A History of Future Cities, by Daniel Brook

In this fascinating and readable book, Daniel Brook explores four cities—St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai—that were purposely built as gateways to the world. They do not seem to belong where they are located, but instead ignore native culture and become cities that could be located anywhere. Brook’s focus on their architecture brings this element to the fore: a room copied from the Vatican in St. Petersburg’s royal palace, Art Deco hotels in Shanghai that look like Manhattan, a university in Mumbai cribbed from Oxford, Dubai’s double Chrysler buildings. But what they really have in common is their purpose: to embody the future.

The four cities he chooses to discuss play a similar role in each of their countries: they were created to import and embody modernity. Architects and scientists from more modern—that is, Western—nations were brought in to create a city that would carry no hint of local traditions, but instead resemble and compete with the major cities of the Western world. The intent was not to create a slavish imitation, but to provide a window to the outside world and begin the task of dragging an isolated culture still set in ancient ways into the modern age.

Indeed, each of the four cities becomes an incubator for change, though not always the change originally intended. Rulers hoped to import scientific, artistic, and business knowledge without importing modern ideas about freedom and democracy.

Entranced by Amsterdam’s technical advancements and domination of world trade at the end of the 17th century, Peter the Great created St. Petersburg from scratch on a marsh far from Moscow. He expected that the architects and scientists and artists whom he brought in would inspire his people to learn new ways and prepare to compete in the modern world. That happened in St. Petersburg itself, but did not spread to the rest of the country, creating friction and unrest. Once the home of the new, the city was quickly pushed out of favor after Peter’s death. We follow St. Petersburg through its turbulent history (and name changes), the city’s story helping us to see Russia’s familiar evolution from serfdom to revolution to the Putin era in a new light.

Similarly, Shanghai was China’s window to the world in the mid-19th century. After losing the Opium War, China found itself forced to allow the Western powers do whatever they wanted. And what they did was create a modern city with abundant appurtenances, but these were only available to Westerners. Again we come to a new understanding of China’s changes through the story of Shanghai’s evolution.

Mumbai (then Bombay) also was built up and run by the British. Yet by attracting and training natives to the point where they felt adequate to take over, the Raj helped to create its own demise. Now a city of “slumdogs and millionaires”, Mumbai hovers on the brink of change. The 2011 census shocked Mumbai by showing that its population is in decline. Yet its tremendous wealth could be used to achieve the greatness of its promise.

The most recent city to be examined is Dubai. Centrally located for trade it languished until the 1970s when a forward-looking Sheikh Rashid armed with oil money and air conditioning set out to create a modern city. The story of how he and his son Sheikh Mohammed succeeded is a fascinating one.

Used to the idea of cities growing slowly over the centuries, I had not realised before that these four cities were conceived and created so quickly. Nor that they were envisioned to be a threshold between a country isolated in the past and the modern world. The plan to confine within a city’s limits such modern ideas as free speech and general suffrage seem in hindsight obviously doomed. Authoritarian governments may think that they can contain change, but may find that a little change can lead to a revolution no one expected.

This thoughtful book recognises the great cost of creating these cities. The peasants who actually built the first three perished in scores, being considered expendable in pursuit of the ruler's dream, while Dubai's imported labor doesn't fare much better.

I highly recommend this fascinating view of history through the fates of these four cities. As Brook says, “They are places to be reckoned with because they are ideas as much as cities, metaphors in stone and steel for the explicit goal of Westernization.” Seeing how utopian dreams play out fascinates me, but here those dreams affected whole countries and empires.

Have you ever been to a city that did not seem to belong in the country where it was located?

Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata

This 1956 novel takes place at a hot spring in the western part of Japan's main island, where winds from Siberia dump up to fifteen feet of snow in the winter. The long snowbound months create a sense of isolation, even a time outside of time. As the story opens, Shimamura is traveling by train to a certain hot-spring inn to see a woman he'd met in the spring when he'd come to climb the mountains. During this time in Japan, the hot springs were not like spas in Europe or the U.S., but rather places where men enjoyed the attention of geishas, leaving their wives at home.

When he arrives, the wealthy dilettante is surprised to see from her clothing that Komako has become a geisha. On his previous visit, she had an uncertain status, a woman who would sometimes help out at parties if all the geishas were busy, but was not a geisha herself. In the Introduction, the translator, Edward G. Seidensticker, says that unlike geishas in the city, for hot-spring geishas “the pretense that she is an artist and not a prostitute is often a thin one.”

Shimamura and Komako have connected on another level, though, and he cannot stop thinking about her. He promises to return in February, but does not return until the autumn when he finds that her situation has changed once again. This is a peculiar love story. The two seem to talk past each other a lot of the time and behave abruptly and unexpectedly. They obviously care for each other, despite the difference in their stations, but seem incapable of love. It is as though in each there is an empty space that keeps them from coming closer.

Seeing how Komako has aged (though she is only 24), Shimamura speaks of wasted beauty. Once a dancer, she now studies music and plays the samisen, wasted effort in this isolated place to Shimamura. He himself has devoted much of his time to studying western ballet, though he has never seen one performed and has no wish to.

Seidensticker calls this a haiku novel, like The Tale of Genji. Although written as prose, this style is austere and somewhat fragmented, as poetry gives you space to think and reflect. It is up to the reader to be present in the novel and find the connections.

I also love the beautiful prose and sometimes startling imagery. For instance, in that first train ride, as night falls Shimamura watches the reflection in the window of a girl—Yoko—seated opposite him caring for a sick man. Yet behind her reflected face, “the monotonous mountain landscape” continues to flow by, as though showing a world outside time. “Shimamura had the illusion that the evening landscape was actually passing over the face, and the flow did not stop to let him be sure it was not.” What a remarkable image of time's passage!

Much as I enjoyed this book, I never quite understood these two people who love or try to love each other. Perhaps I could not come close the them because they cannot come close to each other. Wasted love, wasted opportunities.

I have been thinking a lot about the influence of place—not just your geography but your family and your cultural context. This novel eloquently conveys people struggling to become themselves within the environment of the hot spring, the restrictions of the seasons, and the boundaries of the classes into which they have been born. It is a love story, yes, but an unusual and complex one.

What love story have you read that surprised and intrigued you?

This Isn’t Easy for Me, by Julian Berengaut

I came to this novel with a certain wariness. For one thing it is written entirely in dialogue, which in itself is not an easy thing to pull off and further complicated by not having any dialogue tags or chapter breaks. For another, the two people talking are women and the author is a man. On the other hand, it had been praised by Jen Michalski, an accomplished author herself and a friend.

I needn’t have worried. The two women’s voices are sufficiently distinct that I knew who was talking without counting back. Also, if more should be needed, their different situations provide clues. The setup—the reason for their meeting—comes across naturally, without the strain one might expect. And their wide-ranging conversation held my interest through the last page.

Sabine, a German physicist, has requested a meeting with Renata, an economist and philanthropist. Although famously reclusive, Renata has agreed and arranged for them to meet in a hotel lounge. They are in Boston where Renata and her husband Mark, a famous mathematician, live and where Renata has come for a conference.

The conversation between the two women strays naturally from one topic to another, Renata’s strange diet, Jewish jokes, quantum physics, dancing, the BRCA mutation that causes breast cancer, Pushkin and Dumas. They circle back to Sabine’s reason for asking to meet Renata, but then another fascinating topic leads them off again. Not unexpectedly, this conversation between a German and a Jew must eventually lead to talking of the Holocaust and their respective parents’ experiences, but they approach this subject with care and mutual respect.

These two strong and unconventional women circle ever closer to each other despite their differences. Even Sabine’s reason for contacting Renata, when she finally discloses it, is treated with intelligence and surprising generosity.

While there are no hard and fast writing rules, we are discouraged from using dialogue to convey narrative. For example, the excellent writer Chuck Wendig says, “Expository dialogue is a pair of cement shoes.” Writing teachers everywhere caution about info-dumping in dialogue. It is awkward and boring. As Wendig says, the way to make it work is to “Limit the information learned; pull puzzle pieces out and take them away to create mystery. Let characters be reluctant to give any info, much less dump it over someone’s head.”

This is the secret to Berengaut’s successful use of dialogue here. He gives us bits of information that raise more questions and cause the conversation to veer off in another direction. He also varies the pace effectively by using longer and shorter bits of dialogue.

The other reason for the success of this unusual novel lies in the depth and complexity of the two characters. I wish I knew these women! I love conversations such as theirs, ranging through highly literate and learned subjects as well as through popular music, jokes, and television shows. I found their exchange as addictive as following links across the internet.

My only quibble with the book is that I came away feeling that I did not in fact know the two women. Perhaps because of the form or because they do not know each other at the beginning, I felt a certain distance. I knew a lot about them by the end, and the face they presented to each other, but they seemed a bit artificial to me. I didn’t know what they looked like, what they thought about in the middle of the night, what secrets they were not sharing. Of course we never do know everything about another person, but I missed seeing them in action, hearing their thoughts. Perhaps it is my own failing, but I don’t quite trust what characters say about themselves. I love when a tiny gesture betrays the unspoken thought contradicting what was said.

Still, the novel is without doubt a tour de force. The conversation between Sabine and Renata makes absorbing and fascinating reading.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Andrew Wyeth, Looking Out, Looking In

I spent hours at the National Gallery’s show of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings of windows, “Looking Out, Looking In”. Entering these four rooms of paintings felt like coming home. The rooms are grouped by place: the Olson House, the Kuerner Farm, Wyeth’s Brandywine Studio, and a final room called Variations.

But it was the paintings themselves that so appealed to me. Spare and austere, with little color, they all include windows but no people. As Nancy K. Anderson describes in her catalogue essay, “Wind from the Sea: Painting Truth beneath the Facts”, Wyeth went through a winnowing process, deleting elements from the scene in order to better convey its essence. Preliminary studies in the show illustrate this process. For example, in the centerpiece painting, Wind from the Sea, he cut out half of his original study, concentrating on just the window frame.

Wyeth’s goal, as Anderson says, was “to enrich his composition with layers of metaphor and personal symbolism.” Wyeth called Wind from the Sea a portrait of Christina Olson. Famously seen in Christina’s World, here we don’t see the person herself, but we do see the sturdy window frame, the worn shade, and the floating lace curtains embroidered with birds and somewhat tattered.

Wyeth said that he thought intensely about the subject of each painting, letting it “‘go through my imagination until it became a symbol to me.'” The challenge then becomes conveying the personal symbol’s meaning and this heightened emotion to others.

Aside from intensifying the emotion, his method of subtracting elements from the paintings also allows their abstract construction to show through. I had not thought of him as an abstract painter before, but these paintings brought it home to me. The other essay in the catalogue, “Through a Glass: Windows in the Art of Wyeth, Sheeler, and Hopper” by Charles Brock puts Wyeth’s experiments on the border of abstraction and figuration into context.

In all my thinking over the last fourteen years about thresholds and liminal spaces, I’ve always thought in terms of doors, never until now about windows. Yet, as Brock says, for these artists, “the window serves not so much as a mechanism for rationally organizing space but as a threshold between self and other, body and mind, being and not being, and in the most profound sense between life and death.”

Brock traces the underlying abstraction in Hopper and Sheeler’s work, as well as Wyeth’s. He also grounds their work in the larger history. Wyeth, for example, was born in 1917 and grew up between the two world wars among local veterans of World War I. He was also well aware of his Pennsylvania home’s experience of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Brock says, “In ways analogous to the plight of soldiers on a battlefield, the role played by the figure in Wyeth’s art, whether it was included or excluded, present or absent, was fraught with existential implications.”

The variety of the paintings shown is stunning. Sometimes we are inside looking out, sometimes outside. Sometimes the view is elaborate and others it is barely sketched in. I realized that the small landscapes we glimpse through a window or a barn door fascinate me in the same way that I have long been fascinated by the miniature distant landscapes behind a Madonna or outside the window or door of a dark Dutch interior. I love the sense of life going on in the background: sheets being spread on the grass to dry, icicles dripping outside the window. My imagination soars, constructing the life taking place just outside the painting.

Of his own paintings Wyeth said, “‘a lost presence makes the environment timeless to me, keeps an area alive. It pulsates because of that.'” These paintings are indeed timeless and alive. The show runs through November 30.

Do you have a favorite Andrew Wyeth painting?