Introduction

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.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

May 15, 2017, Issue


For me, the most enjoyable piece in this week’s issue is Nick Paumgarten’s Talk of the Town story, “Bong Show,” describing an exhibit at apexart, in Tribeca, called “Outlaw Glass,” – “a showcase of glass pipes and bongs, handmade by master lampworkers for the purpose of smoking marijuana in various forms.” Paumgarten reports,

There were four large vitrines, each about the size of a coffin and populated by an array of flamboyant, filigreed apparatuses, lurid plumbing in many colors and forms—dragons, skulls, krakens—which one might find either fetching or hideous, depending upon one’s taste for velvet heavy-metal posters and airbrushed landscapes on vans. No question, the craftsmanship was humbling. Delicate leaves and lace, tubes within tubes, ghouls embedded inside chambers like ships in bottles. One object widely admired by the other lampworkers was a pea-green monster truck with big black tires and flames exuding from six tailpipes—every inch of it glass.

That “Delicate leaves and lace, tubes within tubes, ghouls embedded inside chambers like ships in bottles” is superb!

Paumgarten’s piece slightly reminds me of John Updike’s great Talk story “Old and Precious” (The New Yorker, March 30, 1957; included in his 1965 essay collection Assorted Prose), in which he attends the Thirteenth Annual National Antique Show held in the “not undingy basement” of Madison Square Gardens and notes some of the items on display:

Staffordshire inkwells, Baccarat chandeliers, hurricane lamps, crystal bobêches, Japanese netsukes, doré bronze candelabra, Zuñi necklaces, Bohemian tankards, vellum music sheets, bisque clocks, Basque jugs, and specimens of dragware, creamware, queen’s ware, stoneware, pearlware, and colored, cut, blown, pressed, and authentic milk glass.

Updike liked to quote William Carlos Williams’s “No ideas but in things.” I think he would’ve relished that “pea-green monster truck with big black tires and flames exuding from six tailpipes—every inch of it glass,” in Paumgarten’s wonderful piece. I certainly did.

Friday, May 26, 2017

May 8, 2017, Issue


I see in this week’s issue that Richard Brody has tweaked his great “Bringing Up Baby” capsule review, adding several interesting touches. Here’s the original:

The enduring fascination of this 1938 screwball comedy is due to much more than its uproarious gags. Having already helped launch the genre, the director Howard Hawks here establishes archetypes of theme and character that still hold sway. He turned Cary Grant into an extension of his own intellectual irony, an absent-minded professor who awaits the chance to unleash his inner leopard. He refashioned Katharine Hepburn as a sexually determined woman who hides her aggression under intricate schemes that force the deep thinker to deploy his untapped virility. And Hawks brought to fruition his own universe of symbols that conjure the force that rules the world: she tears his coat, he tears her dress, she steals his clothes, she names him “Bone,” and the mating cries of wild animals disturb the decorum of the dinner table, even as a Freudian psychiatrist in a swanky bar gives viewers an answer key in advance. [The New Yorker, September 30, 2013]

And here’s the new version, with the additions underlined:

The enduring fascination of this 1938 screwball comedy is due to much more than its uproarious gags. Having already helped launch the genre, the director Howard Hawks here reinvents his comic voice, establishing archetypes of theme and performance that still hold sway. He turned Cary Grant into an extension of his own intellectual irony, an absent-minded professor who seems lost in thought but awaits the chance to unleash his inner leopard. He refashioned Katharine Hepburn as a sexually determined woman who hides her aggression under intricate scatterbrained schemes that force the deep thinker to deploy his untapped humor and virility. And Hawks brought to fruition his own universe of hints and symbols that conjure the force that rules the world: she tears his coat, he tears her dress, she steals his clothes, she names him “Bone,” and the mating cries of wild animals disturb the decorum of the dinner table, even as a Freudian psychiatrist in a swanky bar gives viewers an answer key in advance.

The changes seem aimed at noting the movie’s humor. The original review emphasized its sexuality. The inspired final line is slightly revised, subtly enlarging the Hawksian universe to include hints as well as symbols. Someday I’ll compile a “Top Ten Richard Brody Capsule Movie Reviews.” “His brilliant “Bringing Up Baby” will definitely be on it.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Gone to Scotland


Forth & Clyde Canal













Tomorrow, I depart for Scotland to do some cycling. I’m taking John McPhee’s The Crofter and the Laird (1970) with me. It originally appeared in The New Yorker (December 6 & 13, 1969). I’ll post my review when I return, May 25, 2017.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

May 1, 2017, Issue


Notes on this week’s issue:

1. I enjoy Mark Ulriksen’s vivid baseball covers immensely. This week’s issue features a dandy. Titled “Strike Zone,” it’s a close-up of a scene at home plate: a wide-open-mouthed umpire is calling a strike; a wide-open-mouthed Red Sox batter is expressing dismay; and a wide-open-mouthed Yankee catcher, holding the ball in his mitt, looks ecstatic.

2. “Goings On About Town: Art” says of Maureen Gallace’s paintings, “Like the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, her work generates power from reticence.” It’s an interesting observation. But Bishop also had a keen eye for detail. As Bonnie Costello says in Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery (1991), “Her eye delights in the particular.” The same can’t be said for Gallace’s paintings. They efface detail. In this regard, the analogy with Bishop’s poems seems tenuous.

Maureen Gallace, "Summer House / Dunes" (2009)















3. “Goings On About Town: Night Life” says of Alan Broadbent,

He’s played the role of the best man for years now, both as the pianist for Quartet West—the celebrated ensemble led by the late, great bassist Charlie Haden—and as an A-list studio arranger and conductor. But Broadbent also deserves considerable attention for his work as a probing stylist who deftly balances the rhapsodic and the propulsive.

I agree. Listen to him play George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” on his 2005 album ’Round Midnight. It’s the most intense, swinging, gorgeous rendition of that great song you’ll ever hear.

4. Wei Tchow’s piece on Diamond Reef is classic “Bar Tab,” right up there with Nicolas Niarchos’s “Dutch Kills.” Both pieces mention the Penicillin (Scotch, lemon, honey, ginger), my favorite cocktail. Tchow refers to a witty Diamond Reef variation – the Penichillin: “Diamond Reef’s frozen take (the Penichillin) employs an age-old principle: anything is more fun when tossed into a slushy machine.”

Friday, April 28, 2017

April 24, 2017, Issue


Last year’s Food & Travel Issue, containing four brilliant pieces (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”), was my pick for Best Issue of the Year (see here). It’s a tough act to follow. This year’s Food & Travel Issue suffers in comparison. It lacks the kind of pungent, textured specificity I associate with great food and travel writing. Rachel Monroe’s “#Vanlife” isn’t bad, if you relish sentences like “King checked Instagram on her phone; her most recent post, a shot of a storm building over the Pacific, had been something of an aesthetic departure—most Where’s My Office Now images include King, the van, or Penny; the most popular tend to include all three—and it was underperforming.” But I don't. I couldn’t be done with it fast enough. The same goes for Lauren Collins’s “Secrets in the Sauce,” in which the sentence “Barbecue might be America’s most political food” stopped me cold; I didn’t read another line. I skimmed Daniel Mendelsohn’s “An Odyssey,” an account of a trip he and his father took on a cruise ship, retracing Odysseus’ journey. This may strike some as interesting; it didn’t do anything for me. Politics, social media, and patriarchal Greek poetry make a strange and unappealing hash.

Speaking of hash, care for a pot brownie? No, not really, but I read Lizzie Widdicombe’s “High Cuisine” anyway, because … well, because it’s by Lizzie Widdicombe, writer of, among other piquant pieces, the superb “The Bad-Boy Brand” (April 8, 2013). “High Cuisine” contains at least two inspired sentences:

A team from Weedmaps, a “Yelp for pot” based in Irvine, California, was visiting the facility, and a photographer had set up a light box, which he was using to take pictures of pot cookies.

I nibbled a small pie: it tasted like pumpkin, but with a weedy aftertaste, which brought back Proustian memories of high school.

For me, the best food writing in this otherwise dismal Food & Travel Issue is found in Shauna Lyon’s “Tables For Two: King” and Talia Lavin’s “Bar Tab: The Binc.” Lyon’s piece offers pure, sensuous bliss:

A spectacular, bracing salad served at the beginning of March included a pink radicchio that one guest had recently spied in the produce section of Eataly, and a mysterious soft-crunchy, hollow stalk, which turned out to be the heart of a puntarelle, whose chickory-like leaves were more easily identified. The coniglio alla cacciatora, or hunter’s rabbit, came as nubs of tender, gamey meat on a bed of polenta larded with cheese and butter, and the onglet appeared as great red slices of hanger steak, alongside al-dente chickpeas. For dessert, a Pernod semifreddo in a dainty coupe was an inspired touch.

Lavin’s “The Binc” shows a deep pleasure taken in description:

The interior is suffused with a warm, orangey glow, and, though it just celebrated its one-year anniversary, it feels curiously unfocussed in time. There is a faded portrait of a mustachioed man from an indeterminate era, and antique marionettes of soldiers hanging on a cloudy, wall-size mirror; the rest-room signs are done in careful Art Deco lettering. On a recent Saturday night, the bar top was crowded with rows of multicolored tinctures, like cardamom bitters and sweet-potato shrub, which added complexity to cocktails such as the Whitaker (vodka, ginger) and the Fall of Roebling (tequila, habanero). Twelve barflies gave the room a pleasantly full, but not overcrowded, air.

I have a suggestion for next year’s Food & Travel Issue – turn it over to the “Tables For Two” and “Bar Tab” crew, let them write it.

Friday, April 21, 2017

April 17, 2017, Issue


I see in the “Briefly Noted” review of Richard Holmes’s new book, The Long Pursuit, in this week’s issue, that Holmes “swears by what he calls the ‘Footsteps principle,’ which entails going everywhere that ‘the subject had ever lived or worked, or travelled or dreamed.’ ” Reading this, I recalled Geoff Dyer, in Granta’s recent “Journeys” issue, describing travel writing that follows “in the footsteps of …” as “the literary equivalent of package tours in which destination and experience are so thoroughly predetermined that one is reluctant to make a booking.” I’m curious what Dyer would make of Holmes’s “Footsteps principle.” It seems to me that The Long Pursuit is worthy of more than just a “Briefly Noted” review. I wish The New Yorker would ask Dyer to review it. He’s a superb critic. He’d be an excellent sub for James Wood.

Other notes on this week’s issue:


1. The Maureen Gallace painting, “Sandy Road” (2003), in “Goings On About Town,” brought to mind Peter Schjeldahl’s wonderful “America at the Edges” (The New Yorker, October 19, 2015), in which he describes Gallace’s art:

Gallace’s means are narrow: she employs uniformly quick, daubed brushwork and colors kept to a mid-range of tones that makes whites jump out. Her end is description, not of how things look but of how they seem. What is a breaking ocean wave like? Gallace answers with stabs of creamy off-white and gray-blue shadow. It’s her best guess, as is the specific blue of the sky on the given day. In one picture, single blue strokes approximate tidal pools. Elsewhere, a slight touch of green in the sea hints at fathomless deeps. Qualities of light, too, feel gamely speculative. (To me, they tend to evoke morning hours, when the visible world, well rested, has something almost eager about it.) The houses often lack doors and windows. Gallace is plainly shy of anyone or anything that might even seem to return her gaze. She conveys a vulnerable aloneness wholly given over to absorption in appearances. Looking at the paintings, I feel that I am always just beginning to look.

2. The William Mebane photograph, illustrating Jiayang Fan’s delectable “Tables For Two: Tim Ho Wan,” is one of his finest. I’m a Mebane fan. His photo for Silvia Killingsworth’s “Tables For Two: Babu Ji” was #6 on my “Best of 2016: Photos.” His “Tim Ho Van” is sure to be a candidate for “Best of 2017.”

3. I find “Bar Tab” drink descriptions irresistible. There’s a dandy in David Kortava’s “Bar Tab: Skinny Dennis”:  “If you are going to stay and drink, Willie’s Frozen Coffee—a decadent caffeine-and-whiskey sludge named for Willie Nelson—is a must.”


Postscript: I want to add that Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985) is, for me, a touchstone, particularly the first section, titled “1964: Travels,” in which he tells how his youthful journeys through the Cévennes, following the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson, led him towards biography.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Nabokov-Wilson Feud


Vladimir Nabokov (Photo by Irving Penn)
Gary Saul Morson, in his “Will We Ever Pin Down Pushkin?” (The New York Review of Books, March 23, 2017), calls the battle between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson over Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin “one of the great quarrels of American literary history.” Morson appears to side with Wilson, opining, “Wilson’s criticisms were mostly on target.” Reading Morson’s piece, I recalled John Updike’s great “The Cuckoo and the Rooster” (The New Yorker, June 11, 1979), a review of The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, in which Updike held that Wilson had “a good eye for what was defective or lop-sided in Nabokov, but something of a tin ear for the unique music this ‘inescapably’ artistic man could strike from anything.” Updike wrote, “Without minimizing the kindnesses and excitements that Wilson contributes, this reviewer found Nabokov’s letters the more alive and giving, certainly the more poetic and dense.” I realize that Morson, in his piece, is dealing with Nabokov’s translation, not his letters. Nevertheless, in considering the validity of Morson’s views (e.g., “Nabokov deliberately made his translation unreadable”), I suggest that Updike’s point about “the unique music this ‘inescapably’ artistic man could strike from anything” should be kept in mind. It's possible Morson's ear is as tinny as Wilson's.