84 Charing Cross Road & The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Helene Hanff

My sister has this magical ability to get people to do things for her.  It is amazing.  Everyone in my family does stuff for her even when we have just said, “No!  Lazy!  Do it yourself!  My God you are so lazy!”  Like, we’ll both be at my parents’ house, and I’ll be curled up comfortably on the couch reading something, and she’ll be all, “Why are you reading that?  It looks stupid.  What’s it about?  Sounds stupid.  You should be reading something with quality like Whatever Happened to Janie.  Will you get me a bowl of ice cream?  Please?  I really want some ice cream.  Please?” AND I WILL.  She has a power that other people don’t have.

She is on this spree of reading Caroline B. Cooney books right now.  The last few times we’ve gone to my parents’ house, she has used her powers to get everyone in the house helping her look for all the books in the Face on the Milk Carton series.  My parents have a lot of books, and my sister has taken this opportunity to complain about as many of them as possible. It’s been all, “Why do you have seven copies of The Trumpet of the Swan?  Look!  Here is another copy of The Castle in the Attic!  Why do you own Izzy Willy Nilly when it’s awful?  How can you possibly have TWO COPIES of The Clan of the Cave Bear and not one single copy of Whatever Happened to Janie!  I should be reading Kafka!”

In the midst of all this, I discovered that my parents own (as well as thousands of copies of the Narnia books, a displeasingly high number of Hemingway books (one), loads of Georgette Heyer, E.B. White’s oeuvre, though apparently not the middle two books in the riveting Janie series) Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.  Hooray for my parents and their house with its gravitational pull on books!

84 Charing Cross Road is a book of letters between Helene Hanff, an American writer, and a bookshop on Charing Cross Road that supplied her book addiction.  Over the years, she became very friendly with the chief purchaser, Frank Doel, his family, and the staff at the little bookshop, sending them sweets and eggs and nylons while Britain was still on rations.  It’s terribly sweet, how everyone writes to each other (bother email!  why don’t we write letters anymore!).  Anyway, in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Helene comes to London herself, too late to see the bookshop in action, but she writes about all the things and people she does see (finally!  finally!).

I love these books.  I imagine the bookshop to be exactly like Henry Pordes, my favorite of the Charing Cross bookshops.  I spent absolutely hours there the first time I was in London – there’s a massive collection of literary biographies and letters by the front window, which I love, and I love the narrow staircase down to Litrature and History (I got a book about the scandalous and beautiful Lady Colin Campbell (doesn’t she look like she was wicked fun!) there, and idiotically left it in England.

If I cried while reading this book (and I don’t say that I did!), it is because I miss London.  I miss London!  Why am I not in London?  Helene gets to do everything, and I didn’t enjoy Duchess as much as I should have, because I was green with envy and cross when Helene didn’t go to the places I want to go.  However:

Ena was shocked that I hadn’t been to a single gallery [insane!  INSANE.] and firmly dragged me to the National Portrait Gallery after lunch – where I amazed myself by going clean out of my mind meeting old friends face-to-face.  Charles II looks exactly the dirty old man he was, Mary of Scotland looks exactly the witch-on-a-broomstick she was, Elizabeth looks marvelous, the painter caught everything – the bright, sharp eyes and strong nose, the translucent skin and delicate hands, the glittering, cold isolation.  Wish I knew why portraits of Mary and Elizabeth always look real and alive, and portraits of Shakespeare, painted in the same era and the same fashion, always look stylized and remote.

I stared at every face so long we never got out of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  We’re going back next week for the eighteenth and nineteenth, I am now determined to see everybody.

Well.  Quite rightly.  Oh how I miss London.  I miss the lovely National Portrait Gallery, that amazing, enormous picture of Lady Colin Campbell, and the Brownings in their opposite-side frames, and John Donne looking mysterious and sexy; Branwell Bronte painted out, and Emma Hamilton all coy and pretty.  I miss how present the past is, in England.  Helene Hanff always has this effect on me, because she appreciates it so much herself.  She writes to one of the girls at the bookshop:

Please write and tell me about London. I live for the day when I step off the boat-train and feel its dirty sidewalks under my feet.  I want to walk up Berkeley Square and down Wimpole Street and stand in St. Paul’s where John Donne preached and sit on the step Elizabeth sat on when she refused to enter the Tower, and like that.  A newspaper man I know, who was stationed in London during the war, says tourists go to England with preconceived notions, so they always find exactly what they go looking for.  I told him I’d go looking for the England of English literature, and he said:

“Then it’s there.”

Okay, I confess.  I cried when I read that.  I miss my lovely London.  Reading this book, it seemed perfectly viable to just drop everything, abandon my lease, and go live in London with my friend Marie until she or the visa people kicked me out.  I would come back destitute, but first I would have been there again, eating picnics on the South Bank and seeing magnificent masterpieces of art for free.

On Agate Hill, Lee Smith

A book I acquired in spite of my firm and as-yet-unbroken book-buying ban.  My lovely grandmother (my mum’s mum) sent it to me, all shiny and beautiful and hardback, along with an equally shiny and beautiful and hardback book about Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots not liking each other (I am excited about this as it has been quite some time since I read anything about the Tudors).  My grandmother loves to read.  She inherited booklust from her father, my great-grandfather, who loved Rafael Sabatini and who gave a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to my grandmother when she turned eight, which has now been passed on to me and I keep it on the special shelf in my bedroom where I keep my most excellent books.

But this is neither here nor there.  I am just feeling sentimental today about how good my family is – very very good, for the interested – extremely large also, I have more first cousins than Nia Vardalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  Roman Catholics FTW.

On Agate Hill is all about a girl called Molly Petree, born on a ruined plantation in North Carolina, where, she says, “I live in a house of ghosts.”  She lives on this plantation, at the mercy of the adults that come and go in her life, until an old friend of her parents’ comes to take her away, to be educated as a lady in a posh school; this doesn’t really take, and she carries on living her wild life and trying to find the things that she wants.  “I am not a lady,” she says, “and now that I have gone through the fire, I believe I can do whatever I want.”

I like On Agate Hill because it is epistolary, and it has different narrators – the idea being that the documents were all found in an old house and given to a history student, and she is sending them on to her professor.  I thought the beginning bits, on the plantation, went on just a smidge too long, but I loved the middle section when she was at school.  This part of the story is told in letters she writes to her friend Mary White, and in diary extracts by her headmistress, a woman who sees in Molly all the freedom that she won’t allow herself, and resents her bitterly for it.  And then later on Molly writes about her impulsive, passionate marriage, and how it ends in tragedy.  All v. fascinating.

Although I do not usually like Southern novels, I became completely absorbed in this one, and I kept putting it down to do other things, and then picking it back up five minutes later because I wanted to know what would happen.  A lot of bad things, it turns out, but it’s okay, because the book is imbued with Molly’s indomitable nature, and whatever happens, you get the feeling Molly will manage it.  She’s a delightful character – a woman of her times, but also a woman of her own making.

Bits I liked:

Later in camp he will write a poem named The Tented Field which will be printed in newspapers all over the country including the Edgefield Examiner then clipped and folded and carefully saved in Mammas lavender silk purse along with those other clippings I have here now in my collection of phenomena.  Papa will be shot through the ear at Pocataligo, wounded in the leg by a minie ball at Hawes Shop, and finally killed at Bentonville where he will be blown to smithereens by a bursting shell then gathered up in pieces and buried beneath a green willow tree as in a ballad.  He would have liked that, Uncle Junius said.  Bloody symbolic fool.

And this, from Molly’s headmistress at the school she attends, is one of the character’s earliest diary entries, and I just thought it captured her so well, and made her strong dislike for Molly sad, rather than detestable.  I think I liked this so much because you have a lot of Evil Headmistresses in literature, but anyway here it is:

But he did not release  [my arm], pulling me toward him & into the house where to my surprise he exercised his Conjugal Rights upon the hall bench in broad daylight.  He seems to be quite worked up, in general, by all that has transpired.  I occupied myself by reciting the beginning of Paradise Lost all the while, finishing about the same time he did….I am locked in a golden chest, I am bound round & round by a silken rope.  Simon Black should not trust me.  Nobody should trust me!  For I am filled with the most base & contradictory impulses, no matter how I struggle to be worthy of God’s love, & do His bidding in this world, & live up to my Responsibilities.

I am glad I am born now.  And not during the Civil War or Reconstruction or even World War II.  And here is what other people thought of this book:

A Life in Books
Booknotes by Lisa
The Magic Lasso

Let me know if I missed yours!

Three mini-reviews

Stolen Voices: Young People’s War Diaries, from World War I to Iraq, Zlata Filipovic and Melanie Challenger

We had to read Zlata’s Diary in ninth grade, and I remember thinking, Sheesh, if I were Zlata as a grown-up, I would really wish these diaries weren’t out there.  They are just like the diaries I kept at that age, lots of Oh why is this happening to me, and How can these trivial things make me happy when there is so much darkness in my life? – the difference being, of course, that she actually had bad stuff happening to me; and the other difference being that I sensibly chucked my old diaries in the trash when I reached the age of reason.

However, I am glad that not everyone did that, and I really enjoyed reading these diaries from all different wars, esp. WWII, my favorite war to read about because Hitler was a Very Evil Villain, and hooray for defeating him though down with bad behavior of a retaliatory nature at Dresden.  (Ours not his.)  I like reading other people’s letters and diaries.  If I were not on a specific and necessary book-buying embargo, I would be buying L.M. Montgomery’s journals right this minute.

Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag

I like Susan Sontag.  I really do.  One of these days I am going to read one of her proper books, rather than just essays – thoughher essays are excellent.  Regarding the Pain of Others discusses the idea of war photography – whether the iconic war images we all remember were real or posed, and whether it matters; whether we lose sympathy as we become inured to seeing gruesome images and videos on the TV every night; the role of photography in memory of horrific events; how these images can make people into voyeurs as well as witnesses; and all sorts of things.  She raises more questions than she answers, writing as she always does with lucidity and compassion.

Children Who See Too Much: Lessons from the Child Witness to Violence Project, Betsy McAlister Groves

I do not like reading this sort of book.  I find it really upsetting.  However, I signed up for Jeane’s DogEar Reading Challenge – everyone does these but me!  I feel so left out of the challenges party! but not anymore! – and in order to make myself read this, I made Children Who See Too Much one of the books I was going to read, a nonfiction book on a topic I don’t usually read about (because it makes me really upset).  And it worked, voila!  I read it.

DogEar ReadingChallenge

It made me really upset.  I cry really easily, but seriously, I had to sit next to a box of tissues while I was reading this, because the stories Ms. Groves tells about children she worked with are so tragic (it’s banal but true!).  What gets me is how responsible many of the children seemed to feel for the violence they witnessed – as a great big control freak, this resonated with me.  I think it’s important for people to be aware of how children process what they see, and that children – like adults – need to talk about traumatic things that happen to them; and important for parents to realize how conflict between them, particularly violent conflict, can have a profound and lasting effect on their children.  So I am glad I read this book.

The Children of Men, P.D. James

So my thoughts on the film version of Children of Men sort of went like this: Mmmm, Clive Owen.  And then, Ah yes, apocalypse, issues being dealt with – I feel like this is a perfect time for Clive Owen to strangle someone with his bare hands.  This is shallow, I know, but I just have this reaction to Clive Owen every time I see him.  Even in Gosford Park when there was absolutely no chance of his strangling someone with his bare hands, because it was all proper and British up in that movie.

My thoughts on the book did not include any reflections about Clive Owen.  I was underwhelmed, I have to say.  For a dystopian novel, this was pretty tame.  All the women in the world have stopped having babies (that’s quite excellent as a premise!), so the world is slowly dying out.  Not very nice for anyone.  The protagonist, Theo, is cousin to the Warden of England; he keeps a diary and gets approached by a group of dissidents.  They want him to approach the Warden and ask the Warden to fix some things, like the officially-voluntary-but-really-sort-of-compulsory mass suicide of the elderly.  This doesn’t work out, as you might expect, and then it turns out that one of the dissidents is pregnant!  And then they have to go on the run!

Here was my problem, and I’m going to have spoilers here.  The whole thing lacked a feeling of suspense.  There wasn’t a viable enemy – the pregnant chick was convinced that she would die instantly if the government found her, so that’s why they were on the run.  I didn’t have a feeling that they were in really terrible danger, even after several of their group got caught and killed.  For some reason, Theo kept a diary for half the book, alternating with third-person narrative, and then he was like, Meh, I’m tired of this diary business, which felt like P.D. James saying, Why did I start this diary in the first place?  Jesus.  You don’t find out Julian’s pregnant until halfway through the book.  I WAS DISPLEASED.

However, I still want to read some of P.D. James’s proper mysteries.  Dystopia may not be her thing.  And I don’t really like dystopian books either, although I seem to have read a lot of them in the past year for some reason.

Other thoughts:

an adventure in reading
books i done read
Grasping for the Wind
Books on Screen
Books and Other Stuff
Ready When You Are, C.B.
she treads softly

Let me know if I missed yours!

Love Is Blue, Joan Wyndham

It is difficult for me to review Joan Wyndham’s second volume of diaries.  What really can be said?  Here is what I have to say about Joan Wyndham’s second volume of diaries:

“Aha!” he exclaimed. “Ein liten pinsvin,” which translated literally means “a little prickle pig”. The hedgehog had a very winning little face, but smelt abominable. We sat and played with it for a bit but then I could see a certain look on his face and he took his glasses off – always a bad sign – so held the ‘pinsvin’ firmly in my lap like a living chastity belt. However, it takes more than a hedgehog to deter a Norwegian and before I knew what was happening – hey presto – there I was flat on my back. Very damp it was too.

Oh, Joan.  Joan, how I love you.

Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden

I read about Baltimore on Jenclair’s blog untold ages ago, and I put it on my list, but I didn’t leave myself a little note explaining what it was about.  This is something I do now, but I didn’t always, and so when I would be at the library looking at my list of books, I never checked out Baltimore because I had forgotten anything I ever read about its plot.  Fortunately I was incredibly bored recently and took the time to go back through my book list, look up the reviews, and leave myself teeny little plot synopses.

Baltimore is set in and around the first World War – soldier Henry Baltimore, the only survivor of a Hessian massacre, sees strange dark creatures feeding on his dead soldiers, and he wounds one of them.  This small act unleashes a plague of vampirism upon the world, so devastating that even the War pales into insignificance in comparison.  Some time later, three friends of Baltimore are summoned by Baltimore to meet him at a particular inn on a particular day.  They each tell their stories of Henry Baltimore, and of the dark, supernatural things they have encountered in their own lives.  The story goes on, circling closer and closer to the final confrontation between Henry Baltimore and the vampire he wounded, the vampire that started the plague.

If you like Victorian fairy tales, you’ll like this book.  At the end, Mike Mignola acknowledges his debt to those stories, and I realized that’s what this book exactly reminded me of – that slightly unreal, thoroughly creepy way of writing, with lavish, lingering descriptions of the evil the protagonists are encountering.  It reminded me of things like Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”, and of course Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  I loved the illustrations.  They were small, simple, black-and-white drawings, very understated, often just little pieces of pictures (a chimney of the house, a close-up on one cross in the cemetery), and they provided a beautiful contrast to the lush prose.

If I could have made a change, it would have been to take out the excerpts from Baltimore’s diary that describe how he saved a small Romanian town from vampires.  I recently read Trish’s book review of a book called Serena, in which she talked about the creation of negative space around a character; and I thought that this book did that to great effect with Baltimore’s character.  Baltimore’s story starts off the book, but then the reader doesn’t hear from him directly for quite a while; instead, the three characters talk about their encounters with Baltimore, which provides a lot of insight into what he’s been through since the vampire-wounding incident.  I think it would have been great to continue it until the climactic scene (which, I have to say, is a little disappointing), only then giving us Baltimore’s point of view again.  The Romanian vampires incident would have been fine if Baltimore hadn’t been narrating it himself, but as it was, it messed up a literary device that was working nicely.

A creepy, atmospheric book.  Other reviews (if I missed yours, let me know):

Jenclair at A Garden Carried in the Pocket
Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings
Little Willow

Love Lessons, Joan Wyndham

I just want to excerpt massive passages of this book.  I almost didn’t get it out of the library, and when I did check it out, I almost didn’t read it.  It’s this woman’s diaries from World War II – she was living in London during the Blitz, which you’d think would cause her to, you know, write about the Blitz, but she’s seventeen and mainly unsupervised, and largely what she’s writing about is all the men she’s running around with.  I keep thinking “Oh, the author has done things so cleverly here, look at all the things she’s leaving unsaid,” but it’s diaries, not a novel.

(I am actually rather curious about seeing the manuscripts, because I’m assuming she edited them before publishing them, and I wonder what she changed.)

I’ve been sitting here for several minutes, watching Buffy in French (Xander’s being such a prat, but I feel nostalgic for the old school days and I really, really must buckle down and learn French, for heaven’s sake!) and trying to think of how to explain why Love Lessons was such a delight.  I think because Joan Wyndham reminds me of Jane Eyre – a comparison I doubt either of them would appreciate much.  It’s just the mix of a sense of humor and romanticism and down-to-earth practicality.  Cassandra in I Capture the Castle is much the same, which is why I always read that when I’ve finished Jane Eyre.

She’s fancying herself in love with this guy Rupert who deflowered her, but still she says this after his house gets bombed:

In fact it’s not surprising number 34 was hit; if any three things called for a bomb on them they were Leonard’s painting, Prudey’s novel and Rupert’s poems!  This is a fair specimen of his work:

The sun has broken loose from its moorings
And its face is splashed with oil from the spouting well
The halting footsteps of blind spiders feeling their way
Along a fractured thighbone –
A pile of discarded genitals rusting in an old iron basket –
Come to my party!

Another one begins: “Sweet steaming cesspools disturbed fitfully by bursting balls of stinking gas.”  Oh, dear.

And then sometimes she writes quite evocatively about London in the Blitz:

He left me and I ran back through nightmare streets, cold and dark and the guns going, past a time bomb barrier, running into ropes that held me back like spiders’ webs, and treading on broken glass that cracked horribly underfoot and made my heart jump.

Of course it is Daddy Issues City in this book, as I noticed rather early on, but eventually she brought it up herself, which again pleased me because although she still has issues galore, it’s always nice to see that people are at least verging on self-awareness.

The fact is, I prefer men to be slightly caddish and knock me around, and not to love me too much.  I like men who think they are God.

Rupert, of course, has all the self-assurance in the world – never looks foolish or put out, is completely at ease with the universe and thinks himself a lord of it.  He belongs to that class of person that is adored by shopkeepers and servants – “Dear master Rupert, such a fine lad he’s grown into!” – and Rupert smiles his gentle smile that means nothing, and strides on in glorious self-absorption, six feet of indolent golden manhood in a spotlessly white unbuttoned shirt, his trousers just a little too big for him.  There is a kind of aura about him that suggests green cricket fields and white flannels, though God knows he detests all sports and exercise.  He has that irresistible lazy charm that often goes with decadence and overbreeding – just like my father.


Anyway, now I long and long and long to get hold of her other books, but of course my library hasn’t got them, and Paperbackswap hasn’t, and I’m not buying any books until after the massive book bazaar in March, so I will just have to delay that particular gratification for a while yet.

P.S. Her father was discovered messing around with the Marchioness of Queensberry one Christmas.  Not Bosie’s mother, and not Percy’s wife, but the one after that.  Those Douglases.  Always in a scrape.

Joan Wyndham

Holy God, how have I lived my life without Joan Wyndham?  I’m reading the first volume of her diaries that she kept during World War II, Love Lessons, and I am seriously thinking about stealing this book from the library and keeping it forever.  (I won’t though of course.)  She charms me.

Poor darling Jo, I don’t love him a bit but I am divinely happy playing the fool with him.  I know I shouldn’t, because he keeps saying, ‘Oh what an absolute bugger, oh you little bitch!’  We do sometimes reach the farthest point of passion after which coition should naturally occur – only it can’t.  Also he complains that I don’t respond much or wiggle as he’d like me to.  I really don’t get much urge to wiggle.

Oh, God.  I am sad I only discovered her after she was already dead.  Life’s a bitch.