book reviews

People watching is a pastime when you live in France. From terrace cafés to métros to restaurants to cinemas to lines at the bakery. All sorts of specimens file past looking from plain to stylish to daring. Scott Schuman is a premier people watcher with a camera in his hand and talent in his eye to catch just those special individuals. His blog,, is a popular column with pictures of people in the street who dress with a flair that removes them from the crowd, those who take a basic item and top it off with an original spin. Take a light summer flower print dress and wear it over heavy work boots – and voilà, you’re looking at a real life version of Laura Ingalls walking down a New York street. Occasionally, Schuman writes little captions to go with the pictures but mostly his book is a photographic study in sartorial inspiration. It’s small and lovely to look at for fashion tips or just for fun during those moments of short attention span.

The Sartorialist
by Scott Schuman
512 pages


Does it sometimes occur that you get invited to a party that you really don’t want to go to because you don’t know anybody there but your partner entreats you to make an effort and you discover that the hosts don’t speak much English and it’s in a shabby part of town and it’s promising to be a long and boring affair? But you go anyway, dragging your feet and mumbling under your breath because he insists on being punctual when you know nobody will arrive before the appointed hour. But in the end, you really had a good time and happy that you went and even stayed well after the party was supposed to be over?

This was the case with Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth.” I had never heard of this writer and this was the first novel she wrote when she was in her early 20’s. As first novels go, this one is a tour de force — ambitious, far-encompassing, heartfelt, and full of humor. Smith takes two guys who have nothing in common with each other and places them in a drab north London suburb and breathes life into them, giving them ancestors, wives, children, and such trials and tribulations that as readers you can’t but feel sympathy for them. Smith’s narrative travels from India to Jamaica to Pakistan to London and back again, in witty English as well as dubitable dialects, like someone who can both tell jokes and mime.

But then something curious happens. You realize that a lot of time has gone by but the event is slow to get off the ground. So what if these people are really nice and funny and entertaining but the clock is ticking along and there is no end in sight? Smith’s book is a whopping 550 pages printed in size two font, and after page 246 you’re beginning to feel party fatigue as when you’re listening to one person speak for too long and laugh too loud while wondering where this is all headed.

Yet you’re curious so you hang around, like boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the night, hoping that in the end there will finally be a point to this novel and that you will have had a grand time after all.

There is, and you will — but be armed with lots of humor and patience.

White Teeth
by Zadie Smith
550 pages

It’s often said that when we have children, we don’t raise them for ourselves but for them. When the time comes for the kids to leave the nest and build their own lives, we must let them go for their sakes and our own. I should know, I’ve been repeating that tenet to myself for years until I had no choice but to believe it and allow my oldest son to fly off on his own.

Focus now on Alice Randall’s heroine Windsor Armstrong, a determined and headstrong black American woman in her mid-30’s and professor of Russian literature. Windsor was raped by her mother’s white boss just as she was starting university. She nevertheless went through Harvard and raised her child alone, a boy whom she named Pushkin X after the celebrated Russian poet of African descendence who was unluckily killed in a duel over an adulterous wife.

Windsor has good reason to be proud of herself and of her son. She is a tenured professor and Pushkin is an accomplished athlete playing major league football and earning an income to match. Yet she cannot be happy. Windsor can’t get over the fact that Pushkin has chosen sports over scholarship. For this proud mother,  that is the ordinary sorts of a stereotype black American male; and worse, her son wants to marry a white Russian lap dancer/stripper who happens to be the love of his life. How Windsor would have liked Pushkin to follow in her footsteps, or the path of W.E.B. Dubois, the famous writer and first black PhD graduate from Harvard. Dubois himself would never have married outside of his race, much less to a lap dancer. As for Pushkin himself, all he wants is for his mother to be happy and marry the girl he loves and learn about his father.

So what is there to do? For her part, Windsor nags. And whines and rants and rails and ruminates about the bitter past, the tenuous present and the bleak future. Nothing escapes her musings as she spews forth angst and venom, exposes the deep layers of scar tissue that span her Detroit childhood, her gangster father and self-centered mother, rape and racism, and the difficulty of being a good parent. Readers get it all thrust upon us, Windsor’s tireless 288-page tirade.

I never made it to the end. Windsor’s diatribe wearied me. It had taken me too long to earn a spot of serenity in my life and now that I have it I refuse to take on someone else’s bitterness and bile. So I skipped ahead and gave Pushkin my blessing to marry the girl of his dreams and wished him well in his football career. So what if the boy wants to be just another ordinary American male? If he is happy in his life, then I will be happy too. Elitist poetry and literature be damned.

Among her other published works, Alice Randall wrote a highly appraised novel called  “The Wind Done Gone,” a parody of “Gone With The Wind”.

Pushkin and the Queen of Spades
by Alice Randall
288 pages

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that many Americans who have never been to France are intrigued by this country, and those who have been here and loved it often feel a longing for anything French. And for those Americans who live in Paris, it’s like having their cake and eat it too.

Elizabeth Bard feeds on this francophile nostalgia in her memoir of her courtship and marriage to her French husband. Bard is a journalist from New York and her husband is a computer science PhD from Brittany. It is a “paralel love affair” in Bard’s words, one with France and the other with her husband. She peppers her narrative with food descriptions and anecdotes à la Julia Child and topping it with her own refreshing sense of humor.

“Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes” is fast, light read just in time for summer. Pack it in your picnic basket to enjoy on the beach or in the shade along the Seine. And perhaps there will even be a film adaptation come fall?

Would you pass the Evian, please?

“Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes”
by Elizabeth Bard
336 pages

It was back in the high school days when I got into the habit of culling bookshops on Saturday mornings while everyone else was at the gym or nursing a hangover. I didn’t usually go to buy anything in particular – just to browse through the shelves, read the blurbs, flip through the remainder bins for any little gem — basically to check out what was new since the previous week. It was then that I came across Miss Manners for the first time.

The book was a clothbound hard cover that weighed about 3 lbs. called “Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior” by Judith Martin. I leafed through a few sections and was soon laughing out loud at the humor and witticisms that the author imparts along with etiquette advice.

But don’t be fooled — this pseudo-Victorian lady may make you laugh with her entertaining writing, but when it comes to manners, she is dead serious. Her book is in question/answer format (with a detailed index), in which Miss Manners addresses her readers as “Gentle Reader” and refers to herself in the third person, like Julius Caesar. It covers all stages of life from birth to death — basic, intermediate, and advanced civilization — and encompasses social intercourse, table manners, rites of passage, marriage (for beginners), work, step-families, internet*, divorce, protocol, and even questions nobody asked.

Most general “etiquette” questions can be answered by Emily Post or Amy Vanderbilt — but for the rationale behind manners, Miss Manners is the unrivaled authority on civilized behavior for a quarter-century, combining sometimes starchy asperity with a home-grown love of American democracy and classlessness. Who else could lay out so lovingly the rules for a formal dinner à la russe, followed by thoroughly sensible guidelines for the civilized use of cell phones, email, and instant-messaging? And you won’t find her wishy-washing when it comes to inviting same-sex couples to dinner or organizing a shower for an unwed mother; to her, people are people and all are deserving of polite treatment, if not always respect.

But let’s be honest. Manners aren’t always about aesthetics and civility. Sometimes people disguise manners as a weapon used in passive-agressive combat. By calling out your mother-in-law on a point of etiquette and proving that she was rude, you could also be demonstrating that she is an insensitive, loathsome cow who resented your marrying her son since day one — doesn’t that feel satisfying? But in her perspicacity, Miss Manners cuts through the layers of twisted, convoluted intentions and astutely separates what is politeness from improper pride and prejudice.

And her dry wit, as always, is a quotable marvel.

Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (*updated version)
by Judith Martin
745 pages

This spring, under the aegis of former fashion model and French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the Petit Palais museum in Paris put on the first posthumous retrospective of Yves Saint Laurent’s career with an exhibition of over 300 garments. To commemorate this event, a most distinguished work of art of a book called simply “YSL” was published to deconstruct the iconic designer while conserving his essence through interviews, essays, and photos.

In it, Pierre Bergé recounts his first meeting with Saint Laurent and the beginning of their relationship and business collaboration until the designer’s death in 2008. Bergé explained how YSL wanted his designs to have social relevance like those of the great fashion innovators Madeleine Vionnet, Coco Chanel, and Elsa Schiaparelli who preceded him. He disliked Balenciaga who he felt was a pure technician who made haute couture only for the upper classes. When he took over as Christian Dior’s creative director, he killed off Dior’s signature lady-like look with his debut collection featuring trapeze shaped dresses.

Saint Laurent was a talented individual with a strong temperament and character, in addition to an iron will to get what he wanted. He was plagued by severe depression and addicted to alcohol and drugs, which astonishingly contributed to his most beautiful and succesful collections. He was charismatic and made into an icon despite himself. He lived his life as a recluse, a celebrity who hid himself because of his inordinate shyness, which he deemed to be a major character flaw.

The book gives a faithful timeline of Saint Laurent’s life and work from his childhood to maturity, with milestones covering his grooming period as Dior’s heir to the start of his own haute couture house, his ready-to-wear collection “Rive Gauche,” and his perfume “Opium.”

Photos and essays reveal the revolutionary elements that were cornerstones of the YSL style. The pea jacket (caban), a sailor’s work jacket with a feminine twist; the tunic, which lengthened the silhouette and concealed the hips; the trench coat, adapted from garments worn by officers in the trenches of World War II; the tuxedo (le smoking) that upturned evening dressing conventions; the safari jacket (la saharienne), a staple in men’s wardrobe as characterized by Ernest Hemingway which blended perfectly into the social and political tumult of 1968 and blurred the distinction between masculine and feminine; and finally the trouser suit which empowered women by placing them on the same sartorial footing as men.

In his design, Saint Laurent focused on the body, gesture, and style. Worn on women, YSL clothes are free-flowing and always falling from the shoulder. The material is draped over the body and held together by pins at precise foldings. His aim was to make the garment skim over the body and barely touches it. A journalist once asked the designer how he could justify the very high price for a simple Rive Gauche jacket. Saint Laurent replied, “For ze cut!”

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy models this wedding dress calles "Doves", a tribute to Georges Brach, from 1988. This dress is on show at the retrospective. (Page 326 in "YSL")

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy models this wedding dress called "Doves", a tribute to Georges Brach, from 1988. This dress is on show at the retrospective. (Page 326 in "YSL")

Bound in a black hard cover with three primary colors for the designer’s initials,the book “YSL” comprises 388 glossy pages of archive photos, personal albums, design sketches, celebrity models and muses, colorful fabrics, as well as the details of the 307 outfits featured in the exhibition. It is an enduring joy to behold long after the show is over.

388 pages
Available for online order in French and English

Mark Twain once said, “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

Such can be said about the perils of memoir-writing. Is the work a series of facts and events over a lifetime retold as they had actually occurred, or had they been diluted, polished, aggrandized in some way to allow the author to invent a better account of herself, which effectively turns it into a work of fiction?

Three“, a collection of memoirs by Lillian Hellman, comprises three volumes: “An Unfinished Woman” about her childhood and early years as playwright; “Pentimento”, a series of portraits of the people who made a significant impact in her personal and professional life; and “Scoundrel Time”, an account of her persecution during the McCarthy witch hunt of the 1950’s.

Much has been written about Hellman’s life and works that doesn’t bear repeating here. A playwright who came to fame in her mid-20’s, Hellman was a belligerent character in the American literary scene from the 1930’s until the time of her death in 1984. Hellman’s writing style is straigtforward, matter-of-fact — so much that her confident tone imposes a certain veracity on her stories. Yet when they were published in the 1970’s, along with the acclaims were sharp criticisms of some assertions she made, notably the “Julia” character in “Pentimento” that Hellman portrayed as a childhood friend and political activist who died in World War II, a personage who was probably in reality a living figure who had considered a lawsuit against her for this breach.

But perhaps the most telling memoir that Hellman wrote was not in this collection, but in a slim volume called “Maybe” which she wrote near the end of her life in 1980. In it, she recounts in a firm yet doubtful voice people and events that appeared and disappeared and then reappeared in her life in different forms and with different histories. Infirm and near blind at this time, Hellman disserts in an internal monologue, questioning her own memory about what had actually transpired. In it she said, “In the three memoir books I wrote, I tried very hard for the truth. I did try, but here I don’t know much of what really happened and never tried to find out. In addition to the ordinary deceptions that you and others make in your life, time itself makes time fuzzy and meshes truth with half truth.”

I’m not a particular fan of Hellman’s works but the period in which she lived, the individuals she frequented – Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Dashell Hammett, and her other friends and enemies all made entertaining reading. So whether truth or fiction, Lillian Hellman is definitely a lively and intriguing figure to explore.

Three” 726 pages
Maybe” 102 pages
by Lillian Hellman

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