Tag Archives: France


I’ve always been a bit of a Francophile, although I’ve never been to France.  It’s definitely on my to do list.  French culture, from philosophy to food to fashion to art have always excited me.  I’ve been learning the language using library resources for a few years now. Although my progress has been slow, I have been learning.  What I really need is more live practice; maybe I should get to one of the library’s French Conversation Club sessions.

Anyway, I’ve always thought that France and French are awesome, and here’s some stuff available from the library that either is French or pertains to France.

storyoffrenchThe Story of French by Jean Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow – The complete history of the French language, from Roman times through the present.  The authors visit the entire francophone world and delve into the histories, events, and other languages that have helped French evolve into the major international language that it is today.  This book reads more like a biography than a book on linguistics.

The Intouchables – The heartwarming story of a truly unlikely friendship:  A quadriplegic bourgeois and an ex-con hired to help him results in an amazing bond.  This film is touching, inspirational, funny and entertaining.

Carla Bruni – Now I must say, here in the United States we have a pretty awesome first lady.  I love Michelle Obama’s style, grace  and commitment to healthy living and to our veterans. In contrast, this former first lady is a pop star, and that’s pretty darn cool too.  Her music is nice and relaxing, and for me a good way to practice my French.  

French Cooking – One of the things that I learned from the The Story of French is that both the word restaurant and the institution began in France.  Prior to the revolution, chefs worked in the homes of the nobility.  When the revolution began, many of these nobles were sent to the guillotine or headed into exile, and the result was food professionals who had to come up with another outlet for their craft.  Their product is now celebrated throughout the world, just as the French methods of cooking are.  This link isn’t to any one particular French cooking book, but all of them in our catalog, as there are too many good choices to stick with just one. 

lifeinfranceMy Life in France by Julia Child –  Capturing the time frame from when Julia fell in love with French cooking up through her culinary education in France.  Julia was really an amazing person. She didn’t find her passion for cooking until she was already in her 40s, after serving in the US military and following her husband, a diplomat, all around the world.  Celebrate both a great country and a great personality with this vivid memoir.

What about you all, are there any other Francophiles around?  What French books/movies/cultural things do you love?

-Scott M.


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France in My Pants

I wasn’t scheduled to post today, but I volunteered to do so on one condition: that I could call my post “France in My Pants.” Fortunately, our gracious editor accepted my terms, so here we are.

France in my pants, indeed.

Okay, there are pants in these books. But they aren’t my pants.

I must confess that this post isn’t really about pants, it’s about France in the late 1800s and the early days of forensics and murdering and stuff – so if you want to stop reading now, I won’t be offended. For those of you who’d like to carry on, away we go!

Eiffel's Tower

Oooh, shiny.

Eiffel’s Tower, by Jill Jonnes – Did you know that Gustav Eiffel had a swanky little apartment at the top of the Eiffel tower? He did! It was fully furnished with artwork, velvet fringed divans, and even a piano. (p. 152 and 237). And did you know that the tower had its own newspaper? It did! During the 1889 Paris Exposition, Le Figaro printed a daily special edition of their newspaper (Le Figaro de la Tour) in a tiny office on the tower’s second floor (p. 46).

This book is both a friendly romp through the history and construction of the tower and a nice general introduction to some of the Exposition’s famous visitors. Where else can you learn about the difficulties of constructing elevators that travel up and sideways at the same time? Where else can you learn about Annie Oakley’s living quarters and how Thomas Edison became an Italian count? Where else can you discover how the good people of Paris reacted to that most American of constructions, the Corn Palace? Spoiler: thumbs down (p. 125).

The tower itself was a parade of famous people – visitors included the Prince and Princess of Wales (who came even though Queen Victoria had called for a boycott of the fair), Isabella II of Spain, King George of Greece, not-yet Czar of Russia Nicholas II, and (almost) the Shah of Persia – his courage failed him on his first attempt to climb the tower, and he didn’t get far on his second visit before descending “as fast as his legs could carry him, and unassisted by any native dignity or borrowed decorum” (p. 187). Well, at least he tried.

Photographs scattered throughout the book show the early phases of the tower’s construction, which really puts the whole scale of the operation (and the Shah’s fears) into perspective.  Of course, there are the requisite images of the designers and engineers of the tower and the Exposition, but you’ll also come across a few spiffy interior shots of the exhibition halls and a charming picture of Buffalo Bill and some of his Native American employees enjoying a gondola ride in Venice (p. 278).

Note: If you’re only here for happy books, this would be a good place to stop reading.

The Killer of Little Sheperds

There’s a bloodstain on the cover, in case you couldn’t tell that this is a murdery book.

The Killer of Little Shepherds, by Douglas Starr – Catching serial killers is hard work, especially in the French countryside, especially in the late 1800s, especially when the local police departments don’t talk to each other, and especially when there are no standards for collecting and analyzing evidence. But you’ll see how science (yay, science!) overcomes all of these obstacles in this book, which tells the parallel stories of Joseph Vacher (our killer) and Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne (a pioneer in the field of forensic medicine).

Vacher was a soldier who didn’t take rejection well – he started his violent career by proposing to a young housemaid on their first date and shooting her in the face when she rejected him (p. 5). She survived; he went on to commit at least eleven murders – well, he confessed to eleven, though he was suspected of more than twenty-five (p. 148).

Lacassange,  a professor at the University of Lyon, worked with his students to compile a pocket-sized guide to pretty much every crime everywhere. His book became an indispensable tool for doctors and investigators – with its assistance, they could be sure of collecting evidence that would stand up in court (p. 45). He was also apparently the first person to use the rifling marks on a bullet to link it to a particular gun, way  back in 1888 (p.46)!

This book also contains many sensational newspaper illustrations of crime scene reenactments, scattered body parts, dramatic autopsies, handwriting samples, and a very discreet photograph of Vacher’s severed head. Something for everyone, really.

Little Demon in the City of Light

Look! It’s that shiny tower thingy again!

Little Demon in the City of Light, by Steven Livingston – Can a person be held accountable for a crime that they committed while hypnotized? That’s the underlying question in our final book, the story of the murder of Toussaint-Augustin Gouffe, a wealthy and swanky fellow done in by his intended mistress, Gabrielle Bompard.

At the time of the murder, Gabrielle was supposedly acting under the influence of her lover – con man, hypnotist, and all around creepy fellow Michel Eyraud (seriously – he was like, twenty years older than her. And while they were on the lam, he made her pose first as his son and then as his daughter).

The crime took place in Paris in 1889 (the year the Eiffel Tower opened), and Gouffe’s body was discovered in Lyon, where it was identified by Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne (the previously noted forensic medicine chap). See how nicely everything comes together? But alas, I’m still reading this one, so I’m afraid I don’t have many more details for you. So far, it’s fascinating stuff.

Like The Killer of Little Shepherds, this book also features a fun variety of illustrations and photographs. There are quite a few fancy mustaches, the bloody trunk that once contained Gouffe’s corpse, and a very tasteful picture of his remains (so don’t read this one on your lunch break).

– Amy, friend of pants, science, and history


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My Own Little Myopia

I’m sure all of you are familiar with the parable of the three blind men and the elephant. Asked to describe the animal all three gave widely disparate explanations, informed by the limited sensory exposure they possessed. The first man only felt the trunk and described the pachyderm as twisty and serpent-like; the second man at one of the legs described a rather static and stout animal. The third man feeling the tail felt the elephant to be a small, swift and rat-like creature.

Degradation of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

How often have we, whether by omission or commission, made the same error? If by chance you attended Hebrew School (that’s after “real” school 2x a week,) you likely learned about the Dreyfus Affair and its role in the establishment of the Zionist movement. The narrative went something like this; in 1894 Captain Alfred Dreyfus – a French Jewish officer was accused of treason, court-martialed, found guilty and sentenced to a long prison term on Devil’s Island. During the course of the Affair barefaced Anti-Semitism became the norm in France complete with public demonstrations and shouts of “Death to the Jews”.  An assimilated secular Austrian Jew – Theodore Herzl, was covering the Dreyfus trial as the Paris correspondent for the Viennese newspaper the Neue Freie Presse.

Theodore Herzl
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the account we learned, Herzl came to the realization that 100 years of emancipation and Jewish assimilation were pointless. In 1897 Herzl initiated the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, and presided over the birth of modern political Zionism and the end of the Dreyfus Affair in the Hebrew School curriculum.

On the one hand, it exposed us (at elementary school age I should note) to an event we otherwise might never have learned about. On the other hand, like the blind men and the elephant we didn’t even scratch the surface of an episode that along with the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) traumatized and defined modern France until World War I. For France, the Dreyfus Affair was more involved, gut-wrenching and soul-searching than almost any comparable experience we’ve had in the US.  The Sacco & Vanzetti trial may be the closest we’ve come.

Even having read several works on Dreyfus over the years, the affect of l’affaire Dreyfus wasn’t made clear until I started reading about the political and social changes in Europe (affected and resisted by the inter-related monarchies,) and the emergence of the US as a world power. Two particular works drew me in:

Tuchman in particular does a wonderful job pointing out all the changes emerging at the turn of the century that will ultimately result in the emergence of Germany as a unified, industrial powerhouse, and the eclipse of the European states economic and social influence by the United States.  Both Tuchman and Clay point out how poorly prepared the traditional European monarchies (and their related class structures) were for the new century and the social forces emerging with it (Socialism, Communism, Anarchism, the labor movement, etc.)

So where does Captain Dreyfus fit in?  Dreyfus was framed by a fellow French officer – Ferdinand Esterhazy.  While Esterhazy’s role was brought to light after Dreyfus’s initial conviction and sentencing, the French establishment wouldn’t  acknowledge that “they” -the establishment had erred.  The army and its supporters could not bring themselves to admit that the system had failed.  In 1896 when enough evidence had been assembled to cast doubt on the Dreyfus conviction and pointed towards Esterhazy’s role, a reconvened court-martial acquitted Esterhazy and upheld the original conviction – based entirely on evidence deliberately withheld by the army.  It was not until 1906 that Dreyfus was exonerated and all charges dropped.

Emile Zola’s J’Accuse
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Dreyfus affair was significant because it set France against itself; a painful situation for a country smarting from its defeat 25 years earlier by the Germans, the abolition of the Bonapartist empire, and the resulting loss of honor and territory (Alsace & Lorraine.)  In the French psyche of the time, the army was France and France was the army; it couldn’t be fallible.  Those who were against any questioning of the case or the government’s role saw the army as representing those principles which made France great – academe, honor, justice, liberty, fraternite.  Those who supported Dreyfus (the Dreyfusards) believed in those same principals too, and believed the army’s position contradicted what made France great.  The Dreyfus Affair consumed French life (and was carefully followed overseas too, including the USA) as no other issue would until 1914.  The French judicial system was assumed to be impartial and fair; how could France accuse and convict a man in so unfair a manner?    The Anti-Semitism that so influenced Herzl, was an aside – a shocking one – but nevertheless an aside.  The issue wasn’t jingoistic patriotism or territorial, it was philosophical – “What is France?”

– RK


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The Little Sparrow


Although much of her early life remains a mystery, many biographies cite Edith Piaf’s birth under a streetlight in Ménilmontant, an impoverished district of Paris, on December 19, 1915. Piaf began singing at the age of 14, accompanying her acrobat street-performing father all over France. The nickname La Môme Piaf or “The Little Sparrow”, given to her by a nightclub owner, was inspired by her stage anxiety and small stature, standing at 4 feet 8 inches.

Edith Piaf had a whirlwind of a life (so much so that much of her music was autobiographical) – experiencing miraculous sight recovery after enduring blindness from the ages of three to seven; growing up in a brothel owned by her grandmother; rubbing elbows with mobsters; costarring in a Jean Cocteau play; and kissing Marlene Dietrich…whew.

It’s only the 15th, so you have four days to binge on all things Edith.

Joyeux anniversaire, Edith!

The Wheel of Fortune: The Autobiography of Edith Piaf, Edith Piaf – A candid look into the singer’s life, told straight from the source.

book jacketEdith Piaf Song Collection – A collection of Edith’s best loved songs for you to sing.



Love and Passion, Edith Piaf – A four-disc boxed set collection of the Little Sparrow singing her heart out.

book jacketEdith Piaf: A Passionate Life – A biography of the singer translated to film, including rare footage of her life.



La Vie en Rose – The 2007 film depecting Piaf’s life, staring Acadamy Award-winning actress Marion Cotillard.

– Lisa


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Happy Bastille Day!

Today in France everyone will be celebrating Bastille Day (or le quatorze julliet, as they would say there), which commemorates the storming of the Bastille in 1789, and is often considered to be the beginning of modern France.  As a francophile and French literature major, I always try to celebrate Bastille Day myself (even if that only means eating a croissant for breakfast!)  This year, I thought I’d celebrate by sharing some of my favorite books about French culture, French literature, film, and music.

  • Comic Book, by Serge Gainsbourg: The “dirty old man” of French pop, Serge Gainsbourg has played around with lots of different musical genres, from pop to jazz to reggae.  This album is a collection of his pop songs, and while I can never pick a favorite, his duets with Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin are always classics.
  • French Women Don’t Get Fat, by Mireille Guiliano: You won’t find any recipes for the heavy pastries or rich entrees that we’ve come to expect from French cooking, but Guiliano packs her first cookbook with lots of wonderful recipes, sandwiched between anecdotes about French culture and cuisine.  The leek soup, fish en papillote, and homemade yogurt recipes have all worked their way into my regular rotation.  While this is a diet book, it is less about deprivation than about healthy eating, and the recipes are all well-balanced, easy to make, and delicious. 
  • Short stories by Guy de Maupassant: Maupassant is a master of the modern short story, and is one of my favorite authors.  His stories dwell on topics such as sex and power in society (as in one of his famous stories, Boule de Suif) or horror (as in Le Horla).  As a short story writer he has never become as famous as some of his novel-writing contemporaries (such as Flaubert- who was also his mentor- or Zola), but his stories are well worth the read. 
  • Masculin Feminin: I hadn’t realized how much I love French film until I began trying to pick a film to write about for this blog post. I finally settled on Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Feminin, because, in addition to being one of my favorite films of all time, it really is a great peek into French culture in the 1960’s, and is also a landmark of the French New Wave film movement.  The plot focuses on the relationship between a young man just out of the army, and a young woman with aspirations of becoming a pop star.  And for you trivia geeks: Masculin Feminin also happens to be based on a couple of short stories by Maupassant. 
  • Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources: (Because I couldn’t pick just one French film!)  In contrast to Godard’s urban 1960’s France, these two films take place in the earlier part of the 20th century, in rural France.  The main character has dreams of becoming a florist, and when he discovers a hidden spring on his neighbor’s land he plots to get the water for himself.  Jean de Florette tells the first part of the story, and Manon des Sources picks up where the first film leaves off.  The movies are wonderfully paced stories of obsession, greed, and revenge.  Set aside a chunk of time to watch both movies back to back; by the end of the first film you’ll be anxious to find out how the story ends. 

If I hadn’t quit smoking, I would light up a Gauloise.  Instead I’ll probably just eat another croissant and have a glass of wine.  Do you have any plans for celebrating Bastille Day? 



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