Teju Cole Open City
We so agree with the Observer's Elizabeth Day that Teju Cole's Open City is one of the best city novels - in his case about his adopted city of New York.
Spoiler alert but his description of his protagonist being stuck on a fire escape high above Carnegie Hall and in a storm is probably not one to read if you have trouble with heights.
And we love her other choice for New York: Tom Wolfe's eighties nightmare Bonfire of the Vanities. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, which tells Chicago's story, is a book we're now determined to read too.
Then there's London: Bleak House of course and Capital by John Lanchester as well as our favourite NW by Zadie Smith. It's lovely when a less feted part of a city - in this case Willesden - is evoked so brilliantly. Who can ever forget the church between two busy main roads where her two main characters take their children one hot and dusty summer's afternoon. It's writing of the highest degree. There's also a wonderful chapter set at a summertime party on the top of a block of flats in Soho. The character Smith depicts here is drunk and drugged and being jilted and her malaise somehow parallels the world below.
Elizabeth Day also includes Dublin (Ulysses of course), Moscow (The Master and the Margarita), Bombay (A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry) and the biggest surprise, The Dog by Joseph O'Neil set in Dubai. One wonders how many other books have been set in this high-rise desert city.
Guilty admission: we're the publishers of the city-pick urban anthology series featuring some of the (we hope) best writing on favourite world cities. It's why we wanted to see Berlin there (Paul Verhaeghen Omega Minor, read it and be dazzled), Paris of course (where do you start?), Amsterdam (H M van den Brink On the Water for the city's gentler pleasures), Joseph Brodsky for his description of the melting ice on St Petersburg's Neva.
And there are more cities. Lots more. Each with their own amazing writers to evoke the real souls of each of them in their own quirky and idiosyncratic ways.
Thank you Elizabeth Day for starting us on this journey - of seeing how city novels can take us to the very heart of a metropolis.
Ann Morgan, Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer, Harvill Secker. See Ann on Thursday March 26 2015 in Chelmsford, Essex www.essexbookfestival.org.uk
From Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist to Joanne Harris's Chocolat, so many of us enjoy reading novels about other countries.
It's this enthusiasm that has led Oxygen Books, well known for its offbeat city-pick urban travel anthologies, to come up with an exciting new Arts Council funded project called A Year of Living Dangerously.
The project's aim is simple: to introduce a wider public to the joys of writing in translation from a range of countries.
Working with library authorities and book festivals across London and Essex, A Year of Living Dangerously will involve an extensive touring exhibition highlighting some of the best writers from India, Africa, China, France, Turkey, South America, the Netherlands, Russia, Scandinavia and Japan.
A website, including interviews with key translators and podcasts, special bookmarks, visits to book groups across London and Essex, stock promotions and new links between cultural agencies and libraries will all help to raise the profile of world writing among general readers.
Also, a series of events in which well known writers and commentators discuss their own work and books from particular countries which have inspired them, will make writing in translation even more accessible.
Across 2015 and 2016 these will include an evening of Russian writing with Orange Prize-winner Helen Dunmore, exploring books and writers from every country in the world with Reading the World author Ann Morgan, a celebration of Asian poetry with award winning poet Moniza Alvi and an evening of Scandinavian crime featuring a well-known Scandinavian crime writer in discussion with Professor Amanda Hopkinson.
'We want this project to entertain and enthrall our readers as we journey across the globe with them,' says project manager Malcolm Burgess from Oxygen Books. 'Writing in translation doesn't have to be heavy or worthy: in fact there's something for every possible reading taste.'
For more information about A Year of Reading Dangerously: http://ayearofreadingdangerously.com
To speak to the project team: firstname.lastname@example.org; 07594490216/ 01277 263770
What happens when you set out to read a book from every one of the globe's 196 independent countries? 'Reading the World' is the extraordinary and hugely inspiring story of Ann Morgan's journey as readers, writers and translators from each country, even where little is written down or where books are censored, advise and help her. An essential event for anyone who cares about books and reading.
Read the extraordinary story of Ann's journey here
And WIN a FREE copy of Reading the World here
Call (01206 573948) or www.visit mercurytheatre.co.uk/event/ann-morgan-reading-the-world/
Love reading about foreign places? Like the idea of reading about a favourite city but not sure where to start? Or even thinking about getting your book group to branch out with something a bit different?
You might be interested, then, to know more about Oxygen Books' city-pick series.
Each of our titles on cities from Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, London and Istanbul to Venice, Dublin, St Petersburg and New York has over sixty specially hand-picked writers on their city.
In our Paris title, for example, you'll find well-known writers like Kate Mosse, Joanne Harris and Stephen Clarke (who's also written a drole introduction) beside Proust, Hugo and newer contemporary writers - all helping to evoke the truly Parisian experience.
But it's not just novelists (including those in translation and some of the best new ones around) that you'll find in our books.
There's also plenty of non-fiction, whether it's from historians and travel writers or journalists and bloggers.
We've researched far and wide - with lots of help from co-editors and translators in our cities and from readers themselves - to come up with what we believe is some of the best writing on these amazing cities.
But don't take our word for it. The Times has called the city-pick series 'superb ... it's like having your own phone loaded with different tomes, except with the best passages, bite-sized chunks, just perfect to dip into.' The Sydney Morning Herald has called it 'a great idea! A sublime introduction.'
We're offering a special direct from publishers discount on all orders over ten copies (P & P free and an even better discount than Amazon).
Please contact Oxygen Books at email@example.com for more details.
If your book group resolution is to read something a bit different in 2015, we'd love you to try the city-pick way ahead.
Just check out Paris here Download 9780955970009 short version (3) to give you a taste of what to expect with your favourite city.
Love reading about and visiting favourite world cities? This is the first in Oxygen Books city-picks' regular round-up of our favourite features, links and videos on a whole range of cities from Berlin and Istanbul to New York and Paris. The focus is on the best books and writing but we do like to stray as the flaneurish way takes us.
First to wonderful 1920s New York, where Literary Traveller (a site well-worth checking out for all things about writers and travel) has unearthed a brilliant documentary from the early sixties about the legendary Algonquin set. Dorothy Parker, Groucho Marx, George F Kaufman et al and some very dry martinis ...
Next Paris in the company of crime writer Patrick Modiano winner of 2014's Nobel Prize for Literature. Nouvelle Observateur has created a Google Map showing all the Paris locations used in Modiano's novels. Most of the writer's novels are set in Paris and we hope to include some excerpts in the next edition of city-lit Paris. There's also a lovely piece by Israeli journalist Moshe Gilad in Haaretz.com doing a flaneur's walk across Paris visting Modiano's locations.
'Tis the season to be in Dublin it seems with a plethora of festivals, literary and lots of others, through to the Spring reports Kevin McKenna in the Observer. This includes One City, One Book run by the library service, in which the whole city will be encouraged to read one book. This year it's Roddy Doyle's The Barrytown Trilogy.
Come to the cabaret too in Berlin in the company of the very best writers on the city according to The Culture Trip. Agree? Disagree? Or a bit in the middle? Do let us know.
Christopher Isherwood and friend
What's biting Venice? This is the leading question one of our leading novelists on Venice Michelle Lovric asks in a recent blog entry and her answers are as fascinating as they are fearsome.
Writers and writing about Amsterdam is really amazing. But don't take our word for it - check outthis video featuring a stroll around literary Amsterdam in the company of writer and translator Victor Schiferli
Orhan Panuk is probably the best-known modern Turkish writer and, unsurprisingly, Istanbul features in many of his books, including his non-fiction Istanbul. You can read all about Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul from a recent feature in the New York Times.
St Petersburg's cultural wonders don't begin and end with the Hermitage writes Tim Stanley in Guardian Travel. St Petersburg's contemporary art scene more than offers a rival attraction for visitors.
Oxygen Books is the publisher of the city-pick series featuring some of the best writing on world cities. 'Superb ... it's like having your own phone loaded with different tomes, except with the best passages, bite-sized chunks, just perfect to dip into' The Times
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We've been criticized on Amazon.
And we've decided to come to our own rescue.
The charge? Well, two reviewers of our Istanbul and Dublin books argue that they're too feelgood.
One says the Istanbul title is a 'hagiography ... there isn't enough warts and all'. Another thinks our Dublin book is 'too upbeat ... I can't believe that poverty is always amusing.'
Of course everyone is entitled to their opinions, especially if expectations are raised and then not met.
Our defence? We must say that in our attempts to offer 360 degree portraits of our cities we attempt to capture the heart of each metropolis through the eyes of its writers.
We all know that city life can be hard, especially for poorer people (as much as it is rich and full of delight and stimulation for others).
As our readers are discerning grown-up travellers it's our job to present them with both the gutter and the stars - and all that lies between.
We're bound to sound a bit put out, they are our babies after all and the gestation and birth isn't always easy, believe us!
But we do feel that a number of the writers we select would never make it into many of the glossy city tourist guides.
Ralph Rothmann viscerally describes a freezing Berlin winter so that you feel the driving sleet and the smell of brown coal.
Michelle Lovric engages in the practicalities of dealing with an overflowing toilet in Venice's famous Aqua Alta.
Abdelkader Djemai writes movingly about the poor Moroccan pensioners who spend their day sitting on Paris's Gare du Nord.
Iqhal Ahmed tells us about what it's like to be alone in London when everyone else is having a good time.
Ivan Chechot evokes the brutalism of Kupchino, a large residential area of St Petersburg, a world away from the Hermitage.
These are just a few (and, incidentally, Istanbul includes a Kurdish Communist writer and Dublin the mordancies of Keith Ridgeway and his 'Dublin where they beat you up').
Which does raise the question of what we include in our books.
Always there's too much material. We have to make editorial choices. And we have to think about which aspects of a city our readers will want to know about, as well as which surprising aspects we can select from our gallery of writers to help us understand better a city past, present and even future.
One thing we never want to do is put our readers off from ever setting foot in their chosen city.
But that's not to say we can't make an effort to include as much as possible about what makes a world city what it is.
Cities are dynamic, febrile, ever-changing, fascinating places. It's why so many of us enjoy visiting and reading about them.
We hope that the city-pick series plays its part in bringing these amazing cities - and their writers - to as many visitors and readers as possible.
Defensive? Er, only a bit.
Every city-pick title is a labour of love. The research, the travel, the meetings, the recommendations, the translations, the rights negotiations (the latter you don't want to hear about!).
We work closely with writers and translators. We also quite often work with a co-editor based in the city such as Katy Derbyshire in Berlin or Victor Schiferli in Amsterdam who know their writers well and let us know the best books on their cities that will make a big appeal to city-break visitors and armchair readers.
But - and this is a major but - we still worry about the reception of each book in its city of origin. Have we included enough local writers? Are there too many 'outsiders' giving a skewed vision of the city? Do our English translations do justice to the local writers - especially bearing in mind that many of these we are translating into English for the first time? Most importantly, have we captured that difficult concept of the 'soul' of a city as those who live there perceive it every day?
Well, without sounding too boastful, we feel we can breath a little more easily, having just received some more reviews from our cuttings agency.
The lovely Sylvia Whitman, owner of Paris's legendary Shakespeare & Company Bookshop, says that our Paris title is: 'a great set of writings ... an original book on Paris.' Living Venice was impressed enough with city-pick Venice to mention its 'rich variety of well-hewn chroniclers ... a worthy and rewarding read.' Berlin, says Englishman in Berlin 'is a book that you dip in and out of, picking up a gem of writing as you walk around the city.' city-pick Amsterdam was described by Time Out Amsterdam as 'a new breed of city guide ... it makes for some delightful discoveries - even for those of us who think we know the city well.'
Phew! It was nice that few of our fears had materialized but there were still other cities to come.
Snarky Londoners? Fortunately not. The Museum of London's Peter Matthews said that our London title 'is full of unexpected pleasures' while city-pick Dublin, according to Irish World is 'a handily compact tome to take with you on your city-break and be all the richer for it.' Time Out Istanbul was impressed enough to say: 'Bored stiff by traditional guide books? Find your way in the company of the new city-pick Istanbul anthology.' The St Petersburg Times called city-pick St Petersburg 'a fascinating view of Russia's northern capital as seen by more than sixty writers, poets, dancers and artists from different eras.'
The observant will have noticed that New York hasn't had any local feedback yet. Any New Yorker who would like to offer us their view of city-pick New York please contact us!
Some of the best writing on favourite world cities and some of the best praise from local reviewers. We're pretty pleased with the result and hope our city-pick readers will be too.
You might also be familiar with co-founder Heather Reyes' An Everywhere: A Little Book about Reading, the guide-book to the city of books itself which recently drew a rave review from the Guardian.
As a glance at their website will tell you, however, Oxygen is more than a publishing house. Heather and her husband Malcolm Burgess, both of whom are not only publishers but writers as well - and, of course, avid bookworms - have spent years building it into a community of book-lovers, where anyone who has been bitten by the reading bug can find like-minded people and share stories and tips. They also know that those encounters don't just need to happen on the internet - readers need to meet and mingle. For the past year, they've been running day-long events at libraries, where readers can meet authors, publishers and translators, and find out what's new in the book world. In March, I went along to their Around the World in Eighty Books event in Birmingham for a day of exotic literary delights, tall tales, deep insights, and surprisingly beautiful home-made quilts.
Amongst breakout sessions on the literatures of different countries, writing workshops and sessions on translating, the event pulled in some serious star names from the book world. The day's first speaker was Tracey Chevalier, the wildly popular historical novelist whose Girl with a Pearl Earring remains one of the biggest blockbusters of the last decade, and was made into a successful film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson. Chevalier's new book The Last Runaway is about a young Quaker woman named Honor Bright, who emigrates to America in the mid-nineteenth century and becomes involved in the Underground Railroad, smuggling escaped slaves to freedom in the Northern States and Canada. It's a novel, she told us, about "ordinary people making history … but as well as being about slavery, it's about emigration, the state of being an outsider. It's the story of this woman becoming American, and adapting to a society that's very different to the one she's from".
One thing that Honor Bright does, in her Ohio Quaker community, is participate in communal quilt-making: 'I always have to have my characters do something with their hands', said Chevalier, 'because that's what our ancestors did'. And this is a part of her research that Chevalier threw herself into with a will, starting a quilting circle, producing her own specimens and curating an exhibition on quilts. She spread one out on stage for us to look at, a soberly gorgeous affair in cream and brown, to a rapturous chorus of coos from the audience.
Beatrice Colin is one of Scotland's most exciting young novelists, and one of those rare beasts who attracts both critical admiration and the endorsement of Richard and Judy's Book Club. Oxygen pulled her in to speak at Around the World in Eighty Books about her new novel The Luminous Life of Lily Aphrodite, a historical blockbuster based loosely on the life of her own great-aunt, a Russian emigre who worked in the film industry in interwar Berlin. It's a rich, beautifully textured tale of love and exile in which the turbulent history of Weimar Germany is almost as much a character as the titular heroine. The passage Colin read us, about how people lived and loved through the miserable postwar winter of 1919, was so pungent with evocation that we were momentarily transported out of Birmingham City Library in into a world of poverty, sadness, love, despair, snatched pleasures and the improbable hopefulnessof youth.
The day's last event, and perhaps the most fascinating, was a talk from Ann Morgan, the writer of the excellentReading the World blog. Morgan set herself a task: to read, over the course of a year, one book from each of the world's countries. Not entirely surprisingly, what started as an idle bet against her own hunger for literature quickly turned into a heroic undertaking. Indeed, her troubles began before she even started reading: how was she to decide how many countries there were? Should Taiwan be counted separately from China? Should she count Abkhazia, Western Sahara, Transdnistria? Should China and Taiwan be counted separately? What about the plethora of unilaterally-declared indpenedent states in outback Australia, the pet projectsof disgruntled or eccentric landowners? In the end, she plumped for the UN's list of recognised sovereign states (which, while not uncontroversial, certainly dealt with the Australian separatists). The next challenge was finding things to read from every country: in the case of Sao Tome and Principe, the tiny island nation off the West coast of Africa, she ended up enlisting the help of volunteers to translate a novel from the Portuguese. And when civil war broke out in South Sudan - a country that only came into existence midway through eth project - Morgan found herself deperately trying to contact the South Sudanese writers and translators with whom she'd made friends. Reading the World: Postcards from My Bookshelf will be published by Harvill Secker in 2015.
As for what's next for Oxygen Books, well, you'll have to keep an eye on their website. Heather recently publishedMiranda Road, a wry and wise saga of life in North London and Paris through the seventies and eighties; and this autumn, Oxygen will be releasing Bookworms, Dog-Ears and Squashy Big Armchairs: A Book Lover's Alphabet - a light-hearted follow-up to An Everywhere. If anything, these dedicated bibliophiles might be almost too productive for their own good. Watch this space.
The Bronte Parsonage, Haworth
A guilty secret.
I love going round writers' houses. I love feeling the hushed awe and reverence (Philip Larkin doesn't have a famous house yet as far as I know) of anticipation and entrance of this modern version of churchgoing. At Bateman's, Rudyard Kipling's Sussex home, I was told to please not to put my wet umbrella in the porch's container as this was for the author's non-existent wet things.
Some years back I visited the Bronte's Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire. I was full of high, exalted hopes especially as I had just heard how a friend's sister had fainted after hearing Kate Bush singing WutheringHeights on Top of the Pops. I knew how she felt.
The abode of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell didn't disappoint. Far from it. It exceeded all expectations. It was distressingly small as if us visitors had taken Alice in Wonderland's magic potion but it hadn't quite worked. The lichen covered graves at strange angles were being nibbled by sheep and loomed up large outside every room. A glass box proudly displayed some of Charlotte Bronte's hair. The black millstone grit of the landscape, the building, probably even the people was attractive in a bleak coalmine sort of way. The footpath signs were helpfully also in Japanese.
It was everything I had imagined and more. I was ecstatic in my Bronte vision. I attempted to return to the Parsonage recently but was defeated by a fierce blizzard. It was lovely and probably symbolic and could have been written by Emily or Charlotte. I didn't mind. It didn't matter now. I already had it safely in my imagination.
It was the same with Stratford upon Avon. At first I have to admit I wasn't quite sure. Everyone knows about the Shakespeare industry, the terrible souvenirs, the tea rooms named after characters from The Tempest. But, once again, like Prospero's staff, any prejudices were soon cast aside.
I found Anne Hathaway's cottage so genuinely moving I nearly cried (the iron fire tongs had been handled by a woman who had been married to William Shakespeare). I made the same creaking sound across the room of Shakespeare's daughter and her doctor husband that WS might have creaked. I stood on a piece of turf where Shakespeare's original home once was. I realised that the imagination given a very minor stimulus can work wonders and may not even require a tour guide.
Did all this make me return to the original works? Not really with the Brontes 'though I seem to recall repeated obsessive listenings to Kate Bush (no, I didn't faint, if you want to know). I see Shakespeare plays quite regularly but my visit did illuminate something. It made Shakespeare more real, a flesh and blood person who signed boring legal documents and whose wife owned fire tongs. But also less real as I pondered how this provincial man could write such mighty works. It just made a convert even more of a believer in the way, I suppose, that a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Mecca or a bathe in the Ganges does for those of more conventional faiths.
An excellent website, Writers' Houses, aptly subtitled 'where stories live', provides a comprehensive guide to the literary dwellings (and sometimes museums) of our best known writers. Although its focus is American writers (the site is US run) it does spread itself globally. I was excited to spot places I'd visited with my wife while compiling our city-pick travel guide series, from Amsterdam (Anne Frank's House) and London (too many to mention) to St Petersburg (Dostoevsky and Pushkin) and Paris (Hugo, Balzac, Comte and others). Stockholm struck a chord too as we too visited Strindberg's House. I remember it for two reasons. We were asked to wear plastic bags over our shoes to conserve the furniture and were introduced to the author's fascinating scientific experiments with photography. He was also, guilty admission, the only Swedish writer I had read. I would get my literary fix no matter what.
Of course, like most other people I imagine, I can see how a writer's house or museum is not the real thing. The work is. But most of us are aware of this as we purchase our Macbeth tea towel, just as Chaucer's pilgrims were as they bought another piece of the real cross outside Canterbury Cathedral. Both, like the houses and museums, are surely just a simulacrum of something more ineffable.
Anne Trubek, author of A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses, offers a witty deconstruction in Literary Traveler on the irrational allure of writers' houses. She sees the phenomenon as part of the ever-encroaching 'celebrity lust', a secular form of paying homage and asks why we preserve the houses at all when a visit is destined to be disappointing:
'Writers' homes and museums expose the heartbreaking gap between writers and readers. Part of the pull of a writer's house is the desire to get as close as possible to the precise, generative 'Aha!'. But we can never get there.'
Few of us would disagree. But perhaps the truth lies somewhere between grotesque, unreflective hagiography and total dismissal. If nothing else our insatiable need to investigate writers' commodes raises the game for the tourist industry and gives us something pleasant and cultural to do on our third rainy day in Stockholm. After all, it's what we have instead of God - or Kate Bush.
We love books and book talk and think our home is insulated with old Penguin paperbacks