How Paris Became Paris – A Book Review for The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: September 2014

The biggest mistake a writer can make is to forget to read. 

How Paris Became Paris, The Invention of The Modern City
Joan DeJean

Here is the link to the book.

I enjoy tales of fabulous characters, whether historical or imaginary, that follow them from their first appearance to their moment of highest triumph (or despair).  What brought them about, what made them ‘them’, the turns and twists of fortune?  In the book I speak of this month, one of my favorite characters is studied, her history recounted, illustrations of her growth in grace and charm, some account of the influences that made her what she is… 

This character was formed by a powerful man who, seeing her, visualized her as greater than she was at that moment.  He had the power to direct actions, mold events, and it was through his love affair with this character that events that led her ultimate form were set in motion.  His son and grandson crossed this character’s path, as well, each bringing changes and molding her with their actions and personality

I met this character in person, myself, in May of 1990, during a time of upheaval in my life.  I had wanted to meet her.  Indeed, she was perhaps the most important character of my Work in Progress (‘WIP’) and I had no choice but to meet her and get to know her.  I have to say that I was charmed by her, fascinated, even enchanted.  She remained a very important character of my WIP (Volume 1 is now published).  I love to read about her, to see how others perceive her. 

This month I read a book about her, and I am reporting on it.  And I am chuckling a little because I am not reviewing a book about a queen, a courtesan, a goddess or a great heroine, but a book about a city:  Paris. 

The city of Paris is the setting for a series I am writing.  The first book, The Orphan’s Tale, is out.  I had the idea for the story two years before I traveled to Paris, but the visit served to crystallize my thoughts.  Paris is the first of the great ‘modern’ cities.  Others have copied Paris.  My home city, Philadelphia, has The Ben Franklin Parkway, which is a copy of the Champs-Elysees. The City Hall there is a copy of the Hotel de Ville. 

I needed to understand the history and the development of that city.  I found the book, bought it and read it.  I thought it would be informative.  I did not expect it to be entertaining.

DeJean starts with the sentence what makes a city great?  The book goes on from there.   

Prior to the 17th century, Rome was the most celebrated European city, famous for its past.  People made pilgrimages to Rome to visit its ancient monuments and historic churches, to seek inspiration.  Novelty and excitement were not on the agenda.  And then, in the 17th century, a city was invented (or, I think, reinvented) to hold a visitor’s attention and, itself, to provide enjoyment.  This was Paris, the city as it is now, planned to be changed and enlarged, to grow into what it is now. 

The history is fascinatingly told.  For anyone who has studied European history, the names are familiar.  One king had the idea, his son and grandsons followed.  Essentially, Henri IV invented city planning.  The book follows the changes (wars, invasions, revolutions) and the challenges (a river runs through it).  It was perhaps the most useful thing I read for research, and not nearly as gory as some, history being what it is. 

The construction of the book works.  It is, after all, a history, so flows linearly.  History involves people, and DeJean introduces the statesmen, rulers, ministers and citizens.  The dreamers, the liars, the schemers…  She ties the changes in culture in with the changes in the cityscape.  The wide avenues that Paris is now famous for were novelties that encouraged leisurely strolling.  Not going from one place to another, but strolling to see and be seen.  Flirtation as a pastime, conveyances (fiacres, the original taxi cabs), modes of address…  Architecture, too: the first balconies appeared in Paris, allowing residents to enjoy people-watching.  And if people are strolling past your house, perhaps spiffing it up, or rebuilding it in a more magnificent form was desirable.  And that fabulous piece of furniture, the boon for nappers and waiters-for-friends, made its first appearance in 1678.  The park bench. 
There are engravings of people, reproductions of paintings…

The book contains lots of illustrations including maps, engravings of citizens and celebrities (DeJean comments on them and ties them in to her narrative). 

I bought this as a sourcebook.  Rather like The Civil War Day By Day, or a topographical map of Georgia, which was invaluable for a Civil War novel I wrote.  Sourcebooks are useful, informative, generally interesting but not re-reads.  Enjoyable ones are unusual.  Joan DeJean writes in a flowing, chatty fashion.  The linear structure of the book makes it into a (his)tory rather than an encyclopedia.  For a sourcebook, I give it five stars. 

…And, thanks to this book. I now have the perfect comeback line for someone who says, “Well, Paris was just a jumble of twisty, dark, dirty streets until Napoleon III and his minister, Baron Haussman, tore it all apart and rebuilt the city.”  “No, you’re wrong.  Paris as it is now was planned five hundred years ago.  Go forth and read.” 

Unfortunately, such people are rare.  Sigh.
The Coat of Arms of the City of Paris


Check the others in the hop!

Finger-Pointing – A Pet Peeve

I was wandering through an online bookstore recently.  It’s a good way to while away the time or, in my case, fritter it away.  I think bookstores are actually wormholes, if you’re a Trekkie or a sci-fi addict.  You go into one of them as young as Rip Van Winkle at the beginning of the story, and you emerge to discover that hours, at least, have passed.  I don’t mind.  I love sifting through books, finding associations, looking at recommendations –

If you like this…you’re sure to like THIS…

Generally I find THAT interesting, at the very least.  This afternoon I was looking up an author who had written a book in an era that interested me (and that I have not used as a setting for anything I’ve written).  The title of one book of this author caught my attention, and I clicked on it, found other books by the same author, read the author’s profile, and thought, Hmmm…  

There were quite a few books, and the writer’s credentials were excellent.  I was mulling over buying one or another of the writer’s works, just as an intro, with the possibility that I had found a new favorite.

…And then I saw that this writer had published a sourcebook on a subject that I found very enjoyable.  It was geared toward writers with a specific focus.  Some hints on what to do and what not to to, and a compendium of facts that would be useful.  

I was sold.  I was, as they say, there.  This was a book that I would find very handy, and I decided I wanted it in paperback rather than electronically, because I could flip through it, mark it up, dog-ear it and put tabs in it.  A lot of the information in there was familiar to me, but some of it was confirmation of what I had wondered about.  The writing style was good, too.

.  .  . But then, as I got into the text itself, I began to see how this author made points.

“In her book ‘Mary’s Little Lamb’, Julie Jones has obviously done absolutely no research into sheep-culture because she has her sheep’s fleeces smelling of ambergris rather than bacon grease, and any moron who knows how to research will know that sheep hang out with pigs and so would smell of bacon grease.  In fact, in Jones’ book I find so many errors, I used up a pink highlighter underlining them all!  Research is Crucial!”

Well, yes, I thought.  I looked further.  Maybe this was a one-timer.

Not quite.  Every time the writer made a point, an example of the wretchedness of error was given – and the writer’s name and that of the book were given.  The tone was scornful, belittling and gloating.

Those examples might have been appropriate for a review.  This book was a sourcebook, not a review or a survey.  The writers that the author was putting in the pillory were storytellers who were not pretending to be scholars or experts.  They simply had some (rather bad) mistakes in their books that could have been avoided with some research such as that provided by the author.

Years ago I read the private journal of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  The title has been translated to ‘Meditations’, but I don’t think it is accurate.  They were his writings to himself, a sort of journal.  The translator remarked on one feature that confirmed, to him, the essential kindness of Marcus Aurelius: when someone is mentioned as having done something excellent, his or her name is given. But if Marcus is speaking of wrongdoing, vice or stupidity, the person remains nameless.  I went back through the book and checked: the translator was correct.

Marcus had the right of it: he was a great man and a good one.  

But the writer of the sourcebook – 

Well, it wasn’t a sourcebook.  The scornful rants made it something less.  The writer, who wrote books that required the sort of research featured in his or her book, was belittling the competition.  And that, in my book, is gauche at best.

I put it back on the shelf, figuratively, by backing out of the page, deleting my browsing history and going elsewhere.  I don’t need to promote backbiting.

Pity.  The (non-sourcebook) books looked interesting, too…

A Piece of Croc…

I have had crocodiles on the brain for the past month or so.  It all started with an idea that I had about some poor fellow poling his boat back home after a hard night fishing when a roar splits the dawn and  – ker-SPLASH!! – his boat is nearly swamped by a wall of water.  The man straightens to see a huge crocodile floundering in the river beside his boat.

It gathers itself and surges straight upward, falls back and bellows again as the man clutches his chest and tries not to hyperventilate, faint and fall into the water.

And then the crocodile looks at him for a moment with the rising sun right behind its head…

The story takes off from there.  The thing is thirty cubits long (which makes it between 45 and 60 feet in length)  with a head wider than the man’s height.  It follows him home and things start happening.

Who the crocodile is, how it got there, and what happens next in various ways to various people, grownups and children, is the story.  It is shaping up to be rather amusing, but it is also requiring a lot of research into crocodilians.  There is a lot I didn’t know.

For example, did you know that they can gallop?  Here’s a video of a freshwater crocodile doing just that.  (Pity they didn’t set it to the William Tell Overture, as Paul Serano the Paleontologist did in ‘Supercroc’):

The man gets quite a turn when he comes home from a long day fishing and finds the crocodile basking in the sun with the man’s  two children napping between his front legs.

It isn’t quite like the other crocs in the river, being more than three times their size, but like some regular specimens, it does like to chase the man’s fowl.

It also takes a rather dim view of rude people and tax collectors.

There is a lot to research (and, to be honest, I’m learning more about crocodiles than I ever really wanted to know) but I can’t do any actual composing until November 1, since this is going to be my NaNoWriMo project for 2013.

What audience would I target?  Well, that’s a good question.  It isn’t really a children’s book, though I think slightly older children (of an age to read chapter books) might enjoy it.  It is a bit of a fable and a bit of a fantasy, especially when you discover who and what the crocodile is, and how he got there and why there is a huge, dark patch in the night sky, and why the river sparkles so brightly when he is in it.

Heck, I even have a cover design well on the way to being finished.  

I think I’ll enjoy it.

And now one final video that should leave you laughing deliciously.  No blood, nothing to startle you even if a croc does appear in it.  Enjoy it!