Don’t wait too long to read the books on your to-read list

Book Cover: 60 million frenchmen can't be wrong I first came across Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong in the early 2000s, when I was a stay-at-home mom and had a baby. You’d think that I’d’ve had plenty of time to read, but you’d be wrong.

Fast-forward to a couple of months ago, when I saw this book come through the donations at work. (One of the best perks about being a paid employee at a library’s friends organization is that you get to see all the donations.) I grabbed it almost immediately. And then I was disappointed by it.

Why? I’m still not sure: it’s full of cultural observations that made sense, but the last time it was published in the 2000s. A lot has happened in Europe and France and Paris since then – the financial crisis, the rise of social media, the re-rise of the National Front (if it ever really went away). The World War II generation is passing on, and with that, a lot of the things that defined how politics work. I couldn’t get over the feeling that it wasn’t as relevant as it would have been 13 years ago. Which is when I should have read it.

If I had read it then. I’d probably have enjoyed it more and learned more too. That’ll teach me to clear off my to-read list occasionally, and not just let it build up.

Don’t take yourself too seriously

how to be parisian wherever you are

How to be Parisian Wherever You Are is silly and fun and a bit of a joke. The glamour and mystery of Parisians has been dissected to death, and glamour only works when there’s mystery. This book repackages the style and attitude of Parisians as something not to be taken too seriously – and that’s the best bit. I enjoyed it.

Ambitious women are awesome

My Paris Dream

I first learned about Kate Betts from Marketplace. She’s the person they call whenever there’s business news in the fashion world. She always seems very practical, and I enjoy that in my fashion types.

She is a strong, ambitious woman who gets shit done, and My Paris Dream is her memoir chronicling her post-college formative years in Paris, working for W. I need more stories like this one in my life – I admire women like her, who know exactly what they want and go after it. Though her descriptions of the office politics… Oy. W in the late 1980s/early 1990s is not a place I could have worked.

And I like fashion and the odd lifestyles and quirks around it – the weird, small stories that make people in the industry larger-than-life. Kate Betts delivers on those things: a French hunt, the bows in her friend’s hair, and more.

I liked it.

Light and Dark

All the Light We Cannot See

 

What’s it about?
There are two main plot threads in All the Light We Cannot See. In the first, there’s a blind girl (Marie-Laure) living with her father (Monsieur LeBlanc) in Paris in the 1930s. The main things to know about them are: she’s smart, he’s a key master who is also great at building puzzle boxes. World War II comes, and they end up leaving Paris for Saint-Malo, a small bit of land that becomes an island at high tide. In the second, there’s an orphaned German boy (Werner) in the 1930s who builds radios. He loves building things in general and is entranced by radios in particular. He and his sister (Jutta) enjoy listening to a broadcast from France as children. He gets selected for a national school, run by the Nazis, because he is smart. He eventually gets sent to the front lines during WWII and ends up in Saint-Malo towards the end of the German occupation.

Why should you read it?
Well, in addition to being a National Book Awards Finalist and a NYTimes book of the year, All the Light We Cannot See also won a Pulitzer this week. So if you’re looking for an award-winning book, this one fits the bill nicely.

In addition to that, it is a gorgeously told story that made me get over my “really? heroes during WWII again?” skepticism. The characters are (mostly) richly created, the settings are amazing – you feel cold and wet when Werner is on the Russian front lines in WWII, and warm and loved when Marie-Laure is amongst her family in small town France. Really, it’s very well done.

A Grand Love

The Last Great Dance on Earth

What’s it about?
The Last Great Dance on Earth is the third of three novels about Empress Josephine. This book remains a very intimate portrait of her and her family, their loves and lives. But it’s probably the grandest part of her story. She’s fully in the palace, living the life of an empress, haunted by what happened to Marie Antoinette. Her continuing inability to get pregnant with Napoleon’s heir (likely because of her imprisonment during the Revolution) leads to their eventual divorce, where she moves to a country house (still a small palace). Napoleon is shown to continue to love her – wikipedia even states that “he had married a womb” (of his second wife). Little mention is made of Napoleon’s love affairs. I suppose it is the French myth that a man can remain married to one woman while having sex with many; a woman must remain loyal to her husband. To be fair, the first book does address this point – Josephine learns that this is what is expected of a good French wife. This volume chronicles her downfall – the complications of life at court, his family’s continuing jealousy and scheming, and her eventual death at her home in suburban Paris.

Why should you read it?
Because the three books together make up one story. There is no drop-off in quality from book to book and they really do read as one whole, split into three to make them manageable. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that the publisher releases them all as a single volume some day. They are a lovely portrait of life in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France.

Intimacy and Grandness

Tales of Passion Tales of Woe

What’s it about?
Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe is the second of three books about Empress Josephine, of Napoleon & Josephine fame. The three books make up one seamless story of Josephine’s entire life; this volume covers the time she marries Napoleon until just after he is crowned Emperor of France. It’s a surprisingly intimate look at their lives, given the sweep of events that lead Napoleon from a capable general to Emperor of France. We learn about their passion for each other as well as the petty jealousies of the Buonaparte family. Though, I suppose, when an empire is at stake, can the jealousy really be petty? It sure reads like it, though.

Why should you read it?
Because all three books are a good overview of what the French Revolution must have looked like, at least a little bit, from the inside. Not to mention that Josephine is an awfully likable character. You feel for her dread of telling her children she’s remarried, her pain at not being able to get pregnant again, her growing love for her husband. It’s a pleasant historical fiction about a very famous woman.