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The Paris Review Reviews Paris

January 9, 2014 | by

Plan_de_Mérian

We looked into it.

Exactly 365 days ago, the poet Patricia Lockwood asked:

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Rightfully, her query went on to enjoy more than a thousand retweets, landing on several best-of-2013 lists, and earning plaudits from all over—because it’s a really good question. We were confounded. Despite our name and the dozens of interviews we’ve conducted in Paris, we had never really thought to assess the city’s quality.

We put our top people on it. For the next 365 days, our agents combed the twenty arrondissements, an army of flaneurs with clipboards in hand, golf pencils tucked behind their ears. They took water samples, soil samples, croissant samples. Equipped with measuring tapes, Geiger counters, and elegant cravats, they scrutinized the city’s every boulevard and metro station. They assessed the turbidity of the Seine; they carbon dated paintings, supped on the finest Bordeaux, and enjoyed the haute fare of Le Chateaubriand, Septime, and Benoit. They sent up weather balloons and infiltrated the fashion houses. They noted the Royale with Cheese. From Gentilly to Saint-Ouen, no stone was left unturned, no bichon frise unnuzzled. Then, having conducted such exhaustive research, they crunched the numbers, feeding the data into a series of world-class supercomputers with processing speeds in excess of thirty-three quadrillion floating-point operations per second. At last, they furnished a verdict:

It’s pretty good!

Case closed.

 

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LA Story

December 18, 2013 | by

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I have just moved to Los Angeles from the Middle East, and everyone keeps asking me if the city is too quiet—Am I bored? Is it safe?—and the answer is, No, I am not bored; yes, it seems safe, and yes, that’s fine by me. Mostly I am in a state of awe, blown away by a grocery store, the knock of the mailman at the door, the speed of the Internet; the easy friends you can make on the sidewalk or on the bus or while watching your kids play soccer or walking down Venice Boulevard, waiting for a light to change, en route to the University of Southern California, where I found myself the other day, seeking out the next thing I might do with my life, right before things went wrong again.

I was facing new and mostly pleasant options. Such as: Should I wish to travel across the east-west spine of Lost Angeles, in the fall of 2013, from Venice to the urban campus of USC, did I want to walk four or five hours, doing ten miles on foot; drive thirty minutes; ride a bike for an hour and a half; or, as I ultimately resolved to do, take a city bus to the Culver City train line.

Showering, lacing up a pair of suede boots, donning a clean shirt, loading up a satchel with books and water, I crossed Lincoln Boulevard, behind a smog-check shop, whose sign made it clear they’s only do checks, not repairs, and then I followed an alley parallel to six lanes of heavy afternoon traffic.

In front of a crumbling apartment complex, on a set of concrete stairs, I admired a selection of jars, bowls, fire-rimmed tin cans, and handmade signs. Next to one pagan cup leaned a pair of tongs, perhaps for a hookah, and then I was accosted by a man who stood beside the open door of a midnineties Ford Explorer. Read More »

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A Life in Matches

September 19, 2013 | by

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A Life in Matches: Marineland Restaurant, Marineland, California. Photograph by Ben Stott.

How does one document his or her life? Do you track the minute details of each and every day in a diary, like Ned Rorem, or measure it out with coffee spoons, as J. Alfred Prufrock declared? When digging through the last boxes and cases from his grandfather’s home, Justin Bairamian found an old suitcase, full to the brim with thousands of matchbooks. They were from the Savoy in London to the Marineland Restaurant in California, and many had his grandfather’s own scribbles noting the location and year on the inside cover. Bairamian had discovered a beautiful record of a life well lived.

Bairamian has allowed designer Ben Stott to catalogue a sample of the collection, one day at a time, on the blog A Life in Matches. It is a brilliant tribute to one man’s life, as well as insight into the evolution of graphic design.

 

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Maximum Ride

July 22, 2013 | by

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While the thesis of this article—that business travelers still enjoy reading—may seem less than revelatory, we were intrigued by the following anecdote:

Carrying a book while traveling often spurs conversations with strangers, many business travelers say.

[Gene] Jannotti says he was holding a James Patterson novel when he walked into a restaurant and the maitre d’ remarked that he had read the same book.

“I told him he couldn’t have read the same book and then opened the cover to show him James Patterson’s autograph,” Jannotti says. “Needless to say, he escorted me to a very nice table and came by several times to be sure that I was happy with the food and the service.”

We feel that, on the contrary, there was every need to say this. We are, however, still figuring out the best use of the information.

 

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A Visit with Patrick Leigh Fermor, Part 2

May 24, 2013 | by

P.L.F. on Ithaca, 1946

P.L.F. on Ithaca, 1946.

See part 1 here.

Already familiar as I was with the main events of Paddy’s military career, I asked him to fill in the gaps. What had he done while in Cairo?

“My first leave from Crete, after many months in the mountains, was at the time of the Italian surrender in September 1943. I had managed, by devious means, to persuade the Italian general commanding the Siena Division to escape from the island with some of his staff, and I accompanied them. When they’d been handed over in Cairo, I found myself quartered in rather gloomy billets known as Hangover Hall. There I became great friends with Bill Stanley Moss, on leave from the Third Battalion of the Coldstream Guards, and later my companion on the Kreipe expedition. Couldn’t we find more congenial quarters? Almost at once Billy found a positive mansion on Gezira Island, which we shared with a beautiful Polish countess called Sophie Tarnowska—she and Billy were married later on—her Alsatian, two mongooses, and a handful of close SOE friends, also on leave.

“Tara (as we named the house) was an immediate triumph. With its ballroom and a piano borrowed from the Egyptian Officers’ Club, and funded by our vast accumulations of back pay, it became famous—or notorious—for the noisiest and most hilarious parties in wartime Cairo. At one of these, fired by the tinkle of a dropped glass, everyone began throwing their glasses through the windows until not a pane was left.

“It was to Tara that we returned after the Kreipe expedition. But the rigors of a year and a half of Cretan cave life, it seems, suddenly struck me with an acute rheumatic infection of the joints, akin to paralysis. After two months in a Cairo hospital—where King Farouk once kindly sent me a magnum of champagne—I was sent to convalesce in Lebanon. I stayed at the British summer embassy at Aley, above Beirut, with Lady Spears, who was the well-known American writer Mary Borden, and her husband, Sir Edward Spears, our ambassador there. We had all met in Cairo, which at that time was one of the most fascinating gathering points in the world.

“But I was itching to get back to Crete. By the time I managed to return, in October 1944, the entire German force had withdrawn to a small perimeter in the west of the island. The outcome was a foregone conclusion, and the Germans made only occasional sorties. With their imminent surrender in view, it wasn’t ‘worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier,’ as Frederick the Great said—or of a single mountaineer or Allied soldier, for that matter. Read More »

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Be Forever Falling

May 22, 2013 | by

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(Artistic license taken with shoe color.)

On my second day in Jakarta, an exhilarating, traffic-choked terror of a city, I’m walking through the Garden District of Grand Indonesia Shopping Town. Grand Indonesia Shopping Town claims to be one of the largest upscale shopping centers in Southeast Asia, and it’s here, with a view from half a dozen stories up down to the luxury car parked outside a showroom on the ground floor, that a frightening, familiar, visceral impulse nearly gets the best of me. As I’ve learned from talking to friends and near-strangers, it’s an impulse shared by many people, and, though the consequences of ever following through on it would suggest otherwise, not a suicidal one. I have to grip the railing that separates me from the shaft of empty space running from the top of the building to the bottom—the shaft that provides a view between floors, a vertical column boring through what would otherwise be a flat, dangerless circuit of shopping opportunities—because some part of me wants, more than it wants any other thing, to fling itself over the edge.

I remember a friend in New Zealand, goaded into conversation about this impulse, saying that it may “fall” into the same family of impulses as the one that drives us, as toddlers, to touch a hot stove. Driven by a basic instinct for discovery and, ironically, survival—a need to methodically taste-test the environment in which we are to go on living. But as an adult I only occasionally have to restrain myself from bringing my hand down on a hot grill. I often cling to a wall in the fear that I might actually, if I let my guard down, follow through on the impulse to fling. It’s as though the overriding, rational mental jury that keeps me from known harm remains undecided on the subject of sheer drops.     

Some shopper, some shopping Muslim woman in a stylish hijab at Grand Indonesia Shopping Town, must see me pulling myself away from the railing carefully—carefully but forcefully, as though I am one man physically restraining another. She must wonder. Unless she understands.

Even on the second floor of the courtyard at my guesthouse in Menteng, the Jakarta neighborhood where Barack Obama spent part of his childhood (a statue of Barack as a boy stands outside of State Elementary School 01 Menteng, moved there after its original installment in Menteng Park incited protests), I gingerly bounce my fingertips against the stone wall to combat the impulse as I walk to my room.

A month ago, in Auckland, I nearly broke down on a visit to the observation deck of the Sky Tower, 610 feet above street level. The edge of the observation deck, up against a wrap-around window providing panoramic views, also features panels of glass flooring one-and-a-half inches thick. I more or less lurched over these, fearful not that I would fall through—clearly, there was no risk of that—but that the unruly, violent, psychotic and child-like impulse would finally wear me down, and I would hurl my body against the protective glass, just to see what happened.    

Not that street level in Jakarta lacks for potentially perilous excitement. In a place where the mere city proper’s population tops ten million, it really is an adventure just crossing the street. Locals step into ceaseless traffic with one hand held out in a “stop” gesture, presumably hoping for the best as they ford each new roaring river of transport. After losing almost an entire day to cab rides in order to visit Kota, the derelict remains of sixteenth-century Dutch walled compound Batavia, I mostly stick to Menteng, striking out on foot. Because I want to flaunt a handsome new pair of navy leather Fred Perry shoes picked up in Sydney, I give myself painful blisters exploring the neighborhood. I make frequent stops at Indonesian coffee shops filled with cigarette smoke and chattering, stylish young people, and at the many local 7-Elevens that seem to be, with their European-style outdoor café seating, hugely popular social destinations. My heels throb with pain, lacerated by the offending shoes, but I’m charmed by life on the ground, where I can eat nasi goreng and never even think about throwing myself over a ledge.

This oddly innocent, feverishly suppressed impulse returns later, though, and with maximum intensity, at SKYE Bar, a fifty-sixth floor rooftop venue offering views of the Jakarta skyline. The bar also offers an all-too-imaginable fatal drop, which appears to me to be kept from patrons by only an admittedly discouraging band of decorative plant-life. I don’t dare investigate the truth of this statement more closely, but my old friend and city contact, Dan, concurs that there is probably no significant railing, then hands me a beer.

“Has anyone ever fallen off of it, do you think?” I ask.

“Probably not,” says Dan’s co-worker. “It’s only been open for three months.”

Another of Dan’s co-workers wonders out loud whether anyone has ever thrown a beer bottle over the edge.

“Can you imagine, if you threw a bottle off this building, what would happen if it hit a car in the street below?” I ask. “God. It would be like a meteor.”

Conversation moves on to the recent meteor event in Russia, but I’m only half-listening, the other half of me grappling with the terrible impulse to take a running jump from SKYE Bar. The immediate possibility, visible from where we stand, of a fifty-six story free fall, pulls at my body with a magnetism so nearly irresistible that my legs begin to tremble. Before too long we gravitate away from the edge, back towards the bar, where I’m certain more than a few beads of the sweat under my arms have nothing to do with the humidity here on the island of Java.    

The day before I leave for Phnom Penh, I fail to muster the taxi-taking fortitude to visit Taman Mini, a theme park east of Jakarta full of pavilions encapsulating Indonesian life, including examples of the building styles and architecture of this country’s many and diverse provinces. Instead, I take a taxi to and from the post office, an errand that takes a few hours. Friends and acquaintances in Jakarta tell me that giving up on one’s ambitions for the day after running a single errand is not uncommon. (Though I don’t stay in town long enough to do it the right way, which requires purchasing entire pirated seasons of TV shows on DVD in exasperation and retreating to ones apartment, defeated by the city.) I go to the post office to send some gifts back to America by sea mail, and to get rid of the handsome, offending Fred Perry shoes that so cut up and blistered my heels.

A lithe, quick-moving young Indonesian man who may or may not work for the post office scares up a ragged cardboard box to use for packing. I sit and watch as, cigarette hanging between his lips, he stuffs in my fabrics and trinkets and the offending shoes, then uses a length of black plastic thread tied to a spear-like piece of metal to encase the parcel, with zigzagging stitches, in a layer of protective tarp. Soon the things I want to get rid of are safely hemmed in, the stitching as quaintly and monstrously uneven as on an old rag doll. The young man, still smoking, scribbles something on a scrap of cardboard, then hands it to me.

I understand this to mean the package will arrive in two to three units of time, though I don’t know what bulan means. Months, probably. It could be years. Lifetimes. I don’t really care. More than the gifts, I want the shoes gone. Blisters aside, that’s one less pair of shoes in which I could, in a moment of incomprehensible, raging curiosity, take a running leap from a Southeast Asian skyscraper, or topple to my demise from the food court at Grand Indonesia.

I nod my assent, and he hauls the thing away.

Evan James is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Sun, and elsewhere. He is writing a novel. He is also on Twitter.

 

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