Reading Round-Up: May 2022

I completely forgot about last month’s round-up. We’re 23 days into June so this will be an interesting exercise in whether I actually remember anything about the books I read. Shall we begin?

  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksander Solzhenitsyn)
  • You’ve Been Volunteered (Laurie Gelman)
  • At the Water’s Edge (Sara Gruen)
  • The Office BFFs (Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey)
  • Glittering Images (Susan Howatch)
  • Class Mom (Laurie Gelman)
  • Yoga Pant Nation (Laurie Gelman)
  • Kitchen Confidential (Anthony Bourdain)

First off, I thoroughly enjoyed Laurie Gelman’s “Class Mom” series, even though I accidentally read it out of order! You’ve Been Volunteered is actually the second novel (Class Mom is the first), and while I definitely missed some background stuff, it stood well enough on its own that I didn’t realize it was part of a larger series until I had just about finished. These books are funny, irreverent mom-lit centered around the drama of an elementary school PTA and the parents who make it up. They’re fun.

Glittering Images is the first novel in Susan Howatch’s six-book “Starbridge” series. All together they span about thirty years, the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, with a cast of characters whose lives all revolve around the Church of England’s (fictional) Starbridge Cathedral. In Glittering Images the Rev. Dr. Charles Ashworth, a bachelor theologian at Cambridge, is sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to discreetly investigate the private life of the charismatic and controversial Bishop of Starbridge, Dr. Alexander Jardine. Needless to say, he finds more than he bargained for. Susan Howatch is deeply wise about psychology, spiritual pitfalls, and the healing of psychic/spiritual wounds. Even if they don’t want to read all six novels (which is a commitment; they’re dense) I think that ordained or wanting-to-be-ordained persons would really benefit from reading this and the concluding novel, Absolute Truths.

Here’s a fact: I love The Office (the American version). It’s a perpetual rewatch show for me, something I throw on for background noise or when I need something familiar and comforting. I’ve read most of the books written by cast and crew of The Office, I listened to both of Brian Baumgartner’s Office-centered podcasts, and since mid 2020 I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey’s rewatch podcast, Office Ladies. It’s lighthearted and chatty, and I like to throw it on while I do chores. It feels like I’m just hanging out with some friends, gabbing about a show we all love. The Office BFFs is their new book, another behind-the-scenes look at the making of the show. Unlike Baumgartner’s disappointing Welcome to Dunder Mifflin (essentially just a transcript of his podcast episodes), The Office BFFs was about 90% new material as far as I could tell, and included a lot of Jenna and Angela’s personal stories and photographs. If you’re also an Office fan, this is a great one.

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen (made famous by her debut novel, Water for Elephants) is set mostly in Scotland during the second world war. American socialites Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off from Ellis’s father’s fortune after embarrassing the family in a drunken New Year’s debacle; determined to redeem himself in his father’s eyes, Ellis brings Maddie and his best friend, Hank, to the Scottish Highlands in the middle of the war. His goal? To succeed where his father failed, in hunting and capturing the famous Loch Ness Monster. Although Maddie is an adult through the whole book, it has a real bildungsroman feel as she struggles to find her place in this new milieu. My one criticism is that by the end of the novel the villain felt a little too villainous — other than that, it was a well-written and engrossing read.

Kitchen Confidential is a crazy look back at the coke-and-booze-fueled restaurant kitchens of the 80s and 90s. It’s funny, it’s grim, it’s fascinating… mostly though, by the end it left me feeling sad, just because of knowing how Bourdain’s life ended. Throughout Kitchen Confidential you get the impression that’s he’s been looking his whole life for — something — but in the end, I don’t think he ever found it.

And last but certainly not least, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn’s fictionalized account of an ordinary day in a Siberian gulag. I first read this novella back in high school; as the books got passed out and we opened them up for the first time, a heavy snow immediately started falling outside our classroom window, which provided an excellent segue into a discussion of the pathetic fallacy. A few images had stayed with me from that first reading, but by and large I was able to appreciate this book with fresh eyes. It felt especially poignant to be reading it against the background of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and the kidnappings/deportations and “filtration camps” currently happening in Russia-controlled territories. Plus ça change…

Percy Jackson and the Sûreté du Québec

A quick glance through my reading log — yes, I started keeping one again, albeit in a considerably simplified form — shows that my covidtide reading has taken a hard turn toward fiction. In more regular years, I usually read pretty close to 50:50 fiction/non-fiction. Over the past few months, it’s been closer to 80:20. There are good reasons for this, of course; well-written fiction offers an unparalleled retreat from These Uncertain Times ™. And if the general pandemic stuff wasn’t enough, we’re also still well in the midst of our un-planned renovations (oh ho ho ho ho, what could be more fun).

Even more than the general state of the world and the unfinished state of our house, however, I place the blame for my de-balanced reading squarely at the feet of two people: Rick Riordan and Louise Penny. I doubt they’ve ever met each other but they have one giant trait in common: I absolutely can’t put their books down.

Rick Riordan is the author of the Percy Jackson series. Beginning in Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Riordan crafts an alternate earth where the Greek pantheon, relocated to the current heart of Western civilization in New York City, is still around — still meddling in human affairs, still pursuing their own eternal goals, and still bearing and begetting demigod children. These children, raised by their human parents, can go incognito until they reach puberty, when their powers manifest to the extent that monsters (also still around) can sense them. Refuge awaits them at Camp Half-Blood, a secluded New York summer camp watched over by the centaur Chiron — if they can make it there alive.

For those counting along at home, I’ve read fourteen Riordan books since July: all of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, all of the Heroes of Olympus series, and 4/5 of The Trials of Apollo. I just collected the fifth book in the latter series, The Tower of Nero, from the library yesterday and I can’t wait to dive in.

Also on my “can’t wait to dive in” list are the Inspector Gamache mystery novels by Louise Penny. I’ve gotten through fewer of them, in part because they are considerably longer, but also because they are perpetually checked out or on hold! The series follows Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of homicide at the Sûreté du Québec (the provincial police force), his team, and a strong cast of secondary characters mostly located in the Anglo village called Three Pines, just south of Montreal. The mysteries themselves are innovative and engrossing — I really do love a good fictional murder — but where Penny really shines is in her deft handling of red herrings, her insights into the human psyche, and her long character development arcs.

They are, without question, the best mysteries I have read in a long while, and Louise Penny has shot to the top ranks of my ‘favourite authors’ list. I just finished the sixth book, Bury Your Dead, and have the next two waiting in my to-read pile. I will note that each book builds on the last and highly recommend reading them in order; the first is Still Life.

Rick Riordan has two more (shorter) series… serieses… well, you know, that are waiting for me when I finish The Tower of Nero. There are still ten Gamache books I haven’t read. And after that? Well, after that I simply don’t know what I’ll do.

Everything loose is traveling

This is an enigmatic and compelling little book. I love it.

 

You may be familiar with the genre of “found poetry”, where a poet takes something like, say, a newspaper article and removes all the words she deems extraneous, leaving a poem behind. Aug 9 — Fog, I think, belongs to that tradition as well, only this time it’s not found poetry but found prose. Here is Kathryn Scanlan’s account of how it came to be, starting with the purchase of a stranger’s diary from a public estate auction:

The diary was a Christmas present to the author from her daughter and son-in-law. The author wrote her full name and address on the front page. She resided in a small Illinois town. She was eighty-six years old when she began recording in it. […]

At first I loved only the physicality of the diary — the author’s cramped hand, the awkward, artful way she filled the page. I liked its miserable condition. Its position was tenuous — yet here it was. I didn’t try to read it. I kept it in a drawer. I assumed it illegible.

But then I did read it — compulsively. I hunched over it, straining my neck. I read it front to back — perhaps a dozen times by now.

As I read, I typed out sentences that caught my attention. Then, for ten years, off and on, I played with the sentences I’d pulled. I edited, arranged, and rearranged them into the composition you find here. (vi-vii)

The result of all this editing, arranging, and rearranging is very beautiful and strange. There are recurring characters (Vern, D., Mildred, Maude) as well as others who make only single appearances; since the diarist was writing for herself we are left to make educated guesses about their relationships. I thought “Vern” was almost certainly the diarist’s husband, but then I found an entry referring to “D. & Vern’s anniversary”, so perhaps they are the daughter and son-in-law. But I don’t know. It’s a little off-balancing.

The writing is spare; the diarist uses many short forms (“nite”) and omits most of her “to be” verbs. The pages are spare, too; Scanlan has set the text for each day in a sea of white space:

“I painting. Clouding at noon.” Indeed.

This is a library copy but I think I may buy one of my own. It feels like the kind of book I’ll go back to, maybe precisely because it’s so… I’m not even sure how to describe it. Because it’s so the way it is. A few of my favourite pages:

The wind:

Terrible windy     everything loose is traveling. (33)

It come so nice:

A grand rain, it come so nice. Sun looks good. Fire feels good. D. & Vern out on their bicycles. (47)

The roads:

All kinds of roads. Dead end roads, roads under construction, cow paths & etc but had good time, a grand day. (51)

Decline of Vern:

Vern confused. Vern awful confused. Vern confused one of the girls with D. Vern bad nite. Vern bad. (95)

This is a quick read, only 110 pages and most of them white space. You can easily get through it in a sitting, or in bed before sleep. And when the wind blows, maybe you too will note that everything loose is traveling.

The Other Bennet Sister

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is one of my favourite books in all the world; I’m not sure how many times I’ve read it, but certainly more than ten. I’ve seen the BBC miniseries with Colin First and Jennifer Ehle five or six times, the Keira Kneightly movie version twice (I think), and even once watched the bizarro 1940 version starring Greer Garson and Sir Laurence Olivier. I’ve spent a lot of time in Austen’s created world, and one of the fun things about that is also experiencing how other people interact with the text in companion books and films, whether serious or parodies. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Longbourn, and Jane Austen Ruined my Life, and the miniseries Lost in Austen once sustained me through a long day of colonoscopy prep. I loved the Bollywood retelling Bride and Prejudice, which I chiefly remember for the song “No Life Without Wife“. Besides being eminently re-readable in its own right, Pride and Prejudice has proved itself a very fertile ground for other creators to till, which I think is something really special.

Now, into this imaginative space comes Janice Hadlow’s The Other Bennet Sister, which looks to answer the question of what about Mary Bennet? Austen does not give us much insight into Mary: she serves as a plain and prosaic foil for Jane’s sweet beauty, Lizzy’s wit, and Lydia and Kitty’s careless energy. Beyond that, she is nearly a non-entity. Her fate at the end of the novel is a mere sentence to the effect that her life became more tolerable once her beauty was no longer constantly compared to that of her sisters. But what can it have been like for her to grow up as the outsider between the tightknit twosomes of Jane and Lizzy, and Kitty and Lydia? What motivates her speeches and actions within the confines of the story, and what is her fate after it ends?

https://jackiekcooper.com/file/2020/03/otherbennetsister.jpg

Hadlow gives us a very moving and satisfactory account of all these things, in a way that is completely congruous with Austen’s novel, and even managing to enrich it, especially in the first section of the novel which covers the time period between Mary’s childhood and the events of Pride and Prejudice up to the engagement between Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins. The narrative fleshes out a number of minor P&P characters: Mary is chief among them, of course, but Hadlow also gives us sympathetic and plausible portraits of Charlotte Lucas, Mr. Collins, Mrs. Hill, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, and others. The conniving Caroline Bingley returns as a romantic adversary to Mary in the latter parts of the novel — which seems ridiculous when I just write it like that, but makes narratival sense, I promise.

The great strength of The Other Bennet Sister is Hadlow’s pitch-perfect ventriloquist act. Her narration blends seamlessly with the pieces of dialogue she lifts wholesale form Pride and Prejudice, and in respects of vocabulary and sentence structure, The Other Bennet Sister reads very much as if it was contemporary to P&P, and not following it some 200+ years later. She gives many little nods to Austen’s text without ever feeling like a parody of it, and I knew once I hit the first few paragraphs that I absolutely had to finish the whole thing:

It is a sad fact of life that if a young woman is unlucky enough to come into the world without expectations, she had better do all she can to ensure she is born beautiful. To be poor and handsome is misfortune enough; but to be penniless and plain is a hard fate indeed.

Four of the five Bennet sisters of Meryton in Hertfordshire had sensibly provided themselves with good luck enough to be accounted beauties in the limited circles in which they moved. Jane, the eldest, was the most striking, the charms of her face and figure enhanced by the unassuming modesty of her character. Elizabeth, the second sister, made up in wit and liveliness for any small deficiencies in her appearance; whilst Catherine and Lydia, the two youngest, exhibited all the freshness of youth, accompanied by a taste for laughter and flirtation, which recommended them greatly to young men of equally loud and undiscriminating inclinations. Only Mary, middle daughter, possessed neither beauty, wit, nor charm; but her sisters shone so brightly that they seemed to cancel out her failure and, indeed, eclipse her presence altogether, so that by the time they were grown, the Bennet family was regarded as one of the most pleasing in the neighbourhood.

It was common knowledge, however, that the Bennet girls’ prospects were to be envied a great deal less than their beauty. At first sight, the family appeared prosperous enough. They were the principal inhabitants of the village of Longbourn; and their house, solid and unremarkable as it was, made up in comfort what it lacked in pretension. There were servants to wait at table, a cook in the kitchen, and a man to tend the gardens; and though Mr. Bennet’s possessions were not extensive, they were quite enough to sustain his credit as a private gentleman. Few of the families with whom they were intimate were sufficiently rich or genteel to condescend to them with confidence, and the Bennets were regarded, in public at least, as eminently respectable ornaments to Hertfordshire society.

But in the country, no family’s business is ever truly its own, and everyone knew that the outward prosperity of the Bennets rested on very uncertain foundations. Their property was subject to an entail which restricted inheritance to male heirs; if no Bennet son was produced, the estate would pass eventually into the hands of Mr. Bennet’s cousin. At first, this had seemed of little significance. As baby after baby arrived at Longbourn with promising regularity, surely, it was only a matter of time before the much-anticipated Bennet boy put in his overdue appearance. But when the tally of girls reached five, and it was clear no more children could be expected, the entail cast a deepening shadow over the family’s happiness. On Mr. Bennet’s death, his widow and daughters would be left with nothing but five thousand pounds in the four per cents, and a humiliating dependence on the uncertain charity of a distant and unknown relative. Their friends were not without sympathy for the Bennets’ plight, but that did nothing to dampen their curiosity about what was to come, for what could be more compelling than to watch at first hand the probable wreck and dissolution of an entire family’s fortune? (9-10)

Mary’s journey throughout the novel is one of self-knowledge, as she seeks the happiness that Aristotle offers as most lasting. As a very young woman, she decides that feelings are unreliable and that it must be the life of the mind that sustains her; particularly in the latter half of the novel she grapples with the idea of opening up to feeling — helped along by the poetry of William Wordsworth, who of course was a living poet at the time — and seeks to find the correct balance between head and heart, propriety and boldness. The impetus for this journey initially comes from a surprising source; Mary bonds with Mr. Collins during a long visit to Longbourn, where he and Charlotte reside after the death of Mr. Bennet. Finding Mary altogether more sympathetic than his wife, Mr. Collins invites her into a course of academic study, where she encounters both some of the great thinkers and the pleasure of having her thoughts taken seriously for perhaps the first time in her life.

“Indeed. And how does Aristotle suggest such happiness is to be achieved?”

“Well, it is hard to sum up his thoughts succinctly without losing the subtlety of their perceptions–”

“But if I press you to do so, Miss Bennet?”

“Then I should say he tells us it is only through self-knowledge that genuine happiness is to be had. Only when we know ourselves — when we have examined and understood our strengths and weaknesses, when we have been honest enough to admit what we really desire from life — only then do we have  any chance at all of attaining it.” (223)

It is this examination that eventually brings Mary to happiness (and, of course, to marriage; some conventions must be maintained!). This was truly a delightful read. And for those of you who may miss Austen’s sparkling introduction to Pride and Prejudice, don’t worry: Mrs. Bennet makes sure that we get it in the end.

“Even you, Mary, must surely see,” her mother continued, “that if Mr. Ryder has made no offer to this other lady — who appears to have a better grasp of her position than you — it must be because he likes you.”

“He may not wish to marry either of us, Mama. Have you thought of that?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Mary. A single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (477)

Reading Round-Up: June 2019

June was a good month for Canadiana this year, with a full 60% Canadian authorship-rate on my list. Not that I planned it that way — these things tend to happen on their own as I get onto reading jags — but it seems appropriate given that I’m writing this round-up post on Canada Day. (Happy Canada Day.) Here’s the breakdown:

  1. Further Chronicles of Avonlea (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  2. Against the Odds (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  3. A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams)
  4. Frost & Fire (Roger Zelazny)
  5. I Work at a Public Library (Gina Sheridan)
  6. Boy (Roald Dahl)
  7. The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls (Anissa Gray)
  8. The Story Girl (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  9. The Blythes are Quoted (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  10. Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page (Stuart McLean)
  11. Time Now for the Vinyl Cafe Story Exchange (ed. Stuart McLean)
  12. Spirit of Place: Lucy Maud Montgomery and Prince Edward Island (Francis W. P. Bolga, Wayne Barrett, and Anne MacKay)
  13. The Vinyl Cafe Notebooks (Stuart Mclean)
  14. The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Brian Selznick)
  15. The Value of Simple: A Practical Guide to Taking the Complexity Out of Investing (John Robertson)

Lucy Maud Montgomery

… gets her own section this month, with four books by her and one about her. The latter was not, unfortunately, especially interesting. Spirit of Place is a photo book of PEI scenes interspersed with random quotations from LMM’s diaries or letters. I liked most of the pictures — Prince Edward Island certainly lives up to its picturesque reputation — but the quotations seemed chosen at random, the photos didn’t have any discernible order to them, and the whole project seemed rather haphazard. It’s too bad.

The Story Girl is the only novel among the pack, centering around a group of cousins and friends who live in a rural PEI enclave and have adventures etc. The “Story Girl” is really named Sara Stanley, and she has a reputation as a gifted storyteller with an unearthly and charming voice, powerful beyond what her youth would suggest. There is a lot of overblown description of the Story Girl, passages like these:

The Story Girl was barefooted and barearmed, having rolled the sleeves of her pink gingham up to her shoulders. Around her waist was twisted a girdle of the blood-red roses that bloomed in Aunt Olivia’s garden; on her sleek curls she wore a chaplet of them; and her hands were full of them. She paused under the outmost tree, in a golden-green gloom, and laughed at us over a big branch. Her wild, subtle, nameless charm clothed her as with a garment. We always remembered the picture she made there; and in later days when we read Tennyson’s poems at a college desk, we knew exactly how an oread, peering through the green leaves on some haunted knoll of many fountained Ida, must look. (Chapter 18)

The Story Girl leaned that brown head of hers against the fir trunk behind her, and looked up at the apple-green sky through the dark boughs above us. She wore, I remember, a dress of warm crimson, and she had wound around her head a string of waxberries, that looked like a fillet of pearls. Her cheeks were still flushed with the excitement of the evening. In the dim light she was beautiful, with a wild, mystic loveliness, a compelling charm that would not be denied. (Chapter 27)

But when the Story Girl wreathed her nut brown tresses with crimson leaves it seemed, as Peter said, that they grew on her–as if the gold and flame of her spirit had broken out in a coronal, as much a part of her as the pale halo seems a part of the Madonna it encircles. (Chapter 28)

Those were just chosen by paging through at random. There is a lot more of that kind of thing, all terribly saccharine. The Story Girl has a sequel, The Golden Road, but I’m not sure that I’ll bother reading it. I’ve had rather enough of Sara Stanley for a while.

When I checked Further Chronicles of Avonlea out, the librarian laughed at the melodramatic pose on its cover, quipping that it doesn’t really seem very Montgomery-ish. And probably that’s true if you’ve only read Anne of Green Gables, because LMM’s writing on the whole is much darker and more dramatic than her current reputation admits. Anne, after all, was not considered a children’s book when it was first published, and LMM chafed through her life against her growing reputation as someone who wrote for children, not adults. (For further reading see Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings by Mary Henley Rubio.)

Further Chronicles of Avonlea, Against the Odds, an1d The Blythes are Quoted are short story collections, none of which shy away from the dramatic: their narratives deal with poverty, revenge, adultery, illegitimacy, and murder, along with gentler aspects. The Blythes are Quoted is especially interesting in this regard. It is a departure in form from many of her other works, consisting of short stories interspersed by a framing device of poetry by Anne and Walter Blythe, as well as the Blythe family’s spoken and unspoken ruminations on their contents. It is also the last book that Montgomery wrote, delivered to her publisher by an unknown person on the very day she died of suicide via barbiturate overdose. Is The Blythes are Quoted, if not exactly a suicide note, at least a kind of final statement? In some ways it reads as one, as her characters wrestle with the lead-up and aftermath of World War One, particularly (in the latter half of the book) as the dawn of the Second World War called into question all the sacrifices of the First. This was a preoccupation of LMM herself, as well as of her husband, the Rev. Ewen Macdonald, who became convinced late in life that he was predestined to hell for encouraging young men to sign up to fight in WWI. (Seriously: read the Rubio biography.) It’s a dark read, in many ways — but it’s dark in the ways that Montgomery has been all along, if we’ve had the eyes to see it.

Everyone else:

End of essay. Here are the other books I tackled in June, in no particular order:

Zelazny’s Frost & Fire is a collection of sci-fi short stories that I enjoyed very much. I have read other Zelazny before — most notably his sprawling ten-volume Chronicles of Amber series — but not, I think, any short stories. These were clever and strange and very entertaining. Man, I should totally reread the Amber books.

If I Work in a Public Library sounds like the title of a blog, that’s because it is. This is a short, amusing blog-to-book publication that takes about six minutes to read.

We were at the library last week at The Invention of Huge Cabret grabbed my attention — I remember my roommate telling me about how obsessed all of her young piano students were with the movie version when it came out in 2011. It’s a very thick book, but most of it is pictures. I think I would have liked the movie better.

A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those cultural touchstones that you probably know some lines from (STELLLLLLLLLLAAAAAAAA) without necessarily knowing that this is where they’re from. Well, now I’ve read it, and now I know. I’m pretty sure I own at least one or two other plays by Tennessee Williams — definitely A Doll’s House, anyway — and perhaps I will read them soon.

The Value of Simple is a guide for Canadian investors, looking at how to set up index-fund investing (and why you would want to, of course). There is a big friendly “don’t panic” at the beginning, à la Douglas Adams, and the entire thing was easy to read and to understand. And look, now we know some stocks. Wheeeeeeee. (NB: Robertson maintains an errata page where he posts updated information as some options have changed since the book’s publication.)

Over the past few years I have enjoyed diving into memoir as a genre, and Roald Dahl’s account of his boyhood did not disappoint. In many respects his childhood was not an easy one; it was interesting, however, to see the genesis of many of the repeated themes that come out in his novels.

And last, but certainly not least, we come to the late, great Stuart McLean. Last month I read a Vinyl Cafe story collection, which gave me a hankering for more. Each of these is a little different: Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page is a collection of Dave and Morley stories, Time Now for the Vinyl Cafe Story Exchange is an anthology of short (true) stories sent in to the Vinyl Cafe radio show by listeners, and The Vinyl Cafe Notebooks is a collection of thematically-grouped personal essays. All of these were wonderful, and I was happy to round out my mental McLean catalogue.

Post-publication edit: I forgot about The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray, which first caught my eye in the library simply because it has a beautiful cover. It’s a tightly-woven family drama that reminds me somewhat of Anne Tyler’s novels — except instead of everyone being white Marylanders they are black Michiganites. Michigonians. Michiganis. They live in Michigan. Lots of reckoning with the past and future, emotional revelations, and etc. It was very good, in a fraught sort of way.

Love, Julia

Recently I watched the 2009 movie Julie & Julia, which tells the parallel stories of Julia Child’s road to publishing Mastering the Art of French Cooking and blogger Julie Powell’s 2002 attempt to cook every recipe therein over the space of one calendar year. It was entertaining on the whole. I didn’t find the Powell storyline especially compelling (woman writes novelty blog, gets popular, imperils marriage, gets book deal; nothing we haven’t seen play out a million times in real life since the early aughts) but I really enjoyed the Julia Child segments. She was a fascinating woman — and I have to say that Meryl Streep nailed her voice — and so I grabbed myself a copy of As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship, & the Making of a Masterpiece, selected and edited by Joan Reardon. Yes, this book has two subtitles. I know.

Anyway — As Always, Julia covers nine years of a friendship that started in an unusual way: Child wrote a fan letter to Bernard DeVoto, Avis’s husband, agreeing with his piece in Harper’s Magazine decrying stainless steel kitchen knives. Avis, acting as her husband’s secretary, wrote back; Julia Child wrote back to her, and a remarkable friendship and working partnership was born. Julia and Avis were frequent correspondents during the nine years it took to bring Mastering the Art of French Cooking to publication, as Julia followed her husband Paul’s career to France (Paris and then Marseilles), Germany, and Norway.

It was an engrossing read. Besides all of the incidental culinary details — I snapped a few pictures of a letter detailing how to properly pan-fry a fish without all the breading falling off — the letters provide a snapshot of American social and political life in the 1950s and early 60s from a perspective I haven’t frequently encountered before. The Childs and the DeVotos were all heavily interested in politics and involved in what you might call high-level American cultural life. Many of their letters detailed their hopes and aspirations for the 1952 and ’56 presidential elections (Stevenson vs. Ike), and their worries about Sen. McCarthy and the direction in which he seemed to be shaping the nation. (Paul Child was interrogated about “un-American activities” in 1955.) It was, however, a little disheartening to read correspondence that decried hyper-partisanship in one letter, yet referred to Republicans as “beasts” and used phrases like “I can hardly see them as human” in the next. Plus ça change…

Mastering the Art of French Cooking was such a success that it surprised me to see the travails that it took to get it published. As a cookbook, it was something entirely new: there had been French cookbooks published in the United States before, but none aimed at the ordinary cook (the servantless American housewife!) or at those who were starting from a position of little to no culinary training. Writing and testing and retesting all of the recipes took years, as did the fight to get it placed with a publisher. Houghton Mifflin had originally contracted for the book, but turned it down as it neared the final stages — but since it sold like hotcakes and has never been out of print I can only imagine that they have been kicking themselves ever since! In the end, Avis DeVoto was able to get the cookbook placed with Knopf, and her championing of the book was instrumental; it’s doubtful whether it would have been published at all without her partnership. (In retrospect, it is disappointing how much her role is minimized in Julie & Julia.)

After reading so much about the herculean work to write and publish Mastering, I got a copy out of the library to look through. I haven’t gone deep into it, but it’s very well laid out and has already significantly upped my cooked carrots game (unsurprisingly, the secret is butter). Julie & Julia wasn’t a great movie, but I’m glad that it put me onto these reading trails. So here’s to Julia Child — and more butter!