November 3, 2011
I don’t think you must have visited Paris to enjoy the books written about it. A case in point would be Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, a collection of essays about living in Paris with his wife and son, a New York Times best-seller. I doubt the thousands who enjoyed his book had all visited Paris. Speaking of Gopnik, he’s written a new book, again with the French at its core, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food.
Penelope Rowlands presents in Paris Was Ours: Thirty-Two Writers Reflect on the City of Light, the experiences and viewpoints of diverse writers who reflect on their love affairs with Paris. The majority of the essays are original to this collection, others previously published in books or magazines. Of the previously published, a few feel pulled out of their original environment – they are interesting, but you can feel their edges, lacking the narrative intimacy that comes from a connected narrative flow. All in all, the 32 are quick to read, varied in tone (humorous versus nostalgic, for example) and wide-ranging in focus on topics that include money, parenting, cooking, schooling, fashion, dating, homelessness and more.
Contributor Véronique Vienne (The Art of Doing Nothing) returned to take up residency in Paris after many years of living in New York and discovered Parisians find discussions, let alone causal references, about money to be crude and tactless. Indeed, it’s a big cultural no-no, at odds with the American need to converse about our shopping bargains, investments and financial worries. Vienne’s essay is enjoyable not only for her light-hearted sharing of blunders and vulnerabilities, but also for its reflection on our money-focused selves. Vienne writes, if we don’t talk about money, then ”What’s left to talk about? The asparagus season, the Tour de France, Japanese art, the films of Jean-Luc Godard, photojournalism…” While asparagus isn’t high on my discussion list, I got the point.
Patric Kuhn (The Last Days of Haute Cuisine: The Coming of Age of American Restaurants) writes about his experience as a newbie chef in this gourmand’s metropolis and begins his essay, “There are no tryouts in Paris kitchens …You’re thrown in. Deal with it.” And Jeremy Mercer (Time Was Soft There) writes about bunking as a poor writer at Shakespeare & Company, the famous bookstore on the Left Bank. Janine Giovanni (The Place at the End of the World) shares her shock at French parenting techniques that are harsh and mean yet considered necessary by the French to teach discipline, manners and self-reliance.
Paris Was Ours gives the sense of this culturally rich city from the eyes of romantic newcomers, sometimes rudely awakened to its realities. Nevertheless, they come under its siren-like spell and develop an intimate connection. The yield for us as readers is a delightful, easygoing perspective of people who, for various reasons, took themselves to Paris and discovered more than they imagined.
A book of note about French culture and life: Richard Bernstein, The New York Times Paris bureau chief from 1984 to 1987, wrote Fragile Glory: A Portrait of France and the French, a keenly observed portrayal of not only Parisian France but also its deep countryside, La France Profonde. First published in 1990, Fragile Glory is still in print (paperback). One of the book’s most insightful sections is “The French: Who They Are.”