Monday, April 18, 2016

On "Pivot Point" by Xujun Eberlein (6935 words) ****

This story asks what a moment that changes our life really consists of. The story itself recounts an affair from the point of view of a woman who is rapidly becoming too old to get married in Cultural Revolution-time China. Was the pivot point when she met the man, when she gave him her virginity, when he broke up with her? Read the story here.

On "Apologies Forthcoming" by Xujun Eberlein ****

This book, written by a Chinese ex-patriot, revolves around the Chinese Cultural Revolution. As such, for a person who has not studied greatly into the subject, the work was immensely interesting. When I was younger, I preferred fiction because I felt that it provided me better insight into a given time and place than history books could. Perhaps, if I were back in school and more focused in my reading, fiction would become my favorite genre again--and books like Eberlein's would be key to making that happen.

My one previous reading into the Cultural Revolution was a paper/memoir written by a classmate in an autobiography class I once took. A Chinese immigrant himself, my classmate decided to focus on his experiences then rather than on the fiction early American narrative we were asked. I wish I'd spent more time reading the work for what it was now, rather than being focused on giving feedback and wondering how the memoir fit into the class assignment.

Eberlein's book contains eight stories of essentially even quality. In the opening story, "Snow Line," a man writes a poem that take the nation by storm--a poem that is not explicitly Maoist. The story is a commentary on art amid all-encompassing political idealism. Unlike most of the stories in the collection, the focus seems more on art than on politics. Many of the stories, including "Pivot Point" and "The Randomness of Love," involve innocent and/or adulterous love

"Feathers" is about a girl who tries to hide from her little sister and grandmother the knowledge that her older sister has died while doing Maoist work in the country, going even so far as to hire someone to pose as her older sister coming back for a visit.

In "Men Don't Apologize," a girl goes to work for a bus manufacturer and discovers why bus accidents often occur. She also finds the man who accused her father of being a capitalist during the revolution, but when she tries to bring the two together to bury the hatchet, she discovers that forgiveness does not come easily.

"Watch the Thrill" discusses harrowing events from the point of view of boys who have no understanding of them--who in fact find joy in watching people beat up, chased, and killed, so much so that they actually prevent one man from running to safety after committing a potentially revolutionary act, if not an act of revenge.

"Disiple of the Masses" focuses on a city girl who goes to live in the country to help out farmers. There, she discovers that rather than being an aid, she is a spy.

The collection ends with a tale told in the United States, many years after the events. This look back seems a particularly good way to draw the work to a close.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

On "Me and Miss Mandible" by Donald Barthelme (4192 words) ****

Long before Adam Sandler went back to elementary, long before Brock Clarke wrote about something similar, Barthelme did it in this tale. Here, a man returns to sixth grade, which as it turns out is full of sexual seethings. Women are vying for his attention, but most especially the teacher. Try as he might to convince people that he is not a minor--having served in the military among other life achievements--he is stuck in class, much to Miss Mandible's disadvantage. Read the story here.

On "The City in History" by Lewis Mumford ***

Lewis Mumford tells us about the spiritual and cosmic origins of the city so that we can get a handle on how we can best forge the city of tomorrow. To do that, he must scope out all of Western history, denoting where the city has been and what it could possibly become. All that said, this was a long and often laborious read that has left me in many ways a bit more befuddled than illuminated. Mumford's own words often take off in poetic flights of fancy that are heroic or elegiac; they are beautiful, but such is not something I'm accustomed to reading in serious sociological nonfiction--and it rarely helps to make the message clearer.

The book starts off especially slowly, because Mumford starts essentially at the dawn of man. Most of this information is prehistory, so there's some archeology and anthropology and a whole lot of conjecture. For Mumford, early cities start with death, with graveyards--places where people go to visit their ancestors. It's these ancient rituals that gather people together and make, eventually, for civilization. An interesting theory, but one based largely on the fact that it's graveyards that mostly survive. What of the things that did not survive? And is all human history rooted in such spiritualism? Is the more secular instinct merely one of modern man?

I could not wait for Mumford to get to the time when there were written records, so that I could read about actual city planning and theory. Although he talks a bit about the Egyptians, it is really only when we get to Greek society that such discussion takes off. Here, several different ideas of the Greeks are unfolded. Interestingly, we learn that the Greeks are among the first to have created checkerboard plans for cities, laying out straight streets on a grid pattern. More interestingly, we learn of various ideas that Greek philosophers had about the ideal city, which was not to be more than about five thousand inhabitants (there's is some question as to whether than included women, children, and slaves--probably not); beyond this, the city became too large to manage, unable to serve its purpose. Mumford seems to agree that cities can be too large, that size does not a better city make.

From there, Mumford follows the development of the Roman city, and in one passage writes elegantly of Rome's incredible debauchery (with its coed baths where sex was not uncommon).

But where the book really picks up is with the Middle Ages. It is in the city, as it came to exist after Rome's fall, that Mumford seems to find an ideal. With the destruction of a central government, people looked to the church for protection and to various nobles and dukes that would eventually become kings. The walled city was reintroduced as a means to protect people--to keep people out, to keep people in. But these cities were nicely sized and able to function much better than most historians have given them credit for. Streets were often laid out by function, winding with geography.

It is in the baroque city, what comes after the medieval city, that Mumford begins to find displeasure, for in it he sees the beginning of the modern city. The baroque city came to be as kings gained greater power. With that also came the desire for grand architecture and monumentation. No longer was function the height of city "planning"; rather, it was glory. Streets were straightened or widened to show off military might and government power (and to aid with the quick movement of troops).

We might see similarities to more contemporary cities with their focus on the capitalist and profit-making machine, wherein people are secondary to the function of business. Indeed, modern cities are criticized for just that by Mumford. And for their gargantuan size, which cuts people off from their surroundings.

Mumford sees much hope in Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities. Rather than letting suburban sprawl eat up all the surrounding land, adding forever to traffic, Howard sets out a plan for smaller towns surrounded by green zones.

Mumford's account of the creation of the suburb is interesting in its own light. It was, of course, founded in the idea of letting people get back to nature. The suburb was at first something for the upper class, so that it could avoid the dirt and grime of the city proper. But like so many things, those desires trickled down to lower classes, and with time, more and more moved to the suburb to be out among nature. This was aided by advances in transportation--first the railway and then the car. But as more people do that, move into the outskirts of the city to be in the trees, the more nature recedes, and the very purpose for which the suburb was founded no longer is fulfilled (sans the creation of new suburbs even further out).

Howard's Garden Cities aim to end this constant growth at the edges. Rather, cities are planned for specific populations of around thirty thousand, enough that there are physical and cultural amenities while still leaving things close enough together that traffic is not a continual muddle. These towns are then surrounded by green space, so that all people can easily leave town to be in the city. And those towns, in turn, are connected across the green space.

Mumford does not think too well of megalopolises either. But he does see potential in sharing culture (interlibrary loan is given as an example, or traveling museum exhibits) across a network of smaller cities. In this manner, culture comes to the city rather than it being hoarded in one large center, and local centers maintain their unique histories and cultural components.

In theory, I like Mumford's ideas and even the concept of the Garden City. Smaller towns are easier to live in from a practical perspective. There is a sense of community. Infrastructure is not overburdened. But scale does seem, to me, to be of some import, even if one town might share with another its various cultural artifacts. The fact is that smaller towns are not always enough of a center to support things that might appeal to obscure tastes, even on an on-loan basis. There is a reason larger cities tend to have arthouse movie theaters and playhouses and museums and sporting facilities and Vietnamese-Mexican fusion cuisine restaurants while smaller towns don't. Sure, one museum might lend part of a collection to another town, but at what cost? And how many people are going to visit the museum to make it worth that cost?

Of course, the Internet has changed many of these concerns. No longer are we as people as dependent on our immediate surroundings for alternative cultural opportunities. But in a sense, that too is a loss, for as we sit in front of our screens engaging the wider world from the limited perspective of our small town, we fail to engage with the immediate community.

Monday, February 22, 2016

On "Metamorphosis" by David Eagleman (575 words) *****

In this short piece from Eagleman's book, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, Eagleman poses the afterlife as something similar to that created by Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead. Here, people live on until the last memory of them dies out. What's interesting is how Eagleman proposes that afterlife fame may be less wonderful than we normally would imagine. There's the tragedy that we depart just as those we love arrive, but more than this the tragedy of being remembered forever, in a form that increasingly has nothing to do with our actual selves. Read the story here.

On "Sum" by David Eagleman ****

This book's subtitle, Forty Tales from the Afterlives, pretty much sums up the work, but not in the manner in which one might expect, if expecting a standard book of short stories or flash fictions. Eagleman is not as concerned with telling a story in standard fictional form with central characters, rising action, and denouement. Rather, the focus here is more philosophical. As such, I was reminded a bit of Jorge Luis Borges's work, which often eschews standard fictional devices as well. Indeed, there is an element of the strange in macabre throughout much of the book.

What Eagleman does is tell you (the main character) what happens to you after death--forty different versions of this. The best versions of device entail making the reader see afresh his or her own life and the meaning of it. And the early pieces, as new playthings in the mind of the reader, are exceptional. However, as the collection wears on, a pattern begins to emerge, and the stories begin to wear a bit thin. That is, we're told that when we die we go to heaven or hell or that we don't die or that we are reincarnated as something; Eagleman runs through what happens, which turns out to be somewhat unexpected, contrary to what we had thought, and then makes a grand pronouncement at the end that helps us see where we were (are) wrong about our former lives here on Earth.

Some specific stories (spoilers here) revolve around being small beings within a much larger one (essentially the equivalent to bacteria in someone else's body); living again but in discreet units where a lifetime worth of sleeping, eating, reading, toothbrushing, so on is done in a single unit (thus twenty years of sleeping, two days of brushing teeth, etc.); becoming part of a finally egalitarian society that proves to be less-than-satisfying for everyone; wishing to become a simpler being--say a horse--only to discover too late that you are going to miss being able to think about the complexities you wished to avoid; finding that you live on as a computer program, a set of e-mails that have been prewritten to be sent out to people after your death; going to a place where you are kept alive until the last memory of you is expunged and finding that you are luckier than the famous who are never able to disappear or change; finding the key to immortality but not being able to confirm its reality before purchasing it; discovering you are an actor in someone else's life; being yourself simultaneously at all possible ages; being you among all the various incarnations you could have been (successful and unsuccessful, each choice made differently); living your life over but realizing that your memories of it are all wrong and that you understand it as little as you did the first time.

When best written, the stories Eagleman tells really do make you reexamine the assumptions you make about your own life. In that sense, the collection is unique and thought provoking.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

On "The Reader" by Robert Coover (1473 words) ****

Here is a fairly standard piece of metafiction for Robert Coover. It is about a writer who creates a reader but who keeps finding his story interrupted by other readers and writers and events. Here the "real" and the imagined keep colliding, as if fantasy cannot ever be fully consummated, just like in life--only this isn't life--this is a story. I'm reminded a bit of the popularity of erotic fiction. Could it be that writers of such material are living fantasies in their imagination that they in turn pass along to readers? And yet, plots of fiction demand conflict--disappointment and trouble keeping us from the ultimate denoument, until the very end. And the readers, like the writers, are often lonely people whose real-life personas would never match those of the stories they are reading/writing. Read the story here at Conjunctions.

On "City Life" by Witold Rybczynski ****

City Life begins with a question that seems almost a complaint: Why aren't our cities (in North America) like Europe's cities? The author is in Paris, and his journey there reminds him of decades earlier when he was in the same place--and it seemed very much the same--the same beautiful old buildings and small streets and grand history. In the United States, by contrast, a city has been torn down and re-erected each decade. The places we treasure are temporal, our cities hardly of historical relevance. The complaint did not seem a worthy one, and this beginning made me think that the book was going to be one focused on why Europe's cities are so much better than ours--theoretical and snobbish.

But the introduction does not do the book justice. Really, Rybczynski is interested in knowing why our cities are not the same, and to answer that, he delves into history. The book, as it turns out, ends up being a history of the city--and of city planning. (And later in the book, he even notes that Europe's cities have begun to mimic American cities, as many of the revolutionary changes that cause our cities to be as they are have happened across the Atlantic as well.)

Rybczynski introduces us to three basic models for the city historically (first denoted by Kevin Lynch): the cosmic, the practical, and the organic. Cosmic cities would include those of the ancient Southeastern Ceremonial Complex and of the Aztecs and Incas. The city was centered around a mound or a temple. Religious practices forge the plan for the city--or governmental practices, as in the case of Washington, D.C. The practical city generally follows a grid created for maximum ease of commerce and expansion. Most North American cities fall into this model. The last model, the organic, would be typical of older European cities whose "grid" goes back to the Middle Ages--streets do not follow a rigid geometric plan. Rather, they grow organically as the population settles. To these three models Rybczynski adds a fourth, the automobile city. Modern spread-out cities with wide, long-curving streets are typical of these sort--Phoenix and Houston.

Rybczynski then turns to the Middle Ages and the concept of open and closed towns, walled and unwalled, and the cause for these differences in time and space--nobles looking to protect their station, serfs seeking protection, merchants looking to sell goods. From there, he goes to the colonial town, created differently for each culture, but for the English in three basic types: organic (informal, winding streets, as in Boston); gridlike with open squares (as in Cambridge); and linear (with one main street, as in Providence).

Grids soon became typical of city planning in the United States, as they were a means to keep towns organized even as they grew at phenomenal rates. After all, squares are easy to parcel out and sell.

Individual chapters cover the early growth and planning of New York and Chicago, the former mostly through the eyes of Tocqueville, on his visit to America, the latter through the eyes of the City Beautiful movement and the Chicago World's Fair. Rybczynski has some very different views on the City Beautiful movement from Jane Jacobs, who largely condemned it. As Rybczynski notes, the founders of that movement actually did pay attention to how cities worked and looked for council among city administrators. The World's Fair, however, had a large impact on the city and on American architecture in general, as its largely classical style was copied for permanent buildings elsewhere, as were the tendency to gather grand governmental structures together in complexes for great display (something Jacobs largely criticizes).

But Rybczynski largely criticizes the Radiant City concept espoused by Le Corbusier, which Jacobs also despised. That plan essentially put towers in the middle of parks. Le Corbusier, as it turns out, was more a philosopher than a planner, and he spoke a good, conceited game without having a lot of actual knowledge. Nevertheless, his ideas were put into practice in some places to disastrous effect, as in some public housing in the Chicago area, where crime has run rampant since. Part of this dynamic is social (the ACLU sued to prevent those who ran the complex from interviewing possible renters with the idea of managing proper diversity among the units; once that happened, increasing problems became part of a downward spiral); however, part of it rests in Jacobs's own ideas--if there isn't a crowd of people on the street and a diversity of use for parks, an area is less attractive and often less safe.

From there, Rybczynski delves into the growth of the suburb, which is largely due to the car. As people could settle farther out, in the country, they did so, and city centers began to decline. Suburbia is complex. In many cases, suburbs themselves end up with centers of their own, so that work doesn't always happen in the city. Also, with the advent of the car, shopping malls sprang up, placing all retail in a single location that people could drive to and then walk around within. Of particular importance here was the supermarket, allowing people to shop for a week or two rather than shopping for a day or two at a time. I was surprised to learn how recent the (indoor) shopping mall really is--going from about eight in the nation in 1950 to thousands by the 1960s. That malls are privately owned raises social questions as well, since unlike public downtown streets, limitations can be placed on free speech and assembly.

Cities themselves are largely growing smaller as their surroundings fill out, creating larger and larger metropolitan areas (both in land and population). The complex mix of cities and edge cities is the future.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

On "Game" by Donald Barthelme (1916 words) *****

An absolutely wonderful story by Barthelme, this one involves two men with the joint key to world destruction--the key to a nuclear bomb in a silo. Day in, day out, they keep tabs on each other, in case one of them does something crazy. They have the means to annihilate the other if something goes wrong. It is a perfect metaphor for the Cold War at its height. Read the story here.

On "The Five Love Languages" by Gary Chapman ****

Long referenced in sermons, marriage counseling, dating situations, and general conversation, this book is one I have intended to get around to for a while. The problem is that I could not get it from the library, and I didn't want to put forth the money to buy it. I'd taken the test; I sort of knew where I fell. I understood the concepts. I wasn't sure the book would offer me that much more insight. And really, it did not, though I appreciate that my wife spent the money to buy it for me, and it was a fun read.

That said, I felt as if the book could have been summarized in a twenty-page paper or so, but to fill out the text and sell it, the author added a number of anecdotes. Anecdotes aren't bad, but for me to feel the gravitas of the text, I would have preferred something a bit more analytical--surveys and tests that would more scientifically back up the author's claims.

Still, as a professional marriage counselor, the author has a lot of experience to offer--and I'm sure that his insight into the love languages has paid dividends that show the absolute usefulness of the theory. I myself can see its usefulness, just in the little I have learned.

As self-help-type books are prone to do, however, this one seems so centered on its theory that a reader is made to feel as if the main cause of marriage unhappiness is a lack of speaking the same love language and that by mastering this one thing, we can bring back the love. Important, no doubt, but the work comes across as simplistic--probably more than the author intends.

The five languages are acts of service, quality time, gifts, physical touch, and affirmative words. Each person uses primarily one or two of these languages. Relationships often fall apart, according to the author, after the initial euphoria, because the two people aren't speaking the same love language. Mastering the other person's love language can reap dividends for restoring the relationship.

The author claims that we give and receive in the same love language. That's something I have wondered about--whether that is necessarily so. He also claims that we have the same love language throughout life, which is something I'm also uncertain about. I think one's love language can depend greatly upon the situation. Why? Because when I took the book's test as a single I had differing results from when I took it as a married person. And in fact, some questions on the test were hard for me to answer, as the answer would greatly depend on my mood.

As a single I tested for quality time and affirmative words. As a married person I tested for quality time and acts of service. I've always felt more comfortable showing love by doing things for others, but I don't find that such acts always make me feel closer to another person. Still, this time around, I realized that things my wife does for me are probably appreciated by me more than most other things she can give me.

Words were important to me as a single but less so as a married person. I'd say that this is probably because I have a tank that needs to be filled up with each language, and as a single, that tank was less often full. As a married person, my wife constantly says nice things, so I don't end up appreciating them as much as I did when those nice things were rare gems.

The same can go for quality time, once extremely important. It's still important for me. But I remember as a single how four to eight hours with a person in a given week was often enough to fill up my tank; however, I rarely got those hours from a person. Now, again, that tank is usually full, so I end up appreciating time together less that I would. (With my wife off at grad school, however, time is much more appreciated again than when we were living together.)

Touch--I don't particularly like touching strangers or like being touched. But my mate? My lover? That's different. It rates highly now, whereas it barely registered when I was single.

What I'm saying is that it seems to me that how love is shown to us and what we need, or feel a lack of, with regard to how it is demonstrated seems to me contextual. Time seems more important when it is harder to get and give; touch seems more important when it is possible to get and give; and so on.

All that said, I'm left feeling a bit daunted by the tasks before me: showing more love to my wife. Her languages seem centered on all five. I really don't know where to concentrate--but I do know that I come up short on words and gifts, which tend to be my weakest areas for showing love. More work to do.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

On "The Old Economy Husband" by Lesley Dormen (5648 words) *****

"The Old Economy Husband" is the first story in Lesley Dormen's linked collection, and it is the really highlight of the work. It is a love story, a love story about finding love later in life, in middle age, after all the bad decisions earlier in that dating life. And like so many stories in the collection, nothing much really happens, but the whole thing reads like a poem, a song, a hymn, to passion--and it is wonderful. Read the story here at the Atlantic.

On "The Best Place to Be" by Lesley Dormen ****

I came to this collection sight unseen, and I am happy to have read it. The first couple of stories were especially exquisite, managing to do the usual contemporary story thing not so much with original flair as with sheer skill. Those early stories left me feeling as if I were reading the work of a master whose talent was so genuine, so impressive, that there really is a reason some people go on to find publishing success and others, while good writers, do not. Dormen's every word and phrase was fun to follow, and at the end of the story, chills ran through my body on what seemed a very simple turn of phrase. It's something I don't quite understand, the mystery of that chill, how some people can illicit such a thing at the end of a story that hasn't really gone anywhere in terms of action-filled plot. And Dormen's does over and over, though not quite with every story in the collection.

All the stories revolve around a singular character, a woman who remained single deep into her life and whose eventual marriage to a seemingly wonderful man is generally happy, though tinged with a certain amount of annoyance the longer it continues. The woman is a newspaper columnist and reporter, initially dispensing advice to single women but later just being the go-to on various subjects. She is the product of a single mother, whose three marriages each had the problems--the second man a seeming molester, the third a rich man who enables the mother's egregious spending (a habit her daughter emulates). The first is a man who has virtually now relationship with the woman and her brother until they are adults, which, in one story, is made to appear as if it were mostly the mother's fault. During the course of the stories, the mother dies, and the woman deals with her grief. In all, this is a portrait of a family as seen through the daughter's eyes.

The first story in the collection is my favorite, but I'll write of that one separately. The second story and the last story are my favorites next to that. The second story revolves around the narrator's life as an older single, one who has made bad choices in dating and who now feels as if she has put herself in a position from which she can never return--single forever. The last story in the collection is, in essence, about aging, though in all the stories, the woman appears to be around fifty or just thereafter. In this story, though, she is somewhat less taken with her husband and yet also happy for the security his presence affords her. The cause of this deep thought about her marriage is a newspaper article she agrees to write about marriage researchers.

"Curvy" recounts Alex and his sister going to meet Irv, their biological father, and his wife. Alex resents Irv for leaving them; the sister, a bit older, seems more understanding and even has mixed feelings about him versus her mother. "The Secret of Drawing" focuses on the narrator's start at college and on her mother's second divorce and on her taking up with a third man and on the feelings the narrator has for the man she calls dad (that second husband). "Gladiators" focuses on the siblings fighting one another over inheritance matters after their mother's death, and "General Strike" focuses on a Thanksgiving trip to Italy with her brother, his wife, and the narrator's husband. Here, one gets the feeling that the marriage is no longer so hot for the woman, but she is able to find some solace in reestablishing a relationship with her brother that reminds her of being young again.

It is really the first story that sets the stage for all of the others, by denoting how there are times in life when we are truly happy and how those times are transitory. It is a happiness contrasted immediately with that second story, which seems much less hopeful but which chronologically precedes the events in the first story. Later, those first story events are in the past, and sadness slowly seems to be reaching in again. Transitory, indeed.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

"The Gingerbread House" by Robert Coover (3171 words) ***

Many of Coover's stories in Pricksongs and Descants revolve around fairy tales--or their retelling. Often details change or Coover offers several varying versions or he opts to make a vaguely sexual component obvious. Such is the case with this refashioning of Hansel and Gretel, which can be read here.

On "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs *****

Jacobs opens her book with a discussion of a neighborhood in north Boston (in the 1950s/1960s, when she was writing). The area is a slum--only, it isn't a slum. The streets are vibrant and the place has lower crime than many other neighborhoods in Boston. Why then does it still have a reputation as a slum among city planners? She closes her book with a description of a beach area in New York. The beach isn't that great looking, but it does feature clay soil that dries and leaves odd looking "sculpture" one can take home as a souvenir. The beach is next to a park that features grass fields and playgrounds. In the name of improving the area, the city removes the beach, puts in a seawall, and extends the grassy area. What little character the park had is now gone; it's like most other parks. These are the problems, Jacobs notes, with city planning. They are based on theories about cities that are rooted in philosophical ideas that have nothing to do with what actually makes cities work. Jacobs is about to rewrite what city planners should be focusing on.

The theories the Jacobs takes down are those of the Garden City and the Radiant City by Lewis Mumford and Le Corbusier. One felt that cities needed lots of green space and to be less dense; the other created an ideal city that existed as lone skyscrapers amid vast parks. Jacobs says that this overidealization of nature kills cities. Parks have a purpose, but parks for parks sake in the midst of cities are city killers.

Jacobs lays out four basic tenets that successful cities or parts of cities follow: (1) an area must serve more than one purpose; (2) blocks must be short; (3) buildings must vary in age; and (4) the population must be sufficiently dense. Taken together, these are the things that can ensure a successful city, a successful city park, a successful neighborhood, and so on.

The reason an area must serve more than one purpose is so that people come and go through the area throughout the day and night. If all the action is at morning and evening rush hour and at noon, the area will otherwise be dead. This action time is not enough to serve many types of businesses, and those it can serve will close up shop at the other times.

Short blocks are important to allow for ease of access and flow. They simultaneously cut down on traffic and increase the use of any given street.

Buildings need to have a variety of ages--and looks--to further diversity of tenants. Older buildings will generally have cheaper rents and thus tenants of that sort who can afford them. If all the buildings in an area are the same age, they all fall apart at the same time. And only the types of businesses and people who can afford a new buildings will be in the area, and eventually only those who can afford old stuff will be in the area. So those shoe repair, wig shops, and dance studios that can't afford high rents won't come to the new-fangled portion of town, and only some high-priced restaurants will sit along the street. As the neighborhood declines, the restaurants will leave, and if any businesses at all do move in, they are likely to be of only one sort (e.g., thrift stores).

Density is important because without it, crowds can't fill the streets and make businesses want to open up or stay open.

Jacobs also covers specific examples of various city structures. She notes how sidewalks are best when they are used frequently and at all times of the day. Her four tenets are the means by which one gets crowded sidewalks. Sidewalks that are in use reduce crime and thus blight, because where there are people, thieves and their ilk are less likely to operate. With neighborhood interaction and personal investment in that neighborhood, children are less likely to act up and are also safe from danger. The same tenets can be applied to parks. They need to be in places where they are used by different kinds of people throughout the day and where there are enough people to fill them. Like sidewalks, this is what makes them safe--and popular.

She also covers material on how parts of a town have a natural inclination to become less diverse with time--and thus less successful as a neighborhood. As a neighborhood becomes more popular, poorer residents and businesses have to move out, and slowly all those wig shops and dance studies are replaced by restaurants and offices. Too many of the latter, and the mix of people and the times of day that are spent in the place becomes more segregated. Nights fall off (or days, if the neighborhood moves in another direction), and soon that popular neighborhood is not so popular anymore. Maintaining the mix of ages of buildings is one way to fight this, as is the city offering financial benefits to certain types of businesses for staying. The point is to keep the area diversified. (On the contrary, cities often tend to do the opposite--putting all the government buildings or art institutions in one sector--which kills the neighborhood via a lack of variety.)

She also covers something she calls "border vacuums." This is where a large piece of infrastructure gets in the way of the neighborhood, essentially killing off things as one nears the point. These could be large parks, railroads, highways, long blocks, stadiums, waterfronts--anything that is big and long and doesn't offer much in the way frequent and all-day foot usage. Instead of placing yet more parkland in such areas (as cities often do), Jacobs says, things that encourage frequent usage should be zoned or placed in these spots.

She covers how to get rid of slums, which seems a particularly difficult problem to solve. For her, it's a matter of encouraging people to feel a sense of community--to stick around in the neighborhood so that they have something at stake in it. Of course, if it's a slum, folks naturally want to move out, so that's the problem. But a typical solution--obliterating the slum and starting from scratch only exacerbates problems. The slum dwellers are moved wholesale to a new area. Any sort of businesses that did manage to get a foot into the slum are closed up. All buildings are of the same age in the new area. And no one feels all that connected to it. Getting rid of a slum is a slow process.

One of the problems with such areas is financing them. Folks can't get credit to build new structures, enhance old ones, or start businesses because of the bad reputation of the area. Jacobs sees various solutions--government guaranteed loans, local loans, neighborhood organizing. In one case in Chicago, a neighborhood banded together to threaten to withdraw what savings they did have from a given bank if credit was not extended. The banding together did the trick.

Finally, Jacobs also covers the problem of cars on city streets. Remove them from the streets, and no one will venture to a given area because it is too hard to access. Put enough streets and parking in to allow for the cars, and the city becomes too spread out and lacks the density necessary to make it thrive. She proposes a counterintuitive solution: making the cars go away through attrition. That is, make them less convenient to use and people will stop using them. One can encourage the right kind of vehicles on certain streets by doing things such as adjusting lights so that constant traffic stops make a given street inconvenient for through motorists but are perfect for frequently stopping buses and maybe for delivery trucks. Provide fewer parking spots to encourage use of public transportation or taxis.

To what extent are Jacobs's ideas real to me? Walking on a street with more people around certainly does feel safer most of the time. But I also think of some areas in the town where I live that would be considered slums. I would not feel safe walking them at night, even though there are lots of folk around. Businesses--what few there are in such areas--are often closed at night or have bars on the windows. How such crowded areas can also feel unsafe I am unsure. Still, by and large, areas that follow her four tenets do seem to be more to my liking, as would be the case of the city centers of all of the cities where I've lived. Downtown Los Angeles was dead at night when I was a kid (primarily office buildings), but my hometown of Pasadena refurbished many of its older buildings on the west side of town and the diverse set of uses that were put down there, along with the number of apartments placed close by, and the short blocks have all made it a very busy and exciting part of town.

Monday, January 18, 2016

On "At the End of the Mechanical Age" by Donald Barthelme (2725 words) ****


This tale is everyone's tale at the end of the world. Our loved ones die, and we fill them in with others. We cling to each other, and we play our roles--in marriage and divorce. This particular story concerns the not-so-heavy "love" affair between Mrs. Davis and the narrator. Read the story here.

On "Party out of Bounds" by Rodger Lyle Brown ****

This tale of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Athens, Georgia, covers the advent of the music scene in the town, specifically as it relates to the New Wave period of Rock and Roll. Indeed, to this day, when I mention Athens, Georgia, to someone as a place where I live, many will recognize it as the home of two bands: the B-52's and R.E.M. (This is becoming less so as I get older, and the younger generation has no idea who said top 40 bands from the 1980s and 1990s are.) Even though many other bands have come out of the town now, outside of a few who follow indie bands or who happen to like a cult band, most folks outside of town seem not to have heard of said other bands, even ones that have hit the top 100.

But the B-52's and R.E.M. were a definitely unique force in their time. I grew up in California, and by the late 1980s, both bands had made their mark on the top 40, and I knew in each case the place where they had derived. I was not anything close to a connoisseur of counterculture music at that time, so that says something. And in the 1990s, during my grad school days, R.E.M. dominated MTV's playlist. As such, many memories are tangled up with the two bands. One that has particular fondness for me was at a wedding around 1990. A friend of mine from high school got married. The happy couple left, but the reception party, which involved a dance, continued. A local cover band played, and they were fantastic, and one of the songs they covered was "Roam," which was charting at that time. I remember the evening as a lovely hearken back to high school at a time when hearkening back to high school was important to me; I was on my own--my parents freshly having moved away for a job--going to college and working and not feeling as if I really fit in anywhere, the way I had in high school.

The book itself is a memory prod. I came to Athens in my thirties, a good couple of decades after the events recounted in this book. By that time, Athens already had a reputation for rock music. And I became a person who was sort of into the scene, who lived on its edges. I had many acquaintances among people who played in many of the current bands. I went to a few of the parties (though I usually avoided the afterparties, which happened after a bar closed and would stretch in to sunrise). I enjoyed my time in the scene and sort of miss it, though fewer and fewer people I'd see out were my age or even ten years below my age. (As a friend of mine says: The parties are still around--among those who are of the older set--but they are more private now and not as often.) At the same time, I never felt completely at home in it either. I am not a musician and had no desire to be one; I am very conservative religiously and morally, which meant that drugs and sex were not the part of the party culture that I mixed with, which in turn meant that I stayed away from some of the stuff going on.

So anyway, the book covers much of this as it was just getting started. Before these two bands--and the other bands who happened to be around at that time that did not find as large of a following, including Pylon, Love Tractor, and Oh-OK--Athens had been home, apparently, of mostly just country and blues bands, as one would expect of southern towns. One reads of the foundation of the music club, the 40 Watt. One reads of how R.E.M. and the B-52's came to be and of how the town became so hip that others began to come just to be part of the hipness (newspapers writing of it; Matthew Sweet, apparently, showing up for a few months to play until he himself hit it big and moved on, never intending to stay, just wanting the attention connected to Athens).

The stories of the parties--and there are a lot--get to be rather tedious by the middle of the book. And certainly, for me, R.E.M.'s founding was not as interesting, as it seemed more typical of many a band in town--this one just happened to become big stuff. But the early-going portions of the book are exciting. One can't help but feel the excitement as the B-52's become a thing. Formed, it seems, more or less as a lark, they were fun, fun, fun--and definitely the kind of band one would want at a party. Their odd style shook up the times, not just the town. But in a way, though they put Athens on the map for rock music, the predated that whole scene, so much so that they had to move to New York to find places (outside of private parties) to play.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

On “A Room With Many Small Beds” by Kathy Fish (877 words) ****

Kathy Fish tends to focus on the small. She’s one of those elegant crafters of flash fiction, so I was curious what she would do with this slightly longer piece—ten moments placed side by side and merged into a bit of a story. Here, a girl spends time with the father’s girlfriend, with all the attendant mixed feelings over the loss of her mother. Read the story here in ThreadCount.

On “Dave Barry's Complete Guide to Guys” by Dave Barry ***

Once upon a time I was a huge Dave Barry fan. This time was when I was about sixteen to about age twenty. I was introduced to him by my high school English teacher or by my high school journalism teacher (they were the same person), most likely in journalism. The teacher read an essay about grammar to us, and I was bowled over. I had to read more. And that I did, eventually.

I bought several of Barry's how-to books (Claw Your Way to the Top came first, a book on business) and his first book of columns, Bad Habits. And I laughed a lot. By age twenty, however, when I read a book of his on home improvement, the love affair was ending. His second book of columns did not seem so funny, and his book on U.S. history only moderately redeemed his more recent work for me. And now, over twenty years have passed since I last picked up one of his works.

This book I got for free from the Little Library in our neighborhood. I figured I'd give Barry a try again. It looked entertaining and funny, and it proved a great book for the light reading needed while on family vacation, since much of that vacation was spent corralling little boys at a water park and did not lend itself to deep reading on the philosophical underpinnings of why humans gather themselves into urban civilizations. Having not read reading quite so light in a long while, I now know how and why some people can manage to get through books so quickly: large print and easy to read equals short time.

The book itself, however, was something of a disappointment. Barry is a humorist. This means that his main objective is to tell jokes. There wasn't a lot to glean here other than laughs. And as I've gotten older, making me laugh has gotten relatively tougher to do. Far Side cartoons, which in my late teens were hilarious, now stir mostly a nod from me. Barry likewise might occasionally make me smile, but only one hard laugh was generated in its two hundred plus pages.

The book is about guys, as opposed to men. Here, Barry is onto something, which he does a good job of laying out in his first chapter. Guys go with the flow. They do not generally accomplish important things with their lives. They do stupid stuff. They avoid work as possible. They are not particularly moral or immoral. They are, essentially, like grown-up kids.

What follows are a number of chapters full of cliches about male behavior, some of them gleaned from personal life, some from news stories, and a number of them common ideas that have lingered in the air for generations. All's well and fine, I suppose, to make fun of males--Barry after all is one--but at some level it becomes a bit tedious and insulting. A guy's idea of housework is . . . A guy's concept of a relationship is . . . And so on. To some extent, I wonder how many of such insights are even true. My wife, indeed, is pickier about cleaning bathrooms than I am, and I have to admit that from my second apartment on as a single man, I largely avoided decorating and eschewed furniture as much as possible, though not for the reasons that Barry might pose. I did not find such stuff necessary and didn't want it weighing me down, as opposed to simply not thinking about it (I had, in fact, made an effort with my first apartment and decided I would not do so again until I owned a place and was certain to stay put). And as for relationships, I can attest to being slow to commit, but again, it was not because I never even thought about them with girls I may have gone out with, and I can say the same of many of my male friends.

About the only set of criticisms that rang true for me were those on home improvement and the feelings of inadequacy I feel as compared to “men.” I am one of those guys who wants desperately to fix up the house but who often feels overwhelmed by a set of skills I never learned or was taught and who does feel somewhat less manly because of that lack.

But of course, Barry isn't looking to tell the truth or to make great insights. He's trying to make us laugh. However, it might just be that with more life experience, I find myself less likely to laugh a stereotypes and more likely to laugh at things that do provide true insights. After all, if laughter is at least in part a reaction to surprise and discomfort, it takes some revelation of truth, perhaps previously unknown, to elicit it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

On "The Brother" by Robert Coover (13:36 minutes) *****

My favorite section from Coover's "Seven Exemplary Fictions" involves a retelling of the story of Noah's flood. In this case, a brother has been hired to help Noah build the boat. He works on it until it is done, thinking Noah mostly just a crazy man. Noah gives no real explanation for his actions, so when the brother finds that it is beginning to rain and that everything is disappearing under water, there's a rather grim pity we feel for him.

I could not help but think of the biblical story itself. Noah is regarded as a prophet in the scriptures, so my understanding is that his boat building was accompanied by warnings to those around and by preaching. The real tragedy in Coover's tale is that the brother is clueless--that there is no warning about what is about to happen. But then I think of how we are today surrounded by "prophets" who name an end date for the world that comes and goes. I have to think that one some level, people in Noah's day would have had a similar issue. Was Noah merely one of many predicting the world's end? Which person do we listen to, or should we just ignor them all? Is a proliferation of warnings, many of them false, any better than no warning at all? We live in a sad and pitiable world.

You can listen to Coover himself read the story here.

On "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter" by Mario Vargas Llosa *****

Vargas Llosa, along with Manuel Puig, is one of those South American authors I've long intended to get around to reading (like for more than two decades long). It finally happened, and I'm glad to have finally gotten around to this book, as it was an immense pleasure. As with Puig, Vargas Llosa seems to be writing from a different tradition than many of the fantastic realists, but there is a touch of fantasy in this work, if only in the alternate chapters.

What are alternate chapters? Vargas Llosa's book is divided essentially into two parts. Odd chapters focus on the main story; even chapters focus on short stories. The main story involves an eighteen-year-old man in law school who has a job as a radio newsman in Lima, Peru. This young man falls in love with his Bolivian aunt Julia, who is in her early thirties and newly divorced. (The two are unrelated by blood, the aunt being the sister to the wife of the young man's uncle by blood.) As might be imagined, this creates a scandal. The book recounts how the two fall for one another and how they attempt to keep the relationship secret.

But it also recounts the life of another radio employee, who works for a different radio station with the same owners. This other radio station focuses not on news but on entertainment, notably soap operas. The Pedro Camacho, the scriptwriter, is the brain behind these operas. Earlier, the station had depended on imported Cuban scripts, but the Bolivian Camacho is an artist and a perfectionist whose devotion to his craft creates an equal devotion among radio listeners. Audiences grow huge.

It is summaries of the scripts for the stories that Camacho's writes that forge the alternative chapters. These stories are on their own very interesting, and I wish I could find one on the Net to share, but alas, it eluded me. The best stories come toward the front of the book. The very first focuses on a man in love with a woman, but the woman has opted to marry another man, one not really befitting her station--because, as it turns out, she has gotten pregnant by her brother, with whom she is in love. These seems appropriate for soap operas, but it's told with a high literary voice that appeals to someone like me. And true to form, the story ends, not with a conclusion, but with a series of questions about what will happen next. Later chapters focus on a seeming alien arrested by a police officer who has qualms about actually shooting the innocent creature, despite orders; and the rape and attempted murder of the owners of a hotel by one of its boarders. As the stories continue, they became less interesting to me, especially as I got more involved in the main story. But they also devolve naturally, as Vargas Llosa explains in the main text. Character names begin to be repeated between stories (even though they are not the same character) or changed midstory. And then, eventually, all the characters are killed off. Pedro Camacho works himself so hard that he has a meltdown.

Meanwhile, the narrator and his aunt are found out and ordered to stop. Instead, the narrator seeks out a means to get married, which is difficult, given that he is technically a minor under Peruvian law. The tale becomes a love story, as the two try to stay together against overwhelming odds.

And for what? The family is concerned because Aunt Julia is a divorcee and so much older. The narrator is so young and not finished with school. He's condemning himself to a life of hardship. I can understand the family's concern.

But the fortunes of people are not always what they seem likely to become. Camacho goes insane and loses all. The narrator, living for love, seems to come out all right in the end. So too does another radio employee who is largely considered an oaf, while another such employee struggles on along a similar path that he's always been on. Life is a soap opera.