Saturday, August 15, 2009

memoirs

Have I mentioned my penchant for memoirs? I have been a fiction reader my entire life but somewhere along the way memoirs creeped in as my favored genre to the point where when I get my hands on a good one, I cannot put it down. And what qualifies as a "good" memoir for me isn't necessarily its literary prowess. What makes memoirs so inviting and so difficult to put down is their utter real-ness. A well written memoir has the feeling of meeting someone new and getting to know their personality, their thoughts, their fears, their sense of humor, snipits of their life, what makes them tick, etc. The ones that pull me in are not necessarily the memoirs of great and famous people but the real and relatable person who you really want to get to know better. The person who you aren't ready to say goodbye to after dinner and you end up lingering on the sidewalk outside the restaurant until one of you suggests ice-cream or coffee or something so the evening doesn't end because the conversation is too good to end so abruptly.

That is how I like my memoirs - engrossing.

And I just finished two engrossing memoirs that have left me - inspired. The first, My Life in France, by Julia Child and her grand-nephew Alex Prud'homme was fascinating. Like so many of you, I am sure, I grew up watching The French Chef on PBS as a kid laughing at the funny lady with the warbley voice chopping chickens. Hers was one of those first tv cooking shows that, to my mother's dismay, inspired me to pre-measure all of my cookie ingredients and line them up on the kitchen table in front of an audience of dolls and stuffed animals as I explained how to make chocolate chip cookies.

Months and months ago a work colleague told me she was reading My Life in France and recommended it. I asked her to bring it in when she was finished with it. But she never did. In the mean time, I saw a trailer for the movie Julie & Julia with Meryl Streep and Amy Adams and I knew I needed to read the book soon because I have a personal rule about these things. The rule is essentially to always read the book first because I prefer the anticipation in literary form to the cinematic. Sure, that leaves me disappointed in many, many movies that fail with the comparison but that is much better than having the end of a book ruined by a poorly adapted movie.

So, a couple of weeks ago, as I was walking through the airport, I couldn't help but stop in the bookstore to see if they had My Life in France, which, of course, they did due to the movie. Nevermind that my already too-heavy purse had a perfectly good novel tucked away inside for plane reading already, I felt compelled to add another, even if the cover was one of those stupid movie tie-in types. Ugh, those really annoy me for some reason.

Julia Child's book was not what I expected at all. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but certainly not that. I did not think I would be filled with hope and ambition and flat out inspiration from her memoir. She had this charming personality that leapt off the page with ease and seemed to say - your 30s are just the beginning. She didn't get married until she was 34 which - coincidentally - is my current age and in 1946 I am sure 34-year old women were written off as hopeless spinsters. (Much the same way 34-year old Mormon women are, ahem). And she didn't start cooking until she was 37! That means I have at least three more years to figure out what really speaks to me. Who knows, maybe I'm really good at something I've never even tried. Like . . . hmmm, I've tried a lot of things that I'm essentially passable at or not good at all or good enough for my own enjoyment but not necessarily the greatest. I guess I'll need those four years to figure this out a bit more.

Julia was also 6'2" and rambunctious and independent with a craving for adventure. I'm nowhere near 6'2" but I do feel I have a similarly rambunctious and independent spirit that, quite honestly, is difficult for some to take, which I think was probably the same with her. But she pulled me in with her energy and wonder at everything that unfolded before her. I highly recommend the book, despite the - at time - grotesque descriptions of the food she loved. Seriously, there were times I was read to run out and purchase her cookbook just to know her better, until I realized there is no way I will ever manage to cook, let alone, eat much of anything she was so tirelessly attempting to write out in pain staking detail.

Over email yesterday, I told a friend who was also, coincidentally, reading that I had finished My Life in France and was basking in the after-glow of Julia inspiration and she recommended I read Julie & Julia by Julie Powell indicating that it's fun and good to read after Life in France and we both agreed that while Julia Child is fascinating. I then dashed out of work good and early at 530 pm and bee-lined to the bookstore. I had a very minor debate with myself as to whether I should read this second book that basically went like this.

I had read somewhere out in the blogosphere a criticism of the movie that essentially boiled down to an annoyance that the movie wasn't just about Julia Child because her memoir is so riveting and deserved a movie all to itself. Without having seen the movie or read this other book, I was annoyed as well. Why were they wasting Meryl Streep on a half-story? She should be the whole movie, right?

So I should ignore this other book that was only inserted so the movie could put a young starlet on screen in the form of Amy Adams.

Except.

I like Amy Adams.

And, I was intrigued by the whole Julie Powell concept - a woman who decided to make all of the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking (argh! they have even made a tie-in version of the cookbook!!!) in 365 days. And blog about it. Back when blogs were new. Back when the only blog I knew about was my friend Emily's and I don't think I even realized it was called a blog. I just found it fascinating to peek inside her head and feel I was gaining a better understanding of what made her tick. Because words do that.

So I stopped at Border's on my way home and bee-lined for Julie & Julia. But despite the fact that I was on the phone the entire time, I still managed to walk out of the bookstore with not one book (happily I found a copy with a pre-movie cover) but three! Because I am a sucker for books.

I started reading soon after I was home. I was alternatively riveted and slightly annoyed with this second book through the first 100 pages. But now that I have finished, I'm not sure what annoyed me other than the initial start at switching voices and perspective and time while staying on the same topic. I resumed reading today on a beach towel spread out on the lawn on my building's roof. I then moved to couple of chairs at a table after I made a late lunch of cucumber and tomato salad and home made pita chips (very un-French) and continued reading on the roof with one more seating change to a deck chair when one opened up. I took a break to make another very un-French meal of chicken-vegetable stir fry and continued reading on my couch until I was finished.

The book was compelling and interesting and fun. But what was really intriguing was how so many of the New York events she described in the book happened while I was living here. And how she describes the obsession of checking blog comments and feeling bolstered by these faceless strangers out in the internet world. How surreal that is. It made me wish I had been one of her readers to watch the journey.

Because I think the reason I enjoy blogging and reading blogs so much is they are all snipits of memoir thrown out there into the world. The ones that transfix me and keep me reading over and over are the ones that are real. The ones, like how I imagine Julie's was, that put it all out there - the good, the bad and the ugly. Because that is how we relate. I find it hard to relate to a picture perfect life because I don't have one. Yes, sometimes I peek into those lives and admire them but the ones that grab my full attention and really enthrall me are the writers who are putting a piece of themself out there for others to read and relate to.

Not sure where I'm going with all of this except to say, read these two books. You may not be inspired to cook, but you will certainly be inspired to do something and now, if you will excuse me, I need to go figure out what that something is so I can blog about it.

3 comments:

autumn said...

Must read my life in France. I bought the Julia/Julie (movie cover) because I want to see the movie, and it kept me entertained. However I have no desire to cook anything that she cooked (ick!). Yeah! New book to read. I love that.

Tiffany said...

Wow, I never thought of blogging as a type of memoir. Brilliant. And now I definitely want to read My Life in France. Meryl Streep (and keep in mind that I've only seen trailers at this point) is getting me keenly interested in Julia Child.

I have way too many books I want to read right now!

Travelin'Oma said...

I love finding out that famous people are real people who just happen to be famous for something. I've already heard great things about the movie, but your book review has encouraged me to read the book first.

I like your description of blogs as "snipits of memoir." Life is better than any fiction we could dream up.

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