Coal mines and landfills and all the stories

Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work by Jeanne Marie Laskas
Citizen and I share a fondness for the workplace narrative, and here, she guided me to an amazing example of the stuff.
The first thing to know about this book is that the writing is darn lively. Laskas is a professor of journalism, and she writes in a terrifically engaging journalistic style.
And I kept thinking of how this book would appeal to readers of Mary Roach. The writing style and the in-depth nature of the reporting felt similar to me. While this book doesn’t have the laugh-out-loud thing going on (the way Roach’s books often do), there’s still humor here –– it’s just more muted and contextual.
Laskas hangs out with people who do jobs we often overlook — coal miners, cowboys, oil rig workers, air traffic controllers, landfill workers, truck drivers — and gives a really in-depth look at their work and their personalities. 
She starts off with the coal miners, and I just keep thinking about that chapter. It’s pretty stunning writing, about staggeringly difficult work done by tough, stoic guys. It got me.
The whole book is this way — a remarkably deep dive into a whole bunch of work lives that I confess I otherwise wouldn’t really think about (except for the landfill workers, cuz I know some of those guys from my growing-up years, cuz I’m lucky like that).
And as each chapter ended, I was sad to let it go. But then there was another narrative beginning, and it was only a matter of moments before I wondered where this one was gonna go.  
When I saw the subtitle of the book, I was worried that it was going to be over-earnest in tone, but Laskas keeps it real and she doesn’t sentimentalize things and she doesn’t make points. She just tells the people’s stories, and that’s just right.
A book that lets you meet people who do all kinds of tough and interesting work, because Laskas asked the good questions and made the insightful observations and let the people be who they are.
Dang. Wonderful book. 
Here’s what Citizen had to say about it. (She really captured it.)

The year after a presidential campaign: almost as good as the thing itself

Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the
Future of Elections in America
by Dan Balz
My heart was happy
when I saw that it’s already time for the presidential election recap books to
begin appearing.

Me and Joe — we go way back

I know. It’s sick.

The thing is, this
book—and heck, this election—had a lot to live up to. Because my benchmark for
this type of thing is the spectacular Game Change: Obama and the Clintons,McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime.
That 2008 election
was probably the best I’ll ever see, and Heilemann’s and Halperin’s take on it
was so blasted fun to read.
So Collision 2012 had its work cut out for
it. And, given the material offered by 2012, it was unlikely to reach the level
of bliss-inducement offered by Game
. And, sure enough, it just didn’t get there. But it wasn’t the fault
of the author; the 2012 election just didn’t get as thrilling as 2008, and the
cast of characters was way less quirky. We can blame history, guys.  
There were moments
when this book almost seemed dry. But then, I was glad about its serious
approach to the topic, once I began reading Mark Leibovich’s This Town—because I needed to cut his
snark with some solemnity. I craved hard data about election returns, and Collision 2012 offered it up. 
These two
books actually pair quite well, if you’re into this kind of thing.
Not that Collision 2012
is all seriousness. Call me shallow, but the thing I’ll most remember is this:
On the morning of election day, Mitt Romney cleaned out the refrigerator
because it was trash day. I find that completely endearing.
This book offered some great behind-the-scenes coverage of the campaigns, but I just kept thinking:
2012 was no 2008. And without the zippy material, the story just kind of loses its oomph. 

There you have it: the technical analysis from a poli sci major — that election cycle lacked oomph. 

Nevertheless, I’m on the waiting list for Halperin and Heilemann’s Double Down: Game Change 2012. (Due out November 5! [I confess: my stomach just did a little flip of anticipatory joy. I know: sick.])

Washington gossip

This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus,
Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s
Gilded Capital
by Mark

Yeah, I know we’re all ticked off about the government shut-down, but even as it raged on, I was reading delightedly about Washington, D.C.

Real-life motorcade I saw with my own eyes as it
rolled through Georgetown; I almost passed out from joy.

When I started
reading this book, I was completely blissed out. Even though it starts at a
funeral. Turns out, Tim Russert’s funeral was the social event of the year.

This book goes down
easy, like a hot fudge sundae. The tone is light and funny, even though much of
the content (politicians and journalists are in bed together, and really,
they’re the only ones who benefit) is not.
Mark Leibovich is a
funny guy. He’s also a complete smart-aleck. Sometimes the irreverence is
almost a bit much. But then I’d read a sentence like this: “Romney seemed to
acquire an instant lightness after his Ryan selection—like a shy eight-year-old
transformed by a new pet turtle.” (p. 316) And then I’d be all: That’s priceless.
Along those same
lines: “It was for this reason hard to dislike Biden, a joyful campaigner
who—unlike the introverted Obamneys—was not someone you imagined reaching for
the Purell as soon as he escaped the ropeline.” (p. 296)
I savored these
But there was a
whole big long chapter about a congressional staffer who got himself fired and
re-hired, and Leibovich was involved in the situation, and I got so darn bored
by all the details. It was too much. And I didn’t care. It was a relief when
that chapter (finally) ended.
And after that, I
found myself feeling the slightest bit like the book was too much, and it
didn’t feel like it was really very good for me. It felt a bit self-indulgent
and a little flip to be reading it, and I fled back to my other
political-book-in-progress, Collision
, for some whole wheat goodness. 
In the end, reading
This Town felt like eating a large
hot fudge sundae when I should’ve gone for a small. It was deliciously decadent, but there was a bit too much of it. 

Still ticked that she’s gone

Crazy Salad & Scribble Scrabble: Some
Things about Women & Notes on the Media
by Nora Ephron
For all of us Nora
Ephron readers, this book is good news. Even though I consider myself a big old
fan, I’d missed Scribble Scrabble (1979) earlier, so this felt like a new release, even though both books were published
separately earlier.
I already read Crazy Salad (and loved the heck out of it), so I’m just going to be talking about Scribble
Since I’m a
journalism geek, I was pretty sure I’d be liking her essays on the media.
And of course I
Especially since
they’re a 1970s extravaganza: H.R. Haldeman; Daniel Schorr and his fall from
grace (I’d always wondered what happened there); and Theodore H. White, author
of the “Making of the President” books, who eventually was as disenchanted with
his series as Agatha Christie was with Poirot. (Be careful what you invent,
It’s no surprise
that Ephron’s writing is smart and witty; the woman had perfect pitch. I mean,
listen to this, as she writes about People
magazine: “My problem with the magazine is not that I think it is harmful
or dangerous or anything of the sort. It’s almost not worth getting upset
about. It’s a potato chip.”  (p. 267)
At least we’ve
still got her words. And man, that lady could write.  

Watergate: more truths emerge…

Leak: Why Mark
Felt Became Deep Throat
by Max Holland
So yeah. We all now know that Mark Felt was Deep Throat.
But the question remains: Why’d he do it?
There’ve been various theories: he was appalled at Nixon’s
flagrant snubbing of the law; he was ticked because Nixon didn’t name him
director of the FBI after Hoover’s
death; he didn’t like Nixon’s interference with FBI business; he thought it was
the right thing to do.
Well, Holland
posits that Felt did all that leaking because he was attempting to discredit
his rivals for the top job at the FBI. He makes quite a good case for this
So, in addition to the new analysis of Felt’s motivation, here are
the facts I learned that completely blew my mind:
– Felt was leaking not only to Woodward, but also to Sandy Smith
at Time. Who knew?!
– Nixon knew Felt was the source of the leaks by late 1972. Again…
(say it with me now) Who knew?!  And Nixon didn’t dare fire him, lest Felt
spill even more secrets. (Oh what a tangled web we weave, Mr. Nixon.)
– Robert Redford suggested to Woodstein the style of All the President’s Men: that the book
be the story of how they discovered
the truth, rather than simply what they
discovered. The result: a literary masterpiece.
The dauntless Unruly one, in the
*actual parking garage where
Woodward and Deep Throat met*
Each man—Woodward and Felt—was, of course, using the other for his
own purposes. But it’s never before been so baldy stated as it is in this book.
The thing I find the most haunting, though, is this: 
“In 2002,
Roger L. Depue, the former chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, studied
the depiction of Deep Throat in All the
President’s Men
for NBC’s Dateline program.
Depue concluded from the way Woodward wrote about Felt that he had very mixed
feelings toward the man… ‘I detected that not only was Felt an angry man,’
Depue said, ‘but that Woodward didn’t particularly like him. It seemed like
more of a utilitarian relationship…. There wasn’t much mutual respect there.’”
(p. 157)
For some reason, this makes me feel kind of sad. The romance is
all shot to hell, you know?
I feel like I’ve finished this book, only to find myself sadder
and wiser. I’ve kinda had enough of that for a while.
P.S. Hey! You, too, can do the self-guided Watergate tour. I highly recommend it. 

So smart. So funny.

Crazy Salad by Nora Ephron

Oh, Nora Ephron. What is this ridiculous world going to do without

Here’s the strange thing: I’d already prescribed some Nora Ephron
essays for myself, and this book was sitting on my shelf, just waiting for me
to pick it up, when I heard her name at the beginning of a news update on NPR
(never a good sign: the name being mentioned first), and I thought, “Please
don’t let her have died.” And damn it.
I’m feeling dreadfully cross that she’s gone, because I think this
world needs more of her humor and more of her humanity.
Y’all, we’re just gonna have to step up and try our darndest to disburse humor and
humanity, because this world needs it. And we can kickstart our systems by
reading Ephron’s wry, funny, occasionally scathing, always smart writing. 

This collection of short essays, which begins with one about bras,
is freaking hilarious. The woman had a way with words, and it was unusual for
10 pages to go by without my laughing out loud. 

The book was published in the
’70s, and lots of the essays have that First Wave Feminism thing going on—and
it’s the positive kind of feminism that needn’t be scaring the menfolk.
Seriously. In that essay about bras, she wasn’t wanting to burn hers—she was
writing about her agony in wanting to actually need one as a teenager.
She also writes about some notable Watergate personalities: Rose
Mary Woods (subject of my most favorite political cartoon ever) in an essay called “Rose Mary Woods—The Lady or the Tiger?” and Martha Mitchell (“Crazy Ladies: II”). And there’s a remarkable little thing about Julie Nixon Eisenhower being the perfect political daughter. (See: scathing, mentioned above.)
But truly, the most delightful thing in her writing is Ephron’s
own voice. That lady was funny. And
smart. And funny. 

Covering the campaign, 1972-style

The Boys on the
by Timothy Crouse
Sometimes I wonder how certain books get forgotten/overlooked/lost
to history.
This book is a perfect example of a book we don’t hear about, but
really should.
The only reason I know of its existence is that the brilliant and
witty William McKeen mentioned it in his audio lecture series about literary journalism
I suppose part of the reason we don’t still talk about this book
is that Timothy Crouse was overshadowed by his much more audacious colleague at
Rolling Stone, Hunter S. Thompson. (Seriously:
how could you not be overshadowed
that that guy?)
But I gotta tell you: The
Boys on the Bus
is a terrific piece of work. It captures the 1972
presidential campaign season and the journalists who
covered it. (Sure, go ahead: Groan if you like. But 1972 is the year that
brought us Watergate, guys. It was a zippy little year!)
And in Crouse’s hands (actually, in his words), it comes to life. It’s the story about the story, and it is excellent. (And Crouse’s language is so delightful, I’m gonna quote lots of it.)

So we hear about Richard Nixon (and his much-despised press
secretary Ron Ziegler), and we hear about George McGovern. (“Since Richard
Nixon was declining nearly all invitations to share the pleasure of his company
with the electorate, the only real Presidential campaign belonged to George
McGovern.” [p. 320])

But the journalists are really the ones in the spotlight in this
book. And they are a weird and wonderful crew.
Here’s just one example: “Every so often in the course of the fall
campaign, Jules Witcover appeared at a White House briefing in his black,
funereal raincoat, looking like a cut-rate version of the bad fairy.” (p. 243)
Or, when Crouse gives a sense of life on the press bus: “It was the
kind of bus to which most bus-fanciers would give three stars—the windows were
tinted and there was a toilet in the rear, but the seats did not recline. The
time was 7:30 A.M. and two-thirds of the seats were already filled with silent
and bleary-eyed reporters who looked as cheerful as a Georgia chain
gang on its way to a new roadbed.” (pp. 11-12)
(OK. Every time I read that last bit, I laugh.)
And shortly after the 1972 election, Crouse met Woodward and
Bernstein at the dining room of the Hay-Adams hotel and talked with them about
their Watergate reporting. That chapter of the book allows us to be a fly on
the wall during their conversation, and really: what could be better than
Well, maybe this, about the great Merriman Smith:
“His sprints to the phone booth were legendary. He trampled
anything or anyone in his way; he once slipped and dislocated a shoulder on the
way to the phone but dictated for an hour before passing out from the pain.”
(pp. 196-197) 

I tell you: they don’t make reporters like they used to. 

It’s a crying shame.
This book is an entertaining look at some one-of-a-kind old-school
* Yeah. There were very few “girls” on the bus in those days. And it was no picnic for those who were there. Here’s an example of what Sarah McClendon of the North American Newspaper Alliance had to endure: 
“But the men still tittered whenever Sarah McClendon asked a question, and Ziegler still treated her as if she were a wino who had wandered in off the street (although he was always very sweet to her after the briefing, which only disgusted her more).” (p. 210) We’ve come a long way, baby. 
For more on women (fighting sexism) in journalism, try Nan Robertson’s excellent The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men, and the New York Times

Happy humming

Tension City: Inside the Presidential
Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain
Jim Lehrer

Jim Lehrer. I really like this guy. 

And since this book of his is
about presidential debates (one of my most favorite things upon this earth),
we’d really be expecting that I’d be over the moon about it.

Well, guys, I liked this book just fine. But for me, it didn’t
really take off until the very end. (I’ll get to that in a minute.)

The bulk of the book analyzes the debates from 1960 to 2008. And
since Lehrer moderated several of those debates, he can provide some really
great insight. 

One of the things that surprised me is that the moderator gets
all jittery before the debate, too. I’d always thought of the candidates being
all keyed up before a debate, but it turns out the moderators are also “shaking
like a leaf,” as Bob Schieffer put it.

So that stuff’s all
interesting enough, but it’s the book’s final chapter that really sings. It’s a
wonderfully congenial treatise on the importance of both freedom of speech/press
and civility in public discourse. (I liked it so much, I read it twice.)

Here’re some
beautiful sentences:

“The more voices
and views, the better. Always, the better. I do not want anybody shut up. The
addition of new and varied and multiple voices in the public mix is terrific
for our democracy. I am, in fact, a purist on the First Amendment guarantees of
everyone’s right to speak, no matter how disagreeable or ridiculous the words
may be.
The First Amendment
is about a right, not a requirement. It says nothing about requiring people to attack or inflame others to get ratings or to
be notice, or to take positions only for votes or to insult people for
entertainment value.” (p. 194)

And here, even more
succinctly: “… I believe as a moderator and as a citizen in the virtue of civil discourse as strongly as
I believe in the right to uncivil
discourse.” (p. 198)

Truly. I’d like to
just shake that man’s hand. 

I protest too much

Over Time by
Frank Deford
I’m thinking Frank Deford is partly to blame for my weird reading-sports-books behavior
The guy is smart and charming and funny, and
he’s on NPR (talking about sports) every Wednesday morning while I’m cruising
to work, so he’s part of my little world and I’ve become wickedly fond of him.
Even when he’s talking about athletes I’ve never heard of, or
sports I completely don’t care about (we’re talking: football, basketball,
baseball, tennis, soccer, golf… let’s just say: most sports), I’m always all
excited to hear what he has to say. He’s got that kind of talent.   
And guys! He wrote the novel Bliss Remembered, which I adored a couple of years ago.
This guy’s got it going on.

So when his memoir appeared, I was all over that.
And, true to form, he’s once again… smart and charming and funny.
And for all you NPR listeners who know his voice by heart, there’s
the added benefit of being able to hear his voice reading the book to you in
your head.
There’re plenty-o-sports celebrities in the book, and the one who
stands out to me most is Arthur Ashe. It’s refreshing to hear that some people
really are good people, in a world
where so many of the stories we hear are about the disappointments and lies.
(Roger Clemens, we’re looking at you.)
Deford also gives a sense of the life of a sports journalist, and
I love that stuff. It’s a very different work life from what most of us
experience, and it’s fascinating.  
So, yeah. Read this one, and then if you’re just aching for more,
give Robert Lipsyte’s An Accidental Sportswriter a whirl.  
These sportswriters? They can really write.

Most fun learning in a long while

Stranger Than
Fiction: The Art of Literary Journalism
William McKeen
Here’s exactly how to make a geek girl happy: 
While she’s listening
to an audiobook lecture series about literary journalism, address her as “fun-seeker.”
Professor McKeen, the dear man, does this precise thing, and it gladdened my
heart. Here’s how he starts out some of his lectures: “All right, fun-seekers…”
I mean, those are some encouraging words. I actually do realize
I’m not the life of the party, but being told I’m a fun-seeker when listening to something semi-academic… oh, this
makes me a happy one.
So this audio series had me completely blissing out, because I am all about the literary journalism.
And this guy is so wonderfully smart about the subject, and he’s
engaging as all hell to listen to.
And guys! He’s talking about Tom Wolfe (in his obnoxious white
suit) and Truman Capote (in his purple cape) and George Plimpton (playing football with the Detroit Tigers) and Hunter S. Thompson (getting pummeled by the Hells Angels) and Gay Talese (who would churn
out a whopping single paragraph each day, and then stick it on the wall and
read it from across the room using binoculars). These are some odd ducks.  
And this lecture series puts them all in context and relates them
to one another in a way that is completely fascinating to learn.
If I hadn’t been driving while listening, I’d’ve been jotting down
lots of titles I need to read. Instead, I did the thing where I repeat it to
myself incessantly, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, Frank Sinatra Has a Cold…” to
try to remember it upon disembarking from the car.

And: happiness. In the final lecture, McKeen gives a list of recommended further reading. 

So, yes. The Modern Scholar series is improving my world. And the
“Stranger Than Fiction” lectures are my favorite of the bunch.