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Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris Paperback – April 11, 2011

4.0 out of 5 stars 68 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This audiobook version of Graham Robb's volume of strange-but-true Parisian narratives offers listeners a fascinating history that is frequently encumbered by heavy-handed, often overblown narration from Simon Vance. Robb offers a series of bizarre tales that touch on everything from the first sexual experience of Napoleon Bonaparte to the creation of the Catacombes de Paris, but Vance narrates as if all of Parisian history is weighing on him: his reading is too grand, overly inflated, and pompous, his French accent frequently fails to ring true, and it simply sounds as if he is trying too hard to narrate what should have been an intriguing and charming audiobook. A Norton hardcover (Reviews, Mar. 1).
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

From Bookmarks Magazine

There is nothing traditional about Graham Robb's approach to history, and Parisians, like his previous works, reflects his exceptional creativity and wonderful writing. Robb introduces each personality as a mystery for readers to unravel, all the while evoking the sights and sounds of Paris. Although he narrates many of the sections from his characters' perspectives, he also presents each in different form; the tale of the student revolt, for example, takes the shape of a course outline, and the encounter between Sartre and Miles Davis is a screenplay set in a café. The only complaint? A plethora of detail. Yet, as a mosaic of a city, it is an embarrassment of riches, indeed. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 476 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (April 11, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393339734
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393339734
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #400,657 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Izaak VanGaalen on April 14, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Graham Robb is a modern-day flaneur. The concept of the flaneur was popularized by Charles Baudelaire who defined it as someone who strolls about the city in order to observe it and experience it, someone who might also be an esthete and a dandy. This book contains 19 anecdotes that are meditations on historical characters and the geographical locations with which they are associated. There is of course no better city to be a flaneur than Paris, a city where every street and building has a story to tell.

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.
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Format: Hardcover
If you have a passion for Paris, or France in general the Parisians is likely worth the read. There is much to enjoy about Robb's book. Bits about the construction of the catacombs were fascinating, Marie Antoinette getting lost for half a night just feet outside the Royal Palace added to the legend of her general cluelessness, the story of Emile Zola's wife was heartbreaking, and there's a bit about Alchemy's influence on chemistry, physics and one particular Alchemist's knowledge of the nuclear energy well before it was harnessed for the atom bomb.

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.

Other nit-picking:

*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?
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Format: Hardcover
I wanted so much to like this book. The format and concept of the book are brilliant: short vignettes describing the characters (some well known, others not) that have made Paris what it is today.

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.
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Format: Hardcover
After the fabulous Victor Hugo's biography and the Discovery of France masterpiece, I was impatiently awaiting the latest book from my favourite historian. Alas, for a reason known only to himself, Mr. Robb opted for a new literary style. His attempts at confusing the reader begin early and, toward the end, they intensify to the point of incomprehension. I don't even want to know the purpose of the Black Prince segments - it seems to me that they belong to a surreal manuscript accidentally combined with Mr. Robb's effort.

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.
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