Visiting a major city and wanting to see it with fresh eyes? Sometimes a film or a book can present it from a different angle, and a deeper perspective on a city’s special attributes, unique people, or even historical explanations of how the city has evolved the ways it has. In this positing, I discuss five cities and five+ books guaranteed to help you appreciate those cities in new ways
1. New York
High Line. The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky by Joshua David and Robert Hammond.
New York’s High Line is an elevated railway that fell into disuse in the 1980s and, after roughly two decades of abandonment, was resurrected through the work of passionate advocates and converted into a park for residents and tourists alike to enjoy. Chances are by now that you have heard of the High Line and are planning on visiting it on your next trip to New York. What makes it especially unique is its origin story.
This book recounts the battle to preserve this once desolate symbol of urban decay, from the perspective of some of those key advocates. Their savvy approach, including some brilliant PR tactics and shrewd alliance- building, helps you better appreciate the achievement behind this park and the complexity of New York’s contemporary civic politics. You can find this book directly on the HighLine website at Highline book. (Some of the proceeds will raise money for ongoing upkeep.) And if you love these insights, for yet another take on civic life in New York, check out Sharon Zukin’s Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. You can find it on the Oxford Press website at https://global.oup.com.
Saving Rome by Megan Williams.
Williams is a free-lance journalist who has divided her time between Rome and Canada for over fifteen years, frequently heard on CBC and ABC Radio. She raised two bi-cultural and bilingual children with her Italian husband, and speaks beautiful Italian herself. Her book of short stories, all told from the vantage point of ex-pat women who find themselves in Rome, convey a deeper sense of what life is really like as a foreigner in the eternal city. While reading her book, you can smell the traffic fumes addling the brain of the frustrated housewife who dares to flip off an Italian traffic cop, taste the gelato consumed by beautiful women who refuse to diet, and marvel at the adolescent antics of middle-aged Italian philanderers trysting with their lovers in parks in broad daylight. Her observations of the little things, such as the subtleties of Italian fruit arrangements, and the politics of Roman family businesses, truly help you appreciate the cultural differences. Find this book on Amazon at Amazon_Williams
Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik.
Gopnik is another North American ex-pat journalist, and current writer for the New Yorker. His book, Paris to the Moon, is a series of delightful essays about life as an American ex pat in Paris. Gopnik is also one of those ex-pats well-suited for a sojourn abroad: an inquiring, open mind, blessed with good French, and prior cross-cultural experience thanks to a childhood spent with university professor parents in another francophone city -Montréal. Gopnik delves explicitly into the Parisian world view of things, always conscious of being a respectful outsider, but with the cultural and linguistic competence to skim beneath the surface. His topics span everything from labour disputes, to haute couture, restaurant allegiances, and the impact of the cultural differences on raising a young toddler. While it was written in 2001, and some of the references are now dated, I have read this book at least three times, and with each reading have been struck by a new observation. Also easily sourced at Amazon: Amazon_Gopnik
Under a Cruel Star. Life in Prague 1941-1968 by Heda Margolius Kovaly
While you may not want to read about the dark side of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, you cannot truly appreciate contemporary Prague without understanding how WW II impacted average citizens, and sowed the seeds for a communist system subservient to the dictates of Josef Stalin.
What is today the Czech Republic, was once part of a democratic Czechoslovakian republic before the war. It was a highly industrialized, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan country. Under German occupation, the country and its citizens – particularly Jewish Czechs—suffered terrible persecution. Kovaly was born and raised in Prague, and took its democratic benefits for granted -until she was sent to Auschwitz, which she ultimately survived by escaping. After escaping, she returned to the city where she later built a life with her husband. Sadly, she then recounts how Czech hopes for greater social justice under communism were also dashed- and again with particularly harsh experiences for Jews, including both her and her husband. Despite her tragic life course, Kovaly is both thoughtful and hopeful in describing the events of a pivotal 25 year period in Prague’s history, and her prose avoids a more maudlin turn. Nonetheless, you may want a counterbalance to this heavy subject matter. For escapist relief, consider some fantastical fiction by Magnus Flyte called City of Dark Magic. The novel recounts the experiences of a doctoral student in musicology, who is mysteriously summoned (and paid) to do extensive research at Prague Castle for a wealthy patron. It has not yet been made into a movie (it should be), but a wonderful trailer for the book itself might tempt you to read it: http://magnusflyte.com/category/video/
Fred Herzog, Vancouver Photographs, curated by Grant Arnold and Michael Turner
Unlike the other books in this collection, Fred Herzog, Vancouver photographs is a book of gorgeous and revealing photographs of a by-gone Vancouver. Confession time: I am a born and bred West Coaster who lived in Vancouver for several decades as an adult, and visited frequently during my childhood in Victoria across the Strait of Georgia during the late ‘70s/ early ‘80s — some of the later years he documented. His images touch something deep in my soul. They reveal more about the city’s origins and development than any words could describe. His 1967 photo Kuo Kong Silk beautifully illustrates how Vancouver has long been a place where East meets West, and wonderfully so (profiled here to advertise a travelling exhibit: http://www.e-flux.com/announcements/fred-herzog-vancouver/ ).
While so much has changed – housing prices have skyrocketed, and the many of the industries that were the city’s bread and butter have given way to tony condo developments along the waterfront, the years Herzog documented had an indelible impact on Vancouver’s psyche. To truly understand Vancouver, you need to see this street-life history. For bonus reading on the city and its urban evolution, also check out Lance Berelowitz’s Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination.
So from historic re-imagining, ex-pat joy and alienation in the eternal city and city of love, to transitions both devastating and insightful, these books provide yet another window on some of the world’s most beloved travel destinations. Would love to hear more book suggestions on these and other cities (anything but conventional travel guides) from people via comments.