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.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

June 29, 2015 Issue

Italy is a wonderful place to bike. I was there a couple of weeks ago, cycling the Parco del Mincio and Parco del Ticino. I took the train to various cities (Trenitalia is an amazing system). One morning, at a packed café called Cuppi (est. 1934), on Via Matteotti, in Bologna, I watched the guy running the cappuccino-maker; he was like a virtuoso pianist, his hands flying over the machine, working the various knobs and handles. He produced the best cappuccino I’ve ever tasted. On another day, at a canteen overlooking the Mincio River, I drank a glass of iced, freshly squeezed pomegranate juice that was so damned good, I’ll never forget it. As I sat there savoring it, contemplating the beautiful Mincio, I suddenly realized I’d become an italophile. And so, when Jane Kramer’s "The Demolition Man," a profile of Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, appeared in this week’s issue, I devoured it. What a Tuscan feast of political detail! Renzi’s clothes (his work uniform consists of “jeans and a rumpled white shirt, open at the neck”), how he came to power (he struck a deal with Silvio Berlusconi; “In the matter of craftiness he was miles ahead of the man whom no politician in Italy had ever managed to outfox before”); his previous occupation (he was an “immensely popular” mayor of Florence); how he selected his cabinet (“he opted for youth and women – the obvious appealing things”); his conversation (“He has what could be called a peripatetic mind and, like any good performer, he uses it to keep you on the edge of your seat, not asking inconvenient questions, and also, perhaps, to impress himself when he is about to confront an obstacle in his path”); his enemies (Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five Star Movement, on the populist left, and Matteo Salvini, leader of the new “national” Lega party, on the populist right, “both competing for the same anit-Europe, anti-immigrant votes”); on and on – Kramer includes it all in a superbly structured report that, interestingly, begins and ends with Angela Merkel. Kramer’s level of access to Renzi is impressive. She even visits him in his New York hotel suite (“ ‘They love their past, their present, but they need a vision and an explanation of their future – in the possibility of a future,’ Renzi told me that night, flopping onto a couch in the living room of his hotel suite”). My take-away from this immensely absorbing piece is that Italy is fortunate to have, in Matteo Renzi, a young, spirited, dynamic leader who is determined to make real change. It will be interesting to see how he fares. I hope he doesn’t get worn down the way another young, spirited, dynamic leader, Barack Obama, has been worn down by relentless conservative stonewalling.

Postscript: Another attractive aspect of Kramer’s piece is Riccardo Vecchio's gorgeous illustration - a delicately hued portrait of Renzi with a jumble of Florentine rooftops, including the Duomo and Giotto's Campanile, in the background. Ravishing! 

Postscript #2: All four Talk stories in this week’s issue are beauties: Ian Frazier’s "Secuity"; Emma Allen’s "Landlord"; Dana Goodyear’s "Life With Father"; and Alec Wilkinson’s "Hands." Of the four, my favorite is Goodyear’s layered "Life With Father," about (1) the time in 1996 when Maya and China Forbes picked up their dad, Cameron, at McLean, the psychiatric hospital outside Boston, and took him to lunch; (2) Maya Forbes’s movie Infinitely Polar Bear (“The title comes from a phrase Cam once used to describe his condition on a McLean intake form”), which tells the story “of how Cam, recently recovered from a breakdown, took over the care of Maya and China, aged ten and eight, while Peggy [Maya and China’s mother], in order to support them, went to New York to get an M.B.A. and eventually, a job at the brokerage firm E. F. Hutton”; (3) China’s home life with her husband Wally (“Wally, who was wearing shorts and black socks with Birkenstocks, did a crossword puzzle”) and her three children, Clementine, Imogene, and Hackley. Goodyear has worked her text close to the compression of poetry.

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