Our selection of books in this homage to Paris is as light as a soufflé or as dense as a cassoulet. You choose which books – they range from the 1920’s to 2013. For me, it’s personal : most are assembled from all corners of my house to share with you. Pick a book or three, and you can safely immerse yourself in another time and place, away from today’s headlines.
Whether or not you like the French, it’s hard to deny that Paris – and the people who lived there in the 19th and 20th centuries – had a world-changing influence on the arts and letters – at least until the 1950’s, and later if you count French cinema.
Here’s a chance to explore the Paris of Papa Hemingway, Alice B. Toklas, Pablo Picasso and Sylvia Beach. There are odes to French cuisine, food memoirs and personal ruminations on being an expat in Paris by Julia Child, Adam Gopnik, Thad Carhart, Ann Mah and Patricia Wells. The flâneurs share their literary knowledge and a wealth of stories in strolls around the City of Light.
Several writers weave their tales using the city’s “wards,” known as arrondissements, or Métro stops. Sometimes Paris is the backdrop — a place you depart for a few hours or a day –for an adventure and be home in time for dinner.
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
Australian born John Baxter writes about The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris (2011). The French have a name for it – flânerie– a strolling walk in the city. Writer and film critic, Baxter has lived in Paris for over two decades with his French wife. He offers a memoir and walking guide that focuses on day-to-day life, neighborhoods and arcane stories of people in Paris. Whether you take it with you, or read it in your armchair, this is a wonderful way to “see” Paris from an inside perspective. (Harper Perennial). Baxter’s other books include We’ll Always Have Paris: Sex and Love in the City of Light and Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas (Harper Collins 2008). Review of The Most Beautiful Walk
A Paris resident for 16 years, Edmund White wrote The Flâneur a decade before John Baxter (Bloomsbury, 1999). For our benefit, he strolls – even loiters—in back streets and quays –from Parc Monceau, one of the loveliest parks in in Paris, to the Marais, a traditional hub for the city’s Jewish population. Along the way, he recounts tales of royalists, decadents, black Americans in Paris, and literati. (Bloomsbury) Review in the Guardian
Called “the thinking man’s guide to Paris,” Métro Stop Paris: An Underground History of the City of Light by Gregor Dallas is a dense account of the city, using significant Métro lines and stops to look into the city’s rich history, from the druids and Gallo-Roman period through the 1960’s. Worth remembering: “The sad truth about Paris is that it does not have a historical center…. All metro lines will take you eventually to Metro stop # 7, Châtelet-Les Halles, ‘le ventre de Paris’” (the belly of Paris). While the marketplace Les Halles — a beautiful complex of iron and glass –was torn down in the 1960’s, the history endures. (Walker & Co. 2008)
Two writers, both of whom spent time in Paris as youngsters, and then returned as young fathers, produced separate memoirs a decade ago – both highly memorable and filled with many small pleasures: Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon and Thad Carhart’s The Piano Shop on the Left Bank (both published by Random House, and available in paperback).
In Piano Shop on the Left Bank, Carhart finds a mysterious shop window on a narrow cobbled street where he seems unable to gain entrance. Eventually, he is “allowed” in and gets to know Luc who runs the piano shop that is the object of Carhart’s interest and imagination. One thing leads to another: Carhart, who plays the piano but doesn’t know a Bechstein from the Bösendorfer (high-end concert pianos!) buys a baby grand, begins lessons and becomes part of the confrérie (brotherhood) that lovingly rebuilds, tunes and services pianos. His piano lessons take him even further along, an entreé to a seemingly closed Parisian culture. Interview with Carhart His web site
Gopnik, who was Paris bureau writer of The New Yorker for five years (1995-2000), assembled this series of essays into Paris Over the Moon. It’s clear that as an expat Gopnik feels shut out; it doesn’t stop him from climbing the wall every way that he can. Gopnik introduces readers to the Left and Right Bank through the countless ways he introduces young son Luke to the Luxembourg Gardens (the carousel and great punch and judy puppet shows), the Hall of Paleontology at the Natural History Museum, and the grand experience of swimming in the pool at the Ritz Hotel. He becomes an “insider” at his favorite brasserie, which is about to be sold to a large restaurant group and helps stage a resistance operation that allows the beloved waiters to keep their jobs. Don’t expect grand gestures — rather small moments to treasure in these books. New York times review
Paris Was Ours: 32 writers reflect on the city of light, Penelope Rowlands, ed. (Algonquin of Chapel Hill) Who isn’t drawn to Paris – a place unchallenged, according to writer Marcelle Clements, as “the world capital of memory and desire.” Here is a multifaceted portrait by writers from North America, the Middle East and European locales who discovered that Paris is more complex, more beloved and sometimes reviled, than a lover. Savor the places and detail of these 32 reminiscences, half of which appear for the first time. Review in the Courier-Journal. Book web site.
Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (Scribner) existed in two versions: the fragments he wrote about his life as an expat writer in the Paris of the 1920s and the redacted version that Mary Hemingway (wife # 4) published in 1964, three years after the writer’s death by suicide.
“It was largely written about his time with Hadley, touches on his defection to the arms of Pauline, and after his suicide was pasted together by Mary,” says Goodreads. Along the way you’ll be introduced to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Brown, Gertrude Stein and other denizens of the arts and letters. It’s been called “… an ur-text of the American enthrallment with Paris. To be more precise, it is also a skeleton key to the American literary fascination with Paris ….” You will not find the original (it was never published); and if you prefer yet another version, an edition revised by his grandson Seán Hemingway was published in 2009. Atlantic essay on the book (2009) Read more about the book
The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book originally published in 1954 (Anchor paperback from 1960) weaves together recollections of her Paris years (beginning when she arrived in 1907) and role as life companion, amanuensis and cook for Gertrude Stein and the roiling salon of greats and near greats in art and literature that gathered around Stein. Throw in tales about French servants, dishes for artists, household cuisine during the German Occupation (WWII) and actual recipes –– the most talked about was a detailed recipe for hash fudge (or brownies). My 1960 paperback edition includes the recipe. In your hands, you have what Toklas wanted to create: a book of her own. When the book came out in 1954, New Yorker writer Janet Flanner called it “ a book of character, fine food, and tasty human observation.” Toklas herself talks about the recipe and the US publishers’ refusal to put the recipe in the book. Read about the book and listen to her 5-minute interview; it’s a riot).
Julia Child’s My Life in France (Anchor Books) is a dual love story – first with her husband Paul, who swept her off to Paris and taught her all about la vie française when they lived in Paris and Marseilles for six years (1948-1954); and second, her love affair with the foodways and cuisine of France.
Julia was in her early 90’s when this book was being organized with her great-nephew, and is reconstructed from her memories, letters between Paul and his twin brother, and Julia’s correspondence with her sister and close friends. Join Julia at 81 Rue de L’Université (she and Paul called it “rue de loo”) as she dives into markets, cooking classes at the Cordon Bleu, their annual Valentines Day ritual, the countless hours of testing and retesting the recipes that became the backbone of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. New York Times Review
“Cracking the code” is how Patricia Wells’s husband describes the “bible” she has written in the Food Lover’s Guide to Paris: The Best Restaurants, Bistros, Cafés, Markets, Bakeries, and More (Workman) — a handbook now in its fifth edition– for the occasional visitor, the new expat and those who call Paris home. “Paris is still born anew with each season…with the sighting of the first asparagus, sweet cherry, fragrant morel, briny oyster, gold Vacherin cheese or earthy wild duck….” Here is the place to learn the ways of Paris food and how to find the best bakeries, bistros, brasseries, open air markets, cheese shops, cafes, and chocolatiers. My 1999 edition was an indispensable source for several trips to Paris. Patricia Wells web site
Ann Mah’s Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in food and love from a year in Paris (Penguin Group, 2013) is no knockoff from Julia Child or Patricia Wells. Daughter of Chinese-American parents, Paris was her dream city come true when her diplomat husband was posted there; then he was promptly reassigned to a year in Iraq(she had to stay behind). Mah’s loneliness as an outsider with only fledgling French to guide her, was eventually overcome by her insatiable curiosity about French regional cuisine. You will learn the history and process for making 10 of France’s most important regional dishes: andouillette sausage (made from tripe), the Alsatian staple choucroute garnie, the pistou of Provence, mussels and more. The bonus: recipes for each of the food specialties. It’s a delightful romp through regional cuisine. Review in the Wall Street Journal Ann Mah’s web site
PARIS TO THE PAST Traveling Through French History by Train by Ina Caro (Norton) Short hops from Paris by train (RER and TGV) land you at places like Tours, Fontainbleau, Chantilly and the Basilica of Saint Denis, and give Parisians and visitors alike the chance to time travel in day trips, and, as author Ina Caro says, “be home in time for dinner.” Her earlier book The Road from the Past: Traveling Through History in France (1994), has plentiful stories on important Paris attractions such as Ste. Chappelle (glorious Gothic stained glass windows) and the Conciergerie (where Marie Antoinette, among many others, was imprisoned while awaiting the guillotine) Review by NY Review of Books Video with Ina Caro on Paris to the Past