Category Archives: memoir

French Women Don’t Get Fat – it’s time to take the stairs

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Mireille Guiliano’s French Women Don’t Get Fat is an interesting addition to the huge and varied selection of diet books out there in the world, partly because it’s not a diet book as such. It’s part memoir (the author’s story of a brief flirtation with fatness on an exchange program to America in her youth and lots of stories about life in a well-heeled French country family and how they ate, amongst other things), part recipe book (everything sounded delicious and French and not very diety) and part food and lifestyle advice.

I can’t imagine that it’s for everyone – Guiliano has a tendency to brand Americans in particular as lazy slobs in ‘garish running shoes’ who gobble corn on the cob (which in France, apparently, is mostly reserved for livestock) and eat all sorts of other bland, processed horrors by the bucketload. And I’m sure it grates on some people to be told that food in supermarkets is crap and the sensible thing is to shop daily in farmer’s markets and cook with champagne (lots of plugs for champagne from the CEO of Veuve Cliquot throughout the book, naturally). Personally though, I found what you could perhaps call the pretentiousness of the author’s style…well… French. Just like Parisian waiters tend to see themselves as purveyors of fine food rather than fine service, Guiliano seems less concerned with keeping you on side than with enticing you with a new way of life.

Now maybe I feel this way because I live in central London within walking distance of a market, and both my office and flat are situated up numerous flights of stairs (Guiliano is resolute on the importance of climbing stairs). While we Brits do love slouching in front of the TV with big bowls of pasta more than the elegant French do, we’re undoubtedly closer to the French way of life than the average American (we’re still Europeans at the end of the day – let’s not let the miserable Brexit situation get that twisted). God knows how the average suburban small-town American would follow her rules without a load of hassle, even with the best will in the world.

When I visited my mother’s father in Los Angeles a few years ago, after a week of stuffing my face with more food than even my greedy self could handle (for the first time in my life I was leaving half a plate of food and getting called ‘a little bird’ by waitresses), I tried to take a walk to the shops. My granddad was so confused. He kept telling me he could drive me to the mall, and even after I left the house he came after me in the car ten minutes later. I guess that point is twofold: 1) this book is going to be a tough follow for people who live in places that aren’t designed for French living and 2) Mireille Guiliano has a point about the fact that this is a different lifestyle that is likely to have different results for weight management.

And it’s not that Americans are lazy – many US adults report working 47 hours a week and I know from working with them that their phones are usually never off (they’ll ring you at crazy hours of the morning from the middle of that hellish LA traffic jam!). You don’t get that in France, it’s not the culture – their 35-hour maximum working week is LAW! The French expect a different work-life balance than Americans, and even Brits, and I think there’s something charming about that. It’s that culture that has the author of this book proposing three-course menus for lunch and dinner quite casually.

To be fair to Mirelle Guiliano, she’s quite clear at the beginning of the book that this is not a prescriptive one-size-fits-all approach to diet and lifestyle. She pretty much tells you to enjoy the read (and it is enjoyable as a book in its own right) and take whatever you want from it and leave the rest. I imagine her saying that with a Gallic shrug, of course. Much of her useful advice is not rocket science (but we all know that weight management is not that difficult in theory). However, the ingenuity is in her approach. Guiliano preaches that healthier choices should be incremental, lifelong and enjoyable. She made me think of myself as a chic Parisian woman as I huff and puff my way up the stairs rather than using the lift, as I scale back on the pasta without feeling guilty about it when I do eat it, as I set about trying to eat more seasonal veg. This book is unlikely to produce quick or impressive results, but is a very pleasant way of improving your habits bit by bit, and settling into changes that are sustainable, which if you just want to stay in better overall shape while eating chocolate and drinking wine, is just the ticket.

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My Thoughts, Exactly – admirably, unapologetically honest

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I heard Lily Allen discussing her new autobiography on Woman’s Hour and put it straight on my Christmas list. I’ve always quite enjoyed Allen’s music, her quirky fashion sense and her generally relatable, messy vibe. She’s rather beautiful – an original face in a sea of bland, symmetrical perfection – and I’ve always admired her gobbiness. I was also aware that she and I had a traumatic experience in common and was interested to hear her in-depth take on it here.

I expected to find My Thoughts Exactly engaging and entertaining but I was really blown away by what a fantastic read it actually is. Allen is searingly honest, which means the book is full of juicy stories about the celebrity world – and not coy references either, it’s literally like you’re friends in the privacy of the pub. I was amazed at how upfront she was prepared to be! But that’s really only a small part of what makes this such a good read. It is also a very brave account of a variety of life experiences – sexual assault, stalking, cheating, divorce, co-dependency, family dysfunction, fame, addiction, loneliness … the list goes on. Allen lays it all out here with brutal honesty, even when she comes out looking like the bad guy, and yet she is prepared to be vulnerable to such a degree that it’s impossible not to identify with her, to like her, to pity her at times, but also to very much admire her.

On the back cover of the book, Allen says, “When women share their stories, loudly and clearly and honestly, things begin to change – for the better.” When I first read that, I thought it sounded a little naff and possibly a bit overdramatic – after all, this was Lily Allen, not Malala. I very much changed my mind as I read the book, however. It was hugely refreshing to hear such an honest account of a young woman’s interesting, and in many ways quite difficult, life. I could relate to so much of it and it even moved me to tears in a few places.

Though it may perhaps seem glamorous from the outside, Allen’s account of her childhood – being left in a hotel room at the Groucho Club with her brother all day eating minibar Toblerones while her dad got drunk with his friends downstairs – was actually pretty sad. For a young woman with a lot of issues in search of stability, a sudden rise to fame in tabloid-ridden Britain is sure to bring disaster, and so it did for Allen in many ways, despite her success. She has been through a lot, and in some ways her story is a fantastical one, but she is brilliant, in this book, at smashing through all the smoke and mirrors and letting you into the real life she has lived in her head.

It feels a bit strange to be describing Lily Allen’s autobiography as a triumph for contemporary feminism but, actually, that’s what I think it is. It is the honest, unflinching story of a woman who has both succeeded and failed, who is both brave and terrified – in short, a three-dimensional, real, live woman with a voice, who refuses, at thirty-three, to pretend to be anything else. I highly, highly recommend it!

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This Boy – from poverty to parliament

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I was recommended Alan Johnson’s childhood memoir, This Boy, by Lovely Mum. I was curious as she’s not generally a reader of political biographies. I never think of her as very political at all, in fact, although she’s always drummed it into me that voting is important (i.e. it’s pretty much murderers, thieves and people who don’t vote, in her books). She never liked Tony Blair (smug) and she only liked the Green Party till they got in and started doing terrible things with the bins (apparently). But she liked this book because it reminded her of her childhood, being poor and the child of a single mother in London in the fifties and beyond.

She said she liked the book because it was well-written and ‘not one of those misery memoirs’. She was right on both counts, although Johnson lived in appalling conditions and had a lot to contend with in his young life. In fact, his style of writing reminded me of the way my mum talks about her childhood. She has always been the queen of matter of fact. When I asked her many years ago about her father who sloped off when she was two, about whether it bothered her, she said “I didn’t really think about it much. It was a bit embarrassing, I suppose. I just used to tell people he was dead.”

Like Johnson, she was used to the shame of being sent on begging errands by her mother, being dragged here and there in the search for extended credit or some other favour. They weren’t quite as destitute and there was no violent, gambling husband making a bad thing worse but it was a life of uncertainty, a childhood of thinking about food and electricity. There are possibly no fewer children today like that. Notting Hill, where Johnson grew up, is affluent now, but though Rachman’s slums are gone, other estates rot elsewhere.

One of the most interesting things about this book, which takes Johnson only so far as a job as a postman, is considering where he ended up – the Houses of Parliament. As a child he scavenged for coal on the street and was always, despite the best efforts of his lovable, kind mother and his almost superhumanly strong sister, hungry. A disinterested student with dreams of becoming a rock star, he comes across as a very normal, everyday person. I wonder how many primary school children living on crappy estates right now will end up in politics. It’s hard to imagine many of those biographies somehow. When you watch MPs braying and jeering at each other across the green leather benches, it reminds you that politics is still very much a posh man’s game overall.

Certainly Alan Johnson’s story is very inspiring, in an unassuming kind of way. It would still be a good read whatever he had ended up doing in later life, as it’s open-spirited, funny and honest, with twists and turns that keep you gripped, wondering how things might pan out. But the main thought the book left me with is that Alan Johnson feels like an unusual politician, and perhaps confidence in parliament would be greater if there were more who came across like him.

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