Book report #45
“The Master Writer of the City” by Janet Malcolm (New York Review of Books)
The writer Joseph Mitchell used invented elements in his reported pieces for the mid-century New Yorker. Should he be drawn and quartered by the high priests of journalism? Janet Malcolm has other ideas:
“[F]ew of us have gone as far as Mitchell in bending actuality to our artistic will. This is not because we are more virtuous than Mitchell. It is because we are less gifted than Mitchell. The idea that reporters are constantly resisting the temptation to invent is a laughable one. Reporters don’t invent because they don’t know how to. This is why they are journalists rather than novelists or short-story writers. They depend on the kindness of the strangers they actually meet for the characters in their stories. There are no fictional characters lurking in their imaginations. They couldn’t create a character like Mr. Flood or Cockeye Johnny if you held a gun to their heads. Mitchell’s travels across the line that separates fiction and nonfiction are his singular feat. His impatience with the annoying, boring bits of actuality, his slashings through the underbrush of unreadable facticity, give his pieces their electric force, are why they’re so much more exciting to read than the work of other nonfiction writers of ambition.”
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? dir. by Morgan Neville
A documentary about Fred Rogers of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Many of the tear jerking moments are earned, but some are not germaine, like footage of the Challenger shuttle exploding or eye-witness video of the Twin Towers collapse. When a non-fiction author (or a documentarian in this case) gets the pleasure of pressing their thumb down on emotional pressure points, sometimes they get drunk on the power and don’t know when to let up. In the light of recent revelations of priest molestations, the film tried to frame Mr. Rogers as Not Creepy, and Maybe But Probably Not Gay. The gay, black police from the show, played by François Clemmons testifies that Mr. Rogers didn’t show up on his gaydar. Do we need more confirmation? Probably not. But just bringing it up made me think more about it, so should the filmmakers have broached a subject they couldn’t conclude? Once again, the answer is probably not.
Later in life, Rogers clarified in his Dartmouth commencement speech that telling children that they are unique and special was not his way of coddling them, but “what that ultimately means, of course, is that you don’t ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you.” It’s an idea that’s hard to ignore.
The “Maltese Cross” and the Fire Service (Fire Service Info)
A very strange (but more comprehensive than anywhere else I found) article about the origins of the firefighter’s emblem. It’s called a Maltese Cross. It looks a little like this:
The Runner by David Samuels
The Runner is a book about a con-artist who, among other accomplishments, won a spot in Princeton’s class of 1992 under an assumed name. David Samuel’s journalism is essayistic and contemplative, sometimes a little too deeply.
The Pine Barrens by John McPhee
During most of this book, I wondered how and why he came to write about the Pine Barrens, a vast, agriculturally unproductive, and relatively unpopulated zone in south New Jersey. He covers his tracks well. But the last chapter is a monologue by a real estate developer about why the pines should be bulldozed to make room for a supersonic airport and McMansions. I picture McPhee hearing about the development and wielding his pen in defence.
“Finding Frances” Nathan For You (Comedy Central)
This is a feature length episode of a show (Nathan For You). It is, in actuality, a documentary film. And an incredible one at that. Nathan decides to help a real-life, extraordinarily strange Bill Gates impersonator find his long lost love. BTW Errol Morris loved it.
I love dialects and accents. Proud to say that I knew about the Black-American Baltimore accent.
In A Town With Little Water, Coca-Cola is Everywhere. So is Diabetes (New York Times)
In a leveraged, globalized world, Coke is more accessible than clean water.