Posts from December 2014

December 6th, 2014

The Best of 2014: In the Penny Press!

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The roll call of periodicals I read was grimly undiminished in 2014. The list – currently National Geographic, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, GQ, Esquire, Vanity Fair, New York Magazine, Men’s Journal, Outside, The London Review of Books, Bookforum, Publisher’s Weekly, Harper’s, The Rolling Stone, Audubon, The Atlantic, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The National Review, The New Republic, The Boston Review, The Nation, Smithsonian, Yankee Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, Natural History, The Journal of Roman Studies, and of course the mighty TLS – is fairly long, and so the pool of candidates for the list is correspondingly huge. And inevitably, the more one reads (and the more Twitter-links one follows), the more one comes to realize how much other good stuff is almost certainly slipping by unread. This list, unlike the others in this annual Stevereads Gotterdamerung, is constructed in the full awareness that it’s only a rough approximation. That’s irksome, and in response I’ll be including a bit more than my customary ten items this time around:

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18. The Teen Whisperer by Margaret Talbot (The New Yorker) – Naturally, I’m as appalled by the limitless super-phenomenon of YA author John Green as any other thinking adult. I shudder to think that this smiling, affable purveyor of fairly ordinary two-dimensional overwritten children’s books is the most influential and best-selling author in the history of mankind, with a vast cult of millions of tweens who would unhesitatingly garotte their grandmothers if he or his brother Hank so much as suggested it. But appalled or not, I couldn’t help but love Margaret Talbot’s shrewd – if droolingly hagiographic – profile of John Green, including her insights into how reading itself has changed for Green’s numberless fans:

In a different era, “The Fault in Our Stars” could have been that kind of cultish book. For many young people today, however, reading is not an act of private communion with an author whom they imagine vaguely, if at all, but a prelude to a social experience – following the author on Twitter, meeting other readers, collaborating with them on projects, writing fan fiction. In our connected age, even books have become interactive phenomena.


17. 21st Century Limited by Kevin Baker (The Atlantic) – Any profile of the American long-distance passenger rail system is bound to be heavily steeped in nostalgia, and this is certainly true of Kevin Baker’s lovely piece in the Atlantic. But Baker balances things out with some very good observations about the nature of the allure here:

“The romance of it!” But just what this means, they cannot really say. It’s tempting to think that we are simply equating romance with pleasure, with the superior comfort of a train, especially seated up high in the observation cars. But hang seen a rural train emerge silently through a gap in the New England woods, having seen the long slide of a 1 train’s headlights, I suspect that the appeal of trains is something more primitive than this. Trains are huge things that come upon us like predators. Almost from the beginning of the machine age, Americans yearned and sought ways for the train to connect their little towns – to connect them – to the greater world.

16. The War of the Words by Keith Gessen (Vanity Fair) – The story of Amazon v.s. the book world is far from over, but one of the best reports from the front lines was this smart and surprisingly funny piece by Keith Gessen from Vanity Fair, where for once Gessen’s tendency to make every single thing that happens in the world about himself actually works in favor of the performance, since he’s both a piece-writer for the glossies and a published author himself and thus vested in the whole question. And maybe as a result of this, he manages to fill his piece with great quotes and apercus:

Inside and outside of publishing, people disagree about how the business will shake out. “Book publishers had the longest time horizon to prepare for the digital transition,” the industry lawyer told me, “and they were the least prepared.” From Amazon’s perspective, demographics is destiny: people who read print are dying, while digital natives are being born.

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15. Snowden in Exile by Katrina Vanden Heuvel & Stephen F. Cohen (The Nation) – Until I read this long interview with Edward Snowden in The Nation, I had very firm opinions about the guy, and they weren’t favorable by any means. Somehow, through the shrewdness and comprehensiveness of the questions and discussions provided by Vanden Heuvel and Stephen Cohen, this piece brought me to a new understanding, mainly, I think, by allowing Snowden to do so much of the talking himself:

“When people say, ‘I have nothing to hide,’ what they’re saying is, ‘My rights don’t matter.’ Because you don’t need to justify your rights as a citizen – that inverts the model of responsibility. The government must justify its intrusion into your rights. If you stop defending your rights by saying, ‘I don’t need them in this context’ or ‘I can’t understand this,’ they are no longer rights. You have ceded the concept of your own rights.”

14. The Human Factor by William Langewiesche (Vanity Fair) – It’s well-known – hell, I’ve been saying it for years – that William Langewiesche is the Homer of air travel, and this brilliant piece in Vanity Fair, about the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447, is this great author at the height of his powers:

There is another unintended consequence of designing airplanes that anyone can fly: anyone can take you up on the offer. Beyond the degradation of basic skills of people who may once have been competent pilots, the fourth-generation jets have enabled people who probably never had the skills to begin with and should not have been in the cockpit. As a result, the mental makeup of airline pilots has changed.


13. The Dogmatist by John Gray (The New Republic) – I might have little patience with John Gray as a philosopher, but I have a new respect for him as a book reviewer after this New Republic piece savaging not only the new memoir by Richard Dawkins but also Richard Dawkins himself, and in such virtuoso terms that I almost felt sorry for Dawkins:

One might wager a decent sum of money that it has never occurred to Dawkins that to many people he appears as a comic figure. His default mode is one of rational indignation – a stance of withering patrician disdain for the untutored mind of a mind one might expect in a schoolmaster in a minor public school sometime in the 1930s. He seems to have no suspicion that any of those he despises could find his stilted prose of indignant rationality merely laughable.

12. What To Call Her? by Jenny Diski (The London Review of Books) – It seems almost blasphemous to cite this piece by Jenny Diski from The London Review of Books about her experiences when she was a girl living in the household of Doris Lessing instead of any of her incredibly moving essays about her recent ongoing struggle with cancer, but I can’t help it: this piece is such a perfect balance of tender and bittersweet that it got my vote:

As with my cancer diagnosis, it’s hard to avoid thundering cliches when writing about the start of my relationship with Doris, and hard not to make it sound either Dickensian or uncannily close to the fairy tales we have in the back of our minds. ‘It’s like something out of a fairy story’ was a phrase people often said to me when they learned how I got to live with Doris. To which I would answer yes, or sort of, or say nothing at all.

11. Dead End on Silk Road by David Kushner (Rolling Stone) – In beautifully controlled prose and scrupulous reporting, David Kushner in this Rolling Stone piece tells the harrowing story of the “Silk Road,” a backstage illicit shadow-Internet of crime, and of Ross Ulbricht, who for years oversaw the Silk Road as “Dread Pirate Roberts,” profiteering enormously and casually ordering the deaths of buyers and sellers who crossed him, until finally the Feds caught up with him. Kushner sifts through the evidentiary record and unfailingly sniffs out the best bits:

Though DPR was careful to keep a distance from his customers, he occasionally lifted the veil slightly – after Green helped the seller unload a kilo of coke to a buyer for $27,000 worth of Bitcoins, DPR reached out to him. “Congrats on the sale,” DPR wrote, initiating an exchange in which he later referenced his girlfriend. Curious about how DPR managed his double life, the seller asked, “Does she know who you are? … Dread, I mean.”

“No way,” DPR replied. “Maybe never.”

“How can you hide that from her? I have to guess that [you are] spending at least 10 to 12 hours a day on SR.”

“I’ve become good at hiding,” DPR replied.

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10. This Old Man by Roger Angell (The New Yorker) – Legendary writer Roger Angell’s piece in The New Yorker this year about being 90 was remarkable not only for its unsparing clarity but also for its ideological flexibility. Readers over a certain age will find themselves nodding at every one of his sudden-seeming realizations:

My list of names is banal but astounding, and it’s barely a fraction, the ones that slip into view in the first minute or two. Anyone over sixty knows this; my lists is only longer. I don’t go there often, but, once I start, the battalion of the dead is on duty, alertly waiting. Why do they sustain me so, cheer me up, remind me of life? I don’t understand this. Why am I not endlessly grieving?

9. Veronese’s ‘Allegories of Love’ by T. J. Clark (TLS) – The mighty TLS is seldom represented in this year-end list, mainly because the journal concentrates so heavily on task-specific book reviews that don’t lend themselves to stand-alone virtuoso writing. This extremely thought-provoking piece by T. J. Clark about the great Veronese was the first of two happy exceptions this year:

Veronese has a Shakespearean ability to use the sensuous and structural qualities of his medium – the exact disposition of light, space, colour and figure within the picture rectangle – to make standard materials mutate. And surely the main task of art history is to give an account of how ‘As would be expected …’ is no answer.

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8. The Greatest Showbiz Book Ever Written by Frank Rich (New York) – As a matter of course, I try never to miss anything that Frank Rich writes, and since I’m already a big fan of Moss Hart’s Act One, I read this long appreciation of the book with avid interest – and I wasn’t disappointed:

What lifts Act One above other riveting backstage sagas and rags-to-riches success stories is the loneliness and sadness the hero has to overcome. “I have a pet theory of my own, probably invalid, that the theater is an inevitable refuge of the unhappy child,” Hart writes early in the book, no doubt knowing full well that his theory is valid.

7. In the Egosphere by Adam Mars-Jones (The London Review of Books) – This epic-length and very polite career-evisceration of Philip Roth by the brilliant Adam Mars-Jones is electrifying from start to finish, even for somebody like me, who’s been eviscerating Roth’s writings for thirty years. Mars-Jones’s piece is full of great quotes (“Having the rug pulled from under your feet certainly gives you a fresh perspective on the ceiling, but it’s also likely to breed chronic mistrust of rugs,” and many other examples) and also a delightful number of challenging broader pronouncements:

Postmodern games have a necrotising effect on a novel’s flesh. The dispiriting thing about literary postmodernism is that it reinforces the writer at the expense of the reader in what was already an asymmetrical relationship.

6. Blood on the Sand by Matthew Power (Outside) – This Matthew Power piece from Outside is the hauntingly sad story of young Jairo Mora Sandoval, who spent his brief adult life protecting the great sea turtles who beach themselves on the sands of Costa Rica in order to lay their eggs. Sandoval was killed by bandit egg-poachers, and Power’s piece makes no bones about his heroic status:

Just a few weeks before his death, Mora told a newspaper reporter that threats were increasing and the police were ignoring Wildcast’s pleas for help. He called his mother, Fernanda, every night before he went on patrol, asking for her blessing. When Lizano saw Fernanda at Mora’s funeral, she asked for her forgiveness.

“Sweetie,” Fernanda replied, Jairo wanted to be there. It was his thing.”

And “Blood on the Sand” is doubly sad, because Power himself – as talented and friendly a young feature-writer as ever drew breath – died suddenly of heat stroke in 2014, with this and a handful of other pieces standing now as his memorials.


5. Losing Aaron by Janelle Nanos (Boston) – When Aaron Swartz hanged himself in 2013, the emotional ripples shot out in all directions (starting with Tim Berners-Lee’s ridiculous “Let us weep” tweet, but generally improving from there), and one of the most touching I’ve encountered so far was this piece by Janelle Nanos for Boston magazine about Aaron’s father Bob and his own torturous attempts to deal with the tragedy – including a quite natural layer of anger:

In March, Bob made his way back to campus for Aaron’s memorial service. He wrote the words he would speak that day in his office in the Media Lab building. Dressed in a dark-gray suit, he stood at the podium and cited the work of other digital visionaries who flouted the law: Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the founder of Polaroid, Edwin Land. “These people did exactly what MIT told them to do, they colored outside the lines … but today’s MIT destroys those kinds of people,” he said.

4. Never Out of the Storm by Tim Kendall (TLS) – This gorgeous, lightning-quick piece by Tim Kendall from the TLS deals with the lyricist Ivor Gurney, a WWI veteran whose querulous, yearning regard for his own poetry (neglected even while he was still alive and certainly ever since) is nicely captured by Kendall:

Then, with his greatest work still to write, Gurney was dropped, his manuscripts returned again and again until he gave up trying. “Surely this is a good poem,” he would write in cover letters to editors, bewildered as he was by repeated rejection. Pleading got him nowhere: he never published a third volume, and died of tuberculosis on Boxing Day 1937, aged forty-seven, with a reputation primarily as a gifted composer who had not quite realized his potential. The poetry was all but forgotten.

ivor gurney in 1915


3. Gombe Family Album by David Quammen (National Geographic) – The mighty National Geographic magazine fielded dozens of first-rate pieces in 2014, but the one that struck me most sharply was an interview by naturalist David Quammen with Jane Goodall about her time with the chimpanzees of Gombe … an interview during which she relates my personal favorite of her life-story anecdotes:

It was a bit shocking to be told I’d done everything wrong. Everything. I shouldn’t have given them names. I couldn’t talk about their personalities, their minds, or their feelings. Those are unique to us. Fortunately, I thought back to my first teacher, when I was a child, who taught me that that wasn’t true. And that was my dog, Rusty. You cannot share your life in a meaningful way with any kind of animal with a reasonably well developed brain and not realize that animals have personalities.

jane goodall in gombe

2. Cage Wars by Deb Olin Unferth (Harper’s) – The subject of the factory farming of produce animals has generated quite a few articles and books in the last few years, and this piece by Deb Olin Unferth in Harper’s stands out for its fantastically readable evocation of what chickens themselves are actually like:

In nature chickens live in smallish groups in overlapping territories. They have complicated cliques and can recognize more than a hundred other chicken faces, even after months of separation. They recognize human faces too. They have distinct voices and talk among themselves, even before they hatch. A hen talks to her eggs and the embryos answer, peeping and twittering through the shells.

And the best thing I encountered in the Penny Press in 2014:

1. The Fiction in the New Yorker – From the very first week of the year and straight on through with hardly a dud week in the year, the New Yorker has had the single greatest run of short stories in its long and venerable history. I ordinarily feel about New Yorker fiction pretty much the same as everybody else does: it’s well-done but predictable, intelligent but Upper West Side anodyne, as free of challenge as it is of outright tedium. But in 2014, that picture was radically altered; through some backstage editorial shifting or higher-caliber slush-pile interns or whatever the reason might be, the fiction in the New Yorker has all year been brightly, insistently re-energized – hell, even the artwork and layout looks to my eye to be receiving extra loving care. And the results have been electrifying: stories like “Here’s the Story” by David Gilbert, “Ba Baboon” by Thomas Pierce, “The Big Cat” by Louise Erdrich, “Eykelboom” by Brad Watson, “Original Sins” by Kirstin Valdez Quade, “Last Meal at Whole Foods” by Said Sayrafiezadeh, “Motherlode” by Thomas McGuane, “The Pink House” by Rebecca Curtis, “Wagner in the Desert” by Greg Jackson, and (a personal favorite, for obvious dog-related reasons) “Madame Lazarus” by Maile Meloy – these and dozens of other stories have confidently reclaimed the whole term “New Yorker fiction.” No idea if it’ll stay this way in the new year, but in 2014 it was the best thing I read In the Penny Press.



April 26th, 2011

Super-Exposure in the Penny Press!

Readers who might once have been irritated by the sight of a topless Rob Lowe on the cover of Vanity Fair (the top item in a strong Penny Press week) will, like all right-thinking individuals in the world, instantly recall his fantastic stint as Sam Seaborn on the still-intensely-missed The West Wing and crack a grudging smile instead. Lowe, it appears, has written some kind of book about his various adventures in Hollywood. I haven’t checked yet to see if it includes any wistful anecdotes about his tenure on one of the best TV shows of all time; the excerpt in this month’s VF is about his much younger days, when he starred in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders” with a whole team of fellow Hollywood he-boys, all under the watchful gaze of their passionate (and self-evidently insane) director. While it’s fun to watch Lowe contort himself to be nice-guy diplomatic rather than outright calling the young Tom Cruise a robotic authority-douche, neither the grossly overpraised book nor the soppy, ham-handed movie has ever interested me, so I quickly roamed away in search of greener pastures.

Luckily, this month’s issue had plenty. There was a bitterly, sinus-clearingly angry shout-piece by Joseph Stiglitz about the gigantic gap between the top wealthiest 1 percent of Americans and everybody else. This is by a wide margin the angriest piece I’ve read in Vanity Fair in many, many years. Stiglitz rehearses the starkest inequities in America’s financial landscape:

Economists long ago tried to justify the vast inequalities that seemed so troubling in the mid-19th century – inequalities that are but a pale shadow of what we are seeing in America today. The justification they came up with was called “marginal-productivity theory.” In a nutshell, this theory associated higher incomes with higher productivity and a greater contribution to society. It is a theory that has always been cherished by the rich. Evidence for its validity, however, remains thin. The corporate executives who helped bring on the recession of the past three years – whose contribution to our society, and to their own companies, has been massively negative – went on to receive large bonuses. In some cases, companies were so embarrassed about calling such rewards “performance bonuses” that they felt compelled to change the name to “retention bonuses” (even if the only thing being retained was bad performance). Those who have contributed great positive innovations to our society, from the pioneers of genetic understanding to the pioneers of the Information Age, have received a pittance compared to those responsible for the financial innovations that brought our global economy to the brink of ruin.

He ends up sounding a warning to the super-rich that their days might end in a public uprising of a kind not seen in America since Shays’ Rebellion – the warning is the only major flaw in the piece. It forgets that sage line from “1776”: Most people with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor.” Comparatively few Libyans or Egyptians want to be military despots (I hope, anyway), so they have no ideological restraint in rising up against military despots. But virtually everybody in America – especially every young person – wants to be a plutocratic bastard who can buy a jet but can’t quickly recall his kids’ names. As long as that’s true, the super-rich in the United States have nothing to fear from the common folk they’re disinheriting.

After the fire and brimstone of Stiglitz, it was curiously peaceful to wade into Christopher Hitchens’ piece on the debt Western society owes to the stately cadences of the King James Bible. It’s a piece without surprises (we’ve read many similar things done on this, the anniversary of the publication of that epochal work), unless its own existence counts – these new long pieces from Hitchens can’t help but be viewed as extremely literary progress reports on the state of Hitchens’ illness. Encouraging progress reports, since for a while there last year it looked as if he wouldn’t be doing much of this kind of work again. I hadn’t realized until I saw this piece and his last one just how much I’d miss them if they were gone forever. And it’s interesting that he’s keeping up with his reading, although I imagine that would be the last thing to go in any case:

The rack and the rope were not stinted for dissenters, and eventually Tyndale himself was tracked down, strangled, and publicly burned. (Hilary Mantel’s masterpiece historical novel, Wolf Hall, tells this exciting and gruesome store in such a way as to revise the shining image of “Saint” Thomas More, the “man for all seasons,” almost out of existence. High time, in my view. The martyrdoms he inflicted on others were more cruel and irrational than the one he sought and found for himself).

Much less satisfying was James Wolcott’s tired screed against superhero movies, which consists of him whining about how loud and confusing they all are, for all the world as if he were a crotchety 90-year-old who just wants the grandkids to settle down:

For all of the tremendous talent involved and the technical ingenuity deployed, superhero movies go at us like death metal: loud, anthemic, convoluted, technocratic, agonistic, fireball-blossoming, scenery-crushing workloads that waterboard the audience with digital effects, World War IV weaponry, rampant destruction, and electrical-flash editing.

This quintessential complaint of the elderly – wanting things to be different from the dictates of their own natures – is unlikely to yield a Bergman superhero movie any time soon; I’ll just have to hope that instead Wolcott regains his sense of fun in time for the onslaught he’s so correct in predicting.

The New York Review of Books, as always, provides a corrective to that kind of complaining. There’s nothing quite as restorative as literary journalism done really, really well, and since I myself gravitate toward all things historical, The NYRB can often get my tail wagging – as in this latest issue, where the indomitable Gordon Wood reviews two books on John and Abigail Adams and Sean Wilentz reviews Edmund Morris’ Colonel Roosevelt. Both pieces are thoughtful, detailed, and wonderfully assured, which is tough enough to do when reviewing a contemporary novel that any schmoe off the street might pick up and enjoy (“what’s it about” will usually cover 99 % of their readerly needs) and is bloody murder to pull off when writing about history, about which the average reader neither knows nor knows to care. Reviewing works of history is doubly tricky: you’ve not only got to give your review-readers enough background on the book so they’ll appreciate your observations about it, you’ve also got to give them enough background on all of human history so they’ll know what the Hell you’re going on about. Both Wood and Wilentz do a great job at this every time they turn out a review – it’s an inspiration.

Of course, since nobody reads history it’s those fiction-reviews that keep the show on the road, and they, too, very often elicit inspiring performances. Over in the London Review of Books, for instance, Adam Mars-Jones (easily the coolest reviewer-name we’ll see today) out-does every other writer in the issue by turning in a fantastic piece on Philip Hensher’s new novel King of the Badgers. This is a classic case of the review being every bit as interesting, fun, and well-written as the book it’s reviewing, a contemporary novel about a crime that might have been committed in a benighted seaside town. Mars-Jones concentrates a chunk of his review on the novel’s gay characters, a discussion he opens in the most inviting way, by highly literary rambling:
For a straight writer to have a gay hero is highly unusual …The most famous and successful venture in homosexual ventriloquism by a novelist is still Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers. I had doubts about the book when it came out in 1980, disliking the easy equation of homosexuality with cowardliness, even though this was an equation accepted by many homosexuals of the generation of Burgess’s octogenarian narrator, Kenneth Toomey. Terrence Rattigan was surprised to find during the war that he was brave in an ordinary way. Out of this realisation came his interest in such non-cowardly homosexuals as T. E. Lawrence and Alexander the Great.
Mars-Jones returns to this subject of ‘writing gay’ all through his long and fantastic review, including a great little bit on the imagined popular reception of the 1950s novels of Angus Wilson:
Wilson was running the risk of having his novels labelled sordid and unwholesome. Awkward breakfast-table conversations were on the cards, with the brigadier’s wife saying brightly, ‘Doesn’t he do all those spivs and pouffs well?’ and her husband muttering: ‘Damn sight too well, if you ask me.’ If he had put more homosexual reality into the book [Anglo-Saxon Attitudes], it would either have been rejected by publishers or else approached by reviewers with gas masks, pomanders and tongs.
And it’s entirely fitting that right there in the midst of the best review in this issue of the LRB there’s a big, beautiful ad for … none other than Open Letters Monthly! Where readers will find many excellent reviews every single month! The ad was superbly designed by Greg Waldmann and features a generous quote from the always-discerning Scott Esposito … and best of all, it’s sitting right there, in the middle of another great review journal. The air of confraternity is salubrious, to say the least – and if the appearance of such an ad should move writers like Adam Mars-Jones and his most talented peers to peruse Open Letters, well, so much the better.