Friday, July 26, 2013

"Bad Monkey" by Carl Hiaasen

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen was a fast-paced and entertaining novel based in the author's home state of Florida as well as in the Bahamas. Probably 10% of the books I read are fiction, but always look forward to new iterations of Hiaasen's humorous tales of greed, corruption, environmental pillaging and other outlandish behavior.

The last one of his I read was Star Island back in 2010 and I tend to agree with the recent New York Times review by Janet Maslin that Bad Monkey a superior book. I particularly liked from Maslin's review her riff on Hiaasen that "his books are built of balsa wood, but they are beautifully constructed all the same. And if they call for more comic distraction than honest emotion? Forget it, Jake; it’s South Florida. The truth is always stranger than fiction."

I also find interesting about Hiaasen that he writes a weekly column for the Miami Herald as I'd guess he doing quite fine financially because of his books, and presumably enjoys writing the column.

Monday, July 22, 2013

ESPN writing - by Thompson, Merrill & Jones

There's been a few pieces from ESPN (both online and The Magazine) that stood out to me recently, with topics ranging from Aaron Hernandez and Odin Lloyd to a rodeo bull and then paraplegic fly-rod maker.

Posted to the ESPN site on July 3rd was "The ties that bind Hernandez, Lloyd" By Elizabeth Merrill. It was a really thoroughly reported piece about the respective lives of the two men as well the events that left Hernandez in jail and Lloyd dead. Also about Lloyd was the back page essay from ESPN The Magazine's July 22 issue. By Chris Jones, "Death in the family" was a poignant short work with the subtitle "The Boston Bandits play on in memory of slain teammate Odin Lloyd".

The other two excellent stories to note here were both features by Wright Thompson. From the same July 22 "body issue" that contained the column by Jones was "Unridable: Bushwacker, an angry 1,700-pound bull, has the baddest body in sports" and then posted online last week was "Unity with the Universe" on Tom Morgan and his craftsmanship. The subtitle of this piece is "Can a fly rod really hold the secret of life? In the central Montana mountains, a paralyzed man and his wife are proving the answer just might be yes" and it's compelling writing on both a marriage partnership and great work being produced by Morgan and his wife, Gerri Carlson.

Writers on writing - Whedon, Chiarella & Hastings

There's been a few pieces on the subject of writing I've seen recently that contained some insight I thought worth holding onto.

The July 2013 issue of Indianapolis Monthly featured "Celebrity Profiler: Tom Chiarella, in His Own Words" and there was some tremendously interesting stuff from the Esquire writer.

 On writing celebrity profiles, he wrote the maxim (which could apply to almost any type of worthwhile endeavor) "I keep myself moving forward. I step into the restaurant, climb into the car, ring the bell. This is Rule Three: Keep moving forward. Toward the subject and through the conversation." 

On the actual physical act of writing, and output of his work for Esquire, there was "I return to Greencastle and sleep for two days before I sit down to stare—like any writer, anywhere—for days on end (but never more than 14, in truth) into the white, white guts of my computer, groping with leads, sussing out the transcript, figuring what is new copy and what’s shopworn, doping out a structure, one that hopefully provides an angle no one’s thought of yet, all in service to the peculiar charge I put upon myself: to craft a feature more like a literary short story than any piece of reliable reporting. And Esquire lets me do it, because the editors there still believe that a magazine is a luxury, a vaguely weightless indulgence, a beautiful thing, and they ask me to write a story as if it were a creative construction, one that might puzzle a reader with observations of the sunlight, rather than teasers from the Season 3 DVD screener. So, in that regard, I know: I’m fortunate. I have the only job in the world that demands the kind of work I do." 

On interviewing and portraying story subjects, Chiarella wrote "I let people see him changing his mind. Readers like a little ambiguity, a little progression of thought in their profiles. They want to see a conversation in full, which never means a straight Q-and-A for me. It requires a little texture. And that usually extends beyond the experience of a single meal. That’s why I always ask for three meetings and only settle for two." 

Finally, I found noteworthy from the piece by Chiarella a comment he made both because of his experience writing celebrity profiles and just a general notion with "All lives are interesting. The grand life and the small. It would be petty and presumptuous to assume otherwise. And that too is a rule: All lives are interesting." 

For Fast Company Magazine that was a piece by Ari Karpel titled "How to be Profilic: Guidelines for geting it done from Joss Whedon". The acclaimed writer and director of The Avengers, the superhero blockbuster hit that I enjoyed quite a bit, had some interesting thoughts around creative work (including reference to the David Allen book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity) passed along by Karpel.

Finally, non-fiction writer Michael Hastings died at 33 last month from a car crash and written about him were "Missing Michael Hastings" by BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith and "On Michael Hastings" by Max Fisher for the Washington Post. Both interesting and very nice tributes and the Fisher piece included at the end advice Hastings gave last year to young journalists via Reddit:

1.) You basically have to be willing to devote your life to journalism if you want to break in. Treat it like it’s medical school or law school. 
2.) When interviewing for a job, tell the editor how you love to report. How your passion is gathering information. Do not mention how you want to be a writer, use the word “prose,” or that deep down you have a sinking suspicion you are the next Norman Mailer. 
3.) Be prepared to do a lot of things for free. This sucks, and it’s unfair, and it gives rich kids an edge. But it’s also the reality. 
4.) When writing for a mass audience, put a fact in every sentence. 
5.) Also, keep the stories simple and to the point, at least at first. 
6.) You should have a blog and be following journalists you like on Twitter. 
7.) If there’s a publication you want to work for or write for, cold call the editors and/or email them. This can work. 
8) By the second sentence of a pitch, the entirety of the story should be explained. (In other words, if you can’t come up with a rough headline for your story idea, it’s going to be a challenge to get it published.) 
9) Mainly you really have to love writing and reporting. Like it’s more important to you than anything else in your life–family, friends, social life, whatever. 
10) Learn to embrace rejection as part of the gig. Keep writing/pitching/reading.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Piece on donating to a children's hospital - and other Chris Jones essays for Esquire

There was a recent short piece by Chris Jones from the August 2013 issue of Esquire that both struck me as particularly great and made me think of some past writing by Jones.

The latest story was in a magazine section about money and titled "How to Give to Charity". It's about donating to the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa and is a remarkable little piece that touches on the lifesaving care provided for his infant son (who was written about in a 2010 Esquire blog post that I feel I keep linking to, it's just so great). In this piece about donating to the children's hospital, Jones seems to make each of the 605 words count and closes with "I wouldn't even call it money well spent. It's the reason money exists for me, so that I might do the single best thing I do with it, and it makes me feel lucky again, luckier than I've ever been."

In terms of this economy of words, the piece got me thinking about on other similarly excellent (while not necessarily on a topic of the same import) short essays by Jones for Esquire.

Two that seemed to almost intertwine in terms of subject were the 2009 pieces "Arrivals at the Airport: An Idea for Our Time" and "The Emptiest, Loneliest, Highway in America". Each just over 600 words, the pieces very quickly got into the importance of meaning and connections.

The other short piece from Jones that I've thought of at various times since reading it (also back in 2009) was "Garret Dillahunt: The Man Who Disappears". The subject perhaps not as profound as these others in that it doesn't traffic in life, death, or even relationships, but I found it to be a powerful work of admiration (perhaps leading to emulation) done in just 427 words.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Fast Company Destination Design 2.0 event

While most of the posts on this blog are about great writing come across (the title after all is words written down), there's also been a few about events related to writing, with past posts being on the 2013 Cinequest Film Festival Writers Celebration and on a 2011 Inc. Magazine speaker event. In this event category, I recently attended Fast Company Destination Design 2.0, moderated by FC Executive Editor for Digital, Noah Robischon and with a two-person panel of Robert BrunnerMatt Rolandson, partners at the leading design firm Ammunition.

Brunner founded Ammunition after serving as Director of Industrial Design at Apple and then as a partner at Pentagram. Ammunition as a design company works with a number of clients, but is best known for work done with Beats Electronics, that makes Beats by Dr. Dre high-end headphones. In the Fast Company event, Brunner and Rolandson talked about how design has become strategic within many companies and industries and towards that end, Ammunition both become equity partners with some firms they do design work for and spun off product companies from work done at Ammunition.

Discussed at the event were some examples of these spin off companies with Fuego in the outdoor BBQ category, the short-lived Regen that made solar charging electronics and now Octovo that makes luggage and travel accessories like leather billfolds and tablet or phone cases. Octovo was interesting from the perspective that its product based in and marketed around old-style fashion and tactile craftsmanship, sort of a counterpoint to the idea of ubiquitous electronics. In this regard, Octovo as a brand and the products from it made me think of fashion designer Brunello Cucinelli and an excellent GQ Magazine piece "Un Uomo Nuovo: How I Learned to Look, Act, Eat, and Think Like an Italian Gentleman in Just Three Days" on him by Michael Paterniti.

Back to Octovo itself, "A Lush Line Of Travel Goods, Designed For The Attention Economy" was written for the Fast Company Digital site by the aforementioned event moderator / Digital Executive Editor Robischon and in a chat after the event he talked of writing as a field... and knowing someone that wanted to work at the New Yorker and towards that end would transcribe New Yorker pieces to become adept at the magazine's style.

All in all, it was a very cool event put on by Fast Company and just reinforced to me how there's so many interesting careers out there that people have created for themselves... and for that matter, interesting stories that could be done about them.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Great Magazine writing - by Dan P. Lee, Tom Junod & Julian Rubinstein

As I a few days ago posted on recent great newspaper stories I've seen, it seemed fitting to move on to posting about some excellent magazine writing I've come across lately.

The oldest piece (from May, but which I just recently read) was "Welcome to the Real Space Age" by Dan P. Lee for New York Magazine and a look at the pending wave of commercial space travel. It's a fascinating story and included was one of the major players in the industry, Elon Musk... with this inclusion reminding me of the excellent Esquire profile "Triumph of His Will" on Musk by Tom Junod that I wrote about and linked to last year.

In the same area of writing about larger the life type people was another profile by Junod for Esquire, "A Life So Large" on Brad Pitt. The piece was the second in a sort of "celebrity actor cover story profile series" done in recent months by Junod, with the first on Leonardo DiCaprio and third on Matt Damon. While all three very well written, the one on Pitt struck me as particularly interesting with the actor constantly working the balance between the celebrity life he's chosen and the private life with his family. Additionally of interest to me around the profiles was a short Esquire essay by Junod in the latest issue (with the Damon profile). Titled "Assimilation! The Fame Trilogy" it's about writing the three pieces and includes the interesting note from Junod that "If I had to say anything about all three of them collectively, it would be that they are better than they have to be and quite relieved they are not worse."

Another great feature piece I've seen recently was well written to be sure, but initially fascinating to me just for who wrote it. "Operation Easter" was done for the New Yorker by Julian Rubinstein, author of The Whiskey Robber, a non-fiction account account of Attila Ambrus, an Eastern European bank-robbing folk-hero of sorts. I read the book in late 2005, enjoyed it quite a bit, and up until now hadn't seen anything else by Rubinstein. This recent New Yorker piece an excellent one about rare bird eggs in Great Britain, the collectors who try to illegally take them and inspectors tasked with preventing that. Definitely an obscure topic on animal obsessives that made me think of the recent Jon Moallem book Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, which I reviewed here.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Great Newspaper writing - by Eli Saslow, Clay Tarver, Wil Hylton & Courtney Queeny

There's been some excellent pieces I've seen from newspapers over the past few weeks with really solid work both in the New York Times and Washington Post.

The most recent story I've read was actually the oldest one with "Craig Venter’s Bugs Might Save the World" done for the Times in May 2012. Written by Wil Hylton, it's a fascinating look at the biologist noted by Hylton (and in Venter's Wikipedia page) as being one of two people who first sequenced the human genome. Venter as a scientist working on cutting-edge stuff makes for a fairly complicated profile and Hylton did a good job making the piece eminently readable. In this regard the story reminded me of another scientist profile I wrote about and linked to in 2011, one by Tom Junod on biologist Eric Schadt.

The other two Times pieces I've seen recently which struck me as memorable were by Courtney Queeny and Clay Tarver respectively. "The View From the Victim Room" is Queeny's first-person account of an abusive relationship and just tremendous and highly personal writing. The Tarver story is a profile of former Nirvana and then Soundgarden bassist turned Army Special Forces solider Jason Everman. Titled "The Rock ’n’ Roll Casualty Who Became a War Hero", it's a remarkable tale that's recounted very well in the piece.

From the Washington Post last week was another great piece by Eli Saslow on a subject that seems as if it must have been painful to report on and witness firsthand. "In rural Tennessee, a new way to help hungry children: A bus turned bread truck" reminded me a great deal of Saslow's March story "Food stamps put Rhode Island town on monthly boom-and-bust cycle". Both pieces were sad for what they portray, and this latest story also made me think of how it easy it would be for many of the kids written about to just keep the cycle of poverty going when they become adults.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

"Someone Could Get Hurt" by Drew Magary

Someone Could Get Hurt by Drew Magary was a riff on parenthood that had some interesting stuff in it and would likely ring true for anyone with young kids.

Particularly compelling was Magary's writing about his third child and time spent in the NICU after being born seven weeks premature and requiring surgery for  intestinal malrotation. Just gut-wrenching reading and Magary did a really solid job with this area of the book.

I've linked to quite a few pieces and works by Magary and found his second book to be a pretty good follow on to his interesting novel, The Postmortal.

"The Skies Belong to Us" by Brendan Koerner

The Skies Belong to Us by Brendan Koerner was an excellent book in which he did the trick of taking an interesting topic, finding particularly fascinating subjects within that topic and then crafting a great narrative out of it. Subtitle to the book is Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking and it's noted on the book jacket that "over a five year period starting in 1968, commercial jets were hijacked at a rate of nearly once a week."

Koerner writes in the book of how the majority of hijackers wanted to go to Cuba and his cover subjects Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow went much further forcing 1972 L.A. to Seattle flight to eventually take them to Algiers. Theirs was a fascinating story with Holder a disillusioned and somewhat unstable Vietnam veteran and Kerkow seemingly a footloose party girl from Coos Bay, Oregon. In this regard, it was particularly fascinating reading towards the end of the book about what became of Kerkow through her experiences.

 In relation to other adventure-related books I've read, The Skies Belong to Us is up there among my favorites, in the some company as Unbroken by Laura HillenbrandThe Wave by Susan Casey and Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer.

Part of what made the book so good was the research that Koerner appeared to put into it, with 31 pages of notes and citations at end of book and one thought that I had while reading is it just felt very "cinematic" to me and brought to mind how the movie Argo came out of the Wired Magazine story "The Great Escape" by Joshuah Bearman.

Additionally, I've seen several interesting pieces with Koerner about his book including an interview by Alex Heard for Outside Magazine and saw just tonight that there was a 50-minute podcast with Koerner for Longform.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Writing on the Boston Marathon bombing - by Sean Flynn & Eric Moskowitz

I've previously done three different posts linking to great writing about the Boston Marathon bombing and recently there's been two additional stories that I found excellent.

The July issue of GQ Magazine featured "The Finish Line" by Sean Flynn and for the Boston Globe two weeks ago was "Amid death and anguish of bombing, a gift of life" by Eric Moskowitz.

Flynn recounts the day of the bombing through the stories of AP photographer Charles Krupa, bombing victim (and man who provided a description of Tamerlan Tsarnaev) Jeff Bauman, Boston Police Superintendent of Field Services William Evans and experienced medical volunteers Michael Powers and Stephen Segatore. The piece jumps between the various people's stories in a rough chronological order and is a captivating telling of the events.

The Moskowitz feature is on couple Caroline Reinsch and Christian Williams and how as each recuperated from injuries suffered in the bombing, Reinsch discovered the pregnancy they'd hoped for was now a reality. Just a really great story done well by Moskowitz.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Writing on Hotshot firefighters - by Kyle Dickman & Molly Hennessy-Fiske

There was a great story written for the July issue of Outside Magazine that I had already planned on linking to before it became so tragically timely. "In the line of Wildfire" was by Kyle Dickman and is an account of time he spent with the Tahoe Hotshots, who Dickman describes as an elite group of wilderness firefighters based in Camptonville, CA.

It's a gripping feature story on people with jobs completely different than most and the tragic timeliness of it came with the June 30th deaths of all but one of the Prescott, AZ based Granite Mountain Hotshots. The next day Dickman wrote "19 Hotshots die in Arizona" for Outside and then followed that up with "Examining the Arizona Wildfire Deaths".

There's I'm sure going to be other well-done and poignant stories written on the disaster and one I've seen already was "Widow of fallen Arizona firefighter recalls his last day" for the L.A. Times. Written by Molly Hennessy-Fiske, this story was on Juliann Ashcraft, whose husband Andrew Ashcraft one of the 19. It's a heartbreaking piece that notes the Ashcraft's 4 children, all under the age of 7.

In relation to all the men lost in the fire, among the various places online that provide biographical info was "Remembering the Granite Mountain Hotshots" in the Washington Post.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Businessweek writing - on Costco, BP, Daft Punk & David Stockman

There's been some well done and interesting pieces for Businessweek lately with three solid features from the latest issue and another excellent one from last month.

The oldest feature story to note here was "Costco CEO Craig Jelinek Leads the Cheapest, Happiest Company in the World". It's a excellent in-depth look by Brad Stone and gets at the idea I've long held of how a company becomes good in large from how it's employees treated.

More recently was the not terribly frequent situation of me finding compelling all three features from one issue. Cover story from the latest edition was "How BP Got Screwed on Gulf Oil Spill Claims" by Paul Barrett and it's about everyone lined up for their (earned or not really) chuck of BP money. Very interesting reading about the approach BP initially took in accepting liability and how that contrasted with the subject of a Paul Barrett BW story from two years ago, "Transocean: No Apologies Over Gulf Oil Spill".

The other two stories I found interesting from this issue were on extremely different subjects with "David Stockman Takes On the Fed's Easy-Money Policies—and the World" by William Cohen and "Daft Punk's 'Get Lucky': How to Build the Song of the Summer" by Eric Spitznagel. The feature on Stockman could be described as a doomsday picture of our economy (at least in Stockman's opinion) and the look at how a hit song was marketed is just plain interesting.