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Editorial Reviews

Simon Vance does Paris, in an outstanding narrative performance of one of the most unusual and unconventional history books ever propped before a studio microphone. Graham Robb’s Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, is also a work of genius.

“The adventures that follow were written as a history of Paris recounted by many different voices,” writes Robb. “The idea was to create a kind of mini-Human Comedy of Paris, in which the history of the city would be illuminated by the real experiences of its inhabitants.” The 19 stories chosen by Robb span the period before the French Revolution to the Clichy-sous-Bois riots of 2005. In contrast to Balzac’s monumental and sprawling 100 stories and novels of The Human Comedy, Robb’s Parisians is a meticulously researched, intricately detailed nonfictional work of art, a historical novel of a unique type, a dazzlingly kinetic masterpiece of adventure revealing an intriguingly human history of the City of Light.

Vance brings to Parisians a dynamic mastery of narrative expression, perfect timing, and his great set of narrative techniques that often go unnoticed. But perhaps that’s the point. Some narrators are more vocally demonstrative than others. Vance’s voice is expressive in quite subtle ways. His Parisians narration is a journeyman performance similar to the stone masons that applied their talents and skills to the construction of Notre Dame. Vance shapes the finely wrought architecture of Robb’s extraordinarily constructed collection of stories. Parisians the audiobook would not have enriched the print book’s exacting aesthetics without Vance.

Robb is a remarkably acute artist. He unfolds a good number of the Parisians stories as if by stealth. At the beginning of the chapter “Lost”, a woman is referred to only as ‘she’, and it is only gradually that we learn who she is and what the consequences will be of her getting lost. Some things about some of the storylines are revealed only at the end. In “One Night at The Palais-Royal” an 18-year-old artillery lieutenant has his first sexual experience with a woman and later writes about it. After he pens his experience we learn who this lieutenant is. Robb compares and contrasts over the book’s periods of time. There are assassination attempts on a French President and a President-to-be. Are the attempts real or fake? Charles de Gaulle is covered with fragments of mortar from an unknown enemy after World War II. Marcel Proust is showered with fragments of metal in a German bombing of Paris during World War I. Who is the braver, Proust or de Gaulle? Who is histrionic and who coolly indifferent? And who is one of the more fascinating individuals in Parisians?

I don’t want to give away anything more — reviewers of the print edition of Parisians have spilt the beans. Don’t pick them up. This is a great audiobook. Listen before any further third party descriptions mare your experience. —David Chasey

Publisher's Summary

This is the Paris you never knew. From the Revolution to the present, Graham Robb has distilled a series of astonishing true narratives, all stranger than fiction.

A young artillery lieutenant, strolling through the Palais-Royal, observes disapprovingly the courtesans plying their trade. A particular woman catches his eye; nature takes its course. Later that night, Napoleon Bonaparte writes a meticulous account of his first sexual encounter.

An aristocratic woman, fleeing the Louvre, takes a wrong turn and loses her way in the nameless streets of the Left Bank. For want of a map - there were no reliable ones at the time - Marie-Antoinette will go to the guillotine.

Baudelaire, Baron Haussmann, the real-life Mimi of La Boheme, Proust, Charles de Gaulle (who is suspected of having faked an assassination attempt on himself in Notre Dame) - these and many more make up Robb's cast of characters. The result is a resonant, intimate history with the power of a great novel.

©2010 Graham Robb (P)2010 Tantor

Critic Reviews

“With his profound knowledge of Paris, its treasures and squalor, its heroes and victims, Robb reveals a city of not only lights but darkness.” ( Publishers Weekly)

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  • Overall

Difficult....but worth it

I completely understand the frustration of folks who find this book to be "too much." I had the same reaction to Robb's "Discovery of France," which does not have an audio version. I posted a 3-star review at Amazon taking some hard shots. But I always had the disquieting feeling that the book was simply difficult, not at all unworthy, the opposite, in fact. That feeling won out, over time, and ultimately I took down my carping review.

As of now, I have only the Audible version of this latest Robb book. It is difficult to casually follow. IT IS DIFFICULT TO CASUALLY FOLLOW. But for those with the inclination, the payoff is huge.

There is no need to be judgmental here. Some people -- most people, perhaps -- are mildly interested and wish to be amused and informed while remaining in a casual relationship to the material. Nothing at all wrong with that, but it does not work for this book. At least, not for me. I regard it as more like a college course; I plan to read the book and to listen more than once. For those who have that level of interest, it is a dazzling tale. To me, it is more than worth the effort...big investment, big payoff.

19 of 19 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

This audiobook is so good!

I was delighted by this audiobook. Was that in part because I have been to Paris a number of times, have a passable knowledge of French history and literature, can speak basic French, and am an unashamed Francophile? Would I have felt the same if Graham Robb had written a book called Berlinners, Madridians or Muscovites? I think that for people who feel a connection to things French or Parisienne this book will be pure Heaven
Simon Vance is superb as a reader on this audiobook. His tone changes to match the various moods of the narrative, and his French accent is impeccable for place and peoples' names. He reads rather quickly, so it does require some concentration so as to keep with the flow of the tale. I am not sure that this is the book to listen to when caught in frantic peak-hour traffic, but it is immensely rewarding with serious listening time.
This audiobook is so good.

12 of 12 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Sean
  • Houston, Texas, United States
  • 06-02-11

Interesting at first

Interesting and compelling at first, the book gets very uneven at the end. I enjoyed parts of this book very much, and skimmed through others.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

What a journey!

Robb brings the City of Light to life in a unique and fascinating way, through the lives of people who have lived there. Napoleon, Mme. Zola, Hitler, and others unknown but remarkable. It makes one want to take the book to Paris and trace the stories. Wonderful, and beautifully read.

7 of 8 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Good book, difficult to follow

I found the stories in this book fascinating, but I also found the writing style very hard to follow as an audiobook. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I read a paper copy.

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Stephanie
  • SPRING, TX, United States
  • 09-20-10

Save your credit

This book is a collection of little-known stories about Parisians throughout the ages.

I love non-fiction and from the blurb I was really looking forward to listening to this book, but I didn't enjoy it at all. I think I may have liked it more if I had read it instead of listened to it. I couldn't follow the stories and I'm not sure if that's the author's fault, the narrator's fault, or my fault. Regardless, throughout I kept going "Huh?" The stories seemed to be designed to keep the reader in the dark as long as possible about what each one was about and I just couldn't hold the thread until the end.

If you're going to try this one, save your Audible credit and buy the hardback instead.

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

An excruciating level of detail.

A solid background on French history may be recommended for those who choose to tackle this title. It was too much for me, the casual French scholar. The minute details (names and places and the parentheticals that accompany them) interfered with the telling of the tales for me. The narration is truly ***** and so are the writer's ambitions for the book. I appreciated both of those. I may try the book again later.

8 of 10 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

The parisians that shaped city of lights

Parisians is a collection of anecdotes covering Paris, from the revolution to the 21st century, by Graham Robb. The author presents a human perspective on essential events, figures and places. Each story is written in a different style, reflecting the theme and characters. This is pulled of excellently, only the story about Juliette Greco, written in screenplay style, fails to engage.

It is interesting and well written – almost poetic at times. An excellent read for those inclined to history or those just fascinated by the city of lights

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Performance
  • Story

Delightful, informative, fascinating

Would you consider the audio edition of Parisians to be better than the print version?

Probably. I generally prefer audio since reading is hard on my eyes.

Which character – as performed by Simon Vance – was your favorite?

Simon Vance is good as usual. I give him 5 stars despite mispronounced French (at first surprising because of his generally excellent pronunciation of French sounds). French names are notoriously difficult and a foreigner almost inevitably makes mistakes. A few instances come to mind; I cite them not in a critical spirit but so that listeners should not be misled.

"Champs de Mars”: final s is not silent (Mars, a Roman god, is not a French word).

Saint-André des Arts: t in "art" is silent.

Auteuil is pronounced o-tou[as in English 'touch']-y, not o-toy-y (true of all instances of -euil).

Montagne Sainte-Geneviève: -ene- (and -enne- in other words) are pronounce 'en' as in English, without reference to the French nasal en [‘aun’] sound

Porte des Lilas: s silent [in most words the final s is silent, but there are exceptions such as the city Reims]

Boulevard Haussmann: Hau pronounced ‘o’ (not ‘ao’ or ‘hao', though the origin of the name does in a sense justify pronouncing it the German way, but in Paris nobody would understand)

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

The deportation of Jews and Jewish children.

I also wanted to cry at the wanton burning of hundreds of years of Parisian archives during the Commune of 1871.

Any additional comments?

This book is particularly interesting to those who already have an interest in French history and/or know or love Paris.

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

Historical vertigo

I'm a Francophile who spends at least a month in Paris each year. I try to read all books which humanize French history. It's great to be able to better appreciate where I happen to be at any given time and know just what went on there.

However, this book would be much better followed if read in written form. I listen to audiobooks so that I can multitask. But that doesn't mean I don't pay attention--I just can't take notes or memorize sequences. This book whips back and forth throughout history, chapters, characters, and quotes without the benefit of written punctuation. The narrator (one of my favorites, by the way) does an excellent job of injecting dry Brit wit into the writer's comments on much of the historical revelations. However, it is difficult to distinguish between a poem and the narration of any of the dozens of characterizations, and the "2.5.1" etc., (presumably chapters and sub chapters, and sub-sub chapters?) makes my ears stop listening. It can be very difficult to follow, as it is a collection of many separate scenarios, largely unlinked except for the city. The scores of character names are numbing, although the historical research is often entertaining, and certainly revealing.

It's just that, it is almost like a history text book, and really should be seen and read. Reciting chapter numbers and sub-chapters is meaningless and distracting. And, you never know what era the narrator will begin after taking an all-too-short pause. Sometimes if I am just slightly distracted, I'll have no idea what era or happening is being recited by the narrator. By the time I catch up, I have hopelessly lost my place and vow to get the printed book.

All in all, it is impressive research, and very entertaining and enlightening factoids about Paris and Parisians. It is just a bit oblique for a casual listener. And I really don't want to have to listen in a vacuum, as with a lecture.