Skip to content

Books on Cities: Joan Didion, Miami (1987)

Joan Didion is associated with no place more than southern California. Yet she also spent two major stretches of her life in New York, one from the mid-nineteen-fifties to the mid-nineteen-sixties, and another from 1988 until her death this past December. She made that second move the year after publishing Miami, an ostensible examination of the titular South Floridian metropolis mainly, she later admitted, “about what I think is wrong with Washington.” Yet Miami is also about a specific Miami, and in a sense the dominant one: Cuban Miami, whose inhabitants constituted 56 percent of the total population by the time Didion began visiting the city in the mid-eighties. “There had come to exist in South Florida two parallel cultures,” she writes, “separate but not exactly equal, a key distinction being that only one of the two, the Cuban, exhibited even a remote interest in the activities of the other.”

What surprises me about this is the implied existence of a non-Cuban Miami. Though I still haven’t been there, I’ve long imagined the city’s overall cultural formation as even more dependent on Cuba than that of Los Angeles has been on Mexico. Of course, even 35 years ago a major American city’s being influenced by a large number of Latin American immigrants wasn’t a novelty. Miami’s uniqueness manifests to Didion linguistically: “In, say, Los Angeles, Spanish remained a language only barely registered by the Anglo population, part of the ambient noise, the language spoken by the people who worked in the car wash and came to trim the trees and cleared the tables in restaurants. In Miami Spanish was spoken by the people who ate in the restaurants, the people who owned the cars and the trees, which made, on the socioauditory scale, a considerable difference.”

Hence the way I occasionally heard Spanish described by my fellow students of the language back in Los Angeles: there an advantage, but in Miami a necessity. Though evidently without Spanish herself, Didion was sensitive enough to the undercurrents of power to pick up on what its use revealed about the city. (The Hispanophone David Rieff published his own Going to Miami in 1988, followed by Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World in 1991, but neither book remains prominent in the literature of those cities.) She engages Cuban Miami through its English-speakers, as when “on one of the first evenings I spent in Miami I sat at midnight over carne con papas in an art-filled condominium in one of the Arquitectonica buildings on Brickell Avenue and listened to several exiles talk about the relationship of what was said in Washington to what was done in Miami.”

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Los Angeles Review of Books: Robert Whiting, Tokyo Junkie

Early in his new book, Robert Whiting refers to the “Yamate Line,” and most readers who have been to Tokyo in the past half-century will suspect a misprint. Few visitors to the Japanese capital could avoid the subway train in question, which runs in a loop through such well-known districts as Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, and Ginza. But they’ll know it as the Yamanote Line, a romanization of its Japanese name (literally “mountain’s hand,” equivalent to the English “foothill”) first adopted in 1971. But by then, the Californian Whiting had already logged almost a decade in Japan, having been sent there by the United States Air Force in 1962. “Tokyo is the best city in the world,” he remembers a master sergeant saying when informing him of his posting: “You’ll be over there with all those geisha girls, riding around in rickshaws. Ten million people. More neon signs than you can imagine.”

The neon comes up quite often throughout Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys … and Baseball, as one of the city’s few constants during a period of ceaseless change. Whiting closes his memoir with his 77th birthday lunch at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Nihonbashi: “It occurred to me over our gelato that there is very little left in Tokyo that is older than I am, given how this city keeps on renewing itself.” He arrived nearly 60 years ago to “the biggest construction site in the world,” a transformation motivated by preparation for the 1964 Summer Olympics. Still, there were plenty of attractions amid all the dust: there were “deluxe movie theaters with 70mm screens, and pachinko pinball parlors jangling noisily all day long,” beside “noodle stands, yakitori shops with their smoky grills, food marts, and discount shops,” beside “ancient temples with serene gardens of gravel and rocks and inner courtyards.”

As in many pre-Olympics development binges of the 20th century, an overarching goal was to bring the infrastructure of a “backward” country up to the standards of the modern West. “[D]espite the frantic rebuilding, less than a quarter of the city’s twenty-three sprawling wards had flush sewage systems at all, making Tokyo one of the world’s most undeveloped (and odiferous) megalopolises,” Whiting recalls, olfactory memories supposedly being the most deeply recorded of them all: “Tokyo was also rat-infested. Some 40 percent of Japanese had tapeworms. There were no ambulances, and infant mortality was twenty times what it is today. Moreover, house theft was rampant, narcotics use was endemic, and it was considered too dangerous to walk in public parks at night.” This is a far cry indeed from the city world-renowned for its safe streets at all hours, its high-tech bidets, and its far-reaching, precision-engineered train networks.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Books on Cities: A. N. Wilson, London: A History (2004)

London is a world city. Los Angeles, where I used to live, is less a world city than, as I once saw a banner at the airport call it, a “city that’s a world in itself.” Seoul, where I now live, is not a world city, despite strenuous promotional efforts on the part of its officialdom to convert it into one. By none of these descriptions do I mean to deliver a judgment either positive or negative; indeed, Seoul’s not being a world city counts among the reasons I enjoy living here. But recent decades have made “world city” into a highly desirable label: so highly, in fact, that the failure to qualify for it — that is, the failure to be a large, multiethnic metropolis sustained by international commerce and immigration — is now seen in many quarters as a mark of shame.

World-city hood as understood in the twenty-first century also requires widespread use of the English language. (This has done its part to keep Seoul out of the running, as has the not-unrelated ethnic homogeneity of the population.) It’s hardly a surprise, then, that the very worldliest of cities would happen to include the capital of England. But in any sense apart from the strictly geographic, is London in England? “Some years ago, I opined that London was not really an English city anymore,” John Cleese tweeted in 2019. “Since then, virtually all my friends from abroad have confirmed my observation.” To my mind he didn’t necessarily mean this in, as they say, a bad way — especially given his well-documented professional history of ridiculing Englishness — but the tweet nonetheless sparked a predictably harsh backlash whose contributors including London mayor Sadiq Khan.

“Londoners know that our diversity is our greatest strength,” Khan responded. “We are proudly the English capital, a European city, and a global hub.” This political marketing-speak belongs very much to our age, one that mandates an increasingly great distance between the statesman and the man of letters. And so it is to a man of letters we must turn for a more serious articulation of the quality in question. “I deposit my daughter at school with her Mexican classroom assistant and her friends whose parents are, to name but seven, Italian, African American, Japanese, Chinese, Palestinian, German, and Indian,” writes A.N. Wilson of a typical day in early-twenty-first century London. There follow encounters with a Sikh upholsterer, a Malaysian barber, waiters French, Bulgarian, and Indian, and a Polish carpenter, among other citizens who form a cast it would now cause grave offense to call colorful.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Books on Cities: Taras Grescoe, Straphanger

I moved from Los Angeles to Seoul a bit over six years ago, and it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say I did so because Seoul has the better subway system. It still surprises some people to hear that Los Angeles, a city globally perceived as synonymous with American “car culture,” has a subway system at all. Yet the city put into service the first of its modern urban rail lines in 1990, and four or five more have opened since. Though still inadequate to the size of its territory, Los Angeles Metro Rail as a whole tends favorably to impress the visitors who ride it. Those visitors include no less a public-transit connoisseur than Taras Grescoe, whose tough-but-fair evaluation constitutes a chapter of his book Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, first published in 2012.

Back then I was still living in Los Angeles, and indeed first having my eyes opened to the urban itself. Lacking experience of adult life within a major city proper, I was intoxicated with the possibilities newly opened to me: that, for instance, of catching a subway train to Little Tokyo from my home in Koreatown whenever I pleased. The vague notion I had of buying a car once I got to “L.A.” soon evaporated, and I began avidly to track the progress of not just Metro’s construction but also the city’s development in general, especially where it produced greater density. Even then it would have been difficult for me not to like Straphanger, which offers clear-eyed assessment of Los Angeles’ urban condition as well as evocative accounts of travel and transit in about a dozen other world cities, from New York and Toronto to Copenhagen and Shanghai.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

New Yorker: Regular Car Reviews and the Semiotics of a 1999 Toyota Corolla

Despite the ever-increasing might of South Korea’s automobile industry, it’s a dull place for the car connoisseur. The occasional Ferrari or Lamborghini always looks freshly delivered in the loud yet basic color schemes beloved of the Gangnam nouveau riche. More tasteful but rarer are the domestic survivors of the scrappy nineteen-eighties: the Kia Pride, for instance, a mass-produced modernity symbol marketed in the West as the Ford Festiva, or the Daewoo Maepsy, the last Korean car branded with a genuinely Korean-sounding name. For the most part, the streets of Seoul offer up a halting parade of just-this-side-of-generic vehicles stamped out by local automakers in (besides the signature orange of the city’s taxicabs) black, white, and gray, none of the designs liable to quicken the pulse of anyone but a development economist.

Most passenger cars on Korean roads are of recent vintage, dating overwhelmingly from the past ten to fifteen years. Even the stalwart Spectra, Kia’s budget-priced compact, has become a rare sight in its homeland since its discontinuation in 2003. Test-driving a model of that year, my favorite car-review channel on YouTube once summed up the Spectra’s lack of distinctiveness by likening it to “the fictional idea of a regular car, a completely made-up symptom of the ridiculousness of the human condition.” Nor has the channel’s host praised other Korean automobiles much more effusively: Hyundai’s somewhat design-forward 2013 Veloster Turbo is “an economy car in a Men’s Wearhouse dinner jacket”; the chintzily hip 2016 Kia Soul 6MT is “the official car of wearing fake Gucci to a deposition.” Of Hyundai’s sleeper 2020 Elantra GT N Line, he declares, “Fine: the very definition of it.”

The channel is Regular Car Reviews, which I discovered after moving to South Korea in 2015. I’d come from Los Angeles, a city reflexively associated with a car culture of which I never partook. The same transportation-dissident impulse that kept me from driving in Southern California now compels me, in Seoul—a city whose subway system is as good as its car spotting is bad—to watch videos about the Chevrolet Camaro, the Dodge Neon, and even the Ford Pinto. It could simply be a way of securing one hoped-for benefit of expatriation: a fresh perspective on my homeland, the United States of America. Each of the more than five hundred episodes of Regular Car Reviews evaluates an automobile’s design and performance, but also reflects on that automobile’s sociological significance, goes off on non-sequitur comedic riffs ranging in vulgarity from mild to bestial, and unfailingly delivers a shot of pure twenty-first-century America.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

Books on Cities: Donald Richie, Tokyo (1999)

Donald Richie closes his most personal book on Tokyo by quoting from his own diary. The entry dates from the summer of 1978, more than twenty years before. One of his generation’s best-known American expatriates in Japan, Richie first arrived while working for the U.S. occupation force after the Second World War. He returned to Tokyo to live in the mid-1950s, and there he remained until his death in 2013. The only exception was his stint as Film Curator at the Museum of Modern Art, which lasted for a few years of the late 1960s and early 70s. Toward the end of that decade, he writes in his diary of being back in Tokyo, taking in a heartily atavistic summer festival in his neighborhood of Ueno:

Japan in the summer is always more Japanese and never more so than at this fair. Families in summer yukata, clacking along on geta, gang boys hawking in cummerbunds and shorts; old gentlemen shuffling about in suteteko and underwear tops, carrying fans; girls back from the bath with wet hair sleeked back, towels in hands. This is what Japan once looked like. Summer brings it back again. And old attitudes as well. A sudden interest in nature, here in the bowels of the city. Exclamations at the size of the lotus buds. And a much slower tempo. No one striding, everyone strolling. And with it the old politeness. People standing to one side for each other.

Writing in the late 20th century, Richie finds this memory bringing to mind the memories of another Tokyoite: Nagai Kafu, who chronicled the life of the city in the early 20th-century. Even then, Kafu “was regretting the passing of the latter part of the century before. And in the middle of this century, he was complaining, remembering the early part of the century. Fifty years from now, this time about which I am complaining will probably have become someone else’s golden age.” I myself first visited Japan a decade ago, and never could have experienced the 70s there, much less the immediate postwar years. But Japan’s 90s would be a tempting decade to revisit, at least according to the stories of a slightly older American friend who studied abroad there at that time — and took film classes taught by Richie himself.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

콜린의 한국 팟캐스트: 「한국인의 맛」 저자 정명섭 작가님

청소년, 공상과학, 역사, 추리와 좀비를 포함한 다양한 장르의 소설을 쓰시는 정명섭 작가님께서 소설과 에세이를 합치는「한국인외 맛」에서 20세기 동안 하국화된 외국 음식의 역사를 기술하신다. 인터뷰를 여기애플 팟캐스트를 통해 다운받을 수 있다. 유튜브에서도 스트리밍할 수 있다.

My ten favorite Open Culture posts of 2021: Hitchcock Meets Borges, Brian Wilson Meets George Martin, and KFC Meets Japan

For nearly a decade now, I’ve written a post every weekday at Open Culture, usually to do with literature, film, music, art, architecture, television, radio, or language. The total comes to more than 2,600 so far, and here are ten of my favorites from the more than 250 I wrote in 2021:

See also my ten favorite Open Culture posts of 2012201320142015201620172018, 2019, and 2020.

콜린의 한국 팟캐스트: <정말 있었던 일이야, 지금은 사라지고 말았지> 저자 이주호 작가님

<도쿄적 일상>과 <오사카에서 길을 묻다>를 쓰신 이주호 작가님의 최신 작품은 <정말 있었던 일이야, 지금은 사라지고 말았지>이다. 소설식 에세이라고 묘사할 수 있는 그 책은 2000년대 초의 서울에서 사는 20대 주인공의 무기력하지만 되게 인상적인 생활을 다룬다. 글 쓰시는 행동 외에도 이작가님께서 여행매거진 <브릭스>의 편집장으로 일하신다. 인터뷰를 여기애플 팟캐스트를 통해 다운받을 수 있다. 유튜브에서도 스트리밍할 수 있다.

Pretty Much Pop podcast: The Beatles and Get Back

I appear on the latest episode of Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast to discuss Peter Jackson’s new documentary Get Back and the legacy of the Beatles. Having first listened seriously to their music just last year at the age of 35 (as documented in this Twitter thread), I at least had the relevant material more or less fresh in my mind. The episode was recorded, as its official description notes, on “the anniversary of John Lennon’s death. We consider the arc of their career, the various post-mortem releases that keep our interest, why Beatles solo work remains a cult interest, and much more.”

You can hear my previous appearance on Pretty Much Pop, in conversation about the films of Martin Scorsese, here.