“In retrospect, the story seems preordained, as if the people around the mountain on May 18 were playing out designated roles.
“But that’s a misconcept
“In retrospect, the story seems preordained, as if the people around the mountain on May 18 were playing out designated roles.
“But that’s a misconception…”
The infamous lateral blast of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980 tears apart Steve Olson’s narrative the way it tore apart the countryside north of the mountain. The book’s heretofore studious exploration of the cultural, economic, scientific, and political background ceases for a time. It is replaced by abrupt, somewhat speculative, macabre mini-chapters about those who lost their lives during the eruption.
As the pyroclastic flow overcomes person after person, the book takes on an uncomfortably personal, borderline exploitative feel—verging on disaster film melodrama, almost in spite of the academic writing which makes up most of the book. This choice works, however. It sets up a highly thoughtful aftermath, including the above quote.
For all its objective journalistic ambitions, Eruption endears itself to the individuals who died. Olson makes a point to speak to the oft maligned motivations of the people who verged too close to the mountain on the day it blew. It is often assumed they were foolhardy thrill seekers. Olson’s “Untold Story” presents a more nuanced and sympathetic depiction of the victims.
Yet Olson cannot resist, and I do not fault, his willingness to at times render them as characters in a geological opera. In particular, he finds a hero in scientist Dave Johnston. As a coda to Johnston’s ill-fated visit to the mountain, Olson includes a quote from Teddy Roosevelt of which the scientist was fond. It begins as follows:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…”
Within our solar system, volcanoes are among the most coveted of geologic phenomenon, second only perhaps to the presence of water. Olson’s account of Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption demonstrates how humanity, science, and literature can interweave to produce an appropriate sense of awe and respect, both for the volcanoes and those who venture close to them....more
I should read books about great writing more often. Perhaps it would help me make the leap to regular professional writing. Regardless, there is a pleI should read books about great writing more often. Perhaps it would help me make the leap to regular professional writing. Regardless, there is a pleasure in reading works such as How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One, by Stanley Fish.
This is not a dry textbook, though it does include writing exercises if you are interested. This is a quick read, but you would be wise to take your time. Each chapter is packed with great ideas about writing effectively at the sentence level. The book declares a relationship between analysis and appreciation. By extension, analysis and appreciation set one on a course to writing great sentences.
As this is a theory book, not a record of proven grammatical laws, you may find yourself disagreeing with various points the author makes. I did. Then he would point out his awareness of the very objections I was having. Astute, to stay the least. If you want to be a great writer, books like this are something to invest your time in. A great way to revisit fundamentals without killing the spirit of what makes writing so fulfilling: expression....more
There is a point just over halfway through In Harm's Way where author Doug Stanton struggles with the semantics of describing a World War II naval disThere is a point just over halfway through In Harm's Way where author Doug Stanton struggles with the semantics of describing a World War II naval disaster. The USS Indianapolis was sunk 40 hours earlier. The survivors have been treading water, suffering from toxic doses of sun rays and ocean water, along with relentless shark attacks. Yet, for legitimate reasons, the book is only half over and things will get worse. Stanton writes, "By late afternoon, things had mutated from horrific to unbearable."
Being an English Major, I balked at this word choice. The gist seems to be things are extremely bad, but somehow they are becoming even worse. To me the words "horrific" and "unbearable" are sufficiently complementary--if not synonymous--that they lack the proper sense of escalation the author seems to intend. Am I nitpicking? Most certainly. But the issue still stands.
The story of the USS Indianapolis is so very horrific, even a good author like Stanton risks running out of macabre word choices while the story is only at its midpoint. He does succeed. Personally, I find his writing at its best as he journalistically rehearses the facts and provides the relevant eyewitness perspective. Wisely, he almost never uses the disaster as a springboard into semantical indulgence. The author dutifully recounts the events, as best as they were remembered and documented by the participants. Where accounts differ, he provides footnotes rather than ostentatiously claim--like any given cable TV documentary might--that he alone has uncovered the real story.
For many of us, our knowledge of the USS Indianapolis is limited primarily to a single monologue in the fictional movie Jaws. I regard that monologue as one of the greatest in Hollywood history. Yet it does not completely capture, as even Stanton struggles to in a full-length book, the sheer horror of this naval disaster.
Stanton also, without belaboring the point, succinctly juxtaposes the violence and loss of one Navy ship with the destruction it assisted in bringing upon Japan by delivering the Hiroshima Bomb to its staging area in the Pacific. The facts, and the price paid in lives on both sides, need no embellishment. As such, I highly recommend In Harm's Way, for its sobering and revealing look at this key moment in World War II....more
Jon Ronson books have twice served as good non-fiction offerings for the book club I attend. His journalistic prose engrosses, mixing intriguing subjeJon Ronson books have twice served as good non-fiction offerings for the book club I attend. His journalistic prose engrosses, mixing intriguing subject matter with a dash of empathy via writing that drives to the point. So long as a group of people have come to both talk AND listen, Lost at Sea in particular makes for good discussion.
Our book club leader made a great choice to direct the evening’s conversation by asking a question for each chapter. Since each chapter covers a different story, that enabled us to cover the bulk of the material in a single meeting. Given that some of the stories in this book are troubling, one about pedophilia being the most obvious example, reactions had a cathartic element to them. We were getting our reactions off our chests so to speak. Ronson has a gift for getting people to open up, interviewees and readers alike.
That may be at once the greatest strength and risk in Lost at Sea: depicting people with the appearance of extremist tendencies in a manner that makes them sympathetic or even likable. Some readers may not wish to experience empathy for a pedophile. Ronson, as our book club has noted more than once, risks liking his subjects. This informs his writing, keeping it from becoming detached. Whether contemplating an Alaskan town that relies on the Santa Clause myth as means of denial in the face of violent threats, or robot makers whose lifelike creations beg all sorts of existential fretting, Ronson lets things get personal. His is not the safest form of journalism. For readers like me, that makes his books all the more worth reading.
I recommend Lost at Sea to be read with a friend or group. Read and then talk AND listen, like Ronson does....more
I would recommend How Did You Get This Number to people looking for good non-fiction, essays in particular. If you have a New York City obsession, thiI would recommend How Did You Get This Number to people looking for good non-fiction, essays in particular. If you have a New York City obsession, this is a book by a New Yorker. Most importantly, it is a book I likely would have never tried otherwise. No offense to Ms. Crosley, but she was not on my radar. Nothing personal. Just LOTS of authors out there. The radar is crowded. But my local library set me up with this book on a literary blind date, so...
As with books by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, here I found myself reading long-form reflections by someone who is from my generation. At one point, Crosley says, "I was a child of the '80s but a teenager of the '90s." I have often described myself the exact same way.
This blind date wasn't perfect. At their best, essay books are a fascinating chance to explore someone else's mind, to experience the joy of another person's notions resonating with your own. In such moments, a book makes you feel less alone. At their worst, such books become an excruciating one-sided conversation. At various times in this date, I experienced both extremes.
Crosley is an astute observer of the world--able to encapsulate her experience in meaningful, often playful, prose. Her zingers and witticisms are hit and miss. Her sense of humor did not always jive with my own. Although, perhaps I shouldn't chalk that up to a flaw. She is capable of great twists, sending you in one meaningful direction so she can suddenly yank you in another. That is good essay writing to me.
Still, during her chapter about visiting France, what started out intriguing eventually dragged on too long. Have you ever been at the table with someone very much in to what they are rambling on about? You wish you could be as in to it as are they. But you know what? I have never been to France. I might never go. Keeping with the blind date metaphor, during the Paris chapter I had this inner-dialogue while reading: "Right now this night is all about you. And if it does not become about us pretty soon I probably won't ask you out a second time."
In her last essay, Crosley hits a home run. My notions of New York City have reached toxic levels of dreaminess under the influence of a certain sitcom which for eight full years remained motherless. Crosley took me deep into her New York experience, including a disastrous relationship. I believed in her Big Apple by the end, full of dreams and downfalls, but very much a place where powerful connections can happen.
So the date went well. I don't know that we will see each other again, but the time was not wasted. We should all find ourselves out with someone different, who challenges us more than they charm us. Thank you Sloane. And thank you to my library for fixing me up once again....more
This is definitely a good read for Star Wars fans who want to look back and take stock of the journey we have been on since the late 70s. Author ChrisThis is definitely a good read for Star Wars fans who want to look back and take stock of the journey we have been on since the late 70s. Author Chris Taylor has done a great deal of homework, reaching out to key players, including within the fan community. Still, perhaps as a side effect of the comprehensive nature, the delivery feels either overwhelming or impersonal. Lots of name dropping for instance. I did not have much of an emotional reaction to the material. Was I hoping for blissful nostalgia?
In one of the keenest insights, Taylor discusses how true fans tend to hate on Star Wars the hardest. We've seen the movies so many times and no one can nitpick like we can. Taylor's book makes perhaps its greatest contribution by weaving together the various galaxies of content in the Star Wars universe. How do the novels relate to the movies to the comics to the fan clubs and so on.
One thing I will criticize is the editing. I don't normally harp on punctuation. Typos happen, especially in long form writing. But the number and frequency of typos was noticeable and distracting at times in this hardcover edition, including I am pretty sure some lines or deeds attributed to the wrong characters. Ultimately forgivable. Absolutely NOT a reason to avoid reading the book. But, for example, the famous sound effect heard in multiple films is the "Wilhelm scream" not "screen." Meh. Are you a Star Wars fan? Check this book out....more
After I recently watched John Oliver’s tirade against televangelists on HBO’s Last Week Tonight, I wanted to spread it far and wide. Actually, while IAfter I recently watched John Oliver’s tirade against televangelists on HBO’s Last Week Tonight, I wanted to spread it far and wide. Actually, while I watched it I found myself scheming how I could best amplify this long-form comedy monologue. I intended to Tweet it, Google+ it, and even post it on Facebook (where I generally refrain from politicized posts, my Friends list being an awkward mix of proudly god-fearing and proudly godless). I experienced a feverish desire to add my anger to Oliver’s passionate rebuke of this highly lucrative wing of Christianity.
Suddenly, I stopped myself. I took a few deep breaths. In the end, I opted to do a bit of sharing and Like clicking. Then I moved on without making anti-televangelism my crusade of the day/week.
This impetus to ease up came about because I recently finished reading Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. This book came about in part from Ronson’s own participation in public shaming via Twitter. After a change in perspective, he went on to interview several people whose lives were literally ruined after single, ill-advised tweets. The impression this book left on me is that for all the hateful and prejudiced things said on the internet, our collective reaction to them can be equally if not more monstrous.
Ronson is a gifted journalist with a risky capacity for empathy. I say risky because he seems willing to let subjects into his head to a degree other journalists might resist. This may actually contribute to his ability to get interviews out of people otherwise unwilling to be interviewed. Ronson has a quick wit, a naturally keen observational ability, and a moral compass which he is willing to let interviewees challenge. For these reasons, I highly recommend this book.
I have said my share of things online that were ill advised. I even went through a multi-month phase of trolling a few years back when I found myself too caught up in comment threads on Yahoo. We are all susceptible to misbehaving and the urge to monger. Ronson provides a thoroughly human portrait of the cost for such behavior when it goes viral in reaction to an individual’s speech or behavior. I highly recommend this good read. Oh…and well said, John Oliver!...more
As I write this review, American women are spending tens of millions of dollars to see a movie that features a man who, if I have been correctly inforAs I write this review, American women are spending tens of millions of dollars to see a movie that features a man who, if I have been correctly informed, wants them to wear handcuffs in bed. I am a bitter lonely writer this weekend for non-cinematic reasons. Still, the above development gives me one more reason to throw up my gentlemanly bachelor hands and say, “Wuh?!”
Granted, I did spend this Valentine’s Day weekend focused intently on a woman who turns me on. I finished listening to the audio edition of Tina Fey’s non-fiction book Bossypants. Whether engaged in memoir, reflection on gender dynamics in contemporary entertainment, or conventional comedic monologue, Bossypants succeeds wonderfully.
The same lean, apology-free writing that made Ms. Fey such a great writer for SNL appears in Bossypants. Fey takes readers through all the high points of her career thus far, all the stuff she knows fans can’t help wondering about, and she presents it with crisp insight and tangy irony. Furthermore, this is not a glossed-over autobiography. Bossypants is a serious and thoughtful, self-critical yet simultaneously hilarious, one-woman show of a book. I can only fault Fey for relying a bit too often on a gag where her voice trails off to stress the occurrence of a punch line. This bit plays best during an anecdote about the time she sheepishly gave an acting note to Sylvester Stallone. Then it starts to feel belabored.
As I listened to one of my crushes read her book aloud, I thought how fortunate to live at a time in our nation’s history when she is not only allowed to vote, but also to produce mainstream entertainment that meets her high writing standards. Why should such women be encouraged to simultaneously pursue a full-time career and motherhood? Here is a selfish reason: so I can enjoy the top-notch comedy that results at gigs like the Golden Globes as hosted by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.
Allow me to be boyish for a moment. I've had a crush on Tina Fey ever since the first time I watched her do Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live. It’s a selfish attraction, replete with what-she-could-offer-me daydreams. No, I don’t mean sexual dreams where I get to put her in handcuffs. This is a holier crush.
Not since Dennis Miller sat in the anchor chair have I so deeply respected and admired a Weekend Update host, a writer so surgically insightful and en pointe witty that he or she need not rely on goofy hijinks to be an SNL cast favorite. I fell for Tina long before she was called upon to lampoon Sarah Palin. I look at a writer like her, physically and intellectually attractive, and I fantasize selfishly about just how awesome of a man I would be if I had what it takes to win such a woman’s affections. This weekend’s box office totals notwithstanding, I am fairly confident it takes something more profound and meritorious than handcuffs....more
Amy Poehler reminds me of the high school theatre girls I pined for…is what someone other than me would say. Since I am currently in love with the shoAmy Poehler reminds me of the high school theatre girls I pined for…is what someone other than me would say. Since I am currently in love with the show Parks and Recreation, I expected I would fall in love with Amy while listening to her book. I did not. Quite the opposite, she reminded me of the strong-headed, take-charge, sometimes overbearing girls in theatre that I never developed crushes on. Have I mentioned yet that I think Yes Please is a great book and highly recommend it?
Amy’s debut book is not a masterpiece, though it is full of humorous and insightful gems. It delivers. It also exudes worthy charm in the form of Amy bringing in other showbiz talents to read certain passages. Patrick Stewart reciting Amy’s haiku is delicious literature. Being of the same generation, I also loved how Amy took me down memory lane with regard to the 80s.
Yes Please feels overly discombobulated at times. I believe, based on some of her introspection, that Amy intentionally lets this book wander and feel chaotic. In doing so she may be trying to capture something that resonates with her life experience. She succeeds, but goes a bit too far. At times I felt disoriented to the point of distraction. In books that are grippingly personal, that is counterproductive.
Perhaps the best chapter involves Amy discussing why she does not want to read your (my) damn script--why I should never plop my unpublished manuscript in her lap, hoping for a shortcut to success. Her insights are keen. In a world teeming with self-publishing “indie” writers who inflate their relevance by acquiring scores of fake Twitter followers, Amy’s unapologetic take on what it takes to truly succeed is invaluable. Hard work. Trial and error, etc. As further evidence of her philosophical merit, Amy demonstrates an awareness that not everyone who succeeds deserves to, and not everyone who deserves to will succeed.
Forgive me for bookending my review with boyish observations about the nature of attraction. (I’m writing this review on Valentine’s Frickin-day). Amy reminds me of the girls in high school theatre whom I did not develop a crush on, but whom I came to respect because I could trust them onstage. Like that girl who co-starred with me junior year in Little Shop of Horrors, who I found a bit overbearing off-stage, but who I was so grateful to have as my scene partner. Would I like more writing from Amy Poehler? Yes, please....more
Three things you never want to tell people how they're made: laws, sausages, and classic monster novels. That sums up my experience with Andrew McConnThree things you never want to tell people how they're made: laws, sausages, and classic monster novels. That sums up my experience with Andrew McConnell Stott's book The Poet and the Vampyre. I suspect many of us interested in this topic like to imagine Lord Byron et al gathered in a gothic castle on the coast of Lake Geneva during a midnight storm. The snowy Alps tower over them. Bathed in candlelight the Romantics sit rapt as, if by revelation, the thrilling character of Frankenstein's Monster is born. Oh, and there is probably a crackling fireplace reflecting bloodlike off glasses of red wine. The images in my mind are all delightfully spooky and sexy.
Yet, as Stott's rigorously logistical account demonstrates, the summer of 1816 saw a group of talented yet chronically privileged and self-interested young adults make poor life choices and almost, or in some cases actually, ruin themselves. Frankly, with all of the personal melodrama, financial headaches, and illnesses enveloping the writers, it is a miracle that works like Frankenstein and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage were ever written.
The genesis of Mary Shelley's monster novel is almost a footnote in The Poet and the Vampyre. Stott focuses a great deal on timeline and itinerary for Byron, Shelley, and two of their entourage who failed to achieve historical prominance. As such this book offers much reference value for Byron enthusiasts such as myself. Yet when it comes to pondering the emotional ramifications for the Romantic ensemble, this book generally maintains academic detachment. Top priority remains imparting the facts in a straightforward, even workaday, fashion.
Choices were made on such and such a date. Reputations were ruined during such and such a time period. Innocent children were dragged along at the expense of their health and well-being according to various documents. And yes, great literature was written and shipped back to England for publication. All of this is recounted carefully and clearly with dates and places cited. If it all feels impersonal, that is no accident. Stott dutifully recounts the areas and people of the Romantics' lives that were neglected or cast off outright while they focused on their creativity. The classic literature they created is not the focus here. This choice, while dry, is not without merit.
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto 3, may be my favorite work of poetry ever. The Poet and the Vampyre gave me a much better understanding of the goings on in Byron's circle at the time he wrote it. I was left feeling more disenchanted with Byron the man, as well as Percy Shelley, and Mary for that matter. When one considers the cataclysmic effect their volatile lifestyles had on lesser known family and associates, all three seem dangerous to know. Their works, for me at least, become something to read with a bit more sobriety instead of unbridled adoration.
I recommend The Poet and the Vampyre to people who have already experienced the major works of Byron and the Shelleys. Rather than a handy introduction, this book becomes a means to delve into the minutia of their time together. If the resulting account feels less entrancing than the famed literature in question, that may be one of the great, if disillusioning, lessons of Romanticism....more
Here is a book that tickles both my love of the universe and my love of English. Dr. Roberto Trotta's choice to tell the story of the universe using oHere is a book that tickles both my love of the universe and my love of English. Dr. Roberto Trotta's choice to tell the story of the universe using only the 1,000 most commonly used words in English is a great writing and pedagogy exercise. The literary merits of the finished product are secondary to me. One of the things I have learned as a trained writer/actor is that occasionally giving yourself a limiting set of rules can have great benefits. Though arbitrary, doing so takes you out of habits and can enable you to create in innovative ways.
The author is a professional astrophysicist. By hobbling himself linguistically at the outset, he forced himself to come up with new ways of explaining the universe to lay people like myself. It's a wonderful idea and I hope similar pedagogy experiments happen throughout the sciences.
In terms of literary results, The Edge of the Sky achieves a folkish allegorical flavor. The oldness of our cosmos comes out bright and clear. The charm and color of astrology occurs without the attendant superstition. This is science, but it is science as a campfire story meant to intrigue children of the human tribe. For me, the strongest passages dealt with Dark Matter which, as one of the great current mysteries of science, seems ideally suited for dramatization with symbolic language.
Thanks to previous non-fiction reading, documentary viewing, and a college education, I am highly conversant in the subject material. I am not an expert, but I know the scientific story of the universe pretty well. So I can only guess at how effective this book might be for someone not conversant in science. Perhaps it will read with even more delightful mystery. Perhaps it will just seem cryptic.
I think the greatest benefit could be derived by the academy of physicists. I recommend this book to the scientists whose deep knowledge of the universe allows them to take the sensibility of science for granted. If they wish to connect with taxpayers like me, they need to find effective ways of explaining the more esoteric of their mathematical doctrines. Roberta Trotta seems to have caught the spirit of finding ways to do that....more