Jeff Byles

Variously described as growing grounds, medieval communities, respites for the weary, dysfunctional fraternity houses, and scenes from Dante's hell, the eight remaining flophouses on New York City's Bowery make for a bracing amalgam of fertility and futility. As National Public Radio contributor David Isay and crew note in this unflinching work of oral history, these spartan accommodations renting for as little as $4.50 a night are also home to a rich but sadly vanishing milieu of strivers, eccentrics, and the simply down-and-out.

Originating as a 1998 radio documentary on NPR's All Things Considered, this group portrait of 50 men from four of the remaining Bowery hotels offers an affecting glimpse of life on the 16-block stretch of lower Manhattan, that once reigned as ground zero for the nation's dispossessed. An estimated 25,000 men slept on the Bowery every night in its Depression-era heyday, with almost a hundred flops renting cots or cubicles under bare bulbs for their weary inhabitants. But many flops were shuttered after the G.

I. Bill offered a new life for veterans returning from World War II, and now, as the hotels are converted to office space or residential lofts amid the city's economic boom, each building's closure brings the end of a vibrant, if dystopian, community.

“I've had 'em all here from a priest to a murderer,” says Sunshine Hotel manager Nathan Smith, and the voices from these edited transcripts of interviews are similarly varied. A former bank executive quotes Shakespeare as he explains his decision to embrace a life of nothingness and alcoholism. A man who grew up in a 15-room apartment recounts his fall after 20 years of drug smuggling, and the devastating blow when his family disowned him. Another resident tells of once working as a nurse's aid and caring for a wounded police officer, but then slipping into crime and killing three people. Some of these men have lived on the Bowery for 20 years or more, and each one has a riveting story. More than anything, it's the stunning candor with which these men speak about their lives marked as they frequently are by deep psychological scars that elevates this book from a sociological curio to a meditation on the human spirit. Illustrated by Harvey Wang's stark photographs, this collection is suffused with a quietly ferocious will to survive.

Jeff Byles is a writer and editor in New York.

Variously described as growing grounds, medieval communities, respites for the weary, dysfunctional fraternity houses, and scenes from Dante's hell, the eight remaining flophouses on New York City's Bowery make for a bracing amalgam of fertility and futility. As National Public Radio contributor David Isay and crew note in this unflinching work of oral history, these […]

These days, it's hip to be Basque. After all, these inhabitants of northern Spain and a slice of southern France, so long unremarked by the outside world, just built the stunning Guggenheim Museum in their port town of Bilbao. They're on the cutting edge of a borderless European Union. Not least, their famous sauce of salt cod, cooked in olive oil with hot pepper and garlic, is likely to be simmering at the finest French restaurants anywhere.

Mark Kurlansky's insightful history shows that although the Basques have been extraordinary inventors and discoverers, they have not always enjoyed such acclaim. In fact, if there were a medal for the most underappreciated people on the planet, the 2.4 million Basques would win hands down.

These adventurers have a little-remembered history of firsts. They were the first Europeans to cultivate tobacco; the first to admire hot peppers imported from the Americas; and the first to break the Dutch monopoly on chocolate. They sailed in the Spanish Armada and built ships with venture capital. And sorry all you Francophiles, it was the Basques who popularized the beret as a fashion statement.

The Basques are also the only Spaniards who visibly resisted the dictator Franco in the early 1970s, and much of this book is devoted to following the political intrigue that made some Basques such terrorists throughout the 1980s. Kurlansky offers a fine opportunity to catch up on Spain's postwar political trials. He also gives a powerful account of the 1937 attack on Guernica, where German and Italian bombers flew low over the town square, dumping splinter bombs at the busiest moment of the market day.

Kurlansky, who wrote Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, has again put his appetite to work. This book is peppered with recipes for traditional Basque dishes. A roasted sea bream swims in a touch of oil and garlic; red beans from the region of Tolosa are cooked in earthen crocks and garnished with pickled green peppers.

For all his Basque boosterism, Kurlansky remains a wry observer of these neglected and maligned tribes living in the shadows of the Pyrenees. The singular remarkable fact about the Basques, he marvels, is that they still exist.

 

Jeff Byles is a reviewer in New York City.

These days, it's hip to be Basque. After all, these inhabitants of northern Spain and a slice of southern France, so long unremarked by the outside world, just built the stunning Guggenheim Museum in their port town of Bilbao. They're on the cutting edge of a borderless European Union. Not least, their famous sauce of […]

All in the mind Why am I me, and not you? How do we sense the blueness of the sky? Does a snail think ? Such riddles abound in Antonio R. Damasio's provocative work, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. In this follow-up to his best-selling Descartes' Error, Damasio confronts some of the most elusive problems of modern science as he searches for clues to the creation of consciousness. We don't smell it or taste it, see it or hear it. Yet consciousness is what makes us uniquely who we are, setting the stage for the stunning performance of the human mind.

Equipped with insights from his own experiments as head of the department of neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center, Damasio takes us spelunking in the mind's dark cavities. We drop into the abysses between neurons, noticing the flash of neurotransmitters that light up the mind like jolts from a sparkplug. We explore the hypothalamus, looking for traces of language, and the cortex, seeking the wellsprings of conscience. Throughout, Damasio argues that the essence of consciousness is the feeling of what happens, or the mind noticing the body's reaction to what we see, hear, or touch. More than mere wakefulness or attentiveness, consciousness is the magical act of the mind observing itself. This two-part division of the brain's functions makes for some unexpected discoveries. Damasio's research indicates, for example, that emotion proves central to making rational decisions. Far from being the mischief of some devious mental sprites, our emotions are shown to buttress the logic of survival. It may seem odd to argue that emotion improves our ability to make decisions, but just ask anyone who's ever instinctively pulled back in fear from a roused rattlesnake. Without our emotions, we'd be evolutionary toast. (Harcourt Brace, $28, 0151003696) Unfortunately, contends John Horgan in his wryly skeptical The Undiscovered Mind: How the Human Brain Defies Replication, Medication, and Explanation, most mind science does nothing to change the fact that I'm still me and you're still you. Despite the promise of aiding the 1.2 billion people now suffering a behavioral or neuropsychiatric ailment, Horgan says, neuroscience may never solve the intricate problems posed by the brain. A longtime staff writer at Scientific American, Horgan cuts a swashbuckling path through the fields of psychoanalysis, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. The claims of Freudians and social Darwinists alike are dispatched with precise counterexamples, while sparks fly as he takes on some of the most distinguished figures in American science. We're told that the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker dishes Darwinian rhetoric and shoot-from-the-hip speculation, while Peter Kramer is Prozac's poster boy. What bothers Horgan most is that physics has its fundamental quarks and electrons, biology has its DNA, and even Darwin had his unifying process of evolution. But mind scientists seem lost somewhere in the boggling recesses of the brain's 10 trillion synapses. Instead of the simplicity found in the hard sciences, mind scientists have run up against spiraling complexity. They've hit what Horgan calls the Humpty Dumpty dilemma : scientists have figured out how to break the mind into pieces, but they have no idea how to put it back together again. Moreover, those who claim they've found genes for high IQ, homosexuality, sadness, and even pathological gambling are, in Horgan's estimation, peddling little more than scientific snake-oil. Refusing any reductive solution to the mind's riddles, Horgan offers a tonic of hopeful skepticism that serves as an excellent if irreverent introduction to the state-of-the-art in cognitive research.

Jeff Byles is a writer and also editor of Publishing Trends, a monthly newsletter for the book trade.

All in the mind Why am I me, and not you? How do we sense the blueness of the sky? Does a snail think ? Such riddles abound in Antonio R. Damasio's provocative work, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. In this follow-up to his best-selling Descartes' Error, […]

All in the mind Why am I me, and not you? How do we sense the blueness of the sky? Does a snail think ? Such riddles abound in Antonio R. Damasio's provocative work, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. In this follow-up to his best-selling Descartes' Error, Damasio confronts some of the most elusive problems of modern science as he searches for clues to the creation of consciousness. We don't smell it or taste it, see it or hear it. Yet consciousness is what makes us uniquely who we are, setting the stage for the stunning performance of the human mind.

Equipped with insights from his own experiments as head of the department of neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center, Damasio takes us spelunking in the mind's dark cavities. We drop into the abysses between neurons, noticing the flash of neurotransmitters that light up the mind like jolts from a sparkplug. We explore the hypothalamus, looking for traces of language, and the cortex, seeking the wellsprings of conscience. Throughout, Damasio argues that the essence of consciousness is the feeling of what happens, or the mind noticing the body's reaction to what we see, hear, or touch. More than mere wakefulness or attentiveness, consciousness is the magical act of the mind observing itself. This two-part division of the brain's functions makes for some unexpected discoveries. Damasio's research indicates, for example, that emotion proves central to making rational decisions. Far from being the mischief of some devious mental sprites, our emotions are shown to buttress the logic of survival. It may seem odd to argue that emotion improves our ability to make decisions, but just ask anyone who's ever instinctively pulled back in fear from a roused rattlesnake. Without our emotions, we'd be evolutionary toast. Unfortunately, contends John Horgan in his wryly skeptical The Undiscov-ered Mind: How the Human Brain Defies Replication, Medication, and Explanation (The Free Press, $25, 0684850753), most mind science does nothing to change the fact that I'm still me and you're still you. Despite the promise of aiding the 1.2 billion people now suffering a behavioral or neuropsychiatric ailment, Horgan says, neuroscience may never solve the intricate problems posed by the brain. A longtime staff writer at Scientific American, Horgan cuts a swashbuckling path through the fields of psychoanalysis, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. The claims of Freudians and social Darwinists alike are dispatched with precise counterexamples, while sparks fly as he takes on some of the most distinguished figures in American science. We're told that the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker dishes Darwinian rhetoric and shoot-from-the-hip speculation, while Peter Kramer is Prozac's poster boy. What bothers Horgan most is that physics has its fundamental quarks and electrons, biology has its DNA, and even Darwin had his unifying process of evolution. But mind scientists seem lost somewhere in the boggling recesses of the brain's 10 trillion synapses. Instead of the simplicity found in the hard sciences, mind scientists have run up against spiraling complexity. They've hit what Horgan calls the Humpty Dumpty dilemma : scientists have figured out how to break the mind into pieces, but they have no idea how to put it back together again. Moreover, those who claim they've found genes for high IQ, homosexuality, sadness, and even pathological gambling are, in Horgan's estimation, peddling little more than scientific snake-oil. Refusing any reductive solution to the mind's riddles, Horgan offers a tonic of hopeful skepticism that serves as an excellent if irreverent introduction to the state-of-the-art in cognitive research.

Jeff Byles is a writer and also editor of Publishing Trends, a monthly newsletter for the book trade.

All in the mind Why am I me, and not you? How do we sense the blueness of the sky? Does a snail think ? Such riddles abound in Antonio R. Damasio's provocative work, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. In this follow-up to his best-selling Descartes' Error, […]

Once upon a time, you could peg a person's cultural tastes with pinpoint precision. They have Flaubert on the bookshelf? Undoubtedly highbrow. He drinks chablis? Certifiably middlebrow. She watches Archie Bunker? Lowbrow, natch. But in late-20th-century America, specifying one's brow level is no easy feat. We're likely to have Jane Austen on the nightstand, Don Imus on the radio, and a Michael Graves-designed teapot from Target. And everyone, regardless of class or creed, watches The Simpsons.

As Michael Kammen illustrates, cultural distinctions have been bent, blurred, and turned bottom-up since at least the 1950s, when Marilyn Monroe married Arthur Miller in a symbolic union of low and high. Though the star-crossed marriage may not have lasted, the effect on American culture remained. A post-war generation flush with disposable income and leisure time would fall head over heels for popular culture. More socially mobile than their parents, they could devour crime novels as delightedly as they could parse their Shakespeare. A decade later, when 1960s egalitarianism hit its stride, Susan Sontag could write of a defiantly pluralistic culture smashing the boundaries between gender, race, and social status.

This book revels in the twilight zone of cultural pluralism. Kammen plunders America's cultural history like a savvy thrift-shopper, spotting intellectual treasures where others might see junk. Departing from the decade-by-decade analysis typical of history books, Kammen offers up a grab-bag of observations culled from a tumultuous century of cultural change. There's Walt Disney, boasting in 1942 that Dopey knows more than he does about American tastes. Flash back to Walt Whitman, that curious mixture of New England highbrow poet and big-city rowdy. Then things turn positively surreal when we find a pivotal 1963 issue of Playboy, featuring an interview by the philosopher Bertrand Russell.

What's worrisome about all this, Kammen feels, is that America's lively, home-grown popular culture think bowling and minor-league baseball is being rapidly turned over to a mass culture dominated by corporate interests. The social bonds formed by swinging waltz nights and neighborhood chess matches have dissolved into a couch-potato culture of passive box-watching, with the TV's remote control close at hand.

While other cultural critics have written cynically or disdainfully about lowbrow tastes, Kammen's sensitive inquiry into our cultural landscape is a welcome surprise. A careful scholar and an eloquent champion of democracy, he writes from a conviction that, more than anything, popular culture matters.

Once upon a time, you could peg a person's cultural tastes with pinpoint precision. They have Flaubert on the bookshelf? Undoubtedly highbrow. He drinks chablis? Certifiably middlebrow. She watches Archie Bunker? Lowbrow, natch. But in late-20th-century America, specifying one's brow level is no easy feat. We're likely to have Jane Austen on the nightstand, Don […]

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