Tag Archives: France

** The Life Writer by David Constantine

Alert to you packrats: it may be a good idea to dispose of old correspondence before leaving this earth. Otherwise, your bereaved widow may plow through it to write the story of your life before you met her. (Of course, this presumes that (1) you wrote and received actual letters, you know, the kind with stamps on it, which few people do these days and (2) your widow writes biographies for a living.)   The Life-Writer delves into her husband’s lost first love in exquisite, painful, and obsessive detail, culminating in a meeting with the French woman he loved and lost. A perfect book for ruminators. For me, not so much but I was carried through the first half, and maybe farther, by the beautiful examination of the woman’s grief.

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* The Refugees by Arthur Conan Doyle

Much better know for his Sherlock Holmes series, Arthur Conan Doyle also wrote historical novels, of which he was apparently very proud.  The Refugees is one of them, and it ambitiously traces the picaresque adventures of a young American who travels to France, helps his Protestant friend survive many perils in procuring a priest for the secret marriage of Louis XV and Madame de Maintenon, and swiftly retreats to North America with friend, friend’s wife, and friend’s father upon the banishing of Huguenots from France. The French adventures are far-fetched — but what happens on the way back (iceberg, Indian attacks) seems utterly unbelievable. Add to that the totally helpless wife who cannot even see the fauna and flora of Canada without them being pointed out to her by her menfolk, and it becomes clear why Sherlock Holmes remains Conan Doyle’s legacy.

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* 1/2 All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr


I will easily predict that All the Light We Cannot See will delight book clubs for months and years to come, and I will readily admit that the plot is finely honed and grabs the reader’s emotional attachment.

But. Do we need yet another book about WWII (I griped about WWI recently)? Isn’t a book that stars both a blind (French) teenage girl and a savant orphaned (German) teenage boy just a little too sentimental? Of course, the German boy loathes the Nazis, let’s make sure that all the proper feelings are displayed here. Of course the girl’s family is in the Resistance (the very bad neighbor is collaborating, but everyone else seems to also be in the Resistance!) And there is a completely insane plot about a lost jewel, with a curse attached to its possession, that seems almost completely irrelevant to the rest of the story.

What irked me the most were the caricatural and incorrect details. No scientist in an official museum would have a glass of wine in his office on a workday afternoon. At the nearby cafe, perhaps, but not in the office. Sandwiches are not, and certainly were not in the 40s, a proper lunch in France. And it’s not just the French details that beggar belief. How could an isolated orphan teach himself physics? It took me hundreds of pages to recover from these early stumbles and get back into the story.

A reassuring novel that tells us that good people and good and bad people are bad, in a moving way.

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* The Double Life of Liliane by Lily Tuck

The Double Life of Liliane is billed as a novel, although it may be more of a biography, and despite the heroine’s many trips  between Europe and the US, between an estranged father and a self-involved mother, I found it all quite dull, often reading like a (very skillful) weaving together of historical research, classic novels in multiple languages, and current events, with not much of a plot beyond fantastic details (was her father really saved by Josephine Baker during WWII?) that do not build to any kind of an apex.

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*** The Smile Revolution by Colin Jones


Taking as a starting point the portrait on its cover, which was seen as scandalous at the time, The Smile Revolution: In Eighteenth Century Paris explores how smiling became an accepted and eventually expected custom in polite society and, as a consequence, in portraiture, through two related changes, one in dentistry and the other in the acceptance of emotions and emotional displays.

The author, a historian, deftly recounts how sugar consumption rotted teeth, even those of the very privileged, including Louis XIV, who at 40 had no teeth left, in part because of his love for everything sweet and in part because of the astoundingly inept royal “dentist” — and, not unreasonably, he preferred to keep his mouth shut and ordered everyone else at court to follow suit.
A new sensibility in literature, coupled with great improvement in dentistry, made smiles both normal and expected. Much of the book is devoted to the technical improvements in dentistry, including the use of hippopotamus bone to fashion dentures, as well as the amusing marketing efforts of dentists.

Who knew dentistry could be such a fun subject?

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*** Fashion Victims by Kimberly Grisham-Campbell


I care little about fashion, and not much about history, but I highly recommend Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, a gorgeously illustrated book about what rich and less rich French people wore, and also how they lived, at the end of the 18th century. Using invoices, paintings, and early fashion magazines, the author shows us a small fraction of the 100 (!) gowns Marie Antoinette bought each year, and the eye-popping sums she paid to her favorite fashion provider. But she also describes the complex system of trade guilds that governed the fabric and fashion industry, the Byzantine etiquette rules at the court, which,  unlike Marie Antoinette, surprisingly survived the French Revolution, and the strange tradition of parading in one’s finery, in public, at the end of Lent. She also includes an entertaining chapter about fashion inspired by the American Revolution, which resulted in any amusing additions to the already ridiculously large coiffures and hats in vogue at the time

A few nits: there are some misspellings in the French text, and some of the reproductions are strangely repeated, without explanation or apparent need, in various chapters. Still, a highly enjoyable book, even for non-fashionistas.

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* The Battle at Versailles by Robin Givhan


My interest in fashion hovering near zero, it was difficult for me to read The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History with the zest it deserved, and I confess to having skim-read in several parts. However, the bits that bored me were not about fashion, but about celebrities (1973 celebrities, mind you, most completely forgotten today), and the ridiculous cat fights between designers as the French-American fashion show in Versailles was being planned — all told with a breathless reality-TV quality that explores every incident  leading up to the big fashion show. And the author tries a little too hard to make the Versailles event as seminal to the blind-tasting event comparing French and Californian wines described in the excellent  Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine (she misquotes the title), while there is little reason to believe that the two events have much to do with each other, apart from the location.

On the other hand and quite unexpectedly, I found the fashion stories intriguing, even enlightening. I did not know that American department stores, as late as the 1970s, bought licenses to reproduce French designer clothes.  That the woman who put together the Versailes show essentially invented Fashion Week in New York. And, more significantly, how fashion was changing from couture to ready-to-wear and sportswear under the influence of Anne Klein at the time of the show. The author also delves into the shabby treatment of women designers at the time, and the tribulations of African-American models, paid little and relegated to decorative roles, with little improvement to this day.

 

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