Children of the Revolution, By Robert Gildea

Whatever else might be said of France in the 19th century, it wasn't dull. This panorama begins with the self-coronation of Napoleon and moves through the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 and the Commune of 1871, which involved the deaths of 20,000 Parisians (half by execution).

Gildea's narrative explains both physical and philosophical aspects of modern France. We learn that Sacré Coeur was built at the behest of the archbishop of Paris in order to exorcise the anti-clerical Commune.

Conscription emerges as a recurring theme. Despite mutinies and Descaves's 1889 novel Sous-offs ("brutality, drunkenness, disease and prostitution" in a garrison setting), it became "a significant rite of passage". Conscripts were "feted by the mayor" and got to "kiss the girls".