Fifty Years of 60 Minutes, by Jeff Fager*****

“‘Wille Nelson?’ Mike said in disgust. ‘Willie Nelson? I said Winnie and Nelson–as in Mandela!’ And then with real attitude he snapped, ‘Heard of them?’ He ended with a classic Mike Wallace line: ‘Excuse me, I didn’t realize I had wandered into the toy department.’ Mike then left the office and, walking down the hall, shouted back to Josh, ‘Good luck with your next career move!'”

FiftyYearsof6060 Minutes first aired in 1968, a year for news if ever there was one. It was brilliantly conceived as a television news magazine, covering multiple unrelated news stories in a single broadcast. Executive producer Jeff Fager offers the reader an insider’s peek; lucky me, I read it early and free thanks to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley. It’s for sale today.

60 Minutes did the stories nobody else was doing, and its correspondents were geniuses at persuading their subjects to open up and tell the world what it wanted to know. From President-elect Richard Nixon, who promised to ‘restore respect to the presidency’, to the torture of prisoners at Abu-Ghraib, 60 Minutes has been there and spoken to those that have done these things or borne witness to them.  I’ll bet I am not the only viewer that remembers the interview with the bitter, dying tobacco executive with throat cancer, rasping out what he knows on television. From Miss Piggy to the Ayatollah Khomeini, from Lance Armstrong to Khadafi, everyone has 15 minutes of fame…did they interview Andy Warhol? I’ll bet they did.

Just as on the show, the book touches briefly but meaningfully on each subject, complete with lovely color photographs, both formal and candid, and then moves on before one can become bored. The careers of the professionals that worked on the show, behind the scenes and on it, are also described. Perhaps the most poignant anecdote is when ancient Andy Rooney, past 90, developing Alzheimer’s, but still in the saddle, keeps forgetting that he is supposed to give a farewell address. He keeps returning long after he was going to get gone, and finally his son has to write cue cards for him to read on the air. Rooney seems vaguely puzzled when he discovers he has retired.

The whole thing is organized in congenial sections, decade by decade, but it’s the sort of book you can leave on your coffee table for guests to flip through.  If they are adults, I can almost guarantee they’ll say, “Oh hey. I remember this!” What a wonderful ice breaker.

Highly recommended; buy it in the hardcover format.

Hitler is Alive!: Guaranteed True Stories Reported by the National Police Gazette, edited by Steven A. Westlake**

HitlerisaliveI was invited to read and review this compendium of articles from long ago by my friends at Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley. I appreciate the invitation. The articles in the collection were really published in a tabloid by the title above during the period after World War II ended, and they are presented here as a bit of humorous nostalgia, rather like the spirit of Punch or The Onion. These articles will tickle the funny-bone of some of its readers, but it wasn’t a good match for me.

It appears that Hitler did indeed have a man-made island set up as a place of retreat; most likely, word of the USA’s nuclear weapons program had filtered through and so an alternate location was devised for him and those he needed with him. In the end, his defeat was so clear and so absolute that even he could see there was no point in going there. However, between the Allied leaders’ claims that he was dead before anyone really knew what had happened and a few other intriguing details, journalists had a great deal of fodder to chew on for the period that followed. The overall tone at times nears hysteria, and because of this, it seems comical now.

Because it was not written initially to be humorous but instead was regarded by its writer as hard journalism, there is a lot redundancy, with old facts being repeated and new ones added in. I suspect that a much more amusing novella could be written using these articles as their basis; on the other hand, Hitler has been the subject of so much other historical fiction that it would have to be unique indeed to stand out from the crowd.

Those considering purchasing this collection might do well to go to a retail site that offers a chance to read sample pages first. If it works for you, go ahead and make the purchase. I have to confess I made it about halfway through and then bailed.

This collection was published Jan 12 of this year and is available for purchase now.

S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in D.C. by Ruben Castaneda *****

sstreetrisingThis book is remarkable, and I am not the tiniest bit surprised that its writer has won multiple awards. He began life as a journalist, and in part, that’s what this is about. It is a memoir at least four times over. Seamlessly, Castaneda weaves the history of S Street, a formerly down-and-out part of Washington, DC that holds deep personal meaning for him; his own personal story ; the history of local police and in particular, the use of gratuitous violence and what happens to those who try to shut that shit down; and also the memoir of a local street ministry and after school program linked to S Street and the area’s revival. It is braided together evenly and I cannot find a flaw in it (and I am picky). At the end, he ties the whole thing together and puts a bow on it, and my jaw dropped. Did he just do that? Yes, he did!

Many thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury USA for the DRC.

My initial thought was that it takes titanium cojones to not only write about the DC crack epidemic while being addicted to it (as well as alcohol), and THEN to come out and write a risky but much lauded magazine article about his own journey doing same, and his subsequent recovery (sixteen years, at the time this was written), and then, after all of that, to write a book about it.

But it’s not just about guts. There are multiple essential messages he wants us to receive, and his strong word-smithery and pacing make it easy to keep turning the pages. The narrative is smooth as glass, transitions so natural they are hard to find. Twice I went back to the opening pages to make sure this was actually nonfiction, because it bears the crafting of a well-paced thriller. And it is highlighted by the journalistic integrity of the writer in what he recognizes is a dying craft: the investigative newspaper reporter.

Looking through the pages of my own city’s less-than-laudable local press as well as TV news coverage, I see two types of journalists, for the greater part. One is the phone-it-in writer. Typically, it is an article about a corporation or organization and the subject of the piece has really done the writing. It shows up as news without anybody double checking the self-aggrandizement done by the firm in question. Easy story.

The other is the heartless story-at-all-costs. Castaneda confesses to being an adrenaline junkie, and the reader must recognize that to keep the hours a journalist keeps for the salary provided, there would have to be a secondary payoff, that of satisfaction. But I do see journalists who go too far, the ones who will approach a mother whose babies have perished in a fire moments before, stick a microphone in her face, and bark, “Tell us how you are feeling at this time, ma’am.” Our author has a couple of sticky ethical decisions he has to make, decisions of integrity versus alpha-journalistic behavior, and he comes down more often than not on the side of the angels, and at least once, he does so at great cost to his career. This is really admirable.

I have read over 200 memoirs, and yet there has never been one like this one. I cannot recommend it highly enough.