The best books about construction projects, literal and metaphysical

Elizabeth Kiem Author Of Orphan, Agent, Prima, Pawn
By Elizabeth Kiem

Who am I?

When I published Orphan, Agent, Prima, Pawn, in which Soviet-era psychological warfare plays a heavy role, I happily washed my hands of Russian intrigue and turned to more benign, pastoral inspirations – my life-long relationship with an idyllic cathedral town in Wiltshire, for example. Just days later, the world learned that a certain Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov shared my fondness for Salisbury’s “world-famous 123-metre spire,” the glories of which prompted their 72-hour visit from Moscow (and overlapped with the botched poisoning of a KGB defector living down the road). Since then, I find myself drawn to works that explore the interstices of morality, criminality, and great construction projects.


I wrote...

Orphan, Agent, Prima, Pawn

By Elizabeth Kiem,

Book cover of Orphan, Agent, Prima, Pawn

What is my book about?

The first and the last story of The Bolshoi Saga trilogy stars Svetlana Dukovskaya as the matriarch of a three-generation blood feud within the Bolshoi Ballet. Suggested by The New York Times for readers "enamoured with the Russia of literature and film,” The Bolshoi Saga blends Cold War intrigue, the Russian mob, family secrets, and backstage vendettas from both sides of the Iron Curtain. 

The books I picked & why

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The Spire

By William Golding,

Book cover of The Spire

Why this book?

Golding was living in Salisbury when he wrote The Lord of the Flies, and his day job as a teacher at a local boys' school left a clear imprint on his dystopic view of young men left to their own hierarchical devices. But the classroom also provided a very literal view of the inspiration for The Spire, a dense and disturbing parable in which rationality and physics crumble under evangelical mania and corporal lust. It is the story of Jocelin, Dean of a medieval cathedral, who, obsessed with a divine “vision in stone,” insists that the spire be raised to impossible heights. There is no happy ending in this cautionary tale of construction hubris, yet I return to it regularly in search of solace.

The Stone Book Quartet

By Alan Garner,

Book cover of The Stone Book Quartet

Why this book?

Like Golding, Garner is best known for his children’s books – tales that spring from the ancient mythology of his local Cheshire and wander into realms of high fantasy. But it is this slim novella, a collection of four stories binding as many generations of Garners (they have inhabited the region for centuries and they were, all of them - up until Alan, craftsmen, builders, laborers) that moves me to raptures. Beginning with a wide-eyed child’s discovery of cave drawings, the stories haul stone up above ground to lay out the longwalls of Garner’s mason progenitors and erect the spire of the local church, worn by Garner’s grandfather "like a dunce-cap.” The imagery and wordplay are stunning, binding dialect and landscape like a spell.


The Three-Arched Bridge

By Ismail Kadare, John Hodgson (translator),

Book cover of The Three-Arched Bridge

Why this book?

Another parable, another legend, another work of manual labour turned mystical. In this tale of a bridge-building gone wrong, Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare considers the harms and inevitabilities that come from spanning disparate cultures. This book features a human sacrifice at the altar of erection; it feels antique and yet timeless; it explores the boundaries of human endeavor. Notes the narrator, a silenced sceptic, “all great building works resemble crimes.” It is a recognisable concern from Kadare, an exile of Hoxha’s totalitarian regime.


The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

By Robert A. Caro,

Book cover of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

Why this book?

Before embarking on the Bolshoi as my historical fiction playground, I spent a summer writing a fairy tale about Coney Island - the 19th century Luna Park turned into a 20th-century honkey-tonk ghetto, courtesy of a totalitarian parks department commissioner. Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses is the definitive account of the man who made New York City modern, but it also cleaves to urban gothic. The Power Broker could be subtitled Frankenstein’s metropolis. It’s about what happens when we build what we can, and not what we should. 


The Bridge: The Building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge

By Gay Talese,

Book cover of The Bridge: The Building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge

Why this book?

Among Robert Moses’ many divisive projects, the Verazzano-Narrows Bridge hits three Power Broker criteria: superlative (longest suspension bridge in the world); tyrannical (an entire neighborhood evicted from their homes); and indelible (who can imagine New York without its soaring Brooklyn-Staten Island link?). A sidebar to Moses’ expansion from Triborough to all-borough authority is the role of a bridge in birthing a fresh literary genre. A mid-century stylist of creative nonfiction, Talese wanted to celebrate the men who risked life and limb to span the narrows. His brand of detached observation has aged awkwardly (the stance on women, for example, or on Indian ironworkers “incapable of enforcing discipline, only capable of handing dollar bills around”). But it is a canonical work of New Journalism, written one year before the legendary essay, “Frank Sinatra has a cold.”


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