The Barbizon

A photo of the book "The Barbizon" by Paulina Bren on my very, very messy desk.

The Barbizon is a chronicle of a particular time and place in America. The time is after the first wave feminists have won women the right to vote, but before Federal policies designed to move (white) people out to the suburbs decimated urban America in the 1970s. The place is The Barbizon Hotel, an upscale women-only boarding house not quite in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Only some meals were included, but housekeeping always was, to allow you to pursue your dreams.

The hotel was meant to be a safe space for attractive, white, middle and upper-middle class young unmarried women. A place for them to come to New York City, to get a career, usually as a model, actress, writer, or a secretary. A place for them to stay that was safe, where their parents wouldn’t worry about them. Grace Kelley stayed there, and so did Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion.

And it largely worked: it gave women a space to come to New York City, to be adventurous within a restrictive society’s boundaries, to explore who they wanted to be, at least if you were of a certain type. There is some mention of the restrictiveness of who was allowed to stay there; the final chapter, about the hotel as NYC fell into the 1970s and the future, could examine more about how The Barbizon was a product of its time and it was no longer its time.

I really enjoyed the book. The Barbizon Hotel has a certain imprint on movies and books – if you’ve read The Bell Jar, you’ve read a depiction of the hotel – and it was good to get a grounding on what it really was, how it worked, how it allowed freedom for some and what that freedom really looked like.

Metropolis

I coordinated my reading of Metropolis with listening to the episodes of The Tides of History about the rise of civilization and Uruk, the first city in Mesopotamia. Only the first chapter of Metropolis is about Uruk, but the podcast gave me structure of: what does civilization mean? What makes a city possible? Spoiler: a certain degree of wealth; often, religion is involved; and some sort of organization to coordinate activities.

Metropolis grazes over 6500 years of human history, from the founding of Uruk to the modern day – Covid-19 even makes its way into the introduction. Each era of human history is looked at through the focus of the city and what the city meant to that era of history. For example, for the Roman era, the book focuses on bathhouses, because they’re a stand-in for the engineering feats that were needed to get the plumbing in place, but they also signify how Roman culture evolved from the non-bathhouse-having hard-nosed citizens of the early republic to the more decadent subjects of the late empire.

The cities profiled are all over the world, too. While history tends to focus on European cities – and there’s a lot of Europe in here – Metropolis is doing its best to bring in cities from around the world: Baghdad, Malacca, Tenochtitlan, and Lagos to name a few. (It gets bonus points for making you really detest the combination of ignorance and superiority complex of the conquistadors.)

I’m personally a fan of cities. I like their energy and creativity and the way that they bring people together and make things happen in a way that being out in the country, or even in suburbia just doesn’t. Metropolis really captured that for me; I would definitely recommend it.

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

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.

Not as advertised

Here’s what I thought No Stopping Us Now was going to be: ways in which older American women have been awesome and examples of them being awesome, defying stereotypes of women of a certain age being boring and invisible. What it actually was: a chronological history of how older women in America have been sidelined and excluded, with the few exceptions that have defied the systematic discrimination of both sexism and ageism.

I found that I couldn’t adjust my reading attitude to compensate. I just didn’t want to read the ways society has sidelined older women throughout history. So I started skimming, only reading closely when the examples of older women being taken seriously as whole people were mentioned. And then I was fine. But I couldn’t read the full book as it was written.

Take your food seriously and you will be happier

When we got back from our Europe trip, my daughter was disappointed in all of the food. Just all of it. There was nothing in particular that stood out to her while we were there (except maybe the bread and Carambars), but all of the food was disappointing when she got back.

My personal theory? People in Europe take their food so much more seriously, from the quality of the ingredients to the way to cook to making sure your eating experience is a good one. In America, food is fuel: no more, no less. The farm is a factory.

A Taste of Paris is a well-researched history of food in Paris. There are crazy menus from various royal celebrations, full of meat and designed to show power through eating. This was the era of overweight wealthy people. Getting enough calories was a power move.

Also, much of the food that we think of as French is actually from other places; e.g. the croissant is of Austrian origin. But the French claim it and make it better; no one thinks of croissants and Austria together now.

Downie is up front about his main prejudice: old-school French is best, where old-school is how the restaurants were when he first came to Paris. This is understandable; nostalgia for how things were in your youth is part of growing older. Even if it did occasionally make me roll my eyes.

If you are interested in foodie history and Paris, I would recommend A Taste of Paris.

Virginia Hall is amazing

A Woman of No Importance is the biography of Virginia Hall, a young American socialite who falls in love with France as a girl. After college, she moves to Europe and gets a series of jobs with the US State Department; because it’s the 1930s they want her to be a secretary and she is not satisfied with that option. As a result, she moves around from place to place, trying to get a better job. During the 1930s, while she’s in Turkey, she accidentally shoots herself in the foot and loses her left leg below the knee.

When WWII breaks out, she feels the burning desire to help, to do something. She starts as an ambulance driver in France; when France falls to the Germans, she makes her way to Britain and gets a job with the SOE, also known as Churchill’s “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.” Under her cover of being an American journalist, she moves to Lyon, starts coordinating efforts amongst the resistance – turning it from pockets of people into a coordinated movement.

Virginia Hall turns out to be incredibly good at this. She inspires loyalty in people and eventually is coordinating the efforts of and distributing supplies to hundreds of people.

But she gets burnt. In 1942, a German double agent infiltrates her circle, and she barely escapes. To escape, she walks across the Pyrenees to neutral Spain. In the winter. On her wooden leg. Because that’s what she does and that’s who she is.

Britain won’t send her back into the field after this incident – too many Germans know who she is and they really, really don’t like her. So Virginia switches to work for the US’ OSS. The OSS does send her back into the field, under heavy disguise, into a different part of France, to coordinate with the maquis to lay the groundwork for D Day. They’re initially resistant to taking orders from a woman, but Virginia has by this time become battle hardened and knowledgeable and takes no shit from anyone. She figures out who she can work with, discards the people she can’t, and moves on ahead.

After WWII, she finds work with the CIA, who, with the US back on its patriarchal BS after WWII, doesn’t use her nearly as effectively as they could or should.

I LOVED A Woman of No Importance. Virginia Hall is amazing, her story is well-told, and the history is compelling. Like, I finally understand why James Bond is so damn popular. I am not surprised one bit that JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot has bought the rights for the movie, nor that Daisy Ridley is attached to play Virginia Hall. I hope it doesn’t sit in development for too long.

Treat women better

A screenshot of the audiobook version of Seduction by Karina Longworth

Seduction isn’t about Howard Hughes. I mean, it is, in that he’s the framing device to talk about twentieth century Hollywood, but Seduction is really about all the ways that women were screwed over in the Hollywood machine, from the Silent Era of the 1920s, into the beginnings of television in the 1950s.

At the beginning, it’s about how women started with more equality in Hollywood than you might think, both behind and in front of the camera, but men edged them out of the business. It’s about how women were seen only as vehicles for men’s emotional arcs or as prizes to be won in the stories that Hollywood was telling. It’s about how men would limit actresses’ availability or undermine them or keep them as actresses when they really wanted to be something else.

If you’re a fan of You Must Remember This (a podcast which is on potentially permanent hiatus), I would highly recommend Seduction, especially in audiobook form. It was like listening to a very long podcast episode (or one of her series of episodes), and I enjoyed it. Even as it was making me angry.

Horrors told lightly

Get Well Soon was a delight of a book. I very much enjoyed reading about all of the ways nature has tried to kill humanity over the years, from the virus that indirectly brought down the Roman Empire to the Bubonic Plague to the Spanish Flu of 1918, with an epilogue about AIDS.

And while I enjoyed the author’s flippant writing style as a way to offset the horrors of millions of people dying, I would understand if someone else thought it inappropriate or unsuited to the task.

Overall, Get Well Soon is a good way to learn a little bit more history than you knew before.

Gertrude Bell, badass lady

Gertrude Bell is seated between Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence.

One day, in my spare time, I will write about famous royal women in history. Until then, I will content myself with Anne Th√©riault’s Queens of Infamy series over on Longreads (which you should be reading). And as a part of that series, I will make an exception for non-royal Gertrude Bell, an Englishwoman who was instrumental in getting the British out of the government of the Middle East.

How to summarize Gertrude Bell? She was the daughter of one of Britain’s titans of industry, independently wealthy, full of energy, and an adventurer through and through. Before she explored the Middle East, she climbed the most difficult mountains in the Alps, mostly because she could.

Once she started exploring the Middle East, she became omnivorous about it, learning not only the languages and the customs, but also the history and peoples and more. Many of her expeditions were to ruins and historical sites that she was the first Westerner to explore, and the maps she created were the best of their ilk.

As WWI broke out, she offered her services and knowledge to the British Empire. They eventually took her up on the offer (of course there was sexism and having to prove she deserved to be in the room before anyone would start taking her seriously), and her knowledge of the tribal structures and people in the Middle East was a great asset during the war.

She was also instrumental in setting up Iraq as an independent country after WWI. She fought to get the best structure for the future Iraqis; the British government back in London was all about doing what was easiest for them. Those two things did not often align.

Basically, Gertrude Bell was a force to be reckoned with and historically important. Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations was a lovely introduction to her. Recommended.