Three books you must read before visiting France

The Road from the Past: Traveling through history in France, by Ina Caro

Part history, part travelogue. Caro traces the history of France through visits to specific regions and sights, mixing in comments on culture and society along the way.

Fragile Glory, by Richard Bernstein
Astonishing in its scope, this book gives you a little bit of everything about France and the French – history, famous authors, politics and politicians, culture, and language – without ever being dry or dull.

The book centers on the three main characters of the early days of the revolution: Danton, Robespierre, and Desmoulins. Mantel uses character study and history to flesh out the lives and personalities of the people who shaped the course of the revolution, who initiated the Reign of Terror, and who were ultimately overcome by their creation. A happy marriage of historical fiction with a page-turning plot.

…and three more you should read

The Judgment of Paris, by Ross King
With a novelist's skill and the insight of an historian, King recalls a seminal period when Paris was the artistic center of the world, and a revolutionary movement had the power to electrify and divide a nation. The Judgment of Paris chronicles the dramatic decade between two famous exhibitions – the scandalous Salon des Refuses in 1863 and the first Impressionist showing in 1874 – set against the rise and dramatic fall of Napoleon III and the Second Empire after the Franco-Prussian War.

Almost all accounts of D Day are told from the Allied perspective, with the emphasis on how German resistance was overcome. But what was it like to be a German soldier in the bunkers and gun emplacements of the Normandy coast, facing the onslaught of the mightiest seaborne invasion in history?
What motivated the German defenders? What were their thought processes? What were their experiences on facing the tanks, the flamethrowers and the devastating air superiority of the Allies? This book sheds fascinating light on these questions, bringing together statements made by German survivors after the war, when time had allowed them to reflect on their state of mind, their actions and their choices on that day. Above all, we now have the unheard human voices of the individual German soldiers, men who are so often portrayed as a faceless mass.

Paris: The Secret History, by Andrew Hussey
If Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon described daily life in contemporary Paris, this book describes daily life in Paris throughout its history: a history of the city from the point of view of the Parisians themselves. In this lively and lucid volume, Andrew Hussey brings to life the urchins and artists who've left their marks on the city, filling in the gaps of a history that affected the disenfranchised as much as the nobility. The book is a picaresque journey through royal palaces, brothels, and sidewalk cafés, uncovering the rich, exotic, and often lurid history of the world's most beloved city.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Tattooist of Auschwitz. This looks like a great read for anyone heading to Poland, or interested in World War Two history. I could also see it making a good movie.

In 1942 Ludwig "Lale" Eisenberg gave up his name for a number: 32407. A Slovakian Jew, Lale was sent to the infamous Auschwitz death camp when he was 26 years old. Upon entering the camp, prisoners were divided into two groups – those too old, too young, too sick, or too weak to work were sent immediately to the gas chambers. The 'lucky' ones were allowed to live, at least for a while longer.

The first step in the process of dehumanizing the prisoners was to take away their identity. A number was tattooed on their arm, a number that would be their only identity while in the camp, and one that would remain with them until their death. Guards never addressed prisoners by name, only by their number, and the prisoners were never allowed identify themselves using anything, but their number.

For three years Lale managed to survive in Auschwitz. Thanks to a facility for multiple languages – including Czech, Slovak, German, Russian, French, and Polish – he was put in charge of tattooing numbers on new arrivals, including number 34902, a young woman named Gita. They both survived the camp, and married in 1945, eventually escaping Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia, and emigrating to Australia.

Though he didn't talk about it until near the end of his life, the work that Lale did, and the faces of the people he tattooed, would haunt him until his death in 2006.

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