A Reading List for Francophiles
Here are a few of my favorite books about French language, culture, and history. If you’re in the mood for an informative but lighthearted look at making a home in Paris, start with L’appart, by David Lebovitz. In a similar vein, (Not Quite) Mastering the Art of French Living is a hilarious memoir about trying to find one’s way, literally and figuratively, in France. For a more serious examination of language and culture, read The Bonjour Effect and La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life. If you want to sound smart at a dinner party, read (and annotate) A History of France and How the French Saved America . On with the reading list, then…
The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed, by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau
A practical primer on what to say and when to say it, The Bonjour Effect should be required reading for American expats in France. You can’t play the game of life in France if you don’t know the code. Read this book with a highlighter in hand, and commit its “rules” to memory. The Bonjour Effect goes far beyond casual French conversation, delving into the driving forces behind French language, culture, and behaviors. You’ll learn why language purism is increasingly regarded as right wing, and why the French government so vehemently defends the separation between church and state. Informative, entertaining, and indispensable.
A History of France, by John Julius Norwich
A comprehensive history of France featuring a fascinating cast of characters, all written in the “definite assurance of style” (Library Journal) for which prolific historian John Julius Norwich is known. Learn something! “The major achievement of this book is the very fact that Norwich takes each of the four rulers to be a piece of the same story . . . written with often humming literary verve.” ?New York Times Book Review
L’appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home, by David Lebovitz
As charming as it is informative, L’appartoffers a chef’s eye view of the beauty and bureaucratic madness that is France.
After moving from San Francisco to Paris, Lebovitz spent a decade living in a tiny top-floor flat with a magnificent view of the City of Light. When he finally decided to buy his own place, he had no idea what he was in for. In this fresh, funny memoir, sprinkled with insider knowledge about Paris life (sales only happen twice a year, for example, and baguettes always come wrapped in tiny paper “because excess is ground upon in France”), Lebovitz chronicles his attempt to buy and remodel a Paris apartment amidst miles of red tape and misunderstandings. Each chapter ends with a recipe, which, for the culinarily untalented among us, may prove as daunting as dealing with the Parisian real estate agents and electricians. Even if you can’t imagine pulling off a pain perdu caramelise, you’ll be happy to learn that pain perdu got its name because it “takes lost (perdu) bread and turns it around, making it something marvelous.”
Leibovitz’s love of his adopted city, as well as his passion for the bounty of the Parisian marche, comes through loud and clear. An utter delight.
Beginning French, by Les Americains
A light-hearted look at part-time expat life in a French village. While the narrator’s voice may at times remind you of a creepy uncle, you can learn a few things about how to get long with the locals.
La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, by Elaine Sciolino
Don’t let the title and the silly cover deter you. La Seduction is a highly informative examination of French culture from the perspective of the former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times. In this thoroughly researched book, Sciolino dives deep into French history to explain how and why seduction is as much an intellectual pursuit as a carnal one. From food to fragrance to politics, Sciolino argues, seduction is deeply ingrained in the French way of looking at the world. Although the narrative at times feels forced to meet the theme, there is much to learn from Sciolino’s interviews with politicians, executives, farmers, perfumiers, fashion icons, and chefs.
Not Quite Mastering the Art of French Living, by Mark Greenside
A hilarious look at trying to navigate life in France, literally and figuratively. Worth buying the book just for the story of the roundabout, the car accident, and the strangely accommodating car rental agency.
How the French Saved America is of particular interest to me, as I grew up in the coastal Alabama city of Mobile, which has a longstanding love affair with the Marquis de la Lafayette and which was founded in 1702 by two French-Canadian brothers, Pierre le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste le Moyne, and which served as the capital of the French Louisiana territory until 1720.
Originally published at Michelle Richmond.