Dave Eggers and his pals at McSweeney’s launched an epic tribute to the print newspaper on Tuesday, selling out in our neighborhood by the afternoon. Mission Loc@l’s staff rushed off to purchase, fondle, and read the 300 pages of analog newspapery/magazine goodness. Here’s what we thought, on the first go-round.
McSweeney’s has managed to tone down some of its buoyant silliness to execute a nearly serious first section, complete with an inside page stocked with tidbits of amusing news and actually usable information, like what fruits and vegetables are in season and where to find the cheapest gas.
Also entertaining, though less practical, is a colorized parking enforcement threat level. It’s red and probably exactly as unlikely to change color as our national terrorist threat level.
The reformulation involved in this usable information tidbit section is perhaps the way McSweeney’s shines best, and where Panorama achieves its self-reported goal of being “a grab-bag of some of the myriad things a newsprint can do.”
Newspapers should be rethinking about what kind of information people here – dare we say locally – in the Bay Area and San Francisco, want to get regular updates. Like, seasonal fruits. Then again, we might be biased.
In terms of news coverage, the front section is well-reported, thoughtful, and covers real stuff that’s, okay, already in the news. San Francisco government, real estate, H1N1, the Congo, public schools, and the recession. Some is from a unique perspective, which is nice, and all beautifully laid out with lovely graphics. It’s delicious, but not necessarily mind-blowing.
First, there’s the whole experience of opening a paper that’s, well, large. I mostly read my section on BART and it made me feel like I should have been in an armchair—a massive one. How accustomed we’ve become to reading on tiny screens, which is too bad because it’s fun opening up Panorama.
Inside was William T. Vollman’s piece on two characters involved in trying to mine at the southern reach of Imperial County. Mostly these days I associate Vollman’s name with his massive book on that same county, and reading “Expectations” made me think that I’ll take the plunge and buy his book. And J. Malcolm Garcia’s diary from Kabul seemed particularly timely and full of short, crisp sentences that moved the piece right along.
I generally toss my newspapers into the recycling bin when I get off BART and as I got to the top of the stairs my hand went for Section Two of Panorama, but stopped short. I walked past the bin. Maybe later. For now, it’s worth saving.
OPINION AND ANALYSIS
Because she thinks I read too many OPED pieces even while I complain about nearly all of them, the managing editor asked for my opinion about Panorama’s Opinion and Analysis pages. I found the contributions to be uniformly well-written (but not uniform) and thoughtful, covering issues of consequence. They were not blogs.
The lead story, Nicholson Baker’s “Can a Paper Mill Save a Forest?” artfully subverts the common wisdom regarding print and digital media. It’s a must read before buying your partner, friend or kid a Kindle for Christmas. Reading this story, I got more of a sense of what, or some of what, Panorama is aiming at with its super-tabloid print presentation.
I also especially liked the piece on Michelle Obama’s struggles with Intimidating Black Woman Syndrome. During the 2008 campaign I met a reporter from a prominent newspaper who covered the Democratic primaries. She reacted personally to Michelle precisely as Wendy Todd describes the general media reaction. Good thing Michelle has learned how to smile a lot.
Finally, a big story challenging the notion that war is encoded in human nature. Not bad, but I read it the day Obama accepted his George Orwell Prize in Oslo, and it didn’t hold up. It seemed flat, abstract and much too hopeful.
Today may have been the first time my boyfriend and I have battled over the sports page.
I’ve never been a baseball fan, or even a Stephen King enthusiast, but today, with the release of McSweeney’s San Francisco Panorama, I HAD TO KNOW what “child” would lead the 49ers to glory, why Patrick Willis is “unstoppable,” and more importantly, what the “Bloat Stadium” of “Greed Avenue” and “Stupid Street” had to offer.
Maybe it’s the novelty of it all, this new panoramic view of the city in which we live and work, but I like to think it’s more than that. It’s the complementary posters of Stephen Curry, infographics, titles that grab, and graphics that indulge. It’s about “The Ultimate Head-Busting Anti-Bandwagon Wuss-Resistant NCAA Bracket Challenge” with a design that makes even me want to try my luck. And, more importantly it’s about seeing sports through a different looking glass, not the TV, and not the Chronicle’s Sporting Green.
McSweeney’s manages to do just this by melding sports and art into 15 irresistible pages.
Up first is the profile of Jed York. He’s “rich, confident, under thirty, and on a mission to bring the San Francisco 49ers back from the abyss,” how could I not read it? The article by Tom Barbash is well paced and captivating, even to a fly by night Sea Hawks fan.
Next at bat is the story of Patrick Willis, a 240-pound success story from Bruceton, Tennessee. Authored by Jeremy Peppas, the article is personal and not what you would expect from a rough and tumble six-foot-one Pro Bowl inside linebacker. Complimented by action cut-outs and family photos, the reader is forced to look beyond testosterone-laced muscles to Willis’s journey to the NFL—one steeped in the perseverance of his family and the hard working cotton fields of his youth.
Then comes basketball, Golden State Basketball. While normally I couldn’t care less about the persona of a coach, the graphics brought me in. “Castro? Napoleon? This guy must be a character.” And the article doesn’t disappoint.
The crown jewel of the Panorama’s sporting pages, however, is no doubt Stephen Kings World Series 2009 break down. King invites the reader to Baseball City, where overpriced hot dogs fuel overpriced players. He reminds the reader of better days, when baseball catered to the physical fan—both young and old—and to a time television didn’t dictate time slots or game days. Still, somehow inside all his cynicism and disgust, King allows the reader some old-time charm, and reassures the game “ain’t like it used to be, but it’s still pretty good.”
In McSweeney’s case, its sports pages aren’t traditional, they’re better.
Arts (and leisure) sections often seem stuck either in the glib or haughty, whether highlighting what’s hot in ‘09 or deconstructing Maurice Sendak’s postmodern palimpsest.
But in their need to either entertain or appeal to a higher intellect, the writing often becomes impersonal – whether reaching for a perceived common denominator or coming across as ostentatious and detached.
The two arts sections here seem to separate along that familiar line – the frippery of “Lifestyle & Local” and the ponderous “Reviews & Commentary.” But both sections blend quirky ingenuity and a strong writer’s voice.
And with both, I was sparked by how directly personal many of the stories are. Rather than nodding at another eloquent phrasing, I became immersed, invited into the writer’s peculiar world to the point that I felt more familiar with the author than the subject – especially reading the profiles of Mission-based healer Dori Midnight and local radio station KPOO.
The transparency of reporting and the awareness from not only seeing through the writer’s prism, but as it was colored, with each particular mood, encounter or quirk of circumstance added an intimacy and honesty rarely found in newspapers.
Also against type, the stories build steam, rather than packing the punch up front only to slowly peter out.
At the back of the first section, one finds some fresh spins on old standbys – horoscopes to “navigate this hellishly tactile world” and curiously conceived puzzles that also had me thinking more of their makers than actually attempting to solve. I’ve never been one for crosswords though.
Arts Two (Reviews & Commentary) opens with an epic wail springing from the page as frontwoman Thao Nguyen flings her head back in acoustic ecstasy. She of The Get Down Stay Down, one of the better backing band names of our time, answers a few interview questions inside, her handwritten responses scrawled across the page.
A sex metaphor stretches a bit thinly over an article complaining of the rash of apocalyptic movies of late, eventually untangling itself into a review of the new film “The Road.” (I did appreciate the coining of bukkakalypse.)
And then there’s the article by writer/reformed bank robber Joe Loya on the process that went into choosing his getaway soundtrack in wilder days, one of a couple articles in the section I found myself obliviously standing up halfway through, reading in a delighted, headlong fury to the end.
Just a glimpse of what’s inside. There are plenty of playful, provocative graphics and inspired asides left to surprise.
The Panorama Magazine is heavy and lusciously dense. Flipping through it, your mouth starts to water a little bit. Well, mine does. There are so many stories! Beautiful, long ones. About NASCAR and foreclosures; Jews and Sarah Palin’s nemesis; about five-hundred-mile walks and Antarctica. Where to begin? Let’s see…
What about the cover story?
“Could it be that the best chance to save a young family from foreclosure is a 28-year-old Pakistani American playwright-slash-attorney who learned bankruptcy law on the internet?” Apparently, yes. The story, like the title, is funny and quirky, but unfortunately, I found it less interesting.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved Wajahat Ali’s voice–endearingly self-deprecating and honest. But the article didn’t seem to bring anything new to the heaps of recession/foreclosure stories out there. His lawyerly account of battling the “feces-covered bear” that is Wells Fargo for a loan modification started to feel boring and slightly tedious after a few pages.
The next piece, “Blasphemous Profaner Visits Holy Land Hasid,” by Matthew Klam is about Hasidic Jews, which I appreciated as a former Brooklynite who often passed entire Hasid families dressed in 17th-century Polish garb on my way to the subway.
Klam writes about a visit to his long lost cousin Lezar, who owns an underpants factory in Tel Aviv and dedicated himself to Hasidism at 19 while backpacking through Israel.
His account is hilarious and surreal. The service he attends at the Very Big Synagogue is as close to a Torah-fueled man-rave as it is a worship session. The rituals he describes, for eating, praying, hand-washing, shoe-application, offer a glimpse into a world that’s about as foreign as I can conceive—religious extremism.
It’s a good read—you’ll laugh, and you’ll ruminate about what it means when someone gives up an entire life and family for religion. At least I did.
We’ll end with one of my favorites of the bunch.
You never knew you wanted to go to Antarctica, until you read Mary Williams’s “The Oakland Girl’s Unofficial Guide to Antarctica.” Afterwards, Oakland girl or no, you’ll long for that foreign icy landscape, longing to let the great white engulf you.
You’ll want to join the strange club of scientists and travelers, mountaineers and “search-and-rescue hunks” that find themselves sprinkled atop the vast sheets of ice each summer; competing for the coziest sleeping spots, the warmest lovers with whom to wile away the cold nights and the least tedious jobs.
Williams’ guide recounts a five-month stay as a “General Assistant” at the McMurdo research station in Antarctica. Her observations, separated into bite-size morsels by subheads like “Drunkards,” and “Nicknames,” sneak you in with her to that seventh lonely, frozen continent.
In a section called “Insects” Williams writes, “When you first see people leaving food unwrapped, You will be tempted to wrap it up to keep the bugs away. But there are no bugs. Think of that. There are no bugs in Antarctica.”
You think about it. You have to.
Williams’ miniature stories tell the details of life on Antarctica, but taken together, they’re bigger. They’re about how people seek each other. And hunt for adventure and knowledge even in the face of unfathomable danger. About how small and vulnerable we really are here on this big, wide world.
Requests for topless mermaids, lambchetta in 58 colorful steps, the Matterhorn and an aqueduct that holds the future of your next meal, the Panorama’s food section is graphic, fresh and mouthwatering.
True to its name, the 16-page spread explores the horizons of your next culinary adventure, and begs the reader to revisit some of the city’s forgotten food havens—including the Mission’s La Oaxaqueña with oversized tamales and rich mole sauce. South Van Ness’s Walzwerk, 16th Street’s Poc-Chuc and Mission Street’s Mission Street Food also made the cut.
Beyond old favorites, Katrina Dodson’s article “The Weird and the Wonderful” attempts to de-mystify seemingly strange fruits and vegetables while revisiting the roots of San Francisco’s farmers markets. A history, she notes, that stretches back into the summer of 1943 when vendors inundated Market and Duboce, and a wartime public haggled over locally grown produce.
Quibbling over produce prices is an age-old tradition, preceded only by hunting and gathering itself.
Writer L.E. Leone takes a look at just that, but with an unconventional spin. Her article “Roadkill Stew” serves up a rawhide version of the latest in foraging fads. This time it’s not about creamed nettles or fiddlehead ferns, but about big meaty venison steaks. And, while most of us break and swerve for Bambi, Leone thinks twice.
She has a taste for venison.
A sort of urban hunter, she refuses to let roadkill go to waste, and tests our boundaries in an article that deserves praise.
Lisa Hamilton’s cover story “Water: A Road Trip,” offers yet another refreshing spin on of food-to-table journalism. First, and foremost, she reminds us, a farmer needs water. And water is not easy to come by. Her article winds through the San Joaquin Valley, unraveling the lives of farmers and their struggle to irrigate their soil. It’s a tale of pride, backbreaking work, small fish and the battle to feed America.
Beyond the plight of the American farmer, the Panorama is flooded with delightfully fun how-tos—helping many Americans save their dwindling pocket change.
Whimsical pieces of art lead the reader through a maze of ramen-perfection, roasted lamb and saliva-laced corn mush, making the eye as hungry as the stomach.
Panorama Food: Two Thumbs Up.
Weekly literary supplements have been vanishing from newspapers over the last few years, as publishers have decided books don’t bring in enough ad revenue to justify a full-section treatment.
The Panorama’s Book Review sets out to show that book supplements, done right, could bring in enough ads to pay for themselves.
It’s hard to say if their review succeeds in economic terms — there are some ads, but the section, for unexplained reasons, was originally planned at 112 pages but had to be cut to 96 at the last minute.
But the Panorama’s book review shows how a vibrant literary supplement — the kind that might even draw readers — could look. It offers up reviews, of course, but also author interviews, short (and micro) stories, essays and literary non-fiction.
It takes some chances — there’s a review of Edna O’Brien’s out-of-print book August Is a Wicked Month, a list clarifying the pronunciation of oft-butchered names (Adrian TOE-me-nay, who knew!), a smattering of quatrains, and a short story by George Saunders that’s told from the perspective of a fox with much to tell “Yumans” — “We do not trik Chikens! We are very open and honest with Chikens! With Chikens we have a Super Fare Deal, which is: they make the egs, we take the egs, they make more egs.”
Talking foxes aside, the supplement isn’t strenuously whimsical or esoteric. It’s full of vivid, smart pieces like an essay examining the shift in the way novels dealing with 9/11 have been received in recent years, a short story by Roddy Doyle about a Polish immigrant seeking his fortune in Ireland, a review that made me want to read Lucia Perrillo’s book of poetry “Inseminating the Elephant” despite the icky title and a strange but true story about a contest for male romance novel cover models.
I’d gladly buy the Panorama Book Review as a magazine on its own, and I’d guess lots of others would, too.
But that would upend one of the best arguments for newspaper book sections – they reach a broad audience, or at least less rarefied one, than literary journals.
In a country where a quarter of the population doesn’t read a book a year, getting good writing and coverage of books into as many hands as possible seems priceless.