Book Review: Consequences by Penelope Lively

Author:Penelope Lively
Title: Consequences
Publication Info:
ISBN:  9780670038565

This novel begins when a woman from a wealthy family and a poor artist meet, fall in love, and marry with parental disapproval in 1930s London.  What follows is a narrative of three generations of women in the family today.  It’s a lyrical text that seems oddly plotless, just kind of multi-generational vignettes.  In fact the title is an interesting choice.  All fiction in a sense is about consequences – a protagonist makes a choice and then must respond to the consequences.  Yet this book seems to be less about consequences than your typical novel.  Anyhow, it’s a short book but it took me forever to complete, so I think that says something.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

Author: Bill Bryson
Title: At Home: A Short History of Private Life
Publication Info: Books On Tape (2010), Audio CD
ISBN:  9780307707376

Books Read by the Same Author:


Bill Bryson travels through his English home and uses it as a launching point for this history of the uses of the rooms and the types of things one finds in each spot.  It’s something of a cluttered attic of a book (pun intended) with little bits of cultural history, material culture, architecture, and all sorts of odds and ends.  To be honest I listened to some of the audio discs out of order and didn’t realize it at first, so linearity is not important to this work.  While focusing on the broad topic of the home and private life, the focus of the book tends to stick with British and American history, and while some examples go back to Classical times most of the book is set in the past three centuries with the Victorian Era being Bryson’s favorite.  It’s a nice bit of compiled history told with Bryson’s usual wit and insight, although surprisingly his own voice is not as prevalent in this intimate book as it is in his other works.

Recommended books: How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand, The Archaeology of Home: An Epic Set on 1000 Square Feet of the Lower East Side by Katharine Greider and In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life by James Deetz
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Boston Riots by Jack Tager

Author: Jack Tager
Title: Boston Riots
Publication Info: Boston : Northeastern University Press, c2001.
ISBN: 1555534600

It’s hard to believe that a book on rioting can be dull, but Tager pulls it off.  First, he relies strictly on the high school essay formula of stating objectives, writing about them, and then summarizing.  Like every paragraph. Secondly, it’s not until the most recent riots of the twentieth century that he calls upon primary sources in a great amount to liven up the stories of these riots.  Finally, he also made the odd decision to exclude the riots leading up to the American Revolution (Stamp Act riots, Boston Massacre, and Boston Tea Party) on the grounds that they were political and crossed class boundaries.  This is something he would not claim if the United States had failed to gain independence and I think the book would be improved by their inclusion in the comprehensive survey of three centuries of Boston riots.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to learn about the different things that lead to civil disturbance over the course of history.  In the 18th century people rioted over the lack of food, against customs duties, impressment and the rule of the elite, as well as in “celebration” of Pope’s Day.  The next century saw rioting to enforce norms (ex. – closing down brothels), race and anti-Catholic riots (such as the Ursuline Convent and Broad Street), and riots both for and against abolition.  The twentieth century saw fewer riots but were bigger in size and effect: the 1919 Police Strike, the ghetto riots of the late 1960s, and the anti-busing riots of the 1970s.

The book is probably not worth reading unless for academic study or for those devoted to the history of Boston.
Favorite Passages:

Boston white ethnics and their leaders had certainly fostered segregation.  The plan imposed upon them had nothing to do with promoting educational quality — only integration.  It exempted the well-to-do who had fled the city, exacerbated already high racial tensions, and recalled old class warfare  between the Yankees and the Irish.  On this occasion, however, people of Irish descent were on both sides of the controversy. – p. 192

Recommended books: The Road to Mobocracy: Popular Disorder in New York City, 1763-1834 by Paul A. Gilje
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne

Author: David Byrne
Title: Bicycle Diaries
Publication Info: New York : Viking, c2009.
ISBN:  9780670021147

David Byrne has a folding bike and takes it with him on his travels around the world.  This book collects his ruminations from cycling through many great cities.  Sometimes they are observations on what he sees from the saddle, but often they ponder more deeply place of the city from architecture to culture to politics.  He is admittedly didactic at times, but he often makes a good point.  Knowing Byrne as the singer/songwriter for Talking Heads, I found his narrative voice not at all what I expected, sometimes a little crude, sometimes a little lofty, but usually compelling.  This is a good book for learning about the necessary changes that need to be made to our cities to survive an uncertain future.

Politics of Happiness

Favorite Passages:

My generation makes fun of the suburbs and the shopping malls, the TV commercials and the sitcoms that we grew up with — but they’re part of us too.  So our ironic view is leavened with something like love. Though we couldn’t wait to get out of these places they are something like comfort food for us.  Having come from those completely uncool places we are not and can never be urban sophisticates we read about, and neither are we rural specimens — stoic, self-sufficient, and relaxed — at ease and comfortable in the wild.  These suburbs, where so many of us spent our formative years, still push emotional buttons for us; they’re both attractive and deeply disturbing. – p. 9

These [modern] buildings represent the triumph of both the cult of capitalism and the cult of Marxist materialism.  Opposing systems have paradoxically achieved more or less the same aesthetic result.  Diverging paths converge.  The gods of reason triumph over beauty, whimsy, and animal instincts and our innate aesthetic sense — if one believes that people have such a thing.  We associate these latter qualities with either peasants — the unsophisticated, who don’t know any better than to build crooked walls and add peculiar little decorative touches — or royalty and the upper classes — our despicable former rulers with their frilly palaces, whom we can now view, in this modern world, as equals, at least on some imaginary or theoretical level. – p. 79

I’m in my midfifties, so I can testify that biking as a way of getting around is  not something only for the young and energetic.  You don’t really need the spandex, and unless you want it to be, biking is not necessarily all the strenous.  It’s the liberating feeling — the physical and psychological sensation — that is more persuasive than any practical argument.  Seeing things from a point of view that is close enough to pedestrians, vendors, and storefronts combined with getting around in a way that doesn’t feel completely divorced from the life that occurs on the streets is pure pleasure.  Observing and engaging in a city’s life — even for a reticent and often shy person like me — is one of life’s great joys.  Being a social creature — it is part of what it means to be human. – p. 292

Recommended books: Pedal Power by J. Harry Wray and The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Boneshaker by Kate Milford

Author: Kate Milford
Title: The Boneshaker
Publication Info: Boston : Clarion Books, 2010.
ISBN: 9780547241876

Don’t let the Young Adult label fool you, this is a terrific eerie thriller involving bicycles, carnivals, patent medicines, automatons and the Devil.  Set in a mysterious Southern town near the crossroads, the narrative follows young Natalie Minks as she tries to deal with a nefarious patent medicine troupe who are bewitching the townspeople.   Built on legendary elements, this book is totally original and a compelling read.

Recommended books: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury and Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston.
Rating: ****

Hub on Wheels 2011

My son Peter & I participated in Boston’s citywide bike ride Hub on Wheels yesterday, our second consecutive year of participation. Participants could ride a 10-mile route on Storrow Drive or extend it to 30 and 50-mile routes around the city. We did an abridged version of the 30-mile route ending at the Arnold Arboretum since it’s near our home.

The ride started at City Hall with thousands of riders (apparently 5000 total) lined up past the Old State House. It was exciting to turn Storrow Drive into a big bicycle party. Peter enjoyed passing his day care center twice. The route then followed the Muddy River along Park Drive and the various Ways (River, Jamaica, and Arbor) to the Arboretum. Honestly the ride went by almost too quickly for me. We started at 8:08 am and arrived at the Arboretum around 9:20. I’d like to ride farther but there’s only so long one can expect an active 3-year-old to sit still in a bike seat.

The event went off without a hitch, with perhaps the one exception of the rest area at the Arboretum. The portable toilets and snack stands were set up along the road right in front of the visitor center creating a huge bottle neck as thousands of bicyclists tried to cram in. Last year the rest area was deeper in the Arboretum where Meadow Road and Forest Hills Road meet allowing a place for bikes to pull off without obstructing ongoing traffic.

Nevertheless, Peter & I had a good long snack on the hill by the visitor center. The bike traffic cleared out quickly and about fifteen minutes later it seemed that almost all the other cyclists were well on their way. We stayed in the Arboretum to play at Peter’s favorite little bridge, throwing rock and sticks in the stream.

Hub on Wheels is a great event and I love that every year Boston becomes more and more of a bicycle-friendly city. I’m going to have to figure out how to ride next year since Peter will have outgrown his child seat.

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Video of thousands of cyclists at the starting line:

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