How Paris Became Paris -- The Invention of the Modern City by Joan de Jean, Bloomsbury '14, $30, 307 pages, ASIN #1608195910. Index, illustration credits, bibliography, notes, grouping of color glossy images, dozens of b&w images sprinkled through text.
Whether you're a frequent visitor to the City of Light or only dream of visiting there, scholar Joan de Jean's new volume is a must read for those who find it fascinating to know what's under the hood, so to speak, of what the author calls the world's first modern city.
De Jean's narrative, for the most part, spans the 17th century and the reigns of Kings Henry IV, Louis XIII and the most consequential king of all -- the Sun King -- Louis XIV. In the late 1500's, Paris -- like most European cities -- was the creature of the throne and the church, which had built most distinguishing structures and access to which was limited to clergy and nobility -- no riff, raff please.
How Paris became Paris is the story of how that city became the trailblazer of urban development, in such fields as fashion, transportation, aesthetics, commerce, street lighting, finance, architecture, and romance. An unusual number of period sketches are interspersed with text, to illustrate the author's narrative.
De Jean begins with the construction of the Pont Neuf, then and now the longest bridge across the Seine. Unlike utilitarian spans, designed to carry a rider or walker from A to B, the vision of the Pont Neuf was intended to allow not just royalty and nobility but ordinary Parisians -- that's right -- Joe Sixpack -- to appreciate the vistas of the city, visible from a raised sidewalk hugging the sides of the bridge.
Architects -- especially landscape architects -- will appreciate the work -- largely by privately-commissioned souls, who laid out such public places as the Place Royale, designed for rich and poor to congregate together. Which is not to say that the Parisian rich had become benefactors of the underclass, but they no longer felt the need to live separately from them.
Commerce and fashion and how they created massive private wealth occupy a good deal of deJean's book. Shopping as an activity found its footing in Paris. Rampant street crime was curbed by the advent of street lighting, either by huge candles within fixed street lanterns or by walking lantern carriers who, for a fee, would accompany pedestrians home from an evening at the theater or shopping.
Author Joan de Jean -- an exceptionally good writer, by the way -- has written 10 books on French literature, history, and material culture. A professor at the University of Pennsylvania, she lives in Philadelphia and Paris.
John Gilbert -- The Last of the Silent Film Stars by Eve Golden, UKentucky Press '13, $39.95, 366 pages, ASIN #0813141621. Index, bibliography, notes, filmography, b&w images sprinkled through text.
Technology has been a tremendous force for good in American life and commerce. Take motion pictures, for example. Investors have been richly rewarded at the box office for such innovations as Technicolor, 3D, and animation. But while the advent of talking pictures in the late '20s was a boon for some film stars, it seemed to spell the end for others.
In her latest book, celebrity biographer Eve Golden describes the effect that the talkies had on one of the silent era's foremost stars -- handsome, swashbuckling John Gilbert, who married several of the industry's leading female leads and romanced many others.
But then came "Jack" Gilbert's feature talking debut, His Glorious Night, directed by iconic actor Lionel Barrymore. While one reviewer castigated Gilbert for being revealed to have a "high, squeaky, effeminate" voice, the author argues the report "contains a little bit of truth and a lot of myth making." A New York Times reviewer wrote "his voice is pleasant, but not one which is rich in nuances. His performance is good, but it would benefit by the suggestion of a little more wit." And the Los Angeles Times writes that "The intelligence of his work is even more marked in sound than in silence."
But the damage that some negative reviews had on box office ticket sales poisoned Gilbert's own fortunes and self-image, causing him to descend into alcoholism, several flops, and an untimely death at age 38. Ironically, while Gilbert found himself unemployable in mid-career, such co-workers as Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, and Joan Crawford found themselves nurtured by film studios through good talkies and bad.
Author Eve Golden is the author of Anna Held and the Birth of Ziegfield's Broadway, The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall, and Vernon and Irene Castle's Ragtime Revolution.
The Ark Before Noah -- Decoding the Story of the Flood by Irving Finkel, Talese/Doubleday '14, $30, 421 pages, ASIN #0385537115. Index, bibliography, notes, four appendices, grouping of b&w and color images and other b&w images sprinkled through text.
From the dust cover:
"Since the Victorian period it has been understood that the story of Noah, iconic in the Book of Genesis and a central motif in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, derives from a much older story that existed centuries before in ancient Babylon. But the relationship between the Babylonian and biblical traditions was shrouded in mystery.
"Then in 2009, Irving Finkel, a curator at the British Museum and a world authority on ancient Mesopotamia, found himself playing detective when a member of the public arrived at the museum with an intriguing cuneiform tablet from a family collection. Not only did the tablet reveal a new version of the Babylonian flood story, but the ancient poet described the size and completely unexpected shape of the ark and gave detailed boat-building specifications.
"Decoding this ancient message wedge by cuneiform wedge, Dr. Finkel discovered where the Babylonians believed the ark came to rest and developed a new explanation of how the old story ultimately found its way into the Bible. In The Ark Before Noah, Dr. Finkel takes us on an adventurous voyage of discovery, opening the door to an enthralling world of ancient voices and new meanings.
Author Dr. Irving Finkel is Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages, and cultures at the British Museum.