My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme

Child’s memoir was placed on my mental to-read list after the release of the film “Julie and Julia” in 2009, but I was only recently reminded of this when I spied the audiobook read by Kimberly Farr on the shelf at the public library. In the book, Child explains how she fell in love with French food in the fall of 1948 during her very first meal in the country after her ship docked in Le Havre en route to Paris and how that love turned her into the most famous cook in America.

Although Child previously worked for the United States Information Agency (precursor to the CIA) in China, where she met her husband Paul during World War II, she moved to Paris without a job in the agency or an understanding of the French language and immediately became bored. Determined to become fluent in the language and utterly in love with the cuisine, Child enrolls in the Cordon Bleu and learns how to master the art of French cooking, which she eventually parlays into a renowned cookbook for American cooks and the very first cooking show on television.

Compiled from interviews between Child and Alex Prud’homme, her husband’s grandnephew, during the last eight months of her life, the book was completed and published by Prud’homme in 2006 following her death in August 2004. Yet the novel never loses Child’s voice — I felt as though as I was having a conversation with her — and her love of French cuisine and the French people is conveyed with gusto and infectious enthusiasm. Leaves me with the desire to run out, buy Child’s cookbook, and make beef bourguignon and French bread.

The memoir is told with impressive detail making Paris, Marseilles, and Provence of the 1940s and 1950s seem charming, quaint, and alive yet what struck me was how different her recollections of life in France are with my own. Paris in the twenty-first century is filled with chains — American and non-American, alike — and I never experienced the atmosphere surrounding food that she so fondly recollects, although I did try many of the dishes she praises in this text. A bit odd to experience nostalgia for a time over sixty years past, but I suppose it is testimony to the writing of Child and Prud’homme that they managed to make me feel this way.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Child, Julia with Alex Prud’homme. My Life in France. Read by Kimberly Farr. New York: Books on Tape, 2006. Audiobook. 11 hrs, 17 minutes. ISBN: 9781415927243. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Books on Tape. Retrieved: October 12, 2014.

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

My darling Cecilia, if you’re reading this, then I have died. Cecilia Fitzpatrick finds a letter addressed to her from her husband instructing her to open the letter upon his death tucked amongst tax returns and receipts from the past twelve or so years of their marriage. Assuming her unorganized husband forgot to pass the letter along to their solicitor, Cecilia is unable to fathom what John-Paul could possibly have to say that she doesn’t already know and dying to answer the letter.

But she respects her husband’s request she leave the letter unopened and, instead, channels her attention towards the activities at their three daughters’ school where Rachel Crowley works part-time as a receptionist and Tess O’Leary has just enrolled her son in Grade One with Cecilia’s daughter, Polly. Rachel, for her part, focuses her attention on her young grandson, Jacob, as a way to cope with the unsolved murder of her daughter yet has recently learned that her grandson and her son will be moving to New York City soon. Meanwhile, Tess is trying to escape her demons in Melbourne; demons in the shape of her husband and her cousin, Felicity, who recently sat her down to explain that they are in love but would like to live in Tess’ house as one big, happy family.

The connections between these three characters are tenuous, at best, and remain as such until the very end of the novel; a mystery to keep the reader engaged after the more immediate mystery of what John-Paul wrote in his letter and why he kept its content a secret for over a decade is solved. The best way I can think to describe this novel is like a puzzle whose pieces are dolled out slowly leaving the reader unable to construct a whole corner or even an outline of the puzzle’s picture.

Such structure maintains the intrigue of the story until the end but also made for a rather frustrating experience, particularly when Cecilia finally opens the letter only for its contents to be withheld from the reader for a few more chapters as Moriarty turns her attention to the current state of the other characters. Scenes and characters, particularly those involving Tess O’Leary and her mother, are not necessary to the central story and could have easily been cut from the novel.

I am terribly, terribly troubled by the ending and cannot discuss my thoughts on the novel without zeroing in on the conclusion and the epilogue of the novel. At one point, Rachel muses on her belief that another version of her life — one where her daughter Janie was never murdered — runs parallel to the life she currently lives. Moriarty attempts to seize on this idea in the epilogue of her novel explaining how, if Janie had not been murdered, she would have married her murderer and how, if Rachel had not hit Polly with her car, the little girl would have received a tennis racket for her seventh birthday and gone on to, presumably, win the Australian Open. By the time I reached the epilogue, I was still reeling from Moriarty’s suggestion of how Janie is to blame for her own death due to her insistence on playing it safe with love.

A deplorable suggestion, in my opinion, taken even further by the idea Janie would marry her murderer; a deplorable suggestion that seriously compounded my enjoyment of this novel and makes me leery about picking her latest novel, which I have been told focuses on domestic violence, for book club in March.

Book Mentioned:

  • Moriarty, Liane. The Husband’s Secret. Read by Caroline Lee. New York: Dreamscape Media, 2013. Audiobook. 13 hours, 45 minutes. ISBN: 9781624068812. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Dreamscape Media. Retrieved: October 12, 2014.

American Innovations by Rivka Galchen

Galchen’s collection includes ten short stories and nearly all of them are written in first-person making it difficult to determine how distinct these stories are supposed to be from one another. Even so, I found myself warming to nearly every rendition of ‘I’ and greatly enjoying the magical realism injected into many of the stories.

The book begins with “The Lost Order” in which the narrator is harassed by a man placing his order for carry-out because she cannot find the nerve to tell him that he has the wrong number. She also cannot find the nerve to tell her husband the truth about why she tendered her resignation, why she suddenly has time to wander around the city during the day. The melancholy infused into this tale could easily overpower the reader and yet there is something tender about the tale, about the ‘I’ that manages to take the story in a wondrous direction. It was a wonderful introduction to the collection because I immediately wanted more.

“Sticker Shock”, the third story in the collection, is one of only two stories in the collection that uses the third person; instead of an ‘I’, the reader is given “the daughter” and “the mother”. The story begins in a jumble of numbers — income, insurance, housing costs — and lingo related to taxes, which I had to read more than once to keep straight, but swiftly becomes an intriguing look into the psyche of a family, particularly how money begins to motivate their affairs with one another.

Although I found the later half of the collection to be weaker than the first half, the final story “Once an Empire” stood out to me for its ability to convey anxiety in a psychological thriller lasting less than eight pages. A young woman witnesses her furniture leaving her apartment all on its own like a romantic partner who has decided to leave her. She tries to rationalize the actions of her formerly inanimate objects, tries to figure out what she could have done to make them unhappy, but the sudden loss of all her possessions upends her entire life and her understanding of herself.

Overall, a beautiful, well-written collection of short stories. Her stories could have easily landed themselves amongst other novels cast aside due to pretentious writing yet Galchen manages to create ambitious stories whilst walking that fine line. Her writing left me wanting more with every turn of the page for roughly seventy percent of the stories in this collection, and I hope to pick up a copy of her full length novel sooner rather than later.

Book Mentioned:

  • Galchen, Rivka. American Innovations. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. Print. 175 pgs. ISBN: 9780374280475. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Retrieved: October 8, 2014.

Jane’s Fame by Claire Harman

While Harman spends the first two chapters of her book on a biography of Jane Austen, seventy-five percent of the book is devoted to analyzing her cultural influence and why people have such strong opinions about the author almost two hundred years after her death. Harman explains the paradox of an academically revered author whose work has served as the inspiration for quote-unquote chick lit and movies based loosely on her life.

As much as I love the works of Jane Austen, this is the first biography of the author I have ever picked up. In that regard, the book was a highly informative read. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of how much control Austen kept on her manuscripts, how meticulous she was about timetables and other seemingly minor details. And I appreciated how masterfully Harman managed to shatter the myth of Austen as a shy spinster who hid her writings from her family, which her family perpetrated by burning all of Austen’s letters following her death.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is the connection Harman makes between Austen’s diligent editing and her difficulty in getting her manuscripts published. Many of Austen’s original titles were dropped because other novels with the same title were published before hers. Those titles have faded into obscurity along with the works of the acclaimed authors of Austen’s time. But the time Austen spent struggling to find a manuscript meant, according to Harman, that Austen had to be careful to make her novels appear timely when they finally ended up in the hands of the reader. Thus, her novels never tackle issues of the time in which they were written — namely, war — and continue to appear timely to today’s reader.

I picked up this audiobook because of its subtitle, “How Jane Austen Conquered the World”, and I am afraid I found Harman’s novel lacking in that regard. Much of her information is anecdotal in nature, and her argument as to how Austen came to conquer the literary world never found its footing.

In one chapter, Harman states that Austen became famous because her books were considered appropriate for an older, male professor to discuss with the young, female students filling the ranks of college students but consigned to the English department due to their sex. In the next chapter, Harman explains that Austen’s novels are popular because she represented a quaint version of England for the men fighting overseas during World War I. These reasons are not mutually exclusive; I merely offer them up as examples of how many different directions Harman goes in her book.

To be honest, I resent the judgment she holds for Austen fans of all stripes, which might have colored my reading. That said, I appreciated the amount of information I learned about Austen herself and the growth in the Austen artifact industry. Do fans of her novels really need to be able to see a lock of her hair dyed to its presumed original coloring?

Book Mentioned:

  • Harman, Claire. Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. Read by Wanda McCaddon. Old Saybrook, CT: Tantor Media, 2010. Audiobook. 9 hours, 2 minutes. ISBN: 9781400116935.
Book Cover © Tantor Media. Retrieved: October 8, 2014.

Recent Acquisitions

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I spent a recent rainy Saturday morning perusing shelves, boxes, and bins at the public library’s used book sale and, in my opinion, walked away with several under-priced gems to read on the next rainy Saturday. I managed to snag all of the books photographed above save one for under ten dollars thanks to coupon I found hidden amongst adds for dry cleaners and discount oil changes.

Long time readers of this blog will recognize that I have previously read and reviewed three of the titles photographed — A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, and Mr. Darcy’s Obsession by Abigail Reynolds. I am guilty of wanting personal copies of books I have greatly enjoyed and thus is the case with the novels by Martin and Larsson. Reynolds’ books have been retitled as they have been republished and, in this case, I was not careful to double check before requesting the book off PaperBackSwap.

The other titles are ones I know I have not read, and I’ve listed them out below in alphabetical order. I was particularly excited to find two books by Alison Weir — her biographies are the gold standard, in my humble opinion — and I look forward to seeing how she handles historical fiction.

  • 22 Britannia Road (Amanda Hodgkinson)
  • A House for Mr. Biswas (V.S. Naipaul)
  • Innocent Traitor (Alison Weir)
  • The Kitchen God’s Wife (Amy Tan)
  • The Lady in the Tower (Alison Weir)
  • Necessary Errors (Caleb Crain)
  • A Poisoned Season (Tasha Alexander)
  • The Sandcastle Girls (Chris Bohjalian)
  • A Secret Kept (Tatiana de Rosnay)

Not photographed are the two books I ordered from Persephone Books last week. I could not avoid the advertised discount on a newly released Persephone Classic, The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and added a memoir about apartheid South Africa entitled The World that was Ours by Hilda Bernstein to my order since it is not available at my local library. I am eagerly anticipating the arrival of my first order from Persephone; they should arrive in the post any day now.