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?
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.
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.
Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France tells the story of the village of Chambon-Sur-Lignon, in central France, during the Nazi occupation of France. I wrote about this before, when I reviewed the auto-biography of a grandson of one of the main character in the vast cast that sheltered Jews and other so-called undesirables against the Nazis while the French government was busy helping round up the same demographics. The history recounted here talks about terrible times but is quite inspiring as the author paints the portraits of many of the helpers, some well known and others anonymous, who, at great danger to themselves, took in many children and adults, provided food in times of rationing, created false papers, and helped spirit away many outside the French borders.
I was surprised and dismayed to find multiple factual (small) errors throughout the text. There is no “Rue Montee des Carmelites” in Lyon (no “s” in Lyon for the French): it’s “Montee” alone. There is no such town as Aix-en-France (Provence, probably!) And some names just seem mistranscribed. It casts a shadow on the overall story.
The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur is the dreadful diary of a perfume creator, written with a mix of arrogance, vanity, and, perhaps surprisingly for someone so successful, shame at not having a formal education or degree.
This is not to say that there are not interesting tidbits in the morass. Every now and then, the author sees fit to leave his name dropping to describe his craft (he would probably say art, but I found the crafty aspects most interesting) of creating perfumes and discusses the ingredients he uses, his methods to systematically explore various aspects of a theme for a perfume, and how he finds inspiration. I cannot recommend suffering through the book for those crumbs, however…
I should have listened to my sister, who discouraged me from reading The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles. (I had seen a good review somewhere, I mercifully forget by whom.) In this highly improbable story, a woman is deserted by her philandering husband but finds riches, and eventually fame not to mention self-respect and a new husband, by penning a novel that is published under her sister’s name. So what did I find so painful about this book? For starters, the plot is utterly unbelievable. Here’s a supposedly serious researcher who writes a long novel by, apparently, never going to her job as a serious researcher. A sister who only pretends to write and is never found out despite her complete lack of knowledge of the novel. A twin brother mysteriously descended from the sky, for goodness’ sake! And that’s without mentioning the mysterious bastard of the British royal family. This is not a madcap comedy, this is madness.
On top of the unlikely plot, the details seem far-fetched and sometimes plain wrong. The younger daughter magically gets hired by a designer. What’s the likelihood of that? The sister’s husband hires her to do English-to-French translations when she has no experience — but bona fide translators abound in Paris. The train from Paris to the Alps stops at the wrong station in Lyon.
And the descriptions are so replete with supposedly iconic French details that I had difficulty believing that the book was actually written and published in France, since it reads like a bad travel memoir, complete with regular gastronomic descriptions and chicly-dressed women. So despite the very delightful, but alas minor character of the grandfather’s devoted secretary and mistress, and the wholly readable, breezy writing style (judging from the English translation), I had to push myself to finish the book. Be warned, there are several sequels!
And the Mountains Echoed opens with a breathtaking bedtime story that introduces the brother and sister whose families’ sagas constitute the rest of the book, starting with an artfully twisted separation in Kabul. Many years later, they will reunite, in California. The first third of the book, which takes place in Afghanistan, I found enchanting, capturing sibling rivalry, brotherly love, and the awfulness of a bad marriage.
I had trouble with the middle of the book, which takes place in Paris and contained just enough inaccurate details to break the spell of the story: 8th graders would not attend a lycée in the 1980s; the Sorbonne is not the only university in Paris. The scenes in Northern California read as much more authentic down to the layout of houses (but the 101? I think not! We do not use articles with the freeways here.) So with that I heartily recommend relishing that perfect beginning!
I’m of two minds about What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France. On the one hand, the author creates a lively and (according to relatives who lived through it) accurate portrait of France at the end of World War II, complete with extreme deprivation and naked curiosity for the American soldiers. On the other, she puts forward her unrelenting view that the military authorities motivated soldiers solely by the prospect of sex with (supposedly easy and sex-obsessed) French women, and although it’s easy to believe that much sex ensued, the motivational claim seems widely overblown. Isn’t it the case that any army in any country at any time has to contend with undesired sexual behavior on the part of some of its soldiers?
In fact, the author seems happy to interpret any behavior as sexually motivated — in language that is terrifically heavy, as when she states that the parading of shaved women who had supposedly slept with German soldiers was “an attempt to regain virility by reestablishing dominion over women’s bodies”. I suppose that’s why women were so eager to help with the taunting, to regain their virility… Too bad, it’s refreshing to read a book that’s not all about military exploits.