Sunday, September 16, 2012

Three French/Paris Memoirs

I'm dismayed to see that of my list of books read so far in 2012, I've written here about only 23 of the 50+ titles.
I could make a dent in that by grouping together some of the lighter reading. Let's begin with three:

Amy Finley's How to Eat a Small Country
Eloisa James' Paris in Love
John Baxter's The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris
These books, as their titles suggest, are all travel memoirs. James' is the slightest, a compilation of Facebook updates and Tweets posted while she and her family spent a year in Paris. She intersperses these slighter contributions with several essays, exploring hers and her family's responses to Paris during her sabbatical (in the wake of some tough blows in her personal life) from her post as a Shakespeare scholar. Enjoyable, charming even, in spots, and a lovely way to return to Paris in my armchair. I have to admit, though, that little has stuck.

Baxter's book, on the other hand, while still light enough, is considerably denser and offers a wealth of arcane information about Paris. I had no idea, for example, that a brasserie's name marks its past as a brewery. The memoir is full of amusing anecdotes about Baxter's accidental work guiding visitors through Paris' streets and augmented by such salacious details as Baxter's one-time interview with Diego Rivera's daughter, an actress who Fellini once asked to "bless the meal" -- by which she realized he wanted her to spill her breasts out of their covering to hang over the table. Equally interesting is his coverage of Montparnasse's history around the sale of erotica. He walks us through some of Paris' more interesting lanes and alleys, and I suspect I'll recognize a slightly different city next visit.

Both Paul and I feasted on Finley's memoir over several months in which it was our read-aloud. We have a pleasant habit, when time allows, of him listening to me read aloud while he's driving (on road trips) or at home, while he's cooking. Finley stitches together her exploration of the state of French cuisine with an unflinching account of the family crisis she faced after accepting, then surrendering, an opportunity to star in her own cooking show. She writes with humour and sensitivity -- and we found ourselves wanting to jot down the names of restaurants and small cities we need to look up next time we're in France. The book is a fine counterpart to Adam Gopnik's The Table Comes First, offering more of the intimate family scenes and vibrant restaurant ones I had hoped for in that cultural history. And, of course, it stokes that ever latent desire to spend a suitably extended period in France, three months at the very least, Finley's or James' year if we are very lucky.

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