Archive for the ‘New Yorker’ Category

I still remember the first George Saunders story I read, “Sea View.” I still remember how strange, how surprising and disorienting, I found his writing style. It was as if something brand new had come into the world, maybe the way Keats felt “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,”

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken

In a now familiar set-up, the reader is drawn into a dystopian, slightly surreal (sometimes more than slightly) world of ordinary people who struggle to get through a day where the deck is stacked against them, often at the mercy of petty bureaucrats or corporate tyrants, just trying to hang onto pointless, humiliating jobs, often in what seem to be a cross between amusement parks and reality TV shows. Now, I’ve read most, if not all, of his stories (frequently in The New Yorker and most recently reread them in The Tenth of December. I enjoyed revisiting some of these, the brilliant and poignant Puppy, the moving, redemptive title story and some others. They have very different writing styles, but I rank George Saunders right up there with Alice Munro for his mastery of the form and for his generous view of humanity: while describing evil actions, no-win situations, sad losers, he can bring you to another level where your perspective is not the only one, where you can glimpse more than what your circumstances dictate. As Jennifer Egan wrote, his work is “emotionally piercing.” As Kafka said, “Art should be an axe to the frozen sea within.” Saunders does that.


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I’m not really writing about Fitzgerald, but, in fact, he and Zelda make an appearance in The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, which I just finished, and they seem more interesting than the subject of the novel which is, of course, Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, and by extension, Hemingway himself. I disagree with the author’s choice to use the first-person narrative to tell Hadley’s story, it comes across as unoriginal and banal, as if she took the known facts and connected them like a dot-to-dot drawing. I started to think, yes, Hemingway was a cad, but Hadley just isn’t that interesting; in fact, without her relationship with him, why would we care about her? By contrast, Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, told in the third person, is both more nuanced and satisfying. McLain can write and there are some poignant moments as the marriage unravels (Pauline was quite a character!), but, on the whole, I couldn’t wait to get it over with. It felt to me as if the writer hit upon this great idea for a novel and then just went through the motions, not truly caring about her subject. Even Paris comes across as dull and uninviting. Enter the Fitzgeralds, with their brittle, bright spirits, adding some much-needed drama and intensity. The gatherings at Cap d’Antibe are well rendered, bringing to mind Tender is the Night. A recent New Yorker article by Giles Harvey (Cry Me A River, 032513 issue) details several recent tell-all memoirs by young published writers who went off the rails after early success. Harvey makes the point that this approach has actually led to renewed interest in and opportunities for these authors and adds that Fitzgerald tried the same tactic in 1936 when he wrote a personal essay, “The Crack-Up,” about his flagging career prospects. (Of course, Fitzgerald managed to confess his sorry state in a philosophical way, with an “urbane, self-inspecting tone,” a far cry from the contemporary examples). Within a year, he was invited to Hollywood to try, unsuccessfully as it turned out, his hand at screenwriting. Sad to think of Scott and Zelda so diminished, but the seeds of tragedy were there at Cap d’Antibes, as McLain is able to show in her novel. Perhaps she just chose the wrong subject for her talents?

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I noticed in today’s Writer’s Almanac that today is the birthday of Junot Diaz. I’ve been reading his stories in The New Yorker for a long time, most recently I enjoyed the one in the science fiction issue which added a touch of fantastic suspense to the usual themes of family, relationships, the diaspora and tragic history of the DR. I learned a lot about this history when I recently listened to The Short and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  The audiobook has its pros and cons, but a distinct advantage is when wonderful accents and foreign language phrases are a part of the narrative. I’ve always loved the liberal sprinkling of (untranslated) Spanish throughout Diaz’ work, but when listening to one of his books, I almost start to feel a glimmer of fluency in the language. In addition, beneath the flippant tone, one gets a grim history lesson about the horrors of the reign of Trujillo and his followers and the scars left on the people of the DR. There is a joyous anger in Diaz as  he reveals these monsters for what they were, even as there is sadness because of the trauma that continues down the generations. Diaz has a refreshing, unique style, and his erstwhile narrator is appealing even as he reels along his path of self-destruction. Diaz refers to Yunior as his own “terrible half-brother,” and his writing seems like therapy for himself and his homeland.

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The authors, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, also wrote Plato and a Platypus walk into a Bar – both books are about understanding and exploring philosophy through jokes. Heidigger is more specifically about exploring what philosophy has to say about death and the hereafter. The style is just a little too corny for me, and I got really sick of their imaginary straight man, the so-called “Daryl,” who asks dumb questions and is terrified of death. Still, some of the jokes and New Yorker cartoons are really funny, and I was able to glean a little philosophy from the pages. For instance, I don’t think I ever heard of Ernest Becker whose Pulitzer Prize winning work, The Denial of Death, explores how  the objective knowledge of our own mortality doesn’t stop us from inventing ways to avoid dealing with it through what Becker called “immortality systems.”  Per Becker, the problem with these culturally-sponsored immortality systems is that we invest ourselves in them to the extent that we have to defend them against other culture’s immortality systems; in addition, he says they don’t actually save us from what Cathcart and Klein describe as two sides of the same coin: the “life is meaningless-and-then-you -die problem…or its flip side, the anxiety of facing a life that is finite and can never satisfy our yearning for infinity.” Becker’s advice is to face up to the angst as a way out of this conundrum, drawing on Soren Kierkegaard’s contention that “angst is our ultimate teacher.” Avoiding angst by being detached, being hyper-busy, or trying to “be someone” are dead ends.  To quote C and K again, “It’s only when we’re willing to let go of all of our illusions and admit that we are lost and helpless and terrified that we will be free of ourselves and our false securities and ready for what Kierkegaard calls ‘the leap of faith.’  (Not quite sure what is meant by this.)  The chapter on Schopenhauer seemed vague or at least I am vague on what Schopenhauer was saying about death, but Heidigger seems to be saying that we need to confront death without illusion in order to live authentically – similar to Kierkegaard and ultimately, Becker, I think.  Was Heidigger an existentialist, too? I think so, since the chapter on Heidigger (or, Heidi, as they call him) leads directly to Sartre.  As my muddled description indicates, this book is fun and accessible, but doesn’t give you a solid foundation in philosophy – obviously! Maybe it will help as a way to start thinking about some of these writers and their works…we shall see.  I’ll try to summarize the existentialists in another post.

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      In the October 25th issue, I was engrossed in Ian Frazier’s article about the invading Asian carp that are (apparently) poised to ruin the Great Lakes. Frazier is always good, even if the news of invasive species leaves one slightly depressed. The “Letter from California” about the noise pollution caused by leaf-blowers in an upscale neighborhood was amusing, but also relevant to all neighborhoods where people obsessively blow their leaves around, on peaceful Saturday afternoons when you’re trying to read out on the porch. This was a good issue; I even liked the fiction (“The Tree Line, Kansas 1934”).  The keeper for me though was the review of a new translation of Giacomo Leopardi’s poetry, very depressing, apparently, but also beautifully written. The October 4th issue had Nancy Franklin’s review of Sorkin’s movie, The Social Network. The article about John Cage was interesting. October 18th had an insightful piece about the tea party movement’s admiration for Glenn Beck (scary) and the roots of his and their philosophy (even scarier), plus an excellent overview by Adam Gopnik of Adam Smith biographies, pointing out some interesting facts about Smith and capitalism (not so laissez faire as he is often portrayed). The October 11th issue (the Money Issue as it happens) had another great money-themed story by Alice Munro, Corrie, plus a funny piece by Nora Ephron about a near inheritance.

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September New Yorkers

September 6:  An armchair adventurer, I like to read about scary, far-away places (like Antarctica) and scary (hopefully far away) diseases and crimes.  In that context, the Letter from New Zealand, Mind Game by Carl Elliott was fascinating.  Peter Boyer’s The Covenant updates us on the stem  cell wars and gives good background for the continuing legal and political struggle over this issue.

September 13: Reading about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Tony McDermott’s The Mastermind is chilling, especially in that the so-called planner of 9/11 is not so much a religious fanatic as a juvenile delinquent in a state of arrested development. Violence matters, not ideas.  Blind ideology is frightening – random hatred and destruction is even worse.  More intriguing is The Uranium Widows by Peter Hessler about a planned uranium mill in Colorado and the surprising differences between supporters and enemies of the plan.  Former residents of Uravan, a uranium mining town that was closed, condemned and literally shredded and buried, gather annually for a picnic outside the fenced-off site of their former town.  They are philosophic about the dangers of uranium, supportive of the mill, and nostalgic for their town and the jobs they once had.

September 20: Well, I made it through the style issue; it wasn’t horrible, but was sadly lacking Patricia Marx. I skipped the article about J. Crew (life is too short) and skimmed the one about Tavi, the teen fashion blogger (she sounds like a good writer). The vacuum cleaner article was pretty good, as was the one about Facebook, but the must-read item for this issue is the short story, Birdsong by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The classic story of the young woman having an affair with an older, wealthy, (married) man was perfect. Something else was added from the setting of the Nigerian city of Lagos, about the way women are treated and how they are expected to act; about the lack of a social contract, that is, the assumption of civilized behavior from each other. In one aside she mentions a village boy who screams in shock when his lost wallet is actually returned to him! The girl’s hurt, bewilderment, anguish; her knowledge that she shouldn’t do what she is doing; her rebellion against all of it is spot on. Brava!

September 27:   The must read article in this issue is Jeffrey Toobin’s Without a Paddle about Justice Stephen Breyer.  As a nice addendum to this article, check out Breyer’s 2007 appearance on NPR’s Wait, Wait, don’t tell me. What a humane and charming fellow he seems to be!  I also enjoyed the review of Gatz, the staged reading of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, “The Great Gatsby.” I am filled with regret that I did not devote six hours of my life to seeing the show when it was in Boston some months ago. If I truly cared about what I say I care about…I would have been there. This “improbable” hit show is now sold out on Broadway!

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August New Yorkers

It felt weird for the last few months, because of classwork (and the short-lived book-a-day project), to be unable to comment on New Yorker articles that others had read.  Before picking up my next book, I settled down with the most recent issues to catch up:

August 30:  A good issue.  I enjoyed the article about the “laughing Guru” (“Letter from India”) and tried some fake laughter (discreetly, to myself) to keep my spirits up during a trying day at Dana Farber.  I also gained strength from thinking about Gawande’s article mentioned below, and a cartoon, with a maze entitled “Life,” and a clueless person standing in front of it. The issue about the dreadful Koch brothers trying to ruin the country for their own corporate greed and self-interest is depressing (“Covert Operations”) and I also liked the quiet, sad story, “The Science of Flight” by Yiyun Li. Ian Frazier’s account of the gulag’s in Russia (“On the Prison Highway”) was nicely done, interesting and philosophical, leaving a feeling of despair at the evil that men do.  I also liked Adam Gopnik on Winston Churchill (“Winston Churchill’s Finest Hour”) which was probably the  most interesting to me. I haven’t figured out what to think of Churchill, although I’m inclined to admire him.  Also of interest were two slightly contradictory views of Stalin,  with Frazier indicating that Stalin is not judged as harshly as Hitler (“The world more or less knows what it thinks of Hitler….somehow Stalin gets a pass”).  He notes the millions that Hitler killed, but Stalin’s victims are harder to count between those starved through his pollicies, those executed, and those worked to death in the camps. The estimate is 55 to 65 million Russians dying of unnatural causes from 1917 through 1992, a majority probably due to Stalin.  Weirdly, Stalin seems to be growing in popularity in Russia.  Frazier also draws a comparison between Hitler and Stalin, stating that Churchill knew the difference between Stalin and Satan.  He notes that at Stalingrad  “the brutality and waste of the Stalinist regime…is sickening” but the murderousness of the Nazi invaders…is satanic.”  Churchill negotiated with Stalin, for which he has been castigated, but perhaps there was no other choice and, as Gopnik suggests, perhaps he “played a pitifully weak hand rather well.”

August 16-23:  Patricia Marx with her inimitable shopping style and commentary turns to automobiles (“The Driver’s Seat”) – she likens the Smart Car to a lunchbox – so apt! I also liked Joan Acocella’s article about Agatha Christie.

August 9: This was a good issue, with David Sedaris standing out for his funny, yet penetrating piece on airline travel and how we perceive our fellow passengers (“Our Unfriendly Skies”).  “The Empty Chamber” by George Packer depressed with its portrait of the way the Senate does (or more typically does not) do business. I also liked the fiction (“The Train of their Departure” – by David Bezmozgis – funny and smart).  Good cover, too.

August 2: “Letting Go” by Atul Gawande – a must-read!  Gawande is a hero of modern medicine, telling it like it is with clarity, compassion and honesty.  I also liked Elizabeth Kolbert on the state of fishing (“Is There Any Hope for Fish?”) and the Moscow traffic jam article was pretty funny (“Letter from Moscow”) though horrifying in its way.

I met a guy on the elevator yesterday who eyed my folded over New Yorker, and said, “The New Yorker, it’s like a part time job, isn’t it?”  I agreed, but said I was committed to it. In parting he said, “Of course, if you read the New Yorker, you don’t really need to read anything else to keep up with things.”  My sentiments exactly!

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