Book Review: Bicycle Diaries

“All this talk about bike lanes, ugly buildings, and density of population isn’t just about those things, it’s about what kinds of people those places turn us into.”  - © Kelly Nelson

“All this talk about bike lanes, ugly buildings, and density of population isn’t just about those things, it’s about what kinds of people those places turn us into.” - © Kelly Nelson

David Byrne, a founder of the band Talking Heads, has been biking for transportation for decades, in New York City where he lives and while visiting foreign cities. (He brings a folding bike when he travels.) His new book Bicycle Diaries recounts his experiences bicycling in various cities: Berlin, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, London, Manila, San Francisco and Sydney. Don’t expect a bike travelogue though. The book would more accurately be titled “Diaries of an Artist Who Bikes.” It contains a wide range of musings (can dogs deceive themselves?) and wonderings (does every culture have its own palette?) as well as encounters with artists, musicians and strangers on the street. It is a thought-filled, swirling read. And if you flip the pages front to back you’ll see a tiny bicycle scoot across the bottom of the page.

The most bikey parts come in the introduction, the New York chapter and the epilogue. Byrne started biking in the early 80s when it was a geeky, uncool thing to do but he found it exhilarating. Still does. Byrne, in his fifties, clearly enjoys having a bike-seat view of street life and urban landscapes. “It’s the liberating feeling—the physical and psychological sensation—that is more persuasive than any practical argument,” he writes to explain why he rides. He does use cars on occasion but says of driving, “The romance of being ‘on the road’ is pretty heady, but a cross-country ramble is a sometime thing. It isn’t a daily commute, a way of living, or even the best way to get from point A to point B.”

Byrne has applied his artsiness to the world of biking by organizing a public forum in 2007 that featured helmet designers, lock breakers, writers and singers (detailed in the New York chapter) and by designing one-of-a-kind bike racks (shown at the end of the book).

After reading Byrne’s description of Berlin—“No cars park or drive in the bike lanes, and the cyclists don’t ride on the streets or on the sidewalks either. There are little stoplights just for the bikers, even turn signals!”—I’m itching to go there and see it for myself. And that is the gift of this book: it makes you want to go some place new, bring a bike or rent one there, ride around and take your own photos, write your own journal.

Kelly Nelson

Tempe, Arizona USA

Bicycle Diaries / David Byrne / Viking, 2009

Bicycle Diaries / David Byrne / Viking, 2009

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Book Review: Horace Afoot

© Kelly Nelson

It’s a book about identity, small town life, existential wonderings and the closing and opening of hearts. © Kelly Nelson

“I hate internal combustion engines and the civilization that has been built on them.”

So declares the narrator on the first page of the novel Horace Afoot. It’s a book about identity, small town life, existential wonderings and the closing and opening of hearts. It’s also the story of an anti-car man trying to live in a car-dominated society.

Horace lives in a small American town where corn grows in the summer, snow piles up in the winter and everyone owns a car except for Horace who walks.

His anti-car perspective creates some amusing scenes. While walking along a tree-lined residential street, Horace watches as a passing car screeches to a halt after the windshield is pelted with rocks. The driver leaps from his car calling the unseen kids “bastards” and seeking retribution. Horace does not reveal the where abouts of the kids who he considers to be a “band of little Luddites” who “are only trying to preserve the tranquility of their street by discouraging people … from driving down it.”

In another scene, a lawn care guy stops by and offers to mow Horace’s overgrown yard. “I’ll hire you,” Horace says, “on one condition. That you do everything by hand. No power mowers. Nothing that has a motor.” The guy takes a look, shakes his head and drives away.

The author, Frederick Reuss, pokes at car culture with his choice of words: cars are “growling boxes” that are “groomed” and “tucked into garages.” Chevy, I learned, is a variation of the word chivvy which means to harass. (I think of that now—harassment—when a Tahoe or Suburban roars past me on my bike.)

Although there are death threats, arrests, rapes, a murder and burglaries in this book, it moves with a quiet slowness, at a walking pace.

Horace, as a character, can be described as an intelligent, literary iconoclast and as an odd, repressed loner. He has no family, friends or career. He has legally changed his name at least three times. He telephones strangers and asks them about happiness, illusion and St. Bernard dogs. Town folks see him as a lunatic, a loafer, an untrustworthy weirdo. I’ve made the diagnosis that he has Asperger’s syndrome: he’s smart, verbal and socially skittish. I wonder: do carfree characters in novels tend to be depicted as unusual and out of step?

As the book unfolds, Horace starts to connect with people: he befriends a dying librarian and reads aloud to him in his hospice bed; he gives money to a small-time cocaine dealer so she can start over again, somewhere else, away from her hoodlum boyfriend. He takes a job at the library. He gets a pet. Please, don’t have him buy a car, I thought nervously. There had been suggestions along the way: there’s a scene where middle-aged Horace drives a car for the first time and an acquaintance tells him, “One of these days you’re going to get sick of walking, and when you do I want to be right there to help you pick out a brand new car.” By the end of the book, Horace has changed his name again but not his carfree ways.

Kelly Nelson

Tempe, Arizona, USA

Horace Afoot

Frederick Reuss

MacMurray & Beck, 1997

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Book review: $20 Per Gallon

$20 per gallon - © Kelly Nelson

$20 per gallon - © Kelly Nelson

A Look into the Future

In 2008, gas prices across America topped four dollars a gallon, the highest price ever paid to fuel cars in the U.S. In response, Americans drove 100 billion fewer miles than the previous year and took 300 million more trips on public transit. This inspired Christopher Steiner, a civil engineer and writer for Forbes, to wonder: how will our lives change when gas hits eight or twelve or twenty dollars a gallon? His book presents a vision of what might lie ahead.

“At $6, the SUV will die.”

Traffic will start to look different: more smaller, gas-efficient cars, more diesel cars, fewer SUVs and pick-up trucks. The number of people who die in auto accidents will start dropping. As more commuters walk, bike and take transit, Americans will collectively lose weight.

“When gas inevitably climbs to $8, the airline carnage will be vast.”

There will be fewer airlines, fewer flights and many pilots out of work. Fares will increase and fewer people will be able to afford to fly.

“Car ownership rates, at $10 gas, will plummet.”

Gas-powered cars will become too costly for some and electric cars will still be pricey and limited in supply, squeezing many people out of the car market. “We will change how we drive, how much we drive, and where we drive.” Motorboats, snowmobiles, jet skis and all-terrain vehicles will go extinct.

“There will be a shortage of desirable, walkable, and dense developments near city cores when gas reaches $12.”

People will flee the large houses and long commutes of the suburbs for urban areas. Many American cities won’t be ready for this influx but cityscapes will start changing with higher density neighborhoods and more public transportation.

“At $14, the framework upon which Wal-Mart has spread cheap Chinese junk around the country will fall apart.”

Big box stores will close or morph into smaller, regional stores. Downtown shops will offer basic goods and services.

“When gas tops $16 per gallon, the availability of air freight will be a fraction of what we have now.”

We’ll eat more foods grown locally and regionally. The big loser: sushi restaurants in non-coastal cities.

“It will take gas prices of the most compelling magnitude to make widespread American high-speed rail a reality: $18 per gallon.”

The U.S. will finally catch up with Europe and Asia by having a national network of high-speed trains.

The book ends with Steiner imagining the life of a 27-year-old man living in Brooklyn, New York in the twenty-dollar-a-gallon future. This average guy takes the subway to work and takes high-speed trains to Pittsburgh (a two-hour trip) to visit his parents who own a small, electric car and to Boston (a one-hour trip) where his sister lives carfree. He hasn’t been on an airplane in fifteen years and has never owned a car and doesn’t expect to ever own one.

Kelly Nelson

Tempe, Arizona, USA

$20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better

Christopher Steiner

Grand Central Publishing, 2009

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Book Review: Sleeping Naked is Green

© Kelly Nelson

One green lifestyle change every day for a year. That’s the eco-challenge Vanessa Farquharson, a 27-year-old arts reporter in Toronto, set for herself in March 2007. She switched to more eco-friendly versions of common products: biodegradable pens, paraben-free lip balm, organic cotton blankets, corn-based cat litter. She cut back on using energy, water and paper by taking shorter, cooler showers in the dark and replacing paper napkins with cloth ones. She stopped using some things (styrofoam, toothpicks, tape) and reused or recycled other things (envelopes, running shoes, corks). Each day she did something to reduce her carbon footprint and blogged about it.

Her book, Sleeping Naked is Green, strings together blog entries for about a third of the environmentally-friendly changes she made. Fifteen of the changes involved transportation.

She started by making sure her car tires were fully inflated. Then she turned off the air conditioning in her car and stopped driving on weekends (although she continued to commute alone by car).

Two months into her green experiment she confessed, “As I get hyperaware of every little detail in my life and how green or un-green it is, I’m starting to feel like a bigger and bigger fraud for owning a car.” Still, she couldn’t bring herself to sell her VW Beetle right then. As the owner of a pink cell phone and a fan of the TV show America’s Next Top Model, she feared it would be unfashionable to not drive, that she’d have to wear Gore-Tex and hiking boots. Owning a car, she said, is “one of those things where—a bit like tasting real champagne—once you get it, it’s hard to give up.”

But give up her car she did two months later. “Not even 365 eco-friendly changes are going to make up for all the driving I do,” she concluded. Throughout the year she also resolved to rent only hybrid or fuel-efficient cars, drive them no faster than the speed limit and get exact directions ahead of time so she wouldn’t drive around lost. When she needed a courier, she’d only hire bike or transit-riding messengers. She started taking her bike to a green-minded repair shop and stopped taking recreational rides on motorcycles.

Farquharson loved the financial benefits of not owning a car (more money for bamboo dresses!) and even found a glamorous side to bike riding. While she was interviewing American actor Jake Gyllenhaal, he pointed to the grease mark on her right shin and asked, “Is that a rookie mark on your leg?” He reached over and ran his finger across her leg and said: “It totally is. Cool.” She had never imagined that riding a bike could get a movie star to touch you! “Ride safe,” he said with a wink as they parted.

At the end of her green year, Farquharson went back to doing about a quarter of the things she had given up: shaving her legs, flushing every time, using a hair dryer, dishwasher and vacuum cleaner. And the car? “I’m definitely not buying a car,” she wrote.

Kelly Nelson
Tempe, Arizona USA

Review of:
Sleeping Naked is Green: How an Eco-Cynic Unplugged Her Fridge, Sold Her Car, and Found Love in 366 Days
Vanessa Farquharson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009

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Planet Walker: 22 Years of Walking, 17 Years of Silence.

“How do I fit into a sixty-mile-per-hour world when I am traveling at three?” - ©Kelly Nelson

“How do I fit into a sixty-mile-per-hour world when I am traveling at three?” - ©Kelly Nelson

In 1972, at the age of 26, John Francis gave up driving. He also stopped riding in cars and trucks, on motorcycles and buses, trains and planes. No motorized vehicles at all. He would walk instead.

His decision roused strong reactions in the small community north of San Francisco where he was living.
“I like getting around too much to give it up,” his live-in girlfriend said of driving.
“This is only a phase you’re going through,” said his mom.
“We are getting ready to have a baby so it’s nothing we could do,” said a female friend.
“You think you’re better than me. Isn’t that right?” asked a hostile neighbor.
“You are just crazy. One person walking is not going to make any difference in reducing air pollution or oil spills,” chimed onlookers.
“Hell no, that ain’t crazy. If you don’t want to drive cars then you shouldn’t,” said a male friend.

Francis became a quirky local character, someone who would set out a day early to meet friends for a movie in a town 25 miles away.

Then he decided to stop speaking.

This was seen as even weirder than giving up fuel-powered transportation.
While some, including his parents, questioned his sanity, others started calling him a saint and a hero: his walking wasn’t just tramping around, it was a pilgrimage. He began carrying a banjo and a journal to paint and write in. “Walking is in me to do,” Francis writes. “Birds are born with wings. I was born with feet.”

This book details his eleven years living and walking in California and Oregon and his seven years walking silently across the country, stopping in Montana to earn a master’s degree in environmental studies, stopping again in Wisconsin to take doctoral classes in land resources. It is a picturesque depiction of a cross-country trek in the days before e-mail and GPS. It’s not altogether clear how he paid for things and foot surgery, a huge event for a walker, is mentioned only briefly. He does bike ride at times, usually when he’s settled in a place, waiting out the winter or attending school, but it’s not his first choice: “It is not the same as walking, moving slowly on the ground, feeling every rock and stone.”

My favorite moment in the book comes when the Coast Guard offers him a job (he had started speaking again). He is in New England at the time and tells them he can start the job in two months after he has biked all the way to Washington D.C. and they say okay. Once there, he tells them he can take business trips of no more than 300 miles (the distance he can bike in three days) and they agree to that too. Imagine a world where all employers support and adapt to vehicle-free lifestyles!

In the final chapter, Francis devotes only two paragraphs to his decision to start using cars again. (His wife and kids get a mere two sentences.) As he tells it, he realized that his “decision not to use motorized vehicles had become a prison.” It’d be better for his family and his work, he thought, to use fuel-powered transportation again. So after 22 years of walking, he started traveling in cars and planes.

As someone who has lived carfree for ten years, I wanted to hear more about this decision and how his life changed once it became motorized. And I wouldn’t have minded hearing about how he met his wife and how they set up a life together.

This book, illustrated with more than ninety drawings by the author, resounds with the message that there are things you see and experience when walking that you miss when traveling by car.

Kelly Nelson
Tempe, Arizona USA

By John Francis
National Geographic, 2008, 288 pp.

Additional Information:
Planetwalk, the non-profit organization Francis founded, aims to promote “earth stewardship and peace through pilgrimage.” On the website you can read about his yearly week-long walks as he retraces his cross-country trek this time with GPS, vehicle support, an Internet technician and a plane ticket back to California where he lives.

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