In this week’s New Yorker

December 4, 2011


A lot of terrific stuff in this issue, starting with the cover by the great comic-book artist Daniel Clowes, “Black Friday” — notice the amount of shelf space in the “bookstore” available for actual books…. The ever-excellent George Packer contributes a closely reported piece focusing on a representative Occupy Wall Street regular (“All the Angry People”). Calvin Tomkins, one of my all-time heroes as an arts journalist, profiles Carl Andre, a once-prominent visual artist whose work most American art followers haven’t kept up with largely because of the mystery surrounding the death in 1985 of his wife, Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta. Andre was charged with her murder and acquitted, but many people harbor the belief that he was to blame. Tomkins, as usual, provides a clear-eyed 360-degree portrait of this artist.

I learned more about contemporary politics and economics from Nicholas Lemann’s Reporter at Large story on Brazil than I have from any other political reporting I’ve read this year. It is ostensibly a profile of Brazil’s current president, Dilma Rousseff, the incredibly smart protege who was hand-picked as successor by the hugely popular former president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, known as Lula. Rousseff, raised in an affluent family, was radicalized in reaction to the 1964 coup that established Brazil’s military dictatorship. She and her former husband, Lemann writes, “are said to have planned the single most financially successful operation of the militant resistance: the 1969 theft of two and a half million dollars from a safe in the home of the mistress of a former governor of Sao Paolo. In early 1970, the military finally caught up with her. She spent three years in prison, where she was reportedly subjected to extensive torture with paddles, electric cattle prods, and other devices.” And now she’s President!

Lemann’s piece serves more generally as a survey of Brazil’s journey from being a low-functioning democracy with an enormous poverty-level population to a country that become a world economic power while increasing political freedom and income equality. Lemann spends some time with Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the two-term president who succeeded in turning the economy around. “Cardoso has spent his life analyzing Brazilian society. He has an ability, rare in a politician, to pull back emotionally from the field of play. In his memoirs, he says that he first discovered that poverty existed, as a child growing up in an overwhelmingly poor country, by reading John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ But distance isn’t the same as dispassion. Another anecdote has George W. Bush, in one of their talks, asking him, ‘Do you have blacks in Brazil?’ Cardoso was shocked. About half of Brazil’s population is made up of people of African descent.”

I was impressed with this unflinching observation about American politics from Governor Sergio Cabral, who may be a future president of Brazil: “The Republican opposition is different from the opposition here. I think the anger against a black man as President should not be enough to put the country in trouble. They disrespect Obama because of his race. It’s not just bad for Obama — it’s bad for the country. In Brazil, the opposition tried tricks against Lula, but the people made solidarity with Lula. The worker, the black man, the workingman, the woman. The world is changing. Thanks God.” But I was most impressed with Lemann’s fascinating conversation with Lula, a straight-talking man of the people. I wish I could provide a link to the whole article, but it’s worth buying the issue or, if you’re a subscriber, not skipping over it but sitting down with this article for 45 minutes.

Elsewhere in the issue: I don’t get fantasy fiction, but I get the truth of what Adam Gopnik says in his long essay about the genre. “Of all the unexpected things in contemporary literature, this is among the oddest: that kids have an inordinate appetite for very long, very tricky, very strange books about places that don’t exist, fights that never happened, all set against the sort of medieval background that Mark Twain thought he had discredited with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” I also don’t really get hip-hop’s new superstar, Drake, whose chorus of praisers is joined by Sasha Frere-Jones, but he sure is handsome.

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