In order to help you get through the early part of the week, here are a few of the best things I've come across over the past few weeks:
Penny Dreadful, by David Owen
Taken from the March 31st edition of the New Yorker, this is a fascinating look into the life of the penny, and the argument for why it should be extinct. Some of the better arguments for the abolition of the penny include the notion that a penny in the 1940s carried more purchasing power than a modern day quarter (meaning that people in the 1940's essentially got by without the equivalent of our penny, nickel, or dime); the reality that the only coin-operated machines that accept pennies are those coin-wrapping machines that people use to get rid of pennies; and the fact that breaking stride to pick up a penny, if it takes you more than 6.15 seconds, pays less than the U.S. federal minimum wage (somewhere out there, Vern Tessio is weeping).
Great Experiment, by Jeffrey Eugenides
I was over at my buddy Rosco's place last night for a couple of belts of Scotch and some fantastic craic in his most excellent parlour, and we got to talking about how there were very few stories about accountants (Rosco is, among other things, a Chartered Accountant). Well, this one is a dandy. One of the better endings you'll come across in the genre (my major complaint with short stories is the way most of them end; or more accurately, the way they fail to end. Not this one.)
You may remember Eugenides from his writing The Virgin Suicides, and I just finished reading Middlesex, upon which I learmed more about hermaphroditism than I ever thought I would.
Mine is Longer Than Yours, by Michael Kinsley
The first half of this article (lightheartedly describing the various ways in which people in America die, and the likelihood of your going each particular way) is much more interesting than the second half (a piece about the author's dealings with Parkinson's Disease). But I like how Kinsley redefines the victor in the Baby Boomers game of life from "He who dies with the most toys" to "He who dies last".
And I love the quandary that he puts forth: "What do you have now, and what do you covet, that you would not gladly trade for, say, five extra years?" Peace in the Middle East? A solution to global warming? A cure for AIDS? Interesting scenarios, all of them, and profoundly affecting for someone who is now (gulp) in his 30s.
A terribly written article demeaning the "new" stats in baseball (must read first), and the beautifully crafted, wittily scathing retort by the guys at Fire Joe Morgan.
(I'll be perfectly honest: prior to reading that second piece, I had no idea what WHIP was. I would always hear people discussing it and I'd nod my head in agreement, but I didn't have a clue as to what the hell they were talking about. But now I do. Thank you Ken Tremendous.)
The People's Republic Learns To Drive, by Peter Hessler
This is a condensed version of the excellent piece (entitled "Wheels of Fortune") that appeared in the November 26th edition of the New Yorker (the New Yorker has only made the abstract available online, although I continue to search the net for a full-length version - I may end up scanning the article and putting it up myself, because it is that good). This version gives you a glimpse into what it can be like learning to drive in China, but unfortunately it leaves out some of the best parts, including an account of a driving lesson that had to be cut short because the instructors and students drank too much at lunch and were therefore too drunk to drive in the afternoon session.
Chateau Scientology, by Dana Goodyear
Everything you ever wanted to know about Scientology.
Somebody Has To Be In Control, by Ian Parker
Everything you ever wanted to know about George Clooney.
Is there anybody cooler than this guy? Maybe Tom Waits, but it's too close to call at this point.
Norman Mailer, Towering Writer with Matching Ego, Dies at 84, by Charles McGrath
I'm not sure why I stumbled upon this six months after his death, but this depiction of the life of Norman Mailer is really quite something. The life of a writer, in all of its misery and magnificience...
You may remember Mailer from his poetic and passionate description of the Ali-Foreman fight in the transcendent When We Were Kings, still one of my all-time favourite documentaries: