The Saturday Read from the 2016 winners of the Pulitzer Prize

Four writers and journalists, whose work was featured in this blog, were among the winners of the Pulitzer Prize announced on Monday. Today, for the ‘Saturday Read’ we revisit the writings of William Finnegan, Kathryn Schulz, Emily Nussbaum and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Three journalists call The New Yorker home. On Monday, it became the first magazine to be honored with the Pulitzer Prize. Emily Nussbaum and Kathryn Schulz earned Pulitzers in criticism and feature writing respectively, and William Finnegan received the prize for biography.

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“Emily Nussbaum, who has won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, writes essays and reported pieces about television that are fearless, hilarious, and pioneering. Among the pieces submitted to the Pulitzer committee were her standout essays on Joan Rivers, P. Jay Sidney, advertising, and “Mad Men.”

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“Kathryn Schulz, who arrived at The New Yorker less than two years ago, has won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing, for “The Really Big One,” her piece on the more than a little troubling geology of the Pacific Northwest. Her evocations of the earthquake in Japan in 2011 and of the earthquake that could occur in the states of Washington and Oregon stay with us much like works of the best fiction, to say nothing of horror films.”

The Saturday Read on December 12, 2015 included excerpts from this ‘long read’.

“Just north of the San Andreas, however, lies another fault line. Known as the Cascadia subduction zone, it runs for seven hundred miles off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, beginning near Cape Mendocino, California, continuing along Oregon and Washington, and terminating around Vancouver Island, Canada. The “Cascadia” part of its name comes from the Cascade Range, a chain of volcanic mountains that follow the same course a hundred or so miles inland. The “subduction zone” part refers to a region of the planet where one tectonic plate is sliding underneath (subducting) another. Tectonic plates are those slabs of mantle and crust that, in their epochs-long drift, rearrange the earth’s continents and oceans. Most of the time, their movement is slow, harmless, and all but undetectable. Occasionally, at the borders where they meet, it is not.”

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“William Finnegan, who has been a staff writer since 1987, has won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, for his memoir about surfing, “Barbarian Days.” This project has been Finnegan’s literary obsession for a very long time. It began as a series in our pages more than two decades ago, and came to completion in June, with “Off Diamond Head,” an excerpt from the book, which was published not long after.”

The Saturday Read on August 1, 2015 recommended ‘Barbarian Days, A Surfing Life’.

“When you do a book reading in Manhattan Beach, California you need to use a microphone so the guys with ‘surfer’s ear’ in the back can understand you. Last night New Yorker journalist and lifetime surfer William Finnegan used a mic as he read from his well reviewed new book…

The Q&A at the reading was closer to a book club discussion than a publicity event. Most of those attending had either read the book or the excerpt in the June 1 issue of the New Yorker magazine. This is not just a book about surfing. Mr. Finnegan is a well regarded journalist with a resume that includes reporting from South Africa, Somalia, the Balkans, Central America and Australia. Robert Boynton included him in his conversations with America’s best nonfiction writers in ‘The New New Journalism’.”

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Lin-Manuel Miranda won the Pulitzer for drama, for ‘Hamilton’. “For a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life.”

“A landmark American musical about the gifted and self-destructive founding father whose story becomes both contemporary and irresistible.”

David Rooney reported on the prize for Billboard. “Miranda wrote the book, music and lyrics for the show, in addition to starring in the title role. The Pulitzer now further cements Hamilton’s status as the toughest ticket in town and the clear frontrunner to take the top musical kudos at this year’s Tony Awards in June.”

I have written about Miranda and Hamilton five times in the past year. My favorite is ‘The Power of Taking a Break & the Unexpected Inspiration of Reading’ on March 4, 2015.

“If Mr. Miranda had not been on vacation, taking time away from work, we may have been deprived of his creativity and ability to connect the dots as he developed his perspective for the play: “Miranda saw Hamilton’s relentlessness, brilliance, linguistic dexterity, and self-destructive stubbornness through his own idiosyncratic lens. It was, he thought, a hip-hop story, and immigrant’s story.”

Ms. Mead’s article tells the story of the evolution of Mr. Miranda’s career, the development of ‘Hamilton’, and the connections he has made along the way with mentors and creative partnerships.

Sometimes we think creativity belongs to the artist and we struggle to find opportunities to relate to our own workplace. But creativity is about imagination and storytelling our way to solving a problem. Taking time away allows for a different view. If we are open to the unexpected we can connect the dots and reframe the narrative. And, maybe be online Sunday to buy tickets and see how it’s done.”

The Saturday Read – Best of the summer for Labor Day reading

It’s the last long weekend of summer and one more opportunity to get lost in a story – in a beach chair, a park bench or your favorite comfy spot at home. I am suggesting four books from the archive of ‘The Saturday Read’. The narrators of these stories include the founder of the world’s first empathy museum, a management consultant turned pilot, a political writer and surfer and an oral historian with floppy ears. Pick the one that fits your mood or motivation.

If you’ve decided it’s time to rethink your career, ‘How to Find Fulfilling Work’ by Roman Krznaric is my pick. He suggests “We have entered a new age of fulfillment, in which the great dream is to trade up from money to meaning.” Think about that. He is proposing that meaning has more value than money.

His goal is to encourage the reader to stop thinking about taking action and actually get out and do something. The book is essentially an answer to two questions:

“What are the core elements of a fulfilling career?” and “How do we go about changing career and making the best possible decisions along the way?”

The best ‘travel’ book of the summer and best book about work is ‘Skyfaring’ by Mark Vanhoenacker.

What do we know of the work lives of pilots? These are the folks we trust to transport us across oceans, continents, cities and deserts. Our only contact through hours of flight is a welcome message, flight status update or a ‘thank you for choosing our airline’.

Turns out, pilots can be very interesting people. And, like many of us, they arrive at their ‘dream job’ after trying out other options. Mark Vanhoenacker’s career began in academia and management consulting. He started his flight training in 2001 after realizing all those plane flights were constant reminders of what he really wanted to do with his life.

“Is flying something I have always wanted to do? Have I ever seen anything “up there” that I cannot explain? And do I remember my first flight? I like these questions. They seem to have arrived, entirely intact, from a time before flying became ordinary and routine. They suggest that even now, when many of us so regularly leave one place on the earth and cross the high blue to another, we are not nearly as accustomed to flying as we think. These questions remind me that while airplanes have overturned many of our older sensibilities, a deeper part of our imagination lingers and still sparks in the former realm, among ancient, even atavistic, ideas of distance and place, migrations and the sky.”

What if your life passion is surfing, but your ‘day job’ is war reporter and international correspondent? If you wrote a memoir, would your work be taken less seriously? Apparently not, as my third pick for the upcoming weekend, ‘Barbarian Days’ by William Finnegan debuted on The New York Times hardcover non-fiction list at number five.

He first wrote about surfing in ‘Playing Doc’s Games’, profiling Mark Renneker for The New Yorker in 1992. Twenty three years later Doc returns along with a global cast of supporting characters inviting the reader to go out with them on the water.

Why should a non-surfer invest in a memoir subtitled ‘A Surfing Life’? Because it’s an everyman’s story of reconciling passions.

“Yes, I had been bewitched by surfing as a kid – trotting dreamily down a path at dawn, lit by visions of trade-blown waves, rapt even about the long paddle to Cliffs. The old spell had been broken, at times, or seemed to be. But it always lay there, under the surface, dormant but undestroyed while I knocked around the far world, living in waveless places – Montana, London, New York.”

“Here I was writing, often contentiously, about poverty, politics, race, U.S. foreign policy, criminal justice, and economic development, hoping to have my arguments taken seriously. I wasn’t sure that coming out of the closet as a surfer would be helpful. Other policy wonks might say, Oh, you’re just a dumb surfer, what do you know?”

The last recommendation is my favorite book of summer  This year marks the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo. A number of books have been published to coincide with the anniversary, but it’s the unique storytelling of author Leona Francombe in ‘The Sage of Waterloo’ that gives us a very different view of the conflict.

The story begins when a French drummer boy releases a white rabbit into the Hougoumont gardens during the battle on June 18, 1815. Our narrator, William, is guided on his journey by his grandmother, Old Lavender and a wise researcher, Arthur. He invites us to join him along the route the rabbits call the ‘Hollow Way’:

“There are many soft hillocks and hollows along this part of the Way on which one can rest and look back, and I suggest that you do this, too, because the view behind is as clear as the view ahead, and offers some valuable lessons besides.”

Yes, we are talking bunnies. Or, the bunny is talking to us. And along his path we join the Battle of Waterloo.

“Waterloo is small as battlefields go…the Hougoumont part of it even smaller. How extraordinary, then, that my farm – my tiny corner of Belgium, which even today people have difficulty locating on a map – should have made history in just a few hours.”

This small novel is a unique oral history of the Battle of Waterloo. Blending historical fact with fiction, author Francombe creates an unlikely ‘sage’ to carry the “collective memory…and resonance.” And reminds us to “feel what still hangs in the air” when we visit historic sites.

The Saturday Read – William Finnegan ‘Barbarian Days, A Surfing Life’

When you do a book reading in Manhattan Beach, California you need to use a microphone so the guys with ‘surfer’s ear’ in the back can understand you. Last night New Yorker journalist and lifetime surfer William Finnegan used a mic as he read from his well reviewed new book and this week’s ‘Saturday Read’, ‘Barbarian Days, A Surfing Life’.

The Q&A at the reading was closer to a book club discussion than a publicity event. Most of those attending had either read the book or the excerpt in the June 1 issue of the New Yorker magazine. This is not just a book about surfing. Mr. Finnegan is a well regarded journalist with a resume that includes reporting from South Africa, Somalia, the Balkans, Central America and Australia. Robert Boynton included him in his conversations with America’s best nonfiction writers in ‘The New New Journalism’.

“A self-described “specialist in the unexpected,” Finnegan writes stereotype-defying descriptions of the kinds of people—young, black, poor, foreign—mainstream journalism tends to dismiss with a pastiche of clichés and statistics.”

It’s this specialization in the unexpected that results in a memoir not just about surfing for surfers, but about life and friendship, as noted in The New York Times review:

“…a particularly remarkable feature of “Barbarian Days” is the generous yet unsparing portraits of competitive surf friendships that make up a major share of the narrative. As Finnegan writes: “Surfing is a secret garden, not easily entered. My memory of learning a spot, of coming to know and understand a wave, is usually inseparable from the friend with whom I tried to climb its walls.”

He first wrote about surfing in ‘Playing Doc’s Games’, profiling Mark Renneker for The New Yorker in 1992. Twenty three years later Doc returns along with a global cast of supporting characters inviting the reader to go out with them on the water.

Why should a non-surfer invest in a memoir subtitled ‘A Surfing Life’? Because it’s an everyman’s story of reconciling passions.

At the reading the author described surfing as “the North Pole of irresponsibility, the opposite of achievement. War reporting had a built in urgency, surfing did not.” He has spent 50 years managing the opposition between two drives: writing and chasing waves.

Surfers are our environmental ‘canaries in a coal mine’. Responding to a question on how surfing differs from other sports, the author focused on the “98% of surfing that is an absorption in the ocean, what your local spot is, how well you read the waves and ride. Surfing is not competitive, it’s an experience of beauty – an understanding and engagement with nature.”

Near the end of the book he refers to an A.J. Liebling essay, ‘Apology for Breathing’ noting that “Liebling was pretending to apologize for being from New York, a city he loved lavishly and precisely. Now I’m one of those New Yorkers incessantly on the point of going back where I came from. But with me it’s not a matter of packing up or staying on, but rather of being always half poised to flee my desk and ditch engagements in order to throw myself into some nearby patch of ocean at the moment when the waves and wind and tide might conspire to produce something ridable. That cracking, fugitive patch is where I come from.”

‘Barbarian Days’ is a beach book. It’s an ocean book. It’s a memoir to guide you to your own story and “that cracking, fugitive patch” where you come from.