Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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Easily checkable fact: Katherine Boo is a kick-ass reporter, as is demonstrated in her searing (search the blog and my clips; I defy you to find me using that word carelessly) story about teen mothers in Louisiana, published in February (here she talks to Matt Dellinger about reporting it); and, this week, in “Expectations,” Boo’s dispatch from an endangered public school in Denver. Her reportorial insight is astounding; her prose is a course in style and structure.

Menwhile, this issue (January 15) has the potential to be a C.G.I., or Completely Good Issue, which always thrills me, though it’s not easy to achieve. So far, I also love Shalom Auslander’s “Playoffs,” which shouldn’t even be described, just read. It’s such good writing, it’s so funny and irreligious and perfect, it made me choke up and grin and want to give him caramels; this rabbi agrees.
Meanwhile, I’ve spent weeks in an aphasic cocoon, trying to find the words to praise another recent Personal History. You know the one, or you’d better: Tad Friend’s wistfully confrontational portrait of his mother, from (I think) this past December. It was so good it made me angry, and I couldn’t calm down for hours. I thought: Goddamn it, Tad Friend, why have you been writing nonchalantly jokey TV reviews when you could have been forging transcendent pieces like this? Get back to work on the book this is surely destined to become, and quit fooling around! I was furious with admiration as I read it. Why spend this sensibility on the toga-partiers of HBO? Popular-media criticism takes finesse and heart; it’s not for the casual visitor. Save your strength!

I also dug Julian Barnes’s memoir “The Past Conditional.” And a slew of others, almost all, if not all, by men. I’ve been reading The New Yorker especially closely for the past two years, and I can hardly remember any first-person stories by ladies besides Caitlin Flanagan. Am I wrong? I entreat you to correct me. I want to be corrected. I repeat, I’m an open-armed appreciator of Ian Frazier, Nick Paumgarten, Calvin Trillin (of course), Donald Antrim (double of course), John Lahr (ditto), Orhan Pamuk, David Owen (more David Owen!), John le Carré, David Sedaris, Roger Angell, Bill Buford, Sean Wilsey (who I trust will be appearing in the magazine again this year), Ben Bradlee, Adam Gopnik, and so on. It’s not a question. I look forward to them and I relish them.
I’m also wondering, don’t Nancy Franklin, Susan Orlean, Elizabeth Kolbert, Joan Acocella, Jane Kramer, Stacy Schiff, Rebecca Mead, Lauren Collins, Meghan O’Rourke, Larissa MacFarquhar, Jill Lepore, Jane Mayer, Margaret Talbot, Katha Pollitt (a friend who’s written excellent first-person essays for the magazine, but not recently), Connie Bruck, Judith Thurman, Susan Sheehan, Cynthia Zarin, Lillian Ross, Claudia Roth Pierpont, Elsa Walsh, etc., have funny, meditative, idiosyncratic reminiscences they’d like to develop into gleaming, tenderly calibrated personal essays? Because I’d really like to read them, please.
Not everyone can write memoirs, of course, or wants to, but it’s always pleasing to see nimble writers stretch. I know how many editors at the magazine are women, and how many writers (even if they don’t appear as often as I’d like), and protest horns have already been sounded in that arena. For now, I’m hoping that in 2007 we’ll witness more of these New Yorker writers wielding the capital letter “I.” No magazine is perfect, but there are ways for this one to inch ever closer.


Hmm, I was wondering why I was getting tired of those personal histories. Maybe I’m just tired of the dudes? I thought I was just getting weary of all that idealization of the past, which is sometimes “gleaming” but often just soft-focused (I don’t tolerate nostalgia very well, however well-written). And I’m not usually against male points of views, but perhaps they were all beginning to blend into each other in my mind? Funnily enough, the last two times I opened the mag to find a “personal history,” I thought, “Not another one?”

Huh, I found “Playoffs” too distracted by its premise to go much of anywhere. I guess it’s frivolous to talk down to a few good jokes, since those are hard to find, but anyway these felt a bit pretty toothless. After I finished the piece I didn’t feel like I had anything to show for it.

I grudgingly started reading “Playoffs” today, and, unexpectedly, gradually got drawn in, possibly because of the ironic commentary on his religion . Haven’t finished yet, had just gotten to the porn hidden behind the religious books when the train pulled in…

As a dude and an Orthodox Jew who grew up in the city and lives in Teaneck perhaps I had more to share with the author and hence like it more. I thought the commentary on the trivia of some people’s theology was biting - the thought that eating a hot dog would affect the playoffs as a metaphor - funny. Emily, it was okay to refer to “this guy.” No offense was taken. But sweet of you to change it.

I just gotta say, Nancy Franklin is one of the best things about the New Yorker. She makes me laugh, and I don’t even watch television (unless you count the NFL on mute). And let’s face it, take out the cartoons and there is very little humor in the New Yorker. Is there a more outraged human on the staff (or on the planet) than Hendrik Hertzberg? Nick Paumgarten is okay, and the occassional John McPhee is what keeps my subscription current, but most other staff writers seem to have a serious case of existensial angst, and proud of it.
Which is all fine and good, but can’t we have at least one lighthearted soul at the back of the rag?

Brian Carlos Allison January 12, 2007

I primarily appreciated Katherine Boo’s piece on the Denver public school system because it inrtroduced me to a remarkable young lady (Julissa Torrez) and an honest young man (Norberto Felix-Cruz).

For me, the value of any story is more about people than policy (or politics).

I think Katherine’s terrific for that reason.

After murder
everything feels absurder

- Julissa Torrez

“Then snacks, and a fitful nap.”

Brilliant. Too much nostalgia gets to me, too, but I thought Auslander was a sharp kick in the pants of anyone staring too longly backwards.

Whoa, that metaphor had a life of it’s own. Sorry about that.

Isn’t Katherine Boo working on a book? I certainly hope so.

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