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on November 19, 2002
In the past few years we've had a massive biography of New York City ("Gotham") and several only slightly less massive biographies of London (by Peter Ackroyd, Stephen Inwood, etc.). Alistair Horne, an Englishman who has spent most of his life writing about France, rightly decided that it's about time we gave equal time to the City Of Light. He has written a very good book. If you don't know much about France and the French, Mr. Horne's book covers so many different areas that it is sure to whet your appetite to learn more. Even if you're a longtime Francophile, the author has dug so deeply into his sources that you're bound to be delighted and/or surprised at many of the tidbits he's unearthed. For example, during the siege of Paris in the autumn of 1870, the Parisians were able to communicate with the rest of France by successfully sending out balloons. But the balloons were never able to make it back in to Paris. The solution? Mr. Horne takes up the story: "It was the humble carrier-pigeon that was to prove the only means of breaking the blockade in reverse. A microphotography unit was set up in Tours, and there government despatches were reduced to a minute size, printed on feathery collodion membranes, so that one pigeon could carry up to 40,000 despatches, equivalent to the contents of a complete book. On reaching Paris, the despatches were projected by magic lantern, their contents transcribed by a battery of clerks......As a counter-measure, the Prussians imported falcons, which prompted one of the many imaginative Parisian 'inventors' to suggest that the pigeons be equipped with whistles to frighten off the predators". And while many people know that the siege reduced Parisians to having to eat horses, dogs, cats, rats and even animals from the zoo.....where else could you find out that it's estimated that during the siege the Parisians consumed 65,000 horses, 5,000 cats, 1,200 dogs.....but only 300 rats! Depending on your interests (or the strength of your stomach!) this is either fascinating or maybe a bit TOO much information! Mr. Horne tries to let you sample various aspects of Parisian life. So, in each "Age" he tries to tell you what was going on in certain core areas: politics, architecture, relations between the sexes, culture (music, dance, theater, art, literature), etc. Heavyweight material (Louis XIV's revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Paris Commune, collaboration during WWII) is beautifully and seamlessly blended with lighter fare- such as the 1809 inventory of Josephine's wardrobe (which found 666 winter dresses, 230 summer dresses but only 2 pairs of knickers!). We learn that King Louis-Philippe kept 2 pairs of gloves "on hand"- a special dirty pair for shaking the hands of the "common people" and a cleaner kid glove pair for use with old aristocrats, bankers, etc. In the world of dance, we find out about the moral outrage expressed when, during the 1912 season, Nijinsky decided to perform in "Afternoon Of A Faun" in a manner that some people felt was not quite appropriate. (He went onstage "sans cup".) Mr. Horne wears his likes and dislikes on his sleeve: He clearly dislikes Louis XIV and admires Charles de Gaulle, for example. (But, he has a wonderful sense of humor and can't resist telling us that Jean-Paul Sartre used to call de Gaulle "Charles XI"!) Mr. Horne makes it clear that this is a "personal" history rather than a "scholarly" history. Fair enough....at least we know the groundrules. The reason I decided to give this book only 4 stars rather than 5 is that, if anything, Mr. Horne was not quite ambitious enough in his undertaking. Granted, 477 pages is not a short book......but it isn't long enough for a subject such as this. You feel a bit "rushed" in the first 3 "Ages", as approximately 600 years of history are compressed into 150 pages. And, for all intents and purposes, the Revolution of 1789 is ignored! The book doesn't hit it's stride until Napoleon struts onto the scene. So, the last 200 years are covered in 300 pages and the pace for that period seems more leisurely and appropriate. After all, we want to do full justice to such a rich, complex, story. To finish with a quote by Charles de Gaulle: "How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese!"
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on January 10, 2003
One of the most beautiful cities in the world has finally found a worthy biographer in A. J. Horne. Paris has always held a fascination for most, being a center of not only political and commercial interest, but also home to the art and culture known throughout the world. Horne's book describes the history of the city, with particular interest on the architectural changes, by highlighting seven different time periods, beginning with an introduction of the early beginnings of the city culminating in the late 1960's riots which shook Paris. Wonderfully written, with snippets of information hard to find elsewhere. For example, I often wondered by St. Genevieve was the patron saint of the city. Horne supplies that information that very early during the history of the city an attack was feared from the invaders of the west and as the city prepared to flee, young Genevieve had a vision that the attack would not take place and halted the evacuation. It's little pieces of information such as this, which made the book an exceptionally fun as well as educating read.
Special attention is also paid to other significant historical events, especially those after the 1600's. What really strikes the read is one thing: the number of uprisings (the French Revolution of 1789 was only one in a series) that had struck the city, most of them organized on a grass roots level. This also helps explains why the cobblestones of the streets have been cemented into place...these make very good missiles for those fed up with the weak administration of the city. That is another point that the author stresses...sanitation and city planning came very late to Paris, and this led to unimaginable squalor in various quarters of the city.
The reader is also introduced to some of the great figures of French history, particularly Henri IV (famous for his "Paris is worth a mass") and Emperor Napoleon III (who fled the country immediately following the defeat of the French in the Franco-Prussian war). Other notables include Haussman who reinvented the look of the city we now see.
The writing is crisp and flows wonderfully from chapter to chapter. Not at all a technical march of statistics, but a story of one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Highly recommended for everyone who ever dreams of Paris.
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on January 6, 2003
The previous reveiwer does a good job of giving one the flavor of this book. I would describe it as the informative ramblings of a very knowledgable historian, writing with breezy informality and a corresponding lack of discipline. (Let me reiterate a point from the previous reviewer that left me incredulous: the revolution of 1789 is, in any meaningful sense, absent. Now, this ground has been well trod by others, but really! A few more pages were in order.
I bought this book as something to read in preparation for a brief visit to Paris. I learned a great deal and for the most part consider it a worthwhile exercise.
With one serious caveat. The illustrations are small and poorly chosen, and even worse, there is no map! This book brims with vivid descriptions of the city's growth, destruction and reconstruction yet there is no visual reference for any of this. Some of the historical plates are interesting, but add little to the experience. A major omission in an otherwise good work of history.
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on April 12, 2003
This is a superbly written history of Paris, as well as of France. It is at once well researched and scholarly, and highly readable and entertaining. While the history is focused on Paris, Horne skillfully weaves in the history of France as well. One thing that makes this such a good book is that Horne not only provides the reader with the political history, but weaves in descriptions of social issues, how the average Parisian lived, descriptions of the different social classes, information on the arts and culture, entertaining anecdotes, interesting portrayals of the important persons in the history of Paris and France, etc. In essence, he provides the reader with a full, comprehensive portrayal of Paris and France in a highly engaging writing style. My only very minor criticisms of the book are that a map of Paris should have been included, and not all of the very limited use of French was translated. Nevertheless, this is a must read for anyone interested in Paris and France. I would love to see Horne write a similar history of London.
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on April 18, 2005
Paris is indeed lovely, and Horne is indeed a writer capable of describing its beauty and its fascinating history. Readers actually interested in learning something about the city's past, however, would be well advised to be wary of the first few chapters: Horne might be an experienced journalist and historian of recent centuries, but he is totally out of his depth before about 1600.

His first few chapters on the middle ages are full of factual errors, and even worse, they give the reader the sense that France and Paris are somehow permanent and eternal. in just one example, Horne treats Heloise as a typical Frenchwoman, despite the huge 900-year gulf that would make her culture totally alien to anyone alive in France today. He doesn't seem to be aware of how different things were in the past, and so treats people and events of the middle ages as previews for subsequent events. So readers should be aware that, at least in the first few chapters, this is really very shallow history.

But despite that, it remains a well-written book, informative for recent times, and will be sure to please any lover of Paris.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon July 30, 2007
Alistair Horne's "Seven Ages of Paris" is a remarkably well-written look at French history as viewed through the focal point of the city of Paris. Horne openly admits the so-called "seven ages" he creates are indeed arbitrary, and are more a reflection of how he has categorized the historical events of the city in his own mind rather than necessarily any universally recognized historic mile markers. Even so, his divisions help structure the work, and we find no issues with his seven "ages" as we enjoy each chapter. We do, however, read with astonishment that Horne started the work by collecting snippets and scraps over the decades he lived in France which he did not know how to use - he called it his "discard box" - because the work itself is a marvel of narrative storytelling.

The text is a hallmark Horne work, with exceptionally well-structured prose and content that is at the same time interesting and informative. The writing is so well constructed that it is easy to not be aware of just how much factual information is being covered. For example, his opening chapter, which covers Paris pre-history up to the age of Philippe Auguste is a scant dozen or so pages, but it is remarkable to see the amount of information that is meaningfully conveyed with such a paucity of words. It is an excellent introduction to the work, but at the same time, slightly disappointing to those who are deeply interested in these earlier periods of "Parisian" history, because we find ourselves wishing that Horne would have turned his immense research and writing talents to an even further amount in describing this mysterious period of French history. Nevertheless, Horne's introduction is marvelously and interestingly written, and it simply whets us for the rest of the work.

The rest of the work is superbly executed. We read about Philippe Auguste and the Templars, Henry IV his interaction with the Catholic-Protestant conflicts and the role of Richelieu in it all, Louis XIV and his rise as the "Sun King," the emergence of Napoleon after the Revolution, and the Commune Revolt in the late 19th century, France in WW I and WWII, and finally, the person of de Gaulle. The book arbitrarily ends at about 1969 with de Gaulle, and although this has been questioned by those who have read and reviewed the book, Horne's decision to do so is probably justified. In fact, we do see the effect of the logarithmic collection of data over time in this book: as the first 600 years or so of the history of Paris is covered in a handful of pages (maybe 30 - 50 years per page on average), by the time we enter the later parts of the text, we may only be covering one year per page. But none of this matters. The book is marvelously told as a story as much as a history, and we come to feel we are a part of the unfolding history of France as viewed by those most affected by each of the "ages" Horne presents.

Easily one of the most enjoyable popular French histories in print, Horne's work is destined to remain a key work for the general reader who wishes to learn about Paris and Paris' role in history. It's true that it is by its very nature an interesting subject, but Horne makes it all the more so. Few writers possess the ability to so fluidly and interestingly weave history. Read it to learn about Paris, to understand the role of greater France in the world, or just simply to enjoy.
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on December 12, 2010
I've read this book twice; once when I first moved to Paris in 2002, and again this year (left Paris in 2006). As a very general history of both France and Paris, the book is fine. The problem stems from a lack of concrete and detailed information about Paris itself over the ages. Therefore, Horne uses general French history to fill the gaps with interesting/entertaining anecdotes about the ruling class or the current political climate. Arguably the most important period of Paris' history is glossed over in a few pages, and that is Haussmann's complete urban makeover of the city. This IS the Paris one sees today...and he barely covers it. Instead, Horne focuses on Louis Napoleon's government and problems with Prussia.

A second issue (minor) is Horne's constant use of french terms throughout the text and without the english translation. If the comments are important enough to add into the text, certainly they're worth translating(?). As it stands, the reader misses out on whatever the author's intended message was.

There are much better books on Paris.
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on November 24, 2003
A brief history of France as relates to Paris. The writing style is engaging, but not simplistic. Enjoyable. If you've been to Paris, this is a good way to add to your enjoyment and knowledge of that wonderful place. I especially enjoyed the epilogue that focused on Pere Lachaise Cemetery.
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on July 25, 2006
Let me start by saying that I gave up on this book midway through the third chapter. I just could no longer stand the factual errors! It's clear that Horne loves Paris, but he apparently doesn't feel quite so deeply about the study of history. Why write about a period without at least finding out the basic facts? Is it such an obscure fact that Jerusalem was in CHRISTIAN hands during the Second Crusade (giving the French king no reason to besiege it, as Horne claims he did), or that the defeat at Courtrai was at the hands of Flemings, NOT Edward I of England? The average reader might not know his or her history, but an historian certainly should.

Another reviewer pointed out that the facts are more reliable with regards to the modern period, so there may be some use for this book. But with regard to its (possibly too ambitious) scope, I can't forgive the errors on the medieval period.

Let's hope that facts will be checked and maps added for future printings.
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on June 27, 2003
Coming from French stock I was thrilled to read Allister's Horne's book on the history of Paris. Besides being a totally engrossing and entertaining read, the Seven Ages of Paris, presents the reader with an indepth history of a unique city and country. It is so easy to become lost in the long line of Louis but Allister Horne cleary and concisely introduces us to these colorful monarchs. This is a book for all history enthusiasts to enjoy.
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