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.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

October 3, 2016, Issue

Notes on this week’s issue:

1. Jon Lee Anderson’s “The Cuba Play” is one of 2016’s most absorbing reporting pieces. It tells the story of Obama’s Cuba project, beginning with a remarkable scene – Obama on stage at La Cerveceria, on Havana Harbor, speaking directly to the Cuban people about entrepreneurship – then cutting to Anderson’s interview with Obama (“A few weeks later, in the Oval Office, I asked Obama about the reaction”), then moving into a remarkable reconstruction of the string of events leading to the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations, including the famous handshake between Obama and Raúl Castro at Nelson Mendela’s funeral (“Castro wore an expression of flustered delight”), secret negotiations in Ottawa, the transfer of a vial of sperm of a Cuban spy, and a covert letter from Pope Francis to Obama. Anderson has discussed some of these events before in his “News Desk” posts on But in “The Cuba Play,” he masterfully draws it all together, combining it with fascinating quotations from his personal interviews with Obama and other key players. If you consider the opening with Cuba one of Obama's major accomplishments, as I do, you’ll surely appreciate Anderson’s great “The Cuba Play.”

2.  I relish descriptions of scent. There are two dandies in this week’s issue: Jiayang Fan’s “Just then, the chocolate fondue arrived, halting the conversation with its exhalation of cinnamon and coconut” (“Tables For Two: Ladybird”), and Ian Frazier’s “He ordered a decaf espresso and asked the waiter to top it off with Sambuca. A smell of licorice rose” (“Don’t Tread On Me”).

3. I’m not crazy about pop music, but Hua Hsu’s “Word of Mouth,” on Bon Iver’s digitally manipulated sound, impinged my consciousness with this inspired line: “Speech synthesizers often make a song sound as though someone were running a leaky fluorescent highlighter across its lyrics.”

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