Friday, April 29, 2011

Five Quarters of the Orange

by Joanne Harris

I fell into a book-funk and got wrapped up in other things, but I've managed to pull myself out.

I really enjoy reading Joanne Harris's books. She isn't one of my favorite writers, her writing lacks a certain poetic polish and those great moments when you as a reader realize that someone has seen the world the way you see it or has felt the exact same way you have felt, but she creates some truly great stories. Though there are a few similarities between "Five Quarters of the Orange," "Chocolat," and "The Girl With No Shadow," "Five Quarters of the Orange" is a very different book. There isn't much that's magical, and it has a much more somber quality.

This book combines two of my favorite subjects to read about: food and WWII. And in "Five Quarters of the Orange" she also throws in a sense of unfolding mystery. There is an interesting commentary on the innocence and naivety of children, and how games can turn so horribly wrong before the child's mind can fully catch on. It's sad, really. There is a lot of guilt in this book. It can be difficult to read. Mirabelle Dartigen probably never should have had children in the first place, and her bad spells certainly didn't help matters. And really, you can't fault Cassis or Riene-Claude or Framboise for their foolishness; they were growing up in the middle of occupied France with no father and a disturbed mother.

Harris creates a curious story which unfolds nicely, reaching far into the suppressed past. I like it. Though all the guilt weighs heavy on you when you read it; it can be hard to shake off. But a really good story to read nonetheless.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Angela's Ashes

by Frank McCourt

This is another book I've read multiple times, and I still think it's great. And Lent somehow seems like a fitting time to be reading this book. Although I'm not sure the people in this book would appreciate that opinion.

I remember when it first came out it was something of a phenomenon.

The reader is instantly absorbed into Frank's childhood world. He sets the mood brilliantly right from the start, with a few of my favorite lines:
When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
And 'miserable' is certainly the word I would use to describe his childhood alright. About 2/3 of the way through the book I found myself thinking, Enough. This can't be real. This is beyond the beyonds. And I'm often suspect of memoirs. They're not "truth" strictly speaking. I wonder if Frank condensed some of his memories to make the book move faster or to make certain scenarios more interesting to the reader. Or that really his how Frank remembered his childhood. Either way, it's fascinating. And I don't think it's out of a sense of schadenfreude. To me, Frank's childhood is completely foreign, which makes it so interesting. I can not, and frankly do not want to imagine a life without bathrooms, a life of chamberpots and one outdoor lavatory per lane.

Stylistically, sometimes the grammar bothers me. I know it's largely dialectal, the leaving out of verbs, but there's occasional verb confusion in paragraphs and other minor things. It's charming at first, but towards the end it starts to wear on you.

"Angela's Ashes" is a completely engaging read. It's not everyone's cup of tea though. Some people find it just too depressing. I don't think it was meant to be, it's just as honest as a memoir can be. It is sad and painful but has it's humorous moments. Somehow life doesn't seem quite so terrible when told through the eyes of a child. But as Frank gets older, right around 13 or 14, Frank really starts to grow up and you begin to see Limerick in a harsher light.

On another note, I remember trying to read "'Tis" and thinking it wasn't nearly as good as "Angela's Ashes." Maybe one does of McCourt's style is enough.