The Most Beautiful Walk in the World
A Pedestrian in Paris
Harper Perennial: 336 pp., $14.99
“Paris belongs to its piétons — the pedestrians. One goes naturally à pied — on foot. And it’s only on foot that you discover its richness and variety,” explains John Baxter, who has written many books on Paris, reading, cooking, movies and sex. Perhaps his Francophilia began when he married a French woman, or perhaps earlier when he first read Hemingway (although “read” seems too tame a word for a man who seems to have devoured the work). Or maybe, who knows, it began when he ate his first crepe, madeleine or foie gras. No matter, we are the beneficiaries of his considerable, vivid love for the expatriate life in Paris. Baxter gives literary walking tours in Paris — a job he fell into out of sheer pleasure (and his horror of pedantic guides who might ruin it all for hapless visitors). Alongside Edmund White’s “The Flâneur” and Adam Gopnik’s “Paris to the Moon,” “The Most Beautiful Walk in the World” is as close as a reader can get to the feel of a languid spring walk along Baron Haussmann’s boulevards without actually being there. Baxter understands that the beauty of that great city is the generosity, the bounty that allows all of her admirers to, as Colette once said, create their own little province — connecting a bakery to a park to a favorite shop to a literary anecdote.
Lives and Letters
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 426 pp., $30
Robert Gottlieb has had front-row seats for decades to the great drama of American culture: as an editor at publishing houses Simon & Schuster and Alfred A. Knopf, and as the editor of the New Yorker after he replaced William Shawn in 1987, a time he refers to as “The Troubles.” In these essays he has written about public figures, writers, performers, Hollywood stars and theater legends. Tallulah Bankhead, Bruno Bettelheim, the Mitfords, Diana Vreeland, Mae West, John Steinbeck, Judith Krantz, Rudyard Kipling and many others come under his ferocious, often protective scrutiny. Actually, the apt image for this book’s approach is less of a magnifying glass than a room through which his subjects enter (some waft, some stomp) and exit. Picture Gottlieb behind a desk; the subjects face him bearing all the evidence for and against their authenticity. Gottlieb decides whether to add luster or tarnish to their reputations. He scolds writers who air private matters in public; though, true to his generation (Gottlieb was born in 1931), he wields psychoanalysis as a critical tool. (Francine du Plessix Gray, A. Scott Berg and Renata Adler do not hold up well under this scrutiny.) But with the young poet Minou Drouet (victim of her mother’s aggressive ambition) and several others (Maxwell Perkins and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings) he exhibits an unusual, discreet tenderness, as if he actually had the power to lift them up and heal damage sustained in the cultural trenches. Perhaps, if a statue of Gottlieb is one day built in some remote corner of Central Park, the sword would be the best icon to place in his ink-stained hands.
Melville House: 189 pp., $23.95
It is with some sadness that this reader reports that the playful, effervescent voice of Banana Yoshimoto in her 1993 bestseller “Kitchen” has been replaced in “The Lake” with the equally fascinating but somewhat less elastic voice of an older, world-weary writer. “Live like a flower,” once advised the mother of Chihiro, the narrator. Now approaching 30, Chihiro, an artist living in Tokyo, is having a difficult time finding her own perspective and her own voice. How to see the world? In one light, a room looks sad and dingy, in another, beautiful and poetic.
This slippery perspective makes Chihiro feel like she is “inhabiting someone else’s dream.” Falling in love with Narajima, a man burdened by his past involvement in a destructive cult, also changes the way she sees the simplest things. “It was so gorgeous it almost felt like sadness,” she writes of their love. Later, she notices that the lake they visited together shone more beautifully when they were in love; she admits that “the lake has all sorts of different faces.” “The Lake” is about the layering effects of time, the lacquer that suffocates the childlike self. It’s about the importance of change, of movement and new ideas: “When you’re in a state of homogeneity,” Chihiro thinks, “it means you’ve lost yourself.”
Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.