Cities: A Plethora of Books

Old Amsterdam waterfront 19th century engraving

MUMBAI (India) is the fourth most populous city in the world – some 20.5 million people live in the metro area. When Katherine Boo began writing Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, she selected Annawadi, just a half-acre area (approx. 23,000 sf) hidden by a cement wall that is home to 3,000 mumbaikars. Despite her own health issues, she spent four years there, with an open lake of sewage and petrochemicals nearby. While Mumbai is a top center of commerce and the birthplace of Indian cinema, her stories are not at the 30,0000-foot level; rather intimate and in many respects terribly painful in revealing the hopes, hates, aspirations, realities, and corruption of people who yearn for “a clean job” and possibilities.  Random House 256 pp $27.  Review

PARIS, NEAR AND FAR: Our endless love affair with the City of Light takes form in a 648-page photographic essay Paris: Portrait of a City that captures images by Daguerre, Atget, Lartigue, Brassai, Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson, among others, in a 10-pound tome published by Taschen, which has done the same for several other cities. Here you’ll see Paris change over time – but not after 1968 – with quartiers removed by the exuberant Barron Haussmann (whole neighborhoods torn down), the Eiffel Tower under construction in the 19th century and then Hitler posing before it triumphant, plus a plethora of parks, cafes, strip clubs, and city adornments. More than a coffee-table book, it’s a $69.95 escape to places that exist no longer like the food halls of Les Halles and images that will remain forever in your memory. While you may be convinced this is “your” Paris, it is actually the eye of 79-year-old Jean Claude Gautran, photographer and photo editor, who spent years in archives and collections to find this trove.

PURE by Andrew Miller, is anything but. It is a novel based on a generally true set of events: how thousands of rotting corpses and bones piled thirty feet deep from centuries were disinterred from the Church of the Innocents’ cemetery in Paris. Ridding the area of the odious and odorous stink ends up being a metaphor, in the years just before the French Revolution, for ridding France of the Old Order. (331 pages. Europa Editions. $17)

Short hops from Paris by train (RER and TGV) land you at places like Fontainbleau, Chantilly and the Basilica of Saint Denis, and give Parisians and visitors alike the chance to time travel in day trips, and, as author Ina Caro says, “be home in time for dinner.” Caro’s book, Paris to the Past: Traveling through French History by Train, now in paperback, allows you to choose destinations ranging from the 12th through 19th centuries to see chateaux, cathedrals and gardens. (Norton 381 pp now available in paperback).

CHICAGO City of Scoundrels: The Twelve Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago could be mistaken for a more recent account of events and the political machine in the city of the “big shoulders.” But it’s not. A 12-day blitz of violence and disaster in July 1919 paved the way for reshaping the city. Five days of riots, a kidnapping, public transit strike, and blimp that went down in flames into a bank – not to mention strong police response that included calling out the National Guard—left residents trembling and a mess that Mayor Big Bill Thompson presided over. But there was redemption and resurrection too says author Gary Krist. “I think a lot more of the Chicago plan did get finished and so a lot of the architectural gems that make Chicago such a showpiece today, you know, the Navy Pier, the Magnificent Mile, the Michigan Avenue Bridge, the park system — all of these were kind of a legacy….” (Random House, 347 pp hardcover $26) Excerpt

NEW YORK’S Central Park: Is it a place or a state of mind? Featured in art (remember Christo’s Gates?), in the movies (Where Harry Met Sally) and innumerable works of literature and natural science, the Central Park Anthology, edited by Andrew Blauner (224 pages. Bloomsbury $16) draws from the work of many writers who share personal and fictional recollections of the 843 acres that are the city’s largest and most essential green space. Thanks to $600 million in public-private support, Central Park has been reclaimed as the beating heart of the city. The reviewer also, aptly, notes, “It remains a kind of memory portal to the past, a Proustian time machine.”