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.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Gone to Scotland

Forth & Clyde Canal

Tomorrow, I depart for Scotland to do some cycling. I’m taking John McPhee’s The Crofter and the Laird (1970) with me. It originally appeared in The New Yorker (December 6 & 13, 1969). I’ll post my review when I return, May 25, 2017.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

May 1, 2017, Issue

Notes on this week’s issue:

1. I enjoy Mark Ulriksen’s vivid baseball covers immensely. This week’s issue features a dandy. Titled “Strike Zone,” it’s a close-up of a scene at home plate: a wide-open-mouthed umpire is calling a strike; a wide-open-mouthed Red Sox batter is expressing dismay; and a wide-open-mouthed Yankee catcher, holding the ball in his mitt, looks ecstatic.

2. “Goings On About Town: Art” says of Maureen Gallace’s paintings, “Like the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, her work generates power from reticence.” It’s an interesting observation. But Bishop also had a keen eye for detail. As Bonnie Costello says in Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery (1991), “Her eye delights in the particular.” The same can’t be said for Gallace’s paintings. They efface detail. In this regard, the analogy with Bishop’s poems seems tenuous.

Maureen Gallace, "Summer House / Dunes" (2009)

3. “Goings On About Town: Night Life” says of Alan Broadbent,

He’s played the role of the best man for years now, both as the pianist for Quartet West—the celebrated ensemble led by the late, great bassist Charlie Haden—and as an A-list studio arranger and conductor. But Broadbent also deserves considerable attention for his work as a probing stylist who deftly balances the rhapsodic and the propulsive.

I agree. Listen to him play George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” on his 2005 album ’Round Midnight. It’s the most intense, swinging, gorgeous rendition of that great song you’ll ever hear.

4. Wei Tchow’s piece on Diamond Reef is classic “Bar Tab,” right up there with Nicolas Niarchos’s “Dutch Kills.” Both pieces mention the Penicillin (Scotch, lemon, honey, ginger), my favorite cocktail. Tchow refers to a witty Diamond Reef variation – the Penichillin: “Diamond Reef’s frozen take (the Penichillin) employs an age-old principle: anything is more fun when tossed into a slushy machine.”

Friday, April 28, 2017

April 24, 2017, Issue

Last year’s Food & Travel Issue, containing four brilliant pieces (Laura Collins’s “Come to the Fair,” Dana Goodyear’s Mezcal Sunrise,” Carolyn Kormann’s “The Tasting Menu Initiative,” and Dexter Filkins’s “The End of Ice”), was my pick for Best Issue of the Year (see here). It’s a tough act to follow. This year’s Food & Travel Issue suffers in comparison. It lacks the kind of pungent, textured specificity I associate with great food and travel writing. Rachel Monroe’s “#Vanlife” isn’t bad, if you relish sentences like “King checked Instagram on her phone; her most recent post, a shot of a storm building over the Pacific, had been something of an aesthetic departure—most Where’s My Office Now images include King, the van, or Penny; the most popular tend to include all three—and it was underperforming.” But I don't. I couldn’t be done with it fast enough. The same goes for Lauren Collins’s “Secrets in the Sauce,” in which the sentence “Barbecue might be America’s most political food” stopped me cold; I didn’t read another line. I skimmed Daniel Mendelsohn’s “An Odyssey,” an account of a trip he and his father took on a cruise ship, retracing Odysseus’ journey. This may strike some as interesting; it didn’t do anything for me. Politics, social media, and patriarchal Greek poetry make a strange and unappealing hash.

Speaking of hash, care for a pot brownie? No, not really, but I read Lizzie Widdicombe’s “High Cuisine” anyway, because … well, because it’s by Lizzie Widdicombe, writer of, among other piquant pieces, the superb “The Bad-Boy Brand” (April 8, 2013). “High Cuisine” contains at least two inspired sentences:

A team from Weedmaps, a “Yelp for pot” based in Irvine, California, was visiting the facility, and a photographer had set up a light box, which he was using to take pictures of pot cookies.

I nibbled a small pie: it tasted like pumpkin, but with a weedy aftertaste, which brought back Proustian memories of high school.

For me, the best food writing in this otherwise dismal Food & Travel Issue is found in Shauna Lyon’s “Tables For Two: King” and Talia Lavin’s “Bar Tab: The Binc.” Lyon’s piece offers pure, sensuous bliss:

A spectacular, bracing salad served at the beginning of March included a pink radicchio that one guest had recently spied in the produce section of Eataly, and a mysterious soft-crunchy, hollow stalk, which turned out to be the heart of a puntarelle, whose chickory-like leaves were more easily identified. The coniglio alla cacciatora, or hunter’s rabbit, came as nubs of tender, gamey meat on a bed of polenta larded with cheese and butter, and the onglet appeared as great red slices of hanger steak, alongside al-dente chickpeas. For dessert, a Pernod semifreddo in a dainty coupe was an inspired touch.

Lavin’s “The Binc” shows a deep pleasure taken in description:

The interior is suffused with a warm, orangey glow, and, though it just celebrated its one-year anniversary, it feels curiously unfocussed in time. There is a faded portrait of a mustachioed man from an indeterminate era, and antique marionettes of soldiers hanging on a cloudy, wall-size mirror; the rest-room signs are done in careful Art Deco lettering. On a recent Saturday night, the bar top was crowded with rows of multicolored tinctures, like cardamom bitters and sweet-potato shrub, which added complexity to cocktails such as the Whitaker (vodka, ginger) and the Fall of Roebling (tequila, habanero). Twelve barflies gave the room a pleasantly full, but not overcrowded, air.

I have a suggestion for next year’s Food & Travel Issue – turn it over to the “Tables For Two” and “Bar Tab” crew, let them write it.

Friday, April 21, 2017

April 17, 2017, Issue

I see in the “Briefly Noted” review of Richard Holmes’s new book, The Long Pursuit, in this week’s issue, that Holmes “swears by what he calls the ‘Footsteps principle,’ which entails going everywhere that ‘the subject had ever lived or worked, or travelled or dreamed.’ ” Reading this, I recalled Geoff Dyer, in Granta’s recent “Journeys” issue, describing travel writing that follows “in the footsteps of …” as “the literary equivalent of package tours in which destination and experience are so thoroughly predetermined that one is reluctant to make a booking.” I’m curious what Dyer would make of Holmes’s “Footsteps principle.” It seems to me that The Long Pursuit is worthy of more than just a “Briefly Noted” review. I wish The New Yorker would ask Dyer to review it. He’s a superb critic. He’d be an excellent sub for James Wood.

Other notes on this week’s issue:

1. The Maureen Gallace painting, “Sandy Road” (2003), in “Goings On About Town,” brought to mind Peter Schjeldahl’s wonderful “America at the Edges” (The New Yorker, October 19, 2015), in which he describes Gallace’s art:

Gallace’s means are narrow: she employs uniformly quick, daubed brushwork and colors kept to a mid-range of tones that makes whites jump out. Her end is description, not of how things look but of how they seem. What is a breaking ocean wave like? Gallace answers with stabs of creamy off-white and gray-blue shadow. It’s her best guess, as is the specific blue of the sky on the given day. In one picture, single blue strokes approximate tidal pools. Elsewhere, a slight touch of green in the sea hints at fathomless deeps. Qualities of light, too, feel gamely speculative. (To me, they tend to evoke morning hours, when the visible world, well rested, has something almost eager about it.) The houses often lack doors and windows. Gallace is plainly shy of anyone or anything that might even seem to return her gaze. She conveys a vulnerable aloneness wholly given over to absorption in appearances. Looking at the paintings, I feel that I am always just beginning to look.

2. The William Mebane photograph, illustrating Jiayang Fan’s delectable “Tables For Two: Tim Ho Wan,” is one of his finest. I’m a Mebane fan. His photo for Silvia Killingsworth’s “Tables For Two: Babu Ji” was #6 on my “Best of 2016: Photos.” His “Tim Ho Van” is sure to be a candidate for “Best of 2017.”

3. I find “Bar Tab” drink descriptions irresistible. There’s a dandy in David Kortava’s “Bar Tab: Skinny Dennis”:  “If you are going to stay and drink, Willie’s Frozen Coffee—a decadent caffeine-and-whiskey sludge named for Willie Nelson—is a must.”

Postscript: I want to add that Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985) is, for me, a touchstone, particularly the first section, titled “1964: Travels,” in which he tells how his youthful journeys through the Cévennes, following the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson, led him towards biography.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Nabokov-Wilson Feud

Vladimir Nabokov (Photo by Irving Penn)
Gary Saul Morson, in his “Will We Ever Pin Down Pushkin?” (The New York Review of Books, March 23, 2017), calls the battle between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson over Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin “one of the great quarrels of American literary history.” Morson appears to side with Wilson, opining, “Wilson’s criticisms were mostly on target.” Reading Morson’s piece, I recalled John Updike’s great “The Cuckoo and the Rooster” (The New Yorker, June 11, 1979), a review of The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, in which Updike held that Wilson had “a good eye for what was defective or lop-sided in Nabokov, but something of a tin ear for the unique music this ‘inescapably’ artistic man could strike from anything.” Updike wrote, “Without minimizing the kindnesses and excitements that Wilson contributes, this reviewer found Nabokov’s letters the more alive and giving, certainly the more poetic and dense.” I realize that Morson, in his piece, is dealing with Nabokov’s translation, not his letters. Nevertheless, in considering the validity of Morson’s views (e.g., “Nabokov deliberately made his translation unreadable”), I suggest that Updike’s point about “the unique music this ‘inescapably’ artistic man could strike from anything” should be kept in mind. It's possible Morson's ear is as tinny as Wilson's. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

My Boarding-House "New Yorker"

I associate this particular New Yorker with a room I briefly rented in a boarding house on Dorchester Street, Charlottetown – my first Prince Edward Island residence. I’d brought the magazine with me from my parents’ house in Halifax, where I’d been living while I attended Dalhousie Law School. It was my first summer on the Island. I was articling with a Charlottetown law firm. In my memory the room’s wallpaper is like the wallpaper in the magazine’s Robert Weber cover. But I’m sure that can’t be right. What is true, I’m certain, is the feeling of homelessness I experienced lying in a strange bed, in an unfamiliar house, in a city and province that were totally unknown to me. But, by immersing myself in The New Yorker, I found I could forget all that. One piece in that August 1, 1977, issue transfixed me – Howard Moss’s “Great Themes, Grand Connections,” a review of Robert Liddell’s biography Cavafy. It contains this memorable line:

Secrets contain within themselves a hidden spring – the compulsion to reveal them – and this compulsion has something in it of the quality of history: the story not yet revealed, the truth under the appearance of it, the onion skin of façade endlessly waiting to be peeled away.

I’m not sure I agree. For me, meaning is found on the surface, hiding in plain sight like the purloined letter in Poe’s story. But Moss’s notion that “secrets contain within themselves a hidden spring – the compulsion to reveal them” is intriguing. Forty years after I first read it, in my boarding-house room on Dorchester Street, I’m still pondering it.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

April 10, 2017, Issue

Two excellent pieces in this week’s issue are Ben Taub’s “We Have No Choice” and Calvin Tomkins’s “Troubling Pictures.” Taub reports the desperate six-month journey of a Nigerian teenager named Blessing, travelling a perilous migration trade route from her home in Benin City to Agadez, on the edge of the Sahara Desert, to Tripoli, and then by dinghy out into the Mediterranean, where she’s eventually picked up by a rescue boat and taken to Messina, on the eastern coast of Sicily.

The piece brilliantly conveys a raw intimacy with Blessing’s circumstances, much of it based on first-hand observation. Taub visits Benin City and searches for Blessing’s mother, Doris:

One day, I went to the Uwelu spare-parts market, where adolescent boys lift car engines into wheelbarrows, and bare-chested venders haggle over parts salvaged from foreign scrap yards. A dirt path at the western end of the market leads to a shack where I saw a middle-aged woman dressed in purple selling chips, candy, soda, and beer. I asked if she was Blessing’s mother, Doris. She nodded and laughed, then started to cry.

He goes to Agadez and reports on the “connection houses,” migrant ghettos, and Nigerian brothels. He attends a meeting of a dozen of the biggest human smugglers in the Sahara – “half were Tuareg, half Toubou, and all had fought in recent rebellions.” He describes Blessing’s migration across the Ténéré, an expanse of sand roughly the size of California (“Their journey through the desert had been a blur of waiting, heat, thirst, discomfort, beatings, dead bodies, and fear”). He reports her fate in Brak (“One day in Brak, the madam sold Blessing and Faith to the owner of a connection house, to work as a prostitute”). He describes her rescue at sea (“Her feet were pruning; they had been soaking for hours in a puddle at the bottom of the dinghy”). He visits her at Palanebiolo, the makeshift migrants’ camp outside Messina (“We headed back up the hill, to Palanebiolo. Blessing moved with slow, labored steps. Her joints ached and were still swollen from her time in detention in Libya”). He visits Ballarò, an old neighborhood of Palermo, center of the Nigerian sex trade in Sicily:

One night in Ballarò, I met with a former drug dealer from Mali at an outdoor bar that smelled like sweat, weed, and vomit. Sex workers walked past in red fish-nets and six-inch stilettos. On the corner, two men grilled meat over a trash fire. Italians and Africans exchanged cash and drugs, unbothered by the presence of witnesses. “This is the power of the Nigerian mafia,” the Malian said. “It gives work to those people who don’t have papers.”

“We Have No Choice” has an inspired structure. It begins in medias res with the loading and launching of the tightly packed dinghy carrying a hundred and fifty migrants, including Blessing. It then expands its scope to report on the network of sex work that girls like Blessing, migrating from Benin City, get caught in. Taub was on the Médecins Sans Frontière boat that rescued Blessing. He appears to have listened to her story, retraced her steps from Benin City to Messina, and then woven her experiences with his own personal observations. It’s Taub’s first-person perspective that, for me, gives his piece its awesome power and authenticity.

Tomkins’s “Troubling Pictures” is also exhilaratingly written in the “I.” It’s about Dana Schutz’s paintings, particularly her controversial Emmett Till painting, “Open Casket,” currently on view at the Whitney Biennial. I enjoyed this piece for its vivid descriptions of Schutz’s studio. For example:

Large and medium-sized canvases in varying stages of completion covered most of the wall space in the studio, a long, windowless room that was once an auto-body shop, and the floor was a palimpsest of rags, used paper palettes, brushes, metal tubs filled with defunct tubes of Old Holland oil paint, colored pencils and broken charcoal sticks, cans of solvent, spavined art books, pages torn from magazines, bundled work clothes stiff with paint, paper towels, a prelapsarian boom box, empty Roach Motel cartons, and other debris.

And this delightful bit:

When I went back again a few days later, the studio floor was littered with discarded paintbrushes, dozens of them, some still oozing paint—I got bright orange on one of my shoes.

Tomkins’s “I” is much more prominent now than it used to be back in his The Bride and the Bachelor days. His recent pieces are more journal-like – records of his personal art world experiences. I enjoy them immensely.