Magazine article American Libraries

City Life

Magazine article American Libraries

City Life

Article excerpt

It is commonplace for reviewers to praise a writer's sense of place by remarking that the setting in a particular story functions like a main character. Behind this claim is often the assumption that it takes fiction to bring this heightened reality, this flesh-and-bones feeling, to a mere place. Certainly it happens in fiction - Dickens' London, Hemingway's Paris, Chandler's Los Angeles - but it can happen in creative nonfiction, too.

This edition of "Quick Bibs" is devoted to books about cities; from histories through memoirs to prose poems, these are books in which the reader is confronted with a palpable sense of life in a specific city. You don't need to read fiction to feel a city's breath on your neck, but you do need to pick your writers carefully. Forget Baedeker, because the five authors below will do just fine.

Algren, Nelson. Chicago: City on the Make. University of Chicago, 1987 (orig. pub., 1961), $9.95 (0-226-01384-7).

In the right hands, the prose poem can fit a city like a glove - or, in Algren's case, a boxing glove. Ever the literary pugilist, he sets out to bloody a few Chicago noses but winds up with a split decision. "The city no longer laughs easily and well," Algren mourns, yet he can't quite let go of the town's "rusty heart." Chicago may no longer be the "hoarse-voiced, extry-hawking newsie of a city" it was in Algren's day, but on these few pages you can soil smell what it tasted like.

Armstrong, Karen. Jerusalem: One City Three Faiths. Knopf, 1996, $30 (0-679-43596-4).

Armstrong writes narrative history not prose poetry, but she tells the story of Jerusalem in a way that makes tragic yet fundamentally human sense of what happens when three faiths clash over competing views of sacred geography. If cities can be characters, Jerusalem, in Armstrong's telling, takes on the stature of King Lear: complex, confounding, even lethal, yet with poetry and abiding beauty in every crevice. …

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