Thursday, January 27, 2011

Paris Was Ours, ed. by Penelope Rowlands

Paris Was Ours: 32 Writers Reflect on the City of Light
Ed. by Penelope Rowlands
Copyright 2011
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill - Nonfiction
279 pages

Even if it wasn't misty or if the sycamores didn't quite line up perfectly, you'd imagine that they did. It's so synesthetic, that part of the world. That wet air carries everything with it. Those places are so humid and damp and all the antiquity lingers in the air.

--from "Montparnasse and Beyond" by Richard Armstrong, p. 180 of Paris Was Ours

I received a finished copy of Paris Was Ours in a surprise package from Algonquin Books and you should have heard the squeal. It just happens to be one of the books that most interested me from their catalogue, but I wasn't going to request anything from Algonquin simply because I've got enough advanced readers to carry me through till at least April. But, Paris! I've only been there briefly but the idea of Paris still entrances me and the memory of how it goes from dull and gray when overcast to sparkling and golden when the sun emerges has remained with me. I carried Paris Was Ours straight to my reading spot and started reading the essays the evening the book showed up.

Michael of Algonquin's marketing describes Paris Was Ours as "a delicious treat for the armchair traveler," and that's an apt description, in my humble opinion. Thirty-two essays cover the same ground from a wide variety of different perspectives but there are vast differences in experience along with some telling crossover. Many of the essayists mention the immaculate gardens upon which even adults are not allowed to set foot. No playing frisbee or lounging in the grass is allowed. Even a foot placed on the delicate turf will result in a fierce, "You should know better," whether one is a toddler or a 40-year-old.

Children do have their play areas, however. In Janine Di Giovanni's essay, she writes a friend's thoughts:

"Children in France are seen but not heard," says one American friend, Katherine, who is a mother of two. "Except on the playground, where the parents don't get involved and then it becomes Lord of the Flies."

--from "Parenting, French-Style" by Janine Di Giovanni, p. 94 of Paris Was Ours

Let me skip ahead to what I liked and disliked about the book before sharing a lengthy quote that I think is amazing but also gives slight evidence of one of the book's troublesome aspects.

What I loved about Paris Was Ours:

I absolutely adored the learning experience of reading about the French culture as written by a large number of people who have lived in Paris or still do. I can honestly say I never really understood the French. I found my own experience was 50-50 on the friendly scale. When I purchased a little silver Eiffel Tower charm from an elderly man in Montmartre, he spoke in careful English and even wrote the number of francs on one palm with the finger of his opposite hand. What a sweetheart!

But, we had one of those French waiters . . . the famously snobbish fellows who refuse to listen to garbled English-French, a man who actually slammed our plates onto the table. Their attitude -- both the kinder French and the snobs in restaurants -- are described in depth and their motivations explained from a variety of angles that truly make sense of the culture, the personalities, the differences in the way women look and men treat them, how their children are brought up. The word pictures painted by essayists in Paris Was Ours give readers a surprisingly three-dimensional view of a lifestyle and culture.

What I disliked about Paris Was Ours:

I had two problems with the book and I thought they were minor but worth mentioning. One is that the essays often lack context. For example, "Montparnasse and Beyond" by Richard Armstrong begins:

I had an instantaneous connection to Paris. --p. 78

My first thought when I read each of the essays was always, "Okay, I wonder when this person lived in Paris." Paris of the Sixties may have been very different from Paris of the Nineties, so I thought that was important information. Sometimes the time period is mentioned, sometimes it's not -- often you're well into an essay before the time period is revealed. There are brief bios of each of the authors in the back of the book. I would have liked to see those bios on a separate page preceding each essay, complete with dates to give each essay context.

The other problem I had was that most of the essays were peppered with French expressions but there is no glossary. For those who know French well, that's likely not a problem. But, I had junior high and high school French -- only enough to translate the easy words like "fromage" and "patisserie" that probably everyone knows. A glossary would have been very, very helpful. Eventually, I began marking words to look up, but there were so many of them that I should have just kept a laptop nearby, for translating purposes.

The lack of a glossary, however, was not enough to put off this reader. Note how much you can learn from this simple passage:

The French have such an attractive civilization, dedicated to calm pleasures and general tolerance, and their taste in every domain is so sharp, so sure, that the foreigner (especially someone from chaotic, confused America) is quickly seduced into believing that if he can only become a Parisian he will at last master the art of living. Paris intimidates its visitors when it doesn't infuriate them, but behind both sentiments dwells a sneaking suspicion that maybe the French have got it right, that they have located the just milieu and that their particular blend of artistic modishness and cultural conservatism, of welfare-statism and intense individualism, of clear-eyed realism and sappy romanticism -- that these proportions are wise, time-tested, and as indisputable as they are subtle.

If so, then why is the flâneur so lonely? So sad? Why is there such an elegiac feeling hanging over this city with the gilded cupola gleaming above the Emperor's tomb and the foaming, wild horses prancing out of a sea of verdigris on the roof of the Grand Palais?

--from "A Mild Hell" by Edmund White, p. 205 of Paris Was Ours

I looked up several words from that passage (apologies for the change of text size, which Blogger is not allowing me to fix, for some unknown reason):

just milieu - (definition from Wordnik)
  1. The true mean; a just medium or balance between extremes; specifically, judicious moderation, as between extremes of opinion or conduct: defined as a political term by Montesquieu, but first brought into common use by Louis Philippe in 1831 in characterizing his own system of government.
Flâneur (from Wikipedia)

The term flâneur comes from the French masculine noun flâneur—which has the basic meanings of "stroller", "lounger", "saunterer", "loafer"—which itself comes from the French verb flâner, which means "to stroll". Charles Baudelaire developed a derived meaning of flâneur—that of "a person who walks the city in order to experience it".

elegiac (from my handy dandy American Heritage Dictionary) - (adj.)

1. Of or relating to an elegy (a mournful poem or song, especially one mourning a dead person).
2. Expressing sorrow, mournful.

I should have know that one. *headdesk*

The bottom line:

I loved Paris Was Ours. I felt transported to Paris, where a culture that's always perplexed me (as I have French roots, I really desire to understand the French) was explained with flair and erudition. A glossary of French terms and a little better context in the form of a lengthier bio placed just before each writing would have been helpful for the reading of most of the essays -- some authors did translate French expressions, but most did not.

Highly recommended for all readers but particularly for those who have a fascination with France in general or Paris in particular, or the armchair traveler who loves learning about other cultures. I'm going to loan this book to my son, who spent several weeks in France and will undoubtedly enjoy Paris Was Ours. I intend to reread it, eventually -- next time, with a French dictionary or a computer handy.

Some favorites:

I loved Jeremy Mercer's essay, "My Bookstore High", an excerpt from his book Time Was Soft There, about the time he spent living in Shakespeare and Company. Judith Warner's "Toward a Politics of Quality of Life," is a fascinating comparison of American feminism vs. the kittenish, pouty feminism of the French that I think would be of particular interest to those who are participating in challenges involving feminist issues.

There are several essays in which the acceptance of sexual orientation is mentioned but I didn't mark them. However, I was particularly interested by a comment that if a gay couple is invited to a party in New York, someone will seek them out to reassure them that they're very welcome, while in Paris the same couple will find themselves treated like everyone else, their orientation accepted to the point of being nothing of any interest.

I found Stacy Schiff's essay, "In Franklin's Footsteps" amusing and informative. And, I kept thinking to myself, "Stacy Schiff, Stacy Schiff. Where have I heard that name?" I looked her up and discovered that I have her biography of Antoine Saint-Exupery. It just happened to be sitting in a prominent place in the den because I pulled it off a shelf and set it aside, thinking, "I've got to read this one!" while cleaning some shelves, about two weeks ago.

Gushy thanks to Michael of Algonquin Books for the copy of Paris Was Ours.

Tomorrow I'll review Brownie Groundhog and the February Fox by Susan Blackaby, another surprise book, this time from Sterling Kids. It's a book that I love so much I fear my cats are going to get sick of it, sometime soon. Well, I have to read it to someone!

©2011 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than
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  1. This one sounds really good. I loved Paris!

  2. Holly,

    I did, too. You should definitely grab a copy, since you've been there. It's fascinating and very revealing.

  3. This sounds interesting. I have never been to Paris before, though... Will have to think about it. :)

  4. Kelly,

    It's a good way to expand your vocabulary, either way. ;)

  5. Not much for Paris does sound like a lovely armchair visit!

  6. Carrie,

    'Tis a fun way to visit if you're not up to facing the natives but still would like to know what they're up to. So to speak.

  7. Sound perfect for my inner armchair traveler!

  8. I really want to read this one. I've heard good things about it, and I love the cover.

  9. One day I hope to get to Paris so I guess in the meantime I'll just have to enjoy this book! I was so excited to get it too but I'm trying to get through a few others first - you know how that goes.

    Great review Nancy!

  10. I spent a few days in Paris (and a week and a half in France total) back in 2003. I love French films. So I think I would really enjoy this book. I like the excerpt you chose.

  11. Megan,

    Exactly. Your inner armchair traveler will love it. :)


    Really? I must suddenly be a sheltered blogger. I haven't seen any reviews at all, but then . . . I've sort of been shut down for a few days and I'm not straying far since I started doing reciprocal blog-hopping. I'll have to look around. I'm glad it's getting good reviews because I think it's a really good selection of writings.


    I have no doubt you'll make it to Paris; you're a well-traveled gal. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.


    I was only in Paris for a weekend but it was enough to stick with me. Lucky you, getting to have a nice vacation in France! I think you'll love it. :)

  12. Penelope Rowlands6:56 AM


    I'm the editor of Paris Was Ours and I want to thank you for writing such a nice review of my book. Very fun and informative!

    And by the way I think you're absolutely right about the lack of a glossary. Wish I'd thought of that before...

    Thanks again, Penelope Rowlands

  13. Penelope,

    Thanks for dropping by! I'm glad you enjoyed my review. I didn't mention this, but I'm hoping Paris Was Ours will sell well enough to warrant a second volume (preferably one with an essay by Simon Van Booy, one of my favorite authors who has lived in Paris). You can put a glossary in that one if Algonquin doesn't let you slip a glossary into future printings of Paris Was Ours. :)


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