Some of you may know that I’m currently up to my ears in grad school applications. Luckily, posting on The Millions has a salutary effect on me, and also, I just finished a book, so I need to write about it. Jamesland opens with Alice, great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, having an odd waking dream of a deer in her house. Alice fixates on the deer as a portent of a coming change in her life, and the very next day her life begins to change slowly and inexorably. The book does not dwell on the supernatural, though it does have a bemused dialogue with the otherworldly throughout. Mostly it is about three forty-somethings whose social and professional lives are deteriorating and reconfiguring. I’d call it a mid-life crisis, but these characters have that quality, peculiar to Californians, of being youthful, unserious adults. The book is mostly set on the East Side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods that I know well. It was great to read a book that addresses a somewhat larger Los Angeles than usual. Movie stars are around, and Hollywood is nearby, but they are just parts of the great stew of the city, things that are noticed but after a while not accorded any greater importance than things like Griffith Park or the LA River. The only other book that I have read that successfully turns LA’s flashy side into just another bit of peripheral scenery is T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Huneven is well-known in Los Angeles as the food critic for the LA Weekly, and the way she writes about food in this book is magnificent. Pete (who along with Helen, a modern sort of minister, are the other two wayward adults) is a former near-celebrity chef who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, suicide attempt combo. His character is both abrasive and charming, the type of person who makes you nervous the moment he steps into the room. As he coaxes himself back into the functioning world, he takes up cooking again, and this is the venue for Huneven’s descriptions of foods. It was nice to see that Huneven did not place this book firmly in the world of food and restaurants in the way that many writers tend to crib from their day jobs. Instead, Huneven manages to weave her knowledge skillfully into the larger narrative. The book itself is a rather satisfying meal, best taken over a few languorous days on a sunny balcony or sitting on a park bench.
My New Yorker is David Remnick’s New Yorker. The magazine was around my house off and on when I was young. My sister and I, ignoring the witty captions, used to use the magazine’s iconic cartoons as a sort of coloring book, spicing up a droll bedroom scene with our 24-color set of magic markers. As a high schooler with half-formed thoughts of a literary life, I began delving into the fiction each week, but it was only a matter of time before the rest of the magazine’s contents began to tempt me, though I remained utterly unaware that I was discovering the magazine at its point of greatest turmoil, the Tina Brown years. By the time I went to college, I was an avid consumer of the magazine, though without the time to give it my full attention. Once I graduated, however, with only the responsibilities of undemanding jobs, I was able to give in and have read the magazine, more or less in its entirety ever since.The Tina Brown era ended and David Remnick took the magazine’s helm around the time I became a New Yorker regular, and he, to a certain extent, epitomizes my New Yorker. Beyond Remnick’s editorial influence, any contemporary reader of the magazine has become familiar with his thorough profiles which tend to alight on a few different topics that he has covered closely over the years. Many of these are collected in his recent volume Reporting, which came out last year and is now available in paperback.The book divides the articles, which are all taken from his years at the New Yorker, into five sections covering, roughly: politics/news, literary figures, Russia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and boxing. Nearly all of the articles in the collection are the long, in depth profiles that New Yorker readers will be familiar with. In Reporting, Remnick’s subjects include Al Gore, Philip Roth, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (twice), Vladimir Putin, Benjamin Netanyaho, and Mike Tyson.These profiles are impressive in the access they offer – we have dinner with Al and Tipper, visit Roth’s writing retreat, and play chess with Lennox Lewis. Taken together, one also notes that these profiles most prominent quality is their workmanlike thoroughness. Remnick takes us into his subjects’ homes but he also grabs quotes from dozens of peripheral characters in his quest to offer as well-rounded a picture as possible. There’s nothing flashy about Remnick’s writing – he won’t wow you – but then again his writing carries none of the annoying tics that mars some of his colleagues’ work. Here I’m thinking of Adam Gopnick’s tendency to view everything through the eyes of a parent or Anthony Lane’s dandyish fussiness. For anyone who aspires to practice long-form magazine journalism, you could do a lot worse than starting with Remnick as a model.My favorite part of the book was the last section on boxing. Here Remnick was able to drop some of the necessary serious that his other subjects demand and substitute it with some color. Setting the scene for the 2002 Tyson-Lewis fight in Memphis, Remnick writes:On the night of the fight, the skies of above the Pyramid were choked with helicopters. It took a long time to get through the metal detectors and professional friskers, though it seemed that the women of uncertain profession, along with their raffish masculine handlers, were accorded more courtesy than the rest of us. There were certifiable celebrity types all around, mainly film stars like Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Samuel L. Jackson, and a flotilla of NBA players. There was much relief in finding out that one hadn’t been given a seat behind Dikembe Mutombo or Magic Johnson.In fact, Remnick’s boxing pieces would have made for a nice, slim volume on their own. But Remnick doesn’t seem like the type of reporter who, as he ages, will pursue writing only about his particular interests at the expense of taking on a broader array of topics. In its variety of subjects, Reporting is an ideal slice of Remnick’s work.