June 22, 2011 @ 5:16 pm | Filed under: Books
The old-fashioned kind, with paper and stamps and fountain pens, even scratchy-nibbed ones.
You can blame this list on Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray, who recently compared John Hall’s Correspondence to 84, Charing Cross Road:
“…in that it’s an epistolary novel about books but it’s much more informative. A retired bank clerk finds a cache of letters from his great great grandfather from Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray, etc and enters into an email correspondence with Christie’s about selling them. Over the course of the months that follow he not only learns more about his ancestor but the literary greats themselves. As someone who never spent time with literature before it’s all a bit of a brave new world and he enjoys seeing what he missed. I liked all of that – a lot actually – it was only in the end that it sort of dropped off a bit. I thought there was a real friendship between the retiree and Christie’s seller he’d been emailing but it’s almost like Nash wasn’t sure how to end it. (Of course CHARING CROSS ROAD is the model for perfect endings -sad but brilliant.) Still a good read but a bit shy of wonderful.”
—Which immediately and overwhelmingly filled me with nostalgic affection for Charing Cross Road and for my first year in New York City. I don’t remember how I came across Helene Hanff’s wonderful collection of letters, but I first read it right after I moved to New York, and my early experiences there were highly colored by Hanff’s book. I remember taking it to Central Park and attempting to identify all the flowers she mentioned in the passage about the Shakespeare Garden.**
After Colleen’s post, I simply had to read 84, Charing Cross Road again, but I couldn’t find my old copy. The new (used) one arrived today, and it’s a wonder I am here writing at all—the first page swept me right back in. 1949, Saturday Review of Literature, underlined typewritten titles, a request-by-mail to an overseas seller of out-of-print books: it’s impossible not to read the opening letter without a wry awareness of the difference between the way Miss Hanff seeks to obtain her yearned-for old books, and the way I rapidly and effortlessly obtained my copy of hers. Click, click, click, and two days later a man in brown places a copy on my doorstep. Marvelously convenient, but no hope of the slowly unfolding relationship between thoughtful and humorous minds like the one that develops between Miss Hanff and the London bookseller. What we have instead, today, is this—an online community of booklovers, a set of relationships that develop over time in comment boxes. And you know I relish it, am glad to live in this particular now.
But oh! just savor—
(It feels witless to keep writing “Gentlemen” when the same solitary soul is obviously taking care of everything for me.)
Savage Landor arrived safely and promptly fell open to a Roman dialogue where two cities had just been destroyed by war and everybody was being crucified and begging passing Roman soldiers to run them through and end the agony. It’ll be a relief to turn to Aesop and Rhodope where all you have to worry about is a famine. I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to “I hate to read new books,” and I hollered “Comrade!” to whoever owned it before me.
Of course this got me thinking about other epistolary novels I have loved. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, obviously. Anne of Windy Poplars—not my favorite Anne book, and yet, for a certain stretch of years, one of my most frequently revisited novels. I loved Anne’s voice, given free reign in the letters, its warmth and humor. I know Montgomery went back and wrote Windy Poplars later, to fill in the gap between Anne of the Island (swoon) and Anne’s House of Dreams (the best Anne book next to Green Gables itself, not including Rilla of Ingleside in the comparison because that’s comparing apples and oranges, and they are both such delectable fruit)—but the sort of afterthoughtness of Windy Poplars in no way weakens it, and it’s inconceivable that P.E.I. could exist without a Rebecca Dew. (Who looks, by the way, in my mind’s eye, exactly like Guernsey Lit. Society‘s Isola. Or rather, Isola looks and sounds like Rebecca Dew—Canadian and British accents notwithstanding.)
What are your favorite epistolary novels?
Letter from New York
June 26, 2009 @ 8:11 am | Filed under: Books
Why didn’t I think of this before?
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows. Have you read it? Let’s discuss!
If you haven’t read it yet, be warned: there may be plot spoilers in the comments below. Hurry up and read it so you can come chat with us here!
All those marvelous personalities. Who was your favorite?
May 28, 2009 @ 6:42 pm | Filed under: Books
So what happened to my reading this month is Harvest Moon.
I often get letters from people wondering how I manage to read so much. I think my typical response to this question tends to be weak on substance because I don’t really know what I’d be doing with the bits of the day during which reading happens, if reading weren’t happening. Cleaning closets, perhaps? I’m pretty sure that’s how I used to explain it: our closets are very untidy, because I read a lot of books.
But now I can speak more definitively, and it turns out it isn’t about the closets after all. At least, not solely about the closets. I finished only a single book during the first three weeks of May, and my closets are no spicker than they’ve ever been, nor are they span. It turns out the answer to “How do you find the time to read all those books?” was “Because we don’t have Harvest Moon for the Wii.”
Because now we do have Harvest Moon for the Wii, and I’ve only read 1.9 books this month.
I don’t know if the .9 is completely accurate. This weekend I finished two books I began in April: George and Sam by Charlotte Moore and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I’m estimating I had about a fifth of each left to read when the calendar turned to May, and I’ve also read half of Nick Hornby’s Shakespeare Wrote for Money. So that’s .2 + .2 + .5 = .9. Am I doing that right? Jane’s my personal calculator and she’s not in the room at the moment.
Anyway, the point is that my reading slowed way down this month because I had a lot of farming chores to tend to. I have a stable full of livestock, you see, not to mention two large fields’ worth of crops to weed and water. It’s astonishing how much I get done in a day: feeding the stock, collecting eggs (duck, chicken, and ostrich), milking the cow and goats, shearing my sheep, turning her wool and the silkworm’s cocoon into yarn and dyeing those with herbs or flowers, harvesting my wildly varied crops (everything from rice to cocoa beans to honeydew melons to eggplant), catching fish to feed to the wild turtle I’m trying to lure home, mining for ore with which to upgrade my tools, pulverizing rocks with single blows of my hammer, chopping down trees, and foraging the fields, forests, and beaches for foodstuffs to eat or sell.
Really, when you consider all that, it’s a wonder I managed to read any books at all this month.
I wrote the above on Monday afternoon. Then I finished the Hornby book and read Karen Edmisten’s book (reread, really, since I’d been blessed with a sneak peek many moons ago), and hey, suddenly I’m up to five books! Fairly reshpeckabiggle, if you overlook the cheating. (Gilead really belongs to April.)
George and Sam is percolating into its own post; it’s a book about autism, an important one, I think. The author, Charlotte Moore, is the mother of George and Sam and another son named Jake. George and Sam both have autism. Moore is a keen observer who kept a detailed journal of her boys’ early childhood, long before either of them was diagnosed, and her loving, intelligent, unflinching account of life with two extremely atypical children is at once moving and edifying. As I said, more later.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows—well, you’ll know what I thought about this book when I tell you that immediately after I finished reading it (a library copy), I bought a copy to keep. It’s perfectly delightful, a novel told in letters—a device that seldom works to sustain a really rich narrative, but does work, wonderfully, in this case. It seems everyone is reading it these days, so I suppose I needn’t bother with a summary. It would be worth reading for the interesting history alone; I knew next to nothing about the German occupation of Guernsey during World War II and was fascinated to learn about what the islanders went through during those long, difficult years. Then there’s the marvelous cast of characters, a crowd of quirky, independent folks you want for your own neighbors. And some mystery, some romance…I’ve half a mind to go read it again, right this minute. Except I can’t, because my cocoa beans need harvesting.