A happy man goes looking for a happier place to live in this illuminating tour of North American byways. Veteran journalist Pindell (Last Train to Toronto, 1992, etc.) sets off from his longtime hometown of Keene, N.H., to see whether the American golden-age ideal of safe, community-minded, interesting towns and cities is only a dream in this explosive age of riot and disarray. He turns up slices of Eden in disparate places like Asheville, N.C.; Vancouver, British Columbia; Portland, Oreg.; and Minneapolis, Minn., towns and cities that combine a sense of civic duty with a live-and-let-live ethic, where neighborliness and personal freedom go hand in hand. Drawing on an admittedly idiosyncratic rating system that includes points for ``Cake'' (the availability of both natural and cultural amenities) and ``Cheers'' (the presence of inviting public places), he identifies several factors that define good places to live. Among them, he writes, are vital, ``renaissance'' downtowns with more pedestrians than cars; a healthy level of grass-roots community activism that keeps the political scene aswirl; and a ``strong gay, lesbian, or otherwise alternative lifestyle presence'' that brings to the fore what makes a place interesting: simple diversity. We lack an abundance of liveable places, Pindell offers, because our rootlessness propels us to seek adventure far from home and family. Those transient urges are, he admits, at the heart of his peripatetic book; as a self-styled philosopher he meets along the way tells him, ``Keene is a paradise for you. . . because you have been there so long, you are so settled there. You had a job, a family, local friends, and nothing to challenge your soul.'' Full of sharp observations, good reporting, and pleasant anecdotes, Pindell's book poses one such challenge to our souls: making our own imperfect hometowns better, more engaging places in which to live.
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