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Paris Was Ours Paperback – Deckle Edge, February 8, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
In original and previously published essays, 32 diverse writers share both exciting and depressing Paris moments. Diane Johnson, evaluating French stereotypes, was surprised that French hostesses serve store-bought entrees. Jeremy Mercer was taken in by the owner of the famous bookstore Shakespeare & Co., living there rent-free (downstairs œwith the riffraff, and Janine di Giovanni saw French mothers hit their children to enforce good manners. In three of the most substantial essays, Alicia Drake muses on the disconcerting ability of the French to accept human faults as she visits sites from which the Nazis, aided by French police, deported Jews to their deaths; Stacy Schiff finds that picking up the dry cleaning was less of a chore when done on ground Ben Franklin and John Adams trod before her; and Roxane Farmanfarmaian escaped revolutionary Iran for springtime in Paris. Many of the original pieces are wordy, mired in mundaneness, and lacking forceful editing by journalist Rowlands (A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Arts and Letters), But overall this book should strike a chord in those harboring love/hate relationships with Paris and Parisians. (Feb.)
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Rowlands compiles into one volume 32 works, about half of which have never been seen before, by different writers who relay their experiences of living in Paris. Although the contributors are as mixed a bag as the City of Light’s 20 arrondissements, they report universal similarities: In Paris, the customer is, if ever, only rarely “right.” The city’s taunting, melancholy beauty is unsurpassed. And any moment passed in the Luxembourg Gardens can be considered time well spent. Rowlands does a seamless job of presenting a city as seen by so many eyes (those of David Sedaris, Stacey Schiff, and Zoé Valdés, to name a few) that readers who’ve visited will recognize their own memories, and those who haven’t will glean a globally in-depth portrait. (The piece by a Parisian single-mom, blogging about her homelessness, is particularly poignant.) Judith Thurman perhaps sums up the whole endeavor best when she writes that “one of the greatest charms of having lived in Paris is the Proustian glamour of being able to claim that one did so.” --Annie Bostrom
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Beyond artistic inspiration, in the twentieth century Paris represented personal freedom (and an insanely favorable exchange rate) for the "Lost Generation" of the 1920's who were stultified by Prohibition, and relief from racial discrimination for African-American artists ( James Baldwin, Nina Simone) in the 1950s and 60s. It is not clear what drives Americans to want to experience Paris today, and "Paris Was Ours" does not shed much light on that issue. In that regard, the most disappointing chapter comes from one of the more famous contributors, David Sedaris, whose scant essay is predictably humorous (and scatalogical) but could have been written anywhere. Instead, some of the more compelling chapters are those written by non-Americans. To Roxane Farmanfarmaian, Paris offers political freedom and escape from the revolutionary Iran of the late 1970s. Zoe Valdes is by fortunate happenstance sent to Paris as a form of diplomatic exile by a Cuban government so doctrinaire in the 1980's that "in the minds of the Communists, the reward was Moscow - Paris was a punishment."
Readers who have endeavored to live in Paris may well remember - and secretly enjoy - the frustrations that the authors chronicle in daily life. Rowlands herself is refused a hard-boiled egg by a waiter because she is unable to pronounce a difficult vowel. An English schoolgirl is slapped at Versailles by a French passserby for straying onto the grass; the incident is all the more remarkable because the slappee is a daughter of Lady Antonia Fraser. But these obstacles (and insults) are cherished battle scars and only serve to deepen the magnetic draw to Paris. In the end, Rowlands has the title backward. Paris was not theirs; instead, they ended up belonging to Paris.
Having visited twice, Paris holds romantic dreams for me. During and after reading these stories, I was/am eager to go on holiday and fall in love with Paris again.