Thursday, November 24, 2016

On “The Straightened Arrow” by Tom Noyes (8587 words) ***

"The Straigthened Arrow" involves a man on some sort of religious mission involving a ten commandments statue. But he suspects that what it really involves is his devout wife trying to get rid of him so that she can spend time with the pastor. What is surprising here is how well versed Noyes is with scripture and with differing religious views, for much of the story concerns debates among Christians over doctrine. Read the story here at Stonework.

On "Spooky Action at a Distance and Other Stories" by Tom Noyes ***

Tom Noyes's collection of tales merges religious concerns with violence, oddity, and the regular day. As such, it doesn't seem to have that much drawing the pieces together, other than a few characters that seem to repeat. The strongest stories involve violence of a sort, mostly because we are treated to watching something unexpected slowly develop until we completely understand how such a thing could happen--in fact, had to.

"Here, There, Yonder" is told from multiple perspectives that all fit in the same setting. One is a boy flying for the first time. Another is his grandmother, returning to visit her two sisters, who years before she stopped talking to. And yet another is a flight attendant who is in a somewhat unhappy relationship with another flight attendant. I'm not sure what we're to glean from the differing perspectives except perhaps that the adults seem to have a number of broken relationships that the innocent young boy has not yet discovered is part of life.

"Everything but Bone" is a slice-of-life piece about a divorced man and woman who reunite to attend the man's father's funeral and about their son, who brings along his new girlfriend, a kind of carbon copy. There is a focus, in part of the story, on hair, on how it outlasts "everything but bone" once we're dead. This hair plays a role in each man's life in the story, defining them but also hiding them. Memory is hard to piece to together.

"Love Canal," one of the stronger stories from the collection, involves a pastor's family. The pastor is replacing a former pastor who ran off with one of the wives of his congregation (one might assume the wife from the opening story, "The Straightened Arrow"). But what seems an easy task--simply not messing around on your wife when you are pastor--becomes much more than the pastor bargained for.

"The Daredevil's Wife" is a short piece about Niagara Falls barrel riders.

"Greeting Phantom" focuses on a newly but less-than-happily married couple with a newborn son. The husband creates an imaginary to entertain his son with; the wife does what she can to push the ghost away. But still, the couple is together, while upstairs, what appears to be a less well-off couple that has split up is actually a couple who are dealing with health issues. This is the first in a set of stories in which violence is heavily implied or present. And maybe it's that passion that makes these latter stories feel as if they matter more.

"Wrong Hands," the strongest story in the collection, is about an out-of-shape man who takes up dieting and exercise at a gym--or seems to be about that. But as the story progresses, and the man becomes more and more heavily involved in weight training, a kind of violence begins to pervade the story, as the man is caught up in a way of life in which machismo plays a larger and larger role. Soon, just as his eating was once out of control, his anger becomes out of control.

"Rot and Squalor" focuses on a high school basketball coach whose disappointment in his team and desire to motivate it turns darkly violent.

The title story is cleverly told tale of a man who believes he is the spawn of a dead twin. The story comes to us via recordings to his psychologist.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

On "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning" by Donald Barthelme(3022 words) ****

More a fictional expose on a real-life figure than a story per se, this was one of the stories that vaulted Barthelme toward fame. Think of "Thirteen Ways to Look at a Blackbird"; then think of a character sketch for a popular magazine. That's essentially how this fun piece reads, which you can read too here.

On "Design with Nature" by Ian McHarg ***

This book combines ideas from urban planning and landscape architecture with ideas from ecology. What is to be gained? A lot of lyrical passages about the beauty of nature, which grow more and more tiresome the longer they go on. It's not that the book is without its merits. McHarg's text, after all, is considered a classic. And when he gets down to practicalities, he often has intriguing ideas to present. But every other chapter is theory rather than practicum, and reading this theory fifty years later is like reading a set of dated truisms amid a collection of late 1960s liberal diatribes.

McHarg especially has it out, it seems, for Christianity, which he often blames for the environmental ills of the planet. Christianity is anthropocentric, he denotes, and as such we don't pay attention to the earth's natural balance. (What, I might ask, would paying attention to the earth's natural balance entail other than stewardship and a belief in human-centered superiority? I don't know any cats or dogs or pigs or chickens that worry about preserving the planet's balance. If they overpopulate or do environmental damage the earth naturally takes care of it--through evolution, if you will. The distribution of the animal changes, as does the distribution of the other animals and plants it affects. So too, one might argue, with humans, if indeed we are here merely by chance and are merely one other creature among the rest of the globe's inhabitants. The idea that we need to keep nature balanced, the way it was supposed to be, is then itself an anthropocentric one, one that implies that we are somehow above the other creatures on the planet. Anyway, the constant attacks on Christianity obviously wore thin on me.)

But as I noted, the practicum chapters were of some interest. An early one discusses the ocean and the beach. Much of this is old information to me from other reading I've done--how important beach dunes are, how various attempts to keep beaches in place using groins actually damage beaches further down, and so on. But it was concrete.

Those sort of points make for interesting studies later in the book, when McHarg lays out the best ways to, for example, choose where to lay roads. Too often, he points out, we pay attention chiefly to costs--and by that, he means, the physical costs, of laying a road. Hence, highways are placed where there is less development or where development is cheap (i.e., poor communitities) and where the land offers the cheapest means to lay the road (less drilling, etc.). But this often doesn't equate to what the actual cost is--that is, the actual cost needs to include the culture and social cost. When we lay down a highway through a community, we're splitting the community in half and we are likely killing off neighborhoods. And when we lay a road through pristine forestland that birds use for nesting, we may also be laying out environmental effects that will in turn affect the social and cultural ones. His solution? He takes various maps that lay out the different costs associated with each route for a road. Overlaying this maps allows us to see which route is likely the most cost effective.

In another practicum chapter, McHarg looks at different environments that are best for city building, laying out a hierarchy of preferred land on which to build, in this descending order: flat land, forest, steep slopes, aquifers, aquifer recharge areas, floodplains, marshes, and surface water. Knowing these preferences, we should thus really aim not to build on floodplains and to build on flat land. The only qualifier? Flat land is also the best land for agriculture, so we have to be attuned to those needs as well.

In an extended example, McHarg focuses on a plan for the city of Baltimore and how that city can continue to grow without giving in to sprawl, selecting the proper places to grow and the proper places to preserve and what the density in these locations should be.

Next, McHarg turns to a theoretical discussion of how we would go about creating a proper environment for an astronaut sent to live in space. He shows how all the various systems are integrated and how difficult it is to account for everything that nature does naturally. The astronaut easily can find that he or she has not accounted for some need and throw the system out of whack. This leads into the chapter on Staten Island, which again is planned according to different values and needs, using overlaying maps that give planners the means to know where the best places for conservation are, as well as the best places for urbanization, both residential and commercial.

In the next theory-heavy section, McHarg approaches a group of thinkers he calls "Naturalists." Here he lays out the idea that we need not see evolution, the survival of the fittest, as necessarily negative. He argues that natural organisms adapt to one another, that the fittest only surviving is actually a way of advancing nature so that it is more interdependent. The lion that eats the caribou, for example, is doing the caribou a favor in terms of keeping its stock lower and also helping it to evolve to a higher state through only letting the most fit survive. Parasites depend on hosts, but hosts often adapt to depend also on the parasite. Whole ecosystems exists because of this interdependence. One of those, arguably, is our own body, which consists of a host of cells, most of them cells that have learned to specialize in particular tasks in order to make the body work together efficiently. The cells are interdependent, supporting a much greater whole, the way each living thing supports the greater whole of the earth.

Next, McHarg turns to a project on the Potomac River basin. Much as he has done in earlier chapters, he lays out the various areas as being most suitable for various resources in order to understand where it would be best to urbanize and so on. The one intriguing point he makes in this chapter is that we are too prone to zone things for one use, whereas nature does not zone: various uses can be gleaned from one area in nature, and we should do the same in the city. But other than that, the discussion of the Potomac seems like yet another practicum that repeats information that has gone before. The techniques to discover what the best places to build are well known by now, and so the extended examples grow increasingly tiresome.

Potentially, the section on Washington, D.C., could prove interesting insofar as McHarg attempts to apply his ideas to a city that is already in existence, rather than to the suburbs of a city that is expanding. But in the end, I found this section to be disappointing. His main point seems to be that we need to take into account more than finances when designing sites. In D.C., it would be important to take into account the "pallette" of the particular area, make the landscape conform to the overall tone of the section of the city. Of course, this is easier said than done, since in the end it is the market that determines how we value space. His earlier points about taking into account how altering that space affects value seemed more direct to the point.

The book ends with a chapter on the health of a city, which is perhaps one of the most interesting and thought provoking. Here, he uses his mapping system to denote neighborhoods in Philadelphia with various diseases, mental diseases, and pollution, along with economic troubles, crime, race, education, unemployment, income, density, and so on. Putting all these together helps to establish a "healthy" area of the city as being in the north and west. But why is not as clear. He then goes into studies of population carried on with rats, showing how density of living has great affects on health. Though apparently able to have a denser population in their environment, the rats at some point begin to stop multiplying as fast, and disease--physical and mental--begins to become more rampant. Those rats that are dominant don't have the health problems; the rats that are submissive do. They become loners or sexually deviant or sickly. This, he thinks, is because of the stressful stimuli that exist in high densities. There seems that there might be some correlation to human populations as well, as denser areas have greater amounts of antisocial behavior and sickness. But the ideas, while intriguing, are not entirely proven or provable. But surely, one wouldn't then say that humans need to move into suburbs and less dense areas for health reasons--or would one? Here he briefly looks at how attempts to gentrify troubled areas with such densities rarely solve the problem. The original inhabitants are usually pushed out of the area, and what social network they had to deal with their problems is thus taken apart. I found myself here wanting to read more about density and its effects.

In the end, then, McHarg notes how we can take into account various factors of our environment as we build and plan and rework cities. This is a valid point but one that seemed, in McHarg's reasoning, too bound to its time.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

On "I Asked My Mother" by Lesley Dormen (1113 words) ****

"I Asked My Mother" focuses on obsessive compulsive shopping. It's a short piece but exquisitely put together, the middle story in Dormen's excellent collection. Really, it's about how a mother and daughter communicate and how the weaknesses of one become the weaknesses of the other. Read the story here at Five Points.

On "Contagious" by Jonah Berger *****

The subtitle of this book promises much--it says the book is going to tell readers "How Things Catch On." And Berger does a great job doing just that, combining conversation recountings of studies and analysis and setting out a book of interest both to psychologists and marketers.

The book reads like many a self-help or marketing guide, a trade book. But what makes this one different is that the author really knows his stuff--the load of examples and the use of footnotes shows it.

Basically, Berger points to what some things go viral or catch on as being related to six factors. Viral things will sometimes have all six going for them but not always; however, they will always have some of these factors going for them.

The first factor is social currency. The idea here is that people like to appear hip or knowledgeable. Being able to talk to someone about an oddball restaurant or a cool movie shows that you are a person worth talking with--one who has something to share. An interesting example is a bar modeled after a speakeasy called Please Don't Tell Anyone. You have to go through the back of a hot dog stand and dial a special phone; only seventy or so people are allowed in each night. There isn't any advertising other than word of mouth. This does indeed sound like a cool secret folks would want to hear about. I was left, however, wondering how such a place starts. If secrecy is your gimmick, how is it those first hundred or so customers find you in order to spread the secret? I suppose an invitation to a select crowd might work to get the buzz going.

The second factor is triggers. These are essentially items that remind you of something that is being marketed. The key here is frequency and the context. If somehow you can align what you're selling with something that folks think about regularly, you're more likely to stay on their minds. Write a song about Fridays, for example, and you'll probably be on folks' minds once a week. And that in turn will spur word of mouth.

A third factor is emotion. People are more likely to share things that stir particular feelings. Interestingly, Berger finds that contentment and sadness do not cause people to want to share. However, emotions that stir people a lot are anger and awe. That makes sense, though, when I think about articles that I might myself want to talk about with someone else: something unjust or something amazing.

A fourth factor is something Berger calls public--or making the private public. I'd call this the sheep or crowd factor. Basically, we are more likely to try something or to use a certain product if others are doing so as well. Hence, if there are two restaurants to choose from and one is crowded and one empty, we're more likely to think the crowded one is better, irregardless of the actual quality. So many people, we think, can't be wrong. This is, I've long thought, one of the most frustrating facts about marketing--success breeds more success. It's like money: the more you have, the easier it is to make more. Much of the chapter focuses on how brands attempt to get their logos and message out for folks to see. Berger looks particularly at the "residual" effect--we might look at them as souvenirs. These are things like bags we take home from a store and then reuse, which then show off the product's identity to others. The crowd factor might seem contradictory to the social currency factor, but it isn't when one really thinks about it. Take something as popular as the Super Bowl. If one watches it or the ads that run during it, one has the ability to discuss them with folks then next day. Being knowledgeable, even about something that most people already know about, still makes for one being a potentially good conversationalist.

A fifth factor is practical value, which is exactly what it sounds like. If something is useful, it's more likely to catch on. I guess my big question here would be why some things seem to be more useful than others. That, I suppose, comes down to ability or technique and also to branding. If you create something that is easier to understand than other things that do the same, your instructions or product will get more use--or so the theory would go. But branding has much to do with success here too--people will gravitate toward practical products from others who are already familiar. That's the reason for the success of the Dummies books, though some such books are better written than others. Much of Berger's chapter, however, focuses on price points and how we tend to buy things contrary to actual sense. If something is “on sale,” for example, we more likely buy it--even if it's not actually discounted. For products under one hundred dollars, it's best to give a percentage for how much one is saving; for over that amount, it's best to give a dollar figure. Ten percent seems a lot more than five dollars, for example; but $200 seems a lot more than five percent.

The last factor is story--basically, products are best marketed as some sort of narrative. When one looks at the first five factors, word of mouth is most likely to spread if a good story is attached to the technique involved. Hence, we tell someone about the great deal we got on something or how amazing some product is or something like that. Some attention here is given to advertising and how that can be counterproductive if the story told as part of the ad is not inherently connected to the product. You might catch someone's eyes with dancing penguins, for example, but if you're selling laundry detergent, the two narratives likely won't have much of a connection and thus won't remain part of the same story. It's essential that the attention grabber and the product have some relation so that they both become part of the story told.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

On "The Party" by Donald Barthelme (1648 words) ****

Some stories demand to be read closely, and this is one of them. The language is incredibly dense. But what a joy to listen and watch along with the narrator of this social gathering. Read the story here.

On "They Shoot Horses Don't They" by Horace McCoy *****

I first read this book a decade or so ago while reading a list of pulp mystery novels, a list that I enjoyed much more than I expected to. McCoy's book stood out because of the extended metaphor and its reference to a historical phenomenon I had not been familiar with. Less a mystery than just plain pulp, the book tells the story of a couple who go to make some money, to survive, during the Great Depression, by joining a dance marathon.

Dance marathons were popular for some time during the 1930s. Essentially contests in which couples danced for as long as possible, until they were the last couple standing, they were entertainment spectacles. Here, however, the marathon is a metaphor for life--a tough and grueling life. The couple can't leave the floor; it has to remain to eat (food is provided) and to have a chance at the thousand-dollar prize that will give them a new start in life, if they want it, that is, for the woman, Gloria, has already given up on life: she just wants to die, if only she had the guts to do herself in.

And that is the gist of the book, how her dance partner is finally convinced to kill the woman as a favor to her, as the dance marathon moves forward despite petty crime, crooks hanging out in disguise, affairs, better morals society protests, and so on.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

On "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" by Philip K. Dick (ca. 9000 words) ***

Made into the movie Total Recall twice now, the original story features aspects that are picked up in both films but goes in a different direction by its end. The opening of the story is somewhat similar to those films: a man leading a humdrum life discovers that he was once a secret agent. In this case, he was an agent on Mars, though of course, that is the very memory he's gone to Rekal Inc. to have implanted as a means of escaping his humdrum life--to fulfill his dream of going to Mars. From there, the story becomes a trip. Is the memory real or implanted? And now that his life has been changed--or returned to what it was?--how does he solve the problem that he is supposed to have lost this secret agent identity? The story has a number of great themes, but it feels forced in terms of the quickness with which it is told. The dialogue serves the plot more than the character. The tale feels as if it need to the breathing space of a novel. But Dick here is writing pulp, and it serves that purpose well. Just as it served well as the basis for a couple of movie versions, which feel like they have the breathing space required. You can read the story here.

On "Becoming Justice Blackmun" by Linda Greenhouse ****

This biography of a Supreme Court justice grabs most of its information from Blackmun's own papers and diary. It presents the story of a justice who moves from the right side of the political spectrum to the left during his time on the bench. It also tells the tale of two men whose friendship draws to a close as this transformation takes place.

Blackmun grew up in Minnesota and went to school with another Supreme Court justice, Warren Berger. The two were, thus, long-time friends when they ended up on the Supreme Court together, though their paths to the Court differed. Although Blackmun went to a top law school, he found himself in the middle of the class, after having excelled in college, much to his displeasure. Such is the experience of most law students, I have found out, via my wife.

He then went to work for a nonprofit medical organization, the Mayo Clinic. Berger, meanwhile, went to Washington to clerk and then eventually to serve in the government, before being elevated to the appeals court. Blackmun turned down several opportunities to go work for big law and for D.C. government, but eventually he succumbed, taking a job for the appeals court out in the Midwest.

Berger becomes Chief Justice, and when an opening comes up under the Nixon administration, he suggests Blackmun. The old buddies end up living and working in D.C. together. Both moderate conservatives from Minnesota, there's some expectation that they will vote together on various cases. And that's largely how their time on the Court starts.

Blackmun's big decision was Roe v. Wade, which he wrote for the 7-2 majority. That case, as it turns out, was largely one meant to protect doctors from prosecution and Blackmun's thinking was affected heavily by his time at the Mayo Clinic. However, as time went on, the case became more and more about the Constitution's inferred "right to privacy" and women's rights.

Blackmun's defense of Roe became more and more about these latter things but also, it seemed to me, about protecting his legacy. When new conservative judges such as Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, and William Rehnquist came on to the Court, Roe seemed likely to fall--and barely survived. The former two, however, over the years, would move to the left as well and eventually uphold Roe in some later cases.

Blackmun went from voting about 90 percent with conservatives to 90 percent with liberals over his years on the Court, moving from the right to the left. Berger did not move as much accordingly, but more than that, as Blackmun became his own man on the Court, not simply taking Berger's same positions, the relationship became strained. One reads as the correspondence between the two grows slimmer and more strained, such that mention of Berger in Blackmun's diary at the time of the former's death is just that and not much more. It's a sad thing to witness.

I was told that Blackmun said that it wasn't he that changed but the Court, that it grew more conservative. But reading the book, I came to feel that in fact it was not just the latter. The Court may have gotten moderately more conservative, but it seems to me that Blackmun moved to the left too (as made evident by the justices with whom he largely voted). Why the shift? Faced with real situations, it was hard to remain an idealist, Blackmun said. Certainly, I can see how one's views could change when faced with real people whose lives may be affected.

Monday, October 10, 2016

On "King of Jazz" by Donald Barthelme (1226 words) *****

One of my favorite comic pieces by Barthelme, this one is about hipsters battling it out to play the coolest jazz in town. There are solos and riffs, and who will come out on top is not really the point. The point is getting there. Read it here.

On "The Next American Metropolis" by Peter Calthorpe ***

This was not exactly the book that I was thinking I would be reading. The title suggested something futuristic, dealing with changes in how we view cities and how technology would change our cities. Instead, the book is mostly an urban-planning guide, full of photos and practical points. By now, having read several books of urban theory, I do not find Calthorpe's ideas all that intriguing or different from what is general accepted best practice. Essentially, Calthorpe takes the ideas of Jane Jacobs and discusses how to put them into practice. And he criticizes Le Corbusier and the Garden City movement for its ideas. For Calthorpe, though, the most important defining element of a city is that it is walkable, something I can highly agree with. His ideas than are focused on making things pedestrian sized and friendly: denser communities, buildings facing streets instead of parking lots, creating mixed-use transit hubs, and so on.

What struck me most while reading Calthorpe's introduction was how, if so many are agreed that these are the best practices, other organization continues to happen. Calthorpe dives into this a little. The main issue appears to be that our planning happens piecemeal, and no one wants to give up their piece of control. Private landholders don't want to be told how to develop; towns create no-growth initiatives that essentially have the opposite effect by pushing development outside the no-growth zone and drive up sprawl; efficiency standards are passed for vehicles but people drive more miles as bigger highways are built to allow for more cars, and so on.

But this is, of course, part of the issue with democracy. We all want our large piece of land when we have a family, our piece of country. Or if we own property, we don’t want to be told what we can and can't do with it. Urban planning requires that individuals give up control over their own desires for the greater benefit of all. That's a tough sell on an individual level.

Calthorpe is also big on mixed-use planning, something he says most zoning laws discourage. He isn't talking just about shops under homes; he's also talking--and he goes on about this at length--about homes with in-law suites. The idea is that if we have a family home with an extra apartment, that extra apartment contributes to density--an adult family member can use it or it can be rented out to a single. The greater density would encourage the creation of transit hubs ("transportation-oriented developments"--places where public transport meet with multiuse commercial districts--child care, post offices, grocery stores), which in turn would encourage walking and the use of public transport rather than the use of private vehicles.

And it is this turn toward the private--private roads, private homes, private cars--that kills off our sense of community and actually makes us feel less safe, and thus encourages further isolation.

Calthorpe throws a set of statistics at readers with regard to car use. While population in the states went up between 1970 and 1990 by 20 percent or so, vehicle miles traveled went up 80 percent or so. Sprawl is causing us to drive more and to spend more time in our vehicles. While in Europe, the auto accounts for between 30 and 50 percent of travel, in the States, auto accounts for 86 percent of travel (walking and biking, 33-50% vs. 11%; public transit, 11-26% vs. 3%).

He looks also at certain plans that were proposed by a group that put together a book called Sustainable Communities. This text focused on making ecology part of planning, and it placed nature a bit too front and center, compromising on density. With another set of experts, Calthorpe helped to create another plan that uses what he terms "pedestrian pockets." Here, nodes of retail and transport and greenery make for walkable communities, where said nodes can be found within one-quarter mile of residences. Later, the incorporated a broader plan that allowed for single-family low-density homes. What has been found even more practical, however, is a return to a grid model, where said nodes fit within the grid, rather than a suburban model where residential neighborhoods of cul de sacs feed into single arterial streets. The issue with the latter plan is that traffic on said streets becomes overbearing, as there are few other ways to get around a town. A grid allows multiple means to reach one destination. (The lack of grid and the use of arteries is something that bothers me about Athens, Georgia, where essentially only one street really goes through the town center from the town's edges. This means that one essentially is confined to the one street or to the loop to get around town. It's a mess, and it would be even messier if the town were larger. What gridding exists is in older parts of town but doesn't lead anywhere much after one gets out of the older core.)

Calthorpe turns to the practical means of making plans--forging regional plans, more local plans, zoning, and so forth. He then sets out a set of guidelines. As one might expect from such a set, the reading here is rather dull--essentially laying out in more didactic form much of what has gone before, telling readers exactly how to forge transit-oriented developments: how much land should be devoted to commerce versus residence, how parking should be on the backside of buildings, how land use should be multiuse, and so on. Much emphasis is placed on making areas walkable: keeping traffic slow (less than fifteen miles an hour), sheltering pedestrians with tree shade and street-side parking, providing sidewalks, ensuring walkways go with the flow of traffic and not away from streets, and so on.

The last section provides concrete examples of where the plan has been put into place or will be. Most of the areas are in California (mostly Sacramento and San Diego), with one in Brooklyn and one in Washington State. Unfortunately the urban planning images are generally too small to fully detail what the author is talking about, meaning that readers have to rely on the captions and the general description to sort of get a sense of the plans. As a whole, the book ends up reading like a government manual and failed, for me at least, to fulfill a lot of its potential. Granted, the work was written two decades ago, but other than contemporary planning and design, the author doesn't really go into what metropolises will look like--the title, in other words, was misleading.

Self-driving cars and the like offer us now an opportunity to reconfigure the city. It'll be interesting to see what happens. On one hand, one could envision less space given over to vehicles, because folks won't need personal ones; on another level, one could see more space given over to such vehicles (parking lots of cars waiting for renters), much like rent-a-bike lots.

Monday, October 3, 2016

On "Sororally by Gary Lutz (1334 words) ****

Essentially the story of a work relationship--or date--that ends up going nowhere, the real charm in this piece is the language. "Eyes chance ambitiously" onto another's. Tasks are inherited from one day to the next. It's the beauty of the verbs and the occasional surprising descriptor. You can read the story here at Web del Sol (scroll down to the second piece).

On "Stories in the Worst Way" by Gary Lutz ***

All these pieces are short, and all have been, it feels like, edited down from something much larger. Lutz is one of those practitioners of the sentence, which means that every line counts--and virtually every line is something totally original. People don't just sit. They uncrack their bones into a repository. That sort of description, while beautiful (and actually, that's not a quote--it's just something akin to what Lutz would do), makes for difficult reading if one wants to go quickly. But it's worth slowing down and savoring the work.

Not that the stories themselves, beyond the language, always hold up something that original. Quite often, they're more or less slice of life pieces without much of a climax or epiphany. In "Sororally," a man goes out with a coworker, but a relationship doesn't work out. In "Waking Hours," a man stumbles through life at a job, spending time with the kid from his former marriage, and looking for gay lovers. In "Street Map of the Continent," a man deals with the fallout of a wife who leaves him (or dies). The latter story ends on a strange, seemingly unrelated tangent, as do many of Lutz's other pieces. In that sense, they remind me a bit of Lydia Davis's work, which has a fan base and its critical followers but of which I have not been one.

In "Slops," a man considers some events affected by his constant bouts with colitis. "Devotions" recounts marriages; "When You Got Back" involves a man in a relationship with a high school senior who goes out for a walk and meets another man with laundry that has been done but that doesn't look it (perhaps some kind of comment on the man's own behavior?).

"Esprit de L'Elevator" breaks what is already a short story up into even smaller pieces. The man at its heart meets four people in his apartment building each day. He begins writing a book for them--and then excerpts of said book are quoted. It's as if Lutz is just having fun with the little snippets here, whatever neat thing might strike his fancy.

In "Education," which seems vaguely set in some eighteenth-century world but also in our own, a man goes to "educate" a young miss for her mom and grandma. The story revolves around geography (learning town names) and, as one would sort of expect, sex and innocence.

"Certain Riddances" involves a man's life at an office and is full of fun and interesting asides--how names weigh us down with expectation. But like so many of the tales, it peters out with information that has seemingly little to do with anything that has gone before it, focusing on the man's life at home. The story could be about the way in which our relationships are in many ways anonymous, how we don't know people even when we do, and how what we do know impinges on our ability to connect. So taken in by words and occasional grand ideas is the writer, throughout this piece and others, that one rarely feels much for the characters or situations.

"Pavilion" is about marketing or public speaking or family relationships or all of them. A man speaks about forging families to others, forges one of his own sort of--and others. The last line here is memorable enough that it demands reading of the story itself to get to.

In "Recessional" a man lives with a divorced woman and her daughters. It's one of the longer stories in the collection, and as such, Lutz spreads out a bit, and that is in itself curious to see. A large amount of space is given over to the man emptying his pocket out on a dresser while his wife talks. I've never read so brilliant of a description for something so mundane.

"The Preventer of Sorrows" focuses on rooms--a woman's various rentals. Rooms with roommates and rooms alone, rooms with partners and husbands. Rooms in rowhouses and attic rooms. This manner of telling a story, not unlike Susan Minot's "Lust" is often compelling, but Lutz brings with it his own skewed vision such that the piece is something very different from anything Minot wrote. The piece ends with a profound line about how a place can overnight become something else. It makes you think about how we assign meaning to the places we go.

"Onesome" is about the struggle of staying in such relationships and how we in some ways subordinate our own lives in order to continue on with these others who have become part of us.

"Not the Hand but Where the Hand Has Been" covers much the same ground as many of the other stories, especially the early ones--a failing marriage, a set of jobs. Here, the focus becomes indexing, and the story itself features an index, and the narrator throws more and more of his life into categories (and into the jobs that he has).

The collection is full of so many stories, so many short ones, that it would be ponderous to recount all of them. Instead, one notices common themes and settings--offices, relationships, teaching, a kid. The pieces often feel as if part of a dream, given that the situations seem random and often the happenings go off on seemingly nonsensical tangents, even as they remain generally oh-so-commonplace. But Lutz's real strength in the sentence itself--so many beautiful lines. They get stacked up so much that his stories are probably better savored one at a time than read in a collection like this, where they tend to overwhelm and where the thread of the narratives gets lost.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

On "After Zombies" by Robert Garner McBrearty (646 words) ***

Being a successful writer, it seems at times, is simply about catching the next wave--or rather, being the first to get there. That's the schtick in this short piece, which dashes out several ideas that inevitably seem to have already been tried. I don't know if there really are any new ideas. Read the story here at Lowestoft Chronicle.

On "Great Streets" by Allan B. Jacobs *****

Jacobs is interested in why some streets are better than others--why we return to certain streets more than others regardless of what's on them. The issue, of course, in trying to define such things is that a street's greatness is always defined within a context. What exactly does a person need the street for? That's going to make a large difference in the definition of "great street."

Jacobs, thus, lays out several criteria. Great streets do the follow:

1. Great streets contribute to (a feeling of) community.
2. Great streets are safe and comfortable.
3. Great streets encourage participation.
4. Great streets are memorable.
5. Great streets are representative.

I can see the object of points 1-4, though I'm a bit less taken in by point 5. But definition really does affect our criteria here. A highway can be a great street in terms of its function when it works well, but that is not the kind of street Jacobs is talking of here--a street that is only really meant to be a conduit for getting us from one place to the other in the quickest and most direct way. Jacobs is talking more about streets in which people linger--or want to.

After the initial criteria is laid out, he begins discussing specific streets--a short residential street in Pittsburgh that has very dense population and nothing by street parking; a few streets going back to medieval times, with their attendant winding and narrowing and widening; wide boulevards with trees and separate parklike areas for pedestrians, the Grand Canal of Venice.

Jacobs makes me contemplate what I would consider a great street--among places I've visited or lived. In terms of large boulevards, I am reminded of the Beacon Hill area of Boston, where I stayed for a week, with its occasional street-level businesses, its three or so stories of dense living space, its wide sidewalk, its park running down the center, and its termination at the Commons. It was a wonderful street. Is it a street that would foster community or participation? That, I can't say, not having lived there.

The streets I most remember in towns where I've lived, I find, tend to have been those in downtown areas--it's really the downtown that I remember, more than the street. For me, a great street is an area conducive to walking--great sidewalk, lots to look at and see, many people around. In Pasadena, most of the major shopping areas are located on Colorado or Lake, meaning that these are the streets I most walked on and that I focus on when thinking of great streets. But sidewalks were almost everywhere, so the town was really conducive to walking no matter what street one was on. Colorado and Lake, however, offered the most in terms of people milling around. Lake died after six p.m., however, meaning that Colorado (and specifically the Old Pasadena section of it) was really the only one for people watching at night. What made this road successful, however, was that there was a nightlife. At the time in which I was growing up, the Hastings Ranch area, which is essentially a large strip mall (parking lots surrounding various outdoor shops and eateries), was not pretty, but it was actually a place where one could venture for an evening and leave the car mostly behind--there were theaters, a bowling alley, lots of restaurants, and some shopping. I would not describe the streets around these places as great, however. Why not? Perhaps because the streets themselves were merely byways--ways to get to the parking lot. Businesses did not abut the streets. And yet, not too far from where I grew up was Washington, which in parts have such abutting buildings and quite a few businesses. Really, it has potential to be charming, but there were few pedestrians and traffic whizzed by as if on a highway. I think ultimately it is that people make for a great street.

In Oxford, Mississippi, walking was more difficult. Some older streets made for a pleasant ambiance, but they were short, the town small. Mostly, it was the downtown square and its few immediate blocks around it that I remember most. In Fort Worth, again, the downtown Sundance Square is most memorable. The streets in other parts of downtown (south and east) should have been memorable--they had the same makings of those near the "square" (which was mostly just a parking lot)--but fewer pedestrians ventured out to those parts of downtown, especially at night. In Athens, Georgia, it is again downtown that is most memorable. That said, for walking, I used to like Lumpkin, Milledge, and Prince, when I lived closer to those areas. They featured occasional pedestrians as well, and old buildings, most of which were not set back from the street by parking lots (though quite a few might have yards or gardens of a sort). And what made these streets special? In part, it was the possibility of seeing or meeting someone I know. It was the feeling of neighborliness.

Even among residential areas, the ones I like best are great for walking, but even more for watching. The street I grew up on had wonderful sidewalks, and some large porches. It had the makings of a good street, but again, few walked it. Those porches sat sadly empty virtually all the time. Compare this to Adams Street in Oxford, which also featured some large porches but which, being close to downtown, featured more pedestrians--people greeted each other from the porch. It too had the makings of a good street, but it lacked a sidewalk, which meant that people could not linger. In fact, few residential neighborhoods really feature many people milling around. And in a way, that too is right--in context. I mean, when I go home, part of me wants to be alone, with my family. Part of me. Part of me likes that constant possibility of social interaction. It depends on my mood.

But as far as defining great streets, perhaps his strongest examples are those of streets which used to be great. Sometimes, seeing what is wrong, what is not working, is more useful in terms of diagnosing what "great" means. His examples include the Champs-Elysees. This one still has retail businesses on it and a good deal of pedestrian traffic, but it is not as great as it once was. Why? Because, Jacobs contends, the trees have been pruned too much and temporary buildings have been allowed to invade the wide sidewalk, creating dead space along the pedestrian portion of the street on each side, as people are forced out away from the other buildings. Ironically, many of these types of changes have been brought about by the businesses that have suffered--demanding smaller trees so that their signage is more evident, more space to sell wares. His next example of a street gone bad is Via del Corso, which suffers, he says, from being too long. Plazas mark the beginning and end of the street, but they're too far away to see. The narrowness couples with the height of the buildings makes for some parts of the street that almost never see sun. And while the street no doubt was once great, in the centuries since it came into being, many other great streets have come into being also, making it no longer stand out. (Oddly, this street, in his description, seems very robust even today, which would suggest to me quite the opposite: that this still is a great street, though admittedly I've been been a huge fan of those corridors of shadow that some streets are.) His last example is Market Street in San Francisco, which in its heyday was full of people and streetcars. But modernism has done away with much of that--the streetcars have been turned into subway stops (and that, only four); the people don't come as much because the buildings lining the streets have gone from big to bigger. Modern skyscrapers often don't have street-side retail--they demand that you go in, and when you do, you get the lobby for, say, a bank, which is hardly a large public draw. The windows are not individualized, so you can't tell how many stories there are from the outside or where the people are--the street, in its modern incarnation, lacks the feeling of the personal and the communal.

Throughout the various accounts of great streets, certain themes seem to emerge. Buildings tend to be of similar design or at least of similar height so that everything fits together. There are windows on the first floor; if it is a business district, shops and restaurants appear on that first floor. Windows and architecture ensure that we know that these are individual lived spaces. There is room for pedestrians on the sidewalk. There are usually trees providing ample shade. Often, traffic is kept to a moderate pace.

In his discussion of great residential boulevards, for which he uses Monument Avenue, in Richmond, as his case study, he makes a shoutout to Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena, which I'm well familiar with. I didn't mention it among talk of Washington, Colorado, and Lake. I can see the street's appeal, most especially on the west side before the road turns from north-south to an east-west direction. There, the street is lined with those ample trees, and there is a large sidewalk, and the homes are large and imposing and beautiful (Millionaire's Row, they were once called). But traffic along that part of the street is very busy; when I was a kid, I knew of someone from church who was run over while mowing a lawn on that street. Turn the corner, and the street loses identity in my mind (close to where the Rose Parade switches from Orange Grove to Colorado)--until it gets further east and hits my childhood neighborhood. There, the homes were more middle class, and the wide street was wonderful in some ways (my dad always commented on how all streets should be so wide), but at least in my mind, there was also trouble with such a wide street, especially as one got toward Allen Avenue. The trouble was the trees. They just weren't large enough to cover such width, which made for difficult and hot walks. (Further east still, there was a nice park along the street at least that I remember enjoying.) Certainly, the sidewalk was large enough to allow for many pedestrians, but there rarely were not many as one got further east. It was the north-south section of the boulevard that to me offered the most excitement and pleasure for a walk or a job, but it was also an area that I knew I would never live on, as it was pricy (unless one found an apartment on the far south end). Are great streets always expensive in terms of adjoining land?

Later, in a second section, Jacobs focuses on specific streets in diagrams and short bulletted lists of features, with the streets gathered together by category (e.g., residential boulevards, commercial districts, etc.). There, Orange Grove makes its full appearance. He notes that the curve at Colorado is the most intriguing area, which I find a bit of a surprise, since there's not much there at that corner (large parking lot), though the Norton Simon Museum is close by as well as the old Ambassador Gardens, though I suspect that the latter is mostly defunct now. Reviewing the street on Google maps, I realize that I've forgotten what much of it looks like--and that it has changed a lot since I was a kid. I suspect that one thing Jacobs likes about it is how it does twist and turn all along the way. He notes that it's a more compelling street to drive than to walk, and I would agree.

Also featured in that second section is Main Street in Disneyland. He notes how this little piece of land shows how an urban feel can be pushed into a small space. Main Street's main problem? It doesn't know whether it's a semblance of a big city or a small town. In other words, it's idealized but also obviously fake.

One of the more interesting failures that Jacobs features is the Ringstrasse, Vienna. It is a road that rings around a section of town. The drawings of it look beautiful--full of trees and wide spaces to walk. However, buildings are kept off at a distance, and the most direct path to anything you want is to go through the ring, not around on it. Hence, the Ringstrasse, while potentially a nice place to walk, is not a compelling street because it serves little real function.

A startling success occurs is Motomachi in Yokohama. Confined to a small space, the street actually burls through buildings of a sort. What I mean is that the base of the buildings is smaller than the buildings as they appear above--the buildings overhang the roadway, leaving room for cars and people at the bottom to wind their way through them. (I am left wondering, however, how much shadow would potentially make this area seem dreary, which Jacobs doesn't indicate.)

Next, in the third section, Jacobs compares city grids. Now, streets are placed in a context. Each grid is presented at the same size so that the size of the streets and blocks is evident in comparison to other city grids. What became evident to me quickly was that cities that developed later, after the advent of the automobile, feature larger streets and blocks--in other words, they appear to be less pedestrian friendly. American cities tend more toward square grid patterns, where no street stands out from another (or sadly, in some newer town with subdivisions, dead ends). Some older cities around the world have very small streets, and it is in these cities that you are more likely to encounter grand streets as well, in comparison to those small ones.

As cities, like Boston, have aged, however, many have imposed more modern grids--larger blocks and streets (merging blocks, widening streets)--so there are fewer intersections. This, in turn, affects wealth, power, and real estate distribution and pricing. Larger blocks tend to encourage wealthier landholders, so in a sense then, the commoner has become less and less powerful as streets have been modernized. Downtown belongs to the rich landholder, the corporation or billionaire.

Finally, Jacobs begins to summarize his findings. What makes a good street? A good street will have these characteristics: (1) It will be walkable. (Sidewalks play a big role here, but streets without sidewalks can still be walkable if that lack forces cars to flow at pedestrian speed. Trees and curbs can also bring a sense of safety to walkers by separating them from cars. The main thing is being able to walk securely at a leisurely pace, with not so many people around that one can't stay on the road and not so few that you feel alone while walking.) (2) It is comfortable--relatively sheltered from the elements (warm in the winter, cool in the summer, not too windy). (3) It will have definition. You can tell where the sides of the street are and often where the street begins and ends. A street that is too wide is seemingly not a street at all. A human-scale street allows you to interact with people--to recognize people from the other side. The scale of buildings is generally small (three stories or less), though taller is possible as long as the buildings don't begin to seem oppressive (comfort fits in here--too tall can mean too cold because of shadows or can create a wind tunnel). Monuments can make up for streets that might be wider than usual, providing focal points and definition; trees can do the same in terms of establishing borders. Finally, there needs to be a fair amount of density. A street with buildings too far apart and nothing else to establish a border, meaning that one can see across the block into backyards and other streets, will seem like less of a street. (4) It will be visually compelling. There have to be things to look at. Shadow plays a role--and the complexity of building faces. A completely smooth building face does not provide as many opportunities for different ways to light to play off of it as a face that has lots of juttings out and cornices and other fixtures on the façade. The movement of people and of leaves can be interesting. Things have to change. (5) Things have to be transparent at the street's edges. Windows must provide views into the buildings. Or there must be a suggestion that something is beyond the building or wall, like overhanging tree limbs, encouraging people to move into the space. (He gives as a counterexample a building on Colorado Boulevard in my hometown made of black glass. I don't remember the building, so it is likely the kind of black hole he references. I'm thinking it's one of the two or so office buildings splitting the One Colorado area from the Old Pasadena area, making that portion of the street, which is only a couple of blocks, seem desolate and long, even though the two areas on either side are not that far apart.) (6) Complementarity is essential. Buildings must be of a similar style; they must seem like they belong together. Similar heights help. Great buildings might occasionally stand out--but it is the otherwise mostly uniform type of building that makes such buildings stand out. (7) Great streets must be well maintained. (8) Great streets must have quality workmanship. (This is one reason most section 8 districts don't feel like great streets. Their buildings usually have a single, simple box design that is repeated over and over and feel as if they were put up quickly and cheaply.)

Beyond the requirements above, Jacobs notes, great streets often have the following (though they aren't as essential): (1) trees; (2) starts and finishes; (3) lots of buildings (which provides for variety of sight and of use); (4) ornaments, as in gates, benches, fountains, fancy streetlights, and signs; (5) occasional breaks (these are open spaces on longer streets--squares, piazzas, parks); (6) accessibility (you must be able to get to the street with ease); (7) density (streets need people); (8) diversity; (9) relative shortness (long streets lose their appeal over the long haul); (10) incline (completely flat streets are boring); (10) less than enough parking (too much parking, Jacobs contends, actually takes away from the street's character--usually, one is best off with minimal on-street parking and no parking lots; lots behind the buildings are not a solution, as these will tend to funnel people to the back instead of to the street; people must find parking elsewhere, on a different nongreat street, perhaps in a garage not on the main/great street); (11) contrast (different from other streets); (12) historicity (though the author then seems to contradict this by saying a great street can be from any time period).

In the end, Jacobs says, what a great street has is magic. And that, in itself, is undefinable. But the hope is that his book will help designers come closer to it when creating new streets.

The book itself is very well done, full of wonderful drawings of the streets and sketches of the streets in the context of other streets in the town, all drawn to the same scale. It's definitely well worth a look, as this summary does little to give the full feeling of the book.

Monday, September 12, 2016

On “Calamity” by Daphne Kalotay (4248 words) *****

"Calamity," one of the better stories in the collection of the same name, focuses Rhea's flight to the aforementioned wedding. The plane turns out to have mechanical difficulties, for which Rhea's seat mate blames herself (because she is a jinx with regard to everything). Rhea and the woman become fast friends, however, after Rhea announces to the plane how the woman beside her is responsible. They discuss regrets and secrets, and Rhea learns that her former propriety is because she is a woman, which means she's learned to be quiet in the face of things that demand saying something. Read the story here at Agni.

On "Calamity and Other Stories" by Daphne Kalotay ***

A collection of twelve mostly loosely interrelated tales involving characters headed ultimately to a wedding, Kalotay does a good job of presenting middle-class life and concerns. These are well-written pieces that I am not surprised to see in print. They tell contemporary stories well, but they don't revolutionize the form or do anything else that might make them differ from other polished work.

"Serenade" recounts a girl's experiences with her piano teacher, who her next-door neighbor best friend also has for tutoring. The teacher is an artist of sorts, an effete musician, who appreciates all things beautiful, most especially women, in a somewhat lecherous way. But there's more going on than initially meets the eye, and not all of it involves the teacher, who essentially plays the part of a voyeur.

"A Brand New You" concerns a woman who meets her ex-husband (from eight years before) and ends up bedding him, even as she is trying to change her life, to become someone better than she used to be. What she finds, however, is a man who himself is on the decline, his good looks--his main attraction when a younger man--fading. There's certain poignancy in this story, the way this woman recognizes in the man weaknesses and sorrows that she hadn't seen before, ones that mirror some of her own.

Many of Kalotay's stories end on something of a subtle twist. That's the case with "All Life's Grandeur," which focuses on a teen forced to spend the summer with his father and his father's new love--and with an eleven-year-old girl whose devotion and friendship the teen dismisses and dislikes. There's a lot of sorrow in this story, wisely delivered.

That quiet despair is also part of "Prom Season," in which boys are told they must bring dates to the prom, and one, Mack, learns that there are things more important than getting the girl you want, things that can cause you to lose all you set out to accomplish.

The next several stories didn't hold my interest as much, as if having hit her stride, Kalotay was simply skating along traditional themes. The last and weakest of these, “Anniversary," focuses on women getting together for drinks to talk about a son's impending wedding to the "wrong girl." This was the first time I got the sense that the characters in these stories might be linked, as the name of a dropped girlfriend corresponded to the name of the woman in the previous story, and the name of the son corresponded to the boy in "Prom Season." The two women talk of love, and one of them thinks a lot about a dead husband. Thematically the story fit in well with the tales in this section of the collection, but I didn't feel like this piece really went anywhere. The main topic of the son Mack is almost completely dropped by the story's end as the piece changes focus to the dead husband.

"Snapshots" involves a wife's complaints about a house that her husband likes for its views and location. At times, there are wonderful moments in the marriage, like snapshots, but we get the sense that the marriage is ultimately doomed. A next-door neighbor holds much curiosity for the couple--the husband tries to figure out where the neighbor works, the wife goes with the neighbor into his house (the husband suspects there might be an affair occurring). The neighbor builds a tunnel into a closet in the couple's house, where he hides from time to time from the law. I thought this story, as odd as it was, seemed a good, realistic summary of a couple's relationship.

"Difficult Thoughts" does an intriguing thing insofar as Kalotay does not follow the usual script for a work that involves a majorly otherworldly detail. Most of the time, the story would focus on the odd turn of event that occurs in the tale; instead, Kalotay uses the event to bring the story to a close, leaving us uncertain to an extent as to its reality. The tale itself is about a woman student (Rhea, of "Allston Electric," among others) in Italy who falls for a pair of brothers who turn out to be playboys of a sort. Are they to be believed?

"Rehearsal Dinner" ruminates on love and breaking up and on how essential it is to have a significant other. It does so through a focus on Geoff, who a year earlier dropped a girl and who has been avoiding relationships since and how he comes to see a couple who pick him up on his visit into town and how natural they seem to fit together.

The title story, “Calamity,” is one of the better ones in the collection and sets up well the last, "Wedding at Rockport," which brings the characters from the various stories together, which proves an interesting way to construct the book. Knowing the background of the various peoples at the wedding makes for a different reading than one would make without the eleven stories preceding. A drunk maid of honor, for instance, is much more sympathetic when one knows the experience through which she's just passed. And that is really what is the most redeeming part of this collection, which does what great story cycles do--it builds little by little something much greater than the sum of its parts. It gives us a sense of a community of characters.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

On "Glass Mountain" by Donald Barthelme (1503 words) ***

Man climbs skyscraper. Man retells fairy tale of ascending great heights against odds. Man does the incredible. So is this story. Read it here.

On "The Urbanization of Capital" by David Harvey ***

One of a set of books that Harvey has written on the subject of capital and the city, this one, he announces, focuses more on theory (than, say, history, as he does in another book). In his preface, Harvey denotes some of the problems with any approach to a given subject--how theory or point of view can lead us to the conclusions we want to see, even when we examine concrete examples, and how that box is difficult to get out of. Still, with this acknowledgment in hand, Harvey sees Marxian theory as the best means to read a city existing within a capitalist framework. And so he starts . . .

Marxist theory of cities rests around two major concepts, Harvey says: accumulation and class struggle. The desire of capitalists is to maximize capital--to accumulate. Laborers have only one thing to sell--their labor. So capitalists want to use that labor in such a manner that they can maximize profit (and accumulate more capital), just as laborers want to maximize the labor they have to sell for the most profit. Thus, we have a society grounded in "accumulation for accumulation's sake, production for production's sake."

And indeed, I can't help but be reminded of presidential promises of 4 percent GDP growth or of the unending need of companies to bank not just profit but ever increasing amounts of it in order to satisfy their stockholders/owners. Why this system? What are its benefits? If we are one of the blessed few, we gain more and more--more houses and cars and computers and phones and toys. It is nice to have more of these things, true, but is this life? Is this what we strive and live for? Is not the need for more and more things also a curse, the harnessing of us to a never-ending race to nowhere?

Harvey then goes into a very short summary of Marx's Das Kapital, useful for someone like me who hasn't read the book or that much of Marx. He talks of how laborers gather together to make their resource scarce and to bargain with the capitalists. Capitalists, in turn, are always trying to decrease the cost of capital by raising productivity (i.e., more capital from one laborer through either longer hours or increasing mechanical and systemic efficiencies). Also, he talks of the irony of capitalism, how it brings about its own fall: as profits soar on the backs of ever-less-paid labor, those who can buy the goods become fewer, eventually leading to a downfall of profits. (And so that is why we have business cycles, which tend to last about nine years, wherein a downturn in growth occurs, prices readjust, and we start again with building profit.)

Harvey discusses circuits of capital. The primary one involves the process I just described. The secondary one involves aids to this process of production and consumption--that is, infrastructure, so roads and airports and other generally governmentally created assets. A third circuit involves research and development. To achieve these latter two ends, laborers and capitalists (most especially the latter) constitute themselves as a class in order to bring about developments they could not achieve as individuals. And this in turn is how capital affects urbanity and vice versa.

Harvey then turns his attention to crises that develop as overaccumulation of capital occurs. Such overaccumulation is offset by investments in these other circuits, but eventually these too become overwhelmed. The discussion that follows becomes more heavily theoretical and hard to follow, though the various charts demonstrating the historical examples Harvey gives help explain.

One interesting point Harvey raises toward the end of that discussion is how spending on the second circuit--infrastructure--both helps with the accumulation of capital and interferes with it. That is, a road that helps speed production creates more capital, but it also costs a lot. If the road's usefulness is curtailed before the capital accumulation pays for it, then it's actually a loss to capital. And if that road actually makes capital accumulation more difficult toward its latter years, because of its outdatedness, then it slows down production. So for example, new cable fiber might double the production of an Internet company but cost a billion dollars to implement, which would take twenty years to pay off. The company might see its proceeds double over the next five years, but then growth might level off as the fiber's capacity is reached. Then, say, if a new technology comes along and renders the cable outdated, the company might actually see losses--that is, it must pay for new infrastructure before the old is paid off or it must give in to lower productivity until the twenty-year project is paid off.

Next, Harvey turns his attention to capital's role in space. Here, he denotes that a major desire of capitalists to help with accumulation of capital is to shrink space through smaller usages of time. Transportation obviously has a big role here, as does credit. Also, placing manufacturing near areas conducive to that task is helpful, though technology can also do away with the need for that--for example, the steam engine reduces the need to be near a waterfall to produce power for a mill. Merchants act as middlemen who bring goods to consumers' locales, also accumulating capital. (In the sense that the Internet provides instant exchange of credit for media-type goods like music, it is a perfect reducer of time and space, except that of course it also allows for easy sharing of materials for free, reducing accumulation.)

Here's where cities have their function, in bringing many resources into one small space, thus cutting down on the time involved in production--and also giving to capitalists a large labor pool. Another issue with fixed capital such as infrastructure is that while it facilitates the movement of goods within a city, it also can become over time a barrier to such movement. Not only might a road become too small for its task, but a building might lose its primary function and be left as a "landmark" to its previous use, thus violating the space that might be more usefully put into production and causing things to spread out.

Capital also has its effect on space in the way that accumulation must be dealt with to keep production constant in the face of inevitable overaccumulation. Thus capitalists are always seeking new markets into which to dispense their goods. This can be accomplished by expanding the land for which such capital is produced, as in a nation or territory that has a frontier, an area to expand into or "conquer." It can also be accomplished by selling goods to a foreign entity that is producing less capital. The issues that this creates, however, are multifold. One is getting said entities to pay for said goods; this often happens through the extension of credit. But eventually even here a market is saturated, and the debt eventually has to be paid. Keeping a foreign nation poor--unable to produce its own goods, as in a colony--means that the country will eventually not be able to purchase enough goods to take on the overproduction from the ever-richer, overaccumulating, colonizing country. Letting the foreign nation use the capital it is taking on to become a producer itself allows that nation to more ably buy goods from the colonizing country, since it grows its means by which to pay for more goods, but it also eventually creates a situation wherein it too is producing goods and trying to get rid of excess capital, in essence then entering into competition with its former colonizer and thus looking for its own spaces into which to expand.

Thus, Harvey denotes, capitalist accumulation carries with it a basic contradiction with regard to how it uses space. In essence, space is only overcome through the production of space. That's because in resolving the issues created by capitalism through space, those issues are transferred into an ever-larger sphere.

(This all seems to work the way that I see our economy working. What a Marxian reading of production doesn't take into account, however, is how production resources that are freed via overaccumulation might well be put to work producing other goods and services. That would be the capitalist argument. Technological gains raise productivity, creating excess labor, enabling those workers then to take on other tasks creating and eventually manufacturing yet other technologies that will raise productivity further, thus repeating the cycle. That is, to some extent, how we shorten work weeks and lengthen vacations over time [as has occurred from 1850 to 2000], but it is also, more fundamentally, how we get technological advances and an ever larger accumulation of goods that eventually trickle down to even the poorest laborers. This is the basic difference between liberal policy makers who insist on a more balanced distribution of the pie and conservative ones who wish instead to simply grow the pie--under the latter, you might have a smaller share relative to the well-off but it's still more in reality than you'd have had with a larger share of a smaller pie. The latter theory makes a lot of sense to me in some ways; the issue, for me, with a hands-off "grow the pie" idea, however, is that it allows for ever-increasing amounts of power to be vested in a smaller number of people, leading to oligarchy and conceivably oppression, which would then arguably bring about some of the issues Marx raises, wherein the system begins to implode as laborers, lacking power, are unable to free themselves to bring about the gains that they previously could and thereby actually slowing down and eventually wrecking the capitalist system.)

Next, Harvey turns to land and property and its role in these tasks of production and accumulation. Since space is of importance to efficient production, being at the center of that space becomes of importance, as it raises one's productivity (the speed and efficiency with which one can obtain the goods needed to produce more and the speed and efficiency at which one can move those products to customers/market). Hence, land values at these central points rise, as landowners rent out the land to those most able to pay the higher fees. For those areas where lower rents are charged, the goal of a landowner is to make the most profit from that property, either by making improvements such that higher rent can be charged or by making fewer improvements such that the owner makes a higher return from the rent levied. In the former case, lower classes are constantly pushed away, as the property rises in value; in the latter case, lower classes constantly replace the higher classes, as the property drops in value.

Although a class might gather together to pursue its own interests in the face capitalist owners (for example, in labor unions or company towns), Harvey notes, this is less common in urban areas, where classes are often divided into groups competing against one another.

The next few chapters go into a discussion of rent and land. Essentially, it seems, Harvey argues that via rent, land in a capitalist system becomes a form of capital, which seems a no-brainer. People look to land value to make money. Land ceases to be merely space and becomes comoditized. This is especially true in countries without a feudal heritage. A comparison of land between feudalism and capitalism draws out a basic difference between the two. In the former, land ownership is a constant and workers work to provide produce for the landowner for the right to use the land; in the latter, land is bought and sold as a commodity itself and workers produce materials to have access to the commodity.

Chapter 5 seeks to answer a basic question as to why certain kinds of people band together in certain areas. That is, do similar people live in the same area because they are similar; or do similar areas create a set of similar people? Of course, complicating this is the definition of "similar." Politics within capitalism works to hide class difference through the use of other idealogies and groupings, such as ethnicity and race or religion. By employing such groupings, classes will fail to unite and may even seek to deter others of the same class for other reasons. Distinctive communities, whether physical or cultural, thus fragment class consciousness and thereby frustrate class struggle. (Herein is one of the weaknesses of Marxism, which assumes that class is the only REAL motivator and that all other motivations are shams employed to keep classes in their place. Humans thus are reduced to monetary commodities, whereas we are much more complicated than that.)

From here, the book begins to feel like it's circling around the same ideas and themes. We learn, again, that capitalists like cities because there are more laborers available; laborers like cities because there are more opportunities. Capitalists try to monopolize the goods produced (through, for example, branding) so as to reap more profits and avoid devaluation. Cities compete with one another, avoiding overaccumulation through expansion or through debt spending on infrastructure. This is all to set up Harvey's discussion of how urbanization can interfere with the process of accumulation, more specifically with regard to how "community" fostered in urban living interferes with the process of overaccumulation by class. Community, in essence, breaks up class, creating sectors of people who benefit from the accumulation of capital that don't necessarily match up with class. This is, essentially, what happens in a lot of political situations, wherein, say, business leaders team up with minority workers, or technologists team up with educators, or property owners small and large team up against labor, and so on. These odd bedfellows make a Marxist's job hard in arguing for the effect of class on the economy in urban sectors. Labor can end up with odd partners, and capitalists too. (I think of the attempt to open a downtown Wal-Mart here in my town that did not come to fruition. The African American community was largely for it, as were certain businesspeople keen on development, but small local businesses and the local creative class were very much against it. The African American community near the area under proposed development saw the Wal-Mart as a job creator and as a source of groceries in a supermarket desert; certain business-friendly persons keen on development saw it as a source of tax revenue; but downtown businesses saw it as a death knell to their small retail shops [mostly catering to middle-class and rich whites], and the creative class saw it as a faceless entity stealing the town's cultural uniqueness. Here, then, the most underprivileged teamed up with the most privileged, and the middle class stood on the other side. No teaming mass of lesser clout could rise up against the most advantaged, since the bottom 99 percent were split into two warring parties, one of which sided with the 1 percent--and arguably for its own economic benefit, though at the cost of others' economic well-being.)

Harvey then turns his attention to urban planners. He notes that the job of such planners in a capitalist society is to balance the needs of laborers, capitalists, and landowners so that the system doesn't get out of whack and accumulation can continue at a steady pace, avoiding economic crises created by overproduction and the like. As an example he points to the suburbs, along with their attendant transportation networks, which he sees as being created to give laborers a means to "own" homes and to have cheaper places to live and thus to avoid social unrest that cities generate when capitalists accumulate too much at the expense of labor. He talks of urban planners now are focused mostly on "efficiency" (though one hundred years ago it would have been called "moral uplift," the actual purpose is more or less the same). In a capitalist society, urban planners focus on how to make the system continue to work equitably to smooth out and continue accumulation, and thus the system is still focused ultimately on capitalists (the ones who are extracting the profits--accumulating) rather than on laborers.

The book ends with an account of the history of urbanism and capitalization, wherein Harvey argues that cities moved from being centers of production to being centers of consumption (under Keynesian economic theories). One result of this was the creation of suburbs, as even land become part of this "consumption" aesthetic. If underaccumulation was a problem during the Great Depression and more consumption was the solution, a problem arises when one runs out of consumers, as happened in the 1960s, as the entire world began to produce again. Thus, cities had to turn to new ways to bring about accumulation and restore capitalism's equilibrium. Harvey rehearses four strategies cities have used to draw in more consumers: (1) lower labor costs (which tends to bring about a return of class warfare); (2) creation of tourist meccas; (3) becoming a government or corporate mecca (which involves investing in transportation and other capital); or (4) becoming the object of redistribution (what I take to mean as the object of some kind of national/government spending, such as that on defense). Cities can practice one or more of these--and compete with one another in this way. This competition leads to uneven geographical development.

And the lack of consumers means the death of Keynesianism. What, Harvey asks, is to follow? He seems to believe a socialist system of some sort is to be it, if we can figure out how to create such a system.

This book proposed a lot of ideas but stayed deeply theoretical, which made it a slow and at times difficult slog. I'd love to see the theories put down with more practical examples to make the reading easier to understand and more interesting.