Posts Tagged ‘New Yorker’

In a recent New Yorker article, The Information, Adam Gopnik divided books about the internet into three types – the Never-Bettters; the Better-Nevers and the Ever-Wasers:

“The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.”

The vast gap between those who thrill and those who chill in a brave new world is wonderfully captured by Gary Shteyngart in Super Sad True Love Story.

The novel gives us a vivid vision of a very-near future New York which seems perfectly believable given the world of today– the US is at war with Venezuela; it’s economy is decoupling from the European Union and China-Worldwide; the streets are lined with credit poles which display your ranking each time you walk past; people are divided into HMWIs (high net-worth individuals) and the opposite LWNIs, destitute families beg for Healthcare vouchers while the rich are trying to live for ever, the young are steeped in pornography and women wear transparent onionskin jeans; the only TV channels are FoxLiberty-Prime and FoxLiberty-Ultra.

Reading physical books is frowned upon in a post-literate age where images are everything:

The world they needed was right around them, flickering and bleeping, and it demanded every bit of strength and attention they could spare.

As befitting a world where people only connect in the ether, the novel is told through emails and electronic diaries and Shteyngart captures the voices of characters of different genders, races, ages and moralities.

People wears äppäräts to constantly stream their lives and emotions to their viewing public and rank everyone around them while being ranked in return – when men look at a girl, the EmotePad picks up any change in their blood pressure and “that tells how much you want to do her” and Lenny Abramov can discover that out of seven men in a bar, he is ranked the seventh most attractive.

The central love story is supposedly between an almost-40 Lenny, the son of Russian immigrants;

a slight man with a gray, sunken battleship of a face, curious wet eyes, a giant gleaming forehead on which a dozen cavemen could have painted something nice, a sickle of a nose perched atop a tiny puckered mouth and from the back, a growing bald spot whose shape perfectly replicates the great state of Ohio, with its capital city, Columbus, marked by a deep-brown mole

and the 24-year-old daughter of Korean immigrants, Eunice Park.

However Lenny only seems to love Eunice because she is “super-young. Super-healthy. Asian. Life expectancy-very high” and Eunice only seems to want to move from one wealthy man  to another,  and feels “like a recycling bin sometimes, with all these things passing through me from one person to another, love, hate, seduction, attraction, repulsion, all of it.”

For me, the real love story for both Lenny and Eunice is their acknowledgment of ties to family and history, both of which are real compared to the world of data, streaming, viewing and ranking.

Eunice discovers she “was always a Korean girl from a Korean family with a Korean way of doing things, and I’m proud of what that means. It means that, unlike so many people around me, I know who I am” while Lenny discovers he still has the capacity to care “incessantly, morbidly, instinctually, counterproductively for the people who has made of me the disaster known as Lenny Abramov.”

And maybe that is the lesson of this novel. To remind us to care incessantly, morbidly, instinctually and even counterproductively for the real people around us rather than those who just flicker and bleep.

And maybe then the Never-Betters will be proved right.

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This is a question I have been asking myself since I had to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as part of my book club and was reminded of by a recent article in The New Yorker.

Initially I was excited to see what all the fuss was about and why it had sold millions of copies. However that soon faded as I waded through the clunky writing (although to be fair I have only read the translation).

All the descriptions are well-worn clichés, “they had a connection as addictive as heroin”, and the book is full of mundane passages giving an unnecessary breakdown of how Mikael Blomkvist spends each minute of each day  :

“Instead on Monday he took the bus into Hedestad and spent the afternoon walking into town, visiting the library, and drinking coffee to see The Lord of the Rings, which he had never before had time to see. “

And Blomkvist, the “hero”, is really annoying. He is the only financial journalist I know who can go away for as long as he wants, not tell his editors what he is writing about and who has an unlimited budget.  But the most annoying thing about him is that every woman he meets, young and old, throw themselves at him without Blomkvist having to lift a finger.

The book doesn’t take off until he meets computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, a “heroine” who can calmly assess whether to use a gun, knife, bomb or poison against her guardian. She explains Salander’s Principles:

“One of them is that a bastard is always a bastard, and if I can hurt a bastard by digging up shit about him, then he deserves it.”

Larsson does a good job of creating sympathy for Salander despite constantly telling, instead of showing, the reader about “her lack of emotional involvement” by highlighting her intelligence, her loyalty to the few people who have shown her any kindness and her adherence to her own moral code:

“There are no innocents. There are, however, different degrees of responsibility.”

After finishing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I hadn’t intended to complete the trilogy but a friend urged me to continue to find out what happened to Salander in the “Great Evil”.

The banal dialogue and characterisation didn’t get any better but my friend was right in that the plot gets tighter and veers off in unexpected directions.  I read on because the last two books focus more on Slander than Blomkvist.  She becomes the rebel battling corruption in the highest reaches of the Swedish government, at great cost to herself, and that is ultimately a winning formula.

The best reason for the trilogy’s success is probably found in The Girl with Dragon Tattoo itself – in its description of Blomkvist’s book :

It was uneven stylistically, and in places the writing was actually rather poor – there had been no time for any fine polishing – but the book was animated by a fury that no reader could help but notice.

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Yesterday football god Lionel Messi was awarded the inaugural Fifa Ballon d’Or award for being judged the best player in the world.

Although it seems unlikely, this reminded me of a recent article in the New Yorker on  modern pastry chefs. Writer Adam Gopnik meets Jordi Roca at El Celler de Can Roca, the three-star restaurant run by the three Roca brothers in Girona, northeast Catalonia.

Jordi is obviously a huge fan of  Barcelona football club and makes a dessert that tries to re-create the emotions that Messi feels when he scores a goal – El gol d’en Messi (see video of dessert) :

“Then, with a cat-that-swallowed-the-canary smile, the server puts a small MP3 player with a speaker on the table. He turns it on and nods.

An announcer’s voice, excited and frantic, explodes. Messi is on the move. “Messi turns and spins!” the announcer cries, and the roar of the crowd at the Bernabéu stadium, in Madrid, fills the table. The server nods, eyes intent. At the signal, you eat the first meringue.

“Messi is alone on goal!” the announcer cries. Another nod, you eat the next scented meringue. “Messi shoots!” A third nod, you eat the last meringue, and, as you do, the entire plastic S-curve, now unbalanced, flips up and over, like a spring, and the white-chocolate soccer ball at the end is released and propelled into the air, high above the white-candy netting.

“MESSI! GOOOOOAL!” The announcer’s voice reaches a hysterical peak and, as it does, the white-chocolate soccer ball drops, strikes, and breaks through the candy netting into the goal beneath it, and, as the ball hits the bottom of a little pit below, a fierce jet of passion-fruit cream and powdered mint leaves is released into your mouth, with a trail of small chocolate pop rocks rising in its wake. Then the passion-fruit cream settles, and you eat it all, with the white-chocolate ball, now broken, in bits within it.”

Now Heston Blumenthal just needs to design a dessert that re-creates how women feel when they look at David Beckham.

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Some good reads from this week – have a good weekend.

– Atul Gawande has another piece on healthcare in this week’s New Yorker which is up to his usual excellent standard. This time he asks what medicine should do when it can’t save our life:

“Surveys of patients with terminal illness find that their top priorities include, in addition to avoiding suffering, being with family, having the touch of others, being mentally aware, and not becoming a burden to others. Our system of technological medical care has utterly failed to meet these needs, and the cost of this failure is measured in far more than dollars. The hard question we face, then, is not how we can afford this system’s expense. It is how we can build a health-care system that will actually help dying patients achieve what’s most important to them at the end of their lives.”

This rang true because of my experience when my father passed away in my mid-20’s. He suffered a stroke and could no longer walk by himself but I think the hardest thing was that his diet was so restricted he had to give up all the foods he loved, and he loved good food.

Did I want more time with my father ? Off course. Did I want that to cost him a life without joy ? No.  My father lived long enough to hold his first grandchild in his arms and then passed away a month later. Just before he died my dad dreamt that he met his father and grandfather so I think he knew it was time to go and was at peace. I am grateful that time wasn’t prolonged by extra pain and time in hospital.

– ordinary family decides to travel round the world for a year volunteering;

– the Amish are better able to enjoy what really matters, which is all the stuff money can’t buy;

– I think the Amish have realised that we are happier when we are busy. Unfortunately due to evolution our instinct is to do nothing in order to conserve energy;

– an inspiring picture rather than inspiring words: the Milky Way over Bryce Canyon.

I am lucky enough to have visited Bryce Canyon and it is my favourite National Park with a landscape that is unlike anything else I have ever seen. I would go so far as to say that if I had to choose between the Grand Canyon and Bryce, I’d go for Bryce.

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I bow down before David Denby and his wonderfully written profile of  Clint Eastwood in The New Yorker ahead of the TV actor-movie star-director-mayor of Carmel-four-time-Oscar-winner’s 80th birthday in May.

My favourite phrase is that Eastwood was born “Bunyonesque big” which I admit I am saving to use one day.

There is also a fantastic description of Eastwood which captures the physical essence of the great man:

“He had gray-green eyes; a forehead like the rock face of Yosemite’s Half Dome; a perfect jawline. A fitness nut, he was broad-shouldered by nature and muscular from the hours spent in his workout room, but not overly muscled—not a media joke like Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger. A mass of light-brown hair piled up on his head in a pompadour and flowed back in waves; he had an animal grace, a big-cat tension as he moved.”

And finally, how Eastwood re-invented the Western:

“If Leone emptied the West in his early movies, making Westerns that were mainly syntax and dead bodies, Eastwood, working in long paragraphs, put meaning back into the genre.”

Eastwood broke out as a movie star at the age of 41 after playing the iconic Dirty Harry. Since then his career has only got better and better as he has remained unafraid to risk failure by trying new things. I remember having an internal debate about whether I was too old to turn my life upside down and move to New York in 2006 and I was just in my 30’s.

Eastwood is still doing something he loves and working as hard as ever as he approaches 80, which should serve as an inspiration for us all. I am inspired to make time to re-watch Unforgiven this weekend.

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Just read the New Yorker’s Letter from Ukraine on how and why incumbent, Viktor Yushchenko, lost the Presidential election despite winning the Orange Revolution in 2004. The writer, Keith Gessen, is shown around by Sergey, a translator of foreign films and TV shows including Miami Vice, which results in Sergey showing off two-day old stubble.

I can’t help but recall Alex, the young Ukrainian translator, in Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Everything Is Illuminated – one of the first books I picked up when I came to New York and was looking to discover new American writers. It is unclear if Sergey has the same originality with the English language as the fictional Alex:

“My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all my friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name. Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me!, because I am always spleening her. If you want to know why I am spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with my friends, and disseminating so much currency, and performing so many things that can spleen a mother.”

Beneath the humour is the moving story of Safran Foer going back to Ukraine to look for the woman who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis and the New Yorker goes to Lviv to look for the vestiges of the Jews in today’s Ukraine. Gessen writes that Yuvchenko was also searching for Ukraine’s past in order to create a new country but was ultimately unable to cope with the demons that he raised:

“Jeered and whistled by at be a crowd of fifty thousand at the opening of Donetsk’s magnificent new soccer stadium, last year, he’d still got a cheer when he concluded with ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ Now, at last, he’d managed to unite the country in its rejection of him.”

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