Thursday, January 30, 2014

Judith Jones and Adam Gopnik in Conversation

The Westport (CT) Public Library's most recent community reading selection was Julia Child's My Life in France. One of the highlights of this 10th anniversary of WestportREADS was a special event with Judith Jones and Adam Gopnik.

Adam Gopnick and Judith Jones
The two writers are both foodies and, from the sound of it, have been friends for decades.

I was familiar with Judith Jones, having read My Life in France and seen the movie Julie & Julia. Adam Gopnik, however, is new to me. I look forward to reading his work. Upon hearing I'd attended the event one friend told me Gopnik is one of her favorite writers and another friend offered me a copy of his book Paris to the Moon (which I'll take her up on when I got back for a visit to Chicago).

Judith Jones is now 90 (I Googled it). She's sharp and obviously comfortable with Adam. When pressed to recommend a good French restaurant in NYC or the Westport area Jones admitted she doesn't go out to eat much and actually said that she doesn't consider NYC a good place to go out for dinner. Gopnik, who also doesn't go out to eat much, agreed. The restaurants are loud and there is a woeful lack of classic French restaurants.

I highly recommend the audio version of My Life in France (especially if your French is awful).

Below are some snippets from the conversation:

Paleo vs. French Food
Both Jones and Gopnik bemoaned the popularity of the Paleo diet and quipped that French food tastes better. Jones was living in Paris in the years following World War II and was there when white flour returned. After years of making bread from scrapings, cheers resounded in the streets. Now Americans prefer scrapings. Julia and Paul Child lived well into their 90s. Jones looks fit as a fiddle at 90. That, to me, says a lot about the benefits of French cooking and real food.

Paris Restaurant Recommendation
Gopnik had a few restaurant recommendations, but Jones recommended that when visiting Paris you rent a little apartment with a kitchen and take advantage of the bounty of ingredients found in French markets and cook for yourself. That's some hardcore foodie talk.

How to Spot a Fake French Foodie
Also, if you were ever wondering how to tell a pseudo French foodie from the Real Thing it is this: if there's not a baguette consumed, it is not French. The baguette is not just bread, it is a way of life. You can tell if you have a good baguette if is has those lovely holes (but not too many) and if those holes are shiny.

Only Maids Cook
Jones and Child had a close personal relationship as well as a professional one. Their lives took similar paths. Both grew up in families with a cook because their parents thought cooking was drudge work. Jones's parents couldn't understand her interest in cooking. She says it released her, they couldn't believe it was something that could be enjoyable. As a kid, Jones was always interested in learning what the family's "maid of all work" would be cooking for her boyfriend back in Harlem after work. She said it was always much more interesting than the bland fare ordered for her family's table.

What sort of work did Jones have to do on Julia's manuscript? 
Not much, she said. Child's manuscript was near perfect. What was needed was a few more "masculine" meat and potato type dishes. Jones did the leg work on finding substitutions for ingredients that were not then available in US grocery stores.
Paris to the Moon by Gopnik

The asbestos problem in Volume II
Just around the time Volume II of Mastering the Art of French Cooking was nearing completion, Jones had a doctor over for dinner. Asbestos came up in conversation. Asbestos tiles were recommended in Volume II for the baking of baguettes. The doctor told Jones that the medical profession was starting to learn about the ill health effects of asbestos. Still, Jones let that first edition of Volume II run. The asbestos recommendation was removed from the second edition. She's only started talking about that recently, believing that its too late to be sued now.

You Can't Have Your Cake and Eat It Too
Gopnik told a funny story about his grandfather who'd come from Russia as a younger man and learned English. After living in this country for decades, he asked Gopnik one day what the phrase You Can't Have Your Cake and Eat It Too meant. He couldn't figure it out. What else do you do with your cake but eat it? Excellent point.

Illustrations in Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Paul took pictures of Julia cooking from above, looking down. It was important to see what was going on from the cook's point of view. His photos were used by Sidonie Coryn to illustrate the book.

"You don't edit Elizabeth David."
Jones also edited the British cook and cult figure Elizabeth David. Jones mentioned David, saying that, "she put her book through." Jones laughed and then added, "You don't edit Elizabeth David." Apparently Ms. David was a force to be reckoned with.

On John Updike
Jones also edited Updike. Gopnik, who knew Updike, wondered why there were scant references to food in his writing. Jones thought of one reference and then added that, "his wives kept him down." Everyone laughed at that, then Jones referred to a time when Updike was traveling (in Paris, I think she said) and his wife insisted on not going out so they ate room service for the duration.

"I'll always be a bastard."
Jones went to an award ceremony with Roy Andries De Groot, author of A Feast for All Seasons, who was blind. At the ceremony the presenter, much to De Groot's chagrin, went on and on about how wonderful he was. As Jones and De Groot were leaving he said to her, "I've always been a bastard and I'll always be a bastard, they can't treat me that way!"
The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Jones
Celebrity chefs are not good writers
Someone asked what Julia Child would have thought of the Food Network.  Jones joked that Child
would be reserved and polite in public but then be more open in private after a drink. Joking aside, Jones said that Child didn't like it when the cooking was sacrificed for something showy. Jones claimed that Child actually didn't mind celebrity cooks as much as she does. Jones said she doesn't like celebrity cooks "because they're not good writers." Ouch. That comment killed the topic, but Gopnik did a smooth job of transitioning into a new conversational stream.

Three short bits:
  • When Jones was finally granted an expense account at Knopf, she was called out for leaving tips that were too large.
  • Butchers in France still feel obligated to tell customers how to cook the meat you're buying.
  • The movie Julie & Julia probably sold about around three million copies of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. 
The conversation was a delight and I'm not even a foodie. The most wonderful thing about Julie Child, both Jones and Gopnik agreed, is that whereas other cooks make things seem impossible, Julie Child made everything seem possible. What a gift that spirit was to the world.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

I did it! I finally read The Count of Monte Cristo. Initially, I felt like I was preparing for a  monumental event, like running a marathon. And much like preparing for a long race, I created a pacing chart to help me make it through the book. I wanted to read it at a steady pace to avoid burn out (too much too fast) or slack off (which leads to backtracking, then trying to remember whose who, and finally throwing in the towel). I committed to reading 50-100 pages a day. At this pace I knew I'd finish the book within the month. In fact, it took me 22 days to read every word on all 1,243 pages.

And I loved every moment.

One of the reasons I put off reading this book is not only the fact that its a chunkster on the higher end of that term of endearment, but I was afraid I wouldn't like it. Isn't that silly? To not read a classic because you're afraid you won't like it? But that's the truth. After hearing about the book for years and growing up watching old movie versions of Dumas story-lines on TV, I was hesitant. But I knew if I didn't start the year off with this book, it would be lurking in the back of my mind as I read other, shorter novels. And upon my death bed it would be one of the novels that flash before my eyes, unread, leaving me in an eternity of regret.

Do you know the story? Edmund Dantes is a happy young sailor, in love with life, his father, and his fiance. The other sailors on the ship respect him and when the captain dies he's promoted to the position. Dantes's star is on the rise. Unfortunately, he has a few haters, men who are envious and greedy. They set him up and Dantes gets thrown in prison, where he stews for 14 years. Eventually he escapes and rewards those who supported him, then sets out to destroy the three men who ruined his life.

Dantes gets his revenge through careful planning, patience, and by everyone acting exactly as he
The perfect winter read
assumed they would. Along the way there are ship voyages, fast horses, gang rape, a brutal public execution, murder, poisonings, infidelity, and infanticide. There is also love, friendship, and loyalty.

Oh, and a runaway lesbian/transsexual daughter, which was quite the pleasant surprise. If you don't remember Eugenie Danglars (a "real Amazon") and her "inseparable companion" Louise d'Armilly and the wonderful abduction scene between them, its probably because you read a translation that edited away this escape to freedom by two young women in love. Excuse me for this spoiler, but, in the end nothing bad happens to them, which was quite refreshing.

Even knowing the basics of the story, I greatly enjoyed reading the details. Upon finishing the novel I read the introduction by translator extrordinaire Robin Buss and learned that Dumas actually based his novel, in part, on a true crime story. He also had a collaborator and research assistant, Auguste Maquet. Dumas published so many novels, stories, and plays that one critic referred to him as "Alexandre Dumas and Co., novel factory." This brings to mind the contemporary novel factory of James Patterson's empire, which people seem to either love or loath.

While reading the introduction I nodded in agreement with Buss as he explores why so many people consider The Count of Monte Cristo a children's story. It has much do to with movie adaptations that strip the story down to its main plot and also heavily edited Victorian translations that take out the racier bits. Buss speculates that many novels that maintain their popularity over generations get relegated to children's literature.
This novel is on my Classics Club list
Do people forget what they've read? Do they not read with their hearts open? I've come across this phenomenon with Willa Cather's novels, particularly her two most popular novels, O Pioneers! and  My Antonia. These novels contain suicide, murder, infidelity, and even a premeditated (failed) rape scene. Not something most people want their children to read, yet people think her novels are wholesome reading that harken back to "simpler times."

The Count of Monte Cristo is a fun read (although with some heart-wrenching scenes of violence) and it is its length that gives it such a rich flavor. There is a great amount of detail, but rather than making me feel bogged down, I felt as if I were right there with the characters, seeing and feeling along with them. Yes, some characters are a bit one dimensional, but others are so alive its as if you can see them striding across the stage in front of you.

If you haven't read this classic yet or are considering a re-read, I highly recommend Robin Buss's translation.

The Count of Monte Cristo
Serialized 1844-5
Alexandre Dumas
Penguin Classics edition, 2003
Translated by Robin Buss
Soure: own it

Monday, January 13, 2014

Max Perkins Slept Here, Willa Cather Slept There

Late last week I took off on my first literary field trip of the year. Appropriately enough, it was to a Willa Cather lecture at the Bush-Holley House in the Cos Cob neighborhood of Greenwich, CT which is about an hour away from my new digs.

But first, a stop: New Canaan
But first, on the drive down I made a slight detour to New Canaan to see the house of Max Perkins.

Max Perkins House, New Canaan, CT
Max Perkins was the editor of American literary greats Ernest Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe, among others. Last year I fell in love with A. Scott Berg's bio Max Perkins: Editor of Genius and look forward to the forthcoming movie inspired by the book. Colin Firth is signed on to play Perkins and Berg is a consultant on the film which I take as a good sign.

The Perkins house is currently home to an architectural firm. You can't see if from the shot above, but there is a discreet sign buried in the bushes.

The house now overlooks a parking lot, but I can image in earlier years the view was stunning as it sits atop a hill. Just down the hill is the train station where Perkins walked every day to take the train to his office in Manhattan.

On to Cos Cob
The drive from New Canaan to Cos Cob took about 20 minutes.

The Bush-Holley House
I think many of my bookish readers might be familiar with the painting below:

Couch on the Porch, 1914, by Frederick Childe Hassam (source)
The painting is gorgeous in itself and of special sentiment for bibliophiles, but did you know that Willa Cather is thought to be the woman reading on the couch?

The porch pictured above is attached to the Bush-Holley House in Cos Cob. The house dates back to 1728 and became a boarding house in 1848. From the 1890s-1920s it became a gathering place for impressionist painters and came to be called the Cos Cob Art Colony.

Willa Cather started visiting Bush-Holley in 1902 and often stayed here on weekend getaways. She may have learned much from the painters about how to represent color, movement, tone, etc.

Willa Cather walked up these steps.
On the first floor porch looking south. (At least I think its sense of direction in CT is royally messed up. What seems north is east, what seems south is west, etc.)
On the first floor porch looking north. (Maybe)
The focus of this visit was to attend a lecture by Dr. Laura Winters entitled "Willa Cather Slept Here." Dr. Winters' lecture explored how Cather was impacted by the revolution going on in Modernist art and how she represented some of its themes and tensions in all of her novels after Alexander's Bridge. For example, those of you who've read Death Comes for the Archbishop may recall the scene at the opening of Book One where Father Latour rides on horseback through the landscape of New Mexico for the first time:
The difficulty was that the county in which he found himself was so featureless--or rather, that it was crowded with features, all exactly alike. As far as he could see, on every side, the landscape was heaped up into monotonous red sand-hills, not much larger than haycocks, and very much the shape of hay-cocks.
This scene, Dr. Winters asserts, is a Cubist nightmare. I can see that.

Dr Winters with a first edition of Death Comes for the Archbishop
The lecture was stimulating and very well attended, a packed house (or barn, as the case may be). Dr Winters has the passion and friendliness that I've come to associate with the Cather community. She introduced herself to folks as they were coming in which is something you don't often see at lectures.

After the lecture I went next door to the art gallery and enjoyed the current exhibit: The New Spirit and the Cos Cob Art Colony: Before and After The Armory Show. 

I look forward to going back to the Bush-Holley House for a tour of the house and subsequent exhibits.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Happy New Year!

My reading plan for the month of January.
I hope 2014 is off to a great start for everyone. I'm slowly easing into it. Yesterday was exactly one month that we've been in the new house and its starting to feel like home, although I do have moments when it feels like we're just on vacation (albeit a very expensive one).

Did you make any reading resolutions or commitments for 2014?

I am committed to reading more of the books I own this year as well as more classics, particularly those on my Classics Club list. I signed up for two challenges to help me towards this end: Back to the Classics and The TBR Triple Dog Dare. I also signed up again for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

The first book off the blocks for me this year is The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. I've wanted to read this book for decades now, but always put it on the back burner due to its length. I loved other long novels such as Clarissa (1,534 pages) and Gone with the Wind (1,037 pages) and decided to start off the year with a long one. After all, its not getting any shorter and I'm not getting any younger.

I'm six days into The Count of Monte Cristo. I'm reading the Penguin paperback edition that I purchased at the Unabridged Bookstore in Chicago last June (my memory isn't that good...the receipt was still stuck in it). I contemplated reading it digitally, but for me part of the fun of reading a big, fat book is struggling to hold it and lugging it around. Call it embodied reading to the Nth degree. I'm on page 280 as of this morning and so far I've been wonderfully entertained with each passing chapter. However, I have a feeling that this is the only book I'll be blogging about for the entire month of January.

Have you read The Count of Monte Cristo?
What's the longest book you've read?
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