TODAY'S PAPER
71° Good Afternoon
71° Good Afternoon
EntertainmentBooks

Bookshelf: 'The Most Beautiful Walk'

'Paris belongs to its pietons -- 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 -- and now "The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris" (Harper Perennial, $14.99). Perhaps his Francophilia began when he married a French woman, or perhaps earlier when he first read Hemingway. 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.

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." "Lives and Letters" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30) collects essays he has written about public figures, writers, performers, Hollywood stars and theater legends. Tallulah Bankhead, Bruno Bettelheim, the Mitford sisters, Mae West, John Steinbeck, Judith Krantz and many others come under his ferocious scrutiny. Actually, the apt image for this book's approach is less of a magnifying glass than a room through which his subjects enter 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 they sustained in the cultural trenches.

Written over a period of 50 years, the stories by Margaret Drabble in "A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24) reveal a great deal about a writer best known for her novels. Organized chronologically by publication year, from 1964 to 2000, the 14 stories describe three phases of a woman's life: youth, middle age and old age. In the first few stories, like "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" (written when the author was at Cambridge but not published until 1968), we see young characters on the outside of social situations looking in. We also see Drabble honing her powerful eye for details and their meanings. A narrator scrutinizes a newlywed couple on their honeymoon in "Hassan's Tower" -- every decision, every pause, every trace of emptiness.

In "A Pyrrhic Victory," the smallest gesture reveals gross flaws in a young girl's character, flaws she seems destined never to outgrow. In the midlife stories, the best example is perhaps the collection's title story, in which a working wife and mother, a model of compassion and intelligence, full of sublimated fury, begins to bleed to death while giving a speech at a local school. Barely concealed rage continues into later life -- in "The Merry Widow," the protagonist does not even try to conceal her delight at her husband's death, her sense of victory. The characters in these stories exist in service of ideas; they topple too easily, defeated by Drabble's certainty about the world. This may be why she is better known for her novels.

Comments

We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

More Entertainment