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G-Sync Book Club for Overachievers

Tommy Allen proposes a new kind of book club for Grand Rapids residents

Jeff Speck

Tommy Allen proposes a new kind of book club for the city of Grand Rapids and chooses Jeff Speck's Walkable City as his first choice.
I am probably not the best person to invite to a book club. I’ll probably obsess over the spinach and artichoke dip if you’ve added a healthy dose of aged parmesan from the Downtown Market's Aperitivo; finish my bottle of vino much faster than I expected chasing the aforementioned (and wonderfully rich) dip; and of course, may not even have completed the book due to a more-than-busy event schedule these days.

So you can imagine my shock at the luck of the gods when our fall season full of color and light provided me with an opportunity to travel north on a color tour with three books recently culled together from authors and publishers seeking my insight. And as the leisurely world of color filled my peripheral vision, I turned my gaze to the black type on the white page. Home now, I offer three unique books to consider reading this season.

The first book, Ghosts of Grand Rapids by Nicole Bray and Robert DuShane with Julie Rathsack, is one firmly rooted in our local culture. It is a book that celebrates the best of times, the worst of times … and then that time after death, when those not finished with their life inhabit the ghost world of the afterlife.

The timing of this new book, readily available via one of our local bookstores, Schuler Books and Music, is so much more than just a dive into the spirit world where all too often a bloody hook at the end is the trapping of this genre.

Instead, in Ghosts of Grand Rapids, we are treated to the retelling of haunted tales passed down through the ages against an investigative backdrop of our city’s history. The authors spend a considerable amount of time creating the back-story of each setting, and historians will delight in this added touch.

At first, this style flew in the face of my preconceived idea of what makes for good spirit world literature. That is, until I began to fall under the spell of and in love with these back-story portraits of the city and people from a very different point of view of our history.  

While many of the incidents are ripped straight from the news headlines of their day, almost every story sparks the imagination and compels you to learn more in pursuit of further proof not just of the spirits reported but also venues they describe beautifully.  

If I should ever go missing, the first place to look is deep in the underground “area-ways” under our city, which are described in the book, but without photos thus sparking every reader's curiosity. Oh what a journey down that will be!

The second book, Wedded to the Land: Stories From a Simple Life on an Organic Fruit Farm by Joan Donaldson, was a sheer delight. I breezed through it, rapidly taking in the sites, smells and even tastes of the farming life of a certified organic blueberry farm near Lake Michigan. Donaldson’s essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and Michigan History, and she has been a contributor to the regional NPR affiliate WMUK.

Right at the start of this new book, the reader is catapulted into her ever-evolving history of farming the land the author inherits with her husband. Donaldson, who does not even like blueberries (she prefers peaches), creates a thread of what contemporary farming looks like today.

Rather than bore the reader with long lists of statistics, her obvious commitment to her religion, or what could easily devolve into yawn inciting political rants when advancing into topics of migrant labor or wages, she handles these topics with aplomb due to her beautiful literary style of writing. She truly has you aching with her when she illustrates in each story both the hard work and the rewards as she reaps a harvest of the land and also the soul.  

I was especially moved by the May Day celebration with Jack-in-the-Green that not only shines a light on Christianity’s positive historical connection to the Green Man but also showcases a community coming together to celebrate the new season. It is in this chapter that we hear another of the author's many short insights about something many of us know all too well: “We lost something when we stopped listening to trees.” She has placed her ear to the earth and we are enriched by her storytelling.

So many of the stories that pepper this wonderfully insightful book do focus on a life devoted to serving the land but also of the joys of human interaction with those around us.

Wedded to the Land should be at the top of any farm to fork urbanist-focused book club this winter. It will make the advancing spring season that much sweeter -- like the blueberries that inhabit Donaldson’s farm.  

The last book on my list was not written by a person of our community, nor is it rooted directly in our city.

However, it is by an author who has visited here often over the last decade and includes a small reference to the people of Grand Rapids and how we think (pardon my overused phrase) out of the box.  It is a nice mention of this trait that I will call to action as a true believer at the end.

In Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time by city planner and former Director of Design at the National Endowment for the Arts, Jeff Speck (co-author Suburban Nation) invites the reader to join him on a surprisingly breezy but never light ride… er, walk through the urban map he sets out before us.

Never judgmental, Speck leads the reader through his theory of what walkable means to cities in Part One as he devotes his focus on the four areas to consider when looking at our cities: utility, safety, comfort and interest.

I found myself repeating these four words as I dived into Part Two of the book, where the author outlines a 10-point, easy-to-implement plan for making cities walkable.

And while not all 10 would be within the budget of most cities to quickly enact, it is a plan that should be considered in theory and placed in practice as time, imaginations and budgets allow. In this case the author suggests that we just have to start somewhere.

Book clubs are also a forum where we discuss how a work of literature moves us. After reading this book, I have this insight to share about this highly readable page-turner of a book.

I believe that, with a little West Michigan ingenuity married to our innovative spirit, this book provides an opportunity for Grand Rapids to be further educated on the value of creating a walkable city.

Speck’s ideas make for such a compelling argument that quite possibly our local leaders - who have hired Speck in the past (Grand Rapids’ center city) to our very recent past (Ada) - would do our community a favor by sending a copy of the soon-to-be released paperback edition (November 12) to each and every household address within the city of Grand Rapids. It is bold thinking, but the payoff and benefits are contained with this book.

Sure, not everyone would read it right away. But we would be placing a highly readable, well-organized book in the hands of our citizens and providing multiple of access points for each citizen to enact based on their sweet spots. Dare I say win-win?

If said book packages should arrive on our doorsteps, then it would be an opportunity to share and discuss the many ideas within that will build community. It would be a chance to begin conversations around topics like the importance of making our streets even more pedestrian-friendly, the value of curb appeal and the health benefits of trees in our urban forest.

Though I'm a fan of GR Reads (Grand Rapids Public Library's program of getting topical books into the public's hands), this could be the first city-wide book club in the world (outside of Oprah’s book club universe) where a community would be joined together in a conversation during a time of the year we are often hunkered down due to the cool weather making plans for spring.

Walkable City is a delight not just because it sparks the imagination to think bigger and bolder about our community, but because it is simply one of these rare books to come out of a field of wonky, stat-filled literature that breaks the mold forever of what a city planner's role (and the public's role, too) should be in a modern city. Speck’s Walkable City makes it simple, approachable and, most of all, as easy as taking those first steps on a walk.  

If Walkable City does become our first citywide book selection, we’re going to have to double that spinach and artichoke recipe.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

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