The Ladies’ Paradise [1883/1995] – ★★★★1/2
In this French classic translated by Brian Nelson, Denise Baudu, a young woman from the Valognes countryside, arrives to Paris with her two younger brothers, orphaned and destitute, looking to get employment at her uncle Mr Baudu’s small drapery shop. However, the moment Denise arrives, she becomes entranced by The Ladies’ Paradise, a magnificent shopping establishment that entices its customers with its extravagant window displays, personalised service, constant sales and affordable luxury. Since Mr Baudu’s small shop is on the brink of bankruptcy and Denise has to feed and clothe her two brothers, she feels she has no choice but to attempt working at this glittering shopping monstrosity that has already devoured many small businesses in the area, shutting them down. The proprietor of The Ladies’ Paradise is “brilliant” and ruthless Octave Mouret, an enigmatic figure, whose money-making schemes are already revolutionising the city’s shopping space. Can Denise, with her innocence and simplicity, navigate this complex, often immoral, commercial world so that she and her brothers survive? Zola masterfully and perceptively captures the changing Paris of the 1850-1860s that starts undergoing drastic urban transformations and changes in customer trends, seeing the rise of the “temples to Fashion’s madness for spending”, that are huge department stores.
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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century  – ★★★★★
In this book, Barbara Tuchman explores the 14th century Europe focusing in particular on the situation in France and on the powerful clan of lords – the Coucy of Picardy, whose ambition at that time almost rivalled that of the King. The centre of the narrative here is the lifetime of Enguerrand VII de Coucy, whose double allegiances and adventures could be compared to some mythical storytelling. Providing vivid insight into various aspects of the medieval life, from childhood to tournaments, and from the state of medicine to the status of women, Tuchman’s book makes one truly step into the intriguing world of the Middle Ages and into the mentality of its people. This was a historical period that was deeply paradoxical and chaotic, in which famine, peasant revolts, foreign wars, the bubonic plague and religious struggles were all taking place in a non-stop succession amidst the existence and the proclamation of a high moral code of chivalry among the nobility, and where magic and superstition reigned inexplicably alongside one strict religious canon.
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I. Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of The Terror in the French Revolution  by R.R. Palmer – ★★★★1/2
This book may be dated, but it did not lose any of its power from the time it was first published in 1941, and was re-issued many times (the last edition dates to 2013). In this book, R. R. Palmer looks at one particular time period in the history of France, and its Revolution – the year 1793-1974. But, what a year that was! Chaotic, unbelievable, bordering fantastical. After the death of Louis XVI, twelve people (virtually strangers to each other) started to govern the country and their slide into dictatorship gave the name to the year of their rule – The Year of the Terror. The year’s main symbol – the guillotine, operated alongside democratic ideas put in speeches and on paper. France has not seen anything like that before or since. Palmer’s engaging, illuminating account traces the months leading to the Year of the Terror, then focuses on the twelve men in charge of the country. The narrative further details the twelve men’s town and country policies, laws and actions, as they purported to stand for liberty, democracy, unity, justice and peace, but, actually, became the embodiment of the opposite. Foreign and civil wars, rebellions within and outside the country, as well as economic disasters, growing paranoia and the inability to maintain the central rule, are just some of the challenges that faced the twelve men after they were left in change of the country under the innocuous name “The Committee of Public Safety”. Continue reading “Recent History Non-Fiction Reads: Twelve Who Ruled; Rome: A History in Seven Sackings; & Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium” →