April in Paris! We’re traveling to the City of Light this month in our Online Reading Challenge, a city of art and beauty (and fantastic croissants!) and a long, complex, fascinating history. Who could resist?
First, a confession: I love Paris. I’ve been three times in the past few years and plan to go again and again for many years. I love the museums and the architecture, the cafe culture (and the food!) and the history. I did not expect to fall so completely head-over-heels in love with this city on my first visit, but I did, almost from the first moment I emerged from the Metro station and glimpsed the top of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. Like any big city, Paris has serious issues to deal with and it is far from perfect, but that doesn’t take away from what’s right and beautiful about it either.
There are oodles of books set in Paris – almost too many. I’ve found that some/too many writers use a Paris backdrop as a shortcut to creating mood and atmosphere – everyone has heard about Paris (usually heavily romanticized) so there’s no need to create a world for their novel. I consider this cheating and rather poor writing and it never feels “true”. Another habit I’ve run across is name dropping, for example “she tied her Hermes scarf around her neck, picked up her Louis Vuitton bag and walked down the Champs Elysees to Laduree’s for a macaroon”. Um, yeah. All of those are very French, but not very “real” – using name dropping and stereotypes is just lazy writing. On the other hand, there are some incredibly good books set in Paris. Here’s a few to get you started:
The Greater Journey by David McCullough tells the story of American artists, writers and doctors that went to Paris between 1830 and 1900 and how what learned and experienced and then brought back in turn greatly influenced American history. McCullough’s writing is as honey smooth as his voice (he’s narrated several of Ken Burn’s films) and the stories he tells are fascinating.
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is historical fiction about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife Hadley and their life in Paris. This is the time period when Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises and developed friendships with other rising stars such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. But the hard-drinking, fast-living lifestyle of Jazz-age Paris puts a strain on Ernest and Hadley’s marriage and threatens the happiness of their early romance.
Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. Although this is a lighter, happier story, this book has a lot of depth that is a lot of fun to read. Anna is sent to Paris against her wishes for her final year of high school but it becomes a pivotal year in her life as she learns what she is capable of and gains independence and confidence. Paris is beautifully integrated as backdrop here.
A Family in Paris by Jane Paech. This is the true story of an Australian family that moves to Paris for the husband’s job. Their two girls are enrolled in the local school and Jane works to integrate herself into daily Parisian life. Fascinating insights into the lives and rituals of ordinary Parisians, the French educational system and the reality of Parisian bureaucracy. Lots of photos too.
Sarah’s Key by Titiana Rosnay is a novel that brings to light a rarely told, shameful chapter in Parisian history – the deportation of Jews from Paris during the Nazi occupation in 1942. Heartbreaking and often difficult to read, this story shows the suffering, the impossible decisions that had to be made and the guilt carried by the survivors. Long unacknowledged, there is now a memorial in Paris dedicated to the victims of the deportation.
Paris Letters by Janice Macleod. Another story of someone packing up and moving to Paris and finding her happily-ever-after. It’d be kind of annoying except that Janice worked really hard to make it happen and she’s pretty funny. The book also acts as motivation to work for what you want and to hold onto those dreams. Also, lovely hand drawn illustrations.
If you’d rather watch something this month you have nearly as many choices. Three of my favorites:
Hugo is breathtakingly beautiful and magical. That train wreck really did happen (in 1895) and that clock is based on the iconic clock at the Orsay Museum. The book the movie is based on, The Invention of Hugo Cabret won the 2008 Caldecott Award and is well worth reading too.
Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s love letter to Paris. I’m not always a Woody Allen fan but this movie is gorgeous and fun with just the right amount of fantastical. Paris never looked so beautiful.
Amelie. If you have not seen this, drop everything and find a copy immediately. It’s quirky and delightful and sweetly romantic and very funny. Filmed entirely on location in Paris, you see the “real” Paris beyond the tourist sites. Yes, it’s in French and yes you have to read subtitles – grow up! Read a movie! It is so worth it.
There are so many more books and movies about Paris from classics (Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, A Moveable Feast) to mysteries (Cara Black has a series set in Paris) to history (look in the 944 Dewey subject area) to cookbooks (David Lebovitz and Julia Child to name just two) that there is sure to be something that catches your eye. We’ll have displays at all three of our buildings too so stop in and get your ticket (er, book or movie!) to Paris!
Allons-y! (“let’s go!”)