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Growth of Paris

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This is a gem of a book. A history of Paris through the development of its streets, urban space, and infrastructure. Construction of Pont Nouf, for example, became one of those rare public works that actually shape urban life. On the New Bridge, Parisians rich and poor came out of their houses and began to enjoy themselves in the public again after decades of religious violence in 1734. The Pont Nouf became the first truly communal entertainment space in the city. This book demonstrates that the Parisien model for urban space was in fact invented two centuries earlier than the times when most people associate the signature characteristics of Paris.

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[733] The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris – John Baxter

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” Well, this is [Parisians’] habitat, their quartier, as familiar to them as their own living room. Because that’s how Parisians regard the city—as an extension of their homes. The concept of public space doesn’t exist here. ” (Ch.1, p.4)

This whole book itself is an irony—Baxter advocates following a guide while he himself is one. The book is a mash-up of a memoir, history, and armchair travel guide. Baxter, having lived in Paris over two decades and married to a French woman, found his witting entry into the very profitable business of tour guide when a friend running week-long literary seminars persuades him to tag along on one of the event’s organized walks with some academic. Baxter finds this academic personality very dry, dessicated and painfully pretentious. That’s what inspires him to not become a tour guide stereotype.

He urges visitors to embrace the art of a flâneur, someone who passionately walks for pleasure of it and allows the whims to guide him, with no set itinerary. Paris, after all, is a world meant to be seen by the walker alone, for only the peace of strolling can take in all the rich, if muted, detail.

Whereas most Americans associate Paris with the lost generation of 1920s epitomized by famous expats like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, Baxter does not limit to presenting Paris in the eyes of these celebrities. The transplanted Australian seems to feel a particular kinship with Hemingway, but equally making lively cameo are Henry Miller, Jean Cocteau, and the entourage of French painters who made Paris the legendary art capital.

But the best part of the book is when Baxter steers away from mainstream attractions—the quintessential cafes and bistros, and delves into the off-the-beaten-path, seedy Paris. The alleys, he notes, do not connote squalor and danger, but are respectively rich in history. Who would have imagined the wide, beautiful expanse of Luxembourg Garden was the roaming ground of a social killer who murdered women for their money? And there’s the uninviting building in the Cour du Commerce where the guillotine was born. The catacombs underlay large areas Paris with expansive rabbit warrens of skulls, femurs, and tibias.

With a casual familiarity, Baxter makes Paris approachable to anyone willing to explore on foot. It’s a gem of a book that reminds me of A Moveable Feast, with small chapters exploring some engaging facets of Parisian culture and history.

298 pp. Harper Perennial. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Baldwin’s Paris

Most literature of Paris delivers a nostalgia of the lost generation of which Earnest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were a part. Writers (more like writer-wannabes) think there’s something in Paris that confers on writing a special gleam. One literary figure often overlooked is James Baldwin.

Baldwin was only 24 when he arrived in Paris, with just $40 in his pocket. Virtually unpublished, he had left New York to escape American racism—an escape that be believed literally saved his life and made it possible for him to write.

Baldwin was introduced to me in college American literature class. Since then he has maintained a grip on my imagination. Set in 1950s Paris, Giovanni’s Room (one of my all-time favorite novels) the novel tells the story of an ill-fated love affair between the narrator, David, a young American ex-soldier, and a darkly handsome Italian barman named Giovanni. I was inspired in equal parts by the depth and style of Baldwin’s prose, and the fact that he, a gay black man had written so boldly and lived so openly at a time when there was such deep social hatred and opposition aimed at those of us who shared either Baldwin’s race or sexual identity, let alone both. What’s more, the fact that he had found a way to live and write freely in Paris made the city feel like an essential destination for me.

I usually have no agenda going in Paris, rather want to allow the city to appeal to my whim. Why not go on a little Baldwin trail this time, starting at the famous Café de Flore, the place where Baldwin had spent endless hours on the second floor, drinking coffee and Cognac to keep warm while working on his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain?

“A Pedestrian in Paris”

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Doing a little homework for Paris, that is, readying my mind for the City of Light. John Baxter is right: Paris is meant to be seen on foot and sans itinerary. That is exactly what a flaneur does, who walks for the pleasure for it, without a sense of time or an aim. Parisians have long regarded the city as an extension of their homes. The concept of public space doesn’t exist there. People don’t step out of their front door into their cars, then drive across town to the office or some air-conditioned mall. Parisians bike, take the metro or bus, and walk. Like philosopher Charles Gros says, “Nobody has yet found a better way to travel slowly than to walk. It requires two legs; nothing move. Want to go faster? Don’t bother walking—roll, slide or fly: don’t walk.” Walk to the one’s whim and feelings, follow no guide, and do not rush.

Alongside Edmund White’s The Flâneur and Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, The Most Beautiful Walk in the World is as close as a reader can get to the feel of a languid spring walk along Baron Haussmann’s boulevards without actually being there. Baxter understands that the beauty of that great city is the generosity, the bounty that allows all of her admirers to, as Colette once said, create their own little province — connecting a bakery to a park to a favorite shop to a literary anecdote.

[691] The Crypt Thief – Mark Pryor

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” The seems like a stretch. To go from two random killings, maybe some bone snatching, to a serial killer? ” (Ch.13, p.72)

Hugo Marston Mystery #2

The Crypt Thief is the second book of the Hugo Marston series. Hugo is the head of security at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. During the course of his investigations into a mysterious double-murder at the popular tourist destination, the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Hugo becomes convinced that the murder may be just one in a sequence of escalating murders. Like the previous book, his is at times helped, but sometimes hindered, by his friend Tom Green, who is associated with the CIA, and Paris police Capitaine Raul Garcia, and the inquiring journalist Claudia de Rousillon.

As he walked, he congratulated himself. He’d seen Al Zakiri by chance, a by-product of his plan, and after seeing the US Embassy’s press release he’d made the easy connection to Marston. (Ch.28, p.167)

The book maintains a quick enough pace, but the whole premise is outlandish. Near Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise, someone kills the son of an American senator and a young Egyptian woman who actually entered the country with a fake passport. It is later discovered that she’s friends with a Pakistani terrorist, Al Zakiri, who wants to escape the violent extremism of his home and start new life in Paris. The association of Al Zakiri with this young woman provokes the senator to believe no doubt the terrorist is the killer. But Hugo believes the real killer, who also makes off with half the bones of an once-famous dancer at Moulin Rouge, is on a personal mission of which the purpose is not known. Hugo cracks the secrets of the graveyard, but soon realizes that old bones aren’t all this serial killer wants: his ultimate plan requires the flesh and organs of the living.

He didn’t know who’d done the tattoos but he’d spent a year finding ones like them, a task that had been easier than he’d imagined. Everyone had them nowadays and, oh, people just loved to show them off. A few hours prowling, watching from doorways and the grubbier cafes had shown him that. And then a few more hours on the Internet, scrolling through pages and pages of Paris call girls all too eager to display themselves to strangers. And he found what he needed; not perfection, not that, but women with tattoos that he could take with his knife. (Ch.23, p.136)

Unlike the first book, The Bookseller, this one doesn’t give a very strong impression of Paris, which is the very element that first attracted me to the series. The Crypt Thief would have been a more engaging read if Pryor had included more Paris history. Jane Auril, La Goulue, and the Moulin Rouge are alluded to as being central to the mystery, but then dropped as the focus turns to the outlandish and unbelievable villain and his increasingly stomach-turning crimes. In the midst of this, Pryor throws in a flimsy terrorist subplot, or a big red-herring, to make things even murkier. Eventually the motive of the killer is revealed and his story was one tragedy—growing up unloved and deprived of the only person who cared for him and mattered to him, his mother—but the story is overall not convincing.

252 pp. Seventh Street Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[683] The Bookseller – Mark Pryor

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” There had always been something about the old man, his disinterest in money, a habit of deflecting conversation about himself with a wave of his hands, and the occasional far-off look that started in his eyes and quickly shut him off from the world. ” (Ch.12, p.94)

The premise of this debut is simply irresistible: ex-FBI now working as the security chief of US embassy in Paris strikes up a friendship with an old bouquiniste (booksellers of used and antiquarian books who ply their trade along large sections of the banks of the Seine). On vacation from his job, Hugo Marston visits Max Koche at his bookstall, where he buys a couple books that turn out to be worth a lot of money. Minutes later Max is kidnapped at gunpoint. When the police is slow to act, Hugo undertakes his own investigation, but jurisdiction and politics get in the way. Meanwhile, one of the valuable volumes is auctioned off to a mysterious, remote buyer.

Maybe it’s nothing, maybe he’s a friendless, petless, family-free freak. But it reminds me of something I saw once before. This guy, it wasn’t that he was hiding anything, it’s that he didn’t exist. Not as the person he made himself out to be. (Ch.24, p.192)

The mystery deepens as Max’s personal history is unearthed. An orphan who had survived the Holocaust, the grouchy, reticent bookseller had been a Nazi hunter, bringing all the traitorous collaborators to justice. The book itself, which Hugo has sold via auction, might be the lifeline and the ultimate clue to Max’s disappearance. The coded information it contains might have enraged some unknown enemies and ruffled their nerves. As more bouquinistes turn up dead in the river, and their stalls have been taken over by thugs who care nothing about books. Why, then, would they kill for books?

Hugo enlists his friend Tom, a semi-retired CIA operative, to get to the bottom of the matter. The investigation unveils a pattern of similar atrocities against the community of bouquinistes, possibly linked to feuding drug gangs. Hugo decides that the grim-faced leader of the bouquiniste association, one Bruno Gravois, who bribes his way to the position, must be close to the center of the mystery.

Bouquinistes weren’t kidnapped for books worth a few hundred dollars—if they were, a seller would go missing every day. And if the man had been after one of the books, Max would simply have told Hugo to hand it over. (Ch.3, p.27)

The Bookseller is a fast-paced crime mystery. It’s subtly and thoughtfully written, blending spies, Nazi collaborators, drug traffickers, murder, incompetent cops and suicide. What makes this book special is less the mystery, although it is intriguing and layered, but rather the surroundings, the flavors and atmosphere of Paris, and the historical tidbits about bouquinistes. The characters are well-drawn and the pace even. The Bookseller is not only wrapped in a web of history and crime, it is also a rare tribute to books—their stay power, their being vehicle of secret information, and their usage as cover-up.

302 pp. Seventh Street Books. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[492] The Dud Avocado – Elaine Dundy

” I’d heard the words ‘Champs-Élysées,’ of course, but I thought it was a park or something. I mean that’s what it sounds like, doesn’t it? All at once I found myself standing there gazing down that enchanted boulevard in the blue, blue evening. Everything seemed to fall into place. Here was all the gaiety and glory and sparkle I knew was going to be life if I could just grasp it. ” (Part I, One, p.27)

When you’re young and curious about the world, you’re fearless. Twenty-one-year-old Sally Jay Gorce finds herself in Paris with such curiosity in early 1950s. Upon graduation, her uncle honors his stipulation that he would foot for her expenses for two years so she can travel anywhere she wants. Soon after her arrival she runs into an old friend, Larry Keevil, who is to cast her in his new plays at the American Theater. While she is head over heels about Larry, an Italian diplomat, smitten with her, is equally enthralled by her sophistication and youth. Seeing that she is emotionally extremely deep and yet not wholly awakened, he warns her about Larry.

I always expect people to behave much better than I do. When they actually behave worse, I am frankly incredulous. (Part I, Six, p.101)

Sally Jay is not stupid. She’s in fact cognizant and ready to embrace what life has in store for her. Maybe she can use better value judgments, which are the very things that are only gained by being in her position—independent and abroad. Paris may be “the rich man’s plaything, the craftsman’s tool, the artist’s anguish, and the world’s largest champagne factory,” but one doesn’t have to live there to live, as she comes to realization, after a hell-bent living that involves an unsavory and a lost passport. Once she gets to know some of its not-so-nice residents, she has a flash of full-fledged epiphany that concludes with a rueful remark: “I’m so tired. What happens when your curiosity just suddenly gives out? When the will and the energy snap and it all seems so once-over-again?” (Part II, Three, p.199)

Written in an intelligent, somewhat addled but sarcastic voice, The Dud Avocado is a cheerfully uninhibited novel about a young American abroad who is up to her ears in possibility. From the glitz of the Ritz to the dive of the quartier to the charm of southern France, Sally Jay Gorce is rolling with her situation, is in search for happiness, acceptance, and perhaps, love. Her new-found freedom renders her fearless but not invincible, and she can use some honing just so she does not trust with such blind passion.

What it amounted to was that I, who had never been anywhere before, had suddenly been around once too often. I mean I’d felt like a prostitute, picking up those comparative strangers. Before, I would have eagerly sought them out for the pleasure and curiosity of meeting more and more people on my own hook. Now I had the sad little ulterior motive of trying to stave off my fear and loneliness. (Part III, Two, p.221)

The Dud Avocado is very funny. The pages only turn faster after a stagnant start, as the savvy-but-not-savvy-enough heroine embarks on (mis)adventures that would be precious to her growth although unbearably miserable at the moment. The many characters that intertwine with her in Paris speak in distinct voices and breathe a lively pulse to the book. You can live vicariously through her words. The moral lesson doesn’t rub off your nose but rather seeps through the course of her adventures. Despite the humor, the book is serious in the sense that what it has to say has to be read between the punch lines. It’s a moveable feast from a female’s perspective.

260 pp. NYRB Classics. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]