Monday, April 18, 2016

On "Pivot Point" by Xujun Eberlein (6935 words) ****

This story asks what a moment that changes our life really consists of. The story itself recounts an affair from the point of view of a woman who is rapidly becoming too old to get married in Cultural Revolution-time China. Was the pivot point when she met the man, when she gave him her virginity, when he broke up with her? Read the story here.

On "Apologies Forthcoming" by Xujun Eberlein ****

This book, written by a Chinese ex-patriot, revolves around the Chinese Cultural Revolution. As such, for a person who has not studied greatly into the subject, the work was immensely interesting. When I was younger, I preferred fiction because I felt that it provided me better insight into a given time and place than history books could. Perhaps, if I were back in school and more focused in my reading, fiction would become my favorite genre again--and books like Eberlein's would be key to making that happen.

My one previous reading into the Cultural Revolution was a paper/memoir written by a classmate in an autobiography class I once took. A Chinese immigrant himself, my classmate decided to focus on his experiences then rather than on the fiction early American narrative we were asked. I wish I'd spent more time reading the work for what it was now, rather than being focused on giving feedback and wondering how the memoir fit into the class assignment.

Eberlein's book contains eight stories of essentially even quality. In the opening story, "Snow Line," a man writes a poem that take the nation by storm--a poem that is not explicitly Maoist. The story is a commentary on art amid all-encompassing political idealism. Unlike most of the stories in the collection, the focus seems more on art than on politics. Many of the stories, including "Pivot Point" and "The Randomness of Love," involve innocent and/or adulterous love

"Feathers" is about a girl who tries to hide from her little sister and grandmother the knowledge that her older sister has died while doing Maoist work in the country, going even so far as to hire someone to pose as her older sister coming back for a visit.

In "Men Don't Apologize," a girl goes to work for a bus manufacturer and discovers why bus accidents often occur. She also finds the man who accused her father of being a capitalist during the revolution, but when she tries to bring the two together to bury the hatchet, she discovers that forgiveness does not come easily.

"Watch the Thrill" discusses harrowing events from the point of view of boys who have no understanding of them--who in fact find joy in watching people beat up, chased, and killed, so much so that they actually prevent one man from running to safety after committing a potentially revolutionary act, if not an act of revenge.

"Disiple of the Masses" focuses on a city girl who goes to live in the country to help out farmers. There, she discovers that rather than being an aid, she is a spy.

The collection ends with a tale told in the United States, many years after the events. This look back seems a particularly good way to draw the work to a close.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

On "Me and Miss Mandible" by Donald Barthelme (4192 words) ****

Long before Adam Sandler went back to elementary, long before Brock Clarke wrote about something similar, Barthelme did it in this tale. Here, a man returns to sixth grade, which as it turns out is full of sexual seethings. Women are vying for his attention, but most especially the teacher. Try as he might to convince people that he is not a minor--having served in the military among other life achievements--he is stuck in class, much to Miss Mandible's disadvantage. Read the story here.

On "The City in History" by Lewis Mumford ***

Lewis Mumford tells us about the spiritual and cosmic origins of the city so that we can get a handle on how we can best forge the city of tomorrow. To do that, he must scope out all of Western history, denoting where the city has been and what it could possibly become. All that said, this was a long and often laborious read that has left me in many ways a bit more befuddled than illuminated. Mumford's own words often take off in poetic flights of fancy that are heroic or elegiac; they are beautiful, but such is not something I'm accustomed to reading in serious sociological nonfiction--and it rarely helps to make the message clearer.

The book starts off especially slowly, because Mumford starts essentially at the dawn of man. Most of this information is prehistory, so there's some archeology and anthropology and a whole lot of conjecture. For Mumford, early cities start with death, with graveyards--places where people go to visit their ancestors. It's these ancient rituals that gather people together and make, eventually, for civilization. An interesting theory, but one based largely on the fact that it's graveyards that mostly survive. What of the things that did not survive? And is all human history rooted in such spiritualism? Is the more secular instinct merely one of modern man?

I could not wait for Mumford to get to the time when there were written records, so that I could read about actual city planning and theory. Although he talks a bit about the Egyptians, it is really only when we get to Greek society that such discussion takes off. Here, several different ideas of the Greeks are unfolded. Interestingly, we learn that the Greeks are among the first to have created checkerboard plans for cities, laying out straight streets on a grid pattern. More interestingly, we learn of various ideas that Greek philosophers had about the ideal city, which was not to be more than about five thousand inhabitants (there's is some question as to whether than included women, children, and slaves--probably not); beyond this, the city became too large to manage, unable to serve its purpose. Mumford seems to agree that cities can be too large, that size does not a better city make.

From there, Mumford follows the development of the Roman city, and in one passage writes elegantly of Rome's incredible debauchery (with its coed baths where sex was not uncommon).

But where the book really picks up is with the Middle Ages. It is in the city, as it came to exist after Rome's fall, that Mumford seems to find an ideal. With the destruction of a central government, people looked to the church for protection and to various nobles and dukes that would eventually become kings. The walled city was reintroduced as a means to protect people--to keep people out, to keep people in. But these cities were nicely sized and able to function much better than most historians have given them credit for. Streets were often laid out by function, winding with geography.

It is in the baroque city, what comes after the medieval city, that Mumford begins to find displeasure, for in it he sees the beginning of the modern city. The baroque city came to be as kings gained greater power. With that also came the desire for grand architecture and monumentation. No longer was function the height of city "planning"; rather, it was glory. Streets were straightened or widened to show off military might and government power (and to aid with the quick movement of troops).

We might see similarities to more contemporary cities with their focus on the capitalist and profit-making machine, wherein people are secondary to the function of business. Indeed, modern cities are criticized for just that by Mumford. And for their gargantuan size, which cuts people off from their surroundings.

Mumford sees much hope in Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities. Rather than letting suburban sprawl eat up all the surrounding land, adding forever to traffic, Howard sets out a plan for smaller towns surrounded by green zones.

Mumford's account of the creation of the suburb is interesting in its own light. It was, of course, founded in the idea of letting people get back to nature. The suburb was at first something for the upper class, so that it could avoid the dirt and grime of the city proper. But like so many things, those desires trickled down to lower classes, and with time, more and more moved to the suburb to be out among nature. This was aided by advances in transportation--first the railway and then the car. But as more people do that, move into the outskirts of the city to be in the trees, the more nature recedes, and the very purpose for which the suburb was founded no longer is fulfilled (sans the creation of new suburbs even further out).

Howard's Garden Cities aim to end this constant growth at the edges. Rather, cities are planned for specific populations of around thirty thousand, enough that there are physical and cultural amenities while still leaving things close enough together that traffic is not a continual muddle. These towns are then surrounded by green space, so that all people can easily leave town to be in the city. And those towns, in turn, are connected across the green space.

Mumford does not think too well of megalopolises either. But he does see potential in sharing culture (interlibrary loan is given as an example, or traveling museum exhibits) across a network of smaller cities. In this manner, culture comes to the city rather than it being hoarded in one large center, and local centers maintain their unique histories and cultural components.

In theory, I like Mumford's ideas and even the concept of the Garden City. Smaller towns are easier to live in from a practical perspective. There is a sense of community. Infrastructure is not overburdened. But scale does seem, to me, to be of some import, even if one town might share with another its various cultural artifacts. The fact is that smaller towns are not always enough of a center to support things that might appeal to obscure tastes, even on an on-loan basis. There is a reason larger cities tend to have arthouse movie theaters and playhouses and museums and sporting facilities and Vietnamese-Mexican fusion cuisine restaurants while smaller towns don't. Sure, one museum might lend part of a collection to another town, but at what cost? And how many people are going to visit the museum to make it worth that cost?

Of course, the Internet has changed many of these concerns. No longer are we as people as dependent on our immediate surroundings for alternative cultural opportunities. But in a sense, that too is a loss, for as we sit in front of our screens engaging the wider world from the limited perspective of our small town, we fail to engage with the immediate community.