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."
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.