Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Book Report: The Fiddler in the Subway

3. Gene Weingarten, The Fiddler in the Subway (2010) (4/10/18)

This collection of twenty feature stories by Washington Post journalist Gene Weingarten is varied and interesting, with sometimes quirky subjects ranging from a flawed children's party clown to Bill Clinton's father; the contract author of the Hardy Boys mysteries to a visit to the "armpit of America," Battle Mountain, Nevada; a reunion with a girl Weingarten had a crush on at the tender age of twelve to Doonesbury author Garry Trudeau's treatment of the Iraq war; people who don't vote to Woodrow Wilson's perhaps mistress.

Weingarten specializes in humor, but I was especially struck by his more serious pieces, two of which, in 2008 and 2010, respectively, won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing—one, the title essay, about "a world-class violinist [Joshua Bell] who, as an experiment, played beautiful music in a subway station filled with unheeding commuters," and the second, "Fatal Distraction," "a haunting story about parents, from varying walks of life, who accidentally kill their children by forgetting them in cars" (quoting from the Pulitzer website). I found "Fear Itself," about riding a bus in Jerusalem that fifteen years ago was frequently the target of suicide bombers, of special interest because of my own visit to Israel last year, though the situation is less fraught now than it was when he wrote the piece. Plus, fear fascinates me.

The writing is good journalism, sometimes involving research, generally including candid conversations with his interview subjects, and always with a strong dose of Weingarten himself as a participant observer. Here, for example, is how he ends "Fear Itself":
Just before I left on this trip, my friend Laura gave me a $5 bill. Laura is a journalist, an expert in affairs of the Middle East, and the daughter of a rabbi. The bill, she told me, was "mitzvah money." When someone is heading off on a possibly dangerous journey, it is a Jewish custom to give him money to give to a beggar at his destination. That turns the journey into a good deed. With luck, God will protect you.
  The bill is still in my wallet; I'd completely forgotten about it. At first, I felt ashamed. But sometimes, when you focus too intently on your own situation, you miss the big picture. I'm going outside, right now, to give the five bucks to the first homeless person I see. It's all the same world, you know.
If you're interested in reading "The Fiddler in the Subway," it can be found here. You can also watch part of Bell's performance below. It was a provocative experiment. I like to think I would have stopped to listen . . .

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