Three out of Many in the Penny Press!
As I’ve had occasion to note more than once here at Stevereads, one of the things I love most about the continuing bounty of the Penny Press is the unpredictability of it all. Talented freelancers are always getting drunk with each other at parties, sharing soccer pitches in the glaring sun, ogling each other in too-tight clothing at poetry readings – and so, like voles fur-transporting dandelion fuzz, the continual cross-pollination of willing writers and susceptible editors is always fermenting new opportunities for the lucky, the well-placed, and the attractive, and sometimes those same favored ones can also write, in which case everybody wins!
No one or even ten periodicals have a lock on the kind of quality pieces that leap off the page – there’s a very encouraging over-abundance of such pieces, and they can crop up almost anywhere (I’ve found moving prose in such far-flung outposts as Yankee, Birdwatching, and even poor bro-zine Details). Just the other day, for example, I found three:
“Liquid City” by Justin Davidson in New York magazine, a smart, breezy piece that uses the devastation of Hurricane Sandy as a springboard to talk about man-vs.- water:
New York’s relationship with its waters is a long and crazy romance, fueled by manic energy, gilded dreams, violence, abandonment, and elated rediscovery. The story begins on a claustrophobic block of Pearl Street between Broad and Whitehall Streets, shadowed by office towers on all sides. In the seventeenth century, this was both the edge of New Amsterdam and its center. The town’s greatest house, Peter Stuyvesant’s two-story mansion, sat beside the serried shops, wooden homes, taverns, and warehouses. Ships moored at the sole wooden dock poked into the East River. Sailors unloaded their cargo, hauled it across the dirt road to the Dutch West India Company, and lifted it into the upper-level storeroom by a pulley fastened to the brick facade. Colonists from a country under perpetual threat of drowning knew to keep their valuables raised.
“Paging Summer” – this was from Time magazine, their version of the near-obligatory “Summer Reading” feature that crops up all over the book-chat world once the Western hemisphere’s fifteen days of spring turn into its four and a half months of crushing heat, humidity, and drought. Time asked several authors to talk about their summer reading projects (they also asked several non-authors – “luminaries in tech, fashion, science, film and TV” – presumably because a book-feature entirely by bookworms and for bookworms might be off-putting to illiterates, fakers, and cokeheads). Some of these guest opinions were fun – Susan Choi (recently author of the intensely boring My Education)’s 100 words on defiantly reading War and Peace one summer is utterly charming, for instance – and they serve as appetizer for the real meal, a dialogue between Time executive editor Radhika Jones and Time’s great book critic Lev Grossman about the reading they’ve done this summer and in summers past. Some of this dialogue is scarily depressing – I’ve been spending a lot of time lately watching “booktubers” on YouTube lately, and the same kind of blandly unthinking conformity I found there seeps into this little talk as well (it’s just a calmly assumed given that both Jones and Grossman will love the novels of Kate Atkinson, or the Hunger Games books even though they were written for children, etc.) – but a good deal of it isn’t, and it’s always interesting to eavesdrop on two book-people talking shop, as it were.
“The American Beginning” (once again, I offer my services to every editor of every periodical in the world, for help with titling pieces) by Alan Taylor in The New Republic – Taylor is one of our most brilliant working historians, and this fascinating essay of his, nominally a review of a new reprint of Letters from an American Farmer by Crevecoeur, is really a soaringly confident re-assessment of that author and his best-known work, which Taylor rightly points out isn’t all that accurately known to start with:
Most readers know Crevecoeur only from his famous third letter with its sunny optimism. That selective reading creates a misleading impression of his entire work, which ripens into a long expose of the American Revolution as brutal, divisive, and hypocritical. Often misread as a champion of American independence and democracy, Crevecoeur instead mourned the demise of British America. In its full arc, Letters reveals a descent into political madness: it better resembles Heart of Darkness than Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
Informal book-gossip, Manhattan flooding, and Crevecoeur – and the week’s reading is still young!