Sunday Burgs book review
Review by Allison Long of Newport.
If you want to know what made headlines in say, 1984, check the newspaper archives — but, if you’d like to know what the columnists were thinking, check the editorials.
“Mostly Merry Commentary” gives local readers a glimpse into the world from 1986-2010 through the eyes of Virginia Tech journalism professor and author of “African Americans in the Media Today,” Sam Riley.
A fair number of Riley’s articles focus on New River Valley and university news and controversy, while other pieces are more national in scope. By placing both local and national commentaries side by side, readers are presented a multi-dimensional view on the news from the past and present.
The problem with only reading commentary is that you have to be aware of the subject the journalist was originally commenting on, or else the reader is left in confusion. This can be especially true in Riley’s earlier pieces, in which he writes creatively in the voices of knights and country boys. With the passage of time, some readers may have trouble following the subject matter. Riley often gives tongue-in-cheek nicknames to public figures, which would be effective if the reader could determine to whom Riley is referring, or if the moniker itself was well-known. Riley does briefly introduce each piece, which helps.
A collection of op-ed columns are difficult to review because they are exactly what they claim to be: opinions. Reviews are essentially the editorial’s twin, more-bookish brother. With regard to Riley’s “merry commentary”, it seems that the angrier the journalist, the better the column. But, as “Merry Commentaries” progresses, so does the strength of the writing.
The 80s commentary comes across as alternatively bemused and overwhelmingly cynical. This is the part of the collection that makes most use of Riley’s creative allegories. The style is a bit unconventional and initially off-putting, but for the most part serves its purpose and prompts amusement in the reader. The exception to this and serving as a sign of things to come is “How Easily Americans Forgive,” which balances the right amount of incredulity, warning and journalism. What is especially interesting is how editorial material cycles through the years. Reading these commentaries gives the reader the impression that styles and politicians may change, but the issues stay the same. This realization is both disconcerting and comforting.
As the reader moves into the 90s and edges closer to the “oughts,” Riley shifts away from the knight imagery and the nicknames and begins to take on national issues with more frequency. However, the playfulness doesn’t altogether disappear. The 1996 piece, “What about Bob? Nosireebob. Maybe Tom? Dick? Harry?” discusses finding a name for a Roanoke bridge and suggests following the offbeat example of Avon, Colorado. This particular article proved both informative and fun. By the time readers reach the 2000s, the merriness is all but gone.
Because commentaries most often deal with controversy, Riley’s writing style prevents the reader from being overwhelmed by the negativity of the article’s subject. More recent articles dealing with topics like gun rights, foreign affairs and the Blacksburg mascot controversy are charged with a feeling of unrest and discontent. Election year pieces see Riley as particularly irritable. The frustration Riley describes in each introduction is there, with thinly veiled sarcasm. But the frustration doesn’t overwhelm Riley’s point as it threatened to do in earlier pieces. Instead, Riley manages to walk the thin line of opinion and make his argument. By the last article, readers almost forget the rhyming couplets of Riley’s voice in the 80s, and are left with the impression his current voice: reasoned and confident.
Much is made of the title, “Merry Commentaries”, but it’s when Riley is at his least merry that he is most interesting. Of course, that is merely one opinion.
-If you would like to be a guest reviewer, email palston@mfrlorg.
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