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.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Best of 2014

Well, the end of the year approaches. Time now to compile my “Best of 2014” list. I know there are skeptics who consider such lists pointless. But I enjoy the process. It’s a way of deliciously prolonging my 2014 New Yorker reading experience.

Here then is a selection of my favorite 2014 New Yorker pieces (with a choice sliver from each in parenthesis):

Talk Stories

1. Sophie Brickman, "Say Cheese," January 6, 2014 (“He was trying to capture the perfect shot of a pumpkin muffin with his Nokia phone”)

2. Nick Paumgarten, "Reunion," February 3, 2014 (“His upper lip was mottled, like a bruised fruit – a life in brass”)

3. Lizzie Widdicombe, "Table Talk," March 17, 2014 (“ ‘If I talk, you gotta drink the vodka’ ”)

4. Ian Frazier, "Bus Ride," April 14, 2014 (“To ride the B-46 north on Utica Avenue is to feel the city accumulate and intensify on both sides”)

5. Ian Frazier, "Do Not Cross," June 2, 2014 (“but give these objects a few minutes of contemplation and a minor visitation of the sublime may occur”)

6. Mark Singer, "Risky Business," July 21, 2014 (“ ‘As soon as they started moving the bulls out of the pens into the bucking chutes, I could see Bushwacker go from docile to this’ – he pantomimed a bull pawing the ground – ‘and I thought, This bull knows’ ”)

7. Mark Singer, "Meritorious," August 11 & 18, 2014 (“Afterward, Angell says softly, ‘Jim Leyland coming by. That’s really something.’ ”)

8. Tad Friend, "Rembrandt Lighting," November 10, 2014 (Gilroy is “as thin and pale as dental floss”)

9. Ian Parker, "Oldies But Goodies," November 10, 2014 (“As Thiebaud put it, there are still mornings that start with the thought: This morning, I’d like to paint a pie”)

10. Oliver Sacks, "Night of the Ginkgo," November 24, 2014 (“tough, heavy Mesozoic leaves such as the dinosaurs ate”)


1. Tad Friend, "Thicker Than Water," February 10, 2014 (“They hung there for five seconds – their port gunwale tilting overhead, the Yamaha outboard whirring in the air – as if time were taking a breath”)

2. Raffi Khatchadourian, "A Star in a Bottle," March 3, 2014 (“I put on goggles and looked at the cylindrical reactor core, its dense crush of parts, rendered in bright colors, seeming to float in a vast gray horizonless space”)

3. Peter Hessler, "Revolution On Trial," March 10, 2014 (“I was sitting next to the cage, and after a while Mohamed el-Beltagy, one of the accused, began gesturing to me through the bars”)

4. Nick Paumgarten, "Berlin Nights," March 24, 2014 (“The music was churning, hypnotic, almost psychedelic, and I abandoned myself to it”)

5. Ian Frazier, "Blue Bloods," April 14, 2014 (“throngs of stranded horseshoe crabs lying in the interstices among the rocks”)

6. Burkhard Bilger, In Deep," April 21, 2014 (“Now he stood at the shore of a small, dark pool under a dome of sulfurous flowstone”)

7. Lizzie Widdicombe, "The End of Food," May 12, 2014 (“With a bottle of Soylent on your desk, time stretches before you, featureless and a little sad”)

8. Dana Goodyear, "Paper Palaces," August 11 & 18, 2014 (“He looks clicked together, like a Lego figurine”)

9. Richard Preston, "The Ebola Wars," October 27, 2014 (“By looking at a few genomes of Ebola, the scientists hoped to grasp an image of the whole virus, which could be conceived of as a life-form visible in four dimensions, as vast amounts of code flowing through time and space”)

10. Ben McGrath, "The Ice Breaker," December 15, 2014 (“Slow it down now, and watch carefully: Subban’s skate blades reëstablish contact with the ice a second before he one-times a laser beam into the upper right corner”)


1. Peter Schjeldahl, "The Outlaw," February 3, 2014 (“But there’s no gainsaying a splendor as berserk as that of a Hieronymus Bosch painting”)

2. Louis Menand, "Imitation of Life," April 28, 2014 (“Updike is a highly literate illumination of a supremely literate human being”)

3. James Wood, "The World As We Know It," May 19, 2014 (“as in Naipaul’s work, the pages seem scarred with remembered wounds”)

4. Dan Chiasson, "Mother Tongue," June 2, 2014 (“the book’s strong effect of having been written, unlike most prior poetry about having kids, under the conditions it describes”)

5. Alex Ross, "Blockbuster," June 23, 2014 (“Plaintive strands of near-tonal melody floated in an eerie, wide-open space defined at its edges by groaning bass timbres, wayward piano figures, and the rustlings of maracas, vibraslap, snare drum, and other percussion. It felt like an encampment encircled by watchful eyes”)

6. Anthony Lane, "Balancing Acts," July 21, 2014 (“We happen upon ourselves when nothing much happens to us, and we are transformed in the process; that is why the Mason with the earring from whom we take our leave, on his first, blissed-out day of college, both is and is not the affable imp of seven, or the mumbler who bumped his way through puberty, and that twin sense of continuity and interruption—of life itself as tracking shot and jump cut—applies to everyone. Just like the final fade.”)

7. James Wood, "Away Thinking About Things," August 25, 2014 (“His experiments in vernacular Scots push and twist the language, sometimes to breaking points”)

8. Alex Ross, "Under the Stars," August 25, 2014 (“One great pleasure of the Bowl is the sense of a spell being cast, and it happened here: in the third movement of the Mahler, when a ghostly klezmer band files by, seven thousand leaned in, their red wine and grilled chicken neglected, their motionless heads etched by the light pouring off the stage”)

9. David Denby, "Lasting Impressions," September 1, 2014 (“But the ‘plot’ is no more than the men’s thorny emotional connection and their mutual fixation on death”)

10. James Wood, "Fly Away," December 8, 2014 (“Within a paragraph or two, the reader senses an attentive purity in the narrator’s prose. She seems alert to everything”)

Thank you New Yorker for another great year of blissful reading.

Postscript: Today (January 3, 2015), I amended the above list, deleting Dana Goodyear’s “Élite Meat,” and inserting her "Paper Palaces." Goodyear had a great 2014, producing four wonderful pieces, all of which could’ve made my list. I decided to go with one. I’ve finally settled on “Paper Palaces” as my favorite.

Credit: The above artwork is by Jacob Escobedo; it appears in the March 3, 2014 New Yorker as an illustration for Raffi Khatchadourian’s “A Star in a Bottle.”

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