Sunday, 28 November 2010

Book reviews: George Orwell and Muriel Spark

Reviewing all the books I read in a year is a nice record of my reading habits but hard to keep up with the amount of books I seem to get through! Without further ado, here are the latest two to be reviewed…

Animal Farm, by George Orwell
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark

Animal Farm, by George Orwell
First published by Secker & Warburg, 1945
This edition published by Penguin, 1973

Books that were on the school curriculum suffered as much as I did from forced reading. I still shudder when thinking of metaphysical poetry, for example. But slowly I am returning to the fiction made dusty in classrooms, and this is one of them – George Orwell’s ‘fairy story’ of a tainted revolution.

The book’s premise is achingly simple and oh-so clever. The animals stage a coup and drive out the farmer, proposing to work for themselves. Their success hides the fact someone has to be the leader, a mantle assumed by the pigs, and over time a terrible transformation takes place.

This is the sort of fairy story of which the Grimm brothers would have been proud. Each animal has a role that reflects our society – whether it is the honest everyman of Boxer the horse or the blind obedience of the sheep. It’s not a mirror one cares to linger in front of for too long in fear of what you may see.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
First published in Great Britain by Macmillan, presume 1961
This edition published by Penguin, 1969

This is a fascinating story of a woman teacher desperate to make an impression, to appear cultured and charming, and the impressionable girls who she taught at school. We are told early on that one of ‘the Brodie set’ betrayed her by bringing about her dismissal as a teacher. But which one?

Is Miss Jean Brodie in her prime? You’d never know from the prose. It’s only repeated about a hundred times, but Muriel Spark likes to hang tags on her cast of characters and invokes them with nearly every mention. In this way the characters become slightly two-dimensional as we only ever see one trait – Sandy’s small peering eyes, Rose ‘famous for sex’. But knowing one trait opens our eyes to details that surround the characters - 1930s Edinburgh, the era preluding the Second World War.

The novel unfolds making good use of prolepsis / flash forward – this technique allows us to know events before they happened and gives a sense of fatality to the story even before we pass the first chapter. But what we lose with suspense we gain with attention to detail, and try to pick up on clues as to why the story unfolds like it does. At first Miss Brodie’s influence over ‘her girls’ seems beneficial but as they grow older it is revealed as manipulation.

Incidentally, great cover, isn't it? It shows Maggie Smith as Miss Jean Brodie in the 1969 film, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress.

18 comments:

The Golden Eagle said...

So that's what Animal Farm is about! I hadn't known that society was represented by farm animals in the book.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie I've never heard of--the flash forward style, though, interests me.

Thank you for the reviews!

Old Kitty said...

Two fabulous fabulous fabulous and may I say again - utter fabulous books!! These are so in my all top top 10!!

Oh but I don't have this edition of Miss Jean Brodie with the magnificent cover!! Wow!!! That really is a find!!

Take care
x

Fran said...

Great books. As an English teacher, though, it makes me shiver when people talk about the way books are ruined at school. Brrrrrrr. Oh, I so hope that isn't true for the kids I teach. I so hope ...

Jayne said...

Fran - just from the way you write on your blog I am sure you are a brilliant teacher, and make the books come alive for your students. English at my school suffered from too much group reading (quick readers left to die quietly in boredom waiting for others to catch up), book sharing (oh the agony), and the sense that the book was a learning tool, much like a calculator, rather than a door to a different world. I think the teachers tried but it was a difficult school, difficult class, and difficult curriculum! I also remember we were left on our own to watch television quite a bit - we would be told to watch a play but would re-tune the telly to This Morning.

Christine said...

A couple of great books there, Jayne. I think that I must have been lucky at school in liking the books we studied.

Have a good week!

Lindsay said...

Animal Farm was of course an attack on Communism, or rather, Stalin's version of Communism which Orwell saw - as did many - of Stalin's betrayal of the Russian Revolution,and his disgraceful treatment of Trotsky.

Happy Frog and I said...

I do so enjoy reading your reviews. I have read Animal Farm so this brought back lots of memories of it, but I have only seen the film of the Prime of Miss Brodie rather than read the book. I should give it a go, so thanks.

Mystica said...

I read Animal Farm ages ago. i think I should get back to it now. Its nice to read some classics when one is older as you see it in a new perspective!

Jemi Fraser said...

I enjoyed Animal Farm back in high school - the teacher we had introduced us to books I'd never heard of or read before - I loved the dystopians :)

Mary Mary said...

I love it when readers take on more classic-style novels. Although I haven't read either one of them, both books sound intriguing. I think I'd probably enjoy The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Thanks!

KarenG said...

I've never read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I know it was made into a film back in the day. I have always LOVED Animal Farm. It's one of my very favorites.

Jenny Beattie said...

Oooh fab review. I loved both of these books. AF I studied in school and TPoMJB I read myself. I should read them both again but there are so many books and so little time...

A Certain Book said...

Hi Jane,

Thanks for the excellent reviews. I need to make space somewhere for reading classics!

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I love Animal Farm! And I promise that I work to make it as fun as it is educational when I teach it in class (which I have NOT done for several years)! :-) Sadly, I haven't read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - but I need to. Great reviews, Jayne. :-)

Madeleine said...

Great post. I love 'reading' the classics as audio tapes as I often find the style difficult to get into on the written page. I once read too many autobiogs and found it hard to read other styles for a while, but now I read more than ever.:O)

Creepy Query Girl said...

Huh. I read animal farm back in highschool so this was a great referesher - I could probably stand to read it again:) As for the second selection! COmpletely new to me! Thanks for the review!

Happy Dog said...

Oh, how I have struggled to make my students love Orwell as much as I do. I think too many of them experienced the book at ages 11-13 with teachers who either (a) tried to cram an understanding of the Russian Revolution down their constricted craws, or (b) had no freaking idea of what the book was about in the first place. Now that I teach advanced classes to juniors and seniors, I relish exposing them to Orwell's essays. I finally have one answer to that stupid "if you could have dinner with five people" question. And if you haven't read 1984 in the past 10 years, you certainly owe it to yourself. We all do!

Pat Tillett said...

Two great books. Animal Farm was always one of my favorites as a kid. I think it's time to read it again... Thanks for the review!