Book Review: 84, Charing Cross Road

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

This is one of those books that has been sort of hovering on the periphery of my vision for a while. Every so often the name would pop up somewhere, and I would think, “Oh yeah, I wanted to check that book out, it sounds interesting.” And then I would promptly forget about it until the next time.

A couple weeks ago the title happened to pop into my head when I was actually in the library, so I looked it up, checked it out, and proceeded to devour it over the course of an afternoon, including several hours sitting in the sun in Waterfront Park before rehearsal. It’s that sort of book.

84, Charing Cross Road is a sort of epistolary memoir, a collection of letters between Helene Hanff, a writer living in New York, and the denizens of 84 Charing Cross Road, an antiquarian bookshop in London. The letters start in 1949, with a fairly straightforward and formal exchange regarding several books that Helene would like to order, but over the course of the correspondence both sides quickly dispense with formality and begin a “winsome, sentimental friendship based on their common love of books”, as it says on the back.

Book jacket descriptions like this are usually a bit overly sentimental themselves, but it really is lovely to see how the relationship between Helene and the bookshop employees (especially the man who deals with the majority of her correspondence, first introduced to her as only his initials, FPD). I particularly enjoy how conversational and funny Helene’s letters are. She quickly goes from a politely worded request to rhapsodic praises of her latest book–or caps-lock-ridden admonishments over missing passages in an edition of Sam Pepys’s diary or the bookshop’s sending her a book wrapped in the pages of other books. A sample:


All I have to say to YOU, Frank Doel [the aforementioned FPD], is we live depraved, destructive and degenerate times when a bookshop–a BOOKSHOP–starts tearing up beautiful old books to use as wrapping paper. I said to John Henry when he stepped out of it:

“Would you believe a  thing like that Your Eminence?” and he said he wouldn’t. You tore that book up in the middle of a major battle and i don’t even know which war it was.

— Excerpt from October 15, 1950

But the letters don’t confine themselves to books, and the “winsome and sentimental” friendship really does develop between these people who have never seen each other face to face. Helene sends mail-order meat and eggs and nylons to the bookshop to supplement their post-war rations, and in return Frank & Co. sends Christmas gifts and any book they think Helene might have an interest in. There is a much talked-of trip to England with many offers of a bed should Helene ever come to visit, and by the end of the book I was at least as invested in this long-distance relationship as any relationship I’ve read. It’s fascinating seeing a friendship develop through this sort of correspondence over the course of twenty years, especially in this age of the Internet when even email has sort of been superseded by Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat and Skype as forms of long-distance communication between friends.  I love the fact that I can call up a friend on Skype and actually see their face and hear their voice, but reading this book made me want to write letters to all my friends and become pen pals.

Letters and relationships aside, one of the elements I connected with most was this longing for far off places and how books can bring those places to you, even if you can’t go to them. Helene spends years dreaming of going to England to visit and walking the streets where all those stories happened. This and that keep getting in the way, but in the meantime, she has the books and the letters from 84 Charing Cross Road, that make her little New York apartment a gateway to all sorts of places. It’s the magic of books.  Helene sums this up herself perfectly near the end:

I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for. I said I’d go looking for the England of English literature, and he nodded and said: “It’s there.”

Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Looking around the rug one thing’s for sure: it’s here.

If you happen to pass 84 Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me? I owe it so much.


Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This is not a studied review so much as a “first impressions” sort of post, because this is a book that I think I am going to have to reread at least once.

I love Neil Gaiman and all his work, and I’ve been looking forward to this book for a long time, ever since he posted on his Tumblr about the short story called “Lettie Hempstock’s Ocean” that had transformed into a novel. I’ve been working my way through most of his other work and I was so excited to have something new. I preordered the signed first edition and everything.

I think it’s inevitable that with such high expectations things would not turn out quite as I imagined. I was not disappointed–the book was as brilliant as everyone said it would be. But I was surprised.

I don’t know why I was surprised. I had read from several people, including Neil himself, that this book was unlike anything else he’s ever written. It’s not that it didn’t feel Gaiman-y–it had a lot of the things Neil includes in a lot of his work, like magic and mystery, darkness and scary things. If anything, this book maybe felt more Gaiman-y than a lot of his other work, in that it felt a lot more like Neil telling a story in his own voice. The voice, for whatever reason, sounded to me much more like Neil in his blog or on Tumblr and much less like Neil Gaiman, capitalized.

The story of the book is not overly complicated, but is also very difficult to describe without giving everything away. In short: after his father’s funeral the narrator returns to the lane where he grew up and goes to the house at the end of the lane where his friend Lettie used to live. He sits by the pond–which Lettie always insisted was an ocean–and as he sits he remembers the impossible, scary, fantastic things that happened to him when he was seven years old, when he first met Lettie and was pulled into a world of magic and danger that he did not understand.

The book actually had a bit of a slow start for me, maybe because it wasn’t quite what I expected, or maybe because I had such high expectations to start with. But it’s the kind of book that creeps up on you until you suddenly realize you’re in the middle of a really fascinating story. Neil has such a brilliant way of weaving together the ordinary and the extraordinary, making the magical happenings feel, in their own strange way, perfectly normal. It’s my favorite sort of magic in stories–the kind that’s not made with magic wands and lots of flash, but the sort that simply happens. The Hempstock women–Lettie, her mother, and grandmother–kind of embody this: they are wonderfully no-nonsense and capable, and are also much more than they initially appear.

That’s kind of a thing that runs through the whole book–everything you think is simple turns out to be more than it appears. Even the framing device of the older narrator remembering the events of his childhood turns into something much more than your basic “I remember when” storytelling tool. The ending, when you go back to the narrator sitting on the bench as an adult, actually turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the book, when everything came together and I just had this moment of “Oh! THAT’S IT!” And of course, there’s the mythical undertones I love so much in his work and some pretty incisive observations on what the world of grown-ups looks like to a child, all rolled up with a healthy dose of scary/creepy/jesuschristneilhowdoesyourbraincomeupwiththatandstillsleep incidents.

I can’t wait to read it again and see what I find the second time through.

A Bookworm’s Dilemma

IMG_0092I have a rather large collection of books currently stacked on a table in my room. It’s not all my books–I have two boxes from Denison that I never really unpacked except to pull out individual books, and a couple bookshelves in the corner, mostly full of books from my childhood that don’t get read very much anymore. These are just the books that were lying around my room in various stacks before I began organizing; that is, books I have read/been reading/meant to read/acquired during the past year or so.

When I move to Louisville, I won’t be able to take most of my books with me. It would be silly to cart/ship a whole slew of books across the country when I have no guarantee I’ll be there more than nine months. (Luckily, there is a library close by, so new book acquisitions will not be a problem). But even so, I can’t bring NO books, because let’s face it, that would be even sillier, and also utterly unthinkable.

So here comes the only less slightly unthinkable challenge:


Basically I have to decide which ten or twelve or so books I want most to have with me over the next year. I was talking to my friend Holly about this, and she described these books as “comfort books”. I think that’s a pretty apt description–books that I have read several times over but that when I have a quiet moment and want something to read I will always turn to, like old, familiar friends. Rereading books is something some people don’t understand, but I love it–sometimes I stumble across a part I had forgotten about, or I see a thing I hadn’t noticed before, or I understand something I didn’t when I first read the book at age twelve. But sometimes it’s nice to just get lost in a familiar labyrinth of words, knowing that you already know the path through, but enjoying the journey all the same.

So this is my dilemma–which journeys will I want/need/miss the most when I move away? As may be obvious from the above picture, there are a lot of books that I love, a lot of books that I have turned to for comfort over the past few years, all for different reasons. How am I supposed to choose?

As far as moving questions go, it seems pretty frivolous. There are far bigger and more important questions to think about, like housing and budgets and groceries and transportation. But as any fellow book lover will know, taking a familiar book with you to a strange place is kind of like taking a piece of home. And I think having just the right bits of home with you in a new place can make a big difference.

So….now I just have to choose.


Book Review: The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

And now for something completely different.

Okay, not completely different, only sort of different. I’ve spent most of these blog posts writing/complaining about me and my life, and today I wanted to talk about something else. And, being me, the first thing that popped into my head was this book that I just finished:

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

This book is the sequel to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (and yes, the anticipated third book will have a title just as long), and both books are, in short, amazing. Someone recently told me they sounded “Neil-Gaiman-y” and that’s a pretty apt description. Valente has the same sort of dark touch to her fantasy, without ever losing touch with the enchantment of it. If you love fairy tales with a twist, if your favorite narrator is the kind that engages the reader directly and is full of dry wit and has a Fondness for Capital Letters, if you like your fantasy to be fantastic and colorful and exciting and glorious, but still sometimes a little dark, then you will love these books.

Fairyland has it all: magic, witches (who only tell the future, everything else is done by other magical folk), a Wyverary (a Wyvern whose father was a Library), herds of bicycles (properly called velocipedes), a province where it is always Autumn, and Pandemonium, a constantly moving capital city that relocates according to the needs of narrative. It’s fantastic and whimsical and not a little dangerous and I totally fell in love with it. In this second book, you get to meet its shadow: Fairyland-Below.

When we left our heroine, September, at the end of the last book, she had just returned from her first adventure in Fairyland, having made some friends, defeated the tyrant Marquess, and lost her shadow. Now, a year later, September is eagerly anticipating her return to Fairlyland, where her friends will be wating for her and, of course, all will be well. She’ll have adventures and explore and not have to worry herself about Local Politicks. It will be a grand time.

But of course, nothing is ever so simple in Fairyland, and September’s shadow has been busy. She’s become Halloween, the Hollow Queen, ruler of Fairyland-Below, and is intent on doing anything she wants, and damn the consequences.

This is an excellent sequel in that it builds on the framework the previous book established, further developing characters we’ve already come to know and love–although, this being Fairyland-Below, where everything is slantwise and upside-down, the people there are not always quite what they seem. The book is darker and more serious in some ways than its predecessor, because September is growing up. She’s thirteen, and she’s beginning to develop a heart (in the first book, she, like most children, was Somewhat Heartless). She has to deal with the consequences of her actions and clean up the mess she–and her shadow–have caused in Fairyland, both Above and Below. September comes to Fairyland this time around thinking she knows how things work, since she’s been there before, but she quickly realizes that’s not the case. Even though she has friends with her, in some ways September is much more on her own during her Quest in this book, and it’s great to watch her deal with each twist the story throws at her, and roundly tell off anyone who tries to tell her that she can’t do things for herself.

Of course, even with all the darkness of Fairyland-Below, there’s plenty of enchantment and fun as well, with lots of new quirky characters and bits of Fairyland trivia. The ending is clever and unexpected and somewhat heartbreaking and utterly wonderful. In short, I loved this book just as much as the first one, and if you are even slightly interested in fantastic literature or fairy tales, you should read both immediately.


Leyendo en español

This month seems to be the Month Where I Talk About Books (not to say that March, or April or May won’t also be Months Where I Talk About Books. If you hadn’t noticed, books are kind of a big deal for me).

Anyway, for the past few weeks I’ve been having kind of an adventure in reading. For the first time in about a year and a half I’m attempting to read a novel in Spanish: La Sombra del Viento (The Shadow of the Wind) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.It’s been simultaneously exciting and discouraging. I’ve always been better at reading Spanish than speaking it (or writing it or listening to it), and even after essentially taking a few years off from Spanish I was comfortable enough that I could get the gist without looking up too many words.

But getting the gist and getting involved in the story are two different things, and that’s where I have the most trouble reading in Spanish. When I read, I read for the story and all that, but I also often read a particular book because I like the author’s style; I like the particular way they put words together, in a way that I would never have thought of, but which seems to capture whatever they’re trying to express perfectly. If there’s one thing in common with all of my favorite authors, it’s that they have very expressive styles.

In a foreign language, style is a lot harder to pick up, because I’m not familiar with the language and its quirks and idioms. It often makes it harder to read; I can usually do okay with dialogue (although there is one character in La Sombra del Viento who tends to pontificate, and I don’t always get everything), but the rich descriptions of places and people don’t have the same power when you have to look up every third word. On the other hand, every time I look up one of those words or an idiom I expand my vocabulary, and that’s the whole reason I’m reading in Spanish at all–to improve my skill with the language.

There’s also the joy of finding idioms in another language and figuring out what they’re meant to mean. Some I can figure out from context, and some I have to look up, but they’re always fun.

A few examples:

  • “tiene el alma de pan bendito”, or roughly “he has a soul of good bread”  means “he has a good heart” (The Spanish are very into using bread in their idioms. A variation of this one is “mas bueno que el pan” (better than bread), and someone worth their salt is “worth the bread they eat”- “merecer el pan que se come”)
  • “Flor y nata”, or “flower and cream”, means basically “creme de la creme” (incidentally, an idiom we seem to have appropriated from the French)
  • And my favorite, “dar calabazas a alguien”, or “to give pumpkins to someone”, means to reject them. I just picture someone solemnly handing someone a pumpkin when they reject them. I have no idea where this idiom came from, but I like it.

I wonder if part of the reason I enjoy the idioms and little jokes and turns of phrase so much is that I’m so thrilled when I actually understand them. It’s like when I read xkcd and laugh at a science joke–part of me is laughing at the joke, but the other part is just so happy that I know enough to get it, that the joke seems funnier than it might otherwise. So, when I’m reading in Spanish and I come across a bit where the author is spelling out an accent phonetically, or makes a reference to the unreliability of Spanish trains (“el fin de la infancia, como la Renfe, llegaba cuando llegaba”), I’m especially delighted because I understand enough to recognize an accent, or to get the reference to the Renfe. It’s like a little prize saying, “Hey, you’re getting more than just the gist!”

This is just one of the reasons that I’m really enjoying reading this book in the original Spanish, instead of the English translation. Another is that reading the Spanish, I get a chance to see the rhythms of the language as the author wrote them (back to the style thing again). I found a copy of the English version, which has been great for when I’m totally lost, but I’ve noticed when I look at passages in the English version that it just doesn’t have the same feeling, the same flow. Translation can never really capture the rhythms of a language, and phrases that sound great in one language can often come out sort of clunky when they’re translated. It’s great to be able to get at least some of the author’s original voice, even if I can’t understand every word.

I’m about halfway through the book right now. Maybe when I’m finished I’ll go back through the English version, and see how it’s different. But right now I’m really enjoying the challenge of the Spanish.

The question of e-books

In which I wax slightly lyrical on my love of books, but eventually return to the main point.

I was having a bit of trouble picking a topic for this post, so I turned to WordPress’s handy Daily Post blog for help. The weekly writing challenge this week is about ebooks–specifically, the ongoing question of whether we readers prefer e-books or a good old-fashioned paperback. I think it’s interesting that despite the fact that all of us who looked at and responded to this prompt are obviously in touch with technology (being on a blogging site and all), the poll still falls enormously in favor of old-fashioned, paper books. For all the convenience of e-readers, many of us seem to still prefer the feel of a paper book, even if it is heavier to lug around.

I myself fall with the majority on this one (are we really surprised?). There’s something about holding a book, flipping through the pages, feeling the solid weight of it. Physical books are individual objects, and they collect memories like any other object. When I open my copy of any given book, I remember when I bought it, or who gave it to me. Sometimes I have memories of where I was or what I was doing when I read a specific part. Sometimes it’s just the memory of a particular atmosphere or time of year–Dandelion Wine will always be a book for summer and hammocks; Cloud Atlas brings back the light of early November and the smell of coffee from the Starbucks in the Almaden Barnes and Noble.

I get to know the particular feel of my copy of a book, the sound the spine makes when it opens, so that if I ever read a different copy of that book, it feels kind of weird, even if the story is exactly the same. The first time I read The Lord of the Rings, it was my dad’s old copies that he bought in the 70s, when paperbacks were still about $1. The pages are yellowed and the type is thick and old-looking, and I will never be able to read The Lord of the Rings in any other form. When I get my own copies I’m going to have to try to find some used set with yellow pages, because any modern copy will feel strange.

E-books, bless them, just don’t have that individuality. They’re all the same–the same weight, the same font, the same size. You don’t pick an e-book from your library or the store just because of how it feels. You can’t browse the Nook store and grab a random book just because it’s the sort of book you like to hold in your hands. You kind of have to already know what you want.

BUT, if you do know what you want, then an e-reader can be a really excellent, really convenient way to read in situations when you wouldn’t want to bring a big fat book. Despite the above ode (and I realize I rambled a bit; I just really like books, okay?), my love of books doesn’t mean I hate e-readers.

I wonder sometimes why we feel we have to take unequivocal sides on this issue. I got a Nook for Christmas this year, and although I don’t think it’s ever going to replace my bookshelves, I did find myself using it a lot more than I thought I would. I discovered some compilations of classic novels for 99 cents in the Nook store, so now I have something like 50 classic books stored on my e-reader, many of which I’ve never read, but might actually now that they’re easily accessible. I also was able to put a Word document of a friend’s story on my Nook, so I can read it just like any other book. I even checked out a book from my library’s e-book collection.

The point is, people talk about “switching” to ebooks and “giving up” hardcovers, but I see no reason that using one should preclude the use of the other. It seems to me that ebooks would get a much more friendly reception if we thought of them as a supplement, or simply a different, more convenient way of reading books (much like paperbacks were to hardbacks when they first came out), rather than some new, be-all-end-all form that is intent on exterminating books as we know them.

I think it’s pretty obvious that paper books aren’t going anywhere just yet. There are too many people like those who voted on the Daily Post’s poll that still prefer the heft of a thick book, the smell of the pages, the ability to amble through a bookstore for hours, letting your eyes wander the shelves waiting for something to catch your eye. But those same people might also enjoy the convenience of being able to bring three books on a trip in a device that weighs less than a paperback, or being able to have all their textbooks in one place.

I love physical books and I’ll always prefer them to e-books. But I don’t think it’s a betrayal of that love to own an e-reader. Reading is reading, no matter what, and if e-readers get more people reading, I say more power to them. I’m just not getting rid of my bookshelves anytime soon.