Some parties are fun, others are un-missable “cultural experiences.” The strange and exotic festivals held during the French Revolution would have to fall in the latter category. There was one particular event — the Fête de l’Être Suprême, or Festival of the Supreme Being — that was easily the most bizarre. Held during the height of the Terror, with the guillotine casting its gruesome shadow over Paris, it was a giant street party organized to celebrate fraternity and fuzzy warm feelings. It may not have been a barrel of laughs — at least not intentionally — but it was definitely something to see.

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The Revolution, the Catholic Church had organized France’s hectic calendar of festivities. But from the moment the Bastille was stormed in 1789, patriots had been… More…

Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (originally published in French in 2006 as Les Bienveillantes) features Nazis, incest, and tons of human excrement — literally, tons. It is a novel thus difficult to ignore. Also, it is huge. When you plop it down on a bar in the East Village, for instance, people stop and take notice. Everything about it says serious novel, important novel. People have stopped me on the subway just to ask what I’m reading. It is a novel that calls out for attention. Sometimes I carry it around for that purpose alone. It is heavy, potentially dangerous, and dripping in European (particularly French) sensibility.

That is also why Americans have, so far, largely ignored it. The ultimate arbiter of American, educated middlebrow taste, The New Yorker could only bring itself to mention the book in its “Books Briefly Noted” section. They dispatch it in a terse paragraph:

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Once, in Brazil, I ended up eating dinner in a section of Salvador called Pelourinho, which my Lonely Planet said was the old slave auctioning and whipping site, but that was now filled with charming, overpriced tourist restaurants. I was with a Japanese girl I had met in Rio. She swore like a Yakuza member, but she read her guidebook diligently. I was alone as usual, and she allowed me to follow along as she took the right buses to the beach and showed up at the bank to change money during business hours. In exchange for my freeloading she occasionally demanded we must eat some of the “must eat” dishes in some of the “must eat” restaurants pictured on the shiny pages of her Japanese guidebook. Monika, a Canadian who was model gorgeous and fluent in her parent’s Portugal-style Portuguese, but had trouble walking on all the cobblestone in… More…