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The politics of language, from terrorists vs. freedom fighters to “carnage” in Chicago


A weekly roundup of some favorite things, for your reading and listening pleasure

In a 2013 protest demanding Oscar Lopez Rivera, Providencia Trabal stands in a mock cell in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Ricardo Arduengo/Associated Press
We seem to have two recurring motifs going on this week on Storyboard — animals and the politicization of language. On the animal front, we have Christopher Solomon’s “cute even when it’s dead” otter, and a mouse climbing a wall in a “One Great Sentence” that’s Lewis Carroll meets Graham Greene. On the politicization front, we have the release of Oscar López Rivera — freedom fighter or terrorist? — and the “carnage” that is the shooting epidemic in Chicago.

Christopher Solomon and “The Detective of Northern Oddities.”

This Outside magazine piece is so well-written, very thoughtful but shot through with black humor. (For an example, see this One Great Sentence, which made me laugh out loud when I first read it.) In this “Annotation Tuesday!,” Solomon talks about the trickiness of reporting on climate change and the importance of pacing: “readers can feel when the story loses its sense of the music, its forward progress.” (A reporter who compares writing to music. Yes!) Also love the rhythm — and advice — of this line from him: “I have met writers who don’t have anyone read their work before they hand it in. This seems to me unwise.”

The soundtrack: “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” by Cat Stevens. I’m not a regular listener of the former Cat Stevens, but I thought this song fit, in a black humor way. And actually, it’s a pretty good song, lyric-wise.

One Great Sentence.

“He watched a mouse saunter up the electric cord leading to the nonfunctioning clock over the hotel bar and asked the Chinese waitress in German whether it was a tiger.”

Henry Kamm, The New York Times, Feb. 17, 1973: “Regional Truce Teams Unable to Act.” Read why we think it’s great.

Latino USA producer Marlon Bishop on the backstory of the NPR show’s most downloaded show ever.

In one of his final acts in office, then-President Obama commuted the sentence of the Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar López Rivera, who had been convicted for his role in a group linked to a series of bombings from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s. It was a moment of reporting serendipity for the NPR program Latino Today, which had been working on a piece about López for more than a year. In this “5(ish) Questions” with the program’s producer, Marlon Bishop, he talks about the backstory of researching and reporting such a complicated and controversial story.

The soundtrack: “Freedom,” by Pharrell Williams. This is a man who knows how to write a pop song. I love how he screams “Freedom!”

What I’m reading online:

“A Season Under the Gun,” by Rick Telender. Yes, President Trump is politicizing the “carnage” in Chicago. But to the people who are suffering from the terrible epidemic of shootings, it is indeed horrific. The Chicago Sun-Times’ Telender spends a season with a basketball team whose players are shell-shocked by the violence. The paper makes an admirable commitment to longform, publishing the story in five parts.

“The Rumpus Interview with George Saunders.” The brilliant writer’s new novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” is near the top of my must-read list. This interview on the very cool Rumpus literary site has some great insights into his writing process, including how he approaches writing novels versus nonfiction.

What’s on my bedside table:

“Of the Farm,” by John Updike.A friend asked me to check on his old family home in a nearby Maine town after the big snowstorm, and told me I could borrow any book I liked on the shelves. I restrained myself and just took this one. I’d never heard of it (and I’m an Updike fan). I’m just starting it, but the plot appeals: A city man and his family return to the farm where he grew up. And the blurb on the front surprised me: “Updike’s finest novel,” according to the Washington Post.

What’s on my turntable:

Although I spend most of my time listening to music on Spotify, sometimes I want to hear the needle touching down on vinyl. This week’s vinyl: “Week-End in Madrid,” from the Hi-Fi Library of the World’s Great Music. I had to play this one, because I’m going to Madrid this weekend. I love the words in midcentury font on the cover: “Holiday in Hi-Fi. (That’s the best kind of holiday, isn’t it?) As for the music itself, cue the castanets and trilling horns. Very bullfight circa 1950.
If you want to chat about storytelling (or music), you can reach me at editor@niemanstoryboard.org. Or you can find me at @karihow on Twitter.
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