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Last Week's New Yorker Review: September 4, 2023
It's as if you had pasted your stamp collection on your bedroom walls and then, when it came time to move, you couldn't get it unglued.
Last Week’s New Yorker, week of September 4
This week’s magazine is the yearly(ish) Archival Issue, this time structured around animals. The archival issue is always a treat, but it necessitates a major format break for this newsletter; it’s best read as a sampler platter from front to back on a lazy late-summer day. Far be it from me to mark E.B. White as only worth window-shopping. So, instead, here are my favorite nubs and niblets, in front-to-back order. Speaking of White:
E.B. White: “In the last analysis, a turtle, although lacking know-how, knows how to live.” This sort of short, snappy-as-a-turtle piece should make a return to Talk of the Town. Not everything needs six paragraphs.
Ian Frazier: “New weather from the Gulf of Alaska had moved in the night before we got there, and the sky was soaped over with clouds, like the windows of a drive-in closed for the season.” Something else Talk now mostly lacks: Gorgeous gobs of prosey description.
Emily Hahn: “‘Monkeys? We’re going to have Japanese macaques, or maybe Barbary apes — it hasn’t been decided which — but I think macaques are probably better, because they love water.’” Then again, sometimes all you need are extended quotes to make a piece oddly charming and also informative. Is it just me, or do people just not talk like this anymore? Maybe it’s a function of looser note-taking creating more charming phraseology, maybe it’s the bureaucratization of public relations, or maybe it’s just cultural rot… that’s for the real cultural critics to puzzle out, I suppose.
Vladimir Nabokov: “The Germans… continued to cherish the philately-like side of entomology. Their solicitude for the ‘average collector who cannot be made to dissect’ is comparable to the way nervous publishers pamper the ‘average reader’ — who cannot be made to think.” This aside is apt in a piece far denser — wordier and more esoteric — than would ever make print today, even in this magazine, often regarded as a refuge for such things.
Joseph Mitchell: “‘I’ll swear to this,’ he says. ‘One night, in the warehouse of a grocery chain, I saw some egg-stealing rats at work. They worked in pairs. A small rat would straddle an egg and clutch it in his four paws. When he got a good grip on it, he’d roll over on his back. Then a bigger rat would grab him by the tail and drag him across the floor to a hole in the baseboard, a hole leading to a burrow. The big rat would slowly back into the hole, pulling the small one, the one with the egg, in after him.’” Full of delightfully queasy-making anecdotes like that — as brilliant as it is, probably read only if you’re the sort that’s prone to be delighted, not squicked out, by grotesqueries.
David Grann: “I peered over the windshield and saw something shadowy looming over the waves, as if it were the prow of a ship. As we got closer, I realized that it was a large, jagged rock. More rocks became visible, hundreds of them, all jutting skyward. A channel, forty feet wide, flowed between the rocks, and the water stormed through this opening as if it were racing down a chute. O’Shea sped straight ahead. As we approached the rocks, the boat began to tremble while the swells climbed from ten to seventeen feet; the bow plunged downward, the boat sliding wildly in the water.” There’s much more of this sort of whiz-bang adventuring to be found here, in a simply pleasurable story about squid hunting with a killer protagonist in the “fanatic” New Zealander Steve O’Shea. By the by — the giant squid was photographed just four months after this piece came out, by Japanese zoologist Tsunemi Kubodera, and in 2012 it was filmed in its natural habitat by a team including Kubodera and O’Shea.
Susan Orlean: “There have been changes in the sport [of pigeon racing] since [the eighteen eighties.] Electronic finish lines were introduced ten years ago; before that, racers had to grab their birds as they entered the coop and remove their leg bands, to stamp them in a manual timer. There is now racing-team software (‘Pigeon Loft Organizer… a quick and easy way for you to manage all your pigeon data… records, pedigrees, race results”). There are husbandry practices to stimulate stronger feather growth. There is pigeon feed on the market that contains magnetic particles, and is touted to help navigation. There are techniques to increase speed, including a system called ‘widowhood,’ in which mating pairs are kept apart, to increase their longing for each other — and, accordingly, to increase their haste to get home. But, fundamentally, the sport has remained unchanged for more than a hundred years.” Such a beautiful piece, one which cannily fixates on age and the passing of time — its central figure is one of the few young racers, who has to give up her flock when her family moves, but, as above, the idea of time passing is embedded even in sections which can at first feel like background information. There’s something about the lack of control inherent in racing birds that makes this all the more lyrical. Heck, let’s have one more quote: “The coop was tiny — we just fit in, crowding through the door — but it was clean and pleasant, filled with the odd, almost noiseless sound of the birds, a sort of cadenced vibration, like an unplugged electric guitar being strummed.”
Edmund Wilson: “There is a novel of [Orwell’s] called ‘Burmese Days,’ a title deceptively suggestive of reminiscences by a retired official, which is certainly one of the few first-hand and really excellent pieces of fiction that have been written about India since Kipling.” It’s quite funny to see that even in a review of a work as now-canonical as Animal Farm, half the text is spent praising an earlier, underappreciated work. An eternal critic’s folly.
John Lahr: “Are the animals human or are the humans animal? As in a naïve painting, the boundaries blur after a while into a teeming, surreal anthropomorphic universe.” This, from a glorious Lion King review that perfectly encapsulates the show that’s become a Broadway fixture. I’d read a book of Lahr on yesteryear’s hits and flops.
Heather liked Sam Knight’s piece on natural beekeeping, but found that “it lacked something… the conventional beekeeping side wasn’t explained in a way that made me doubt which group was doing the right thing, although the quote about the canary in the coal mine did get at the idea that maybe we shouldn’t be interfering at all, which feels the most true. I think I just wanted more of it, in the end — more weird beekeepers, more about the environmental effects, more about conventional beekeeping, more about what it means that apis mellifera are replacing native bee populations.”
In the bag from our regular correspondents, Michael agreed with me on the merits of the Staten Island swimmer Talk of the Town.
I’m out for presidents to represent me: