French-themed books to read this month

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Escape from Paris: A True Story of Love and Resistance in Wartime France – Stephen Harding

Hatchet, €24.87, ISBN: 0306922169

If this tale was fiction, you might find it a bit far-fetched. As it stands, this gripping story about how a small group of American pilots escaped the Nazis occupying Paris in 1943 is all the more extraordinary for being true.

It’s not hard to imagine what it’s like to be a B-17 bomber crew in World War II because there are so many books and movies about it.

Even dogfights are part of our collective imagination. But the mind is truly mind-boggling when it comes to a family living at the Hôtel des Invalides as caretakers during World War II. All of France’s most illustrious fighters are buried here, including Napoleon, making it a truly symbolic location for Nazi headquarters in Paris. But under their noses, the Morin family of guards was secretly part of a resistance network smuggling airmen out of France.

Escape from Paris is as thoroughly researched as any Stephen Harding book, and packs a solid emotional punch. From the start, the reader supports the pilots and their brave rescuers.

One of the aviators Joe Cornwall, falls in love with the girl Yvette Morin, but it is not an idyll; it’s a true story, largely taken from Joe’s journals. So be warned, if you want an exciting story full of courage and selflessness, you’ll love this book.

If, however, you want a wartime romance with a happy ending, try somewhere else.

The elegance of the hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

Europa Editions €11.47, ISBN: 9781906040185

The elegance of the hedgehog Muriel Barbery, Europa Editions

This bestseller is a charming literary novel about Renée, a bristling and difficult janitor who lives and works in an upscale neighborhood of Paris. She is short, simple and stocky; she has onions and watches soap operas on TV. But it also devours Japanese philosophy, art, music and culture.

Completely self-taught, and reserving all her affection for her cat Leo, she considers the lives of the rich people she serves with a dark and mischievous humor. But when a Japanese man, Mr. Ozu, moves into the building, he sees through its prickly exterior.

He also sees through Paloma, a suicidal 12-year-old girl in the same building who hides her fierce intelligence behind a mask of indifference and mediocrity.

It’s not a quick read, or even a light one. However, it is a delicious stroll along the paths of French philosophy and as you read, you let yourself be drawn into the lives of Renée and Paloma. Their thoughts on French snobbery, the class system, the value of money and ways of thinking about life are always interesting.

Originally written in French by a professor of philosophy, it echoes Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World much more than it does Paul Gallico’s “Flowers for Mrs Harris” (about a Cockney housekeeper with more class than her clients) and alternates between Paloma’s point of view and that of Renée. .

Translated into English, for anyone wishing to dig below the surface to find out what makes France tick, this is essential reading.

Sixty million French people cannot be wrong – Jean Nadeau & Julie Barlow

Sourcebooks, €19.70, ISBN: 1402200455

Sixty million French people can't be wrong Jean Nadeau & Julie Barlow, Sourcebooks,

Published in 2003, this exploration of the French psyche remains insightful and relevant as it explores French assumptions and attitudes to life that are sometimes difficult for outsiders to grasp.

Written by two French-Canadian journalists, it’s serious reading rather than a comedic gallop through the usual tropes about French cheese and striped T-shirts. It is true that politics has evolved since the publication of this book, but if you want to understand how the French think about the economy, political classes, education, food, land, privacy and language , this is a good starting point.

You may not agree with everything, but this book will certainly give you new ways of thinking about France and the French. It will also give you a glimpse into Canadian culture as the authors wonder how the French have one of the biggest economies in the world and still take seven weeks of vacation a year, and how they manage to live so long despite their impressive wine consumption.

For more literary inspiration, check out the Facebook group “Novels set in France”.

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