Is Bob Castellini the best owner in baseball?

[New York Times]

In yesterday’s New York Times, I made the case that, yes, the Reds’ boss  is the best in the baseball — and certainly the best in the Reds’ recent history. There’s some fun stuff in there about Marge Schott and Carl Lindner, but the main point is what a difference Castellini has made.

If you’re interested in more on Cincinnati sports, check out my features on the Reds’ efforts to draw more fans and on their enigmatic All-Star, Aroldis Chapman. Or check out my feature on the Bengals’ stadium fiasco — a good reminder that, even during the Schott era, the worst owner in Ohio was Mike Brown.

Posted in Hoosiers, Sports | Leave a comment

A brief history of revising

[Boston Globe]

revise

In this week’s Ideas section, in the Boston Globe, I’ve got a story about the history of revising. Today, we think of revising as an arduous, necessary process. But in an interesting new book an Oxford prof named Hannah Sullivan argues the Modernists were actually the first group to revise in this way.

Check out the story for more — there are cameos by Ernest Hemingway, John Milton, and Virginia Woolf, among others. But on my blog I did want to address one obvious (if insider-y) question. If the Modernists loved revision so much that they kept at it throughout the literary process, including when their work was in proofs — and one of Sullivan’s key points is that these discrete stages actually encouraged revision — then why didn’t their printers and publishers complain? James Joyce would call in revisions by phone even as his novels were in their final proofs. But, as any editor will tell you, changing work in proofs is expensive.

The answer to this question — and another important context for the Modernists and the rise of revision — comes from the patron-like figures who supported their work. In her memoir Shakespeare & Company, Sylvia Beach recalls Joyce’s publisher warning about “a lot of extra expenses with these proofs. . . . He suggested that I call Joyce’s attention to the danger of going beyond my depth; perhaps his appetite for proofs might be curbed.”

But Beach explains that, for her, the most important thing was that Joyce could work as diligently and obsessively as he wanted to:

I wouldn’t hear of such a thing. Ulysses was to be as Joyce wished, in every respect. I wouldn’t advise ‘real’ publishers to follow my example, nor authors to follow Joyce’s. It would be the death of publishing. My case was different. It seemd natural to me that the efforts and sacrifices on my part should be proportionate to the greatnes of the work I was publishing.

So there you have it — one reason “Thou Shalt Revise” has grown into the literary world’s first commandment is that the Modernists had the resources to revise and to experiment with the rules of revision.

Posted in Academia, Books, Features | Leave a comment

A review of Brett Martin’s Difficult Men

[The New Republic]

Today, on The New Republic‘s website, I’ve got a review of Brett Martin’s very good (and very subtitled) new book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

The review’s also an argument that we — TV fans, TV critics, and the journalists who write about TV — need to stop fetishizing showrunners and to start focusing on how TV actually gets made. That process, I note in my review, is “less celebrity chef than crockpot.” Yet most TV coverage continues to trot out anecdotes about the heroic showrunner, standing up the clueless executive. I figured one way to counter this is through a few anecdotes of my own — some from Difficult Men; some from Alan Sepinwall’s recent book, which makes a solid chaser to Martin’s; and some from my own research.

Taken together, these anecdotes remind us that, in many cases, the best things about the best shows can result not from genius showrunners but from a blend of contingency, collaboration, and dumb luck.

  • On Deadwood, showrunner David Milch entrusted the pilot to Walter Hill, a noted director of Westerns. Hill pushed for a rewrite of the pilot’s opening scene — from an original take, which focused on an angry mob outside a jail, to a new one centering on the interactions inside the jail. Milch agreed to reshoot the opening, and to my mind the new one’s the best start to a show in TV history.
  • Also on Deadwood, William Sanderson, the actor who played E. B. Farnum, was terrified of long monologues. So showrunner David Milch decided to write Sanderson speech after speech, with the result being the jittery masterpiece that is Farnum’s character. Do you credit that result to Milch or to Sanderson or (and here’s my vote) to both?
  • On Mad Men, Don hurries home at the end of season one to join Betty for a Thanksgiving trip to her parents’ home. In Matt Weiner’s original script, Don arrives just in time to accompany his family. But AMC exec Christina Wayne pushed him to reconsider: “It’s cable. Nobody should be happy.” Wayne says Weiner started “screaming and yelling” at her, but later that night called back and agreed to turn the scene into a dreamy but depressing fakeout. “I just wanted my characters to be happy,” Weiner told Wayne. “I love them so much.”
  • On Breaking Bad, Wayne made a similar stand. Here’s how showrunner Vince Gilligan remembers it: “[Wayne] said I used too much music in my first cut of the pilot episode — I had just brought my iPod into the editing room. This executive said, ‘Don’t you trust your material? Do you think you need music to sell it?’ I got so bent out of shape that I wrote an e-mail to her boss, which I really regret, trying to get her in trouble with him. But in hindsight, she was in the right, and if you watch Breaking Bad now, there’s more silence than music.”
  • On Breaking Bad — and the collaborations on this show could fill an entire post, in part because Gilligan is such a gracious interview — a director created the uncanny season-four shot of Walt howling in his crawlspace. Here’s Gilligan again: “We had a wonderful director, a guy named Scott Winant, for whom this was his second Breaking Bad episode as director. . . . It was his idea to end with that shot, all credit goes to him. . . . When Scott pitched that idea to our director of photography, Michael Slovis, Michael got to working with our grip department and they created this mechanism that was built out of a bunch of speed rail and mounted the camera so it was pointed straight down at the ground. And then this contraption was raised up into the rafters of the soundstage ceiling with a series of electric winches.”
  • On Breaking Bad . . . those electric winches saved money, which was always a concern on set, but they also made the shot sway back and forth — and that accidental effect is arguably the best part of the scene. Now consider the show’s amazing use of its New Mexico setting — it was supposed to be set in southern California, but New Mexico offered better tax incentives. Or consider Mike the Fixer, whom the writers created because of a scheduling conflict with the actor who played the show’s sleazy lawyer. It was supposed to be a single-episode affair, but Jonathan Banks’s stony professionalism convinced them to keep Mike around until he became one of the show’s most beloved characters. In these and many, many other instances, the show took shape through a series of small but accretive choices. And those choices (and all the people who make them) are what we should be excited about when it comes to TV.
  • On Six Feet Under (and it seems right to end with another example of an executive doing good), Carolyn Strauss of HBO came up with the original concept. In 1999, after Alan Ball’s script for American Beauty had earned him lots of attention, Strauss called Ball in for a meeting and told him that she’d been mulling a “dark” show about a “family funeral home.” Ball read some Jessica Mitford and fleshed out the concept. He drew on his own biography, too, for the show’s southern twist. But it wasn’t the showrunner who came up with the original idea — it was Strauss.
Posted in Books, TV and Movies | 9 Comments

A review of Charles Moore’s major new Thatcher biography

[Boston Globe]

In The Boston Globe, I’ve got a review of From Grantham to The Falklands, the first volume of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher. It’s a stunningly detailed book — just about every fun fact I include in my review is something new that Moore has introduced to the historical record — and that makes sense, given his access. Thatcher’s camp let Moore dig through her personal papers and interview her, and she helped him secure interviews with everyone else and get an early glimpse at some government documents.

The only analog I can think of for this sort of access is what Edmund Morris got from Ronald Reagan in the mid 1980s. Of course, the book that resulted from that, Dutch, was widely criticized by historians because Morris invented a narrator and added in other fictional flourishes. But two quick thoughts on this: first, Morris’s book is actually really good, and his inventions are easy to spot, if also a little distracting. (I always wondered how many of those angry historians even bothered to read Dutch.) Second, Moore’s book actually makes an indirect case for why Morris needed to experiment. I get into this in my Globe review, but Moore’s biography, good as it is, never really captures Thatcher as a character.

Now that may be the Prime Minister’s fault! Thatcher and Reagan both developed reputations for having only a few core beliefs (and for being happy, in all other cases, to work from someone else’s script). And that presents a real dilemma for any biographer, no matter how good the access. Morris tried to solve this dilemma through one extreme — postmodern trickery, meta-biography, maximal interpretation. Now Moore has tried to solve it through the other — a frills-free approach that gets as much as possible on to the page. I’m not sure either writer managed a total success, but one thing’s for sure: like Thatcher and Reagan themselves, these two biographies are most interesting when considered together.

Posted in Books, Politics | 79 Comments

Jefferson Davis and his “presidential” library

[Los Angeles Times]

This week in the Los Angeles Times, I wrote an op ed about the opening of Jefferson Davis’s “presidential” library. I realize how crazy that idea sounds, and it’s certainly in large part a bit of clever self-promotion by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who run the library. But as I point out in my op ed, every presidential library relates a one-sided version of history. And in a weird way, the Davis library is now the best place to see the logic behind those institutions in action.

Of course, the Davis library is also one of the best place to see Southern sympathizers distort history in some troubling ways. Since 2004, the Sons have become much more radical, purging thousands of moderate members and putting more emphasis on defending the Lost Cause. (You can read about that process here.) During that same timeframe, this process  also occurred inside the Davis library. About seven years ago, a member named Robert Murphree pushed to broaden the site’s appeal; when I talked to him on the phone, he kept mentioning Monticello as the best model. After Katrina, however, the library’s other supporters cut Murphree and his allies out of the rebuilding process.

All this to say that, in a few places, at least, the Civil War still staggers on. If you need more proof, check out this short follow up I wrote for the Times in response to a few angry commenters.

Posted in Books, Politics | 1 Comment

A review of George Packer’s “The Unwinding”

[Christian Science Monitor]

In the Christian Science Monitor, I’ve got a review of George Packer’s wonderful new book, The Unwinding.

Back in 2005, in a a profile of Packer published in the Columbia Journalism Review, David Glenn praised the author’s previous book, on the Iraq war: “When he couches his voice within long narratives about other people’s lives . . . Packer’s ambivalent and restless approach to the world can be extremely powerful. The accretion of details in the book is consistently moving and provocative.” That can double as an apt description of Packer’s new book, as well, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Glenn’s profile is also worth reading, as it recounts how Packer discovered (and, for a time, resisted) his approach:

His aim was to create a narrative voice that could tell vivid human stories while simultaneously leading the reader through complex political and historical arguments and leaving room for curiosity and ambivalence. “That narrative voice doesn’t emerge by talking about yourself,: Packer says. “It emerges by — in a way, by how strong an observer you are, and by how strong a thinker you are.”

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A review of Paul Theroux’s “Last Train to Zona Verde”

[Boston Globe]

In the Boston Globe, I’ve got a review of Paul Theroux’s latest (and possibly last) major travel book, Last Train to Zona Verde. For long stretches it’s really good, but I still found myself disappointed with the end, where Theroux cuts his trip short. “I could put my head down and travel farther,” he writes, “but I know what I would find: decaying cities, hungry crowds, predatory youths, and people abandoned by their governments.”

In the review, I admit that it’s easy to criticize Theroux from your reading chair — but  also that his stubborn explorations are what have always made him so special. I think he’d have a counter to my complaint, and while I didn’t have room to acknowledge it in the review I do here.

When Theroux published Riding the Iron Rooster, which described his mid-80s trip through China, several reviewers attacked him for being too pessimistic about the Middle Kingdom and its leaders. (One review’s headline? “Grouchy Traveler Back on the Rails Again.”) Theroux responded in an essay titled “Travel Writing: The Point of It.” The best travel writing, he argued, “makes the immediate future of the particular country coherent. The books are also, incidentally, the adventures of individuals.”

Theroux knew what he was talking about when it came to China’s immediate future. After all, he wrote his essay in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, which made his criticisms of China’s ruling class look freakishly prescient. But that, to Theroux, was simply the mark of good travel writing: “I had just written truthfully of what I had seen over the course of a year in China,” he observed at the end of his essay, “and writing the truth can sometimes seem like prophecy.”

I think Theroux would say something similar about his new book on Africa: it’s so bleak about the continent’s cities because bleakness is the appropriate response now (and, in a few years, will seem prophetic). This may be true — Theroux’s track record is certainly good — but I’d counter his counter like this: in Riding the Iron Rooster, he made it all the way across China. In Zona Verde, he quit. He settled for “knowing what he would find.”

Posted in Books | 1 Comment