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.