Archive for the 'In this week's New Yorker' Category

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.

In this week’s New Yorker

June 3, 2017

It’s the annual Fiction Issue with the theme of “American Jobs,” and there are two short stories that I liked very much. I’m a big fan of Sherman Alexie, and “Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest” doesn’t disappoint. (In an online-only feature, Alexie talks about how he knows about a motel maid’s experience partly because his sister had that job but also from his own observation: “I have spent hundreds of nights in motels and hotels of widely varying quality, and I pay attention to the lives of people around me, especially the folks who are working in service. I am the guy who will clean and organize his room—towels piled in the tub, garbage in the bins, stray hairs gathered—before checking out so that the maid has it a bit easier. She will spend less time in my room, so she’ll have more time for the messes left behind by the inconsiderate guests. I also tip ten bucks for each night I have been in the room.”)

I started out annoyed with Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Show Don’t Tell” because it seemed to be another insufferably insular tale about writers, set in what I’m guessing is a thinly disguised version of the Iowa Writers Workshop (correct me if I’m wrong), but the author (a woman named Curtis!) takes it in some surprising directions and won me over.

The centerpiece of the issue, though, is one of those classic New Yorker pieces that every caring person should read: Margaret Talbot’s “The Addicts Next Door.” It’s long and deeply depressing article about the opioid epidemic playing itself out in West Virginia. Here are just a few passages reflecting the gravity and hopelessness of the situation.

Talbot spent a lot of time in Berkeley County, WV, following around emergency paramedics Michael Barrett and Jenna Mulligan. “Barrett sometimes had to return several times in one day to the same house—once, a father, a mother, and a teen-age daughter overdosed on heroin in succession. Such stories seemed like twisted variations on the small-town generational solidarity he admired; as Barrett put it, even if one family member wanted to get clean, it would be next to impossible unless the others did, too. He was used to O.D. calls by now, except for the ones in which kids were around. He once arrived at a home to find a seven-year-old and a five-year-old following the instructions of a 911 operator and performing C.P.R. on their parents. (They survived.)”

At another house, the paramedic rescued a man who’d overdosed by treating him with Narcan. “The next week, Barrett’s crew was called back to the same house repeatedly. The man overdosed three times; his girlfriend, once.”

“According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, between 2007 and 2012 drug wholesalers shipped to West Virginia seven hundred and eighty million pills of hydrocodone (the generic name for Vicodin) and oxycodone (the generic name for OxyContin). That was enough to give each resident four hundred and thirty-three pills. The state has a disproportionate number of people who have jobs that cause physical pain, such as coal mining. It also has high levels of poverty and joblessness, which cause psychic pain. Mental-health services, meanwhile, are scant. Chess Yellott, a retired family practitioner in Martinsburg, told me that many West Virginians self-medicate to mute depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress from sexual assault or childhood abuse. ”

“‘The Changing Face of Heroin Use in the United States,’ a 2014 study led by Theodore Cicero, of Washington University in St. Louis, looked at some three thousand heroin addicts in substance-abuse programs. Half of those who began using heroin before 1980 were white; nearly ninety per cent of those who began using in the past decade were white. This demographic shift may be connected to prescribing patterns. A 2012 study by a University of Pennsylvania researcher found that black patients were thirty-four per cent less likely than white patients to be prescribed opioids for such chronic conditions as back pain and migraines, and fourteen per cent less likely to receive such prescriptions after surgery or traumatic injury.

“But a larger factor, it seems, was the despair of white people in struggling small towns. Judith Feinberg, a professor at West Virginia University who studies drug addiction, described opioids as ‘the ultimate escape drugs.’ She told me, “Boredom and a sense of uselessness and inadequacy—these are human failings that lead you to just want to withdraw. On heroin, you curl up in a corner and blank out the world. It’s an extremely seductive drug for dead-end towns, because it makes the world’s problems go away. Much more so than coke or meth, where you want to run around and do things—you get aggressive, razzed and jazzed.’”

” In 2012, Macy’s opened a distribution center in the Martinsburg area, but, Knowles said, the company has found it difficult to hire longtime residents, because so many fail the required drug test.”

It’s not all gloom and doom. Talbot also meets three women who started the Hope Dealer Project, their volunteer effort to drive people to detox facilities all over the state, and a doctor who gives free public classes to anybody who wants to learn how to reverse overdoses with Narcan. Selfless service, so strong and honorable and moving.

Does it go without saying that, like every other county in West Virginia, Berkeley County voted for Donald Trump?

 

In this week’s New Yorker

May 20, 2017

I’m always grateful when the New Yorker turns me on to people and phenomena that I’m not actively seeking out. For instance, I’ve been hearing about Cécile McLorin Salvant for a couple of years, I’d checked her music out a little bit and pretty quickly dismissed her as just another singer, nothing extraordinary. But Fred Kaplan’s profile of her demanded that I listen closer, and indeed further study has exponentially increased my respect for her and her chief collaborator, pianist Aaron Diehl.


Meanwhile, I’d never heard of Gerhard Steidl, but I love books, especially exquisitely produced art books, and apparently this guy is top of the line. How he works makes for a fascinating piece by Rebecca Mead.

Ian Parker tells the disheartening story of a brutal custody battle between two lesbians over an adopted son (“Are You My Mother?”).

Emily Nussbaum writes a compelling piece about Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale and the new TV version of it.

Then there’s this full-page cartoon by the nutty young cartoonist Edward Steed.


Not to mention another brilliant Barry Blitt cover, titled “Ejected.”

In this week’s New Yorker

March 26, 2017

The excellent reporting routinely published in the New Yorker has the simultaneously invigorating and depressing impact of adding to my pantheon of political villains. Latest addition: Robert Mercer, co-CEO of Renaissance Technologies, among the most profitable hedge funds in the country, and his daughter Rebekah. Apparently, we have these people and their wealth to thank for putting the current president and two of his key advisors — Stephen Bannon and Kellyanne Conway — in the positions of power they currently occupy.

Jane Mayer, one of the New Yorker’s best veteran reporters, last year published Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. She continues her mission of exposing the hidden influence of wealthy right-wing political ideologues with “Trump’s Money Man,” her long article on Mercer, whom I — and I suspect you — have never heard of. With a doggedness similar to that with which Rachel Maddow is exposing the Trump administration’s financial ties to Putin and his Russian cronies, Mayer connects the dots between Patrick Caddell, the former Democratic pollster, Citizens United, Breitbart News, the Council for National Policy, the Koch Brothers, the Club for Growth, Bannon’s Government Accountability Institute, and Mercer (without whom, one source opines, “Trump wouldn’t be President”).

It’s a long wonky read that most people won’t finish, so I’ll cull several passages that induced mounting horror in me as I made my way through the piece.

That tweet calling the news media “the enemy of the American people”? Mayer writes: “The President is known for tweeting impulsively, but in this case his words weren’t spontaneous: they clearly echoed the thinking of Caddell, Bannon, and Mercer. In 2012, Caddell gave a speech at a conference sponsored by Accuracy in Media, a conservative watchdog group, in which he called the media ‘the enemy of the American people.’ That declaration was promoted by Breitbart News, a platform for the pro-Trump alt-right, of which Bannon was the executive chairman, before joining the Trump Administration. One of the main stakeholders in Breitbart News is Mercer.”

Mayer relies heavily on two sources currently or formerly employed by Renaissance Technologies,  Nick Patterson and David Magerman. Patterson, who recruited Mercer from IBM,

doesn’t share Mercer’s libertarian views, or what he regards as his susceptibility to conspiracy theories about Bill and Hillary Clinton. During Bill Clinton’s Presidency, Patterson recalled, Mercer insisted at a staff luncheon that Clinton had participated in a secret drug-running scheme with the C.I.A. The plot supposedly operated out of an airport in Mena, Arkansas. “Bob told me he believed that the Clintons were involved in murders connected to it,” Patterson said. Two other sources told me that, in recent years, they had heard Mercer claim that the Clintons have had opponents murdered.

Mercer strongly supported Jeff Sessions as Trump’s candidate for Attorney General and has argued that the Civil Rights Act was a major mistake. He subsidizes the research of climate-change skeptic Arthur Robinson’s Oregon Institute of Science and medicine. He is a gun enthusiast with his own private pistol range, and he’s part owner of a company that claims to have the largest private cache of machine guns in the US.

In the 2016 campaign, Mercer gave $22.5 million in disclosed donations to Republican candidates and to political-cation committees, Mayer reports.

Adopting the strategy of Charles and David Koch, the billionaire libertarians, Mercer enlarged his impact exponentially by combining short-term campaign spending with long-term ideological investments. He poured millions of dollars into Breitbart News, and—in what David Magerman has called “an extreme example of modern entrepreneurial philanthropy”—made donations to dozens of politically tinged organizations.

Mayer describes Breitbart News, in which Mercer has invested $10 million, thusly: “The Web site freely mixes right-wing political commentary with juvenile rants and racist innuendo; under Bannon’s direction, the editors introduced a rubric called Black Crime.” Under the supervision of Rebekah Mercer, the family’s private foundation gave millions of dollars to interconnected nonprofit groups, several of which played crucial roles in propagating attacks on Hillary Clinton, $24.5 million in 2015 alone.

Last summer  when Paul Manfort was forced to resign as Trump’s campaign manager, writes Mayer,

Rebekah Mercer successfully pushed for a staff shakeup that led to the promotions of three people funded by the family: Bannon became the campaign’s C.E.O., Conway its manager, and [David] Bossie [leader of Citizens United] its deputy manager. William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard and an adamant Trump opponent, warned, “It’s the merger of the Trump campaign with the kooky right.”

Are you depressed/infuriated yet? Mayer ends the piece quoting an essay David Magerman wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer, saying Mercer “has surrounded our President with his people, and his people have an outsized influence over the running of our country, simply because Robert Mercer paid for their seats.” He writes, “Everyone has a right to express their views.” But, he adds, “when the government becomes more like a corporation, with the richest 0.001% buying shares and demanding board seats, then we cease to be a representative democracy.” Instead, he warns, “we become an oligarchy.”

 

In this week’s New Yorker

October 15, 2016

The “Fall Books” issue is especially loaded with terrific articles, starting with a high-powered Talk of the Town section with Amy Davidson writing about the third-party candidates; a piece about Amit Kumar, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has devised a mobile app called #NeverTrump allowing people to swap votes in swing states; and a visit to a dive bar in Bed-Stuy with Bonnie Raitt, about whom I can never hear enough.

ursula-leguin-illo-by-essy-may
The feature well contains four substantial articles:

  • Ryan Lizza’s “Taming Trump,” about the succession of campaign managers attempting to counsel the Republican candidate for president (Lizza lets it be known that Trump’s de facto campaign manager is his son-in-law Jared Kushner, though the official one, Kellyanne Conway, has apparently managed to get DJT to refer to himself and his campaign as “the movement”);
  • Julie Phillips’ fascinating profile of legendary sci-fi author Ursula K. Le Guin (beautifully illustrated by Essay May, above);
  • a piece about Turkey that I thought wouldn’t interest me, but I’ll read anything by Dexter Filkins, and his Reporter at Large piece, “The Thirty-Year Coup,” provides revelatory background on Fethullah Gülen, the 78-year-old cleric who has a huge cult following in Turkey, whom he influences from his exile in the Poconos (!); and
  • the profile of Leonard Cohen by the magazine’s ever-astonishing editor-in-chief David Remnick, who among other things reports being fiercely scolded by his subject (who’s now 82 and quite ill) for showing up late to an appointment and quotes at length an incredibly sophisticated analysis of Cohen’s songwriting that he obtained from talking to Bob Dylan.

Among the several book reviews, I most enjoyed Alexandra Schwartz’s detailed summary of a book I’d like to read, Emily Witt’s Future Sex, and Adam Gopnik’s overview of novels based on Shakespeare plays.  And the best cartoon in this issue is Barry Blitt’s Sketchbook:

hillary-campaign-memorabilia

 

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