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Gail Vida Hamburg

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Paris on the Brain: Books for Spring Vacationers and Armchair Travelers

Posted: 05/10/10 03:17 PM ET

After a dark, cold, and rainy winter, warm weather has finally come to Paris, brightening its days and turning even the most crabby Parisian's mood sunny. Daffodils are in bloom and the cafés, parks, and banks of the Seine fill with people, animating the city. But whatever the weather, the City of Lights has always inspired writers, and there is a wealth of literature on the subject.

With the euro at a recent low, travel to France is now more affordable than it has been in recent months. But whether you're planning a visit or whether you're an enthusiastic virtual traveler, here's a list of some excellent Paris-related books, from food-related novels to cookbooks to psychological analysis of the cultural differences between Americans and the French. Of course, this is a highly idiosyncratic list, by no means exhaustive--and, fair warning to the wise, though the most obvious ones (A Moveable Feast et al.) have been omitted, all are written by people who know Paris.

Current Fiction Set in Paris:

Foreign Tongue, by Vanina Marsot. Unlike most books by Americans about Paris, this impressive first novel is written by a bilingual French-American author who knows the city and its inhabitants intimately. While both a romance and a mystery, ultimately this story is a subtle, humorous, and insightful look at the cultural and linguistic differences between two languages and peoples, and one woman's search to find her place among them.

Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes, by Elizabeth Bard, is a novel about an American woman who falls in love with her Breton husband over food--at the 19th century restaurant, Chartrier, in Paris--but with a twist: she includes recipes for classic French dishes, including baby cream puff shells, known as chouquettes. Perfect stuff for the long plane trip.

Understanding the French:

Adam Gopnik's essays about Paris that originally appeared in the New Yorker and were then compiled in Paris to the Moon, explain essential points like, "What's the difference between Café Le Flore and Les Deux Magots?" Full of sharp insights, this collection covers everything from politics to restaurants to an encounter between French children and Barney, the purple dinosaur.

French and Americans: The Other Shore, by Pascal Baudry, translated by Jean-Louis Morhange. The author, a French-born and naturalized American, writes extensively on the cultural and psychological differences between the French and Americans. Serious, at times dense, material by a profound thinker who has clearly given years of thought to the subject.

Seven Ages of Paris, by Alistair Horne. The author, an eminent historian, discusses seven key periods in French history, sprinkling politics with portraits of major figures and interesting discussion of the foods and fashions of the day.

Understanding the French, part deux:

Heather Stimmler-Hall's Naughty Paris: A Lady's Guide to the Sexy City may be just what a certain kind of traveler needs: witty, straightforward information ranging from the slightly naughty (romantic restaurants, recommended spas, clothing boutiques), to the somewhat naughty (erotic bookstores, sex toy shops), to the decidedly naughty (libertine or sex clubs, fetish groups). Stimmler-Hall, the author of the popular "Secrets of Paris" newsletter, is an intrepid and tasteful guide.

Vintage Paris:

Edmund White's Le Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris was published in 2001, which shouldn't make it vintage except that White, who lived in Paris for several years, includes so many fascinating stories about some of the city's earlier residents that it feels part history, part memoir, and part travel guide. A shaggy read, beautifully suited to the geographical wanderings and social observations of its informed author.

For those whose preference runs more to genre literature, there's the great, prolific Georges Simenon, a Belgian who moved to Paris and wrote nearly 200 novels, 75 of them featuring the crime-solving Inspector Maigret. Less well-known in the US is Léo Malet, whose detective Nestor Burma features in several books, as well as five comic book adaptations by Jacques Tardi.

Paris is possibly the world's most photographed city. Take a look at the work of Eugène Atget, who documented the city during the first three decades of the 20th century, as well as Hungarian photographer Brassaï, who took pictures mostly in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Taschen publishes some very affordable books of their work.

French Lit in Translation:

Hunting and Gathering, by Anna Gavalda. An enormous bestseller in France when it came out, this novel was subsequently turned into a film starring everyone's favorite gamine, Audrey Tautou. In this satisfying tome, a bunch of young, troubled, and eccentric characters share a huge apartment in Paris as they find love and themselves. If thick doorstopper novels aren't your thing, take a look at her collection of bittersweet short stories, I Wish Someone Were Waiting for me Somewhere.

Another huge bestseller when it came out, 9.99 A Novel, by Frédéric Beigbeder, is the story of a slick ad man's downward spiral and redemption. Though it was made into a film, read the book by media icon Beigbeder, who currently hosts a TV show about current film releases.

The Mystery Guest, by Grégoire Bouillier, is about a bewildered man's attempt to deal with a dinner party invitation from a long-lost, but never forgotten-- or gotten over, for that matter, ex-girlfriend. Bouillier's observations are both stunningly neurotic and totally relatable.

All About Food:

Chocolate and Zucchini: Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen, by Clotilde Dusoulier. The author, a bilingual Frenchwoman, writes a wonderful eponymous blog about her various culinary endeavors. Reading her blog taught me how to make the most delicious veal shank, nestled on a bed of shallots and coriander seeds. Her book is both a fun read and an excellent cookbook.

David Lebowitz's The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - and Perplexing - City is a delightful tome all about sweets. Worth looking at just for what he does with caramel, particularly the salted caramel ice cream.

The Patisseries of Paris: Chocolatiers, Tea Salons, Ice Cream Parlors and More, by Jamie Cahill and Allison Harris, is a thorough compendium to the best places to indulge your sweet tooth. Aside from the usual suspects (Angelina, Berthillon, Ladurée, Pierre Hermé), the authors include Sacha Finkelsztajn in the Marais (amazing cheesecake), and the café at the Jacquemart-André Museum, the only place in Paris where you can have raspberry tart under a ceiling painted by Tiepolo.

As for food guides to eating in Paris, despite the popularity of Zagat, Michelin, and their ilk, it seems advisable to take a look at what Parisians consult before picking a restaurant. If you read passable French, take a look at the Guide Lebey, a pared-down guide to Parisian restaurants, listing only a few venues per arrondissement, with detailed descriptions that include ratings of the coffee and bread. Also useful is the annual guidebook published by Le Fooding, hipster foodies and their website: www.lefooding.com.

Paris for Children:

This is Paris, by Miroslav Sasek. This is one of the best picture books to buy for young friends. Originally published in 1959, this delightful book is a perfect gift for the very young, especially for a first trip to the city. For older kids, Eloise wreaks her particular brand on havoc on the city in Eloise in Paris, by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight.

 
 
 

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