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Sunday, 15 December 2013

Perfect Gems of City Writing - just blame it on the Acropolis

The city-lit and city-pick books are the amuse bouches of city literary writing. A wonderful way to travel to a place through the eyes of the many selected authors, chosen for their fabulous literary representation of the locale, all collated in one single book. We have focussed on three of the books that Oxygen books have published, and each is reviewed by a TripFiction team member who knows that city well.  Each book focusses entirely on a single city, and the publishers have brought together extracts from published works, written by well known authors that really bring the featured city to the reader. If you are a traveller, this series will enhance your trip, without a doubt!

Tina travels to London

I am a Londoner by birth and so I was keen to read city-lit London, and was charmed by the chosen passages from top authors. For me it was like having a box of chocolates, each featured author just captured the feel of parts of the city. Observations about queuing or food habits, or the great North/South Divide (referring of course to the Thames that divides the city). Pageantry in the capable hands of Jan Morris (A Writer's World); Colin MacInnes extolls the virtues of the Thames embankment; fictional character Henry Perowne gazes across the city in Iain McEwan's novel Saturday; the run down streets of Hackney contrast with the wealth of the city, and Brick Lane comes to technicolor life in Monica Ali's capable hands.

I revisited my home city through the fresh eyes of authors both contemporary and historical and this is a wonderful way to connect with and understand the bustling metropolis.

Gisela travels to Berlin

This is ideal for a quick dip. The work that must have gone into collating these little gems, including a great variety of authors describing a great variety of Berlin foibles, characteristics, situations  and history (both good and bad); oh, and that Berlin wit is sharp, it is to the point but rarely crude. It is a delight to read the odd passage, and enjoy a brief encounter with the city. Some things described are delightful, other heart reading, and the character of the typical Berliner comes across with real clarity. The cabaret, not to be missed and other things to do as a visitor, some obvious, some less so. Take it with you when you go and you will glean a lot from this lovely book of edited highlights!

Ann travels to Venice

I adore Venice so finding this book has been a delight. It provides bite size excerpts from fiction set in Venice. It has transported me back there from my sofa, but if you did not know Venice it will give you a sense of the magic this wonderful place holds. The stories are from living and dead authors. It has introduced me to books about Venice I would not necessarily have come across. The short piece from 'The Innocents Abroad' by Mark Twain (1869) left me laughing out loud and I hope I can get the book to read from start to finish. At the other end of emotional experience there is a piece from Salley Vickers' Miss Garnet's Angel. I visited the church which features in this novel and so it brought back wonderful, warm feelings.

The book is full of humour, cultural and travel experiences. I particularly enjoyed the short piece by Henry James from Italian Hours describing arriving by train; that's how I did on my last visit and even though James wrote it in 1909 it could have just been yesterday. This is a book to dip in and out as you might a travel guide.

Publisher Malcolm Burgess takes us on the journey that led to the creation of these popular urban writing anthologies.

Oxygen Books' city-pick series: the left-field city guide series that began on the slopes of the Acropolis

It started on the slopes of the Acropolis ....

No, nothing to do with Zeus, but rather the birth of Oxygen Books and our leftfield city guide series.

It was a hot afternoon in Athens and we were in a long, winding queue up to the Parthenon. I said to my wife 'I would love to read some selections of modern writing about Athens.' We had the guide books of course but nothing to inspire you and give you a taste for a city the way good fiction or non-fiction can.

Later we searched the city's bookshops to see if such an expertly curated sampler book existed but found nothing. A similar search back home in London found selections of old writing - copyright free we later discovered - but nothing either.

'Hey, then, why don't we do it ourselves,' we madly said. We had some savings, I used to work for HarperCollins and my wife was a freelance editor.

It was a hunch of course, a series featuring some of the best ever writing on favourite world cities that would appeal to, er, people like us.

At least we knew there would be two readers.

It all actually happened rather quickly as we put our money where our mouth was and got to work on our first book on Paris, a city we knew well.

It was a revelation. There was just so much fantastic writing on the city: classic novels, modern novels, novels that hadn't been translated, non-fiction, blogs, journalism. In fact, as was later confirmed, here is just too much fantastic writing on most cities. Already we knew we could have published several books on Paris and still had material over.

We garnered some nice reviews and sales were steady if not spectacular. But the floodgate had been opened and we were approached left, right and centre with suggestions from across the world.

Hardly a day went by when we weren't being asked to publish an urban anthology on writing about Buenos Aires or Sydney or dozens of other world cities, although we did think Guernsey was a little odd.

We needed to focus and to please our unflappable bank manager and so decided to concentrate on popular cities where people took city-breaks. Although, as we found out, many people read us who never visit the city concerned but just enjoy 'armchair reading'.

LondonBerlin, Dublin, Venice, Amsterdam, New York, St Petersburg and Istanbul have followed. Not only have we had the time of our lives visiting these cities, from Berlin in the snow and Venice in its Aqua Alto to Dublin in the midst of its banking crisis, but we've also loved meeting all the people there passionate about their city's writing.

Publishers, booksellers, librarians and translators in all these cities have overwhelmed us with their ideas and enthusiasm. Fortunately we were able to work with co-editors in many of these cities, as well as cultural institutes, whose ears to the ground made sure we got the very best writing.

Our plans for the future? Several more cities are being considered for 2015 but next year we're continuing our mission of producing books about different kinds of journeys with an An Everywhere: a little book about reading by Heather Reyes, which Helen Dunmore has already called 'a brilliant travel guide to the world of books.'

Just blame it on the Acropolis. We do. 

You can follow Oxygen books on Twitter and find out more about the gems of city writing on their website

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