Okay, kids. As promised, here is my review of PARIS, Paris: Journey into the City of Light.
PARIS, Paris: Journey into the City of Light
by David Downie, 2011, New York: Broadway Books
Photographs by Alison Harris
Foreward by Diane Johnson, author of Le Divorce
PARIS, Paris: Journey into the City of Light is a collection of 31 essays about La Ville Lumière in which historical and personal narratives enlighten readers about Paris’s present. Author David Downie has distilled decades of study and experience and blended it with his unique adventures as a 25-year resident of Paris, resulting in chapters that are not only rich, but accessible reading because of Downie’s down-to-earth personality infusing the text. Downie writes in the chapter entitled “The Janus City,” “… in this old Europe of which Paris is still the cultural capital, to look forward we must first look back” (p. 284). The essays, which are anchored in Downie’s own curiosity about and explorations of the city, are ballasted in historical perspective. Fine photos by his wife and professional photographer, Alison Harris, anchor each chapter with a unique perspective. Like a good whisky, the reading goes down smoothly, and one feels satisfied from first taste to lasting finish.
A long time ago in a universe far, far away, I used to be a single malt whiskey aficionado. Partly because my family heritage has evolved from the Highlands and seasides of northern Scotland, and partly because it is intriguing stuff with quite a kick, I was into exploring and tasting varieties of whiskies for a couple of years back in the early 2000s. It’s something of a hobby for the well-off, however, and I have never really been a woman of great means. In addition, life had other plans for me as I moved away from the city where I had joined the local Scotch Whisky Society (Tulsa, Oklahoma, of all places), and health and other considerations have steered me away from imbibing alcohol in general.
I still remember the warmth of whisky in the belly, however, and the variety of unique and very grown-up flavors which whisky imparts on the tongue.
As I read David Downie’s PARIS, Paris I could not help but make mental comparisons between what the Scots’ Gaelic calls usquebaugh, “the water of life,” and the essays which I was reading. There is a richness, a wealth, to be found in this volume that could only come from someone who has painstakingly compiled knowledge about Paris, distilled and blended it by his experiences and perspective, and aged it in the quality cask of his mind before spilling words out onto the page which make a person feel like partaking in a comfortable chair next to a crackling fire. The book is true “armchair travel literature” as the genre was born by writers describing their experiences on interesting journeys in faraway lands. Downie’s approach is classic in its presentation of historical fact and narrative about the city, but made modern by inclusion of Downie’s personal thoughts, opinions, and questions as he absorbs and integrates his Paris experiences and observations.
Who is David Downie?
David Downie is the author of a dozen non-fiction titles primarily on the topics of travel, food, and wine, but also the author of a couple of fictional thrillers as well (see link above). He is the European correspondent for Gadling.com and has authored articles for newpapers and magazines across the globe. He moved to Paris on April 5, 1986, a time when the French Franc was still the monetary unit, when the Internet was something only used by the military and eggheads at MIT, and where places in Paris, such as the Marais where he still resides, had not yet seen a renewal of gentrified affluence as exists there 25 years later. It is his intense observation over time that, in part, gives Downie great credibility in his writing about Paris.
His website can be found at DavidDDownie.com.
In the chapter entitled, “Why the Marais Changed Its Spots,” Downie writes, “Besotted by my adopted home, for years I pored over every book I could find about its history. I interviewed local experts and longtime residents not just to write articles. Mainly I was trying to come to grips with what was happening, a fascinating, in some ways horrifying, process” (p. 259).
I really liked those sentences because they mirror a lot of my own process of coming to terms with the city of Paris. But they also indicate the volume of information that Downie has taken in, distilled within, and then processed back out into an elixir of quality writing about the city. Clearly this is a writer who is not simply here to show readers the current, most popular things to do and to see in an around Paris, but rather one who wants to give readers an educated, long-term view into the multiple factors that make this city so interesting, and one which has captivated tourists and expatriates alike for generations.
What’s in the book?
Thirty-one essays are divided near-equally amongst three sections of the book: Paris Places, Paris People, and Paris Phenomena. The chapters cover such subjects as the Seine, Île de Saint Louis, the Place des Vosges, Coco Chanel, Vincent van Gogh, and Vie de Chien, a dog’s life in Paris. Besides these topics, which might be found in other books on Paris as well, are the more unique chapters such as “Going Underground” in which Downie describes the Paris underneath Paris (all of the tunnels, nooks, crannies, and catacombs which punctuate the earth beneath the city proper), “The Boat People of the Seine,” where the life of those who make their home and livelihoods on the péniches (cargo-cum-houseboats) of Paris’s waterways is described in detail, and “Night Walking” in which Paris life is viewed voyeuristically through illuminated windows and by the light of street lamps and neon signs. It was this balance of “typical Paris” and “atypical Paris” which I really enjoyed. Not to say that the “typical Paris” chapters were in any way dull or re-hashed: in fact, I learned something (really, several somethings) new in every chapter that I read. Even with the topics regarding “typical Paris,” Downie’s keen observatory powers, distinct perspective, and ability to write well made each chapter very interesting.
Photographs by Alison Harris provide visual anchoring for each chapter. What I loved about the black and white photos in the text are that few of them were “stereotypical” — meaning that each photo, while representing something quintessentially Parisian, was unique in perspective. For example, one of my favorite photos for the chapter about the Luxembourg Gardens is of the shadows of the park chairs. So Parisian, and yet such an atypical and interesting viewpoint! Her work from the book is shown in this post and can be found at her website: alisonharris.com
Who will enjoy this book?
It’s a given that anyone who is a die-hard Francophile, Paris-lover will want to get his or her hands on this book. It really is one of the best I have read in the “Paris Armchair Travel/Memoir” genre in terms of the content and writing.
I think anyone who enjoys a well-written travel book or is a history-buff about European cities will like this book as well.
Those who are interested in art, art history, architecture and/or city planning would do well with the book: there are several chapters that address artists who have resided in Paris (Modigliani and Van Gogh are two) and the construction and re-design of Paris through the centuries factors in the essays quite prominently.
This is an intellectual book — but not a high-brow book, not a snobby book. Downie is witty, and he is a self-described “benign curmudgeon.” His style is down-to-earth. This book is not written with the intent of describing flash-in-the-pan, trendy, up-to-the-minute, what-to-do-in-Paris fare in slang-y sorts of cutesy ways. It is a thoughtful, intelligent, and well-developed book. It’s accessible, but it is also smart, and is meant for smart readership. Downie is well-read himself (based on his book list of favorite books on his website), and his writing is reflective of being so.
If you want solid information about some of the “usual suspects” in the Parisian landscape and scope, plus particular personal insights about some of the lesser-known things about the city from an insider-yet-also-expatriate point-of-view, you will enjoy this book.
So this is a revised version of a 2005 edition, right?
Why should I purchase this book if I have the former one?
I addressed this question with both the representative from Broadway Books and also David himself. Here are some good reasons to get this version:
The first edition of PARIS, Paris: Journey Into the City of Light was practically a self-published title. Because Mr. Downie had generated new material, and Paris, while remaining essentially the same in some regards, has indeed changed quite a lot in the past several years, it was felt by the author and Crown Publishing Group/Broadway Books that the book had (as the representative stated), “potential to reach and resonate with a much larger audience.”
This new version of the book has been described as “updated, expanded, and redesigned.” I asked what that meant, specifically, and here are the answers, first from the publisher’s rep:
“The book has been revised to include a number of small edits [the author] David has made to the existing material (updated), a bunch of new writing that he has generated in the time since the first edition (expanded), and includes a number of new photographs and a brand new jacket design (redesigned). David had been revising the book for quite a while – the revisions were not made toward any specific goal other than to include David’s new findings and discoveries and thoughts about Paris that have occurred in the years since the first edition.”
I also asked Mr. Downie to speak to the changes, and he added the following:
“The three new chapters are “Hit the Road Jacques,” “Of Cobbles, Bikes, and Bobos,” and “Grave Situations.”
Also, I pretty much rewrote the chapter on Les Halles, “Belly Ache,” because so much has changed there… and continues to evolve.”
The cover is beautiful, and the trade paperback size manageable. I note that the golden hues in the cover echo my earlier comparison to a fine whisky. I’ve already mentioned Alison Harris’s fine photographic work.
Mr. Downie** was kind enough to take the time to answer a couple of questions for me about his book, or, rather, about thoughts and questions I had while reading the book. Here are the questions and answers.
**An aside: I know I have persisted in using the author’s name formally in this review. I don’t know if it is because Mr. Downie does indeed give off a “benign curmudgeon-ly” vibe or because the eye-patch he sports in his photographs in and around the Interwebz gives him a rakish, “don’t mess with me” look. Perhaps. I think mostly it is that I deeply respect the work that has gone into this book. Being a writer wannabe myself, and knowing how much time and effort it takes to do the Work, and practice the Craft, I want to call him “Mister” because I esteem his accomplishment.
But maybe it really is the eye-patch. 😉
Karin (an alien parisienne): Your first visit to Paris was in 1976. Ten years later, you found yourself living in the City of Light. Why Paris? How was it that you found yourself back in this city of all places in the world to live? What was it about the city that brought you back on a more permanent basis?
Mr. Downie: Karin, this would take me a day to answer… The thing is, I’m an accidental Parisian. I’d come many times in the 1970s and ‘80s, but my real love was Italy — Rome. My mother is Roman and I lived there when young. Paris drew me in because it was a challenge, a real big city: the city of literature, history, the beginning of modern times. Also, I found that when I visited in the early 1980s, I lived more intensely here than anywhere else. I wanted to make Paris mine. That’s a crazy notion, but true. San Francisco, New York, Rome, Milan — all places I’d lived and enjoyed — seemed easy compared to Paris.
Karin (an alien parisienne): To explain why I’m asking this question: One of the things I read in the chapter “Why the Marais Changed Its Spots” which really “grabbed” me was the following: “Besotted by my adoptive home, for years I pored over every book I could find about its history. I interviewed local experts and longtime residents not just to write articles. Mainly I was trying to come to grips with what was happening, a fascinating, in some ways horrifying, process” (p. 259).
I love the part about “trying to come to grips with what was happening” and how that is a fascinating and horrifying process. I often feel the same. But what I’d like to know is how was it that you became “besotted” in the first place? Do you have another article or reference which expresses a little more of this story? What is it that got you in such a “besotted” state with Paris?
Mr. Downie: It was probably the intoxication of being young, healthy, unattached, and full of energy in a fabulous place — meaning, a place seemingly lifted from a fable. Everything worked: public transportation, parks, health care. People were proud and had a civic sense. Everything that seemed impossible to achieve in the U.S. of Ronald Reagan seemed not only possible, but already existing here. My main undergraduate degree was in Political Science, at UC Berkeley. I was highly politicized. I loved the fact that the French were passionate about politics, and many of them believed in social democracy, real freedom, true equality, and meaningful fraternity. Those were the early days of Mitterand. The atmosphere was very different. So full of hope. So unafraid. Now everything is about fear, security, immigration, free trade, free enterprise, privatization, downsizing… I would certainly think twice about moving here now, though I still believe life is better here than in just about any other big western city.
Karin (an alien parisienne): Just to confirm what I read on the back of the book — photographer Alison Harris is also your wife, Alison, whom you mention frequently in the essays, right? As an aside (and something I hope to include in the review), if she is game to answer, I am curious about what her favorite chapter is in the book & why she likes it.
Mr. Downie: Alison’s my wife. We’ve been together for 24 years. She’s very shy. I hesitate to ask her which chapter she prefers, but she’s said in the past that it’s the chapter about the year 1900 and why Paris is the Janus City.
Shy in interactions, perhaps, but not so in her photographic talent. I love Ms. Harris’s unique view as represented in the photographs in the book — as I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of “atypical” views of “typical” places, and I really liked this part of the book and her contribution to it. I also happen to agree that the chapter entitled “The Janus City, or, Why the Year 1900 Lives On” is one of the best in the book. I think it shows how in Paris, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (“the more things change, the more they stay the same,” attributed to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr) or, as Downie quotes from Marguerite Yourcenar at the opening of the chapter: “If you love life you also love the past, because it is the present as it has survived in memory” (p. 283).
So there you go. My review of PARIS, Paris: Journey into the City of Light.
Questions? Comments? You know what to do. And if you have any interest in Paris whatsoever, you’ll do yourself the favor of getting this book.
Over and out.
(an alien parisienne)
P.S. An Important UPDATE
I completely forgot that I meant to link in the wonderful interview of David Downie over on Sion’s blog, Paris (Im)perfect. Sion kindly reminded me of this fact in comments below.
What’s more is that you can win a FREE COPY of the book if you go over to her site and comment on the post! You have until Saturday, April 16, 2011 to do so. Please read her excellent interview of the author. I enjoyed reading it a lot!