Tuesday, June 28, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

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

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

On “Naked City” by Sharon Zukin *****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 9, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 3, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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