This love letter to the cities of the world—from the airline pilot–author of Skyfaring is "a journey around both the author's mind and the planet's great cities that leaves us energized, open to new experiences and ready to return more hopefully to our lives."
What makes this captain of the heavens so appealing is a kind of all-American innocence that helps him savor 'the palmistry of lit streets' in Salt Lake City, seen from 38,000 feet above, as eagerly as he devours the poets of Delhi when touching down for 48 hours. Linking the places he flies between through snow, or gates, or the color blue, Vanhoenacker, meticulous enough to offer a 16-page bibliography, seems to have a near-bottomless appetite for fresh sights and guidebook curiosities ... In his first book, Skyfaring, Vanhoenacker gave us the simple rapture of watching the skies fill with color, as seen from a snug cabin that sometimes felt a bit like a jet-age Thoreau’s. In this new work, he plunges deeper into his own past growing up in Pittsfield as a gay man who perhaps always felt a little on the outside of things, seeing them from a different angle ... His autobiographical vignettes are searching and touching, delivered with an affectionate lyricism that brings home to us how his small town has become a kind of anchor in a mobile life and maybe even the place to which he’ll return when he retires. But for me the real distinctness of his work comes from the life he enjoys at cruising altitude ... There’ve been plenty of books about cabin attendants’ adventures as part of a globe-trotting sorority bringing the mile-high club down to earth; Imagine a City is a much more intimate and thoughtful work.
[Vanhoenacker's] intricately structured text offers several episodes that present us with memorable images of the world as experienced from the cockpit ... Vanhoenacker is exceptionally well travelled, and an exceptionally curious and widely read observer ... With a lesser writer, the result might have been miscellaneous and superficial, but the connections Vanhoenacker makes are not trivial. His visits may be of limited duration, but he doesn’t waste an hour, and with every return his engagement with each city deepens. A superb section on Delhi demonstrates his range ... The Malacca episode exemplifies Vanhoenacker’s excursiveness, as he swoops from city to city, enriching his material with each landing ... Almost every locale is a source of delight. The less entrancing aspects of the real do not often intrude ... this is an autobiography as much as a travelogue. And the foundation of his self-examination is his home city, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It’s a lens through which he sees the world, and to which his writing returns again and again – perhaps a little too often. Sometimes the voltage drops when he takes us back to Massachusetts. The image of home stands behind the immense imaginary city that is an amalgamation of all the cities he has seen, but not even a writer of Vanhoenacker’s skill can elevate Pittsfield, in the minds of his readers, to the order of his Tokyo, or Uppsala, or Jeddah.
What makes Mark Vanhoenacker’s Imagine a City such a joy, then, is that this is a travel book entirely rooted in modernity and globalization, and thus unbothered by belatedness, but which nonetheless retains the wide-eyed wonder, not so much of a 19th-century explorer as of a medieval pilgrim ... Eschewing linearity for a mosaic form well matched to the discombobulating experience of frequent international air travel, the book arranges its cities into eleven thematic chapters ... Amongst all this there are the snippets of history and cultural information that readers might expect of a travel book, and a good scattering of satisfying factoids ... Vanhoenacker has a fine knack for identifying and naming city-related phenomena ... The individual sections of the chapters provide brief but atmospheric immersions ... The abrupt lurches from place to place can, at times, produce a degree of 'place lag' for the reader too. This is, surely, the point, though it is generally the more extended meditations on a particular city that are most satisfying ... As much as an account of ceaseless globetrotting, this book is a memoir of a life ultimately rooted in a single place and the way the relationship with that place is both maintained and transformed across a lifetime ... a blissfully un-belated travel book in which form, theme and sensibility are perfectly matched to the realities of modern travel. But it also manages to recapture the old romance of journeying itself, particularly in the sections emphasizing a pilot’s-eye view of the world ... Coming to the end of this book, even the most jaded frequent flyer may find themselves booking a window seat for their next journey, and making plans to get out of the hotel on their next layover.