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

In last week’s New Yorker

April 30, 2018

Before I crack open the new issue, I want to draw your attention to two noteworthy pieces in the April 30 issue:

“Life Sentences,” Dana Goodyear’s profile of novelist Rachel Kushner (below, photographed by Amanda Demme), which details Kushner’s deep engagement with female prisoners in her local California prison — not for “research,” but out of solidarity and identification.

“McMaster and Commander,” Patrick Radden Keefe’s long, intricately reported piece about recently fired National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster — I didn’t think I wanted to know much about him, but the article is among other things an unsparing recap of the outrages to international diplomacy committed by the current administration. Nowadays it all just feels like the latest bullshit tweet, but one day we’ll look back at this coverage in the New Yorker and the New York Times and the Washington Post as crucial historical documentation of the bleakest period in American history. Here’s a key passage:

In December, the White House unveiled its “National Security Strategy,” a sixty-eight-page document in which the N.S.C. staff laid out Trump’s official view of the world. McMaster’s aides proudly claimed that this was the first time a national-security-strategy document had been published within the first year of a Presidential Administration. The document had conspicuously Trumpian lacunae; there were no references to climate change as a national-security threat, for example. But it seemed to be an effort to domesticate some of Trump’s bellicose rhetoric, emphasizing the importance of competition among the great powers but also of American leadership. Trump had mocked NATO as “obsolete”; the document described the alliance as “one of our greatest advantages.” It explicitly named Russia and China as malign influences, and declared that the Russians had used technology “to undermine the legitimacy of democracies.” Such language was in sharp contrast with Trump’s strenuous avoidance of blaming the Kremlin for election interference. An N.S.C. official told me, “The fundamental question is, can you divorce Presidential rhetoric from American foreign policy?”

Composing the document was a challenge, because Trump did not have many concrete views on foreign policy beyond bumper-sticker sentiments like “America first.” When McMaster requested Trump’s input, the President grew frustrated and defensive, as if he’d been ambushed with a pop quiz. So staffers adopted Trump’s broad ideal of American competitiveness and tried to extrapolate which policies he might favor in specific instances. McMaster touted the resulting document as “highly readable,” and as a text it seems reassuringly plausible. But nobody on McMaster’s staff could confirm for me with any conviction that the President himself had read it.

 

 

In this week’s New Yorker

April 1, 2018

Two pieces you have to read:

Margaret Talbot’s simple and clear and devastating reporting about Scott Pruitt and how as head of the Environmental Protection Agency he is pursuing an agenda in favor of big business and its heedless attitude toward environmental protection. Key passage:

In November, Pruitt proposed the repeal of an Obama-era rule that imposed Clean Air Act emissions standards on glider vehicles—heavy-duty trucks that pair new cabs and chassis with older, dirtier engines. Gliders are slightly cheaper than all-new trucks, in part because they aren’t equipped with modern pollution controls. They make up only five per cent of the heavy-duty-truck fleet, but they emit a disproportionate amount of dangerous pollution. Steve Silverman, a former E.P.A. attorney, who retired in January, worked on the glider rule. “We’re not talking only about greenhouse gases,” he said. “These trucks put out diesel particulate matter, a human-lung carcinogen.” In 2016, an agency analysis concluded that gliders produce almost three hundred thousand tons of nitrogen-oxide pollution a year, along with nearly eight thousand tons of diesel-particulate pollution. Agency scientists estimate that a single year of glider pollution causes as many as sixteen hundred premature deaths.

At a public hearing in December, environmental and public-health groups such as the American Lung Association sent representatives to speak for keeping the rule. That was expected. But so did Volvo Group North America, which produces both Volvo and Mack trucks. Susan Alt, Volvo North America’s vice-president of public affairs, testified that the proposed repeal “makes a mockery of the massive investments we’ve made to develop low-emission-compliant technology.” The American Trucking Association also testified against a repeal. Bob Nuss, whom the association named the 2017 Truck Dealer of the Year, flew at his own expense from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., to attend the hearing. Nuss said, “I told them, ‘Maybe it’s only five per cent of the trucks, but how would we all feel if five per cent of the trucks didn’t have to stop for a school bus or obey the speed limit?’ Sneaking around, avoiding emissions compliance, filling the air with soot—it’s just not right.”

The strongest support for rescinding the rule comes from the largest producer of gliders, Fitzgerald. Last year, Fitzgerald, which is based in Tennessee, hosted a campaign event for Trump. In May, Pruitt met with the company’s founder and C.E.O., Tommy Fitzgerald. Two months later, Fitzgerald and two glider dealers wrote a letter to Pruitt contending that the agency lacked the authority to regulate gliders under the Clean Air Act, because “the engine, transmission, and typically the rear axle” are “not new.”

Pruitt soon announced that the E.P.A. would reconsider the rule, and precisely echoed Fitzgerald’s claim that gliders fell into a regulatory gray area because they contained “new and used” components.

Staff writer Rachel Aviv writes one story after another about people in excruciatingly painful situations. This week she writes (in “How a Young Woman Lost her Identity”) about a woman who suffers from an extreme form of dissociation, which puzzles everyone she knows, especially her devoted mother.

Bonus: the cover illustration by the brilliant Christoph Niemann (“Trompe-l’Oeil”) becomes an animation when you view it in digital form. Check out the story behind that here.

In this week’s New Yorker

January 26, 2018

Some fascinating stuff in this issue. The article by Adam Entous and Evan Osnos about China’s suspect courtship of Jared Kushner makes its point pretty early and then goes on longer than I had patience for it. But three other stories had me from start to finish.


Nick Paumgarten’s “Getting a Shot” tells about the amazing experience director Madeleine Sackler had making her prison film “O.G.” at a maxium-security state prison in Indiana, employing guards (correctional officers) and inmates (offenders) as actors, including Theothus Carter (pictured above with Sackler, photo by Krisanne Johnson), a twentysomething guy serving a 65-year sentence, who plays one of two leads opposite Jeffrey Wright.

In “Remainders,” Kathryn Schulz tells how a chance purchase in a junk shop of an inscribed volume of Langston Hughes’s poetry led her to discover a fascinating black writer neither she nor I had ever heard of, William Melvin Kelley, who spent his life mostly writing about white people thinking about black people. (In the course of the piece Schulz also casually outs herself as having a female partner, information I’m always delighted to learn.)


And the great Calvin Tomkins profiles Danh Vo, a 42-year-old Vietnamese-born artist (above, photographed by José Luis Cuevas) who grew up in Copenhagen and now lives in Berlin and Mexico City. Vo, who has a survey show opening at the Guggenheim February 9, is himself surprised to be one of those artists whose work can sell for a million bucks apiece. My favorite passage of the article (and the issue):

The demand for what he does led a Dutch collector to sue him for not producing a promised work. A Dutch court ruled against Vo, saying he must deliver a large new work in the style of his recent pieces; Vo offered the collector a text piece that would read, in large letters, “Shove it up your ass, you faggot!,” which happens to be the title of one of his sculptural collages. In the end, that wasn’t necessary, because his legal team managed to reach a settlement, and the collector dropped the suit.

In this week’s New Yorker

August 17, 2017


During this deeply disheartening week in American life, I have nourished myself with the feast that is this week’s issue of The New Yorker, with its stellar if dismaying contents.


Two extraordinarily pertinent, deeply reported pieces demand wide attention: Adam Davidson’s “No Questions Asked,” which lays out the evidence that Donald Trump’s real estate dealings have engaged extensively in illegal international money-laundering, and Raffi Khatchadourian’s long but riveting “Man Without a Country,” which incorporates both unusually abundant access to Julian Assange and scrupulous outside reporting to establish that Assange set out very purposefully to do everything in his power to sabotage Hilary Clinton’s campaign for presidency, a desire so red-hot in his heart that it’s possible he allowed himself to be used by Russian cybersecurity experts wanting to influence the election in favor Donald Trump. There will never be a smoking gun that says “The American President is a crook and must be removed from office.” It will take the accretion of carefully reported stories like these and the kind of relentless work of following the money trail that Rachel Maddow has been doing.


In “Is There Any Point to Protesting?” Nathan Heller reviews a bunch of books analyzing the impact of street activism on social and political change, and the conclusions he reaches are uncomfortable but persuasive, especially the ideas presented by Zeynep Tufekci in her book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. Here’s a key passage:

Tufekci believes that digital-age protests are not simply faster, more responsive versions of their mid-century parents. They are fundamentally distinct. At Gezi Park, she finds that nearly everything is accomplished by spontaneous tactical assemblies of random activists—the Kauffman model carried further through the ease of social media. “Preexisting organizations whether formal or informal played little role in the coordination,” she writes. “Instead, to take care of tasks, people hailed down volunteers in the park or called for them via hashtags on Twitter or WhatsApp messages.” She calls this style of off-the-cuff organizing “adhocracy.” Once, just getting people to show up required top-down coördination, but today anyone can gather crowds through tweets, and update, in seconds, thousands of strangers on the move.

At the same time, she finds, shifts in tactics are harder to arrange. Digital-age movements tend to be organizationally toothless, good at barking at power but bad at forcing ultimatums or chewing through complex negotiations. When the Gezi Park occupation intensified and the Turkish government expressed an interest in talking, it was unclear who, in the assembly of millions, could represent the protesters, and so the government selected its own negotiating partners. The protest diffused into disordered discussion groups, at which point riot police swarmed through to clear the park. The protests were over, they declared—and, by that time, they largely were.

The missing ingredients, Tufekci believes, are the structures and communication patterns that appear when a fixed group works together over time. That practice puts the oil in the well-oiled machine. It is what contemporary adhocracy appears to lack, and what projects such as the postwar civil-rights movement had in abundance. And it is why, she thinks, despite their limits in communication, these earlier protests often achieved more.

I’ve been curious to read Garth Greenwell’s highly praised novel What Belongs to You, so it was great to get a taste of his meticulous prose style in the short story “An Evening Out.” Amanda Petrusich’s piece on Adam Graduciel and his rock band The War on Drugs definitely makes me want to hear their most recent albums. And I’m grateful to Alex Ross for his detailed description of Peter Sellars’ production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at the Salzburg Festival.

I love being well-informed, culturally enriched, and entertained by the New Yorker — the issue also has a bunch of especially good cartoons.

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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