In last week’s New Yorker

June 19, 2017

Before even having a look at this week’s issue, I want to make some notes about last week’s unusually good issue.

First of all, I hope Rachel Aviv has a really good therapist. She consistently does in-depth, long-term reporting on some of the most grim topics in American society, exposing herself to endless accounts of trauma and abuse. Her story “Memories of a Murder” is a perfect example. In the tiny town of Beatrice, Nebraska, a 68-year-old widow was raped and murdered in 1987. The crime remained unsolved for two years until a farmer who enjoyed watching crime shows on television took on the job of unpaid private investigator and with the expert advice of a local psychologist succeeded in concocting a story that resulted in the arrest and conviction of six small-town residents, several of them mentally ill or developmentally disabled. Years later a DNA test showed that the blood and semen at the crime site belonged to a juvenile delinquent whose grandmother lived in the same building and had subsequently died of AIDS.  The point of Aviv’s long, absorbing article is that detectives and psychological professionals can be so attached to a narrative that they can convince innocent people that they committed crimes they had nothing to do with. (Online the title of the article is more pointed: “Remembering the Murder You Didn’t Commit.”)But it’s also a dismaying tale about the ignorance and preconceptions that face outsiders in a small town.

To balance out the grimness, there’s David Sedaris writing about his alcoholic mother (“Why Aren’t You Laughing?”) and another brilliant Shouts & Murmurs piece by Paul Rudnick, “Jared & Ivanka’s Guide to Mindful Marriage.” My favorite: “Family is everything. We treasure the special moments, like the time our kids used their crayons to make Jared a construction-paper subpoena. We have game nights, when we play such favorites as Pin the Tail on Whoever’s Out of Favor, Let’s Dress Jeff Sessions in Doll Clothes, and Who Can Hug Mommy Without Touching Her Hair?”

I got through college without having to read “The Confessions of St. Augustine.” Esteemed classicist Stephen Greenblatt, in “The Invention of Sex,” makes him sound even more entertainingly bizarre than I imagined, with his account of a spiritual orgasm shared with his mother and his fixation on how “some people can do things with their bodies that others find impossible. ‘Some people can even move their ears, either one at a time or both together.’ Others, as he personally had witnessed, could sweat whenever they chose, and there were even people who could ‘produce at will such musical sounds from their behind (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from that region.”’ ”


What else? Zadie Smith writes a beautifully detailed and empathetic profile decoding the work of a young black British painter and writer named Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (“A Bird of Few Words”). I enjoyed reading Andrew Sean Greer’s short story “It’s a Summer Day,” though I couldn’t help noticing that it’s the second piece of fiction the New Yorker has published in a month that centers on a writer winning an obscure prize. I admire critic-at-large Kelefa Sanneh’s music writing, though his essay “The Persistence of Prog-Rock” indulges in some historical revisionism. When I was growing up, contemporary bands like Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer were viewed as “art-rock,” a different flavor but related to Zappa and the Mothers, David Bowie, and other arty rockers. And my memory is that the term “prog-rock” was never used in those days. It’s been tossed around familiarly only in retrospect by the people who weren’t even alive then.

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