Letters From Paris
By Juliet Blackwell. (Berkley Books, 349 pages, $15.)
An American woman searching for healing and meaning goes to Paris, and after some improbable adventures that include an enigmatic man, she embraces a new life. The formula is so hackneyed — and so appealing. California writer, artist and anthropologist Juliet Blackwell submitted a pretty good entry in the genre in last year's "The Paris Key," and now offers "Letters From Paris," an even better one.
It's beautifully paced, thoughtful and mysterious, with a complex plot and endearing characters. Protagonist Claire Broussard, a Louisiana native who has left a lonely, sterile job in Chicago, travels to Paris at the urging of her dying grandmother, who has hinted that she'll find something remarkable there. To begin her quest, Claire goes to the shop of a Latin Quarter maskmaker who fashioned a death visage of a woman who allegedly drowned herself in the Seine in the 1800s.
As a child, she had found a copy of that mask in her grandmother's Plaquemines Parish attic, with a mysterious, yellowed note in its wrapping paper. Her great-grandfather, an American soldier, had shipped it home after World War II. Claire gets a temporary job as a shop clerk in the mask store, and soon mysteries spring up and family connections unfold. It's all highly implausible, yet well crafted and great fun.
The French Chef in America: Julia Child's Second Act
By Alex Prud'homme. (Knopf, 318 pages, $27.95.)
Julia Child spent years in France, learning classic cooking techniques and writing "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," which was published in 1961 to great acclaim. So when she and husband Paul returned to the United States that same year, eager to gear down after his career in the diplomatic corps, she was surprised to learn that she had a degree of fame.
This fame only grew in the next four decades, until her death in 2004, as she became the template for the celebrity chefs who now seem to be everywhere. This book, by her great-nephew, is a follow-up to his 2006 account of her culinary awakening, "My Life in France." It's about Julia, but it's also about U.S. history, politics, television and feminism.
Both a generous spirit and a perfectionist, she was ambitious in her own television goals, but also nurtured the careers of the likes of James Beard and Jacques Pepin. This is an inspiring, joyous and ultimately poignant book. She refused to do product endorsements, loved her husband madly and considered herself "an eternal pupil."
"The more you do, the more you learn," she once said. "If you're persistent and enthusiastic, you'll find a way. We just tell [people] to follow that gleam." There was no one quite like Julia Child, who changed the world with her wit and whisks.