Read Lately: “Personal History”

This Memorial Day (in New York City, at least) was one of my favorite kinds of days: A day off, but not one where it’s warm and sunny and I’m filled with guilt about not being outside. It’s cloudy, a little rainy, and I’m sitting on my bed in a mood to write about nothing in particular.

Right now my mind is on Rome. I’ll be there in a week and I’m ready. Well, ready in the sense that I have planned a lot of outfits, acquired lots of miscellaneous toiletry items, and formed a basic outline of what to do each day. But the fact that I’ll actually be walking around Rome in a week hasn’t quite sunk in.

I’m going with my roommate, and my sister will fly down from Germany to meet us. The three of us tackled Munich, Salzburg, and Prague last summer, and while that was a great trip, I’m excited to keep our travels to a tighter range this year; after Rome, we’re just going down to the Amalfi coast. Most of my prep so far has concentrated on Rome, and I’ve been poring over Rick Steves’ Italy guide (if this trip is anything like last year’s, Rick will essentially be our fourth travel companion; we took his book everywhere and had a lot of “well, what does Rick say we should do?” moments). Also consulted: This post from one of my favorite bloggers, and this Conde Nast Traveler article.

In preparation for this trip, though, I had one major task: Finish a book I’d been reading for way too long (it would have been embarrassing to take it on another plane ride). Last weekend, I finally wrapped up Katharine Graham’s memoir, Personal History. It’s a tremendous book, so filled with detail and vulnerability. The specificity with which she remembered events that were 60 or almost 70 years in the past is impressive. I’ll admit there were times it felt like a slog (a section about the Washington Post’s battle with striking press operators made me feel like I was re-reading A People’s History of the United States). But I’d recommend this book in a heartbeat, because I learned a lot from the way she shared a thoughtful lesson from every experience in life, whether it was her privileged upbringing, the deep personal tragedy of her husband’s suicide, or her learn-as-you-go experience as publisher of the Post.

A few favorite moments, or interesting ideas the book presented to me:

  • Katharine Graham was born in 1917, and was a pioneer as far as women in the publishing world. She talks at length about issues related to this, and openly discusses how she and other women at the Post endured sexism in big and small ways (I remember her talking about how Meg Greenfield, a leader on the Post’s editorial page, was treated with great respect in many senses by her male counterpart, in that he valued her ideas, but she was still the one expected to type up notes from their meetings). But she also talks a lot about how, despite being an industry pioneer, she still came of age in an era where it was ingrained in women that they couldn’t do what men did. And she had a hard time overcoming that. She spent nearly an entire chapter talking about how she came to understand what “feminism” really meant – Gloria Steinem helped educate her – and admitting she didn’t do enough to support female talent at Newsweek, overlooking researchers (a traditionally female role) and not promoting them to bigger writing jobs. One such overlooked researcher? Nora Ephron.

 

  • One thought I kept having: Katharine Graham ruled in a journalism era largely untouched by the pressures of the internet, and she died almost a decade before social media precipitated so much change in media. She always seemed able to look back and honestly assess how she and the Post handled various changes in technology and various unstable times in the country’s history, and I kept thinking about how she would have handled all the issues that would have come up today – yes, the internet, but also Facebook, Twitter, and smartphones. She talked about getting a call from Ben Bradlee on the day of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, discussing whether they should call a print circulation manager and literally stop the presses. What would she have thought about her paper, purchased by her father in 1933, being sold in 2013 to a man whose other company delivers stuff you buy on the internet to your door in two days?

 

  • Watergate is the reason I knew who Katharine Graham was in the first place, so I was excited to read her perspective on the scandal. I don’t want to say I was disappointed in her Watergate chapters, but they weren’t quite as illuminating as I thought, in large part because Mrs. Graham wasn’t making day-to-day reporting and editing decisions the way someone like Ben Bradlee was. She didn’t really have juicy tidbits about how the story was chased. But, her telling of Watergate gave great insight into Bradlee’s personality and working style, and she shared a few choice anecdotes that are especially satisfying for people with at least a working knowledge of the Watergate tale. My favorite: One of Woodward and Bernstein’s biggest breaks came in the fall of 1972, when they printed that John Mitchell had controlled payments from the Nixon re-election committee slush fund while he had been Attorney General. Famously, when Bernstein called Mitchell to tell him about the story, Mitchell threatened that Graham would “get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” Later, a dentist from California fashioned a tiny wringer out of the gold used to fill teeth, and sent it to her. Someone at the paper made a tiny gold breast to go with it, and she sometimes wore them together on a chain around her neck.

I learned a lot from Personal History. There was something alluring about Katharine Graham’s proximity to so many powerful people, her front-row seat to Washington society and practically all the important political events of the second half of the 20th century. She seemed to be unlike anyone else I’d encountered, in real life or in a book, and I enjoyed getting to know her through this work.

For vacation, I have a couple titles ready to go: Senator Ben Sasse’s new book, The Vanishing American Adult, and Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’m notorious for biting off more than I can chew, reading-wise, on trips, so we’ll see how it goes. I’ll report back.

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“The End of the Tour,” “Trainwreck,” and a great summer for movies

This summer movie season is on point. Last year, I don’t think I saw a movie in the theaters between June and October. In 2015, I can’t keep myself away. And what’s better – everything I’ve seen has been terrific. Two movies I saw this weekend, The End of the Tour and Trainwreck, were especially satisfying, and they both inspired a lot of thoughts, so I’m just going to lay it all out. (Plus, one of the resolutions I made for my 25th year, which began last month, was to write about every new movie I see in that year. This post is relegated to movies I’ve seen in theaters, but I do need to get around to some new-to-me films I’ve seen recently.)

I remember thinking “oh yeah, that makes perfect sense” when I first heard Jason Segel was playing David Foster Wallace in a movie. Because it does make sense. Segel is not a dead ringer for Wallace, but he’s pretty darn reminiscent of him. Especially with the bandana. I was stoked for this movie from the get-go.

My first experience with David Foster Wallace came in college, when I was assigned part of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again in a class on travel writing. I distinctly remember reading a couple pages and then skimming only as much as would get me through the class discussion. I’m not proud of that now, but the class at least put his name in my brain. Pastors at my church reference a passage from his 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech with some frequency (“Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship….”). Most recently, Vulture re-published a short story Wallace originally wrote for Playboy in 1988, in which he writes from the perspective of a middle-aged actress appearing on Late Night with David Letterman. I fell in love with the piece and reading it marked the start of a few-week span where I seemed to hear mention of Wallace everywhere I went. This was around the time I first saw a trailer for The End of the Tour, so I’ve been anticipating the movie for a couple of months now.

Primarily because of Segel’s performance, I cannot recommend this film highly enough. That is not to say it is only good because of Segel, but that his performance is the best element of the film. You watch it and think, oh, he can do *that.* Not just How I Met Your Mother. (Marc Maron interviewed Segel for one of his episodes last week, and I wouldn’t have anticipated the thoughtfulness he revealed in that conversation, either.) David Foster Wallace in the film is a lovable dude, someone you’d love to chat with about life, writing and the expectations you set for both. The only thing about the film that kind of disappointed me was I felt the truest or deepest, especially David Foster Wallace-y observations were already revealed in the trailers (“What’s so American about what I’m doing”-type stuff). But as I write this, I realize I probably didn’t need more of that from the movie, anyway. I needed to see him play with his dogs, or devour junk food en route to the Mall of America, or explain why he decided to go by “David Foster Wallce” instead of just Dave Wallace. And that’s what the movie gives you.

I might not recommend this movie to someone who’s never heard of David Foster Wallace, but for everyone with even a basic idea of who he was and what he wrote, I’d say go. The End of the Tour brought him to life for me. It made me want to have finished Infinite Jest by the time I see Jason Segel get his Oscar nomination.

So, The End of the Tour was Friday. Saturday was kind of an aimless day and my roommate and I thought we’d try our hand at the lottery for a couple of Broadway shows. We struck out there and with rush tickets, so we wound up seeing Trainwreck, Amy Schumer’s new movie. By virtue of appreciating Amy Schumer, knew I would like Trainwreck, but I wasn’t sure if I would just like that it existed, or if I’d legitimately like the movie. I’m happy to report my feelings definitely fall in the latter category.

Amy Schumer is a gift to us as a culture. She’s hilarious and smart. Seems lovely and genuine. And now she made a terrific comedy that is packed with spot-on cultural references and finds delightful cameo roles for SNL stars. Not sure what’s not to love there. I know Trainwreck isn’t a perfect movie. It’s a little too long and sometimes makes awkward jumps. But that’s not the point. The point is that she shouts things like “You’re losing us the right to vote!” at basketball dancers, and makes an homage to Manhattan but with a serious bite, and describes her fear of someone seeing a “crime-scene tampon.” It all adds up to a comedy unlike one I’d ever seen before, and I loved it. I can’t wait to see what Amy Schumer does next.

Bill Hader deserves praise, too, for playing the doctor Amy reluctantly falls in love with. Give this man more leading movie roles! The review on Roger Ebert’s site makes a comparison between Hader in this film and a young Jack Lemmon. Thinking back on the film, that comparison is spot-on.

I’ve been seeing new stuff at a pretty good clip this summer (at least by my standards), and The End of the Tour and Trainwreck are more than worth seeing. Now, if you’ll excuse me – I still need to unpack my copy of Infinite Jest. 

The Brady Bunch is Messing with My Head

I am an idiot.

I read this whole story and never figured out on my own what it was really about.

(Spoilers ahead, which aren’t necessarily dramatic, but will rob the story of its full effect if you haven’t read it.)

“Here’s the Story,” by David Gilbert, is in this week’s New Yorker, its summer fiction issue. It’s a Brady Bunch prequel, but I never realized that until the author told me it was. I think this is partly stupidity and partly because I was so swept up in enjoying it at face value that seemingly obvious Brady-related hints seemed nothing more than colorful elements in the story.

It tells the story of Ted Martin and Emma Brady, the first spouses of Carol and Mike, respectively: How they met and ultimately how they died.

Brief synopsis: Ted and Emma meet by chance during one of the “love-ins” at Elysian Park in Los Angeles in 1967. Ted wanders over after attending a Dodger game; Emma takes her youngest son Bobby (!) to the park while dad and the two older boys are on a camping trip. Both feel trapped in life and in marriage. They recognize each other from being parents at the same school, and share a moment of mutual understanding and solace in the park. Nothing happens between them until a couple months later, when they’re unknowingly on the same flight the Monday before Thanksgiving. Neither had been able to keep the other out of his or her head since the park encounter, and they share an intimate conversation – even ponder running off together after landing in Cincinnati – on the plane before it hits some tree branches on descent and crashes.

Even without the Brady element, I was drawn to Ted and Emma’s plight. I’m always intrigued with stories about people who feel like their lives are stuck but who find brief solace in another person or experience. I found myself rooting for Ted and Emma, who seemed stuck with partners who didn’t truly appreciate them. I think that was also part of my shock when the ending was finally revealed – I’d just spent nine pages rooting against wonderful Mike and Carol Brady!

I also loved how the story moved and how specifically it described the true intention behind characters’ actions. One of my favorite lines described Ted imagining the disapproving comments his wife would offer about him walking through the love-in: “Much of the pleasure of being here was walking with the spectre of his wife, defining himself in opposition to her attitude.”

Not once until the final paragraph did the idea of this as a tale of the lost spouses cross my mind. I did actually think once about the show while reading the story, when I thought how Emma’s husband would have been another Mike Brady living in LA in the 1960s. I just never thought to assume they were the same Mike Brady. But there were so many other clues I should have noticed! Ted’s girls skipped going to the Dodgers game because they wanted to work on a Sunflower Girls project. Ted thinks about how his oldest loves Davy Jones. Tiger the dog is mentioned. Emma weasels out of the camping trip. For crying out loud, Bobby is actually a speaking character in the story and we learn Emma has another son named Pete!

(If it isn’t evident already, the Brady Bunch was a big part of my childhood TV routine. I watched plenty of shows made for my era, too, but I have enjoyed my fair share of TV Land and Nick at Nite Brady marathons.)

Aside from the way David Gilbert weaved subtle Brady Bunch clues into this otherwise unrelated story, I was also enamored with the idea of inventing a story for the lost spouses. It’s historical fiction, in a way. Questioning the facts we accept about something – albeit fictional – we thought we already knew. Or at least asking us to wonder why Mike and Carol’s first spouses were gone in the first place.

I love the idea that Ted and Emma’s “mutual demise,” as Gilbert put it in an interesting follow-up interview, is what brought Mike and Carol together, rather than two unrelated events that left them both without a spouse. But no one has to accept that or anything else in this story as fact. That’s what I appreciate about it. “Here’s the Story” hasn’t ruined the show’s premise for me. It’s just given me answers to questions I never thought to ask.

Joe Posnanski Leaves Sports Illustrated (and the Fangirl Emerges)

No, Joe Posanski did not die, and I highly doubt his move from Sports Illustrated to USA Today/MLB Advanced Media means he’ll never write again. However, I’m still sad he’s leaving my favorite magazine, so I’m using his departure as an excuse to re-read what I think are the greatest pieces he wrote for SI and over-analyze why I think they’re so great.

I’m not sure exactly when I determined he was my favorite writer – probably a year and a half ago – but I steadily realized I hadn’t read many other works that made me care so much about the topic at hand. Last summer, I interned in the communications/PR department at SI, and I sort of couldn’t believe Joe Posnanski and I were getting paychecks from the same company. Anyway, history of my fangirl-ness aside, here are a few of my favorites from his time at SI:

Baseball Night In AmericaPosnanski’s post following that crazy final day of the 2011 regular season is the greatest piece of writing (by any author) I’ve read in the last year. I actually cut out the last three paragraphs and taped them above my desk as a reminder of how brilliant writing can be (and yeah, I know that probably makes me sound crazy).

Why is it so great? You have to be a baseball fan to understand. Baseball fans have heard their friends say, “it’s so boring” or “I like going to baseball games, but could never watch it on TV.” I’m the first to admit that I’d rather watch an Oregon football game over a late-August contest between two cellar-dwellers, but on the whole, there’s no comparison. Football games are exciting without fail; you don’t have to work for the entertainment. With baseball, on the other hand – actually, never mind. Just read the last three paragraphs of that story and you’ll see what he means.

Thoughts in a Bookstore -This post from last February is especially meaningful if you’ve read “The Soul of Baseball,” the book he wrote after traveling the country with Buck O’Neil. But either way, it’s a relevant commentary on the decline of print media and one of those satisfying stories that goes in several different directions, but ties them together perfectly in the final paragraph

Before weaving the Buck O’Neil story, he provides hilariously true commentary on bookstore staff recommendations:

I love the section of “Staff Recommendations.” I remember someone in the business once telling me that the big bookstores will fake those recommendations — that they will tell staffers which books to pick. I’ve since been told that this isn’t true. I don’t have an leaning on the subject. I have noticed that the staff recommendations at bookstores across the country tend to be very similar. The recommendations always seem to include one Toni Morrison book, one classic by Steinbeck or Fitzgerald, a Bukowski, Burroughs or Palahniuk (recommended by the store rebel), a recent translation, and an Oprah book club selection. This doesn’t have to be planned. This could be because people who work in bookstores tend to have similar tastes.

I remember at one bookstore — in Arizona, I’m pretty sure –someone on the staff recommended The Bible. I thought that was great, and I wondered if anyone saw that and thought: “Well, I haven’t heard too much about this book, but I’ll buy it based on the recommendation.”

Funny, right? Yes. Now go read the rest.

The Poscast with Bob Costas – Written on the heels of recording his podcast/Poscast with Bob Costas, this post contains a quote I loved enough to put in my “Favorite Quotations” section on Facebook (which, in my world, is a sign of admiration):

The world, I believe, is best enjoyed and most affected by those people who believe in possibility, who strive for it, who shake off the doubters and their own self doubt, who laugh with the critics and keep moving forward, who follow their own curiosities until they are filled, who see themselves accomplishing the best they can imagine.

You have to read the whole post to fully understand where that’s coming from, but he tells a terrific story of an encounter he had with Bob Costas during his early days as a writer.

Happy Pi DayThis was written just a couple weeks ago, on Pi Day/March 14. I love it for the quirky perspective it offers on baseball stats (MLB pitchers whose career ERAs were 3.14), but its true greatness lies in the brief aside about repetitive acronyms. As a proud corrector of friends and family who say “ATM machine,” I felt some small measure of validation knowing that Joe Posnanski recognized the error, as well.

Others worth a read:

The Jeter School of Acting, 9/16/10

Game Six, 10/28/11

Lessons of the Fight Game, from the March 7, 2011 issue of SI

RIP Bob Feller, 12/16/10

If you’re also willing to admit to Posnanski fandom, I’d love to know what your favorite pieces are.

A Brand New Bias?

Poniewozik.

Imagine yourself as a third-grader trying to learn to write that name in cursive.

I actually have no idea if James Poniewozik had to suffer through elementary-school writing lessons, but someone taught him.  Taught him well.

In the two-ish years that I have subscribed to Time Magazine, his column is the one I have read most consistently and his ideas and viewpoints are the ones that teach me the most.  Plus, his Twitter profile picture shows him with a gigantic mug of coffee.  How can that not be great?

Poniewozik writes TIME’s “Tuned In” column.  Every week he contributes an essay to the magazine that highlights current events and/or issues in media and journalism.  Occasionally, he’ll write a bigger feature or the cover story.

His most recent column for TIME was especially intriguing.  In the column (from the November 16, 2009), he discussed how media bias is not limited to left-wing and right-wing; it’s not just Fox News and MSNBC that are perceived to lean in one direction or another.

It’s also the center.  Poniewozik’s column, “Moderation in Excess,” was all about moderate bias.  Moderate bias.  Oxymoron?  He doesn’t think so.

He describes this bias as being evident “whenever an organization decides that ‘balance’ requires equal weight for an opposing position, however specious.”

“There isn’t one, and there never was,” he says of the “neutral center.”

Honestly, I’m still tossing around my own ideas of what this means, but I think he raises a very interesting point.  Does someone considered to be politically moderate just objectively assess both the far-left and far-right positions?  Sure, but you can’t vote in the middle.  There has to be some middle ground to stand on.  The devil’s advocate always has an opinion.

Poniewozik brings it back to the journalists, talking about how journalists won’t be able to cover from that “neutral center.”  As a journalism student, that’s what I’ve always understood: be unbiased.  If I understand his position correctly, he sees a difference between moderate bias and fair treatment of positions.  But regardless, he gave me a lot to think about.  His columns usually do.

As if his interesting journalism propositions weren’t enough, he tweets, as all great journalists do (general statement, but you get the idea).

A few recent gems from @poniewozik:

Young woman on the N train deeply absorbed in a volume of Conrad. Lauren Conrad.

Drafted my Mad Men review; going to sleep on it, then polish and probably post early in the morning. Yay, four hours of sleep!

Never seen Mad Men, but I love that four hours of sleep part.

Read James Poniewozik’s  “Tuned In” blog here and follow him on Twitter here.