Book Review — The Belly of Paris

The Belly of Paris (Les Rougon-Macquart #3)
Emile Zola
originally published 1873,
reprint with introduction and translation by Mark Kurlansky, Modern Library, 2009

We all have that one book that we feel that we should have read but just never got around to. For me, that book was Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris or The Fat and the Thin, as it was originally titled. This is a disappointment, because, having finally read it, I regret not having made the effort sooner, if only so that I would have had more opportunities to read it over and over again in my lifetime. This is an issue that I fully intend to address in future, but still, had I first read this as a teenager, I’d surely have read it at least a dozen more times in the interim years, so brilliant is this work of fiction.

Set in and around Les Halles market in Paris just after the new buildings were erected in the 1850s, The Belly of Paris tells the story of Florent Quenu, wrongly arrested and sent to prison, escaped and returned to his brother, a chef who now runs a successful charcuterie shop on a street near the fish monger section of Les Halles.

The third book in a 20-part series, (The Rougon-Macquart books follow the lives of a fictional family over multiple generations), The Belly of Paris speaks to the politics of the day (plenty of uprisings and upheaval in the years after the French Revolution), and Zola offers both serious and comedic characters as he tells the story of two brothers and their disparate lives and life choices.

In a setting of so much plenty, Zola explores the disparity of the Fats (the well-to-do bourgeois) and the Thins (those always struggling, often with not enough to eat despite their environment). Malice, jealousy and petty gossip propel the story to its heartbreaking but not unexpected ending.

The selling point here is Zola’s detailed, breath-taking imagery. The descriptions of food throughout the market last for pages at a time and in other works of food fiction, this might get tedious, but Zola is so adept at his descriptions, the reader can’t help but imagine themselves there, amid the chaos and bustle, surrounded by the noise and smells of the market. One particular scene, set in a fromagerie and since referred to as “the cheese symphony” is so vivid, so enrapturing, that if the reader can’t place themselves in that shop, smelling those strong, moldering cheeses in the hot summer afternoon, then that reader should give up reading books altogether.

The Belly of Paris is the ultimate work of food fiction which all other novelists choosing to include food in their works must aspire to. I recommend buying a copy (the entire series is now public domain and can be had in ebook format for under $2), so you can read it again and again, as I intend to do. However, the 2009 printing — translated by food writer Mark Kurlansky — is worth seeking out, as Kurlansky’s notes offer a very comprehensive and detailed exploration of the political issues of the time, which might not be known to readers unfamiliar with French history and politics of the era.

Final thought — why has nobody made The Belly of Paris into a film???

Book Review — Pomegranate Soup

Pomegranate Soup
Marsha Mehran
Random House, 2006

It’s 1986 and three Iranian sisters find themselves in the small town of Ballinacroagh, County Mayo, Ireland. They arrive suddenly, taking over a long-closed bakery space with plans to rush an opening of a Persian-themed cafe in only five days. They have escaped Iran via Pakistan and London, fleeing both the revolution and some personal demons.

Not all of the small town is receptive to their presence, including their neighbour, the publican, who had his hopes set on taking over the former Italian bakery to open a disco, never mind that the disco trend has long since passed.

Over time, with welcoming food, exotic spices, flavourful tea, and a desire to be part of the community, Marjan, Bahar, and Layla find acceptance and safety, but not without some small town drama to spice things up.

What starts out as a seemingly cozy story with a touch of magical realism (it’s rural Ireland, so there’s references to leprechauns and spirits, plus some allusions to the medical and spiritual aspects of the spices Marjan uses) goes to some dark places as we learn the story of the trio of women and how they have come to be in this town. They each have their own memories of Iran, and most of them are haunting. Behar is plagued with headaches and lives in fear of putting her sisters in further danger.

Mehran wrote this novel intending it to be the first in a series of seven books. She completed a follow-up, Rosewater and Soda Bread, but died tragically during the writing of the third book, leaving the story of the sisters incomplete. While Pomegranate Soup (named after the traditional Iranian dish which twice plays a vital role in the plot) ends on a happy note, the overall story feels incomplete — tied up with a bow, albeit a very loose one — with some characters requiring more fleshing out; presumably Mehran planned to do this with further titles.

As a work of food-themed fiction, Mehran creates good flow between the very descriptive passages about the food and the rest of the non-food bits of the story. Her descriptions of the flavourful, heady-scented Iranian dishes and teas are evocative and inviting, and she makes the food central to the overall plot. Recipes for pertinent dishes are included after each chapter as well and are a really nice touch.

Many reviewers on sites such as Goodreads have compared Pomegranate Soup (often unfavourably) to stories like Chocolat — the idea of the foreign or outsider woman setting up a food business in a small, conservative town and winning over the people there. But many of the aspects of the plot come from Mehran’s own life. Her family fled Iran during the revolution in the late 70s and ended up in Argentina where her parents ran a small Persian cafe. She married an Irishman and ended up living in a small town in Ireland, no doubt where she got the idea for the town and likely many of the townspeople. She even gives one of the minor characters an illness related to her gastro-intestinal system, which the author herself suffered from and later died from.

Rosewater and Soda Bread is in my “to read” pile, and I’m interested to see where Mehran takes these characters. There were enough loose ends here that the plot has many places it could go. I’m just sad that the world lost Mehran before she could complete the whole series.

Book Review – Friday Food Fiction — Pasta, Pinot & Murder: A Willa Friday Food & Wine Mystery

Pasta, Pinot & Murder: A Willa Friday Food & Wine Mystery
Jamie Lee Scott
LBB Company, 2017

There is a whole food and wine sub-genre of mystery fiction, and it ranges from incredibly well done to rather horrific (the writing, that is, not necessarily the plot line; most of these types of mysteries and known as cozys because the murder takes place off-scene or is not described in all its bloody, gory detail). This first book of food fiction by best-selling mystery writer Jamie Lee Scott falls somewhere in-between.

Willa Friday is a food blogger and stylist who still lives with her ex-husband and his family at his Sonoma Valley winery and restaurant. Willa discovers the body of of another wealthy vineyard owner and takes it upon herself to try and find out whodunnit, mostly because she suspects the young chef she’s just hired as an assistant, whose last gig just happened to be working for the deceased where words were had before his departure.

Willa butts into police investigations (and then is pretty much welcomed by the local police chief, I’m never really sure how mystery writers get away with this bit of plot manipulation), and unwinds the convoluted story to find the killer. It’s all a bit of a leap of logic, but it’s fine if you don’t think about it too much.

While I’m not familiar with Scott’s other works, I’d offer that this first attempt at food fiction is a bit clunky. While she’s got an easy setting to work with, the transition from the food stuff to the mystery stuff is not smooth and while Scott has obviously done a lot of research into food styling and photography, details about running a blog for money, and restaurants (both front and back of house), it still feels like two different stories at various points. There’s also a lot of references (and overly-detailed descriptions) of coffee and cocktails, which begin to feel like filler.

There are two more books in the Willa Friday Culinary Cozy Mystery Series, so maybe Scott is able to tighten things up and give her characters more depth.

Having said that, this was a fun, light mystery that I finished in an afternoon, and it would be a fine read for the beach or a rainy day for anyone who likes to read about food even when they’re reading about something else.

Book Review — Sourdough

Sourdough
Robin Sloan
MCD Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

It might be too early to call it, being only February and all, but Sourdough is already a contender for my top fiction pick of the year.

This work of Magical Realism (a genre that combines fact with magical elements) is subtle enough on the weirdness that I often found myself looking things up to see if they were true. Does sourdough “sing” while it is rising? Does it emit light or sparkle? (Hey, you never know with yeast and gas.) Is there really such a thing as a Lois club?

Here’s the deets: Lois Clary moves from Michigan to San Francisco where she takes a job at a tech start-up programming robotic arms. Her co-workers often sleep at work and eat a nutritive gel called Slurry instead of real food. One night while at home she orders soup and a sandwich from a not-especially-legal restaurant run out of someone’s apartment and gets hooked on their amazing sourdough bread. When the owners have to leave the country because of visa issues, they show up at her door with their crock of sourdough starter (because she has become their best customer) and give her a quick lesson on how to care for it and make bread.

From there she starts baking, first for herself, then for friends and co-workers, then the cafeteria at her office, where the chef encourages her to apply for one of the local San Francisco farmers’ markets. She doesn’t get into the main market system but is offered a spot in a new underground market (literally – it’s housed in an old missile bunker) where all the vendors are creating food with some combination of old school tradition and current technology. Lois borrows one of the robotic arms from her work to help her knead the bread with the promise that she will teach/code it to break eggs, as this is one of the hurdles for robotic arms in the food prep industry.

It gets even weirder than this by the end of the book, but Sloan does an amazing job of keeping all the elements together while creating a work that asks more questions than it ultimately answers. There’s the whole dichotomy of old skills and traditional ingredients up against technology – once the robotic arms can be used in industrial-scale bakeries, hundreds of people will lose their jobs. There’s also an Alice Waters-esque character, who even owns a restaurant in Berkeley that matches Chez Panisse in description, who represents the old foodways and traditions while the market Lois takes part in has a mandate to help find solutions to feed people en masse.

Throughout all of this is the relationship between Lois and the sourdough. Sloan integrates the food writing part of his work seamlessly with the rest of the story, which can be a huge problem for many writers trying to incorporate food writing into fiction. His descriptions of the sourdough as it rises and sings, as it takes on a personality, becomes depressed, and goes to battle against King Arthur (the flour, not the guy from the round table), are not only charming and engaging but mouthwatering. I dare you to read this book and not want to crack into a boule of fresh sourdough bread and slather it with butter.

Sloan goes beyond a fun story about bread. Sourdough takes on questions about philosophy, technology, tradition, ethics, history, and relationships of many types.

 

Book Review — The Cake Therapist

The Cake Therapist
Judith Fertig
Berkeley, 2015

There are many genres of food fiction that we’ll explore on this site as we go along, but the most prominent are the food-themed mysteries and food-themed romances. Cookbook writer Judith Fertig makes an attempt at combining the two in her first novel The Cake Therapist.

After a failed relationship in New York, baker Claire “Neely” O’Neil returns to her hometown to set up her own bakery. This happens quickly and immediately, as does Neely’s renewal of all her old friendships she left behind.

Neely sets up shop and starts offering baked goods with an extra dash of psychic advice, because she can associate people with flavours and feel their emotions, as you do when you run a bakery (joke). Fertig laces these stories, along with Neely’s own relationship problems (should she stick with the solid, handsome and local Joe, or be lured back to NYC by her charming pro-athlete husband?) with flashbacks to a mystery about a pair of local sisters. It sort of comes together in the end but the historical mystery and the modern day romance have nothing to do with one another and it’s not a smooth melding of stories.

The food bits — vivid descriptions of cakes being made and decorated — are gloriously detailed, as would be expected from a cookbook author, but they have almost nothing to do with the rest of the story other than the fact that the protagonist runs a bakery.

Secondary characters are flat and often cliched (the troubled, black-clad Goth girl who helps out at the bakery, for instance, is written with such a patronizing tone that it was almost uncomfortable to read), and do little to propel the story other than to tie the two distinct story lines together.

Fertig wrote a follow-up book called The Memory of Lemon that is supposed to tie up the loose ends of The Cake Therapist, but the description makes it sound even more complicated and uneven than this title, so I don’t know if there’s enough draw for me to track it down.

The Cake Therapist gets points for some gorgeous food descriptions but overall, it should have had a bit of editorial therapy to tighten up plot lines and fill out one-dimensional characters. Fertig is a good writer, but this is really two or maybe three stories in one. Like an over-decorated cake that needs fewer sprinkles and a slightly better sponge.

Best Fiction of 2017

Last year, I managed to read 111 books. It was actually closer to 120 but there were a few I didn’t include on my big list, either for personal reasons (self-help or psychology books), or because I bailed less than halfway through. But I wanted to take a look back at my favourite titles and compile a Top 10. So here are my 10 favourite fiction books from 2017…

1. The Lonely Hearts Hotel
Heather O’Neill
This was perhaps the most breathtaking book I’ve read all year. It had gangsters, nightclubs, masochistic nuns, millionaires, twists of fate, junkies, rollerskating, imaginary bears, bejeweled apples, a pair of young star-crossed lovers and… clowns. A dark, gritty story about a pair of children who meet in an orphanage and discover they have special talents, who are then parted and have to find each other again. O’Neill’s descriptions are gorgeously vivid, her metaphors like bits of poetry. Her female protagonist Rose kicks ass throughout the whole story, and I love that O’Neill has made her so strong, such a great survivor. I so want to see this made into a film.

2. The Napoli Novels
Elena Ferrante
Counting these (as one entry) because I read 2 of the 4 in 2017. They’re fighting with The Lonely Hearts Hotel for 1st place, honestly. 
Read full review.

3. Men Walking On Water
Emily Schulz
An exquisitely woven story about Detroit-Windsor rumrunners near the end of prohibition. Schulz offers robust character development, a logical yet intricate plot, and a well-written, well-researched novel. Great flow makes it a quick read, even at over 500 pages.

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The Long Road to the Pot of Gold

When I came up with the idea to write a book about the Halifax Explosion, back in 2004, I didn’t think it would be a 13-year journey. The bulk of the writing was done in ’04-’05, but just as I was getting ready to send the manuscript out to agents, I took a header on the front walk and ended up with a broken arm. By the time I had healed I was working on two different food-writing gigs and so set the MS aside. I had been advised by a friend within the publishing industry to get my name out there by doing some other writing, that it would be an encouragement to potential publishers, so I did that.

Fast forward to 2014 or so, and after writing a different book, editing a collection of other people’s writing, and generally writing about the Toronto food scene for a decade, I thought it might be time to dust off Pot of Gold. I had always thought to publish it closer to the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, which is an anchoring event within the plot, and so, after a few more drafts (making the final version maybe the 10th draft overall) I sent it out into the world. 

Except the timing of the mainstream publishing industry is slow like a molasses-covered turtle, and with each agent taking months to reply/reject, by the beginning of 2017, I realized that it wouldn’t get published in time unless I did it myself. Which is never ideal because there’s no promotion, it’s not on store shelves… but the explosion is such a major part of the book — even though the bulk of the story is set more than a decade later — and I really want to acknowledge what was, for me, a big part of my childhood, and something that I think every Haligonian has as part of their own family history in some way. So even if I don’t sell a single copy, at least I know I did it and that it’s out there, as my tribute to the city I grew up in and the people who lived and died during this devastating event.

Over the years I have read every single book published about the explosion, it’s a topic of fascination still. There are a number of non-fiction works that delve into minute detail of the events of December 6th, and in recent years the number of fiction titles has grown as well, adding different voices and points of view to the two “classic” (tired, cliched, misogynistic) titles that for years were the only works of fiction about the subject.

I hope that, some day, Pot of Gold stands proudly with those other works as yet another voice, another point of view, about the horrific events that destroyed the lives of so many innocent people.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, I have included the relevant chapter here for free. While the rest of the novel takes place between 1929 and 1945, the prologue and the explosion establish the characters, their relationships, and many aspects of their lives.

Please visit the Pot of Gold book page to read the prologue.

Book Review – The Theoretical Foot

The Theoretical Foot
M.F.K. Fisher

So when an unpublished book by your favourite writer ever is discovered and published, you’re kind of excited, right? When I finally got my hands on a copy of M.F.K. Fisher’s The Theoretical Foot, I was almost shaking with anticipation. And then…

There’s a reason why Fisher’s novel was never published in her lifetime, A few in fact. First was that she based all the characters on real people (it’s quite close to being autobiographical), and people featured in the book found it to be mean-spirited and harsh. Second was that, sadly, it’s just not very good.

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Book Review – 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

fatgirl13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl
Mona Awad

It’s not easy being a fat girl. It’s hard to find clothes, airplane seats and uncomfortable and everybody seems to have an opinion on your girth. Especially yourself.

Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is a collection of 13 short stories presented as a novel (the title and format cribbed from Wallace Stevens’ 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird), telling the story of Lizzie/Beth/Elizabeth from her teenage years to adulthood and her ongoing struggle with her weight.

Each story explores Lizzie’s self-loathing at her body, mostly from her own first person point of view, but occasionally as viewed by someone else in her life. These stories are dark, and not just because the character is part of Toronto’s Goth scene in the earlier part of the book (Awad actually places her characters at a Goth concert that I promoted in 1997, leading me to believe that at least some of the material is auto-biographical, because I distinctly remember the two girls she bases Lizzie and her friend Mel, on)… Awad seems to find the worst traits of her characters and magnifies them to make nobody, least of all Lizzie, sympathetic.

As she matures and loses weight, Lizzie renames Beth, then Elizabeth. She struggles to stay thin, to the detriment of many relationships, and her personal style changes from Goth to something more indie and then finally to someone who shows up to work BBQs in too-tight designer dresses. She counts every calorie eaten and burned and begins to realize that it won’t actually change much.

While I found Awad’s writing sumptuously beautiful – gal can turn a phrase like nobody’s business – I wanted a better ending than what she gave readers. Of course, life seldom has perfect storybook endings, and in that respect, Awad is far more honest about her subject than many. But like so many other reviewers, I wanted some form of redemption for Lizzie – some self-acceptance or self-compassion, a way of using the death of her mother as a catalyst for positive change instead of just becoming the living embodiment of her. But by the end, Lizzie is still drowning in her loathing – both of herself and of other women, and you just want to find her and give her a hug and maybe some cheese.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is a very concise picture of how western society views women’s bodies, what we all do to win approval for how we look – especially from men, and the attitudes we develop when we care too much about appearances. The cover wittily shows the word “fat” as partially erased, reflecting how Lizzie has erased her personality along with her body fat. Almost every other review I’ve come across mentions how Lizzie is such a terrible person for the things she does and how she treats people, and how she lets herself be treated, and I think that’s a concise assessment.

If losing weight and staying thin means counting every calorie and fighting over gym equipment and generally being miserable, then finding some way to love yourself, stretch marks and all, seems like a much better goal for the fat girls of the world.

This is an important work, one that all women, of all sizes, should read. But the moral taken away should really be one of love yourself, love your life, accept who you are, and stop fucking trying so hard, it’s not worth it.

Book Review – Four Great Books About Strong, Amazing Women

lilacgirlsNot by design, my fiction selections recently have all been about strong, amazing women, and have all been written by women. This is the general inclination of my taste in fiction anyway (more Colette, less Hemingway), but there seems to be a general consensus in the mainstream that there just aren’t great stories about strong women out there. I think that’s an incorrect assumption. There might not be as many stories with female protagonists as there are male, but there is some great fiction available featuring fabulous gals doing memorable things.

Lilac Girls
Martha Hall Kelly

What do a New York socialite, a Polish underground resistance fighter and a Nazi doctor all have in common? Not much, actually, but in Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls their stories weave together through the time period of WW2 and the following decades. Polish teenager Kasia is sent to the all-female concentration camp Ravensbruck where Herta, a young German doctor, takes part in experiments on Kasia and her sister. Years later the sisters are helped by socialite Caroline to receive medical treatment to fix the damage done by the Nazi testing, as well as to track down Herta to ensure she can no longer practice medicine.

The strongest of the stories here, and the most heart-wrenching is Kasia’s, based on the true story of Nina Ivanska, which details the treatment of the camp prisoners, including the tests done on the “rabbits” of Ravensbruck. The guilt she feels at causing her sister, mother and some neighbours to also be picked up in the sweeps of Polish resistance fighters plagues her long after she is free from the torture of the camp. I felt that Herta was not explored in as much detail as she could have been, and there are whole periods where we do not hear from her (such as her time in jail, trial at Nuremberg, etc) that might have, if not made her more sympathetic, at least been a window into what she felt, or was thinking, during the tests she did on innocent women. We get her emotions and thoughts when she first arrives at the camp, and when she is fleeing from the allies, but not much to help us understand the why of her actions during the tests.

As Caroline doesn’t interact with Kasia until decades after the war, Kelly has given Caroline a fictional storyline to interweave her plot with the other main characters. While this love story would be a great novel on its own, it felt distracting interspersed with what was going on with the other characters.

Overall, though, a truly interesting story that had me searching the internet for more information about the Ravensbruck rabbits and how they recovered from their atrocious treatment.

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