Taking stock of life's oddities

Monday Book Review

July 25, 1994|By Neil Grauer


DESPITE AN austere appearance and a name implying dry financial reportage, the Wall Street Journal is known by regular -- readers to contain far more than reports chronicling stocks, bonds, banks and businesses.

In fact, the Journal offers some of the finest newspaper writing around, especially the lively, engaging feature stories that grace the daily "middle column" on its otherwise drab-looking front page. These are captivating accounts of oddities and arcana; of human frailties, foibles and triumphs.

Jane Berentson, editor of the middle column since 1989, has assembled a grand collection of these sprightly items, including some published as far back as 1985, and has titled it with a paraphrase of the headline on one of them: "Dressing for Dinner in the Naked City."

Typically, this isn't a piece about a return to formal dining attire in Manhattan but a story about the growing tendency of visitors to Koversada, a nudist resort on the Adriatic Coast, to put clothes on as the sun goes down and temperatures drop. "Primordial logic" overcomes philosophy under such circumstances, reporter Barry Newman explained.

In her brief introduction, Ms. Berentson says that the Journal's features "usually have nothing to do The business of running a rat restaurant in China is examined.

with business, unless it's the business of running a rat restaurant in China or the ups and downs of selling frying pans on the streets of Warsaw."

Although largely true, occasionally the faint fingerprints of corporate public relations departments can be found between the lines of these elegant articles. That in no way detracts from the quality of the pieces of the frequently funny, sometimes poignant, always splendid stores they relate. Articles about a 90-year-old salesman in a New York Brooks Brothers store; past winners of the Pillsbury Bake-Off; a driver of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, and similar items are a delight to read regardless of their origin.

Indeed, the Journal reports are so good that sometimes the presumed attempts at corporate puffery back fire: A 1986 article by Kathleen A. Hughes on the top marketers of free-range chickens casts considerable doubt on "exactly how much freedom and range" such poultry have (not a lot), as well as their supposedly superior flavor. In two blind taste tests arranged by the Journal, famed chef Wolfgang Puck picked "an unassuming supermarket chicken" over a far costlier fowl dubbed "Rocky the Range Chicken." Mr. Puck mutters: "I definitely think we should find out why they charge so much money" for the birds.

The 98 stories in this collection are divided into 13 sections, including "Uncommon Language and Novel Words," "There Will Always Be An England," "The Sporting Life," "Ports of Call" and "Perspectives on Art."

Any reader will be hard-pressed to pick a favorite, although to connoisseurs of clever opening lines, perhaps the most memorable appeared in Paul B. Carroll's 1987 account of how he blithely accepted a friend's invitation to join the crew of a 42-foot sailboat in a trans-Atlantic race: "Call me Schlemiel."

An investment of $10.95 in this book will reap rich returns in wonderful writing.

Neil Grauer is a Baltimore writer and author of "Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber," to be published this fall by the University of Nebraska Press.

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