It’s been a rocky year for humanity overall but a great year for readers, particularly those who enjoy books about France or that take place there. In the run-up to the holidays (and for all you last-minute gift givers), here are a few of the titles I particularly enjoyed in 2016.
The second market-driven book from Marjorie Williams is a colorful guide to Provence’s food, antiques, crafts, and other regional specialities. A celebration of market culture, Williams demonstrates that they not only define the Provencial character but their role in forging social bonds among its people. Bonus: it’s small enough to travel with you comfortably!
To say I loved this book is putting it mildly. While Lauren is known for reporting on subjects ranging from Michelle Obama to the political undertones at the Salon de l’Agriculture in Paris, she turned her attention to a much more personal story — her own journey from North Carolina, to London (where she met her French husband Olivier) and to Geneva, where they lived for several years before arriving in Paris. It is at once a hysterical account of the seemingly endless series of hurdles, adjustments, sacrifices and head-scratching moments inherent to expat life and an edifying look at the linguistic implications that run through all of them. She explores identity formation across cultures with an abiding focus on language (and even linguistic theory) — the ways in which it shapes us, why it matters, and how learning a new one can be both a source of tremendous accomplishment and crippling self-doubt (and that’s saying nothing about how infantilizing the process of language acquisition can be). It’s laugh-out-loud funny and resonated with me from the very first page. I know you will enjoy it as much as I did.
Shakespeare and Company: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart
Five years of work and scouring through hundreds of archives later, Krista Halverson and the team at Shakespeare and Company have put out the ultimate compendium of the capital’s most iconic and beloved book shop’s storied history. It features letters, illustrations, poems, pieces by writers, musicians, and archival photographs documenting its important literary history. Within the first few pages, I felt the same pull of nostalgia that the shop elicits each time I step through the door. Its past is tangible and omnipresent but what you don’t fully capture as you browse the labyrinth of books is just how much of a shelter it has been for emerging writers, dreamers, and thinkers from the time Sylvia Beach opened it in 1919. And if you’ve never heard of the Tumbleweeds , bookshop characters in their own right, the book is a good place to start. “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.”
You might recognize Kristen Beddard as the leader of The Kale Project, campaign to raise awareness around the health benefits and versatility of kale in France which she developed shortly after moving to Paris. In the process, she collaborated with chefs and farmers who were willing to work with the leafy green. Her book goes far beyond the merits of kale, however. It is a wonderfully honest tale of expat life, learning to love her adopted home and the hardships that occasionally go along with it. Kristen is a wonderful storyteller and punctuates her anecdotes with easy, delicious recipes that will brighten up your dining routine.
The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs
I may be a resident of the 11th arrondissement and a loyal shopper on the rue Oberkampf, a popular market street, but I love venturing to what I would consider sister streets in Paris. None spring to mind faster than rue des Martyrs, a vibrant street that cuts from the 9th arrondissement up through the 18th arrondissement and is dotted with food merchants, crafters, bakers, café owners, green-grocers, and other hard-working Parisians who make the street magical. For Elaine Sciolino, longtime 9th arrondissement resident and former Paris bureau chief of The New York Times, that dynamic street culture is in need of celebration and preservation because it is fading fast. Equal parts memoir and cultural study, her book depicts village life in the big city with heartfelt prose and a reporter’s keen sense for detail. You’ll fall in love with the book and the street in one sitting.
If there is one name I remember vividly from my time studying abroad at Boston University in Paris it is Walter Benjamin and his exploration of Baudelaire’s concept of the flâneur – a wanderer, a leisure stroller symbolic of the 19th century who loved to be seen as much as he loved to see the world in motion around him. And every mention of this word and the wanderer’s experience is framed within a male context. But how can we understand the way women have historically experienced spaces and cities? Author Lauren Elkin speaks to the female experience — as a flâneuse — through icons like Virginia Woolf, George Sand, Sophie Calle who walked not so much aimlessly and leisurely but defiantly. It was a particular line in Elkin’s piece for The Guardian that caught my attention and drove me to pick up the book (and make it my book club’s first discussion of 2017): “Rather than wandering aimlessly, like her male counterpart, the female flâneur has an element of transgression: she goes where she’s not supposed to.” She went on to say, “Laying claim to flânerie has always enabled women to reroute the paths they were expected to take, and disrupt the lives they were expected to live.” I can’t wait to discuss this one with my fellow readers after the holiday and I hope that you’ll give it a read.
This is one that I’m still reading so will refrain from offering any sort of review but I will encourage you to pick up a copy. I only learned about the book when I saw the author, Anne Sebba, speak at Shakespeare and Company in November alongside a survivor from the women’s resistance movement. She was 13 during the way but recalled in vivid details the comradery among women of all ages who found themselves battling a demon far bigger than themselves. Like many women, she minimized her contributions, unconvinced of the courage it required to surreptitiously distribute pamphlets about the resistance in a city teeming with soldiers ready to pounce. Peppered throughout the historical context of World War II and the impact it had on the daily lives of women in Paris, Sebba’s book tells the stories of individual survivors seldom told, either because they were seen as insignificant (like those of prostitutes), or considered incomparable to the acts of male vigor. This is shaping up to be an important read not only for women everywhere but to understand what these particular women were capable of accomplishing amid the shared trauma of wartime.
French cuisine may not hold the same sway as it did decades ago but its ability to fascinate and inspire is anything but outmoded. Food writer Edward Behr, also the founder of the food magazine The Art of Eating, confirms there are still layers to peel back on the story of French cooking in this incredibly well researched investigation into its symbolism and role in a global society that values invention in food, often to the detriment of its soulfulness, sensuality and accessibility. From Paris to Provence, Behr will take you on a delicious journey to discover the many ways in which French cuisine is still very much relevant and unequivocally superior. “The deliciousness of French food is overt; it’s about appetite.” And there’s a lot to love because of it.
This isn’t a new release but rather a title I discovered this year, thanks to one very special French woman whose familial ties to French cooking run deep. I had the chance to meet Bérangère Loiseau, daughter of legendary French chef Bernard Loiseau, in the spring, knowing little of what her role was in her family’s prominent restaurant and gourmet food business but with an acute awareness of her family’s heritage. Her father was something of a culinary prodigy and at the peak of his career, was considered the most preferred personality among all French people. Against innumerable odds, including bipolar disorder, Loiseau rose to the top, earning three Michelin stars at La Côte d’Or in Saulieu in 1991 after having been brought on to reinvigorate the deteriorating relais in 1975 (he became the owner in 1982). But when he learned that he was at risk for losing one of his stars, he took his own life (although the book documents at length his struggle with manic depression which was likely a factor of his demise). His wife Dominique and his daughter Bérangère went on to run the family businesses, which also include two restaurants in Paris and an exceptional line of gourmet comestibles, and it was within the context of their ongoing work that I met Bérangère.
She knew a bit about my work and asked me to tell her about my book. On our next meeting, she handed me this book, a biography of her father and the culinary context in which he rose, written by a friend and prominent journalist, and said “if you are going to write about food in France, you have to read this. You have to understand why the time from childhood to celebrated chef, was so important.” For the country’s cooking narratives, she couldn’t have been more right. I devoured this book, highlighting passages that illuminated my understanding of the social and culture role of French fine dining and the personalities behind it whose impact reverberated far beyond French borders and continues to inform chefs from all over the world. It also underscores a merciless quest for perfection that continues to characterize the careers of elite chefs and leaves us to question the value of systems that promote nearly unattainable excellence as the primary barometer of success, regardless of the risks.
I hope you’ll find these illuminating, educating, entertaining, or inspiring! What made your reading list in 2016?
Add to your 2017 collection! Read more about my forthcoming book “The New Paris” and if so inclined, pre-order a copy as a holiday gift for fellow Paris lovers!