As a writer, I feel that it’s part of my job to constantly read. Which is good, because I would do this anyway. Even during my law school and attorney days, after long days of reading dry-as-a-bone legal documents and cases, I’d come home and read fiction for hours. In fact, looking back over my twenty-five or so years of literacy, I can’t remember a single period where I wasn’t reading at least one book for pleasure. Simply put, I can’t imagine my life without good books.
In that spirit, and in the interest of keeping things spicy here on the blog, I am going to introduce the occasional book review. I can’t promise the reviews will be weekly or even monthly, but I’ll try to write about books that struck a chord with me.
Over the past few months of intensive international travel (first to Asia and now to Africa) involving long hauls on planes, I’ve torn through quite a few excellent books, some of which I’ll probably discuss here eventually. But one of these books in particular struck just the right note of being inspiring, entertaining, and educational: My Life in France, by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme.
My Life in France is Julia Child’s memoir, which she co-wrote with Prud’homme, her husband’s nephew. It covers the early years of her marriage, when she and her husband Paul were newlyweds living in post-World War II Paris, all the way through Julia’s immense success as a cookbook writer and TV personality, to Paul’s death in 1994.
Along the way, Julia and Paul lived in a number of places thanks to Paul’s job as an exhibits officer for the US State Department, including Marseilles, Norway, Germany, and Washington, DC. But it was Paris that stole their hearts. It’s clear from Julia’s writing about her time in Paris that the city, even in its bedraggled state after the war, was her soul’s true home. The city energized and inspired her. She loved the language, the people, the wine, and, most importantly, the food.
Julia started off as a novice in the kitchen and, inspired by the food in France, decided to teach herself to cook. She describes the initial process this way:
Surrounded by gorgeous food, wonderful restaurants, and a kitchen at home –and an appreciative audience in my husband – I began to cook more and more. In the late afternoon, I would wander along the quay from the Chambre des Députés to Notre Dame, poking my nose into shops and asking the merchants about everything. I’d bring home oysters and bottles of Montlouis-Perle de la Touraine, and would then repair to my third-floor cuisine, where I’d whistle over the stove and try my hand at ambitious recipes, such as veal with turnips in a special sauce.
Eventually, Julia went on to the Cordon Bleu to receive her formal training. She then began to collaborate with two Frenchwomen, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, on a cookbook designed to teach American home cooks how to make French food (which later became Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which sits on my own bookshelf today). The rest, as they say, is history, but it was great fun to read about how she made the transformation from home cook to famous chef, author, and television personality. Part of the secret to her success, as it turns out, was good old-fashioned obsessiveness and attention to detail. The lady did not give up until she was happy with the result, and it paid off.
What I loved most about this book – apart from its absolutely charming descriptions of day-to-day life in 1950s Paris and the mouthwatering dishes that Julia both created and consumed – was the picture it painted of Julia’s marriage to Paul. They had a true partnership. Paul encouraged Julia in her cooking, helping her to set up her kitchen at home and later to photograph her dishes for her cookbook manuscript. And Julia supported Paul in his career, which was often frustrating and demoralizing.
They also had a tremendous amount of fun together, traveling the French countryside, cooking, eating, and enjoying each other’s company. Julia describes traveling in Italy with her family, without Paul, and how different it felt from her trips with Paul:
Paul and I liked to travel at the same slow pace. He always knew so much about things, discovered hidden wonders, noticed ancient walls or indigenous smells, and I missed his warm presence. Once upon a time I had been content as a single woman, but now I couldn’t stand it! . . . When we returned to Paris on May 3, I fell into Paul’s arms and squeezed him tight.
Julia and Paul both worked hard but also greatly valued their time with friends and family. They hosted parties, organized weekend getaways, and attended dinners. They cultivated close relationships with a variety of people and were loyal, thoughtful friends. Perhaps my favorite paragraph in the entire book is the following, describing Julia and Paul’s decision to travel to France in 1963 to see friends, despite Julia’s incredibly busy TV and writing schedule:
“I just don’t know if we have the time for a trip to France right now,” I sighed. Paul nodded.
But then we looked at each other and repeated a favorite phrase from our diplomatic days: “Remember, ‘No one’s more important than people!’” In other words, friendship is the most important thing – not career or housework, or one’s fatigue – and it needs to be tended and nurtured. So we packed up our bags and off we went. And thank heaven we did!
I love that attitude, don’t you? Al and I also try to prioritize people over other things – life is so short and relationships are so precious – but this can be difficult to remember when career and chores and other stresses threaten to overwhelm.
This book felt particularly of the moment for me when I read it a few weeks ago. Like me, Julia accompanied her (supportive, loving) husband to a new place because of his job. She was not content to be a housewife and so she set out to do something productive and enjoyable with her time. For Julia, it was French cooking, and for me, it’s writing.
I wrote a bit here about how I’m trying to take a page out of Julia’s book and throw myself head first into my work, my marriage, and my new surroundings. So far, so good, although I feel confident in saying that Johannesburg in 2012 is a bit more of a challenge in the charm department than Paris in 1948. But even if Joburg isn’t my soul’s true home, it may just be the place that I start to make my dreams come true. And I’m so grateful to Julia Child for the inspiration.