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Posts Tagged ‘The New Yorker’

Facts First: An Interview with Michele Zackheim

March 28, 2014 | by

last train to paris

From the cover of Last Train to Paris.

Michele Zackheim’s new novel, Last Train to Paris, follows the adventures of Rosie Manon, the fearless foreign correspondent for the Paris Courier. Spanning the better part of a century, from 1905 to 1992, the story takes us to the Paris and Berlin of the midthirties and early forties, during one of the most fascinating and shameful periods in modern history, the years leading to World War II. Zackheim was moved to write the novel following a strange discovery—in the thirties, her distant cousin was kidnapped and murdered in France by Eugen Weidmann.

I spoke to Zackheim via e-mail and telephone over a period of three months. Our conversations touched on her family history and writing methods, and the formidable research she brought to her new novel.

All of your books share a certain preoccupation with World War II. Why?

My family lived in Compton, California, an area that was declared vulnerable to an enemy attack. I was only four years old when World War II ended, but I remember small details—a brass standing lamp with a milk-glass base that was lit at night while my parents listened to the menacing news on the radio. The sound of night trains, which ran on tracks a block away. And of course—and this is hard to admit—my only sibling was born in 1944. Because I was the eldest, and because before her birth I had already experienced grim hardships, an intense sibling rivalry was born. I have to assume that she became part of my unconscious interest in war. These memories, along with the emerging news from concentration camps after the war, and my parents’ outraged and mournful whisperings in Yiddish, created an unconscious anxiety that I’ve been making work about all my adult life.

You wove the story of your cousin’s murder through your novel. Was the expansion and departure from the initial incident a natural progression for you?

I often start out writing nonfiction. But there’s a problem. It’s boring for me not to embellish—actually, it’s no fun. Read More »

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The Leaves’ Leavetaking

January 22, 2014 | by

balcony with birds horia varlan

Photo: Horia Varlan, via Flickr

Howard Moss, the late poet, was born today in 1922. Moss’s Selected Poems won the National Book Award in 1972; he served as The New Yorker’s poetry editor for nearly forty years, from 1948 until his death in 1987. The Paris Review published his poem “A Balcony with Birds” in our fourth issue, circa the winter of 1953; an excerpt follows.

The light that hangs in the ailanthus weaves
   The leaves’ leavetaking overtaking leaves.
The actual is real and not imagined,—still,
   The eye, so learned in disenchantment, sees
Two trees at once, this one of summer’s will,
   And winter’s one, when no bird will assail
The skyline’s hyaline transparencies,
   Emptying its architecture by degrees.

Roundly in its fury, soon, the sun
   Feverish with light, goes down, and on
Come ambitious stars—the stars that were
   But this morning dimmed. Somewhere a slow
Piano scales the summits of the air
   And disappears, and dark descends, and though
The birds turn off their songs now light is gone,
   The mind drowned in the dark may dream them on.

 

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That’s Material: An Interview with Daniel Menaker

January 21, 2014 | by

my mistake

Daniel Menaker doesn’t waste time in signaling his penchant for self-deprecation. The title of his wise, playful, deeply felt new memoir is My Mistake. And the memoirist, no mere tease, is happy to detail the errors he’s made during his life and his celebrated career as fiction editor of The New Yorker, publisher at Random House, and author of novels, stories, and essays.

Most of the blunders recounted by Menaker aren’t too dire, but he remains haunted by the inadvertent role he played in his only sibling’s untimely death. During a game of touch football in 1967, he challenged his older brother, Mike, to play backfield despite Mike’s bad knees, and from there everything went horribly amiss: Mike, then twenty-nine, sustained an injury that led to knee surgery, and this surgery led to a fatal blood infection called septicemia.

For all of Menaker’s mistakes, great and small, readers of My Mistake will likely feel that he got a lot more right than wrong. His memoir takes us from a red-diaper childhood in Greenwich Village through teenage summers on a colorful uncle’s Berkshires guest camp and an education at Swarthmore in the early sixties; it recounts his professional mentoring by the legendary William Maxwell and William Shawn, his office politics with Tina Brown and Harry Evans, and the editing of some of the great authors of our age. Menaker, who, at seventy-two, has written five other books, is an expert at turning those proverbial life-lemons into lemonades; his description of his protracted recent struggle with lung cancer, for example, winds up being one of the memoir’s most inspiring and invigorating sections.

Since finishing My Mistake, Menaker has been working on a series of thematically linked stories, and during an early December break in his current “self-financed” book tour, he answered each question I catapulted at him by telephone.

In My Mistake you say that writing a memoir was a means for you to take stock of your life while facing possible death, pondering what you call “the Great Temporariness.”

The book came about through a really weird route. The proposal for it was vastly different from the finished product. Fourteen people rejected it. I posted the rejections on the Huffington Post, and got in terrible trouble for that with my agent. I didn’t care—I’m too old to care about that shit. I just thought it was funny. And then somebody made an offer, but he was let go from the publishing house, or left, shortly after he acquired my book. I like to think there was no causal connection!

I’m not a big fan of the present tense, but it functions well in My Mistake.

Memoir is such a vexed form and category, for any number of reasons. I can’t even count how many reasons there are for not writing a memoir. People are not in it, or they are in it, they’re pissed off, your memory is wrong—there are all sorts of land mines. With a book that doesn’t have anything truly remarkable in it—I wasn’t captured and sexually violated for ten years, I wasn’t a jihadist, I didn’t go into outer space—I had to figure out how I could make this more immediate. It’s a kind of gadget to use the present tense, but it felt right. And it helped me to put myself—or pretend to myself that I was putting myself—back in the moment. It was a sort of shoehorn back into the past. Read More »

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Comedies Are Too Depressing, and Other News

January 10, 2014 | by

Sad clown

Chuchin the Clown, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Are today’s most prestigious “comedies” too depressing?
  • The Los Angeles Public Library is soon to offer high school diplomas. (You can’t just check them out for a few weeks; you have to work for them.)
  • More on the curious connection between prose and booze: “Writers in this office used to drink,” said an unnamed New Yorker fixture.
  • For the discriminating digital reader on a budget, a treasure trove of public domain e-books.
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    Lonely Thinking: Hannah Arendt on Film

    May 30, 2013 | by

    hannah_large

    In 1963, The New Yorker published five articles on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi chief of Bureau IV-B-4, a Gestapo division in charge of “Jewish Affairs.” Written by political thinker and Jewish activist Hannah Arendt, the articles and ensuing book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, unleashed what Irving Howe called a “civil war” among New York intellectuals. While some reviews cursed Arendt as a self-hating Jew and Nazi lover, the Jewish Daily Forward accusing her of “polemical vulgarity,” Robert Lowell termed her portrayal of Eichmann a “masterpiece,” and Bruno Bettelheim said it was the best protection against “dehumanizing totalitarianism.” Across the city, Arendt’s friends chose sides. When Dissent sponsored a meeting at the Hotel Diplomat, a crowd gathered to shout down Alfred Kazin and Raul Hilberg—then the world’s preeminent Holocaust scholar—for defending Arendt, while in The Partisan Review Lionel Abel opined that Eichmann “comes off so much better in [Arendt’s] book than do his victims.”

    In the years since that fiery time, Eichmann in Jerusalem has remained something to condemn or defend rather than a book to be read and understood. I therefore had some fears when I heard that German director Margarethe von Trotta was making a film about Arendt’s coverage of the trial. But Hannah Arendt accomplishes something rare in any biopic and unheard of in a half century of critical hyperbole over all things Arendt: it actually brings Arendt’s work back into believable—and accessible—focus.

    The movie opens with two wordless scenes. The first depicts the Mossad’s abduction of Eichmann. The second follows a silent Hannah Arendt as she lights, and then smokes, a cigarette. Around her, all is darkness, and for a full two minutes, we watch her smoke. Played with passionate intensity by Barbara Sukowa (who won a Lola, the German Oscar), Arendt ambles. She lies down. She inhales. But above all, we see the cigarette’s ash flare brilliantly in the dark. Hannah Arendt, we are to understand, is thinking.

    Although Arendt’s work follows numerous byways, one theme is clear: in modern bureaucratic societies, human evil originates from a failure not of goodness but of thinking. Read More »

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    What We’re Loving: Underwater Photography, Semicolons, Rimbaud

    March 8, 2013 | by

    SilverSpring_may08_6When I was a teenager, I had a series of dreams in which I would attempt to do the most banal tasks underwater: eat breakfast, cut my toenails, read a book whose waterlogged pages would always stick together. I never really thought much about the dream’s implications—Was I suffocating under life’s demands? Or was it just something I ate?—until I stumbled on Bruce Mozert’s 1950s underwater photography. Using a self-constructed underwater camera, Mozert spent his career shooting underwater portraits for numerous lifestyle magazines—entirely without digital manipulation. (One Mozert trick was “using baking powder to create the powdery ‘smoke’ coming out of the underwater barbecue.”) Why would a photographer devote his life to such a niche? Some things (like the genesis of my dreams) are better left unanswered. —Justin Alvarez

    I’m impressed by a twenty-eight-page examination of “The Endangered Semicolon” in the debut issue of Apology, Jesse Pearson’s new quarterly. It’s disheartening, though, to read that the semicolon is in decline, not least because it is my favorite punctuation mark—a fact that displeased Matt Sumell, who cheerfully rejected the suggested use of semicolons in his story for issue 200 (save two) and who wrote me recently with the sole purpose of informing me that he still doesn’t use semicolons. I pity him and Alexander Theroux, who bemoans in Apology the semicolon’s typographical imbalance (neither a colon nor a period) and its existence as a tentative mark, an “illicit and uneasy compromise.” Let others have the em dash, the period, the showy exclamation point. I’ll keep the semicolon, so adept at capturing a particular cadence, a curt melody. —Nicole Rudick Read More »

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