Travelling abroad for two weeks, I finally got used to and even learned to like reading The New Yorker on my iPad. I don’t think it’s just because I was on vacation and had plenty of time to read that I found these last two issues to be really strong anthologies of articles. The most recent issue was chock full of good stuff, starting with Barry Blitt’s wonderful cover illustration of Steve Jobs checking in with the concierge at the ultimate Genius Bar.
And it continues with Nicholson Baker’s lovely tribute to the guy responsible for “being able to carry several kinds of infinity around in your shirt pocket” and the device Baker describes as “this brilliant, slip-sliding rectangle of private joy.”
Adam Gopnik contributes an illuminating salute to The Phantom Tollbooth, a children’s book I’ve heard about, never read, and never knew that the great cartoonist Jules Feiffer had anything to do with. Adam Kirsch, writing about H.G. Wells, reveals him to be a bad writer but a prodigious fornicator (a similar conclusion reached by Joan Acocella in her piece the previous week about Georges Simenon). James Wood’s essay on Alan Hollinghurst manages to be admiring and respectful while mercilessly exposing the novelist’s tics and careless repetitions. The publication of a long-lost Eugene O’Neill one-act reminds me of everything I hate about O’Neill — the bloated, unnecessary stage directions and the corny, outlandish attempts at reproducing dialect.
The center of the issue contains three smart, riveting, vastly different fact pieces. Michael Specter reports on how Portugal treats heroin addiction as a medical issue rather than criminal activity. Tad Friend’s story about Andrew Stanton, Pixar’s star screenwriter-director, reveals lots of good moviemaking detail. “He read and reread Lajos Egri’s ‘The Art of Dramatic Writing,’ which taught him to distill movies to one crisp sentence before making them. For Finding Nemo it was ‘Fear denies a good father from being one,’ and for Wall-E ‘Love conquers all programming.’ “
Best of all is Evan Osnos’s long, detailed, scary “Letter from Fukushima,” which recounts every step of how workers at the Daiichi Nuclear Power Station dealt with the dangerous destruction to the plant by the tsunami in March. Besides dropping in some fascinating geeky tidbits (nuclear workers willing to jump in and jump out of high-dose conditions are nicknamed dose fodder, glow boys, and gamma sponges), the article traces a few half-forgotten pockets of Japan’s nuclear history. I was only dimly aware of the impact on Japan of US hydrogen bomb testing in the Bikini Atoll. Osnos reports: “The ordeal caused a panic in Japan; a petition against further hydrogen-bomb tests secured the signature of one in every three citizens. it was the start of what became known as Japan’s ‘nuclear allergy.’ In less than a year, Japanese filmmakers had released Godzilla, about a creature mutated by American atomic weapons. ‘Mankind had created the Bomb,’ the film’s producer, Tomoyuki Tanaka, said of his monster, ‘and now nature was going to take revenge.’ Godzilla’s radioactive breath and low-budget special effects were campy to the reset of the world but not to the Japanese, who watched the film in silence and left in tears.”
The previous week’s issue (cover date October 10) had a similar trio of quirky business articles at its core — Joshua Davis on the inventor of the currency of the future, the bitcoin; Akash Kapur’s “The Shandy,” about a cow broker in India; and Calvin Trillin’s droll coverage of duelling jewellers in Toronto’s cash-for-gold business. I couldn’t care less about Taylor Swift but read every word of Lizzie Widdicombe’s thorough profile of her. (Okay, I was on a bus Florence to Siena.) But if there are only a couple of must-reads in the issue, one is very long (Jane Mayer’s report on villainous Art Pope, one of the major funders of all the worst right-wing Republicans coming down the pike) and one is very short (Patti Smith’s memoir about shoplifting the World Book Encyclopedia and getting caught).