Sunday Salon: Julia and Avis

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I didn’t read Julie and Julia, I just saw the movie, so I can’t really say how As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto compares. When I saw the movie, I kind of wished it had been just Julia, without the Julie, but now I wish it would have just been Julia and Avis.

I think this might be the first book of letters I’ve ever read, and the experience is so intimate. When people wrote letters, they wrote of such intimate stuff, or at least Avis and Julia did. It’s like pulling back the curtain on their lives. What’s amazing about this where Avis and Julia are concerned is how very much I found I have in common with them. I love fiction, but find this is one of the very comforting things about nonfiction. I can say to myself, ah, yes, someone else felt that, too.

These letters cover a large swath of time–1952 to 1961–and in addition to the kind of everyday things going on in the lives of these two women, you get a great taste for what it felt like to be living through McCarthyism as intellectuals. And of course, the gargantuan task that was the writing of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. When they finally got the letter from Knopf accepting the manuscript, I actually wanted to stand up and cheer or cry I was so excited.

The best way to really get a taste (ha, ha) for this book is through quotations from the letters, so below is my list of favorites. But one interesting thing I was thinking about as I was reading this book was, what happened to all the things folks used to write to each other in letters? The letters between Julia and Avis do more than convey information. They become little acts of art and creativity themselves. Avis stops to describe the weather and the passage is beautiful. Do we describe the weather when we e-mail or text each other? Probably not.

What occurred to me is that maybe all the stuff that used to go into letters for some people now goes into their blogs. We’re no longer directing it at one person, but we are at least processing the world through written language and recording it for posterity and sharing it with others. And maybe, as with the letters of Avis and Julia, little bits of ourselves and our lives come through. That’s a happy thought which I think Avis and Julia would like.

Some of my very favorite excerpts (there are a lot):

From Julia to Avis:

“…you display the true marks of a Great Gourmande…which always includes the warmest and most generous of natures…and is why people who love to eat are always the best people.”

“There is so much that has been written, by people so much more professional than I, that I wonder what in the hell I am presuming to do, anyway.”

“I really feel I have an understanding of the chicken, whose complexity I had not suspected before.”

“We always live on a strict budget, and pile up as much as we can for squanderings.”

Describing a cooking class she taught in Oslo:
“And there was one French girl who was there as a guest, who had lived 2 years in the US but doesn’t speak a word of English, or a word of Norwegian (typical old froggie)–and she kept mumbling to her companion “Oh, moi, je ne la fait pas comme ca–jamme de la vie!” * Put me off, darnit.”

*”Oh, I’ve never made it like that–never in my life!”

From Avis to Julia:

“The older I get, the more I prefer the society of people my own age. I like every part of growing older except what happens to your feet.”

“I’m getting stale. I always do this time of year. I keep my nose to the grindstone and put in long housrs and rustle up good meals and do all the chores and run errands and get along with people–and have a fine time doing it and enjoy life. Then I realize, bang, that I’m tired and I don’t want to wait on my family for a while and I wish I could go away somewhere and have peopel wait on me hand and foot, and dress up and go to restaurants and the theater and act like a woman of the world. I feel as if I’d been swallowed up whole by all these powerful DeVotos and I’d like to be me for a while with somebody who never heard the name.”

“You must do most of the cooking and I will help and watch, because I will be so self-consious cooking in front of you. I will get over it.”

“Everybody horribly restless after four-day frightful heat wave a real humdinger of a storm is toying with us–cold front trying to get through. It darkens up, rains a few drops, vagrant breezes whisk around–and then the sun comes out and it seems hot as ever. Been going on all afternoon and finally drove me in desperation to the kitchen to make another batch of mayonnaise.”

Happy Sunday!

Upcoming review:  Elizabeth Berg, The Year of Pleasures

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Comments

  1. Great review! I hadn't heard of this book before I read this and now I really want to read it. I love reading letters between good friends who are also interesting people, especially if they lived through a time period I wasn't here for. Also I love your blog – just found it through Sunday Salon. I too firmly disagree that it's possible to think too much, even though my husband tells me I do all the time 😉

  2. Excellent review, Robyn! I first read about this book in the NYT Book Review and was quite intrigued. I haven't seen or read Julie & Julia; I heard enough about it to turn me off. But this book sounds great.

  3. Yes, yes, yes! I so loved reading this, my first book of letters, and I'm glad that you did, too. LIked it so much that I picked up the forthcoming book of letters between Eudora Welty and William Maxwell.

    There IS something so intimate about reading letters–I've always thought so, and even novels written in the epistolary style feel more intimate than a straightforward narrative.

    Two fabulous, worldly, and wordy women.

  4. The art of letter writing definitely has been lost, hasn't it? Among my favorite “letter” books are those of Sylvia Plath. They're so stark and…naturally…revealing. I think I've read some of Flannery O'Connor's letters too and was amazed by them. While I doubt I would pick this book up, I certainly will pass the suggestion along to my wife who is a cook and an avid reader. Thanks for the suggestion.

  5. I want to read it! I loved the movie. Thanks for a great review

    Andrea
    http://www.greatthoughts.com

  6. I agree with you, Robyn, that many of us blog as we might once have waxed belletristic… And the quotes you've chosen here do recommend the book all on their own.
    I vividly recall my first read through a book of letters. They were Georgia O'Keeffe's and, as you note in your review, such an intimate view of a brilliant human being engenders a deep connection with the reader: They made a lifelong fan out of me.
    I also admire how Nick Bantock used the form (combined with illustration) for his Griffin & Sabine series. Have you tried it?
    Interested to see what you make of the Wendell Berry…

  7. I loved this book too Robyn for all the reasons you so eloquently explained. I just love Avis and Julia's letters and the repartee and the wit. Makes ordinary comments just sing.

  8. I didn't know of the book until I read this post, although I have seen the film.

    My favourite book based on letters is the well known 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. I love the book, the style of writing. I loved it so much I asked for the DVD for Christmas!

    Not quite as much of a favourite is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow.

    A film we saw over the weekend is Letters to Juliette. A lovely film and I mean't to look at the start and see if it was based upon a book.

  9. Kathmeista, glad you like my blog and hope you enjoy As Always. I'm loving The Sunday Salon group…such interesting blogs and thoughtful people.

    Laura, I'm thankful to the film Julie and Julia for making me interested in reading more about Julia Child. I find the fact that it took her 11 years to get her book published so very comforting.

    Emily, I took a class at Millsaps from a new English professor whose name I can no longer remember, and we talked all about the origins of the novel. He kind of argued that the first novels are epistolary (Clarissa) and travel novels (Gulliver's Travels). It was a great class, and your comment just made me think about the epistolary novel in general.

    unfinishedperson, I bet the letters of Flannery O'Connor would be interesting…to see inside the mind that wrote Wise Blood!

    Andrea, glad you liked the review.

    Laurie, I do see similarities between the style of Avis and Julia's letters and some of the blogging people do. I bet Georgia O'Keefe's letters are interesting. I'm intrigued by your Wendell Berry teaser.

    Lisa, I'm thinking I might have to buy Mastering the Art of French Cooking now. I remember you had it on your shelf, and it looked very intimidating, but what the hell? It'd be fun just to read, let alone cook out of.

    Anglers Rest, I love 84 Charing Cross Road, too. I just read that a couple of months ago. It was so heartwarming. And The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. Ella Minnow Pea is another epistolary novel which was fun, but not as engaging to me.

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