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'Twenty Minutes in Manhattan' by Michael Sorkin; 'Drift' by Victoria Patterson; 'A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome' by Alberto Angela

July 05, 2009|Susan Salter Reynolds

Twenty Minutes in Manhattan

Michael Sorkin

Reaktion Books: 272 pp., $27

For years, Michael Sorkin, professor of architecture and design at City College of New York and former architecture critic for the Village Voice, walked each day from his Greenwich Village apartment to his studio on Hudson Street in Tribeca. The trip takes 20 minutes, but this flaneur's mind wanders through the history of the city, architectural theory, social justice and urban planning. Sorkin and his wife have lived on the top floor of the five-story tenement he fondly calls Annabel Lee (a name inscribed in the cornice) for 24 years.

He begins his journey with the stairs (72 in all), moves onto the stoop, the block, through La Guardia Place, Washington Square, Soho, Canal Street, Tribeca to Hudson Street. He is fascinated by the myriad ways architectural details foster or inhibit community, neighborliness, safety, diversity and intimacy. Sorkin has a light hand with history (he is never overbearing) and a worldly way with facts and anecdotes.

From the creation of the gridiron system of city blocks in 1811 to current disputes over zoning and development, he describes how New Yorkers' lives are formed and deformed by their environment. Sorkin's agenda is clear: Local is better; civic life depends on economic imperatives (more leisure time means more time to protect shade trees and public education) but also on small things like open stairways. "Our sense of citizenship and belonging," he writes, "is not the product of ownership but of affinity, interaction, and social reciprocity." Sorkin began this book 12 years ago, and he admits that 9/11 (the towers were visible from his living room window) informed his thinking about neighborhoods and city life. He also admits to having left his Hudson Street studio four years ago because of creeping gentrification.

"Twenty Minutes" is a eulogy to an urban life that is fast disappearing. The city, he writes, has become "the territory of mere acquisitiveness, of the sort of civic disengagement suggested by the lifestyles of those who can afford to own multimillion-dollar apartments they will occupy only a month at a stretch. For them, possession displaces participation."

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Drift

Stories

Victoria Patterson

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 226 pp., $12.95 paper

The female characters in this debut collection inhabit some of the more disorienting landscapes in Southern California -- Newport Beach and environs. Waitresses, single mothers, teenagers -- their bodies are often described in the language of Cubism: planes and angles and unreliable, shifting surfaces. The proportions of things, from utensils to emotions, often fail to fit the environment -- the hallways and beaches and temporary living spaces meant to contain Victoria Patterson's characters. Light glows in their blond hair as though it is trapped; sexuality and cannibalism are discussed in tandem; punishments and guilt often come long after the character's transgressions. Things are out of sync, making these stories infinitely disturbing. What happened to childhood? Is numbness the most a girl can hope for? "She wonders how she will function this day, the next, and all the days that follow." Even wondering, in this memorable collection, is a form of prayer.

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susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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