THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY by Richard Morais
The reviews are glowing - from other novelists, celebrity chefs, a successful screenwriter, industry magazines, even Oprah. The concept of the story is intriguing - young man, born of the Mumbai slums who becomes a celebrity chef in Paris of all places. And yet... for me it just did not work as well as I was expecting.
The author is a journalist, who appears to have had a very successful career with amongst others Forbes magazine for whom he was foreign correspondent for many years in London and Europe. He obviously has a very deep love and appreciation of food and cooking, is well travelled, and has moved amongst the ranks of the rich and famous.I don't think anyone could write so beautifully and evocatively about cooking and the magic that occurs when ingredients are combined in certain ways without being a gastronome of some sort. In his acknowledgements he talks about his close and long standing friendship with Ismail Merchant of movie producer group Merchant and Ivory. He says this book is a 'homage' to his friend, in that they had talked that the book, once published, would eventually become a Merchant Ivory movie. Sadly Mr Merchant died before this could happen. So I feel quite comfortable saying that the book definitely has that waiting for a movie to happen feel about it. The author also seems to have developed close friendships with a number of well-known chefs, not that that is a bad thing, but I just had this nagging feeling there was just a bit of name dropping going on, that the whole thing was more about the author and his life, than it was about what he has written about. Take a look at his website in the author link and see what you think...
Anyway the story itself. Hassan Haji hails from the slums in Mumbai, born into a Muslim family who operates a very successful restaurant on the edge of the slums. After a terrible tragedy destroys the heart of the family, the father sells the business and the family moves to London for a short and not very pleasant time. By this time Hassan is a teenager. To escape the continuing unhappiness in their lives, the father takes the whole family to Europe, eventually ending up in the town of Lumiere, home to a two-star Michelin restaurant owned by the formidable Madame Mallory. Haji senior decides to open an Indian establishment directly across the road. Not a good move. After a protracted period of professional confict, everything is eventually resolved and Hassan goes onto to enjoy success as a chef.
The first half of the book is terrific in its very vivid descriptions of Hassan's early life in Mumbai, the tastes and colours of the food leap off the page and you can almost taste what is being cooked. In France too, the descriptions of the town food markets, the complicated nature of French haute cuisine - some of which would make your stomach turn, not recommended for vegetarians - are so vivid and gorgeous, even a trip into the countryside to collect mushrooms makes you want to pack your bags and go. I loved all that part of it.
But that is probably all I loved. The plot is very predictable, the characters for the most part one dimensional, predictable and to a large extent stereotyped. There were some oddities such as how does a Muslim family from the slums of India suddenly find themselves able to communicate and be understood in the heartland of the French countryside. And in the 1980s, which I guess is when much of this is set, what French town would have all the spices and condiments necessary to whip a good biryani?
I also found the story started to lose its thread in the last quarter once Hassan makes it to Paris. Rather than a feast for the senses as the rest of the book has been, the last part focuses on Hassan as a famous celebrity chef and the pressures that places on him. It all just got a bit too hand-wringy and navel gazing for me - I wanted more about food! I wonder if the author simply had had enough of the story and just wanted to wind it up. I am sure it will make a wonderful movie, visually it could be beautiful, I just hope it remains about the food and the love of cooking and not some sort of 'feed the fragile ego of the celebrity chef' promotion. I think we are probably a bit over the celebrity chef self promotion merry go round. But do read it for the food!!!
THE SNOWMAN by Jo Nesbo
I am really not sure if I like the crime thriller genre. I felt vaguely ill after reading the one and only Val McDermid I have read; parts of the Millenium novels were not pretty, and this writer certainly does not do pretty either. But there is no denying these books are gripping reads with the complicated plots, the twists and turns, the outwitting, race against time, the psychological stuff going on, and that is without touching on the characters at all! The general trend seems to be a crusty tired embattled detective such as Wallender; feisty young brilliant female offsider - either cop or journalist or medical person; and deranged psychopath killer - naturally.
The Snowman is no different! As one reviewer puts it on the back cover - 'chilling, spectacular stuff'. The author is Norwegian, and has been writing crime novels featuring Detective Harry Hole since 1997. This is the fifth one to be translated into English. Harry is one tough man, his personal life is in a bit of chaos, and over the years his work life has not fared not much better. His off sider for this particular story is a young detective Katrine Bratt, who has her own back story. There is a killer on the loose, naturally, who appears to be targeting women with children, killing them quite brutally and leaving a snowman behind. He always kills at the time of the first snows, so his murders go back some years.
Despite all the horrible bloody stuff, this is absolutely gripping, a true page turner. I couldn't stop reading it. It doesn't matter that you sort of know the ending ie the guy gets caught, and Harry and Katrine live to fight another day. As they say it is all in the journey...
Having said all that, I don't think I need to read another Jo Nesbo book. The first chapter of his book 'The Leopard' is at the back of the book - more horrific violet death scenes. He is compared to Stieg Larsson of the Millenium trilogy, but other than them both being Nordic writers writing violent crime novels, they books are quite different. This book does not have the enormous depth and scope that Larsson's books have; it has as much gore in its 550 pages as Larsson probably has in the whole series; but like Larsson the writing is very atmospheric, the physical settings very vivid, and the characters very well drawn.
THE SUMMER WITHOUT MEN by Siri Hustvedt
Mia Fredricksen is a poet (published too!) and a teacher, is in her early fifties, has been married for 30 years to Boris, has a daughter Daisy and has a very nice life. Completely out of the blue, Boris wants to have a 'Pause' in his marriage, so he can do his mid life crisis thing with a younger work colleague, French naturally. A scenario played out time and time again and Mia has many musings during the course of the story on the nature of relationships between people. In fact that is really the crux of the whole story - the value we place on relationships and how to care for them.
Poor Mia finds herself falling apart, and after spending a period of time in hospital, takes her broken heart and spirit to her childhood town where her aged mother now lives in a residential care facility for the elderly. Mia finds herself a house to rent, carefully removing all photographic traces of the happy family that lives there, and manages to find herself a summer job teaching poetry writing to a small group of young teenage girls. This is time for Mia to recover, rebuild her spirit, find herself after 30 years of Boris, learn to nurture herself and in the process nurture those around her. Her relationship with her mother, her mother's equally elderly friends, her daughter, the young mother who lives next door, and most especially her young students and the relationships they all have with each other are what the story revolves around. Really, it is all about love.
Narrated in the first person, Mia provides plenty of her own musings on love - lost and found, being alone, with copious references to Jane Austen, as well as other literary giants, plenty of poetry (not sure whose). At times, I must admit, there was a bit much of all this, and I did a bit of speed reading, but overall there were many good messages in all the literary referencing that related well to what was going on in Mia's life at the time.
I enjoyed very much this little book - just over 200 pages - but would not have wanted to see too much more of the internal monologuing/self-analysis going on. The strength of the book is in Mia's relationships with the other characters and the secrets they all carry. I found myself flicking back and forth through it, re reading little bits and pieces, as it is also quite quirky and funny. Just goes to show life can be way more interesting when you take the distraction of men out of it, even if just for the summer.
Posted by Kiwiflora