“The Hotel on Place Vendome”  by Tilar J. Mazzeo.  Published by Harper.  Releases  on March 11.
“The Hotel on Place Vendome” by Tilar J. Mazzeo is an informal history of the Ritz Hotel in Paris, built in 1898 during the Belle Epoque.  It’s a short delight to read because of all the famous patrons that once lived there and considered it at least a semi-permanent residence.
Marcel Proust used to write there.  Jean Cocteau painted there.
Special attention is paid to the period of the Second World War when so many well-known figures established a home away from home residence in its bar, if not its rooms.  Artists like Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Coco Chanel, Robert Capa, Mary Welsh, Irwin Shaw, Marlene Dietrich, hoteland Ingrid Bergman play primary roles in the narrative.  It gives an interesting portrait of the life of occupied Paris, where the deprivations of so much of the rest of the city didn’t exist in a legendary Hotel occupied by so many German officers who protected it from destruction, perhaps its heyday in historical interest.
In some ways it reminds the reader of Rick’s Place in “Casablanca.”
Who wouldn’t be interested in some of the antics that took place in the rooms?  Perhaps the liaison between Simone de Beauvoir and Ernest Hemingway was a standard for the type of behavior during such intense times.  Jean Paul Sartre finally took the hint his presence was no longer desired, and went home alone by three in the morning.  But what could be expected of Hemingway, who began each morning at the Ritz with a bottle of champagne.  The Chelsea Hotel in New York twenty years later had nothing on the Ritz for the shenanigans of its artists.
Mazzeo concludes with an update on the present condition of the hotel, which is in dire need of much repair.  It would be a shame for such a magnificent building with such a rich history to fall into disrepair.  Perhaps this book can do its part in bringing attention to landmarks that need to be restored, if not for the respect of the past, then for the generations to come.
-Steve Corrigan
“Astoria” by Peter Stark.  Published by Ecco Press/Harper.  releases on March 4
It was John Jacob Astor’s dream to establish a major trading route in the Pacific Northwest in the early years of the nineteenth century that would eventually trade furs bought from the Indian tribes, or hunted by his own voyageurs, to China, and then to trade those goods for Chinese silks and teas to the Europeans and the Americans in a global enterprise that would require his own fleet of ships to sail around Cape Horn, and his own private company of explorers and backwoodsmen to brave the privations and the elements overland to accomplish the goal.  Naturally, one of the most important aspects of his dream would be to have the leadership available to make his dream a reality.
The genesis of the idea could well have been the recent Lewis and Clark expedition.  President Jefferson was an early believer in the project, wanting the lands to the West of the Louisiana Purchase to be astoriaexplored and colonized by Americans in a grand sweep of Manifest Destiny that would reach the ocean.  At the time the area was occupied by the British, the Canadians, The Russians, as well as the Indian tribes, and the threat of the Spanish from the south in California.  In order to escape the Balkanization that Europe suffered and to protect the American colonies, the visionaries always had an American empire in mind that would reach from sea to sea.  It was necessary to occupy the land to accomplish that goal.  Astor’s vision included such a colony.
He referred to it as Astoria, which is the title of Peter Stark’s new book.  “Astoria” is as much an adventure story on the level of Jon Krakauer’s books as it is a neglected history of America’s far western beginnings.  The harsh conditions of the climate, the difficulty of even reaching the destination as much as conquering it for civilization, the hostility of the Indian tribes, all combined to make it an astonishing accomplishment that anyone would attempt such an enterprise. To be successful once getting there would be a bonus of unexpected proportion.
Stark follows both an overland and a by sea expedition begun by Astor.  The chances of material wealth were enormous.  Beaver and seal skins were in great demand and the game was plentiful beyond measure. Millions of the animals were available.  It would not be unheard of for 80,000 seal skins to be sent to China.
But perhaps the odds were too enormous.  Astoria never became a colony of America, but the beginnings of what would be the far western territories of the United States was established, and the rival countries were eventually overwhelmed by the American presence.  Stark concludes that Americans like success stories such as the Lewis and Clark expedition.  In  contrast Astoria was not immediately a success.  Perhaps this is the reason that the story is seldom told.  It’s a bit of an unknown chapter in our history.  But Stark gives credit for one of the return trips to the east of an Astor expedition marking the foundation of what would become the Oregon Trail through the Rocky Mountains, which would make it possible for future wagon trains to colonize the western territories and claim them for the U.S.
Washington Irving was hired to write a history of the colony, which was published in 1836.  It was a collection of several personal diaries kept by members of Asor’s company.  The book was a huge success at the time, lending more interest in the far west as American territory, the importance it would mean to the new republic.
Stark’s book is an interesting account of all the trials and tribulations that were encountered along the way, a very enjoyable book about men and women on the edge of civilization, suffering deprivations that seem unbelievable now.  How they survived is story enough.  Their accomplishments add to their legacy.
Why wasn’t Astoria a success?  Astor blamed it on poor leadership at critical times.  But he was never on the frontier in the front lines with his men.  The conditions were too harsh, the time wasn’t right, and perhaps Astor was correct.  Leadership always seems to be an important key.  Perhaps there was no one like Lewis or Clark there to make the decisions.  But the story is no less remarkable.
-Steve Corrigan
“Redployment”  by Phil Klay.  Published by Penguin Press.  Releases on March 4.
“Redeployment” by Phil Klay is a collection of short stories about Iraq War veterans which will rank with the best of the fictional accounts of the war, such as “Little Birds,” “You Know When the Men Are Gone,” and “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.”  Because of the quality of the personal memoirs of redeploymentsoldiers in the war, the fictional accounts sometimes get overlooked.  This won’t be the case with Klay’s book.  It allows the author to jump from one place to the next, to have multiple narrators, to consider more than one aspect of the experience.  There’s not a wasted word here.  “The dialogue is impressive. The writing is clean and direct.  After reading this book, it would seem impossible to ever again view war as a romantic venture.
The title story, as well as “Money as a Weapons System,” and “Psychological Operations” are especially difficult to forget.  This book brings home without any doubt the cost of war on an individual’s future life, the problems in returning to society after being required to do what has been asked of him or her, and how veterans view civilians who have no concept of what the veteran goes through.  In a war where only 1% of the population has participated, isolation would seem like a natural state of mind for a veteran.
It will be interesting to see where Klay goes from here.  He seems on the verge of a prosperous future as a writer and a social commentator.
-Steve Corrigan
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