Tag Archives: Paris

Book Review Saturday – ‘My Life in France’

For a person who has never been to America nor even seen so much as a second of footage of Julia Child doing her thing in the kitchen, I’m sort of obsessed with her. It’s all the fault of the movie Julie & Julia, which instantly became one of my favourites the second it was released. Having said that, I have to admit that the ‘Julie’ sections didn’t interest me as much as the ‘Julia’ ones did; Julie Powell’s life in her tiny apartment, trying to cook all of Julia Child’s recipes in the space of 365 days, was a cool idea, but somehow I found myself wishing her sections would just speed up so we could get back to Paris of the 1940s and 50s, and back to Julia and Paul Child’s life together in that wonderful city.

Image: books-n-cooks.com

Image: books-n-cooks.com

My Life in France is, essentially, exactly what I loved about the movie, with none of the annoying ‘modern’ bits. It’s Julia Child’s memoir, written in conjunction with her great-nephew Alex Prud’homme, and it opens (after a short introduction) with her memories of the first sight of Le Havre from the porthole of the boat that she and her husband had just crossed the Atlantic in. They were moving to Paris so that Paul could take up a government posting in the city, and even though Julia was overwhelmed, slightly, at the idea of this whole new life in a new country, she dived in with remarkable aplomb, determined to relish every second.

On their way from the port to the city, they stopped for dinner at at restaurant called La Couronne, where they ate a meal of sole meuniere, something for which Julia was completely unprepared. As a girl, she had had no interest in cooking (only in eating), and she had no familiarity with the ingredients or the techniques which had gone into the food that was placed in front of her. Paul had to explain what things were, and what the scents meant, and he was the one with the knowledge of wine, as he had lived in France twenty years before. Julia’s mind was opened to the possibility of food as an art, and as a science, and what would become the grand passion of her life (her beloved husband excepted) had just begun.

I adore the idea that Julia Child, then a woman in her mid-thirties who had pretty much drifted through life up to this point, could find and follow her dream without a second’s hesitation. She knew it when she saw it, and she grabbed every opportunity to deepen her knowledge of food and French techniques of cooking, and she didn’t start out by being prodigiously gifted. She had to learn, and it was a steep curve – something the book makes very clear. Child’s no-nonsense, down to earth voice is all through this story, telling us of her many failures and frustrations as well as the simple pleasure achieved when a recipe – alors! – manages to go right, and the resulting meal turns out to be a delight. She has a warm, friendly, and very funny voice, which instantly draws you in and makes you feel like you’re a close friend, someone who lived in the next room in 81 ‘Rue de Loo’ (Rue de l’Université), perhaps, or someone who regularly came around for dinner (like the expat writer Alice B. Toklas who, for reasons unknown to Child, seemed to turn up a lot, uninvited, at their dinner parties). I also loved the story of Julia and Paul’s life together, from their meeting in what was then Ceylon in 1944 and their slow, gentle and beautiful courtship, to their marriage when she was thirty-four and he forty-four; she never speaks of him with anything less than devotion. If you’ve seen the movie, then you have some idea (through the wonderful performances of Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci) of the depth of love and mutual respect this couple seemed to have for one another. Their example is a good one, for all of us – whether married or not!

We get Julia’s impressions of Le Cordon Bleu, where she went to study, and we get a very clear idea of how hard she worked – getting up before dawn every weekday and working, sometimes, until midnight, practising and honing her skills. We hear her unvarnished opinions of her fellow students (including a bunch of GIs who were there, we discover, to waste time more than to learn), her instructors and the irritating woman who ran the school and repeatedly refused to allow ‘Madame Scheeld’ to sit her examinations. The pages keep turning, and finally the exciting moment when Julia meets Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle looms, and the seeds for what would become (after years of excruciatingly hard work) their magnum opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, are sown; we also get a fly-on-the-wall view of what it was like to take part in l’École des Gourmettes, the cooking school set up by the three friends, which gave private lessons to ladies who wanted to learn about French cooking.

Eventually, Julia and Paul have to leave Paris because of his work, and eventually they have to leave France altogether. Julia and Simone keep working on the book, mailing one another chapters and recipes and criticisms, and Julia’s painstaking, detailed and absolutely scrupulous experiments, which ensure that the recipes are absolutely foolproof, are tested to destruction. The stresses caused by their different approaches to work on Julia and Simone (or ‘Simca’s’) friendship are explored, clearly and unsentimentally, as is the struggle to get the book published; where Julia was interested in the science of food and the reasons why things work or don’t work, Simca was far more a traditional French cook, who wrote down the way things had always been done, and who found it hard to vary the recipe when an improvement could be made, or when American tastes had to be catered for. They remained friends until the end, though, with Julia and Paul ‘retiring’ to live beside Simca and her husband Jean in the French countryside.

This book is an incredible memoir. I’m not a big fan, usually, of autobiography, but this one I absolutely love. Julia McWilliams Child’s voice, her humour, her approach to life, her lack of fear of trying new things, her absolute commitment to the people she loves and her utter single-minded determination to work as hard as she can to achieve her goals, are inspirational. My heart warmed to her impressions of herself as a gawky, six-foot-two red-headed American in a Paris full of dainty women, and I loved how even though she was aware of all the things which made her different, she was proud of them instead of being ashamed or awkward. She owned herself, and she loved her life, and I don’t know what could be more wonderful to read about.

I just wish I had been her neighbour, or a classmate, or one of her students, or a guest at her dinner parties. But as she’d say herself: Eh bien! Tant pis!

Bon Appétit! Image: smithsonianmag.com

Bon Appétit!
Image: smithsonianmag.com

Book Review Saturday – ‘Rooftoppers’

It might not come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog that I, S.J. O’Hart, am rather a fan of the actor Benedict Cumberbatch.

I am using this image because it's actually rather apt, and not at all because it's of said actor. Holding a baby.  Image: celebitchy.com

I am using this image because it’s actually quite apt in relation to the plot of the novel under discussion, and not at all because it’s of said actor. Holding a baby. *wibble*
Image: celebitchy.com

Anyone who has seen this erudite gentleman’s work will know three things: he is rather tall; he has a mellifluous voice, and he is – or, at least, he gives the impression of being – quite intelligent. For all these reasons, he is, and shall remain, my mental image of the character of Charles Maxim, one of the central players in Katherine Rundell’s sophomore novel, ‘Rooftoppers.’

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

The aforementioned Maxim is a 6’3″ tall 36-year-old bachelor and scholar described as having “a voice that sounds like moonlight, if moonlight could talk.” He is a passenger on the ‘Queen Mary’, a liner which – as the novel opens – has just finished the process of sinking. He rescues a tiny baby from the water – she is floating in a cello case, which becomes a central image in the novel – and immediately decides to love and care for her as though she were his own. He names her Sophie, because it seems apt, and he holds on to her despite the disapproval of the National Childcare Agency and their continual attempts to remove her from him. Under his gentle, eccentric and utterly loving care, Sophie grows into a tall, confident and intelligent twelve-year-old who only has one thing lacking in her life – her mother, of whom she has distinct and inexplicable memories despite the fact that she was barely a year old when she last laid eyes on her.

Eventually, the National Childcare Agency issues an ultimatum – surrender Sophie to them, or face punishment. So, naturally, Charles and Sophie decide to skip the country. From a clue accidentally discovered, they decide to go to Paris as – they hope – Sophie’s mother may be there. Charles, like most other adults, believes that Sophie’s mother went down with the ‘Queen Mary’, and that Sophie couldn’t possibly remember her, but, as he has taught Sophie throughout her life, ‘never ignore a possible.’ So, he resolves to overcome his own doubt and help Sophie in her search.

They approach the Parisian authorities and get nowhere, but they do manage – through tracing the cello which they know Sophie’s mother owned – to find out her name. Using this information, they attempt to have her traced as a missing person, but they run up against legal and jurisdictional issues all over the place. Eventually, for fear of being sent back to England, Charles asks Sophie to stay in their hotel room, hidden, while he carries on the search – but she meets a young boy called Matteo, who is a Rooftopper, or a homeless child who lives ‘in the sky.’

And thus, Sophie’s career as a rooftopper begins.

Image: theyoungfolks.com

Image: theyoungfolks.com

Now, there was so much about this book that I loved. I can’t say enough about how much I adored Sophie and Charles’ relationship, which was – very clearly – a parent/child relationship, but also one between equals, wherein Sophie’s intelligence, agency and independence were respected. I adored Katherine Rundell’s use of language, which shines with beautiful, polished, exquisitely realised turns of phrase. I loved the use of music, both that played on the cello and that sung by human voices, and I really enjoyed the world she creates on the rooftops of Paris.

But. But. There were things that spoiled the novel for me, too.

Firstly, there’s so little logic in Sophie’s search. She works out, for instance, where the records for the ‘Queen Mary’ are probably being held, but – instead of going straight there, with Matteo’s help – she spends ages learning the life of a rooftopper, eating pigeon and walking on tightropes and so on. In some ways this is amazing; in others, it’s annoying. Sophie is incredibly intelligent, so the fact that it doesn’t occur to her to search for the ship’s records for so long is irritating. Then, there’s the fact that the end happens so suddenly, after such a long and lyrical build-up, and it’s so incredibly unrealistic. Now, I know the whole book is rather like a dream or a fairytale, filled with whimsy and delicate beauty, and I accept all that, but the first half (perhaps even three-quarters) of the book is so beautifully paced (despite Sophie’s slowness in putting the pieces of her puzzle together) that the end feels like a slap across the face.

I just – I really didn’t like the end. Some people think it fits with the fast pace of the novel overall, and feel that it fits with the musical theme of the plot, but I was left frustrated by it.

But, the book is filled with life lessons like ‘Never underestimate children,’ and ‘Do not underestimate girls,’ and ‘Books crowbar the world open for you,’ and ‘there are people who would come out in a rash at the sight of a broken rule.’ It is filled – stuffed – with some of the most gorgeous language I’ve ever read, including some of the most startlingly original metaphors I’ve ever seen, which I delighted in. I loved all the characters, though I really thought some of them were underdeveloped. I’d have read a book about Matteo and his friends, alone – which is, of course, a good thing.

In short, it’s a definite recommendation, but I’ll warn you now that you’ll fall in love with Charles Maxim. It’s impossible not to. In fact, you’ll fall a little in love with all the characters in this book, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Artist: Terry Fan Image: society6.com

Artist: Terry Fan
Image: society6.com

Katherine Rundell is a great talent. ‘Rooftoppers’ is not a perfect book, but it’s not far off.

Saturday Book Review – ‘The Lastling’

I freely admit that the main reason I picked up this book was because it had a snowy landscape on the cover. Anyone who’s been around here for longer than five minutes knows that, while I’m not terribly fond of snow in reality, I love reading about it. I’m fascinated by the Polar regions and those distant icy fastnesses of the world where anything – and anyone – can happen.

Image: readingmatters.co.uk

Image: readingmatters.co.uk

The second reason I picked it up is this: it’s published by Oxford University Press. Nine times out of ten, the children’s books published by OUP are worth checking out. This one was definitely worth the effort.

Philip Gross’ 2003 novel was a gripping affair from start to its Apocalypse Now-tinged ending, easily holding my attention and keeping me guessing – and that’s no easy feat. It tells the stories of Paris, a privileged fourteen-year-old American girl on a trip to the Himalayas with her distinctly strange uncle, and Tahr, a twelve-year-old boy who has been taken on by an elderly Buddhist monk, Shengo, as his apprentice. This pair of vastly different children end up realising exactly how similar they are, and how far they’ll go to protect something dear to them both – and how badly the odds are stacked against them, from all corners. It’s a book which, while having distinctly ‘otherworldly’ tones, is also firmly grounded in the real – Paris comes from a home which hasn’t been broken so much as smashed, and Tahr’s early life is a blur of painful memories involving burning, and pain, and being separated from his mother. Paris’ uncle, Franklin, is a man with more money than conscience, and his motives for coming to the Himalayas are far from noble. As well as that, the region is being torn apart by a brutal civil war, into which the children find themselves being thrust as they struggle to escape from the enemies who wish to destroy them, and that which they wish to protect.

Even though this book is, by most accounts, an ‘oldie’, it was certainly new to me. I was also unfamiliar with the author. I don’t want to give away too much about this precious thing the children want to save, though, for fear of spoiling a surprise for other readers – though, one look at the book’s cover, as I’ve shown it above, gives a multitude of clues.

Here’s an alternative cover, which is almost as intriguing.

Image: fantasticfiction.co.uk

Image: fantasticfiction.co.uk

The book is well paced, particularly as it draws to its conclusion; there are brutal scenes near the end, ones which bring home the reality of war and the truth of what it’s like to be at the mercy of people with no scruples, but they don’ t feel forced, or overdone. I loved the closing scenes of the book, and it’s one of those stories where I feel, had I been the author, I wouldn’t have changed a word. I enjoyed Philip Gross’ writing style, particularly in the scenes he writes about Paris on her own – these seem sparky and true to life, and her dialogue is great. He deals well with Tahr and his relationship with Shengo, and shows the delicacy of his growing friendship with Paris which transcends the profound differences in their backgrounds and experiences. An early scene, where Tahr loses someone he loves and blames himself for it, is moving and memorable, and perfectly pitched. Paris’ relationship with Franklin reminded me a little of Sym’s with her uncle Victor in ‘The White Darkness’, another OUP children’s book which I also really enjoyed; Franklin, despite his brains and money and skill, seems a little one-note and flat, mainly because there’s not a lot to him besides his psychopathy. Perhaps, indeed, this is the point.

‘The Lastling’ is a book about family, and love, and – in particular – children’s relationships with their mothers, and how important these relationships are. The contrasts between the various mothers in the text, and their connections to their children, are stark, and we see the differing levels of commitment, sacrifice and love offered by each mother to her child. There can scarcely be a more emotive thing for a children’s book to take as its central motif, and the way it’s used in this book is masterful. It draws a character which might seem otherwise completely impossible to relate to so close to the reader as to be almost uncomfortable, and in the process makes us realise a few dark truths about humanity, and our role in the destruction of the world around us. It’s not a new theme, by any means – mankind as the great destroyer – but I’ve never seen it handled quite like this book handles it.

In short, this is one of those rare books which will appeal equally to boys and girls, and should also be extremely readable for adults – it has war and guts in spades, but at its heart it’s a book about connection and emotion. It’s a book about humanity, and what makes humanity special and separate from the rest of the animal kingdom (hint: not a lot), and which should make anyone who reads it think for a while about the arrogance of our species and what, exactly, we’re basing that arrogance upon.

In short – recommended. Read it, but be prepared to be angry.

Tahr helping Paris up a cliff-face, as described near the end of the book.  Image: learnerscavalcade.blogspot.ie, via Google images

Tahr helping Paris up a cliff-face, as described near the end of the book.
Image: learnerscavalcade.blogspot.ie, via Google images