Posts from October 2016

October 1st, 2016

Sorry, Lady – This Beach is Private!

sorry-ladyOur book today is Sorry, Lady – This Beach is Private!, a 1963 collection of the cartoons and illustrations of James Stevenson, he of New Yorker fame. This volume collects dozens of Stevenson’s now-iconic little gems from his long heyday with the magazine throughout the 1950s and ’60s.

They’re every bit as much of a treat now as they were half a century ago, which is a tribute not only to Stevenson’s sly, often counter-intuitive visual style but also to his way with a zinger. The second is no stevens2surprise, given the fact that words were always his abiding passion. In addition to being an artist, Stevenson was also a caption-writer for other artists – the full reach of his deadpan wit in the New Yorker of the time would be difficult to calculate. And he was a prolific writer, producing a string of good novels and one very good one written right around the same time as most of the cartoons collected here were being drawn.

stevens4It’s easy to spot that storyteller flair in these pictures. True, many of them are just the kind of throwaway lighthearted visual gag at which the New Yorker has always excelled, but with Stevenson you quite often get much more than that. His cartoons can sneak up on you, with the visual component seeming settled and ordinary while the verbal component subverts; he revels in finding the absurd lurking just below the surface of the ordinary. In a full-page cartoon, two women have perhaps spent too much money on a gaudy antique. “Suddenly I’m scared to go home,” the caption reads, but the genius of the moment derives from how small the women seem compared to the naked, grasping trees looming above them.

All the New Yorker staples are here: tyrannical businessmen, hapless husbands, stevens1fatuous partygoers, egomaniacal children. And Stevenson could no more resist the occasional foray into topicality than could any other New Yorker artist (one cartoon shows a group of women peering through the high fence of the White House, explaining, “We’ll settle for him or her or Caroline or the baby!”). But the best bits of this collection are timeless cartoons, or rather cartoons like the one on the book’s cover, where the timeless clashes with the crude present.

stevesn3And most of all, Stevenson is the illustrator of the great days of the American summer vacation, in the era when middle class families rented houses for the whole summer, loaded the car, and joined the natives at some carefully-chosen beachfront location. The boating, the swimming, the antiquing, the shelling and fishing … all of it crops up repeatedly in this book, sometimes looking very tempting to the 21st century sensibility conditioned to more stress and less relaxation than the generation Stevenson chronicles here.

The seasonal vacation is the setting for what’s widely considered his most classic stevens6creation, the cartoon sequence called “Weekend Guests,” where Stevenson’s novelistic flair is on full display in a flow of scenes depicting some of the trials that arise when summer guests are out of sync with hosts and vice versa. We get both sides of the great divide: the host and hostess looking up the stairs and saying “If they aren’t down by noon, I’m going to go up and pound on the door,” but also the guests, up in their room, trying to be quiet: “Sh-h-h! If they know we’re awake, we’ll have to go and do something.”

Stevenson wrote many books for children as well as the ones he wrote for adults; he mastered through long practice that art of the gentle barb. And decades of great work followed the period enshrined in Sorry, Lady – This Beach is Private! – so far as I know, uncollected. It’s a great deal to look forward to, if any enterprising soul ever manages to create The Complete James Stevenson.

January 25th, 2015

Fleeting Frustration in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

Some days in the Penny Press are more frustrating than others, of course, and sometimes those weeks offer clear signals of their intent to get my knickers in a twist. This happened just yesterday, in fact, when I took my first clear look at Barry Blitt’s imbecilic cover to the 26 January New Yorker, which is titled “The Dream of Reconciliation” and shows Martin Luther King marching arm-in-arm with a quartet of people who have only one thing in common: their complete indifference to any cause King ever marched for or cared about (at least two of the four people pictured marching with King, if they’d seen this cover, wouldn’t have been able to identify him). The false equivalence on display there – the fat, contented, Upper West Side substitute for thinking, the idea that if you die by police-related violence, you must have died in some noble struggle – well, it grated, at least to the extent that New Yorker covers ever can.

nycoverFrustration got worse inside the issue, although for different reasons. Jill Lepore, the magazine’s best writer, certainly doesn’t ever frustrate for pulling any substitutes for thinking; she’s as smart a writer as they come. No, it’s her subject this time around that caused the frustration – the subject of the impermanence of the Internet. The piece is called “The Cobweb,” and although it’s meant to offer a gleam of hope, it could scarcely be more frutrating for somebody who’s helped to build a thing like Open Letters Monthly online.

“The average life of a Web page is about a hundred days,” Lepore reports in the process of describing a project designed to archive Internet contents, “It’s like trying to stand on quicksand.” And the picture doesn’t get any rosier when she shifts he emphasis to more scholarly works:

The footnote, a landmark in the history of civilization, took centuries to invent and to spread. It has taken mere nearly to destroy. A footnote used to say, “Here is how I know this and where I found it.” A footnote that’s a link says, “Here is what I used to know and where I once found it, but chances are it’s not there anymore.” It doesn’t matter whether footnotes are your stock-in-trade. Everybody’s in a pinch. Citing a Web page as the source for something you know – using a URL as evidence – is ubiquitous. Many people find themselves doing it three or four times before breakfast and five times more before lunch. What happens when your evidence vanishes by dinnertime?

The piece made me want to have a stock-taking talk with Robert Minto, OLM‘s newest editor and the only one of us who’s as comfortable with code as codicils … to see if there’s anything to be done about the quicksand.

November 28th, 2009

mistakes, exaggerations, and outright lies in the Penny Press!

A particular contentious day in the Penny Press today, as the cold rain drizzled down outside my favorite little Chinese food restaurant! For ever stretch in which I was just enjoying what I was reading, there was a stretch of rumpled macadam, attracting muttered grumbling and aggravated underlining with my trusty ever-present pen. Of course, it’s usually that way when I engage with the Penny Press (or anything else, for that matter – I’m an immoderately involved reader … as all of you must know, else why would you be here in the first place?), but today felt extra irritating, and I don’t think it was the food.

Speaking of food! Surely that’s the topic that tops the snit parade! Last week, the New Yorker ran a review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book Eating Animals (they largely gave the ridiculous little confessional a free pass, but then, almost everybody’s given it a pass – except for my good friends over at The Second Pass, ironically enough – John Williams’ review, “The Oy of Cooking,” is not to be missed), and this week the magazine runs some letters from readers. One of those letters was from Kevin Jablonski, and he writes:

First, environmental degradation and cruelty to sentient beings are not unique to industrial animal agriculture; rather, they are characteristic of industrial agriculture as a whole. I wonder if Foer has ever visited, or considered the impact of, a thousand-acre soybean monoculture. We have demanded cheap food, and so we have received cheap, destructive food production. Second, vegetarian moralism denies an essential fact of living: death. Everything dies, and not always in its due time.

This is really bad stuff, but at least it’s stupid rather than anything worse. Far be it for me to defend a pretentious little putz like Foer, but his book wasn’t only – or even mainly – about environmental damage; it was about the mind-staggering cruelty that accompanies large-scale meat production. Hauling in soy beans isn’t any way to refute anything, it’s just nonsensical clouding of the issue. And so is that windy claptrap about death being an essential part of life – again, Foer isn’t railing (in his precious, nit-picking way) about creatures dying, he’s railing about creatures being bred in their hundreds of thousands for the sole purpose of not only dying but dying horribly, in systematic and wild-eyed terror, often after prolonged torture. “Not always in its due time” falls just a bit shy of that mark.

But Jablonski’s letter wasn’t the worst of it, hoo-no! The worst of it came from Paul Gahlinger, who compounds Jablonski’s sophistry with genuine evil:

There is only one good reason not to eat meat: because you don’t like it. If vegetarians think they consume less by eating lower on the food chain, they should keep in mind that humans, whether they eat meat or not, use the vast majority of the earth’s resources. Their most effective contribution to global well-being would be to simply not exist. Is it better for aging animals to suffer, blind, arthritic, starving, or cancerous, until merciful death? I grew up on a farm and can say with certainty that our animals gave their bodies in gratitude for a well-cared-for life.

At first I kept thinking this had to be some kind of joke; the animals you raised in captivity for food were grateful for your care? “Hey, you know what? Since you were kind enough to house me and forty of my closest friends from the rain (not the cold, but hey, you’re not made of money!) these past two years, we’ve got an idea: why don’t you eat us? Really, it’s the least we can do.” The mind staggers, trying to figure out how this Gahlinger person could resist adding the line, “A cow would eat you – if he could!” It’s almost enough to make me feel sorry for Foer, who must be encountering evil little loonies like this guy at every whistle-stop along his book’s publicity tour.

There were other things in this New Yorker, mind you – it’s another fantastic issue, from a funny Roz Chast cartoon to a fascinating article about abortion and the so-called ‘right to die’ to a piece on world champion runner from Limpopo who appears to have some people (including Ariel Levy, the piece’s author, who keeps using the wrong pronoun) convinced he’s a woman, despite the fact that every photo purporting to be this person, Caster Semenya, are all clearly photos of a muscular young man. You read the oddest things these days in the Penny Press.

(Pop culture fans such as myself also couldn’t help but be intrigued by the fact that the adorable little Zac Efron from “High School Musical” manages to get the ultimate high-culture thumbs up – David Denby caught his performance in “Me and Orson Welles” and liked it: “Efron draws on his confident good looks (from certain angles, this Jewish hoofer from California looks like, of all people, Tyrone Power) without being smug. He’s an actor, after all – maybe even a genuine star”)

But the good things weren’t enough to counterbalance those horrible, evasive, the-Jews-like-their-ghettos letters, and the same tension was on display in the TLS as well. Here, again, there were very good things in abundance – including Daniel Karlin’s review of Georges Connes prose translation (into French, that is) of Robert Browning’s “The Ring and the Book,” which manages to be both hard on Connes and refreshingly benign to Browning, who tends to take it in the teeth from critics these days. “The Ring and the Book” is a long, absolutely wonderful poem (I literally cannot conceive of a reason to offer a prose translation of it in any language), so it was all the more ruefully that I was forced to agree when Karlin writes, “I doubt there are 6,000 English readers of The Ring and the Book alive today.” More’s the pity, he’s probably off by about 5,600 readers.

But not all the Browning in the world can compensate for what the normally-sensible Sylvia Brownrigg writes about the insufferable Dave Eggers in her review of Eggers’ screenplay for the new movie-travesty of Where the Wild Things Are and his new collection of short stories, The Wild Things, that purports to flesh out the world Maurice Sendak created in 1971. It’s going to be physically painful to copy this stuff out, but I’ll endure it for my readers:

Dave Eggers is the self-anointed king of the influential empire that is McSweeney’s: begun as a wittily designed literary journal, it subsequently became an “Internet Tendency” (ie, website), a publishing house and the purveyor of an all-round sensibility and style, in which high irony is laid over a base of sincerity and optimism. The co-founder of 826 Valencia, a non-profit writing centre for youth, Eggers this month received the Literarian Award for “outstanding service to the American literary community”. Reading The Wild Things, I could picture the multi-faceted Eggers as Max, governor of an unruly but lovable group of creatures, and wishing from time to time that he could run away from them all and enjoy a calm, hot dinner. With all that he does and presides over, it is possible to forget that Eggers is also a very good, very daring writer of prose, who can produce images and characters of complexity, empathy, and humour.

Yeesh. I hope Brownrigg gets the job/endorsement/date for which she’s so heinously fishing, but still – this the TLS! Surely some editor somewhere along the line should have stopped her from sullying the reputation of the finest review organ in the world by this shameless cozying with an overreaching fraud of such vast proportions as Eggers? If he can produce very good, very daring prose – characters of complexity, empathy, and humor – he’s done a damn good job keeping those talents to himself. Instead, he’s shared with the world only flat, boring prose and one-note allegories so heavy-handed they make John Bunyan look like P. J. O’Rourke. His books are boring in exactly the same way over and over again; they all reek of the class clown who has yet to learn that being merely clever is no sign of deep intelligence (insects do it, when they disguise themselves as something they’re not). And since Eggers runs his own publishing house (whose smarmy condescension continues the lampoon the very sincerity and optimism Brownrigg says it champions), he gets to do all this without the slightest hint of editorial interference – not that running his own publishing house seems to be necessary. Your power as a literary name-dropper and taste-maker is absolute, if the TLS can so sing your praises without a trace of irony. As if that Literarian of the Year crap weren’t bad enough.

On slightly less elevated levels of outrage (although hey, if you’re lower down, you’ve got a shorter space to fall, right?), there’s the cover interview with Twilight: New Moon boy-toy Taylor Lautner in the latest Rolling Stone. The interview, such as it is, is by Neil Strauss, and after only a couple of paragraphs, I was feeling sorry for every participant. I mean, here you have one enormous conglomerate, the publicity machine behind New Moon, instructing its newly bepected thespian to submit to an interview and photo shoot, and you have another enormous conglomerate, the media company of which Rolling Stone is but one outlet, instructing its obviously talented interviewer to turn out juicy copy despite the fact that it’s obvious from the start the first conglomerate has instructed its star to say virtually nothing at all. What follows is pretty much mathematically destined to be a complete waste of everybody’s time, and apart from the enjoyment to be had from Strauss’ snappy prose, it is.

The young star is in pure LautnerBot mode, responding in noncommittal monosyllables to all but the most innocuous questions (and lying outright, telling Strauss he’s never so much as smoked a cigarette or had a beer, despite the fact that he just got done shooting a movie on location for months with a cast that party like Fellini extras). In this he’s much the same as Zac Efron when he’s in Efronocon mode, and Strauss is quick to pick up on it and speculate: “With such polite, and seemingly oblivious, responses, it sometimes appears as if Lautner has taken a press-training course in evading answers.” The best part of this puff piece is Strauss’ deconstruction of the whole genre of young stardom:

There are two kinds of child stars: the Lindsay Lohans and the Zac Efrons. The Lohans are from broken homes, were abandoned in some way and witnessed or were victims of some form of abuse. The Efrons are raised by two parents who love them and support them, and are brought up in some sort of religious faith. The Lohans end up in the tabloids for doing stupid, destructive things to themselves and others, usually fueled by drugs, alcohol and self-esteem issues; the Efrons tend to work hard, discourage any attention paid to their personal lives and stay away from clubs, drugs, and the back seat of police cars. Lohans are interesting but unstable and depressed, while Efrons are boring but grounded and happy.

Needless to say, Strauss concludes that the LautnerBot is an Efron.

So if the writing is snappy and the piece itself is fluff, you might be asking what could possibly cause irritation! Well, it’s this: at the beginning of the article, Strauss is trying to find some “dirt” on Lautner (that’s when the lying about tobacco and alcohol happens, as well as some probably true denials of doing coke or getting arrested) – trying and failing. You almost forget about that angle of the piece until you reach the very end, when Strauss, obviously irked by his star’s teflon question-deflecting all throughout their interviews, starts to ask leading questions:

Strauss: Like you said on “Valentine’s Day” you and Taylor [Swift] got along really well. My guess is there is something romantic going on, and you’re seeing how it developes.

LautnerBot: You’re pretty good with the analysis. So I don’t know. I guess I’m going to trust you.

Strauss: Of course, there are other possibilities.

LautnerBot: Yeah, what other possibilities?

Struass: Another possibility is that you’re just sort of discovering yourself …

LautnerBot: OK.

Struass: … as a young person trying to figure out his sexual identity in the world …

LautnerBot: OK. I see where you’re going. Interesting choice.

Strauss: It is a possibility.

LautnerBot: There are lots of rumors out there.

Reading that, the small naive part of me irritatedly asked, “So being gay is the equivalent of having a drug problem?” Of course I instantly recalled the conglomerates involved; the LautnerBot has obviously been programmed not to alienate any of New Moon‘s gazillion potential ticket-buyers – most certainly including the vast undulating sea of gay men (of all ages) who won’t exactly be sighing over Lautner’s acting abilities. Lautner has said in half a dozen interviews that he isn’t gay, but now the stakes are higher, and ambiguity sells, and the vortex of all that lying and manipulating is enough to irritate me regardless of my food’s quality.

Fortunately, there’ll be other weeks in the Penny Press! Even though it’s always nice to read good press for Robert Browning, I’m calling this one a rain day.

November 4th, 2009

A Tale of Two (insert adjective) Writers in the Penny Press!

Lots of great stuff in the New Yorker this week, starting with a classic, gorgeous cover by Eric Drooker (and interspersed with a strong selection of cartoons this time around, quite a few of which strike exactly the right clever, citified tone for a New Yorker cartoon) and moving on to a funny “Talk of the Town” piece by Nick Paumgarten on those two Northwest pilots who overshot their runway by a hundred and fifty miles because they were absorbed on their laptops. Of course lots of commentary’s been spilled on this, but Paumgarten is worth quoting at length:

Afterward, they explained that they’d logged onto their personal laptop computers and become so engrossed – not in Farm Ville or porn, or even good old off-line activity, such as a fistfight or a nap, but, rather, if you believe them, in the nuances of the airline’s new crew flight-scheduling procedure – that they’d essentially forgotten where they were or what they were supposed to be doing. Which was landing a plane. The equivalent for a text-messaging driver might be for him to veer off a turnpike into a cornfield and drive twenty miles through the corn rows – stalks thumping the hood, G.P.S. lady losing her mind – without once looking up from the task of typing a heartfelt response to a wireless provider’s auto-generated telemarketing text. That is, it’s almost unimaginable.

Not sure what it’ll take for states to enact the very, very obvious legislation needed to ban using cellphones and especially visual media like texting or laptops while operating heavy machinery at high speeds – it can’t be deaths, since lots of people have already been killed through just such negligence – maybe notoriety? Maybe somebody texting-while-driving plows straight into the White House street barrier and dies in a hail of automatic weapons fire? Maybe an elementary school bus driver takes himself and his forty little charges off an overpass while texting? It’s the dumbest thing in the world that the legislation hasn’t happened yet, so I’m increasingly curious to know what the triggering event will eventually be.

But the main attractions of this issue, for me, were two pieces on authors with whom I have, shall we say, problematic reader relationships. Thomas Mallon turns in a long and wonderful synopsis of the literary and sociological phenomenon that is Ayn Rand. At first, I was worried that Mallon himself is one of her legion of mindless worshipers, but I was quickly reassured by some of his great quips about her unendurable books, like these two gems about The Fountainhead: “It is, in fact, badly executed on every level of language, plot, and characterization,” and “The novel’s dialogue is never even accidentally plausible.” Hee.

The other author is Jonathan Safran Foer, whose latest book Eating Animals is reviewed at length in a smart, argumentative piece by Elizabeth Kolbert. Foer’s book is also damn near unbearable, but not, as in Rand’s case, because it’s poorly written – in fact, it – and Foer in general – would be far less irritating if it were possible to simply dismiss it as bad writing. No, Foer can definitely craft sound prose – but what he’s done with that ability since he first easily, effortlessly gimmicked his way into public view with Everything Is Illuminated has been nothing but frustrating, and this book is no exception. In it, he hyperventilates about how the prospect of fatherhood forced him to re-evaluate his eating habits … for every page of the book, he bounces between sounding like he’s the first person ever to learn that meat consumption is wasteful and cruel and the first person ever to become a father. The end result is wearyingly narcissistic, despite the large amount of gruesomely fascinating data lucidly presented.

Kolbert soft-pedals a lot more than Mallon (“Some may object” and “others will argue” … but not much more than a peep or two what she may object or will argue), which may arise from greater politeness or a sense of fellow-feeling (she is, it turns out, a bit insufferable herself, being one of those hobbyist chicken-raisers the entire rest of the country – for various and equally valid reasons – so rightly detests). But you have to give her credit for her well-written not-entirely-hypothetical defense of eating animals, on two grounds: people are, after all, still animals – geared by millions of years of evolution to eat meat, and animals are, in fact, not people – so they don’t deserve the full panoply of rights and protections people extend to themselves. She acknowledges that Foer disagrees with both these points, and she goes on from them to make some serious body-blows against some of his book’s points (like his wishy-washiness on calling factory farmers evil, or his apparent willingness to continue drinking milk and eating eggs). It ends up being every bit as satisfying as Mallon’s piece.

There’s other good stuff too in this issue – Jill Lepore writes about the staggering amounts of violence in American society, and Anthony Lane is his usual peppy, quotable self reviewing two movies nobody will remember next week. But for my money (which reminds me: really need to start subscribing to the New Yorker), it’s the two literary pieces that sell the issue – just wish they were about less (insert adjective) writers …

September 23rd, 2009

In the Penny Press! New Yorker, 28 September 2009

It’s an Adam Gopnik double-feature in the 28 September New Yorker! First, in the “Talk of the Town,” he adds his voice to the deafening chorus of writers all tackling the same question this month: what IS it about Dan Brown? Since The Da Vinci Code has sold more copies than any other book in the history of the collected worlds of the Federation, writers have tended to shy away from actually bothering to review the book’s kinda-sorta sequel, The Lost Symbol (surely this will qualify as the most boring title ever to sell one billion copies?). After all, what tight-prised booby would stand there, reporter’s notebook in hand, jotting down “predictable downhill action … resonant rumbling … convincingly sweeps away trees …” while a full-blown avalanche descends upon them?

So instead, critics of all stripes have taken the occasion of The Boring Book‘s publication to try figuring out what this phenomenon is, what it says about US. Gopnik puts it rather typically:

But what, exactly, is inside the package? What spell does it cast and how does it cast it? Books are not so widely read without a reason. Surely future historians will look to Brown as an index of What We Were Really Thinking, and, turning the dense and loaded pages of his books, they may well ask, This is what they read for fun?

Gopnik eventually decides the heart of the Dan Brown literary mystery is that his books are, indeed, fun: kiddie fun, full of easily-solved puzzles and problems. That conclusion’s been reached elsewhere, in similar terms: that Brown’s popularity rests on his relentless flattering of his readers, his endless solicitude for their self-esteem. And while it might be true that he feels something like that (I’ve only met him once, when he was still just an ordinary writer doing bookstore walk-ins to sign copies of Angels and Demons, and he was affable and normal, back then – so there’s a hope he’s stayed that way), it’s immaterial.

There IS a solution to the riddle of Dan Brown, but it isn’t literary, and it certainly has nothing at all to do with the actual contents of his books. The solution is cultural, viral: he’s the hula-hoop. It isn’t that people are buying his books because something in those books answers a gigantic communal need – it’s just that everybody is now buying his books, that’s all. It’s not often you see cultural fads in book-form, but it does happen, and that’s all the Dan Brown phenomenon is. The middle 180 pages of The Lost Symbol could be Ikea instructions for cabinet assembly, and there wouldn’t be one single documented return at any Barnes & Noble in the country, because the people buying the book aren’t buying it to read it – they’re buying it because everybody’s buying it. This doesn’t “say” anything about current American culture – all it says is that Dan Brown is one Hell of a lucky guy, God’s blessing upon him.

Gopnik gets one more shot at your attention in this issue (after a scattershot article on the future of bio-engineering and a very, very irritating article on the fad of bored, rich Americans raising chickens at their country properties), with a very entertaining review of the celebrated Dreyfus Affair, about which he writes:

If the beginning of the Dreyfus story is Maupassant, and the middle Kafka, the end is Victor Hugo, a victory of the romantic, progressive imagination: wrongs can be righted; in the long run things work out for the best.

And then there was a brief, curiously enheartening little squib by Anthony Lane, a “Critic’s Notebook” listing of the showing of “The Lord of the Rings” at MOMA. I’ve been curious to know how “Lord of the Rings” would start to lodge in the collective critical consciousness, and Lane is an early indicator worth quoting at length:

Peter Jackson’s Tolkien trilogy is still a novelty of sorts, released in the first years of the new century; has it really earned its place beside the monoliths of the last? If so, it is precisely because the whole saga, for all the newfangled flourishes of C. G. I., harks back so unashamedly to older fanglings. The visual grammar of the assault on Helm’s Deep, in the second film, switching from majestic long shots of siege ladders to details of individual defiance, is barely changed from the way in which D. W. Griffith mounted the fall of Babylon in “Intolerance,” almost ninety years before. Epic, in short, demands its own style, and sets its own traps. Where the modern film wins is in the marshalling of sound; we need an orchestra to cover Griffith’s silent action, but Jackson, requiring a wrathful army for Helm’s Deep, bravely ventured onto a cricket pitch, during a break, and asked twenty-five thousand fans to roar in unison. They obliged.

Lane’s our second-best working movie critic, and here in embryo is the very highest praise – so I think “Lord of the Rings” will fare pretty well in the century to which it gave an almost unbeatable cinematic high-bar. We shall see.

September 13th, 2009

In the Penny Press! The New Yorker, 14 September 2009

Several of you (all card-carrying members of the Silent Majority, alas) have written wondering why I haven’t yet posted a third installment in my sudden resurgence of enthusiasm for The New Yorker, and believe me, I’d love it if the answer to that were, “Why, because this third issue was SO good I couldn’t even bring myself to write about it!” But unfortunately, the real explanation is more mundane and more disappointing: the 14 September issue was right back to normal. Drastically uneven, only intermittently substantial … a spotty reading experience, in other words. And the reason, at least this time around, is patently obvious:

It’s their “Style Issue.”

For the life of me, I don’t understand why non-industry magazines run these pieces of crap. Nobody who cares about fashion reads these magazines (in fact, as I’ve come to learn through recent closer exposure to the industry, nobody who cares about fashion reads, period), and nobody who reads these magazines cares about fashion – at least, not to a great enough extent to justify the huge amounts of space lavished on the subject on a regular basis.

OK, OK, I do know the reason: money. The glossy full-page fashion ads no doubt turn a pretty little profit. But still! Didn’t The New Yorker once published Hiroshima? What are they doing running a Style Issue no matter what the ads pay, for pete’s sake? For those of us who read the magazine regularly, these things are like surprise potholes that need sudden, expert navigation to mostly avoid – and it’s the ‘mostly’ that kills. I have no qualms at all about handing over $6 for a normal issue of The New Yorker, even if there’s the chance it’ll be maddeningly uneven. But it bugs the hell out of me to hand over $6 for an issue that’s both maddeningly uneven and half-filled with deadweight dross about hemlines. Geez.

So it is with this “Style” issue: there’s a long piece on shoes, a long piece on coats, a long piece on ‘Chicago style’ (an oxymoron if ever I saw one), a long piece on interior design, and so on for almost 50 pages of blah-blah-blather with not one word of substantial content.

Turning to the rest of the issue, we find disappointments (Anthony Lane is neither funny nor interesting this week, an extreme rarity) and the occasional gem. The always-enjoyable Nancy Franklin turns in a tart little appreciation of “Melrose Place” – the old show where Andrew Shue drew a regular paycheck despite openly professing to having no interest in acting (and where Heather Locklear so exquisitely chewed the scenery, a spectacle Franklin, bless her unpretentious soul, duly appreciates), and the new revamp of the show debuting this season on TV. Franklin comes up with the funniest quote of the issue when she dryly remarks, “….much as one hates to avert one’s eyes from the TV, even for half a second, sometimes one simply must.” Hee.

And Judith Thurman writes what is hands-down the issue’s best piece, an essay on the life, disappearance, and subsequent immortality of pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart. “On July 2, 1937,” Thurman writes, “she became the world’s most famous missing person.”

It’s a warts-and-all but ultimately affectionate look at the life and fame of Earthart, both of which are about to experience a brief renaissance as a brace of movies premiere about her (no doubt prompting books in their turn, new and old)(though hopefully we’ll all be spared the return of Earhart’s own books, which weren’t exactly West with the Night, despite lots of people hoping they might be). Thurman points out that the people who worked Earhart’s publicity made much of the “Lady Lindy” version of her persona – a frank, raw-boned Midwesterner with an open smile, routinely stepping into the sky to do the impossible – but it bears emphasizing that before she was famous, Earhart had a profound effect on the lives of many, many young women – making them laugh (she was very funny, in an offbeat and utterly memorable way), challenging them, and assuring them over and over that it was entirely acceptable for them to dream of more. She did all this, she changed all these lives, while doing social work in South Boston, and as Thurman points out, we’ll never know how long she might have found that fulfilling if fame hadn’t called her away. Certainly Southie was once full of grandmothers who would choke up a little when they recalled the pretty, oddly otherworldly young woman who “helped them so much” when they were young girls.

Thurman mentions Jane Mendelsohn’s wretched novel I Was Amelia Earhart (she calls the prose “torrid,” which is letting Mendelsohn off rather easily, if you ask me), but there’s one dramatic re-envisioning of Amelia Earhart she doesn’t bring up: Sharon Lawrence’s unexpectedly touching portrayal of the woman in the 1995 “Star Trek: Voyager” episode “The 37s.” When the episode first aired, I wanted nothing more than for the writers to do more with the character – when she asks if she can take Voyager “for a spin,” I, like thousands of other fans, wanted to cheer “Yes!”

Aside from Thurman and Franklin, there’s a good poem, by Justin Quinn called “Seminar”:

I carry America into these young heads,
at least some parts that haven’t yet got there –
Hawthorne’s Salem, Ellison’s blacks and reds,
Bishop’s lovely lines of late summer air.

The students take quick notes. They pause or dive
for dictionaries and laptops, or turn to ask
a friend as new words constantly arrive.
The more they do, the more complex the task.

They smoothly move from serious to blase
and back again. I love the way they sit
and use their bodies to nuance what they say.
I lean forward to catch the drift of it.

When it’s ended, they’ll switch back to Czech,
put on their coats and bags, shift wood and chrome,
and ready themselves for their daily trek
across a continent and ocean home.

And the fiction, you ask, that problematic staple of The New Yorker that’s so surprisingly pleased you the last couple of times? It, too, has returned to its dolorous norm – this time in the form of a lazy, patronizing story by Paul Theroux (there are three kinds of New Yorker short stories that feature black people: the good ones by black writers, the lousy ones by black writers, and the disgustingly bloated, g & t-sloshing colonial condescensions tossed off by white writers)(the obvious potential fourth category has never, to my knowledge, appeared in the magazine).

And all the cartoons were dumb, and so was Bruce McCall’s cover.

And that’s why I didn’t write about the issue. But hey – there’s always next week, right?

September 3rd, 2009

In the Penny Press: New Yorker, 7 September 2009

The 7 September New Yorker was very nearly as all-purpose good as the previous week’s issue, and that’s made me very suspicious. Ordinarily, The New Yorker goes for weeks without fielding an issue even half as good as both of these two latest ones have been, and here they’ve done two in a row. It makes me suspect editorial changes behind the scenes – either that, or we’re in for a long, boring winter.

This issue again starts off right, with a pointedly funny cover by Ivan Brunetti titled “Required Texts” in which a baseball-capped young person is trying – in vain – to teach texting abbreviations to a class of clueless old people. The implication – that there’s an impassable generational barrier around current technology – isn’t true, but untrue implications are the heart and soul of good cartoons, aren’t they? The only thing that irritated me was the fact that Brunetti’s people have weird little black tentacles instead of arms and legs. Perhaps he tires easily.

But once again, the issue keeps the ball in the air, starting right off with the Letters (always a pleasure watching people call Malcolm Gladwell a fraud) and the Talk of the Town, in which Nicholas Lemann writes a cogent, clear-eyed little piece on the process of President Obama’s embattled scheme for national health care. Lemann packs a lot of thought into a little space, including what struck me as a key bit of political understanding:

If a health-care bill passes this fall, it will be full of compromises: departures from liberal ideals, and fudges about how much it will cost. But anybody who stops fighting for it now is going to spend years repenting. As long as Congress passes, and Obama signs, a law that embodies the principle of universal, government-guaranteed coverage, the country will have achieved an enormous, and previously elusive, advance. Reagan nailed it in 1961: medical care is a core element in the liberal social contract.

Of course the Reagan sentiment Lemann’s referring to meant to be nailing the idea of national health-care into a coffin, but the point is nevertheless likely true about today’s liberal politics. The very idea is absurd – the government has as little legitimate involvement in an individual’s medical life as it does in his love-life (no luck last weekend at Hooter’s? Apply for your check now!), and it’s utterly irresponsible that the Obama administration is sinking so much time and energy into this ridiculous notion while the country’s two unjustified wars stretch on and its economy still staggers. But hey, the President “promised Teddy” (in the same issue, Hendrik Hertzberg continues the line of EMK hagiography that’s currently gripping the nation, writing “The second half of his forty-seven-year senatorial career was a wonder of focussed, patient, unwavering service to a practical liberalism that emphasized concrete improvements in the lives of the poor, the old, the disabled, children, the uninsured, the undocumented, the medically or educationally disadvantaged” – several parts of which bare only a nodding acquaintance with a senate record that is, after all, available for public examination)(but Bruce McCall’s health-care-related “Shouts & Murmurs” piece “Fibrilliations” is hilarious and not to be missed).

Adam Gopnik turns in a piece on Michael Ignatieff that’s far more interesting for Gopnik’s mordantly humorous observations about all things Canadian than it is about the titular candidate, and Jane Kramer writes an apparently unmotivated essay about that essential friend of all writers everywhere, Montaigne. Nobody who knows anything about Montaigne will learn anything new about him from her piece, and Kramer offers no new twists in opinion or interpretation – but ah, that’s the beauty of Montaigne! Not only does he exist as the ne plus ultra of literary allusion (if you’re writing a long essay and feel the need for the insertion of a quote to up your credibility, go to Montaigne – and if you already sort of half-remember which quote you want, but it isn’t turning up on any of your tipsy Web searches, simply add a couple of semi-colons to what you’ve got and attribute it to Montaigne – chances are your end result will be something he wrote anyway, or near enough), but his gargantuan collection of essays is the Everest of writerly self-absorption, a source of unending comfort to all subsequent writers who read books the way Narcissus gazed into his pond. Kramer doesn’t quite point out that Montaigne was the first blogger, but if I’d been ‘helping’ her to write it, she would have.

(A side-note to those of you reading this who may not yet have made the acquaintance of Montaigne’s essays: don’t let my sour old tone dissuade you! Instead, let me find you a good collection and send it to you post haste!)

The back of this issue is crowded with quarrelsome fuss-budgets: Joyce Carol Oates (who, when all is said, really has no business offering herself as any kind of literary critic) turns in a bland, quote-heavy observation of E. L. Doctorow’s insufferably condescending new novel Homer & Langley – she makes vague references to Twain and Beckett, but if you can figure out what she actually thought about the book, you’re a better man than I am (and if you’re considering reading the book yourself, you’d be well-advised to read Sam Sacks’ review of it in the September issue of Open Letters, for a far more opinionated – and far better written – account of the thing).

Likewise David Denby writes a dual movie-review of “American Casino” and “The Most Dangerous Man in America” – two movies neither I nor anybody else has ever heard of, so the ultimate point of his piece was lost on me. And then there’s Hilton Als, a writer whose brilliance is as habitual as it is habitually overlooked: he reviews the new JoAnne Akalaitis Central Park version of the ‘Bacchae’ of Euripides, and he tosses off fantastic understated insights throughout a piece that’s nevertheless oddly … well, fuss-budgety. He goes appropriately swoony over the dreaminess of Jonathan Groff, who plays a rock-star Dionysus (“His beauty is part of his success – a beauty that he can and does undercut with anger. He makes up for the script’s lapses as well – conveying Dionysus’ ideological, if not actual, bisexuality. Akalaitis is lucky to have Groff” … and so on), but he seems not to have enjoyed his evening. I suggest he take another shot at reviewing the show. Just wait about a week, until Groff gets a hangnail or a pimple and has to miss a performance – his understudy not only has talent (something Groff lacks, not that it’s ever going to make a difference in his career) but isn’t nearly so … distracting.

But the issue really has two highlights, one comic and one tragic. The comic side is handled by Caleb Crain, who writes a very entertaining piece about that tried and true standby, pirates. Crain’s piece is very enjoyable, despite the odd historical misstep (when he writes “Modern piracy has its origins in the wars that the great European powers fought over trade in the centuries following the discovery of the New World,” I have no idea what he means – modern how? He himself points out that piracy is as old as seafaring).

But the peak of this issue is the tragic story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was tried and convicted of setting the house-fire that killed his children in small-town Texas in 1991. The arson experts called in to examine the burn-patterns and other such arcana concluded that Willingham was lying when he said he fled the house when it was first enveloped in smoke and couldn’t rescue his children, who were trapped inside. When Willingham lost his case, he was sentenced to death, and David Grann, the author of this spectacularly good piece “Trial by Fire,” reminds us that since 1976, more than a hundred people have on death row have been exonerated by scientific evidence that either didn’t exist or wasn’t used properly when they were sentenced.

Cameron Todd Willingham wasn’t one of those people; he was duly executed, despite the fact that advocates of his case had brought in a rival arson expert who angrily discredited the conclusions drawn by the court experts, as in:

The notion that a flammable or combustible liquid caused flames to reach higher temperatures had been repeated in court by arson sleuths for decades. Yet the theory was nonsense: experiments have proved that wood and gasoline-fuelled fires burn at essentially the same temperature.

This rival investigator, a man named Hurst, right away starts to find disturbing problems in the case that killed Willingham:

Hurst found it hard to imagine Willingham pouring accelerant on the front porch, where neighbors could have seen him. Scanning the files for clues, Hurst noticed a photograph of the porch taken before the fire, which had been entered into evidence. Sitting on the tiny porch was a charcoal grill.

But while all this investigating and cross-investigating was going on, all of Willingham’s appeals were being denied. In 1996, Grann has him saying something that rings entirely true: “I just been trying to figure out why after having my wife and 3 beautiful children that I loved my life has to end like this.” On the strength of the case Grann makes, it seems almost certain Willingham was wrongfully convicted and wrongfully executed, and the piece makes much of the frisson of horror that notion is supposed to produce in its readers.

That’s nonsense too, of course – the problem with the death penalty in America isn’t that it occasionally kills an innocent person (callous as it sounds, all human endeavors have a margin of error) but that it isn’t allowed to kill enough guilty people. When you subtract those 130 innocent people from death row, you’re left with thousands and thousands of convicted and confessed killers in American prisons – people who are guilty of murder, rape, and child abuse and who are being housed and fed at public expense. When the tiny fraction of that number who ever manage to exhaust the variety of appeals available to them are actually marched to their death, they most often face lethal injection, as Willingham did. Contrary to law enforcement PR, it can be a fairly unpleasant death – but if you’re guilty of hacking four college girls to death for fun, or raping your 8-year-old foster kid if his state check is late (and a thousand other such offenses), it’s a hell of a lot better than you deserve.

One of the district attorneys in Grann’s piece says “certain people who commit bad enough crimes give up the right to live,” and regardless of the procedural injustices that unfairly condemned Cameron Todd Willingham, that simple sentiment is entirely true. In America today, if you decide to butcher the Korean family that runs the counter store where your Lotto number failed to win, you know you stand a statistical likelihood of spending the rest of your life in jail – and somewhere in the back of your drink-and-drug-addled brain, you’ve somewhere along the line registered the fact that this applies even if you’re sentenced to death: the legal system will often fight tooth and nail to keep you alive. This is called eating your cake and having it too, and it slings a lot more mud on the concept of justice than unfairly executing a few innocent people. That back-of-the-mind sub-calculation enters into the picture and crucially distorts the data that attempts to project whether or not the death penalty is a deterrent to major crimes. It might not be a deterrent now, but it would be if a gallows stood in every American prison yard and somebody dead-bang convicted of a small class of particularly heinous crimes had a week to set his affairs in order before he was ushered up those stairs.

But that gets us off-topic! The point is that David Grann has written a fantastic piece of old-fashioned reportage, and you should read it here before it gets anthologized everywhere next year, as it surely will.

(And to those of you who might be keeping score, yes, I know I haven’t commented on the issue’s short story, “Distant Relations” by Orhan Pamuk … what can I say? The thing obviously wasn’t conceived as a short story – it will almost certainly appear completely unchanged in his next novel, and it reads that way. I can’t stand it when illustrious authors pull this kind of crap; the short story is its own art form, and crudely approximating it by chipping chunks off a different art form and plopping them into The New Yorker isn’t a valid thing to do … it’s just lazy and opportunistic, and since I don’t think Pamuk generally is either of those things, I thought it would be more politic simply to ignore the thing … )

August 26th, 2009

In the Penny Press! New Yorker, 31 August 2009

There’s a fact about magazine-reading that you rarely hear, mainly because its conditions are so incredibly rare: when it’s good, The New Yorker is better than any other periodical in the world.

The reason you rarely hear that fact is because The New Yorker these days is, alas, almost never good. Oh, there are some reliable sources of quality – Anthony Lane seldom misfires, and other usual suspects – but far, far too often the magazine is a long, gray soup-line of broken-down shabby pieces of heavily-bestubbled pieces nobody gives a damn about. Week after week after week, The New Yorker seems determined to punish those of us who ever once upon a time liked it, or those of us who have the temerity to remember the days when it was sold in a brown paper wrapper – the days when every issue was a virtual song of perfection, when a critic could call it perhaps the greatest magazine in the history of magazines and not sound foolish or over-reaching.

In the post-Tina Brown era? Not hardly. The political reporting is too often choked with hyperbole and buzzwords (if I read another sentence in a national periodical that’s followed by the single word “Really?” as though the author were a friggin teenage girl – or thought friggin teenage girls were something worth emulating – I’m going to cancel a whole LOT of subscriptions), the short satire pieces have everything going for them except the smallest shred of humor, the various ‘quirky’ profiles go on at lengths utterly unsupported by their idiotic, self-serving subjects, and their longer features soar to new heights of tedium (a recent two-part piece on Siberia was more torturous than actual exile to Siberia would have been). And that’s not even taking into account the state of that New Yorker staple, the cartoon …

But every once in a great while, all the tumblers will fall into place and The New Yorker will once again do that particular thing that was once its reliable specialty: it will fill you up. The great issues of this magazine used to tell you things you never knew, fascinate you about subjects you hadn’t even heard about until you opened the issue, and show you old familiar topics in new and interesting lights (in addition to making you laugh, with the aforementioned cartoons) – it was like being a listening guest at some great salon of a party, and no matter where you turned or which room you entered, there was a fascinating conversation taking place, and when you left your head was buzzing with ideas.

The 31 August (oh, how wonderful to type that date!) New Yorker is just such an issue. From the wonderful, wistful “No Trespassing” cover by Istvan Banyai (which manages to be romantically touching despite the fact that it automatically summons to mind the open scene of Jaws) to the fascinating – if repellent – ‘Talk of the Town’ piece by Laura Secor on Iran’s political show-trials (and a heartbreaking notice by Ian Frazier on the devastation done to Central Park’s trees by a recent “microburst” storm), to the hilarious “Shouts & Murmurs” piece “For Immediate Release” by Paul Simms.

There’s a fantastic, extremely alarming article by Steven Brill on the failed teachers in the New York public school system, people who’ve been taken out of their classes for one reason or another (drunkenness, it seems, or plain old incompetence) but, thanks to their union, still get paid, usually while sitting in a place they’ve dubbed “The Rubber Room.” The fact that these people are getting paid not to teach instead of getting fired is bad enough, but toward the end of the article we get to the really scary part:

The Rubber Rooms house only a fraction of the 1.8 per cent who have been rated unsatisfactory. The rest still teach.


Then there’s Burkhard Bilger’s fun piece on Bob and Mike Bryan, twins who are also luminaries in the doubles-tennis circuit. Of course any piece on twins promises good old-fashioned freakshow fun, but in this case that payoff is overshadowed by the sad truth of Bilger’s opening:

Few sports have evolved so dramatically in the past forty years, or been so utterly transformed by technology. Drop a young Pele onto a modern soccer field and he would still dribble circles around most players. A DiMaggio in his twenties could go on a hitting spree in the major leagues tomorrow. But even Rod Laver in his prime, when he twice won all four grand-slam tournaments in a calendar year, would be flummoxed by today’s game: the giant carbon-fibre racquets, the synthetic strings that send every shot spinning and dipping over the court, and Andy Roddick at the baseline, blasting serves at one hundred and fifty miles per hour. It would seem less like tennis than like target practice.

Naturally, this is as true as it is tragic, and anybody who ever sat through the ode to boredom that was a Stefan Edberg match could have seen it coming. The problem isn’t the racquets or the strings – the problem is that evil, money-grubbing parents have figured out that if they treat their promising children like livestock – get them up at dawn, give them the right feed, keep them focused 24 hours a day on their purpose on this Earth, and most of all work them, train them, practice them during every waking minute – they stand to cash in on some rather lucrative endorsement deals when their animal starts paying off. There are two inevitable results of this new program: first, the resulting creatures, although only able to perform one small fraction of the actual game of tennis (100 percent entirely power-games from the backcourt), are able to perform that fraction at superhuman, eugenically engineered levels. Roger Federer can hit a penny one inch from the baseline with a 120-mph shot, and he can do it over and over again, without ever missing, without ever pausing, for upwards of twenty straight hours, if his father/manager tells him he should. The noises that Rafael Nadal makes on the court (which would have got him peremptorily disqualified in Laver’s day) can be heard a city block outside the arena, because what he’s doing isn’t tennis, it’s weight-lifting. And second, the resulting creatures are entirely vacant animals which have no intellect, no ability to reflect or learn, and not even a small amount of self-control (their controls have, literally since birth, always been imposed on them by their manager/parents). When somebody asks Michael Phelps or Sidney Crosby a question about their sport, the usual pre-learned patter snaps automatically into place, “We were really looking forward to this game/match, it was really challenging, we gave it our all, it was a learning experience,” etc. But if they’re left alone and unsupervised at, say, a restaurant or party, they stare blankly, mouth slightly ajar, as clueless and overstimulated as a five-year-old. If a young woman walks by, they blurt out, “ME WANT RAPE!” – and somebody quickly cell-phones their manager/parents for a quick retrieval.

Fortunately, the article is redeemed throughout by Brill’s great skill as a writer, and that skill is abundantly on hand elsewhere in the issue. In that rarest of rarities these days, the issue’s short story is excellent: it’s called “The Fountain House,” and it’s by an author I’ve never heard of (I’m pretty sure I would have remembered): Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. It’s about a man who loses his daughter in a bus-bomb explosion – only maybe he doesn’t – and it’s wonderfully sparse and strong, even in its English translation.

James Wood turns in an unusually meaty review of Terry Eagleton’s new attack on the “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, and Wood’s piece is good right from the start:

Nothing more clearly shows that atheism belongs to religious belief, as the candlesnuffer does to the candle, than the rise of the so-called “new atheism.

Of course, Wood still manages to write a few boneheaded things, as when he refers to A Brief Inquiry Into the Meaning of Sin & Faith “a posthumous publication” of the late, great John Rawls (it was nothing of the kind, being rather a particularly bothersome case of literary grave-robbing), or when he uncorks this little beauty:

The Christian God is personal – that is precisely the stumbling block for many of us who cannot persist in belief. And how does one go from the idolatry-hating God of the Old Testament to the fleshily incarnated God who died on the Cross? The bridge between the two seems not to stretch all the way across the river.

(Any intelligent Christian – not a heavily-populated subset, I admit – would tell Wood that he himself has supplied the answer to his own confusion: Jesus. The compassion, the frailty, the humanity of Jesus … these things are the bridge across that river, and if your faith is true, they do indeed stretch the whole way).

The back of the issue is held down by two of The New Yorker‘s trustiest standbys: Alex Ross and Anthony Lane (although David Denby’s magisterial take down of “Inglorious Basterds” last week was a tough act to follow). Ross writes an extremely interesting piece on the almost-lost art of classical improvisation:

Beethoven carried on the tradition – the darkly rumbling cadenza that he devised for Mozart’s D-minor Piano Concerto is a fascinating case of one composer meditating on another – but he also helped to kill it. In the first movement of the “Emperor” Concerto, the soloist is told not to make a cadenza but to play “the following” – a fully notated solo. Performers gradually stopped working out their own cadenzas, instead turning to a repertory of written-out versions.

The issue features three poems by Richard Wilbur, and two of them I actually liked:

Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes
For a last look at that white house she knew
In sleep alone, and held no title to,
And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.

What did she tell me of that house of hers?
White gatepost; terrace; fanlight of the door;
A widow’s walk above a bouldered shore;
Salt winds that ruffle the surrounding firs.

Is she now there, wherever there may be?
Only a foolish man would hope to find
That haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.
Night after night, my love, I put to sea.

– The House


Treetops are not so high,
Nor I so low
That I don’t instinctively know
How it would be to fly.

Through gaps that the wind makes, when
The leaves arouse
And there is a lifting of boughs
That settle and lift again.

Whatever my kind may be,
It is not absurd
To confuse myself with a bird
For the space of a reverie:

My species never flew,
But I somehow know
It is something that long ago
I almost adapted to.


Of course, liking an issue of The New Yorker this much will make next week’s inevitably crappy issue all the more bitterly disappointing. But for now, I can savor it all again here in the writing about it and imagine that the whole thing still cost $1.50 and came wrapped in brown paper to protect the front cover from wear and tear – and to make unveiling that cover all the more happy.

August 5th, 2009

Frustration and Relief in the Penny Press!

Since I’m fairly prompt and fairly consistent with my icy glares, most of my friends have stopped asking me if I’ve yet acquired a Kindle from Amazon. Those friends have now moved on to a question almost as annoying and no less illogical: have I yet read Nicholson Baker’s New Yorker article on how he acquired a Kindle from Amazon?

Well, since reading that article a) doesn’t cost me the price of a month’s rent, and b) doesn’t involve a basic betrayal of everything I’ve stood for since 1520, I can actually get around to answering the second question. After all, I read The New Yorker virtually every week (it used to be ‘religiously’ every week, but ever since major non-industry magazines started indulging in ‘Fashion Issues,’ I’ve stopped indulging in blind loyalty – virtually nothing will elicit an icy glare from me faster than a gallumping old dowager like The New Yorker springing for a Fashion Issue) anyway, so Baker’s article would have come across my path eventually (it’s late crossing my path this week only because I was waiting for a certain young acquaintance to finish reading the issue so I could ‘borrow’ it – but since he’s only just finished lip-moving his way through Talk of the Town, I went ahead and sprang for the issue myself).

Why those friends of mine were so eager for me to read this particular piece on the Kindle, as opposed to any of the other gazillion that have appeared, is a bit of a mystery to me. From the tone of their questions, I got the impression they somehow think I like Nicholson Baker, that he and I are simpatico somehow, that there’ll be a fun and intimate correlation between his reactions to exploring the world of the Kindle and my own reactions. I’m not sure where this imagined correspondence comes from; to the best of my knowledge, Baker has never written a single book, fiction or nonfiction, that I even remotely liked – even merrily drunk, I’ve never expressed a sneaking admiration for his prose style or command of subject. Maybe it’s just as simple as that he professes to care about books, and so do I.

Anyway, I finally read his article – and it was dismaying as all Hell. He starts out with the usual fey pose of wary detachment (“this object arrived today in the parcel post” …. etc.), talks a lot about the design flaws and aesthetic shortcomings of the Kindle and other devices designed to simulate the experience of reading a book, and in the end champions a twist in the tale I, for one, didn’t see coming (I won’t spoil it, since that aforementioned acquaintance will be getting to the end of this article sometime in 2010, and I wouldn’t want to ruin it for him). Electronic reading receives no blanket condemnation in Baker’s article – indeed, although he never comes right out and says it, he makes it pretty clear he views electronic reading as the inevitable fate of all reading. Which is a thought (expressed in a blog, yes, I’m aware of the irony) I abhor, of course.

But it was one glancing paragraph that really stopped me, a point where Baker is discussing some of the limitations of the Kindle:

Here’s what you buy when you buy a Kindle book. You buy the right to display a grouping of words in front of your eyes for your private use with the aid of an electronic display device approved by Amazon … Kindle books aren’t transferrable. You can’t give them away or lend them or sell them. You can’t print them. They are closed clumps of digital code that only one purchaser can own. A copy of a Kindle book dies with its possessor.

Doesn’t really invoke the communal, infectious glory of the world of books, does it? Half an hour after reading Baker’s article, I was happily sorting through used books I intended to buy at dirt-cheap prices, all books previously owned and perhaps loved by somebody else, and half an hour after that, I was either handing some of those books to new owners or mailing them to prospective new owners – and to put it mildly, I was having a great time. The Kindle and devices like it reduce books to mere text, to raw data – and the dismaying thing about these devices is how popular they are (the sales figures Baker quotes are staggering). It turns out that books have very likely always been raw data to most of the people who read them, and that’s a sad and sobering thing to think about.

Not that I can’t imagine an electronic book that I’d personally like – far from it, a version of that ideal alternative is briefly alluded to in Baker’s article. My ideal electronic book would be a book, first of all: it would have a spine, a flexible front and back cover, and pages (at least four, anyway). Its power source would be a battery-stick that slides unobtrusively up into its spine, and that power source would last a very, very long time (in fact, I’m sure there’s a way to link it to micro-photovoltaic panels embedded in those flexible covers, thus recharging the thing whenever it’s exposed to light). The contents would be delivered to the book electronically (through a quick download at the library, I’d prefer), but once they were delivered, they’d be cut off from the outside world, manipulable only by me (stories of Amazon being able to reach into every Kindle on Earth and summarily remove an edition of a book whenever they choose … well, such stories hardly make for comfortable reading, do they?). And I’d be able to manipulate the hell out of that text – underline, make margin notes, move footnotes from one edition of ‘The Tempest’ to another, cut and paste my own preferred illustrations, etc. And unlike with the Kindle, nobody would be able watch me do any of those things – the changes would be happening in my electronic book and nowhere else.

I’m not so much of a Luddite I don’t drool at the prospect of such a device. An object that preserves the spine-handling and page-turning of paper-pulp books, but that has infinite options? So I could build my absolute ideal, say, “Paradise Lost” from a) the best text, b) the best annotations, and c) the best illustrations (right now, each of those things is attached to a separate edition)? The book equivalent of a mix CD – or even better, the book-equivalent of a blog? That would be wonderful beyond description. Having my entire library in that one sturdy, intuitive device (even if I kept a hundred actual physical books around, for old time’s sake)? That would be wonderful. But that’s not the Kindle, and the fact that so many thousands of consumers think what the Kindle is works just fine is dismaying.

When I turned to the latest issue of Men’s Journal, I expected a certain undercurrent of dismay to follow with me. After all, although Men’s Journal very often publishes fantastic, thoughtful articles, they’re also a magazine that panders to a particular stratum of stupid young white American men – a stratum I absolutely hate, since they’re not honestly dumb … these are young men making a lot more money than they need who consider themselves intelligent, even clever, and who make that consideration explicitly and exclusively on competitive grounds.

In other words, it’s a magazine for douchebags.

(The fact that every issue is absolutely LADEN with adds for cigars and cigarettes doesn’t help any, either – although there IS something faintly comforting about the thought of so many douchebags acquiring unquittable wastingly fatal addictions)

And I was right: this issue contains its usual quota of really good writing, and it also contains an incredibly frustrating article on what a kick-ass awesome guy accessory a dog is. Sigh.

Bill Gifford writes the main little piece, called “Your Dog: A User’s Manual” even though it covers virtually no aspect of living with a dog (and deepens the dismay by referring to these living beings as though they were items of gear like the stuff that fills the ad-space of the issue). One aspect that’s given lots of attention is where you get your dog (magazines like Men’s Journal always do this – they know their target audience is almost entirely concerned with the acquisition part of any new experience … after which, boredom almost immediately sets in) – pet stores can be nefarious, we’re told, and the Internet is rife with scams – so you’d better line up with a reputable breeder and put your name on a 2012 litter of puggles! Yeesh.

Animal shelters all across this country are killing record numbers of abandoned dogs every month (in shelters in the South, they’re often stuffed into gas chambers 15 at a time – but for cost-cutting reasons, the amount of gas pumped in at each killing would only be quickly lethal to 5 or 6 dogs – thus guaranteeing all of those dogs a protracted, agonized death), but what are we told about the prospect of adopting one of those abandoned dogs? “Adopting a pre-owned pup from a shelter is a great option, but finding the right match can be tricky.” Translation: Dude, it’ll take, like, mad amounts of time! You wanna be shreddin’ it with your dog, like, today!

And of course, wherever two or more of you are gathered in the name of speaking nonsense about dogs, there too shall Cesar Milan be: he’s referred to as “the Dr. Phil for dog owners” (I’d actually agree with that entirely), and he gives five tips for prospective dog owners. True to form, the tips are either self-evident (walk your dog, we’re helpfully told) or ridiculous (“reward the good, ignore the bad,” we’re told – if your dog does something wrong, just ignore it, don’t acknowledge it at all … just reward the good behavior, and you’ll be fine. Yeesh. A word to all you prospective dog-owners out there: if you do this, your dog will learn one message and one message only from it: that he’ll be praised for the good things he does – and that he can get away scott-free with all the bad stuff he feels like doing. If that sounds ideal to you, let Cesar show you the way …)

I had to get all the way to the very end of this issue of Men’s Journal – to the very last page – to have my spirits lifted, but it happened! The last page features a ‘Survival Skills’ interview they do with a different celebrity each month, and this time around it’s aging tough-guy actor James Caan, and his answers are sheer delight. I’ll quote two choice ones:

Q: What should every man know about women?

A: They’re fucking nuts.

Q: What article of clothing should every man own?

A: What kind of fucking question is that?

Ah … sweet, sweet relief ….

June 5th, 2009

the New Yorker Fiction Issue in the Penny Press!

Well, the New Yorker Fiction Issue is here, and as you’d expect, there’s plenty to hate.

I’m less disposed to that hatred than I was in previous years, mainly because I’ve just recently had a hand in helping to create a Fiction Issue myself (over at Open Letters – plenty of good stuff for you to enjoy this month! More good stuff, if I may be so bold, than can be found in this issue of the New Yorker), so I’ve experienced some of the frustrations and compromises any group of editors must face in pulling together a double-sized special issue like this one. A freelancer who’s multiple-submitted a piece all over creation and hasn’t told you, so you only stumble across the fact that you’ve been scooped two days before deadline, with no time to find an article to take the place of what is now yesterday’s news? It happens. A long, scholarly piece that just germinates new typos, no matter how many editorial eyes scrutinize it? They exist. Writers who use the special mission of a Fiction Issue to heap praise on authors who don’t deserve it? Oh yes. And then there’s the most basic compromise of all, the one that faces every editor of any capacity not just with special theme-issues but all the time: not all writers are created equal. Some of them try their hardest, bless ’em, and only manage to produce marginally-readable prose, whereas others wait until the last minute and flash out brilliant patter. It all adds to the challenge of creating a Fiction Issue in the first place, and it gives me an added dose of empathy for the folks at the New Yorker.

Still, plenty to hate.

Yiyun Li turns in a brief meditation on what it meant to her to read Hemingway during her compulsory time in the Chinese Army – turns out the experience convinced her how much cooler she is than anything written by Hemingway, because books aren’t real, because in the end they’re simplistic, escapist things. As Li discovered, “All would be well if you lived in a novel.” Great way to start a Fiction Issue. Yeesh.

The estimable Roger Angell writes another brief piece (pitched, as so much of his recent stuff has been, as though he himself were roughly 100 – and reminding me that such a sentimental it’s-poignant-because-it’s-me tone is tedious in any writer, no matter how distinguished, no matter if he really is 100) remembering books in his family’s summer cottage in Maine. He turns in a good bit on the scorned art of re-reading:

There’s a sweet dab of guilt attached to rereading. Yes, we really should be into something new, for we need to know all about credit-default swaps and Darwin and steroids and the rest, but not just now, please. My first vacation book this year will be like my first swim, a venture into assured bliss.

Good prose, but the same crackbrained premise that underlies this whole Fiction Issue: that “summer reading” or “vacation reading” is somehow a legitimate category, that on vacation (and as I’ve pointed out before, so many magazines still craft issues like this one as though all summer reading were vacation reading, as though all of us were members of the 18th century London Ton and as soon as June rolls around, we shutter up our town-houses and decamp for three solid months of delicious frolic at our country estates, when in reality we’re sniffing some fat-ass’s garlic-breath on a jam-packed subway car with no air conditioning, on our way to our same old daily job, winter or summer) it’s not only OK but expected to read lighter stuff. Needless to say, I hate this premise, since its most glaring implication is that non-summer reading is a boring chore, a duty we slog through dutifully but unhappily. Angell, firmly stuck in cranky-old-man mode, enthusiastically reinforces that premise, but I can assure you: there are new books on Darwin that would thrill you more deeply than any “beach reading” you’re planning this summer. Angell knows this; he’s just being a putz, denigrating reading right there in the middle of the Fiction Issue.

I thought I saw a glimmer of relief in the fact that the hugely talented David Grossman wrote an article about the hugely talented Bruno Schulz – but I was wrong! Schulz wrote some wonderful prose and led a fascinating, frustrating life (until it was ended in an anecdote too shopworn to need repeating here), but it turns out he’s not the subject of Grossman’s article: Grossman is. More specifically, the fact that Grossman used Schulz as a character in his novel See Under: Love. Grossman mechanically recites all the pertinent biographical details about Schulz, but he doesn’t take much trouble to hide the fact that what he really wants to talk about is himself, his books, his writing process, etc. Schulz is just there as window-dressing, which is, upon a moment’s reflection, a tad insulting for Schulz.

And that’s nothing compared to how Thomas Mann would feel if he could come back from Hell and read Aleksandar Hemon’s one-page confessional about how much Magic Mountain meant to him. The answer: squat. Reading his three columns of breathless prose, you quickly become aware that the only author who’s ever meant anything to Hemon is that hugely talented criminally underpraised author, Aleksandar Hemon. Mann is entirely forgotten almost as soon as he’s invoked. It’s enough to make me wonder if the editors of this issue aren’t playing a prank on the readers; “let’s commission what-this-book-meant-to-me” pieces from writers who hate reading.” Or something like that.

There aren’t many such little pieces in the issue, thank gawd, but there’s still plenty more to hate. Naturally, R. Crumb will always appear at or near the top of any list. For thirty years, I’ve been puzzling about this talentless moron’s cult popularity, and now I get to match that puzzlement with outrage, because the talentless moron has apparently taken it into his head to illustrate the Bible. Excerpted here in the New Yorker is his rendition of the Book of Genesis, to which he appends the following assurance: “Nothing Left Out!”

Nothing left out, but plenty added in – not only Fat Ugly Amazon Women (they’re expected, since they’re in every single thing Crumb draws) but also a God with a long white beard and flowing robes, when no such spectacle is described in Genesis. And it goes on from there, cluttering up and uglying up the first chapter in the greatest of all books. In the accompanying brief preface, Crumb says that he occasionally turns to Ecclesiastes for insight, but never the Book of Genesis – because it’s “too primitive.” So he’s got the irony thing down pat.

Wandering in such a desert, I naturally perked up at an article by Louis Menand. As far as deadline-writers go, he’s in the upper ranks of those who usually do no wrong, and his subject here, the history of writing workshops in America, is promising. Unlike so much in this New Yorker, he doesn’t disappoint. Right from the start, he’s tossing the quips like a fine salad:

The workshop is a process, an unscripted performance space, a regime for forcing people to do two things that are fundamentally contrary to human nature: actually write stuff (as opposed to planning to write stuff very, very soon), and then sit there while strangers tear it apart.

Menand is a good deal more generous in his conclusions about writing workshops than I would have been. I have some familiarity with the phenomenon, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Kay Boyle was write: they should be illegal. Fully one-half of the rot that rivens the entire superstructure of contemporary fiction is caused by writing workshops carefully, lovingly molly-coddling crappy prose all the way to publication (the other half? Hordes of idiot readers clamoring for books to be video games – always completely new, always explosively over-stimulating from the first sentence, anything, as long as it’s crack cocaine and not, you know, the boring old experience of reading – because really, who likes that?)(I have a dear friend who sometimes dabbles in this kind of idiocy, though she bloody well knows better; she’ll finish a piece of poop by somebody like Yiyun Li and say, “Boy, reading that really made me want to meet the author,” when she knows perfectly well good fiction will only prompt the response, “Boy, reading that really made me want to read something else by the author”). So the widespread growth of writing workshops can only be deplored, and Menand gets kudos for deploring in such a balanced, gentlemanly fashion.

And what, you ask, about the fiction in the Fiction Issue?

Plenty to hate.

There’s the merely boring – Edna O’Brien turns in a story so long and pointless I kept checking to make sure it wasn’t by Alice Munro. I find it hard to believe there were no bigger-name authors clamoring for a spot in the New Yorker Fiction Issue, and O’Brien’s presence here makes me dread a Munro-Trevor one-two punch in the Atlantic’s Fiction Issue.

And there’s the gawd-awful – Jonathan Franzen writes a story called “Good Neighbors” that couldn’t be more lazy or narcissistic if it were called “Jonathan Franzen, hung over, sits down to cobble something together for the New Yorker Fiction Issue.” Franzen’s story is nominally about some yuppies who move into a down-at-heels neighborhood and proceed to gentrify it, but who can concentrate on even so flimsy and gimmicky a plot as that, when you have to wade through cliches, idioms, and already-dated slang to get to it? The yuppies – the Berglunds – ask all the typical yuppie questions:

… how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else’s children’s sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it.

Loathsome stuff, yes, and rendered all that more loathsome by the sickeningly solid conviction that it isn’t really fiction at all, that it’s just a barely-transposed excerpts from Franzen’s own ‘To Do’ list. Reading this lazy, pointless prose tends to make me seethe, as I seethed throughout the entire self-indulgent monstrous length of The Corrections. I keep wondering what ever convinced Franzen that he was a writer, that this stuff he produces is worthy of general publication. I suspect there’s a writing workshop at the heart of it.

But I can’t only complain about writing workshops, since they sometimes produce gems. The best short story in this Fiction Issue – indeed, the best short story I’ve read anywhere so far in 2009 – so obviously comes from a workshop that I don’t even need to know the biography if its author, Tea Obreht, to know she’s spent a lot of time perched at a conference table, murmuring ‘constructive criticism’ about crapola. Her story, “The Tiger’s Wife,” is the issue’s piece of debut fiction, and it’s a stunning debut. Whether or not Obreht ever lives up to the promise of this story is an open question (she has a book coming out in 2010); certainly I’ve loved New Yorker short stories this much by authors who then disappeared, or wrote garbage for the rest of their lives.

But for now, I can only urge each and every one of you: read “The Tiger’s Wife.” Go out and buy the Fiction Issue of the New Yorker just for this story.

The tale is set during World War II – German bombs fall on a city somewhere in Europe, breaking open the wall of a tiger cage in the town zoo and setting free the scorched and bewildered tiger inside. He wanders through the chaos of town and eventually makes his way up into the mountain villages, slowly learning to listen to his instincts, slowly learning how to hunt and kill his own food rather than wait for his handlers to feed him. He takes up residence near a village which Obreht populates with characters who are intensely, unostentatiously real, and as they grow more anxious about the lurking presence of the tiger in the foothills, they decide to organize a hunting party. Obreht’s story makes compulsive reading; her descriptive abilities are first-rate:

The day was intermittently gray and bright. A freezing rain had fallen during the night, and the trees, twisting under the weight of their ice-laden branches, had transformed the forest into a snarl of crystal.

… and her comic timing – that rarest of writerly gifts – is well-nigh flawless, as in this moment when the shooter’s first shot misses the tiger and it bounds across a frozen lake straight at him:

The tiger was almost over the pond, bounding on muscles like springs. He heard Jovo muttering, “Fuck me,” helplessly, and the sound of Jovo’s footsteps moving away. The blacksmith had the ramrod out and he was shoving it into the muzzle, pumping and pumping and pumping furiously, his hand already on the trigger, and he was ready to fire, strangely calm with the tiger there, almost on him, its whiskers so close and surprisingly bright and rigid. At last, it was done, and he tossed the ramrod aside and peered into the barrel, just to be sure, and blew his own head off with a thunderclap.

In a perfect world, the special Fiction Issue of the New Yorker would be filled with such gems as “The Tiger’s Wife,” but no. You have to hunt for such great stuff, sifting through crap in a dozen different magazines, always hoping you’ll find something that glows in the dark. It almost never happens, but oh, it’s so sweet when it does. Maybe the next Fiction Issue will do it again. I’ll read it, and I’ll let you know.