Welcome to A Blogging Good Read for November. Joining me this month are two of my favourite bloggers and all round lovely people, Claire from Jazzpad and Rosie from A Rosie Outlook. Go and read their blogs! But read this first, ok?
Claire's pick was Five Quarters Of The Orangeby Joanne Harris:
Ever since I read Chocolat and completely absorbed myself in novels about France and food, I could not get enough of Joanne Harris. Her novels are very hit and miss, I’d avoid her early, early works like the plague, but I think Five Quarters of the Orange is the unsung best of the bunch.
I love her rich description and the dialogue is really well written. You get to cheer and boo at the goodies and baddies running around throughout (even though at times their actions are blurred), and the air of mystery about a certain Tomas Leibniz makes you turn the page to find out what he’s all about. It’s not the most complicated book in the world, nor will it teach you about the meaning of life, but it’s a great story and the sort of novel you can lose yourself in. My favourite.
I like food and I like books about war. I was always going to love this, wasn't I? I was perhaps a little surprised that Claire chose it because I know lots of people who enjoy Joanne Harris's books but can't say I've ever come across anyone that loves them before. Blogging Good Read always gives me an open mind about books though and I really enjoyed this one. It runs along parallel lines detailing the youth and old age of Framboise in her tiny home village in the Loire. The incident that shadows her childhood is referred to throughout but it isn't until the end of the book that you learn what happened and why it's still casting a shadow over her much later in life.
The story is skilfully told. I could see where it was going from quite a long way off but it wasn't a case of skimming through the finish as there was a lot more than just the basic story to keep me interested. The sense of place and atmosphere, particularly relating to food, are vivid and sumptuous and it's a really enjoyable read overall. I can now chalk Joanne Harris onto my list of authors who write about food ridiculously well (Anthony Capella and Laura Florand are notable others).
Did Rosie agree with us?
I must admit to a slight furrowing of the brow when I saw this book on the list for Blogging Good Read. For me, Joanne Harris is a classic 'second hand book shop' author - the type of author whose books you always see in charity shops and receive great popularity without necessarily widespread acclaim. I had read Chocolat some years ago and been pretty ambivalent towards it so I wasn't prepared to be particularly moved or captured by this book. Actually, it is surprisingly good. It is written beautifully - like Chocolat there is a theme of food; the majority of the action in the novel is focussed on the character of Framboise Dartigen, alongside the two different timelines of her life; her youth and her return to the village they lived in many years later. When she returns, she opens a new restaurant, and the description of some of the recipes and dishes had me positively dribbling. At times the book is a little slow and for the first third of the book (where it predominantly features her life as a nine-year old in occupied France and her relationships with her mother and siblings) I struggled to see where the plot was going and though I really enjoyed her style of writing, I didn't feel gripped by the action. As the book progresses this does pick up and darker themes of secrecy, tragedy, guilt and regret emerge. I actually enjoyed this much, much more than I thought I would (though I must add a slight confession that I haven't quite finished it yet so I can't comment on the ending!) and it's definitely one I will keep hold of and re-read.
Rosie chose The Unbearable Lightness of Beingby Milan Kundera:
I first read this a few years ago and it was one of those books that stayed with me for a long time afterwards and really got under my skin. I think it would be a hard novel to read and not be touched by - for me it is so much more than a story or plot. Whilst there is a clear storyline, the content itself is much more focussed on the exploration of human behaviour - relationships, love, sex and betrayal, as well as themes of philosophy, history (the novel is set in Prague in 1968) and the fundamental meaning of life. It is so beautifully written that you are given a window into the characters' innermost feelings and thoughts, and then there is the voice of the narrator, which sometimes critiques and analyses the action in the book (or even the book itself!). I've probably made that sound more complex than it really is - those touches actually add humour, insight and a 'lightheartedness' to the book which makes it such an enjoyable read. I think because it's such a classic, and because of the themes it touches on, there's sometimes (I believe) a misconception that this book is quite hard-going but I really feel that it's a novel to get completely immersed in, and not a hard slog at all. I would urge anyone to read it; there will be so many quotes and notions that you will go back and read or scribble down in a notebook, and I challenge you not to look at the world from a slightly different viewpoint after you've finished it.
What did Claire think?
I struggled with this book. The first few pages were pretty deep – this is not the sort of book I can read with the radio on! Saying that, despite having to concentrate intently, this book made me think a helluva lot, and phrases stayed with me days later, which can’t be said for the majority of words I get through. I would write the sentences down which struck me, like “a single metaphor can give birth to love”, and tell myself.
It frustrated me that there didn’t seem to be a consistent thread of a story running through it – no sense of conclusion especially at the end. I struggle to remember what actually happened to the characters (though this was the first of the three I read). But, it amused me to realise that that’s probably a realistic depiction of most of our lives, which aren’t carefully planned out or remotely exciting for the 80% of our time.
I'm still unsure as to how much I liked this book. It's good that I've finally read it (I'm terrible for scorning the classics, especially modern ones) and there's a lot to admire about the scope and ideas it contains as well as the writing itself, which is both simple and beautiful. I don't even mind some of the things that I think would irritate a lot of readers (switching timelines, "Oh X is dead now" mentions). What did really grate on me were the authorial insertions as those were the parts where this book crossed the line into being entirely too pretentious and full of its own self-importance. It erred on the right side of that line for the most part and I was totally on board with the philosophical spirit of the book but when an author starts telling you about their motivation for creating their character and how they became formed, they've lost me. That stuff works in notes before/after the novel (preferably after) or in interviews but for me it has no place in the body of the text. I'm sure there have been essays written about it being a narrative voice rather than an authorial commentary but for me it wasn't and it didn't work. Hmmm, maybe I'll conclude that I didn't like this book much after all.
My pick for the month was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark:
This is a very short book; a brief dash backwards and forwards in time through the lives of a small group of school girls and their teacher, the eponymous Miss Brodie. It doesn't need to be any longer or tell a more detailed plot. Muriel Spark manages to perfectly capture the individual characters and their curious motivations in just a few sentences without resorting to caricature or stereotype. I like this book all the more because it captures Edinburgh, a city I adore, in an equally spare, neat way.
There seems to be a tendency to class this book in the same bracket as Goodbye, Mr Chips, all jolly-eccentric-teacher-influencing-tender-young-minds, but to me it's very much more like The History Boys. Miss Brodie is influential enough, there's no questioning that, but no-one's pretending that she's a perfect character or that her influence on the Brodie Set is an entirely positive one. The story is told in a witty, light, economical way but there's a dark heart to it.
Over to Rosie:
I was pleasantly surprised when I saw this on the list for BGR as I've been trying to read more classics lately and it's one that been on my radar for a while so I was pleased to be able to have the opportunity to tick it off the list. I must admit that on the whole I was actually pretty disappointed by it and probably would have given up on it if I hadn't been reading it for a review (despite how short it is!). I know that it is widely loved (my Mum actually told me what a great book she thought it was when she discovered I was reading it) but I just couldn't get on with it. I found the writing style quite unusual in the way it flits about to different timeframes and repeats certain phrases through the book, and neither the characters nor the plot seemed to have any depth or detail. It felt to me like it just sort of tediously pootled along without much development and I didn't really have any interest or affection for the characters. The novel focusses on the eponymous unconventional teacher and her 'set' of pupils and how she develops them and bestows her wisdow upon them throughout their school life (with reflection in their later years). I just didn't feel gripped by the plot and I'm afraid I wouldn't read it again.
How about Claire?
Every now and again you enjoy a book that you wouldn’t ordinarily pick up, and this was one of those. I chuckled all of the way through this, and love that despite it being written over 50 years ago, it still made me laugh.
I liked how all of the characters had something distinctive about them too, just like how we remember people we knew from school from one weird trait. It also reminded me of my girls school education and my unorthodox teachers – not that I miss those teenage years! I probably wouldn’t read this any time soon again, but I’m glad I did.
A slightly mixed bag this month but it's more interesting that way, isn't it? Thanks again to Claire and Rosie for joining in: hope you'll take part again!
I'll be back at the start of December and we'll be reading China Court by Rumer Godden, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer. Read along and join in if you'd like.