What is a blog, but a personal reflection of its author's tastes and quirks? So while being steeped in most things Southern and Appalachian, I diverge occasionally to other regions and cuisines, and even depart drastically from the topic of food. While I don't go gaga over French food, I'm really a whore for all things French: or Parisian; any region or city, or ville.
Je ne sais quoi.
Anyway, sometime ago, I contacted publicity at University of Chicago Press about getting a review copy of Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, because I browsed the title in a bookstore and it intrigued me. I hoped there might be food content within.
At the time I didn't appreciate Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, but the other two, awesome? Whatever would draw such disparate three women together? Well, each spent a year abroad in Paris, at very different times, in a very different Paris, and that year clearly influenced each woman's life in a plethora of ways: intellectually, philosophically, aesthetically, etc. Each is such a very different woman. Reading about their lives, and how this common thread of Paris tied them together, was fantastic.
Alice Kaplan draws from a wealth of primary and secondary research to pull together a snapshot of the Paris that each of these women experienced. For example, from Bouvier's era, she mines Smith's archives and looks for experiences of Bouvier's classmates and incorporates information gleaned from their letters and documents, as well as data from faculty involved in the Smith year abroad program to meticulously depict the atmosphere in which Bouvier studied and how it differed from that of Sontag and Davis's. Kaplan also provides social, historic, and cultural context in France and the USA so that readers understand how the time in France served to further each woman's personal and public interests. And Kaplan gives enough background into each woman's life to understand how she arrived in Paris. Then we meet her in Paris. And then there's a chapter or two following up how her time in Paris wove its way into the fabric of her life. It's a compelling argument. A fantastic book. Wait, I think I've already used fantastic several times. Awesome, then. I love this book so much, I'm giving away my copy. See the very end for details on how to do so.
Bouvier, enrolled at Vassar which had no study abroad program, applied to the program at Smith and spent 1949-1950 year in Paris. In her letters home the author, Alice Kaplan, remarks about what is absent from Bouvier's letters home: She doesn't babble as girls her age do about girlfriends and "Who said what to whom, who was danging the longest, who got sick from the food and the kinds of things you might expect from a girl's letter home from France" (16).
Reading about Bouvier's experience reminded me that even as late at 1949 Great Britain and Europe suffered still from privations after World War II. She was given a ration card for sugar and and coffee while living in France during her yea. Plus, as you would expect, other foodstuffs were in short supply. And the women's toilets in French restaurants were terrible stand-up affairs, veritable holes in the floor.
Yet, a "more than decent" lunch could be had at the Brasserie Balzar on the rue des Ecoles (35). Her travels through the French countryside imbued with the simple beauty of "food grown close to the place where you ate it, the ubiquity of wine" (46) were essential ideas she she would return upon for aligning herself with French customs for the rest of her life.
Susan Sontag's year in Paris was 1958-1959 and she was ill-prepared because she spoke little French. She was somewhat estranged from her husband and left her son behind. She didn't go to Paris under the aegis of a university program, but funded the trip with a roundabout because she had a fellowship at Oxford. She and her lover spent Christmas in Paris and she simply never left. One of the lines I liked most of all was this:
"Euphoric writing came to Sontag with the realization that she could live a life of sexual passion, that she wasn't condemned to teaching, or library work--the assumption being that the life of the mind excluded bodily pleasures" (84).
Her Paris brimmed with cafes and bars. Its population exploded and there has never been enough housing to accommodate it. Folks live in hotels and cook oatmeal and omelets over a gas burner or hotplate. She gathered her food at Paris's ubiquitous fresh markets and stopped in to pick cheese and bread and meat from her favored merchants. She "ate at the Cafe des Beaux-Arts on the rue Bonaparte, where you could get a three-course meal with wine for a few dollars, sitting at a communal wooden table covered with paper. They drank at the Old Navy on the boulevard Saint-Germain..." (99)
Davis is mostly known as a teacher, an activist, a radical, a Communist, and for her arrest and trial for aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder in the death of Judge Harold Haley, for which she was found not guilty in 1972. But what many don't know about her is that she spoke French flawlessly and immersed herslef in French literature while at Brandeis. She spent her junior year in college in Paris in 1963-1964 and gradutaed with a French major and highest honors in 1965. France held a mythical power for black Americans because they'd always found it more welcoming than the US.
After both wars, American soldier stayed and remade their live in a place they found more open than than home. France held black writers and artists in special regard; and Paris, in the 1950s )as it had been in the 1930s_ was home to the novelist Richard Wright, to James Baldwin, to Chester Himes and to Josephine Baker... (155)
By the time Davis lived in Paris, food was plentiful and American tourists craved butter curlers, camembert, and garlic presses as souvieners, among other things, like berets.
But she was immersed in a different Paris, one reeling from French soldiers returning from duty in Algeria, and Algerians themselves seeking refuge in the streets of Paris. And the French newspapers were reporting about racial violence back home in Alabama: The Birmingham church bombing that killed Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. Davis struggled with the incongruity of the French press, they whitewashed their own racial complicity when police massacred Algerian protesters in mid-October 1961, but easily pointed fingers at American Southern racism, since it was so exotic (165).
As with each woman, Kaplan wraps up with a summary of achievements and concludes that "France secured them" (223). By that, she goes on to say that France invested them with confidence and adventure and a flair for aesthetics. Naturally, her "Note on Sources" thrilled me. I love reading as much about a project as I do the book itself. And Kaplan gave pointers on which JBJO bio was worth spending time with. My adolescent crush on Marilyn Monroe rendered me immune to any of Jacquie's charms. Always been Team Marilyn, but I'll willing to learn more about Jacquie, especially since she was prolific letter writer, like me. Enough about this yummy book!
To win a copy: Follow me on twitter @re3ecca and tweet "i want to win dreaming in french @re3ecca #giveaways #books". If you don't have twitter, simply leave a comment below. A randomly selected winner will be notified by e-mail. Odds of winning depend upon the number of entries received. The winner will be randomly selected from entries after 11 September 2012 12 noon EST and will be notified after that time.
By the by, I received this review copy from the University of Chicago Press. Just letting you know that tidbit so that I'm in compliance with FTC regulations.