Wednesday, December 28, 2016

On "Descent of Species" by David Eagleman (about 650 words) *****

Want a simpler life? Be careful what you wish for. Eagleman traces out the implications of such a wish here at Biblioklept.

On "The People in the Trees" by Hanya Yanagihara ***

This is a disturbing book. Yanagihara makes the idea of raping a culture for one's own ends physical--makes the metaphor potentially real. Alas, where some books manage to be disturbing but to somehow keep one fascinated via language or character development, I was left rather cold by the main character throughout.

Norton Perina writes his life story at the urging of a colleague, who serves as the editor of his biography. Perina has been jailed for a sex crime against his adopted children--children that he has gathered from a Pacific Island nation that he has helped to destroy through his quest for knowledge. As readers, one is left somewhat in the dark with regard to whether Perina is actually guilty of the crime for which he's been jailed until the very end; part of me wishes that Yanagihara had left us in the dark.

One's distaste for Perina begins not just with the first-page revelation of what he's been accused of but for the tone of superiority that he maintains throughout the book. This is extended further as he goes about his scientific tasks.

Perina is invited to accompany some anthropologists to a South Pacific island as a medical doctor and aid. On the island, he and his colleagues discover a group of people who appear to be about sixty but who turn out to be much older, yet whose cognitive functions are less than to be desired. These people live in a native culture that has eschewed Western ways in, what we might say, both good and bad ways. The longevity of the people, however, is what most fascinates the researchers, most especially Perina, however, and his desire to find the reason leads him not only to the answer but to fame as he publishes papers on the subject. That fame, however, comes at a cost to the island and the islanders themselves, as it is then dredged by Western companies for the secret drug that they hope to create from what Perina has found. It is this destruction that is so hard to read about (and that inspires a great deal of pity), especially when described by someone as egocentric as Perina. One wishes he had been jailed long before the accusations fly that ruin his life, whether they be true or not.

As an indictment of Western colonialism, this work is as damning as any novel could hope to be.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

On "The Highline Highway" by Nathan Oates (3152 words) ***

"The Highline Highway" involves a strange proposition wherein the narrator is paid to sleep with a young woman to help diversify the breeding pool for an Amish-like community. The situation seems somewhat preposterous, though I'm guessing that Oates perhaps pulled the story from a headline somewhere. The story itself is a bit hard to read in some ways, as it's essentially like reading about a woman being raped each night for a week. There is little joy in this, even as the narrator tries to make some. It's one of the weaker stories in Oates's mostly very fine collection. You can read it here.

On “The Empty House” by Nathan Oates ****

The world is not a safe place. Oates's stories are often set overseas and in unfamiliar settings. The strongest ones involve people in over their heads, reminiscent of Paul Bowles's work. While some of the stories are real shockers, the collection unfortunately isn't wholly consistent in quality.

"Nearby, the Edge of Europe" focuses on a man whose wife has become an alcoholic no longer interested in her career or in putting in much work on the marriage, all this on a trip to Europe to see the husband's sister's family. A kind of sadness pervades the story as the narrator comes to grips with his dissolving marriage. The story can be read here at Jstor, with a free membership.

I'm not sure how to take "Looking for Service." Written from the point of view of a conservative businessman who doesn't much care for the liberal persuasion of his children and the like, the story recounts his trip to a third-world nation to resolve yet another issue for the mining company he works for. A subplot involving his need to care for his ailing wife provides a sympathetic side to him. And one can see that it is compassion that causes him to tour parts of the country with a youngish hippie couple. But what we don't see is much of a transformation in the man--he has preconceived notions of the country, of youth, of these two people in particular, and they're all confirmed for him, whether what he believes is true or not. I suppose the one thing we do come to see is that the man is full of fear.

In "A Woman without a Country" Oates hits his stride. The story involves a woman whose sexual escapade becomes part of a hit reality television show so that she is forever trying to escape from a past that it seems everyone knows about. I've often wondered how people who catch a bit of unwanted fame deal with it, and Oates does a good job here of channeling one possible reaction.

"Running Rapids" is a cold-hearted story that deserves its coldness. It's about a couple who go camping in Alaska and who run in with a group of Danish campers. What happens next is chilling in more ways than one. The matter-of-fact tone of the story adds to its macabre, and was the first to remind of some of Paul Bowles's work.

"The Yellow House" is the story that first brought Oates to my attention many years ago. My review of it can be read here, where a link to the story is also available.

"In the World Below" returns to some of the themes in "Looking for Service." In this case, an American with a diplomatic or multinational job of some sort has brought his son to Haiti, and together they sit out an ongoing revolution and all its apparent dangers rather than fleeing to safe American quarters. The story is told from three points of view--the father's, the son's, and their Haitian guide. Such multiple viewpoints are hard to pull off.

"Developing" is one of my favorites insofar as it uses a technique and tells a story I had never quite read before. It's a letter about a man who goes to pick up a set of photos he was not aware he had asked to be developed. The photos include pictures of a woman he does not know--or perhaps does. One is left wondering how to interpret the letter writer's actions to follow. Has he gone to live in his head? Or has his imagination actually come to life? Or is this simply a metaphor for another life he wishes he had? I was reminded of the fantastic realists of Latin America (Cortazar's "Orientation of Cats," in which a man's family is transported into a painting he goes to stare at each day in a museum).

"Hidden in the Trees" is another overseas story, this one about a American couple who tour nontourist areas of foreign lands. The woman is a former drug addict who draws her strength from her husband and who struggles with the lack of strength within herself. "In the Ravine" is about a slacker who realizes that his parents actually know that he is one, as his father takes him on a trip to find and dig up illegal marijuana plants.

The last two stories return to the dark and shocking material recounted in "Running Rapids." "Famous for Crabs," despite its seemingly trifling title is one of the darkest stories I've ever read. It's about a man who goes to visit an old college friend he reconnects with through Facebook. It can be read at here at Jstor with a free membership. The title story is about another man visiting an old college friend in Guatemala during the civil war and about the younger brother, twenty years later, who goes to track down the man who disappeared soon after.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

On "The Dolt" by Donald Barthelme (2189 words) ***

An exploration of the difficulties involved in writing narratives, this one centers around a man preparing for an examination. Read the story here.

On "The First Christian Century in Judaism and Christianity" by Samuel Sandmel **

Sandmel's book appears to have come out of a series of lectures on the subject that he gave. The general thesis of the lectures was that it's difficult to be certain about much of anything historically in the first century. In the sense that I often feel as if there is not enough information available to interpret some sections of scripture within their historical context, it was nice to read of a learned scholar essentially saying that that is how he feel as well. In the sense that I came to this book hoping for more information about the first century, it was a disappointment, for the book dwells mostly on this uncertainties and in that sense fails to present much of a portrait of first-century life.

The book is divided into four chapters--on the significance of the first century, on Palestinian Judaism, on Hellenistic Judaism, and on Christianity. Of course, the first century is very significant, for out of it springs Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Knowing this century is in essence to know the origins of these two faiths. Too bad it is so hard to know much about the century.

The next chapter goes into this origin of Rabbinic Judaism, wherein the author has difficulty finding where the moment that Pharisaical Judaism transition into Rabbinic is (if indeed this concept is even correct). As for what we do know: Jews read scriptures at service, though the set Parsha calendar may or may not have existed at that time. The sermon, as we know, may have come before the first century or maybe later--it is hard to know how a short explanation of a given scripture transformed into a full-on discourse on the subject or when it exactly happened. Were there two Sanhedrin, one political and one religious? And did they (or one of them) have authority over life and death, and if so, why did Rome have to be involved when putting Jesus to death? The major issue throughout is that our major sources are religious (Rabbinic writings) or historical (Josephus), but there is not historical religious source, so we have to glean what we can from each.

The chapter of Hellenistic Judaism does a lot of comparing of Philo's views to those of Paul. And the chapter of Christianity focuses on how, in the author's view, most of the writing in the New Testament tells us more about the time in which the books were written than about the first century. In the author's view, most of the New Testament was written much later, some as late as the second century. Here, the author's view, corresponding to mainstream Protestant beliefs, that Paul created a radical break with the Jewish law, colors most of the author's views. Since the author is Jewish I suppose I can't be surprised that he looks on the New Testament from a largely secular perspective and, thus, is prone to dismissing much of the more typically religious view of the writing of the works. But I came to this work hoping to find out more about the Judaism of the time, and the fact that the author feels there are so many uncertainties that he can't make too many claims rather disheartened me to the extent that by the time I came to this final chapter, his views left me rather unimpressed.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

On "Sum" by David Eagleman (381 words) *****

The title story from Eagleman's collection reflects on our lives as packets of discreet activities. When thought of that way, what we do seems to take on much greater significance--and also lesser. Is our time really best spent on our phones? Also included are three other short pieces from the collection. Read the story here.

On “People in Cities” by Edward Krupat ***

A somewhat dated work (mid-1980s), Krupat's text is a grand summary of various theories about the city. And that's what it excels at--at summarizing. The issue with this is that it's hard to get a grasp on the ideas at times because so much information is conveyed, and generally Krupat takes little stand on any particular one. Hence, it's a book without a very dull thesis: Cities . . . people look at them in different ways. Unfortunately the writing isn't engaging enough to keep one enthralled without a strong thrust.

Krupat's book is really an exercise in social psychology--as it pertains to the city. As he points out in his introduction (chapter 1), any one view of the city can be widely different. Look at a map. There is the map that a cartographer of streets creates, and then there is the map that an individual might create, which would drop out certain things and add other things in.

Krupat's message really begins to take shape, however, in chapter 2. Here he looks at what a city is and what makes for a good city. He examines two ways of evaluating a city: objective and subjective. A short summary of various objective measures is then rendered, going back to the early 1900s. Think of those "best cities" lists one reads about perennially in magazines. That's what Krupat is examining--how such lists are created, what the criteria are, and how fair such lists are. Some lists look largely at economics. One interesting list looked at moral integration--that is, to what extent the people in the city shared similar values. Each list comes up with different "best" cities.

Krupat then turns to subjective measures. Most interesting in this list is his own measure, which was created by having people list off five adjectives that described three different cities, and then three kinds of cities (large, medium, and small). Large cities tended to be found to have more culture but also to be more isolating and dangerous.

Eventually, Krupat argues that both the objective and subjective need to be considered when viewing a city. Objectively, a given city or area might have less crime, but if people feel as if they are in danger, it doesn't matter. Feelings and reality, of course, affect one another. Feelings of danger can lead to actual danger, just as feelings of safety can lead to actual safety, just as actual danguer can lead to feelings of the same, and so on. And what we value in a city will differ from person to person, making such lists on some level highly subjective in the end anyway.

The next chapter focuses much of its discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of anonymity that a city offers--or whether  the city offers anonymity at all. Krupat claims that living among strangers is a relatively recent phenomenon. Such can be alienating. But there is also something else that a city offers that isn't offered in a rural area or small town. Whereas one's friends in a smaller enclave are largely determined by who lives nearby, in a city one's friends are often people with similar interests. This is afforded by the fact that the city offers more density and thus more opportunity for people of similar interests to live nearby. So where a small town might have three people who like live jazz, a large city might have three thousand. The latter would afford such jazz lovers more opportunity to meet with each other and to enjoy the same activity. In a sense, then, the city often has enclaves within it that are not so anonymous.

Krupat then returns to the idea of the image of the city. Here, he explores in great detail Kevin Lynch's work (based around his seminal work). Krupat also looks at various studies coming out of that work. Our views of what is distant and far, for example, are influenced by this image. Interestingly, we will tend to view things moving toward the center of town as closer than things moving away from the town, even though the latter might be closer in actual distance. Reasons this might be the case include one's tendency to go toward the center for other activities or simply the more arresting qualities of the landscape moving to the center. This can be offset, however, by such things as how straight the path is. If we have to make a lot of turns to get somewhere, we will tend to view that place as farther away, even if the straight shot is actually a longer distance. There is also the means by which we go about forging our personal maps, which tend to start very egocentrically with key paths sketched out; we then move to disjointed landmarks; and finally, once we have been in a place for a while, we fill out our map with a larger, less-egocentric sketch. Likewise, how much we have to travel affects how we see our city. Usually, the poor have smaller maps, as they travel through cities less, but in a city where all services are granted in a given small area in which largely rich people live, the situation might be reversed, so that the poor travel more to get to various necessary things, thus forging a wider map. Walkers see more detail but a smaller area than drivers. Drivers see and remember more about a city layout than passengers, but navigators see and remember more than drivers. How we view a city then depends on how we function within it. Putting all this together for design purposes, Krupat summarizes his point about the image of the city this way: “Good design . . . satisfies two conflicting needs. It provides order to facilitate comprehension, movement, and security, and at the same time it offers enough complexity and change to stimulate curiosity and exploration.”

In the second half of the book, Krupat discusses how people live in cities. The fifth chapter focuses on the city as "too much"--how or whether the city is stressful--in terms of crowds, noise, and pollution. In terms of crowds and their affect on the human psyche, Krupat draws a set of four variables: crowded in the house but spacious outside (farmhouse), spacious in the house and spacious outside (e.g., suburb), crowded in the house and crowded outside (urban ghetto), and spacious in the house but crowded outside (urban luxury condo). Research has not been completely clear as to whether any of these have negative effects more than others, especially with regard to social pathology, although there does appear to be some increase in stress with regard to the crowded living inside caused by the lack of privacy. A general feeling of helplessness can ensue, and people who feel helpless, Krupat says studies show, tend to be less willing to do things for themselves to resolve situations. Kids in such situations, in other words, will tend to give up at hard puzzle tasks much more quickly than kids who live in less dense and less stressful situations. All this is mitigated by cultural context. The definition of dense differs from place to place. What is thought of as dense in New York might be seen as fairly spacious in Hong Kong, for example.

The same kind of social considerations go into the effects of noise. Where the noise is coming from often affects how it is heard and whether in contributes to stress. People are more willing to accept, say, traffic to constant parties from youngsters downstairs--that is, the latter is seen as noisier, even in situations where in fact the two might be the same in terms of decibels. As with crowding, children raised around noisy environments, say, close to an airport, are less likely to stick with difficult tasks, such as reading. Reading scores drop for kids who live in noisier surroundings.

But stress--what constitutes noise and crowding--really depends on perspective. Someone coming from rural Arkansas may find Fayetteville to be very stressful with regard to these factors, whereas someone coming from New York to Fayetteville may find the town quite spacious and quiet. Our reactions to a city are thus always quite personal.

Are cities places where loneliness is rife or do they contribute to people's interactions with one another? That is the next question Krupat tackles. As with so many other questions that Krupat answers via various studies that have occurred, he finds no definitive answer--it all depends on how you look at things. One study finds that people in the country have relationships based more on locality, whereas city people have relationships based more on shared interest. Hence, in terms of place, city people have a wider net, whereas country people have a smaller one. But that is also not entirely certain, as the rest of the chapter brings out in its focus on neighborhoods and communities--on what these are and whether cities offer them. One intriguing study denoted one other difference between smaller places and larger: Moving to a small town, one made friends faster than moving to a big city; however, after six months, the number of friends a given newcomer had made was essentially the same, if not a bit larger for the big city. Friendships are still common in larger areas, though they may take more time to form, and when they form, they may actually be more intimate (or not--there's discussion on this as well, what an intimate relationship actually means). As for communities, the discussion in part goes into whether they have to be a place. Neighborhoods, however, are seen as places--but what sort of places? Again, more definitions are presented. Krupat also looks at kinds of neighborhood communities and the people who live in them. He presents a grid based around two variables: rooted/nonrooted and bonded/nonbonded. People tend to fit one combination of these sets. Rooted and bonded people are "established participants" in an neighborhood (think, families with kids). Bonded but not rooted would include young people with limited education and monetary prospects--they grew up in the neighborhood and can't leave it easily. Rooted but not bonded would include isolates--older people who have lived in the neighborhood for years and don't plan to leave though they don't really participate in many of its activities. Finally, there are not bonded and not rooted, which would include people Krupat labels "young mobiles," folks who live there for, say, work but who aren't particularly wedded to the neighborhood in anything but a superficially participatory way (e.g., going to the coffee shop). These kind of inhabitants can in turn help define the kind of community a neighborhood forges: homogenous, constrained, or committed. In homogenous communities interest and residence coincide (I think of hipster communities, where everyone is an artist of sorts). In constrained communities, people are bound together by limitations, such as a foreign language or culture, as in an immigrant community. (It would seem to me these could also be considered homogenous, save that many people aren't there entirely by choice.) Communities by commitment are forged when people have a stake in the community (e.g., young families with kids or, often, communities that are threatened by outside forces such as a highway).

The next chapter turns toward questions of design and how designers can help or hinder the facilitation of the social aspects of cities. Here, Krupat relies a lot on Jane Jacobs--especially her chapters on housing for the poor. Krupat raises three examples of how bad design can hurt communities. One is a town in India designed and built by Le Corbusier (who has come under fire in other books). Here, the design was centered on Western ideals and was thus wholly inappropriate for its consumers. The Indians thus sit on the floor of their kitchens in shifts rather than use the table altogether because, you know, tradition and comfort. Parks go unused because Indians don't really "do" that sort of thing, and shopping nodes intended to service small communities with a diverse array of shop instead service one industry, meaning people have to travel all over the city to get to one kind of shop (since Indian shopping happens in bizarres, where there are not set prices and people need to compare, say, one place's bid for a muffler versus another's). Families, rather than being gathered as they would be traditionally, have to journey across the city to see one another because housing is segregated by income.

Another town damaged by well-meaning planners is the West End of Boston. Planners assumed the area to be a slum because of the run-down buildings, but while it might have been slummy physically, the social aspect of the area was not. Old buildings were removed for a mix of high-rise apartments and offices, and the community itself died, as the locals, even though they had been guaranteed housing in the new facilities, found the new neighborhood not to their liking. Gone was the family-and-friend oriented community.

Krupat then looks at a project in St. Louis, akin to one described in Jacobs's book. Here, high-rise housing afforded nice apartments for the poor but failed to provide any sense of community. Common living areas were obliterated, and crime surged. Large parks and small hallways where it is easy to hide do not facilitate parents being able to keep watch on their children, let alone neighbors mixing with each other and keeping watch on their neighborhood. In fact, Krupat compares one project next to another in New York, one with shorter buildings and many common areas and one with high rises and one very large common area. Crime is relatively less pervasive in the first and even maintenance is cheaper.

What is needed is more scientific study so that designers are more in-tune to the end users' needs. The gap between the two is one that often creates trouble for urban projects. Complicating this gap is another one--that the designer is often working for a city or committee that is itself one step away from the end user, so that there are in fact two gaps.

Krupat closes the chapter with a discussion of defensible space, introduced by a theorist named Oscar Newman. His idea is that project design needs to be worked around space that provides a range of spaces--private, semipublic, and public. It is these semipublic spaces that many of the high-rise projects lack. Without them, communities can't flourish, and anomie sets in, encouraging crime and other ills that occur when no one knows one another or keeps track of what's going on around. It is in fact in this context that Krupat raises the example of the two next-door New York projects.

Another finding of Newman's is that smaller is generally better. This is something Krupat argues against, however, as his point is that small cities are not necessarily better than big ones. They both have their advantages, and it is those advantages to which Krupat turns in the next chapter. As he notes at the start, whether one prefers big or little depends on what one is looking for. The most intriguing portions of his final chapter focus on planned cities. There is talk of Howard's Garden Cities of Tomorrow. Whereas Rybczinski made it seem as if Jane Jacob's made the plan something of a strawman, Krupat's description of his plan seems more akin to what Jacobs rejected: small cities surrounded by greenspace, yes, but also lots of greenspace within the city. Krupat does not consider the cities that grew out of said plan to be a success. He also looks at the planned town of Columbia, Maryland, which he says was a mixed success. It had various nodes—little villages with commercial centers for each, one major town center, a bus system linking them all, and carefully deployed greenery. It sounds like a well-planned city. But that is exactly why Krupat says it's a mixed success. One issue is that such planned cities tend to focus rather homogenously on families, so there isn't much in terms of cultural mixing (no young singles, no old people, no poorer people). Second is the question that such a city raises, namely, Whose city is it? Being so planned, residents have little control over what goes on in the city, and that lack of control can lead to frustration. Such a city, in other words, can't live and breathe the way truly successful cities do. People have to feel as if they have some control over their living environment in order to feel secure and at peace—that's really the key to urban or rural living.