Thursday, August 28, 2014

Reading Paris and London

In preparation for our upcoming trip, I've been immersing myself in fiction and non-fiction books about Paris and London.

***** The Frozen Thames, by Helen Humphries is a series of short vignettes around the 40 times the Thames has frozen in its recorded history. One for each year, beginning in 1142 and ending in 1895, when the London Bridge reconstruction increased water flow to make it unlikely the Thames would ever freeze again.  These aren't short stories so much as defining moments in people's lives, and their thoughts and relationships with the frozen river. The moments are plucked through time, providing glimpses of individual lives and circumstances. The Thames itself provides the setting and constant thread, but by the end of the stories it evokes an eternal presence.Illustrations throughout show how fashions and buildings and banks change, but the Thames remains.

**** The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce traces the footsteps of Harold as he walks his way across England in the hopes of saving a friend with cancer. I was worried it would be a bit too saccharine or melodramatic given its themes, but it managed a fine balance. The author is now telling the story of one of the other main characters in new book, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, and I look forward to reading her story. So many of the characters could have their own novel - I think the author has tapped into a rich vein and would love to learn more about many of them, including those that make only minor appearances.

****  A Year in the Merde, by Stephen Clarke was a hilarious and irreverent account of a year a Brit spends in France, trying to open a series of tea shops and chase Parisian women. The real portrait is of Paris, though, the good, the bad and the ugly. Fabulous food and fashion, amazing views, 'Attitude' constant strikes, merde in the streets (in fact, over 600 people visit the hospital in Paris each year because of their slips in dog poo). His descriptions of certain places put them on my sight-seeing list, including the bookstore Shakespeare and Company that is across from the Notre Dame Cathedral.

** The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery explored the interior lives of a young girl and an unassuming concierge living in a Paris apartment. Both conceal their true selves and intentionally manipulate impressions to project themselves as less intelligent than they are; as they mull over philosophical ideas they also harshly judge most of the people who cross their paths, putting up barriers to intimacy and closing off any chance of real connection. Their hearts open at the end, and then... tragedy. This book had a real following a few years back, but I'm not a fan. However, I will likely look at the concierge in our Isle Saint-Louis apartment with more appreciation.

**** Tales of Two Cities, by Jonathan Conlin is a non-fiction work that examines how London and Paris have developed through the last three centuries. Each chapter examines how rivalry and competition between the two centres have created the Modern City as we know it today: The Restless House; The Restaurant; The Underworld; The Dance; Dead and Buried. Fascinating, if a bit academic at times. I was sorry Conlin didn't include a chapter about the Thames and the Seine, and how the cities are both defined by their rivers.

**** How Paris Became Paris, by Joan DeJean is also non-fiction. As far as this author is concerned, Paris is the origin of everything in our modern cities, and the rest of the world a mere copy. The Introduction is titled, "Capital of the Universe". Despite its strong bias and ability to overlook other major civilizations, I'm still enjoying the book. The importance and origins of Pont Neuf, the enchanted island of Ile Sainte-Louis, Place des Vosges.... my hope is that by knowing a little bit more about their evolution I will enjoy seeing the sites all the more!

***** DK Eyewitness Travel Paris 2014 and London 2014. The format of these books is great, with their pull-out maps, colour-coded pictures, and history timelines.  Lots of photographs! They are small and portable enough to put in my purse. Both have Guided Walks that will make strolling an even greater pleasure.

Just starting Paris, by Edward Rutherfurd. I picked it up earlier in the summer and read a few passages but put it back on the shelf. It was thick enough to be intimidating and I thought it might be Harliquin-Romance-like. Apparently it is more Mitchener than Barbara Cartland, tracing a family story through 700 years. I picked up the e-book version so I could read it on the flight over to Paris. He's also written novels about London and New York.

... Now, I really need to start planning my itinerary!

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