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Short Takes

Capsule reviews of three recent titles

WALKABLE CITY: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time

By Jeff Speck

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 312 pp., $27

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Why should we care whether our cities encourage walking? Let Jeff Speck count the ways: More walking means a healthier population, a more vibrant local economy, less pollution from cars, decreased dependency on foreign energy sources, more civic engagement, more time with family. Given this range of positive outcomes, it’s no surprise that cities rated highly walkable (Boston, Vancouver, San Francisco) perennially top the list of attractive places to live and work. A thriving, mixed-use downtown is a magnet for economic growth; cities that have focused on nurturing this environment, Speck says, “actively use urbanism as a recruiting tool.” Still, he argues, even places like Boston need to do better; in this engaging, lively new book, Speck (a city planner whose previous book looked at suburbia) lays out a path toward making every city more walkable.

First, though, cars need to be put in their place. Speck is not anti-car, but makes the strong argument that in too many parts of our country “traffic trumps livability.” With commuters spending 20 percent of their income in their travel costs, they don’t just drive to work, they work to pay for their driving. In making suburban and exurban sprawl possible, cars increasingly make it impossible to avoid; “[i]t is an instrument of freedom that has enslaved us.” Often, driving has nothing to do with fun or freedom: a study of six cities found that in these areas “a third of all traffic congestion was made up of people trying to find a parking spot.” The challenge, Speck says, is that the only way to make walking, bicycling, and public transit more popular is to make driving more difficult, expensive, and unpleasant. Cities such as London that have enacted these policies have seen impressive results — but the political calculus, especially in a nation that loves cars and claims to hate cities, is terribly difficult.

MARRIED LOVE AND OTHER STORIES

By Tessa Hadley

Harper Perennial, 221 pp., paperback, $14.99

Marriage and parenting are so quotidian that it’s easy to overlook how unsettling and strange the process is: after growing up in one’s own family, to join with another person carrying his own baggage. Add in differences of education, age, religion, and social class, and it’s amazing any couples find their way at all. A British writer whose work probes the dangers and joys of family life, Tessa Hadley writes like a dream, even if some of her stories can haunt you like a nightmare.

In these stories, characters misjudge one another routinely, only to be caught up in unexpected feelings of sympathy and love. One young woman, overhearing her working-class boyfriend’s mother disparaging her comparatively upper-class accent, wishes that “she could possess him as he only was when he was alone.” In another story, a wife who has married into a family of grand gestures, feels her own sphere diminish, grow “thin and used up, as if her children were the only real thing.” Hadley’s measured, perfectly controlled prose masterfully chronicles her characters’ turmoil; these stories are gemlike and unforgettable.

WOULD YOU EAT YOUR CAT? Key Ethical Conundrums and What They Tell You About Yourself

By Jeremy Stangroom

Norton, 144 pp., paperback, $15.95

Despite a title that echoes a spate of recent books on vegetarianism, this volume aims to explore a wider range of moral choices, from how we respond personally to global warming to whether we condone torture. It poses 25 such dilemmas, then proposes explanations for how the reader’s mind works depending on how she or he responds to each one. Jeremy Stangroom, a founder of The Philosophers’ Magazine, aims for an accessible, entertaining format — the book is slim and illustrated — and one can imagine some of the hypothetical conundrums sparking useful debates.

The problem here isn’t that moral philosophy can’t be presented using questions of everyday ethics, it’s that Stangroom’s version mostly doesn’t attempt to. His hypothetical cases are simplistic and overwrought (the so-called “trolley problem,” which asks whether you would steer a train over one innocent person to save five innocent people, is a classic thought experiment, but how useful is it in navigating a normal life?), and the author’s interpretations of various responses tend to steer readers into boxes labeled “Utilitarian” or “other.” Those who worry more about the moral implications of little white lies, or taking an illegal right on red when nobody’s watching could use a book that’s less clever and more thoughtful.

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