The Daily Miracle by William Zinsser
In his earlier career, William Zinsser wrote for the New York Herald Tribune, where he learned the basics of his craft. His mantra to other writers: keep it clear, keep it simple, and give the reader some credit. The adverb and adjective were to be enemies of good writing. It put a weight on the writer to be able to edit without inhibition, but also made the relationship between writer and reader binary.
Zinsser wrote an essay about his time spent at the Tribune, filled with sentences with poppers like:
“Gardening-advice articles then filled several pages of the Sunday paper. They were brought to me every week by Henry B. Aul, the editor who assembled the columns written by outside experts, whose bylines are still imprinted on my retina: Alfred Putz, Gisela Grimm, Betty Blossom. I knew as little about gardening as they knew about syntax, and I was locked in weekly combat with their prose.”
Before the owners of the Tribune ran it into the ground, Zinsser left and became a freelance writer, going on to write one of the bibles, On Writing Well.
Here’s a link to The Daily Miracle.
Some Movie Recommendations
The Swimmer by John Cheever
After a day of drinking, Ned Merrill decides he’s going to swim home:
“In his mind he saw, with a cartographer’s eye, a string of swimming pools, a quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county.”
Ned and his neighbors are wealthy (and bored and alcoholic) and there are pools as far as the eye can see where they live. So many that our narrator can plot a course to ‘swim home,’ a distance of eight miles.
Ned swims, sometimes meeting neighbors, sometimes not. Cheever occasionally sets the focus out into the real world, bringing the dividing line of rich/poor into clarity. This focus gets sharper as the story progresses.
On the surface it appears that Ned wants to be separate from this world of gin and tonics, pool parties, and passing time, and he is. His discovery of this drives the story. An escape from the endless party of the socialite world and those who are too rich to care. The swimmer is learning things he never knew about his neighbors, and about himself.
“He had swum too long, he had been immersed too long, and his nose and his throat were sore from the water.”
Ned swims and gets weaker and weaker. There is something deeper here, what writer Harry Levin called the”archtypal peripatetic American, who having left his home behind, is forever searching for home and whose dream of attainment becomes a nightmare.” Illusion, loss, and decay are themes all in play here. At the end, it is an allegory of a lost life.
Here’s a link to The Swimmer.
Twelve Minutes and a Life by Mitchell S. Jackson
This article was published in the magazine Runner’s World and it just won the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing. It’s an eloquent composition, a biography of Ahmaud Arbery and then a timestamp of the day of his death.
Going for a run is generally not a dangerous activity for whites; for Black people, it can be deadly. Ahmaud Arbery was jogging when he was stalked and gunned down by white supremacists. This lynching occurred last year and the perpetrators have been arrested and are awaiting trial. It’s just one more death in a too long line of lynchings that are part of this country’s heritage. The following points out the disparities, that Black people can’t be recreational runners:
Peoples, I invite you to ask yourself, just what is a runner’s world? Ask yourself who deserves to run? Who has the right? Ask who’s a runner? What’s their so-called race? Their gender? Their class? Ask yourself where do they live, where do they run? Where can’t they live and run? … Ahmaud Arbery, by all accounts, loved to run but didn’t call himself a runner. That is a shortcoming of the culture of running. That Maud’s jogging made him the target of hegemonic white forces is a certain failure of America. Check the books—slave passes, vagrancy laws, Harvard’s Skip Gates arrested outside his own crib—Blacks ain’t never owned the same freedom of movement as whites.
The argument can be made that recreational running is a white person’s sport. But there is more to it than that. For Black people there are dangers walking down their street, or sleeping in their bed. For all the pain that this article evokes, it is a celebration of the life of Ahmaud Arbery. He was talented and he was loved by his family. And we are left waiting for progress.
Here’s a link to Twelve Minutes and a Life.
A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
This classroom in a book is based on writing professor George Saunders’ Russian short story class. It is a master class of seven Russian short stories with analysis (before, during, &) after each one. Sometimes it takes a professor to demonstrate the genius behind a well-written story. To get the student, in this case, the reader, to exercise the critical thinking that’s needed to attend to a well-written short story. Have we all been reading underwater? With the professor’s insight, he gives the reader permission to critique.
“A story is a series of incremental pulses, each of which does something to us. Each puts us in a new place, relative to where we just were. Criticism is not some inscrutable, mysterious process. It’s just a matter of 1) noticing ourselves responding to a work of art, moment by moment, and 2) getting better at articulating that response.”
A book for those who want to get psyched to write well, or to read better.
Orwell: Politics and the English Language
Beware the agents of slovenly language. Orwell got it right when he published this essay in 1946.
“When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases … one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them … And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.”
Link here to read the entire essay: Politics and the English Language
And some trivia about his book 1984: It was banned in the USSR for being anti-communist and banned in the US for being pro-communist.
Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes, Through Darkness and Light by Caroline Eden
There are a myriad of ways to describe Caroline Eden’s delectable book: literary narrative, history textbook, travel memoir, and finally, cookbook. What most holds the reader’s attention are Eden’s descriptions of a decaying, romantic world as she circles around the Black Sea. This is something to fall into on a cold February day.
People have been flocking to the Black Sea for millennia, due to its location. The beaches of the sea touch a host of European countries, and over the centuries European rivers and ocean straits brought in a multitude of migrants. Subsequently, cultures have flourished and perished and the buildings offer proof. There is beauty in decay, and in towns well-lived. Here is Eden’s description of Odessa:
Pootling, rusty trams add a muted vibrational hum. In winter, when cold winds scud off the sea, turning the air to ice, these aged cartoonish streetcars, painted in childish yellows and blues, fill with women dressed in thick black fur coats. In summer, when the city sparkles with possibilities, like too-sweet Crimean champanski, the quavering cars swelter and seem to slow down, matching the pace of the city. Easing languidly around bends like slow-moving centipedes, through the heavily scented atmosphere. Dockside, the air smells of rust, tar, salt, brine, and diesel. Inland, the fragrance is gentler, of dust, unaired teahouses, and perfumy jam. Scents that catalogue memories, unchanged for decades.
The recipes in the book are simple enough, and the ingredient lists are achievable, even in our isolated community. A recipe for Jewish challah that Eden discovered at an Italian restaurant is included, along with fare influenced by the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and European cultures that passed through. A spicy strawberry recipe, modified from a dish Eden had in Istanbul, consists of chili, strawberries, sugar, lemon, yogurt, and cream cheese. Truly a beautiful blend of flavors.
Black Sea is available through Prospector here.
Caroline Eden’s latest book Red Sands: Reportage and Recipes Through Central Asia was released last November, and Samarkand is due to be released this autumn.