full" from Chris Ballard a week ago for Sports Illustrated. It was profound and thoroughly reported (as detailed in my blog post linking to a Ballard interview) writing on Chicago area high school wrestling coach Mike Powell. Stricken with the muscle wasting disease polymyositis, Powell is put in horrible personal circumstances and what makes the story so compelling is his continued relationship to the team of kids he leads. Really well done piece by Ballard which includes Powell's career path working with kids in need and imparting to his athletes a lesson of "manliness" different than is traditionally associated with the term. Its not to say one guy exactly the same as another, but the story of Powell reminded me of that I saw years ago on youth track coach John Baker (who had an elementary school named in his honor).

The most recent Feb 20 issue of SI also had two pieces that stood out with one being another profound high school athlete related story and one an insightful golf piece. The "writing with great meaning" was done by Thomas Lake and titled "The Legacy Of Wes Leonard". Subtitle to the piece is "You may have heard about the Michigan high schooler who made a game-winning basket and then died. Here's the rest of the story: a violent car crash, a bone-shaking tackle, a near-perfect season, a reluctant substitute and a search for the will to carry on" and what got me most from the story was the content about the automatic external defibrillator. Leonard suffered a sudden cardiac arrest of his heart and its definitely unknown whether a defibrillator would have saved him, but the potentially lifesaving machine at the high school had been neglected and found to have a dead battery when applied to Leonard's chest. Out of this sad situation has come some good, though, with mother Jocelyn Leonard creating the Wes Leonard Heart Team and spearheading efforts to have a working defibrillator available at youth sporting events with someone trained to use it. Additionally, of note on the Heart Team site is a link to an ESPN Outside the Lines 16 minute story "Wes Leonard: Never Forgotten".

From the same issue of Sports Illustrated came a piece that stood out to me in part because I didn't expect it to. "The Meaning Of Pebble Beach" by Michael Bamberger could have simply been a recap of the recent PGA Tour event, but instead wound up as an insightful look into Tiger Woods and where he is now in both life and his golf game. Its very cool to come across pieces like this that don't scream out "feature story on something of great meaning", but wind up as interesting and insightful.

Last piece to note here was written by Patrick Hruby in the Yahoo Sports ThePostGame section. "End Game: Brain Trauma And The Future Of Youth Football In America" details the head injury suffered by Sequim, WA high school QB Drew Rickerson and then gets wider on the danger of concussions and need for concussion education. It was sad, but not surprising to read of mother Jean Rickerson and her attempt to further awareness and training around concussions and getting ignored by some coaches and administrators. This difficulty in getting people to move past their preconceived notions of "toughness" and "playing through pain" reminded me of something from the excellent Thomas Lake SI story "The Boy Who Died of Football". Lake wrote the following towards the end of a piece on Max Gilpin, a 15 year old who suffered heatstroke during a practice and then passed away: "Later, when he looked back at his son's last practice, Jeff Gilpin was filled with pride and wonder. "I underestimated this kid, big-time," he said. "His heart. Can you imagine the fortitude it took to keep running out there?"

Back to Hruby and his piece on concussions, his commentary at the end of the piece is me thinks spot on with "Protect our national pastime. Protect our children's brains. The hope is that we can do both. Biology and physics suggest otherwise. Safer does not mean safe. In locker rooms and school board meetings, quiet funerals and noisy grandstands, the future of youth football may not be matter of risk management. It may be a matter of risk acceptance. Roll the dice."

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Writers on Writing - by Ballard, Jones & Sullivan

There's been a few great interviews I've come across lately featuring top level writers dishing on the process of writing.

Its probably fitting that one interview was with Esquire writer Chris Jones as he's the guy whose writing helped spark my interest in great non-fiction prose, and then fed the flames of said interest with his Son of Bold Venture blog about "writing and words". Interview itself was done by Brandon Sneed on his website (which has also been a source of motivation about writing as a process). It was really interesting content under the title "Chris Jones of Esquire on His Zanesville Zoo Massacre Story 'Animals,' 'The Most Dramatic Story Of The Year'". I'm waiting for the hard copy Esquire to arrive before reading the piece, but there was excellent nuggets of wisdom from Jones (prompted by Sneed questions) around writing. My take aways (which may well be different than other people's) from the piece are as follows: Heavy sense of content focus by Jones with it being centered around the police and the writing in it being something sparse, that "reads almost like a police report". Idea I took from this was the import of deciding on a particular approach to take and then following through (maybe that approach gets course corrected in the writing process, but hopefully doesn't come to that). Also interesting from Jones was his commentary about writing to music... which I've heard before and his doing so actually referenced in one of the other recent interviews I've seen).

Since I just brought it up... Sneed even more recently did for his website another great writing interview, this one with a writer answering questions about a piece I've actually already read! "Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated on his Mike Powell Story "Man In Full"—And Way More" contains some excellent writing wisdom type content from Ballard (again, extracted by Sneed's questions), most notable to me being the following: Ballard started at Sports Illustrated as a fact-checker and built up to doing feature pieces (a completely different approach to getting an SI gig than Thomas Lake wrote of his path being). Interesting was how fact-checking hammered home the need to be thorough in reporting... a common theme from writer wisdom pieces (like this featuring Michael Kruse) is the importance of solid reporting rather than simply grabbing perfect words out of the air. Also tremendously insightful from Ballard was his comment about immediately writing down an insight or feeling that strikes him. I've noticed in my own writing that I'll have a visceral reaction towards something I read, but if I don't note it immediately, I may have a hard time remembering what it was (this has led with the reading of books to needing to decide whether to take notes whilst reading as opposed to just finishing the thing and then going back through to capture the high points). Ballard also writes in this interview some excellent structure content with the Powell story (which was great, and I will post on before long) as containing multiple acts and a specific focus (reminiscent of Jones and his decisions made prior to writing). From a where and how to write perspective, there was interesting content about writing with friends in a bar as well as the idea of (poached from Jones) of writing to one song on repeat). Additionally, there was good content on the outline, structure and lede of this particular piece written about Mike Powell and Ballard provided recommendations to other great writing, including The Imaginary Girlfriend, a sort of autobiography by prolific writer John Irving.

After I've rambled on about the great content from Jones and Ballard, will be somewhat more brief about the third writer piece I've seen lately. Bookforum did an interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan which included content both on his book of essays, Pulphead (which I enjoyed tremendously) and areas of interest as a writer. Specifically, Sullivan wrote "I’m working on a book now about a German lawyer, an obscure jurist from Upper Saxony who came to the New World, to South Carolina, in the 1730s. He tried to establish an enlightened republic among Cherokee Indians beyond the frontier, and he wrote a book, a kind of utopian manifesto that, based on what we know about it, was a century or more ahead of its time philosophically. It was destroyed when the English arrested him in the 1740s and it became a sort of a famous lost book. In my book, I’m making the case that I’ve identified it, that it exists. I’m very curious about what happens to the Enlightenment when it arrives in the South." Sounds to me like it would be a terribly interesting read and brings to mind someone like Erik Larson who writes history, but seems to do so with an excellent narrative bent.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Time Magazine Pieces: Facebook timeline / JC Penny pricing / GOP Presidential Race / Mediterranean diet

There's been some excellent writing from the past few issues of Time Magazine. In the Feb 6 edition, the excellent David Von Drehle wrote "Who will be the GOP Candidate?" on the current slate of Presidential nominees.

More recently, the Feb 13 issue had two interesting business related pieces with "This Is Your Life (According to Your New Timeline)" by Allie Townsend on Facebook and "The Price Is Righter" by Brad Tuttle about pricing strategies at J.C. Penney under new CEO Ron Johnson, former head of Apple retail stores.

Finally, the latest issue of Time contained "Eat like an Italian" on the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. It was an excellent piece by Stephan Faris that really hammered home how good it is to eat fruits, vegetables, nuts and bean.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Businessweek Pieces: on Amazon / Zappos / United Airlines & Hearsay Social

There was some interesting content from the last few issues of Businessweek starting off with the Jan 30-Feb 5 cover story.

Written by Brad Stone, "Amazon's Hit Man" details the new in-house publishing imprint at the web retail giant. Concept is for Amazon to hold tighter control over book pricing and distribution by cutting out traditional publishing houses and signing agreements with the authors themselves. Its an interesting approach led within Amazon by Larry Kirshbaum, the former head of Time Warner Book Group and has already resulted in agreements with Tim Ferriss, James Franco and Penny Marshall.

The Feb 6-12 issue as well featured an interesting cover story along with a few other pieces of note.

"Making the World's Largest Airline Fly" was a solid look at integration work out of the United-Continental merger. The piece was written by Drake Bennett and details the thousands of needed decisions around areas such as customer care systems and coffee to provide. Additionally, "Las Vegas: Startup City" is on Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and his backing of development efforts in the area around headquarters for the Amazon division. Its an interesting look from Brad Stone at personal for-profit efforts that also have an altruistic bent. Also of note from this issue was the short piece "Clara Shih's Hearsay Social" on the writer behind The Facebook Era: Tapping Online Social Networks to Market, Sell, and Innovate. Shih was working at is 2007, then built herself into a Social Media expert and in 2009, wrote her book and started the consulting company Hearsay Social... and more recently was named to the Starbucks board of directors.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

"Pulphead" by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Recently finished reading Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan: a book of largely first person essays done really well.

Sullivan's writing reminded me of that from Wright Thompson with his story subjects tending towards his southern home area and reading his essays inspired a jealously due to the things experienced. The most memorable story from Pulphead was "Violence of the Lambs", a story that... well, I don't know how to describe it other than to echo the words of accomplished Tampa Times writer Ben Montgomery and say its the strangest magazine story I've ever read.

Other essays from the book that struck me were the following: "Upon this Rock" - on Sullivan's time at the Creation Christian rock festival, "Feet in Smoke" - on his brother electrocuting himself and almost dying, "Mr. Lytle: an Essay" - on time spent living and working on his writing with an aging professor, "At a Shelter (After Katrina)" - about his experiences along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina and which featured a fascinating reference to end of the world type experiences, "Michael" - on the amazing talent and completely different than all other people Michael Jackson, "The Final Comeback of Axl Rose" - about time spent looking into how the lead singer of the seminal rock band grew up" and "Unnamed Caves" - covers time Sullivan spent with some of the leading archaeologists and cave explorers of caverns in the south.

Again, amazing experiences that Sullivan has had and the writing is of such quality to make me interested in going back once more to read his book Blood Horses, a sort-of memoir, sort of history of horses and horse racing. I'm not interested at all in the horse part, but very much curious to read more about the life experiences of Sullivan.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Excellent Sports Writing - from Reilly, Wetzel, Lake, Segura, Phillips & Wertheim

Have seen a host of interesting pieces of sports writing lately from a few different sources.

The recent Feb 6, 2012 issue of Sports Illustrated had two of them in Game, Set, Matchless by Jon Wertheim and Under Siege by Thomas Lake and Melissa Segura.

The Wertheim story was on the just under six hours epic Australian Open Final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Solid writing on a domination of men's tennis with Wertheim noting that 24 of the last 28 Grand Slam semifinal spots have been claimed by one of Djokovic, Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray (with the four in that order as of late). Its a pretty remarkable level of competition right now and brings to mind Wertheim's chronicling of what at the time was more just a Federer-Nadal rivalry in his 2009 book Strokes of Genius.

On the same just completed Australian Open Final, Brian Phillips penned the exceedingly well written Nadal vs. Djokovic: Here We Are Again, My Friend for Grantland. Piece covers the same four-headed domination of the men's tour, but differs from that by Wertheim in that Phillips gets further into Nadal and his drive, brilliant play... and still coming up short. Definitely writing on athletic struggle that traffics in the profound.

The Lake and Segura story in this same issue of Sport Illustrated was on the three months ago kidnapping of Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos in his native Venezuela. Lake's writing carries an air of thorough reporting and this piece no exception as he and Segura delve into the particulars of the case and what may or may not have been the reality of his capture by Venezuelan government agents.

Another Jon Wertheim piece that stood out recently was Driving for Home from the Jan 23 issue of SI. About Delaware college hoops star Elena Della Donne, it brings to mind the 2009 Selena Roberts commentary "Burning To Play Again" on the at Deleware, but not yet returned to the game of basketball Della Donne.

Finally, two excellent pieces recently on New England Patriots QB Tom Brady. Shortly after his Super Bowl loss to the Giants, Dan Wetzel wrote Tom Brady in postgame daze of disappointment for Yahoo Sports and Rick Reilly did Tom Brady is as advertised for ESPN. Wetzel's story takes a more conventionally reporting approach than Reilly's (makes sense as Reilly tends towards commentary with his writing) and each shows Brady as someone who has both stayed a good guy and continued to try really really hard despite being at the top of his profession.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Writing on Joe Paterno and his passing

Perhaps not the most timely of blog posts given the short news cycle that rules the day, but there was some exceptional writing over the past few weeks on former Penn State coach Joe Paterno.

Shortly after his January 22 passing from lung cancer were two pieces from esteemed journalists, one of whom had conducted the last ever interview with Paterno just a week prior. Sally Jenkins wrote Joe Paterno dies, leaving a record for others to debate for the Washington Post and for Sports Illustrated, Jack McCallum penned Joe Paterno wasn't perfect, but legacy more than final chapter.

Over the next week there were two stories on Paterno that stood out for their depth in reporting on the man. Joe Posnanski (currently writing a book on Paterno scheduled for release this fall) did Paterno's final days: no bitterness, just marveling at his fortunate life for Sports Illustrated and Wright Thompson wrote for ESPN the ridiculously lyrical Bringing home Joe on son Jay Paterno and reaction of Penn State faithful to his father's passing.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Writing on Writing - from Kruse, Lake, Altucher and Pearlman

Have come across a number of interesting pieces lately on the why and how of writing that bear noting.

Two different writer interviews were The Fury Files: Michael Kruse for the blog TVFury and Thomas Lake on Pop Herring, How to Make It as a Journalist, Coffee, and Why You "Have To Get Yourself Good" by Brandon Sneed for his website.

From the Kruse interview I was struck by his statements on the absolute importance of solid reporting to the nonfiction writing process and the very methodical outlining he does prior to and as part of the actual writing. Super detailed work that's a long ways from just sitting down and letting nonfiction magic flow to the page.

The interview with Thomas Lake also featured the same idea of reporting leading to the story and an at times absolute dogged pursuit of access and information. Additionally, Lake spoke of his career path and the six years, four newspaper jobs and over a thousand stories written until he reached out to someone who opened the door for him to land at Sports Illustrated. Very cool content about putting in the work.

Still on writing, but on a specific output of writing were two additional blog mentions of interest. James Altucher wrote Self-Publishing Your Own Book is the New Business Card which echoed and expanded on sentiments expressed in his book I Was Blind But Now I See and Jeff Pearlman wrote on his blog Chris Dessi comes of age about his former classmates self-published book on Social Media Your World is Exploding.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

"Man Seeks God" by Eric Weiner

Having previously enjoyed immensely The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner I looked forward for some time to his recently published Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine.

The book came out of a health scare that included him in the hospital being asked "have you found your God yet?" Weiner comes from a Jewish background, but his not terribly devout path led to the idea of him trying out various religions to see how they fit him and figure out what he truly believes.

It's obviously a very personal construct for a book and the best parts of it were those where Weiner gets colloquial and personal about his experiences and thoughts on them. To this end, he reveals in the book nagging bouts of depression and self-doubt. Particularly interesting was his self-description of the pain that comes from doing things "7/8 assed... neither all the way nor not caring."

For the purpose of the religious exploration (and book about it) Weiner chose eight different religions (or slivers of faith like Kabbalah as part of Judaism and Sufism as part of Islam) and went and lived with each. Some of the faiths didn't have much in their feature chapter that resonated as a reader (or appear to resonate for Weiner as the person experiencing it), but some did have very interesting nuggets related on them.

About Buddhism, Weiner wrote on the idea of the pause between a given experience and then how that experience affects us. It was a fascinating concept that actually made me think of the James Altucher book I Was Blind But Now I See and it's idea (or at least the idea I ascribe to Altucher) of not letting ones thoughts get dragged somewhere not beneficial to go.

About the Franciscans Weiner spent time with, he wrote of both the idea of actions not needing to wait for full belief if the action a positive one and the concept of good work for others. Specifically noted around this idea of giving was there not needing to be returned gratitude in exchange for good works done.

The book isn't written as a math problem that began with a question and finished with a solved proof, but rather an examination on a topic with entirely personal answers. At an overall level, Weiner writes of connection with something greater as well as the all important idea of how someones truth makes them feel (and that truth is what works for someone). Especially in conjunction with Weiner giving of himself to the reader and making the thing personal, it's a good read overall even if not on as entertaining a topic as The Geography of Bliss.