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The last 13 New Yorker stories, blurbed

No, I haven’t stopped reading them, dear reader. I just got behind. And while every week is still hit or miss there’ve been enough enjoyable moments to make me believe this a worthwhile exercise. What I don’t want this to come across as is some form of judgment on each writer (though I suppose that may be impossible), think of these more as notes on what worked and didn’t work for me personally while encountering each of these stories.

“Victory” by Yu Hua (August 26, 2013 issue) — A cheating husband always presents a potentially interesting scenario. Unfortunately I found the language (translated from the Chinese) too cold and distant to foster much empathy.

“The Colonel’s Daughter” by Robert Coover (September 2, 2013 issue) — A group of revolutionaries gathers to plot a coup. Loved the tone and atmosphere of this piece, as the characters size each other up like suspects in a game of Clue.

“The Heron” by Dorthe Nors (September 8, 2013 issue) — I actually appreciate when authors have the conviction to make their short stories short. Unfortunately this one, about a narrator’s thoughts at a park, just didn’t have enough meat on the bone to stay with me.

“By Fire” by Tahar Ben Jelloun (September 16, 2013 issue) — An interesting portrait of the life of an Arab street seller that takes a sudden political turn. For me the ending felt a little too jarring and pointed, not quite earned.

“Bad Dreams” by Tessa Hadley (September 23, 2013 issue) — A young child has a bad dream in which she finds the details of one of her favorite books have changed. The premise seemed a bit indulgent to me, but the consequences of the dream and what it foreshadows for the parents felt like the hint of a great story to be.

“The Breeze” by Joshua Ferris (September 30, 2013 issue) — A New York couple plays out several hypothetical date-night scenarios as they live through modern relationship ennui. This story frustrated me. A great premise, great setups that cause you to reflect on your own life and relationships, exceptionally confusing execution.

“I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife” by Paul Theroux (October 7, 2013 issue) — A grown man goes back to visit the bedside of a dying childhood teacher. I really appreciated the oblique angle in which this story approaches its subject matter, showing that there are never easy answers (or straightforward consequences) to childhood horrors.

“Katania” by Lara Vapnyar (October 14, 2013 issue) — Two girls growing up in Soviet Russia compare dolls and dollhouses, and by extension their lives. Vapnyar does a great job of putting you in the shoes (and shoebox dollhouses) of these girls; the ending just didn’t work for me though, and seems to completely undercut the realism that comes before it.

“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro (October 21, 2013 issue) — This reprint (first published December 27, 1999) felt more like a valedictory lap for both The New Yorker and Munro immediately following her Nobel prize. It’s probably unfair to even evaluate this story along with the others shown here because it’s so damn good; within the first page it was clear that Munro simply writes on a different level.

“Samsa in Love” by Haruki Murakami (October 28, 2013 issue) — A cockroach awakens to find he is now Gregor Samsa. I count myself a huge Murakami fan, but even this (his first New Yorker story in a while) felt too Murakami-esque with not enough wrinkles to imply any kind of interesting growth. At what point should a writer be concerned about becoming a parody of himself?

“Weight Watchers” by Thomas McGuane (November 4, 2013 issue) — A construction worker helps his dad lose weight in order to reunite with his mom. This was one of my favorite stories from this group; its sheer joy of language shines through in the narrator’s colorful diction and idioms, and there’s a loopy world-weariness that seems honest and hard-won. I really need to read more from McGuane.

“Benji” by Chinelo Okparanta (November 11, 2013 issue) — A lonely rich man becomes involved with a married woman. I enjoyed the sly trickery this piece is constructed on; the existential question it ends with is food for thought as well.

“Find the Bad Guy” by Jeffrey Eugenides (November 18, 2013 issue) — A man approaches his old house and family, including his wife who has a restraining order against him. This was an incredibly fun read, with a main character who is the most unreliable of unreliable narrators but charms you anyway with his wit, hysterical voice and the exciting possibility that anything can happen in the next paragraph. I loved every minute.

Video games – some data

I did a rare thing and got Madden 25 for the Xbox 360 the day it came out this year, seduced by the idea of finally becoming a pro Madden player while my real life Chicago Bears would reach the inevitable Super Bowl championship that awaited them.

Cut to 10 weeks into the season: the actual Chicago Bears are 5-4, having just handed the division over to the Lions (you’re welcome, Detroit), while my virtual Bears haven’t even made it out of preseason. Sigh.

Scale intentionally not shown

New Yorker Stories: “Meet the President!” by Zadie Smith (August 12 & 19, 2013 issue)

Hollywood may have finally milked future dystopia and the post-apocalypse to death but I still get tickled pink every time an unexpected writer throws their hat into the sci-fi ring. This week’s New Yorker gives us Zadie Smith (of White Teeth and On Beauty fame) with an original story in that genre. It’s not wholly complete, in the way that short story sketches are wont to be, but it does have some intriguing extrapolations about living in a future mediated age of augmented realities and contextual displacement.

In “Meet the President!” Bill Peek is a young boy outfitted with some sort of personal technology (descriptive details are both few and ambiguous) temporarily visiting a nature scene whose nearby human inhabitants have not been privy to the same toys he has. His special equipment allows him simultaneous access to the world’s information and a more interesting existence in the form of a virtual layer that gamifies his real-world surroundings. The equipment also allows Bill to be perpetually distracted and disinclined to connect with the primitive, technologically unaided young girl and older woman he encounters in real life. Why live in the Now when you could always live in the More Interesting?

As one might guess, the story (thin plot and all) isn’t really about the tech itself. It may not even be about the inherent relationship with technology and class, something Smith is probably quite interested in; it may simply be about quality of life, of finding a true experience. The title seems flippant but the ending is infused with such strange foreboding that one could interpret this story’s theme in a number of pleasurable or damning ways. I have yet to read any of her books to know where these ideas stand in relation but I wouldn’t mind a return trip to the world of this brief but interesting thought experiment.

New Yorker Stories: “Paranoia” by Shirley Jackson (August 8, 2013 issue)

Previously unpublished, “Paranoia” by Shirley Jackson reads like a prototypical Philip K. Dick or Hitchcock yarn. It centers on a man named Beresford as he makes his way home from work for his wife’s birthday while attempting to evade a mysterious man who seems to be everywhere at once. There are some goodly unsettling moments here, where background characters may not be who they seem — even the mysterious stranger himself alternates between menacing and ambivalent — but it’s really the distance imposed by the language (the protagonist is consistently referred to only as “Mr. Beresford”) and the deliberately spare choice of details (the stranger is “the man in the light hat”) that succeed in amping up the unease. For a story written half a century ago the details are so choice that it reads like it could have taken place in 2013 New York, excepting the fact that the subway no longer costs a nickel to ride.

While the story doesn’t amount to too much it did make me appreciate the subversiveness of Jackson; her most famous story “The Lottery” was a New Yorker premiere, and one wonders what it would take to make a New Yorker story of today feel equally boundary-pushing and revelatory.

New Yorker stories: “Collectors” by Daniel Alarcón (July 29, 2013 issue)

Of the last ten New Yorker stories I’ve read, Daniel Alarcón’s “Collectors” might be my favorite. It hums along at a good pace, has several well-observed moments and effectively sketches an environment (a dangerous prison in Peru) that is believably familiar yet unique. The story tracks the lives of two cell co-habitants in Collectors prison: Rogelio is a simple-minded mechanic brought in for drug trafficking, while Henry is a playwright imprisoned on charges of terrorism for a play he wrote. The pseudo-climax of the story (of course the hardcore prisoners end up staging a play) stretches believability, but it’s the postscript that helps put things in perspective and leaves you wondering about how at least one of the characters fares after.

My only real quibble: “Collectors” is excerpted from Alarcón’s upcoming novel “At Night We Walk in Circles”. It always bums me out a little to read excerpts; Jhumpa Lahiri’s excellent short “Brotherly Love” from a few weeks ago was similarly extracted from her new novel. Commercial interests aside I’ll admit that these are effective in getting me re-interested in these writers but I always take a moment to mourn the weekly slot that could have gone to an original short. Can’t we at least have these well-known writers promote their novels with original material — e.g. a prequel short story incorporating the novel’s characters, or new scenes involving secondary characters? Even deleted scenes might be interesting…

Like cakes in rain

Jesus, there are lots of little funny things. I can’t even remember half of them. That’s what happens to a life, though, isn’t it. The little ornate things drizzle away, like cakes in rain, while the big blocky stuff is left to stand in for a lifetime of minutiae. Sad and beautiful.
former San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Graham Leggat

Yeah, it’s kinda like that. Best of 2012 list coming soon.

Inspiration & Errata

Recently I’ve come across some guideposts that have inspired me to refresh. These are things worth sharing, though some have been around for a while.

– Charlie Kaufman’s screenwriting lecture for BAFTA. Soapboxing to be sure, but I was surprised at how much this moved me and how well thought out some of his arguments are. A reminder to have conviction in art that is honest and different and not too self-aware.

– Michael Lewis’s profile on President Obama. The respectful yet insider-y tone of this piece had me wishing it would last forever. Favorite detail: Obama’s lifehack of removing wardrobe and food choices to avoid decision fatigue.

Startup is the New Hipster. It’s exactly like that. Actually, all of Liz Fosslien’s infographics are great and inspire me to want to make more of my own. Edward Tufte would be proud. Plus: a Murakami madlib!

– Jenny Holzer’s Truisms. I don’t agree with all of them but that’s really the point: everyone arrives at their own list, their own model of the world. Mine’s just getting started.

Mad Men Season 5 Episode 13, “The Phantom”

A promise is a promise, even if it’s several months late mmkay?

I guess naming a previous episode “Dark Shadows” wasn’t enough of a tone setter, eh? This season finale felt like something of a letdown, but mostly because the two episodes prior both featured huge turns. Overall I still prefer the struggling startup woes of Season 4 to the times-are-changing/modern marriage angle of Season 5, but kudos for making Megan more than just a secretary. Lane’s arc will always feel a little misplayed to me, but that’s the way the cookie crumbled.

This last episode’s power rankings:

10. Don Draper’s tooth — I think I know what you’re trying to do, Mr. Weiner, but why? Probably the most blatant allegory/symbolism of the season, followed closely by…

9. Adam Whitman — Yeah, we get it. Don’s haunted by nooses! Did Lane go through all this just so we could get some obvious scenes with Adam Whitmans wandering around?

8. LSD — What can’t Roger Sterling make look glamorous?

7. Marie Calvet — Great job stealing away to have your own fun, and great job calling Roger out on looking for a nanny.

6. Beth Dawes — I know I couldn’t have been the only one hoping for a (real) Beth sighting…though the shock therapy seems to instantly one-note her character.

5. Pete Campbell — Seriously, bro? Has anyone ever made having everything look less cool?

4. Megan Draper — Backstabbing your friend to get the lead in your own husband’s client’s commercial feels uncouth and beneath you, Miss. But well played.

3. Peggy Olson — Seems to be calling the shots at the new office…but still awkward at the personal moments, as witnessed by the chance encounter with Don at the movies.

2. Joan Harris — Nice to see her getting her due at the partners’ table. And channeling Lane out of nostalgia/loyalty, no less.

1. Don Draper — This season was all about the de-pantsing followed by the slow re-pantsing of our lead guy. That closing look on his face is perfect, promising everything and nothing for next season.

Next up: I’ve spent the past couple weeks getting up to speed with the slow-to-start-but-ultimately-ridiculously-amazing Breaking Bad so I can watch the final season live as it happens. Expect some form of blogging on the brilliance that is Vince Gilligan.

Mad Men Season 5, Episode 12 — “Fees and Commissions”

So I’ve not really been as timely with these rankings as I’d hoped but I promise to see this thing through to the end.

“Fees and Commissions” is a fairly gruesome episode when you come down to it, yet weirdly poignant. I’ll say this, Mr. Weiner — those days spent on The Sopranos really helped give you the cojones to do anything with your main characters, eh? Amazingly, this insightful interview with Jared Harris also goes a long way to confirming the Mob-like milieu in which actors learn about their characters’ fates.

Oh, and keeping us in suspense about Peggy to lead up to the season finale is a great touch.

10. Julia (Megan’s friend) — Still kind of a floozy, but I’m a sucker for recurring character continuity. She may be Megan’s only outlet going forward so who knows what seeds are getting planted here?

9. Glen Bishop — Alright, the nepotism is really starting to get to me. Do we really need this much of this character? Doesn’t he have any interesting qualities of his own?

8. Megan Draper — Continues her plummet, this time unable to become a true surrogate mother for Sally.

7. Bert Cooper — Nice to know he can understand the books when he wants to.

6. Pete Campbell — You dodged a bullet/noose this season, Pete. Earn this.

5. Lane Pryce — I never really loved this character, but it still seems a little cruel to do this to him. Kind of a lost opportunity; still don’t believe he wouldn’t have just asked Don for a loan in the first place.

4. Betty Draper — I actually like that Sally ran back to her in her moment of need. Nice to see Betty get a bone every once in a while. Er, you know what I mean.

3. Ken Cosgrove — Smart to stay out of the wooing of Ed Baxter, and doesn’t even want to be a partner. Now can we please get back to the writing career?

2. Sally Draper — Clever work staging your secret date. I know it didn’t go as planned, but these things happen. So I’m told.

1. Don Draper — Love the newfound fire to go after big accounts. And even if the handling of Lane’s situation backfired, at least it was done from a place of integrity he’s suddenly rediscovered 10 episodes into this season. Just don’t go for the hanging hat trick.

Mad Men Power Rankings: Season 5, Episode 11 — “The Other Woman”

Poor Mr. Draper; just when he gets his mojo back, all the women in his life grow more distant than ever. And the goodbye scene with Don and Peggy in Don’s office, right on the heels of Don reeling from what Joan has done? Devastating.

10. Ted Chaough — Unfortunately I don’t really remember him from previous seasons, but seems like competent foil for Don. Who knows what tricks/secret lives Peggy’s new boss will have?

9. Roger Sterling — Surprisingly quiet, but not speaking up more for Joan speaks volumes.

8. Ken Cosgrove — His loyalty to Peggy is admirable. When will we hear more about the sci-fi writing?

7. Pete Campbell — Pretty much locking down his status of most odious, most un-respectable-yet-undeniably-successful member of the firm with his organized purchase of Joan’s services.

6. Megan Draper — Falling fast.

5. Michael Ginsberg — Doesn’t fall for Megan’s friend’s attention-whoring.

4. Lane Pryce — Probably ends up doing the most for Joan.

3. Don Draper — Stood up for Joan, but in the least effective way possible. And finally notices Peggy’s unhappiness, at the least meaningful moment possible.

2. Joan Harris — Can you blame her?

1. Peggy Olson — You made your move, girl. Let’s see how far this goes.