Scorpionfish, Natalie Bakopoulos
Scorpionfish is a story of flux. The city is Athens, caught between its idyllic scenery and the crippling realities of debt, addiction and suffering. The central character is Mira, a young academic who returns to Greece from time in the U.S., suspended between two identities and two conceptions of home. Bakopoulos writes of Mira and the great loves of her life—an ex-boyfriend who happens to be a rising Greek politician, a ship captain who is landlocked for the first time in years, a childhood friend who remembers her younger self. Each relationship pushes and pulls against a version of Athens, as it was and as it is.
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, Xiaolu Guo
At 23, Zhuang—who embraces the nickname "Z"—moves from rural China to metropolitan London to spend one year learning English. Almost as quickly as she arrives, Z stumbles into a relationship with an older British man, a failed sculptor and eccentric who leads her to write her own Chinese-English dictionary (for lovers). The book is formatted in diary entries, mapping Z's relationship to language, the city and this new man as her feelings evolve with time. London, its alleyways and greasy spoons, is the central character, quietly guiding the story's pivotal moments.
The Yellow House, Sarah M. Broom
The Yellow House is a long, winding tour of New Orleans, as told by an author whose family has called the city home for generations. New Orleans shelters and resists Broom's family of 12, housing them as the city braces through Hurricane Katrina, gentrification and a caricaturelike status on the American map. As Broom comes into wealth and success later in life, she writes from her plush apartment in the French Quarter, unsure if she can reconcile the luxury with the city she knows: "How can one square mile stand in for an entire city?"
I'll Tell You in Person, Chloe Caldwell
Chloe Caldwell's I'll Tell You in Person is a love letter to cities. It's also a love letter to youth, clumsiness and relationships that just barely land on the clean side of dysfunction. Much of the book is spent in New York City, where Caldwell spent her 20s flitting between years as a shop girl, babysitter and yogi, noting once that she would feign dyslexia to explain her inability to get the numbers right. There is a brief trip to Europe and time in upstate New York, as well as a stint in Portland, where Caldwell spent time housesitting for Cheryl Strayed. The essays are unpretentious and funny, describing a nomadic recklessness that we can only hope to return to sometime soon.
Flâneuse, Lauren Elkin
Virginia Woolf, in a diary entry, wrote of "street haunting," the absolute pleasure of wandering the streets with no destination, observing the architecture and grime and entirely ordinary characters. "To walk alone in London is the greatest rest," she wrote. It is this act that memoirist Lauren Elkin explores at length. The book begins in New York, Elkin's childhood domain, before moving to Paris, Venice, Tokyo and London, a frenetic journey across the places she's lived. With plain, honest criticism, Elkin makes a case for what cities have meant to women and, in turn, what women have meant to cities.
Guest Recommendation: The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
"During the quarantine I've been immersed in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels. I'm a super-slow reader and don't usually pick long books, but I really wanted and needed something I could sink deep into. At first, the long paragraphs, and being in Italy at another time, pulled me away from the fear and anxiety of the pandemic. As the narrator gets older, the violence, political turmoil, and death increases—or at least, her understanding of it does—which isn't exactly a stress reducer. But by that time I was invested in the characters. I also find the prose style fascinating, a combination of classical lyricism and more modern, minimalist sentences. I'm about 90 pages away from the end of the last novel, and it's hard to imagine moving onto a new voice, a new story, and new characters. But first up is a middle-grade novel recommended to me by Suzy Vitello, The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert. It's important to understand and be invested in Black lives, and I'm really interested in what stories are being told for young people." —Liz Prato, author of Volcanoes, Palm Trees & Privilege (2019)