Grace Coddington seems like a fun person

A very sun-faded copy. I’m pretty sure the cover should be a uniform shade of orange.

Grace is, as advertised, Grace Coddington’s memoir. She is a hoot, and this is a fun story of a person who loves clothes and fashion and art practicing her craft throughout the mid- to late- twentieth century. She certainly sounds like a lively person to be around and being in the fashion world during that time seems like a hoot.

Unfortunately, I only got through about half of this book because, while she seems like a great person who is full of enthusiasm, the story got a bit repetitive (she’s in London! no Paris! now London again!) and it was more name-droppy than I would have liked. Don’t get me wrong, she’s just talking about her friends, but a little bit less of making sure we know she knows these people and more about fashion in the 1960s and beyond would have been better. It was eventually tiresome.

A moment in time captured

I love Paris to the Moon, I loved it the first time I read it in the early 2000s. It captures a particular moment in Paris, one that I suspect is no longer relevant. For example, it is true that in the late 1990s bistro food was not good. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t anything to write home about. And for a place where many, many people had written home about the food? That wasn’t good. Now, I suspect, the daily food scene is better.

I re-read the essays this time, surprised at how much I remembered from a book I haven’t read in probably a decade. In no particular order: the caramelized tomatoes, how watching too much soccer makes it impossible to find the puck in a hockey game, the way you choose the place where you will give birth in a different country – re-reading these essays was like visiting an old friend.

Mostly, I love the overall vibe that he shows Paris having, not an overly romantic or easy one, but one of enjoying a life well-lived. A life where care is taken over the details like food or the park, and the way philosophy can invade the most basic of questions.

If you’re looking for a set of essays that show Paris as a place where you can actually live rather than as a romantic image of itself? Paris to the Moon is your book.

How many books about Paris are there in the world, anyway?

Look y’all, I love Paris. I hated it the first time I went, but the follow-up was what it took. But I have kind of a low tolerance for books and writing and movies about Paris. Part of the reason I hated it the first time was because of the hype. There was no way any place could live up to all of the expectations that had been put on it in my head.

Not to mention that people’s experience of Paris is necessarily personal. What I loved about it – the joy of discovering that beauty matters and can co-exist with the realness of everyday living, and that everyday living is worth making beautiful – isn’t what someone else likes about it. Books and stories and television shows and movies and instagram photos will communicate either a generic beauty (tiresome) or what someone else loves about the city (more interesting).

A Year in Paris is falters when it falls into the overdone Paris tropes, but is interesting when it’s talking about things that John Baxter, writer, finds interesting – the food, the Republican calendar, the respect for seasons and how life changes due to the seasons in a way it doesn’t in other places.

Overall, I enjoyed the book – it gave me a sliver of that joy of discovery from the trip where I fell in love with it. And I discovered something else to enjoy about it. That’s maybe the most you can ask of a book about a place you love.

Don’t wait too long to read the books on your to-read list

Book Cover: 60 million frenchmen can't be wrong I first came across Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong in the early 2000s, when I was a stay-at-home mom and had a baby. You’d think that I’d’ve had plenty of time to read, but you’d be wrong.

Fast-forward to a couple of months ago, when I saw this book come through the donations at work. (One of the best perks about being a paid employee at a library’s friends organization is that you get to see all the donations.) I grabbed it almost immediately. And then I was disappointed by it.

Why? I’m still not sure: it’s full of cultural observations that made sense, but the last time it was published in the 2000s. A lot has happened in Europe and France and Paris since then – the financial crisis, the rise of social media, the re-rise of the National Front (if it ever really went away). The World War II generation is passing on, and with that, a lot of the things that defined how politics work. I couldn’t get over the feeling that it wasn’t as relevant as it would have been 13 years ago. Which is when I should have read it.

If I had read it then. I’d probably have enjoyed it more and learned more too. That’ll teach me to clear off my to-read list occasionally, and not just let it build up.

Go forth and be a part of the world

I loved At the Existentialist Cafe. Perhaps it’s a Paris thing, perhaps it’s a cocktail thing, who knows. Who cares? It’s a pop history of Existentialism, along with the author’s reactions when she went back and re-read many of the seminal works on existentialism.

I’ve never read any Sartre or de Beauvoir (but I have read some Camus), and here’s what I learned.

Existentialism isn’t the depressing, disaffected Camus of The Stranger. It’s not black turtlenecks and sitting in cafés staring at your coffee, contemplating the meaning of life. The meaning of life is existing and getting out into the world, thinking about your experiences and your relationships with the people around you. You are nothing without the people around you and how you relate to them. Don’t sit back and expect things to happen! Make them happen! Be a part of the world.

I loved that message. I love it even more for not having to read Being and Nothingness and still learn something about it.

This version of existentialism is also totally applicable to the world we live in now: what are your circumstances? What can you do in those circumstances? What do you feel? How does it make you feel? What can you effect? Changing yourself changes your relation to the world, changing your relations to the world changes the world.

Anyway, go forth and be a part of things. You’ll make a difference.

Ambitious women are awesome

My Paris Dream

I first learned about Kate Betts from Marketplace. She’s the person they call whenever there’s business news in the fashion world. She always seems very practical, and I enjoy that in my fashion types.

She is a strong, ambitious woman who gets shit done, and My Paris Dream is her memoir chronicling her post-college formative years in Paris, working for W. I need more stories like this one in my life – I admire women like her, who know exactly what they want and go after it. Though her descriptions of the office politics… Oy. W in the late 1980s/early 1990s is not a place I could have worked.

And I like fashion and the odd lifestyles and quirks around it – the weird, small stories that make people in the industry larger-than-life. Kate Betts delivers on those things: a French hunt, the bows in her friend’s hair, and more.

I liked it.

Beauty and Art and Death

Elegance of the Hedgehog

What’s it about?
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about its three main characters: Renee, the concierge of an apartment building in Paris; Paloma, the super-smart 12-year-old who is already tired of life; and Ozu, the new Japanese tenant. Renee is also an autodidact who hides her intelligence, afraid that everyone else will discover her; Paloma is frustrated by her family; and Ozu is the magical person who brings out the best in both of them.

Why should you read it?
I should state up front that the Elegance of the Hedgehog is French. It takes place in Paris, it is largely about death and philosophy, and has a very particular voice. It was for me, but it is not for everyone.

I found it to be a beautiful character sketch with all kinds of philosophical asides about art and death. (Did I mention it has a very French outlook?) Do I agree with its ideas about Death and Beauty and Art? I do agree that we are, in the end, all worm food, and I also agree with the idea that there are people who are more authentically elegant than others. The author seems in particular to damn people who want cultural power without appreciating the culture. Like the people who raise money for causes because it means they get to dress up and go to the party where they are seen and see others; not because they care for the cause. She holds a lot of contempt for those folks. They still do good things, of course, but for suspicious motives.

I enjoyed it, particularly because I had been reading a book I didn’t much care for right before it. This one made my world better.

A Surprising Beach Read

A Paris Affair

What’s is about?
A Paris Affair is a set of short stories about couples, mostly in their thirties, many with young children, who are on their way to breaking up because one or the other is having an affair.

Why should you read it?
It’s a lovely little slip of a book. It made a great back-from-vacation read last month; my brain always lingers in Europe and who doesn’t enjoy Paris? Examining the ways a relationship can go south can be as interesting as how two people get together. It’s not heavy, but who cares? I would classify this one as a sophisticated beach read.

Men and Women, living together

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

What’s it about?
The Paris Wife is a fictionalized account about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife Hadley and their marriage from her point of view. It’s a counterpoint to A Moveable Feast – Hemingway’s own account of those years. The Paris Wife isn’t written as well – how could it be – but it does bring Hemingway’s life into view. We know about his writing and who he wanted to be, his projection of himself. We have less insight into his thoughts and very little information (at least from A Moveable Feast) of how he affected people around him. This posits how his first wife might have dealt with Hemingway, the man vs Hemingway, the author. Ms McLain goes to great pains, the afterword assures us, to be historically accurate.

Why should you read it?
Because Hemingway is both a brilliant writer and kind of an asshole. The Paris Wife documents his magnetism, but also his infidelities. Hadley was a naive, unworldly girl; she grew up because of him.  Hemingway turned 20th century literature into a man’s man’s world – so much of the literary establishment after him was men obsessed with themselves. I like to think The Paris Wife shows what happens to other people, particularly the women, in atmospheres like that. Perspective is important.