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Well, we’re not confined again, exactly. But many of us are choosing (wisely, or because we have to) to stay home a bit more than we usually do while the latest version of Covid makes its rounds.
So, what to do with all those extra hours spent inside over the next few weeks? Seems like an excellent time to read some big, fat books about Paris, doesn’t it?
Here is my short list of recommended hefty-but-fascinating reads. (There’s a longer list of some of my favorite books, both long and short, about Paris here.) Find them at your favorite local independent bookstore, like the Red Wheelbarrow in Paris.
All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)
The Pulitzer Prize committee called this book “an imaginative and intricate novel inspired by the horrors of World War II and written in short, elegant chapters that explore human nature and the contradictory power of technology.” I agree, but I would add it is about so much more. It is about human strength and weakness; the beauty of music and the earth; the power of storytelling; and the ability of love to if not conquer all, at least provide some solace in a world too often gone mad. “Transformative” is a word often used to describe the experience of reading this book. The prose is surpassingly beautiful, and the insights into human life are profound. This is a book that bears rereading, so if you’ve already read it, you might want to read it again.
This novel is the story of a young man, a Palestinian, who is sent by his father to study medicine in France at the beginning of the First World War. He spends a few years in France, years that are for him liberating and transformative; then he returns to Palestine. But the impact of his time in France never leaves him. This is one of only two books I’ve ever read that made me want to begin reading again immediately as soon as I reached the end of the book: it’s that good, that rich, that worth rereading. I also learned a lot about the 20th century history of Palestine and Syria that I wanted to know through reading this book. (Many of us really need to know more about this history.)
This is a great choice for someone who is the mood for a thriller set in World War II; or a novel featuring a strong, independent, and very capable woman: or both. The story is built upon the historical fact that Adolf Hitler came to Paris only once, and when he did, he only stayed for three hours. Black was so intrigued by this odd fact that she built her story of an American sharpshooting woman who is sent by British intelligence to attempt to assassinate him. The writing is sharp, the plot spellbinding, and the characters are rich and full. Black has surpassed herself in this, her most recent novel.
The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (David McCullough)
This is one of the books that was on my shelf for years before I finally read it, partly because it is so long, and partly because even knowing what a good writer McCullough is I thought it might be a bit cumbersome to get through. I should not have waited! This is history at its best: McCullough is a gifted storyteller. He brings to life a number of not-so-well-known, but important, American figures, and demonstrates just how crucial Paris was in influencing the cultural and intellectual development of the United States in the 19th century. This is a must-read for all Americans, especially those who love France.
Is Paris Burning ? (Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre)
The first time I read this book I told everyone who would listen to me that it was the most exciting book I had ever read, even though I knew before I opened it “how things were going to turn out.” The true back story of the liberation of Paris, and how Paris was saved from destruction involved a complicated network of efforts (and decisions) by Resistance fighters, Allied forces, the Swedish ambassador to France, and even a German general. I never knew how close Paris had come to being reduced to rubble until I read this book. And I have never taken for granted its enduring beauty since reading it. Absolutely gripping!
These two books are not so long, but as collections of (wonderful) essays, they deserve to be read slowly, with time for contemplation and reflection built into the space between each of the essays. Thus, they too are wonderful at-home winter reading.
Paris Was Ours: Thirty-Two Writers Reflect on the City of Light (Penelope Rowlands)
These 32 essays were specially curated by Rowlands for this collection; they center on the question she asked herself when conceiving it (“Why, of all the places I’ve lived, did Paris affect me the most?”) It includes writers from Cuba, Iran, Iraq, England, Canada, the U.S., even France. Wonderful writing, and it offers a fascinating and diverse set of perspectives on this most fascinating city.
Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light (David Downie)
This is the book I always recommend when someone asks me if they can only take one book with them to Paris, what should it be? This collection of 31 short prose sketches written by Downie has something to please, interest, and/or enlighten almost anyone on some aspect of the “people, places, and daily life” in Paris, whatever their interests may be. And his ever-present wit and good nature make you feel like you’re striding right along by his side as he opens up a wealth of information and odd facts about a variety of fascinating places in Paris. Strongly recommended!
Lead photo credit : Woman reading by window © Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash