Every city has its biographers. Whether it’s Charles Dickens in London, Victor Hugo in Paris or, more recently, Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, a great metropolis has an irresistible pull to the writers who call it home. And while we all need a travel guide to find out which art gallery or restaurant to go to, nothing truly ‘gets’ the essence of the city like a book, whether that’s a novel or an in-depth history.
With that in mind, here Quintessentially offices from around the world choose the books that define their cities. Now, which one will you read first?
Words — Mini Ob-oom Chutrakul
Reading Bangkok by Ross King
Summary: A thorough, investigative exploration of the growth and development of Bangkok, district by district, tracing its historical development and changes along the way. A book full of research and details, which reveals reasons and secrets behind the evolution from a land of canals to the present day megalopolis.
Why I love it: Because it compounds memories from my youth with meaningful facts and notions, from the origin of a street name to the story behind a particular building, either new or demolished, bringing back the social and political events behind the changes.
What it says about the city: Bangkok’s beguiling complexity always intrigues, as does the richness, the vigour of its life in the face of chaos, and the mysteries that always lie beneath its surfaces.
Memorable quote: “This is unquestionably one of the great cities in the world.”
Jim Thompson: The Unsolved Mystery by William Warren
Summary: Jim Thompson, the former US secret service agent who made Thai silk known worldwide when he founded his enterprise in Bangkok after World War II, disappeared in 1967 during an Easter trip to the Malaysian Cameron Highlands. He was never found.
Why I love it: Whilst the second part of the book meticulously examines all the theories concerning his disappearance, the first part explores Thompson’s 20 years in Bangkok. Even before being extended to its present size in 1959, his house was the point of reference for visitors from the West, whom he initiated to the charms of Thai history and culture. Somehow it feels like sitting at his dinner table as one of his guests listening to his tales of Bangkok.
What it says about the city: The Bangkok that so captured Thompson’s imagination was a very different place from nowadays, and the book provides some poignant descriptions of the city before it modernized in the 1960s.
Favourite line: “The area known as Bangkapi was largely rice fields. There were only two or three hotels, not very comfortable, but for less than 50 USD a month one could get a sizable house, plus staff.”
Italians At The Court Of Siam by Paolo Piazzardi
Summary: The first modernization of Bangkok was devised by King Rama V from around 1880. With a plan to transform the capital through major landmarks and structures along the lines of the great capitals of the West, he relied on Italian architects, civil engineers and artists to execute his ideas. Always mindful of keeping the colonial pressure of Britain and France at bay, he went for Italy as a ‘neutral’ as well as an art-minded choice. His two trips to Europe and Italy reinforced his commitment and admiration for Italian arts and styles.
Why I love it: The stories of the Italians at the court of Rama V (and VI & VII) are the history of Anantasamakhorn, Villa Norasingh (Government House) and other Royal villas by Dusit Palace, such as Parusakawan. The list continues with the Royal Mint, National Gallery, Home Office, the white Carrara marble temple, Wat Benjamabophit, plus the Cha-am Summer Palace, including the Democracy Monument, just to name the most relevant.
Favourite line: More than a line, it’s a whole chapter, describing the extraordinary friendship that united my older relative Dr Chaijudh Karnasuta and Italian engineer Giorgio Berlingieri, who created Ital-Thai architecture, and also made the Oriental Hotel into the legend that continues to this day.
Words — Isabel Gracian
City Of My Dreams by Per Anders Fogelström
Summary: The narrative follows a group of working- class people on Södermalm (south side) in Stockholm between 1860 and 1880. It was the first novel in a series of five.
Why I love it: Fogelström is great at drawing his reader into the teeming life of Stockholm. A city so alive yet full of poverty and sadness.
What it says about the city: It is possibly the most classic book that portrays historical Stockholm.
Favourite line: “The boy dreamt. The city awaited."
Stockholm: Now and Then by Johan Lindberg
Summary: A beautiful book of the Stockholm of both past and present. It covers how 30 places in and around the city have changed as Stockholm has taken its shape over the years.
Why I love it: It’s an exciting and nostalgic read with amazing photography and stories that you haven’t heard before.
What it says about the city: It tells the tale of how the city has changed, grown, expanded and evolved over the decades.
Words — Marta Hernandez
The Hive by Camilo José Cela
Summary: The novel is set in Madrid in 1943, after the end of the Spanish civil war, and deals with the poverty and general unhappiness found in Spain by examining a multitude of fictional characters in varying levels of detail. It contains over 300 characters and is considered to be the most important novel written in post-civil war Spain.
Why I love it: It reflects the mood of Spain after the horror of war.
What it says about the city: It highlights the resilience about the people and their will to move forward.
Favourite line: “It is very serious to confuse anaesthesia with hope.”
Fortunata and Jacinta: Two Stories of Married Women by Benito Peréz Galdós
Summary: The story revolves around Fortunata and Jacinta, two women of different classes who claim Juanito Santa Cruz as their husband. Juanito, the scion of a wealthy family, goes around carousing and womanizing with his friends. In one of these episodes, he is taken with Fortunata, a young woman of the lower class.
Why I love it: Love doesn’t understand social hierarchies.
What it says about the city: Madrid of the 19th century is not so different from today.
Favourite line: “The lack of education is for the poor a greater disadvantage than poverty.”
Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom
Summary: In this espionage novel set in Madrid just after the Spanish Civil War, a British spy is sent to Madrid, under the cover of a translator, to make contact with an old school friend and spy on his business activities.
Why I love it: Madrid is heavily referenced throughout the book. It’s so interesting for me to read about places I know well described in the book.
What it says about our city: The book richly describes the history of the city, especially having just been through a civil war.
Favourite line: “Funny, when I was a little boy I wanted to be good. But I could never seem to manage it somehow. And if you're not good, the good people will throw you to the wolves. So you might as well just be bad.”
Words — Selma Abu El Dahab
The Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk / Palace of Desire / Sugar Street by Naguib Mahfouz
Genre: Historical fiction
Summary: The classic trilogy weaves an intricate story of the Abd al-Jawad family, following three generations and portraying the socio-economic and cultural developments taking of the people and the country alike. Each of the books is named after a street in the old city of medieval Cairo, and creates the perfect backdrop for the intricate stories woven by the master storyteller that is Naguib Mahfouz.
Set during Cairo’s golden era (1920s-1940s) the personal stories are juxtaposed against the politically charged atmosphere – starting from the first revolts against British occupation to the end of World War II. With each generation portrayed we also see how the social changes manifested – from women confined to private spaces to the women who join the Marxist party and take part in the political discourse – one of the many struggles that were so intricately expressed in each of the novels.
Why I love it: The Cairo Trilogy takes you on a historical journey woven through the stories of individuals and the neighbourhoods they occupy – it’s colourful, it’s diverse, it’s sad, intense and funny all at the same time.
What it says about the city: Cairo is a very old place with neighbourhoods that are older than some countries! The Cairo Trilogy paints very intricate pictures of the city with its diverse inhabitants and how they’re expressions of the centuries behind them.
Taxi by Khaled Al Khamissi (translated into English by Jonathan Wright)
Genre: Fiction, short stories
Summary: The book is a series of 58 stories or conversations between the author and taxi drivers in Cairo. These very candid monologues delve into everything: current affairs, the doom and gloom of the economy, political movements, terrorism and the chaos of the megalopolis. Recreating the author’s own experiences, the monologues also explore the private sphere, touching on the personal and even taboo subjects of family life while taking the reader on an emotional journey as bumpy and exciting as the Cairo streets in the backdrop.
Why I love it: Breaking from the norm, the author chose to write this novel in colloquial Arabic, making the conversations very real and able to resonate with anyone that’s been engaged in a conversation with Cairo taxi drivers. They have their own perspective of the city and spend their days talking to all sorts and passing on stories. While it’s fiction, it all remains very real.
What it says about the city: It lends an explanation to the very complex city we live in with its very many contrasts.
The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany
Summary: Located in Central Cairo, the prestigious Yacoubian Building encapsulates 80 years of the city’s history told through the stories of its inhabitants. The carefully crafted characters each portray a side of Egypt – from the aristocrat holding onto to his dated ideas to the disenfranchised youth who turns to terrorism – all are metaphors for modern Egypt. Through the dialogues, we learn of how the building changed after the 1952 revolution from being the luxury property to housing poor people on its roof – again a metaphor for the ‘rural-isation’ that happened to Cairo post-1952.
Why I love it: The characters are very well written, it touches on many taboo subjects in a way that was not prevalent until quite recently with the rise of bloggers. It’s emotional, funny and a real page-turner.
What it says about the city: It portrays both the privileged side of Cairo through its golden era, while also showing the real struggles of the poverty- stricken majority.
Words — Keven Amfo
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Summary: Patti Smith’s memoir of her friendship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe and their bohemian life in downtown New York in the late-’60s and ’70s.
Why I love it: It recalls a bygone era of the city, when artists were able to afford to live in New York and focus on creating work. This is a telling of the streets and experiences that are familiar to us New Yorkers today. But through the lens of a romanticised ’70s – and in her poetic prose – it’s magical and transportive. She captures the sense of possibility and excitement that is ultimately one of the defining characteristics of New York; everyone who moves to NYC experiences that feeling.
What it says about the city: It highlights the myriad experiences New York offers within a single city. Coney Island, Bleecker Street, the Chelsea Hotel – these very different places can coexist, harmoniously, just like the many types of people that choose NYC as their home. It’s a truly diverse and unique place: there’s nowhere else like it. Patti conveys this really well.
Memorable quote: “It was a good day to arrive in New York City. No one expected me. Everything awaited me.”
Words — Anthony Teasdale
The New York Nobody Knows by William B Helmreich
Summary: Native New Yorker decides to walk the streets of the city he grew up in an attempt to understand it. The result is an intimate and unique portrait of the capital of the world.
Why I love it: Helmreich wants to find out how the city has changed since its hollowed-out days of the 1970s, when only the desperate and determined lived there. And while he accepts there are downsides to gentrification, he’s mostly positive about the effect newcomers from all over the world have had on his home town.
Memorable quote: “You have to be a little crazy to explore the city as I did.”
To order any of these books or for more recommendations, please reach out to your lifestyle manager.