The Paris Architect

To be honest, this book never stood a chance with me. Why? Because when a historian (me) reads a fictitious account (The Paris Architect) that takes place in her field of knowledge (Vichy France,) she is bound to be overly critical. Here’s a quick look at what I liked and didn’t like about this book.

Liked:

  1. The premise was interesting. An architect creates hiding places for Jews in Paris under Nazi Occupation.
  2. The protagonist was complex. Lucien Bernard hadn’t seen work since WWII began. Desperate for money, he agrees to design a hiding place for a wealthy Jew in return for a large sum of money and the promise of a huge commission. Bernard isn’t particularly likable in the beginning, having no compassion for his fellow man suffering at the hands of the Nazis. His story is similar to other’s from the Holocaust; initially, Lucien was a war profiter who capitalized on other’s sufferings. However, much like Oskar Schindler, he realized the importance of helping the Nazis’ victims and became a staunch ally to the Jews.
  3. The author, Charles Belfoure, is an architect. His knowledge of building techniques really shine in this book and provides exceptional details that help the narrative.

Didn’t Like:

  1. Some of the history wasn’t right. His description of Vichy, Jewish deportations, and the Resistance are in line with Vichy scholarship. However, he mentions Maurice Papon in passing and makes two claims that aren’t true. First, Belfoure states that Papon was an architect. In two years of studying this man (I wrote my thesis on ol’ Maurice,) I never found any indication that he was an architect. Papon had an extensive career as a civil servant, but that’s it. Second, he claims that Papon was involved in the Parisian police during WWII, that’s simply not the case. Papon was in charge of the Jewish Question division in the Bordeaux area during the Second World War. While it is true he organized Jewish deportations, he did not do so in Paris. In fact, he did not become chief of police in Paris until after the war.
  2. Belfoure’s writing needs some work. His choice of words does not fit with the 1940s, and that really bothered me.
  3. He introduced too many characters and groups. Belfoure got a little carried away with his characters. Vichy is a multi-faceted topic and it’s best to just focus on one aspect. Belfoure introduced the Gestapo and the Resistance, as well as multiple Jews who needed hiding, and nearly everyone in that network. Pair that with all the architectural lingo, and anyone reading is bound to feel overwhelmed. The parts with the Resistance didn’t add much to the story and could have been left out. There were several characters whose stories never got a conclusion, which left the book feeling unfinished.

Another Thing to Note:

The descriptions of Gestapo torture are very graphic. If you aren’t used to reading that type of content, it may be best to skip over it.

I can’t say that I was completely disappointed with The Paris Architect; it was a fast read and I couldn’t put it down. However, more editing and fact-checking would’ve taken this book from 3 stars to 4.

Publication Info

The Paris Architect. Charles Belfoure. Sourcebooks. 2013.

371 pages

ISBN: 1402284314

17456328

 

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Devil in the White City

I almost never recommend historical books, especially if they’re non-fiction. Mostly because historical non-fiction written is almost always written for historians. While I read a lot of excellent books published by academic presses, I would never tell my friends to read them because, quite frankly, academic reading is much more rigorous than leisure reading.

Erik Larson’s work is the best of both worlds. Seriously. Larson was trained as a historian and a journalist, which means he knows how to dig for evidence and analyze what he finds, and write a narrative. Devil  is actually two stories- the first is of the building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the second of H.H. Holmes, America’s first known serial killer. Larson weaves accounts of Holmes’ murders against the backdrop of the designing of the World’s Fair.

The chapters on Holmes are, at times, gruesome, but I found them to be well-balanced with the story of the World’s Fair. This book does have a lot of detail in it, but I could not put it down. If you liked Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, I think you might like this one, although if you’re not a fan of Capote, you might still enjoy the history of the Chicago World’s Fair.

As a side note, have you read The Road by Cormac McCarthy? I’ve been trying to read it for over a week, but I keep losing interest. I think the dragging on may be part of his style and important to the book, but I’m not sure I can finish it. What do you think, should I hang in there, or move on to the next book?

Publication Info

Erik Larson. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. Vintage Books, 2004.

ISBN:0375725601

447 pages