Thursday, November 29, 2012

"Rise to Greatness" by David Von Drehle

Rise to Greatness by David Von Drehle was a solid work of historical non-fiction that chronicles Abraham Lincoln's actions throughout the year 1862 leading up his Emancipation Proclamation in early 1863 that freed the slaves in Rebel territories.

Von Drehle writes for Time Magazine and previously wrote the excellent book Triangle: The Fire That Changed America on a deadly 1911 New York garment factory fire and this book on Lincoln was of interest both from Von Drehle as the writer and because of the subject. Several year back I read the Doris Kearns Goodwin book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and found it to be a compelling work.

Rise to Greatness was certainly well written and incredibly thorough with lots of material around how Lincoln lived firmly in a world of what he could accomplish, not what he wanted or was authorized to do. A huge piece of this concept manifested itself in Lincoln's actions during the year with General George McClellan, a military leader with a loyal partisan following, but who wasn't taking the aggressive steps needed and which Lincoln sought. It was very much within his power as President to replace McClellan at any time, but doing so at the wrong moment could have had disastrous consequences for Lincoln's overriding goal of keeping the Union together.

Overall, it was an excellent book, but the focus of this one extremely important calendar year narrow enough that if someone wants to read an excellent full biography of Lincoln, Team of Rivals would probably be the one to pick up prior to Rise to Greatness.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Writers on Writing - from Nieman Storyboard & The Oatmeal

There's a couple of pieces I've come across lately on the subject of writing that stood out as particularly great... one a series of talks by writers on writing and one a comic about the writing process.

From the Nieman Storyboard website was a four part series taken from "The Power of Storytelling" annual writing conference in Romania and it featured some compelling thoughts from excellent writers. Introduction was “The Power of Storytelling,” Part 1: A bunch of American storytellers go to Romania… and it noted the writers who spoke and provided a brief excerpt from each person's address.

The speeches were all interesting, but four of them in particular stood out to me. From “The Power of Storytelling,” Part 2: Jacqui Banaszynski on the future of stories and Evan Ratliff on digital entrepreneurship Banaszynski provided a beautiful description of an obituary for her mother and Ratliff (founder and editor of Atavist) talked about just going with an idea and seeing where it takes you. Additionally of note was “The Power of Storytelling,” Part 4: Chris Jones on why stories matter, Pat Walters on endings, Walt Harrington on integrity and in it Jones wrote of not being a cynic (referencing a great bit from Dave Eggers) and Harrington provided an excellent take on truth and facts required in non-fiction writing.

In of course a very different genre, but equally great on the subject of producing writing was a comic strip I came across from The Oatmeal. "Some thoughts and musings about making things for the web" is just... great. It's funny, profound, realistic stuff from site creator Matthew Inman who also wrote the paperback book How to How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Solid ESPN Writing by Van Valkenburg & Winegardner

There were two excellent pieces of writing from the latest issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Very much related to the theme of LSU vs Alabama, "One Game, One Game" focus of the issue was a story by Mark Winegardner on LSU fan Garrison Stamp and Bama supporter Brian Downing. Piece was titled "Last Time They Met" and recounts the stupid move while drunk by Downing and the consequences of it. Story is thoroughly reported by Winegardner and the whole story is just a shame.

Other piece of note from this issue was "At the heart of Torrey Smith" by Kevin Van Valkenburg. There's a lot to Smith's story with his rise to a team leader as a second year wideout with the Ravens and his brother's death earlier this year the night before a game and Van Valkenburg writes it exceptionally well and inspires a lot of respect for both the player and his coach John Harbaugh.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Feature stories by Heckert and Veselka

Two excellent feature stories I've seen recently were from Justin Heckert and Vanessa Veselka respectively.

Published in the November issue of GQ was "The Truck Stop Killer" by Veselka, an account of her trying to find out if convicted serial killer Robert Ben Rhoades is the same person who picked her up as a teenage runaway hitchhiker in 1985. Pretty chilling piece that brings to mind "The Vanishing" by Bob Friel for Outside earlier this year.

As the latest New York Times Magazine cover story, Heckert provided "The Hazards of Growing Up Painlessly" on Georgia middle schooler Ashlyn Blocker. It's an absolutely riveting piece on Blocker as part of the rare subset of people who don't feel pain and what this means for their lives. Heckert a few months ago wrote "How to Build an American Car" for Esquire and this story on Blocker is another really solid piece of writing.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Excellent features on Oregon running backs

Separated a couple of months apart were two profiles written on Oregon running backs.

From the September 24 issue of Sports Illustrated, Lee Jenkins wrote "Can't Touch Dat" on De'Anthony Thomas and posted recently to the CBS Sports website was "For Barner family, name Kenjon evokes both triumph and tragedy" by Dennis Dodd.

Thomas was definitely the more heralded back (who also plays as a wideout, kick returner and possibly defender due to injuries) going into the year, but Kenjon Barner was the guy who ran for 321 yards in a win against USC.

Excellent writing from both pieces on two people with interesting life stories and likely future careers in the NFL.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Writers & what they write - Gisondi, Hemphill, Montgomery and Michelson

There's been a few pieces lately that stood out to me either on or illustrative about the process of writing.

In terms of actually on writing was first a post from the website of Journalism professor Joe Gisondi. Titled "Are you really ready to be a journalist?" it gets into some specific things to think about for someone considering the field. The second piece of note on writing was by southern writer Paul Hemphill who passed away in 2009. Originally printed in Southern Voices Magazine, "Quitting the Paper" is a remarkable essay that's posted by Alex Belth to his website Alex Belth's Bronx Banter. Hemphill writes a well done tale of making a decision to leave his columnist job to write books and free-lance features... and then stepping forward with that choice.

The other two stories to mention here were excellent newspaper and magazine pieces respectively, but what struck me was what had to go into each piece as well as the background of one of the writers.

For the Tampa Bay Times, Ben Montgomery did "Recounting the deadly hazing that destroyed FAMU band's reputation" and it's compelling writing with an incredible amount of detail, and had a postscript that brought to mind Gisondi and his mention of open-record laws.. "This story was reported based on 2,300 pages of depositions, investigative reports, crime scene photographs and audio recordings made public by state attorney for the Ninth Judicial Circuit of Florida."

Last piece to note was "Tunnel Vision" for Outside Magazine. Written by Megan Michelson, it's her first person account of an avalanche that claimed the lives of three expert skiers in February 2012. The writing is excellent, but it was both amazing for me to think of Michelson actually being in that group of skiers and interesting to read a bit of her career path. She's mentioned in Outside to be an ESPN editor living in Lake Tahoe (so obviously not in the corporate office) and her website also describes her as a freelance writer and links to past magazine stories done. Just interesting (and kind of inspirational) the careers some people carve out for themselves.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"Elsewhere" by Richard Russo

Elsewhere by Richard Russo is an interesting memoir from the writer of notable works of fiction like Straight Man (which I read and enjoyed) and the Pulitzer Prize winning Empire Falls.

It's a different book than I expected in that while it's Russo's life story, really it's more about he as an only child and his mother as a single mom. What's remarkable in the book was the depths of care that Russo put into helping his mom starting out when she travelled cross-country with him to college and then through the following decades as Russo would have her living nearby. Additionally, a fascinating detail that comes out late in the book was Russo realizing through his daughter's diagnosis of obsessive compulsive disorder that his same disease may very well have afflicted his mom throughout her life.

In terms of being a story about growing up and relationship with parents, the book made me think about two other memoirs of the same ilk, The Longest Trip Home by John Grogan and 'Tis by Frank McCourt. Of the two, I enjoyed the Grogan book much more and comparing 'Tis to Elsewhere for me shows a pretty negative depiction of McCourt as a son to his aging mother. Actually, McCourt didn't seem a great son to his mother regardless of who compared against, but especially against someone like Russo who gave of himself so much for so many years. Russo doesn't necessarily portray himself as a perfect son, but he simply seemed to follow the maxim that you don't turn your back on someone, even if it would be the much easier thing to do. 

Additionally of interest from Elsewhere and playing a major role in the book's narrative was Russo's hometown of Gloversville, NY. It's fascinating to read of a factory town and what happens there as the factory slows down and then goes away (while actually causing physical harm to the people it did employ back in the day).

Elsewhere might not hold the attention of some with it simply being about a guy and his mother, but it was an interesting read... and reviewed many other places, including for the Washington Post by Marie Arena.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Feature stories by Rehagen, Martel & Manteuffel

There's three great pieces of writing I came across a week or so ago from a few random sources thanks to the wonder that is links via twitter.

For The Washingtonian, Rachel Manteuffel wrote "The Things They Leave Behind: Artifacts From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial", a remarkable piece that's touching in it's own right, and downright tragic when coupled with the accompanying pictures of objects left.

Additionally, Ned Martel did "Holocaust survivor tailors an American success story" in the Washington Post. It's a very cool story of someone dedicated to perfecting his craft in the person of D.C. tailor Martin Greenfield.

Finally, "This Land Is My Land" was published for Atlanta Magazine by Tony Rehagen. I first heard of Rehagen in July of this year with his piece "Daddy Blues" and this latest effort is a fascinating tale that features the subtitle "In the high country of North Georgia, an old bootlegger and a gun merchant feuded for years over a quarter-mile property line. It ended in the worst possible way."

Monday, November 05, 2012

Sports Writing by Wayne Drehs, Alex Belth & Eli Saslow

There's a few pieces of sports writing I've seen lately that stood out as outstanding and which haven't previously been noted here.

Most recent was by Eli Saslow for the recent issue of ESPN the Magazine with "The ascent from deuce-8". On the University of Louisville basketball player Peyton Silva, it's a well written portrait of someone who's gone through incredibly trying life experiences and appears to not only be making it through, but carrying his family as well.

Also for ESPN was an Outside the Lines web feature "Goalie Chris Seitz's biggest save" about a decision made by the FC Dallas backup goalkeeper. The Wayne Drehs written piece details how Seitz put his career on hold and risked his own health to become a bone marrow donor for a complete stranger. It's heart-tugging content and really just brings out such admiration for Seitz and his actions.

Finally, another excellent sports story of late was for the Glenn Stout (he of The Best American Sports Writing books) edited SB Nation Longform blog. "The Two Rogers" was written by Alex Belth and is on his interactions with famed writers Roger Angell and Roger Khan. Along with that in the story is the thread of Belth's father and their relationship and the resulting story was one of those that has a lot going on, but weaves together into a compelling (especially for someone interested in writing) and personal narrative.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Interesting pieces on writers - by Boris Kachka and James Andrew Miller

There were two tremendously interesting pieces I've seen in the past few days that dealt with writers and work they've produced.

For New York Magazine, Boris Kachka wrote "Proust Wasn’t a Neuroscientist. Neither was Jonah Lehrer" on the former superstar writer and it's a fascinating view into someone's downfall. Lehrer initially got himself in trouble with news that he was recycling his old blog posts into new magazine articles, but then  deeper problems when questions arose about sources referenced and veracity of his claims.

It's a fascinating read about someone working in the the same cognitive science area as Malcolm Gladwell and the Freakonomics guys, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. I've enjoyed tremendously work from Gladwell, Levitt and Dubner, but can also see how someone writing in this realm of squishy science could potentially use liberties in supporting stories to tell and points to make. Unfortunately for Lehrer, he took it too far... with an additional supporting anecdote from the Kachka piece being how Lehrer was becoming less of a writer and more of a speaker and insight guy with an entertaining story.

The other piece on writers and writing to note here was "A Problem of Churchillian Proportions" by James Andrew Miller for the New York Times. Miller along with Tom Shales wrote the tremendously entertaining Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN and in this piece he examines the circumstances around the upcoming book The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965. As detailed by Miller, William Manchester wrote two volumes on Churchill and then realized he wasn't going to be able to finish the third book and would need a co-writer. Manchester developed a friendship with newspaper writer Paul Reid and after he was contracted to co-write the book, Reid found himself taking over upon Manchester's death in 2004.

Miller relates in his Times piece how at that point, Bill Phillips came in as editor of the book and helped Reid work through the writing process over the next six years. It's really a fantastically interesting view into the impact a great editor can have on writing.

Excellent Storm Aftermath Writing - by Von Drehle, Schaer, Kleinfield and Powell

Three recent pieces out of Hurricane Sandy stood out to me as exceptional, each with a completely different approach, and one from 13 years ago.

This older piece was from current Time Magazine writer David Von Drehle and on his experience in Charleston, SC during Hurricane Hugo. The story was titled "Shaken Survivors Witness Pure Fury" for the Miami Herald and it was recently reprinted in "The Master of Disaster" by Jack Shafer for Slate. Von Drehle is an excellent writer and his work in this piece absolutely riveting.

In terms of writing about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and some if it's victims, N.R. Kleinfield and Michael Powell wrote the heartbreaking "In Storm Deaths, Mystery, Fate and Bad Timing" for the New York Times.

Finally, The Paris Review blog featured a Robin Beth Schaer piece "Falling Overboard". Schaer is a published writer and she wrote here an account of being one of the crew rescued after the Tall Ship Bounty sunk and claimed the lives of the Captain as well as another crewmember.