Friday, March 5, 2010

Reading French Books in Belgium

Living in Brussels was good for my love of reading. With two hours of daily commuting time, a household sans television, and weekend train rides to Amsterdam, London, Paris, and Cologne, books became my constant companions. Francophile that I am, many of those reads were of course been Paris or France-themed. I have a history of seeking out stories that take place in La Belle France; here is a list of my new favorite finds:

1. My Life in France, by Julia Child

Julia Child's descriptions of the foods she eats and the wine she drinks will have you booking a ticket to Paris in no time. Her observations on French life, human interaction, and her own process of self-actualization round our her culinary tales. I devoured this book. In addition to making me want to book that ticket to Paris, it made me want to watch old episodes of her cooking show, The French Chef, so I could learn more about this witty "gourmande," and pick up some new French recipes along the way.

2. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

Translated from French (l'Élégance du Hérisson) this book takes place at 7, rue Grenelle in the chic 6ème arrondissement of Paris. It's the story of the building's not-what-she-appears-to-be concierge, and a 12-year old resident who objects to what she sees as the pointlessness of the high society that surrounds her by planning her own suicide, set to take place on her 13th birthday. A Japanese businessman moves into the building and disrupts both of their lives for the better. It's a biting critique of French bourgeois society, that was also made into a movie in France.

3. The Sweet Life in Paris, by David Lebovitz

David Lebovitz peppers his stories of finding great food in Paris with expat humor and exaggerated (but still accurate) descriptions of Parisian behavioral quirks. Each chapter ends with a recipe or two, a few of which I actually tried and found to be quick, easy, and delicious. If the book leaves you wanting more, I recommend checking out his blog.

4. La Mort du Roi Tsongor, by Laurent Gaudé

This one is in French only, but you don't have to read at an advanced level to follow the story. The book begins with the planned death of the King, and goes on to show the tragic effects his decision has on those around him, as his once powerful and prosperous kingdom dissolves into sadness and war. A beautiful, grand, and tragic tale.

5. Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, by Georgina Howell

This epic biography of a truly kick-ass woman takes place mostly in the Middle East. Gertrude Bell's role in the 1919 Paris Peace Conference (the post-WWI divvying up of the globe that probably led to WWII) gives it the French angle. Bell is the early 1900s version of today's jet-setter, complete with private caravans and a doting entourage. But for all her traveling in the lap of early 20th century luxury, she was not removed from the local cultures she encountered. On the contrary, Bell was a fastidious student of Arabic, desert culture, and tribal politics. And fearless. A great read for the solo female traveler.


Cancemini4 said...

Thanks for some great ideas. Also just out is "Americans in Paris" by Charles Glass about the American expat population in Paris at the time of the 1940 German invasion. Can't wait to check that one out.

Packabook - Travel Novels said...

I just finished the Elegance of the Hedgehog. It took me a little while to get into it, but thoroughly enjoyed it in the end.

Some great suggestions of books here. Some further ideas on the packabook site if you need more inspiration!


Zhu said...

Did you read the "merde" series? You know, "one year in the merde" etc. It's quite funny from a British point of view. The first couple of books were cool, it got boring after.

Tanya said...

@Cancemini4, Oooo, can we do a book swap with that one? Sounds really, really good.

@Zhu, I read the first Merde book, is it called A Year in the Merde? Enjoyed it. Never tried the others, though. But it was a good, fun read for sure.

Tanya said...

@Suzi, I felt the same way about Elegance of the Hedgehog. Lots of philosophical musings made it a bit heavy. I really want to read it in French, though, because I think the language is actually a character in the book. Reading it in English must make it lose something.