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07.14.11

Vive la France!

From a classic history by Simon Schama to a new memoir about great day trips from Paris, here are six great books to read on France and the French to celebrate Bastille Day.

Paris to the Past: Traveling Through French History by Train
By Ina Caro

Author Ina Caro delivers the ultimate day trip through French history. Her book describes 25 daytrips that she took by train from Paris to various sites around France, along the way the Caro beautifully details the history that took place in each location. Her plan was to travel “to a different century each day,” and she makes a valiant effort encompassing 700 years of history in the book’s 380 pages. Caro describes her travels chronologically, from sites as old as the 12th-century Cathedral of St. Denis, the royal necropolis, to the restoration at Chantilly in the 19th century, with stops for Marie Antoinette’s beheading, and other famous events along the way. Caro’s book is a charming historical guidebook to all of France that is accessible from Paris in a day.

The House in France: A Memoir
By Gully Wells

In her delightful memoir, Gully Wells recalls growing up with her mother, journalist Dee Wells, and her stepfather, philosopher A.J. Ayer.  The family was at the center of a circle of celebrities that included Isaiah Berlin, Iris Murdoch, Martin Amis, Robert Kennedy, and Claus von Bulow, among others. Though the story also takes place in London and New York, much of it revolves around La Migoua, the family’s house in Provence, where these legends held court. Part tell-all, part travelogue, The House in France, is a charming read for anyone who yearns for the French countryside.

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris
By David McCullough

Historian David McCullough, America’s favorite historian, turns his attention to Paris in his newest book, though it is still very American in nature. McCullough describes the many 19th-century Americans who lived abroad in Paris, such as Mark Twain, John Singer Sargent, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Samuel Morse. The book shows how these American icons were transformed by their  experiences in Paris, and proves that we owe the French more than we think.

Quiet Corners of Paris
By Jean-Christophe Napias

Jean-Christophe Napias searches Paris for hidden and beautiful locations. And he finds them–81 in all. From an overlooked courtyard in the middle of the Louvre to a hallowed cemetery in Montmatre,  Napias shows off the gardens, villas, and streets of Paris that are often ignored. A perfect read for the tourist who wants to escape the crowds and experience hidden Paris.

Marie Antoinette: The Journey
By Antonia Fraser

Antonia Fraser explores the life of France’s ill-fated queen, from her early life as an Austrian archduchess to her final days as a political prisoner during the revolution. Through it all, Fraser creates a highly sympathetic portrait of Marie Antoinette, detailing her humiliations, such as the very public fact that she and her husband were unable to consummate their marriage for seven years. Fraser defends the queen’s lavish spending on clothing and jewelry, which was not uncommon at the time. She also puts to rest several famous unfounded rumors about Marie Antoinette, many of which, Fraser insists, were created by her enemies to discredit her.

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution
By Simon Schama

What better way to celebrate Bastille Day than with this definitive history of, well, the storming of the Bastille and the whole French Revolution? Historian and Newsweek/Daily Beast columnist Simon Schama presents a stunningly researched portrait of the turmoil. The book contains over 200 illustrations, though they are hardly necessary with Schama’s vivid narrative and fascinating research material. Anyone hoping to learn what Bastille Day is all about would do well to start here.