Paris to the Moon
by Adam Gopnik
You may know Adam Gopnik from his writings in The New Yorker, especially his writings about Paris. In the book Paris to the Moon Gopnik wanders the streets of Paris, eats in the cafes, talks to Parisians and introduces his child to the joys of the French urban life. Writing with wit, humor and sympathy, Gopnik describes raising a family in a foreign culture. Anyone traveling with children to another country would find this book funny, refreshing and full of insights. "We went to Paris for a sentimental reeducation – I did anyway – even though the sentiments we were instructed in were not the ones we were expecting to learn, which I believe is why they call it an education."
"Paris to the Moon is purportedly about France, but by the end we feel we have learned about more than just one country, we've learned – through the prism of France – about differences among societies, and so too about our own particularities." – Alain de Botton, The New York Times
"I've wanted to live in Paris since I was eight. I had a lot of pictures of the place in my head and even a Parisian object, what I suppose I'd have to call an icon in my bedroom. Sometime in the mid-sixties my mother, who has a flair for the odd, ready-made present, found – I suppose in an Air France office in Philadelphia – a life-size cardboard three-dimensional cutout of a Parisian policeman. He had on a blue uniform and red kepi and blue cape, and he wore a handlebar mustache and a smile. (The smile suggests how much Art, or at any rate Air France, improves on Life, or at any rate on Paris policemen.)" – Paris to the Moon, Random House, 2001 edition.
Haussmann or the Distinction
by Paul La Farge
This novel is the story of Baron Haussmann who served as prefect of the Seine in the mid-eighteen hundreds. La Farge has written a sophisticated novel that describes the complete re-making of Paris by Haussmann, from a dirty old town to the city we know today, a city of grandeur and light, of great buildings and wide tree-lined avenues. Haussmann or the Distinction is as much the story of the city as it is of the man, the city planner. Historical and cultural aspects of Paris abound in this enjoyable and compelling story of a man and his passions.
"La Farge's highly original, socio-historical novel has all the underpinnings of a Dickensian yarn, but its world is observed with the humorous eye of an amused gossip. Just delightful." – Michael Spinella, Booklist
"There is a story that Baron Haussmann, who rebuilt Paris in the middle of the last century, on his deathbed wished all his work undone. 'Would that it died with me!' he is supposed to have said, though as he died of a congestion of the lungs his last words may have been garbled. If the doctor who heard them and, astonished, wrote them down, made no mistake, then we're left with a riddle, for in life Haussmann seemed incapable of regret. Regret is a backward-turning emotion, and the Baron was famous for rectilinearity; he straightened the boulevards and razed the crooked neighborhoods where tanners' sheds fronted cracked courtyards and sewer-ditches spilled over into the bins of wire and paper petals of the artificial flower-makers for which the city, before his arrival on the scene, was famous." – Haussmann or the Distinction, Picador, 2002 edition.
The Discovery of France
by Graham Robb
A New York Times Notable Book, The Discovery of France offers a delectable menu of characters and events that built the France we know today. Mapmakers, scientists, builders and many others are described, along with their journeys and discoveries. Robb knows how to keep the reader engaged. He is full of interesting anecdotes that bring French history and culture to life.
"A witty, engaging narrative style ... [Robb's] approach is particularly engrossing." – The New York Times Book Review
"This is, above all, a careful and tolerant book: impossible to think of better qualities in a traveling companion." – Ruth Scurr, The Nation
"After the Revolution, almost a third of the population (about ten million people) lived in isolated farms and cottages or in hamlets with fewer than thirty-five inhabitants and often no more than eight. A peasant girl who went to work in Paris might, when looking through the scullery window at the street, see more people at a glance than she had known in her entire previous life. Many recruits from the Dordogne in 1830 were unable to give the recruiting sergeant their surnames because they had never had to use them. Until the invention of cheap bicycles, the known universe, for many people, had a radius of less than fifteen miles and a population that could easily fit into a small barn." – The Discovery of France, W.W. Norton & Company, 2007 edition.
The Sun King
by Nancy Mitford
The Sun King by Nancy Mitford is a delightfully readable account of France's Golden Age and the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. We follow the daily life of the king until he dies 54 years after he reconstructs a hunting lodge into the palace of Versailles. Not only do we have court intrigues and love affairs and poisonings, but also the amazing history of the building and the filling of the palace with treasures. For anyone planning to visit Versailles this book is a "must read."
"Irreverently lifts the skirts of the dolls of Versailles and rummages underneath, exploring one gem of irresistible detail after another. ...xA glorious tribute to a glorious age." – The Irish Times
"(Mitford's) interest is focused on the human beings whose hopes, frustrations, and tragedies are hidden behind the stiff brocade of the period. The splendid century had its seamy side, and her racy narrative alternates between the glory and the grime, the ermine and the vermin." – The New York Times
"Louis XIV fell in love with Versailles and Louise de La Valliere at the same time; Versailles was the love of his life. For years before he lived there it was never out of his mind. When he was at the seat of government or away on hunting visits or with his army at the front he had to be sent a daily report on the work in hand on his house down to the tiniest details; and he never stopped adding to and improving the place while there was breath in his body." – The Sun King, Penguin, 1994 edition.
Five Quarters of the Orange
by Joanne Harris
Joanne Harris, author of the popular Chocolat, writes again about a small village in France. In this tale a woman returns to the village where she grew up as a child during the German occupation. At the center of the novel is a tragedy that took place during the war in the village that continues to torment the protagonist. The complicated situation of the occupiers and the occupied and how they related to one another is explored in this very readable novel.
"Just as she did in Chocolat, Harris indulges her love of rich and mouth-watering descriptive passages, appealing to the senses with seductively foreign names, and evoking the textures and smells of food. These descriptions are suffused with a child's wide-eyed wonder that lends the story a magical quality, almost like a folk tale or a children's story." – Stephanie Merritt, The Observer
"She always meant for Cassis to have the farm. But Cassis was the first to leave, casually defiant, for Paris, breaking all contact except for his signature on a card every Christmas, and when she died, thirty years on, there was nothing to interest him in a half-derelict farmhouse on the Loire. I bought it from him with my own savings, my widow money, and at a good price too, but it was a fair deal, and he was happy enough to make it then. He understood the need to keep the place in the family." – Five Quarters of the Orange, HarperCollins, 2002 edition.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
by Victor Hugo
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is less about the characters we remember: Quasimodo and Esmeralda, than about the cathedral itself and 15th century Paris. The French title, after all, is Le Notre Dame de Paris. Hugo has a way in his novels of leaving the plot for pages at a time to delve into historical and societal issues, but if you enjoy this, you will love his writing. The human drama of the plot line is enough to keep one reading. Great scenes of Paris abound.
"It is 348 years, six months and nineteen days ago today that the citizens of Paris were awakened by the pealing of all the bells in the triple precincts of the City, the University and the Town. ...xYet 6 January 1482 is not a day preserved in history. There was nothing remarkable about the event which, so early in the morning, thus set in motion the bells and the good people of Paris ... what had bestirred the whole population of Paris was the joint observance, as from time immemorial, of the day of the Kings and the Feast of Fools. ...xOn that day there would be bonfires in the Place de Grev, a maypole would be planted at the chapel of Braque and a mystery play would be performed at the Palace of Justice." – The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Signet Classics, 2010 edition.
by Honoré De Balzac
Everyone should read at least one Balzac novel in one's life. To miss Balzac's intricate plotting and his depictions of French society would be missing much. Cousin Bette, set in 19th century Paris is full of wonderful plots and subplots. In it we find passion, revenge, greed, romance and characters driven to great extremes. Our common human foibles are well exhibited. All the characters are clearly drawn amid the background of Paris social life.
"Balzac's novels have a comic liveliness, as if the author's fascination with the social scene were unbounded and its very energy compensated for its repellent inhabitants." – Jane Smiley, The Guardian
"Toward the middle of July in the year 1838, a vehicle of the kind known as a milord which had recently appeared on the Paris streets, was going along the Rue de l'Université. In it was a portly man of middle height, wearing the uniform of a captain of the National Guard. Amongst Parisians, who are reputed to be so intelligent, there are some who think they look infinitely better in uniform than in their ordinary clothes and who assume that women's tastes are so depraved that they will be favorably impressed by the sight of a bearskin cap and military accouterments." – Cousin Bette, Oxford University Press, 2008 edition.
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
by Tom Reiss
This is the story of General Alex Dumas, the father of Alexandre Dumas who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. General Dumas, was the son of a black Haitian slave and a French Count who found his way to Paris and became a military commander during the French Revolution. The father, General Dumas, an amazing figure in history, also found his way into his son's novels. One learns much about the French Revolution, but many other things as well in this incredible memoir. A great way to absorb history.
"Fascinating, a richly imaginative biography." – The New York Times Book Review
"To tell this tale, Reiss must cover the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and the rise of Napoleon toward Empire; he does all that with remarkable verve." – The Wall Street Journal
"'Among the Muslims, men from every class who were able to catch sight of General Bonaparte were struck by how short and skinny he was,' wrote the chief medical officer of the expedition. 'The one, among our generals, whose appearance struck them more was ... the General-in-Chief of the cavalry, Dumas. Man of color, and by his figure looming like a centaur, when they saw him ride his horse over the trenches, going to ransom prisoners, all of them believed that he was the leader of the expedition.'" – The Black Count, Broadway Books, 2013 edition.
by Irene Nemirovsky
Before Nemirovsky was deported to Auschwitz, she began a series of five novellas, two of which were partially completed. In Suite Francaise the author tells the story of people fleeing Paris as the Nazis take over, as she herself did. Nemirovsky captures the intimate details of this life, from the way people worry about things that don't really matter, to trying to exist with their enemy when it is required. These are people just attempting to get by in terrible times. The everydayness makes this novel very real. Tragedy and comedy abound. Best to read the novel before reading the appendices.
"She wrote what may be the first work of fiction about what we now call World War II. She also wrote, for all to read at last, some of the greatest, most humane and incisive fiction that conflict has produced." – Paul Gray, The New York Times Book Review
" ... glowing with life. Its tone reflects a deep understanding of human behavior under pressure and a hard-won, often ironic composure in the face of violation." – Helen Dunmore, The Guardian
"Hot, thought the Parisians. The warm air of spring. It was night, they were at war and there was an air raid. But dawn was near and the war far away. The first to hear the hum of the siren were those who couldn't sleep – the ill and bedridden, mothers with sons at the front, women crying for the men they loved. To them it began as a long breath, like air being forced into a deep sigh. It wasn't long before its wailing filled the sky. It came from afar, from beyond the horizon, slowly, almost lazily. Those still asleep dreamed of waves breaking over pebbles, a March storm whipping the woods, a herd of cows trampling the ground with their hooves, until finally sleep was shaken off and they struggled to open their eyes, murmuring, 'Is it an air raid?'" – Suite Francaise, Vintage, 2007 edition.
by Andrew Miller
Pure won the 2011 Costa Book of the Year Award and was also short-listed for the IMPAC Award (one of my favorite awards from which to draw great books). A historical novel set just before the French Revolution, the main character, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, an engineer, comes to Paris to make his fortune. He ends up working for the government excavating the cemetery of Les Innocents. A true account of the moving of the bones from this cemetery, the book follows the engineer, the people he meets, and the frustrations and ideals he carries with him. Miller turns out to be a fine writer adept at setting a scene and bringing the reader along on amazing journeys day and night. A novel full of ideas and historical ironies.
“A novel of ideas disguised as a ghost story, voluptuously atmospheric, Pure exerts a sensual hold over the reader.” – Kathryn Harrison, The New York Times Sunday Book Review
“Intelligent, serious and thought-provoking, but also entertainingx…x.” – The Guardian
“A young man, young but not very young, sits in an anteroom somewhere, some wing or other, in the Palace of Versailles. He is waiting. He has been waiting a long time. There is no fire in the room, though it is the third week in October and cold as Candlemas. His legs and back are stiffening from it – the cold and three days of travelling through it, first with Cousin André from Bellême to Nogent, then the coach, over full with raw-faced people in winter coats, baskets on their laps, parcels under their feet, some travelling with dogs, one old man with a cockerel under his coat.” – Pure, Sceptre, 2011 edition.