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

    On a Wing and a Prayer

    November 18, 2022  | 

    A century ago, as the excitement of the Wright Brothers faded and the smoke from World War I cleared, a question arose: What was the future of the airplane? Few Americans had ever seen one; those who had knew it as little more than a barnstorming novelty. Planes had proven their utility in war, but …

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    Laughter in the Dark

    October 15, 2022  | 

    Three natural gifts defined Paul Newman’s career as a movie star. Act one: the eyes. Act two: the laugh. Act three: the voice. Newman’s eyes brought the young actor his smoldering fame: cerulean, intense, and steady, they dared you to look away while he filled the screen. In films like “The Long, Hot Summer” and …

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    Creatures of the Deep

    August 25, 2022  | 

    A shocking photo from 1981 opens this account of nationalist violence in south-east Texas. It shows a boat patrolling Galveston Bay, near Houston; the occupants include robed, hooded and armed members of the Ku Klux Klan. Their aim was to menace Vietnamese fishermen who had recently arrived in the Gulf of Mexico. Hanging by the …

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    Proof Through the Night

    June 23, 2022  | 

    In July 1814 an unsigned magazine article bemoaned the state of patriotic music and poetry in America. “Our national songs are full of ridiculous exaggeration, and frothy rant, and commonplace bloated up into fustian,” complained the writer, thought to be Washington Irving. When would someone produce an anthem worthy of the new republic? Just two …

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    On the World Stage

    June 9, 2022  | 

    In modern parlance, she was a “triple threat.” Josephine Baker could act, dance and sing—and did all three at Chez Josephine, her nightclub in Paris, and in several films. After escaping the Jim Crow South, she found fame in Europe in the period between the wars and made France her adopted home. Dancing in risqué …

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    Frontier in the Clouds

    May 26, 2022  | 

    Mount Everest has become such an overcrowded playground that the best way to experience the mountain itself may be to go back in time. Covered in refuse, empty oxygen bottles, even human remains, the peak now sees hundreds of summit attempts each spring, paid by fees of some $50,000 per client. With crowding comes tragedy, …

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