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.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

April 23, 2018 Issue

Wow! Here’s a New Yorker (the “Travel & Food Issue”) that deserves not a review but a party. Four of the magazine’s best writers are present – Ian Frazier, Dan Chiasson, Nick Paumgarten, and Burkhard Bilger. 

Ian Frazier’s “The Maraschino Mogul” is a fascinating story about red bees, a cherry factory owner named Arthur Mondella, and a secret hydroponic marijuana farm in the cherry factory’s basement. Frazier tells the story masterfully, reporting one intriguing fact after another, visiting the factory (“The smell of maraschino cherries, not unpleasant but eye-wateringly strong, fills the factory, and the floors remain sticky even though they’re constantly mopped”), talking with Mondella’s daughters (“ ‘My father was just a very, very smart man,’ Dominique told me. ‘He wasn’t an engineer, he wasn’t a mechanic, but the guys on the floor said that he could fix any machine himself’ ”), attending a factory-employee barbecue (“Most of the workmen wore sleeveless shirts, and all were red-spattered and generally a sunburn shade of maraschino red”). This piece has so many interesting elements – red bees, cherry factory, Italian family, police raid, suicide, lawsuits. It would make a terrific movie! I devoured it.

Dan Chiasson’s “Anybody There?” is a “Critic at Large” piece on Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Chiasson says, “The power of the movie has always been unusually bound up with the story of how it was made.” He refers to Michael Benson’s new book, Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece. Is 2001 a masterpiece? I’m not sure. It’s a little too cosmic for me. I remember its long psychedelic Jupiter passage. In one of his best lines, Chiasson likens it to “travelling through a birth canal in which someone has thrown a rave.” And I remember HAL, the rogue computer. Chiasson writes, 

HAL is a child, around nine years old, as he tells Dave at the moment he senses he’s finished. He’s precocious, indulged, needy, and vulnerable; more human than his human overseers, with their stilted, near robotic delivery. The dying HAL singing “Daisy,” the tune his teacher taught him, is a sentimental trope out of Victorian fiction, more Little Nell than little green man.

My favourite sentence in “Anybody There?” is this beauty:

On Giphy, you can find many iconic images from “2001” looping endlessly in seconds-long increments—a jarring compression that couldn’t be more at odds with the languid eternity Kubrick sought to capture. 

Nick Paumgarten’s “Water and the Wall” tells about a four-day canoe trip (“a commercial guided float trip, cosseted and catered”) he recently took through Boquillas Canyon, one of the Rio Grande River’s most protected sections. The trip has a political purpose – “to begin to articulate, in an informal but pertinent setting, a response to Trump’s wall.” But the parts I relish most are the nature descriptions. For example:

And here we were. The walls closed in—steep, streaked limestone cliffs with a terra-cotta tinge, pocked high and low with dark openings big and small, made by waterfalls during an era, post-Ice Age, when these precincts were lush. The water, clearer here, took on the colors of the cliffs, and of the salt cedars that crowded the shore. The air had a prehistoric hush, except for the dip of paddles in the current and the tuneful descending song of the canyon wren.

A stunning George Steinmetz photo of the Rio Grande enhances the text. (Several more of Steinmetz’s shots are featured in the version of the piece.) If you love river writing, as I do, you’ll surely enjoy Nick Paumgarten’s “Water and the Wall.”

Burkard Bilger’s “Bean Freaks” is about Mexican heirloom beans. It profiles Steve Sando, founder of Rancho Gordo, the U.S.’s largest retailer of heirloom beans. Bilger accompanies Sando on a trip to Mexico in search of Flor de Durazno, the Flower of the Peach, “a dainty, pinkish-brown bean of uncommon taste and velvety texture.” 

Bilger is an artful describer. At an outdoor market in in the town of Ixmiquilpan, he notes, “It was a Thursday morning in May, and the stalls were full of women gossiping and picking through produce: corn fungus and cactus paddles, purslane and pickling lime, agave buds and papalo leaf that smelled of mint and gasoline.” He describes the Vallarta bean as “a greenish-yellow thing with a red-rimmed eye, like a soybean with a hangover.” He says cow’s foot soup has “a deeply funky flavor and a mucilaginous texture that was off-putting at first—it was like sipping a whole cow—then weirdly addictive.” Moro beans are “speckled black and gray, like a starling’s belly.” His combinations of Mexican bean names and Mexican place names are ravishing: “Icatone white beans from the Tarahumara peoples in Chihuahua, or pearl-gray Frijolon de Zimatlán from Oaxaca, or, best of all, the Rosa de Castilla from Michoacán.” 

Bilger is a superb food writer. “Bean Freaks” is one of his best. 

So there you have it: maraschino cherries, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Rio Grande River, heirloom beans – just some of the ingredients in this year’s excellent “Travel & Food Issue.” I enjoyed it immensely. 

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