The discovery of places and history and the spiritual realms of light and dark is always possible in our lives. But travel presents us with an invitation to seek, to search, and to find that which can appear in a flash but holds the potential, depending on how we think of it, to mean everything. - Erin Byrne
France, and Paris in particular, is one of the topics that seems never to be exhausted. Each new book on the topic brings undiscovered delights for Francophiles and those who love European history. Even for armchair travelers, these books, including this new one, Wings, fascinate with their history, color, aesthetic values, and passion. This book could even be seen as an idiosyncratic guidebook.
Wings is a series of essays written by Erin Byrne, an ardent Francophile who travels to France frequently, to visit and to give writing workshops. Her book includes essays on her discoveries of small, somewhat unknown aspects of France--a stained glass window here, a sculpture there, a particular regional dish elsewhere--many in Paris but also in small villages, and biographical information on historic French personalities – -painters, writers, photographers, storytellers among them.
I am a sympathetic reader because I, too, am a Francophile. But I am not the ideal reader because the writer has gone out on a limb that doesn’t appeal to me. She has created imagined conversations and friendships with long-dead artists, among them Henri Cartier-Bresson and Vincent Van Gogh. They just appear to her; they guide her travels. Although not appealing to me, this artifice may reach readers who have had similar experiences, feeling the presence of dead heroes and role models.
One of the author’s more intriguing essays revolves around a famous bookstore. Sylvia Beach began Shakespeare and Company in 1919 at 12, rue de l’Odeon in Paris. Although this store no longer exists, in 1951,
American George Whitman began his own Shakespeare and Company on rue de la Bucherie, across the street from Notre Dame Cathedral. The store, narrow with winding stairs and thousands of good reads, has housed hundreds of young artists willing to live in a corner on a mattress for the privilege of working there. The author writes of this shop’s history and philosophy and writes of an imagined Whitman like she writes of Van Gogh and Cartier Bresson: “In this age of eBooks, audio books, downloadable and virtual books, George holds steadfastly and single-heartedly to the rectangular real thing, which are scattered, staggered, and strewn about when they are not picked up, pored over or propped open.” Whitman died in 2011 but his traditions live on. The author’s lively and loving writing make his shop come alive.
The best part of the book overall is the author’s apparent admiration for everything French: its people; its art; its museums; its architecture; its food; its sense of aesthetics. Being a woman of a certain age, I especially enjoyed an essay in which she assembled advice from French women on how to remain attractive, even sexy (and slim, I might add) after the age of 50.
All in all, this book will most appeal to adventurers who believe as she (and I) do, that travel opens up not only new world and experiences but re-ignites one’s creative impulses. One thing is for certain: if any reader can complete this book and not feel the urgent need to buy plane tickets for France, then the book has not achieved its purpose.
When Byrne is not in Paris or France at large, she lives on the northwest coast of the U.S., where she also writes poetry, fiction, and screenplays.