Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Morning Miracle: Inside The Washington Post: A Great Newspaper Fights For Its Life

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book. Although not a reader of The Washington Post, I am well aware of the reputation of this great periodical and the legends who work there, both past and present. How is it faring in an era when newsprint is being steadily replaced by websites and blogs? How is it changing to meet these challenges?

Author Dave Kindred first takes us through the early years of The Post. And that is where he lost me. His sketches of people and events seemed, well, sketchy as if whole chunks of time and information were being left out. Was he assuming a lot of knowledge on the part of his readers, knowledge that I didn’t have, or was he writing for insiders, professional newspapermen and women who don’t need a lot of details or groundwork to understand how The Post became a world-class institution?

Then he switched gears. In an effort to illustrate the changes at The Post, he gives us detailed bios of some of its great reporters and the stories that made them famous, stories that could not be published in today’s environment. At least I think that’s what he was trying to convey. There was so much information about the reporters and so little information about the newspaper that I had to keep checking the bookcover to reassure myself that the title was Morning Miracle: Inside The Washington Post and not Morning Miracle: Reporters Whose Work I Admire.

Thrown into the mix at seemingly random intervals are tidbits about The Post website; how it came to exist, how it has changed, and who has worked on it. While he notes that the revenue stream has grown over the years, he does not go into any detail of how this occurred or future plans to grow this revenue.

Kindred ends his story with the election night coverage in the newsroom of Obama’s historic election. What that has to do with the negative revenues at The Post and the minimum profits of its website, is left up to the reader.

This book is more than a disappointment. The stories between the covers have nothing to do with the title on the front. It can’t even be called a very rough first draft. It doesn’t hold together at all. It appears to be parts of several different books thrown together with the only unifying theme that they are all about The Washington Post.

Somebody call rewrite.

Review copy courtesy of Doubleday Publishing

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Oh, Beautiful: An American Family in the 20th Century

One of the reasons a lot of people give for not reading books on history is that they are not relevant to their lives. I have to agree with them that most history books are boring recitations of dates, wars, treaties and the important figures of those eras accompanied by dry analyses. It is difficult to imagine what life would have been like for ordinary people during those times.

John Paul Godges offers a different take on history. He writes about 20th century history from the point of view of his family’s history. Starting with his maternal grandparents’ experience immigrating from Italy through his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party, he illustrates the important events of the previous century.

Suddenly, history becomes relevant. Thanks to the Godges family, readers experience vicariously the major events of the 20th century and how they impacted the lives of ordinary people. Instead of the “immigrants came to America seeking a better life”, we are treated to stories of what life was like in Europe and what “a better life” actually meant once people arrived here. Likewise, the turbulence of the 1960’s had different effects on different people as illustrated by lives of different members of the family.

I learned a lot about the immigrant experience from this book. I hadn’t realized that some immigrants came here only temporarily to make money and then return home or that sometimes they went back and forth a few times before settling down. I was also surprised to learn how readily they helped each other with loans of money.

Ending a story such as that of the Godges family is always difficult. The author chose the celebration of his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary which is a logical endpoint but I felt that he lost focus in this chapter. All the preceding chapters in the book followed the lives of the family members along side the events of the 20th century. In his final chapter, Godges chose to get very personal and talk about the dynamics of his family. It would have been more consistent and more satisfying for the reader if he had used the anniversary party as an opportunity to look ahead to the next generation and talk about the differences and similarities between their lives and the lives of those who had gone before them.

Review copy courtesy of the author