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.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Mid-Year Top Ten (2017)

Bendik Kaltenborn, "RJD2"

Time for my annual “Mid-Year Top Ten,” a list of my favorite New Yorker pieces of the year so far (with a choice quotation from each in brackets):


1. Luke Mogelson’s “The Avengers of Mosul,” February 6, 2017 (“We accelerated into the lead, hurtling down alleys and whipping around corners. I was impressed that the driver could steer at all. The bulletproof windshield, cracked by past rounds, looked like battered ice, and a large photograph of a recently killed SWAT-team member obstructed much of the view”).

2. Gary Shteyngart’s “Time Out,” March 20, 2017 (“I missed out on the culmination of the evening, when all the watches were piled up for an Instagram photo with the hashtag #sexpile, but as I wandered into the autumn night my Nomos beat warmly against my wrist”).

3. Ian Frazier’s “High-Rise Greens,” January 9, 2017 (“Throughout the mini-farm, PVC pipes and wires run here and there, connecting to clamps and switches. The pumps hum, the water gurgles, and the whole thing makes the sound of a courtyard fountain”).

4. Ben Taub’s “We Have No Choice,” April 10, 2017 (“As the rescue boat bobbed next to the larger ship, Nicholas Papachrysostomou, an M.S.F. field coördinator, helped Blessing stand up. She was nauseated and weak. Her feet were pruning; they had been soaking for hours in a puddle at the bottom of the dinghy”).

5. Dexter Filkins’ “Before the Flood,” January 2, 2017 (“The work of maintaining the dam is performed in the “gallery,” a tunnel that runs inside the base, four hundred feet below the top. To get there, you enter through a portal near the river’s edge and walk down a sloping corridor into the center of the dam. The interior is cool and wet and dark. It feels like a mine shaft, deep under the earth. You can sense the water from the reservoir pressing against the walls”).

6. Calvin Tomkins’ “Troubling Pictures,” April 10, 2017 (“Large and medium-sized canvases in varying stages of completion covered most of the wall space in the studio, a long, windowless room that was once an auto-body shop, and the floor was a palimpsest of rags, used paper palettes, brushes, metal tubs filled with defunct tubes of Old Holland oil paint, colored pencils and broken charcoal sticks, cans of solvent, spavined art books, pages torn from magazines, bundled work clothes stiff with paint, paper towels, a prelapsarian boom box, empty Roach Motel cartons, and other debris”).

7. John Seabrook’s “My Father’s Cellar,” January 23, 2017 (“But for me alcohol offered an escape from control, his and everyone else’s. A glass of wine gave me a kind of confidence I didn’t otherwise feel—the confidence to be me”).

8. Kathryn Schulz’s “Losing Streak,” February 13 & 20, 2017  (“Grieving him is like holding one of those homemade tin-can telephones with no tin can on the other end of the string.”)

9. Jake Halpern’s “A New Underground Railway,” March 13, 2017 (“Fernando grabbed his backpack and opened his door; in the blackness, the car’s overhead light seemed glaringly bright. I told him to call me when he made it, or if he felt that he was in serious danger. He nodded goodbye, scurried down the embankment, and disappeared into the brambles”).

10. Fred Kaplan’s “Kind of New,” May 22, 2017 (“She sang with perfect intonation, elastic rhythm, an operatic range from thick lows to silky highs”).

The Critics

1. James Wood’s “The Other Side of Silence,” June 5 & 12, 2017 (“What animates his project is the task of saving the dead, retrieving them through representation”).

2. Dan Chiasson’s “The Fugitive,” April 3, 2017 (“He is, at his best, a poet of home-brewed koans, threading his philosophical paradoxes into scenes of slacker glamour”).

3. Peter Schjeldahl’s “What’s New?,” March 27, 2017 (“Politics percolate in evocations of social class and function, with verisimilitude tipping toward the surreal in, for example, a set that suggests at once a beauty parlor, a medical facility, and a prison”).

4. Adam Kirsch’s “Pole Apart,” May 29, 2017 (“But, where Eliot often used this kind of moral X-ray vision to express contempt and disgust for the world, Milosz had seen too much death to find skulls profound”).

5. Claudia Roth Pierpont’s “The Island Within,” March 6, 2017 (“Of course, any such biographical explanation is a cheat: the reader cannot be expected to supply these facts; the poem means what it means, on its own”).

6. Dan Chiasson’s “The Mania and the Muse,” March 20, 2017 (“This is the critical point about Lowell as a writer: he had been straitjacketed, he had been physically violent, he had been shaken to his fundament with regret, he had been wounded deeply by wounding others. To create a life, along with a body of work that reflected it, was to find and follow the thread inside the maze”).

7. Emily Nussbaum’s “Tragedy Plus Time,” January 23, 2017 (“Despite the breeziness of Breitbart’s description, there was in fact a global army of trolls, not unlike the ones shown on “South Park,” who were eagerly “shit-posting” on Trump’s behalf, their harassment an anonymous version of the “rat-fucking” that used to be the province of paid fixers. Like Trump’s statements, their quasi-comical memeing and name-calling was so destabilizing, flipping between serious and silly, that it warped the boundaries of discourse”).

8. Alex Ross’s “Singing Philosophy,” February 27, 2017 (“Ghostly, twelve-tonish figures in the final bars feel uncertain, provisional, questing”).

9. Anthony Lane’s “Pretty and Gritty,” March 27, 2017 (“ ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is delectably done; when it’s over, though, and when the spell is snapped, it melts away, like cotton candy on the tongue”).

10. Adam Gopnik’s “Mixed Up,” January 16, 2017 (“The illusion of confiding in the reader alone is what essayists play on. You’re my best friend, Montaigne, like every subsequent essayist of his type, implies to his readers.”)

Talk of the Town

1. Nick Paumgarten’s “Bong Show,” May 15, 2017 (“Delicate leaves and lace, tubes within tubes, ghouls embedded inside chambers like ships in bottles”).

2. Robert Sullivan’s “Facing History,” June 19, 2017 (“At Goodfellows, a barbershop on Fourth Avenue, people knew the church but not the tree. ‘In the North? That seems strange,’ a customer said”).

3. Tad Friend’s “Pulverizer,” June 19, 2017 (“The hairs on his forearm stood erect, like little soldiers”).

4. Lauren Collins’s “Sideline,” June 19, 2017 (“He must have been chewing on his cigarette, because it hung from his mouth like a broken limb”).

5. Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Incidents,” June 19, 2017 (“In front of him, a set of stairs led up to a rectangular opening cut into a wall. Beyond the opening was an empty chamber. Lights installed in the walls of the chamber were making it glow different shades—first fuchsia, then baby blue, then electric yellow. Everything outside the chamber also kept changing color, including Turrell”).

Goings On About Town

1. Becky Cooper’s “Tables For Two: Mermaid Spa,” March 6, 2017” (“Claim a table—it’s yours for the day—and head into the sauna. Sweat until you can’t stand it, and escape to the cold shower. Pull the chain and a torrent of ice water rushes over you. Then go to the steam room and get lost in the fog, before plunging into the ice pools. Jump out, gasp for breath, and feel your head pound with shock and relief. Repeat until you’re jelly, and then it’s time to eat”).

2. McKenna Stayner’s “Bar Tab: Super Power,” February 27, 2017 (“Visiting Super Power, with the gentle glow of a blowfish lamp, the fogged windows dripping hypnotically with condensation, and the humid, coconut-scented air, was exactly like being on a cruise, but everyone was wearing wool”).

3. Becky Cooper’s “Tables For Two: Sunday in Brooklyn,” January 23, 2017 (“At some point, someone near you will order the pancakes, and you will turn involuntarily to stare at the stack coated in hazelnut-praline-maple syrup and brown butter. Gesture to your waiter for an order of those. The sauce, the texture of butterscotch, slips down the sides like a slow-motion waterfall. It tastes like melted gelato. The pancakes, slightly undercooked, seem almost naughty”).

4. Nicolas Niarchos’s “Bar Tab: Paul’s Casablanca,” January 16, 2017 (“Instead, Sevigny has gone for a purer form of fun: an enfilade of domed caverns where dancers sway to rock and disco hits flanked by tiled nooks from which clusters of beautiful folk watch the whorling crowd.”)

5. Shauna Lyon’s “Tables For Two: Atla,” June 5 & 12, 2017 (“After the great pea-guacamole controversy of 2015, it takes cojones to add mint to an otherwise innocent, chunky scoop, which arrived, one afternoon, dramatically hidden under an elephant-ear-size purple-corn chip”).

6. Wei Tchou’s “Bar Tab: Diamond Reef,” May 1, 2017 (“Diamond Reef’s frozen take (the Penichillin) employs an age-old principle: anything is more fun when tossed into a slushy machine”).

7. Richard Brody’s “Movies: Who’s Crazy?,” March 13, 2017 (“When love creeps in, the doings turn mock-solemn, as a mystical marriage—a threadbare rite of flung-together outfits and tinfoil décor—plays out like a discothèque exorcism”).

8. Talia Lavin’s “Bar Tab: Fishbowl,” May 29, 2017 (“It causes the wasp-waisted barmaids in strappy green minidresses to grunt audibly as they muddle handfuls of cherries, and scoop ice as if shovelling a driveway”).

9. Matthew Trammell’s “Night Life: Step Out,” June 5 & 12, 2017 (“Rich saxophones and organs stood in for synthesizers, drums jangled and twitched, and vocalists like King Krule gave the beats another sheet of voice”).

10. Joan Acocella’s, “Dance: Alfa Romeo,” June 19, 2017 (“Even when she’s performing small steps, or no steps, you can still feel, across the auditorium, that astonishing engine, humming along like an Alfa Romeo, at the base of her spine”).

Best Short Story: Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Show Don’t Tell,” June 5 & 12, 2017 (“Giving a blow job to a Peaslee, it turned out, wasn’t the best I could do, the closest I could get”). 

Best Poem: John Kinsella’s “Milking the Tiger Snake,” January 9, 2017 (“tiger snake /out of the wetlands, whip-cracked / by the whip of itself until its back is broke”).

Best post: Philip Gefter’s “Sex and Longing in Larry Sultan’s California Suburbs,”April 9, 2017) (“Whenever I walked down the boardwalk and entered his house, I was reminded of the light in his pictures; this is where he honed his precision-cut insight”).

Best Issue: January 9, 2017, containing, among other pleasures, Ian Frazier’s “High-Rise Greens,” John Kinsella’s “Milking the Tiger Snake,” and Wei Tchou’s “Bar Tab: Rabbit House.”

Best Cover: Mark Ulriksen’s “Strike Zone” (May 1, 2017)

Best Illustration: Riccardo Vecchio’s “Bill Knott” for Dan Chiasson’s “The Fugitive”(April 3, 2017).

Riccardo Vecchio, "Bill Knott"

Best Photograph: William Mebane’s “Tim Ho Wan” for Jiayang Fan’s “Tables For Two: Tim Ho Wan” (April 17, 2017)

William Mebane, "Tim Ho Wan"

Best Sentence

Everyone is born with a subject, but it is fully expressed only through a commitment to form, and Yiadom-Boakye is as committed to her kaleidoscope of browns as Lucian Freud was to the veiny blues and the bruised, sickly yellows that it was his life’s work to reveal, lurking under all that pink flesh. [Zadie Smith, “A Bird of Few Words,” June 19, 2017]

Best Paragraph

Many tables stick with giant bottles of water and platters of fresh fruit. But you came for the food, so go for it. The large meat dishes—lamb leg, beef stroganoff, chicken tabaka—are hefty in a way that seems ill-advised in the setting. The hot appetizers are a better idea. The borscht is rich and thick. The garlicky French fries, piled on a sizzling iron skillet, though not exactly what you’d picture eating in a bathing suit, are a banya staple. Even more traditional are the pelmeni, filled with beef, lamb, and veal, and topped with mushroom gravy, which are addictive until they congeal at room temperature. Luckily, the dish is too good to leave for long. The best, though, are the cold appetizers, especially the pickled herring or, if you dare, the salo—raw pig lard, frozen and sliced thin. The procedure is half the fun: Layer it over some brown bread. Salt it. Pick up a raw garlic clove. Salt that. Bite one, then the other. The sharp fire of the raw garlic gives way to the sweetness of the bread, and to the soothing fat as it melts. It’s more bracing than the ice pools. [Becky Cooper, “Tables For Two: Mermaid Spa,” March 6, 2017]

Best Detail

But the bar’s smallness works to its advantage, and the place has been created with intense care and an idiosyncratic sensibility: there are warm woods and twinkling Edison bulbs; the bases of the water glasses are tuliped so they spin on their sides precariously but never spill. [Wei Tchou, “Bar Tab: Rabbit House,” January 9, 2017]

Best Description

When I look at the back of a Datograph, one of Lange’s more complicated watches (it features a date as well as a chronograph, a kind of stopwatch), I see a small city of silver and gold gears and wheels, a miniature three-dimensional universe in which everyone is running to catch the next bus. [Gary Shteyngart, “Time Out,” March 20, 2017]

Best Question

While creating the universe, did God have in mind that, at a certain point, a stuffed goat with a car tire around its middle would materialize to round out the scheme? [Peter Schjeldahl, “The Wave of History,” May 29, 2017]

Best Quotation

“On this movie I got down on my knees and prayed before takes, and then just grabbed my balls and tried somehow to be of service.” [Anthony Michael Hall, quoted by Tad Friend in his Talk story “Pulverizer,” June 19, 2017]

Best “Bar Tab” Drink Description: Colin Stokes’s rendering of a John Campbell’s Martini – “smooth, with sumptuous olives” [“Bar Tab: The Campbell,” June 19, 2017]

Seven Memorable Lines:

1. A reporter’s request for an explanation from Secret Service personnel inside Trump Tower proved as fruitful as a visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Complainer. [Mark Singer, “New York Strip,” January 16, 2017]

2. True, she expresses a weakness for vanilla sex, whereas his preference, one suspects, is for Chunky Monkey, but that’s easily fixed. [Anthony Lane, “Movies: Fifty Shades Darker,” March 6, 2017]

3. History isn’t a feather. It’s an albatross. [Jill Lepore, “The History Test,” March 27, 2017]

4. But grief makes reckless cosmologists of us all. [Kathryn Schulz, “Losing Streak,” February 13 & 20, 2017]

5. Soon enough, Elphi will be superseded by some other Instagrammable wonder. [Alex Ross, “Temples of Sound,” May 22, 2017]

6. I sometimes pretend that the ringing in my ears is a sound I play on purpose to mask the ringing in my ears—a Zen-like switcheroo that works better than you might think. [David Owen, “Pardon?,” April 3, 2017]

7. As for her having a face, you can say that again. [Joan Acocella, “Dance: Alfa Romeo,” June 19, 2017]

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