May 27, 2012

Book: Chocolat by Joanne Harris

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:32 pm

The movie made a big splash when it was released a few years ago and so I was curious to see what the book is about. The book tells one part of the life of Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk, who arrive in a tiny French village from seemingly nowhere. She is so different from the villagers that they are uniformly suspicious of her. Knowing  hat she is not conservative, and that she does not go to Church regularly in that deeply religious place assures her of the everlasting opposition of Father Francis Reynaud.

When she opens an exquisite chocolate shop, the residents of the small village are torn between the desire to taste the chocolates and the instinct to stay away from the `evil influence’ in the village.

Anouk is a free spirit and has Pantoufle, an imaginary rabbit pet that she cares for all day long, and who accompanies her everywhere. Slowly, Anouk starts making friends in her school, almost against the will of the parents of the other children.

The village is populated by interesting characters: Guillarme, who cannot reconcile his deeply religious background and his respect for Father Reynaud with the priest’s words that he should stop worrying about his beloved dog who is dying `because dogs don’t have souls’.

There is also Paul-Marie Muscat, a prejudiced, bigot of a shopkeeper and his oppressed and abused wife Josephine Muscat, who is afraid even to smile or laugh. There is Armande Voizin, who is a free and rebellious spirit and hates her daughter Caro (Caroline Clairmont) and her controlling ways, and adores her grandson Luc Clairmont. The boy himself is under the thumb of an overbearing mother and has developed a stutter while speaking, always nervous and unsure of himself . There is Roux, who comes in with a band of gypsies and refuses to `simply go away’ because the townsfolk and Father Reynaud demand it. When he loses his boat and all his worldly possessions in an act of arson, he withdraws into himself and his group moves upriver a few miles to sit and sulk.

The story is told in an easy style and holds your interest. Reynaud’s talks to a priest, who is his mentor and guide but who is paralyzed  and cannot respond, add poignancy to the narrative. Armande’s seeming perception on the extraordinary powers of Vianne and suggestions of – but no demonstration of – Vianne’s supposed clairvoyant powers is interesting.

The story develops when more and more townspeople choose to speak out against bigotry and defy conventional straitjacket to join the liberal minded group.

Paul and Josephine’s struggles and her liberation are well told.

The story is about everyday life, and is a pleasant read, but there are no incidents that can leave a deep impression….

The chocolate shop descriptions including the types of chocolates and drinks are rich, like the chocolates themselves.

I would call it a 6/10

— Krishna


April 26, 2012

Book: France – The Dark Years 1940- 1944 by Julian Jackson

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:46 am

The subject matter is immensely interesting. Many people allege that France, during the German Occupation, aided and abetted the deportation of Jews over and above what was justifiable under the circumstances. In addition, there is a lot of curiosity about the Vichy regime that administered France under German control: Was it a puppet regime? Was it sympathetic to the German cause of Aryanization? What was the French reaction to the almost complete and instant collapse of the French army under German assault?

The book covers extensive ground but has some major flaws: read on!

The book prepares the ground for the Second World War events by starting from the pre-Second-World-War times, when the political confusion instability existed, and the rise of the Popular Front. It is interesting to discover that anti Semitic feelings ran high even then, and prominent Catholics like Henriot who were in the Popular Front were in the forefront of spreading ethnic hatred against the Jews. The book traces the rise and fall of the brief National Unity Government under Blum followed by the first popular government of the day by Daladier.

When the French army was routed, the Northern part of the France, including Paris was under the direct control of Germans, and there are indications that German’s intended to absorb that portion of the country. The Southern truncated piece was called the Unoccupied Zone by the French and Marshal Petain took over as the ruler, and signed the Armistice with the Germans.

It is horrifying to read that Jews were rounded up enthusiastically and sent to Germens, who sent most of them straight to Auschwitz. Initially only `foreign‘ Jews were sent. French nationals were not sent, but later the difference was discarded. Writers joined the movement of praising the Germans and condemning the Jews through their club, NRF.

The deputy of Petain was so much of a fascist and anti-Semitic that he was dismissed by Petain but was forced to reinstate him a few years later. The book chillingly describes how the Jews were systematically discriminated against, first barring them from most professions, then rounded up and sent. Children and women were not spared.

The book also tells of the treatment given to women and the outlook at that time: women had no votes; their role in society was to be the mother and produce more Frenchmen. The parallel story of the Communists and their part in the resistance is well told. Discussions on whether the Communists were initially neutral despite German atrocities and whether they started resisting only when Hitler invaded Russia, are made in detail.

De Gaulle’s rise and his acrimonious relationships with both Churchill and Roosevelt are described, tracing the events from the earliest times. After reading this, I realized why De Gaulle was so against England and went to the extent of blocking UK’s entry into EEC.

The Liberation and the atrocities committed in the name of summary executions and wild justice are fascinating to read; another interesting portion is the shocking treatment given to women who had relations with Germans, especially compared to the total absence of any reaction if a French man had a relationship with a German woman.

A huge surprise is to realize how many years the French struggled with the memories, first ignoring inconvenient facts, and when that did not work, dragging it out and debating it to the end. Francois Mitterand’s alleged  skeletons in the cupboard, his Vichy past, and his Vichy sympathies and attempts to influence the recording of the history of the times and even the court cases against some of the more egregious elements in it are shocking.

But in the main, overshadowing all these nice details, the book suffers from one major flaw: poor narration. It reads like a college textbook and often is an endless procession of names of the people who played minor parts or endless examination of what happened in particular localities with statistics on the number of people affected. It may help to highlight the general condition, if used sparingly but if you fill the whole book with such details, it gets boring. To get interesting nuggets, you have to sift the vast majority of the material in this book just shy of 650 pages, like the old gold hunters sifting through the river sands to find gold. It almost put me to sleep many times, and sorely tested my resolve to read on further.

The sections on Jews, De Gaulle and the post liberation frenzy are the most interesting and are parts of the book that retain your interest.

The sections that describe completely racial views of some of the old leaders well into 1980’s are shocking; so is the constitution of Jean-Marie Le Penn’s Front National organization and how it ties into the Vichy and German sympathizers.

In summary, good subject matter, badly told. Read it if you have infinite patience!

I will give it a 4/10, mostly due to the interesting bits in there.

— Krishna

April 22, 2012

Book: The Queen of Diamonds by Jean Plaidy

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 1:35 am

The subtitle of this book is more interesting – The Sensational Story of Marie Antoinette and the Diamond Necklace Scandal‘. This tells one possible scenario of how that could have happened.

First, a little background is in order: The French Revolution was caused by the misery of the French and the simultaneous extravagance of the royalty and the nobility of France. The common people were seething with discontent, and the Royal Family was seen to be doing nothing to alleviate their suffering. One of the main images commonly known is Mary Antoinette’s putative saying, `Let them eat cake’. Students of history know of a mysterious scandal involving the theft of a priceless diamond necklace and the trial of a royal prince Cardinal de Rohan; no one knows for sure the details of the case, and students of history consider it to be an enigma that has not been unravelled. This book tried to give one possible explanation.

This book is not dry history, though; it is a simple story, told with the revolution as simply a backdrop to the story.

Jean Plaidy has written many novels, many of which have the word `Queen‘ in the title (like this one) and which are called the `Queen Series‘. These stories are independent of each other, and do not refer to the same queen either.

For a story written in 1958, this is a really well told story, and what is more astonishing, the language and style feels contemporary; this is a remarkable achievement, if you consider other works of the time.

The story features Illuminati, the secret group made famous by Dan Brown’s 2003 blockbuster, The Davinci Code (Reviewed here earlier).  The story starts with a man posing as the greatest magician ever lived, and terming himself to be Comte de Coliostro (Count of Cogliostro). He is inducted into the illustrious group of the Illuminati, seeking to overthrow monarchies all over the world and choosing France as the first target.

He is to befriend the powerful Cardinal de Rohan, a prince who is out of favour with Marie Antoinette, the new Queen who is from Austria and is very powerful. He proceed to win the Cardinal’s favour by his usual persuasive powers and sleight-of-hand magic tricks, not to mention the gullible throng that believes it has witnessed  the Comte performing “miracles”, making the cripple walk, curing people of disease instantly etc.

When Jeane de la Motte-Valois of the previously-royal Valois family tries to get audience with the Queen to win back the favours of the throne, she becomes an unwitting pawn in the hands of the shadowy group that directs the Count to bring her to the Cardinal’s notice.

Thereby forms the elaborate plan to convince the Cardinal that the Queen is not really upset with him and he can regain his power in the Royal Court and rise to the heights of previous Cardinals like Richelieu and Mazarin before him, who wielded the real power behind the throne.

His ambition blinding him to simple common sense, he becomes unwittingly involved in a dangerous heist concerning a priceless diamond necklace, hatched by Jeanne, her unscrupulous husband de la Motte and an even more unsavoury assistant Retaux, who is not above forgery to convince the Cardinal that he is getting secret letters from the Queen herself.

The story is told well, though at times, it seems terribly simplistic. Once you get past the inadequate explanation of why
Cardinal would fall for so obvious a charlatan like Count of Cogliostro, the story goes well, and gets into a page-turning climax towards the end.

The story ties well with why a simple hoax and the court case that followed it should shake the very foundation of monarchy in France and even precipitate the French Revolution.

The story is a bit weak, the descriptions a little simplistic; the effect often is that of reading a children’s story. But it is a good read, if you can overlook these weaknesses.

The book merits a 5/10

— Krishna

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