Monday, December 07, 2015

A satisfactory collection of journalism

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, fiction, essays, collections, anthologies, magazine writing

During the past week or so, my reading fare has been a pleasant, and bracing, succession of articles under the title The Best American Magazine Writing 2014, edited by Sid Holt. I like collections of essays and articles, but I approach each new collection with mixed feelings, including a large measure of trepidation that yet one more editor's choices might be significant more for promoting a political ideology than for presenting good writing about interesting subjects. Fortunately, the editorial instincts of Mr. Holt and this volume's panel of judges are firmly based on quality of thought and writing skill. Both his preface and the entertaining Introduction by Mark Jannot of the National Audobon Society stress that they collected good journalism. After all, the Librarian's term for a "magazine" is Journal.

In most cases, I finished each selection feeling glad I'd read it. For two pieces, I read far enough to determine that, however well crafted, the subject didn't hold my interest, and so not being persuaded to add a new interest to my quiver, I skipped out and began reading the next item.

This is not to say that these were all "pleasant" pieces; I am not all puppies-and-unicorns, after all. Journalism must open eyes to be useful at all. "The Dream Boat" by Luke Mogelson and "Jahar's World" by Janet Reitman are stellar examples of deep-diving journalism into unpleasant and even risky subjects. For the former, Mr. Mogelson and a friend impersonated Georgian refugees and took passage across a choppy piece of the Indian Ocean, to live the experience of modern "boat people" trying to reach Christmas Island and ultimately the Australian mainland. This came with a significant risk of dying at sea. For the latter there was less risk, but great interviewing skill was necessary to unravel the background of the Tsarnaev family as Ms Reitman attempted to discern the twisted threads that led to the Boston bombing. And the personal essay "Sliver of Sky" by Barry Lopez, in which he tells of being abused over years by a trusted family friend, and of the decades-long consequences for him and his family, was very uncomfortable to read, but should be necessary reading by parents and all others who genuinely care for the welfare of children.

Two long essays required the writer to spend repeated and extended time with the subject. Wright Thompson had to resist the alluring pull that surrounds great celebrity, almost like orbiting a black hole, to prepare "Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building". And for "Dangerous", Joshua Davis spent much time, always on edge, sometimes appalled, and occasionally terrified, with John McAfee as the former king of anti-virus software spiraled into paranoia in Belize. Mr. McAfee epitomizes the difference between "immoral" and "amoral", being a poster child for the latter.

One more in particular: "Bret, Unbroken" by Steve Friedman puts the reader inside the experience of a young man who suffered a terrible injury, whose partial recovery was miraculous enough, yet who will never fully recover, and the ironically handicapping response of nearly all others to his impaired self. His subject, Bret Dunlop, found a tiny island of acceptance in the running community. I think the writing style,
"You wanted to be more than a bartender. You applied for jobs around town, but the people hiring said you should be able to type. Of course you could type. But you couldn't do it fast enough."
is the only vehicle with any hope of helping us understand this uniquely intelligent man and the crushing frustration that dogs nearly every minute of every day. "Unbroken" indeed!

This book will test your limits, as good journalism ought to do.

No comments: