Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
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Best of the 01.12.09 Issue: The Annual Chart, Pointing Upward So Far

Filed under: Pick of the Issue   Tagged: , , , ,

I noticed that Sports Illustrated recently named 2008 the “best year ever.” (People continue to ignore 538, apparently. A criminally underrated year.) In that spirit, on the heels of yet another strong January issue, I’d like to put in a bid for 2009 as the best year of the post-Bush era. (Which hasn’t even started yet!)

Jeffrey Toobin on the delectable Barney Frank and Jill Lepore on inaugural addresses combine to slake our ever-unsatisfied thirst for politics; Elizabeth Kolbert hits the economics of environmentalism; international affairs is amply covered by Peter Hessler’s newest China report; and there was a story by Joyce Carol Oates to round matters out. I’m curious which one(s) will delight my colleagues! (I’ll weigh in later.)
—Martin Schneider

Benjamin Chambers writes:

I haven’t had a chance to dip into the week’s issue, but I do have a great, can’t-miss recommendation that’s also timely: Thomas McGuane reading and discussing James Salter’s 2002 story, “Last Night,” on this month’s fiction podcast. The story is stripped-down and stark like its subject, without the sensual pleasure usual for Salter’s fiction. The setup: a woman has a terminal illness, and she and her husband go out to dinner one last time before returning home to prepare for her suicide; they have a guest go with them, to blunt the tension. Could be maudlin, but boy, does it pack a punch. (If you like McGuane, you might be interested in this Q&A from 2003 with fiction editor Deborah Treisman.)

Jonathan Taylor writes:

I did pick only one story to read in this issue, Peter Hessler’s “Strange Stones,” a memoir of Peace Corps service in China. Beguiling in structure and emotionally polyvalent, it is my favorite, so far, of Hessler’s many Letters From China. Worthwhile travel writing is a portrait not of a place, but of an apprehending intelligence: one like Hessler’s, that recognizes that in fact, he “hadn’t seen anything stranger in China” than a fellow volunteer’s tale of a Midwestern biker rally.

Stuck in an absurd traffic jam on a remote Inner Mongolian steppe—driving in China is a fruitful theme for Hessler—he invokes “the shadowy line between the Strange and the Stupid,” putting me in mind of a farcical version of Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line (in which the narrator’s ship, with a cholera-ridden crew, is inexplicably stranded in windless Oriental waters). At the same time, Hessler’s piece touches on the serious side of Conrad’s “shadow line”—between Youth and Maturity—in sketching, with suggestive anecdotes, the transformations that he and his colleagues underwent through their service.


When a critic is able to successfully recreate in words his or her experience of a great live concert, he/she deserves a POTI, which I hereby award this week to Sasha Frere-Jones for his lovely, moving “Into The Woods.”

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