Tuesday, September 29, 2009

My Method for Reading "The New Yorker"

(This entry is in honor of my first issue of "The New Yorker" arriving in the mail yesterday)

It begins with a blue Pentel RSVP ballpoint click pen, ordered from officedepot.com because the stores in my area, and stores near my area, don't carry it. I always order a good-sized supply to last me six months. The pen is for circling book advertisements in the magazine that I want to look up on Amazon and possibly put on hold at my local library. It's also good for synopses of plays in the "Goings On About Town" section, to see if they're in print through Samuel French or another publisher of plays. If those also can be had through my local library, lucky me.

Depending on the week, the cover of the New Yorker may or may not demand more of my time than usual. This week, the Sept. 28 issue bears a cover of obsolete vehicles, as well as a chariot and a covered wagon creeping toward a parking garage that says "Museum Parking." For Bruce McCall's meticulous artwork, I look closer. I see the registration numbers on the tail of a flying car, the darkness inside the covered wagon, the stagecoach just entering the parking facility. The cover doesn't make any promises about the content of the issue, but if that's the only thing besides the cartoons (which I'll get to in a bit, of course) that's worth it in a given week, I'm actually fine with that.

I flip to the Table of Contents next, first looking for names I might recognize, such as Nancy Franklin, my favorite TV critic, this week musing over "Bored to Death" on HBO. Anthony Lane, my favorite film critic, is also in here this week, with reviews of "Coco Before Chanel," and "Walt & El Grupo." To me, Lane's writing is more sprightly. Whenever it's a David Denby week, I read with a drawn mouth, not likely to be amused or to chuckle. I hope for the best with the other articles, such as Susan Orlean writing about her experiences raising chickens, and George Packer with a profile of Richard Holbrooke, the special U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. I always hope for absorbing writing, the opportunity to learn something new about someone or some way of life, and also something to uncynically pull at my emotions. And look at that: To the left of the Table of Contents this week is an advertisement for the paperback edition of Dennis Lehane's novel, "The Given Day." I've already clicked the pen open and circled it. I checked it out of the library months ago in its massive hardcover form, but in my head, other books raucously demanded my attention. With the County of Los Angeles library system already in possession of 82 hardcover copies across various branches, and 91 more received but not yet assimilated into the system, it's doubtful more money will be invested in paperback editions, though it would be a mite more convenient for the sake of less wear and tear on canvas bags, namely my own, and the New Yorker tote bag I'm supposed to receive for having subscribed. I plan to press a customer service representative about this matter soon, because I thought it would come before my subscription officially began. Anyway...

The "Contributors" section on page 4, explaining who each writer is and what they have written lately, is always good for more circling with my pen. For example, I noticed just now that Bruce McCall has written a children's book called "Marveltown" that I've just looked up on Amazon that's truly as beautifully drawn as his New Yorker cover. My sister reads these kinds of books to our two dogs all the time, so later, I'll see if any of the county libraries have it available.

I always read "The Mail" page, better known in newspapers as "Letters to the Editor." But these letters are never angry or vitriolic. They may be indignant, but they're always smartly-written, and I now look forward to the issue that contains letters possibly related to articles from this issue to which I could immediately relate. There are three letters in this issue about Steven Brill's article from August 31st called "The Rubber Room," which I think I have somewhere in my internet bookmarks, but haven't read yet. But to totally relate, I'll have to wait.

In my previous entry, I mentioned purchasing old issues of The New Yorker from the Valencia library. In thoe issues, I always read the entire "Goings On About Town" section, no matter if the listings were about music I'm not fond of, or art galleries, or ballets and orchestras. When I read part of this issue online, I found myself bored by these listings and wondered if it meant that I felt it was a waste of time to read what didn't interest me. Turns out it may have been because those pages weren't in print, which to me is far more inviting. It feels a lot more personal than the techno-drone of the CPU below me. I've only recently been getting back into jazz, hoping that that might keep me sane while I write my share of "What If They Lived?", so I read the "Jazz and Standards" sub-section with particular relish now. (Sidenote: This valley must indeed be bowl-shaped. I'm sitting right here, 1:37 a.m., the Tivo paused, and I heard a freight train whistle outside without the windows being open. The tracks are miles from here.) I love, love, LOVE the "Tables for Two" restaurant review. I love reading about culinary possibilities and atmosphere and what a strategically-placed chair might do for ambience, just as a silly example. The movie listings are a given. How could I not want to read the brief review of 35 Shots of Rum?

I read all the columns in "The Talk of the Town." Dan Brown's obvious new explosive hit, Rod Blagojevich still hopelessly deluded, and Carrie Fisher touring the former Studio 54 where she had hung out, which is now the Broadway theatre at which she's performing "Wishful Drinking," her one-woman show, which was also an outstanding book. There's also a column about Ralph Nader's 700-page novel that strives for the most effective creativity, such as creating a character called Pawn Vanity to play off of Sean Hannity. That's not actually in the column, but what I heard on NPR when Scott Simon interviewed Ralph Nader on "Weekend Edition." To me, the name sounds weak, but if he captured and slightly twisted Hannity's characteristics, then he's done well. I'm not sure if I'm going to read his novel. Some aspects of it sound interesting, but there are thousands of books that caught my interest long before his. It'll take some time.

To cap off "The Talk of the Town," there's a column about bad financial regulation. And now I realize I've been doing this wrong from the start. This is more a point-by-point look at what's in The New Yorker this week rather than how I read it. Let me do it better right now.

I don't randomly flip through the magazine. I don't search for the cartoons because chances are I've already seen them on the New Yorker website. Outside of the cartoons, I've now made a personal rule not to peruse the upcoming issue on the site, so I can be surprised by it in the mail if there's anything really, really good. I need that more often because there's usually nothing interesting in the mail anyway. However, it should not be construed that I subscribed to The New Yorker only to get something interesting in the mail. The New Yorker has been interesting to me long before I subscribed. Ok, now to continue.

I'll only read an article in full if I'm continually interested. Last week, before my subscription begin, there was an article in that issue by business writer James B. Stewart called "Eight Days," about the beginning of the financial crisis. I only got through three pages because while this kind of finance might be important to someone, I was bored by the technical details. Getting older, I've begun to learn that I shouldn't try to force myself to finish what doesn't interest me. That was true of this article and so I left it.

Otherwise, I basically go cover to cover. In this week's issue, there are two poems. One is atop four columns of text through the middle of pages 46-47, in the midst of the Richard Holbrooke profile. I'm good at going from one book to another, returning to where I left off and knowing exactly what happened. But if the article in question has my full attention, I might leave the poem for after I'm done with it. Or I might see if there's a good stopping point in the article to read the poem, and then go back to the article.

With the "Fiction" section, I just hope for the best with each short story, and hope to be as dazzled as I was with Junot Diaz's "Wildwood." If the characters are prominently in my mind and I'm devoted to them, the writer has done well by me. "The Critics" section is dicey for me. I can't stand book reviews that delve into so much historical context that they seem to lose sight of the book that was actually the subject of the review. For example, Adam Gopnik presents an entire lecture series in words about Alfred Dreyfus, "a young Jewish artillery officer and family man, convicted of treason days earlier in a rushed court-martial...", beginning on page 72, and only when he reaches page 77 does he begin to examine the books about Dreyfus. I don't know a thing about Dreyfus, so I admit that the context may be useful, but can't he weave information about the books throughout these pages so it's not top-heavy with historical fact? The sub-section is called "Books." So write about the books!

I think that's why the "Briefly Noted" section is placed on the opposite page after the end of that treatise, besides it obviously being about books as well. But here, I suppose, is where I appreciate book reviews more because they're actual book reviews. There's even a review here of "The Fallen Sky" that gives a little historical information about explorer Robert Peary and then immediately gets into the review of the book. That's how I like it!

Though I don't have a great, winding interest in art, I still read the review there because maybe there's something in the artist's work that I could connect to, or maybe even investigate further on my own. I always go for the theater reviews because I'm looking to learn something from those, as I want to write my own plays, hopefully after this book is done. I have a few ideas, but I don't believe I've learned enough necessary to writing one. I don't intend to learn too much so as to ruin the whole thing, but just enough that could push me along to the page without crippling fear.

And, of course, there's the back page, announcing the "Cartoon Caption Contest," revealing the winning caption of a previous cartoon and showing this week's cartoon that needs a caption, as well as the finalists of another cartoon.

With all of this to fully unearth, why would I want to work on that book? Oh yeah, because it'll be published, because there's the chance of having my full name on it (instead of the standard middle "L"), and it'll be my first book. Well, half-book, but still a book. However, this issue is sitting in front of me, open to Susan Orlean's chicken adventures. It's already 2:55 a.m. I can always pore over actors' histories later today. Maybe I'll do that, but push myself hard to get some necessary work done on this book.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hey, Maybe The New Yorker Will....Nope. Maybe Tomorrow. Nada. Maybe Next Week.

Logically, my subscription to The New Yorker has been a long time coming. I discovered it while working at The Signal in my second year, for John Boston, eminent, funny, and important columnist. He was what kept The Signal alive, what gave it a true sense of community. After he left, it got worse. People with really no sense of the history of this valley or no interest in it began to inhabit the desks in the newsroom. Some weren't even locals, but then, in a valley of nearly 200,000, not every one of them are qualified newspaper writers. I admit that.

During the time I worked for John, I always eyed the bookshelves he had against the cubicle wall next to his desk. A lot of magazines. Writer's Digest, a few issues of Time Magazine, and a whole lot of New Yorkers. I'd never heard of it before this, but once I tucked into an issue, I loved it. I loved the expanse of culture within the pages, the goings-on in New York City I couldn't attend. I read about restaurants I probably wouldn't go to, Broadway shows that would probably be closed by the time I got there, jazz musicians who would likely be far from New York if I could attend some concert. I also loved the articles, detailed, thoroughly-researched pieces on whatever topic caught the fancy of the editors that week. It's still the only magazine to actually make me interested in the intricacies of finance and the inner workings of the Supreme Court.

Many times, he'd give me the issues he was done reading. I let too many sit around, never read them, but I just liked the feeling of them being there, especially the covers and the cartoons, though those have never been the only reasons I like The New Yorker. I remember one day, about two years ago, when my sister had been at College of the Canyons, and she'd always check the free magazine table at the library there at my persistent request. She came home that day with 42 issues in her backpack.

Any time I find old issues at the Valencia library, I buy them. 10 cents per magazine, 15 for a dollar. A good deal, until they pile up too fast for me to read then ditch.

About a year ago (I think), I decided to pay $179 for the Complete New Yorker Hard Drive, containing all the issues from 1925 to April 2007, bundled with an update disc that would put more issues into the drive, up to April 2008. Amazing stuff, with all the pages of every issue scanned in and a searchable database, along with the function of creating your own reading lists. About a month ago, nearly burned out on this book project (I have got to stop working on it every day, now that the manuscript deadline's been extended to April), I searched the database for "pinball," "Florida," "Mark Twain," and what I think were dozens of other terms related to my interests. It's an outstanding program which I wish I could spend more time on, if not for all the books I want to read, some New Yorker-related, such as Secret Ingredients, a compilation of food and drink-related writing.

You'd think these would be the reasons I decided to subscribe to The New Yorker. Certainly there was enough motivation. However, none of those were the reason for subscribing. It happened in June, when my mom, my sister, and I went with my dad on his middle school's 8th grade end-of-the-year trip to Disneyland. At that time, I didn't think of subscribing to The New Yorker, but recently, thinking back to that day, this is what made me do it:

The night before, I was debating whether to bring any books with me. Maybe "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" in paperback, maybe "Cold Fire," my favorite Dean Koontz novel. But I thought of the risk of possibly losing the books. Not that the school buses to Disneyland were insecure. I remembered from the year before last how what you brought on the bus remained on the bus. But I still didn't want to take any chances, so I took two issues of The New Yorker with me. Coupled with the newspapers to be had from the copy room at my dad's school, there'd be enough reading material to tide me over until we got there, particularly because I hadn't been roped into being a chaperone this year. My sister was, though, but she didn't mind.

On the way to Anaheim, I flipped through the newspapers (The Daily News, Los Angeles Times), comics, TV listings, and an occasional article, finishing that in about 10 minutes. I opened one of the New Yorkers, from June 11, 2007 (their "Summer Fiction" issue) and hit upon an article that would sustain me until we got there. It was by D.T. Max, about the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the literary treasures stored there, as well as Tom Staley, current director of the center.

It may not seem like much reading when seen on the New Yorker website: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/06/11/070611fa_fact_max?currentPage=all

But in the magazine, there were pages and pages, and while reading, I re-read certain passages I liked, admiring the word usage and the story as well. D.T. Max pulls readers right into his story, never letting you go until you're done. And by the time I was done, we were nearing Disneyland. It wasn't so much that the article had taken away the obstacle of time for me in waiting to get to Disneyland, but that I didn't even entirely notice I was on the bus. I glanced out the window at the freeway, saw some cars turn on to the exits, but didn't pay as much attention as I usually do. I was inside this article, with Staley as he sought rare, prized writerly items, such as 130 letters Graham Greene had written to a foreign correspondent.

I want more of those experiences. I love my hard drive, I like the Digital Edition on the New Yorker website that allows me to peruse the latest issue while I wait impatiently for my first issue to arrive in the mail, but it's not a habit I could maintain. I know I can't get issues from 1925 at all, and that's fine. The New Yorker hard drive program's windows are big enough to envelope me in whatever article I'm reading. But I love the print edition because of that one article. I like holding the magazine, circling book titles that interest me, circling synopses of plays that interest me, source material that I want to seek out, hoping that it's in print. I don't anticipate much in the mail anymore, since I know what'll be in those Netflix envelopes, and I don't request many DVDs anymore from PR firms representing the studios and other DVD labels for reviewing. But this, I'm waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting. I want my first issue to come in the mail already. For now, I hope the mailman will be careful with it when he puts it in the mailbox, but I want to open the mailbox already and find it there and experience that same excitement I had when I read that article on the bus. I know it's possible with The New Yorker. Really, anything's possible with The New Yorker.

Addendum: D.T. Max's article got me to the entrance of the parking garage at Disneyland. "Wildwood," Junot Diaz's short story in that issue, got me past the booths in one section of the garage (where the security people give the necessary parking passes), and out to the bus parking area, keeping me occupied until we parked and all the kids had gotten off the bus.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Still Here

Still here. Still thinking too much. Still reading. Still watching movies. Still trying to inch my way through this project. For now, still not enjoying it. Still knowing this is the fastest way to my first credit as an author. Still trying to get back into it without thinking that it's a huge, loud, vacuum-powered vortex that will grab everything away from me that I enjoy so much, such as reading and watching movies. Still trying to spend less time on this computer. Still wishing I wrote more on this blog than just this entry. Surprising, though, that the latest entry before this one was from August 9th. I thought it was earlier than that, considering that it's only September 25th. A month's separation isn't so bad, well, not so bad in short time.

Still here. I want to be here more and I will. Maybe it's the key to getting back to writing the essays for this book and not dreading it so acutely. I'll find out over the weekend.