Saturday, July 26, 2014

Food, Friendship, Travel...This Book Has it All!

Book Review
As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship & the Making of a Masterpiece
   Selected and Edited by Joan Reardon
   Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
   Hardcover, 416 pages including index

It started out with a letter about a knife, of all things. Julia and Paul Child had been in Paris about three and a half years when Julia read an article published in a 1951 issue of Harper's, written by Bernard DeVoto. His rant on the quality of American kitchen knives apparently spoke to Julia, so she wrote him a short letter and sent a him a knife, "a nice little French model as a token of [her] appreciation." (p. 7). Bernard DeVoto's wife, Avis, answered most of her husband's letters, so she was the one to respond to Julia.

And so it began. Before long, a close friendship between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto had been forged and the making of a culinary icon had begun. I was looking forward to reading this book once I heard about it. I was interested to learn more about Julia Child and her iconic cookbook, of course, but I was more interested in learning about the friendship between Julia and Avis. These two women corresponded primarily by letter for years as Julia and Paul moved from one country to the next. While it started out by discussing kitchen knives, the letters soon became about so much more, no topic was off limits it seemed- current events, politics, family life, travel. Julia's writing is (to me) surprisingly poetic in some instances, like her description of life in Norway:

"Every two or three days we have about 3 inches of snow, and a mist and snow clings to the trees so that every prickle and knobble is outlined in white. We can put on our skis and start right out from the front door....Little babies of 4 dressed in blue and red on tiny skis plow down the hills with happy ruddy faces. Little boys of 7 or 8 are learning how to jump." (Julia to Avis, 2/22/1960).


Once they began exchanging letters with some frequency, it's easy to see the women grow more comfortable with one another, exchanging thoughts about a variety of things. It's fascinating to read the effect modern technology had on cooking and entertaining. Avis and Julia exchanged thoughts about dishwashers, blenders, the pros and cons of frozen poultry and canned soups, and the modern marvel of Avis's "pig"- the garbage disposal she had installed! Pretty sure I've never heard it called a "pig". Both women had strong opinions about some of these modern advances and weren't afraid to share them.

That there will be plenty of food talk is obviously a safe assumption to make. I often wished I had a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking sitting right next to me so I could follow along as they talked food and tweaked recipes together. I'd be lying if I said my mouth didn't water more than a few times! Julia describes food and the art and science of cooking in a way that I knew how passionately she felt about it. And the research she did! Oh, the research! The amount of testing, retesting, and refining Julia did is impressive! I can see why this project took years to complete.

With her connections and knowledge of the publishing world, Avis DeVoto played a huge role in eventually getting Mastering the Art of French Cooking published. But she also acted as an unofficial recipe tester, copy editor, sounding board, and shoulder to cry on:

"...most Americans don't know anything at all, NOTHING, about the techniques of good cooking and that every detail (EVERY ONE) must be thoroughly explained. So I am deeply depressed, gnawed by doubts, and feel that all our work may just lay a big rotten egg." (Julia to Avis, 1/12/58).

"We must somehow convince the reading and eating and cooking public that there is nothing psychologically horrifying about this presentation, quite the contrary. What you are doing is casting a great light over the mysteries of French cooking. Stand by your guns, my lamb." (Avis to Julia, 1/17/58).

What a roller coaster this process must have been! I already knew the ending- obviously Julia Child becomes an icon, her masterpiece is published- and there were times it was heart breaking to go through the process with these two women. The letters convey how invested they both were. The joy when they find out the book will be published is wonderful and I felt like I was part of their celebration.

Overall, the book was a great read. I think it had something for everyone- the foodie, the history buff, the travel lover. For me, it was heartwarming to see this deep friendship develop over time, during a much simpler time- a time without email, text messages, social media. It's a good example of how two very busy, very capable, intelligent, and interesting women can devote time and energy to build a strong meaningful relationship. I bet more than a few of us could learn from this example today.

I will say the book was lengthy and at times I was glad to set it aside for a while, but I always came back to it. I think if you're someone who doesn't know a lot about the political events happening at the time, or aren't at all interested in them, you may find those sections are the ones that lag for you, at least, those were sometimes the ones that did for me. But overall, the book was well worth the read!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Summertime Thought

"It occurred to her how much was obscured in summer by the leaves. With all those reassuring walls of green, a person could not see to the end of anything. Summer was the season of denial."

-Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Bookaholics Anonymous

Hi, I'm Heidi and I'm a book addict. Whew. They say admitting it is the first step.

Welcome to my little space on the inter-webs. Nice to meet you. Let me tell you a little about me, why I'm here, and why you should give a damn.

I love books. I've always loved books, ever since I can remember. I was lucky enough to grow up surrounded by books. My dad worked for a printing company so he was able to bring home all kinds of books, all the time! Sure, they were typically marked with this funny stamp that said "REJECT", but I didn't care. Heck, I couldn't read it until much later anyway. I carried those "REJECT" books with pride, gosh darn it!! They often had such minor issues, I could rarely tell the difference. Lucky me, surrounded by books.  I couldn't wait to learn to read and was so proud when I finally read my first real book on my own, Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. It was also the perfect book for a tree-climbing tomboy like me! From there I guess you could say I became that quiet, shy, bookworm-in-the-corner. In fact, I think some family members actually called me that... actually they still might call me that. I'm not sure.

Anyway, growing up in a large, boisterous family there were always people around. Being one of the youngest, I sometimes just decided I'd retreat to my books where I could immerse myself in whatever was going on- sometimes a funny series of mishaps, sometimes a thriller, whatever. But more than the plot, I loved the connection with a character, or with a real historical figure. The sense I could really gain an understanding of another person's worldview and experiences, laugh or cry with him or her. I remember being fascinated by another's experiences. I remember the huge impact a book about Helen Keller had on me when I was young. Just trying to grasp a sense of what her world must have been like, then marveling at her courage, perseverance (or stubbornness), and accomplishment. I also remember the powerful "aha" moment I had when I read about her world opening up because she learned to read Braille. Man, I felt a bit of that when I opened a book too!

My love of books shaped my love of learning, of connecting with others both real and imagined through storytelling. Now that I'm "grown up", not much has changed. I still love books. I have them all over my house!  I have books I haven't even read yet. I use them stacked up as decoration, I've made a beautiful wreath out of book pages, and I've even made a faux taxidermied antelope head covered in pages of a book. More than decoration, books still offer me a quiet retreat or exciting adventure, a place to recharge my battery, to learn, to grow, to inspire. Charles William Eliot may have been onto something when he said:
"Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers."
So that brings me to why I'm here. Obviously, I love books. Hopefully you haven't missed that point. :) I'm reading all the time, I love being able to talk about books. Also, I used to blog and some days I miss it more than I thought I would. While that blog was about a lot of random things and mildly embarrassing stories about my life, this blog will be about bookish types of things. (Though I reserve the right to post about whatever the heck I want, it's my damn blog after all!). I'll post reviews, maybe rant about how Hollywood has destroyed another great book, and hopefully I'll even have a guest blogger or two! Yay!

If you're still reading this, I've probably piqued your interest at least a little. Or, you're a family member and you feel obligated to support me through another blog-venture. Either way, thanks for sticking it out so far. Going forward, I hope you'll stick around because you like books too. Maybe you're not as addicted as I am, but you read occasionally. Or maybe you just really want to read a couple of smart-sounding reviews every once in awhile so you can have a decent conversation with a coworker or that cute guy riding the Segue motorized vehicle thing in the parking lot. No matter, everyone is welcome here... unless you're going to post nasty, profane, derogatory or inflammatory comments, then you're not welcome. But pretty much everyone else is.

So put your best bookish Hermione Granger pants on and let's get started!