Monday, August 8, 2016

On "Dynamics in the Storm" by Greg Jackson (8244 words) *****

"Dynamics in the Storm" pulls off a very difficult trick that had me scratching my head and rereading the piece. It's about a man who takes an old woman acquaintance on a drive to escape from a hurricane hitting the East Coast, but it's also about two people who are estranged from their spouses wondering whether they'd have been better off with someone else. It's a rare story that essentially recounts a single conversation over a brief period of time, paying attention to every nuance and detail, and it's brilliant, one of my favorite stories in a long while. In it use of POV, it reminds me of Rick Moody's novel The Ice Storm, but whereas I found that book's POV, in the end to be clunky and gimmicky (in what is otherwise a fairly good novel), Jackson pulls the POV off perfectly and of necessity. Read the story here at Granta.

On "Prodigals" by Greg Jackson *****

Jackson's language is beautiful but a tad difficult (his stories aren't quick beach reads that roll easily across the eye; you have to do a bit of sentence parsing and pay attention--but luckily, there's enough beauty that you want to pay attention). It is the language itself, I figure, that has led to his publication in various big-name journals. The stories themselves are often a bit light on plot.

Such is certainly the case with the first tale, "Wagner in the Desert," which recounts events among friends and involves much in the way of drugs, a theme that will be returned to at the end of the collection. "Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy" also involves friends, but this time the focus is clearer--on a couple and a tennis star family.

"Epithalamium" rehearses the story of a soon-to-be-divorced woman who shows up at her vacation cabin to find another woman, much younger, already there. The soon-to-be ex has rented out the cabin for charity. Angry at first, the woman continues to live with the charity winner, finding herself more and more drawn to the companionship the younger woman offers. In the process, the divorcee begins to reveal--perhaps, see--parts of herself that are perhaps not so healthy.

"Dynamics in the Storm" is one of the best stories I've read all year, pulling off a very difficult trick that had me scratching my head and rereading the piece.

One of the weaker stories, "Amy's Conversations" recounts the tale of a close friend's encounters with Amy, as she moves from conventional faith to activism to the seemingly banal existence that we all desire to lead.

"Tanner's Sisters" manages to be as mesmerizing as the conversation it recounts--namely that of a man who has been through a relationship that has changed his view of the world. The story's conclusions, unfortunately, are not nearly as bold or transcendent as the tale itself, one in which a man falls first for one sister and then for another, one beautiful and amusing, the other sad and profound.

"Summer 1984" and "Metanarrative Breakdown" move into the subject of storytelling itself. The latter tale returns to some of the drug themes of the opening story--and also to the seeming lack of plot. The narrator is at a wedding when he gets word that his grandfather is dying. After catching a plane to the grandpop's residence, he has a conversation with his cousin Misty, a woman who takes up new pursuits every year or so and drops them before much is accomplished. This conversation involves him recounting another conversation with a woman named Gaby, a conversation that involves them taking mushrooms and other drugs and that in turn brings them into contact with a car impounder, who then tells them a story. Hence, we have stories within stories within stories, which are all brought back to the frame story by the end. This story dives deep into theory, and if it weren't for the interesting characters and their interesting manner of talking, I'd have lost interest. Instead, I found myself pulled forward despite myself. And it is this, this ability to make me want to read more that makes Greg Jackson's book such a pleasurable read.

Monday, July 25, 2016

On "Where Are All the Women" by David Morgan O'Connor (1522 words) ***

There is dread in this story, the kind of dread that happens in foreign places where you don't really know the landscape or the language and you only sort of know what's going on. And you kind of suspect that something worse may in fact have happened or be happening. Read the story here at Great American Lit Mag.

On "The Human Zoo" by Desmond Morris ****

Morris's premise is an interesting one--that animals in zoos suffer from loneliness and deprivation and act out in unwholesome ways that do not occur in nature. So, too, man is housed in a zoo. It's called a city. As such, we have murder, thievery, and so on--actions you would see nowhere in nature.

Our natural environment is one of small tribes, where we hunt and gather. There are maybe fifty of us to twenty square miles. Instead, we have supertribes--cities where we don't know our neighbors and we're piled on top of each other. Yet somehow we thrive and survive. How? Because cities also foster creativity in ways that subsistence living does not. It's a constant fight between our desire for smaller tribes (hence, religion, sports clubs, civil wars) and the power that comes with larger tribes (hence, demigogs, dictatorships).

Morris writes from an evolutionary anthropologists perspective, believing that man has for most of existence been akin to an ape. While I don't subscribe to this view, it sets up an intriguing line of argument. (My view is that man is created and that the banding together into cities did not occur thousands of years after man's evolution but rather within hundreds if not tens of years after man's creation. We are social creatures. We see this desire to band even in the story of the Tower of Babel, which takes place not long after man is almost completely banished from earth. So to me the city is not unnatural. Spending time in the country is likely to reveal as odd a set of behaviors and sometimes depravities as any city might. Rather, it is cultural moires, fostered best in smaller towns--tribes, I suppose, in Morris's view [so maybe he isn't far off the mark]--but also evident in some Asian cultures, in some religions, and in tightknit families, that create conformity and a relatively smaller scale of "immoral" behavior.)

Morris's foray into specific behaviors created by city living dwells chiefly on the subject of status. In tribes, people vie for status, but in super-tribes this vying becomes something much more dangerous, pumped up on steroids, if you will, because of the size of the group. The first form that this competition takes is one based on authority and power. People look for a dominant leader--a king, a dictator. And all people want to be this leader. Morris spends much time comparing symbols of dominance among babboons to those among humans to make his point. And then he gets into the subject of its modern manifestations in the city: cliques, materialism, murder, and suicide. Because not everyone can be top dog, we split into smaller groups--hobbyists, generations, classes, workers, etc.--that we might manage to dominate: to be the big fish in the small pond. But this isn't always satisfactory either, and so we sometimes pretend to be something we aren't, which is the source of consumerism. A lower-class person mimics a high-class person by buying goods he or she can't afford or by buying cheap ripoffs that look like the higher-class goods (diamond necklaces, or fake diamond necklaces, instead of beads). As a result, folk art is pushed aside in favor of manufactured imitations. (Interesting, fifty years later, folk art and DIY culture is pushed the fore in some ways as an example of leisure and class--one has time to make a beaded necklace, instead of working!) Likewise, people commit violent acts against less powerful creatures, be they animals, children, family, or themselves. It is community standards that keep people from killing others, which then causes them to turn that violence against themselves. Suicide rates are higher in cities than in the country, and they are higher during times of peace than during times of war (when violence against others in condoned). Here, then, Morris says, is one result of our city, our human zoo: violence and consumerism to show status within the tribe.

The next means by which status is shown has to do with sex. Again, Morris rehearses a set of rules: why people have sex--to procreate, to enjoy the physical simulation, to pair up, to be relieved of stress or boredom. He makes his comparisons to apes and other animals, who often show off their penises to maters and who use mating as a means to show their dominance or submission to one another. Men display their genitals as well, as we see in society through the use of various phallic symbols, often used as a means of insulting others (demonstrating dominance). Status is further demonstrated by sex through the accumulation of large numbers of partners (harems, serial monogamy) and through violent acts like rape. The need to pair up, bred into us from evolution, is slow to change, however, and interferes with promiscuity. (The arguments here seem forged around men showing dominance, as if it is men who are chiefly or solely the ones seeking status.) How sex as a status symbol is tied into the city is not entirely clear to me, other than that the number of available partners and the ease of demonstrating status is increased.

In the next chapter Morris turns his attention to in-groups and out-groups and how they are established. An in-group is unified; an out-group is that which the in-group unifies against. Absence of an out-group usually means the in-group turns against itself, resulting in civil war. We establish what is out usually by easily delineated physically differences: skin color, shape of eyes, language. The possibility for war is increased via city living because people have land--rather than being nomads--to defend, and the tribes they defend are now supertribes, contributing to the size of the out-group and in-group and to the interaction these two will have (they can't just wander off, because there's insufficient extra land to allow that). (In nature, we defend self, family, and tribe. In the city, we defend possessions and supertribe as well.) Specialization means that some people are devoted to warmaking in and of itself and that leaders don't have to fight and risk their own lives to wage war, resulting, again, in even more wars. Furthermore, the seeking of status, frustrated in such supertribes, finds home is violence against out-groups, even as the desire to cooperate with those in the in-group encourages such violence and warring. Morris completes the chapter by making various dire comments on the population explosion and how that is going to exacerbate the situation (if only we could all go back to small hunter-gatherer tribes on huge ranges).

Next, Morris writes about imprinting--how certain good or bad experiences can have undue effects on us and on animals. Ducklings reared with ony members of their own sex might only try to mate with other members of their own sex later in life; peacocks raised with monkeys might come to think they are monkeys; and so on. Humans, caged off from one another in a city--socially ostracized--might well forge odd behaviors too, such as sexual fetishes (caused by having focusing on some inanimate object during first sexual encounters, be it a shoe or a leather glove or underwear) and even a desire for pets (which are made to mimic babies). My issue here is that the social alienation that Morris writes of would not necessarily be solved in small hunter-gatherer groups. A city is a place of large social gathering; that some don't take advantage, that they stay cooped up with their small, immediate family to escape the evils around them, doesn't mean that being raised alone, within a small family unit, in the middle of nowhere would change experiences--they're still socially isolated. At this point, I felt as if Morris's claims were getting less and less defensable.

Morris returns to form with his chapter on stimuli. Like animals in zoos, people in cities generally lack for stimuli (or are occasionally overstimulated). Whereas humans used to have to eak out an existence hunting and gathering just enough to eat, now most of their needs are supplied in a relatively short period of time. The excess time leftover leads to boredom and a need to find other means of stimulation. Ways to find such stimulation include (1) making problems to solve where there were none, (2) overreacting to mundane tasks, (3) creating new things to do, (4) making much out of less stimulating activities, and (5) magnifying selected items. For those who are overstimulated, they can blot out incoming sensations. An example of the latter might be taking certain kinds of drugs or sleeping excessively. Examples of the other strategies include crime and adultery (1); overeating and gossip (2); playing games, looking at and making artwork, listening to and making music, writing and reading books (3); masturbation (4); and new fashions that emphasize different sexual parts of the body (5). Number 2 actually seems a good result of city life to me. Morris's contention with regard to fashion, which seems something of a detour, though intriguing, is that women's fashion focuses on exaggerating a rotating selection of errogenous zones; men's fashion, by contrast, among modernists, has tended to emphasize how leisurely a person is (thus, we borrow our clothes from various sports--and as those become commonplace, we find another sport to borrow from). While Morris's arguments here seem to make somewhat more sense, he doesn't always keep his examples to the city, which belies his point. Ironically, for instance, one of the examples he gives of making much of less-than-normal stimulation is nothing a city person would have opportunity nor, in most cases, temptation or desire to participate in: bestiality. Such an example rather makes his larger point seem more tendentious, for if country living leads to such actions, then the issue is not lack of stimulus caused by the city. Rather, the issue becomes one of modern life and living, but here too the argument might not be so strong, for a lack of leisure time does not necessarily equate to a lack of depravity. Busy people tend not to do as many bad things out of boredom, but people with fewer resources still have drives to fulfill that might lead them to steal or do other things frowned upon by larger society. The issue than is not city or country, but the degree to which a society maintains social control. A close tribe or family will exert more pressure on an individual's lifestyle than will a society (or lack thereof) that allows for more individual freedom of choice. But that, of course, is the tradeoff, for both individualism and groupthink come with their own advantages and disadvantages.

In Morris's final chapter, he turns to education and issues attendant with it. He notes that people tend to be most innovative out of two needs: (1) panic or scarcity; and (2) security. In the former, troubles become so overwhelming that people are motivated to find new ways to do something. In the latter, people are so provided for that they find new things to do out of a desire to fill time and to explore. It's the middle ground that tends to lack for innovation--where people are eeking out a living but are neither secure enough to explore nor so poor as to have to explore. Most of human existence fit in this middle ground, but modern man fits in the latter. That need to explore, to be curious, is taken up by childlike adults, who do odd things either because they rebel against constraints set on them as kids or because they continue in the curious lifestyle their parents afforded them as kids. Elders in supertribes tend to want to squash innovation, but instead they should encourage it. In a sense then, Morris ends his discussion on the human zoo with a call for, not a return to hunting and gathering, but for more urbanization, more change, more moves away from our evolutionary beginnings.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

On “Zilkowski's Theorem” by Karl Iagnemma (7438 words) *****

“Zilkowski's Theorem” is about a man who is in such love with a woman that he essentially sacrifices his relationship, his reputation, and his career for her--even though the man she loves is the narrator's former roommate and friend. Watching this happen--and trying to figure out why (even as the man himself tries to figure out why)--is the great pleasure of the story. Why does "love" cause us to do such crazy things? Read the story here at Zoetrope.

On "On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction" by Karl Iagnemma ****

Iagnemma is a deserving winner of multiple prizes. I came to his collection blind, however--and was in for quite a treat. His writing, especially in the first half of the collection, is of a nature that I was fully entranced, hanging on the beauty of the sentences even as the plots themselves unfolded. How does a writer write so well? Iagnemma does more than just tell a good story; he rolls it out like a fine piece of art that feels as if it has weight and importance without being so heavy as to seem ponderous.

The opening/title story is about math--or about how logic interacts with our understanding of relationships, which I believe is essentially nill. The lead character is a former student in love with the daughter of his former advisor, who is in turn in love with an undergrad. The daughter does not want the weight of a relationship; the narrator wants to have the daughter for himself. Why this need to possess things? Why not just enjoy?

"The Phrenologist's Dream" focuses on a nineteenth-century scientist who has great doubts about his career. He travels the country studying women's skulls in order to ascertain the levels at which women can love, and yet he knows that his science is likely quackery, as he can find no real patterns. Enter Sarah, a bald woman on trip to reunite with her husband and who is also something of a scoundrel.

Both these opening stories involve women unwilling to commit to a relationship, which led me to believe that perhaps this theme might run throughout the collection, but the next story, "Zilkowski's Theorem," does not involve such a character and begins to take the collection in new directions.

“The Confessional Approach” takes a break from the math-heavy backround that forges part of the first three stories. This one involves a couple who make mannequins deciding how ethical it is to sell those mannequins to someone who wishes merely to use them for target practice.

"The Indian Agent" simulates the journal of a man sent to Michigan to broker good will and piece between white settlers and a small band of "peaceful" Indians. Alas, distrust between the two and white greed creates a situation the agent begins to lose control of and patience with. Here, a romantic relationship is not the center of the story but rather its lack--the isolation that comes with being alone in a foreign land.

"Kingdom, Order, Species" returns to the science and math world, as a mediocre academic stalks the author of her favorite field guide. Here, we have a romance story of sorts, complete with a happy ending of sorts and, thus, different in tone than most of the other stories.

"The Ore Miner's Wife" deals with a woman whose miner husband takes an interest in science. This interest leads her to believe that perhaps he is cheating on her.

A similar theme creeps into the last story, "Children of Hunger," which recounts the experiments of William Beaumont on an injured man, experiments that allow him to see in to a man's digestive track. So obsessed does he become--so in love with science--that he sacrifices the love of his wife.

And that, I suppose, is what the collection is about, that intersection between science and love, logic and feeling, as if somehow we might be able to quantify love in some mathematical sense.

Friday, July 8, 2016

On "Rebecca" by Donald Barthelme (1361 words) ****

Not sure if much of this story adds up, but it's an interesting one, an exploration of friendship--the way that jealousy and intimacy and worries about inferiority can sneak into a relationship and make it hurt and last. Read the story here.

On "The Image of the City" by Kevin Lynch ***

Kevin Lynch is concerned not so much with the actual physical substance of the city but rather with the image that that substance conveys. Our ideas of a city, he says, are mixed with memories and meanings. In this sense, his thinking is not unlike that of David Kolb in Sprawling Places, which argues suburbs need to be seen as areas of greater complexity than they typically are via the memories and meanings attached to locales. Rather than mourn chain stores taking over an area, we can see them as having connections to the local. In a sense, this is true. One landmark that I think of in Victoria, British Columbia, is McDonald's. Why? It's two stories and features a huge chandelier. Probably, it was something grander at one time, but it has become a McDonald's--and a grand one at that. I remember eating at it one night with my friend Mike and a fascinating but troubled gal he liked named Diane. Or take the city of my birth, Pasadena. There, I remember well a string of fast-food restaurants along North Lake Avenue (eating at them; working at one; walking to/by them with my friend Tim, who lived closeby). They're nothing special, and yet they've been there from my birth to the present day, longer than many other truly "local" venues. They are landmarks of their own, even if not cherished and loved in the same way. Their very endurance has aided in their becoming part of my image of the city.

Lynch focuses, however, on downtown cores--and most specifically of three cities: Boston, Jersey City, and Los Angeles. The purpose of looking at our image of the city is to see how we might better plan and build cities as we move forward. What do people remember? How do they organize their viewpoints? How do they structure the city in their heads so that they can move around it?

Boston is chosen because of its age and historicity. It offers people many, many landmarks. And indeed, Lynch finds that people have a relatively easy time placing several districts within downtown. Still, there are portions of the area studied that remain amorphous in most people's views, largely centered around larger highways that cut off foot traffic. The relative irregularity of the streets, however, also means that people have difficulty "shaping" areas like the Boston Commons.

Jersey city is chosen because of its seeming disrepair. It's a town on the way to somewhere else--either New York City or Newark. And the views local people have of the city seem to confirm this. Nothing much stands out. There are not many landmarks, many places on must see--other than perhaps looking across the river to the skyline of New York City. People organize their city by street names and shopping districts that they visit regularly.

Los Angeles is something of a go-between. It is chosen because of its newness. It features more landmarks than Jersey City but less historicity. People's views of it are somewhat amorphous but slightly more definite than that of Jersey City. People organize the city by street names. Still, they do recall Pershing Square and a few other landmarks, that they can place. Interestingly, people's views of the city are more detailed in where they live, grow blurry in midrange areas (transit), and have slightly more detail downtown where they work (but not as much as where they live). Los Angeles, in other words, offers a specificity of view on the hyperlocal and on the macro but little on the midrange that connects the two.

Lynch shows differing views with maps--photos of an area, professionally created maps of an area, and maps based on people's memories and views of an area. The latter are interesting to compare with the professionally rendered insofar as certain areas disappear.

The next chapter focuses on five elements that go in to people's created images, or maps, of a city: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. Each of these play a role in how people organize their views. Travel along a path might render more detail there with other items organized around it--and so on for each element. Interestingly, landmarks occasionally might be "baseless"--that is, they form part of the skyline but people really don't know what their base looks like, what their function is, or where exactly they are. Folks forge maps in different ways--along paths and radiating out, from basic grids with items placed on them, with edges (e.g., Boston's waterfront) with the interior slowly filled in, as adjacent regions that are filled in and connected, or from one small place and filled outward from there. The best images are put together with both a hierarchy and a continuity, but rarely do both elements come together.

Since we are constantly organizing our view of the city, good city planning should facilitate this organizing process, Lynch says. Hence, paths should lead toward some sort of destination; landmarks should be singular or, if smaller, bunched to create a sort of landmark destination; districts should be visually distinct from one another with clear edges; nodes should link districts. In all, the features of the city should be marked by the following characteristics: singularity, simplicity of form, continuity, dominance, clarity of joint, directional differentiation, visual scope, motion awareness, time series, and names and meanings. Difficulties arise, however, because people do not always enter a city or a path from the same direction. Hence, you can't just have a path with one climax, for someone might enter at the climax and then the other direction lacks for a destination. There must be a kind of melody or rhythm.

Lynch, thus, lays out three possible general organizations for the city: hierarchical (subdistricts within districts, all united around a singular node or landmark); two-sided dominance (hill on one side, ocean on the other--destinations at both ends); and temporal pattern or sequence (spaced areas of dominance at intervening points along a path).

Hence, in an ideal city, all parts conjoin to the whole image. Paths lead to districts, which are centered around landmarks, bounded by edges, and linked by nodes, which in turn "mark off" paths.

A conclusion denotes the importance of considering the city's image as a whole when planning, most especially in the suburbs, where attention to the whole is rarely given. Three appendices discuss images of cities in history (landmarks play a large role, and the more barren the landscape, the more adept locals become at reading their environment); the survey techniques for the research; and a microstudy of images of Boston's Beacon Hill and Scollay Square (the latter, though being a node, lacking visual signposts to make it stand out as a place).

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

On "Clock-In" by Vanessa Blakeslee (964 words) ****

The lead story in Blakeslee's Train Shots collection is akin to Daniel Orozco's "Orientation," only in this case the introduction to work is not to an office but rather to a restaurant. And the person doing the introducting has the goods on everyone--an a bit of an agenda. Read the story here at Flash Fiction Online.

On "Train Shots" by Vanessa Blakeslee ***

Having only an electronic version of this one--a copy of the galleys given to me by the author for review--I've take a long while to read it through. I read on buses, on breaks, on street corners, in restaurants, on park benches, on sofas, in bed, anywhere I can manage. I don't read so much on computers--and certainly not much since taking on a family and moving to a new office that is not conducive to lunch-time reading at a computer screen. So I was not able to rip through Blakeslee's book with the kind of speed that a collection such as this would normally lend itself to: easy, fun reading.

Blakeslee's tales are of an expected variety--that is, there isn't a lot of experimentation here, and they didn't really leave me with much to ponder at the end of each one. But they accomplish what they do well.

After a fun lead-in short short about work relations, Blakeslee's collection settles in traditional faire. Most of the stories revolve around loss in some way--people searching for something, be it more to a relationship that is going bad or already has, a place to call home, or simply peace.

The strongest story in the collection, for me, is "Barbecue Rabbit," a tale about a mother and her mentally disturbed son. Reading about how this mother tries to cope is heartbrearking and horrifying.

"Uninvited Guests" focuses on a poor woman whose is forced to live under the surveillance of a religious landlord and to lie in order to continue a lifestyle to her liking. "Hospice of the Au Pair" focuses on a man whose wife dies and who has to deal also with the concurrent guilt of having a baby by another woman. "The Sponge Diver" focuses on the loss of a birth-control device amid the closing of a relationship. "Don't Forget the Beignets" is about a woman in over her head as her husband is carted away to prison for supposed financial misdeeds. And the title story at the end of the collection tells of a man dealing with the deaths he comes across (literally runs over) as a train engineer.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

On “The Ephiphenomenon” by J. C. Hallman (5830 words) ***

The opening story of J. C. Hallman's collection The Hospital for Bad Poets pits the "average man" against less-than-average circumstances. He feels that something is wrong, that he is sick somehow. He goes to a clinic for average men, housed in an office building with odd businesses. There, a doctor plies him with various messages about how sickness is actually what established normality and averageness and so on. The piece seems like sort of an ode to Emile Durkheim's theories of deviance, with regard to how our definitions of normal are established by the abnormal, which in turn draws into question the very idea of abnormality. Read the story here at InDigest.

On "The Hospital for Bad Poets" by J. C. Hallman ****

What is billed as a set of philosophical short stories starts out that way with its first piece but then becomes much more straightforward thereafter. And that is probably for the better, as they seem more human. "Ethan: A Love Story" is about an odd uncle who plays Halo and other games with his six-year-old nephew. In one of these games, they find their own family and their own selves. How exactly does one move forward when faced with what one knows?

"Autopoiesis for the Common Man" deals with a young man who has two forty-something girlfriends, both nurses. Scientific jargon about the sex act turns both of them on, and much attention is paid to the idea that sex is in the end a biologic act that furthers the species. The jargon contrasts with the emotions in the piece, hiding the latter, and making the relationships seem much more clinical than they apparently are.

"Manikin" is about a kid whose father leaves one day to go to Tulsa (i.e., backward for "a slut," Mom says). To deal with this, the son begins building a life-size doll.

"Carlson's Team" makes an apparent attempt to reverse our everyday world so that instead of people watching people on television, everyone is on television. That is, we all try to make our lives into television stories. The conceit, however, seems incompletely rendered, and I was left wondering why the story wasn't just told straight the whole way through--it does not seem like it would have lost much. The tale itself involves a soon-to-be father who has joined a basketball team to get into shape and stay there, but who discovers, the more that he plays and practices, just how bad he is.

One of the strongest stories in the collection is "Savages," an oddball story about family breakup. Mrs. McDermott cuts out a hole in the hedge separating her home from the one next door and builds a cave into which she drags one day Chuck's father, who finds many reasons to return. This initiates a string of consequences--upcoming divorce the most expected--and surprises that are shocking, disturbing, and sad. The title essentially says it all, as the humans in this story are reduced to an animal-like behavior that cuts off the basic tenets of what we call civilization, suggesting that the true cost of sexual licentiousness is our humanity.

In fact, it is in the semihorrifying stories about family life that Hallman really seems to succeed. Another strong one is "The Fire." It's a recounting of a fire that swoops down on the hills around Los Angeles, destroying homes in its wake. The story follows one man who decides to stay rather than flee with his family. He and a neighbor pull out hoses and then watch as the lines go dry. What makes this story so powerful, however, is the sideline plot about the man and his wife, who are having marriage problems. He's a lawyer who promised to quit after ten years to take care of the kids so that his wife can pursue her career (as a potter). Even though the wife has no market plan or business (and thus immediate means to support the family), she is insistent that the lawyer quit his job so that she can do her thing. It is in the context of these fights, these threats to leave, that the fire wreaks its havoc on the neighborhood, as if the family spat too threatens to destroy all.

Along a similar line is "Utopia Road," a ghost story of sorts, about an idealic new suburb that begins almost immediately after folks move in to fall apart. Electricity runs where it shouldn't, shocking people. Water goes out. Gutters get pulled off roofs. Eventually, the community comes to believe that Tom Royce, a local boy, is the one playing practical jokes on them. But after beating him up and essentially intimidating the Royce family to move, the troubles continue. Even a witch doctor won't help kick the evil spirit out of the neighborhood. Horror after horror continues, until we're left wondering when we will be next.

Other stories are a bit gimmicky, such as "Double Entendre," an advice story about how to write erotic fiction that also features its share of erotica. The constant cut to instruction, however, interferes with whatever passion we might feel for the storyline.

"The Jockey" is an amusing story about young people who are recruited to act the part of terrorists and victims in a practice session for some police and emergency responders. To what extent, one might ask, does one's betrayal during a fake practice session reveal anything real about one's actual relationship or potential there for?

The last story explores game theory in conjunction to the story itself, book-ending the collection with a tale that is in part philosophical.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On "Overcoming the Monster" by Matthew Di Paoli (1509 words) ****

Di Paoli takes a rather laid-back approach to the horror story, which is what makes it so much fun and so funny. But at its heart is a monster who in not being a horror or a full-on grunter actually elicits a bit of sympathy, enough that when we recognize the narrator as a monster himself, we are somewhat saddened by their plights. Read the story here at the Great American Lit Mag.

On “Naked City” by Sharon Zukin *****

The subtitle of Sharon Zukin’s book, “The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places,” puts her work directly in line with Jane Jacobs’s work, echoing the title of Jacobs’s most famous book. Zukin isn’t concerned as much about keeping neighborhoods and towns alive as making them feel alive--making them remain true to their soul. She sees a city’s soul as being bound around the concept of authenticity and worries that towns are becoming less authentic the more that they gentrify.

I have big problems with her idea of authenticity, problems that she herself admits to in her introduction. In defining authenticity, she tries to tie the concept into one of origins. An authentic neighborhood is one somehow in touch with its origins. Thus, a chain store has little to do with a neighborhood and is not tied in with the origins of the people in it and thus not authentic. This seems simple in itself. The issue I have is that what we view as “authentic” is itself a construct, which she admits. Our authentic city is the one that was there when we first lived in the area. Thus, Athens, Georgia, where I live, should have a somewhat derelict downtown on the west side, because that’s how it was when I arrived. Now, fifteen years later, that portion of downtown is thriving--in fact, the entire downtown district is thriving. There are no longer many abandoned buildings, and many of the places I would go--my local friends would go--are gone. In their place are some higher priced alternatives, a few chains, a few stores aimed at younger people (people who are the age I was when I moved here). Go back a generation or two before I arrived, and this portion of downtown was the Hot Corner, an African American sector of downtown, only one of whose businesses still exists (a barbershop). Shouldn’t the “authentic” version of this portion of town then be black? Or could we go back before that, to a time when this sector was housing and not part of a business district at all? What is the “origin”? What is authentic? It’s all a matter of perspective.

Despite that criticism, her critique of gentrification and her observations about it in the case studies she does of neighborhoods in New York is fascinating and shows that there is a certain cause for concern. Gentrification comes at price--and any given sector of town goes through a cycle (one explained years ago in a human geography course I took). Perhaps, the neighborhood is largely one of immigrants from Ireland. As they grow more prosperous, they tend to move out or to change the neighborhood itself. Perhaps, another set of immigrants moves in--Italians. In seeking “authenticity”--some kind of unique experience one can’t get elsewhere in the city--hipsters and artists begin to visit the Italian neighborhood. It’s relatively cheap too, so some move there from more expensive districts. Soon, there’s a thriving hipster/art scene among the architecture forged by previous rounds of immigrant families. As the neighborhood becomes more and more popular, commercial elements begin to move in to be a part of it, eventually making it too expensive for the artists who made the neighborhood thrive. The Italian quotient is long since gone, as is what made the neighborhood actually unique. It’s lost its “soul.” (But are commercial ventures necessarily soulless? I ask. Aren’t bright-lit signs and lots of business a sort of spirit inhabiting a district, making it what it is? And when this grows dull, then the area will lose popularity, and the poor and/or immigrant populations will return, and the cycle will start afresh.)

Williams begins her case study with Williamsburg, in Brooklyn. Once an immigrant district for Poles, it was discovered by musicians and artists and became a kind of haven for them from Manhattan, which had become too expensive. With time, as hipster cafes have populated the area, higher rents and more commercial ventures have moved in and is now beginning to push the artists out. We lost the Polish vibe and now the hipster vibe is losing steam too.

Next, Zukin goes to Harlem, the famous black neighborhood. Here she sees an example of a case where the local community and government agents colluded to actually change the neighborhood. As residents worked to get more businesses to move to the area, the very success of the work has led to them being priced out of the neighborhood. Now, white folks are moving in, enjoying the local/originary soul food as well as the new ethnic eateries that have moved in to take advantage of the wealthier clientele.

She then turns her attention to the East Village, an area that has historically included a number of lower class elements and artistic elements, attracted by the lower cost of living. This vibe has attracted an ever more expensive set of commercial forces, which in turn has caused much of what made the village at any one time its unique self to be shut down in favor of the more well-to-do. The cycle is one that is moving to ever more pricey ventures and to ever more standardization.

In the second half of the book, Zukin looks at ventures more than she looks at neighborhoods. She starts with Union Square, telling its history as a center for social protest and community gathering. The area fell into disrepute, however, sometime after World War II, as the city lacked resources to police it and care for it. Local businesses stepped to the fore and created a business improvement district to take care of the park. For a small fee raised by themselves on themselves and paid to the city but fed back to them for the park, they are able to hire park caretakers and make decisions about how the park should look. The issue is that these caretakers are private businesses, so what was once a public park in some sense is now a private venture. Private security forces decide who should be able to gather and protest; parts of the park are sold off for a restaurant venture that the “public” can enjoy. And so on. We have then the privatization of the commons--but one that makes the park safe again and a place of destination. Which is preferred? A dangerous public park that is open to less-welcome sectors of society or a semiprivate safe one that is closed off to those whose voices already are repressed?

Next we move to an area of Brooklyn where Ikea built a new store and where Hispanic immigrants gather each weekend to play soccer and sell authentic Latin American food. Folks had problems with the traffic Ikea would generate and other ways in which the chain was not “true” to the area. And yet, it has brought with it jobs and interest in a derelict part of town. Meanwhile, the immigrant food stands in the park each weekend offer locals good ethnic cuisine. As time has gone on, however, the clientele has changed. Whereas early on the food was made mostly for other immigrants, now a large chunk of the customers are curious foodies from other parts of the city. And as that has happened, the cuisine has changed as well--to appeal to the new audience. “Authenticity” is slowly being lost. And the city itself is now cracking down on the food makers, insisting they follow regulations.

Community gardens get their share of attention in this book as well. Created often in areas that had little development or were actually becoming dis-developed during New York’s days on the skid, the gardens became centers for local residents to get good local produce. However, not being the landowners, as the city has gentrified and the real estate come under demand, many such gardens have been pushed off the land in favor of redevelopment. Now, the poor are less taken care of; and for those from the middle class who enjoyed the local produce, an “authentic” portion of the community is being lost to high rises.

The overall tendency, Zukin points to, is toward homogenization--at the city level. As cities aim to "brand" themselves as cool places, more and more of them offer similar experiences. Every city of note has a modern art museum, for example. I would contend, however, that that is not necessarily a bad thing. Local residents should have access to similar conveniences and experiences. One should not have to travel to New York City for art. And the differences between art museums would still remain--this city has that artwork, this other city has that other artwork--such that people will still travel to destinations, because there is still difference. There is difference--always--because there are different landscapes and climates. Even if all cities offer skyscrapers and parks, few will find the cityscape of one megatown the same as another.

Zukin's main issue, though, is with chains, insofar as they contribute to that homogenization. As they take over a city district, the mom-and-pop stores disappear, and "authenticity" is lost to more of the same. This is where she departs from Jacobs's views. Jacobs, Zukin argues, was arguing from a particular timeframe of gentrification and could not see the whole picture. Jacobs argued that government was the problem and that the private sector community would do a better job of making for livable areas. She did not foresee sky-high rents being levied on "old" buildings such that only chains could afford old or new buildings. Zukin sees government regulation as a solution, but one that is usually not employed. The issue is that the government is usually in cahoots with the moneyed interests, which means that it encourages homogenization because that's more taxes. Rather than helping out the immigrant eateries or the community gardens, it adds regulations and drives those resources away. If on the other hand, the government zoned and regulated to encourage such endeavours, the soul of cities could be maintained.

I'd said that I see the description of gentrification as being simply the upturn of a cycle that goes round and round, but Zukin's point does have some precedent. There are communities that have banned chain and franchise stores. I think of Sedona, Arizona, where chain stores line the city boundaries (or at least they did back in the late 1980s, when I visited); inside the city there are only mom-and-pop places. In this way, the town is kept "authentic." At the same time, I hate to think of property owners having limitations put on them with regard to what can be put on their land or how much they can accrue from that land. If the community--including landowners--agrees to such restrictions, however, then there is little to be miffed about.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

On "Growing Pains" by Alexai-Budziszewski (4954 words) ***

"Growing Pains" is one of the more complete stories from Galavis-Budziszewski's Painted Cities collection, and as such, it's also one of the stories that resonates more fully. It's about a kid whose grandmother comes to visit his mother and him. The mother fled the grandmother a decade earlier, and the fact that they can't get along is evident on this visit. But so too are the mother's griefs at chances blown. Her friend Birdy comes back for a visit a couple of years earlier, and the mother becomes irate over Birdy's constant teasing about the mother not moving to California when she had the chance (there was a man involved, the narrator's father). The narrator suffers from arthritis--growing pains--though just a kid; it's as if aging happens much more quickly here in the hood, for as we learn, the mother was once part of a street gang that, even though only a decade has passed, is now defunct. Read the story here at CrossConnect.

On "Painted Cities" by Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski ***

This collection focuses on a Latino neighborhood in Chicago. As its strongest, I got a real sense of the neighborhood and the people who lived there, but many of the pieces seem more like vignettes than stories and don't cohere that well. Throughout, we get a feel for a kind of fourth-world place where there are dreams but where there is also a kind of hopelessness that will never let those dreams come into being, save in the form of rare moments of beauty and art, crafted from dreams' destruction.

The first story focuses on daydreams--the way that a kid can dream of places and times in his past with a kind of idealism. Next, we turn to a story about panning for gold in the gutter, which becomes a kind of metaphor for looking for the treasure in life in a lower-class neighborhood, where nights consist of the sounds of fighting and sex and where people come together only when a building goes up in flame--over jealous love--with an entire family inside (not the kids too! they say).

I'm not sure what to make of the title story. Broken into four pieces, each piece focuses on a loss of some sort. The first section is about a graffitti mural. In that mural, a girl's tears turn out to be, when closely examined, reflections of the entire city down to the minutest details. The second section deals with gang shootings of a sort; the third focuses on the loss of a friend to the "underground," as he decides to go visit and live in the old city subway tunnels (one get the feeling we're talking about the underground as a meaphor for death); and the final section focuses on a puppeteer who calls forth dead Ritchie Valens for a mostly nonexistent audience.

One of the more successful stories in the book is "Freedom." It's the tale of two kids who make a rooftop their home--even going so far as to build a house of sorts on the roof. From that perch, they launch rocks at passersby for fun, until one day the rock throwing results in tragedy and their time of freedom comes to an end.

"Childhood" is about kids peeping toms and what results when they are finally caught at it. The story is mixed in with Catholic superstition (the disappearance of the Virgin creates a community stir) and guilt.

Another story split into parts is "Snakes." The first part focuses on folks who climb the El or who slink around in the underground like cave explorers. The next focuses on walls, and the next on what it is like to live in an Arab city. The piece closes with a short piece about proper etiquette at a wedding dance. How these pieces fit together, I was never able to quite figure.

Maximilian focues on three memories about Max (the narrator's cousin), two of them revolving around his fist--that is, fights that Max got into. The last story holds the most power, involving a funeral procession that is interrupted by a driver unwilling to wait. Max takes off after the driver and beats him up once he catches him. Was it worth the trouble?

"God's Country" is one of the better stories in the collection. It revolves around a kid named Chuey, who, as it turns out, has the gift of resurrection: he can raise dead things to life. There is some question as to the reality of this early on, but at the story proceeds, you come to believe in his power. But like a story of fantastic realism, the power is treated almost banally. The kids who gather round him get rather bored of watching Chuey raise dead animals, and even Chuey himself gets tired of using the power. Even miracles, as it turns out, are just a way to kill time during long and boring days as a kid. And coloring the whole story is a tragic event that makes the whole thing seem rather banal--raise the dead, but the neighborhood will kill no matter.

"Sides Streets" is another short piece that doesn't seem to quite add up. It's about different reactions to the death of a gangbanger named Casper: kids reenact his death; his mother disappears; the story moves into myth with no clear single reality.

"Blood" is an advice column--an older man dispensing advice to another kid in the neighborhood about how to be a man. How to act at a bar, and so on. It's an intriguing piece probably most because the form is so rarely used.

"Blue Magic" is the third story split into seemingly unrelated parts. The opening piece is the most intriguing here, explaining how a kid walks along the "edge" of the earth--namely his neighborhood, an area that he never leaves. I remember reading about how some people who grow in the inner city never leave a fairly small radius; it's as if their whole world is the neighborhood, and this story fits in with that kind of world vision.

"Growing Pains" is a complete story that works well, and "Sacrifice" is another strong piece, in part because it is so harrowing. It involves a man and his wife and the man whom the husband killed, the wife's ex-boyfriend. Ironies are packed in this piece--and double identities. The husband is from one side of the neighborhood; the wife and her ex are from the other side of the neighborhood. The child they have is named after the ex-boyfriend; this child is in fact the ex's offspring. The ex stalks the family, gets help from the family. The husband threatens--repeatedly--to do something. He is just trying to protect his family; or was the ex just trying to protect his?

"Supernatural" makes of pollution in a neighborhood canal what most make of something like the appearance of the Virgin Mary. In these last stories, Galavis-Budziszewski moves into a kind of satire. This is the miracle that neighborhoods like this get--a green glow from waste that might just heal someone but that is certainly interesting to look at.

Just like looking at fires is the fun activity in "Ice Castles." Full of old buildings, each night features one of them going up in flames. Father and son head out to watch the firefighters, who are generally less than effective. What glory fills the night sky--and sometimes the morning's ground.

Friday, June 3, 2016

On "The School" by Donald Barthelme (1213 words) ***

This one is about death--and most precisely, about the deaths that children witness and worry about in their lives and in the classroom. It is, in short, about life--and how we learn, or rather how we don't know what we are supposed to learn when confronted with the mystery of death. Read the story here.

On "Civilizing American Cities" by Frederick Law Olmsted **

Essentially a well-organized anthology on Olmsted's thoughts on city planning, the work starts with an introduction to the man himself. As becomes apparent, it is in some ways strange to think that the man most revered in landscape architecture circles was not formally trained in the profession. I'd thought that because he preceded the profession, but in fact there were already men doing such work, Calvert Vaux, under whom Olmsted studied and worked, being one of them. Olmsted was in fact trained more in architecture, but it was his work with Vaux on New York's Central Park that created his reputation, such that he would go on to design many other major cities' central parks. In addition to discussing his personal life, the introduction gives us a sense of the ideas of the man himself, who preferred natural simplicity to artificial naturalness. Hence, he abhorred country houses made of blocks of stone or some kind of primitive stone edifice put up next to a contemporary street curb. Such “nature” is the very antithesis of natural in Olmsted's view.

The first part focuses various aspects with regard to the growth of cities. The first reading of this section is about the history of cities--or to be more precise, the history of roads. I wish I could better remember Lewis Mumford's writing on this subject, because the first part of Olmsted's piece seems more theoretical than real. That may or may not be the case. He talks of how original roads were generally goat paths, cow paths, and foot paths that had been paved over (but I'm reminded that grid systems go back even to the Greeks). He also writes of how some roads were built for military purposes (indeed). And then he turns specifically to the problem of London. Here, he notes how the city expanded without proper roads. Disease and filth proliferated, and the wealthy and whoever else could moved to country estates. In time, as merchants became more important, cities began to attract the wealthy and also the lower classes (looking to better themselves). Olmsted focuses on how people always seemed to want to be away--out in nature, which I'm not so sure to be the case (why be there cities to begin with if so?--we like to be among other people). The London fire provided a great opportunity to lay out a consistent street plan, but landholders rushed to rebuild before the plan could be implemented, creating troubles that would cost London for generations to come. Earlier on, the thinking was largely that the larger the city the more the crime and disease, but this has not proven to be true in the modern world. In fact, as societies have urbanized, people have lived longer, safer, and healthier. But that does not mean that such will always be, Olmsted contends. People need and want access to nature and to sun; as such, it is important to include parks in any city plan, parks that people can easily access, lest the health gained be lost.

Next we turn to the problem of New York. Olmsted largely decries the city's rigid adherence to the grid, resulting in blocks that are too small or too large for purposes other than tenements. He denotes that cities like Paris and London have occasional large blocks that allow for large architectural marvels that can be seen from a distance.

In another essay, Olmsted recounts the history of cities from a cultural angle, arguing that it is women who encourage families to move to the city--for its convenience, its ease of shopping, its tidiness. But Olmsted argues, as he so often does, that man needs nature--and that nature must be brought into these towns, in the form of gardens and parks, or the advantages of the city, especially in regard to health, will be lost. And again, he turns to New York and the building of Central Park, which he'd had to fight various council members and business owners to properly install. And the result has been a profound success, whereas too often many other cities have set aside land that would have gotten little use for building and thus get little use as parks.

The book then provides several essays by Olmsted on individual cities--San Francisco, Buffalo, Chicago, Montreal, Boston, Berkeley, and Riverside (in Illinois). Most of these essays get deep into specifics, and in only a few cases are maps provided. This makes the essays difficult to follow, as they are clearly of their time and place. Had Olmsted written of cities where I've lived and spent a great deal of time, I might have been better able to follow him--and cared to try. But the reading is fairly dry to someone not connected to the time and place.

Olmsted's writing on Boston stands out in some sense for his discussion of art and aesthetics, as it relates to park building and city planning. He talks of how great art stands the test of time--and that good city plans and good parks will as well. The essay on Riverside stands out also because it is essentially a chapter about a planned city--a planned suburb of Chicago. Olmsted argues for curved streets and for lots of greenspace but no parks. The space doesn't lend itself to parks, Olmsted argues, and because plans can be done from the ground up (nothing having been built), lots of space can be allotted for each tract. And so there we have it: the beginning of suburban sprawl. (Olmsted argues that lower density means less traffic--but he doesn't seem to take into account traffic to/from businesses.) I can see why Jane Jacobs would argue that garden city planners did not understand what made cities work (even though, as denoted in some other books, garden city planner ideas actually weren't about sprawl--they were about small dense cities with gardens in between; Olmsted's gardens, when placed in a suburban context, however, seem to fit some of the Jacobs stereotype).

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.