Parisians: An Adventure History Of Paris Paperback – Apr 12 2011
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[Robb] has proved himself to be one of the more unusual and appealing historians currently striding the planet. In a better world his books would be best sellers everywhere....His book—argumentative, gallant, parked athwart oncoming historical traffic, as if on a dare—is as Parisian and as bracing as a freshly mixed Pernod and water. — Dwight Garner (The New York Times)
Ingenious...Marvelously entertaining, boundlessly energetic and original...This book is the sort of triumph that we have no right to expect to come from anyone in the steady way that Robb's masterly books come from him. — Philip Hensher (Daily Telegraph)
A superior historical guidebook for the unhurried traveler, and altogether a book to savor. — The Independent
Graham Robb's new book is so richly pleasurable that you feel it might emit a warm glow if you left it in a dark room. Essentially it is a collection of true stories, culled from Robb's insatiable historical reading and lit by his imagination. He has the passion of a naturalist displaying a wall of rare butterflies or a cabinet of exotic corals, but his specimens are all human and walked the streets of Paris at some point between the French revolution and now...[A] generous and humane book. — John Carey (The Times [London])
Robb, in employing the techniques of the novelist, animates his characters mainly for 'the pleasure of thinking about Paris.' That pleasure is also the reader's. — Brenda Wineapple (The New York Times Book Review)
About the Author
Graham Robb is the author of three prize-winning biographies, each one selected as New York Times Best Books. His most recent works, The Discovery of France and Parisians, have earned several awards and much acclaim between them. He lives on the Anglo-Scottish border.
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Top Customer Reviews
Parisians is the most unusual look at a major city that I have ever read. Graham Robb knows Paris well for someone who isn't a Parisian and builds a verbal picture of the city through describing layers of change during which many things don't really change all that much. You have to use your imagination and a good sense of French history to fully appreciate the book. If you have only a slight knowledge of both, you'll probably be a little puzzled by the book. If you are a regular traveler, you'll probably find yourself wanting to visit the locales that he describes over the last two centuries.
Some of the book will seem gratuitous in terms of their shock value. I couldn't quite make up my mind about whether those parts could have been skipped.
In other places, the story telling is fascinating, and the contrasts are portrayed with winning irony that will amuse and delight most readers who don't have a political ax to grind. In that regard, I was especially pleased with the following sections:
- The Man Who Saved Paris
- Files of the Sûreté
- Madame Zola
- The Notre-Dame Equation
- The Day of the Fox
- Terminus: The North Col
The photographs in the book also add a lot of depth to the story-telling. Look at them closely!
The book's subtitle is a little misleading.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Robb has a novelist's imagination and eye for detail. The first episode is set in the late 18th century and concerns a young man coming to Paris from Corsica. The lad makes his way to the Palais Royal to experience to the pleasures of the flesh for the first time. The young man we find out later on was Napoleon. Apparently the residence Cardinal Richelieu and French Royalty had become the place to go for nightlife in Paris.
Before Baron Haussmann cleared whole neighborhoods to lay out wide boulevards along straight lines, Paris was a network of convoluted, narrow streets. It was a city without maps. Robb tells the story of Marie-Antoinette as she was fleeing the mobs during the French Revolution. She was trying to get to Vincennes but accidentally gave her coachman the wrong directions and ended up in the hands of her enemies.
One of the most interesting and little-known figures brought to light by this study is Charles Axel Guillaumot. In the late 1700s the streets of the Left Bank were starting to cave in as a result of many years of quarrying below the city. Guillaumot, who was an architect and surveyor, decided to reinforce the caverns underneath the city and use them as a place to bury the dead, thus creating the infamous Catacombs.
There is also a chapter on Hitler's one and only whirlwind tour of the city with his sculptor Arno Breker and architect Albert Speer. The tour lasted only two and half hours but apparently Hilter beside himself after absorbing the splendor of the city. It reminds us that he was an artist before he became a politician.
Every chapter is beautifully written and full of surprises. One can imagine that there are many more stories such as these. They seem arbitrary but nevertheless insightful. Robb has repeated the succuss of an earlier work, The Discovery of France: A Historical Geographyin which he does for rural France what he does for Paris in this volume.
But there were many times I found myself frustrated with the book. Robb clearly knows his Parisian history but chooses to play coy often not telling us who the chapters are about until the last few paragraphs. Moreover he writes as if the reader should know many of facts and dates of Parisian history. My Parisian history is rather weak (why I was interested in the book) so I muddled through as best I could. In one chapter the two unnamed major players of the story were both men and I found myself realizing that the "he" Robb had started to tell me about, was no longer the "he" I was now reading about--you see the difficulty? It's not like this is Faulkner or Joyce we're tackling here. I don't feel it's too much to ask to feel secure in repeating a fact or two of history after I'm finished reading some historical non-fiction.
*Robb makes much of the fact that there wasn't a decent map of Paris up until a certain point but couldn't a *readable* one have been included in the book for reference? (There is a quaint little map included at the beginning of the book--it just wasn't terribly helpful)
*There is an entire section talking about Marville's photographs of the city which sounded lovely but the photos reproduced in the book were so small as to make all the details Robb discusses nearly impossible to see. [Three years later I've finally realized this is exactly the sort of thing Google images was invented for].
I admit to not finishing the last 100 or so pages of this book. With two other books on my shelf and other Amazon reviewers claiming things got less cogent as the book went into it's final pages I felt like I'd done what I could with The Parisians.
On the other hand, the Parisians has piqued my curiosity about reading some classic French literature and looking more into the lives of some of the character in this book. I'd say all and all I've come out better for having spent time with it.
However, the execution is terribly lacking. Mr. Robb is, no doubt, a gifted writer. One gets the sense, however, that he's trying TOO hard here. While a couple of the stories are somewhat interesting, the bulk of them are barely readable. The author gets so caught up in extraneous metaphors, flowery language, and coy pronouns that it becomes difficult to determine if two consecutive paragraphs even belong in the same story. More often than not I found myself finishing a story only to wonder "what the hell was that even about?"
The book is 436 pages long. I'm finally giving up on page 400. Had this book been one continuous story instead of short vignettes, I probably would have given up a lot sooner. But each vignette is only 15-25 pages long. Every time I finished a story, I found myself desperately hoping that the next one would knock my socks off and would make this painstaking effort worthwhile. And, again, more often than not, I found myself disappointed and frustrated.
I rarely take the time to post a review on Amazon but that's how frustrating and disappointing "Parisians" was. I am giving it two stars because the _idea_ was excellent. Unfortunately, the author and his writing did not live up to it.
Frustration frequently follows confusion. Consider the following excerpt (pages 340-341):
The OAS has discovered that, between eight and nine o'clock every evening, the old painter who lived above the antiques shop at 86, Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore closed his shutters for the night. The windows of his living room looked directly through the gateway opposite and, in a slightly descending line, at the entrance of the Elysee Palace. On 23 May, de Gaulle was to receive the visit of the President of Mauritania. The protocol for such visits never varied. When the visitor's car entered the courtyard, de Gaulle emerged from the palace and stood still at the top of the steps for at least ninety seconds. On 21 May, the plot was discovered; on 22 May, the painter closed his shutters and went to bed as usual; and on 23 May, de Gaulle stood on the steps and welcomed the Mauritanian President into the Elysee Palace.
What are we supposed to do with this information? Is it the reader's duty to fill in what happened between 21 May and the 23 May?
Dear Graham, if you continue on this path, you'll end up alienating your base which consists of readers accustomed to clarity and dependable information. While the book still offers a quantity of interesting facts, your attempts at artistry and mystery produce nothing except irritation. Please don't do it again.
There are so many history books about Paris, done in various ways. I have studied Paris for years and am tired of the same old stories of famous people and landmark events. The stories in this book are a welcome relief. I also enjoyed the narrative that puts us there at the moment. I am sure that the information has been gathered from accounts of the time. The Man Who Saved Paris is a wonderful story I never knew.
All in all, I would recommend this people to anybody who wants a fresh view of the city. No wonder it is at the top of the seller lists in the U.K. and U.S.