Short Takes

Tidbits of literary fun, surprise or miscellanea.

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The Guardian essay on Hindu super-temples? It might be news to you (and me)

By Short Takes November 9, 2009

Talking about narrative journalism, The St. Petersburg Times’ Lane DeGregory once told me “One of the stupidest stories I ever did had the biggest response. It was an 'up all night' piece about what happens between midnight and 6:00 am. I had all these old ladies calling me up and saying, ‘I’m never up that late, and I didn’t know about any of this.’ It was so gratifying to take readers someplace.” Taking readers someplace they are unlikely or unable to go is a prime service narrative can provide. Witness these two nicely done but very different stories: [caption id="attachment_972" align="alignleft" width="101" caption="Abhinav Ramnarayan"][/caption] Supermarket, superstores—why not a supertemple? “The Many Gods of Ilford,” a Guardian trend essay on multi-god Hindu temples in former recreation centers, touches on religion and tolerance while revealing that cockroaches can evoke nostalgia. A few useful posted comments about disability, caste, and monotheism add to Abhinav Ramnarayan’s original piece. Over at The Daily Beast, Tim Mohr’s “Did Punk Rock Tear Down the Wall?” looks at the East German '80s punk scene and recounts the career of Die Anderen (“the Others”), a band that straddled the East-West divide. What other keyhole views into history or a community have generated memorable narratives? We’d like to hear from you. Read more

Bursting into song and leaping out the window

By Short Takes November 4, 2009

We often highlight stories from reporters who are well-known in the world of narrative journalism, but a lot of unsung writers slip narratives into print and online daily. Here are some moving stories with sharp scenes or imagery from three people we bet you’ve never heard of. “Sacia's Promise,” from Kaitlin Manry of The (Everett) Herald: "She remembers waking up in the middle of the night, just 2 or 3 years old. Her nightgown is wet. So is her bed. She walks into the living room, calling for her mom. She's not there. Sacia instead finds a stranger, a man, dividing piles of little white rocks spread across the coffee table. The pearly white stones are like baby teeth and crumble when he touches them. She runs back to her bed and stays up all night, kneeling on wet sheets, waiting for a mother who never comes." Read more » Read more

The story calling you: Todd Frankel connects with one St. Louis Cardinals fan

By Short Takes October 12, 2009

Some events cry out for narrative treatment. Take a look at this wire story about a St. Louis Cardinal fan injured in Pittsburgh and the assist he got from player Albert Pujols. And then read Todd Frankel’s “St. Louis Cardinals fan feels uplifted after fall,” which ran a month later in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. No one assigned the piece to Frankel, but he had watched the game on television that Friday and suspected there might be more to the story. By the following Monday, he still hadn’t seen any new information from beat reporters, so he spent a week getting the Pirates public relations staff to find out if the fan, Tim Tepas, was willing to be interviewed. Tepas initially agreed to a five-minute conversation. But across several days, five minutes turned into five hours. And it was only at the end, Frankel reports, that Tepas mentioned the letter he had with him the night of his injury. Read more » Read more

Innocence and suspense: David Grann’s "Trial by Fire"

By Short Takes October 4, 2009

“Trial by Fire,” from the September 7 issue of The New Yorker, recounts the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in Texas for setting fire to his house and killing his three children. Reporter David Grann uses disturbing details to reinforce the doubt expressed in the article’s subhead (“Did Texas execute an innocent man?”) , and the drama continues to unfold as more evidence comes to light suggesting a mistake was made. The facts of Willingham’s story are compelling enough, but Grann’s structure maximizes their impact. He opens the piece with the fire itself, giving readers just the information that was available for investigators to examine. Those fire investigators are the next characters we meet—the people we count on to interpret the facts and explain what happened. Grann gives us a list of their credentials; one is a former firefighter and recipient of multiple Purple Hearts with decades of on-the-job experience. We follow as Grann recreates their visit to the ruins of the house, which leads them to classify what they find as a clear case of arson. Read more