Books about cities?
October 21, 2012 6:42 PM   Subscribe

Can you name me some books that are somehow about the city where they take place?

I'm having a bit of difficulty articulating exactly what I mean. I want the location to a) be a city and b) be integral to the book in some way. The holy grail would be an ode to the city, if you will.

Examples: Tales of the City (the idea of San Francisco is very prominent, even if it's not dripping with local detail all the time), Berlin Alexanderplatz (which I could just go finish, I suppose), Neverwhere (at a small stretch)

Non-Examples: Sara Paretsky's VI Warshawski novels (it's not particularly important the city is Chicago), similarly Ian Rankin's Rebus novels (same for Edinburgh)
posted by hoyland to Writing & Language (75 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
 
Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin very much has the turn of the 20th century (somewhat fictionalized) New York City as a character in the book.
posted by jessamyn at 6:45 PM on October 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


Two books that powerfully evoke fictional places:

The City and the City by China Mieville
The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:48 PM on October 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


Two books where New York City is practically another character:
Forever by Peter Hamill
Winter's Tale (which Jessamyn beat me to)
posted by kimdog at 6:49 PM on October 21, 2012


If you like well-written and well-crafted detective fiction, almost all of George Pelacanos' novels are very much about Washington D.C.

Jonathan Franzen's The Twenty Seventh City is pretty soundly about St. Louis, but I don't think it's a particularly great read.
posted by broadway bill at 6:49 PM on October 21, 2012


Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor is largely about the cathedrals of London.
posted by Nomyte at 6:50 PM on October 21, 2012


Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe and, to a lesser extent but along the same lines, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis.

Seconding Yiddish Policemen's Union as well.
posted by griphus at 6:51 PM on October 21, 2012


It has been said, only a bit hyperbolically, that had Dublin been destroyed in the early 20th century, a great deal of it could have been reconstructed using only Ulysses as a guide.
posted by scody at 6:51 PM on October 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Very much seconding Winter's Tale.

Also, The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood. These take place in Berlin between the wars, and was the source of Cabaret.
posted by alms at 6:52 PM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (Savannah)
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (Rome)
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (Oakland/Berkeley) (see also Chabon's Wonder Boys (Pittsburgh))
House by Tracy Kidder (Amherst)
posted by sallybrown at 6:53 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Satanic Verses isn't entirely set in London, but London is extremely integral to the book -- real London, ideal London, London as a state of mind and as a city of immigrants, as a destination and an origin, etc.

I don't know if Edward Rutherford and James Michener sort of stuff would be exactly what you're looking for, where they specifically write an epic spanning 2,000 years or whatever in one location, developing that location through time. Those are pretty interesting if you want to learn about a particular city, though.

Chicago is a living, breathing character in the Studs Lonigan trilogy (a Chicago contemporary to when the author was writing).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:55 PM on October 21, 2012


Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City is a good one...so's his book The Fortress of Solitude (Upper East Side and Brooklyn, respectively, in NYC).
posted by supercoollady at 6:55 PM on October 21, 2012


When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro (Shanghai)
posted by eugenen at 6:56 PM on October 21, 2012


Time and Again, by Jack Finney, evokes New York of the 1880's, with a comparison to the modern city.
posted by TDIpod at 6:56 PM on October 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere is very much about London, both the real London above and the fictional London Below.
posted by Wretch729 at 6:57 PM on October 21, 2012


Canadian suggestions:

In The Skin Of A Lion by Michael Ondaatje for Toronto.

Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland for Vancouver (he also wrote a book called City of Glass that's more of an essay/photography collection about the city)
posted by mannequito at 6:57 PM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Devil in the White City really gets you inside part of Chicago around the Columbia World's Exposition. I think From Hell (graphic novel about Jack the Ripper) does a good job with London. Tana French's mystery Faithful Place is set in Dublin and gives you a good sense of what specific working class neighborhoods were and are like.
posted by jessamyn at 6:58 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Time and Again is very much about New York City.
posted by Wordwoman at 6:59 PM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Confederacy of Dunces for New Orleans.
posted by artychoke at 7:00 PM on October 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Yiddish Policeman's Union should be out of bounds because it's so alternate world-y, even in comparison to Neverwhere, which is more tightly tied to actually-existing London.

Rutherford and Michener aren't really what I'm looking for, I don't think. (That said, I've never actually read any of Rutherford's books.)
posted by hoyland at 7:00 PM on October 21, 2012


I recently picked up a book at a yard sale called Prague which is, quite obviously, very much about Budapest.
posted by threeants at 7:00 PM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


City of Light by Lauren Belfer. The blurb on Amazon is rather breathless (the book is not so much, it's slower and richer than this) but it does cover the scope of the story:
The year is 1901. Buffalo, New York, is poised for glory. With its booming industry and newly electrified streets, Buffalo is a model for the century just beginning.

Louisa Barrett has made this dazzling city her home. Headmistress of Buffalo’s most prestigious school, Louisa is at ease in a world of men, protected by the titans of her city. But nothing prepares her for a startling discovery: evidence of a murder tied to the city’s cathedral-like power plant at nearby Niagara Falls. This shocking crime--followed by another mysterious death--will ignite an explosive chain of events. For in this city of seething intrigue and dazzling progress, a battle rages among politicians, power brokers, and industrialists for control of Niagara. And one extraordinary woman in their midst must protect a dark secret that implicates them all…
posted by flex at 7:05 PM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think also The Long Firm Trilogy by Jake Arnott might also do it for you, about London over several decades, with many historical happenings, figures, changes, etc., and it's a hell of a read. Not so easy to find in the US but if you're not or can get hold of it it's a great (set of) book(s).
posted by supercoollady at 7:07 PM on October 21, 2012


Clarification: you are looking for fictional books involving real cities? Or would nonfiction qualify?
posted by trip and a half at 7:09 PM on October 21, 2012


The Dante Club is very much about historical Boston/Cambridge.
posted by JuliaJellicoe at 7:13 PM on October 21, 2012


Nonfiction qualifies. I just couldn't think of any examples. The aforementioned Devil in the White City works, I suppose.
posted by hoyland at 7:15 PM on October 21, 2012


Almost everything Joan Didion has ever written has either been deeply evocative of California (mostly SoCal and the Central Valley) or New York City. Both fiction and non. I especially love her essay about leaving New York in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which also has some great pieces on different parts of CA. (I especially love the one about the woman accused of murdering her husband in San Bernardino and the piece on Joan Baez's school in Carmel.)
posted by Sara C. at 7:23 PM on October 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz.
posted by Lorin at 7:24 PM on October 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ah, well then:

Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

San Francisco is Burning: The Untold Story of the 1906 Earthquake and Fires.
posted by trip and a half at 7:24 PM on October 21, 2012


Also seconding the Berlin Stories, which are so perfectly Berlin that I was actively sad to find out recently that modern post-war Berlin is actually nothing like that at all. I mean, I know it's not the Weimar Republic anymore, and I should have imagined that would be the case, but somehow, thanks to Isherwood, a part of me really believed that was a place that you could still go to.
posted by Sara C. at 7:25 PM on October 21, 2012


A lot of mystery/crime fiction has this quality, e.g. for Los Angeles one might think of Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, Walter Mosley and Michael Connelly.
posted by box at 7:28 PM on October 21, 2012


Almost anything by Jeffrey Eugenides for the Detroit area, especially Middlesex. That said, I haven't read The Marriage Plot yet, so maybe he went in a different direction this time?
posted by Sara C. at 7:31 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Finney's Time and Again, mentioned above, is also a great suggestion re: New York City. There is also the sequel, From Time to Time.
posted by trip and a half at 7:39 PM on October 21, 2012


Going back in history, (and maybe wandering a bit from what you want, but definitely worthwhile as an account of a city) María Rosa Menocal's The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain is an amazing book about the city of Córdoba in medieval Andalusia.
posted by trip and a half at 7:53 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Zadie Smith's White Teeth for London. And seconding The Fortress of Solitude for Brooklyn.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:01 PM on October 21, 2012


London is intensely present (and is steeped in magic) in Kate Griffin's Matthew Swift fantasy series.
posted by PussKillian at 8:06 PM on October 21, 2012


Death in Venice.

Also about Italy as experienced by foreigners: Daisy Miller, and see the short story Roman Fever by Edith Wharton.
posted by BibiRose at 8:11 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can the city be fictional?

A lot of Stephen King's stuff prominently features the town the book is set in, especially It.

It is the antithesis of an "ode" though.
posted by trialex at 8:12 PM on October 21, 2012


Donna Leon's Inspector Brunetti series (set in Venice).
Paul Auster's New York Trilogy and Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn (set I'm sure you know where).
posted by mlle valentine at 8:21 PM on October 21, 2012


Maggie Helwig, Girls Fall Down, for Toronto. This review goes into more detail about city descriptions in the book.
posted by ActionPopulated at 8:27 PM on October 21, 2012


Wayne Johnston's Island of Forgotten Dreams captures early twentieth century St. John's and Newfoundland incredibly vividly.
posted by peppermind at 8:28 PM on October 21, 2012


Mumbai/Bombay -
fiction: Shantaram
non-fiction: Maximum City
I read them back-to-back and it was a great reading experience
posted by quince at 8:33 PM on October 21, 2012


The Lost City by John Gunther is a lesser known work about 1930s Vienna that covers some of the financial collapse in Austria in the early 1930s and particularly the collapse of a fictional analog of Vienna's Creditanstalt Bank. I read it during the very recent near-disastrous banking system near-collapse and so it perhaps had a greater effect on me than it otherwise would, but it is definitely very, very much about the city of Vienna between the two wars. (Download here, GoodReads, Sept 1964 review in Life Magazine)
posted by flug at 8:47 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Didn't check to see if it was already on here, but The Hunchback of Notre Dame is largely about the architecture, character and social structure of Paris. Hugo spends a surprising amount of time bringing the old Paris, now forever gone, to life in the book- i'd say the city is one of the main characters, and I kind of suspect it is a huge part of why he wrote the book. It's a bit challenging to read- i have trouble with Hugo's style, it's quite dense- but evocative and worthwhile. (And startlingly, amusingly witty at times! Who knew!)
posted by windykites at 8:51 PM on October 21, 2012


flug's suggestion has reminded me of Hangover Square, which is very much about prewar London.
posted by trip and a half at 8:54 PM on October 21, 2012


I'm going all over the map here, but if you want interesting writing about cities in general, there's the late Jane Jacob's The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

On the fiction side, there's Bely's masterpiece, Petersburg. (And, as that wikipedia article points out, Joyce's Ulysses is, among other things, also very much about a city.)
posted by trip and a half at 9:16 PM on October 21, 2012


Les Miserables for Paris.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:22 PM on October 21, 2012


In the UK, Arnold Bennett's Anna of the Five Towns, the Clayhanger trilogy and The Old Wives' Tale are set in "the Five Towns," a thinly disguised depiction of the Staffordshire Potteries district. The towns are as important as the characters.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:32 PM on October 21, 2012


Samuel R. Delaney's Dhalgren is very much about the city it's set in, but that city (Bellona) is a fictionalized city in the American midwest.

If you're open to comics, Transmetropolitan concerns itself with the affairs of another specific but fictional US city, this one referred to only as The City.
posted by contraption at 9:36 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


(Just for posterity, I think A Tale of Two Cities deserves at least honorable mention.)
posted by trip and a half at 10:11 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


For more suggestions of New York books, check out this literary map of Manhattan from the New York Times a few years back.
posted by ActionPopulated at 10:36 PM on October 21, 2012


John Irving's Setting Free The Bears refers to Vienna in the 1960s.
posted by schyler523 at 11:59 PM on October 21, 2012


Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was mentioned above, and it's amazing. The same author has also written The City of Falling Angels
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:06 AM on October 22, 2012


Lahore features prominently in many of Bapsi Sidhwa's novels, perhaps most famously in Ice Candy Man

Kamila Shamsie's Kartography is very much about Karachi.
posted by bardophile at 12:12 AM on October 22, 2012


City novels
posted by TheRaven at 12:15 AM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Speaking of Devil in the White City, I think an even better candidate would be another Erik Larson book, Issac's Storm. About Galveston, Texas, and how the nation's most destructive natural disaster ever changed the city and region forever.
posted by Detuned Radio at 12:28 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I can't remember if the town it takes place in is fictional or not but "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez as well as any of his other books are wonderfully evocative of that sort of small South American village.

It covers other cities as well, but the parts of "Men to Match My Mountains" that take place in San Francisco definitely count.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 12:38 AM on October 22, 2012


London is utterly integral to Christopher Fowler's excellent Bryant and May mystery series, which I've now recommended so many times I think I should be earning a commission. The author is a Londoner who loves his city and loves to find out (and share with his readers) new things about it.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 2:52 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


You might like Jan Morris. Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere is particularly good.
posted by Marauding Ennui at 3:14 AM on October 22, 2012


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn might also fit the bill.
posted by windykites at 4:52 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is really, really, really full of Pittsburgh [shockingly!]
posted by daisystomper at 5:19 AM on October 22, 2012


most of Francesca lia block's punk fairy tales are set in los angeles.
posted by brujita at 5:28 AM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


The City, Not Long After by Pat Murphy is a wonderful book.
posted by rdr at 5:48 AM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I thought that Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game were both very evocative of Barcelona.
posted by Aizkolari at 5:53 AM on October 22, 2012


Charlotte Bronte's Villette.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 5:58 AM on October 22, 2012


Sarum and all the Sue Grafton mysteries (Santa Barbara, CA)
posted by eleslie at 6:03 AM on October 22, 2012


Ironweed and William Kennedy's other Albany novels. His non-fiction O Albany is great social history and a must for students of machine politics!
posted by jgirl at 6:10 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Rushdie's Midnight's Children is very evocative of Bombay/Mumbai as well. I read it for the first time while there for a summer program, living in the very neighborhood where much of the book is set, so it will always hold special magic for me.
posted by peacheater at 7:30 AM on October 22, 2012


Lanark, by Alasdair Gray which, according to Wikipedia "... combines realist and dystopian fantasy depictions of [Gray's] home city of Glasgow ... " and according to me is ace.
posted by my face your at 7:57 AM on October 22, 2012


Seconding Shadow of the Wind and the other two books in the trilogy.
posted by troywestfield at 8:26 AM on October 22, 2012


Mrs. Dalloway, set in London.
posted by stravinsky at 8:27 AM on October 22, 2012


The Moviegoer by Walker Percy is very much about New Orleans.
posted by jabes at 8:45 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


A Man in Full, by Tom Wolfe, is largely about Atlanta.
posted by LonnieK at 9:01 AM on October 22, 2012


For Mumbai in the 70s, A Fine Balance.

For New York in the late 19th century, The Alienist and the aforementioned Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Crime/mystery novels often have a strong sense of place: Dennis Lehane for Boston (I'm from there and he gets it so right) and Linda Lippman for the suburban areas of Baltimore (she also happens to be married to David Simon).
posted by lunasol at 11:08 AM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Caleb Carr's The Alienist and the sequel Angel of Darkness both deal in late 1890's NYC. Fantastic imagery and story.
posted by schyler523 at 12:44 PM on October 26, 2012


Seconding Francesca Lia Block for Los Angeles, and also Carolyn See's Golden Days.
posted by exceptinsects at 11:07 PM on October 27, 2012


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