5 beach reads for urbanists everywhere

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While urbanists have been debating the “global city”, literary critics have been considering the “global novel”. The forces of globalization that have altered cityscapes, critics argue, also have “delocalized” the novel, stripping it of geography and its specific urban nuances.

The global novel occurs at a moment in history, defenders point out, when lives and locales are more intertwined than at any other previous time. The arguments will resonate with readers of leading commentators on the global city such as Saskia Sassen, Neil Brenner and Michele Acuto.

All the same, amid August’s heat it’s still summer in the city, at least in the northern hemisphere. The United Nations General Assembly in New York City is around the corner, and tickets for World Urban Forum 9 in Kuala Lumpur are already getting booked. But for now, whether it be through a novel about global cities or a highly localized block-by-block voyage with a flâneur, enjoy traveling by page.

[See: 5 new books on global affairs every urbanist should read]

Here are five novels to read on Rockaway Beach, Ocean Beach or the “beaches” of the Seine. And if you feel like it, see how the cities measure up in the most recent finding on cultural finance by the World Cities Culture Forum.


“Otared”

By Mohammed Rabie, trans. Robin Moger (Hoopoe Fiction)

Feral, future Cairo.

Several notable novels have used Cairo as the setting to explore the Arab Spring’s initial optimism and tragic disappointment. Basma Abdel Aziz’s “The Queue” placed urban structures at the heart of a dystopian Cairo in which there is authoritarian architecture but no services or answers. Yasmine El Rashidi’s “Chronicles of a Last Summer” applied a longer window: The city changes over decades as Nile reeds give way to informal housing and, eventually, the hope of protest to the violence of counter-revolution. For all its lovely despair, it will make you want to spend hours seeking out the great capital city’s surviving record stores.

The Cairo of “Otared” is in revolution again, but in 2025. This time, however, the Orwellian logic of authoritarianism is replaced by outright violence and disorder. The work of Cluster, a Cairo-based urban lab, has done much to illustrate the patterns and civic spirit of the city during the 25 January 2011 uprising. The murderous Cairo of Rabie in 2025 is all the darker.

[See: Observations on the open city: An interview with the filmmakers behind ‘The Quito Papers’]

“The Lesser Bohemians”

By Eimear McBride (Hogarth)

Bohemians in a changing London.

“London unspooling itself behind. Traffic all gadding in the midday shine. So many people. So much stone. All at once and streets ahead. I’ll bring it with. I will make myself of life here for life is this place and would be the start of mine.” So begins the young narrator of “The Lesser Bohemians”, an epic love affair and Joycean urban travelogue by Irish novelist Eimear McBride, squarely set in Kentish Town and Camden Town of the mid-1990s. It’s northwest London, and a hint of the bohemian survive in shared bathrooms, squalid apartments and worn paperbacks. Pints and underemployed performers proliferate. Real estate prices are rising, displacing artists and squatters alike, but retreat is still possible to one of London’s great public places. “Maybe today’s the day,” the narrator suggests, “to lie on the Heath and drink cold beers and read books whose spines we will not spoil.” No other way to put it: Good idea.

“The Explosion Chronicles”

By Yan Lianke, trans. Carlos Rojas (Grove Press)

A village becomes a metropolis. Squirrels flea. Families compete.

Intergenerational corruption has hold of the front pages these days, and this novel is no exception. China’s urbanization is its own megatrend. And China’s urban experiments are among the most ambitious, creative and destructive the world over. “Contemporary China is currently hurtling past a series of economic and development milestones that took Europe over two centuries to achieve,” Lianke, one of China’s most controversial novelists, writes in an author’s note.

[Between Habitat II and Habitat III, China changed everything]

The faux chronicle tracks rival families across generations as “Explosion” transforms from a sleepy village beside the Yi River into a teeming city. The thrust of the novel is Explosion’s trajectory amid corruption, ego and, in the face of cataclysmic change, the absurd. “In five days’ time, both the airport and the subway were complete. Once Explosion had the world’s largest airport and a subway line extending in all directions, and once it had more than a hundred buildings … there would be no reason why Explosion should not be considered one of China’s major metropolises. Overnight, Explosion would become one of China’s megalopolises.”

“Class”

By Francesco Pacifico (Melville House)

Italian Hipsters in Brooklyn.

“On the bridge, caught in the middle of flowing traffic, she can see the city parting its hair on either side of Delancey.” Italian bourgeoisie, hipsters and filmmakers flop about Manhattan in search of meaning and earnest collaboration with the director Wes Anderson. There is a satisfying amount of Rome, but Pacifico’s is a New York book, set in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The author doesn’t illustrate a changing New York or a gentrifying Williamsburg; that has already happened, and all that is left is a descent of sorts. All the same, it is still New York: “There are more exciting megalopolises out there — in cities like Shanghai and Abu Dhabi, grander versions of Manhattan, the original re-created in the middle of deltas and deserts — but as new rivals emerge, the scale of New York’s ambition, its hunger, never dips.”   

“The End”

By Fernanda Torres, trans. Alison Entrekin

Behaving poorly in Rio de Janeiro.

Summer, yes, but this first novel by the renowned Brazilian actor follows five men behaving poorly, albeit with notable humour, in their autumn and winter years. Rio has never lacked for attention, and with the 2014 World Cup, the 2016 Summer Olympics and Mayor Eduardo Paes’s former role as chair of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, that remains true. And true to form, Copacabana Beach and soccer appear here, but so too do real estate moguls bent on metropolitan domination. Should you loathe the characters, there is humor, and there are funerals. Should you love the city, there are decades of change and a collection of neighbourhoods and streets to inhabit.

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Ian Klaus is a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House and a non-resident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He was previously senior adviser for global cities at the U. S. Department of State and deputy U. S. negotiator for Habitat III. Full bio

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