Book Commitment Issues (Or, An Ode to Sydney Carton)

I have commitment issues. With books.

For the most part, I start what I finish, but there are certain books I just cannot get through. It’s rarely because I hate them. They might be entertaining, even easy to read, but for some reason, especially over the last few months, I’ve been having a hard time getting to the last page.

I find myself worrying an inordinate amount about this. Is my attention span too short? (Yes.) Am I coddling myself if I only read books I find personally interesting? (Maybe.) Is my inability to finish a book a character flaw? A symptom of a deeper issue? (I certainly hope not.)

I received a copy of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit for Christmas and couldn’t wait to read it. I devoured her Team of Rivals and was excited to learn about an era in American history I wasn’t familiar with – the lives and presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The book is good! I have learned a lot. (And I’ve decided I want to be Nellie Taft when I grow up.) But it’s dense. And I just don’t find the time period or events as fascinating as the ones described in Team of Rivals. I’m beating myself up over this. All history should be interesting! Think how this knowledge will inform your understanding of other events! Character flaw!

The Bully Pulpit and I are taking a break. I know I’ll finish it eventually, but I’m pausing to revisit an old favorite: A Tale of Two Cities. I bought a cheap copy of it last week, inspired by who knows what, and I’m flying through it like I haven’t flown through a book in years.

I have some recollection of characters and plot from reading it in high school, but it’s still a breezy, lovely read. I remember telling myself after the first reading that I would name my first child after Sydney Carton (I blame my mother for this notion; she loves To Kill a Mockingbird so much that my sister’s middle name is Harper). I’ve stood by that claim over the years, but I forgot why I loved the character enough to make it in the first place. I remember his last words almost brought me to tears (spoiler alert – he loves a girl so much that he goes to the guillotine to save her family, because he is selfless and perfect!). But I read things with a more critical eye now than I did as a teenager, so I’m recognizing much more depth to the character. Lines like this – describing pre-guillotine-sacrifice Sydney’s directionless life – put a lump in my throat that wouldn’t have been there in high school:

“Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.”

Oh, Sydney. How you will redeem yourself.

I’m also appreciating Dickens as a writer, not only for how he crafts the broad plot, but also for how he sets a scene and describes characters’ mannerisms. Books come most alive for me when I can clearly imagine the action in my own head – when I can mentally move the characters around a hypothetical movie set. I can picture all these characters, where they live and work, how they move through the scenery and how they talk to each other. It is vivid. When I was reading the book in high school, I remember my dad telling me how much he loved it and how I should do my best to enjoy it. “Just bask in the presence of the master,” he said. With the added perspective of the six years since my first reading, I finally am.

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A Night at the Theater: “Lucky Guy”

My sister was in town this weekend and we hatched last-minute plans to see a Broadway show Saturday evening. We failed in our attempts to get lottery tickets for Matilda or Book of Mormon, but were able to get standing room only tickets for Lucky Guya play written by Nora Ephron and starring Tom Hanks as New York City newspaper columnist and police reporter Mike McAlary, who, among other career highlights, won a Pulitzer in 1998 for his reporting on a Haitian immigrant who was assaulted by police in Brooklyn.

Of course, we wanted to see this play because Tom Hanks stars, but I also wanted to see it because it’s Nora Ephron’s last work. When I think of the ideal writer and the ideal New Yorker, I think of Nora Ephron. Plus, she wrote When Harry Met Sally…, a movie I adore.

lucky guyLucky Guy was phenomenal, and based on what I know of Nora Ephron – from several of her films, her book “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” and a handful of articles I read that were written shortly after her death – so much of her own life experience was infused into this story and its characters. It’s a true story, but in its presentation and dialogue, I saw elements of Ephron and another character she developed.

What captivated me most about McAlary’s story was how deeply he felt that he had been born to be a New York newspaper writer. Inside the Lucky Guy playbill was a kind of “bonus” playbill, a large cardstock addition that included an excerpt from Ephron’s book “I Remember Nothing,” titled “Journalism: A Love Story.”

An excerpt of the excerpt:

I’d known since I was a child that I was going to New York eventually, and that everything in between would be just an intermission. I’d spent all those years imagining what New York was going to be like. I thought it was going to be the most exciting, magical, fraught-with-possibility place that you could ever live; a place where if you really wanted something you might be able to get it; a place where I’d be surrounded by people I was dying to know; a place where I might be able to become the only thing worth being, a journalist.

And I’d turned out to be right.

When I read this in the program, worlds collided in my head. Nora Ephron felt this way. She wrote a whole play about a man who felt this way. And she developed a character of her own who felt this way: Sally Albright, Meg Ryan’s character in When Harry Met Sally….

An early scene in When Harry Met Sally… has the title characters driving out of Chicago, en route to New York City to start their lives after college graduation. They’ve just met – Harry’s girlfriend is a mutual friend – and Harry tries to make conversation. Sally’s response to “Why don’t you tell me the story of your life?” is infused with the same eager, optimistic, “I was born to be a journalist in New York City” spirit that Ephron and McAlary possessed.

The first 40ish seconds here are what I’m getting at:

I may not be a newspaper reporter, but I identify with that sense of feeling like you were born to be in New York, at least for a time. Sally Albright’s line, “Nothing’s happened to me yet. That’s why I’m going to New York,” is part of the reason I wanted to come here in the first place. And I couldn’t help loving Lucky Guy because that same sense of conviction drove Mike McAlary.

Knowing Ephron wrote the play while she was dying added another dimension to my understanding of the story. For most of the second act, McAlary knows he’s living with cancer. Ephron’s script shows how he copes with the pain of treatment. One scene I found especially powerful shows McAlary and one of his editors, who was also in the hospital for a major heart surgery, talking to each other as they figured out how to raise their morphine levels. As the dosage goes up, their pain dulls, their eyes widen, their mouths open, and they talk euphorically about how they’ve achieved their dreams in journalism. In that brief moment, death has no hold on them.

I read Ephron’s book “I Feel Bad About My Neck” a couple summers ago, and remember her talking a lot about dreading and preparing for death. I wondered if Ephron had written the play as a coping mechanism, or if she wrote some of her own fears about death into McAlary’s character. When I got home, I discovered a March New York Times magazine piece written by her son Jacob Bernstein: “…part of what she was trying to do by writing about someone else’s death was to understand her own,” he wrote. In a way, this play was therapy.

Those were just two elements of McAlary’s character that stood out to me, but there was so much more to love about Lucky Guy, from the cast to the dialogue to the set design that scrolled through headlines of McAlary’s columns. I also love how everyone clapped for Tom Hanks when he first came onstage. They’re clapping, of course, because he’s a talented and accomplished actor, but I always wonder if a little of the applause comes from a sense of wonder that this larger-than-life movie star is actually a real person, here in the flesh, with me tonight. Part of Broadway’s allure, I suppose.

I highly recommend Lucky Guy if you’re in NYC before it closes July 3. Standing room tickets were only $29 (but only go on sale if the show’s sold out), and I can’t even begin to tell you how much of a steal that was.

Recently Read: “Team of Rivals” and “The Art of Fielding”

In college, I did a really terrible job of reading for pleasure. After poring over tons of books and articles for class, reading more books didn’t seem like an appetizing way to spend my free time. I read plenty of magazine and news articles, but read very little in the way of actual, honest-to-God books. I did alright during summers, but after graduation, I decided it was time to step up my game, book-wise.

Now, books are an escape, not a chore. While I’m trying to make up for lost time and read as many as I can, I don’t want everything to go in one ear (eye?) and out the other, so I’m writing little “debriefs” for everything I read this year.

I’ve finished two books so far in 2013 (though the vast majority of the first was read in 2012), and here’s what they taught me.

Book One: Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I blogged a little about this book as I was reading it, and now that I’m through, I wish I was taking some class that required me to write a whole research paper on it. As terrible of a student as this will make me sound, I took more notes on this book than I did on a lot of books I read in college. Reading it without an assignment hanging over me, I was able to take it at my own pace and soak it in as a whole, rather than thinking about bits and pieces that might somehow fit into a paper.

It is a tremendous work: 754 dense pages about Abraham Lincoln, his four primary rivals in the race for the 1860 Republican nomination for president, his cabinet once he did become president, and how he worked with and maneuvered around all those people to lead the United States through the Civil War.

Throughout the book, I found three elements of Lincoln’s personality and character most fascinating: Lincoln as storyteller, Lincoln as a PR man and people manager, and Lincoln as a man obsessed with the way in which he was perceived. (I suppose those are the main points of that book report I’m not required to write.)

First, Lincoln as storyteller: I wrote about this a couple months ago, when I had just started the book, but if you’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, whose screenplay is based on Team of Rivals, you probably laughed out loud at the story Lincoln tells about Ethan Allen seeing a portrait of George Washington hung in an outhouse. I know that story doesn’t make sense out of context for people who have not seen the film or read the book, but Daniel Day-Lewis’ timing and delivery of the story provided me with one of my favorite moments in any movie. Team of Rivals is full of references to Lincoln’s gift for storytelling, molded when he was a boy as he listened to his father tell stories to travelers and pioneers who spent the night in their Kentucky home.

Then, Lincoln as a PR master. Honestly, the man was a public relations genius, especially when it came to the internal PR he had to conduct in order to keep all his cabinet members, friends, constituents and military leaders happy.

In my eyes, though, his greatest PR gift was his ability gauge public sentiment, and wait until it was on his side before making proclamations or taking certain actions.

“Lincoln understood that the greatest challenge for a leader in a democratic society is to educate public opinion,” Goodwin wrote. She then shared what might be my favorite Lincoln quote from the entire book: “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions (p. 206).” (The bold and Italic emphasis is mine. That quote completely blows my mind because it holds true in every era, and so perfectly embodies Lincoln’s strategy for waiting until the public was willing to accept something before he acted on it.)

This sensitivity to public sentiment was never clearer than when Lincoln was preparing to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He waited until the North was ready to fight for the abolishment of slavery – not just for the preservation of the Union (p. 502). The same went for his proposition to let blacks enlist; he waited until public opinion was strong enough on his side, and likened the situation to a man waiting for pears to ripen. “A man watches his pear-tree, day after day, impatient for the ripening of the fruit. Let him attempt to force the process, and he may spoil both fruit and tree. But let him patiently wait, and the ripe pear at length falls into his lap (p. 502)!” He would act when the public was ready to willingly support his decisions, and not a moment sooner, avoiding personal embarrassment, and, worse, the failure of key measures like the Emancipation Proclamation that helped facilitate the war’s end.

Finally, Lincoln and perception. As a young man, Lincoln took very little comfort in the idea of heaven or an afterlife as something to live for; in his eyes, this life was all he had, and he was obsessed with doing something great that would cause him to be remembered and celebrated in future generations. “Like the ancient Greeks,” Goodwin wrote, “Lincoln seemed to believe that ‘ideas of a person’s worth are tied to the way others, both contemporaries and future generations, perceive him'” (p. 100 of Team of Rivals, quoting William G. Thalmann’s The Odyssey: An Epic of Return).

After he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he recalled suffering depression two decades earlier, and remembered thinking at the time that the only thing keeping him from wanting to die was knowing he had done nothing “to make any human being remember that he had lived (p. 501).” With the passage of the Proclamation, he believed his “fondest hopes [eternal remembrance in history] will be realized (p. 501).”

I have dozens of other Post-it Notes and highlighted paragraphs littering my copy of Team of Rivals, but those were the three elements of the book and Lincoln’s life that stuck to me. If you have any interest in American history, or just want to read a thoughtful, well-researched book, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Book Two: The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

It seems like this book was on everyone’s “Best of 2011” list, so I’m behind the curve, but I did read most of this during Christmas break of 2011 before abandoning it once classes picked up again. I must have read more than I remember, because I was probably three-quarters of the way through before I started hitting material I hadn’t already seen.

I don’t think I liked it as much as I thought I would (or should) – I started out loving it, hated it (or at least found it a little tiresome) in the late-middle, but felt satisfied with the ending. Maybe that makes no sense, but hey, I’m not a professional book reviewer.

Even if I didn’t like what some of the characters did at times (a large chunk of it just wore me out, because all five main characters more or less hit rock bottom at the same time; turn the page, another character makes a bad decision and starts some long journey back to reality), I loved the way they were developed. Each main character had a rich backstory that was described upfront and used as the foundation for his or her actions throughout the book.

There were a lot of moving parts that all came together in the end, which was what I loved most about this book. My copy included a “Reading Group Guide” in the back, which featured a Q&A with the author. He likened weaving five stories together and leading them to a satisfying conclusion to completing “a humongous math problem.” Borrowing that analogy, finishing The Art of Fielding was like solving a complicated algebra problem, then checking your answer in the back of the book to find you actually did it right.

On top of it all, Chad Harbach is a gifted writer. The book is smooth. His characters talk and think like normal people talk and think, and he describes their actions in a way that allows you to picture how they are moving. If I ever write a debut novel someday, I’d hope it’s as well-written as Chad Harbach’s.

Book Three

Book Three of 2013 is Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee, by Jeff Himmelman. Most of what I know about Ben Bradlee is shaped by Jason Robards’ portrayal of him in All the President’s Men, but I’m about a third of the way through this book, and already my perspective has shifted dramatically. Bradlee seems to be the personality of all personalities, and it’s a pleasure getting to know him. More to come.

Siskel and Ebert

Saturday would have been film critic Gene Siskel’s birthday (he passed away in 1999 after succumbing to a brain tumor), so his longtime co-host and friend Roger Ebert spent the entire day tweeting tributes to him. I haven’t gone through all of them but did see a few pop up in my timeline throughout the day, and I enjoyed learning more about their work together (plus, you could do worse than having a writer as terrific as Roger Ebert composing tributes and obituaries for you).

In February 2009, to mark the tenth anniversary of Siskel’s death, Ebert wrote this column, “Remembering Gene.” While I always had some awareness of Siskel and Ebert – the men and the TV program – the column made me feel like I really understood who they were, what they did and how they became film critics. I love when a piece of writing reveals so much. Gene Siskel was a Chicago Bulls fan and masterful poker player who grew up in “a Sun-Times family” but wound up becoming the Tribune‘s film critic. He’s not just “that guy who was on the movie review show” to me anymore. It’s a touching tribute and a pleasure to read.

Ebert also tweeted a link to the obituary he wrote for Siskel in 1999. Ebert makes it another great read, but what I really loved about it was this quote from Siskel:

When [Gene] saw a movie he hated, he liked to suggest that filmmakers ask themselves this question: “Is my film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch together?”

How many movies have you seen that should have been documentaries of the actors having lunch together? My guess is quite a few. I love that perspective on bad movies: He wasn’t ripping the film to shreds, but giving the filmmakers something fairly pedestrian to measure up against. Schooling them a little.

If you asked me who Gene Siskel was before today, I definitely could have given you the correct answer. Now, though, I understand a little more about him and am glad I do.

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.

Breakfast and an iPad

Today marks the end of an era for the Landsem household: My parents ended our subscription to The Oregonian.

For as long as I can remember, The Oregonian has been part of my life. In middle and high school, I’d read the sports or living sections while eating breakfast (Fridays were reserved for the A&E). I loved reading the comics in color on Sundays, too. A self-proclaimed hoarder, I have copies stuffed in my closet commemorating the deaths of Michael Jackson and Ted Kennedy, and countless sports sections recounting the Oregon Ducks’ recent football success.

Our final Oregonian.

I’m a journalism major in the “print v. web/newspapers dying/internet paywall” age; that print papers are on the decline is not news to me. But for some reason, that discussion never really hit home until last night, when my parents announced that today’s paper would be our last home-delivered Oregonian.

While much of my parents’ decision to cancel their subscription is based on the availability of other options – my dad can read a print copy of The Wall Street Journal at work, they both have iPads and both read a lot online as it is – another factor was the poor delivery service. I haven’t been home to witness it, but my dad’s been frustrated for a few months since our delivery is often missed.

I’m sure the Oregonian has bigger worries, but when it’s so easy for consumers to get their news elsewhere, you’d think they’d bend over backwards to serve loyal customers (my parents have subscribed since they married in 1986; and really, since 1982, when my dad split a subscription with his roommates at OSU). After a few days of no paper, and no apparent effort on the part of the paper to remedy the situation, my parents decided it was time to cancel.

My parents are not customer service snobs; they’ve considered unsubscribing a few times in the past, but never had as many reasons to as they do now. One factor in their decision was as simple as clearing the clutter that accumulates with a daily paper. They still plan to buy the Sunday edition from Starbucks or 7-Eleven, to take advantage of the expanded feature sections and coupons.

I completely understand what they’re doing. Since I’m not home 90% of the time, it doesn’t even affect me. But metaphorically speaking, a stage of my life ended with the end of the Oregonian subscription. The Landsems are no longer one of the households keeping print media alive. My eight-year-old sister will never run outside, pajama-clad, and grab the paper to read over breakfast. To archive major world events, I won’t save a front page in my closet drawer; I’ll take a screenshot or clip to Evernote.

It is sad, but more for what it represents in journalism than for what it means to my family. I’m not losing any sleep over it – I’m waking up with breakfast and The New York Times on my iPad.

Where Are All the Grammar Nerds?

Maybe it’s because I’m the daughter of an English teacher, but I’ve always been a bit of a grammar snob. I’m not above correcting people (“No, Dad. Your meeting went ‘well,’ not ‘good.’”) and I’m ashamed to admit that I sometimes judge people if they don’t use the correct form of your/you’re.

I’m certainly not above typos (at my internship this summer, I sent a thank-you email to someone pretty high up in the company who had taken me out for “coffe”), but like most people, I try to write well.

This year, I get to put my grammar obsession to good use as the Editorial Services Director at Allen Hall Public Relations (AHPR), my school’s student-run public relations firm.

Basically, this means I’ll be editing and reviewing most of the agency’s work for grammar and style.

Since this is a relatively new position at our agency, I want to have a little fun with it and position my role to be a writing and grammar resource, not simply “that person who edits all our stuff.”

Right now, I’m thinking about starting a blog – maybe something more informal, like a Posterous blog or a Tumblr – that could be updated periodically with interesting articles about grammar and style, particularly how they relate to PR. Or, the site might be less of a blog and more of a resource library, as I kind of doubt people will be super eager to subscribe to/comment on a grammar blog (“Great post! I love apostrophes, too!”).

Do you read any great, grammar- or style-focused blogs? Let me know! I’m looking to expand my reading list so a) I can learn more and b) I can share some great resources with my fellow AHPRers.

Also, if you know of any single blog posts that offer some grammar insight or talk about PR writing (like this post from Peppercom’s RepMan blog), I’d really appreciate the link. This goes for grammar-related Twitter accounts, too.

Once the blog/site gets off the ground, I’ll share the link – thanks for your help!