What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Eric Rohmer's Superb "Summer"

Reading Richard Brody’s recent “Goings On About Town” note on Eric Rohmer’s 1986 film Summer (The New Yorker, January 9, 2017), I was reminded of another terrific commentary on that great film – Terrence Rafferty’s “Boyfriends and Girlfriends” (The New Yorker, July 25, 1988; included in his 1993 collection The Thing Happens). The piece is a review of Rohmer’s Boyfriends and Girlfriends, but it also contains an excellent consideration of Summer. Rafferty writes,

In this amazing film, which followed the two weakest and most contrived of the Comedies and Proverbs, Pauline at the Beach and Full Moon in Paris, Rohmer relaxed his customary iron control over the narrative: the movie was made in an on-the-run documentary style, in 16mm and with direct sound, and the dialogue, usually chiseled and epigrammatic in his movies, was largely improvised by the actors.... In Summer he’s exploring, a little nervously, hoping that something will emerge from the mess of daily improvisation, wondering if anything will happen as he follows his restless heroine from one French vacation to another.

The heroine’s name is Delphine, described by Rafferty as a “slim, dark, delicate-featured depressive.” He continues,

Since breaking up with her boyfriend, she has become cautious, conservative, almost pathologically wary. Her response to everything is refusal: she’s a vegetarian, she flees from men who approach her, she won’t even admit, after to years, that her love affair is over. Rohmer, whose art is based on refusal – he quietly declines to indulge in the ordinary, vulgar pleasures that movies provide so easily – understands her very well. The movie has the tentative, irresolute rhythm of its heroine’s search for a place where she can feel at ease on her long French summer holiday. This woman is comically, absurdly, infuriatingly incapable of enjoying herself: she goes somewhere, gets disgusted with it, returns to Paris, takes off for some place new, and is unhappy everywhere. Her idea of vacation reading is The Idiot. She drives us crazy, but she’s in real pain, the mundane, annoying, debilitating kind that wont’s go away yet isn’t spectacular enough to win much sympathy – like a migraine. When relief comes, it’s sudden, arbitrary, a stroke of luck or grace. While Delphine is waiting for a train in Biarritz to take her back to Paris after another vacation fiasco, she decides, impulsively, to tag along with a pleasant young man on his way to the coastal town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz. She surprises herself, and us, with her boldness: after all her self-imposed restrictions, this act has the force of a reckless break with her old self, or perhaps a return to a freer, more spontaneous relationship to experience. In Saint-Jean-de-Luz, she’s rewarded: watching the sun go down, she sees the green ray, which according to Verne, enables its viewer to see “clearly into his own heart and the hearts of others.” She cries “Yes!” and clutches her gentle companion. This is one of the purest moments of happiness in recent movies: we feel that Rohmer, along with his heroine, has finally found a way to release himself, to be at ease with the accidents, the scary contingencies, of the natural world.

One of the purest moments of happiness in recent movies. Thirty-one years later, Rafferty’s assessment still holds.  

Friday, January 20, 2017

January 16, 2017, Issue

Adam Gopnik, in his absorbing “Mixed Up,” a review of Philippe Desan’s Montaigne: A Life, in this week’s issue, overgeneralizes when he says that an essay “is always addressed to an intimate unknown” (Gopnik’s emphasis). Some of the best essays – Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro,” Susan Sontag’s “Fascinating Fascism,” Pauline Kael’s “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” to name three of my favorites – aren’t so much addressed, as launched. They’re not letters; they’re grenades aimed at specific targets. To be fair, Gopnik tempers his statement a few lines later when he writes, “The illusion of confiding in the reader alone is what essayists play on. You’re my best friend, Montaigne, like every subsequent essayist of his type, implies to his readers.” Note that “of his type.” Gopnik is talking about essayists like Montaigne, essayists who write digressive, letter-like essays with “the tone of a man talking to himself and being startled by what his self says back,” pieces “without the mucilage of extended argument.”   

I admire Montaigne for his bone-deep subjectivity. His “I” is the measure of all things. “We must espouse nothing but ourselves,” he says, in his great “Of Solitude.” Virginia Woolf, in her essay “Montaigne” (The Common Reader – 1), writes,

We can never doubt for an instant that his book was himself. He refused to teach; he refused to preach; he kept on saying that he was just like other people. All his effort was to write himself down, to communicate, to tell the truth, and that is a “rugged road, more than it seems.”

Monday, January 16, 2017

John McPhee's "Firewood"

Early last summer, Lorna and I bought four cords of dry, blocked, white birch from a local farmer to burn in our woodstove. We split it and stacked it ourselves, and covered it with a tarp. Carrying the wood to the stove, I pass a set of pine bookshelves that contain, among other items, my collection of John McPhee, including his great Pieces of the Frame (1975). In that book, there’s a New Yorker piece called “Firewood” (March 25, 1974) packed with interesting facts about trees and wood burning. For example, here’s a description of what actually happens when wood burns:

When a log is thrown on the fire, the molecules on the surface become agitated and begin to move vigorously. Some vibrate. Some rotate. Some travel swiftly from one place to another. The cellulose molecule is long, complicated, convoluted – thousands of atoms like many balls on a few long strings. The strings have a breaking point. The molecule, tumbling, whipping, vibrating, breaks apart. Hydrogen atoms, stripping away, snap onto oxygen atoms that are passing by in the uprushing stream of air, forming even more water, which goes up the chimney as vapor. Incandescent carbon particles, by the tens of millions, leap free of the log and wave like banners, as flame.

The piece also tells about three New Yorkers who visit Carmel, N.Y., to cut wood (“The saw started on the nineteenth pull. Its din shot up the air”), and it reports on an old New York City wood lot owned and operated by a firm named Clark & Wilkins (“Even the corporate records smell of smoke”).

My favorite passage in “Firewood” is the ending, a sort of wood fire prose poem:

A wood fire, in its core, in its glowing coals, could never be hot enough to be blue, but, at its hottest, it can be white, and orange-white. Subsiding, it becomes orange and orange-red and red and deeper red and dark red, until its light goes off the visible spectrum. The heat can be banked in ash, though, for eight, ten hours – long enough to last through the night and, in the morning, begin another fire.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

January 9, 2017, Issue

Pick of the Issue this week is Ian Frazier’s “High-Rise Greens,” an absorbing account of how a mini-farm installed in the corner of school cafeteria led to the creation of a huge “vertical farm” inside a former steel-supply warehouse in Newark, New Jersey. Frazier visits the vertical farm and describes its technology:

Countless algorithm-driven computer commands combine to induce the greens to grow, night and day, so that a crop can go from seed to shoot to harvest in eighteen days. Every known influence on the plant’s wellbeing is measured, adjusted, remeasured. Tens of thousands of sensing devices monitor what’s going on. The ambient air is Newark’s, but filtered, ventilated, heated, and cooled. Like all air today, it has an average CO2 content of about four hundred parts per million (we exceeded the three-fifty-p.p.m. threshold a while ago), but an even higher content is better for the plants, so tanks of CO2 enrich the concentration inside the building to a thousand p.p.m.

He describes the lighting:

The L.E.D. grow lights are in plastic tubing above each level of the grow tower. Their radiance has been stripped of the heat-producing part of the spectrum, the most expensive part of it from an energy point of view. The plants don’t need it, preferring cooler reds and blues. In row after row, the L.E.D.s shining these colors call to mind strings of Christmas lights. At different growth stages, the plants require light in different intensities, and algorithms controlling the L.E.D. arrays adjust for that.

He also visits the mini-farm in the cafeteria at Newark’s Philip’s Academy. He calls the mini-farm an objet d’art. I relished his description of it, particularly this line: “The pumps hum, the water gurgles, and the whole thing makes the sound of a courtyard fountain.”

Frazier is a great nose writer. Almost every one of his pieces contains a description of some sort of smell. In “High-Rise Greens,” he mentions a corner of the vertical farm, “where the fresh, florist-shop aroma of chlorophyll is strong.”

Frazier takes time to note details that other writers usually disregard. For example, in “High-Rise Greens,” he observes that AeroFarms technicians “wear white sanitary mobcaps on their heads.” Then, in the next line, he adds, “Some of these workers are young guys who also have mobcaps on their beards.”

My favorite scene in  “High-Rise Greens” takes place at a grocery store. Frazier writes,

At the Bloomfield ShopRite, I watched a woman pick up a clamshell of AeroFarms arugula, look at it, and put it back. Then she picked up a clamshell of Fresh Attitude arugula and dropped it in her cart. I asked her if she knew that AeroFarms was grown in Newark. She said, “I thought it was only distributed from Newark.” I told her the arugula was indeed Newark-grown and explained about the vertical farm. She put the out-of-state arugula back, picked up the Newark arugula, and thanked me for telling her. I think AeroFarms does not play up Newark enough on the packaging. They should call their product Newark Greens.

That “At the Bloomfield ShopRite, I watched a woman pick up a clamshell of AeroFarms arugula, look at it, and put it back” is delightful, like a line from a James Schuyler poem, logging the slight but profound epiphanies of everyday life.

“High-Rise Greens” brims with Frazier’s sharp-eyed observations. I enjoyed it immensely.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

James Merrill: Sublime Poet of the Everyday

James Merrill (Photo by Rollie McKenna)

Edward Mendelson, in his “The Genius and Generosity of Jimmy Merrill” (The New York Review of Books, December 22, 2016), says of Merrill, “Poetic artifice was his natural voice.” I’m not sure he’s right. He makes Merrill sound as if he’s anti-realist. What I cherish in Merrill’s poems is his deep engagement with quotidian reality. For example, the description of the New Age shop where he bought his world-map-imprinted white Tyvek windbreaker, in “Self-Portrait in Tyvek™ Windbreaker” (The New Yorker, February 24, 1992):

I found it in one of those vaguely imbecile 

Emporia catering to the collective unconscious 

Of our time and place. This one featured crystals, 

Cassettes of whalesong and rain-forest whistles, 

Barometers, herbal cosmetics, pillows like puffins, 

Recycled notebooks, mechanized lucite coffins 
For sapphire waves that crest, break, and recede, 
As they presumably do in nature still.

Dan Chiasson, in his brilliant “Out of this World” (The New Yorker, April 13, 2015), a review of Langdon Hammer’s James Merrill: Life and Art, says of Merrill:

His work is replete with the transfigured commonplace, bits of the world reclaimed in his daily imaginative raids: an “Atari dragonfly” on the Connecticut River, a joint smoked on a courthouse lawn, a trip to the gym, a Tyvek windbreaker.

This, for me, is a more accurate description of Merrill’s work than Mendelson’s “poetic artifice.”  

Friday, January 6, 2017

January 2, 2017, Issue

For me, the most arresting piece in this week’s issue is Dexter Filkins’s “Before the Flood,” in which he reports firsthand on what it’s like to be inside the “gallery,” a tunnel that runs through the base of the Mosul Dam, four hundred feet below the top. Filkins writes,

The interior is cool and wet and dark. It feels like a mine shaft, deep under the earth. You can sense the water from the reservoir pressing against the walls.

Filkins puts us squarely there, in a tunnel under a massive dam that could collapse at any moment. He describes tunnel workers pumping cement into the earth in an effort to fill the cavities under the dam’s foundation:

At Jabouri’s command, the engineers began pushing a long, narrow pipe, tipped with a drill bit, into the earth. The void they were hunting for was deep below—perhaps three hundred feet down from where we were standing. After several minutes of drilling, a few feet at a time, the bit pushed into the void, letting loose a geyser that sprayed the gallery walls and doused the crew. The men, wrestling the pipe, connected it to the pump. Jabouri flicked a switch, and, with the high-pitched whine of a motorcycle engine, the machine reversed the pressure and the grout began to flow, displacing the water in the void. “It’s been like this for thirty years,” Jabouri said with a shrug. “Every day, nonstop.”

Reading this, I was reminded of another Filkins piece, the superb “After Syria” (The New Yorker, February 25, 2013), in which he visits a “vast Hezbollah bunker”:

Under a foot of dirt and rubble is a trap door, and a ladder leading down to the main tunnel. Inside, the only sign of life was a colony of black bats, dangling silently from the ceiling. Startled by my entry, they dropped down, then glided up the shaft toward the light.

Filkins is a true adventurer. Recall last year’s great “The End of Ice” (The New Yorker, April 4, 2016), in which he crosses a Himalayan river in a sketchy gondola lift:

Near the valley floor, we veered onto a rocky trail that tracked an icy river called the Chandra. Our van halted and a group of men appeared: Nepali porters, who led us to an outcropping on the river’s edge. Chhota Shigri—six miles long and shaped like a branching piece of ginger—is considered one of the Himalayas’ most accessible glaciers, but our way across was a rickety gondola, an open cage reminiscent of a shopping cart, which runs on a cable over the Chandra. With one of the porters working a pulley, we climbed in and rode across, one by one, while fifty feet below the river rushed through gigantic boulders.

In clear, evocative prose, Filkins takes me to cool, existential places. I enjoy his work immensely.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Year In Review: One Last Caress

Illustration by Bendik Kaltenborn

Readers of this blog may wonder what this year-end flurry of lists – the best of this, the best of that – is all about. I sometimes wonder myself. I think it’s a way for me to prolong the pleasure of these wonderful pieces. The truth is I’m not yet ready to let them go. Yes, I’m looking forward to next year’s run. But I’m also fondly looking back at the many pieces that have afforded me such bliss. In a way, these lists are a last caress before bidding them adieu. But let’s not get too morose. I can always retrieve them from the New Yorker archive any time I want to.

And now I find my listing impulse is not yet exhausted. I want to make one more – a final inventory of 2016 New Yorker reading pleasure. Here goes.

Best Reporting Piece: Dana Goodyear’s “The Earth Mover,” August 29, 2016.

Best Critical Piece: James Wood’s “Scrutiny,” December 12, 2016.

Best “Talk of the Town” Piece: Laura Parker’s “Bee’s Knees,” March 21, 2016.

Best “Goings On About Town” Piece: Nicolas Niarchos’s “Bar Tab: Berlin,” February 8 & 15, 2016.

Best Illustration: Bendik Kaltenborn’s “Thundercat,” for Matthew Trammell’s “Night Life: Rock Bottom,” June 6 & 13, 2016.

Best Photograph: Pari Dukovic’s “Yuja Wang,” for Janet Malcolm’s “The Performance Artist,” September 5, 2016.

Best Short Story: Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Gender Studies,” August 29, 2016 (“Their eyes meet—she’s perhaps three per cent less hammered than she was down in the lobby, though still hammered enough not to worry about her drunkenness wearing off anytime soon—and at first he says nothing. Then, so seriously that his words almost incite in her a genuine emotion, he says, ‘You’re pretty’ ”).

Best Poem: Julie Bruck’s “Blue Heron, Walking,” August 29, 2016 (“these outsized / apprehenders of grasses and stone, snatchers of mouse and vole, / these mindless magnificents that any time now will trail / their risen bird like useless bits of leather”).

Best Blog Post: Lev Mendes’s “Philip Larkin’s Life Behind the Camera” (“Page-Turner,” January 29, 2016) (“Photography, like poetry, may have simply provided him a way of noticing and preserving”).

Best Cover: J. J. Sempé’s “Waves,” for the August 29, 2016, issue.

Best Issue: April 4, 2016 – The Food and Travel Issue, containing “Lauren Collins’s “Come to the Fair,” Dana Goodyear’s “Mezcal Sunrise,” Carolyn Kormann’s “The Tasting-Menu Initiative,” and Dexter Filkins’s “The End of Ice” – all excellent.

Now, a few images from my 2016 New Yorker reading experience, in no particular order, montage-style:

TEN-FOOT-TALL BALD EAGLE: “I went to see a ten-foot-tall American bald eagle, made entirely out of red-white-and-blue Duck Brand duct tape, on display in a parking lot.” [Jill Lepore, “The War and the Roses,” August 8 & 15, 2016]

SURFBOARD WITH SKELETON: “Hanging just above the front door is a yellow surfboard with a skeleton clinging to it, bony limbs locked around the board for better purchase.” [Talia Levin, “Bar Tab: Otto’s Shrunken Head Tiki Bar & Lounge,” December 12, 2016]

SILVER ADIDAS WITH WINGS: “At ground level, herds of strange footwear scurried around: silver Adidas sneakers with wings sprouting from the ankles, fuzzy ones with tails and tiger stripes, high-tops with green Teddy bears for tongues.” [Lizzie Widdicombe, “Barbie Boy,” March 21, 2016]

MERMAID GOWN: “Her appliqués mushroom magically on the slope of a skirt. A mermaid gown that Charles James might have made for Gypsy Rose Lee is crossbred with a Ming vase; a cascade of ruffles evokes the waterfall in a brush-painted landscape.” [Judith Thurman, “The Empire’s New Clothes,” March 21, 2016]

SEBRIGHT CHICKENS: “The Sebrights were crazy-beautiful: proud-looking, with jutting breasts, each of their silver-white feathers edged in black, as though someone had outlined them with a Sharpie.” [Lauren Collins, “Come to the Fair,” April 4, 2016]

FLAME TREES: “Lipstick-red flame trees were in bloom, and the air was filled with the intoxicating smell of gasoline.” [Dana Goodyear, “Mezcal Sunrise,” April 4, 2016]

TEN-FOOT-LONG ICICLES: (“Pressing ourselves against the interior walls and shimmying along the narrow banks of the rushing water, we worked our way into a vaulting palace of ice, where ten-foot-long icicles hung from the ceiling like giant fishhooks. Underneath the roar, you could hear the drip of melting ice.” [Dexter Filkins, “The End of Ice,” April 4, 2016]

SOVIET-ERA TRACTOR: “A Soviet-era tractor, spindly and goggle-eyed, gleamed within the shadows of a stone barn.” [James Lasdun, “Alone in the Alps,” April 11, 2016]

GOLDEN SKELETON ON BLUE HORSE: “Walk downhill along the path that leads away from the Sphinx, and you are confronted by a voluptuous golden skeleton—Death—riding a blue horse over a mirrored green sea, from which disembodied arms stretch up to cling to the world of the living.” [Ariel Levy, “Beautiful Monsters,” April 18, 2016]

CALLERY-PEAR TREE: “Elmore, the pro, then dazzled everybody by extracting a noxious blue plastic drop cloth from a sidewalk callery-pear tree in about half a second.” [Ian Frazier, “The Bag Bill,” May 2, 2016]

SKIN BOAT CONFERENCE TABLE: “At the headquarters, a three-story building near the ocean in Barrow, a whaling skin boat provides the center support for a glass-topped boardroom table.” [Tom Kizzia, “The New Harpoon,” September 12, 2016]

VOLKSWAGON KARMANN GHIA: “a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, its hood and trunk popped open, like an upturned deerstalker cap” [Jill Lepore, “Esmé in Neverland,” November 21, 2016]

DANGLING NECKTIE: “Despite an insistent voice in my head telling me to look away, I continued to observe, bending my head farther down for a closer view. As I did so, I failed to notice that my necktie had slipped down through the slats of the louvred screen and was dangling into the motel room within a few yards of the woman’s head.” [Gay Talese, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” April 11, 2016]

WHALE-LIVER MEMBRANE: “ ‘We believe if you follow these rituals, the animals will always come to us,’ Oomittuk said, as he pulled a drum made of whale-liver membrane from a carrying case.” [Tom Kizzia, "The New Harpoon," Septmber 12, 2016]

ORANGE MASON JAR WITH CREAM CLOUD: “The delicious budino arrives in a small orange Mason jar with a cloud of cream.” [Jiayang Fan, “Tables For Two: Covina,” July 25, 2016]

PORCELAIN DOLL BEER TAPS: “The taps are porcelain doll heads, which stare like angelic witnesses to the evening’s festivities.” [Becky Cooper, “Bar Tab: Yours Sincerely,” June 6 & 13, 2016]

RICKETY GONDOLA: “Chhota Shigri—six miles long and shaped like a branching piece of ginger—is considered one of the Himalayas’ most accessible glaciers, but our way across was a rickety gondola, an open cage reminiscent of a shopping cart, which runs on a cable over the Chandra. With one of the porters working a pulley, we climbed in and rode across, one by one, while fifty feet below the river rushed through gigantic boulders.” [Dexter Filkins, “The End of Ice,” April 4, 2016]

GOLDEN BANANA PEEL: “A lamp whose base is a golden banana peel suggests a knowing wink. [GOAT, April 25, 2016]

SCARECROW OWL DECOYS: “Wherever you go, scarecrow owl decoys solemnly watch over you from the shelves above.” [David Kortava, "Bar Tab: The Owl Farm," November 14, 2016]

STAG BLADDERS: “He had just urged an audience of Silesian farmers to fertilize their fields with cow intestines stuffed with chamomile blossoms, and stag bladders filled with yarrow root (stag bladders being ‘almost an image of the cosmos’). [Burkhard Bilger, “Ghost Stories, September 12, 2016]

And on that pungent note, I’ll end. Thank you New Yorker for another magnificent year of reading pleasure.

Credit: The above illustration, by Bendik Kaltenborn, is from “Above & Beyond” (The New Yorker, January 25, 2016).