I love tennis. And of course I love Paris. So when the French Open happens every year, I get excited. I’ve been immersed in watching the matches, loving that my favorite player, Roger Federer, has won so far and enjoying the wildness of the crowds every time Frenchman Benoit Paire plays. This weekend a particularly wonderful highlight for me was watching Swiss player and ethnically Polish guy Stan Wawrinka play Stefanos Tsitsipas. It was an epic match that lasted five hours and five sets.
At 34, Wawrinka’s considered a senior player, and yet he’s playing his highest level of tennis ever. Because he’s an athlete who won Grand Slam tournaments later in his career, I find his journey interesting. It reminded me how anyone who works hard enough and is willing to endure long enough can succeed. This includes artists and writers. A writer works to perfect their art or craft and tries to share it with the world, only to often meet with rejection or indifference. The attempt can be a failure. We can feel like losers. But Wawrinka has an interesting perspective on failure. What he had to say is my quote of the week:
As a tennis player, you have to get used to losing every week. Unless you win the tournament, you always go home as a loser. But you have to take the positive out of a defeat and go back to work. Improve to fail better.–Stan Wawrinka, tennis champion
In Paris, there are plenty of grand gardens to visit: Jardin des Plantes, Jardin du Luxembourg, the Tuileries to name a few. But there are also small gardens that offer a respite from the city. One such garden is the Square Boucicaut in the 7th arrondissement. It’s notable not only for its wonderfully central location near Saint-Germain-des-Prés but also for its unexpected plant specimens.
First off, dozens of different trees fill this park. Of note are the warmer weather ones. Being in Zone 8, Paris’s climate can support trees that are often associated with tropical places but in species that are hardier. Windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) and palmetto palm (Sabal palmetto) punctuate the landscape with their fan-like leaves and hairy trunks. Monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) draws attention with its unusual scales and spindly form. A lovely curly leaved willow (Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’) provides interest and shade. In addition, I’ve spotted Austrian pine, black locust, cherry, London plane, and some cultivar of Cercis as well.
A Cacophony of Color
In summer, the park’s interior border explodes with color via annuals: dahlias, salvias, petunias, geraniums, coleus, etc. A sweet little pond offers a cooling view. Its bank is planted with water-loving shrubs like paperplant (Fatsia japonica). Grasses like Japanese sedge grass (Carex morrowii) and giant cane (Arundo donax) either border the water or happily pop out of it. Perennials like sweet flag (Acorus calamus), coral bells (Heuchera), and dark-leaved spurge (Euphorbia) add varying hues of foliage and contrasting structure.
A central courtyard with plenty of comfortable benches attracts both locals and tourists. A sand area and playground offer activities for families. At an impressive staircase, a massive marble statue of Madame Boucicaut with children stands. She was the wife of Aristide Boucicaut and the sculpture depicts her performing acts of charity. His store, Le Bon Marché, was one of the first department stores, and still overlooks the square.
A Dark Activity in a Bright Place
The Square Boucicaut makes an appearance in my novel, The Forgetting Flower. When my main character Renia needs to have a secret meeting, she chooses this park. Why? Because it’s near her plant shop and a plant lover like she would like it. Unlike other Parisian gardens, it features undulating borders and a naturalistic planting approach. A pond to attract birds and wildlife. It also boasts unique botanical specimens. She would be drawn to all of that and visit often to eat her lunch or simply take in the natural world.
If I worked near this lesser known gem of a garden, I would probably do the same.
Photo by Guilhem Vellut, Paris, France.
Paris in the Dark struck me as the quintessential literary thriller. It has both fine prose and an intriguing plot, a novel that reminded me of Ken Follett’s earliest work, combining the quiet narration of Alan Furst and gradual tightening suspense of John LeCarré. This is the fourth in Robert Olen Butler’s series of spy novels, putting Christopher Marlowe ‘Kit’ Cobb square in the middle of World War I in Paris. An American journalist by day, Cobb poses as a German-American one by night as he steadily uncovers secrets of the war strategy while embedding himself with military ambulance drivers. It’s an atmospheric story that doesn’t disappoint.
I’ve only read Robert Olen Butler’s more literary work so discovering this book was a nice surprise. He certainly knows this era of history and military machinations though he deftly weaves in details so that the effect is a seamless narration by a character who could have certainly existed in this era. There was no superficial or rushed research here.
Written by a Man for Male Readers?
Overall, the narrative sports a masculine tone: logical, chilly, distant from emotion. We get a lot of Cobb’s reportage of the what and where, even his interior thoughts, but we don’t get a lot of feelings. Cobb’s voice is on the removed side. And I imagine that might disappoint some. Still, I liked Cobb and wanted to see him succeed. He wasn’t a jerk or an antihero, just a stoic character who carries out his spy duties with understated dignity.
What I also appreciated was Olen Butler’s way of deepening characters by showing their humanity. He subtly weaves in their finer qualities and dark flaws. No character is too one-sided as they can sometimes be in thrillers. And the plot is not too straightforward either. As the book progresses, Cobb moves closer, bit by bit, to his target of a German bomber, but as he does the plot thickens and twists. Things are not as simple as they first seem. That the story ends in a thrilling climax makes it an all-the-more satisfying read.
In the end, I recommend Paris in the Dark for readers who like novels set during the first World War and don’t mind a quieter, more discreetly intriguing story.
One of my favorite things to do is hang out on the couch and flip through picture books about Paris. If I can’t be there in person, at least I can be there in spirit. My fascination with the city is about art, romance, architecture, food, history, plants, and leisure. I loved Paris before I lived there and I love Paris now. Yes, it’s an imperfect city, and believe me, when you work there, it loses its luster quickly, but the luster never completely wore off for me. It’s still a dream, no matter how well I know it, and always will be. Here are the favorite books I turn to when I want to dream about the city of light.
Above Paris is such a fun book. It’s, simply put, all aerial shots of the city: a Google maps’ view published before that app existed. You view Paris as if a bird, seeing the intersections of housing blocks and waterways, hidden courtyards, and open green spaces. It’s interesting to see how the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower are positioned in the city. You also get an appreciation for the Hausmann architectural style with the grand avenues spiraling from the “places.” The two drawbacks to this book are there’s no index so if you’re looking for a particular landmark, it might be difficult, and the photography isn’t as vivid as it would be today. Still, the book is a treat.
Life on the Ground
Eugène Atget is one of Paris’s most famous photographers. He was born in the mid-1800s and died in 1927, working at first as an actor and later, a commercial photographer. He took over 5000 photographs of Paris, capturing both its beautiful monuments and working people. In his book, Unknown Paris, he shows us the nooks and crannies, a sleepy Seine, misty spires, sunny vestibules, curving mysterious streets. The book’s mood is one of lovely melancholy, photographs that yearn and hide secrets. Totally worth having on your bookshelf.
Let’s Talk Food
Journalist Lindsey Tramuta published a much-needed book about Paris. Why much needed? Because The New Paris spotlights the food and craft innovators. For instance, did you know that despite the café’s prominence in Paris, most of them serve the same not-so-great coffee? Tramuta educates readers on the history of various French traditions and how several entrepreneurs are bringing them into the 21st Century. We get a peek at the latest innovators in food, fashion, shopping, wine, sweets, etc., even gathering spaces. This is a must-have book if you’re interested in discovering who is reinventing modern French culture.
Similarly, I bought Tasting Paris because I wanted to learn how to make classic Parisian restaurant food. I always liked that I could get a delicious fresh meal at almost any reputable eatery there and wanted insider knowledge on how to create those dishes. With alluring photos, this book is like a greatest-hits of recipes: quiche, goat cheese salads, Turkish flatbreads, fish tagine, roasted chicken, even homemade hazelnut spread. It would make a lovely gift book for the Francophile in your life.
Chef Ina Garten created a contemporary classic with her recipe book Barefoot in Paris. Touted as “easy French food you can make at home,” this how-to book is full of highly traditional dishes simplified by Garten. They’re all sumptuous. Herbed-Baked Eggs and Bouillabaisse are highlights. I still use her herbed potatoes recipe (with a little garlic olive oil of my own). Now, I’m getting hungry.
The photographer Saad Sharif has an amazing ability to capture Paris at night or dusk, setting him apart from other photographers (me included) who’ve photographed Paris. But his work isn’t only special for capturing a dark city but how he brings out the bright hues. There are pinks, blues, and oranges contrasting with the black skies and trees and signs. The streets, the people, the walkways, the buildings all have an almost out-of-time glow. I love meditating on these photos. Check them out.
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