Book Review: Straphanger by Taras Grescoe

Author: Taras Grescoe
Title: Straphanger
Publication Info: New York : Times Books, 2012.
ISBN: 9780805091731

Previously Read By the Same Author: The End of Elsewhere

Summary/Review:  In the previous book I’ve read by Taras Grescoe, The End of Elsewhere (one of my all-time favorite books), the author travels the world deliberately visiting the most touristed sites.  In Straphanger, Grescoe travels the world again this time taking advantage of the rapid transit metro systems of the world’s great cities.  Grescoe visits New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Paris, Copenhagen, Moscow, Tokyo, Bogotá, Portland, Vancouver, Philadelphia and Montreal taking notes of what each city’s metro system can offer to North American cities (or in the case of Phoenix an example of how not to do it).  Grescoe takes not how each city’s public transportation network is a unique representation of that city’s culture, being both of the city and shaping the city.  While not everything would work in other cities, there’s a lot of food for thought for improving public transportation networks to serve dense urban environments, which Grescoe emphasizes is increasingly becoming necessary for our urban future.  Of course, me reading this book is another example of me being in the choir being preached too, but I find that it works well both as a travelogue and as a treatise on public transit’s future.  I highly recommend this book and expect it will be on my list of favorite books for 2012.

Favorite Passages:

Kenneth Jackson: “Look,” he said, “humans are social animals.  I think the biggest fake every perpetrated is that children like, and need, big yards.  What children like are other children.  If they can have space, well, that’s fine.  But most of all, they want to be around other kids.  I think we move children to the suburbs to control the children, not to respond to something the children want.  In the city, kids might see somebody urinating in public, but they’re much more at risk in the suburbs, where they tend to die in cars.” – p. 96

“Since the Second World War, in fact, transit in most of the world’s great cities has been run by publicly owned agencies.  The argument for public ownership of transit is two-pronged.  First, that transit systems and railroads are an example of a natural monopoly, like electric utilities or sewer systems, they can optimize expenditures and increase efficiency if they are under a single management.  Second, since a decent transport system has external benefits like increasing property values and reducing congestion and pollution, it is best managed not to maximize owners’ profits, but in the public interest.” – p. 125

Recommended books: Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden, Triumph of the City by Edward L. Glaeser and Pedaling Revolution by Jeff Mapes
Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Author: Colm Tóibín
Title: Brooklyn
Publication Info: New York : Scribner, 2009.
ISBN: 9781439138311
Summary/Review: Set in the 1950s, this novel tells the story of young Irish woman named Eilis who gets the opportunity to emigrate to New York, work in a shop, and begin studying accounting and law.  At its best, the story captures nuances of everyday life from the small kindnesses to the petty jealousy, homesickness to new love.   Unfortunately, Eilis has a problem in that she seems incapable of making decisions for herself and thus allows others to shape her life for her.  This comes to a head in the final section of the book which I found so frustrating and didn’t know if should be angry at Eilis for having no spine or angry at everyone in society who made her this way.  Nevertheless, while unsatisfying on the narrative level this is a well-written and honest novel.

Recommended books: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, ‘Tis, a Memoir by Frank McCourt, and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Life by Keith Richards with James Fox

AuthorKeith Richards with James Fox
Publication Info: Hachette Audio (2010)
ISBN: 1600242405
Summary/Review:  I generally shy away from celebrity autobiographies but with the audiobook read by Johnny Depp and Richards himself, I had to give it a listen.  I figured that Richards would be a good storyteller and was not disappointed.  At its best, Life allows Richards to talk about the music he loves, the creative process, and songwriting which is all very insightful.  He also talks about musicians he loves such as saxophonist Bobby Keys and singer-songwriter Gram Parsons.  Richards can also be very catty.  More than 40 years after Brian Jones death, Richards does not let bygones be bygones and is very dismissive of his former bandmate.  On the other hand, Bill Wyman is virtually ignored.  Most of his venom is reserved for Mick Jagger, although it’s a brotherly kind of hate, and frankly Mick deserves it.  The book reflects the career arc of the Rolling Stones in that the best parts are at the beginning depicting Richards’ early life, the formation of the stones, their rise to fame, and their greatest artistic successes in the late 60s and early 70s.  The middle part of the book is bogged down by endless stories of drugs and excess as well as Richards’ legal battles.  The final part of the book is more of a hodgepodge with some humorous anecdotes and a few moments where the reader feels the triumph of 50 years of the Stones, but at the same time one is left mostly wondering why this is still going on.  I think the audiobook narration really helps make this book, so I expect it would not be as good to read in print.

Rating: **

Book Review: All That We Share by Jay Walljasper

AuthorJay Walljasper
TitleAll That We Share
Publication Info: New York : New Press, c2010.
ISBN: 9781595584991
Summary/Review: This collection of essays details the Commons – the things that we share such as water, air, the internet, and other public spaces and ideas.  Many of these things are in danger of being privatized and/or squandered and destroyed.  The essays suggest the commons as  a third way between corporatism and government control.  I found the book intriguing as it introduced me to many new concepts build on old ideas.  The format of essays was complicating though as each author seemed to begin by reiterating the same basic ideas at the start of each essay making the book overly repetitive.  A good read though for anyone looking for new ways to tackle to problems of modern politics.

For more information visit

Recommended booksNew Games Book by New Games Foundation, Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability by David Owen and Respect: An Exploration by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

Book Review: Empire State by Jason Shiga

Author:Jason Shiga
TitleEmpire State
Publication Info: Abrams ComicArts (2011)
ISBN: 0810997479

Previously Read By Same Author: Bookhunter
Summary/Review: This sweet but sad graphic novel tells the story of two friends separated by a continent and their bittersweet reunion.  I can relate to the antagonist’s shyness and hopefulness as the world opens before him while his heart is broken.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Big questions, or, Asomatognosia : whose hand is it anyway by Anders Nilsen

Author: Anders Nilsen
TitleBig questions, or, Asomatognosia : whose hand is it anyway 
Publication Info: Montréal : New York, NY Drawn & Quarterly ; Distributed in the USA by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c2011.
ISBN: 9781770460478
Summary/Review: This massive graphic novel grapples with some deep philosophical issues through the stories of a flock of tiny birds, a mentally retarded orphan, and a crashed jet pilot.  I can’t say that I actually “got” what the author was depicting but the illustrations were beautiful and it did make me think a lot.  Once I got into the book, I couldn’t put it down, or I wouldn’t have it the tome weren’t so heavy that my arms got tired.

Recommended booksHope For the Flowers by Trina Paulus
Rating: ***

Book Review: Marco Polo didn’t go there by Rolf Potts

AuthorRolf Potts
TitleMarco Polo didn’t go there
Publication Info: Palo Alto, Calif. : Travelers’ Tales, c2008.
ISBN: 1932361618
Summary/Review: This collection of travel essays (post-modern travel writing according to the author) grapples with travel in the modern day with the competing forces of commercialism and authentic experience.  A lot of people try to make a distinction between the tourist and the traveler, but Potts contends that there really is no difference, and that’s okay.  Potts does a great job a bringing an interesting angle to his travel experience whether he’s hiking alone in the Egyptian desert or on a posh package tour sponsored by a glossy travel magazine.  Each essay ends with a series of footnotes which offer insights on the process of writing about travel with some tips for how to do it.  It all gets very meta but I think it’s well balanced enough to avoid being pretentious.  Potts is one of the more interesting, insightful, and refreshing travel writers I’ve read in some time and I look forward to reading more of his work.
Favorite Passages:

p. xv – I use the word “tourism” intentionally, since it defines how people travel in the twenty-first century.  Sure, we all try to convince ourselves that we we’re “travelers” instead of “tourists,” but this distinction is merely a self-conscious parlor game within the tourism milieu.  Regardless of how far we try to wander off the tourist trail (and no matter how long we try and stay off it) we are still outsiders and dilettantes, itinerant consumers in distant lands.  This is often judged to be a bad thing, but in truth that’s just the way things are.  Platonic ideals aside, the world remains a fascinating place for anyone with the awareness to appreciate the nuances.”

p. 173 – In truth, backpacker culture is far more dynamic than reporters assume when they visit Goa or Panajachel to shake down stoners for usable quotes.  Outside of predictable traveler ghettos (which themselves are not as insipid as  these articles let on), independent travelers distinguish themselves by their willingness to travel solo, to go slowly, to embrace the unexpected and break out from the comfort-economy that isolates more well-heeled vacationers and expats.  Sure, backpackers are themselves a manifestation of mass tourism – and they have their own self-satisfied cliches – but they are generally going through a more life-affecting process than one would  find on a standard travel holiday.

Recommended books:  A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration by Michael Shapiro and The End of Elsewhere: Travels Among the Tourists by Taras Grescoe.
Rating: ****

Book Review: Plugged by Eoin Colfer

Author:Eoin Colfer
Publication Info: AudioGO, 2011

Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review: The author of the Artemis Fowl books branches out into grown-up novels with this crime adventure.  Daniel McEvoy is a war veteran turned bouncer, who has to struggle with his new hair implants and not getting killed when he stumbles into the middle of an organized crime ring (hence the double pun of the title).  The story is a humorous parody/pastiche of the mistaken identity crime novel.  It’s alternately bonkers and vulgar and while enjoyable it’s no masterpiece.

Recommended booksYeats Is Dead! A Mystery by 15 Irish Writers by Joseph O’Connor and Payback by Thomas Kelly.

Rating: **1/2