Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Books I'm Reading: Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, by Graham Robb (February 29, 2012)

Having recently finished a book about the Eiffel Tower and the 1889 exposition it was built for, it seemed natural to move on to another book about Paris--Graham Robb's Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris (Norton, 2010). Here it's important to pay more attention to the subtitle than the title, as Robb's book isn't an exposition on the general characteristics of the people of Paris but rather a series of short, fictionalized pieces--in widely varying styles--based on real people and incidents, each illuminating a single facet of Paris. Some read like short stories. One reads like true crime fiction. One is presented as a screenplay. Taken together, these vignettes create a scintillating image of Paris through about 400 years of its history. The book is a delightfully non-linear stroll that allows layered, highly subjective glimpses of disparate corners of the city--glimpses that left me craving more.

I strongly recommend reading this with a good map of Paris within reach, or, even better, a copy of the Blue Guide to Paris and Versailles or another good guide book that is heavy on history. You'll want to follow Marie Antoinette's bungled flight during the Revolution. You'll want to follow Hitler along the streets of the city on his one and only visit to Paris. You'll want to see in your mind's eye the pattern of streets in St. Germain des Prés as you read through cinematic scenes that take place in the vicinity of the old church that gives the area its name. You'll want to find every one of the many avenues and monuments Robb's writing takes you to.

This is deceptively easy to read, yet so dense with information that I found myself wanting to re-read the entire book as soon as I'd finished it (and I had already read a couple of the episodes twice along the way). Virtually every page is a revelation. Highly Recommended.

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