Archive for the ‘Elizabeth Bard’ Category

credit: Joan Griswold

I’m never particularly eager to make favourites lists.  I love them but it’s such a brutal process: all those wonderful books that get cut!  I read roughly 200 books in 2010 and loved so many of them.  Usually I measure my favourite books by not just the initial reading experience but my desire to reread the book.  Since most of my books come from the library, the true test of a book is whether after reading it I want to search out a copy to own.  Except my opinion changes day to day, hour to hour, making lists rather difficult to compile with any confidence.  But lists, however stressful I may find them, are still fun and it was interesting to review my year with all its ups and downs and pick the ten titles that stood out for me.  Here they are, in order:

10. The Shuttle (1906) – Frances Hodgson Burnett
My most eagerly-anticipated Persephone title, I adored this tale of the effervescent Betty and her spirited quest.  The melodramatic ending, a trademark of FHB, did grate, which is why the book didn’t place higher on this list.

9. Can Any Mother Help Me? (2007) – Jenna Bailey
A wonderful collection of letters written between the women of the Cooperate Correspondence Club, mostly from the 1930s to 1960s, begun as a way of keeping active and engaged with intelligent society despite days surrounded by toddlers and dirty dishes.

8. A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True (2009) – Brigid Pasulka
Part multi-generational family saga, part fairy tale, this novel set in Poland during the 1930s and 1940s as well as the early 1990s was the best kind of surprise.

7. Why We Act Like Canadians (1982) – Pierre Berton
Combining two of my great loves – books about the Canadian identity and Pierre Berton – was always going to end well but Why We Act Like Canadians truly did the best job of any book out there at explaining Canadians both for foreign and domestic audiences.  With his usual romantic flair, Berton made this book not just fascinating but beautiful to read.

6. The Rehearsal (2008) – Eleanor Catton
The story of a community reacting to an illict relationship between a teacher and student at an all-girls school provided a very unique reading experience that forced me out of my comfort zone.  I was more than rewarded for my diligence with fascinatingly complex relationships and skillfully-executed themes.  This doesn’t seem to be a book for everyone but I loved it.

5. Mariana (1940) – Monica Dickens
Surprisingly hilarious, my first Persephone novel was nothing less than an absolute success.

4. Greenery Street (1925) – Denis Mackail
Immediately after finishing this charming book about a newly married couple I said that I wanted to live in it.  Now, not even two months after reading it, I already miss Ian and Felicity and their dear little home on Greenery Street.

3. Lunch in Paris (2010) – Elizabeth Bard
I adore this book, the story of Bard’s life in Paris after falling in love with a Frenchman.  The recipes are fantastic but Bard’s engaging voice and energetic but not overly romantic attitude towards her new French life made for a delightful read.  Easily the book I recommended the most over the course of the year.

2. Women of the Raj (1988) – Margaret MacMillan
This book may have left me with a phobia of cobras falling from the ceiling but it also provided an excellent education on the British Raj and the lives of European women in India.  It’s one of those books that I want to carry around with me always, just so I can press a copy onto random strangers.

1. Mrs Tim Flies Home (1952) – D.E. Stevenson
I fell in love with both Mrs Tim and D.E. Stevenson this year.  Mrs Tim of the Regiment was an excellent introduction to my new favourite heroine but a weak second half prevented it from being a favourite.  Mrs Tim Flies Home, on the other hand, suffers from no such shortcomings and so earned its top place on this list by being simply charming and heart-warming.

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The first sentence of Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard had me worried: “I slept with my French husband halfway through out first date.”  Oh no, I thought, this is going to be another one of those books about rather desperate, morally-lax ex-pats, seduced as much by France as by Frenchmen, and I’m going to spend the entire time hating the narrator and feeling smugly superior to her.  Clearly, this has happened to me before.  Happily, it was not the case here.

There are few cities in the world with the inherent glamour of Paris.  To name it is to instantly conjure up a city of romance, of passion, of love.  Even the thought of Paris, for the giddy Francophile, is enough to induce palpitations.  It would be easy to follow the clichés, to write of an idealised life that works in all the stereotypes, particularly when writing a book like this aimed at an English-speaking audience so eager to hear only wonderful, fantastic things about France and Paris in particular.  Happily, Bard avoids this path.  Her life in Paris is neither too glamourous nor too squalid.  In fact, at times, it is downright boring.  After moving to Paris, Bard is unemployed and her life revolves around the miniscule apartment that she shares with her boyfriend (and future husband) Gwendal.  It is during these months that she begins her cooking adventures, spending hours going to the markets and various venders to track down the perfect ingredients (and even more hours looking up and memorizing the vocabulary necessary for these excursions).  I found Bard’s description of visits to butcher, of the strict protocol that must be followed, both amusing and stressful: butchers wield incredible power, no matter what country you’re in, and I’ve had some very terrifying lost-in-translation moments of my own with butchers and their patrons in several countries.

I like Elizabeth Bard.  I like her evocative but not overly emotional style of writing, I like her commentary on French culture (the good, the bad, and the perplexing) and, more than anything, I like her recipes.  Actually, I may love her recipes.  So many memoirs-cum-cookbooks by women have an unbalanced number of sweet recipes.  As someone who doesn’t eat many sweets or pastries, this can be frustrating.  Bard strikes a nice balance and the ratio of savory to sweet seems to be around 2-1.  The recipes themselves are very well-written: clear and concise, they assume the cook knows what he or she is doing and thereby refrain from the annoying condescension present in many books of this sort. (Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life is guilty of this sin and it was the only thing that marred my enjoyment of that book.) 

The stories around the recipes had my mouth watering.  Bard knows how to write about food, a skill that not all food writers can claim.  Her description of a New Year’s feast towards the end of the book, hosted by a friend with North African roots, had me almost in tears it was so alluring.  The meal went for more than eight hours and the dishes Bard provides the recipes for, Chicken Tagine with Two Kinds of Lemon and Tagine with Meatballs and Spiced Apricots, will grace my table as soon as I can track down enough people to do justice to both dishes.

Part of what makes the food so alluring here is the social setting in which it’s eaten.  Most of the meals are eaten with friends or, more often, family.  An amazing recipe is one thing but a fantastic meal shared with those you love, dragged out over several hours of good conversation and good wine, is unforgettable.  I may be antisocial most of the time, but at meal times I wish for long tables lined with people.

Though some facets of French culture remain alien to Bard and confuse and frustrate her, her tone never becomes whiney or obnoxious.  She may not be able to understand why things are done the way they are, but she doesn’t attempt to interfere – an ideal, if rare, ex-pat.  Some of the commentary is most interesting, including her observations on the French medical system, the very non-American aversion to leftovers, and, because it’s endlessly fascinating, the eating habits of French women.  But it’s the food that’s the focus here.  The book may be subtitled “A Love Story” but that’s a clever ruse to sell copies to sentimental women.  Yes, Gwendal is very nice (he tap dances!) and their relationship plays an integral part in the memoir (he is, after all, the reason she moves to Paris), but passion does not consume the narrative, unless that passion is for a good cheese.  Already, I’m thinking of buying a copy for my father, a devoted home chef and Francophile, which I would never dare if the book were too sappy or emotional.  That said, I’m afraid one moment in their relationship will prove costly for me some day: they had an eighteen-piece big band at their wedding.  That has blown every dream wedding scenario I had concocted since childhood out of the water.  A big band, smelly cheese and the man you love…perfection.

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