Kelsey's Reviews > Songs in Ordinary Time

Songs in Ordinary Time by Mary McGarry Morris
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Dec 16, 2010

really liked it

** spoiler alert ** Mary McGarry Morris’s Songs In Ordinary Time is a testament to humanity at its lowest, covering every small detail of lives corrupted by, well, life. It centers on Atkinson, Vermont in the summer of 1960, and dives deep into the lives of a kaleidoscope of people. Each character is different and utterly fleshed out, so the book feels like glimpses into real people’s minds. I – being someone who enjoys delving into the miseries of real life, shuddering at the mere thought of something sugar-coated – found myself enthralled with this tale.
The characters are what create the infatuation. Marie Fermoyle, the single mother struggling to make ends meet, her ex-husband Sam Fermoyle, the town drunk, and their three children. Norm, ruled only by his temper, Benjy, silent and fearful, and Alice, lonely and desperate. This is the family displayed on center stage, along with Omar Duvall, a conman that wiggles, lying the whole time, into their lives and Marie’s heart.
Among Atkinson’s more eccentric citizens, there is Father Gannon, a wayward priest who is anxious for affection, grappling to find it anywhere. There is also Joey seldom, a blind man working a popcorn stand teetering on the verge of being torn down. Lastly, and most eccentric of all is Renie LaChance, the uncle of Norm, Benjy, and Alice. He’s an appliance storeowner that makes anonymous pornographic phone calls to random women in his spare time.
While I can’t say that I’ve down that, it was easy to find myself relating to the characters. They were motivated by the same emotions we all are. Greed, guilt, lust, love, affection. Each character, in his or her own way, is struggling for a place of belonging, same as all of us folks in the real world.
Most readers will find themselves drawn into this dark, realistic world, rooting for those failing characters. I know I was hoping that the perfect Klubock family that lived next door to the Fermoyles would do something to tarnish their name and fall down from their nirvana of fantasy just so they would be on the same footing as the rest. Which is how most readers will find themselves thinking. Or so I believe.
Above all, you root for the lonely ones. Which is almost every single denizen in Morris’s novel. The very last line of the narrative sums so much of everything that happened in the pages right up. “Alone, she kept thinking, alone, alone, alone, alone; then suddenly she burst into teary laughter and could not stop.”

Friends Who Didn’t Mince Words
Published: December 9, 2010

The story of Julia Child’s life — how a gawky and outgoing diplomat’s wife from Pasadena, Calif., came to write the classic “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (1961) — has been told so many times and in so many ways (biographies, memoirs, histories of American eating, movies, PBS documentaries, blogs) that it’s not clear there’s more worth knowing. This potato has been peeled.

Now comes “As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto,” a book for completists, the sort of pathetic losers who’d line up to buy a book of Child’s grocery lists, were it available. Well — full miserable disclosure — I am exactly that type of pathetic loser. So I picked up “As Always, Julia” with a modest tingle of anticipation. A good book of letters beats an almost-good novel any day.
That modest tingle turned into deepening sense of appreciation. The pleasures of “As Always, Julia” are modest but real. This book feels like chick lit — or should I call these women very game hens? — of an exalted order. The sound it makes is that of two housewives, each in her 40s, becoming pen pals and then ecstatic soul mates in the dreary 1950s. They let rip about all kinds of things, from shallots, beurre blanc and the misery of dried herbs to politics, aging and sex.
Sex? “Before marriage I was wildly interested in sex,” Child wrote DeVoto in 1953, “but since joining up with my old goat, it has taken its proper position in my life.” After reading the libidinous best seller “Peyton Place,” Child wrote to her friend: “Those women, stroked in the right places until they quiver like old Stradivarii! Quite enjoyed it, though feeling an underlying abyss of trash.”
The correspondence between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto began in 1952, and almost by chance. Child had admired a column that DeVoto’s husband, the journalist Bernard DeVoto, had written for Harper’s magazine about knives. When Child, who was living in Paris at the time, composed a fan letter to Bernard DeVoto, Avis, who handled much of her husband’s correspondence, wrote back. The two clicked instantly.
The DeVotos were intellectuals and bons vivants in Cambridge, Mass. Bernard DeVoto had won both a Pulitzer Prize (in 1948) and a National Book Award (in 1953) for his histories of the American West and was a boisterous defender of civil liberties. (He seems to be making a comeback. The editors of The Atlantic just named his book “The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto,” published in 1948 and reissued this year, one of the best books they read in 2010.)
Avis DeVoto worked as her husband’s secretary but had a firm life and mind of her own. She regularly reviewed mystery novels for The Boston Globe and was an accomplished cook. Later in her life she was a book scout for Alfred A. Knopf, read manuscripts for Houghton Mifflin and worked in the dean’s office at Radcliffe College. The DeVotos’ many friends included Arthur Schlesinger, Walter Lippmann and their families.
“As Always, Julia” has a dramatic arc. It charts the beginnings of the book that would become “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” from when it was a gleam in the eye of Child and her co-authors Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck to their signing a contract (with Avis DeVoto’s help) for the book, then untitled, with Houghton Mifflin in 1954. The company ultimately rejected the book as being too unwieldy. Again with DeVoto’s help, it was published by Knopf. This book has an emotional arc too. Bernard DeVoto’s death from a heart attack in 1955, at 58, arrives out of the blue and is a devastating moment.
Most readers, however, will graze “As Always, Julia” for these women’s funny and forthright opinions about food and life. In an early letter Child describes herself to her new friend. “I had intended to be a great woman novelist,” she writes, “but for some reason The New Yorker didn’t ask me to be on its staff.”
About her body Child writes: “Bosom not as copious as she would wish, but has noticed that Botticelli bosoms are not big either. Legs O.K., according to husband. Freckles.”
Child and DeVoto bond most fully around food, and mostly share the same tastes. (“People who love to eat are always the best people,” Child writes.) They begin to trade items — knives, truffles, omelet pans — in the mail. DeVoto counsels Child on what’s available in American supermarkets. Fennel was widely found then only in drugstores, DeVoto reported, in dried form used for poultices. When DeVoto mailed her dried chives, Child was horrified by them: “Tastes like hay with onion flavor.”
They tweak each other too. DeVoto complains, in an early letter, when Child’s recipe for eggs pipérade has “too much fat in it.” Child shudders when DeVoto declares that she likes Accent seasoning. “I don’t use it at all as I sort of hate the idea,” Child writes. “But I am sure it is useful in the USA where vegetables have probably lost some of their freshness from being shipped under refrigeration for days and days.”
DeVoto read many drafts of Child’s book, and was an excellent first editor. She writes: “Page 5 — cleaning eggs. Wire wool — what do you mean? First place we never have eggs that dirty. Second place there’s steel wool only nobody uses it in kitchens any more — only for stripping paint and so on. Death on the hands.”
From the beginning, DeVoto recognized that “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” — it was almost, at one point, titled “La Bonne Cuisine Française” — would be a “profound book.” This volume of letters makes it plain that it would never have appeared in the United States, at least in the form it did, without her devotion to it and to Child.
Later letters often deal with aging. “I like every part of growing older except what happens to your feet,” DeVoto writes. When she praises the efficacy of girdles, Child replies: “Paul” — Child’s husband — “doesn’t like them as he says a girdle buttocks is no fun to look at.”
DeVoto died in 1989, of pancreatic cancer. Child died in 2004. Their friendship lasted until the end. Both women agreed they wish they’d found each other, and their shared love for food, earlier in their lives.
“You know, it’s funny,” DeVoto wrote, wonderfully, to Child in 1954. “By the time we develop real taste in food, and begin to learn how to prepare it, digestive disorders set in and weight piles up. When I think what I could have done in my youth, when I ate like a horse with no bad results at all, with the knowledge I’m getting now, I could cry.”

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message 1: by ME Pruitt (new)

ME Pruitt Your review is solid with a lot of critique and analysis. However, I don't really see how yours was modeled after the one you posted. For instance, you mention how you relate to the characters (except for the prank porno calls), but I didn't notice a mention of these connections in the model. Other than that, it was pretty good review. 12/15

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