July 29, 2010

From Evan

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What happened to the A1 WSJ feature?

My mounting suspicion about the decreasing quality of the Wall Street Journal A1 feature was confirmed exactly one day after I considered writing about it.

This was a couple months back. And my attitude hasn't changed.

So I'm laying it on the line: The A1 feature, which rose to a vaunted pedestal in my books and became a sort of career aspiration about four years ago, has depreciated.

Goodbye depth, hello quirk. Instead of illuminating subjects from around the world, the A1 Journal feature now serves as the oddball story most often seen at the very end of TV news programs -- the laugh laugh "goodnight everyone" story.

One weekend it was competitive wok riding. Then "artery-clogging sandwiches."

James Stewart's excellent "Follow the Story" taught me that the average A1 feature writer for the Journal would complete about 8 stories per year (if prolific). Now the stories read like quick-turns culled from the latest reality television shows. They read like Food Network mini features ... "Top 10 Ice Cream Stands!"

They're still good stories, relatively speaking, and I appreciate that the Journal reserves that space. They're just not what they were.

In June and July I found stories on lawn bowlers, beer tasters, and ballplayers; peacocks in California and ChickenDiapers.com; fancy boilers and Booty Pops.

They're fun stories, hip and new and in love with the Internet.

But they're not deep. I always flip to the jump page and frown at the short caboose. The features I remember, which spurred me to copy their forms as practice, took me deeper into minds and farther around the world.

My favorite was "Preserving the Tibetan Mastiff."

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July 28, 2010

A note about the Bear

Jack just moved.
I just moved.
Chase moved somewhat recently.
Econ is about to move.


July 19, 2010

Beers of the moment

I've been noticing Session Lager because of its really small bottle. Finally got to try it and found out it's made in an Oregon city that Katie and I visited on our honeymoon. Pretty good beer, similar to Red Stripe in bottling and taste. Oddly enough, the bottle actually does hold one ounce less than a more traditional bottle.

:: Leffe, Abbey-style
:: Flying Dog Pale Ale ranked first by NYTimes and I like it too.


July 15, 2010

#025 (it's back!)

A weekly sampler of what we're listening to (new and old), and what we think you might like, too.


THE HOLD STEADY -- "Stuck Between Stations"
There are no Bob Dylan videos on YouTube for some reason (c'mon, Bob, I thought you were better than that), so I'm sharing the other thing I've been listening to a lot since the move. I like a lot of Hold Steady songs because they have this whole Catholic guilt thing theme running through them. Midwestern theological talk, etc. But this one I like just because it has a sweet guitar riff.

GRIZZLY BEAR -- "While You Wait For Others"
Odd how the mix hiatus coincided exactly with my more aggressive pursuit of music the past two weeks. I'd like to share many songs this week, like the B-52s' "Rock Lobster," and some Babyshambles and Sebastien Grainger stuff. But "While You Wait For Others" is the cream of the crop. I don't have much to say about it, except that I really like how it sounds and I think everyone reading the Sadbear will too.

OF MONTREAL -- "Coquet Coquette"
Been in a hurry, and this song makes me work faster.

THE AVALANCHES -- "Frontier Psychiatrist"
Everyone's probably seen this by now, but I hadn't until last December.

THE KINKS -- "Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues"
I've been feeling lately that the album Muswell Hillbillies is every bit as good as Village Green. It is also further proof that the very best American blues albums come from England (see also, The Stones Beggar's Banquet.)

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July 8, 2010

Review: Africa United: Soccer, Passion, Politics and the World Cup in Africa

When is a sports book not a sports book?

Steve Bloomfield's Africa United: Soccer, Passion, Politics and the World Cup in Africa is a book "about" soccer. But only in the abstract. Really, it's about politics and culture of the most misunderstood and under-studied— at least in North America— continent on the globe.

The book wasn't quite what I expected, but that's just fine. It isn't anything like a complete narrative history of soccer on the African continent. For starters, that book would likely be at least 800 pages and would reference many things a fair-weather soccer fan such as myself just wouldn't know about. It would be like an Englishman trying to make sense of George Will's Men At Work or Bissinger's Friday Night Lights— just not going to happen unless you have a deep knowledge of the game.

Luckily, Bloomfield's book reads less like a history and more like a compendium of post 1970-African history. It doesn't take on any sort of narrative structure; instead each chapter is a journalistic vinaigrette on a specific country (or countries). You might call them travel pieces, but they're not the work of an outsider looking in. Bloomfield is a former African correspondent for some UK newspapers. The book talks about soccer, yes, but it's more about HOW soccer relates to the political, social and cultural history of the countries profiled in the book.

As I explained to Econ just a short while ago, Africa United is what you'd get if the Economist ever tried its hand at sports writing.

Bloomfield isn't a sportswriter and, thankfully, doesn't try to write like one. But it's clear that he's a big soccer fan, so he knows the game as well as he knows African politics.

The looks at the game on the field are brief. They're well-written but not earth-shattering game reporting. Mostly, he writes about the matches so he can observe the fans and relate them to other political contexts. In one chapter, for example, he details the rivalry between Sudan and Chad. They were drawn together during the qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations in 2008. They're two of the worst teams in Africa.

Like I said, though, it's not about the games. Sudan and Chad have also fought one another in a series of guerrilla conflicts dating back to the 1970s (Sudan accused Chadian rebels of getting involved in the whole Darfur thing, while Chad likewise accused Sudan of supporting rebels in their own civil war).

I hadn't known anything about this until I read the book. I think most Westerners have a similar lack of knowledge about the going-ons in Africa.

That's why Bloomfield's book is so useful. It uses something everyone DOES know about (soccer... so, I guess everyone but USA and Canada) to events they would otherwise have little exposure to.

For some reason, I've always been interested in Africa. Especially the colonial and postcolonial experience— one of the reasons why I love reading Joseph Conrad, VS Naipaul, Doris Lessing, Chinua Achebe, etc. That's why I decided to pick the book randomly off the shelf a few weeks ago. It's a great, quick read for anyone interested in learning a little more about that continent that nobody except Bono seems to care about. (It's sad, but true... how many Africans besides Nelson Mandela could most Americans name?)

I just wish I had picked it up BEFORE the World Cup began so I would have had some context when I watched Bafana Bafana and the Super Eagles.

Also: Bloomfield maintains two blogs. One is called simply Africa United, and it is about the World Cup. The other, Things Seen and Heard, is about general African current events. Needless to say, I'm following both of them now. Part of me feels like I should subscribe to the Economist so I would know about this stuff. Except $200 is a little steep for a weekly reading on Burkina Faso elections. Anyone have any other ideas for keeping up with international affairs?

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July 6, 2010


Three things I already know about Effingham:

1) There are no less than four corn and grain silos in the middle of town— not technically downtown but part of the "skyline" that also includes a giant cross and a few bank buildings. All are right along the train tracks which will take those crops north to Chicago, east to Indianapolis and west to St. Louis.

2) The Urbana-Champaign NPR station reads the farm report every hour, on the hour, right after the local news but before the weather. If you wanted to know anything about wheat futures in Chicago or Kansas City, then you have it locked to the correct station.

3) One bar on the other side of the tracks (literally) is called "Ichabod's Cub and Cardinal." Sorry Sox fans. You do not exist.

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