Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Best non-sports writing linked to in 2014

Following up on my just posted best sports writing linked to in 2014 is the below listing of the best non-sports (and non-business) writing I read and posted on in 2014:

"Salvage Beast" by William Langewiesche for Vanity Fair - on Nick Sloane, a salvage master ship captain who comes in when vessels are in distress and works to either save them, recover goods aboard or reduce the environmental impact of a wreck. The story also struck me as particularly interesting in that it brought to mind Susan Casey's great book The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean.

"The Human Factor" by William Langewiesche for Vanity Fair - on the crash of Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic Ocean, a disaster that's written in this excellent piece as being one that both become more rare with automated flight systems and was caused in part by pilots not being prepared to deal with problems that arise, given due to their reliance on... automated flight systems.

"The Plane That Fell From the Sky" by Buzz Bissinger for the St. Paul Pioneer Press from 1981 - on TWA Flight 841 that suffered severe mechanical failure (as opposed to the human failings from the doomed Air France flight) and then required herculean efforts from the captain to try to land the plane safely.

"The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy" by Michael Paterniti for Esquire from 2000 - on Swiss Air flight 111 that crashed into the Atlantic, killing all 229 passengers. Just an amazing piece that made me wonder what it was like to write when just reading it was heart-wrenching.

"The Perfect Fire" by Sean Flynn for Esquire from 2000 - on a giant warehouse blaze fought by firefighters in Worcester, MA and remarkably tense writing that brought to mind some of the best works of authors like Sebastian Junger or Jon Krakauer.

"The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit" by Michael Finkel for GQ Magazine - on Christopher Knight, who spent close to 30 years by himself in the woods of Maine off supplies he pilfered. Knight's story is a tremendously interesting one and Finkel wrote the piece with himself in it as someone who visited Knight in prison. This first-person approach definitely worked in the story and was made even more interesting with Finkel's own back-story as a journalist fired for creating a composite character, and Finkel then having his identity assumed by a murderer. It's a remarkable tale that Finkel wrote of in the 2006 book True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa that's the basis of a soon to be released movie starring Jonah Hill and James Franco.

"Beyond Belief: A Journey to Antartica" by Chris Jones for AFAR Magazine - an almost dream-like read on time in a remarkable place.

"The Brief, Wondrous Life of Zina Lahr" by Grayson Schaffer for Outside Magazine - a piece that sticks with you as a reader, in part because of what the family has had to go through with Zina's seven-months pregnant sister dying in a 2010 car accident and also just because of the description of Zina herself. Really just captivating writing on someone that most people would never have known of if not for this story.

"A Speck in the Sea" by Paul Tough for the New York Times - on fisherman John Aldridge who fell off a lobster boat into the Atlantic. It was also interesting to me that the piece written by Tough who wrote the book How Children Succeed, which I wrote about earlier this year.

"Can You Say... Hero?" by Tom Junod for Esquire from 1998 - on Mr. Rogers and one of the most memorable magazine pieces I've read (for the first time in a prior year and posted online by Esquire in 2014).

Best sports writing linked to in 2014

I realized recently that while I did put together a book of the best business writing I've read through 2014, I hadn't done any compilation on best writing not about business since my Jan 2014 post covering stories from 2013. So... here's my favorite sports writing read and posted on in 2014:

"‘OMG. You’re So Much More Than Awesome’" by Michael Powell for the New York Times - on time he spent in rural North Carolina with Kevin Bumgarner, who was proudly watching his son Madison Bumgarner make history with his World Series pitching performance against the Royals.

"The right thing to do vs. the state of Florida" by Michael Kruse for SB Nation - on the death of 18-year-old Devaughn Darling during a 2001 Florida State University off-field practice and what's occurred since. Darling's family sued the state of Florida over the circumstances of Darling's death and agreed to a $2M no-fault settlement, with $1.8M of it still not paid to them as it's up to the discretion of the Florida state legislature whether they actually pay the settlement money. It was a maddening piece to read at times due to both the money and details around and after Darling's death, but Kruse wrote the story incredibly well.

"The Umpire's Son" by Lisa Pollak for the Baltimore Sun from 1987 - a Pulitzer Prize winning story on MLB umpire John Hirschbeck and his family. In 1992 they learned of the rare genetic disease Adrenoleukodystrophy, or ALD, that would claim the life of eight-year-old John Drew Hirschbeck and leave his younger brother Michael afflicted with the disease, along with his two sisters as carriers that could pass it along to any males they might eventually give birth to. It's an empathic story from Pollak that becomes even more profound with the Hirschbeck family's tragic news from April 2014.

"A Long Journey to Spring" by Chris Jones for ESPN The Magazine - on Kansas City Royals coach Mike Jirschele, who Jones writes of having endured enormous family tragedy with three brothers dying from muscular dystrophy and this season has his first big-league job after 36 years in the minors.

"Precious Memories" by Tommy Tomlinson for ESPN - on former North Carolina men's basketball coaching legend Dean Smith and powerful reading on the toll that Dementia takes on people and their loved ones.

"Lockerbie: A story beyond tragedy, a story of curling and Olympic pride" by Jeff Passan for Yahoo Sports - on a town, it's painful past, current Olympic heroes and a writer wanting to tell it's story.

"Eggs and wisdom" by Chris Jones for ESPN The Magazine - on the late college basketball coach Rick Majerus and his former player, Keith Van Horn.

"The writer and the puzzle: Richard Ben Cramer couldn't crack A-Rod" by S.L. Price for Sports Illustrated on the late writer and his attempt to write about Alex Rodriguez and boy, does Price ever write it well.

"Crews, Olin families persevering 20 years later" by Anthony Castrovince for MLB.com - the piece was written as a letter to the Cleveland Indians pitchers Tim Crews and Steve Olin who died 20 years ago in a boating accident during Spring Training. It was really well done and covers both the lives of Crews and Olin and what's occurred since with their respective families.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Mooallem & Titus pieces - on end of life decisions & dealing with depression

It's really not with the intent of closely linking them together, but two great pieces of writing I've seen recently were "Death, Redesigned" by Jon Mooallem for California Sunday Magazine and a post to reddit that Mark Titus did about overcoming depression.

The Mooallem piece brought to mind the great Atul Gawande book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (which I wrote about here) and Mooallem wrote of many of the same concepts around end of life directives and palliative care, but for much of the piece with a business-focused approach. Covered in the story was entrepreneur Paul Gaffney and his idea for an app around planning for one's death, with brainstorming sessions led by Paul Bennett from Ideo. Mooallem in his story also wrote of Ideo partnering with BJ Miller, executive director of San Francisco’s Zen Hospice Project dedicated to the field of palliative care, and Miller last week did a TED Talk, that once available online, likely can be viewed from either the TED or Zen Hospice websites.

The Titus piece is his first-person take on what he did to deal with his depression and the writing from him can probably can be generalized to just doing things, and then keeping up the momentum of doing things. It's solid stuff from him that brought to mind for me a post I did in 2011 on mental health writing in Esquire, with pieces by Chris Jones and Mike Sager.

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson was a good book on the British ocean liner that was sunk by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915, killing over 1,000 onboard.

I've now read the last five books of historical non-fiction from Larson, with the prior ones In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac's Storm and while I enjoyed Dead Wake quite a bit, I probably put it in the middle of the pack for me, with my favorites from Larson Isaac's Storm and In the Garden of Beasts.

As with all of his books I've read, Larson provides engrossing storytelling along with great detail and what struck me the most from the book was the role played by the British Navy during this period of WWI prior to the U.S. entering the war. It was fascinating to read of how Winston Churchill as the top British Naval Officer privately expressed that if German sub being responsible for the death of a number of American passengers, the United States might cast aside neutrality and enter the war.

With it being either in the form of a conspiracy to put the Lusitania in danger or just simple gross negligence, it was interesting reading of how much information wasn't passed along by the British Navy to The Lusitania, both around movements of German U-boats and a better route to take into England, via the North Channel between Scotland and Ireland. Additionally, the ship was lacking a Naval Escort in British waters, even though that both requested by Lusitania owners and provided for another British ship. Then after the sinking, British officials tried to blame and even prosecute the captain, while knowing full well how much more they could have done to help keep the ship safe.

Really a fascinating story well told by Larson.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Interesting business writing - on Sirius & Howard Stern, Disney & MagicBands and Ikea & expansion

Three interesting pieces of recent business writing covered covered subjects across the corporate world with stories on Disney, SiriusXM, and Ikea.

Cliff Kuang for Wired wrote "Disney's $1 Billion Bet on a Magical Wristband" and this was probably the most fascinating to me of the three in that it was about a compelling new technology. MagicBands are wristbands that visitors to Walt Disney World in Orlando (the bands likely to make it to Disneyland by the end of 2016) can wear to help improve their experience at the park... with Disney of course benefiting from this as well.

For Fortune Magazine, Beth Kowitt wrote "How Ikea took over the world" on the home furnishings retailer and it's forays into new geographies being successful in large part to an attention to research on the markets and what consumers there want.

The last piece to note here was by Felix Gillette for Bloomberg Businessweek with "Can SiriusXM Survive Without Howard Stern?" on the satellite radio company. The piece covers how SiriusXM has been successful in recent years and contract renewal negotiations with Stern, it's most well-known on-air talent and likely the number one driver of subscribers for the company.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Great GQ feature stories - by Paterniti & Flynn

There's two exceptional features I've seen recently from GQ Magazine, one by Michael Paterniti and one by Sean Flynn.

The Paterniti piece from the latest issue was "The Accident" and linked at the top of it (with an editor's note of "the second of our two-part series on the ways accidents shape our lives") was "The Vanishing" by Flynn from 2014.

Flynn's story was about Malaysia Airlines flight 370 and it covers the lack of open communication from the Malaysian government and how it's made a horrible situation even more difficult for family members of those who were on the plane.

The Paterniti story is written about a time from his own childhood and on the reckless decisions kids make with booze and driving, a fatal car accident, and not knowing for certain who caused it. While definitely more personal than Paterniti's other great works, this piece similar to many other stories of his in that it sticks with you after reading.

Writers on writing - by King, Sager, Jones, Sherman & Keohane

Lately on the subject of writers and writing, there's been some great stuff I've seen lately that feels to group into a couple of categories.

In the general writing wisdom category were two great pieces with first Stephen King apparently in 1986 writing the first-person "Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully – in Ten Minutes" and the other piece of writing wisdom was provided by Mike Sager with the short "Tips" page from his website.

Still in the general subject of writing wisdom, but more specifically maxims about his own writing, were some rules recently come across that Chuck Jones, writer of Wile E. Coyote & The Road Runner and who passed away in 2002, put to paper and which were passed along in the below tweet:

In the writing about great writing from others category were two pieces to note here, first with Ed Sherman for Poynter writing "Why there’s not a single Alex Rodriguez quote in ESPN’s 12,000-word profile" about the profile done by J.R. Moehringer and then Joe Keohane for Columbia Journalism Review doing "Hurting for Words" about the new Michael Paterniti book Love and Other Ways of Dying, with the below tweet listing out the stories featured:

Friday, March 06, 2015

How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson

How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson was an interesting book with the subtitle Six Innovations That Made the Modern World. Johnson in the introduction writes of how the book about the "hummingbird effect," with an innovation or cluster of innovations triggering other changes that seem to be in a different domain. The book made me think of others I've read that dealt at least in part with scientific developments, including The Innovators by Walter Isaacson and The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes and below are the six areas covered by Johnson along with what struck me from his writing about each:

1. Glass: The printing press being invented led to more people becoming literate, which led to them being aware they're farsighted, which led to them getting glasses, which led to an industry of spectacle makers, which later led to microscopes and and then telescopes.

2. Cold: The rise of air conditioning led to huge population growth in the southern states of the U.S. and inventions and innovations often come in clusters, with multiple people independently coming up with the same thing.

3. Sound: The telephone played a role in skyscrapers, otherwise think of how difficult it would be to get messages to everyone.

4. Clean: Similar to how telephones enabled large buildings, plumbing and sanitation / waste removal enabled the growth of large cities. Additionally, understanding of germ theory and the need for clean drinking water has kept alive so many more people than would otherwise be the case.

5. Time: Time used to be a much more local thing with clocks synced to the location of the sun, but as things like telegraphs and railroads become commonplace, it made it more important to have standard time in different places.

6. Light: Artificial light changed people's sleep patterns. Previously they would go to sleep when it got dark, wake four hours later and stay up for a bit, then sleep for four more hours.

Overall, it was a solid, if at times a bit dry at times, book from Johnson and there was a simultaneous PBS/BBC television series he hosted that had the same name as the book.

Great sports writing - by Moehringer, Saslow & Anderson

Three great recent pieces of sports writing included two from ESPN and one from Bleacher Report.

The larger of the two ESPN features is 12,000 words by J.R. Moehringer with "The Education of Alex Rodriguez" on the Yankee returning from his season-long steroid suspension. Just an amazing piece by someone who frequently produces great writing.

The other ESPN story is "The Man in the Van" by Eli Saslow on Blue Jays pitching prospect Daniel Norris, who received a $2M signing bonus and lives out of an old VW van.

The Bleacher Report story to note here is "Craig Sager's Harrowing and Emotional Journey Back to the NBA" by Lars Anderson on the TNT sideline reporter. It's a heartwarming tale that includes a cool video of Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich being interviewed by Craig Sager Jr.