Book Review — The Great Believers

The Great Believers
Rebecca Makkai

I approached this one with trepidation. Set partially in 1985 – 1990 in Chicago’s gay scene, it deals with the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the devastation it caused within that community. My first job after high school was delivering meals in a hospital and although the gay scene in Halifax was tiny there were still a handful of AIDS patients at that time, placed on the cancer ward because the hospital didn’t know what else to do with them. Amongst a flood of ignorance and misinformation, many of my co-workers refused to deliver trays to these patients, so I found myself regularly getting called in for an evening shift and working only one ward (about 25 beds out of 900). I got to know a lot of these men in their last days, and with many of my close friends also being gay men, it was terrifying to watch.

The Great Believers follows Yale in the 1980s as he watches his friends die one by one, supported by his friend Nico’s younger sister, Fiona. The book then jumps to 2015 as Fiona arrives in Paris in search of her estranged daughter. The work jumps back and forth between time frames and while it first seems as if the book is two separate, disjointed story lines, things come together and we discover that Fiona, jokingly referred to as “Saint Fiona of Chicago” for her support of her brother and many of his friends as they died carries her own trauma and PTSD which has affected her life and that of those around her.

Makkai creates a parallel between the AIDS epidemic and the Great War/Spanish Flu epidemic with the storyline of Nora, Fiona’s great aunt, who was a model in Paris before and after the first world war, and who has valuable artwork that Yale tries to secure for the gallery where her works. Nora lost many of her friends and colleagues, either at the front or from the flu, or other related ways (such as suicide) after the fact.

Although the story appears to be about Yale, Fiona is actually the central character, both in her involvement with her boys in the 80s and in 2015 as she goes searching for her daughter and discovers that she’s never really let go of the trauma of the 1980s; she still lives and works in Chicago at a charity shop that donates proceeds to AIDS charities even though most of the people she loved are gone.

But the world has changed in 30 years. Some of the men she knew came through the epidemic unscathed (no glove, no love, people!), some who were believed to be dead show up healthy and robust thanks to the advances in drug therapy in the late 1990s/early 2000s. And Fiona realizes that she’s the only one who hasn’t let go and moved on. And that her dedication to the memory of her boys has destroyed other, current — and incredibly important — relationships.

The Great Believers has been picked up for development by Amy Poehler, so we can probably expect to see the book made into a series within the next couple of years. Still worth reading in the interim though, especially if you lived through those awful years and are still carrying those memories around with you.

Book Review — The Belly of Paris

Cover of The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola

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 — The Measure of My Powers: A Memoir of Food, Misery and Paris

Cover of The Measure of My Powers: A Memoir of Food, Misery and Paris by Jackie Kai Ellis

The Measure of My Powers: A Memoir of Food, Misery and Paris
Jackie Kai Ellis 
Appetite by Random House, 2018

Jackie Kai Ellis’ story should be an inspiring one. Despite a childhood in which her family predicted she would be a failure, she progressed from a designer to a self-employed designer to running a successful baked goods stall at farmers’ markets to the owner of a bricks and mortar bakery that was featured in Bon Apetit… which she then used as a base to become a food and travel writer, creator of bespoke food tours of Paris, and winner of many awards and accolades, both locally in her hometown of Vancouver, and internationally. Nice life, right? But the struggle to get to this point was hard fought, as Ellis suffered from severe depression, anorexia and bulimia, and had to deal with over-bearing parents and a husband who might just make it to the Narcissists Hall of Fame. So why does this story of a bootstrapping young gal trying to find a way to love life not sit more comfortably with me?

Told in an essay-type format that jumps around the timeline of Ellis’ life, we see her develop a love of food and art. The title, The Measure of My Powers, is a play on a series of chapters from M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me, and quotes from Fisher begin many of Ellis’ chapters. But it feels as if a parallel is attempting to be drawn and despite the setting of Paris and an ultimately unhappy marriage, I don’t really see it. While Ellis knows food, her descriptions of such often feel forced.

However, food is what saves her from her unhappy life, where she can’t get out of bed, starves herself, punches her own face in the shower, and feels trapped by her husband G’s rigid rules about their decor, finances, and lifestyle. It is when she goes to Paris to study pastry that the envelope of darkness falls away from her, even though she still has to contend with G’s lack of enthusiasm for Paris (he spends his days meditating instead of enjoying the city), his gaslighting about their financial arrangements that leaves Jackie fairly screwed, and his disdain for her enjoyment of the experience, regularly telling her to “stop talking about food”. Clearly, the reader can see what Ellis was unable to acknowledge during most of her time with G, but somehow it’s hard to muster sympathy for her, even as she opens her bakery to great success. The stories about defecating herself (Twice! Once leaving the sheets unwashed for someone else to find and clean up!) because of lack of sleep/overwork don’t seem like someone enjoying the achievement of their goals, but rather someone who doesn’t know how to adult particularly well.

I might have liked this more if the essays were chronological. They tended to bounce around in time, often by decades, and this technique didn’t seem to have a real purpose with regards to the overall story. Some of the metaphors, like the whole bit about water, feeling flooded, drowning, etc, as Ellis was working on her bakery, might have been true for her, but felt trite and cliched, and I started to glaze a bit at this point.

The recipes at the end of each chapter were a nice touch, but tended to go on incredibly long with super-detailed instructions and many reference notes that became a bit of a turn-off.

I don’t regret taking the time to read this work, but it felt more like painful self-analysis at many points rather than the story of learning to love life through an appreciation of good food and cooking.

Lucky Dip – Wednesday, April 24th, 2014

flowers-3

The installations of floral artist Rebecca Louise Law require a lot of patience and absolutely no fear of heights. Law has done a variety of work for companies such as Jimmy Choo, Max Mara and others, and most of her work involves suspending individual flowers from very high ceilings. Amazingly beautiful, particularly the cathedral installations. [Via This Is Colossal]

knit-4

You know when you bite into a persimmon and it makes your mouth all “sweatery”? Here’s betting that all of the food created by artist Jessica Dance does that as well. Dance works in set design and in collaboration with food photographer David Sykes has created a series of pieces reminiscent of classic meals including a full English breakfast and Christmas dinner. [Via This Is Colossal]

paris

How is it that Paris, regardless of the image in the photo, always looks so romantic and intriguing? Now, get a daily dose of old French flavour with Charmade – Vintage French Photos, a Tumblr full of rare vintage French photos. [Via Messy Nessy Chic]