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10 September 2011

French tidbits

            I’ve been reading Graham Robb’s Parisians: an adventure history of Paris with unexpected delight.  The research is meticulous, yet the prose is light and quick.  The anecdotes are fascinating: Napoleon’s youthful encounter with a prostitute before his rise to power, Marie Antoinette’s failed escape due to want of a good map, and so on.  Great reading.

            From the book I learned that Paris once had a street named Rue d’Enfer, the road of hell.  In 1774, a great chasm suddenly opened up forming a sinkhole.  Several houses on the Rue d’Enfer were swallowed up by the earth.  This event lead architectural genius Charles-Axel Guillaumot to discover that most of the city was in peril due to ancient mining tunnels snaking through the ground below houses, churches, and taverns alike.  Half the city was propped up on unstable piles of quarried stones.  He rebuilt the Parisian underground, and the name of the street was changed.

            While it is understandable that people at the time believed the road was named prophetically, the etymology of the street name was mysterious.  Today, the source is considered unknown, but etymologists of the period were somewhat more inventive, in all senses of the word:

“in the days of the Romans, the Rue St. Jacques was the Via Superior, while this street, being the lower of the two, was the Via Inferior or Infera.  And so it was that, by corruption and contraction, it assumed the name ENFER.”
(Hurtaut and Magny, Dictionnaire historique de la ville de Paris et de ses environs.  Paris, 1779.)

I prefer the old to the new.  Happy reading.

04 September 2011

Richard’s six books for the end of summer

The cool weather outside has reminded me that glorious summer is coming to an end, and that we who live in the tundra must get out and enjoy it while we can.  It has also reminded me that the peculiar season known as ‘Summer reading’ is also coming to a close, so here I offer six books to get that last bit of ‘fun’ reading in before the more serious tomes are taken up, the textbooks are cracked open, or the office spreadsheets begin to propagate in depressing numbers.  The first three books are fiction and, while they are not light, they are also not Ulysses.  The second three books are nonfiction, and are a little more serious without being heavily academic.

  1. Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez
  2. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
  3. A Heart So White by Javier Marías
  4. Monsters of the Gévaudan: the making of a beast by Jay M. Smith
  5. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
  6. Ideas That Matter by A. C. Grayling

Happy reading!