Briefly Noted

As I've mentioned once or twice, Stephanie had some health issues, so we went to a lot of doctor's appointments, and spent what felt like months in doctors' waiting rooms. There's not much to do in waiting rooms except wait, and read magazines.

In any doctor's office, you'll find brain-draining magazines like People and US Weekly, offering in-depth coverage about alleged celebrities Steph and I neither knew about nor cared about. And always, at every medical clinic, you'll find several different magazines about golf. And you'll find medical magazines that we suspected the clinics received for free — Web MD, or Diabetic Living. At the vascular clinic there's Heart Insight, and at the dialysis center you'll find Kidney Living. There's apparently a medical magazine for every diagnosis, and they all have two things in common: fake-smiling, fake-happy fake-patients on the cover, and the obvious fact that you'd never want to read any of these medical magazines.

Fortunately, some clinics still subscribe to magazines you might just barely be willing to want to read, like Time and Newsweek and maybe Sports Illustrated. If we found something to read, though, there was certainly never a moment of hesitation about putting it down when we were called into the doctor's office. We never had a thought like, Wait, I'm in the middle of this interesting article …

… Except at the eyeball clinic, where Steph went six times per year to have medicine shot into her eyeball. Yes, seriously. She'd been having problems with her vision, and the shots helped a great deal — her eyesight was restored and improved to the point that she could still read and write and watch old movies with me.

I'll tell y'all about the eyeball clinic some other time, but today's post begins in the waiting room, where Steph and I discovered The New Yorker. The magazine's target audience is literally New Yorkers — people who live in New York City — and it's a magazine everyone's heard of, but neither of us had read more than rarely, before going to the eyeball clinic.

On the way home after every visit to the eyeball clinic, because Steph very much didn't want to talk about getting a needle poked into her eyeball, we talked about The New Yorker, and about the articles we hadn't been able to finish reading. And finally, on our way out of the clinic one time, Steph asked me to wheel her through the waiting room, where she stole the New Yorker she'd been reading, 'cuz she really wanted to finish that article.

So we subscribed to The New Yorker, and I still subscribe. Steph had visited New York City twice, and I'd never been there, so we certainly weren't New Yorkers, but we both loved the magazine. Steph had first dibs on it every week, and I read it after she was done.

But neither of us read The New Yorker from cover to cover, because about half the magazine is pureed crap. In every issue, there are pages and pages listing NYC events and entertainment, of zero interest to either of us as we're about 950 miles away. And a lot of the remaining articles are about snooty topics or trendy people we don't care about — opera reviews, or a lengthy profile of some artist from Zimbabwe or the producer of some godawful reality show. There's always a short story, which usually interested neither of us, so for Stephanie and me, many pages of The New Yorker are just wasted ink and paper.

But what remains is always excellent, and more than makes up for the crap. There are short and long articles, always very well-researched and -written, about topics we seriously care about, or topics we might not have known we were interested in, or topics we might not have been interested in at all, had the articles not been so well-researched and -written. Even flipping past half the magazine every week, the half that's worth reading is a couple of hours well spent. Long as I have a job, I'm not letting our subscription lapse.

Steph and I certainly laughed at the high-fallutin' half of the magazine, though, and our favorite part to laugh at was "Briefly Noted," a few short book reviews on one half of one page, toward the back of every issue. Steph, of course, read a lot of books, and I'm not illiterate myself, so we were always on the lookout for new and interesting books to read, and we found some in The New Yorker's full-length book reviews. But the "Briefly Noted" section is always and only an unintentional laugh, spotlighting books that seem wildly pretentious, esoteric, or otherwise basically bonkers.

Stephanie and I played a game every week, to find the "Briefly Noted" book review that added up to a solid NO in the fewest words. "The third review this week," Steph might say, "I'm a NO in only eleven words. Can you top that?"

All this comes to mind because I still have breakfast at the café once a week, same as I did with Stephanie only now it's without Steph, so I take The New Yorker to breakfast instead, reading it while chewing my omelet and hotcakes. And when I get to the "Briefly Noted" section, Stephanie seems to be sitting next to me.

Four books are "Briefly Noted" in every issue, of which one will reliably smell like manure, one will seem simply inscrutable or excruciating, and the other two will be of interest only to experts on whatever the obscure topic — race relations in Burma, or a new biography of some 17th-Century Scottish doctor. Here are a few recent "Briefly Noted" items that Stephanie would've enjoyed. Each review is 5-8 sentences in length, but we rarely made it past the first sentence…

      • "This unusual, often dazzling blend of theology, history, and neuroscience argues that our hyper-rational, left-brain-dominated society has become incapable of engaging with the 'mythos' of scripture…" Yeah, color me incapable.

      Or how's this? "Contemplating movie stars, serial killers, and masculinity, the title poem of this incisive irreverent collection refers not to the Bible but to a scrapbook dedicated to the actor Daniel Craig." Wha—?

     • "In a small English village at the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, a woman named Mary Toft gives birth to a dismembered rabbit every few days."

      • "With an immense cast and wide-ranging erudition, this novel, the culmination of a Hungarian master's career, offers a sweeping view of a contemporary moment that seems deprived of meaning."

      • "In this novel of midlife collapse, the author reprises his attack on the ideological pretensions of contemporary Western society."

       • "The girls and women in this debut collection of stories are monstrous: they molt, peel, fracture, decompose, murder, consume, engulf."

      • "This unsettling novel follows the doomed relationship between Mary, a white Londoner in her seventies, and Cub, a thirteen-year-old boy of Jamaican heritage." Big nope.

      • "In 2006, a man rolled a pig's head through the doorway of a mosque in Lewiston, Idaho."

      • "Examining revolutionary movements across five continents, this history emphasizes the global reach of Maoist ideology."

      • "This fable of society, bureaucracy, and rural life centers on a Tamil farming couple in South India and the female goat they receive from a mysterious man."

In three years of subscribing to The New Yorker, reading about 150 issues, so 600 "Briefly Noted" reviews, there's been exactly one book mentioned that sounded interesting, and it wasn't. And every time I turn the page and see the "Briefly Noted" banner, I know I'm about to have a little chuckle, and share that chuckle with Steph.