Monday, May 16, 2016

On “Blue Ticket” by Zach Falcon (5433 words) *****

"Blue Ticket" is one of the best stories in the collection. It reminded me a lot of the writing of a grad school friend of mine named Chad Johnson, the way that it focuses on down-and-out characters who struggle to get along, characters with a kind of masculine verve that has fallen by the wayside. The story revolves around two homeless men, one escaped from his ultrareligious family (we get the sense, he did more than just escape) and one who moved to Alaska for summer work and failed to get a job and is now running out of cash. The two men squat in a homeless camp, fishing by day, scrounging for whatever they can manage to eat (or read), facing the wild--not just literal animals but the animals that are the people around them. Read the story here at The Journal.

On "Cabin, Clearing, Forest" by Zach Falcon ****

These stories about Juneau, Alaska, present readers with a microcosm of small-town living in the Great White North. At their best, they are stories about machismo in an age when there is little call for such. Lesser stories (insofar as they seem somewhat familiar) focus on troubles within family and among children.

The first three stories forge the title of the collection. Each of them seems strange in some way and yet I found none of them wholly satisfying. "Cabin" is about a disintegrating marriage from the point of view of the two under-ten children in the family (a Hansel and Gretel-like pair who wander around the woods to avoid home life); I found it a strange story to open with, since its themes seemed so overdone. "Clearing" focuses on a family that goes away to Pennsylvania and returns to stand out on the road nude and then gets arrested; the point of view is from the town's perspective, so we never quite understand what would cause the family to flip out. The real pleasure in this story, however, comes from the descriptions of the town, a place that lets out in summer, becoming a community of sorts, before the hunkering down each winter. "Forest" focuses on another family in trouble--this time the father has gone missing, and the emotional breakdown that the mother suffers puts the kids in charge, though they seem hardly ready. The real heartbreak in this story revolves around a dog that is tied up and not fed.

The shorter stories in the collection also didn't much satisfy me, even more than the three opening tales. They have neat ideas behind them, but the ideas don't seem fully developed, even if the language can often be beautiful. "What This Guy Said One Night" revolves around a grandfather's last wise words captured inside a bottle for posterity. "The Times of Danil Garland" focuses on a beautiful gal and the young men who look to pursue her and then grow up, dying and disappointing along the way. “Sleight” focuses on a family of magicians and a mother's disappearance, but the title seems to suggest the feel of the story itself. “Dendromancy” is probably the most successful of the shorter stories, in part because it is so shocking.

“Blue Ticket,” along with "Bridge to Nowhere," are my two favorites from the book. In the latter an unemployed lawyer in a bit of a depressive state ends up hanging out with Warren, who has some sort of mental disability. The lawyer sees Warren as a means to kill time and to make himself feel good but not as the friend Warren thinks he is. During the course of the story, the lawyer learns that Warren owns a good chunk of old, undeveloped land, and the two decide to go take a look at it, visions of money stirring in the lawyer's brain. As one might expect, Warren turns out to be much more of a friend to the lawyer than he would ever imagine or acknowledge.

“Roost” reads like a well-accomplished workshop story, which is to say that it is very well written if a bit predictable in a literary way. The tale is one about a married couple who buy a painting of a chicken out of a sense of irony. But that pride in the painting leads others to think them fans of chickens, and so over the years chicken collectables pile up. At what point does irony become love? Meanwhile, the marriage falls apart--and (spoiler here) when one chicken item is given away to a young married couple, we get the sense that bad luck is being passed along.

“A Beginner's Guide to Leaving Your Hometown” and “Knots Pull against Themselves” both deal with people trying to escape Juneau but being unable to. The former focuses on a man on his last night (again) in town, drinking it away, talking about how much he hates the place. “Knots” focuses on a young man who has an opportunity to go away to college in the lower forty-eight but who has to rely on his unreliable brother for a ride because he has too little money to pay for a taxi and his mother doesn't want him to leave. Alas (spoiler) he eventually discovers that he misses the town he so wanted to escape.

The last story, “Every Island Longs for the Continent--Kodiak 1973,” is the longest in the book. It is a tale of a man confined to home after contracting hepatitus. Being a hospital worker, he comes into contact with a woman who loses her baby; this same woman ends up being taken in by his wife, who then grows jealous as the woman and the man seem to grow closer together.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

On "Going for a Beer" by Robert Coover (1093 words) ***

Here is life as a trip to the bar. I'm reminded a bit of Fitzgerald's Benjamin Button, not because Coover tells the life backward but because the speed with which the life is recounted seems similar. Here, the man meets his future wife at a bar, the man who steals his wife (or is it he who stole his own wife), the man who congratulates him on being a father, the woman with whom he has an affair, the son, and so on. Read the story here at the New Yorker.

On "The Geography of Nowhere" by James Howard Kunstler ***

James Howard Kunstler does not like sprawl. I was expecting a bit more social commentary early on--and throughout--but Kunstler starts off with history, much of it familiar to me now that I've read several book on the subject of city planning. His focus is the United States, however, so this time around the history is uniquely American.

We start with the Puritans. Their communities were organized along a different line. People were accorded property according to need (e.g., family size) and that was around a common area or field. In this sense, the organization seemed more in keeping with the feudal. But as the colonies began to show more independence, the royal crown took over, putting a stop to this kind of organization and deeding land out in a more modern way. Now, each person had his or her own parcel--and no common center or field was planned. This was the first American adventure into sprawl.

Next, Kunstler focuses on the scummy nature of nineteenth-century cities and the desire of those with money to leave the confines of them. Thus, estates were built outside towns, out in the country. (The country is scary; the city more so. What Americans loved was something in between.) Communities were forged out in these areas, planned even. And as the railroad made spreading out possible, more and more communities like these came online. The railroad, however, meant that these communities lacked a center other than sometimes the rail line itself. The focus was on shuffling people into the city for commerce, living out in the country for independent life. The middle class began to emulate these values, and as the car came online, sprawl multiplied.

Kunstler then takes on modernism in architecture, which he sees as being devoid of community concerns. The Bauhaus movement, among others, saw form as function and disavowed the use of onarmentation on buildings. All people were equal--and so were all buildings. Plain boxes was to be the order of the day. This thinking fit well with socialism, but its popularity in the United States came to be largely via the exporting of intellectuals from Europe during World War II (it helped popularity that Hitler and Stalin both rejected Bauhaus). The form was also cheap, which coincided well with business interests. And thus Le Corbusier's Radiant City--towers in a park--became the design mode for a generation, even though it didn't work. Robert Venturi came along and added flourishes to the box, taking modernism into postmodern irony (the flourishes are cool but it's still a box and means nothing). By this point in the book, I was feeling as if Kunstler likes nothing about America.

That feeling continued into the next chapter, when Kunstler undertook a history of the United States from the point of view of the car. By his contention, economic events from about 1920 on are all related to the car--and most of these have been for the negative. The 1920s, with mass production and growing availibity of the car meant an economic boom, as people bought vehicles and government installed roads, but by the 1930s, that market was saturated, and a Depression followed. (One could follow such a line of logic with just about any society-changing technological development--in my own lifetime, that would be the Internet. Indeed, the 1990s featured a boom that was followed by a bust in the 2000s but one that was not felt so badly until 2008, largely because of government intervention.) War took care of that capacity, both in terms of the need to make weaponry and in terms of the selling of excess materials overseas after the war. But by the 1970s, as America became dependent on foreign oil whose price was manipulated, the United States entered into dulldroms, not emerged from until lower gas prices caused by the end of coordinated efforts of OPEC in the 1980s.

This macro history is followed by a micro one, of Kunstler's adopted hometown, Saratoga Springs, New York. Oddly, he chose this town for himself, it being a wonderful small town, but he then goes on to mostly complain about it. Those complaints seem to have logic and purpose. The town's central business district lies mostly along Broadway. On the outskirts of town, Broadway is a sprawl of parking lots--car sales lots, fast-food places, and other low-density developments. No fan of walking through such areas myself, I can see why Kunstler doesn't like them, but by the same token, I find them somewhat intriguing places in a way. Certainly they were in Pasadena, California. Perhaps that's because they were accompanied by sidewalks. They are not so nice to walk along in Athens, Georgia, where sidewalks are a second thought in most communities. But his real angst starts when talking of the downtown area itself, largely boarded up or redone with parking lots. Old buildings with apartments atop businesses have been replaced with new ones that are single purpose. Meanwhile, a suburban mall hast taken away the various businesses. Except . . . I have been to Saratoga Springs. I have walked its streets. Broadway, as I remember it, in the early 1990s (during which Kunstler was also writing), was a street with lots of nice restaurants, some good used bookstores, and quite a few nonchain retail stores. Maybe that's what's left--"tourist" stuff--but it seemed like a nice downtown to me. I walked it everyday from our hotel to the convention center two miles away. Part of me feels like Kunstler just wants to complain, and that's not fun after a certain number of pages, especially when solutions aren't forthcoming and most of the statements boil down to, "Things used to be better than this."

Kunstler delves into some interesting subjects along the way that don't seem to have much direct connection to his screed against suburbanism. One of them is the history of American residential architecture, which he traces from its fancy for Georgian to Classical (with its attendant pillars) to Gothic to Victorian. While the Classical opened up porches to the outside, the Victorian opened up the whole house--and was also as concerned about the interior as the exterior. But alas, the modern world came along. Frank Lloyd Wright built Asian-inspired flat homes like nothing else before in America, homes that spread out and used too much land. Then Craftsman-type bungalows took over, able to be manufactured from premade components and premade plans and also enabling everyone to have homes. Interestingly, he takes a few swipes of building codes along the way, denoting how they can sometimes contribute to sprawl. In Saratoga Springs, rules regarding parking add to cement around buildings and lower density retail districts. Rules requiring front yards mean that houses can't be built right up to the street, even when its a new home built in a historic neighborhood of rowhouses. Rules regarding maximum height mean that the historic Victorian homes, if ever destroyed, can never be replaced with new ones of the same style since ironically new building codes won't allow homes that tall. Indeed, laws do sometimes make for stupid design choices.

Toward the end of the book, Kunstler takes a good turn, dispensing with so much complaining and looking at some examples of cities, good and bad and why. One chapter is on Schuylerville. It basically recounts the birth and death of a small town. Of course, Kunstler wants to blame it on the car, but I read the example as one of how cities serve a useful purpose for a time and then, if they fail to adapt appropriate or quickly enough, they eventually die. Schuylerville sprang up as a transportation center during the time of canal building in the United States. Being at convenient location for canals had much to do with its success as a transportation hub--and as a hub for a number of other industries that then sprang up around the canal. Eventually, railroads took on a role, and Schuylerville became a stop along the rail line as well, mixing both types of transport. But of course, the evil car came along and killed both industries and thus the town. However, while canals came to serve less of America, the railroad continues to, and as a center of other industries, Schuylerville arguably could have adjusted to better fit the various technological developments. That it didn't is a tragedy--one many other towns have faced. It's sad to read about the death of a town. And it's sad to watch such a death as well.

One of those cities that is currently having such problems is Detroit, which is profiled in the next chapter, along with Portland and Los Angeles. Kunstler takes Detroit to task for being too car centric (even as it was the heart of the car industry). Most interesting in his discussion is his account of the Renaissance Center, which he says was conceived all wrong. Rather than being focused on the street and people around downtown, it was centered on being secure (too few entrances, all the shopping/restaurants inside), and thus it fails to repopulate downtown. The same goes for the People Mover that the city created. It covers too little space--just the periphery of the central business district, or in other words, just the amount of land people could naturally walk to anyway.

Portland is Kunstler's ideal. He likes it because planners decided early on to go green and discourage overdevelopment. They placed moratoriums on building outside a certain zone. They encouraged manageable density (no high towers but also fewer single-family homes). They looked to refurbish older homes for the poor, rather than destroying them. They put in light rail. All of these things certainly would lend to a great city--and Portland's popularity among a certain progressive crowd proves it. I love Portland too, though it's been years since I've been there.

Kunstler has, as one would expect, horrible things to say about Los Angeles. There is much to dislike, I suppose. If one actually does have to drive it (at certain times of day especially), it is not much fun. But having grown up there, I find many of Kunstler's criticisms unwarranted. It is a spread-out city, but on a microscale it is actually more walkable than many other cities I've been too. Los Angeles has actual sidewalks, for example. If you can manage to live close to where you work, it's quite nice. And while Kunstler hates kitschy architecture, he misses the fact that that is actually part of L.A.'s charm. If the world were built as Kunstler wants it, every home would be in some established nineteenth-century style. Sorry. Buildings in the shape of hot dogs are fun. I love that crazy aspect about L.A. Is it too spread out? Yes, I'll agree: driving from the beach to Riverside without every leaving the city (two hours in light traffic) can be dreadful. But by the same token, the culture itself (including the car culture) makes the city one worth visiting. (And these days, the light rail actually can take you places too, if you wish to avoid driving.)

Next, Kunstler covers some imaginary places--Disney theme parks, Atlantic City, and Woodstock, Vermont. These are small towns as we would like them to be, and Kunstler largely complains about them. He hates the way the make kitsch out of what should be normal life. But really, the chapter didn't seem as if belonged in the book.

Finally, Kunstler turns to some solutions that he sees contemporary planners working on. One such example is Seaside, Florida, down in the Panama City Beach area. Kunstler's idealization of this place actually made me wince, because I'd read another book not long ago that was very critical of this place. In Kunstler's views, the planners have done things very well--legislating that buildings must be a certain height, color, style; building a downtown in a central location; making everything within walkable distance; not prioritizing parking. I think the writer who criticized Seaside just hated further development of the panhandle in general, no matter what. Kunstler talks of planners doing similar things on a larger scale, legislating mixed-use areas in cities (with businesses on the bottom, housing above; no front parking or lawns, etc.). And he talks of land trusts, which buy up land from farmers in order to keep the land rural.

While I agree actually agree that American society is too car dependent, and while I'd like to see towns that are more walkable, and while I've tried hard to live a life that caters to those values (it's much harder now, being married, and having to worry about not just me but other loved ones--and the rural and suburban preferences of my wife), Kunstler's text comes across as so negative that I actually ended up feeling as if I should cheer for sprawl. While I don't like much in the urban environment that has resulted from our car-dependent culture, I don't much care for the kind utopian nostalgia that Kunstler engages in throughout. There are reasons that we like our cars. Rather than bemoaning their existence, a better strategy would be to find better ways to work around them.

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.