Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Lesson in (Most) Things Cultural and Sociological

Ann Mah's Mastering the Art of French Eating
Published by Pamela Dorman Books/Viking;
273 pages, hardcover
The memoir form is, perhaps, one of the most difficult literary forms to successfully pen. It is a delicate balance between self-aggrandizement and vulnerability; the best ones strike that balance perfectly, thus allowing the reader to make a meaningful connection. However, since the form is also the most accessible for many writers (whether beginners or well-seasoned), there's a sea of bad memoirs upon which one can cast a wide net.

So it is with great pleasure (and more than a little relief, really) that I highly recommend Ann Mah's Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris. Let's get the set-up quickly out of the way: Mah, a food and travel writer working (at the time) on her first novel Kitchen Chinese, along with her diplomat husband Calvin (who really delivers quite an heroic supporting role) move to Paris for what is, at first blush, a dream diplomatic assignment. Things get complicated rather quickly when Calvin delivers the bad news: for the first year of his assignment, he'll actually be stationed in Iraq. Mah's dreams of dinners à deux in quaint Parisian cafes are quickly dashed and replaced with lonely nights in their apartment eating toast (albeit with some tasty toppings) and speaking nightly to Calvin from the Baghdad war zone via Skype. So much for love in the city of lights.

Now, to be certain, Mah's problems are middle class - she's got a great place to live in one of the most exciting cities in the world. As she herself recounts (and I'm paraphrasing), she's got all the emotional and economic support any "trailing spouse" could need or want. Nevertheless, she's still a foreigner in a strange land, and is forced to deal with creating a meaningful life for herself (and all that entails in a foreign city), while at the same time dealing with the anxiety of knowing first-hand the danger her husband faces each day. 

I used both cultural and sociological in this blog entry's title because I was amazed at the breadth of experiences Mah shares with her readers in these 273 pages. There's definitely a whole lot of French history, travel, and food lore (and enough food locations throughout France to make this book almost necessary if one were planning a visit anytime soon). That I fairly expected. What reeled me in were her honest accounts of everything from French waiters who showed their exasperation at her beginner's French when ordering in the opening chapter, to her experience in a French citizenship class (an eye and ear opening as well as thought-provoking experience for Mah; having taught political sociology, I instantly identified with the instructor after the lunch break). Mah infuses her year of discovery with a healthy dose of 21st century feminism in all its complexity, as well as a willingness to admit to lessons learned that she never could have expected. Low on the self-aggrandizement, fairly balanced with vulnerability - a winning combination. I pretty much couldn't put the book down.

Definitely read Mastering the Art of French Eating if you want to learn about French history and food; certainly try the recipes, but stay for a personal story that will absolutely touch you, with an epilogue bursting with poetic justice. Merci, Madame Mah. 


  1. I will have to find this book, it sounds like a delightful read. Thanks for the review.

    And how have you been Denise? It's been a crazy few months but now things are getting back to normal, I'm looking forward to more of your crochet delights :) xx

    1. Thanks, Cathy. Glad to hear you've survived your first semester back at school! The crochet stuff should be happening soon, I'm happy to report. And definitely check out the book - it's worth it.

  2. I never would have given that book a second look but now...I'm intrigued.

  3. Oooh, sounds like a fun read! I will add it to my (ever growing) list of books to read.