January 27, 2012

France Resources: Book List

This post comes with a content warning: IF you do not like to read or are not interested in France you might as well stop now, and instead browse the table of contents on the left. This post is all about books and France.

When planning trips, my first goal is drop-dead gorgeous, challenging cycling. But within that I always include visits to cultural venues, historic sites, and places to meet and talk with other people. I use internet resources, and include a list here, for some of that. But I also read the good, old- fashioned printed page. Besides specific planning, it enhances my tours to know something about the social and cultural history of the area I'm visiting. So for any other book readers out there, here's a list of some books from my shelves, by subject, about France.

To keep it to some kind of reasonable length, I've excluded all guidebooks, cookbooks, French language books, classical fiction and books in French. If anyone is interested in a conversation about those, drop me an email or comment, I'd love to talk books. There are many more titles on my list of books to find. If you have other suggestions, I'll greatly appreciate learning them ... just email me or put them in the comments section.

It's a fairly long list, and as I made it, I had to realize that it is true: besides cycling, (this time of the year, training indoors) most of the rest of my sparse free time is spent  learning the language or learning the culture.

Beware, this is just a list of personal favorites, no more.  Since mine is a cycle touring blog, I've put  a little bike next to the books that I've used specifically to help pick destinations or have inspired me with places to visit. What I consider the most (what’s the right description, engaging and informative?) of the more general books on this list has a fleur de lis next to it. Titles marked with a tower, what else, are my personal favorites of those about Paris. And my favorites can be quirky, whimsical and changeable.

Biography & Autobiography

  Liscio, Lorraine. Paris and Her Remarkable Women. The Little Bookroom. 2009. A little book, as the publisher's name promises, and a good one. Sixteen very brief biographies of Parisian women, historically arranged, starting with Ste. Geneviève in the 5th century and finishing with Simone de Beauvoir in the 20th. Other chapters include Héloise, Marie de Rabutin-Chantal (the Marquise de Sévigné,) and Camille Claudel. The book is illustrated with photographs, prints, and paintings and each chapter includes a list of sites to visit. A fabulous gift for someone travelling to Paris.

Meade, Marion. Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography. Hawthorne Books Inc. Written from a feminist point of view, this is a fascinating, spell-binding, can't-put-it-down account of the legendary Eleanor's life and the history of the Aquitaine, France and England during her lifetime. Someday I'll get to to places mentioned. In the meantime, it helpedshape my understanding of my brief time in Aquitaine.

Wharton, Edith A Backward Glance: An Autobiography Touchstone. 1988. Written in 1933 and included here because it is Edith Wharton and there are 40 or so pages on the time she spent in Paris.


Bové, José and Dufour, François.  The World Is Not for Sale. Translated by Luneau, Gilles. Verso. 2001. Bové is a well-known and controversial environmental activist and farmer who lives in the Aveyron. Every time his name has come up in conversation in France (truth be told, usually brought up by me) each person in earshot has had an opinion about him.  Also, the book gives insights into the historic importance of pays and local food in France.  In my world, anyone who dismantles a McDonald's deserves to have their opinions read. The sad problem, of course, is that the world is in fact for sale.

Carroll, Reaymonde. Cultural Misunderstandings. Translated by Carol Volk. University of Chicago Press, 1988. Originally in French. Author Raymonde Carroll was born in Tunisia, educated in France and the U.S., giving her a rich perspective on cultural differences.

Hannan, Bill and Lornan. Art for Travellers: France. Interlink Books. 2004. This book should not be titled France, but Paris and its immediate surroundings. That said, it is a dry, but useful reference. I have used and appreciated it, but don't recommend it for general art history reading.

Kurlansky, Mark.  The Basque History of the World. Penguin. 1999. This is a readable, compelling, fun, fascinating book. If you are going to be in southwestern France, read it. If you are thinking about being in southwestern France, read it. If you are interested in French, Spanish, or world history, read. it. Got the picture?
Lebovitz, David. The Sweet Life in Paris. Broadway Books. 2009. Essays, recipes, commentary by this funny American expat baker. Worth reading if you are interested in food and Paris, as is his current, informative blog.

Nadeau, Jean-Benoit and Barlow, Julie. Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong: Why We Love France but Hate the French. Sourcebooks. 2003. This is a much better book than its overly cute title. It is, I guess, comparative cultural anthropology, examining differences in our understandings of the world. For example, chosen at random: "Anglo-Americains consider language a tool, but the French regard it as an accomplishment, even a work of art." That sentence is surely a generalization, probably overstated, and absolutely every single person I spoke with (in French) talked to me supporting, never belittling, my poor language skills. Nonetheless, there is something to be learned there: not just about the French approach, but about the American.  While its opinions are open to discussion and debate, this is an insightful and helpful book that beyond teaching something about French culture, offers a different angle from which to regard American culture.

  Root, Waverly. The Food of France. Vintage Books. 1992. First published 1958. A fabulous history of French food. Organized around fat: butter, lard and oil, it ranges through the regions, pays and histories of French food.  Full of anecdotes and stories, descriptions of geography and locales, it is not to be missed if you like French food, or for that matter, if you intend to eat while travelling in France.

Steinberger, Michael. Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine and the End of France. Bloomsbury USA. 2009. A foodie's book for contemporary France, clearly written from an Anglo perspective by someone who loves French haute cuisine. Opinionated, provacative, witty, readable, engaging, and informative. Whether he is right, wrong or otherwise might not really matter. If you are interested in food, culture, and the economics and politics of them in France, don't miss it.

Watson, Richard. The Philosopher's Demise: Learning to Speak French. David Godine Nonpareil. 2003. Watson is a fine writer, an American Cartesian scholar invited to present an academic paper in Paris, where members of L'Academie Française would be present. Already fluent in written French, this is his account of three frustratingly challenging months at L'Alliance Française in Paris, striving to become fluent in the spoken language. He is quite opinionated and the book takes no prisoners, French or Americain. That is no doubt part of its appeal to me;  I found it hilarious and it didn't deter me on my mission to learn the language, with my so very far weaker skills. Other readers, whom I have lent it to, have not found it so amusingly insightful, but darker and more discouraging. Nonetheless it remains high on my list.

Zeldin, Theodore. The French. Kodansha America, Inc. 1982. If you want to travel in France, by bicycle; gain an understanding of French culture and history, and the countryside, its pays and landscape; and in order to do that with more fun as a richer experience, you work really hard to learn the language ...  how can you not want to read a book whose first chapter is titled "Why it is so hard to meet an Average French Person"? This is a funny and insightful book.

Essays & Literature

Carhart, Thad. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier. Random House. 2000. Carhart brings the reader into the world of pianos, their repair and history, a musical friendship and the life of one Paris community that is, like most,  inaccessible to outsiders. Written with enthusiasm and style, it is a captivating story, especially if you are interested either in Paris or pianos.

Espinasse, Kristin. Words in a French Life: Lessons in Love and Language from the South of France. Touchstone. 2006. A word, or phrase, per chapter. Light, fun reading.

  Fisher, M.F.K. Two Towns in France. Vintage. 1983. MFK Fisher is one of my all-time favorite writers: personal, detailed, a great observer of the world around her, with keen insights into the subjects that interest her. Here, food (as always,) southern France, specifically Arles and Aix-en-Provence, where she lived  intermittently in the 1920s and 1930s, are the focus of her attention. She makes this reader wish to have lived there in those years. It is memoir, travel writing, history ...  however categorized, it is very good writing.

Gopnik, Adam. Paris to the Moon. Random House. 2000. Based on personal experience, this book might be included in memoirs, but I think it fits better here. Gopnik's observations about life in Paris while raising Luke, his first child, is written as tightly as you would expect from a New Yorker writer.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. Scribner. Restored edition 2009. Hemingway's account of his life in Paris during the period between the two World Wars, with his first wife Hadley. Not to be missed, if you’re interested in the period, and this is a lovely edition.

Kerper, Barrie, ed. Paris: The Collected Traveler: An Inspired Companion Guide.  Vintage Departures. 2011. A collection of short essays by 25 or so authors, some famous, some not, with bibliographies for further reading, short biographies, interviews and addresses in Paris. Loads of fun for armchair reading, very practical if you are planning a visit.

Liebling, A.J. Between Meals.: An Appetite for Paris. North Point Press. 1986. Liebling, Paris, Food. What could be better?

Rowlands, Penelope, ed. Paris Was Ours. Alonquin Books. 2011. Thirty-two writers contributed essays to this collection of memoirs about life in the City of Light. This book is nicely produced and will be enjoyable reading for everyone who loves the city and enjoys memoir.

White, Edmund. The Flaneur: A Stroll though the Paradoxes of Paris. Bloomsbury. 2001. A flaneur is a stroller. Paris is a walking city, for the lucky, a strolling city.  Edmund White is a keen observer of this city that he loves, his writing is beautiful and his essays a joy to read.


Black, Cara. Murder on the Ile Saint-Louis. Soho Press, Inc 2007. One in Black's detective Aimée Leduc mystery series, all set in Paris.  I won't list all the titles here, they are easy to find, easy to read.

McLain, Paula. The Paris Wife. Harper Collins. 2011. If you read A Moveable Feast, or maybe if you didn't, you might enjoy this historical novel written from Hadley's (Hemingway's wife) point of view, set in the same time period.

Tremain, Rose. Trespass. W.W Norton & Co. 2010. A thriller set in the Cévennes, its subject wrestles with questions of longtime residents and newcomers, urban money and education on the one hand, rural traditions and land ownership on the other. Classic themes, immortalized by Pagnol, and later popularized in the movies based on his books Jean de Florette and Manon des Source.



  Caro, Ina. The Road From the Past: Traveling through History in France. Harcout Brace. 1994. I loved reading this book, which covers well-known sites in Provence, the Languedoc, Loire Valley, and Île de France, couldn't put it down, and have used it to help choose places to visit during bike tours. Loaded with historical and cultural detail, Caro's writing style is intimate and informative, pulling the reader immediately into the place.

Caro. Ina. Paris to the Past: Travelling Through French History by Train. W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. 2011. This has been on my shelf for over a month now, unstarted because I don't want to finish it and am still enjoying the anticipation of reading it. (See my comments on her previous book, above.) More to come later.

Cole, Robert. A Traveller's History of France. Interlink Press, 205. Part of a series, I find it dry writing, but with a very lot of history packed into a little volume, it is useful to focus on a specific era or place.

Cook, Theodore Andrea. Old Provence. Interlink Books. 2001. First published by C. Scribner's Sons, 1905. Wish I had owned this before my Provence tour. So far I've only read sections, intending to read it all before I return there. Its 400 or so pages cover the history of the region from prehistory, to the 16th century, from the perspective of a traveler at the turn of the 20th century. 

Evans, Joan. Life in Medieval France. Phaidon. 1960. First published by Phaidon in 1925. Chapters include topics including "Feudal Society," "Monastic Life," and "Education," the color plates and illustrations are sumptuous, and the text includes many quotes in their original language, with footnoted translations. Not exactly academic, but it requires a closer reading, more attention, than many other of the books included here perhaps because the time period is distant, and she covers a lot of territory.

Fowler, Kennrth.The Age of Plantagenet and Vallois. G. P. Putnam Sons. 1967. History with loads of illustrations. I admit it, I bought it for the illustrations, mainly taken from the world of art history. One of the things I appreciate about good used book stores is that you sometimes come across large collections from someone's library who has moved, down-sized, or died. This, and other of these titles, came from one of those finds.

Garrett, Martin. Provence: A Cultural History. Oxford University Press. 2006. Easy, fun, informative reading. Chapters include famous individuals from cultural history, like Petrarch, Van Gogh, Giono, Daudet, Zola, Pagnol Cézanne, and places including Manosque, Beaucaire, St. Gilles and over into the Languedoc at Nîmes, and of course Arles, Avignon,  Aix-en-Provence. Great fun to use to help plan cycle itineraries.

Horne, Alistair. Seven Ages of Paris. Vintage Books 2004. Eminent British historian Alistair Horne draws a fascinating portrait of Paris since the Roman era. To do that, he uses the great historical leaders who helped to shape it, the wars, sufferings and triumphs of the city and the people who have lived there. In the preface Horne describes the book as a series of essays about seven periods of Parisian history, eras that he chose to develop a portrait of the city as a living entity of its own ... not to provide an all-inclusive history of it. A fabulous book to read before a visit there.

James, Edward. The Franks. Basil Blackwell, Ltd. 1988. A readable and detailed history of the Franks, the "barbarians" ... i.e., people who were not Romans,  who gave their name to the country we now know. The maps, and photographs of artifacts and archaeological digs, add a visual element to this detailed, rich history, which focuses strongly on the Merovingian dynasty; Clovis was perhaps the most famous king. Worth reading if you are interested in French history in the 5th and 6th centuries.

MCcullough, David. The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. Simon and Schuster. 2011. I have just begun this and it promises to be a wonderful, beautifully written book. The early history of Americans in Paris (after Jefferson and other founding fathers) is a new world to me. More later.

  Robb, Graham. The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography. W.W. Norton & Co. 2007. Written by a British cyclist and teacher of French literature and history, Robb has written a delightful, engaging, brilliant and surprising account of how the country we know as France came to be France, showing it to be composed of many many disparate cultures and histories. Not a story of great men, but of cultural and geographical history, it is a delightful book to read, full of details I knew nothing about, always memorable and frequently entertaining ... plus much of his research was done while travelling 14,000 miles on the little roads of France by bike. (But do not expect the bike to play a role in the book.) Such a good book!


Bard, Elizabeth. Lunch in Paris. Back Bay Books, 2010. Fun, fast read, with recipes. She doesn't. ... quite too much .... romanticize life in Paris.

Baxter, John. The Most Beautiful Walk in the World. Harper Perennial. 2011. Life in Paris in 2010, from an Australian expat writer. Baxter leads cultural walking tours in English, which provides him with an enjoyable angle from which to work in cultural and literary history.

Child, Julia. My Life in France. Anchor Books. 2006. Julia Childs, memoir, food. Does anything else need to be said?

Corbett, Bryce. A Town Like Paris. Broadway Books. 2007.  Life in Paris in 2000, from  British expat journalist.

Goodman, Richard. French Dirt. Harper Perennial. 1992 A good-natured, warm memoir about a place and garden in the Cévennes in southern France, an area not written about as often as many. Romanticized or not, who cares, really? Delightful reading.

Johnson, Dianne. Into a Paris Quartier: Reine Margot's Chapel and Other Haunts of St. Germain.  National Geographic. 2005. Memoir full of history of her neighborhood, a super book to read especially if you will get to spend some time exploring St. Germaine.

Karmel, Alex. A Corner in the Marais: Memoir of a Paris Neighborhood. David R. Godine. 1998. As much a quirky, engaging and personal history of the Marais as a memoir, the book is fascinating reading and puts this very popular district into historical context. Illustrated with photographs and prints, the book includes specific descriptions of some favorite stroling streets. Very good reading.

Loomis, Susan. On Rue Tatin: Living and Cooking in a French Town. Broadway Books. 2001. The first memoir/cookbook I was familiar with, written by accomplished cookbook author Susan Loomis. I've used a few of the recipes, and they work for me, though truth be told I virtually never follow a recipe literally. Also a thoroughly enjoyable story.


Bentley, James. Languedoc. Salem House. 1987. Beautiful photography, many photos. Informative, personalized, well-written history. The stuff dreaming starts with.

Durrell, Lawrence. Caesar's Vast Ghost: Aspects of Provence. Little, Brown Co. 1990. You might know Durrell from The Alexandria Quartet or possibly from his poetry. Before he died in 1990, Durrell  lived in Provence for thirty years and loved it dearly, which shines through in this volume that includes prose, history, some poetry and fine photographs. Again, is it memoir, travel writing, biography? It doesn't matter, it is a superb book to start the imaginings of a bike tour.

Jones, Louisa. Provence Harvest. Recipes by Jacques Chibois. Stewart, Tabori & Chang. 2005. Too many photos, too much text to be a cookbook. Too much food, too many recipes not to be. Also beautiful.

Hitt, Jack. Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim's Route into Spain. Aurum Press Ltd. 1994. If you cycle tour in southern France, sooner or later the Pilgrim's Route to Santiago de Compostela will come to your attention. People have walked it for centuries, and nowadays they are cycling it also. This is an account of one traveller's trip, the people he meets, places they stay and adventures along the route. Compellingly recounted.

Moore, Tim. French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France. St. Martin's Griffen. 2001. I totally looked forward to this book, had every reason to like it: cycling, France, the Tour de France. Unhappily, I didn't find it witty, which I suspect was the goal. I found the author self indulgent and whiney. But if you love cycling, France, and the Tour de France, you should read it, make up your own mind, and let me know.

Russell, John. Paris. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1983. A beautiful, intelligent ode to Paris, written by art historian and critic John Russell. This is elegant,  wonderful writing that can be read from cover to cover, or browsed a chapter at a time, through different neighborhoods. If a book can be good for strolling through, the same way an old neighborhood can, this one is. Like all Harry Abrams coffee-table books, beautiful.

Smollett, Thomas George. Travels Through France and Italy. Oxford University Press. 1919. OK, you have to love travelogues and history, how can something not be dated that was written 250 years ago? But if you do there is a different world to be discovered in Smollett's letters, written from Paris, Lyons, Montpelier, etc. in 1763 and 1764.

Steinbach, Alice. Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman. Random House. 2002. Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, Alice Steinbach has written two fabulous travel books, which I get to include here because both have sections set in France. This is fun reading, whether you are specifically interested in France or not.

Steinbach, Alice. Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman. Random House. 2005. Steinbach's essays, one subject per chapter, on learning to cook in Paris, garden in Provence, dance in Kyoto, art history in Florence... you get it. Another super travel book.

  Stevenson, Robert Louis. Travels with a Donkey. Atlas Pocket Classics. 2008. First published in 1879. Stevenson's account of his crossing of the Cévennes with Modestine, a donkey. There is now a trail marking his route; my 2010 cycle tour of the Cévennes often took me near that route and local residents frequently asked if I was following it. I wasn't, but the question made me curious. I was happy to find this fine little edition. The book gives a great sense of the Cévennes in his period, as seen by  an American traveller.

Turner, Herbert. Picturesque Old France. Little, Brown and Co. 1929. Fabulous history and travelogue from the early 20th century, that teaches us so much not only about the places visited, but about the era in which they were written. If you remember how many years have intervened, the book remains full of ideas for destinations and waystops on tours.

Vallois, Therza. Averon, A Bridge to French Arcadia. Iliad Books. 2007.Vallois, who I believe is a long-time British expat living in Paris, introduces us to members of various contemporary Aveyron communities, while weaving in the history and geography of the region. Many specifics, and very evocative of the Aveyron. I haven't found much in English about this region, which offered some fabulous cycling the little bit I travelled through it, and promises much more for a future trip. I read this after my Cévennes trip, will reread it before returning, perhaps to the Lot River Valley and Conques area.

Wharton, Edith. A Motor-Flight Through France. Northern Illinois University Press. 1991. Originally published Scribner 1908. Entranced with the freedom of the motorcar, and the freedom of France, this book is Wharton's account of her auto tours.

Zheutlin, Peter, Around the World on Two Wheels. Citadel. 2007. The story of Bostonian Annie Londonderry (actually Annie Kapchowski) who in 1894, left her husband and two young daughters to ride around the world on a bike, and did it.  Or did she travel around the world, mostly via steamer and train, with a bike? In any case, she did ride the ...  or was it most of the ... way from Paris to Marseilles, and for that I've included the book.  Although no one actually knows the truth of her trip, it is a good story, and offers some insight into the women's status and the popular culture of the era.


  1. Good grief Suze! This is an awesome resource. How ever did you find the time to pull it all together? I will be checking out a lot of those books since I hadn't come across many of them. You might be interested in the France related books I've reviewed here http://www.booksarecool.com/book-reviews/
    I'm about to add some more.
    I didn't like French Revolutions either - it was dire!
    Oh yes, and have a look at mine - Best of Blog in France free here: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/105318 OK, it's a bit of a cheat being just a selection of blog posts. However, proper living in France book coming soon - I'll keep you posted!

  2. Steph,
    Thanks!! I thought probably nobody would be interested in this funny list. It was fun, but time consuming to put together, because I've read them over many years and hadn't looked at some in ages.

    And even more thanks for the links to your 2 books sites.. I'll go there immediately! I'd love it if you keep sending titles and hints my way...As you can guess now I'm as big a sucker for books as for bikes, can't seem to get enough of either! Now I'm off to those links. Cheers, Suze


Please leave a comment, it's great to hear from you and makes the site more fun and informative for other readers!