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 Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. 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 27, 2011

August 29, 2011 Issue

Last night I perused this week’s issue of the magazine. I found myself resisting its contents. Dogs, judges, Charles Dickens, the Middle East – they’re just not my cup of tea. But when I woke up this morning, I found myself thinking about those Ramadan treats (“fruit juice and crisp deep-fried pancakes drizzled with grape syrup”) that Wendell Steavenson mentions in her “Roads To Freedom.” So I took a second look at Steavenson’s article. It is a terrific piece of writing. I like its subjectivity. I delight in reading sentences like these:

I arrived in Damascus on a Friday at the end of July, a few days before the start of Ramadan, and five months into a grimly repetitive series of protests and crackdowns in towns and cities across Syria.

I walked through the Old City – the Christian quarter and the Shia quarter, the Sufi mosques and the souks of Sunni merchants, the labyrinthine passages and hidden courtyards.

Late one evening, I went with a friend to see a well-known artist named Youssef Abdelke. We met him in his studio, and he ushered us into a tranquil, whitewashed courtyard paved with geometric tiles. He keeps pigeons, and they flapped and cooed, and little bells on their feet rang as they walked.

One lunchtime, I drank whiskey with an acquaintance who had hoped that Bashar would be given the opportunity to reform.

I like the way Steavenson describes Syrian reality as it comes to her. Yes, she has a nose for politics, violence, and the despicable tactics of the Assad regime. But she also takes time to give Damascan daily life its due. Soup, traffic, taxis, whiskey, lunch – these things are, to me, every bit as significant as, say, protests, demonstrations, and crackdowns. Such mundane details are the stuff of life. By including them in her piece, Steavenson humanizes what has heretofore been for me a very forbidding, baffling Other.

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