Michael O'Donnell | Reader, Writer

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Thanks for stopping by. Here you’ll find a collection of my magazine and newspaper writing from The New York TimesThe Atlantic, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications. Writing about books always gives me the chance to read something new and fascinating. I hope you’ll find the same on this website. Whether your interest is nature, law, people, or music, take a spin around and drop me a line.

A note on navigating the site: “Featured Articles” is a best-of page, containing twenty or so greatest hits. “Reviews and Essays” archives every article I’ve written dating back to 2002. This Home page shows my most recent work.

Recent Articles

Band of Sisters

April 15, 2021  | 

Abraham Lincoln had his team of rivals, but they were all white men with high opinions of themselves. Female alliances also worked to end slavery and perfect the union in 19th-century America. In “The Agitators” Dorothy Wickenden of the New Yorker profiles three neighbours who sought women’s rights and freedom for African-Americans. They banded together …

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The Hazards of American Justice

April 14, 2021  | 

A combination of scholarly insight and firsthand pain lends force to “Halfway Home,” a book about the inescapability of prison. Reuben Miller, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, interviewed hundreds of people to learn how former inmates navigate life after serving time. He himself grew up in poverty while his father was in …

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Dial Him for Murder

April 8, 2021  | 

The profile is unmistakable. A few lines establish nose, lip, regal forehead, modest hairline and the great round jowl. From behind this caricature Alfred Hitchcock emerged to introduce a weekly television show filled with the bizarre and the macabre. Yet if many people recognise the sketch, most won’t know that he drew it himself. The …

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Into the Void

December 26, 2020  | 

The cold, hoary legacy of polar exploration depends on outsize characters—and good books. Some chronicle legendary survivors. Ernest Shackleton found fame in 1917 by bringing his crew safely back from Antarctica, yielding one of the best adventure stories ever written: Alfred Lansing’s “Endurance.” Other explorers made their way into print by dying. John Franklin, who …

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Too Beautiful

November 26, 2020  | 

The moment he saw an organ, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart knew what to do with it. Aged six, already a prodigy on the clavier, he encountered pedals and stops for the first time in an Austrian church. Within minutes he was accompanying mass and improvising freely. In the following year, 1763, an official in Heidelberg was …

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The Amateur’s Ascent

November 14, 2020  | 

How’s this for an adventure: Buy a small airplane and learn to fly it. Point it east, toward the highest mountain range on Earth. Travel halfway around the world, solo, from England to Nepal, stopping to refuel in the great cities of Rome, Cairo, Baghdad and Delhi. Use subterfuge and luck to evade the police …

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