I don't get sent many books to review, but this is not a problem as I'm quite fussy and would not like to have to interrupt my bloodthirsty or psychological criminal thrillers too often with romantic slush or other fluffy literature. However, I'm a keen foodie so a book on food and eating in France will immediately gain my attention. This one seemed to combine both, so when the publishers asked me to read and review it, I said yes, but did warn them that my readership is fairly limited (and I don't have an Oprah effect of immediate sales the moment I say I like something, more's the pity...).
Ann Mah is an American of Chinese origin, and I really enjoyed her writing. I particularly admired the way she links from stories about her life to her exploration of French food because how she could make the transition was not immediately obvious but she managed to carry it off extremely well - very smooth and delightful to read.
I do not share her passion for Paris though, so all the lyrical descriptions which illustrate her deep-seated love of the city passed somewhat over my head. Paris, for me, is a pretty place but lacks dynamism. It's nice for a visit, but I would hate to live there and suffer the metro, RER, pollution, noise, traffic, high prices and time-wasting. My main contact with the place in recent times has been the RER from Gare de Lyon to Gare du Nord where you might think you were in downtown Douala rather than gay Paris.
What I did like about the book was the way Ann Mah threw herself into investigating her food choices thoroughly. She went all over France and met all sorts of interesting people, and official groups dedicated to maintaining the heritage and standards of certain dishes (and wine). She's a professional so you would expect a certain level of contact, but she went far beyond what I would have expected. I learned lots of things about the iconic dishes of France, which is always a pleasure when you've been in the country for a long time. It's easy to get blasé about fondue, aligot, bœuf bougignon, cassoulet and choucroute so some history about each dish and her pursuit of the real thing appealed to me a lot. I loved the way she enjoyed her food. I'm sure she's a joy to feed. One obvious omission was foie gras though. I wonder why she left out this most controversial French speciality. Or perhaps that's why...
The book is not just about Paris and food though. Ann Mah tells us a bit about her childhood and how she fell in love with Calvin, a diplomat, which meant she had to put her own successful publishing career to one side as they travelled about the world. I liked reading about how she dealt with that and how she found the means to overcome some of the issues of being an accompanying spouse.
The poor woman had just settled into the city of her dreams with her husband when he was called away to Iraq for a year, so she had to stay in the "city of romance" without her partner-in-love. How's that for pas de chance? It could have been worse though, she could have been in Slough! And at least she could develop a project based on food and eating (and drinking), and had the means to indulge her foodie passion.
This is an enjoyable book if you like Paris, France and food, and appreciate an honest approach to love and life. All is not rosy in Ann Mah's life, as you may have gathered, but she deals with her loneliness and isolation, even though she moans a lot about missing her husband. Actually she comes across as a someone it would be fun to have lunch with.
This book would make an excellent present for a Francophile foodie. Other chapters are devoted (and I use that word wisely) to crepes, steak frites, andouillette, salade lyonnaise, and soupe au pistou. My favourite moment in the book is when she recounts eating cheese fondue in the middle of summer. I had a good laugh at that, plus when she observed that the French do not like cinnamon which she realised after she'd made a pumpkin pie for a foodie family at Thanksgiving. I could just imagine them taking a small bite, making a mou and politely pushing it away.
They do it to mince pies too...
Oooh, you review books? Wowsers. Who for? (Nosy cow, I know. You have the right to say "if I tell you, I will have to kill you" if you like). Your review is great - balanced and fun to read, which isn't always the case with some reviewers. I couldn't read a whole book about food, I'd end up eating all the way through.ReplyDelete
The American publisher (Penguin) just sent me an email asking me if I was interested. I'm way too lazy to go out of my way by putting my name on a list of wannabe reviewers, if such a thing exists...Delete
I know I have a very select readership, but I still don't understand why they contacted me because I hardly have a David Lebovitz following! Happy they did though, because I enjoyed it and can pop it in my mum's Christmas stocking. :)
Glad you liked my review even though I did go off on the odd tangent. :)
Hmm. Curious stuff. Big Penguin is watching you!Delete
Big Penguin is watching. LolDelete
Well, your review made me hungry and I have just had breakfast. Just like you, I don't understand why people love Paris so much. Maybe it is because I used to work and live there. It is a lot less romantic when you have to take the tube everyday, right?ReplyDelete
Absolutely! My DB hates the place because he had to do just that, spending hours crossing Paris every day to get to work in the different places where he was a consultant.Delete
Sarah, for somebody who doesn't normally review books, you did a stellar job! I'm wondering something though. Since when do the French not like cinnamon? Guess I'll have to get the book (it's on my list) to find out! Happy holidays! I hope all is well with you and DB! Do let me know if you have any upcoming plans to travel north!ReplyDelete
I've noticed they are not overly keen. They follow the 'less is more' principle when it comes to cinnamon. There are no cinammon rolls, for example, and their pain d'épice has lots of other spices too so it's not too heavily cinnamony...Delete
If you mean west, I waved in your general direction from the autoroute the other weekend on our way to Bordeaux and back. It was a family event weekend so we couldn't stop, but I'll let you know next time we're in the coin. :)
You're still near Toulouse, no?Delete
I'm often sent books to review and it can be hard to be objective when the books aren't necessarily ones you would choose yourself. But you have to be honest with your readers, whilst doing your best to tell others, who do like a particular genre, whether it is worth a read.ReplyDelete
I like the sound of a foodie book with a back story. Interesting to know about the cinnamon and mince pies. Remind me never to put the former into the latter if I ever have another exchange student!
Oh I think you should not jeopardise a good recipe, but just go easy on the cinnamon. They come for an authentic experience so that's what they should get. :)Delete
I've had a couple of books to review recently and each time I was emailed first to ask if I would be interested in the book. This meant I could refuse if I thought it was not to my taste.
Not sure how I missed this post but the book sounds delightful. You mean the French don't like mince pies? Is there something wrong with them? ( No need to answer that!)ReplyDelete
I don't understand it either... there's no accounting for taste! :)Delete