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Books

Short Takes

‘On Looking,’ ‘Love is a Canoe’ and ‘The Heavy’

THE HEAVY: A Mother, a Daughter, a Diet

THE HEAVY: A Mother, a Daughter, a Diet

ON LOOKING: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes

By Alexandra Horowitz

Scribner, 308 pp., illustrated, $27

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“Our culture fosters inattention,” says Alexandra Horowitz. Because we have a lot on our minds, because we have already seen and categorized the familiar landmarks and characters we encounter daily, because our minds have matured beyond what William James called the “aboriginal sensible muchness” of childhood, we walk through the world ignoring more than we take in. In this elegant, entertaining book, Horowitz exhorts readers to learn, or to re-learn, how to see what we pass as we walk through our cities and towns.

Horowitz recruits an idiosyncratic group of experts to guide her. In the first (charmingly affectionate) chapter, her companion is her 19-month-old son, through whose eyes she sees the strong human disposition toward compassionate animism: A single shoe atop a bag of garbage is sad, her son tells her. Walking with a typeface designer, she ponders the aesthetics and history of letters and revels in “a vision that let me miss the forest and see the trees.” An expert on public spaces and urban sociology puts words to the phenomenon all city-dwellers have noticed: the graceful ballet of the “step and slide,” the way experienced pedestrians move about one another following a set of unspoken, efficient rules. One of the most enchanting walks is with artist Maira Kalman, whose avid curiosity constantly challenges distinctions between art and trash, public and private spaces. “Take a left turn where you ordinarily take a right,” Horwitz suggests after that walk, “open the gate to the block garden you have never visited; view the passerby as a person who is waiting for you to speak to him.”

LOVE IS A CANOE

By Ben Schrank

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 342 pp., $26

“Good love is a quilt — light as feathers and strong as iron.” At least, according to the iconic 1970s self-help classic “Marriage Is a Canoe” by Peter Herman, a novel-cum-fable of a childhood summer when his grandfather, Pop, taught him about fishing, paddling, and how to love a woman. In Ben Schrank’s wickedly satiric novel, an ambitious rookie editor tries to resurrect the corny old advice book by launching a contest in which the winner spends a day learning from Herman. Three voices alternate to tell the tale: Herman himself, now 60-ish and still thinking about writing that second book; Stella Petrovic, the editor; and Emily Babson, author of the winning entry. Emily grew up reading “Marriage Is a Canoe” on her mother’s bookshelf — Schrank nails the blend of corniness and wisdom that characterized the genre. Bringing her own troubled marriage to the man who “helped to form her idea of what marriage should be” seems like a brilliant idea, until it actually happens.

What results when Emily and her self-satisfied husband turn up at Herman’s lakeside cabin is expertly wrought farce — Schrank skewers the publishing industry and modern relationship talk, while somehow still making us care about the fate of this wounded young marriage. His portrayal of present-day Brooklyn, with its artisanal businesses and self-conscious foodways, may someday feel as nostalgic as Herman’s sepia-tinged memories of paddling a canoe with the ever-wise Pop.

THE HEAVY: A Mother, a Daughter, a Diet

By Dara-Lynn Weiss

Ballantine, 240 pp., $26

Dara-Lynn Weiss’s 2012 Vogue essay about putting her young daughter, Bea, on a diet sparked widespread outcry. While Weiss felt she had written “an unsparingly honest article that I’d thought people could relate to,” readers damned her for imposing her food and body issues onto her defenseless daughter. If this book-length expansion of the story of Bea’s diet proves anything, it’s that the truth (as usual) lies somewhere in between.

Weiss begins with a pediatrician visit in which the doctor warns her about Bea’s weight (93 pounds at age 7). Helping Bea lose weight, from Weiss’s perspective, amounted to “treating a disease, potentially saving her from diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and even early death.”

Weiss acknowledges her own shortcomings in helping Bea (she cops to being a bad role model in the exercise department, describing herself as a “poor athlete and a lazy person”), and she clearly adores her daughter. Yet perceptive readers will notice that Weiss reserves the largest dose of sympathy for herself — when she publicly questions Bea on whether she’s eaten too much for a snack, Weiss worries most about the other mothers’ approbation. In the end, the book reads less like a story of a child’s diet and more like a case study of a mother — who is “extremely number-focused” but pays more attention to calorie counts than nutrition — whose own vexed relationship with food remains unresolved.

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