Pulse: 60-Second Critic: December 2006

Constitutional Cell Phone Tour
(The Constitutional Foundation; $9.99)
By Brittany Sommar
There are many ways to see historic Philadelphia: in a horse-drawn buggy, on an impossibly annoying amphibious Duck, escorted by an actor in a powdered wig, and now, with your cell phone glued to your ear. This 75-minute tour is user-friendly — “GPS Gina” guides you to 20-plus historical destinations, with guest appearances by Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and Yankee Doodle-like melodies. Though I’ve lived in the city for years, I didn’t know that the Liberty Bell weighs 2,000 pounds, and I had never been to the Betsy Ross House. But hearing the tour info through a BlackBerry doesn’t exactly make for a prime experience. Plus, you can snag a free map at the Independence Visitor Center that offers a similar itinerary, without the mobile hype — or the minutes usage. We applaud the effort, but in this case, low-tech has the upper hand. D+

Vintage Views Philadelphia
(Aesthetic Press; $12.99)
By Whitney Casser
Both the ordinary and the extraordinary history of our city are captured in this calendar edited by contemporary photographer Walter Choroszewski. The black-and-white and sepia-toned images from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania include a diverse array of shots, from the blizzard of 1945 to a close-up of female painters in Rittenhouse Square, dating back as far as the 1800s. Some pictures are timeless — Penn’s College Hall — while others show how much we’ve changed, especially the one taken facing west from 12th and Market to City Hall. Though the images are nicely natural and not overly romanticized, they don’t all scream “Philly”; some could have been taken anywhere. But this makes the calendar all the more appealing — we are given the chance to obsess over everyday moments. A-

Valley Forge: A Novel of the American Revolution
By David Garland (St. Martin's Press; $24.95)
By Amy Strauss
Unless you’re a history zealot like my Dad (who reenacts Washington’s crossing each Christmas), it’s difficult to recall specific characters and events from the American Revolutionary War. Unlike James Frey, Garland distinguishes fact from fiction for you: This follow-up to last year’s Saratoga continues the adventures of Brit soldier Jamie Skoyles as he escapes from a Revolutionary Army prison camp in Cambridge, becomes a double agent against Washington at Valley Forge, then fights the toughest battle of all, between his allegiance to the crown and his sympathy with the rebel cause. Sure, there are meticulous battle scenes and lots of accurate-to-the-era detail, but the entertaining dialogue among war generals, combatants and nemeses makes this novel juicier (and easier to follow) than any textbook. A-

Spit Baths
By Greg Downs
(University of Georgia Press; $24.95)
By Doug Wallen
History also lurks in this debut short-story collection by West Philly’s Downs, winner of the Flannery O’Connor award: “The Hired Man” is a revisionist take on Washington’s winter at Valley Forge, while “Domestic Architecture” features a house with an eerie past. “The Field Trip” is a slide show through a lifetime of poor decisions (though it may all be a dream). Downs writes with a Southern twang, and handles interracial romance frequently and delicately, as in “Black Pork,” with a white teen resisting a black neighbor’s advances. Themes and symbols tend to recur: State lines spell betrayal; kids are in the care of grandparents. But there’s immense heart to Downs’s quirky but controlled storytelling, spiked with such observations as, “Truth, that’s just a four-letter word, with another letter added on for bad luck.” B+