What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

On the Horizon: John McPhee's "Draft No. 4"

On September 5, 2017, one of the most significant literary events of the year will occur – the publication of John McPhee’s Draft No. 4. I pre-ordered my copy months ago. I have a rough idea what it will contain: McPhee’s wonderful New Yorker series “The Writing Life,” a vivid, personal, practical account of how he composed some of his finest pieces. I devoured this series when it appeared in the magazine, 2013 – 2015. I look forward to revisiting it between hardcovers.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Ethan Iverson’s Superb “Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and One Night in New York City”

Duke Ellington (Photo by Marty Lederhandler)
A cool piece of jazz criticism appeared yesterday at – Ethan Iverson’s “Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and One Night in New York City” (“Culture Desk,” August 17, 2017). It’s a comparative analysis of “Ellington and Evans both playing an Ellington standard, ‘In a Sentimental Mood,’ on the same hot Thursday night in New York City—August 17, 1967.” It begins by helpfully providing links to the two performances:

Here is Ellington’s version, at the Rainbow Grill, with the tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, along with John Lamb on bass and Steve Little on drums. And here is Evans’s version, at the Village Vanguard, with Eddie Gomez on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums.

Then it focuses on Ellington’s version, describing it as a blend of two interpretations of the song – “old style” (“The first chorus is piano in D minor/F major, the ‘old style,’ fairly close to the first 1935 recording”) and “new style” (“After the ‘old-style’ chorus, Duke modulates to Bb minor/Db major for Gonsalves’s entrance, the same key used for the ‘new style’ version of ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ tracked with John Coltrane, in 1962”).

Of Ellington’s performance, Iverson writes,

Playing with Coltrane, Ellington’s “new-style” arrangement had a mournful raindrop piano part that was dramatic and distinctive. At the Rainbow Grill, Ellington doesn’t play many of the raindrops but goes all out in rhapsodic style: heavy block chords, cascades, even a long left-hand trill underneath pointillistic right-hand stabs. It would be hard to find ballad accompaniment this busy anywhere else.

That “heavy block chords, cascades, even a long left-hand trill underneath pointillistic right-hand stabs” is excellent.

Iverson then turns to Bill Evans’s version. He writes,

Bill Evans recorded “In a Sentimental Mood” a few times over the years, usually as a ballad, but at the Vanguard that night it was a medium swinger. There are three different takes from three different sets on August 17th and 18th, but the piano part is consistent. Gomez and Jones make all the rhythmic hits and substitute changes with the pianist, but they are also free to offer tasteful commentary. Over all, this is a much more modern and interactive approach to the rhythm section than Lamb and Little with Ellington at the Rainbow Grill. Unlike Ellington’s unwinding scroll, conventional small-band jazz practice dictated an identical “melody in” and “melody out.”

I like that bit about “Ellington’s unwinding scroll.” Remember Adam Gopnik’s opinion that Ellington played “no better than O.K. piano” (“Two Bands,” December 23 & 30, 2013)? (I criticized it here.) Well, Iverson provides a welcome corrective. He describes Ellington’s playing as “mysterious” and “detailed.” He says, “Each of Ellington’s chords is its own universe.” Referring to Ellington’s playing on John Coltrane’s 1962 version of “In a Sentimental Mood,” Iverson says,

Coltrane then leaves the star solo turn to Ellington, who offers one of the most perfect piano improvisations in the whole Duke canon: mysterious, searching, surreal. That surreal piano chorus is in stark contrast to Evans’s professional and clean chorus with Gomez and Philly Joe, where each note of attractive melodic improvisation in the right hand fits perfectly with the added-note harmony (and implied chord scale) beneath.

Iverson favors Ellington over Evans. He says,

Ellington could connect all the dots—the social, the modernist, the intellectual, the populist, the personally poetic—for a vision of American music truly epic in scope. As great as Evans was, he didn’t have that kind of command.

Iverson’s exquisite piece led me in several different directions. It led me to Whitney Balliett to see if the Master covered either of these gigs. Sure enough, he attended Ellington’s stand at the Rainbow Grill (see his “Small Band,” Ecstasy at the Onion, 1971, in which he describes Ellington’s playing as “first-rate,” and says of Johnny Hodge’s rendition of “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” he “left fat, dying notes all over the bandstand.” It led me to Gopnik’s appallingly wrong-headed piece, aforesaid. And, of course, it led me to the music. I’m listening to Ellington’s 1967 version of “In a Sentimental Mood,” as I write this, savoring those “heavy block chords, cascades, even a long left-hand trill underneath pointillistic right-hand stabs.” 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Bears, Bears, Bears

Illustration from John McPhee's "A Textbook Place for Bears"

Edward Hoagland, John McPhee, and Ian Frazier are three of my favorite writers. Each has written at least one bear piece: Hoagland’s “Bears, Bears, Bears” (Sports Illustrated, March 26, 1973; included in his Red Wolves and Black Bears, 1976); McPhee’s “A Textbook Place for Bears” (The New Yorker, December 27, 1982; included in his Table of Contents, 1985); and Frazier’s “Bear News” (The New Yorker, September 9, 1985; included in his Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody, 1987). It’s interesting to compare them.

Hoagland’s “Bears, Bears, Bears” profiles Lynn Rogers, a graduate student in wildlife biology at the University of Minnesota, who is, in Hoagland’s words, “probably the most ardent investigator of black bears right now.” Rogers works in Isabella, a logging village in the Arrowhead region of northern Minnesota, now the Superior National Forest. Hoagland says of Rogers, “In the woods he moves at a silent trot, as only the rarest woodsmen do. His thoughts, insofar as they could be elicited in the week I lived with him, seemed almost exclusively concerned with bears – catching them, amassing more data on them.”

Hoagland tells about going on bear searches with Rogers:

On September twenty-second we spent a red-letter day together, starting at a dump where gulls and ravens whirled above us and Rogers scanned the line of trees for any fat rear end that might be beating a retreat. He flew for four hours, locating all the bears whose radios were functioning; then back on the ground, as a check on his methods he went to three of the fixes to confirm that the bears were where he’d marked them. He inspected seven denning places, showing me how he discovers the hole itself by the raking that bears do as they collect insulation. This is while the ground is clear of snow, so he memorizes how to find it later by lining up the nearby trees. Number 414’s chamber last winter was under a clump of boulders, fifteen feet back through a passage. Number 320’s was under a bulldozed pile of birch that the loggers had left. A few miles away we watched a female preparing a small basket-shaped sanctum under the upturned roots of a white pine, from which she sneaked, like a hurrying, portly child, circling downwind to identify us before clearing out. Another bear, a hundred-pound male, was hollowing a den under a crosshatch of windfalls just above a patch of swamp. He too scrambled silently away downward ahead of us like a gentleman disturbed in a spot where he’s afraid perhaps he shouldn’t be.

McPhee’s “A Textbook Place for Bears” profiles Patricia McConnell, a biologist who works for the State of New Jersey trapping bears. “She is scarcely five feet tall,” McPhee writes. “Her jeans were too long and were rolled at the tops of her shoes. Her hair is dark, rich brown with strands of gray. She has a quick, infectious smile that somehow seems to break inward, concentrating its brightness.”

The piece is set in the Kittatinny Mountain region of northwestern New Jersey where McConnell has a trap line. McPhee reports his experience accompanying McConnell as she checks the traps for bears:

She had set snares – a pair of them, about thirty feet apart. And now, making rounds, at a few minutes to six in the morning, June 19, we went down into the woods to see what sort of mischief might have happened near the snares. The site was some distance from the road, and the mountainside fell steeply away. The only sound we heard was the tread of our feet. “There’s no bear here or we’d have heard it by now,” she was saying, but then she drew in her breath and stopped. She stared through the trees in excited disbelief. “This could only happen once,” she said. “We have hit the daily double. A bear in each snare.”

Frazier’s “Bear News” is about bears and newspaper stories about them, principally in the Glacier National Park region of western Montana where, at the time Frazier wrote it, he lived:

The road I lived on is called Bear Creek Road. Not far from my house I have found pyramidal piles of bear scat filled with chokecherry pits, and honeysuckle vines torn down like old prom decorations and trodden into bear tracks in the mud of spring seeps, and rocks the size of truck tires rolled out of the ground, and rotten deadfalls torn to powder.

In the piece, Frazier tells about tracking bears and about his encounters with them:

The day after I saw my first bear in the wild, I saw my second, third, and fourth bears. I was out fishing again, trying to get to an oxbow lake near my house. I was mostly surrounded by fences and “Posted” signs. On the one unfenced side of the lake, a pine and fir forest descended to a marsh, with little trickling creeks, and hip-deep black muck holes with oily films on top, and stands of yellow skunk cabbage, and downed trees with their roots full of dried mud sticking high in the air. I was coming through a thick willow grove when I heard a single woof, as distinct as a word. I thought it might be a deer snorting, but then through the leaves I saw two brown shapes climbing a cottonwood tree. I pushed the willows aside just in time to see a big black bear go right up the trunk. The bear did not climb putting one foot here and one foot there; she shot up with her belly flat to the trunk, her four legs rowing in a blur and throwing of bark chips. She went up in a second, as if on rails. When she reached a fork in the tree, she leaned her back against one branch and put her feet on the other branch. I took a step closer, and she woofed again, at the cubs invisible above her, and I could hear them climb some more. She was by far the biggest thing I’d ever seen in a tree. I looked and blinked and looked and blinked. Her fur had whorls, and tufts, and smooth places, and it seemed to be wrist-deep. Mule deer are the color of pine trunks in winter light; elk have on their necks the dark brown of wet bark and on their sides the golden tint of sun on a bare hill. This bear’s fur was the smoky blue-black of night when it starts to fill a pine forest. Her snout moved back and forth in short arcs, and she watched me out of the corner of her eye.

That “I was coming through a thick willow grove when I heard a single woof, as distinct as a word” is terrific. The whole passage is inspired!

All three pieces are written in the first person, a point of view I relish immensely. All three are accounts of the writers’ personal experiences with bears. But Hoagland’s and McPhee’s pieces have a dimension that Frazier’s doesn’t; they each vividly portray a protagonist – Lynn Rogers in “Bears, Bears, Bears,” and Patricia McConnell in “A Text Book Place for Bears.” Many of Hoagland’s best paragraphs are descriptions of Rogers. For example:

As he sits in a brooding posture at the kitchen table, his body doesn’t move for long periods and he thinks aloud, not so much in actual words as with a slow series of ums and ahs that seem to convey the pacing of his thoughts. But he lectures nicely, full of his subject, and in the woods whatever is lummoxy drops away in that quickness, the dozen errands he’s running at once – searching for a plant whose leaves will match the unknown leaves he has been finding in a given bear’s scats, examining a local bear-rubbing tree for hairs left on the bark since his last check. If he’s lost in his jeep in the tangle of old logging roads, he gets a fix on the closest radio-collared bear and from that figures out where he is. If he’s near one of them and wants a glimpse, he lifts a handful of duff from the ground and lets it stream lightly down to test the wind before beginning his stalk. When he’s radio-tracking from the plane he rents, he watches his bears hunt frogs, or sees one surprise a wolf and pounce at it. If a bear in a thicket hasn’t moved since his previous fix and is close to a road or a house, he may ask the pilot to land, if they can, to see whether it has been shot. Then, on the ground again, suddenly he’ll climb an oak tree to taste the acorns on top, spurting up the branchless trunk without any spikes, his hands on one side pulling against his feet on the other. Lost in the yellow fall colors, munching bear food, he shouts happily from the tree, “What a job this is, huh?”


At first, in my time with him, it had seemed sadly chancy to me that he had been afforded so little official support for a project I knew to be first-rate. But soon such a sense evaporated; rather, how lucky it was that this late-blooming man, who creeps through the brush so consummately that he can eavesdrop on the grunting of bears as they breed, had discovered at last, after seven long years as a letter carrier in his hometown, what it was that he wanted to do! In his blue wool cap, with Santa Claus wrinkles around his eyes because of the polar weather he’s known, shambling, blundering, abstracted at times, he is an affecting figure, a big Viking first mate proud of the fact that the can heft a 240-pound bear alone. He kisses his wife as he starts out, one pocket full of his luncheon sandwiches, the other with hay-scented packets of scat he forgot to remove after yesterday’s trip (they smell pleasant enough, and he likes carrying them as boys like carrying snakes).

Of the many wonderful details in these three great pieces, that pocketful of “hay-scented packets of scat” is one of my favorites.

Which of these pieces has the most compelling storyline? That’s easy – McPhee’s “A Textbook Place for Bears.” Basically, it’s the story of a morning in the life of bear biologist Patricia McConnell. And what a morning! It begins at dawn, in the Great Valley of the Appalachians, when McConnell picks up McPhee in her truck and drives up Kittatinny Mountain to check on two bear snares she’d set. They find two black bears in them, one of them, as it turns out, is female – “the first female bear ever caught by the State of New Jersey.” McConnell decides she needs help. They head back down the mountain to the nearest telephone. At this point, McPhee introduces an additional narrative thread: “She mentioned en route that her eleven-year-old daughter was to appear in a gymnastics show later that morning and she was meant to be there.” Suddenly, time is of the essence. McConnell makes a number of calls, recruits some assistants, including her boss, Robert Lund. Then she and McPhee head back up the mountain. With Lund’s help, she anesthetizes the bears (“Within sixty seconds, the bear sat down. It breathed heavily, began to nod like a dinner guest, and in five or ten minutes was stretched out on its side in slumber”). The bears’ statistics are taken. They’re tagged, tattooed, and weighed. She wants to put a radio collar on the female bear, but she doesn’t have one with her. She departs the site to see if she can find one, leaving the bears in the care of Lund and several others. McPhee stays with the bears (“We sat quietly watching the two before us while the gentle patter of gypsy-moth caterpillars sounded like rain in the leaves above”). The female bear stirs, lifts her head, and sets it down again. Then she lifts her head again, and is suddenly up on her feet, moving away. McPhee writes,

The cuffs were still around her legs, and they hobbled her. She had them off before she had travelled thirty feet. She was wobbly, unsteady, clumsy, and fast. Fear had burned through the drug. She had got up and gone before Lund had time to inject her. She crashed down the mountain through the woods, he running after her with his hypodermic needle held forward like a baton.

The bear moves into the swamp, where she lays down, head out of the water. Then the male bear begins to move. In fear, two of the onlookers climb trees. McConnell returns with a radio collar. “What the hell is going on here?” she says. The male bear gets up and “weavingly, drunkenly” runs and falls downhill out of sight. McConnell fills a jab-stick syringe and carries it down the mountainside to Lund. The swamp is dense (“The vegetation seemed less woven than solid. A person six feet away could be invisible, let alone a bear”). McConnell, Lund, and another man, named Joe Garris, close in on the bear (“Lund advanced the jabstick, in the manner of a knitting needle, through the rhododendron”). Lund sticks the needle into the bear. Soon the bear is asleep. McConnell and Garris haul the bear to dry ground. “Garris leaned over, sank his fingers into the fur at the shoulder and the rump, and lifted the bear above his head like pressed weight. He lowered her to his shoulders, fireman’s carry, and walked up the mountain.” He puts the bear in the back of his pickup.

McPhee watches all this unfold. He’s there when the bears wake up and run away. He’s there in the swamp when the female bear is recaptured. He’s in the back of Garris’s truck with McConnell and the female bear as they make their way to the barrel-trap site. He’s there when the sleeping bear is put in the barrel trap, which will serve temporarily as a cage. Again, he’s with McConnell and the bear in the back of Garris’s pickup when it’s returned, with radio collar attached, to the place where it was snared.  And, in one of my favorite passages, he accompanies McConnell to her daughter’s gymnastics show:

From a town parking lot, we ran down the main street of Washington, up a long flight of wooden stairs, and into a loft above a shoe store, where an eleven-year-old girl in a black-and-ivory leotard was performing on a trampoline. Her mother’s jeans were still wet to the thighs and caked with swamp muck. She tried, impossibly, to conceal her appearance and to make herself evident, too. When the girl finished, her mother waved from the doorway and was acknowledged with a shy smile. Seated close to the walls were grandmothers and grandfathers, parents and siblings, under paper butterflies and fluorescent lights. For various gymnastic achievements, Dee Dee McConnell was awarded four stars.

Frazier’s “Bear News” doesn’t have as strong a narrative arc as McPhee’s “A Textbook Place for Bears.” Frazier is more an observer than a dramatist. The action of his piece is in the looking. He’s a superb noticer. Here, for example, is his description of his first bear encounter:

The first time I ever saw a bear in the wild, I was on my way back from fishing in a beaver meadow on state land next to the Flathead National Forest, about ten miles from the town of Bigfork, Montana. I was coming around a bend on an overgrown logging road when I saw up ahead a large black animal see me and duck into some thimbleberry bushes. I knew it was a bear. I didn’t move and he didn’t move for maybe three minutes. There was no likely tree nearby for me to climb. Then the bear hopped out of the bushes, took a look at me over his shoulder, and galloped like crazy down the trail. As he ran, his hind feet seemed to reach higher than his head. He splashed water up and made the rocks clack as he crossed a little creek, and then he went into the brush on the other side with a racket that sounded like a car crashing through there.

That “As he ran, his hind feet seemed to reach higher than his head” is very fine. The whole passage is a model of how prose is made vivid by the use of words that evoke images and sensations.

Hoagland is rougher, blunter, more primitive than Frazier and McPhee. He’s like a Henry Miller of nature. With him, you don’t get the feeling that everything has been pre-planned and structured the way it is in, say, McPhee’s work. He’s also deeper than McPhee and Frazier. He’s the only one of the three that wonders why he’s so infatuated with bears. He writes, “Rooting around on riverbanks and mountain slopes, we may be looking for that missing piece, or love, religion and the rest of it – whatever is missing in us – just as we so often are doing in the digging and rooting of sex.”

All three pieces brim with interesting bear facts. For example:

When a bear goes at a wooden beehive, it places the hive between its legs and cracks it open like a coconut. [“A Textbook Place for Bears”]

Grizzlies have dish-shaped faces, and humps on their shoulders; blacks have longer faces, and no humps. [“Bear News”]

Bears don’t mature sexually until they are four, which, combined with the circumstance that the sows only breed every other year, and plenty of eligible sows not even then, gives them one of the lowest reproductive capabilities of any animal. [“Bears, Bears, Bears”]

A bear track has an ovoid, palm-shaped print at the center and, above that, five toe prints, with a pointy hole made by the claw above each toe. [“Bear News”]

When a bear stops eating and its intestines are empty, a seal of licked fur, pine needles and congealed digestive juices forms across the anus, putting a period to the year. [“Bears, Bears, Bears”]

Which of these three magnificent bear pieces is my favorite? Ah, that’s an agonizing question! After long consideration, I confess I can’t choose. Each, in its own way, is a perfect evocation of bearness – real as that “single woof, as distinct as a word.”  

Thursday, August 10, 2017

August 7 & 14, 2017 Issue

For me, the key ingredient of great writing is specificity. William Strunk, in his The Elements of Style (1959), wrote,

If those who have studied the art of writing, are in accord on one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers – Homer, Dante, Shakespeare – are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.

“Specificity” is used in this week’s New Yorker at least twice: Richard Brody’ “Movies: Girls Trip (“The view of middle-class African-American women’s lives behind closed doors, despite its antic exaggeration, has a lived-in specificity”); and Judith Thurman’s “World of Interiors” (“In Cusk’s recent novels, it isn’t the drama of the events but their specificity that keeps you riveted”). And it’s evinced in at least three inspired passages:

When the unruly menswear label Hood by Air staged its 2014 fall runway show, it tapped this subversive d.j. to create the score. The resulting twenty-four-minute composition, “10,000 Screaming Faggots,” wove together soaring Beyoncé samples and poetry by Juliana Huxtable, all laid under silver-bullet drums and synths that clawed at warehouse walls. [“Night Life: Total Freedom”]

A woman with a glittery backpack ordered a Woolynesia, tropical punch with gin, lime, chili, cinnamon, and puréed stone fruits, served in a woolly-mammoth-shaped mug. Paintings, prints, and statuary of the extinct beast, a lugubrious mascot, lurk everywhere you look. The woman took a sip, smiled at her man-bunned companion, and said, as far as an amateur lip-reader could tell, either “I love you” or “Elephant juice. [Carolyn Kormann, “Bar Tab:The Wooly Public”]

On exhibit were a palm-leaf book the size of a sheaf of paint samples, a big ball of raw rubber from a rubber tree (one of Sri Lanka’s resources), boxes of Ceylon tea (“We have the best, best tea”), a large stone grinder for spices (“Sri Lankan women were strong, back in the day”), her grandmother’s sitar, a replica of a seated Buddha considered to be the fifth-greatest statue in the world, and a statue of the fasting Buddha (“For six years, he ate no food and never opened his eyes”) that was made of welded iron. [Ian Frazier, “Extra Credit”]

The opposite of “specific” is “generic.” Dan Chiasson’s “Paper Trail” (in this week’s issue), a review of Susan Howe’s new poetry collection, Debths, recalled, for me, the concluding essay in his One Kind of Everything (2007), in which he says of the lines in a passage from Howe’s Hinge Picture,

Their indeterminancy, their conscious evasion of affect and style as those words are usually understood, their elevation of spatial constraints over formal ones, their rejection of the personal dimension, make them generic, and deliberately so.

To me, this is damning. But Chiasson expresses it quite neutrally. He doesn’t dismiss Howe’s poetry. He seems to value it. In “Paper Trail,” he writes,

The result, “Hinge Picture” (1974), translated to the page Howe’s visual installations, in which isolated phrases had been offset by the stark white of a gallery wall: the gutter, a unique feature of books, divided the visual “picture” into distinct zones. The friend had inadvertently launched one of the great careers in recent American poetry. All of Howe’s volumes since have tested the limits of the printed page; in doing so, they reaffirm the page itself as a necessary check on—and an expressive feature of—her imagination.

In “Paper Trail,” Chiasson doesn’t use “generic” to describe Howe’s poems. Instead, he concentrates on their look, the way they “test the limits of the printed page.” By treating Howe’s poems as “visual installations,” he shows their aesthetic specificity. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Cheever's Exhilarating, Self-excoriating, Disheveling Journals

Parul Sehgal, in her wonderful “Remains of the Day” (The New York Times Sunday Book Review, July 30, 2017), a review of Christa Wolf’s diary One Day a Year: 2001-2011, writes,

For Wolf, time is fugitive (“History often seems to me like a funnel, down which our lives swirl, never to be seen again”), but her book is a sieve, a way to snare what can be caught, those strings of seeming banalities — that gherkin, an odd detail from a dream, how her husband learns to roll up her surgical stockings for her when she falls asleep in front of the television, that she suddenly needs surgical stockings in the first place.

I like Sehgal’s image of Wolf’s diary as a sieve, “a way to snare what can be caught.” Diary-writing is an undervalued literary form. Sehgal is one of the few critics who appreciate it. A few years ago, she wrote a memorable piece on The Journals of John Cheever (1991), calling it a “disheveling, debauching book,” “even a dangerous book: it invites you to contemplate — even embrace — your corruption” (“A Year in Reading,” The Millions, December 16, 2011). She says,

I love this Cheever, so lust-worn, fatigued, wise. The Cheever who observes, “I prayed for some degree of sexual continence, although the very nature of sexuality is incontinence.” But I love him more when he’s cross, crass, and ornery. When he’s querulous and moaning for “a more muscular vocabulary,” his face on a postage stamp, a more reliable erection. When he carps about his contemporaries (Calvino: “cute,” Nabokov: “all those sugared violets”). But Cheever the ecstatic, who merges with the mountain air and streams, who finds in writing and sex a bridge between the sacred and the profane and is as spontaneous and easy as a child — he is indispensable.

Geoff Dyer, in his “John Cheever: The Journals” (included in his excellent 2011 essay collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition), suggests that The Journals of John Cheever “represents Cheever’s greatest achievement, his principal claim to literary survival.” I agree. Excerpts from Cheever’s journals appeared in The New Yorker (“From the Late Forties and Fifties,” August 6 & 13, 1990; “From the Sixties,” January 21 & 28, 1991; “From the Seventies and Early Eighties,” August 12 & 19, 1991). They’re among the magazine’s most inspired writings. Someday, I’ll post a more detailed appreciation of them.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Fact v. Post-Fact

Photo by Victor J. Blue

Stephen Marche, in his “David Shields’s Reality Hunger in the Age of Trump; or, How to Write Now” (Los Angeles Review of Books, August 5, 2017), claims, “Nobody believes that journalists are communicating reality.” What? Nobody believes Luke Mogelson, in his extraordinary “The Avengers of Mosul” (The New Yorker, February 6, 2017), is communicating the reality of war against ISIS? Nobody believes Ben Taub, in his brilliant “We Have No Choice” (The New Yorker, April 10, 2017), is communicating the reality of the African refugee crisis? Nobody believes Danielle Allen, in her searing “American Inferno” (The New Yorker, July 24, 2017), is communicating the reality of her fifteen-year-old cousin’s descent into crime, prison, and eventual death? What are these pieces – imitations of reality? No, they’re the thing itself – life as it actually is. Marche is right to complain about writers’ “willingness to blur fact and fiction.” He calls it “profoundly willfully stupid.” But he fails to allow for the abundance of great factual reporting still being written today. His rant against “post-fact” writing is too sweeping. 

Credit: The above photo by Victor J. Blue is from Luke Mogelson’s “The Avengers of Mosul” (The New Yorker, February 6, 2017).       

Thursday, August 3, 2017

July 31, 2017 Issue

Notes on this week’s issue:

1. Ben Taub, in his superb “We Have No Choice” (The New Yorker, April 10, 2017), followed the ordeal of a Nigerian teen-ager trying to reach Europe via a vast people-smuggling network of forced labor and sex work. It ended in a migrant camp on the outskirts of Messina, Sicily. Now, in “The Wrong Man,” Taub continues his brilliant reporting on the refugee crisis, this time focusing on the overzealous prosecution of an Eritrean man whom Sicilian prosecutors wrongly believe to be a kingpin of East African human smuggling. The piece takes us deep inside the corrupt Sicilian justice system, showing prosecutors twisting and misinterpreting the evidence. Taub is a digger; he writes the kind of first-person experiential journalism I relish (e.g., “One afternoon in Palermo, I had lunch with Francesco Viviano, a sixty-eight-year-old Sicilian investigative reporter who says that he has been wiretapped, searched, or interrogated by the authorities ‘eighty or ninety times’ ”). “We Have No Choice” is his masterpiece; “The Wrong Man” is a close second.

2. I’m indebted to Louis Menand for pointing out, in his “The Defense of Poetry,” that Michael Robbins’s new book, Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music, contains an “admiring chapter” on Pauline Kael. Kael’s writing is, for me, a touchstone. After I read what Robbins has to say about her, I’ll post my response here.

3. My favorite sentence in this week’s issue is Peter Schjeldahl’s “Cradled in a hammock the other day, I couldn’t imagine anywhere in the world I would rather be, tracking subtle variations in the changing slides: for example, a matchbook first closed, then open, then burning, then, finally, burned” (“Full Immersion”).