new york city

The Fiction Issue of The New Yorker

So, how far behind am I? I just finished reading the June 10 and 17, 2019 issue of The New Yorker. A lot of the articles, particularly the ones referred to goings on about town are probably out of date a year and a half, plus a pandemic, later. The reviews, though still valid, probably aren’t as fresh as they could be, either.

But a fiction issue, as this one purports to being, should be okay, so I read it with enthusiasm. All right, let’s qualify that: I don’t normally love the fiction in TNY. I find it a little too dull and boring.

The three stories in this issue were not bad. Not memorable in any way (Sanctuary in the Artist’s Studio is probably the best of the three), but not bad.

More interesting is the fact that they sprinkled the usual content with something called border crossings, where immigrants in different parts of the world describe their experiences. This is non-fiction, and it’s kind of weird to see The New Yorker voicing it. Weird because I expect TNY to show an idealized intellectual-progressive view of things, which obviously doesn’t exist when you bring the real world into it. Even more shocking to me was an honest article about what life in supposed socialist paradise (and failed state) Venezuela is like. It’s the kind of thing one would expect TNY to sweep under the rug, as it will definitely make a good portion of its readership uncomfortable.

So my respect for the magazine–despite still feeling the fiction is just okay–went up a few notches this time. It’s nice to see realism even among the intellectual elite who tend to try to block it out and live in an idealized world where theory rules and when reality doesn’t support that way of thinking, it’s reality that’s wrong.

If you need to understand The New Yorker by reading one issue, this is the best one to pick up of the ones I’ve seen.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres. His literary fiction is collected in Love and Death, a novel in short story form that tells the tale of several families, intertwined through generations. You can check it out here.

How do they keep it up, week after week?

We’ve spoken about The New Yorker here before. As was probably evident from that post, I am not a subscriber to the magazine, but I am an enjoyer. Essentially, I buy the available issues whenever I’m in the US and read them when they cycle through my TBR pile (apparently, it’s currently sitting at a year and a half).

While some of the news items in The New Yorker are obviously not going to be relevant all that time later (I’m clearly not going to make it to the July 2019 premiere of Midsommar), most of the content can be enjoyed whenever. Even the political stuff doesn’t change that much from one year to the next.

For a magazine that prizes itself for getting high-quality hot takes into its readers’ hands, one thing I admire is how enjoyable it is much later. Long-form journalism of this type appears to be a dying breed and where it isn’t, it is so skewed by the writer’s (or the editor’s) political leanings that to be almost unreadable. The New Yorker has a political lean, of course, moderate left, but they attempt to avoid letting that skew get in the way of the truth.

Take this issue’s cover story, for example: “Faith & Other Drugs”. It could have been an attack on Christianity, especially hyper-organized big-church Christianity in the US, but it wasn’t. It was an introspective piece on the comparative effect of religion and drugs on the mind and persona of one specific person. As such, it’s readable by all, alienating no one.

The thing that amazes me most is how they manage to sift through the reams of submissions to find the nuggets that work, and to print an eclectic selection that keeps everyone engaged. I can only imagine what kind of a constant tornado the TNY offices must be.

Of course, no one is perfect, and the fiction I’ve seen has been uninspiring at best and depressing at worst. Now, I can’t say that this is a constant because I read maybe three or four issues a year. I may just be unlucky. This issue’s story, unfortunately, is not among the best fiction I’ve read this year by any stretch of the imagination. I may be suffering from excessive expectations – I assume that TNY has access to the best work from the best writers… but I never seem to see that in the published work. It’s also possible that I may simply prefer a very different kind of fiction, and the problem is in the reader in this case. But I find the fiction–and only the fiction–pretty much pointless.

But other than that, it’s invariably a great read. Snobbish and elitist? Perhaps, but that is part of the enjoyment. I like nodding along when I’m in on the subject as much as the next person… and when I’m not, I’ll learn something. Win-win.

A subscription wouldn’t make it to Argentina, and I don’t have time to read one of these cover-to-cover every week, but I will continue (and have continued) to buy them whenever I travel. Watch this space for more thoughts as they get to the top of the pile.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose literary fiction appears in Love and Death, a novel told in short story form which, he hopes, isn’t quite as pointless as the fiction he’s encountered in TNY so far. You can check it out here.

A Taste of New York in the Eighties

In June, I was in New York speaking with a friend of mine who is also a writer, and she happened to mention that she had gone to art school (SVA) with Keith Haring.  My wife almost lost it; Haring is one of her all-time favorite artists.

She’s been a fan since forever, but the depth of her reaction might have been helped along because by a book I’d bought her a couple of years earlier.

Keith Haring

Entitled simply Keith Haring, by Jeffrey Deitch, Suzanne Geiss and Julia Gruen, this one is what I’d call an “art biography”. You don’t get much about the subject’s childhood, you don’t get too much about who was sleeping with whom, but you get a comprehensive explanation of the milestones in his artistic career, from elements of his style to people he met along the way and even specific trips and events that proved particularly notable in his career.

It’s a book tinged with sadness, of course–Haring died of AIDS in the early 1990s at far too young an age–but it doesn’t dwell on the sadness.  This book represents that overused phrase: “a celebration of life”.

And it was a life to be celebrated.  Few artists mix innocent style and good-natured self promotion with controversial (and sexual) themes as seamlessly as Haring did.  He preferred to change the world that affected him, even though he wasn’t averse to taking on the bigger-picture issues if he was called to do so.  To me, his Crack is Wack mural is much more indicative of the way he thought–it was inspired by one of his best friends’ addiction–than his action in anti-nuclear protests.

Crack is Wack Mural

I will admit that his art isn’t exactly my cup of tea.  It’s interesting, especially as I see the eighties as a morally straight-laced decade wildly at odds with his more pornographic imagery, but it’s not the kind of thing I would go out of my way to view.  Give me a good Constable any day.

However, this is a man who defined a city in a decade.  The book gives us a glimpse of New York’s art scene and a city lost to gentrification.  Also, a night scene lost to AIDS which utterly destroyed the libertine air that Haring lived and breathed.  From that perspective, this volume is fascinating even if Haring isn’t your favorite artist.  You want to read this book as a cultural icon of a lost world that still influences us today.

And most people who love art think of Haring in terms more similar to the way my wife does than the way I do.  I bought this book in L.A. alongside one of the Complete Peanuts volumes.  The guy at the cash register looked up at me approvingly.  “Haring and Peanuts,” he said.  “Two of my favorites.”  And then he offered me a Barnes & Noble points card.

Anyway.  This is interesting for both arts lovers and people who want to know what the eighties were really like.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He sometimes creates literature as opposed to entertainment.  If you like that kind of thing, you might enjoy his collection Love and Death.  You can check it out here.

The Other Airport Read

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke of one of my usual airport purchases: Scientific American.  Well, there’s another mag I often buy in airports, and that one is The New Yorker, proving that I’m not only a pretentious twit, but that I’m a stereotyped pretentious twit.  I guess I can live with that.

The New Yorker - September 16th, 2017

My most recent moment of weakness came in September of 2017 (see cover above) but, as you can see, I’m reviewing it over a year later.  Just like my scientific American, the reason for that is that I only read the first few articles, the ones that are time-based such as concert dates and the like, before tossing the mag onto by To-Be-Read pile, which is a beast about a year in height.

Of course, once I got to the mag, the concert dates were no longer relevant, and many of the theater reviews referred to shows I could no longer watch, but I read through them again anyway.  The reason for this is that I’m always fascinated by The New Yorker’s combination of two things: an appreciation for the finer things in life such as symphony orchestras and the breathtaking capacity to discuss run-of-the-mill stuff in terms that makes you think they belong among the finer things in life.  As an example of this latter trend, it’s impossible to tell whether a couple of the lesser-known bands they talk about are just a bunch of friends who’ve been practicing in a garage and sound like it or the second coming of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

I spend this time on the social news at the beginning of the magazine because that sums up the whole attitude perfectly.  It’s a local section that doesn’t feel local: you get the idea that the writers truly feel that a concert happening in a bar in New York needs to have a global audience, but it’s also an exercise in discussing everything, regardless of relative quality or banality, in the most exquisite language possible.

Of course, 95% of the people who pick up a copy of the mag will fall into one of two groups: those who shake their head in disgust at the pretentious nature of the writing, and those who think that reading it will somehow “improve” them (some of the latter group may be right, so I encourage them to keep trying).

For the five percent remaining, this one is a guilty pleasure.  We know what the editors are doing, and yet we love the magazine anyway.  We can take the pretentiousness, or leave it aside to read less opaque prose, but whenever we do come back, we find it charming.  I like to think that a lot of the readers of Classically Educated are the same way (although I often hope they don’t think we’re in any way pretentious twits…).

A final note for the fiction section, which, as you can imagine, I always read with particular attention.  The story in this one was well written… but I always seem to buy the editions with the suburban angst and sorrow.  Where are the great, bold stories of yore?  I guess they’re gone to wherever the bold men and women of yore have been laid to rest–after all, the fiction does reflect the readership, or at least it should.

Anyhow, if you’ve never picked up a copy of The New Yorker and read it cover to cover, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Even an old copy bought used is a good bet.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer based in Buenos Aires.  His literary heroes include Borges, Wodehouse and Asimov, and if you can reconcile those three, you are a better psychologist than he is.  His short fiction has been collected in Virtuoso and Other Stories, and you can check it out here.

 

Looking Back on New York Royalty

Prince of the City by Robert Daley

There’s something about stories of corruption, especially corruption among police officers that makes for compelling reading (and in some cases, viewing, but we’ll get to that later).  Corruption is one of the most human of vices, and seeing just where the tipping point is in different individuals adds to the interest. When you combine that with the intricate warren of life that is woven together in the tapestry that is New York City, compulsion can quickly turn to fascination.

Prince of the City is the book written by Robert Daley about the corruption and ultimate testimony of Detective Robert Leuci, a New York officer who was part of an elite investigative unit.  It was a unit that helped put more criminals in jail than any other, with conviction rates through the roof and which did more to help society solve its crime problem than any other.

But it was also rife with corruption.  These cops, while cleaning the streets, would keep the change.  Percentages of confiscated money would disappear, busts that they knew wouldn’t lead to convictions were negotiated for cash, informants were paid with drugs.

Detective Robert Leuci

Unlike a lot of books from the eighties that dealt with problems inherently seventies in nature, this one became a bestseller, was filmed and is still in print today (although I think it’s only available as en ebook at the moment).

Why?

Because apart from being compelling for the human element, it’s well-written and expertly woven together (Robert Daley was already known to me as the author of The Cruel Sport, but he does just as well in this very different milieux).

That much we already knew, but there’s another element in the mix.  Though Daley only comes out and says it in a few cases, the feeling is that the cope involved in the inevitable fall all feel that prosecuting them was a mistake perpetrated on them by small-minded parsimonious bureaucrats, people so obsessed with the rule book that they can’t see the big picture.

And one is left with a sense, that they just might be right.  There is no doubt they were corrupt, but even with all the facts on the table, one is left thinking that they were doing more harm than good.  That they were essentially good men fighting crime in the most effective way they knew… and reaping certain benefits they felt they deserved.

I recommend this one to essentially everyone.  It’s a character study and a compelling story rolled into one… and even better, it will make you think at the end of it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of the well-received novel Siege, as well as several other novels and short stories.  You can find Siege here.

The Golden Years of the Big Apple

Illustration for Manhattan 45

I probably should have bundled this review together with my post about the Venetian Empire because today’s book was also written by the indomitable Jan Morris.  The reason I didn’t is twofold: first off, I want to keep the posts about Italy separate from other things because the whole Italian-reading period in my life coincided with the writing of a novel.  The second reason is that I forgot that today’s book was next in the queue.

 

Manhattan '45 by Jan Morris

The book in question is Manhattan ’45, and, like the Venetian book, the one I read was a Folio Society edition, one that, with the day-glo pink highlights and evocative period photographs was ver inviting to read from a visual standpoint.  The prose, as seems to be the norm when it comes to Morris is also welcoming and colloquial – Morris is clearly a popular writer as opposed to a stuffy historian.

Equally clear is the affection that Morris has for this particular subject.  WWII was ending, the world could move on to other things… and it was a time of joy and expectation in the densely packed metropolis.  One could quite easily have thought that New York was the center of the world immediately after the war, and one would quite likely have been right.  It’s a great subject to write about, if a slightly obvious one.  Still, Morris got there first, so everyone else will always be the imitators.

It’s a great book to learn about the city as it was precisely at that time… and perhaps therein lies its weakness.  Though charming, the snapshot of a city, no matter how quirky, isn’t memorable in the way the hundreds-of-years-long exploits of an empire and its charismatic leaders can be.  This one is a book to dip into when you want to be transported elsewhere, but not one that you’ll remember details of later.  It’s like looking at pictures of the British countryside.  You can’t relive the sensation unless you’re actually interacting with it right now.

The true downside?  It’s nearly impossible to share.  You can’t sit at a party and tell a pretty girl (or boy) something you gleaned here.  “There used to be a Clarke’s on Third Avenue in the shadow of the El Train” just doesn’t evoke the same feeling that reading about the underworld beneath the tracks does.

Either way, I enjoyed reading it, and dipping back into it to write this review, so I’m happy I purchased it.  But if I had to choose a Morris, I’d go with Venice every day.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose latest book is a comic fantasy set in ancient Greece entitled The Malakiad.  Check it out!  Paperback and Ebook.

Empire State of Artistic Mind

New York City Skyline

So, our Editor-In-Chief has just returned from a trip to New York… it was pretty obvious that he was going to write stuff for the page.  His first delivery is a slightly elitist take not only on art museums, but specifically on which art museums.  A phrase about leopards and spots comes to mind.

When I got back from my recent New York vacation, a friend who’s never been to the Big Apple asked me: “Other than just walking around the city, what is there to do in New York?”

Talk about a loaded question.

In the first place, “just walking around the city” should be more than enough for essentially anyone.  This is a city that, if you avoid the tourist traps such as Times Square, or the Statue of Liberty cruise, is extremely rewarding.  Culture, be it art, literature, history or any other expression is there to be found, often even if you are a brain-dead tourist who tries to avoid it.  Any house on Museum Mile is likely to be an art gallery – even if it doesn’t really advertise the fact.  The Strand is an amazing experience, and if you happen to land in Times Square by mistake, the theater overflows onto the street.

But my first instinct when answering was: the art museums.  There’s MoMA and the Met, of course, but also countless others.  The Whitney, The Frick and the Neue Galirie spring to mind immediately… but there are still others.

But what if we had to pick just one?  And what if, hypothetically, you had to pick it according to Classically Educated’s Manifesto, so you could write an article about it?

Even more loaded than the last one!

But we’ll give it a shot.  And we’ll make it a top five list, just because people on the internet like top five lists.

Gustav Klimt Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer

5. Despite the fact that Gustav Klimt is well represented – by the famous, stolen-and-recovered-and-sued-for-and-recovered-again portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer, and that the gallery is located almost perfectly, the Neue Galerie is still a bit limited in scope.  Cool, but very small, only good enough for fifth place on our list, just edging out the Morgan Library museum, and the unexpected collection at Kykuit and well ahead of the Brooklyn Museum.

Whitney Museum New Building

4.  The Whitney.  4th place might be a bit unfair to this icon of American art, as, had I waited until 2015, I could have spoken about the museum in its new building at the southern tip of High Line Park.  But as it wasn’t yet done at the time of writing, we’ll acknowledge the quirkiness of the special exhibits here (Kusama being a particular favorite) with 4th place.

Edgar Degas Ballerina at the Met

3. The Met.  Wow, I can hear the cultured from all over the world complaining already.  How can the Met be third?  Well, it is.  It’s an amazing museum, built on the scale and philosophy of the Louvre in Paris, with the added benefit of an impressive Impressionist collection, which the Louvre doesn’t really have. But… apart from not having that inexplicable Pyramid entry, the Met has a bit too much mass appeal to get any further than third on our list.  Which just goes to show how good the art museums in New York truly are.

Frick Collection Interior

2.  The Frick Collection.  While the collection itself is small, and not particularly impactful compared to the others on this list, the Frick deserves its place among our favorites for various reasons.  The first is that the house it is located in is perfect gilded-age elegance, uncompromising in the sense that money exists to be enjoyed, without guilt and to the fullest extent.  It is a beautiful place.  The art is good, too, with Whistler, Goya and Velázquez on the walls.  It can’t be first, but it is the one that makes us point and say: that is how it should be done.

The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

1. MoMA.  OK, so once the Met was out, this one was always going to win, but still requires some explanation.  Classically Educated is supposed to be all about the classics, after all – and the collection here is late 19th century at its oldest point.  But the thing is, if you go off to look for a polymath with gently elitist tendencies, it’s more likely that you’ll find him hanging around in this museum than any of the others on the list.  So, something about this museum makes it a haven for our target audience.  What?  Well, for one thing, it’s eclectic – you need to be able to appreciate painting and photography and graphic design and industrial design to truly enjoy this one.  For another, you need to be grounded sufficiently in art theory to have an appreciation of the conversation that is constantly going on regarding the definition and limits of art.  These two characteristics make it our kind of art museum – but what truly seals its position is the fact that there it is: Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, hanging on its own wall.  When you have the best impressionist painting, you have an insurmountable advantage.

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