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'The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time,' "The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time,"
By Kate Tuttle
September 11, 2011

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THE NEIGHBORHOOD PROJECT:

Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time

By David Sloan Wilson

Little, Brown, 448 pp., $25.99

“Human diversity is like biological diversity,’’ David Sloan Wilson writes, “because both are the outcomes of evolutionary processes.’’ Yet unlike animal evolution, which produces organisms uniquely well-suited to their environments, many of which Wilson details elegantly, human evolution has led to some dismal outcomes: from poverty and war to milder forms of inhumanity, such as rudeness and littering. “Some of the greatest stories are enacted on the tiniest stages,’’ he points out, a fine preamble to a book in which the grand themes of human evolution - genetic, psychological, and cultural - are demonstrated by means of a microscope focused on Binghamton, N.Y. Wilson is a professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University, but as this book makes clear, he’s much happier to be known as an evolutionist - which is to say that he’d like to break free from academic departmental boundaries to work in an interdisciplinary way, collecting data and analyzing it with an eye toward public policy, ultimately “making a difference in the real world.’’

Wilson’s Binghamton Neighborhood Project began by surveying public school students about their degree of social engagement and charting their responses on a map to show, as Wilson says, hills and valleys of pro-social and antisocial attitudes. Along with university colleagues and allies within the school system, he researched programs and ideas that help youngsters engage more fully with their teachers and each other. Wilson’s narrative is often witty, always genial, though his fondness for in-depth observation of insects and birds is reminiscent of taking a walk with a toddler: It can be slow going. More troubling, Wilson sometimes sidesteps or glosses over pressures that can nudge people into poor choices (a section on the importance of breastfeeding never mentions paid maternity leave, or the lack thereof). Although the book often charms and informs, it would have benefited from more attention paid to the city’s everyday people and their problems, and a little less to the world’s scientists and other rare creatures.

YOU DESERVE NOTHING

By Alexander Maksik

Europa Editions, 336 pp., paperback, $15

In Alexander Maksik’s debut novel, Will Silver teaches literature in an English-speaking high school in Paris. His students come from all over: the children of striving Parisian families, cosmopolitan expat American kids, a sprinkling of Middle Eastern teens. Will is the kind of teacher students love and administrators scold, a familiar hero in the annals of pedagogical fiction; yet Maksik avoids most of the clichés in sketching Will. One trope holds true (he’s great-looking, according to the girls at school) but the character is also beset by self-doubt, crankiness, and a vexing passivity. His reckless choice to become sexually involved with a student puts his job in jeopardy, but this feels like just another stop on a trail of self-sabotage.

If Will is a bit of a cipher, his students are vividly drawn: young people ping-ponging between naïveté and self-awareness, yearning for adulthood but disgusted by the adults in their lives. Their interactions in the classroom are intense; readers who recall grappling with “Hamlet’’ or Camus for the first time will remember the high stakes. As they struggle with what they can and can’t expect from Will, their need - both for guidance and to reject it - is heartbreaking. Maksik takes seriously both the moral questions Will’s students grapple with and the sensual education they’re pursuing outside the classroom, making this a smart, sexy read indeed.

WHITE RIOT:

Punk Rock and the Politics of Race

Edited by Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay

Verso, 336 pp., $24.95

Taking its title from the 1977 Clash song, this collection ponders the whiteness of punk. Sure, there are black, Latino, and Asian punks, both musicians and fans. But just as Eminem and millions of suburban teenagers don’t erase hip- hop’s black urban roots, punk has always contained (though seldom grappled with) its own paleness. Editors Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay, academics who bring deep familiarity to the topic, gather pieces by a fittingly motley assortment of punk musicians, journalists, zine writers, and cultural studies types to hash out the important questions: Is punk’s whiteness problematic? Is a song like Black Flag’s “White Minority’’ ironic or semi-serious? What are we to make of the Nazi symbols in so many iconic punk images?

“White Riot’’ features some puerile stuff, especially band interviews, some of which depressingly reveal currently revered figures trying out dumb theories nearly 30 years ago. And some pretentious stuff: Much of the academic writing on punk is nearly unreadable, and it’s not because the ideas are so complex. The anthology’s stars, not surprisingly, are essays by James Baldwin (his famous takedown of Norman Mailer’s “White Negro’’ theory) and the journalism, especially reviews by Lester Bangs and Greg Tate. Another standout, Steven Beeber’s piece on Jewish punks appropriating Nazi imagery, offers a witty appreciation of a subject some might find shocking. An essay on punk forefathers MC5 talks about “high energy music as a tool of social revolution.’’ As many of these pieces make clear, however, revolution is an overstatement in every realm but the artistic. The editors take Patti Smith and others to task for their identification with blackness and ask: “Is punk a way for radical whites to have their cake and eat it too?’’ After all, they point out, “not all oppression is equitable, and there are limits to solidarity. Being ‘rejected by society’ because you sport a Mohawk is different than being rejected because of your skin color.’’

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.