Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Eiffel's Tower by Jill Jonnes

Eiffel's Tower

Eiffel's Tower
and the World's Fair
by Jill Jonnes

Hardback: 383 pages
Publisher: Viking
First Released: 2009

Author Website
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Source: review copy from publisher

Back Cover Description:
The story of the world-famous monument and the extraordinary world’s fair that introduced it

Since it opened in May 1889, the Eiffel Tower has been an iconic image of modern times—not only as an enduring and beloved symbol of Paris and French culture but as a beacon of technological progress and a herald of the Machine Age. Yet when the self-made millionaire and engineer Gustave Eiffel won a contest to erect a colossal tower as the spectacular centerpiece of the 1889 Exposition Universelle, Parisian tastemakers were outraged, denouncing Eiffel's proposed thousand-foot tower as a "hideous" blot on their historic city, even as fearful residents brought lawsuits amid predictions of certain structural calamity.

In Eiffel’s Tower, Jill Jonnes, critically acclaimed author of Conquering Gotham, recounts the compelling history of the tower’s conception, building, and reception in Belle Epoque France. Eiffel, a hugely gifted builder of remarkable railroad bridges, persevered despite the criticism, and his two-hundred workers raced to assemble 18,038 pieces of wrought iron with two and a half million rivets to create the world's tallest building, its iron skeleton rising to dominate the Parisian skyline.

But the Eiffel Tower is only part of this story, for the Paris Exposition itself was a milestone of emerging technology, late nineteenth-century globalism, and an extraordinary flourishing of the arts and journalism. Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, featuring the famous sharpshooter Annie Oakley and a full retinue of Native Americans, enthralled Parisians, while Thomas Edison who came there to promote his new talking phonograph in Europe was feted as a genius; the painters Whistler, Gauguin, and van Gogh were exploring new frontiers in art; and James Gordon Bennet, Jr., of The New York Herald was reinventing the news. At the fanciful exposition grounds, fairgoers crowded Asian and African shops and mock villages, fascinated by these first glimpses of the newly global world of colonial empire and trade.

Eiffel's Tower is a richly textured portrait of a visionary, of an architectural icon, and of an era at the dawn of modernity reveling in the limitless promise of the future.

This lively and entertaining book is obviously extensively researched. Using newspaper articles, interviews, letters, and so forth, the author lets the reader see events unfold as those who lived at the time saw them.

The book covers the details of the building of the Eiffel Tower as well as the doings of famous people who attended the 1889 Paris World's Fair. The book has nice photos illustrating the building of the tower, showing famous people who attended the world's fair, and scenes from the fair.

Some untranslated French is used in the book, but I got the point even though I don't know French.

Two of my family members were also interested in this book, so we read it aloud. Reviewer Two thought the start of the book was a bit slow (while we were being introduced to so many people). However, once we got to know the characters, he thought the book was one of the most interesting books he'd read in a long time.

Reviewer Three enjoyed the whole book except the epilogue where we're told what happened to these people after the Fair. She was sad to hear what happened to most of them after their high point at the fair since many didn't have happy endings.

I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in the building of the Eiffel Tower or in what happened at the 1889 Paris World's Fair. Also, history buffs interested in technology would probably enjoy this book.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt: Chapter One
We Meet Our Characters, Who Intend to Dazzle the World at the Paris Exposition

On the cold afternoon of January 12, 1888, Annie Oakley was sitting comfortably in her apartment across from Madison Square Garden in New York, making tea and toasting muffins, when she heard a knock at the door. Her visitor was a journalist from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, come to hear what America’s most celebrated sharpshooting female was up to. He stepped into the cozy space to find a great jumble. “The sitting-room,” he reported, “was littered with breech-loading shotguns, rifles, and revolvers, while the mantel-piece and tables were resplendent with gold and silver trophies brought back from Europe by this slender yet muscular Diana of the Northwest.” Fêted and lionized by an enthralled Old World aristocracy, Oakley, twenty-seven, had returned home triumphantly three weeks earlier bearing lavish tokens of admiration, now displayed all round the apartment: two sets of silverware, a solid- silver teapot, antique sugar bowls. As for the purebred St. Bernard, it was en route with her horses. “I suppose a crack shot in petticoats was a novelty and curiosity to them,” she said between sips of tea.

Nor was that all, she confided to the reporter: her fame as the star attraction of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in London had inspired “four offers of marriage, including one from a French count.” A Welshman had sent along his photo with his proposal. “I shot a bullet through the head of the photograph,” said Annie, “and mailed it back with ‘respectfully declined’ on it. . . . I am Mrs. Butler in private life, although always Annie Oakley on the bills.” She regaled the reporter with stories of meeting the king of Denmark and the Prince and Princess of Wales, laughing merrily as she told of a close scrape in Berlin, where she had found the avenue to her hotel closed during the Russian czar’s visit. Determined to reach her room, she had dashed through a police barrier and been hotly pursued: “I rolled under an iron gate and spoiled my clothes, and the enraged guards went plumb against the gate. . . . Of course, I laughed at their discomfiture, but I tell you I was a bit scared when I remembered that I had a box of cartridges with me. Why, if they had caught me I should have surely been held as a Nihilist.”

A petite, attractive woman who had started shooting game at a young age in Ohio to help her widowed mother feed the family, Annie was also a virtuoso seamstress who designed, sewed, and embroidered her own beaded and fringed cowgirl costumes. Performing with the Wild West, she had been catapulted to stardom as America’s best-known woman sharpshooter. In 1884, when Chief Sitting Bull joined the Wild West for a season, he adopted her, naming her “Little Sure Shot.”

“She looked innocent and above reproach,” observed biographer Shirl Kasper, “a sweet little girl—yet was a sharpshooter of matchless ability. That paradox was part of her appeal. She had a pleasant, wide smile, and thick, dark hair cut close around her face and worn long in back, falling over her shoulders. There was magnetism in the way she smiled, curtsied in the footlights, and did that funny little kick as she ran into the wings.” Of future plans after her success across the pond, Annie Oakley revealed to the World’s reporter only this: “I will practice horse back shooting,” and that Europe might beckon once again in 1889, “as I have very flattering offers from there.”

Soon enough Annie Oakley and a lively crowd of Gallic and American go-getters, artists, thinkers, politicians, and rogues would be making Belle Époque Paris their stage, for the French republican government was organizing the most ambitious World’s Fair yet, the Exposition Universelle of 1889. While the year marked the centennial of the fall of the Bastille, the government preferred to highlight more noble sentiments: “We will show our sons what their fathers have accomplished in the space of a century through progress in knowledge, love of work and respect for liberty,” proclaimed Georges Berger, the fair’s general manager. Since 1855, the French had been holding an international exposition in Paris every eleven years (more or less), each more gigantic and wondrous than the last. This particular exposition was to be “an advertisement for the Republican system, which for 18 years had kept at bay the Royalists and Bonapartists on the right and the representatives of various socialist tendencies on the left. The philosophy in power was to be seen as humanist, philanthropic, opening its arms to all of humanity.” Already, the French and the Americans— republican allies but also rivals—were looking to make their respective marks at this World’s Fair, each determined to uphold national honor at what might be the last great international exhibition of the nineteenth century.

Read the rest of Chapter One.

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