04/01/2011

LETTERS CAN TELL WONDERFUL STORIES

1. 84, CHARING CROSS ROAD by HELEN HANFF (1970) - FROM THE CULT OF BOOKS TO A CULT BOOK.
 For one who loves books,collecting  and reading them, as well as classic English literature this is a must read. It has come on my way only now (published 1970) thanks to a friend who knows me very well.  84, Charing Cross Road was also made into a film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins in 1987.
Since I love books about books, I greatly appreciated  this little epistolary novel based on the real exchange between the authoress Helene Hanff , living in New York, and the staff at Marks &Co. in London , from which she gets precious antique volumes at very little price. 
She became intimately involved in the lives of the shop's staff, sending them food parcels during England's post-war shortages and sharing with them details of her life in Manhattan. They go on exchanging letters from 1949 to 1969.

Due to financial difficulties and an aversion to travel, she put off visiting her English friends until too late; Doel died in December 1968  and the bookshop eventually closed. Hanff did finally visit Charing Cross Road and the empty but still standing shop in the summer of 1971, a trip recorded in her 1973 book The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.
I love the following short excerpt which demonstrates Helene's love for the object "book" in itself, especially if it has a story. She's not interested in its value in money, but in its value in life.
"I wish you hadn't been so over-corteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of a flyleaf.It's the bookseller coming out in you all, you were afraid you'd decrease its value. You would have increased it for the present owner. (And possibly for the future owner. I love inscriptions of flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to." (p.27)

2. THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY by MARY ANN SHAFFER & ANNE BARROWS (2008)

"Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers."

A sentence from this novel which drew my attention. I was stunned when I read it,  because this book has found home on my shelves in a very fortuitous way,  it has found me, "its perfect reader".  My friends and I found it in a basket of second - hand books outside the little church in Turville, the tiny country village we visited in Buckinghamshire in November. It was not me the one who took it, though. My friend V.  did it and started reading it on the flight back home. She  finished it in a few days but she said she didn't like it very much . So she wanted to pass it to me. She thought I might like it.  Thanks, V.!  Much appreciated. It's been a great pleasure to read it and now it'll be an even greater one  to host it on my shelves.

Now to my review.

Can letters tell a story so effectively that you are amused,  even laugh, sympathize with the feelings described, are moved to tears, get little by little deeply involved  into the characters' lives? Yes, if you read this book. It had never happened to me with an epistolary novel. But this one is unique in several ways.
It has so many features I'm fond of :  WWII  as the historical background, the UK (Guernsey island, in the Channel,  and London as the main settings ) , stories of love and friendship, dramatic events, funny anecdotes, love for books, its dealing with the importance of reading as well as writing. It was impossible for me not to love it.
It is a novel with very positive messages in which the grimness of war-time existence is enlightened by the courage, matter-of-factnesss and humor of the protagonists. They are all extraordinarily bizarre and humane. The heroine is author Juliet Ashton. She is  immediately charmed by the stories that the numerous members of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society start writing to her, so charmed that she cannot resist. She must meet them, she must go there. She leaves everything she has in London to join them in Guernsey. She is successful as a journalist and as a writer but is experiencing extreme discontent. Maybe she's only now surrendering to the great shocks the war had  brought to her. She had her house  destroyed during the Nazis' heavy bombing of London and is still alive only by chance.  She needs inspiration for a new book but finds much more in Guernsey. She finds home and the love she,  an orphan, has always longed for. She finds the answers to her most inner questions and learns much from all her new friends: Dawsey, Isola, Amelia, Eben. The soul of the reading  society during the German Occupation of the island was Elizabeth McKenna, the only absent member, the only one Juliet won't succeed in meeting. She was the soul of the reading group and is the heart of this book. Juliet owes much to Elizabeth in the end: a new great book to publish and a new life full of love and friendship.
One of the most rewarding  readings in the latest years. I felt lucky and happy to share the appreciation of these pages with so many enthusiastic fans.


9 comments:

tyme_4_t said...

OOOOOhhhhh I loved "Guernsey"!!! One of my favourites in recent years. I was given it from my best friend, and then I passed it on to my sister, and then she passed it on to an aunt, she passed it on to one of her friends...I have no idea where it is now, I just hope it has found a new perfect reader!
And there is a possible movie of this (if you believe imdb.com) I have a certain actor in mind....hmmm can you guess?? ;)

JaneGS said...

I loved both 84, Charing Cross Road and The Guernsey book. I used to shy away from episotlary novels, but I have proven to myself time and again that they can work beautifully and be very moving.

My only trouble with the Charing Cross book is that I felt so ignorant after reading it as I had read so few of the books mentioned and there were so many I had never even heard of. What an incredibly special bond those two forged. In a way, my internet friendships are something like this--I have found people (including you, MG) worldwide with whom I share a love of certain authors, movies, actors(!), and stories, and most of them I know I will never meet face to face, but the connection is there. :)

lunarossa said...

Loved the book too. Found it a bit sad and rather upsetting with regard to the Nazi occupation. Feel sorry that the author died withour knowing how much sucess her book has had. Ciao. A.

Avalon said...

THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY sounds like my kind of story.

Love your reviews as always.

TheEccentricLady said...

I have stumbled upon your blog quite like you stumbled upon this book. I too loved this book. Did not expect to but found it a wonderful read. I am looking forward to keeping up with your blog. We have lots of the same interest. Glad I found you!

mel u said...

I love both of these books also-they are both just wonderful works-thanks for your great post on them

Anonymous said...

So I guessed right, didn't I? ;)
Glad to know you've liked it THAT much, though!
xx V.

Marg said...

Guernsey was one of my favourite reads from a couple of years ago. Just such a lovely read!

phylly3 said...

I loved the GL&PPS book so much! I don't know how I missed your review here. I would love to read 84 Charing Cross Road. I have Netflix now and I see the movie version is there so I will have to watch it. I also love Ann Bancroft so I am sure I will like it.