All the Dirty Parts

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I was worried for Daniel Handler, after reading his persuasive New York Times op-ed excoriating the publishing industry’s shunning of sex in books targeted at teenagers—and became even more so when I learned the title Lemony Snicket had chosen for his counterpoint: All the Dirty PartsHe’s going to have trouble, I thought, making it dirty enough to live up to all that hype. Spoiler alert: My concern was misplaced.

“She got up and went to the bathroom and came back wearing only my shirt. I was on my back on the bed. She stopped at the edge of the bed and clutched my hair a little. Then she moved so she was on my mouth and just rubbed there. Her moans were so unpretty I knew it was real. She tasted like everything, like a girl, like a person, like a creature. Midway I tried to reach for her and she said no and like this came on my mouth like I wasn’t even there and I, so much, loved it.”

The novel begins by unceremoniously dumping the reader inside the mind and body of a teenager:

“Wish I could explain, how these things feel like seduction, even though I know they aren’t. If you rumple my hair and leave your hand for a minute on my neck. If you sit and put one of your legs up on something even if you’re in jeans. If you lick something off your finger. If you put on lipstick. If you rub your own bare arm. If you bend down for any reason to pick something up off the ground. If you talk to me.”

And throughout, Handler is faithful to his protagonist, capturing in the book’s structure how academics, parents, and even legitimate passions like artistic expression can fade to the fringes of a young person’s consciousness, their focus almost entirely absorbed instead by sex, romance, and friendships.

All the Dirty Parts isn’t just a profile in horniness and loneliness, however. Handler tackles a plethora of important, complex issues like homoeroticism, the impact of pornography on one’s sexual concept (or as a behavioral economist might describe it, “anchoring”), and the fuzzy boundaries of consent. The book’s arguably a little heavy-handed, didactic even, when it comes to gender equality and the slut-stud dichotomy, but that’s certainly a message teenagers can stand to hear repeated.

Most importantly, Handler’s writing soars throughout:

“Abby was always scared of the condoms afterwards. She wouldn’t touch them and she wouldn’t throw them out in her house, in case her snoopy mom brush-cleared the wastebasket. So afterwards we’d walk around the neighborhood with little cloudy bundles, eggs of damp latex all tissued up, so delicate in my hand in my pocket like the baby we were trying to avoid. Nighty-night. Go to sleep in this trashcan outside the sandwich place.”

He manages to lace this quick, absorbing read with both wit (e.g., “Four years ago I think, I thought anal sex just meant you were really particular about it”) and descriptive elegance (e.g., “Right there, on her arm, the sort of beautiful spot like what made pioneers think, let’s put a town here”) all without sacrificing poignancy (e.g., “I miss her, I’m coaching at myself as I trudge toward school, like I missed a bus. Not like a limb, a life, an everything.”).

Read All the Dirty Parts. Allow your teenagers, if you have them, to read All the Dirty Parts (perhaps in conjunction with Peggy Orenstein’s Girls & Sex). Muster the courage to discuss All the Dirty Parts. Each of these actions will fascinate, satisfy, and educate. Like any good novel—and sexual experienceshould.

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Being a Dad Is Weird: Lessons in Fatherhood from My Family to Yours

Ben Falcone wants you to know he’s not fancy. Take the following passage: “[O]ne of the best ways to be a good dad is to find a great lady to be the kids’ mom[,] … a great wife who is a great mother…. My own mom is a great lady.” Does Ben Falcone, Hollywood director, know a synonym for “great”? He must. At the very least someone at HarperCollins could have been paid to look one up. But that’s not the vibe of Being a Dad Is Weird.

In this short memoir, Falcone is just a simple, nervous guy from the Midwest with a handful of common observations on parenthood (e.g., “All of that pales in comparison to the worrying I do about my kids. I worry—oh how I worry—about my kids.”). The lackluster writing is partly thanks to Falcone not having his normal arsenal of facial expressions and gesticulations to help sell a funny line, but I’m guessing it mostly owes to the manuscript’s origin as an internal memo of sorts, a Christmas present for his dear old dad. But at some point, someone decided to run with the folksy style. Even Melissa McCarthy’s introduction lacks carefully crafted sentences and deep thoughts. I almost stopped reading a quarter of the way in, wondering why anyone would publish something so devoid of literary effort.

But I decided instead to pull over a metaphorical chair and just listen to the stories of this guy who didn’t major in English and maybe had a beer or two. I started laughing. Toward the middle I giggled so often my husband demanded to know what Twitter storm I’d discovered. Falcone certainly has a knack for narrative, and his dad gave him plenty of material:

  • The only bright spot of the entire week was getting to watch my dad attempt to ride a bike. My father is good at many things, but cycling is not one of them. Apparently, growing up in the 1950s in a scrappy part of Philly is not conducive for learning how to ride a bike in a super-mellow fashion. He kept falling off the bicycle, becoming more and more enraged, not at himself for his lack of skill but at the actual bike. After a particularly bad fall, he started yelling, “Stupid fucking bike. Stupid island! Fuck you, Ocracoke!” Or I might be making that part up. But it’s fun to think he was yelling, “Fuck you, Ocracoke!” Because no offense, Ocracoke—you might be great for some people, but for fifteen-year-old Ben, you were a real shit-show. My dad has since sincerely apologized for that trip to Ocracoke…. I forgive him, of course. I mean, at least he can admit that taking advice from a bird-watcher, when you are not a bird-watcher, is not a good policy when it comes to your vacation plans. But how was my dad to know how lame Farley’s taste in vacations was? He didn’t have the Internet at his fingertips to google “Best spots to take a wimpy fifteen-year-old on the North Carolina shore.” 
  • My older daughter was born a devout Christian. Sometimes she looks out her open window, holding a cross. No shit. She stares at the sky, holding her small golden cross. I have to assume she’s praying. So this one morning, my kids were eating their gluten-free pancakes (KA-FUCKING-BOOM! I am a great dad!) and my then-three-year-old looked up at her mom and said, “Boy, God sure did give me an itchy vagina.” My wife looked away, trying not to laugh as I instantly panicked. But my daughter continued. “I mean, man. It’s really itchy.” I began to focus on astrally projecting myself to anywhere but where I was at that moment…. The tiny blond child took a pause. I praised all that was holy that she was done. But oh no. There was more. “Whoooo. It’s just super itchy. So God made me have an itchy vagina.” My older child, being fully pious, gets very offended by this kind of chatter. She was compelled by the spirit to correct her sister, posthaste. “Georgie! God would never give you an itchy vagina. He might kill you, or strike you blind, but he would never give you an itchy vagina.” My wife, no longer able to keep it in, burst out laughing, as my older daughter demanded to know what was so funny. I began to clear the plates from the table (people may have still been eating but I didn’t care). I just had to get those plates to the sink; that way I could put another four feet of distance between myself and this “situation.”
  • Kelly wouldn’t miss a beat, and he would good-naturedly yell, “Ben! Get your pop outta the john!” I’d walk in, past the person invariably at the urinal, kick open the stall door, and find my pop snoozing away. I’d nudge him, and he’d say, “What? What’s happening?” Then he’d see me and say, “Hey, buddy,” as casual and breezy as if we were having a quick beer together (not that I was old enough to drink beer, but you get what I mean). “Pop, you’re asleep on the toilet again.” With that, my dad would look down at himself, smile, and say, “So it would seem.” I’d step out, he’d splash some water on his face or whatever he needed to do to get himself together, and go back out toward the band as if nothing had happened at all.
  • Whatever my dad had done was bad … [so he] got busy. He knew my mom was coming home from work soon, and time was wasting. I was informed that we were having fish for dinner. I was fifteen and am from the Midwest, so I was not exactly thrilled. But I sucked it up because I knew my dad must have really messed up royally if he felt the need to cook an apology fish. Fish is fancy. Fish is for company. And holidays. And clearly, for apologies when Dad really pisses Mom off.
  • Normally my dad drinks white wine (he can just fuck up a bottle of chardonnay), but the occasion seemed to call for the solemnity of a red. I started to tell my dad a story about my grandma, his mom [who had just died]…. Whatever I was telling him must have registered with him in some form or fashion, because he looked at me with a tired, sad look and said, “I’d toast you, son, but you have no wine.” I politely informed him that he had my glass of wine in front of him, as well as his own. Then my brother turned to him and said, “You also seem to have my wine, Pop.”

Problem is, in telling these tales, Falcone proves he can be smart and insightful (e.g., “He taught me to always say what’s on your mind, which is advice I actually never took—my mind is a sea of unsaid thoughts sometimes pried loose with too much coffee or scotch”), as well as convey dry humor in writing (e.g., “I needed an island for uninhibited girls determined to make a man out of husky shy Italian kids. But I got a rainy island full of old bird-watchers. We watched a lot of David Letterman.”). He also occasionally provides real parenting advice (e.g., “My father’s belief, which I have also adopted, is that parents are responsible for attempting to keep their children from the truly big fuck-ups in life. The smaller stuff is the stuff that kids need to navigate for themselves.”). That left me wishing Falcone and his editors had tightened and gussied things up a lot more, moving the reader from one anecdote to another with less filler and more precision.

As it is, Being a Dad Is Weird isn’t terrible. It’s good even. But it could have been great, really great.

Who Gets What—and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design

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Economics is dry and dreary, right? Not in Al Roth’s hands. With the accessibility of Bill Nye and the relatability of those Mythbusters guys, Who Gets What—and Why explains the ins and outs of matching markets (as opposed to financial and commodities ones that trade in interchangeable things like stocks and gold). Roth covers everything from dating websites to kidney transplants, from jobs for young doctors to public school assignment, using each to demonstrate that “[m]arkets are human artifacts, not natural phenomena,” and those who design and redesign them change lives.

“Economics is about the efficient allocation of scarce resources, and about making resources less scarce,” Roth begins, and then modestly reveals how he and a handful of others used algorithms and clearinghouses to create a Nobel-Prize-winning field of study with a plethora of practical applications.

Roth tells fascinating tales, describing, for example, how the matching of football teams to play in bowl games and the market for coffee beans have evolved over time, all the while teaching basic principles of market design (e.g., “The first task of a successful marketplace is bringing together many participants who want to transact, so they can seek out the best transactions. Having a lot of participants makes a market thick.”).

Through good pacing and foundation-laying, Roth manages to entertain (e.g., “At the Wetherby School in England, a school Princes William and Harry attended, the spaces reserved by newborns fill up early each month, and the school advises women scheduling cesarean sections to have them on the first of the month, if possible, to get a place before all the spots are gone”) without sacrificing nuance (e.g., “Notice the tension between commoditization and product differentiation—that is, between wanting to sell in a thick market to buyers even if they don’t care who you are, and trying to make your product special enough that many buyers will care enough about you to seek you out”).

He also deftly discusses political hurdles to market improvement, like real estate agents increasingly serving as unnecessary middlemen who withhold easy-to-match exchanges; “[s]chool choice divid[ing] parents into two ‘parties’ [with p]eople who live near good schools becom[ing] the ‘walk-to-school party,’ while those who live elsewhere become the ‘school choice party’”; and areas like healthcare and financial trading rules where “lots of market participants [have] a stake in the status quo.”

Despite disappointment at others limiting the transformative power of his work, Roth maintains optimism “about what can be done through careful design and monitoring of a market to fix it if it isn’t working well” as well as no small amount of wit (e.g., “Doctors don’t automatically think of economists as fellow members of the helping professions”).

The last few chapters would have benefited from a bit more tightening, but on the whole Who Gets What—and Why is virtually an ideal work of nonfiction, as engaging as it is educational.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

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Trevor Noah is either one of the most talented human beings in eternity, or he found himself an epic ghostwriter. Probably both, because Born a Crime sets out to produce a narrative that’s both gripping and funny while also imparting a brief cultural history of South Africa. Which should be easy, because what could be more amusing than injustice and bloodshed, right? Not only does Noah not fail miserably, the end result is nearly flawless. Even the one hiccup is arguably a matter of style in this rarest of birds: the nonfiction page-turner.

I could go on about how achingly relatable I found Noah’s descriptions of grappling with everything from religion to abuse, how his treatment of political issues struck the ideal balance, neither too specific to his own circumstances nor too didactic, how the revelrous perfectly complimented the revelatory. But I’ll let him speak for himself instead:  

I learned about how Christianity works: If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense.

Nearly one million people lived in Soweto. Ninety-nine point nine percent of them were black—and then there was me. I was famous in my neighborhood just because of the color of my skin. I was so unique people would give directions using me as a landmark. “The house on Makhalima Street. At the corner you’ll see a light-skinned boy. Take a right there.”

My grandmother treated me like I was white. My grandfather did, too, only he was even more extreme. He called me “Mastah.” In the car, he insisted on driving me as if he were my chauffeur. “Mastah must always sit in the backseat.” I never challenged him on it. What was I going to say? “I believe your perception of race is flawed, Grandfather.” No. I was five. I sat in the back.

In Highlands North the white never took flight. It was a largely Jewish neighborhood, and Jewish people don’t flee. They’re done fleeing. They’ve already fled. They get to a place, build their shul, and hold it down.

One thing I appreciate about South Africa is that we have not yet refined the system to the point where we feel the need to lie. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” “Because you’re a policeman and I’m a black person?” “That’s correct. License and registration, please.”

Carjackings were common in South Africa at the time, too. So common you weren’t even surprised when they happened. You’d have a friend coming over for a dinner party and you’d get a call. “Sorry. Got carjacked. Gonna be late.” “Ah, that sucks. Hey, guys! Dave got carjacked.” “Sorry, Dave!” And the party would continue. And that’s if the person survived the carjacking. Often they didn’t.

As for that flaw … Each chapter stands alone, beautifully crafted and tight. Most of them also demonstrate awareness of placement within the book as a whole, not repeating information, but that system breaks down a few times, most noticeably when Noah’s “middlemen” friends Tom and Alex are introduced to the reader in a chapter following one in which they featured prominently. He also twice delivers the line, “Cool guys get girls, and funny guys get to hang out with the cool guys with their girls.” But we’re talking minor annoyance here, and only to someone who reads the book in a sitting or two (now whose fault are the high odds of that happening, Trevor Noah?).

Aside from that small detail, the book sings, and sings, and sings. Because in Born a Crime, Noah shows he has what many celebrity writers lack: the ability to determine which personal stories shine light into everyone’s darkness, and a commitment to telling them in a way that grabs the reader and never lets go.

Big Little Lies

And now for something a little different …

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Big Little Lies is a parental murder mystery crossed with a lampooning beach read. With a faster pace on the former front and a bit more character depth on the latter, it would have been exquisite. As is, I found myself periodically disinterested and wanting more clarity as to how much Liane Moriarty intended to sympathetically reflect modern parenthood as well as satirize it. Was I supposed to be laughing at these moms or feeling for them? Both? Sometimes it felt too heavy-handed in one direction (maudlin), and sometimes the other (derisive).

That said, Moriarty often did hit the sweet spot, deliciously skewering the “Mommy Wars”: “‘Of course, I don’t have a problem per se with working mothers, I just wonder why they bothered having children in the first place.’” Think Desperate Housewives when it premiered.

Also to her credit, the story got fairly gripping near the end, and passages like the following left me utterly delighted:

“Madeline thrived on conflict and was never happier than when she was outraged.”

“‘Where’s Jackie today, Jonathan?’” asked Gabrielle. The mothers were all mildly obsessed with Jonathan’s wife, ever since she’d been interviewed on the business segment of the evening news a few nights back, sounding terrifyingly precise and clever about a corporate takeover and putting the journalist in his place. Also, Jonathan was very good-looking in a George Clooney–esque way, so constant references to his wife were necessary to show that they hadn’t noticed this and weren’t flirting with him.”

It all makes for a four-star book, and perfect screenplay fodder.

Becoming Grandma: The Joys and Science of the New Grandparenting

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Lesley Stahl’s “Becoming Grandma” has an identity problem. There’s no doubt in my mind that the veteran journalist wrote this interesting and often lovely little book as a memoir lightly sprinkled with references to science and anecdotes related by “girlfriends and colleagues.” Unfortunately, somewhere along the way—most notably in the subtitle “Science of the New Grandparenting” and the chapter on Hope Meadows, “a planned community in Rantoul, Illinois, created for the sole purpose of rescuing children who were abused”—the project acquired a veneer of serious reporting.

Once that happened, even Stahl’s repeated concessions—like “my small sampling” and “my admittedly unscholarly survey”as well as nods to “income inequality” can’t defend the book from the criticism that it draws sweeping generalizations from interviews with a narrow subset of humanity and two controversial sources (work on “innate” gender difference by Louann Brizendine, “whose books and conversations were central to [Stahl’s] education,” have been labeled “junk science” by some, and Wednesday Martin has been accused of blurring the lines between fact and fiction in her social scientific pursuits). Case in point: referencing tabloids and advice blogs works fine for a memoir, but not so well for serious nonfiction.

Accepting these caveats as table stakes and reading the book as primarily one of personal reflection, however, leaves much to enjoy. Stahl says of becoming a grandparent: “I was at a time in my life where I assumed I had already had my best day, my tallest high. But now I was overwhelmed with euphoria [similar to that generated by] … romantic and carnal love.”

She tells, with satisfying name-dropping and an almost unerring eye for relatability, tales of her own grandparenthood and the larger issues they implicate. Things like being part of the “sandwich generation” caring both for aging parents and new grandchildren, dealing with in-laws (“We find ourselves having to share the new center of our life with basically strangers”), and how perplexing her cohort of “have-it-all” women finds modern parents (noting “how much more engaged and eager-beaverly women today are about motherhood than I was”).

Stahl also speaks at length about grandparents like her feeling controlled and regulated:

We grans begin holding our tongues. We turn passive, lest we irk or antagonize. We see clearly that they hold a new card, the power to deny us access to the most precious thing on earth. So we enter a new precinct of best behavior and walking on eggshells. We live by their rules now, and rule number one is: Do it their way.

This can sometimes feel awfully crotchety, like when she writes, “Before I could hold Chloe, I had to sanitize my hands—on Taylor’s orders. I really do wonder how on earth my daughter survived all the germs I carried, the wine I drank when I was pregnant and the general carelessness I subjected her to.” That said, it’s often done in a self-aware way (“‘We’re becoming fussbudgets’”) and Stahl employs her formidable powers of perception to level with the reader: actually, she says, the younger generation doing anything differently “feels like a reprimand.”

Stahl tries to strike an objective tone when discussing issues of intergenerational strife:

I am issuing a call to arms to all grandparents: If you’re not already pitching in, start now; become actively engaged in your grandchildren’s lives…. I’m also calling on parents of young children who are denying or curtailing grandparent access: ease up (except in cases of egregious physical or mental abuse). It’s time to be forgiving. Swallow hard, if that’s what it takes, “for the sake of the children.”

Ultimately, though, the book is one written by a grandmother about grandparenting and as such it slants toward the older generation’s perspective. That said, it contains many reflections on life as a working mother that will make parents feel understood at the same time they’re being asked to stretch:

During the following summer in Nantucket, I grabbed any chance to be with [my granddaughter]. I would drop whatever I was doing, gladly. I’d give up a nap or stop reading the papers. I hadn’t been like that with [my daughter]. Back in those days I was never ever free just to simply, uncomplicatedly love my kid. Work intruded on her time, or she was intruding on my reading or my sleep. As a mother, I lived with teeth grinding and stomach turbulence from worrying about [her], my job, my husband’s depression, the bills, my parents, [her] piano lessons, my boss looking at me funny. My emotional neighborhood was an overcrowded tenement. I felt trapped; I was in a fight against an urge to unshackle.

Stahl waxes downright philosophic about how grandparenthood differs:

[We’re] playmates with our grandchildren versus the policewomen we were with our own kids…. [D]uring parenthood, [our feelings are] burdened with responsibility and fear, and lack of sleep. Grandparent love is unfettered, uncomplicated…. [W]ith grandchildren there is no weariness that competes with the elation and joy of being with them.

As a parent of three young children, I found these words reassuring. Maybe we don’t need to feel guilt about not slowing down to smell roses with our kids, maybe that’s just not our role right now. Along these lines Stahl offers up a fascinating thought: Because contentment bottoms out around our thirties and forties, she says, “[B]abies are being raised by people in the unhappiest phase of their lives. Which makes it all the more important that we happy, satisfied zikna step in.”

Though “Becoming Grandma” isn’t perfect—with the organization slipping and repetition in the back half—many grandparents, especially those of Stahl’s socioeconomic standing, will find much to love, and parents like me will find a number of true gems of expression and point of view.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

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There’s a reason “Quiet” is a New York Times bestseller and Carnegie Medal finalist: Susan Cain makes a powerful argument for rethinking the way most Americans view introverts in an accessible, engaging style.

Cain starts from the premise that at least one-third of us are introverts, a style of temperament that likely evolved to counterbalance the impulses of those who sit at the other end of the spectrum. According to Cain, the two groups diverge as follows:

Extroverts tend to tackle assignments quickly. They make fast (sometimes rash) decisions, and are comfortable multitasking and risk-taking. They enjoy “the thrill of the chase” for rewards like money and status. Introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They like to focus on one task at a time and can have mighty powers of concentration [and persistence]. They’re relatively immune to the lures of wealth and fame….

Extroverts think out loud and on their feet; they prefer talking to listening, rarely find themselves at a loss for words, and occasionally blurt out things they never meant to say. They’re comfortable with conflict, but not with solitude.… [I]ntroverts prefer to work independently [and tend to be conflict-avoiders] ….

Extroverts tend to like movement, stimulation, collaborative work. Introverts prefer lectures, downtime, and independent projects….

Because they tend to speak less loudly, quickly, and often in a society that has embraced “the culture of personality,” introverts get treated as if they’re less intelligent, creative, and capable of leadership than extroverts—even though social science research disproves these notions. In response, Cain says, some introverts “act like extroverts, but the effort costs them in energy, authenticity, and even physical health. Others seem aloof or self-contained, but their inner landscapes are rich and full of drama.”

Recognizing truths like “solitude can be a catalyst to innovation,” Cain says, can help us move away from “think[ing] of introversion as something that needs to be cured.” Instead, we’d do well to respect introverts as much as extroverts and question corporate culture that blindly values “quick and assertive answers over quiet, slow decision-making.” We should give both students and employees more privacy and autonomy than do the fads of open-plan offices, teamwork, and group learning in large classrooms, Cain says, as well as “actively seek out symbiotic introvert-extrovert relationships, in which leadership and other tasks are divided according to people’s natural strengths and temperaments.”

Cain illustrates each of these observations—as well as explaining various other psychological concepts like “high sensitivity,” reward sensitivity, flow, self-monitoring, and “person-environment fit”—with attention-holders like the following:

If Abraham Lincoln was the embodiment of virtue during the Culture of Character, then Tony Robbins is his counterpart during the Culture of Personality.

During the 1988–89 basketball season, for example, two NCAA basketball teams played eleven games without any spectators, owing to a measles outbreak that led their schools to quarantine all students. Both teams played much better (higher free-throw percentages, for example) without any fans, even adoring home-team fans ….

Most importantly, Cain chooses an approach that works for every personality type: “None of this,” she writes, “is to denigrate those who forge ahead quickly, or to blindly glorify the reflective and careful. The point is that we tend to overvalue [the one] and discount the [other]: we need to find a balance ….” Cain certainly strikes a good one in this fascinating, well-written read.

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

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At cocktail parties, on the playground, and, much to my husband’s chagrin, in the bedroom, I cannot stop talking about Happy City. The book rivals Jeff Speck’s fabulous Walkable City in the wealth of information it provides regarding the history and future of cities, towns, and suburbs as livable places. Charles Montgomery’s take differs in that it pivots on the idea of happiness, using social science research to make recommendations for innovations that will ease stress and increase community.

Though Happy City tends to belabor points with excess verbiage, its pace is redeemed by a wealth of interesting content like the following:

Even the smallest of private cars takes up about 150 square feet of road space when standing still. That’s thirty times the space used by a person standing, and 7.5 times the space used by a person on a bicycle or on a bus. The numbers diverge exponentially as we start moving. Someone driving alone in a car moving at thirty miles per hour takes up twenty times as much space as someone riding on a bus at the same speed.

“How would we build differently,” Montgomery asks, “if we could chart the connection between the designs of our cities and the map of happiness?” He starts by establishing that “the greatest of human satisfaction lies in working and playing cooperatively with other people.” And yet, the proliferation of “sprawlscapes [in] modern North America”—characterized by cul de sacs and strip malls rather than dense neighborhoods with mixed commercial and residential use—combined with the fact that many jobs still sit near urban centers, means people spend more and more time stuck in their cars and deprived of the opportunity for casual contact with neighbors and the feelings of belonging and trust such interactions produce.

The current landscape of our suburbs makes parents “sicker, fatter, more frustrated, socially isolated, and broke,” while simultaneously depriving children of the community, independence, and prosocial busyness that comes with walkability.

Meanwhile, those who reside in downtowns and neighborhoods close to them (dubbed “streetcar suburbs”) deal with commuters slicing through their world, making conversation-stopping noise, displacing public gathering spaces, “clogg[ing] the main streets and slow[ing public transportation].”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, until relatively recently, it wasn’t.

We got here, Montgomery says thanks to “the twentieth century’s dual urban legacy: First, the city had been gradually reoriented around private automobiles. Second, public spaces and resources had largely been privatized.” He looks at cities like Copenhagen that have made great strides (pun intended) toward improving walkability and concludes: “If a poor and broken city such as Bogota can be reconfigured to produce more joy, then surely it’s possible to apply happy city principles to the wounds of wealthy places.” After all, “Paris’s most glorious public gardens were built for the enjoyment of a ruling elite but now provide hedonic delights for all.”

Happy City includes a host of suggestions for reform, including “neighborhood upcycling” which entails making more room for “people of different incomes … and tolerance for proximity” in cities. When changes in zoning and building laws allow for conversion of garages to cottages and more: “Th[e] vast majority of … single-family lots in the city can legally include at least three households.” Streets can be “pedestrianized” to create public spaces, like when New York City closed Broadway to traffic near Times Square or a group of neighbors reclaimed an intersection now called Share-It Square in Portland, Oregon. “All the real estate now used to facilitate the movement and storage of private automobiles,” Montgomery points out, “is public, and it can be used any way we decide.”

Other “happy redesigns” include “bike lanes, traffic calming, good transit, and … bylaws that ensure vibrant commercial streets.” Innovations called “sprawl repair,” look at filling in those yawning Target parking lots and, “‘returning cities to a human scale.’” There are, Montgomery says, “a thousand ways to retrofit proximity and complexity into cities.”

We just have to resolve to do it.

“We have been seduced by the wrong technologies,” Montgomery concludes: “[T]he struggle for the happy city is going to be long and difficult. The broken city lives in the rituals and practices of planners, engineers, and developers. It lives in law and code, and in concrete and asphalt. It lives in our own habits, too.” But “[i]t is not too late to rebuild the balance of life in our neighborhoods and cities.”

Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer in San Francisco. Her work has been published online by The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon among others. You can find Gail on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.

First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama

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First Dads offers a fascinating glimpse at the personal lives, parenting styles, and historical legacies of our nation’s presidents. Written in an accessible, engaging style with good flow and pacing, the text should appeal to anyone with an interest in parenting and appetite for history or celebrity.

Kendall doesn’t offer up much by way of parenting advice, aside from confirming the old Goldilocks theory: not too permissive and not too authoritarian, but just right, has proven best for America’s “first kids” too. A novel conclusion rocked one of my core beliefs though. I’ve always thought everyone should strive to be the best parent they can be, and that those who manage and attend to children well will naturally excel in other areas too. But Kendall says the best dads haven’t made for the most effective presidents. It’s a new lens through which to consider our attempts to “have it all.”

In this respect and others, I wonder whether Kendall can possibly offer the right take on the vast number of presidencies and historical events he covers. His presentation of the likelihood of George Washington having an illegitimate son, for example, differs with Thomas Fleming’s extensive research on the subject. (Kendall basically says, “Could have been true,” while Fleming writes in The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers that it almost certainly didn’t happen.) Generalizations about the effectiveness of the Obama administration also may be premature.

That said, First Dads is well worth reading, even if just for interesting factoids like the following:

As Grant’s volunteer aide-de-camp, Fred would live and eat in his father’s tent for most of the war. On many a night, father and son would sleep side by side.

Decades later, the White House staff was still telling stories about how “there was never a morning in the year that the whole five did not go and pile in to the bed with President and Mrs. [Teddy] Roosevelt.”

Play was as essential to the President as to his offspring. That Christmas, between lunch and dinner, Roosevelt squeezed in several hours of single stick—a form of fencing—with two friends from his Rough Rider days . . . whom he dubbed his “playmates.”

Like TR, [Hayes, a] Republican, who easily identified with the concerns of children, would also insist that it was the President’s duty to help protect America’s little guys from its big guys.

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

 

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Adam Grant accomplishes the barely possible with “Originals”: he writes a non-narrative account of industry and social science that’s so readable, putting it down feels like walking away from a fascinating conversation.

“When we marvel at the original individuals who fuel creativity and drive change in the world, we tend to assume they’re cut from a different cloth,” Grant writes, before setting out to debunk that myth. We all have “ideas for improving our workplaces, schools, and communities,” he says, but “many of us hesitate to take action.” Grant seeks to change that, sharing fascinating “studies and stories spanning business, politics, sports, and entertainment” that prod us to encourage originality in ourselves and others.

In addition to writing in accessible prose with a good eye for what information and anecdote will move and amuse, Grant effectively organizes and emphasizes his points, providing the reader with a roadmap that facilitates both attention and retention. Add in stellar pacing, and you’ve got a five-star book.

When it comes to parenting material, Grant doesn’t disappoint. “Originals” offers information of interest to caregivers throughout such as “[t]eachers tend to discriminate against highly creative students, labeling them as troublemakers” and “[r]esearch on highly creative adults shows that they tended to move to new cities much more frequently than their peers in childhood.” The book also focuses in great detail on combating the statistical probabilities of birth order (“[y]ounger brothers were 10.6 times more likely than their older siblings to attempt to steal a base”) and raising children to have an internal moral compass (“give ‘explanations of why behaviors are inappropriate, often with reference to their consequences for others’”).

Grant writes in closing, “Becoming original is not the easiest path in the pursuit of happiness, but it leaves us perfectly poised for the happiness of pursuit.” This sentiment also applies to the parenting advice he offers: encouraging questioning and fighting one’s own impulses doesn’t make the day-to-day of raising children easy, but it prepares them for a fulfilling, fruitful, compassionate, and, yes, original life.