Advertisements

Archive for the ‘Paris’ Tag

Sculpting a Life From Wax   Leave a comment

38649806

Period novels usually aren’t my thing. It could be the often flowery language, the popular use of first person narrative, the topic, the je ne sais pas. Little by Edward Carey, while guilty of the above, including the French, is captivating. The story, based on the early life of Madame Tussaud known for her wax sculptures of celebrities, is rich with humor, pathos, historical references and lively characters.

Born Anne Marie Grosholtz in 1761, Marie, as she was generally called until her diminutive size warranted the nickname “Little,” recounts her family background. She literally begins with her birth. Interspersed among the details of her life are drawings. The first identified as “Drawn by herself. In graphite, charcoal, and black chalk. (This being a likeness of her pencil.)” It’s difficult not to smile, although not all of the subsequent illustrations are humorous.

As a child, her life circumstances dramatically change following the death of her parents when she’s relegated to becoming a servant. Yet, Little is witty, intelligent and has a sharp power of observation: Traits that serve her well as her creativity and talents expand.

Little learns the craft of waxwork from the odd Dr. Curtius, who at first sculpted body parts and organs out of wax. Initially, he treats her as a ward. When the pair moves to Paris from Switzerland, her station is reduced to kitchen maid.

Carey’s epic follows the French Revolution with Little’s indomitable spirit whose name bears no reflection on her inner strength and kindness.

Little
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2018
435 pages

Advertisements

Hippie Meals   Leave a comment

Image result

Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook by Alice Waters is like dining at what’s supposed to be a very good restaurant but only a few of the entrees are enjoyable. Unfortunately, not all of Waters’s memoir is interesting. The parts that are, really are though.

Waters is credited with helping change the culinary scene in the 1960s by opening Chez Panisse which relied on a prix fixe menu that changed according to what was fresh that day.

Waters shared too much minutiae from her childhood. I don’t care about a costume party when she was four years old or that her step-grandmother was a cold woman. Things pick up when she transfers from college in Santa Barbara to Berkeley. What I found most interesting was how a trip to Paris her junior year of college and her years in Berkeley made such an impact.

The narrative is told mostly in chronological order leading up to the opening of the restaurant. Anecdotes about life post-opening are indicated in italics throughout most of the chapters. These asides are noteworthy, but they are also distracting.

The story of Chez Panisse begins with Waters’s desire to replicate flavors she experienced in Paris through a cozy, hip bistro-like ambiance. What set her apart at the time was what is now recognized as the slow food movement and the reliance on the freshest possible ingredients. Yet, there’s scant mention of either, nor of her recognition today as an advocate of sustainable agriculture.

Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook
Three-and-three-fourths Bookmarks
Clarkson Potter Publishing, 2017
306 pages

 

Schooled in Cooking   3 comments


The title of Kathleen Flinn’s experience at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris is what initially caught my eye: The Shaper Your Knife, The Less You Cry. These words are advice from one of her chef instructors as begins the first of three sections required to earn a diploma from the prestigious cooking school. The subtitle offered more foreshadowing than I would have liked, though: “Love, Laughter and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School.”

Flinn’s account combines her background, her romance and her Parisian education, which involved much more than cooking as she learned to navigate a new city with only un petit peu knowledge of French.

The book is divided into the three parts that correspond with the units at the school: Basic, Intermediate and Superior Cuisine. Flinn’s culinary undertaking is humorous, honest and, unfortunately, predictable. Of course she grows through this journey; of course she learned techniques that were as foreign as the language; and of course she is with the man of her dreams. The latter requires no spoiler alert; this is revealed early in the narrative.

Despite its predictability, Flinn gives an insider’s view of how the classes are taught, the types of people who enroll (not surprisingly from all over the world) and the friendliness of the French people. She also includes several recipes and even includes a menu guide for book groups. Fortunately, none require deboning a chicken or dealing with dead rabbit heads.

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Penguin Books, 2007
278 pages

The Spirit of Place, Love and Art   Leave a comment

I’m a fan of Alice Hoffman’s prolific work and her most recent, The Marriage of Opposites, reminds me why. She often incorporates elements of little-known history with a touch of the mystical. On the surface that may not sound enticing, but in Hoffman’s hands it is never overwhelming.

Set on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas in the early 1800s, Rachel’s father is among a group of Jewish immigrants who fled persecution from the European Inquisition. To describe his daughter as headstrong is an understatement.

The narrative primarily focuses on Rachel’s life, but later alternates with others. While still in her teens, Rachel is forced to marry Isaac, a man nearly twice her age. Following his death she’s left without property of own and seven children – three from Isaac’s first marriage.

This is not a tale of survival, though. It is part biography but largely a love story. It’s full of passion that emerges when Rachel meets Isaac’s young cousin, Frederic Pizzaro*, who arrives from Paris to take over the family business.

Going against their religion and social mores, Rachel and Frederic marry. Their youngest son, Camille, shares his mother’s obstinate nature; she acknowledges him as her favorite, although the two are often in conflict. The story soon becomes his as he struggles to pursue his artistic endeavors and eventually find his place among the French Impressionists.

Hoffman’s tale is also about of the influence of the island’s bright colors, cultural expectations and what happens when they collide with dreams.

The Marriage of Opposites
Four Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2015
365 pages

*Camile changed the spelling of the name when he moved to Paris.