06.17.09

Literary Life

This week, Sara Nelson gets a sneak peek at Nora Ephron’s new movie based on the life of Julia Child and revisits her amazing story. Plus: Miles Kington’s hilarious cancer memoir.

I had the privilege recently of seeing an advance screening of Nora Ephron’s film  Julie & Julia, but I’m under pain of publicist not to review it here. So, suffice to say that Meryl Streep’s performance as Julia Child was so inspiring—does that count as a review?—that I was driven, no, not to cook (I like my family too much) but to read. To read, specifically, My Life in France, Child’s memoir with her grand-nephew Alex Prud’homme, which was one of the books that inspired the film in the first place. (The other, of course, was Julie Powell’s, Julie & Julia.)

“People are making a lot of money out of self-help books these days,” Kington writes his agent in one letter. “[And] I would like you to be one of those people. By helping to promote my new self-help book. Which would be about self pity.”

You don’t need to know the difference between a whisk and a flask—though Julia certainly could wield both—to gobble up Mrs. Child’s (as she is forever called by all media, except the French, who apparently called her something that sounded like “Madame Shield”) fantastic, romantic, telling, even historic memoir. As an older (late 30s) bride of an older career diplomat named Paul Child—with whom she seems to have remained madly in love until he died in his 90s— Julia Child, as portrayed here was a refreshingly unsophisticated American who knew nothing about food, and not that much about culture, when she and Paul were sent to live in France. She first thought she’d be a hat designer, but then realized she needed to learn to cook for her husband, who was a bit of a gourmand—and so she weathered the astonishingly sexist world of the Cordon Bleu. (That some have described her as mannish didn’t do her much good with the fancy French.) And then she weathered the world of publishing—no small feat—having worked for the better part of a decade on her landmark cookbook that became Mastering the Art of French Cooking; Knopf’s Judith Jones—who still edits for the house in her 90s—saved it from the trash heap after another prominent publisher (Houghton Mifflin) passed on it. There’s a lot of food talk here, it’s true—but the real meat-and-potatoes story is that of one of the first very tall, opinionated, liberal-minded American ladies to go to Paris a wife and came home, eventually, a star. Think Michelle Obama, but with plenty of drama.

Bon Appetit, indeed.

Cancer books aren’t funny. Cancer books don’t sell. Those truisms are as solid as any that exist in BookLand. So what to make of Newmarket Press’ decision to publish How Shall I Tell the Dog? a collection of musings, in letters, by the late Miles Kington—onetime literary editor at the British magazine Punch and longtime columnist for The London Independent—who died of pancreatic cancer in January 2008? Not only is the subject matter difficult, it’s rather hard—as Kington himself might say, in his deadpan way—to promote a dead author or send him on the road. Besides, while something of a celebrity in the U.K.—Kington was the author of a popular series of humorous books in Franglais, a language he made up to make fun of the French-British rivalry for culture, a friend of both Michael Palin and Absolutely Fabulous’  Joanna Lumley—he was virtually unknown here. But Newmarket would not be deterred, and the other day hosted a small tea party for Gill Coleridge, Kington’s agent and friend, and the hypothetical recipient of the letters in the book.Tearing up at times, Coleridge spoke affectionately of her client, and insisted he was not just a novelty act, but a “real writer” whose last act on this earth was to hand in his column to his unsuspecting editors at the Independent a few hours before he died. “He was terribly angry in perfectly passive way,” Coleridge explained in perfect British understatement. Many also found Kington wildly funny, again in that perfectly dry way (“People are making a lot of money out of self-help books these days,” he writes Coleridge in one letter, following a theme she said obsessed him throughout his life: publishing bestsellers. “[And] I would like you to be one of those people. By helping to promote my new self-help book. Which would be about self pity.”

Already a massive bestseller in the U.K., How Shall I Tell the Dog? has also been lauded by the independent booksellers stateside, they who on occasion (think Angela’s Ashes, or The Glass Castle) can still make a book a hit. “As heartbreaking and personal as Tuesdays with Morrie,” they’re saying. But will it play in Peoria? Or, even in New York?

Will the publishing lawsuits never stop? No, I’m not even talking about litigation between Google and most of the creative world—according to The New York Times, it looks as if illustrators could be next up to fight for money from the content gobbler—and I’m not even talking about that pesky Salinger homage-or-ripoff. (Full disclosure: I testified in the case this week.) No, it’s another Harry Potter lawsuit. This week, the estate of the English children's writer Adrian Jacobs has filed a claim against Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, the publishers of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, arguing that Rowling copied substantial parts of the work of the late Adrian Jacobs, The Adventures of Willy the Wizard-No 1 Livid Land. It’s possible that Rowling did, of course. It’s a whole lot more likely that now that this suit has been filed, Jacobs’ hitherto forgotten 1987 book will jump higher than its current ranking of 1,471,233 on Amazon.co.uk.

Sara Nelson is a critic for The Daily Beast and the former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. She is the author of the bestselling So Many Books, So Little Time.