categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence
The New Yorker’s summer reading issue is here, and I thought it might bear a close reading, here in the brave new world post Bill and Dave’s crash, which around here we’re referring to as 6/24. Our innocence lost, can we still read late into the night?
The lead “Talk of the Town” piece is by Elizabeth Kolbert, the author of a New Yorker piece turned terrific book: Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (Bloomsbury, 2006), which I taught in a nature writing course when I was at Holy Cross. Students greeted all the facts and figures and warnings of imminent disaster with a Ho-hum on the one hand, and a What-am-I-supposed-to-do on the other. They were also seriously bummed out with what their world is shaping up to be. And they didn’t like the formulaic way Kolbert introduces a scientist, describes whatever shock of whatever color hair, a crooked smile, some clothing, and then lets him or her talk. I didn’t notice any of that, so happy was I to have all the pertinent climate change information boiled down for me. Here for our summer delectation, Kolbert takes President Obama to task for doing nothing whatsoever to improve the American response to this burgeoning and very real problem (though doing nothing is an improvement over the aggression with which Bush/Cheney pursued climate-change denial) . The context of the column is Obama’s visit to the tornado disaster in Joplin, MO, ironic. Bad weather will be our fate going forward. Weird weather, too. But weather isn’t climate, weather is the result of climate. And changed climate means changed weather. But that film of a huge twister picking all the water out of the Connecticut River at Springfield, Mass, was so, so beautiful. If terrifying.
Next up is James Surowiecki on the “Financial Page.” He’s so good at boiling down complicated financial issues. And as with Elizabeth Kolbert, I count on him to articulate the arguments I need when talking back to the radio I sometimes hear blasting from my neighbor’s truck. (The neighbor himself I would never dare talk about anything more than growing vegetables. Not even the weather is safe small talk these days…. )(And not really vegetables, for that matter.) Anyway, in this issue Surowiecki discusses the general greatness and necessity of Elizabeth Warren as a watchdog over the financial industry, fat chance. But I love her too….
The ads suck and work hard against everything the editorials seek to accomplish. Shell Oil telling us how great natural gas is. U.S. Trust skewing the language to make it sound like they are some kind of environmental organization. “Exploding population growth, the need for arable land and the increasing demand for solar power all have one thing in common: the ability to directly impact investment strategies.” How’s that for a mouthful? And they invite is to read “Food, Forests and Fuel” at their website. Which it’s safe to say is better funded than Bill and Dave’s. The point of the article at their website isn’t that we should preserve anything, it’s that we should invest in land! Because if we own the land, we own the stuff people need! And we can add another F to the title of the article! Fuckery!
Aleksandr Hemon’s “The Aquarium” is a memoir, which the New Yorker helpfully calls “Personal History.” Why do they do that? Maybe so as not to enter the fray over the other term…. “The Aquarium” is heart-wrenching, about the illness of the author’s 9-month-old baby, phew. I cried hard for him and his wife and for all of us, starting about halfway in. It’s plainly written, very straightforward, and there isn’t much question where it’s going from the start. You want to shout advice, but of course, only a parent going through hell like that can make the decisions, and all glib theories about life and death fly out the window…. (Another recent piece, by Francisco Goldman, about the drowning in Mexico of his wife, also broke my heart. Goldman’s a warmer writer and the portrait of his beloved is one of the most beautiful things I ever read.) My sense after reading is that there is no healing from these things, only repression. Which hasn’t happened yet for Hemon, who sounds angry, very angry, and rightly so. The sign of a great piece of writing is when you have to stop afterwards and think and really can’t do anything else. I put the magazine down till the next day.
The summer reading issue has these short pieces on a theme, memoir again, but that word unsaid. The theme this time around is “Starting Out,” by several writers, spaced as palate cleansers between the longer stuff. Jennifer Egan’s is cute, reads as if knocked off a bit irritably on assignment… It’s a “my first job” kind of piece, and I’ve read better in college classes. Or maybe the dark of Hemon’s story just made the lightness here unbearable….
George Saunders’s story “Home” is the first fiction. And it’s great, as dark as possible, about a vet returning from one of the wars we have going now, unspecified. Trouble is, there really isn’t a home to return to. Plus, he seems to have committed some kind of atrocity over there, wherever it is, in a place nicknamed call Al Raz. It’s a beautifully tense story from the first sentence, poor guy awash in negative emotion and disasters of his own making, of his mother’s making, and there she is, still making disasters. Saunders always has a bitter, comic edge, darkness threatening at all times, real horror. And this first-person narrator, apparently so despicable (nearly everyone recoils to see him), grabs all of our sympathy. There’s a litany, too, the constant, empty repetition of the phrase “Thank you for your service.” Every time it’s voiced, it loses more meaning, gains more witless cruelty. There is no home, that’s the thing, and no one to bring him back. The end here is finely made—and here we understand someone we might not ever care to in real life.
I really like Junot Diaz, wonderful. His “Starting Out” offering is a dark little comedy of the Dominican Republic. He packs so much personality into his sentences. And boy, can he tell a story in the most economical fashion. With laughs.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s piece gets to be called a “Reflection,” because, I don’t know, I guess it’s not just “Personal History.” But it is a memoir. It’s a little too steady on the tiller for me, and the opening sections are pretty boring, about discovering reading and writing, stuff that most of us could write. But paragraph by paragraph it begins to shift and rumble and pretty soon the family, her family, is at the center of things, and though we all could have written that, too (families don’t love young writers), the special flavors of her upbringing as the American child of Indian parents catches my interest, then my heart, really…. Lahiri’s a great observer of people and wonderful in the short form, whatever we call it.
I find Jeffrey Eugenides fairly sonorous, though I do like the big narration, the real authorial distance he maintains from his character. Who in “Asleep in the Lord” is named Mitchell. He’s a seeker in India. I don’t find myself interested in him. I will have to come back to this story one day and give it a chance, because often I don’t like a story at first sitting, only to come to love it later. Most stories are like people, lovable once you accept their terms…. And Eugenides is probably the writer here I have the most to learn from , as I understand him the least.
The next “Starting Out” is by Tea Obreht, who won the Orange Prize for her novel The Tiger’s Wife at age 25. I guess honestly I really do like reading about people discovering themselves as writers. We don’t have role models, most of us, and it’s good to hear that even those younger have had to fight their ways upstream. Plus, she has a ten-year old brother.
My favorite of the “Starting Out” bits is by Edward P. Jones, whom I met while I was teaching at Holy Cross, of which wonderful college he is an alum. He’s a delightful guy, but I don’t thing knowing him colors my take on “Shacks.” It’s cant-free, it’s thoroughly un-pompous, not even self-conscious, seeks only to make the claim that a series of love letters and the subsequent disappointment started him as a writer. But he doesn’t say that—he just puts his younger self in front of us and lets us do the work.
I’ve always like volumes of letters, and here the summer reading issue surprised me with letters of Vladimir Nabokov to his wife, Vera, translated from the Russian, and apparently unavailable till now. They are full of stories and complaints and descriptions and ideas and sparkle with that familiar voice. I started to think how it’s too bad we don’t write letters anymore (my last were probably ten years ago, except to some ancient friends who didn’t have the Internet and weren’t going to get it, ending with deaths). And that emails aren’t like letters, at least not these letters. The closest thing I can think of now to these letters might be… blogs. My sweetheart.
Now, the poems The New Yorker doesn’t label as such. Mark Strand’s offering wouldn’t be in here if I’d written it. But maybe I’m being obtuse. I can’t read poems while reading other stuff. Still, Ann Carson’s poem “O Dad” made me think a long time about the fact that when my daughter is my age, I will be 105. Of course, the only thing worse than that is that I won’t be here at all, and the world on fire. O, daughter.
Salvatore Scibona has the last “Starting Out,” and it’s about reading again. Because that’s what writers do. He’s funny and smart and likeable and in the end the piece is a paean to a college that understood the liberal arts, and I hope still does: St. John’s in Santa Fe. So why do I expect more from these pieces?
The last story is “Above and Below,” by Lauren Groff. It’s atmospheric and wants to be dark, I mean, we follow the descent of a professor down into homelessness. But something feels a little off to me, maybe just that we’re so close to the protagonist that there’s no space to say anything at all about mental illness, which must be the issue. Still, I was worried as I read, and began to find our heroine about half real, half writerly nightmare. I don’t know what to make of the story in the end, not really. Someone descended into hell and made it through and now she can pass her troubles along to the next generation? This is a grim life in a world without humor.
But I laughed at two of the cartoons.