Short Takes

By Amanda Heller
Globe Correspondent / January 10, 2010

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NAKED CITY: The Death and
Life of Authentic Urban Places

By Sharon Zukin
Oxford University, 312 pp. $27.95

Playing off Jane Jacobs’s groundbreaking “Death and Life of Great American Cities,” sociologist Sharon Zukin traces the evolution of New York in the decades since the battle between Jacobs and Robert Moses left Moses, the creator and destroyer of cityscapes, in disrepute while elevating Jacobs to the pantheon of 20th-century urban visionaries.

Cities the world over have learned from New York how to realize Jacobs’s concept of the “urban village.” But, says Zukin, they have preserved - or invented - these urban oases through Moses’s agenda of gentrifying and privatizing the modern metropolis.

For instance, Zukin explains “how Brooklyn became cool” owing to the migration of suburban-born trendsetters back to the neighborhoods their grandparents struggled to escape. She describes a new Harlem Renaissance, symbolized by Starbucks and McDonald’s, which has nothing in common with its cultural namesake. Whether in the upscale transformation of her East Village neighborhood or the Latino green market sprouting near IKEA on the once derelict waterfront, she constantly questions the mutable notion of “authenticity.”

Despite the obligatory academic citations, this is scholarship with its boots on the ground, challenging us to look at the familiar in a new light.

By Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon, 304 pp., $23.95

In this difficult-to-characterize novel by Alexander McCall Smith, a young woman named Lavender, known as “La,” abandons London in the late 1930s for rural East Anglia, on the run from a broken marriage, a broken heart. Once war breaks out, she longs to make herself useful, but returning to London, now terrorized by the Blitz, is impossible.

To fill the hours La takes up the flute. When an officer from the nearby RAF airbase remarks that his combat-weary men would be grateful for a chance to play music, La organizes a village orchestra. One player intrigues her in particular: Feliks, a gallant but mysterious Polish airman grounded by injury.

The amateur musicians develop an almost mystical faith in the power of La’s orchestra to usher them to victory and peace. But we are merely told this, never shown it, as the novel keeps flitting among various narrative options, by turns a nostalgic village sketch, a wartime thriller, and a better-late-than-never romance.

The Man Who Created Tintin

By Pierre Assouline
Translated, from the French, by Charles Ruas
Oxford University, 288 pp. $24.95

Long before there were graphic novels, there was Tintin, the cartoon boy reporter with the decades-long series of adventures. The creation of Belgian illustrator Georges Remi, known as Hergé, Tintin debuted in 1929 in a Catholic newspaper infamous for its pro-fascist, colonialist, anti-Semitic politics, which were apparently not uncongenial to the willfully opaque cartoonist.

Wildly successful and beloved by his young readers, Hergé prospered during the war years; he was later vilified for collaborating with the Nazis but never prosecuted for fear of inciting public outrage. In his private life, too, he was a stinker as a husband, though biographer Pierre Assouline scants this material, preferring to concentrate on meticulously analyzing Hergé’s “oeuvre.”

Assouline seems determined to make lemonade from the biographical lemon he has picked. His chapter spanning the Nazi occupation is titled, “The Golden Age.” He laments the postwar bowdlerization of Tintin’s more offensive adventures; says he cannot understand why Hergé contemplated emigrating to Argentina, that retreat for unreconstructed fascists; and otherwise extends copious tolerance to a baffling and intolerant man.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.