The best books about France through foreign eyes

Who am I?

Colin Duncan Taylor is the author of Lauragais: Steeped in History, Soaked in Blood, and Menu from the Midi: A Gastronomic Journey through the South of France. He has been a French resident for 20 years, and through his books he shares his passion for the region’s culture, gastronomy, history, and language.

I wrote...

Lauragais: Steeped in History, Soaked in Blood

By Colin Duncan Taylor,

Book cover of Lauragais: Steeped in History, Soaked in Blood

What is my book about?

The Lauragais lies in southwest France at the heart of Occitanie. Today it is largely ignored by the millions who visit its neighbours each year – Toulouse and Carcassonne – but in times gone by it rarely escaped the attentions of the great and the good, or the ambitious and the avaricious.

This is a book with big characters – Simon de Montfort, the Black Prince, Thomas Jefferson, and the Duke of Wellington among others – but most of all it tells the story of the people who have shaped this land, the living and the dead, families that have lived in the same house or village for hundreds of years. This is the story of their lives, their religion, their forgotten language, and their environment.

​On the autoroute, a journey through the Lauragais will take you three-quarters of an hour, but all you will see are tantalising glimpses of gorgeous countryside and distant signs of human habitation. In this book, the author takes you on a more leisurely trip through time in a land that is endearingly modest about its illustrious past.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Life and Campaigns of the Black Prince: From Contemporary Letters, Diaries and Chronicles, Including Chandos Herald's Life of the Black Prince

Why did I love this book?

Richard Barber gathers together and translates letters written by, among others, the Black Prince and his steward, and the work of two contemporary chroniclers. Between them, these sources constitute an extraordinary collection of first-hand accounts of military campaigns in 14th-century France, including the battles of Crécy and Poitiers, and the 1355 expedition when the Black Prince rode through the area where I live – the Lauragais, between Toulouse and Carcassonne – and ordered his army to destroy and loot most of the towns along its route.

Sometimes verging on propaganda aimed at convincing those back in England that the war was worth fighting, and at others full of anecdotes from military life such as the time the Black Prince’s men were passing through an area so dry, they had to give their horses wine instead of water, this book paints a vivid picture of daily life in a marauding medieval army.

By Richard Barber,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Life and Campaigns of the Black Prince as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Edward of Woodstock, eldest son of Edward III, known as the Black Prince, is one of those heroes of history books so impressive as to seem slightly unreal. At sixteen he played a leading part in the fighting at Crecy; at twenty-six he captured the king of France at Poitiers; and eleven years later he restored Pedro of Castile to histhrone at the battle of Najera. His exploits were chronicled by Jean Froissart, but Froissart was writing three or four decades after the events he describes. There are other sources much closer to events, and it is on these that…

Thomas Jefferson's European Travel Diaries

By Thomas Jefferson, Persephone Weene, James McGrath Morris

Book cover of Thomas Jefferson's European Travel Diaries

Why did I love this book?

This book is based on notes made by Thomas Jefferson when he was US ambassador to France. For me, their highlight is his account of a journey south to examine the operation of the Canal du Midi which links Toulouse to the Mediterranean. Jefferson travelled down from Paris in his own carriage and when he reached the mouth of the canal near Agde he saw no reason to abandon it. He hired a barge to take him to Toulouse and loaded his carriage on deck.

During his eight-day journey, he recorded his impressions in notes and letters written while he was travelling, and he made observations on aspects of daily life which his French contemporaries rarely thought worth recording: agriculture, architecture, the price of goods and labour, the condition of the people, technical aspects of the canal, and where he could find the best wine.

This book is hard to find, but his original text is also available free from the Founders Online website, along with letters he wrote during his journey and addressed to his wife and secretary (use the direct link below).

By Thomas Jefferson, Persephone Weene, James McGrath Morris

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Thomas Jefferson's European Travel Diaries as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Jefferson's own account of his journey's through the countryside and wine regions of the continent in 1787 and 1788.

Book cover of Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes: And Other Travel Writings

Why did I love this book?

In 1878, Robert Louis Stevenson came to the Cévennes, a remote, mountainous part of southern France where Protestantism was still the main faith. ‘The best that we can find in our travels is an honest friend,’ writes Stevenson in his introduction, and throughout his 12-day journey, his stubborn companion and beast of burden was a donkey called Modestine whom he never quite managed to master and whom some readers may at times pity.

His route is now waymarked as a long-distance footpath, the GR70, or Le Chemin de Stevenson, and having walked some of it myself, the area remains almost as wild and overflowing with rural charm as it was in Stevenson’s day. And yes, you may meet a few nostalgic hikers who have hired a donkey for their journey.

By Robert Louis Stevenson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Temperament and poor health motivated Robert Louis Stevenson to travel widely throughout his short life, and before he was celebrated as the author of Treasure Island, A Child's Garden of Verses, and other immortal works, he was known for his travelogues. This collection presents some of his finest writing in that vein, starting with "An Inland Voyage." This 1878 chronicle of a canoe journey through Belgium and France charmingly captures the European villages and townspeople of a bygone era.
Other selections include "Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes," a humorous account of a mountain trek, and "Forest Notes," a…

A Moveable Feast

By Ernest Hemingway,

Book cover of A Moveable Feast

Why did I love this book?

Written in the last years of his life, Hemingway revisits his time in Paris during the 1920s when he was young, poor (most of the time), and struggling to transform himself from journalist to writer. As well as capturing the mood of an era when Paris was arguably the cultural capital of the world, Hemingway reveals numerous snippets about his early development as a writer, culminating in the kind of event which is any writer’s worst nightmare: the story of how his wife put all his original manuscripts and their carbon copies into a suitcase and promptly lost them on a train at the Gare de Lyon.

By Ernest Hemingway,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked A Moveable Feast as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Published posthumously in 1964, A Moveable Feast remains one of Ernest Hemingway's most beloved works. Since Hemingway's personal papers were released in 1979, scholars have examined and debated the changes made to the text before publication. Now this new special restored edition presents the original manuscript as the author prepared it to be published.

Featuring a personal foreword by Patrick Hemingway, Ernest's sole surviving son, and an introduction by the editor and grandson of the author, Sean Hemingway, this new edition also includes a number of unfinished, never-before-published Paris sketches revealing experiences that Hemingway had with his son Jack and…

Suite Française

By Irene Nemirovsky,

Book cover of Suite Française

Why did I love this book?

This is the only work of fiction on my list, and the story of the book is perhaps even more moving than the story in the book. Conceived as a symphony, but in five movements, only two were completed, and the unfinished work’s journey between 1942 and its eventual publication in 2004 is another story of a manuscript in a suitcase, but this time with a very different outcome.

Irène Némirovsky arrived in France in 1919 after fleeing the Russian revolution with her Jewish family. Irène began writing fiction in French, and within ten years, she was a celebrated writer in her adopted country. She began Suite Française in 1942, telling the story of the fall of France, the chaotic exodus to the countryside, the beginning of collaboration with the enemy, and the denunciation of neighbours. In July 1942 she was arrested, and perished a month later in Auschwitz. Her husband met the same fate later the same year.

Her two children and their governess went into hiding, moving several times, always accompanied by a suitcase which contained family papers and the unfinished manuscript of Suite Française. Sixty years later, it was published, the last work of a great author.

By Irene Nemirovsky,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked Suite Française as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1941, Irene Nemirovsky sat down to write a book that would convey the magnitude of what she was living through, not in terms of battles and politicians, but by evoking the domestic lives and personal trials of the ordinary citizens of France. She did not live to see her ambition fulfilled, or to know that sixty-five years later, "Suite Francaise" would be published for the first time, and hailed as a masterpiece. Set during a year that begins with France's fall to the Nazis in June 1940 and ends with Germany turning its attention to Russia, "Suite Francaise" falls…

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