Pick a city — and there’s a book — history, guide, pictorial essay ! Our holiday list is certainly not encyclopedic, but there is a book for many different tastes. Here are 23 books and counting…
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Europe -36 Hours: 125 weekends in Europe (New York TimesTaschen). The New York Times Travel Section feature – a perennial favorite – is transformed into an armchair guide to planning weekends in European cities: Barcelona, Paris, Prague, Vienna and elsewhere. Even if you’re not traveling, this is a first-rate way to review the history and cultural assets in each city/place: art in Barcelona, literary London, music in Vienna. Plus lots of photographs to get you in the mood. [Similar editions now available for South America, Asia and US] Details
City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, P. D. Smith. (Bloomsbury Press) 400 pp . Imagine a city (any city) and then imagine that you’re on an extended walkabout. A British scholar connected to University College London, Smith could have written a stuffy rant, but it’s not– providing you are “a serious general reader.” Here’s a way to look at every aspect of what constitutes the places where more than half the world’s population now lives; and by 2050, it will be three-quarters. Settle in for a look at…just about everything: skyscrapers, slums, shantytowns, theaters, the financial districts, sports arenas, street food, eco-cities, flash mobs, skateboarding, and the proverbial favorite SimCity.
“To really understand a city,” says Smith, “you need to walk its streets and read its geography through the soles of your feet.” Dig in and enjoy. As the Guardian reviewer noted, “The greatest cities are inexhaustible, and not least because they are constantly changing.” Washington Post review
Walkable City How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, Jeff Speck (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 296 pp. Here’s the cookbook for walkability in cities, and boy do we need it. Keep in mind that some of the world’s megacities are not walkable – Shanghai is a good example. At the same time, some of the oldest are congested and dangerous – try walking in Rome or around the Place de la Concorde in Paris. “[T]o be favored,” Speck says, “a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. … That means, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there has to be a “there there.” You need vibrant places (parks, plazas, restaurants, retail, places of repose) to ensure walkability. Excellent book review and Speck’s TED Talk
Detroit: An American Autopsy, Charlie LeDuff. (Penguin Press, $27.95.) Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, Mark Binelli 318 pp. Metropolitan Books. $28. (Paperback Picador)
Can you write about Motor City without being a Detroiter ? Here are two books, published before the recent big announcement that Detroit is the largest American city to enter bankruptcy, that equally threatens worker pensions and the art collections at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Both are native sons with working-class origins, who came back to Detroit to live, and to find out what’s left to resurrect. Read the reviews and excerpts, then decide which to select. Either one may inform your opinion of what needs to happen to bring Detroit back from the brink.
LeDuff is a native Detroiter, who left for New York, then returned 20 years later (post-Pulitzer) with wife and kids. It should give him a leg up on understanding the dynamics of a place now officially bankrupt. He told Fresh Air’s Dave Davies, “It wasn’t scary. It was sort of like, in many respects, living in Chernobyl in some neighborhoods. … I looked and I thought to myself one day: What happened here? What happened?” LeDuff’s account is both a memoir – growing up in a working-class family with plenty of unhappy endings for his siblings – and a hard-nosed reportorial account of just how bad it is.
Binelli likewise grew up in the 1970’s in the blue-collar suburb St. Clair Shores. He’s trying to look on the bright side – the word “autopsy” is not in his lexicon. “Specifically, what happens to a once-great place after it has been used up and discarded?” The New York Times notes, “For the most part, he is a cleareyed and soulful narrator of Detroit’s travails.”
The Accidental City, Lawrence N. Powell (Harvard) 448 pages illus $29.95. An endowed chair in history at Tulane University, Powell is no dull academic, and good thing. The history of New Orleans has been filled with paradox and complexity from its earliest days. New Orleans survived the French, the Spanish (and the French again!), Catholicism, yellow fever epidemics, hurricanes recorded just four after the city was established, storm surges, slavery and corruption. Did you know that the city’s founder was not French, but French Canadian ? (Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville). Wall Street Journal book review
Or that the French Quarter isn’t French? The majority of buildings in the French Quarter (Vieux Carré) were built after the US acquired the city (and a whole lot more land) from the French in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. NOLA’s early power position was its strategic location at the mouth of the Mississippi River for barging crops and commodities in the pre-railroad era. Its racial diversity – white, black, and free people of color who were often a complex blend of races, contributed to the city’s rich culture that attracts visitors. Slavery became worse (!) after the United States’1803 Louisiana Purchase. While Powell’s history ends at 1815 (more or less) with the Battle of New Orleans, this volume dishes up enough to keep you well satiated. The post-Katrina era needs to be written, but perhaps it is too soon. The tercentennial of the city’s founding is in 2018, and that well may be the occasion to address how our most “European” city is dealing with a huge influx of Latinos (the construction trades), new homes being built in the lower Ninth Ward (by the Make it Right Foundation), and the infusion of international talent. Washington Post review
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 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 a 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) Radio interview and excerpt
The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream, Thomas Dyja (The Penguin Press) 508 pp illus. Chicago was not only the center of the country – it was the hub for an amazing array of talent and cultural achievement that informed the rest of the country. Here’s a very annotated list of the 20th century talent that breathed life into the city and the nation: Skyscrapers (thanks to Louis Sullivan), Frank Lloyd Wright, the expat Bauhaus, Saul Bellow, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, Second City, Burr Tillstrom (Kukla Frab & Ollie ), Ray Kroc (Mickey D’s), Jack Johnson (Jet/Ebony), Chuck Berry, Buddy Guy. Even with the bad weather and the Cubs – not to mention that four of the city’s last seven mayors have gone to jail – the city has been a cultural keystone. That is Dyka’s theme. Book review
New York. Portrait of a City, Reuel Golden. (Taschen) 560 pp English, French, German. If photos speak, this trove of images will engage you: from the mid-19th century to the Jazz Age, the Depression and the tragedy of 9/11 and its aftermath. Here’s a partial list of the 150 celebrated photographers in the book: Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, Weegee, Margaret Bourke-White, Arnold Newman, William Claxton, Ralph Gibson, Allen Ginsberg, Joel Meyerowitz, Andreas Feininger, Garry Winogrand, Larry Fink, Bruce Davidson, Helen Levitt,Ruth Orkin, Joel Sternfeld. Details
New York’s Central Park: Is it a place or a state of mind? Featured in art (remember Christo’s Gates ?), in the movies (When Harry Met Sally by the beloved Nora Ephron) 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.” Review
High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky: By now it’s an oft-told tale of how two guys, each with a vision of reclaiming a derelict overhead rail line in Manhattan, joined forces and created public space and landscaped aerial park (now in its third and final phase of development). There are many other stories to this story: The High Line has stimulated a huge amount of development along its path, including the Whitney Museum’s decision to relocate downtown in a new museum building. It has encouraged other cities (Moscow, Atlanta, St. Louis and Philadelphia, among others) to look at abandoned rail lines or termini, and consider how they could be reused to create vibrant urban spaces. Not least, the High Line has created an exciting linear space and whole new experience for New Yorkers and visitors alike that was never in anyone’s “master plan,” and in prior decades, might have been rejected as sheer folly. It took guts, gumption, and huge generosity by the city and philanthropists to make this project a reality. Published by Farrar Straus & Giroux, it has 200 photos along with text by High Line cofounders Joshua David and Robert Hammond. A workbook for every urban planner! NY Review of Books and New York Times story
Civic Art: A Centennial History of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, Thomas Luebke editor (University of Massachusetts Press) 636 pp; 424 color illustrations, 496 black and white. Washington, D.C .is like no other U.S. city for its official and ceremonial functions as the nation’s capital and its unique design that reflects the early planning by Pierre L’Enfant and the later MacMillan Commission Plan. This massive work tells the story of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, its fits and starts in its early years, and its ongoing role as the arbiter of the aesthetic sensibilities of buildings and public spaces in the city. The Washington Post says, “Luebke’s book immediately joins the shortlist of essential texts about Washington design and architecture.” Details
CITIES OF EUROPE & ELSEWHERE
Chronicles of Old Rome; London; Paris; New York are Museyon’s series of reasonably priced historical guidebooks — individual books loaded with history and cultural attractions. Now the publisher has added Japan with guides to Kyoto, Tokyo, and Tohoku. Go to the Museyon blog for access to each of the guides. Details
Berlin. Portrait of a City (Taschen) 560 pp hardcover. Multilingual Edition: English, French, German. The city that survived two World Wars, the Cold War, and the fall of the Wall for a reunited Berlin. From 1860 to the present day, this hefty volume covers the visual story of Berlin in photographs, portraits, and aerial views. Check out who’s in it: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helmut Newton, René Burri, Robert Capa, Thomas Struth, and Wolfgang Tillmans as well as well-known Berlin photo-chroniclers such as Friedrich Seidenstücker, Erich Salomon, Willy Römer, and Heinrich Zille (an index of photographers’ biographies is also included). “… [T]his book especially pays homage to Berlin’s inhabitants: full of hope and strength, in their faces is reflected Berlin’s undying soul.” Details
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 see Paris change over time – but not post-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.
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).
Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now — As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It, by Craig Taylor. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $16.99.) The Guardian’s reviewer notes, “Just as Studs Terkel did for Chicago, this sprawling oral history captures life in London through the words of a diverse cast of characters: rich and poor, young and old, native and immigrant.” Full Guardian review
If you want intellectual heft, get the 848-page London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd, considered the quintessential history of the city-as-a-living-organism. It’s huge, it’s daunting, and, say readers, it’s richly rewarding. First published in 2000 and updated in 2009, this magnum opus covers everything from the city’s Roman and Saxon beginnings to its sprawl as a center of world finance and home to 10 million+. Excerpt
London: A Social and Cultural History 1550-1750 by Robert O. Bucholz and Joseph P. Ward (Cambridge University Press 413 pp) covers three key centuries – ending just shy of the American Revolution–demonstrating how a sleepy, medieval-walled city of 50,000 became, two centuries later, an exciting center ten times larger, despite terrible years 1665-66 when fire devastated the entire city center (273 acres) and the plague killed off thousands.
Over time, say the authors, Londoners “developed institutions and habits of mind that we tend to find familiar and congenial: personal liberty, equality, democracy, and their hallmarks economic and religious freedom, freedom of assembly and a free press; cosmopolitanism; secularism; pragmatism and even a measure of feminism; social fluidity based on merit and wealth; a value for practicality….” You decide! Book review
LONDON & PARIS !
Tales of Two Cities: Paris, London, and the Birth of the Modern City, Jonathan Conlin (Atlantic) 320 pp. Could any two cities be more dichotomous ? Well, it turns out not at all. Conlin addresses the years 1790 to 1914 when the two were the largest cities in history. Then he hones in on six social institutions: “ the street, the cemetery, the apartment, the restaurant, the underworld, and the music hall—in both France and Great Britain.” The book defies everything we thought we knew – the origin of Sherlock Holmes ( a French character), the French cancan hall had its origins in the British Quadrille; and so on. Telegraph reviewer Judith Flanders notes, “… read straight through, Tales of Two Cities allows readers to reconsider what ‘everybody knows.’ For, with astonishing ease, Jonathan Conlin performs that most useful, and difficult, of tasks: he makes us see the familiar as though it were new.” NY Journal of Books
Saving Italy: Naples Declared, Benjamin Taylor (A Marian Wood Book/Putnam) 240 pp. Critic Manuela Hoelterhof says, “Once a must-see city on the Grand Tour of the cultivated gentleman, Naples could use a few more friends these days.” That indeed is what Benjamin Taylor is. He overcame his fear and reluctance to immerse himself in all aspects of the city, including its miracle of San Gennaro, whose blood liquefies twice each year in its holy reliquary. New Yorker reviewer Judith Thurman says it best: “ It is a work of voluptuous erudition; a meditation on place and displacement; a paean to the chance encounter—a worldly adventure story, in other words. I found it transporting.” Author’s website with video
Rome: A Personal History. A powerhouse art critic (formerly Time Magazine) and prolific writer, Hughes (who died in 2011) completed a biography of Rome – once the center of the “civilized” world – with all of its spectacle, intrigue and physical beauty. Read the lengthy review and you won’t hesitate for a moment to get or read this book. It’s a “guided tour through the city in its many incarnations, excavating the geologic layers of its cultural past and creating an indelible portrait of a city in love with spectacle and power, an extravagant city that, in Mr. Hughes’s words, still stands today as ‘an enormous concretion of human glory and human error.’” There are far, far too few illustrations – you’ll need a prodigiously illustrated art book or two as a companion while you read. Review and a Q&A with Hughes
Rome: An Empire’s Story, Greg Woolf (Oxford University Press) 384 pages. The story of Rome is a “fifty-generation tale of rise and fall [that] is an epic one in human terms.” Professor of history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, Woolf has devoted his entire academic life to the study of Rome. There is a lot of heft here for the serious reader to plow through. “Romans imagined [the empire] as a collective effort: Senate and people, Rome and her allies, the men and the gods of the city working together.” Not a light touch – the Washington Post review may help you decide whether to dig in. Washington Post review
Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future (2011) Tom Scocca. The author arrived in Beijing in 2004, just four years before the Olympics, and observed a full-siege to get the city ready for the Games. While some may say it is an undisputed 21st century capital, there are many other cities in China, Shanghai is foremost, ready to eclipse the capital as a city of extraordinary dimensions, development and wealth. Yet one cannot gainsay the allure of Beijing’s Forbidden City – an icon of all things Chinese from ancient times. Here the past and the future are in a sometimes uncomfortable embrace. Interview with the author
♥ More Holiday Books coming up: Culinary Arts & Food plus Architecture & Design