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.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

November 9, 2015 Issue

I’ve previously commented on the connection between “journey” and “journalism.” They both share the same sematic root, “jour,” which is French for “day” – a day’s travel, the record of a day’s experience. But the connection is more than just sematic. The best journalism, for me, involves travel – an excursion of some sort, whether its a hike on the Great Wall of China (Peter Hessler’s ("Walking the Wall"), say, or a tour of the Birkenstock factory in Görlitz, Germany (Rebecca Mead’s "Sole Cycle"), or a boat trip in New York Harbor to look for seals (Ian Frazier’s "Back to the Harbor"). Nick Paumgarten has taken me (vicariously, of course) on many a great trip – Atlantic City ("The Death and Life of Atlantic City"), Berlin ("Berlin Nights"), Interlaken ("The Manic Mountain"), Seseña ("The Hangover"), Governors Island ("Useless Beauty"), on and on. His superb "Life Is Rescues," in this week’s issue, travels to Iceland and spends time with the volunteer search-and-rescue team known as Landsbjörg. Paumgarten visits the headquarters of one of Landsbjörg’s crews, accompanies it on a patrol, and camps with it at a highland site called Landmannalaugar:

Bright-colored campers’ tents—say, a hundred—dotted the basin, like so many tulips. At the far edge of the settlement was a pair of old army-green school buses, which had been converted into a makeshift store called the Mountain Mall. Next to them was the Landsbjörg hut, a wooden box of two hundred and fifty square feet, with four bunks, a kitchenette, a card table, and scant remaining floor space. Ten was a tight fit. The crew spent the next several hours unloading supplies, setting up the kitchen tent, and getting the cabin ready. It never got dark.

He also observes a rescue – three people in a car, another perched on its roof, stuck in a river:

Katrin’s first two attempts to drag out the Kia failed. The angle was wrong. She turned the Toyota around, and they let out a winch, which was attached to the front of the truck. Elvar had found a hook. They hitched up the Kia and reeled it in, like a salmon. Water came pouring out, followed by the three soaked Lebanese.

The crew ministered to them, giving them blankets and food, transferring their luggage to the van. The Kia wouldn’t start, so the team pushed it off to the side and called in a tow truck. The electrical system was toast, but they refrained from mentioning this fact, or that the engine might be ruined, too, and that this would probably cost the family upward of ten thousand dollars. The family had been through enough. The team made them some space in the hut. It was nearly midnight by the time the gang got back to their card game.

Paumgarten has a great eye for detail. His noticing of the bananas hanging in the Landsbjörg camp kitchen is inspired:

On a row of plastic hangers someone had hung the team’s bananas. Each hanger held two bunches. I stood looking at this, in admiration and wonder. Iceland.

“Life Is Rescues” is one of Paumgarten’s best pieces. I enjoyed it immensely.

Postscript: The hanging bananas are shown in a wonderful Benjamin Lowy photo illustrating the version of “Life Is Rescues.” It’s my choice for New Yorker photo of the year.

Benjamin Lowy, "Kitchen Tent"

No comments:

Post a Comment