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The best books about France

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

France is a nation that has a long and illustrious past, as well as a strong literary tradition. These selections for works set in France will help you get a better understanding of La République.

The most common error that newcomers to France make is failing to see that the locals do have their own culture and traditions. It will require more than just knowing the appropriate amount of kisses to exchange and when to utilize the subjunctive tense for you to feel at ease in this setting over the long term.

There is a great deal of books available on the topic for a specific cause, but the following 10 are among our favorites:

1. France History

Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong: Why We Love France but Not the French [Excerpt from Why We Love France but Not the French]

(Published in 2003 by Sourcebooks, Inc.; written by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau)

This book is significantly more about France than it is about other countries' responses to France, although its title implies that its purpose is to explain why some people are afraid of France. However, this approach, which is not only approachable but also scientific and comes from Canadian writers who are bicultural, does an excellent job of explaining French behavior in light of recent events in French history.

It discusses everything from the post-war years in Algeria and the beginnings of the European Union to the more enduring cultural aspects such as the French fixation with diplomas and the reasons why the nation is ruled by les énarques. It is a comprehensive work that covers everything.

2. What's an énarque? Learn the answer by reading this book.

Paris: A Trip into the City of Light Paris: A Trip into the City of Light

(Originally published in 2005 by David Downie and reprinted by Transatlantic Press in 2011)

As one of our reviewers, Anne Jacqueline, put it: "beginning with the period when Paris was simply a sandy island between two branches of the Seine, inhabited by fierce fisher folk - the Parisii, Downie will walk you through Paris locations and people, blending the present with geography and history."

Whether you are familiar with the city of Paris or not, reading this book is an excellent way to learn more about it. The city is seen not just from a visitor's perspective, but also a resident's one, thus the well-known tourist destinations are not ignored. Work, Dreams, and the Soul This book may be read in a variety of settings, but I recommend beginning with a warm beverage, such as a cup of tea or a glass of wine, and curling up on your couch. Read, find new things, and daydream.

3. Expat explainers

Are They Friends or Foes? How to Make the Most of Your Time in France—Whether You're Visiting, Living, or Working There

(Originally written by Polly Platt and published in 2004 by Culture Crossings)

This may be the most widely read expat book for entering Americans, and with good cause. If for no other reason, it explains why the French doesn't smile, which is one of the most often asked questions.

Some of the information presented at the cultural seminars that the late author gave to top-level expat executives is not relevant to everyone. For example, it is possible that you do not need to know the proper protocol to follow if you are asked to lunch at an embassy. Its general advice for self-discipline to study the "cultural rules," its summary of French conduct, and its richness of expat tales continue to make it the definitive introduction to living in France.

4. Have a Conversation with a Snail: Ten Commandments for Mastering the French Language

(Written by Stephen Clarke and published by Bloomsbury in 2006)

Clarke is most known for his novel, A Year in the Merde; however, although the book was a best-seller in both English and French, it is unlikely that it would provide you with a great deal of useful information unless you are a British guy trying to find work in Paris.

This one is a non-fiction round-up of remarks written by Clarke, presented without the sub-plots but with the same acerbic wit as the others.

After finishing this book, you may find yourself wondering why Clarke continues to reside in this area; nonetheless, his jabs are more flirtatious than vicious, and he inserts a good deal of astute observation in between the punch lines of his jokes.

Our fave chapter? "Thou shall commit a mortal sin (if you are not French)"

5. Au Contraire! Getting to Grips with the French

(Written by Gilles Asselin and Ruth Mastron; published in the year 2000 by Intercultural Press)

More general readers may likely find themselves skimming over the accounts of successful cross-cultural mergers in this one since it is primarily directed at intercultural managers.

However, its review of the French views toward privacy and the relevance of the educational system in French culture make it a worthy addition to this list for anybody. Its credibility comes from the particular tales that it includes and the cross-cultural collaboration that its writers share.

6. French Lessons

(Written by Alice Kaplan; published in 1993 by the University of Chicago Press)

The protagonist is a little girl from the United States who, together with her recently bereaved mother, relocates to France. This is the narrative of her coming of age. Although it is not going to be able to take the place of any of the more instructional books on this list, it is distinctive in the sense that it examines the function that language had in the author's growth.

The author describes what it is like to be bi-cultural, and her retelling will be particularly moving and relevant for parents of children who have grown up in a foreign country.

7. Almost French: A New Life in Paris

(Written by Sarah Turnbull; published in 2003 by Nicholas Brealey)

This is the book that every contemporary French woman should own, as well as everyone who is part of a multicultural relationship.

This Australian freelance writer, who falls in love with a Frenchman and relocates to Paris, begins with what could have been a cliched love story, but she ends up tackling head-on all of the experiences and judgments that can be combined to provide an Anglophone female in France a full-scale insecurity complex.

8. Paris to the Moon

(Adam Gopnik; 2000; Random House)

Even though the author was given a prestigious position as the New Yorker correspondent in Paris for five years, he paid his way by penning this scholarly but deeply personal book that compiles and builds on his dispatches.

He discusses topics ranging from the first major strike by France's intermittants du spectacle to his wife giving birth to their second child in Paris. In this piece, he covers everything from trying to decorate a Christmas tree with guirlandes of bulbs to the first major strike by France's intermittants du spectacle.

The conclusion is particularly thought-provoking, as he contemplates the disparity between the "beautiful life" that he and his family established for themselves in Paris and the "rich life" (with no reference to money meant) that they finally return to in New York City.

9. Misunderstandings of other cultures; the experience of the French in America

(Published by the University of Chicago Press in 1988 and written by Raymonde Carroll.)

(Available in French as Evidences Invisibles: Américains et Francais au quotidian)

Even though this work is the oldest on the list, subsequent French writers who have written on the subject have referenced it so often that it is still worthwhile to read. The book was first released in French, and although it is now also accessible in English, its original purpose—which was to educate French readers about Anglophone, and more especially American, culture—makes it the more useful of the two versions.

It's like staring in a three-way mirror, except with words instead of reflections. Carroll's academic background and approach provide her credibility in front of an audience speaking French since she is an anthropologist. However, although she is an academic and writes in a scholarly style, the material, which is presented in both languages, is not difficult to understand.

10. On est heureux comme ca! Ces idées reçues qui plombent la France

(Kareen Perrin Debock; 2006; First Editions)

(Only Available in French)

The author of this book, which is written in French and aimed at French readers, investigates the question of what it is about the French that irritates people in other parts of the globe and why, in the end, the French have no option but to continue being French.

The author is a journalist, and the book draws largely on current data and surveys released in the French press to address issues such as the never-ending debate about French personal cleanliness and the reason why the French adore their pets. The information is enlightening, but not as much so as the author's end conclusion, which is "so much the worse for them!"

And one more just for fun…

11. Death in the Dordogne

(Louis Sanders; 2002; Serpent's Tail)

The author is from France, but he spent a good portion of his life in the United Kingdom. Because of this, he has decided to put his mystery stories in the British community that is located in the Dordogne. The Englishman's Wife, An Ignoble Profession, and this book are the three novels that he has published so far that take place in this environment. All of these books are written from the perspective of a British expatriate and are all accessible in translation.

Do not turn to these arch stories for inspiration if you have not yet relocated to the Dordogne; nonetheless, those who are already living there will recognize, with fondness, some of the numerous eccentrics — British and French — who populate the author's Dordogne.

Readers’ recommendations

“Culture Shock” France.



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