Appetite For Life: The Biography of Julia Child by Noel Riley Fitch

Butter? Lard? Cream? Roast duck, with skin? Liver, kidneys, lobster? Check…hold on. Wait a minute…not exactly. While I doubt that many dieticians or cardiologists would suggest Mastering the Art of French Cooking to their patients, it’s hardly a morass of cholesterol and sodium, not least because the authors based the recipes on cooking from scratch. Not a box or mix in sight1. While not the only or the best French cookbook out there today, it’s still deservedly a landmark because it was the first (that I’m aware of) to spell out how to cook French food for an American audience, using ingredients likely to be found in the United States at the time it was published.

…and boy, did that take a lot of doing. But on to the subject of Fitch’s biography.

Julia Child didn’t start out intending to become a chef, much less be known as The Doyenne of French Cooking. She was a California Rich Girl, full of life to be sure but not connecting that to love of food when young. Well, not cooking haute cuisine for herself. Certainly nothing in her upbringing, education or early career would indicate that she’d become so strongly associated with French cooking in the United States. Born in California in 1912 to a wealthy old family, she went to Smith College and as a young woman, worked as an advertising copywriter in New York City. Too tall at 6’2″ to serve in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, she instead worked for the OSS, starting in Washington D.C. but later moving on to Ceylon and China. She met Paul Child, her future husband, in Ceylon; they married in 1946 and went to Paris in 1948. Between Paul and Paris, it is at this point that she realized just what really good food could be.

It’s at this point that the obvious biographical timeline for a landmark cookbook’s author begins: she attended Le Cordon Bleu, befriended a couple of other avid French cooks who were themselves working on a cookbook of same for Americans…and here I’ll stop with the mini-biography. This is when she began to step forward into the limelight to become the media star (insofar as chefs ever do become such) that most people remember; I’ll just add that the PBS series that aired in the late ’60s, The French Chef, is still worth watching, if you can get over the sound of her voice2.

While Fitch’s book isn’t the only biography of Child—Dearie came out last year—it strikes me as the more respectful and the better researched one. Not surprising, given that Child herself worked with Fitch to provide the papers and documentation so necessary to write an authoritative biography, and gave her the freedom to write an un-nitpicked one. What to read next? Well, other than the cookbooks themselves. If you found Fitch’s biography too worshipfully “at the feet of the master”, try Bob Spitz’s Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child. If you want to know what Child herself thought, try her autobiography My Life in France, but give Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously a miss: Child didn’t think too much of it, and certainly the style is much breathier, centered on Julie, the blogger-author herself rather than on Child’s cooking.

Oh, and if you’ve watched all her television shows, don’t miss the “Julia Grownup” skits on the first Electric Company show (not the one that’s currently airing on PBS) and, of course, Dan Ackroyd’s sendup for Saturday Night Live; apparently, Child herself thought that was hilarious.

1Well, hardly ever: the book does allow as how canned broth and the occasional can of peas can be terribly convenient in a pinch
2yes, it was a bit peculiar. I’ll confess that the first time I heard her speak, in one of her later shows, I was somewhat taken aback; as a comment on how she sounded, I completely missed the transition from her show to Sesame Street because darned if she didn’t sound exactly like some of the Muppets. With apologies. I like Jim Hensen’s work, and I hope she wouldn’t take that comparison amiss.

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin

Quick: what did Lindbergh do? Fly solo and non-stop across the Atlantic from Long Island to Paris, yes.

Anything else? Had a baby who was kidnapped, pro-German/anti-Semitic political leanings, involved with aviation…yes, also all true….if you’re thinking of Charles Lindbergh.

That’s what he did. What did she do?

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the titular “Aviator’s Wife”, was herself an aviatrix and author, in addition to the roles more conventional for the time of wife and mother and staunch supporter of her husband’s career and viewpoints while he was alive. She wrote and edited a number of books, including her husband’s autobiography, The Spirit of St. Louis, and her own, and Gift from the Sea, among others. The majority of her adult life, however, was spent as wife to (and in the shadow of) the renowned Charles Lindbergh; Anne not only remained behind with the children as they grew up, but publically supported her husband’s activities and political views1.

Charles and Anne both struggle with the publicity resulting from his trans-Atlantic flight; being in the public eye meant scrutiny of his opinions on proper breeding and isolationist stance during the lead-up and during World War Two. The 20-20 hindsight of intervening decades has largely discredited both, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that The Aviator’s Wife, being told from Anne’s perspective by a modern author, does suggest that Anne didn’t hold with her husband’s political beliefs but felt obligated, as a loyal wife, to support him in public.

As the children grow up, and Charles spends more and more time ‘traveling for work’, Anne herself struggles to reconcile her own desire for individuality with the societal expectation that she remain a helpmeet to her husband and mother to their children, even after the children have left home and the husband has proved himself not entirely the man she (and he) thought he was. In the end, neither attempt proves successful; though they remained married until Charles Lindbergh’s death in 1974, both Anne and Charles had affairs— she with the family doctor and he, perhaps not surprisingly, with a pair of Bavarian sisters and his East Prussian secretary, with whom he had a total of seven more children.

Overall, it’s well done.

Keep in mind, of course, that this is a novel, not a biography. As with Alice I Have Been and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, Benjamin’s picked another ‘sidebar’ woman about whom to write a fictional biography. This is like her first two books in that Benjamin also sticks quite close to the truth, at least insofar as external events go, she extrapolates quite a bit in regards her subject’s inner thoughts, hopes, dreams and monologues.

I suspect that this one may be a bit more uncomfortable for readers than Benjamin’s first two books, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s life was, for the most part, within living memory. Modern readers with more than a smattering of political awareness may come away wondering how spineless someone would have to be to continue supporting another’s clearly anti-Semitic opinions, despite their good Jewish friends. Modern women may come away mumbling about how spineless a woman would have to be to sit back and let their husband do all that. I’d argue that it’s still an interesting read; she was who she was, and if Benjamin inspires some readers to delve deeper into the lives of Charles and Anne Lindbergh, so much the better. Certainly, Benjamin doesn’t claim that her novel is anything other than fiction, though based firmly in fact…and both Charles and Anne were prolific diarists and autobiographists, not to mention being fairly well documented elsewhere in contemporaneous news sources and political files.

Keep in mind, though, that this isn’t a uniformly grim novel enumerating the protagonists’ failings! Benjamin does include the joy both took in flying, and flying in the ’20s and ’30s was adventurous to say the least. Her descriptions of taking wing in those early planes, noisy and mechanically cantankerous, are worth reading if only to give an idea of what exactly it was Charles Lindbergh did dare to do with his beloved Spirit of Saint Louis, not to mention the delight Anne must have taken in her own flights. Benjamin also slips in a fair bit of sense of the times and also retrospective humor: as an example, the book and the relationship begin in the ’20s with a ballroom dance, and end, more or less, with the festivities attendant on the launch of Apollo XI, during which Anne dances the Monkey with Buzz Aldrin and convinces Spiro Agnew to try the Twist with her.

For those inspired to look farther for non-fiction autobiographies, try Susan Hertog’s Annie Morrow Lindbergh: Her Life, Benjamin ends her novel with Morrow Lindbergh, now in her seventies and a widow, taking a solo flight in her own airplane from the 1930s—a not too terribly subtle way of expressing the subject’s own personal trajectory into personal independence and freedom…but Morrow Lindbergh did live for another twenty-five years or thereabouts, not covered in the novel. (She died in 2001, on her daughter Reeve’s farm.)

1In fairness, I’m not sure how much of that support came from Anne’s own belief in same or whether she felt, as many women her age did, that she had to become so completely part of her husband’s life.

Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices by Leonard S. Marcus

Interesting! At least if you’re a fan of Madeleine L’Engle’s works.

I’m not going to go into a huge amount of detail about who L’Engle is; either you know who she is, or you’re probably not all that interested in children’s and teen/YA literature, but if you’re somewhere in the middle, start here.

This isn’t a straightforward biography, but rather a collection of interviews with people who knew L’Engle. The basic idea is: interview a range of people who knew Madeleine L’Engle–writers and editors, family members, fans and friends. The book’s broken down into several sections, approximately by the type of person being interviewed–friends, family members, people who knew her years ago and those who knew her more recently, professional acquaintances and those she mentored.

Marcus did do well to select a range of people to include in this book; however, his selection struck me as a bit heavy on the people who knew her professionally. This could be a plus or a minus, depending on what you want to know about the person being written about. I don’t know if this was Marcus’s choice or a necessity resulting from the fact that she’d died some years before this book’s publication and that at a fairly advanced age after a prolonged illness involving not only physical debility but mental entanglements–in short, many of her close friends of long duration may have preceded her, and the people who knew her in her later years might not be left with an idea of what Ms. L’Engle was like in her youth.

Ruefully, I’m left feeling a bit mixed about the book. Not all of the interview subjects are positive, though that’s not quite the disparaging remark it sounds; it would be all too easy to gush about someone with L’Engle’s stature, if you were the kind to be impressed with such a person. I’m glad in this regard that Marcus simply included the interviews themselves, with minimal editing for flow. The words here are the words of the people he spoke to, not his own interpretation. While I understand that she did use people and situations from her own life in the fiction she wrote, such as the adoption of Maria after the death of the child’s parents, I’m also bemused by how much of her own autobiography was…er…glossed over–was her father’s illness a result of lung damage from mustard gas or from alcoholism?

In one way, it’s a little disappointing to find out the reality of such an iconic writer (at least if you’re into fantasy and religion); why should she not be as perfect as her characters? In another…why should she BE as perfect as her characters? They were created fictions, she was real, both better and worse than I imagined her. Not that she was horrible, mind. She was human. Kind to her fans, struck dumb with the awe of reading the author of A Wrinkle in Time. Drawing the curtain of denial over her family members’ flaws. Loving her husband. Spending time with her writing when her kids wanted her as Mama. And so on. A real person. And in the end, I’m grateful to know this much more about her.

The Lumberyard and Mrs. Barrie by Jane Barrie

Ever wonder what it’s like to own your own business? Don’t, unless you’re prepared to do a lot more billing and personnel management than dealing with the projects of your dreams. Perhaps you’ve thought how much overlap there is between men’s and women’s spheres? More than many men would like to admit, even prior to the surge in Women’s Lib in the 1970s.

The Lumberyard and Mrs. Barrie is a more or less autobiographical work, published in 1952, about one woman’s stepping into the financial shoes of her husband’s assistant when he reveals that the lumberyard/building supplies business he owns and runs isn’t doing as well as he’s made out over the previous six years. In fact, it was foundering completely and on the verge of going out of business…a fact the husband was doing his best to keep from his wife despite her having invested $15,000 of her own money, almost all she had, in his business to keep it afloat.

It is not until the husband allows as how he’d better not take her to Paris on their second honeymoon because the business is a trifle shaky that she suspects there’s something seriously amiss. Her husband’s one of those charming but more than slightly happy-go-lucky people who can charm the socks of anyone he sets his sights on, but without a scrap of business sense, much less the heart of granite required to dun people who’ve fallen behind in their payments to him. It is perhaps a measure of his own charm that he has managed to cajole his own creditors into extending as much as they have…but even this much credit is coming to a rapid end. The wife comes in the next day to find two haphazard women in the office, one who does billing and one who does receipts, neither of whom have any idea what is owed in the other’s purview, and none of the clerks and suppliers who work the sales floor arrived, despite it being half an hour after the business is supposed to have opened.

Horrified, she takes the business in hand quite firmly. The two other women begin working together to sort out all the piles of paperwork into something a modern office would recognize as “organized”. The sales staff begin arriving on or before the store’s opening time. Trucks go out fully loaded each morning as soon as they’ve been filled with the previous day’s orders…and if they arrive back at the main store before the end of the day, they’re loaded with orders that have been received that day since the trucks’ departure for the next morning’s deliveries. Hardest, but perhaps most important of all, Mrs. Barrie then begins work on collecting the monies owed the business while negotiating terms of payment for the creditors on what they owe others.

When she started at the lumberyard, the scuttlebutt was that it had no more than a few weeks left to stay in business, and her threat of filing bankruptcy (and therefore allowing creditors only pennies on the dollar and not many pennies at that) if those selfsame creditors refused to accept her payment plans was all too believable. While the company had good cash flow, the overhead was too close to income for comfort and staffing was inefficient. However, she managed to collect something like 80% of the $110,000 worth of debts owed the company while paying down well over $200,000 in credit lines to them…all within two years. Indeed, she’d negotiated payment plans (and honored them!) well enough that within a year the wholesalers supplying them had gone from insisting on C.O.D. deliveries to accepting sixty-day payments on deliveries shipped on a regular schedule without having been ordered….and the bank had quit sending nastygrams within six months.

This is one of the books I picked up on the course of stocking an on-line bookstore; I’m not sure how widely it’s held these days so (with apologies) this may be something of a teaser entry for readers without access to a decent Interlibrary Loan system. (If you haven’t got a library card at all, much less any idea what this “interlibrary loan” is, shame on you. You know what to do!) For more avid readers, ‘Jane Barrie’ was a pseudonym for Mildred Savage, and I’m sure that the name of their home town, as well as of their chief competitor and their main clients, wase equally fictitious. I suspect that she had a bit more innate talent, not to mention training in business technique, than she let on; I think the book’s intended to be more a screwball comedy memoir than the account of a woman proud to be a strong-minded businesswoman.

What to read next? That depends on whether you liked the period piece aspects of the book or the descriptions of the wife’s perspective on working in what is, after all, even today largely a man’s world, that of home renovation and related fields, such as carpentry, plumbing, and bricklaying. If it’s the former, I’d suggest Betty MacDonald’s autobiographies, her sister’s books, or perhaps Jean Kerr’s collections of magazine articles. If it’s the latter, perhaps something along the lines of Helter Shelter or Dreaming in the Dust. All of these books have the same sort of light-hearted take on their various subjects, to varying degrees, though the writing styles have changed considerably in the thirty years between the two clusters’ publication.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey

The author was struck ill with a particularly virulent strain of the flu while in Switzerland1. Although she recovered from the original bout of influenza, it played havoc with her immune system, leaving her with something approximating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, only much MUCH worse. This left her unable to turn over, much less rise from her bed, and required her to move from her beloved farmhouse home to a minuscule studio apartment, close enough to town that she could get the nursing care she needed. One day, a friend brought her a potted up wild violet, which happened to contain a minuscule wild snail under one of its leaves.

Flat on her back in a stark white studio, having little else to look at other than the ceiling, Bailey became fascinated with the snail, watching it crawl about its now circumscribed home. The snail had fairly clear tastes, both in crawling surface and in what it ate: it preferred forest humus to ordinary potting soil, creeping along the violet’s leaves to avoid the latter, and portobello mushrooms were a gourmet feast. At night, it crept out to explore the world around its little violet pot, nibbling at various things tasty by the alien standards (to humans) of a woodland snail. Even as debilitated as she was–she’s still incapacitated by most people’s standards two years after the book’s publication–a snail’s needs were low-key enough for her to manage. She attended to its gastropodal needs as she recovered, and in the end wrote a bit of prose that might equally well be called free verse. (No idea what the snail had to say about matters.)

As with so many books, this is not for everyone. It will hopefully come as no surprise that a book won’t have a lot of thrilling high speed action if it’s about a woman prostrated by illness who occupies her otherwise empty days by watching a snail crawling about its terrarium. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for an author with the patience (albeit enforced by an outside influence) to sit still long enough and quietly enough to actually hear a snail eating? see it moving?

This is a remarkably swift read for a book by an ill woman about the daily activities of a little snail. Don’t let that fool you. If you’re the sort to read memoirs reflecting on the inner life of molluscs, which even at their most sophisticated, aren’t terribly complicated creatures from a biological or intellectual standard, this will give you cause to stop and think. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would; while I zipped through the book on first reading, I came back to it for a second slower and more contemplative reading.

Mother Nature Network
Odyssey Books

1or perhaps Italy; I’m not entirely clear on this point.

The Search for Bridey Murphy by Morey Bernstein

Is reincarnation possible? For most members of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic subdivisions, no, although there are some few who believe otherwise–though for Buddhists and Hindus, this is another matter entirely.

Is it possible to remember our previous lives, once we have gone through the process of reincarnation? That’s the question that Morey Bernstein brought up with his book, The Search For Bridey Murphy.

Morey Bernstein, a businessman in Colorado in the 1950s, became interested in alternative medicine and what were then experimental treatments, and hypnotism’s use in same. The first portion of The Search for Bridey Murphy is Bernstein’s description of his own interest in and exploration of what was then experimental medicine–he talked a psychiatrist into giving him electroshock treatment, purely out of curiosity about what it felt like, and underwent several other similar treatments–concentrating on hypnosis and the possible uses this had in treating various psychological issues.

The description of his involvement with Virginia Tighe, called pseudonymously Ruth Simmons in the book, does not begin until about a third of the way into the book, and is a reasonably natural offshoot of his interest in hypnotism. He found Tighe to be a good subject for hypnosis, going easily into a deep trance, and was surprised during their first session to find her shifting into the persona of a young Irish girl, one Bridey Murphy. During this first trance, Tighe revealed little more than she was in trouble for scratching the paint off her newly redecorated iron bedstead. Over the course of four more hypnotic trances, Tighe revealed under Bernstein’s questioning that in this previous life, she’d been born in Ireland in 1798 to a homemaker and a barrister, married another barrister and moved to Belfast where her husband taught, and died of a fall in 1864. During the trances, Tighe, a Midwestern housewife who’d never been abroad and had similarly Midwestern parents and family members, not only spoke in an Irish brogue but revealed details about Cork, Belfast and rural Ireland that she should not, in theory, have known.

Alas, the book had to be rushed to print before Tighe’s claims were thoroughly researched, and not only did the book prove popular but was made into an equally popular movie. For a while.

Bernstein’s claims about Bridey Murphy have been pretty firmly debunked, and in quite short order after the book’s publication, for skeptics down to the merely mildly dubious. As with others susceptible to suggestion while in hypnotic trance, Tighe apparently dredged up the stories told her by her childhood neighbor in Chicago, one Bridie Murphy Corkell:
The Skeptic’s Dictionary
Malcolm Macmillan.

As it turned out, while Tighe was raised for the majority of her childhood by her uncle and aunt, her parents–part-Irish–had Tighe until she was three, and they lived in Chicago. Not necessarily long enough to form conscious memories, retrievable in adulthood, but long enough to store a considerable amount of information, judging by Tighe’s ability to recall details decades later.

True Believers will always believe…for the even mildly skeptical, hypnotic trance or parlor trick? I’m not going to judge or (forgive me) suggest a conclusion for readers. The Search for Bridey Murphy was an at least amusing read for me, even 50+ years after its publication, not to mention the efforts to debunk Bernstein’s claims subsequent to said publication. I don’t know if hypnosis still has a place in medical treatment; however, I’d ask readers of this and similar books to keep in mind the credentials of the person presenting the information: Bernstein has no training or expertise in the medical or historical fields. It’s interesting to note that Tighe herself seemed to have little interest in the process of discovering her past life, even according to Bernstein’s own descriptions. He had to persuade Tighe and her husband to fit five hypnotic trances in over the course of a fairly long period–a year?–in between the Tighe’s other stereotypically normal activities for a young couple in the mid-50s.

Eskimo Parish by Paul O’Connor

Priests in the lower 48 may have to deal with bad roads, bad weather and poor attendance at services, but count your blessings: at least you don’t have to deal with a team of malemutes which has taken a dislike to one another. Your car doesn’t pick fights with itself while you’re waiting for traffic to ebb. Parishioners in northern Alaska, even today, must perforce miss Sunday service if the leads freeze over before you get the boats in the water but while the land’s still too soft to support snowmobiling.

This is one of those odd little books that, so far as I know, garnered minimal attention when it was first published and has sunk like a stone in the intervening decades: it’s a partial autobiography of a Jesuit priest who felt the calling to serve the indigenous peoples of northern Alaska at a time when this was something of a Terra Incognita, even to the indigenous peoples of southern Alaska. It’s a diverting read today, as much for the opportunity to read that specific Jesuit missionary viewpoint as it is to read a description of life in northern Alaska in the 1930s and 40s.

In 1930, Paul O’Connor felt the calling to serve as parish priest for the Catholic indigenous peoples in the northern portions of the Alaska territory. For his first few years, he served as an itinerant priest, travelling by dog-sled in winter and boat or airplane in summer when the tundra was too soft to travel by sled. In many ways, this would be merely the memoir of a priest serving any far-flung rural parish–he visits the sick, anoints the dying, performs baptisms and marriages as needed–if it weren’t for the fact that he is traveling between parishioners by dogsled. Well, and serving what is in many ways an alien culture to his readers, and to himself. He remained for sixteen years, and upon his return home wrote a memoir.

Like Eva Alvey Richardson’s book about her teaching experience in Alaska, Arctic Mood, it’s a book set in a place about which few Americans1, whether from the territory in question much less the lower 48, knew little at the time of the book’s publication. It’s a reasonably sympathetic tale, though readers might do well to remember who the narrator is, and the time in which the book was written: there’s no little amount of missionary zeal explicit in O’Connor’s narrative, not to mention condescension towards the “ignorant savages”. (I can’t help but wonder what the indigenous peoples thought of these men and women who came with a strange religion or educational agenda, though they seem to have been reasonably amiable about it.) Just for the record, the Bruce Publishing Company was not exclusively (or explicitly) a religious publishing company–rather it was a small imprint which concentrated on business, education and religion. In fairness to O’Connor, his agenda is, not surprisingly, concentrated on bringing the Word of God to a people who’ve had little opportunity to hear it otherwise; he does seem to appreciate the local culture.

The white man and his inventions for decimating time are to [the Eskimo] a source of philosophic wonder. When you tell him with pride that you can cover in an hour by airplane a distance that would take him a week to cover with his dogs, he will only answer with a noncommittal grunt “Eeee?” (Yes?)–if you do not speak Innuit. If you know his language he wil ask laconically, “Chin?” (Why, what’s the rush?). To him the impatient hustle is the white man is a puzzle. You inform him, quite readily, that it is to save time and he will ask you why you want to save time.

1a territory at the time of the book’s publishing, Alaska didn’t become a state until 1959