Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I Love Paris in the Springtime, I Love Paris in the Fall....

Curl up and savor the charms of Paris during the dark days of November.

Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik
Gopnik's "Paris Journal" column, a popular feature in the New Yorker, has won magazine reporting awards. Several of those columns are gathered here, with entries from his private journal serving as a sort of mortar holding the individual columns together. Lovers of the French capital will agree with Gopnik as he extols the virtues of Paris, where he and his wife and son moved in 1995, and where he had wanted to live since he was eight years of age. With no equivocation but certainly with occasional exasperation, he asserts that "a love for Paris came to be one of the strongest emotions I possess." The overarching theme of the book is France's ambivalent status in the world today and just how French self-attitude is different now from what it used to be--in other words, the "persistence of this civilization in the sideshow of postmodern culture." Falling under Gopnik's critical eye are such specific topics as Islamic terrorism, labor relations, French versus American versions of the health club, and "the French gift for social dramatization."

Almost French by Sarah Turnbull
Turnbull, an Australian journalist, made a life-changing decision at age 27, when she took a yearlong leave of absence to travel the world. While in Bulgaria, she met a Frenchman, whom she arranged to visit later in Paris. The visit went well (despite her doubts in the intervening months about the wisdom of her decision and her alarm at finding adult comic books upon arriving at his apartment)--so well that she moved in soon after and has been living in France ever since, ultimately marrying the man who on their first meeting described himself as "maniac." (She later understood that he meant "neat freak.") Turnbull's account of navigating another culture, learning a new language, and reinventing her professional self is a delight to read, filled with observational humor. We know she's truly integrated when she gets a small terrier (that she then spends obscene amounts of money taking to a chic dog-grooming salon) and is able to flip insults back in French to a rude customer in a patisserie.

I'll Always Have Paris by Art Buchwald
Those who believe themselves immune to envy should read this book. Like most of us, columnist Art Buchwald has endured some hard times: early years in an orphanage, the collapse of a 40-year marriage, his wife's death of cancer. But, oh, what a run he had in the middle part of his life: 14 years in Paris, 1948-62, writing for the Herald Tribune and hobnobbing with the rich, the famous, and the literary. Whether it was hanging out in the cafes of Montparnasse or St.-Germaine-des-Pres with other expatriate writers (Styron, Plimpton, et al.), downing champagne with the Rothschilds, or nightclubbing with Audrey Hepburn, Buchwald lived the Paris of your dreams--and usually someone else picked up the tab. As a restaurant reviewer and columnist-about-town, Buchwald had free access to Paris' many pleasures, and though he turns coy when the topic comes to sex, he appears to have enjoyed them all. And, of course, on those rare occasions when Paris lost its charm, there were always road trips: fox-hunting with John Huston in Ireland, attending Grace Kelly's wedding in Monaco, riding a Ferris wheel with Orson Welles in Vienna. Are we envious yet? If so, here's a thought: despite Buchwald's wealth of experience, this memoir never quite comes together. No movable feast, Buchwald's Paris is a long string of anecdotes. Doesn't help, does it? What's elegant prose against a free trip to Monaco?

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
"You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil." Begun in the autumn of 1957 and published posthumously in 1964, Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast captures what it meant to be young and poor and writing in Paris during the 1920s. A correspondent for the Toronto Star, Hemingway arrived in Paris in 1921, three years after the trauma of the Great War and at the beginning of the transformation of Europe's cultural landscape: Braque and Picasso were experimenting with cubist forms; James Joyce, long living in self-imposed exile from his native Dublin, had just completed Ulysses; Gertude Stein held court at 27 rue de Fleurus, and deemed young Ernest a member of rue génération perdue; and T. S. Eliot was a bank clerk in London. It was during these years that the as-of-yet unpublished young writer gathered the material for his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, and the subsequent masterpieces that followed. Among these small, reflective sketches are unforgettable encounters with the members of Hemingway's slightly rag-tag circle of artists and writers, some also fated to achieve fame and glory, others to fall into obscurity. Here, too, is an evocation of the Paris that Hemingway knew as a young man -- a map drawn in his distinct prose of the streets and cafés and bookshops that comprised the city in which he, as a young writer, sometimes struggling against the cold and hunger of near poverty, honed the skills of his craft. A Moveable Feast is at once an elegy to the remarkable group of expatriates that gathered in Paris during the twenties and a testament to the risks and rewards of the writerly life.

Paris in the 50's by Stanley Karnow
To a one, writers familiar with the Paris of the 1920s wax nostalgic--those who still have the breath to do so, that is--about that time and place. But Karnow, Paris correspondent for Time during the 1950s, found that the seemingly less vibrant postwar period also offered no dearth of great memories. Of course, no etranger can correctly interpret or even comprehend all sides of the Parisian's psyche; even Karnow admits that "the longer I remained in France, the more its intricacies daunted me." Daunted or not, he had a glorious, eye-opening, consciousness-expanding time in the City of Lights, which he recollects in a rousing combination of voices: memoirist, traveler, and foreign correspondent. His anecdotally rich narrative begins in June 1947, when, fresh out of college, he inaugurated a summer visit that extended for 10 years. He was transformed from a wide-eyed kid into a seasoned appreciator of the nuances, ambiguities, ironies, and contradictions that are Parisians' staff of live. Not content with simply ensconcing himself in the Time bureau offices, which, however, "occupied the two floors above a bank in a magnificent eighteenth-century building on the Place de la Concorde, one of the splendors of Paris, if not the world," Karnow created a personal life for himself and took in all that Paris and the provinces had to offer. And now he offers this succulent book, which Francophiles will devour.


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