Introduce me via books to great modern cities
March 26, 2012 1:23 PM   Subscribe

Which books (fiction or non-fiction) gives a stranger the best impression of what it's genuinely like to live in New York, London, Berlin and Tokyo in modern times?

Any suggestions of books which serve as introductions to other great cities are also welcomed!
posted by Kirn to Society & Culture (28 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
In the case of NY, this isn't possible. There are so many different kinds of ways that people live in NY that it is impossible to really find a book that captures that.
posted by josher71 at 1:24 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, you'll have to be a lot more specific as to what kind of demographic you're looking at. Someone like you? Someone rich? Someone poor? Minority?
posted by thewumpusisdead at 1:27 PM on March 26, 2012

Best answer: Here is New York. It's a classic but in so many ways it still captures the heady breathlessness of the city.
posted by mochapickle at 1:30 PM on March 26, 2012

Response by poster: It doesn't need to tell a universal experience - I doubt that's possible of any city - just a personal experience that's deeply rooted in and flavoured by the city it took place in. If you know a book that really speaks to your experience of a city, that's what I'm after.
posted by Kirn at 1:31 PM on March 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

More specificity RE: time period would also be helpful - by "modern" do you mean "right now"?
posted by ryanshepard at 1:32 PM on March 26, 2012

Best answer: Although I wasn't a fan of this book, I remember many of my friends who lived on the Lower East Side at the time finding that Lush Life was very true to their experience there.
posted by pineappleheart at 1:33 PM on March 26, 2012

American Psycho?
posted by spunweb at 1:35 PM on March 26, 2012

Bright Lights, Big City is a good one on New York, but it's of a very specific time and place.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:35 PM on March 26, 2012

Response by poster: Those look great mochapickle and pineappleheart, thank you. ryanshepard - I think right now or in the last 20 years would be ideal, but not totally counting out older stuff.
posted by Kirn at 1:36 PM on March 26, 2012

It's not a perfect book by any means, and prone to a particular kind of exaggerated glamor, but Steve Martin's An Object of Beauty did a better than average job of portraying the young and fashionable in modern Manhattan. I particularly enjoyed how it handled 9/11 -- it really focused on the lived experience of that time for a certain kind of New Yorker, and how it impacted people's jobs and plans and social lives in all kinds of unexpected ways.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 1:36 PM on March 26, 2012

Fortress of Solitude is a pretty decent fictionalization of the gentrification of Brooklyn through the past few decades.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:42 PM on March 26, 2012

For New York (and to a lesser extent London), for me, Netherland.
posted by oliverburkeman at 1:42 PM on March 26, 2012

Best answer: Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn was a great (although obviously not totally accurate) of what it's like to grow up in Brooklyn. Fortress of Solitude is supposed to be even moreso, but I haven't read it. It takes

Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities has been lauded for its accuracy -- Wolfe is a journalist -- but I can't personally vouch for it.

Bret Easton Ellis' New York novels -- American Psycho and Glamorama are the ones I've read -- are in the same vein as Bonfire (rich people getting into trouble) but a lot more phantasmagoric, so you sort of have to extract the accuracy from the fantasy.

I've been told by more than one NYC teacher that Bel Kaufman's Up The Down Staircase is pretty on-the-nose today, even thought it was written in '64.

Hubert Selby Jr.'s Requiem for a Dream definitely captures the essence of the parts of Brooklyn it takes place in, although I can't vouch for the accuracy of the rest of the novel.

Keep in mind that these are all novels, so there's necessarily some gross inaccuracy for the sake of being a good novel.
posted by griphus at 1:42 PM on March 26, 2012

Response by poster: These look great everyone - any got any suggestions for London/Berlin/Tokyo as well?
posted by Kirn at 1:45 PM on March 26, 2012

PS: I don't know what sort of books you generally read or how your general constitution is, but American Psycho, Glamorama and, to a lesser extent, Requiem for a Dream are incredibly graphic.
posted by griphus at 1:49 PM on March 26, 2012

I think Saul Bellow's The Victim has a quintessentially New York feel to it.
posted by saladin at 1:50 PM on March 26, 2012

I liked Between Two Rivers, about people living & working in Lower Manhattan right around (and during, if I remember correctly) September 11th. It's one of those love-story-about-a-city-type books. Speaking as a native.

Alexander McCall Smith's (author of No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency) series 44 Scotland Street makes Edinburgh seem really nice, but I've never been there. So it's more like what I hope Edinburgh is like in real life.
posted by thebazilist at 1:53 PM on March 26, 2012

I came in here to recommend Jonathan Lethem as well, though I was thinking of Chronic City rather than the Brooklyn books - I know of no other book that so perfectly captures what's it's like to actually live here, though it's in actual fact depicting an alternate reality version of Manhattan.

Ian McEwan's Saturday does a decent job of giving a feel of London life, seen through an extraordinary day.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 1:53 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can personally vouch for Fortress of Solitude and Bonfire of the Vanities.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:54 PM on March 26, 2012

Oh, and, uh, this probably isn't the sort of city you're looking for, but James Church's A Corpse in the Koryo is supposed to be a fairly accurate depiction of contemporary Pyongyang, North Korea. The author (writing under a pseudonym) is a retired former intelligence officer.
posted by griphus at 2:02 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now, As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Left It and Long for It builds up a portrait of London out of a mosaic of different voices. (Reviews here and here.) And for fiction, I think Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty succeeds brilliantly in capturing the 'feel' of London (specifically, London in the 1980s), though not everyone will agree with me.
posted by verstegan at 2:04 PM on March 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Ahhh verstegan beat me to it! *shakes fist*

I highly second Londoners. It's a collection of oral histories that has an effective a narrative arc as you'll find in this type of nonfiction and captures London so well -- Craig Taylor talked to the woman who does the voice of the Underground, teachers, security forces, tourists, former homeless people, City of London financial types, etc. I got back from London and read this and felt like it captured the flavor of the city I just visited.
posted by andrewesque at 2:32 PM on March 26, 2012

Since you mention being interested in "other great cities" too, I'll put in a plug for Suketu Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found as an excellent non-fiction work about contemporary Mumbai.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 4:23 PM on March 26, 2012

I am reading Londoners right now, it is great. Can't put it down.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:17 PM on March 26, 2012

Thebazilist, 44 Scotland Street is bang on the money of what half (maybe two thirds?) of Edinburgh is like. I grew up in that book. For the rest, try Trainspotting.
posted by pickingupsticks at 6:34 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This is all great - thanks everyone.
posted by Kirn at 2:56 AM on March 27, 2012

for Tokyo, try David Mitchell's number9dream which is a beautiful fictional account of a boy who goes to Tokyo to look for his father. It's not necessarily "cosmopolitan"-type fiction, but presents an emotional response to the pressure and hecticness of living in Tokyo (and other places).

From Wiki: "Told in the first person by Eiji, it is a coming of age/perception story that breaks convention by juxtaposing Eiji Miyake’s actual journey toward identity and understanding with his imaginative journey."
posted by moiraine at 4:11 AM on March 27, 2012

Best answer: Was about to suggest number9dream for Tokyo, but since moiraine beat me to it, I'll just second it.

David Mitchell also wrote Ghostwritten which captures a few cities in short stories. Included are London, St. Petersburg and Hong Kong.

Maximum City is considered to be a definitive book about the city of Mumbai by many. Haven't read it myself, and have heard just as many words against it, but if anything counts, the book's title went on to become a contemporary nickname for the city.

Shantaram is another great book that captures Mumbai, specifically from the slum-dweller, underworld perspective although it also often goes to many other places. It's slightly outdated now, as the story is set in the 70s and 80s.

I'll also sneak in the obligatory Haruki Murakami mention who has been pretty much the de facto mouthpiece for urban life in Japan when it comes to world literature. Just about any of his books will give you some idea of how life in Tokyo. As long as you can make out the magic realist bits. No, climbing down emergency exits does not cause you to enter an alternate timeline in Japan. >_>
posted by Senza Volto at 9:54 AM on March 27, 2012

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