The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry.

I have a new post up on Ryu Hyun-Jin and Yasiel Puig and did a Klawchat as well.

One more negative book review before I move on to one I’m really enjoying, this time on Kathleen Flinn’s flimsy cooking-school memoir The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School, in which the author tells the story of her time at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, which coincided with her engagement and marriage to the love of her life. Unfortunately, the book just isn’t very well written (in terms of prose) and the telling is so superficial that we’re not getting enough of the food nor are we getting enough of the personal anecdotes that could make a book like this a fun read even if it’s light on the cooking.

Flinn’s reason for going to cooking school is easily the best aspect of the book: Laid off from a dot-com job with Microsoft’s unit (it’s never named, but if you’re familiar with the industry it’s obvious who she worked for), Flinn decided to chase a long-denied dream of attending Le Cordon Bleu, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious culinary arts programs, one she was encouraged to pursue years earlier by none other than Julia Child. Flinn’s then-boyfriend Mike encourages her to do it, even leaving his own career on hold for a year-plus to move to Paris with her and have what I imagine was the adventure of a lifetime.

However, that sense of adventure just never comes through on Sharper‘s pages. There’s a rote sense to Flinn’s days in school – go in, cook, screw some stuff up, take the food home – that we don’t get any of the color of the school itself as we did in Michael Ruhlman’s seminal The Making of a Chef, yet we also get only the slightest feel of life as an expat in Paris, or of the terrific romance between Kathleen and Mike. Side characters are painted in two dimensions, and sometimes one, like their overbearing, freeloading houseguests from Seattle, a lesbian couple who seem to be on the verge of a breakup with every interaction. I closed the book with no clear picture of who anyone was except for Kathleen herself, and even she came through in a faded image, driven by hackneyed life advice more than an abiding passion for food. (I’m sure she has that passion, but it never comes through on the pages.) Flinn’s habit of ending sections and chapters with awful cliches – “Sometimes, the places life takes us can be so unexpected” or “I wonder if graduating higher in the class rankings is worth the price she may ultimately pay” – is grating and indicative of a broader writing style that reads like it was written by someone who hasn’t read enough great writers, who believes that this is how you craft a story.

If this subject interests you, I can’t recommend Ruhlman’s book highly enough, as it balances the food and the educational experience very well against the fascinating personalities with whom he went through the school. I just found Flinn’s book paled in comparison and was much harder to push through given the weakness of the prose.

Next up: I’m just 50 pages into Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter and it’s amazing, extremely well-written and, thus far, a compelling story.


  1. Have you read Molly Wizenburg’s memoir “A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes From My Kitchen Table?” It has a lot more of that personal feel, especially the year she spent in Paris. It is mostly a memory of how much her father influenced her life and how his death had a huge impact.

    Speaking of “Books of the Year” have you read “Tiny, Beautiful Things” by Cheryl Strayed? It is extremely moving and written with so much love. I’ve given the book to several friends. Her memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” is similarly well written but a frustrating read for someone who goes hiking a lot.

  2. Haven’t read either book. Hadn’t even heard of Strayed or her books. Looks like she just put out a novel called Torch as well.

  3. Also, if you haven’t read Heat by Bill Buford then you must go to the bookstore right now. I believe Torch was Strayed’s first novel but has been re-issued following her new fame.