by John Harbaugh. guest blogger and Branch Manager of West University Branch Library
(above) Rick Lowe, "Project Row Houses: Hindsight," copyright the artist, courtesy of the artist Rick Lowe Studio.
I look up from my desk, “You have a call on hold,” is what one of my co-workers tells me. On the other end is Erin Rolfs, Director of Marketing and Communications for the Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University. Being new to the West University Branch, I don’t always know if we have an existing relationship with an organization. “Hello, this is John?” starts our conversation. We set a time to meet and talk.
The conversation leans in the direction of intersectionality. Math, science, and engineering meet art, music, and literature in one prominent location: the library. Akin to the same vision, the Moody Center is meant to bring the arts to the science-heavy campus of Rice University. The Moody Center X West University Branch Library. Quite the collaboration?
The Moody Center for the Arts is hosting a new exhibition from September 16th to December 17th called Urban Impression: Experiencing the Global Contemporary Metropolis. This exhibition focuses on urban life through the lenses of selected international artists “whose works convey the rich sensorial phenomena of living in city spaces.”
The Moody Center describes the experience, “From Rana Begum's vivid, outdoor, site-specific sculptural installation to Mary Flanagan's AI-centered work to Emeka Ogboh's original craft beer, Urban Impressions demonstrates multiple ways in which artists interpret the landscape, built environment, technology, and cultural elements of a contemporary metropolis.
Featured artists also include Katsumi Hayakawa, Kahlil Irving, Lucia Koch, Julie Mehretu, Sohei Nishino, Robin Rhode, Seher Shah, Liu Wei, and Michael Wolf, as well as Houston-based artists Charis Ammon, Tiffany Chung, and Rick Lowe. Collectively, the works in the exhibition build on the longstanding artistic tradition of depicting urban life–notably by nineteenth-century Impressionists, early twentieth-century Expressionists, midcentury Situationists, and street artists of the 1980s–in ways that shape our collective perception of the city as an architectural and experiential phenomenon.”
This experience expands past the art exhibition at Moody Center for the Arts to all Harris County residents. The urban experience, Impressionist paintings, and stories that these artists are trying to express can all be found in the pages of books at your local Harris County Library. Below, you’ll find reading recommendations to help tune into the messages and experiences that the artists of Urban Impression are trying to convey. We hope that these selections will let you experience different perspectives while observing life in a metropolis.
To attend the Opening Reception for Urban Impressions with the artists on September 16th, please register here.
To attend Urban Nights, A Communal Art Experience that features the Texas Poet Laureate Lupe Mendez, Houston’s Lil’ Flip, jazz, and a food truck rally, register here.
Vincent Van Gogh: Timeless Country, Modern City by Cornelia Homburg
A volume which explores Van Gogh's oeuvre through two fundamental aspects of his artistic identity: his love for the countryside and his attachment to the city.
In her wonderfully gender-bending new book, the flâneuse is a “determined, resourceful individual keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.
The Poems and Prose Poems of Charles Baudelaire by Charles Baudelaire, available
Baudelaire was a popular French poet whose works are still widely read today. This includes a voluminous collection of his poetry and prose.
Paris spleen: Little Poems in Prose by Charles Baudelaire; translated by Keith Waldrop
Important and provocative, these fifty poems take the reader on a tour of 1850s Paris, through gleaming cafes and filthy side streets, revealing a metropolis on the eve of great change. In its deliberate fragmentation and merging of the lyrical with the sardonic, Le Spleen de Paris may be regarded as one of the earliest and most successful examples of a specifically urban writing, the textual equivalent of the city scenes of the Impressionists.
Improbable Metropolis: Houston's Architectural and Urban History by Barrie Scardino Bradley: available
This is a history of Houston told through its built environment. Houston has grown from a frontier town founded in 1836 to the fourth-largest city in the United States in 180 years, and its landscape tells the story of that growth. Bradley explores the many elements that have influenced Houston's development over almost two centuries while delving into significant buildings of each era.
The City We Became by N.K. Jemison, available
Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She's got five. But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs beneath the earth, threatening to destroy the city and her five protectors unless they can come together and stop it once and for all.
Open City by Cole Teju, available
This book centers on the thoughts of a recent immigrant who wanders around the city mulling over what he witnesses as he walks as well as key past events in the city’s past.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens, available
A savage, but often comic, indictment of a society that is rotten to the core, Bleak House is one of Dickens's most ambitious novels, with a range that extends from the drawing rooms of the aristocracy to the poorest of London slums.
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill, available
In The Dog, his narrator is a lost and tormented Manhattan lawyer working in Dubai for a family of Lebanese billionaires. In O’Neill’s hands, Dubai becomes a metaphor for the futility of the narrator’s cosseted existence: the city is depicted as a place of empty luxury and moral ambiguity full of luxury resorts and glitzy high-rise apartment buildings. At the end of the book, the narrator revisits New York and is shocked to realize he hates it.
Capital by John Lanchester, available
Lanchester’s London is a city on the brink of financial implosion. Set prior to and during the 2008 economic crisis, much of the novel’s action takes place on a single road in south London, subjected to gentrification during the boom years and now hosting a multifaceted bunch of residents, including a successful currency dealer, a Hungarian au pair, a pensioner with a brain tumor and the owner of a corner shop whose brother is flirting with Islamic fundamentalism.
The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City by Anna Sherman, available
An exploration of Tokyo becomes a meditation not just on time, but on history, memory, and impermanence. Through Sherman’s journeys around the city and her friendship with the owner of a small, exquisite cafe, who elevates the making and drinking of coffee to an art form, The Bells of Old Tokyo follows haunting voices through the labyrinth that is the Japanese capital: an old woman remembers escaping from the American firebombs of World War II.
Sunset Park by Paul Auster
After falling in love with an underage girl and stirring the wrath of her older sister, New York native Miles Heller flees to Brooklyn and shacks up with a group of artists squatting in the borough's Sunset Park neighborhood.
The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster
Nathan Glass has come to Brooklyn to die. Divorced, retired, estranged from his only daughter, the former life insurance salesman seeks only solitude and anonymity. Then Glass encounters his long-lost nephew, Tom Wood, who is working in a local bookstore—a far cry from the brilliant academic career Tom had begun when Nathan saw him last. Tom's boss is the colorful and charismatic Harry Brightman—a.k.a. Harry Dunkel—once the owner of a Chicago art gallery, whom fate has also brought to the "ancient kingdom of Brooklyn, New York."
Ulysses by James Joyce
It mirrors the structure of Homer’s Odyssey, transposed to Dublin and taking in many of the city’s landmarks, including Davy Byrne’s pub, the Martello tower at Sandycove and Trinity College.
NW by Zadie Smith
NW has a firm sense of place, – the title, after all, is the geographic half of a postcode for north-west London – and Smith is expert at conveying the city’s messy charm as well as its capacity for disconnection. The novel centres on friends Natalie and Leah, who grew up on the same housing estate and attended the same school. As adults they still live in the same neighbourhood, but their lives have taken very different directions.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
This magnificent novel captures all the corruption, dignity and heroism in 1970s Bombay at the time of Indira Gandhi’s declaration of a state of emergency. The political turmoil at play is vividly portrayed through the lives of four disenfranchised characters, including two “untouchable” tailors whose efforts to escape the terrible limitations of the caste system have brought them to the city in search of a better life.
Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin
The story concerns a murderer, Franz Biberkopf, fresh from prison. When his friend murders the prostitute on whom Biberkopf has been relying as an anchor, he realizes that he will be unable to extricate himself from the underworld into which he has sunk. He must deal with misery, lack of opportunities, crime and the imminent ascendency of Nazism. During his struggle to survive against all odds, life rewards him with an unsuspected surprise but his happiness will not last as the story continues. This book was considered a “must-read” by the New York Times for understanding how the history of Berlin affects its present.
The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun
The protagonist Doris writes about how she keeps her head above water, first in her hometown and then in Berlin. The novel takes place at the end of the Weimar Republic - from the end of the summer of 1931 to the spring of 1932 - first in a medium-sized town in the Rhineland and then in Berlin.
The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri's stirring collection of short stories about Bengal, Boston and beyond is one of them. Navigating between the Indian traditions they've inherited and the baffling new world, the characters in her touching stories seek love beyond the barriers of culture and generations. She writes with a grace and elegance that transforms her simple stories into a delicate myriad of words and feelings.
Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk
A Nobel Prize winner recalls the Istanbul of his youth. Atmospheric black-and-white photos contribute to his depiction of hüzün ― a particularly Turkish form of melancholy.
Havana: Autobiography of a City by Alfredo José Estrada
Alfredo José Estrada's intimate ties to Havana form the basis for this "autobiography," written as though from the city's own heart. Covering the island's five hundred year history, Estrada portrays the adventurers and dreamers who left their mark on Havana, including José Martí, martyr for Cuban independence; and Ernest Hemingway, the most American of writers who became an unabashed Habanero.
Goodbye, My Havana by Anna Veltfort
A compelling graphic novel-memoir of the author's decade or so experiences as a gringa teenager brought to Cuba by parents supportive of the revolution and ultimately forced to flee during the political crackdowns that consolidated Castro's power and that, for the LGBTQ+, were harrowing in a particular kind of way.
The Other Bostonians; Poverty and Progress in the American Metropolis, 1880-1970. By Stephan Thernstrom
The Other Bostonians challenges many myths and assumptions about the development of America. Newspapers and other familiar sources record the lives of only the prominent five percent of the population. Beyond these privileged few lie the millions who are born, live and die unnoted by the chroniclers of their era. Now, with the assistance of computers and a team of researchers, Stephan Thernstrom has gone to the available records of these
people, to the raw and uninterpreted data in old city directories, fading marriage license applications, and abandoned local tax records.
Abstract City by Christoph Niemann
In July 2008, illustrator and designer Christoph Niemann began Abstract City, a visual blog for the New York Times. His posts were inspired by the desire to re-create simple and everyday observations and stories from his own life that everyone could relate to.
Street Art by Adam Sutherland
Examines the people, performances, and controversy behind street art.