Friday, April 19, 2013

Peaches for Father Francis

Also published as Peaches for Monsieur le Cure

 Yet another book that was not on my planned reading list but that called my name quite insistently when I saw it at the library...sigh. But in my defense, this is the third book in a trilogy (possibly series?) by Joanne Harris that I absolutely adore. The first two, Chocolat and The Girl With No Shadow (also published as The Lollipop Shoes), I didn't blog about on here, but I fell in love with Harris' lyrical style of writing. Until last summer when I read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, I had not seen such beautiful writing, at least not that I can remember. (No, Lord of the Rings doesn't count. That's in a class all its own.)

And before anyone gets upset that I love these books so much, since the main character identifies as a sort of witch, these are magical realism. They aren't real. Yes, set in the real world, alongside Christianity and (in this third book) Islam, but the point in this story isn't the religion. There.


First, a little background on the main character, Vianne Rocher. She is a woman who moves with the wind, never staying in one place for very long. Her mother never had a husband, so Vianne doesn't either. She does, however, have a child. Anouk is a small eight year old girl when she and her mother first blow into the tiny town of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes in the south of France. Her particular magic is making chocolates, and knowing everyone's favourites. Of course, she blows into the tiny conservative town as Lent begins. So, the priest is at odds with her for the entirety of Chocolat. Also in Chocolat Vianne finally allows herself to fall in love, with a river-gypsy with long red hair named Roux (played by Johnny Depp in the movie...mmm.). She does leave the town at the end of the book, with Anouk in tow. In the second book, they find themselves in Paris, with another tiny child, Rosette. The second book has Vianne facing off against a rather wicked foe, a woman who has no shadow, and who is entirely too charming to be true. Turns out she is the stealer of hearts. Roux returns in The Girl With No Shadow as well, which creates another dynamic when he realizes Rosette is his child. (At least if I recall correctly!) Now, as Peaches for Father Francis begins, Vianne has received a letter from Lansquenet, a letter that was written by a dear friend who died when she was there last, eight years ago. The old woman seemed to know that someday, the town would be in trouble and Vianne would be needed again.


This time, the priest, Father Francis Reynaud, is in trouble. And when he sees Vianne, he is surprised, but eventually he accepts her help. The tiny church has been taken over by a hip, new priest, who thinks PowerPoint, guitar, and plastic seating are what the church needs. (UGH.) On the other side of the river, in the area known as Les Marauds, there is yet another problem: a community of Muslims has been growing exponentially, even to the point of building a small mosque. The people were peaceful, and mingled with the townspeople, until a man named Karim Bencharki showed up. Then, the people became hostile and closed up. The women and girls began wearing their headscarves, which they never had before. Father Francis, afraid for his community, and the suspected starter of a fire at Vianne's old chocolaterie that had been turned into a Muslim girls' school, is pretty much at his wits' end. Even the townspeople have mostly turned against him.

So, clearly, much has happened since Vianne Rocher closed up her chocolaterie and left Lansquenet. But, in typical Vianne fashion, she quickly gets to know a few of the people of Les Marauds, though of course she doesn't offer them chocolates right away, since they are in the midst of Ramadan. She does discover that Father Francis is not guilty, and that there is something much deeper going on in the Muslim community that has nothing to do with Lansquenet, but everything to do with their own religion.


My favourite part about these books is that Harris writes about food so well. She can write about something I've never tasted nor even seen and I feel like I can smell it and my mouth waters. Her being French might have something to do with it! These books are also responsible for my new-found obsession with making excellent chocolates (which I haven't gotten around to yet...). And like I said earlier, these books are magical realism, but they really focus more on the people. I know true Islam is not peaceful, and I'm not sure if Harris intended to illustrate that, but she does, in a way, at least in its treatment of women. And though Father Francis is a pretty good example of the Catholic Church's works-centered theology, there's a small bit of truth shining through. And yes, Vianne is a witch, but you know what? She is a helper of the downtrodden, and she exposes things that are best not left in the dark. Does that make sense? Generally, I don't like people, but when you have a tiny community tearing itself apart in the name of religion, well, it makes for an excellent, feel-good story. And if all you take away from the book (or this review) is that small acts of kindness can have a huge impact, then my job is done. :)


Just read the books. Yes, from a Christian point of view, there are many problematic situations, but gosh, it's a book. And quite frankly, these are more decently and modestly written than most other adult novels I've read.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Salt: A World History

You know, it's really frustrating when the internet decides not to work pretty much all week. Especially when I'm knocked out with a terrible cold and don't feel well enough to do much. Oh well. At least I finally got a chance to sit down and finish Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky. It took me a long time to read this 450 page book, though it was fascinating and always held my interest. I guess one can only read so much about salt in one sitting, no matter how engrossing.

I've discovered that my favorite type of nonfiction is about food. I may have said this before, can't remember. But anyway. I had been intending to read this book about salt pretty much since it was published. Actually, that's a lie, because it was published in 2002, which was around the time that I wouldn't even look at a nonfiction book. I think I discovered this book about four years ago, though being in college at the time deterred me from picking up any extra reading. To make a long story short, I came across it earlier this year on the shelf at my library and decided to check it out. I believe I had to return it once, but I checked it out again and finally cracked it open. I'm quite glad I did.

You'd think the history of salt would be pretty mundane. But no. Salt was crucial to preserving food for so long that it became a central part of civilizations and wars. The Chinese were mining/making salt long before the rest of the world. Though, didn't they do almost everything before the rest of the world? The Chinese are a fascinating culture, not least because they've lasted for so long. But I digress.

This book takes you on a journey from sea to underground mine and back again. You see, there are two basic kinds of salt, sea salt and rock salt. Of course, from those two basic kinds you get many types. I sort of wish Kurlansky had included a master list of all types of salt from the various saltmaking regions of the world, but that's just me; I'm a list fanatic. The fact remains that people fought wars over salt, various salted fish, and the best salt-producing locations. You see, as recently as two hundred years ago, salting was one of the foremost methods of preserving food, whether by pickling or by packing in barrels of salt. It was absolutely necessary.


Kurlansky does a wonderful job of telling the history of the world through the eyes of salt. He doesn't have a great organizing system in regards to his writing, though. Yes, each chapter trots through history in a chronological manner, but he repeated himself a lot and jumped from culture to culture rather quickly. But aside from that, this book is fantastic and will give you a brand new appreciation for the only rock we eat. Four stars, and I hope to read his other books, which include Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World and The Basque History of the World.