The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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November 21, 2010

As Always, Julia: Food, Friendship and the Making of a Masterpiece

Reading (and thoroughly enjoying) As Always, Julia: The letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto reminded me of two things:  how endlessly interesting, appealing and cool Julia Child was, and  how wonderful it is to read biography in the form of letters. Avis DeVoto, who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, worked in publishing and at Harvard; she and Julia became penpals, then fast friends, in 1952 when Julia wrote a letter to Avis' husband, Bernard DeVoto, praising a magazine he had written on his search for a good knife. Through her publishing experience and contacts, Avis was instrumental in the difficult process of finding a publisher (first, and unsuccessfully, at Houghton Mifflin, and finally ('a blessing, a solace, a wonderful and happy surprise') at Knopf). The letters collected in this book end as just as that is about to happen, and even though I knew the bones of the story, it was suspenseful to follow it as Avis and Julia waited for word.

At the beginning, Avis and Julia send recipes, questions and ingredients back and forth, all the while commenting on books and politics. The talk about food is what I was hoping for, and it's wonderful. There was also a lot on Julia's approach to recipe and cookbook writing, her 'practice and passion.'  But you also get a sense of their daily lives:  Avis' grief over her husband's sudden death, and her day-to-day worries about her sons and making ends meet, and Julia's struggles with language lessons and her concern for her husband Paul, as he is moved from country to country as a public affairs officer.

This all reminds me how much I've enjoyed reading collected letters. When I look at my bookshelves, I see Virginia Woolf's (five volumes!), Vanessa Bell's, Edith Wharton's, Henry James', Sylvia Beach's (not yet read), and those are just the ones out in front.   They're very quirky, and immediate, and full of engaging little details.  It's sad that we don't write letters anymore, and that biographers won't have them to work with or to collect, and that we won't have them to read.

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Nan said...

This is wonderful! I recently bought the book and so look forward to reading it. And isn't that cover just the best?!
I wonder if people save their emails? I know I've kept a lot over the years.

Frances said...

I so want to read this book! Huge Julia Child fan. Hopefully a nice friend or family member will pull it off my wish list this year.

And it is sad that they do not write letters anymore. Email and text messages have little of the elegance possible in a well-crafted letter.

Marie Cloutier said...

It is sad that we don't write letters. I heard Dmitry Nabokov is publishing his father's love letters to his mother and it made me think that with email and technology and all that, what we're losing in terms of personal legacies as people really abandon the written, personal letter. Sad.

Bellezza said...

In a world of technology, which has its (few) merits, I sorely miss letters. They are such a lovely personal thing. Simon of Savidge Reads set up Penpals of Prose for those who wanted to write to someone, receiving real letters in the mail in addition to one's bills. It's been a great treat to receive my letters from London, written with a fountain pen in beautiful script.

All this to say that I haven't read letters from authors or 'celebrities' yet. It's not normally a literary form I turn to, and yet why not? They give such valuable insight into the thoughts of the writer.

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