25th November 2016. Kathryn hosted this meeting and was joined by George, Vicky, Anna, Gini and Lara. As well as reviewing the book and eating some fabulous chocolate there was plenty of time to catch up on news and (prompted by the bizarre events in The World According to Garp) share some of our own strange but true stories. Some were funny, some scary and some – like the tragic death of someone some of us went to school with, who died after his hands were blown off by a letter bomb – could have come straight out of the world of Garp.
The World According to Garp, by John Irving
This book tells the life story of T.S. Garp and our attention was grabbed right from the first few lines. Garp, the son of a strong and individual woman, grows up to be a writer and the book is infused with Garp’s own life story and his literary creations. It was a long book but nobody found they had struggled to read it and although not everyone had finished it, those who hadn’t, were sure they would.
George (who had recommended the book) and Gini had both read the book before but over twenty years ago. They greatly enjoyed reading it again but both agreed that it was a different experience now they were older. The rest of us enjoyed, or were enjoying reading it, some more than others, but we all agreed it was “fascinating”. We found it funny, odd, shocking, disturbing and strangely real and it made an impact on us all.
We discussed whether the story was too contrived with too many co-incidences but agreed that these did not detract from the narrative but maximised the impact of the events and the personalities of the characters. There was a very “weird” feel to the book, it was extraordinary but not completely unreal. Reflecting on this weirdness, Vicky said that she hadn’t felt “settled” with the book until she was about two thirds of the way through. We all agreed that it took a while to feel part of the world of Garp.
As a group of women readers we were intrigued by Garp’s thoughts and views on women and sex. Do all men think so much about sex? Was his libido fairly average? We pondered this but obviously reached no conclusions. Perhaps we didn’t really want to know the answer!
George said one of the reasons she had chosen the book was because it demonstrated “proper storytelling” and we discussed the similarities between this and our last book The Storyteller. Both include stories within a story. Kathryn shared that at times, she found that the fictional stories and Garp’s life became confused, particularly the visits to Vienna and story of The Pension Grillparzer.
We talked about how Irving had included lots of spoilers, or at least hints about what was to come and how they all helped build a sense of foreboding and inevitability. This was compounded by the last chapter and its “proper ending” which tidied everything up, leaving no room to wonder what might or could go on to happen.
George told us how much she liked John Irving’s work and how his books always “grabbed” her attention. She had recommended The World According to Garp because it is true fiction, it is just all made up. It is just to entertain (and maybe to provoke thought), it doesn’t matter if it is not realistic. The World According to Garp certainly gave us plenty to talk about and was definitely a successful choice.
The World According To Garp gives us bears and wrestling, New England and Vienna, lust and feminism. All recurring themes in John Irving’s novels, along with his extraordinary events and characters. I thought this would be a good place to start when choosing the chocolate. Bears, wrestling and feminism didn’t help much but I had more success with the backdrops of Vienna and New England, the dark, the lustful and the extraordinary. My starting point was of course Austria’s weird and wonderful Zotter Chocolate. Clever, funny and a little wacky, a perfect match for the world of Garp. Next stop was Taza Chocolate from Massachusetts, New England with their peculiar stone-ground chocolate. And finally, I found a dark bar that was simply Bonkers.
Zotter, Labooko Peru 75%
Zotter has some really outlandish chocolate creations to choose from so I admit I played it a little safe with the Labooko bar but I was attracted by the extraordinary imagery. The slightly sinister male figure seemed to echo Garp’s obsessive desire and ultimately his inability, to protect his wife and children. It was both dark and evocative.
On opening up the packaging, we remarked just how dark it was and it had a very pleasant chocolatey aroma. So far so good. It was quite quick to melt and we all agreed that is was extremely smooth. We weren’t too forthcoming about flavour notes to begin with but then talked of a smokey flavour and a slight astringency. Then it moved on to black treacle for Vicky and something fruity for others but we weren’t sure exactly what sort of fruit, just something dark! It was good but fairly straightforward making the packaging more extraordinary than the taste experience. It wasn’t too long lasting either, but we did comment that for a price tag of only £3.50 it was a good value bar and we all liked it.
Zotter, Labooko For Those in Love
The next bar I chose was, entitled For Those in Love which we renamed For Those in Lust. We felt this was more apt, as the embrace on the packaging, despite its romantic pretensions, was more a depiction of male lust and forced attention …or maybe The World According to Garp had just distorted our perceptions of love!
Before we opened it, I showed everyone a picture of the very realistic looking raspberry chocolate nipples crafted by Zotter. Everyone found them slightly disturbing and looked a little worried about the contents of the For Those in Love bars. So there were sighs of relief when I revealed the two bars: the dark Ecuador 60% and the raspberry white chocolate bar.
Zotter, Labooko Ecuador 60%
We started with the dark bar. It was quite a bit lighter in colour than the previous one and didn’t have the same deep chocolatey aroma. Anna said she detected vanilla or a more floral aroma. It had a very similar texture to the previous bar, a quick melt and was again extremely smooth. The main flavours we experienced were toffee flavours, ranging from butter toffee to slightly burnt toffee. I thought it tasted a little of bananas but more green than ripe bananas. The hint of salt emerged at the end. We agreed it lasted a little longer and some of us thought it was slightly astringent on the finish but balanced and not unpleasant. It went down well.
Zotter Labooko, Raspberry
It was a very dark pink. Vicky made the mistake of reading the tasting instructions before she tried it. With all the previous talk of lust and chocolate nipples, she found the references to ‘tickling’. ‘tongues’ and ‘staying power’ a bit too suggestive! She was looking nervous and admitted she was not really looking forward to it. The first thing we experienced was intense sweetness but some felt that this was partly offset by the tartness of the raspberries. The smoothness of the cocoa butter seemed to come through later. It wasn’t a pleasant experience for everyone. Vicky said is was a good match for the book, as she considered them both slightly ‘perverse’. This bar divided opinion. Love certainly wasn’t what George and Gini were talking of. They agreed with Vicky and found it quite unpleasant. Lara on the other hand thought it was most enjoyable and Anna thought it tasted like delicious raspberry coulis. I had tasted it before in a Cocoa Runners tasting box and hadn’t really enjoyed it but this time I liked it, maybe because I knew what to expect. It certainly provoked opinion.
Taza Chocolate, Dark Cinnamon
With the next bar we moved from Austria back to New England and another completely different taste experience. I wasn’t sure what they would make of this. Taza’s stone-ground chocolate hasn’t been through the conching process so it has a very coarse texture. Vicky’s face dropped again…
Gini said the spicy cinnamon made it smell like Christmas. It was very brittle and took a really long time to melt. The coarseness gave it a really distinctive mouthfeel. Poor Vicky, she gave it a good try but really didn’t like the texture, or the sweetness. Lara compared it to the spicy dregs at the bottom of a glass of mulled wine and Gini thought it was just unpleasant. Anna and George however, found the sensation of tasting the cocoa beans, sugar crystals and cinnamon separately really pleasing and quite a unique taste experience. It wasn’t a very long lasting flavour which made George say, “you just can’t wait to get the next piece in your mouth”. Not everyone agreed of course. But we did agree that it was a good illustration of the difference conching makes to the texture and flavour and also that its coarseness and oddness made it another good match for the book.
Omnom, Madagascar 66%
I called this ‘The Bonkers Bar’. Not because it was quirky – I thought we had probably had enough quirky for one night – but after Bonkers the dog, the Percy’s family dog who bites off a chunk of Garp’s ear. Omnom Chocolate is made in Iceland and the character on the packaging is really a wolf, but we all agreed that is could just as easily be a representation of Bonkers – it looked appealing but with a hidden menace.
We opened the beautifully packaged bar and inhaled the deep chocolate. It had a nice clean snap. It wasn’t as smooth as the Zotter bars and was slower to melt. It began with a definite sharpness and citrusy notes which developed into more jammy flavours that took George quite by surprise after the initial sharpness. Lara was picking up strawberry jam but followed by the cleaner, sharper notes again. We agreed that it had a satisfying long lasting taste and we thought this one really did have staying power! Thankfully, unlike Garp’s encounters with Bonkers, this taste experience had been a reassuringly good one. Certainly no nasty surprises in the Omnom bar, it was complex and delicious.
It had been a bit of a roller-coaster tasting. We had all experienced something new and unexpected. This time the bars we would most like to take home were:
Vicky – Zotter Peru 75%
Gini, Lara – Zotter Ecuador, 60%
Anna, George – Taza Dark Cinnamon
Kathryn – Omnom Madagascar 66%
Our next meeting is in January and we are reading Chronicle of A Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, so something from Colombia perhaps…