Thursday, February 24, 2011

84 Charing Cross Rd.

"I love inscriptions on 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."

In today's world of social networks, email, and smart phones, it's hard to imagine a friendship forged by pen and ink. But that is exactly what happens in Helene Hanff's story of her 20 year correspondence with Frank Doel, chief buyer for a London secondhand bookstore. Theirs was a friendship created by chance, but lasting decades. A friendship founded upon humor, compassion, and a love for the written word.

The Plot:

It is 1949 and Helene Hanff is a struggling writer living in New York. Her need for cheap, obscure British classics is fulfilled when she discovers an ad in the Saturday Review of Literature by secondhand bookstore, Marks & Co. She writes to them requesting a few titles, and her order is filled by Frank Doel, the firm's chief buyer. Thus begins a correspondence between the sarcastic American writer and the buttoned-up British bookseller that would last for many years.

But this isn't a cut and dry "please send me this book" correspondence. Helene and Frank talk about EVERYTHING. They talk about family, friends, favorite authors, the Brooklyn Dodgers, Yorkshire pudding, and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. It isn't long before Helene and Frank begin planning for her to visit London. Unfortunately, life continues to get in the way, and it begins to seem like this unique friendship may never be realized beyond the page.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

This is a book for book lovers. Thus, I really I enjoyed it. Consisting solely of letters between Helene and the world of Marks & Co., it is not a book for those who desire action, romance, or psychological themes. If, however, you are looking for a short read that packs a lot of heart, humor, and pleasure between its few pages, this is one that I highly recommend.

C. S. Lewis once said that
"Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, 'What! You too? I thought I was the only one.'" That is exactly what happens between Helene and Frank. Their mutual love and knowledge of British classics starts their relationship, but it isn't long before it spills over into other areas of their lives. What is most amazing is that a love of books is about the only thing they truly have in common. She's a brash female American, he's a middle-class, proper Brit. She's single, he's married with kids. She's for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he's for the Tottenham Hotspur F. C. Nevertheless, their friendship does nothing but deepen over time into a satisfying and comfortable camaraderie.

Not only does Helene make friends with Frank, but she also becomes somewhat of a legend within the world of Marks & Co. She receives numerous letters from the other employees as well as from Frank's wife, Nora. It is a fascinating glimpse into life in post-war London, especially into the hardships of rationing. Most of us cannot imagine feeling overwhelming delight for powdered eggs, tinned meat, and pantie hose. These people do.

The other thing that makes this story delightful is the types of books that Helene and Frank encounter. These isn't yesterday's newest romance novel, but heavy, obscure British classics. Everyone from Jane Austen to Charles Lamb to John Donne to Geoffery Chaucer show up here. It surely warms the heart of this Anglophile.

I read this book on a slow rainy day at the office, and that is exactly the kind of atmosphere that this book was meant to be read in. It's a book to curl up with on a rainy day, letting it wrap you like a warm blanket. Comfortable, heartwarming, hilarious, and delightful. A must read for anyone who likes to read.

The Movie:

It didn't take long for Hanff's book to become somewhat of a cult classic. Many adaptations have been done ranging from stage plays to radio theaters to Broadway. There has only been one film adaptation, so far, and it is a good one. That is the 1982 version starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, and Judi Dench. Like the book, this movie will not appeal to everyone, but it does justice to the story and Bancroft is wonderful as Hanff. If you like the book, this is one you should see. My only qualm is that the pace of the book doesn't quite hold up on film, making everything seem pretty slow.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Weekly Geeks 2011-6: Love on the Page

On Monday it's Valentines Day here in the US, which means love is in the air! Many of us have been talking about love all month, but I thought it would make a perfect Weekly Geek-ish type assignment to suggest a post that included anything about love that moves you.

Over the last couple of years, I've made it a Valentine's Day tradition to highlight some of my favorite literary couples and why their stories resonate with so many people all around the world. Here are some more of my favorite love stories found at your local library...

Captain Horatio Hornblower & Lady Barbara Wellesley from the Hornblower Series by C. S. Forester

At the beginning of the book Beat to Quarters, these two characters come from such different worlds that it is hard to ever imagine them getting together. But when two people are thrown together on the high seas in the middle of a war, sparks are bound to fly. Unfortunately, reality hits them once the trip is over, and love and passion must give way to duty and honor. It's a classic love story set in the middle of one of the most exciting periods for the British Navy, plus it gives me a great reason to post a picture of Gregory Peck!

It all might have come right in the end. If the calm had persisted for two or three days, so that Lady Barbara could have forgotten her wrath and Hornblower his doubts, more might have happened.

Faramir & Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkein

I know that a lot of LOTR fans are more into the whole Aragorn/Arwen romance, but not me. I love seeing this beautiful and strong young women who has experienced so much pain in her life end up with the coolest guy in the book. A fitting end for the pair whose bravery helped defeat the armies of Sauron.

"Then, Eowyn of Rohan, I say to you that you are beautiful. In the valleys of our hills, there are flowers fair and bright, and maidens fairer still; but neither flower nor lady have I seen till now in Gondor so lovely, and so sorrowful. It may be that only a few days are left ere darkness falls upon our world, and when it comes I hope to face it steadily; but it would ease my heart, if while the Sun yet shines, I could see you still."

Arthur Clennam & Amy Dorrit from Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Dickens' novels are full of interesting, quirky, and fun couples, but so far I've found none to beat Arthur and Amy. After years of neglect and harshness from his own family, Arthur finds a woman who is more than willing to give him her support and devotion. And after spending her entire life looking after the needs of others, Amy finds a man who seeks to take care of her and truly recognizes and appreciates her strength and tenderness. And after reading 800+ pages the reader gets to see the couple we've been rooting for come together. It's a winning situation for everyone!

"I have nothing in the world. I am as poor as when I lived here. When papa came over to England, he confided everything into the same hands, and it is all swept away. O my dearest and best, are you quite sure you will not share my fortune with me now?"

Ray Singleton & Olivia Dunne from The Magic of Ordinary Days by Ann Howard Creel

It wasn't a marriage that either of them saw coming, but life's harsh circumstances bring together an educated city girl with a quiet country farmer. Against the backdrop of WWII, Ray and Livvy struggle to overcome grief, shame, fear, and loneliness and in the process discover a love that is as beautiful as it is ordinary. This is such a poignant and touching story that highlights what true love is all about.

"In the past, I would’ve listed things such as common interests, mutual attraction, worldliness, and higher education. My freedom above all else. If I had found love, it would have had to be the kind that overwhelmed and overpowered all else."

Picture #1: Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo in Captain Horatio Hornblower R. N.
Picture #2: David Wenham and Miranda Otto in The Return of the King
Picture #3: Matthew MacFadyen and Claire Foy in Little Dorrit
Picture #4: Skeet Ulrich and Keri Russell in The Magic of Ordinary Days

Thursday, February 10, 2011

In Memorium

On February 5, Brian Jacques, author of the wildly popular Redwall series, passed away at the age of 71. Redwall is one of my most favorite books and the series is, in my opinion, one of the best for children and young adults. The characters, the setting, the history, the's Lord of the Rings meets Wind in the Willows in every sense. The now final book in the series, The Rogue Crew, will be released on May 3.

-Guardian, UK obituary.

-Official Redwall website.

-2007 interview with Jacques.

Portrait by Micheline Robinson.