Saturday, November 30, 2013

Interesting sports pieces - on Jovan Belcher, John Harbaugh, Andy Hershock & Marcus Smart

Some of the sports writing I've seen recently that struck me as particularly interesting included stories by Jeff Pearlman, Kevin Van Valkenburg, and Brian Phillips... with the Pearlman and Van Valkenburg pieces having separate website posts done on how the stories came about.

Two of the pieces centered around the NFL and to me showed the all-encompassing and often mentally (not to mention physically) unhealthy nature of the league. For the site Bleacher Report on Nov 26, Jeff Pearlman wrote "A Year After Jovan Belcher's Final Act, Friends Offer Clues to Tragic Downfall" about Belcher's life before he killed himself and the mother of his young daughter and Pearlman posted to his website "On Jovan Belcher." Certainly not as tragic of a story, but also about what it's like to be in the NFL was a piece done for the December 9 issue of ESPN The Magazine. In "A week in the life of a coach" Kevin Van Valkenburg listed out a game-week schedule for John Harbaugh of the Ravens and a few days ago the ESPN website had a Q&A with the writer.

Additionally from Jeff Pearlman was "Late ABA ref made call that still lasts" for ESPN and then Pearlman wrote "A story finally runs" on his website. The piece on Andy Hershock and his death 43 years ago while referring a basketball game struck me as particularly interesting with how the writing of that story impacted Hershock's children so many decades later.

The last piece to note here was by Brian Phillips for Grantland with "Smart's Choice" on Oklahoma State star basketball player Marcus Smart and his return to school for a  sophomore year. The story felt to me to be about the culture of sports debate, what people expect someone to do and then what they actually choose. It was I thought a really well-written story and the ending struck me as particularly strong...

"He made a choice for himself, one that fell outside the collective consensus-logic of the sports-culture machinery. It's a good choice if he thinks it is, because he's living his own life. Isn't that how we're all supposed to live? I'd like to think Smart's independence, and not the chattering about his NBA stock, could become the defining characteristic of his season. But the world is very cold."

Thursday, November 28, 2013

"David and Goliath" by Malcolm Gladwell

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell was a book that had a number of interesting stories and ideas that could be pulled from them, but also that seemed to make connections and draw conclusions just a bit too easily.

The book covered a lot of territory and a main point from Gladwell seemed to how apparent advantages can actually be disadvantages, and vice versa. Some of the examples of this included ones on school class sizes, attending the best college possible, someone having to endure dyslexia and either losing a parent or simply not having good parental influences while young.

The idea of someone (and then those around that person) actually benefiting from an exceedingly difficult childhood was told through the story of Dr. Jay Freireich and his work to try to cure kids with cancer. The hurdles that Freireich had to try to overcome early on gave him what Gladwell described as a disagreeableness that prevented him from simply acquiescing to the status quo of treatment and in essence giving in the large hurdles faced by his patients.

Also interesting from Gladwell was some the writing he did around motivation for people and what circumstances caused them to act differently than expected. The phrase used in the book for things that actually would embolden rather than demoralize people was “remote misses” and stories included the German bombing of London and how well the citizens held up during the attacks as well as how blacks fighting for civil rights in the U.S. would often face danger fearlessly.

One of the last concepts that Gladwell wrote about was around consequences of actions and limits of power and he told stories about British troops in Northern Ireland, police interaction with potentially criminal New York youth, hiding of Jews in France during WWII, the California three-strikes law and people not becoming consumed by vengeance after a personal tragedy.

I've written about and linked to pieces and books from Gladwell many times in the past and have liked his stuff, but going into reading this book have seen quite a bit of criticism of his work as being overly simplistic. Granted, I then read the book with that in mind and after finishing David and Goliath, I’m a bit torn... I think there’s interesting stories to be sure; just I can also see how someone would feel the conclusions are too easily arrived at. Tom Junod noted this in an Esquire review of the book and perhaps Gladwell picking obvious things that he labels as not obvious, and having people feel smart for seeing how obvious they are. If someone likes Gladwell's work, they'll likely enjoy David and Goliath, just one can't go too far is accepting as fact the conclusions he draws from some pretty fascinating, and I imagine much more intricate stories than are briefly covered in the book.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Writing on different times & different places - by Colloff, Mogelson & Goldberg

There's been a few pieces of writing I've seen in the past few weeks that struck me as excellent and which felt to be about the themes of "different time" and "different place."

In terms of different time was the tremendously well done "96 Minutes" by Pamela Colloff for Texas Monthly in 2006. It was an oral history on a mass shooting on the University of Texas at Austin campus in 1966, when mass shootings were pretty much unheard of. Colloff wrote a riveting piece that made me think about the topic of gun control, as written about both in past posts I've done with it as a label and a Jan 2013 New York Times editorial by former Australia Prime Minister John Howard "I Went After Guns. Obama Can, Too." Also related to both the subjects of guns and a different time was the Time website piece "Symphony Learns President Kennedy Is Dead" from 1963 and which contains an embedded audio file that has a staggering first 40 seconds.

The other two pieces of great writing to mention here weren't about guns and events from 50 years past, but rather about places in the world that are horrifying in terms of how people there live, and just how different their lives are than for those in the developed world.

For the Nov 17 New York Times Magazine was "The Dream Boat" by Luke Mogelson and then the Nov 25-Dec 1 issue Businessweek cover story was "Drowning Kiribati" by Jeffrey Goldberg. The two pieces center on islands some 6,700 miles apart from each other (on opposite sides of New Guinea above Australia) and both portray worlds that people would never hope to be born into. The Mogelson feature is about refugees who attempt to take the treacherous boat trip from Southern Indonesia to the Australian territory of Christmas Island and Goldberg writes about the sinking into the ocean islands of Kiribati and its 103,000 residents. The Businessweek cover text notes how climate change causing the sinking, but really what struck me from the story was how the people there now live. The short lifespans, high infant mortality rates, severe malnutrition and infectious diseases noted by Mogelson are just staggering and it's incredible to read of how people live in some other places.

"Vanished" by Wil Hylton

Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II by Wil Hylton was a book that I was excited to start and then glad to have read.

Vanished covered well a lot of ground, including it being a history lesson on U.S. airmen in the Pacific during WWII as well as a look at one man's quest first to find B-24 bomber crash sites around the island of Palau and then to help the military recover remains of those missing in action. The story from Hylton has as central figure Pat Scannon, a U.S. civilian who became interested in bomber crashes in the South Pacific and then spent years searching for the wreckage of a particular plane. It was cool to to read about how this effort became so much Scannon's "thing" and interwoven by Hylton into the narrative around Scannon was detailed information about the servicemen that went down and their families back home. With remains not found, it became difficult for many to have closure about the deaths in combat and particularly featured in the book was WWII airman Jimmy Doyle and his son Tommy Doyle who was only a baby during the war.

One thing I found was the story felt to drag on at times, but looking back after finishing it, I think that it wasn't really that anything wrong with the book. Rather, I found while reading that I was comparing Vanished to another non-fiction book around a WWII plane going down in the Pacific, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. That story of Louie Zamperini and his life probably was more more compelling for a reader as the subject such an amazing one, but Vanished was a really well done work on people that might have been otherwise forgotten. Also, it doesn't seem a stretch at all to say this idea of not forgetting people who sacrificed their lives to be one of Scannon's primary motivations.

The research by Hylton into the book felt to be pretty exhaustive while reading it and this showed in the notes and list of sources, which included mention that the cover photo for the book taken by combat photographer Tim Hetherington who died during an attack two years ago in Libya.

Both before starting and I was reading, I came across a number of positive mentions of the book by other writers whose work I find to be excellent and the tweet below from Hylton contains a short and seemingly spot-on review by Luke Dittrich.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Profile pieces - Scheiber on Warren, Junod on Clooney & Eells on Cyrus

Three great profile pieces recently were on quite the wide variety of subjects, none of whom I've previously linked to pieces about.

For the Nov 25 issue of New Republic was "Hillary's Nightmare? A Democratic Party That Realizes Its Soul Lies With Elizabeth Warren" by Noam Scheiber. Really interesting stuff about someone who may not have much yet in the way of foreign policy experience, but who definitely cares about the increasingly important issue of income inequality.

The December issue of Esquire has another well-done celebrity profile by Tom Junod with his "George Clooney's Rules for Living" that follows up on past features on Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon (with my having posted earlier this year on them).

The last profile piece to mention here was from the October Rolling Stone with "Miley Cyrus on Why She Loves Weed, Went Wild at the VMAs and Much More" by Josh Eells. It's highly entertaining immersive writing that may or may not make a reader like Cyrus if they didn't before, but I'd say shows that she's very much aware of herself and her image.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Interesting pieces on writing and the writing process

There's been some excellent pieces on writing to note here including ones I've seen in the past week and two from earlier this year.

The two most in-depth ones were the Q&As "A conversation with Paige Williams from Nieman Storyboard" from the Columbia Journalism School blog and "Brendan Koerner storyboards a hijacking tale" from The Open Notebook, a site about science journalism. I found Koerner's recent book The Skies Belong to Us to be particularly excellent (with my post on it back in July) and fascinating from this Q&A was the description of his storyboarding process while writing, which began leading into a meeting with Spike Lee about a movie script adaptation.

Additionally of interest lately was the short Mike Sager piece "How a Man Should Navigate a Fork In His Career Path" from the site Playboy: Safe for Work (yes, it exists) and the New York Times piece "‘City on Fire,’ a Debut Novel, Fetches Nearly $2 Million" by Julie Bosman on 34-year-old writer Garth Risk Hallberg. Not as recent as the other pieces, but two additional interesting ones to mention were on ESPN The Magazine and it's editor Chad Millman, with one from Forbes and one from the Sherman Report.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Writing by Saslow, Gawande & Cowen - on the Navy Yard shooting, food stamps, health care & Texas

There's been a few pieces of writing I've come across lately that were all linked together in a fairly circuitous route.

A writer I find to be one of the best working today is Eli Saslow as his pieces so frequently use great detail to tell an emotional and often heart-wrenching story and two recent Washington Post works of his very much fit that description. Published last month after the gun deaths of 12 people in Washington D.C. was "At Navy Yard, the ‘Cube Farm’ had settled into its reassuring Monday routine. Then, a jolt." and just yesterday was "Too much of too little", a piece with the subtitle "A diet fueled by food stamps is making South Texans obese but leaving them hungry."

Very much related to the Saslow piece on food stamps both because of the topic and with it being by a writer whose byline I'm always interested to see was "States of Health" by Atul Gawande for the New Yorker. About the Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as Obamacare) the piece is from a noted physican and excellent writer and just makes me bothered by what seems to be the fervently held opposition by some to more universally provided health care.

The final piece to note here also relates to Saslow's piece set in South Texas as the October 28 issue of Time Magazine featured the interesting cover story "Why Texas Is Our Future" by Tyler Cowen, economics professor and author of Average is Over. Noted up front in the story is that "three of the five fastest-growing cities are in Texas" and what I also found interesting in the story, and also connected it to the pieces by both Saslow and Gawande, was the mention of how stratified Texas is in terms of it's upper, lower and increasingly small middle class. There's been a lot written about the concept of income inequality, a shrinking middle class and an upper class living in a completely different America than the lower class and Cowen's piece (which requires a Time account to read online any of the nine web pages it split into) shows a state that's both emblematic of the dynamic and driving it.

Pieces on writing: screenwriting, work from Glenn Stout, craft of writing & writing for free

It's been over a month since I last posted on pieces with writing wisdom so there's a lot of great material about writing to note here.

About the screenwriting slice of the writing field were two interesting pieces from a few weeks ago with the first a blog post by Brandon Sneed titled "Here are Brian Koppelman's 50+ 'Six Second Screenwriting' lessons, in full. (Updated!)". It was tremendously interesting stuff from Koppelman as a Hollywood screenwriter and followed up on a post Sneed did with 13 quick writing lessons from Koppelman (with that post deleted given the updated lesson list, but my having written about it here). Also with screenwriting wisdom was "How To Write An Awesome Movie, According To Some Of Hollywood’s Best Writers" from BuzzFeed and which featured 17 different writers and directors providing feedback with content under the following headings:

How Ideas Are Born…and Then Stashed Away in Drawers, Creating a Structure, Knowing Your Characters, Writing (Non-Expository) Dialogue, Write Your Own Rules, Writing Yourself Out of a Corner, Rip It Up and Start Again, Ask for Help — and Partner Up!, Dealing with Interference, Keep Writing. And Writing. And Writing.


Another category of pieces on writing could be lumped together as being by or about Glenn Stout, series editor of The Best American Sports Writing books that come out annually, with the 2013 edition recently released.  From Alex Belth's The Stacks on Deadspin was a first-person account by Stout titled "How The Best American Sports Writing Happens" that featured some very cool stuff about discovering fairly unknown writers and the impact appearing in BASW has had on their careers. Unrelated to the compilation series edited by Stout were two additional pieces of interest with "15 Ways to Survive as a Freelancer" from Stout's blog Verb Plow and a piece for an Indiana University School of Journalism website. "Glenn Stout: Long-form sports journalism is ‘exploding’" was by Ed Sherman and primarily about Stout's work editing the SB Nation Longform site.


On the craft of writing was a host of interesting pieces starting off with two from Nieman Storyboard"Storytelling is magic" by Chris Jones at the annual “Power of Storytelling” conference in Bucharest and "Storyboard 75: The big book of narrative", a compilation of great Nieman writing wisdom over the years. Additionally of note were a few older pieces on writing: an interview with Karl Taro Greenfeld for The Review Review, an essay by Seth Kantner for the Anchorage Daily News, and a short New Yorker piece "Notes from Underground: Gay Talese's office" with accompanying three-minute video.


The final piece on writing to note here was sort of in a category of it's own with Tim Kreider for The New York Times writing the interesting opinion piece "Slaves of the Internet, Unite!" about how writers and other creative types shouldn't give away their work for free.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Writers whose books I look forward to

A topic that's been kicking around in my head for a while now is around the writers whose books I look forward to reading. This follows on the heels of my 2011 post (like I said, kicking around for a while) "Waiting on Writing: Good Authors - Good Books."

Looking back at the reviews that made up my 111 Books Reviewed from October 2012 and then my favorite books since then, below is the alphabetical list of 15 authors whose past work struck me as so excellent I'd be definitely interested in any new books from them:

Brendan Koerner - last book was The Skies Belong to Us from June 2013
Chris Ballard - last book was One Shot at Forever from April 2013
Chris Jones - last book was Out of Orbit from Mar 2007
David Von Drehle - last book was Rise to Greatness from Oct 2012
Eric Weiner - last book was Man Seeks God from Dec 2011

Erik Larson - last book was In the Garden of Beasts from May 2012
J.R. Moehringer - last book was Sutton from Sept 2012
John Grogan - last book was The Longest Trip Home from Oct 2009
John Jeremiah Sullivan - last book was Pulphead from Oct 2011 
Katherine Boo - last book was Beyond the Beautiful Forevers from Feb 2012

Laura Hillenbrand - last book was Unbroken from Nov 2010
Michael Lewis - last book was Boomerang from Sept 2012
Michael Paterniti - last book was The Telling Room from Aug 2013
S.L. Price - last book was Heart of the Game from May 2009
Susan Casey - last book was The Wave from May 2011

This of course not an exhaustive list and I'm sure there's other great current writers I've left off it, but some darn good work that's been done and likely to come from these 15 people.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Compelling sports writing - by Ballard, Layden & Sneed

There's been three different pieces of sports writing I've seen lately (each of which covered well an interesting subject) that between them had a connecting thread about storytelling, what a piece could be, what it actually is and writing narratives that don't lend themselves to being tidy.

Two of the features were for the new Sports Illustrated Longform site with "Lost Soul" by Chris Ballard on former NBA player Bison Dele and "Out of the Darkness" by Tim Layden on Jeff Lukas, son of legendary horse trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

The Ballard feature examined the life of Dele: born with the name Brian Williams, retired young from basketball, and then died in Tahiti, most likely at the hands of his brother, Miles Dabord. The feature struck me as a fascinating one that covered big-picture type themes around life, death and identity, and did all of that without absolutely knowing the details of Dele's passing or the two others that died along with him.

One thing to note about the Dele feature is, just as with the one on Lukas, it was published in the magazine as well as on the SI Longform site, and that on Dele was trimmed by I believe several thousand words for the print version. I'm sure this cutting was to fit within the magazine space allotted, and probably done about as it could have been, but the unfortunate thing is it took out much of the Tahiti narrative. That portion was fascinating to me and also made the web feature have much more of a storytelling feel to it, and different than most other pieces I've read.

Another tremendous work, the piece by Layden on Jeff Lukas was about his life before and since a horrific accident two decades ago. The parallel I found to the Dele feature is that both pieces written about something that not everything known about. In the case of Dele, there's the unknown details of his death and with Lukas, there's the question of how his life changed with the accident. The narrative of Lukas' life doesn't seem as simple as him "having great life circumstances which were cruelly taken away," nor that he's "taken the lemons life handed him and made lemonade," but rather that he had a moment in life that had to, and will continue to have to, be dealt with and the best made out of. Layden definitely introduces positives that came out of the accident for Lukas along with the obvious negatives, but what I loved from the writing was how he laid out everything without trying to fit it all into a tightly answered and conventional narrative arc.

Really excellent writing in both SI Longform pieces and hopefully the site continues to develop. There's of course a lot of things that could be done with it, but one thing that comes to mind is as they continue to post new features (and some or all of the time also publish them in print), it would be cool to see some of the past great Sport Illustrated longform writing added to the site. The ability as a reader to for instance select Gary Smith as a writer, baseball as a topic and then the 1980s as a time-period would be a nice functionality.


The other piece to mention here that was fascinating to me was by Brandon Sneed for SB Nation Longform. "Andre Dawkins Has A Story" was about the Duke basketball player who went through tragedy with his 21-year-old sister passing away in 2009 after a car accident. The story on Dawkins and his struggle to deal with the death of his sister while being a a major-sport college athlete was interesting in it's own right, but what was further interesting to me was how Sneed wrote the piece as being partially about Dawkins and partially about the idea of writing a feature on a young athlete who would rather not be profiled, especially when the reason for the profile is his working to overcome such a tragedy.

To this end, there were a number of comments about the piece and writing approach both below the story and in a thread to the writing site Gangrey. My opinion is that I follow what Sneed ran into with the story and his difficulty, but find myself conflicted about whether it made sense to write such a lengthy "inside baseball" portion about the writing process. This story wasn't written for a general interest sports print magazine, but rather for a great site devoted to sports writing... and to have it include a piece of sports writing that was in part about... sports writing, makes sense. Just it seems that the story could have still had all the narrative about Dawkins and also included Sneed's deliberations as a writer, but done so in a shorter fashion with less in the sections on Sneed and the alternate endings (below being what I saw to be word-count math)...

roughly 6,000 words total
first 100 about Sneed
next 2,000 about Dawkins
next 2,500 about Sneed
next 400 about time with Dawkins
next 1,000 about different alternate endings to the story... with two of the three based on time with Dawkins

It's not that I know I could have written a better story and feel like I understand what Sneed wrote about with his internal struggle in writing on Dawkins, but (without my actually working in the field) also imagine it part of the job. It seems to me a non-fiction writer should seek out the truth, but also do so in a manner that's as fair and compassionate as it should be to the subjects. Granted, this allows for a great deal of latitude, but I'd think that comes with the job to figure it out and act appropriately. Dawkins as a college kid may well warrant a different threshold than perhaps a professional entertainer in terms of how dogged someone should be in writing about him, but regardless, he warrants a threshold that should be met when writing for the public about a private individual (which of course, everyone is). Basically, we're all characters in narratives and there's nothing wrong with those of us in the public eye being written about, as long as the authors write honestly and as appropriately (in both the writing and reporting) as should be done about them.

Sneed wrote very interesting stuff about Dawkins and also raised very valid questions about the writing of a feature on him, just I wonder both if it's part of the job to be report and write appropriately and if whether a shorter piece would have kept the story more about Dawkins rather than what felt to be a feature first about Dawkins and then about the writing on him. Related to this, I found interesting the long-sought interview with Dawkins which then led to the alternate endings written to the story. The time with Dawkins wasn't profound, but it didn't have to be. I don't think there any evidence that Sneed as a writer wanted to force this to be so, but Dawkins as a subject of course not required to be profound nor fit into a convention or have a particularly tidy narrative to have a solid story written about him, which even with my quibbling about the writing dilemma portion, I think was delivered by Sneed.

"The Signature of All Things" by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert was a novel that featured great prose from Gilbert on an interesting subject and may have been a bit longer than I would have liked, but definitely finished strong.

In terms of the overall plot, there's excellent reviews out there that describe it, like that by Clare McHugh for the Wall Street Journal and what struck me from the book was both the description (including a cave scene that brought to mind a somewhat similar setting in the Bryce Courtenay book The Power of One) and a piece of the story that was introduced towards the end.

The primary character in the book was named Alma and tremendously interesting to me was a scene where she fought off drowning, and then had that serve as a partial foundation to her writing an unpublished treatise very much in line with On the Origin of Species that was being written by Charles Darwin. Also interesting on this topic was Alma's struggle with how human behavior that goes against the idea of natural selection (or competitive adaptation) relates to the concept written on separately by herself, Darwin and another.

Back to the scene in which Alma had to fight to survive, it brought to mind past writing that I found to be excellent. The late public policy expert John Gardner (who I wrote about in 2009) wrote (among many other things) about carrying on in the face of adversity and Esquire writer Mike Sager in a piece on mental heath (which I wrote about in 2011) provided the powerful and true words "how much can one man take? As much as need be."