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.
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.
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.