‘Like a steamrolled moon’

As long-time blog readers know, I’m a fan of Karen Russell’s writing, so it makes my day to see her first (as far as I recall) non-fiction in The New Yorker: “Helping Hand: Robots, video games, and a radical new approach to treating stroke patients.” The subject is fascinating — tech, humanity, neuroscience — but Russell also brings her descriptive powers to bear.

Five favorite comparisons from the piece:

  1. “Krakauer is forty-nine, with soft, prairie-dog hair….”
  2. “The Hocoma ArmeoPower is a robotic arm that brings to mind the love child of a large dental chair and the Nintendo Power Glove.”
  3. “To climb out of the Pit, Kat and I pulled ourselves up using several cold red rails, reaching with our arms and legs, cinder-blocking our muscles against gravity.”
  4. “Bright creatures slid thickly over one another. A ray looked like a steamrolled moon. Bluefish schooled around with yellow pouts, as if regretting their choice of lipstick.”
  5. “His arms, which were usually ottery when he spoke, lay rigid on the table.”

And two strong snags from her interviews:

  1. “Most cases result from clots that stop blood from flowing to part of the brain, causing tissue to die. ‘Picture someone standing on a hose, and the patch of grass it watered dying almost immediately,’ Steve Zeiler, a neurologist and a colleague of Krakauer’s, told me.”
  2. “S. Thomas Carmichael, a neuroscientist and neurologist at U.C.L.A., compared the period of plasticity [of the brain after a stroke] to the explosion of seedlings after a forest fire: it’s a fecund time, but those shoots are tender, vulnerable, easily damaged.”

I know the next issue arrives tomorrow, most likely

But for one weekend, it’s nice to be caught up.

Someday I will adopt a fall-back position:

I subscribe to way too many magazines, which means, inevitably, that I toss out a lot of them without reading every last article. Or sometimes, alas, without reading any articles at all. Some magazines, of course, are harder to throw out than others, The New Yorker being the classic example. To subscribe to The New Yorker is to accept the feeling of inadequacy that comes with flipping on SportsCenter rather than attacking the unread pile of them on your bedside table.

But not yet.

‘An underlying deliberation’

On painter Stanley Whitney, about whom I knew nothing before reading this article, which contain the following wonderful passage.

They provide keys to an underlying deliberation, in the paintings, which lets the colors feel spontaneous and inevitable in orchestrations that look similar at first but distinguish themselves by decisive adjustments of design.

It’s as if, for each painting, Whitney had climbed a ladder and then kicked it away. A viewer on the ground can only wonder how he got up there.

‘The narrative quest’

Getting closer to New Yorker zero, for the first time in a while. Parts of two issues left. And then another will arrive in the mail, but that’s another day. One of my favorite stories in the catch-up has been Daniel Zalewski’s long-read about an artist with major amnesia and how she’s made herself a huge help to brain science. Amid the piece comes this graf:

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that “the unity of a human life is the unity of a narrative quest.” Johnson can’t remember a single story, but even she conceives of her life as a story—one that she is guiding toward a satisfying end. “By the time I die, I want to have left behind art which makes people happy and feel good about themselves and other people,” she told Aline. “Not everybody gets to smile enough.”

‘His head was aware of his heart’

I don’t know much about poet James Merrill. But in my New Yorker catch-up this spring, I do love these Dan Chaisson lines about him. Aspirational.

Merrill had few blind spots: his head was aware of his heart, and his imagination had unusual access to both. He approached his life with a weird mixture of abandon and detachment. There are no Merrill scandals. He wasn’t Mother Teresa, but he kept most of the friends he made, inspired forgiveness in most of his ex-lovers, and treated those whose lives drifted through the rarefied precincts of his own as though they were kings in disguise.

Helen Hunt as ‘New Yorker’ ed

This trailer for Ride doesn’t make the movie look great. Maybe it’ll be terrific, who knows — benefit of the doubt. But I’m pretty sure if you asked me, before the trailer came out, what my various dream movie characters might be, Helen-Hunt-as-New-Yorker-editor might be one. Yes, this movie isn’t about the magazine. But I like that the idea exists.

Related thought from this trailer: How great would it be if Hunt played Judy Woodruff in a movie? How great would it be if there were a movie about The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour? I have no idea what the plot would be. Maybe no one beyond D.C. journalists and dedicated PBS viewers would watch it. But I’m now actively casting that movie in my head.

Trailer via friend Meriah’s interview with Hunt (note: auto-play video).

Don’t forget your personality

The February 2 issue of The New Yorker is fantastic. Week-in, week-out, the magazine is great. But February 2 is so, so good. Wonderful storytelling, tough-but-thoughtful investigations. The best bedtime read is a profile of mathematician Yitang Zhang and how he solved a math problem many have tried and failed for year to conquer.

Zhang is a humble, quiet man, but not without spirit. His best lines:

“Is there a talent a mathematician should have?”

“Concentration,” Zhang said. We were walking across the campus in a light rain. “Also, you should never give up in your personality,” he continued. “Maybe something in front of you is very complicated, it’s lengthy, but you should be able to pick up the major points by your intuition.”