The Other Paris

The Other Paris is a historical overview of the not-fashionable, not royal parts of the city. It’s a story about the working classes, the poor, the marginalized groups (like the Roma), prostitutes, thieves, political radicals, and more. It is the gritty side of Paris, from when it was a home to everyone of all social classes.

Luc Sante makes a very good, implicit case that it’s these classes that bring life and vitality to Paris, and cities in general. You don’t get vibrant and relevant culture and art and life without people from up and down the social ladder. Paris, and all cities, need everyone, not just the rich and pretty.

Recommended.

Louise Michel tells the story of √Člodie Richoux, a very proper restaurant owner, who oversaw the construction of the Saint-Sulpice barricade out of the largest statues she could find in a nearby religious paraphernalia shop. When she was arrested and made to account for herself, she said, “The statues were made of stone, and those who were dying were made of flesh.”

The Other Paris by Luc Sante, page 228

The Broken Earth Trilogy

The Broken Earth trilogy is Hugo Award winning – it’s the first time every book in a trilogy won the Hugo Award. It’s a phenomenal story set very very far in the Earth’s future, after the continents have re-merged back into a new Pangea. But the planet is also a lot more geologically active, with supervolcanoes erupting and earthquakes happening all the time. Every so often, an event happens that basically ends the current civilization – those events are called Fifth Seasons.

There are people – called oregenes – who can control the Earth and they have been enslaved by the people in power. Their lives are basically forfeit – they reproduce with whom they are told and when they are told, they are taken from their parents as children, if they’re born from regular folks, they go where they are told and do what they are ordered to. It’s not a pleasant experience.

The action is driven by the beginning of a new Fifth Season. Our heroine, Essun, fights for herself, her people, and her family. I don’t want to say more than that about the plot. The Broken Earth trilogy really is that good. They are highly recommended.

Renaissance Florence

Renaissance Florence is an old textbook from a Renaissance History class I took in college back in the 1990s. Why have I kept moving it all these years? Who knows. But it came in handy when, after watching a few episodes of Medici on Netflix, I found myself thinking “I don’t think that actually happened, but I don’t really remember.” I was pretty sure that Cosimo de Medici wasn’t an artist at heart, but did he pay to fund the completion of the Duomo? I couldn’t remember. (No, no he did not. His father did.) And Savonarola is a character in the latest season. Were Savonarola and Lorenzo the Magnificent around at the same time as the Netflix series would have you believe? Not really, but I also haven’t watched the last season yet, and I don’t know what claims the series makes.

In short: Renaissance Florence is an academic history of Florence that I revisited so I could understand what liberties the very entertaining show was taking, as well as put some context around who the various families are and what was driving the economic and artistic growth in Florence at the time. I enjoyed it; however, it was also written in the late 1960s, and, not being a scholar of Italian history, I’ve no idea what updates it might need. Not to mention that I wasn’t reading it critically – I was reading lightly. It’s not a book I’d recommend reading for fun, unless you’re into that kind of thing, but it was helpful for my purposes.

The Awakening

The Awakening is heralded as an early feminist book, as it shows a woman who is clearly in a not-great marriage decide to just be herself. She realizes that she’s a pretty good artist, and so she paints, eventually earning enough money to live on. She has some flings. Her husband goes on a long trip and her mother-in-law takes the kids so they can spend some time in the country. She moves out of their house. She keeps her own friends, not just the business contacts of her husband. Her husband, of course, has no idea what to do about any of this.

But I think it’s also a book about mental illness. Was she driven to mental illness by the repressive structure of her life? Her mood swings are written about in the book in such a way that you realize: oh this is a depressive mood, and here is when she’s manic. And like I said: an overly repressive life can destroy your mental health. When her husband is scheduled to come back, when the ordinary structure is going to overwhelm her again, well, she doesn’t handle it well.

Would I recommend The Awakening? Sure, to someone who’s interested in feminism or early feminist texts. It’s like The Yellow Wallpaper in that way. They’re both, incidentally, very short, novellas really. They would make a good one-two punch.

The Mitford Scandal

The Mitford Scandal is a cozy mystery that takes place in the late 1920s and early 1930s in London, Paris, and Venice. It’s the third in a series whose conceit is that Louisa Cannon is a ladies maid to each Mitford Sister. Each volume is about her helping out the next sister. Since this is the third book, this is the one that features Diana.

A quick aside: the Mitford Sisters were a bit like the Kardashians of their day. Nancy was the oldest, never married, and became a famous novelist. Pamela was the second, a bit of a homebody and possibly bi? or a lesbian? it’s unclear, given that she was the one who liked to stay out of the spotlight. Diana was the third sister and initially married Brian Guinness, of Guinness Brewing fame. But after a few years of marriage, she fell head over heels in love with Oswald Mosley, the head of the British Fascists and big Hitler fan. (Diana: beautiful but morally reprehensible.). Unity Mitford was the fourth sister, moved to Berlin and somehow managed to catch Hitler’s eye. When Britain declared war on Germany, she couldn’t bear it and shot herself in the head (she lived, somehow, for about ten more years). The fifth sister was Jessica, known as Decca. Decca was a committed communist and ran away from home before she was eighteen, and ended up living in San Francisco as a journalist. The final sister was Deborah, who had kind of had enough drama from her sisters. She did, however, become Lady Chatsworth, and navigated the family estate through some very harsh times and managed to turn it into a successful business.

Got it?

The mystery is about what you’d expect from a cozy mystery: some poisonings, a bit of generational tension, nothing graphic, and lots of glamorous locations. My issue is with the character of Diana.

If you read the long aside, you know that Diana was a fascist and an anti-semite. The Mitford Scandal basically ends right around the time she’s met Mosley, but before she’s left Brian for him. And Louisa doesn’t particularly like Diana, but she’s also very much treated with kid gloves. Diana is a person to quietly move away from rather than a person to be called out. She is beautiful and moves in very high society, which are definitely privileges. But I wanted her to be described as more than “cold” and have more than the few questionable character moments.

And I get that you can’t portray Diana as the fascist she was in a cozy mystery, especially not when you need to have Louisa stay in her employ for four years. So I feel like she is given a bit of a pass, and that didn’t sit well. Honestly, this is going to be a bigger problem in the next volume, because Unity moves to Berlin and becomes Hitler’s friend – I don’t know how you get around who she was and still keep it a cozy mystery.

Anyway: The Mitford Scandal is a decent cozy mystery, but do be aware of the white supremacist character being toned down for your consumption.

Weather by Jenny Offill

There is not much plot in Weather, by Jenny Offill, and that is to its credit. Plot would get in the way of the point, which is the day-to-day life of a librarian and mother of a small child in New York City who is increasingly worried about climate change. This book is full of hilarity, to wit (about a problem patron): “But how to categorize this elderly gentleman who keeps asking me to give him the password to his own email?” Reader, I laughed out loud.

Her brother is an addict who gets sober, finds someone to fall in love with, gets married, has a baby, freaks out, relapses, and gets a divorce. Towards the end of the book, she may or may not have an affair, her prepper tendencies get stronger. Her son gets a couple of years older, the dog needs to be walked. Somehow, this all results in us asking the question: how do we care for each other and how do we care for the world?

The language is lovely and wonderful, and if you told me that the author was a poet I’d believe you.

I’m also going to say that this is kind of a book about the end of the world, given that climate change features in it. Given that, is it a good book to read during the time of corona? I think it is.

Weather: highly recommended

Sunday Shorts

Palaces for the People

Palaces for the People is about the institutions that help a community come together and survive: libraries, pools, parks, gardens, and schools. These are all places that people can exist and be safe and get to know each other. When you can meet and discuss and not have to pay to do it. I work in a library and, as long as you’re not largely disruptive to other people or doing anything obviously illegal, we’re happy to have you.

We are, right now, in the middle of a pandemic and the racism that is pervasive in America is especially obvious. All of these institutions are closed and cannot help at the moment. I wish we could. I wish our library could be the place of respite and education that it is designed to be, that it should be. The lack of social infrastructure at the moment, at best, isn’t helping anything and may be actively hurting things. (Is it better for us to open and become a disease vector? What a terrible choice.)

If you are looking for a way forward, for examples of institutions that could help – help people find jobs, help people find community, help people learn more about the history of racism and possibly bring some optimism to you – Palaces for the People could be a building block.

Parisian Lives

I was so happy to see that Parisian Lives was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I really enjoyed this book, to the point that I now want to read her biographies, so I was glad to see it get recognized.

Deirdre Bair is a biographer and a mother and an academic and a wife and works her ass off to have it all on the East Coast and in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s. That’s the color of the book; it’s always happening in the background. The meat of the book is her research and meetings while she was writing her biographies on Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir. The color of their personalities comes through in this book, and I’m interested to learn more (including reading the biographies that Bair wrote).

In short: I enjoyed Parisian Lives, and if you’re at all interested in any of what I wrote above (Paris, existentialism, feminism), I would recommend it.