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 Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear 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.

Monday, December 8, 2014

December 1, 2014 Issue

Recently, I’ve read some amazing New Yorker medical pieces – Jerome Groopman’s “Print Thyself” and “The Transformation,” Richard Preston’s “The Ebola Wars” – but Emily Eakin’s “The Excrement Experiment,” in this week’s issue, is one of the damnedest things I’ve ever read. It’s about treating disease with fecal microbiota transplants (FMT). It’s the type of subject that’s so novel and arresting that the reporter is well advised to just get out of the way and let the facts speak for themselves. That’s what Eakin does. Along the way, she generates interesting, slightly surreal sentences such as, “In September, Leach gave himself a fecal transplant with the aid of a turkey baster and a bemused Hadza man, who served as his donor.” Eakin’s “Celluloid Hero” (The New Yorker, October 31, 2011) made my “Best of 2011” list. “The Excrement Experiment” may well be a “Best of 2014” contender.

Another piece in this week’s issue that I enjoyed immensely is Joseph Mitchell’s “A Day in the Branch,” a fragment of a memoir found in his papers after he died in 1996. It’s a reminiscence of his time growing up in North Carolina when he spent many of his days roaming a wild swamp river called the Pittman Mill Branch. He says of the river, “I would walk slowly and keep looking into the water, studying it. The water mesmerized me….” Reading that brought to mind the great opening paragraph of his classic “The Rivermen” (The New Yorker, April 4, 1959; included in his 1992 collection Up in the Old Hotel), in which he says, “I often feel drawn to the Hudson River, and I have spent a lot of time through the years poking around the part of it that flows past the city. I never get tired of looking at it; it hypnotizes me.” “A Day in the Branch” shows the roots of Mitchells deep appreciation of the Hudson – the youthful days he spent pleasurably hanging around the Pittman Mill Branch, walking it, smelling it, fishing it, swimming in it, climbing its trees, sometimes pretending he was a bobcat.    

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