The 2021 Nonfiction Challenge Part VII: Cities in July

Discussão75 Books Challenge for 2021

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The 2021 Nonfiction Challenge Part VII: Cities in July

Jul 1, 4:11pm

Ok, most of us may want to head to the seaside or a country retreat in the heat of summer (which many of us in North America are now struggling with). So why not read about what cities can offer us other than being sweltering concrete jungles in midsummer?

This month's non-fiction challenge is to read a story about a city, cities or urbanization/urban life. Read Jane Jacobs, if you'd like. Read a history of London or New York. Or a short book about your hometown. Or a book that talks about the role of cities in world history, or how Paris played a role in the French revolution. Yes, you can read about Atlantis or other "imaginary" cities. Jeremiah Moss's book about New York is a great example of socio-cultural look at the way that city has changed in recent decades, thanks to gentrification and hyper-affluence.

This is a new category, but it seemed to me to be a fun idea that people could approach in all kinds of ways, with few limits. As long as there's a city or something about urbanization/urban life at the heart of the book, and it's non-fiction, you're good to go.

And yes, I promise to try to stay more on top of this thread for the rest of the summer. June was a difficult month, but I'm trying to be more focused and manage my health better. Promise!!

Jul 1, 4:11pm

What we're reading:


Jul 1, 4:12pm

Coming up next:

Yet another new entrant! As suggested by Benita. Planes, trains, automobiles, boats, on foot. How do we get from point A to point B and why? You can read a book by someone walking the length of Scotland and England, or a book about flying planes (like Beryl Markham's tome) or something about how self-driving cars will change the world. Or about shipping routes and trade.

Coming back in 2021... Focus on anything that involves creativity or creators. Read about Shakespeare's plays and how they have been performed worldwide. Read about how novelists get their ideas or musicians are inspired.

Another comeback category, and it's really a closeted biography category. Instead of just reading any bio, though, read a bio or memoir about someone who inspires you (RBG?) or someone you loathe (Hitler? Stalin?) Or someone you think you know about but want to be sure they qualify for your pantheon of heroes or your list of villains.

Kind of a catch-all category. By this point in 2021, we should have some idea of what the post-pandemic economy will look like. So, read any book about economic or business issues, and the policy questions that they create for politicians and citizens. From data security to minimum living wages, to the stock market.

A perennial. And a great place for that quirky, one-of-a-kind nonfiction book that simply doesn't fit anywhere else.

Jul 1, 4:26pm

Thanks for starting the thread, Suzanne!

I'm going to be reading Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers by Stephen Graham.

Jul 1, 4:33pm

I have been looking forward to this topic! I have so many choices. I think I'm going to read Mrs. P's Journey about the woman who created the London A-Z map. I lived in London for about 4 years. The A-Z was one of the first books I bought when I arrived, and I used it daily to find my way wherever I needed to go.

Jul 1, 4:44pm

>5 cbl_tn: Wow, what a fascinating book idea!! I kept the A to Z in my bag throughout my second London sojurn, and during my first, as a child, my parents had two or three scattered around the flat. It's weird to think that our smartphones have replaced this iconic tome...

Jul 1, 4:48pm

My candidates are:

The Unruly City by Mike Rapport, about London, Paris, NYC during the key revolutionary decades in the late 18th century

Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind's Greatest Invention by Ben Wilson

Flaneuse by Lauren Elkin -- about women walking through cities, Paris, London, Tokyo, Venice, NYC.

Possibly a book about Ravenna, but I'm already being ambitious here. This has been a dire year for reading.

Jul 1, 5:29pm

>5 cbl_tn:
Wow! I haven't even started this month and took a BB with Mrs. P's Journey. I had to put that one on my wishlist.

Jul 1, 5:41pm

I couldn't wait to start this month's reading. I already started reading Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin and have read about half of the book already. This is a work of historical narrative nonfiction. I got interested in reading this book because I read the book about Theodore Roosevelt's voyage down a tributary of the Amazon. I thought it was very interesting and wanted to read more about the region. This book seemed like it would fit into this theme and it is also the book for July for my real life book discussion group.

Jul 1, 5:46pm

I am also going to read Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness by Nathanael Johnson. This is a short book with under 200 pages so I think I will be able to knock it out this month. I also would like to read How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City by Joan DeJean. I have never been to Paris but I love that city. I love reading books about Paris, so this is one I really want to get to this month.

Jul 1, 8:08pm

>6 Chatterbox: >8 benitastrnad: I hope it's as good as it sounds. If not, I'll take the hit so you don't have to!

Jul 1, 8:24pm

I have a collection of books about London and pulled A People's History of London and The Spirit of London off my shelves. Not sure that I will be able to get to both this month but I'll see what I can do.

Editado: Jul 2, 12:07pm

I'm reading CHICAGO: STORYTELLERS FROM STAGE TO PAGE, which features mostly, maybe all, non-fiction stories.

Also read Growing Up Bank Street: A Greenwich Village Memoir.

Editado: Jul 2, 5:18pm

>10 benitastrnad: I've just added Unseen City to my wishlist, and am also tempted by Mrs P's Journey. The A-Z is a thing of wonder.

Edited to add: just looked on, there is a copy of Mrs P's Journey for £490!!!

Editado: Jul 3, 8:25pm

I didn't do this on purpose, but I read a nonfiction children's book this afternoon that I just realized fits this month's cities theme since it's about the Berlin airlift.

Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot by Margot Theis Raven; illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen

Times were hard during the Soviet blockade of West Berlin. With roads and rail access closed, airplanes were the only way to get food and other supplies into West Berlin. An American pilot, Gail Halvorsen, dropped candy for the children on his daily runs, earning him the nickname the “Chocolate Pilot.” This is the story of the Chocolate Pilot’s gift to a young West Berlin girl named Mercedes that began a lifelong friendship. This sweet story illustrates how kindness toward strangers can have a long-lasting effect. Since it’s a historical story, it should have a long shelf life in libraries. It’s supposed to look old-fashioned!

The epilogue tells the rest of the story. Mercedes and Colonel Halvorsen met as adults and became lifelong friends!

Editado: Jul 3, 8:31pm

>15 cbl_tn: sounds worth reading!

I've had a book on my shelves for a few years, unread, and it fits!

They Looked for a City by Lydia Buksbazen

Jul 3, 10:06pm

>16 fuzzi: That one sounds interesting, too! It's now on my wishlist. :-)

Jul 4, 10:04am


How do I send a link to my review? thank you.

Jul 4, 10:59am

I think I'll be reading Reveille in Washington, 1860-1865 by Margaret Leech.

Not only is it a hometown history but it also ties in with other Civil War reading I've been doing.

Editado: Jul 4, 11:11am

>18 m.belljackson: Like this:

I just copied the URL at the top of the page. Or you can link directly to the Reviews page:

Jul 4, 12:14pm

>17 cbl_tn: ouch! 😁😁😁

Jul 4, 1:46pm

>20 kac522: Thank you - Hope folks find CHICAGO: STORYTELLING FROM STAGE TO PAGE and add their own Reviews.

Editado: Jul 12, 12:57pm

I finished reading Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin. I confess that I started this book a month ago because it was the July reading selection for my real life book discussion group, but then I realized that it would fit into this category. I found this book interesting but also frustrating. It was interesting because it was about building the ideal town and farm. Henry Ford had some very Transcendental philosophical ideas and he used them as the basis for designing and building a town and farm on a tributary of the Amazon River that would provide rubber for his cars. He thought that the company would gain a steady supply of rubber while bringing civilization to the dark region of the Amazon. In 1927 Ford Motor Company started building the rubber plantation named Fordlandia to meet those diverse needs. The story of that effort was very interesting.

The book was frustrating in that it was really not that interesting to read. The historical event was filled with fascinating historical characters, not the least of whom was Henry Ford himself, but none of these people came alive in the story. The author had an interesting story to tell, but he kept the tone academic and this made the reading of it stilted and wooden. It just dragged in many places. At times it seemed like a borderline screed about the foibles and folly of Henry Ford, his obsessions with an idealized village life, his misbegotten ideas about the evils of labor unions, his insistence on transplanting Midwestern styles and values, and most of all, his invention of the impersonal industrialized factory worker. As a reader I felt that the author kept beating the same drum over and over and the effect was to make the book boring in many places. The Epilogue was a fascinating essay and succeed in getting my attention and keeping it even though it said the same thing about Henry Ford and Fordism that the author had been saying for the 350 previous pages.

The book has so many interesting pieces and parts that I don't want to say it was totaling boring, but I wish that the author had spent more time on these pieces and parts and less time on how Henry Ford kept making the same decrees and sending forth his edicts and giving the reader the philosophical background on each one, over and over.

So, least I make the same mistake, I will say, that it is an amazing story and one that has much in it on many many levels. It is totally worthwhile reading, but it isn't a work of nonfiction that is going to keep you reading far into the night because it is impossible to put down. This book can be put down and the danger in this might be that you won't pick it back up. You should.

Jul 11, 2:38pm

My second book for this category is Unseen City: the Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness by Nathanael Johnson and found the introduction to be a real peach of an essay. He lays out exactly what he plans to do in the book. He is NOT doing a guidebook. He maintains that most humans do not learn by memorizing a guidebook. They learn by trying to solve a mystery or problem. Instead of providing a guidebook he is going to "start with the unknown in these essays ... the puzzles that bewildered me ... I was more interested in going deep than going wide." The focus of the book are those plants and animals that live with humans. They are not the exotic ones but the plan everyday plants and animals that we see all the time in cities everywhere. I am looking forward to reading this book because I want to see what he learned and what impact these common features of our urban environment have an impact that is largely overlooked and unseen.

Jul 11, 3:01pm

Mostly through Four Lost Cities by Annalee Newitz. It’s a nice travelogue/history of Catalhoyuk, Pompeii, Angkor, and Cahokia - interested not just explore them, but also discussing why they disappeared.

Editado: Jul 11, 6:04pm

>25 drneutron:
I have Four Lost Cities on my wishlist and it had good reviews. I think Suzanne has already read it. I wanted to read it for this month but our local public library copy is checked out and it has another hold on it so I am sure I wouldn't get it in time to finish it.

I have visited Cahokia. It is right smack dab in the middle of East St. Louis. Hard to find, but once you are there you wonder how you could have missed it. Those mounds are huge. Amazingly huge. And the modern city seems far away - except when you look at the sky and see the Arch.

Jul 12, 10:56am

I started reading They Looked for a City last night, and I was enthralled. The author is the daughter of the two main characters so she had a front seat on the events in their lives. And she writes well, clearly, which is refreshing.

Oh, it was written in 1955, that might be why...

Jul 15, 12:52pm

Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers by Stephen Graham is a really interesting look at city/geography/social studies/urban studies from the vertical perspective, rather than the predominant 2D horizontal perspective of most maps and accounts of urban life. He covers everything from satellites and drones, skywalks (such as the one in Minneapolis), skyscrapers, elevator technology, favelas, to sewers, bunkers and mining. Using a lot of different cities to illustrate his points (Dubai, London, Toronto, Sao Paolo, Minneapolis, New York, Johannesburg and many many others) this is a scholarly but extremely accessible account of the issues facing the world as urban growth continues ever upwards and downwards. I found it fascinating, and I'm sure I'll come back to it again. I did though have to dock half a star for the poor proofreading - not so much spelling errors, but missing or additional words were far more frequent than they should have been (and this is not something I usually experience with books published by Verso).

Editado: Jul 15, 3:39pm

I finished one book last night and so decided to start reading How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City by Joan DeJean. I am still slowly reading Unseen City but I have enough time left in this month to finish both books. Unseen City is a short book at 208 reading pages and since it now will have my undivided attention I should have no problem finishing both books for this challenge. I just finished the first essay in Unseen City and learned about how and why pigeons have adapted to living in cities with startling ease. I also learned that the first pigeons were imported to the New World by Samuel Champlain when he brought them with him to Montreal. Now I am going to start the essay on "Weeds."

Editado: Jul 18, 11:44pm

I had intended to read Victorian London, a Christmas gift which I was looking forward to. Instead, in contrary mode, I picked up Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England, which doesn't quite fit the category. It almost does. Anyway, maybe I can be on board with a hero or a villain in September. I have my doubts about transportation next month........

Jul 20, 2:12pm

I am enjoying my reading of Unseen City, partly because the author takes a different viewpoint about wildlife than do many city planners and dwellers. He has this to say about the design of cities. "Human density can go hand in hand with biological diversity. Our civilization is not always a force desolating the earth. That doesn't mean that those trying to preserve wilderness are misguided or that we should be building condos in Yosemite. We need remote areas to support all the species that don't thrive alongside humans. The point is that the places where people live, if thoughtfully designed, might also be places for the rest of creation to thrive." This passage came in the essay about crows, and in the section where he is delving into the question of why the crow population is exploding in cities. It turns out that we are providing the kind of habitat in which crows thrive. We have created trees in our parks and along sidewalks and streets that crows like. Streetlights deter the natural predators of crows - birds such as owls, and we are providing a ready food source with our constant watering and mowing of lawns. I thought it was an interesting point to make. We are helping the wildlife proliferate. At least those who can adapt to human ways.

Jul 22, 4:05pm

I finished reading Unseen City and will post a review of it here in the next couple of days. In the meantime, I have started reading How Paris Became Paris by Joan DeJean. This is an academic work of nonfiction and it reads like one. However, it is full of interesting history and even if it is rather dry in tone it is keeping my interest. I am 70 pages in so it isn't that bad yet.

The author is focusing on Paris from roughly 1600 - 1800 in the time frame where the modern city of Paris took shape. The book is divided into chapters that take one place and explain why it was innovative and created the foundations for the modern concept of how cities should function. The first chapter was about the Pont Neuf and tells about the engineering of the bridge, why this engineering was important, and how it is still a foundational concept for modern cities. In the case of Pont Neuf it was a bridge built of stone (not wood) it was 4 lanes wide and built to accommodate the large convoy wagons needed to supply the city as well as the newly invented carriages of the aristocracy while at the same time it had the first sidewalks designated for pedestrians. The bridge was not cluttered with houses and so it had scenic vistas when combined with sidewalks created scenic views of Paris and the Seine that people could enjoy. It also created the concept of a public space that was for all classes of society.

The second chapter was on the Place Vosges and I have started the third chapter which is on the Ile de la Cite. I did not know that it is an artificial manmade island.

Jul 22, 9:10pm

I finished The Bells of Old Tokyo: Travels in Japanese Time last night. Really enjoyed this book. The author did a wonderful job of introducing the reader to Tokyo while also covering topics of history, philosophy, and local customs.

Jul 30, 1:57pm

I completed my last book for this month. This one was How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City by Joan DeJean. This was an academic book, but it was rather short for an academic book. It had 226 pages of reading and another 50 pages of end notes and bibliography. It covered the development of Paris from the reign of Henri IV to the end of the reign of Louis XIV. I learned a great deal about the history of Paris at this time and also learned many other things about Paris and the development of cities. Paris was the first city to develop a postal system. The first to have public transportation. It was the first city to ask the public to participate in city planning. The book also covered social and cultural developments of the era and laid some convincing groundwork for the idea that the French Revolution of 1789 was really only an extension of the leveling of French society that had occurred during the previous 150 years. There were chapters on the royal building projects of the years 1600 - 1789 and this included the housing developments, the building of what we now call the Ile de la Citie, the creation of public parks, public shopping areas, and the Pont Neuf. There was even a chapter on how all of this building was financed. This chapter was very enlightening, as it turns out that very little of the building was financed with public money. This book explained how the French developed their financial system and how this system contributed to the problems that the French monarchy faced throughout the 18th century. At the same time, the financial system created a very socially mobile society, with commoners able to enter the ranks of the very wealthy and become part of the aristocracy. France during the 17th and 18th century was a very socially mobile place. Much more so than I had thought it was. It was this mobility that, along with the financial system, directly lead to the political problems that manifested itself in 1789. The author takes the position that the Paris of these centuries was a great social and cultural leveler with the free mixing of people of all classes that encouraged democratizing ideas. There are chapters on the development of financiers, the freedom of women to move around and mix in with society, and a great chapter on the development of shopping, in the modern sense of the word, and the infrastructure needed to support shopping, the arcades and covered malls and the rudiments of department stores. Very interesting book. Now I need to go see Paris.

Jul 31, 11:54pm

My read of A People's History of London is going more slowly than I thought it would. I'm still slogging away but won't finish by month's end. It's interesting but too many library holds have got in the way. I never realized how much the people of London were involved in the defeat of Charles I before reading this book. I wonder what else it will reveal.

Ago 1, 12:36pm

>34 benitastrnad: I added How Paris Became Paris to my TBR list after your review. I grew up reading a lot of French Classics and my high school curriculum required us to do an in-depth study of French history. Sounds like this book will be a nice compliment to what I learned previously.

Ago 2, 3:18pm

About to post the August challenge... I've been too busy writing to read... or keep up with LT. Mea maxima culpa.

Ago 2, 3:24pm

Here's the link for August!

I've got NO idea what I'm going to read for this one... Yet...

Ago 8, 1:28am

A little late, but I finished London: a History by A. N. Wilson. This book (under 200 pages) is a little volume of haphazard anecdotes and opinionated criticisms covering 2000+ years of city history, and therefore could only lead to a very disappointing read. Wilson spends the last 50 pages of the book complaining about post-WWII London--it's hard to understand why he continues to live there at all. My recommendation: skip it (the book, that is). Find a book by someone who loves London.

Ago 8, 5:18pm

I finished Mrs. P's Journey last Sunday. I'm just late in my comments as I've been catching up from vacation and a house full of company. I had high hopes that this book would provide an account of how Phyllis Pearsall got the idea for the London A-Z map and how she carried out the project. It was disappointing that this book focused disproportionately on her early life and her dysfunctional family. Some account of her family background was necessary, but not to that extent. (Pearsall's father, Sandor Gross, built a cartographic publishing company in the early 20th century, although he wasn't a cartographer.) I was also troubled that the author's foreword included a statement to the effect that she was comfortable "interweaving elements of fiction into fact" since Pearsall left conflicting accounts of her own life and memories and had apparently embellished the truth. Withouth footnotes or end notes, it's impossible to separate fact from fiction.

Pearsall spent a good part of her early adulthood in Paris, so large parts of the book were about Paris rather than London. Still a major city, but not the one I expected to read about. Phyllis apparently had the same landlord as Vladimir Nabokov in Paris (unless that's an element of fiction). Pearsall's brother, the artist Tony Gross, lived in Paris at the same time, and they apparently associated with some of the Shakespeare and Company literary crowd (unless that's an element of fiction).

Ago 10, 1:14am

>38 Chatterbox: Pity about that one... (i love London, and tend to really relish books by A.N. Wilson...) If you are looking for something else about the city by a long-term resident who grew up in a completely different way, try London Made Us by Robert Elms. He's of about my age, so I absolutely loved the memories we shared (including the same cinema we visited as kids) and many of his memories (doing one's homework at night by candlelight during the 1970s miner's strike). He's seen the post-Thatcher transformation of London to a more global city and one where money matters much, much more (not that life was perfect before, but...) I also really appreciated his POV, which is that of someone who grew up in a London of villages and local loyalties, from generations of Londoners who were less affluent but had a distinctive culture.

On a completely different note, I absolutely loved a book about "mudlarking", or exploring the artifacts left by the tide from different centuries along the River Thames. The book has different titles for different markets; my edition is Mudlark: In Search of London's Past Along the River Thames by Lara Maiklem.

Ago 10, 4:00pm

>41 Chatterbox: I have that Robert Elms book, though I've not got round to reading it yet. He is a presenter on BBC Radio London (and its predecessor, the epic Greater London Radio, or GLR, still the greatest radio station ever in my opinion and much missed). I loved his show, he's just so interested in all of his guests and his enthusiasm is infectious. He's a great presenter.

Ago 10, 8:58pm

>41 Chatterbox: Thanks for the recommendations! I've added both to my wishlist. North London is "my" London. I lived in Stanmore and Hendon for a while, and even when I lived other places (Borehamwood & St. Albans), I still spent a good bit of time in Hendon. Also Mill Hill, Burnt Oak, Edgware, and Golders Green. I regularly walked to Brent Cross from a friend's house in Hendon.

Ago 11, 3:11pm

>43 cbl_tn: I'm afraid I'm Team Southoftheriver :) Forest Hill, Honor Oak, Brockley and Lee, over 15 years (my final house was on the Brockley/Nunhead border). It's a great part of the world.

Ago 11, 4:46pm

>41 Chatterbox: You may get more out of the Wilson book, if you appreciate his style. Thanks for the other recommendations; both books sound like things I would enjoy. The mudlarking sort of reminds me of Dickens--his books never strayed very far from the River.

Ago 11, 5:58pm

>44 Jackie_K: I spent quite a bit of time in Streatham and Clapham, but those are the only south river places I'm familiar with.