Michael O'Donnell | Reader, Writer

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    Reviews and Essays

    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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    Down to the River

    April 21, 2022  | 

    As he paddled the great rivers of America, Dick Conant counted. Numbers lent structure to the endless strokes and days, and staved off boredom. He made a game of reaching key figures—palindromes and years with historical significance (abundant in his encyclopedic memory). Conant also marked dates from his own life. In 1972 he slept on …

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    Red Leader

    February 4, 2022  | 

    Edward Gibbon sits proudly upon my bookshelf. A set of volumes that I own, neatly stacked, comprises his “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” What do you make of me because it is there? The set might indicate that I am a classicist, a scholar. It could signal my ambition—or my …

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    Out of the Abyss

    January 13, 2022  | 

    The road from the Third Reich to modern Germany began in a field of rubble. The second world war had left behind enough of it to form a mountain 4,000 metres high, if it were piled up on the Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremberg. When the war ended, citizens began clearing it all up. …

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    Two Faces of a Star

    December 2, 2021  | 

    She was everything on screen and not much off it. That is the conclusion to be drawn from Robert Gottlieb’s biography of Greta Garbo, the legendary film star of the 1920s and 1930s. “Was she even an actress, or was she merely a glorious presence?” he asks. Readers’ assessments of her glory may depend on …

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    Message in a Bottle

    December 2, 2021  | 

    It sounds more like a bad visit to the otolaryngologist than an important conflict between empires. The incident that gave the War of Jenkins’ Ear its name occurred in 1731, when a Spanish coastguard commander mutilated the captain of a British privateer suspected of smuggling in the Caribbean. Jenkins’ severed appendage was preserved in a …

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    Supposing They’re Wrong?

    September 24, 2021  | 

    In 1954 a young screenwriter received a summons for jury service in New York. For the rest of his life he would describe how he sat with his peers in a homicide case, helping argue the conviction down from manslaughter to assault. The accused had punched a loudmouth who had pulled a knife in a bar …

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