Thursday, September 20, 2018

On "And the World Was Crowded with Things That Meant Love" by Amber Sparks (604 words) ***

This tale is about long-distance lovers who exchange gifts. The lyric formulation of words is what saves this listing of presents. Read it here at Matter Press.

On "Cities of Tomorrow" by Peter Hall ***

Peter Hall traces theories of urban planning from the Victorian era to his present (mid-1980s). This book is a good summary of twentieth-century urban planning, though at times, it's a bit dry, which is saying something, when I'm a fan of the genre.

Hall starts his account with the urban poor in Victorian England and in similar locations around the globe at the time. For him, modern urban planning essentially originates in this milieu, the idea being, How can we reform society such that the urban poor will no longer live in such squalor?

One of these early plans was the Garden City, but like most such plans, the original theory rarely made it into actual practice, and the idea got twisted out of its original intent. Also, like so many of the ideas, in part because it was never put into practice as written, the planning theory did not end up helping the poor. Rather, its benefits went mostly to the middle class and the rich. The Garden City, in theory, was to be a city--or series of cities--interspersed in gardens. Each would be of limited size, with a green belt around it. In the city, there would be moderate space for homes, and there would be businesses and work within the city itself. It's this latter portion of the idea that rarely made it into reality. Instead, such cities became suburbs, with people commuting into the big city for work. This meant such cities only helped those with enough means to afford such a commute. The urban poor remained urban.

Another idea was one much maligned by Jane Jacobs--that of Corbusier. He had the concept of towers in parks. Again, his idea was thrown a bit out of context. When applied to the urban poor, such towers did not create wonderful communities. But, Hall notes, such towers could and did work for those of higher class.

Then there were the nonplanners, the anarchists, who essentially denoted that cities should grow on their own and that planners should work around that. Had I taken notes during my reading I could have likely explained this section better, as well as the sections previously. I will probably need to read the entire book over at some point.

Hall eventually turns his attention to the split between academic planners and those who practice, a split that made its way more felt in the second half of the twentieth century and that showed how academics had become uninvolved in how cities really work. In this same timeframe, there were more private-public partnerships, and some cities actually saw renewal, but again, the solutions led mostly to gentrification rather than actually helping the urban poor. In other words, the poor, rather than being raised up, were simply pushed out.

A final chapter focuses on poverty and racism. As Hall rightly notes, the middle class did grow from the time of the Victorians to the present such that some issues are less troublesome than they were one hundred years ago. He is also an advocate, it seems, based on the research he cites, for the death of family being a large cause for the fall into or continuing life in poverty, more so than race (though the history of racism certainly plays a role in where people fall in terms of class). Urban planning, it seems, while intended to aid in resolving these issues has ultimately not been able to solve the problem.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

On "Macadam" by Lucia Berlin (148 words) ***

This is Berlin doing poetry essentially. The focus of this story is the sound of words--or rather, one word. Read the story here at Biblioklept.

On "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau ***

I can't say that this is a book I've been wanting to read for a long time. I can take Thoreau in short bursts, but whole books bore me. I base this on those short pieces and on his Week on the Concord and Merrimack River. But this is a classic, and it was on the shelf at home, and I was needing a book, so I read it.

Also, there was an amazing NPR piece on Walden. That was really what made me take note--the radio piece made this book sound amazing. I figured, Why not? So I checked it out.

Some things the radio piece did: It quoted from the book--and those quotes were amazing (remember, short bursts). Also, it talked about how there's a subtext about the underground railroad, which Thoreau's family was involved in--indeed, there were a couple of mentions I spotted.

There's also the idea, according to the radio show, that this book is not about isolation and solitude, as most people assume, but about going into civilization. The radio person made this claim because Thoreau doesn't leave permanently--this is just one stop on life's journey. Of course, he's not really isolated at Walden either; it wasn't that far from town, and he talks about his neighbors and others who come to the pond.

For me, the book was more about simplifying one's life. The first chapter and the conclusion are the pieces that really drive that point home, and those were, for me, the most interesting parts of the book. Once Thoreau gets involved with describing the nature around him, it was a snooze fest for me. But his material on economy gave me much to consider. In a way, that was my life really up until marriage, although I probably did get myself too caught up in doing too many things rather than just enjoying the present. Still, in many ways, I was one to say, I don't need that or this, and I often didn't go out and purchase gizmos everyone else wants. Even furniture was minimal. Now, married, I don't have as much choice in regard to what to keep and what to get rid of; there's others whose desires and needs have to be accounted for, and their idea of simplifying (if indeed they even want to--kids tend to want more toys not fewer) is something different from my own.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

On "Holy Ground" by Jamie Quatro (about 6400 words) ***

In “Holy Ground” a woman decides to literally run away. She's been having an affair of sorts (on the phone) and feels a need somehow to make good. Her husband and kids stay home. She runs to a poorer area down the hill, in another town, where she hopes to live for a week, getting a sense of how others live and helping them. Instead, she finds herself helped of a sort. Read the story here.

On "Brushing Back Jim Crow" by Bruce Adelson ***

Jackie Robinson's heroic turn as the first African American major league baseball player receives lots of attention--and for good reason, as this brings out. But few think about all the other players who helped integrate professional baseball, and here I don't mean major league ball. Adelson, in this book, turns his attention to the minor leagues, particularly those in the South, which lagged behind the majors and which featured many of the same struggles that were endured by men like Robinson.

The book begins with an anecdote about a young man whose intention was to continue on to college but who was drafted by a baseball team. He didn't really want to play, but his dad urged him to, because that had been the father's dream. For most African Americans, until the 1950s, playing baseball professionally was just that--a dream--unless of course one played for the Negro Leagues. This was an opportunity, the dad brought out, to do something great for a people. The son chose baseball. The anecdote, as written, held for me an emotional wallop.

Alas, in one of the major issues for this book, the anecdote is repeated in the very next chapter, word for word (though in slightly greater detail insofar as it is enlongated at its start and end). Other anecdotes and quotes are repeated elsewhere in the book. And there is no index, so tracking down a minor character's identity is difficult; described first in some early chapter, the character is not reintroduced in a late chapter where he shows up again, and so one is left with a gnawing wish to remember who this guy is or was.

But the tales themselves are incredibly interesting. Adelson spends time in different leagues during the course of the 1950s, covering events year by year, and connecting them to large events in the civil rights movement. Often, rather than writing about the events, he lets quotes from newspapers or from interviews with baseball stars stand in for narrative, giving one a sense of the times.

In brief, some of the rather amazing things that happened included the following: A given minor league team might integrate by adding one or two black players. That team then reaped the benefits of larger attendance from black patrons, at a time when attendance numbers were otherwise sagging. But other teams in a league often disagreed with such actions, and so various things might happen to stop the integration from fully occurring. State and local governments might ban interracial game and sporting events, or the league leadership itself might step in to enforce segregation. As a result, black players from another team had to be left behind or the team might have to forfeit (ironically to the team that refused to play because of the inclusion of a black player). Just as segregated buses were boycotted in some cities during the civil rights movement, so too African Americans often ended up boycotting games by those teams that refused to integrate, which increased the attendance problem and the declining revenue. In some cases, leagues or teams ended up going out of business because of their stubborness. Some northern teams simply stopped coming South to play sports (most notably, in college football, but also exhibition baseball games with major league teams).

But even if a black player was allowed to take the field, there were other issues. There wasn't just the name calling, which often spurred such athletes on. There was the fact that seating was often segregated so that African Americans were relegated to lousy outfield seats and often not enough--this last factor sometimes led to expanded black and eventually integrated seating. There was the fact that black players might take the field with their white counterparts, but after the game, they'd have to go stay at someone's house. They couldn't go to the hotel with the team, couldn't eat at the same restaurants as the team, couldn't essentially do anything with the team itself out in public. It was a lonely and tough life, a mirror of what Robinson endured but sometimes in spades insofar as this was the South, where jim crow reigned.

I never thought much, when I was younger, about what some players had endured just a decade or so before my birth, men like Billy Williams or Hank Aaron, who played minor league ball in the South and who were old and about-to-retire stars or new coaches when I was a kid. I thought of them as great ballplayers, but their early careers were in fact civil rights-type actions, given the prejudice they had to endure. As Adelson shows, baseball was in some ways the first line of integration. As segregation fell here, it would fall elsewhere in entertainment, at schools, and in public transportation.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

On "La Vie en Rose" by Lucia Berlin (12 minutes) ***

"La Vie en Rose" revolves around two girls on a visit in Europe who are swept up by two young dashing soldiers and are summarily dealt with by their strict father. It's a story about youth--youthful daring and folly--more than about anything sinister or hateful, rebellious or oppressive. Listen to the story here at Soundcloud.

On "The Monkey Wrench Gang" by Edward Abbey ****

Here's another novel it's taken me over two decades to get around to reading. Back when I was in my early twenties and working in a bookstore, one particular coworker of mine was a huge fan. He was taking a break from college up in Utah, and his desire was to be an environmentalist attorney. And he was not, one would say, too averse to sundry tactics to prevent the development of the West. He was a huge fan of this book as well as Marc Reisner's book on dams.

And so finally, I've read Abbey's classic, and I can see the appeal to young idealistic Alex. Oh, to be young again.

As I read the book now, the four central characters, conspirers to prevent the destruction of the West through nearly any means necessary (save killing people), come across as essentially terrorists. They do not, for most of the book, seem like heros very much. And they are hypocrites, littering their way across the same landscape they profess to be saving by destroying bridges and wreaking havoc on new construction. For most of the book, I did not have much sympathy for them.

But credit Abbey with somehow making the characters get into you enough that by the end you are cheering for them, hoping they get away with all their bad deeds, even if you don't agree with them. You come to like them in some odd and twisted way. Perhaps, that's because most of the squares come across as unsympathetic foes. (I also credit Abbey with making much of the writing itself absolutely beautiful.)

Still, I do end up wondering where Abbey's real feelings lie. In creating characters who are not entirely good and in naming one of the "squares" after himself, one gets the feeling that while Abbey might sympathize with the views of his four main characters, he does not entirely approve of their means. The character named after himself is a ranger who comes across them and lets them go--the first time--and then who catches one of them the second. Maybe there's hope in a more conservative approach to conservation.

Friday, July 20, 2018

On "Things You Should Know about Cassandra Dee" by Amber Sparks (1801 words) ****

This story starts promisingly. It's about a girl who is ugly, really ugly. She dreams of other people's deaths--the future. And she dreams her own. But what she really dreams of is being pretty, if only for a moment. Read the story here at Atticus Review.

On "What Is Gnosticism?" by Karen L. King ****

Despite the seemingly simplistic title, this is not exactly a primer on the subject, but it does serve as a useful introduction nevertheless. King essentially spends the book denoting the trouble with defining the term gnosticism and then covering the history of its definition.

Gnosticism, in its earliest variety, was simply heresy. If something did not fit into what became Christian orthodoxy, early writers termed it gnostic--or more often heretical (because the gnostic term itself didn't really come to be until the Middle Ages, and even then, regular usage only really comes into being much later).

Attempts to define and determine the origins of gnosticism begin to make some real headway under Adolf von Harnack, who tied it to the hellenization of Judaism and Christianity. The History of Religions school said, not quite, finding ways to tie it to ancient Eastern philosophies (in, for example, Iran). Still other scholars tied it into pre-Christian Jewish ideas. In general, it would be easiest just to say that gnosticism is syncretic.

But this still begs the question of what gnosticism is. King spends the rest of the book looking at various definitions and then also at primary documents from the gnostics themselves. One trick with regard to discussing gnosticism has been that has largely been defined by its enemies. But when we look at so-called gnostic documents, suddenly there is not as much unity of belief, and "heresies" are not the same across the board. One could easily point to various origins or create various definitions depending on the document examined. For this reason, the term gnosticism may better be simply jettisoned. As King notes, early Christian teachings were in flux, and one can't really say that there was a uniform alternative.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

On "Teenage Punk" by Lucia Berlin (611 words) ***

This short piece centers on one of Berlin's recurring characters--Carlotta, a woman who drinks and drugs her way through much of life and whose several marriages are a testimony to her care-free life style. One of her great loves is this, Jesse, the drugged-out friend of one of her sons. Read the story here.

On "Paganism in the Roman Empire" by Ramsay MacMullen ***

This is a good survey of the pagan religions as they existed between about 100 B.C. and 400 A.D. in the Roman Empire, with an emphasis on the first two centuries of the Christian era. MacMullen notes many of the seeming contradictions that exist when we look at paganism as a whole in the empire and how it is quite impossible to talk of its rise and demise on any kind of decade-long cycle. But mostly MacMullen looks at how Roman society functioned with its wide array of gods pulled in from its various conquered domains.

Pagan religions were part of daily life. They were the means by which social functions happened. The poor, without recourse to large homes in which to host parties, hosted them in temple dining rooms. Festivals, put on by supporters of a particular god, invited people to come celebrate with them--there were parades and other fun activities.

Particular gods became popular, it appears, largely through sponsorship of rich patrons or government officials. They could change with the change of the local legate. People's personal gods--the local gods, the ones of each conquered nation--had more sticking power in the local area. And it, was more than trade or military service, largely slavery that accounted for the spread of a god in new locales, as slave families adhered to the ancient customs.

The rich and educated may have paid for and advocated a particular god. Philosophy may have leaned more and more on the idea of one god--or more properly, the superiority of one god, of which all the gods were manifestations. But the common people remained largely unmoved by such ideas.

As such, there wasn't a lot of missionizing in the sense that we would account for in religious conversion today. The most dominant argument for a deity was generally based around miracles--healings and the like. This was likely the appeal of Christianity, along with the martyrdoms to Christians endured, which were a kind of wonder in themselves.

Gods gained and lost popularity. At the time that Constantine came to power, the Sun was in the ascendant. But had he not converted to Christianity, the process of various other pagan gods gaining popularity for a time would have continued.

If this summary seems somewhat disjointed, that is probably partly because MacMullen's text at times seems this way. There is a clear organization underneath that flows along easily as one reads, but when one goes back to outline the thoughts included, it is a bit difficult, so fluid is the discussion.

Monday, June 11, 2018

On "Personal Foundations of Self-Forming through Auto-Identifications with Otherness" by Nelly Reifler (3041 words) ***

This story discusses philosophical ideas about identity in the form a squirrel who thinks she's a rat, which made me wonder whether I've ever enjoyed a work before written from the point of view of an animal. Read the story here at Barcelona Review

On "Cynics, Paul, and the Pauline Churches" by F. Gerald Downing ***

This is the second volume of Downing's work on early Christians and Greek Cynicism. In the first volume, he did not see much of Cynicism in Paul's works, but here, he corrects himself, now tying Paul to the Cynicism he sees in Jesus himself and his other disciples.

Methinks Downing overplays his hand here a bit, often repeating the same few facts about Paul that he says show he would have been taking for a Cynic: his state of dress, his public preaching, his scars. Downing says he is not claiming that Paul was a Cynic, but he comes very near to saying so, though he also denotes the Paul pulls back from such ideas in his later letters, as his readers claim too much freedom in misinterpreting his Cynical points. Hence, in Galatians Paul can deny the law. The Thessalonians take Cynic freedom to mean they can give up working; the Corinthians take it to mean they can engage in wanton sexual practices. Paul corrects them, and then by the time he writes Romans and Philippians, he focuses more on Stoic ideas.

Downing does draw out some differences between Cynics and Stoics that are useful. The former tend to act on their "virtue," while the latter tend to internalize it. It's okay to be poor or wealthy, the Stoics would believe, so long as one is happy in the former as well as in the latter; the Cynics, by contrast, would actually do something like make themselves poor.

He also shows that there were different types of Cynics. Not all of them were, or looked like, beggars; not all of them lacked for tact--some were gentle. This ability to metamorphose gives Downing the space to lay claim to the existence of Christian Cynicism. So what if they don't appear the stereotypical Cynic? Cynicism came in many varieties.

The basic outline of Downing's argument is this: Paul would have been taken as a Cynic by the Greco-Roman Gentiles, based on his actions and sayings. Paul likely would have known that he was being taken as such. Paul likely did so deliberately. Gentiles likely responded to him as a Cynic. Because Paul did these things with the blessing of Jesus's apostles, the rest of the Christian movement was likely Cynic in some form also.

While I can't bring myself to think of Christianity as a Jewish Cynicism movement, Downing does make a good argument for how some aspects of the Christian movement may have been perceived, at least superficially, as Cynicism in the early going among some people.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

On "The Jockey" by Lucia Berlin (ca. 350 words) ***

Berlin focuses on the animal lust of a woman for a man in this short piece. I love how the horse gets confused with the rider. Read the story here at Publishers Weekly.

On "On Pagans, Jews, and Christians" by Arnaldo Momigliano ***

This book consists of a collection of lectures. As such, it offers various snapshots revolving around the subject of the title but not a sustained or detailed treatment. This was something of a disappointment to me, though I came to the book with a few lectures specifically in mind as being of interest.

The book starts off with a couple of lectures focused on historiography of the subject at hand, neither essay of which was of particular fascination.

The third chapter deals with the concept of universal history as it developed in the ancient world--the idea of presenting world history as a story, with the foundation of man to the climax of kingdoms. Early world history was often structured around the theme/theory of metals--rising and waining kingdoms that descend through the various qualities of metal (gold, silver, etc.). Another common structure of bodily--world empires as youths, adults, and old people. Polybius writes what he calls the first universal history because he argues that only with the rise of Rome could universal history be written, Rome being the first truly world empire (the gall of this is a bit offputting to me, since other powerful empires existed in the world at the time and since other powerful empires had preceded it).

It is in the fourth chapter that Momigliano starts to cover territory more of interest to me. Here, he focuses on Roman writing about religion--specifically about Roman religion. These writings by Varro and others have largely been lost and are only put together through quotes from others. But there is a move among such writers to bring such religion to the fore; meanwhile, Cicero, who the author spends much time on, after the death of his daughter, largely pushes religion aside.

The fifth chapter discusses how difficult it is to piece together what religious practice was like in the first century BC in Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem. Despite this, the author manages to present some cogent ideas about religious practice in these places, most especially in Rome, where to get a feel for religion, one need only take a walk and observe what festival was being celebrated at a given time.

Next, the author discusses how Roman emperors became gods and what this meant. Some writers during the World War II era argued that the emperors were not so much worshipped as simply given homage--but the distinction is unclear, as writers since they have argued. The author sees the transition as one to make up for a loss of faith in the gods of old--the emperor was a living god, who could help restore faith in the other gods. Also, the worship developed out of worship of dead heroes, which became worship of living local magistrates, which became worship of the emperor, who took on more-and-more nonkingly power.

The next chapters focus on apocalpytic writing. One is a chapter on Josephus and his seeming isolation from apocalyptists writing in his day. Another deals in how writers of the time use apocalyptic pronouncements to oppose Roman rule.

In yet another chapter, Momigliano looks for an in-depth philosophic/theologic argument for polytheism and paganism in the Roman empire akin to that made for monotheism by the Christians. He does not really find it, he denotes, though the last section on the emperor Julian seems to me to provide exactly that. That Julian grew up Christian and turned away from it does mean, however, that he was in many ways arguing as much against Christianity as for paganism. For him, the polytheistic national faiths each served the individual nations within the Roman sphere--pagan gods were in a sense servants of departments of a most high god. Such accounted for cultural differences between peoples (more than the tower of Babel accounts for, which is simply linguistic differences). The proposed rebuilding of the Jewish temple was in this context--that is, as the rebuilding of the temple of one of the national gods, who was subservient to the great god. For Christians, by contrast, Rome eventually came to be an example of the one king/empire uniting the world, just as God would depose it and become supreme. Rome offered peace and thus the ease of the spread of Christianity. And Rome destroyed the temple, because of the Jewish rejection of Jesus.

In the next chapter--and in many chapters following--Momigliano turns to study biographies in the ancient and medieval world. In one, he focuses on Diogenes Laertus, who, he denotes, wrote primarily to promote Greek and pagan ways, completely ignoring the Christian cult that must have been growing up all around him. Other chapters focus on a faux letter between Seneca and a woman named Anna, a comparison between pagan and Christian women as seen in the lives and biographies of an aristocratic family, and a discussion of an autobiography of a medieval convert from Judaism to Christianity (the last section of which discusses the start of the Bar Mitzvah tradition).

Within all this, a chapter on the use of religion in Rome during the Imperial period proves quite valuable, though it is hard to summarize as it is not a terribly thesis-driven essay. Momigliano talks of Rome's adoption of others' pagan faiths, of the return to religious concerns under Augustus, and the foundation of the imperial cult.

The last few chapters of the book appear to be reviews and other ephemera. There is a chapter on Max Weber's use of the term "pariah-religion" to describe Judaism (how it really wasn't appropriate and what Weber's views really were) and a chapter on Jews in Italy (mostly in the twentieth century, before and after World War II). A chapter about how the Romans posed their origins in relation to the Greeks is rather interesting, especially if one has an interest in the Aeneid. The supposition is essentially that the Greeks see themselves as superior insofar as they were immigrants to the land as opposed to emigrants from a land; for the Romans, this distinction was unimportant. But it was important that somehow they relate to the Greeks; this is done through the story in the Aeneid, but that story in part involves a person who deserts the battle of Troy, who is something of an enemy to the Greeks but has to be somehow transformed into something of a friend. The last chapter is a long critique of the work of the linguist Georges Dumezil and his historical sociological work that claimed Indo-European cultures were split in a tripartate function: production, priesthood, and soldiers--Momigliano finds this idea preposterous.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

On "The Men and Women Like Him" by Amber Sparks (1772 words) ****

In "The Men and Women Like Him" the secret to time travel has been found. However, going back into the past would destroy the space-time continuum, so it's forbidden. This doesn't stop people from sneaking in to try to fix things and save lives. It is the job of another set of characters, called cleaners, to go back in time and stop these "do-gooders." Potentially a story about ethics, it remains too short to be anything more than a novel idea, but I suppose Sparks's goal here is more emotional--how restoring bad for "greater good" hurts. Read the story here at Guernica.

On "The 'Hellenization' of Judaea in the First Century after Christ" by Martin Hengel ***

This short follow-up to Hengel's earlier book on Judaism and Hellenism treads familiar ground but also provides a few new tidbits of information that relate directly to the New Testament--and Christianity.

As in the other book, Hengel discusses the importance of the Greek language and education, particularly to attaining social class. In the end, Hengel comes to the conclusion that what is "Greek" and what is "Jewish" is not easily separated. Indeed, as Hengel writes, "Not only Christianity but also rabbinic Judaism, which is different in so many other ways, basically rests on a synthesis."

Monday, May 14, 2018

On "Unmanageable" by Lucia Berlin (6 minutes) ****

The perils of a drunk (mother) are the subject of this story--how to get a drink so one can function and then get the kids off to school, all this before most liquor stores are open for the day. Listen to the story here at Soundcloud.

On "Judaism and Hellenism" by Martin Hengel ***

This technical book goes to great lengths to discuss just how Greek civilization affected Jewish culture and beliefs in the centuries before Rome's advance.

Hengel discusses how Greek culture impacted Jewish society before it even became an empire--largely through Greek mercenaries. Then he notes how Jewish mercenaries also brought into Jewish culture Greek ideas.

Then there was the language, which became essential to know if you were to be one of the upper class, as it became the lingua franca of the day.

Finally, there was education, which affected Jewish studies as well, even in ways in which Jewish thinkers tried to resist Greek influence. That resistance--the strength of it--was one effect. But even in that resistance, sometimes Greek ideas snuck in, in the form, for example, of formal education or in the idea that anyone could ascend to be a teacher through study and knowledge (as opposed to inherited familial limitations).

A large portion of the book devotes itself to how Greek thought affected Jewish writing. The author takes the position that Ecclesiastes, as well as some other wisdom books, was written after Greece took hold of the Promised Land and then traces the parallels in Greek philosophy to those books. I found this material less intriguing and, at times, ponderous. But the first half of the book provides a lot of information that I found very useful.