Thursday, 2 December 2010

Book Review ~ "city-lit PARIS" + Competition!

POSTED IN:  ~ PublicationsReviews ~ BooksPrizes

city-lit PARIS       
Edited by Heather Reyes
Oxygen Press 2009
ISBN 9780955970009

Welcome to Paris If You Please, and welcome also to the first 'official' posting! So it's a bit special, and I'm a bit excited about it.


And those nice people at Oxygen Books have made it even more special by giving away 3 FREE COPIES of their excellent book, city-lit PARIS, reviewed below. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post telling us what your favourite piece of Paris-linked writing is and why. Click here and read the first comment for details. Winners will be chosen at random from all contributors on... Christmas Day!

Review: 'city-lit PARIS'

The subtitle is 'Perfect gems of city writing', and that's what it aims to offer: a wide range of the best, most engaging writing on Paris from some of the best known and most highly regarded writers over the last century and a bit more.

The introduction by Stephen Clarke, the runaway best-selling author of all those 'shitty' books on France (A Year In The Merde, Merde Encore, Dial M For Merde...) is well worth reading in its own right. He tells us how Paris writing has inspired him personally, as usual in his own, uniquely irreverent style. He gets a few pages of his own in the book proper too, in the Le Menu and the Sex in the City sections. Which brings me onto the next feature of the book...

The writings chosen for city-lit PARIS have been categorised into pleasantly themed sections, including, as well as those just mentioned, High hopes... and hard timesLocation, location..., Cities of the dead, and the somewhat self-evident I love Paris... Each section, and indeed each extract, is preceded by a few lines of explanatory preamble from the editor. Highly telling, and rather charming, these help us get into the mood of the upcoming excerpt, and sometimes the very skin of the writer too.

When I asked editor Heather Reyes, herself the author of a spooky Père Lachaise mystery, Zade, how on earth she chose what to include, 'With great difficulty,' was her immediate response.
"We try to make ‘variety’ the keynote... variety of genre, of voice, tone, length of extract etc. As in all our city collections, the emphasis is very much on the modern and contemporary so although we do include pieces by Flaubert, Hugo, Balzac, Maupassant and Proust (there’s no Zola – it was a toss up between him and Hugo), they are very much in the minority."
Heather doesn't deny that many of her own favourites were included:
I’m a great fan of Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, Gertrude Stein, Georges Perec and Edmund White, for example, so I made sure they were represented. But, above all, I chose the extracts that seemed, to me, to ‘get under the skin’ of the city in some way... the main purpose is to enhance the visitor’s feel for the spirit of the place, to draw attention to the unexpected and deepen the appreciation of what the visitor might already know."
There's an unexpected side-effect, particularly for a wannabe 'real' Paris writer like myself, of reading page after page of perfectly paced prose. In fact the effect is two-fold. On the one hand I'm sitting here saying to myself, 'Well hey, I could have written that!' And on the other hand my brain is tapping me on the shoulder and reminding me that, 'Yes, maybe, but in fact you didn't.' And I can hardly argue with that.

Overall though, the sensation is one of a rush of overwhelming... not emotion exactly, but a feeling of wonder that one place could have inspired such outpourings. Some of them are beautiful. Some are, indeed, exquitely worded. Some, to be honest, are a bit over the top and remind me of my darkest moments of struggling through pages of descriptions of fish in Jules Verne's 20000 Leagues Under Beneath The Sea, or Zola's interminable enumerations of vegetables types or cloth varieties or whatever it was he was trying to give us a social record of. But that is rare, and what's so good about this compilation is exactly that: you can compare and contrast like in an exam question, and when you discover something that tickles your fancy you can pop out and buy the whole thing to pursue it further. Whilst being forewarned about what not to touch with a baguette. As Heather says:
"We also like our books to be a kind of ‘illustrated reading list’ – and we know that many readers seek out  some of the books they first encountered in our series."
It's a fascinating and sobering exercise in writing style and artifice too. The replacement of the clichéd 'bargepole' with baguette, as I have just done, may well seem terribly cool and clever to the uninitiated lay reader and presumably the writer too. Wanna know how often that technique is used by Paris writers? No you don't, believe me, you really don't. And yet, like Picasso's blue period, it's incredible to see just what some incredibly talented and articulate people have done with the words of the English language (and quite a smattering of italicised French, admittedly).

With Paris as the paint, and their own highly personal experiences of the city inspiring the brushstrokes, the final tableaux are more often than not wondrous things to behold. Give or take the odd highly forced metaphor between ami(e)s.

I've fallen into the habit of slipping between the covers of city-lit PARIS and those of my bed simultaneously as the cold nights draw in to discover two or three pieces before lights out. And I could of course tell you more about some of the authors and works you will find within. But what would be the point? I've got other things to write about Paris of my own, albeit with a touch more humbleness than before, and that might spoil the surprise for you guys anyway.

So if I were you I'd get yourselves out to Shakespeare and Company or W H Smith on the rue de Rivoli, or if you're one of those poor, unfortunate souls who doesn't actually live in Paris, well I guess Amazon will have to do. Unless you win...
© 2010 Sab Will / Paris Set Me Free - Contact me directly with suggestions, questions and requests, thanks.


Sab said...

Welcome to the "city-lit PARIS" competition - it's easy!

Just leave a comment below telling us what your favourite piece of Paris writing is (book, play, poem, blog post, anything Paris-related), and why.

Three winners will be chosen at random, and results posted on Christmas Day! Look forward to reading you, and spread the word - the more the merrier :-D

Loudwomen said...

Emile Zola L'Assommoire is my favourite book it depicts working people in the nineteenth century & is fascinating, I visited the area when I went to paris to walk in his shoes.

Karin (an alien parisienne) said...

Ohhhhh. This is tough. There is a lot of fantastic writing about this city "out there," and it sounds like this volume is yet another in a line-up of intelligent, informative reading on the city.

I could, of course, put Hemingway's A Moveable Feast here, easily, but I want to be a bit different and write that recently I have taken a dive into Thirza Vallois's three-volume series Around and About Paris. I'm truly impressed with all she shares in those works, which she has spent years researching and writing. I think that a couple in the series are already in second editions -- they have been out for a while now. But they really are comprehensive masterworks, imho, about this city.

I'm going to Tweet this post now to try to get some more readers here!

Anonymous said...

I am right there with you Karin, A Moveable Feast is a beautiful intimate look into the expat artist/writer's life of early 20th century Paris, and defines a lot of that "romantic", bohemian aura that still lingers about today...

Anonymous said...

My favourite has to be Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, a fascinating look at life in the luminous city for somebody who lived from hand to mouth, day to day, and the memorable, often eccentric characters he met.

Lynne Rees said...

In Casablanca, when Rick says to Ilsa, 'We'll always have Paris,' everyone who has ever been in Paris and in love with someone there, or with the city itself, believes him, because Paris never leaves you.

The Hungry Writer

c'est Jeff ici said...

My favorite is a novel: Le lit de la merveille by Robert Sabatier. It takes place in the neighborhoods and worlds I live in when in Paris. A young man grows old working in the world of books and publishing in the 5th and 6th arrondissements.

Jeannie said...

Combine "A Moveable Feast" with this modern blog post---
This describes what I love about Paris---the old and the new---as well as the ancient.

Marilyn said...

Don't ever ask me a question like that. OK. Last year I bought and read The Crimes of Paris by husband and wife team, Dorothy ans Thomas Hoobler, and I found it very interesting.

c'est Jeff ici said...

So who won the book?

Sab said...

Hi everyone - decided to extend the competition for just one week and will announce the three lucky winners on the 1st January as a nice way to start the new year. Sorry to keep you hanging on guys!

Sab said...

Hi Everyone, and thanks for commenting and therefore entering the competion!

And the winners are:

"c'est Jeff ici"
"Lynne Rees"

Send me a message with some sort of proof that you are... you, with your address, and I'll get the publishers to send off your prize.

Let us know what you think on the blog if you would be so kind - thanks, and keep reading Paris If You Please :-S

Anonymous said...

So happy to have won a copy. I can't wait to read it and share it with all of my stud-yabroad students!

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