Michael O'Donnell | Reader, Writer

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    Reviews and Essays

    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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    When Every Minute Counts

    August 13, 2021  | 

    For generations, the Royal Observatory in Greenwich tested each of the British Navy’s chronometers. These precision instruments—deck clocks used to calculate longitude and thus fix a ship’s position at sea—helped ensure safe navigation. The observatory’s testing room hummed with activity: “What a wonderful instance of the proof of our maritime power is this apartment!” exclaimed one …

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    Championship Points

    August 12, 2021  | 

    At the age of 15, Billie Jean King anticipated the trajectory of her life in a school essay. A tennis prodigy, she thought she would soon make it to Wimbledon but lose in the quarter-finals. On the flight to London she would meet a heart-throb and fall in love. In time she would be happily …

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    The Would-Be Savior of Patagonia

    August 5, 2021  | 

    Patagonia as many of us imagine it was born in 1968. That year, the vast region of South America became an exotic destination for outdoor adventure. Of course, residents of Chile and Argentina did not need their backyard discovered any more than Native Americans needed Christopher Columbus. But to a group of young men in …

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