Sunday, August 24, 2008

Suburban Nation

Why do the 'burbs suck? Why is spending time in an older city like Boston vacation-worthy while spending that same amount of time among strip malls feels awful? For years I have visited different cities and been unable to articulate what exactly distinguishes the good from the bad. The husband and wife architect team of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk find those words in their excellent book Suburban Nation.

I learned that the urban building codes that guided development for hundreds of years were brusquely shrugged off with the emergence of the automobile after WWII. Diverse communities were exchanged for specialized niches of commerce, industry, and the residential. At the time there existed a need for zoning by use; industrial pollution was seriously harmful to the peoples' health. Also, cheap gas and federally subsidized highways made it efficient to build further away from the cities' centers. Now, as we recognize the true cost of suburban sprawl--environmental, social, economic--we appear trapped in an outdated mode of development.

From this larger picture Duany narrows his focus to the renaissance of traditional urban planning. It is remarkable how specific, and I believe effective, his suggestions are. For example, skinny streets. Nothing feels crummier than standing next to an eight-lane road. Narrow roads that allow easy pedestrian crossing are an often overlooked blessing to a city. Requiring buildings to be built near the sidewalks creates a more intimate space that transforms a tedious suburban drive into a pleasant urban walk. Tips like these are found throughout Suburban Nation. I am willing to believe in their effectiveness because of my experience in older cities. Without exception, the most charming neighborhoods have been built along these lines. I guarantee your favorite city was as well.

The only downside to the book was the authors' tone. This might be getting picky, but I was distanced from the message by their ranting. It is apparent these architects have spent years battling narrow-minded developers and zoning boards. I understand their frustration. But their thinly veiled anger coupled with a sloppy book binding ultimately undermined their authority. Still, if you are interested in why urban planning at all this book is a home run.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Nothing Special

Swing and a miss, Strike One. I picked up Nothing Special during a casual bookstore stroll. Typically I like to just wander around the aisles until a title grabs my attention. Nothing Special, by Charlotte Joko Beck, did. I suppose the dice were a little loaded; my aimless stroll was influenced by my frustration with recent difficulties. My car had been broken into, the university was messing with me about in-state residency, and so on. So perhaps finding myself in front of the Eastern Religions section was no accident. I have often found comfort and perspective in Buddhism.

Still, I thought I had a winner. A trick in picking out good Buddhist books is avoiding authors who dwell on the esoteric details of the religion. "After the third phase of insight you will advance to the second realm where you must encounter a large demon and cut off his left hand." Something like that pops up in a surprising number of the titles on the shelves. It is too concerned with orthodoxy to be relevant for me. Sort of like the angels on a pinhead debate. Who cares?

Nothing Special avoided all such jargon. Bingo. But, alas, no. Instead I learned through experience another type of Buddhist book that I dislike--the poetic metaphor kind. While I was not punished with dogma, the sappy anecdotes emerged as a worthy foe. An example: "We are like ice cubes. We need to melt and be like water." Or: "we are all whirlpools in the river of life." Those might sound good on a postcard, maybe, but don't help me do anything but feel insulted. To be fair, the last third of the book got better. Because of that strong finish, I won't advocate a book-burning.

If you are interested in reading some good Buddhist books, start elsewhere, this one was "nothing special."

Monday, August 4, 2008


David Sedaris makes me laugh 'till it hurts. Bill Bryson makes me chuckle, sure, but the darker, taboo nature of Sedaris's stories hits harder. There is something middle-aged and middle-classed about Bryson that keeps me distanced. I just can't get lost in his antics at the post office or his basement.

What brings me to humor books is a recent crush of responsibility. With a new job and school starting soon, a little levity was what the doctor ordered to mellow out. I could tell I was gettin' prickly because Lauren suggested that she run to the store and grab me some beer "to cool off." That generous suggestion, trust me, had never been offered before and was my first clue that I needed an outlet.

So where could I turn in this, my hour of need? Sedaris. And he didn't disappoint. My favorite story in this collection was "get your ya ya's out!", a recollection of his Greek grandmother and her rivalry with his mother. The reader is given a great ride though the eyes of Sedaris as a young boy. He does an amazing job of recreating adolescence: our long-forgotten insecurities and boyhood interests are brought back to life with detail.

I would recommend this book to anyone. Still, it is not my favorite of his works. Dress your family in Corduroy and Denim probably holds that title. But, really, you can't miss with Sedaris, maybe the funniest man alive today.