2014 Reading Challenge 2/65 – My Life in France (Julia Child)

The first two books for the year are both re-reads. Both well worth multiple reads, as it happens. I first read this twelve months ago and was captivated. We bought a second copy while on holidays (I must check when we get home to see whether we indeed already own a copy). No matter. It was worth the read. We got this at the Abbey Bookshop in Paris, a place that you must visit if you like second-hand books. It’s on the left bank, close to good food and the Notre Dame cathedral. They are also very hospitable and helpful.

Below is the original Goodreads review with a second reading postscript.

My Life in FranceMy Life in France by Julia Child
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having seen Julie and Julia, this was bound to end up on the reading pile sooner or later. Happily, it was sooner, for this cleverly crafted biography was worth every minute that was spent reading it.

Though really focusing on one slice of Paul and Julia Child’s life, it is soon apparent that the slice devoted to France was considerable indeed. From her first sole meunière at Rouen in 1948, Paul child and France remained her lifelong loves.

Though this book will appeal to the culinary set, it is a wide-ranging snap-shot of post-war France. The parade of characters include chefs such as Bugnard, and gourmands such as the eccentric Curnonsky. The Prince des Gastronomes adopted his pseudonym having covered a feast for the Russian royal family in Paris in the mid-1890s. Though a brilliant article, the author was unknown. His solution was the Russian-sounding pen-name. His reputation remained undimmed until his death in Paris in 1956.

Child is refreshingly forthright in her opinions, and doesn’t shrink from self-praise. Her indignation at failing at her first attempt to gain her certificate from Le Cordon Bleu almost makes the book shake in one’s hands as she lists her accomplishments. But it is deserving. Her optimism despite the stumbling blocks thrown across her husband’s career and the difficulties in publishing what would become Mastering the art of French cooking are simply so many obstacles to overcome.

Her love for Paul Child is manifest, and softens the few hard edges that that Julia shows. A talented artist, Paul joined the OSS during the Second World War (he met Julia working in Sri Lanka). Both Democrats, Paul was viewed with suspicion and, during the McCarthy witch-hunts was recalled to Washington and questioned about his political beliefs. His support for her projects was invaluable, and it was he who suggested that she should work in television (a remarkable observation as they hadn’t seen one at the time).

Enthusiasm for life and all that it offers, for good and ill, is the thread that holds this book together. Published posthumously in 2006, this is simply a wonderful piece of biographical writing.

Postscript – we picked up a second copy of this at the Abbey Bookshop in Paris. If you get to Paris, visit them. They are very hospitable.

On thing that struck me again is how important a part of culture food is. I love visiting France because eating good food (and making the time to do so) is still seen as important (I love Italy for the same reason). This is not to say that all the food that you buy in France is great. But I suspect (but cannot prove) that it’s generally better that that consumed in the Anglo-Saxon world.

As I write this we are in Bayeux and most businesses are closed from 12:00-14:00. Perfectly civilsed. I have nothing against sandwiches (I love a good sandwich), but I dislike our modern preoccupation with food as something to get through. At work, we often feel that we have no choice (and many don’t). We are the poorer for it.

The other thing that came through the book is that the French, their reputation notwithstanding, are very polite and usually friendly. My wife saw a staff member at the Bayeux tourism office being extremely patient with an elderly Canadian gentlemen. The French also value politeness highly. It’s important to say ‘bonjour/bonsoir’ when you enter a business. Politeness to people who serve us our food or our services is also something of an anachronism in the Anglo-Saxon world, and again we are the poorer for it.

Not that France or the French are perfect. Julia’s description of the drawn out bureaucratic nightmare that constituted their efforts to get a telephone are still a feature of modern French life. If you have to encounter the French bureaucracy, roll with the punches. And be polite. You may be the better for it.

At one point, Julia exclaims that she must be French and no one had previously informed her of this fact. I concur wholeheartedly.

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Reading 2014 1/65 – The Hobbit

In the spirit of trying to write a review of every book that I read this year, I start off with The Hobbit, published on Goodreads. I say a little about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in the review, but it’s by no means a review of the film. I will try to do a review of the film when I get a chance to see it again.

The HobbitThe Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How do you review one of the most famous works in the English language? I was prompted to read this again after seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I don’t want to talk about the movie except to say that, on reflection (and despite the additions) I think that Peter Jackson has managed to capture the spirit of the book remarkably well. Additionally, Jackson has not only had to make The Hobbit films in the spirit of the book, but also to make them compatible with his earlier Lord of the Rings films.

This is relevant to me as a reader because I approached The Hobbit in much the same way. I had read The Lord of the Rings two or three times before I ever got around to reading The Hobbit. I knew of course that it was a children’s book and was therefore reluctant to try it. I found it difficult to get past the childish asides and, although I thought it a wonderful story, I much preferred its longer offspring.

While The Lord of the Rings was a sequel (because the public wanted more hobbit tales), in a sense it was not. The size and scope of the later work gives it a mythic quality suitable for the Middle Earth sketched out in The Silmarllion. So much so that it was necessary for Tolkien to make revisions to The Hobbit in order to make it compatible with its sequel.

But it remained a children’s book. A children’s book of giant spiders, of goblins and a terrible dragon, but a children’s book nonetheless. But, this time, perhaps I was mature enough to appreciate how bond up with Middle Earth The Hobbit really is. It draws out the bad blood between elves and dwarves. The siege of Erebor by Bard and the men of Lake Town and their elvish allies shows that the future enemies of Sauron don’t simply have a few differences of opinion, easily resolved. It’s only the quick thinking (and slippery fingers) of Bilbo, and the appearance of the goblins and wargs, that makes allies of enemies.

The first cut is always the deepest. I suspect that I will always read The Lord of the Rings by choice over The Hobbit because it was my first encounter with the Middle Earth that I also love. But that it is so reflects a fault in me. The Hobbit is deservedly a classic of English literature. Each journey through it is an enriching experience.

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Review – The Vinland Sagas (Penguin)

My final completed book for 2013.

The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of AmericaThe Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America by Anonymous
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a pair of fascinating accounts of the Viking voyages to North America some 400-odd years before Columbus’ voyages. Interesting in their own right, they are helped with an excellent introduction by translators Magnus Mangusson. Comprising about 1/3 of this slim volume, it puts the voyages into a broad context which adds greatly to the experience. It gives a brief account of the settlement of Iceland and the beginnings of the doomed Norse outposts on Greenland.

While the translations move the genealogies to the footnotes, it’s worth making the effort to read these as well. The cadence of the recitations help give yu a glimpse of these sagas in their proper context; to be recited in a feast-hall by a thunder-voiced skald.

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Welcome to your new life – another Goodreads review

Welcome to Your New LifeWelcome to Your New Life by Anna Goldsworthy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The only thing more difficult than writing about childbirth is taking part in it — I presume. In Welcome to your new life, classical pianist and writer Anna Goldsworthy navigates the turbulent waters of pregnancy, birth and the first years of child-rearing with a successful blend of humour and insight.

We are reminded time and again how visceral the process of pregnancy and birth is. The very first image is of a long-term vegetarian urgently craving the juices and fats of a cevapi sausage. Enduring the agony of childbirth, the end of the process is “a sweet, slithering riddance”. After birth, like all babies he is an amalgam of poo, mucous and vomit. Expressing milk for the first time, she burps him and “you express the elixir of life down my back”.

Everyone has opinions (some strongly held) about pregnancy and child-rearing that would be difficult to express without hectoring the reader. Goldsworthy, an admitted perfectionist, avoids regaling us with certainties, but we meet many who do not. Each of these encounters features a disjunction that Goldsworthy uses cleverly for comic effect.

At a pre-natal birthing video session, the scene is set with a gentle, herbal tea sipping about-to-be mother and her midwife. Soon thereafter, the gentle herbal tea sipper is transformed into a bellowing Ms Hyde as she begins to push. As this goes on, the “breezy midwife” comments that pushing is, “{s]ometimes accompanied by a burning sensation”.

Along the way Anna encounters demands for birth plans, censure for ‘not breast-feeding properly’, arrogant doctors and the myriad expectations that are routinely heaped upon new and expectant mothers, often in trying circumstances. It’s the very ordinariness of Anna’s experiences and her laconic description that provides the humour. During labour, Anna is presented with a hospital menu, and she explains that she is without a pen. The nurse responds;

She purses her lips. “You’d be amazed at how many women present at labour without a pen. You’ll just have to source one from somewhere.”

Alongside gentle humour, Goldsworthy plumbs fascinating depths. Her description of mother and baby as “lovers in reverse” is clever and poignant. The awareness that this new life is mortal weaves through the book like a subtle stage backdrop. While her baby is being born, her brother lies on a surgical table in London, the surgeons unable to control his bleeding. At the end of the book, Anna is again pregnant, and her beloved grandmother lies dying in a hospice.

As the reader progresses, we glimpse intimate details, but are also somewhat remote from the process. We are introduced to parents, siblings, and a supporting cast of friends, acquaintances and professionals, but we never learn the baby’s name (until the afterword). This, and the second-person perspective, helps us feel that the main protagonists draw ever-closely in upon each other as the narrative progresses.

To make a topic come alive for someone with little background in it is a great achievement. My greatest disappointment with this book was that it had a final page.

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Another review

Today’s #blogjune post is another review over at Goodreads.

HindsightHindsight by Melanie Casey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hindsight is the debut novel for Adelaide writer Melanie Casey. Cassie Lehman comes from a long line of women with a psychic gift, which differs for each of the recipients. Cass sees and experiences the final moments of those who have died violently. She sees and feels the full force of their pain and terror through their eyes. It’s a gift that has led her to live the life of a recluse with her mother and grandmother.

Detective Ed Dyson has never gotten over the disappearance of his wife and unborn child. He’s stayed more or less on track with the help of Phil, his partner, and together they have tried to piece together what happened to her in their off-duty hours. A killing witnessed in the alley of a country town brings Cass and Ed together in an unlikely combination to track down a serial killer.

It’s a pleasure to read a work set in familiar territory (in this case, South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula) , and Casey delivers a nicely paced tale that makes the pages turn faster than a pancake on a hot stove. The two main characters are both nicely well penned, though partner Phil once or twice felt a little stock-character-like.

What I really enjoyed was the struggle that Cass had with her gift. Though their gifts differed from hers, it was a struggle Cass has shared with her mother and grandmother. It is perhaps true that anyone who is especially gifted struggles with its use. While Cass very much wants to use her sight to find the killer, the cost for her is high. Like her namesake Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess, her sight manifests like a psychic possession. While seeing her visions, Cass is helpless, and to an observer seems possessed. As the blurb states, this is a “not-so-sexy gift”. It has left her without friends, without romance and with uncertain social skills. A similar “gift” was used in the Star Trek: Voyager episode Ex Post Facto, where the memory of the victim was implanted into the killer. Their sentence – to relive the victim’s final moments every eight hours for the rest of their lives. This is not the stuff of gentle tea-leaves-at the-bottom-of-the-cup.

This was a debut work that was a pleasure to read. The relationship between Ed and Cass was perhaps closer at the end of the story than I thought it might have been, given the baggage both of them carry. However, the frantic climax perhaps burned away some of the layers of the past. The sense of foreboding that pervades Aeschylus’ Agamemnon is nicely acknowledged by quotes from the playwright himself at the beginning of each section. This is an excellent weekend read for the crime fiction buff who likes a subtle dose of psychic with their reading

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And that is all.