Walkable City, Visible City, and 4 more book reviews

My brother got me two books about cities for my birthday–one fiction and one nonfiction, both great books with great covers! Here they are, along with reviews of the other books I’ve read recently.

Walkable City by Jeff Speck

I love living in a walkable urban neighborhood!  This book by a city planner told me a lot I didn’t know about what makes some cities thrive with useful, pleasant walking spaces and just how good for our physical, mental, environmental, and social health walkability is.  Every page made me gasp with some interesting fact or startling insight.  It’s filled with “rules” about how to make spaces work for us, yet it also emphasizes the need to get rid of regulations that create less-walkable areas, for example requiring off-street parking for every individual dwelling.  The real-life examples, from dozens of American and international cities, are fascinating.

If you live in a walkable place, this book will show you hidden details of how it works.  If you live in an unwalkable place, this book will teach you what to advocate in your local planning meetings or what to look for when you move.

Visible City by Tova Mirvis

Nina and Jeremy share a New York City apartment and two young children, but they barely see each other anymore.  Nina, a stay-at-home mom, is drawn to watching the older couple in an apartment across the street who look so contented together–but who is that younger woman on crutches who is suddenly in their home?  Jeremy spends most of his time at the office, trying to prove himself in a career that suddenly seems less important when he discovers the architectural splendor of an abandoned subway station and meets people devoted to exploring New York’s hidden places.  Separately, Nina and Jeremy get to know separate members of the family across the street, and their lives intersect in several very different ways as their neighborhood struggles with the construction of a huge new building.

I really liked the way the stories wove together, showing me the same ideas from different angles, and the feelings of city life this evoked.  The portrayals of different versions of “I feel trapped in my life, and I’ve got to get free!” experienced by people of different ages create an interesting puzzle: How can we all have what we need without hurting each other?  I felt that Nina was too much the main character, though; I didn’t really like her, but more importantly I felt that nobody should be the main character in this city.

A World Away by Stewart O’Nan

This novel confused me by jumping into the story as if you already knew the characters by name and didn’t need to be told how they are related or where they had lived when or why they moved.  This wasn’t justified by jumping right into the action, as the story began at a slow moment.  It all became clear eventually, but I had to muddle through at least 40 pages to get any sense of it, and I was still figuring out some things very late in this 352-page saga.  If you’re going to write like this to make some kind of point about Life, for gosh sakes don’t name three generations James Langer and give one of them a nickname that isn’t anything like James (Rennie) but name his brother Jay!!  Aargh.

That said, this is an interesting if somewhat depressing story of family life during World War II.  James and his wife Anne and son Jay are moving in with James’s father (James…) to help him die peacefully, as they did for Anne’s father last year in a different town.  Meanwhile, their older son Rennie is an Army medic who goes Missing In Action while his pregnant wife Dorothy is working at a defense plant in San Diego.  Every member of the family has problems and secrets and aching loneliness–but this is not sordid drama, more like real-life complexity.

The family’s feelings about the war and their role in it caused terrible experiences for them back in Galesburg, but now Rennie is serving his country; is that a good thing or a disaster?  Rennie is put in the awkward position of giving a speech at the end of a parade:

What could he say to them?  That he was so tired.  That it hurt when he yawned.  That he dreamed of headless, handless Japanese.  That his friends were dead and never coming home, and that no amount of applause or ceremony, no matter how heartfelt and innocent and right, would ever repay him for how much he’d lost.

“Thank you,” he said through his teeth.  “Thank you all very much for coming,” and sat down.

It’s kind of like the story you might get if you were looking at old photos of your family during World War II and made some trite comment about what a wholesome, patriotic time it was, and your relatives said, “No, it wasn’t that simple!  Not at all….”

War of the Wives by Tamar Cohen

Selina and Lottie find out they’re married to the same man when he suddenly drowns and they both show up at his funeral.  Although different in many ways, they both loved Simon and had children with him.  The story takes them through the seven stages of grief as they figure out how to relate to one another and ultimately solve the mystery of Simon’s murder.

Sounds like chick-lit book club material, doesn’t it?  Yes, but it’s so well written that it was very much worth reading.  The plot is soap-operatic, but the details of dialogue and narration make it a pretty good novel.  For example, when Selina takes off her wedding ring:

Such a tiny, insignificant thing to have embodied the spirit of a twenty-eight-year marriage.  All these years I’ve worn it, and only now does it strike me as odd that the greatest symbol of marriage should have a gaping hole at its center.

Yeah.  The character development of both women over the course of the book is predictable only in its basic outline, with enough unique wrinkles and surprising twists that both women seem like real people and I began to like each of them much more as they progressed.

Perelandra by C.S. Lewis

Most people know C.S. Lewis as the author of the children’s fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia.  He also wrote some books about religion (my favorite is reviewed here) and an adult science-fiction trilogy of which Perelandra is the second book.  I’ve read the first book, Out of the Silent Planet, twice.  That one was more tightly packed with amazingly original ideas for alien life, but this one is exciting in that way, too.

Dr. Ransom, a philologist from 1940s England, had his Out of the Silent Planet adventure to Mars when he was kidnapped by his physicist colleague Dr. Weston, an egotistical jerk whose traditional white-guy exploration of an alien world resulted in his totally missing the many things humans can learn not only from the Martians but from the eldila, the angel-like intelligences who really know what’s up in the universe.  Ransom, on the other hand, listened and learned.  Now, in Perelandra, he’s off to Venus in a sort of interstellar bathtub the eldila have provided for this mission to which they’ve called him.  (He summons a friend to help him get on his way and greet him when he returns, and it’s that guy who tells us the story.)

The planet we call Venus, whose true name is Perelandra, is a paradise of floating islands, fascinating plants and animals, and only two people.  Ransom meets the Green Lady early on, and she is his companion for some of the adventure, conveying both charming innocence and piercing insight.

Eventually, Weston shows up and behaves badly, working up to The Epic Struggle Between Good And Evil that was, in my opinion, the least interesting thing about this story.  There’s a lot of arguing, some of which is eloquent, some of which is just obvious, as Ransom tries to help Perelandra’s equivalent of Eve to resist the Fall.  What’s more interesting is the way it works out in the end.  This isn’t just a Bible story rewritten as science fiction; it’s full of original ideas and questions about obedience, freedom, companionship, gender roles, sanity, selfhood, free will, and Creation’s relationship to God.

I appreciate that, in writing an adventure that is conducted in total nudity, Lewis included a moment when Ransom realizes he’s going to have to climb a stone cliff and wishes he had some pants.

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

This is a collection of funny and serious essays by The Bloggess, who advocates surviving mental illness and life in general by being determined to make the most of happiness when you can get it.  Taxidermy, profanity, social awkwardness, cats, vaginas, and punny wordplay feature heavily in chapters with titles like “Things I May Have Accidentally Said During Uncomfortable Silences.”  I highly recommend this book to anyone who is feeling bad about being weird and/or crazy.  I also recommend it for anyone seeking motivation to laugh out loud.  It’s very, very funny, if you don’t mind some crude language and startlingly inappropriate ideas.

Visit the Quick Lit Linkup for more book reviews!  Visit Waste Less Wednesday for more about walkable cities and other green ideas!

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