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As the resident poet at EcoHealth Alliance, my verse finds inspiration these days in the spectre of global pandemics. At LMU Munich's Amerika-Institut, where I tutor composition and poetics, I'm anatomizing the sonnets of E. A. Robinson for my dissertation. I also teach at M√ľnchner Volkshochschule and Amerikahaus.

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Amerikahaus Literary Circle: 11 November 2015

Free and open to the public, the Amerikahaus Literary Circle is a monthly book club sponsored by the Bavarian Center for Transatlantic Relations.  Our next discussion will be of Floating City by Sudhir Venkatesh this week Wednesday, November 11th, from 6:00 P.M. to 7:30 P.M. in the second-floor conference room at Karolinenplatz 3. 
Here are some questions to kick things off.

Discussion Questions for Floating City by Sudhir Venkatesh

1.  Over the past year, we’ve read a fair number of novels that were set in New York City (Cole’s Open City, Auster’s Sunset Park, Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer), how does Venkatesh’s non-fictional account of Manhattan square both with these previous works as well as your own vision of America’s cultural capital?

2.  Consider the genre of Floating City:  Is this more a sociological study or a memoir?  If more the former, then we must also admit that the book lacks the hypotheses, data, and conclusions that are part and parcel of good science; on the other hand, if more the latter, then the personal narration is often side-lined by non-fictional asides.  Given Venkatesh’s own ambitions for the book—that it might help governments across the globe to see how “the underground economy gives millions of people their only chance at survival”—how effective is this comingling of genres?

3.  As Dante toured the depths of hell and depicted the suffering of sinners in the Inferno, Venkatesh allusively models his own project after the poet’s, claiming early on that he “needed a guide, a Virgil” and even set the start of the book in Hell’s Kitchen.  Who among the characters of Floating City ultimately becomes his Virgil (or, for that matter, his Beatrice)?  Throughout his narration, Dante is curiously judgmental, vainglorious, bumbling, and sentimental:  In this regard, how does Venkatesh compare?  And, finally, just as we differentiate between the poet of and the character in the Divine Comedy, can we do the same between Venkatesh the writer and Sudhir the character?

4.  After Shine’s counsel, Venkatesh describes his need to “float” to see the dynamics of a twenty-first-century global city and study the intersection between disparate communities—of white and color, of rich and poor, of citizen and immigrant.  There is no gainsaying that New York is cosmopolitan—but how does the idea of community account for the variegated success of such analogous characters as Mortimer/Martin, Carla/Brittany, Manju/J.B., Angela/Margot, and Joshi/Sudhir?

5.  Venkatesh states that sex work has become less stigmatized and addresses the argument that it might even empower women toward financial stability.  Have prostitutes benefited from Germany’s legalization of the industry?   If not, why was it legalized? 

6.  Consider how Venkatesh is revulsed by johns but nevertheless drawn to prostitutes.  What accounts for his scintillation of the so-called “underbelly” of the underground?   Did this ostensibly academic interest ever cross ethical boundaries?  If so, how did Venkatesh rationalize them?      


7.  As an affiliate of Harvard and a professor at Columbia, Venkatesh describes how he was respected by the poor; he also describes that, despite this cache, he was nevertheless rejected by the upper echelons of white Manhattan society.  By the end of the book, all three of Venkatesh’s main contacts—Margot, Analise, and Shine—challenge his professorial authority.  How professional did you find Venkatesh’s actions?

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