Monday, February 22, 2016

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

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

On "Sum" by David Eagleman ****

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 4, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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