Friday, April 20, 2012
April 16, 2012 Issue
There are four items in this week’s issue that I want to briefly comment on: Julia Ioffe’s “The Borscht Belt,” Basharat Peer’s “Modern Mecca,” Lauren Collins’s “The British Invasion,” and David Wagoner’s “On the Road to Damascus.”
Julia Ioffe’s “The Borscht Belt”
It takes a while for new New Yorker writers to impinge on my consciousness. Even though Julia Ioffe has been contributing to the magazine for a couple of years, “The Borscht Belt” is the first piece by her that I’ve read closely from beginning to end. This article attracted me because it’s about one of my favorite subjects – food. I enjoyed it, particularly the closely observed details about the Golden Rus chefs’ use of a pech, a traditional Russian brick oven (“Still, the oven’s three little compartments provided enough room for frequent rotation of pans and traditional cast-iron pots – fat-bellied, with narrow bottoms – and its warm roof, about a foot below the kitchen’s ceiling, became a favorite for the three young chefs in the kitchen”) and the wonderful description of Syrnikov’s troubles making samogon (Russian moonshine) while being filmed by a Russian television crew. I especially like the subjective note on which this passage concludes: “In the end, Syrnikov made around two litres of samogon, and we drank it all that night. They say that unlike vodka, samogon doesn’t give you a headache the next morning. It’s not true.” I wish “The Borscht Belt” contained more subjectivity. I craved some hint of Ioffe’s presence in the Golden Rus kitchen and during the banquet. I was pleased when, near the end of the piece, she briefly appears, commenting, “The vatrushka, thick with sweetened farmer’s cheese, was the best I’d ever eaten.”
Basharat Peer’s “Modern Mecca”
Curiously, I felt very close to the style of this piece. I say “curiously” because the subject matter – Islamic religion, pilgrimage to Mecca, rituals of the hajj, etc. – is not my cup of tea. But I found Peer’s style – his glorious subjectivity (e.g., “After the final lap, I retreated to the taps, where a Pakistani man passed around recyclable cups of Zamzam water to fellow-pilgrims”), his superb details (“Pilgrims raised smart phones above their heads to record the moment”), and his preference for “flat” description (i.e., plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity) – to be immensely attractive. I see Peer has written a book, Curfewed Night. I think I’ll check it out.
Lauren Collins’s “The British Invasion”
I know I’ve just finished extolling the virtues of plain, simple, orderly, sincere writing. But I also have a love for wild, juicy, labyrinthine sentences, too. Lauren Collins’s “The British Invasion” contains a beauty:
They had been cautioned about nudity (“We hope you have an incredible, stupendous, pant-wettingly, unforgettable week,” but “for heaven’s sake KEEP YOUR CLOTHES ON MAN!!” read a brochure), and about body paint (“The damage caused by body paint numbers into tens of thousands of euros every year”), but the twenty buses – charabancs for social networkers – disgorged swaying centurions, singing pirates, men wearing drinking helmets, men not wearing shirts, a girl with a blow-up doll slung over her shoulder, and a guy wearing something that looked like a diaper.
That “incredible, stupendous, pant-wettingly, unforgettable week” quote is inspired! So is “charabancs for social networkers.” The whole construction is a miniature masterpiece of combinational and syntactical wizardry.
David Wagoner’s “On the Road to Damascus”
Reading David Wagoner’s “On the Road to Damascus” in this week’s issue was like encountering an old friend. His “The Death of a Cranefly” (The New Yorker, October 13, 1980) is one of my all-time favorite New Yorker poems. “On the Road to Damascus” is a different kind of poem; it has a political feel that doesn’t appeal to me. However, the line about the “windowless, riddled, wind-scarred storage sheds” is very fine and shows the master hasn’t lost his touch.