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:

WELL!!

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.

LIFE, Theatre, and Much Ado About Nothing

It all got in the way and hence the hiatus.

In that time, I had a rather stressful tech week, a really good opening week, and not very much sleep, got certified in First Aid, saw Much Ado About Nothing (OMGSOGOOD) and freaked out not a little about the fact that I am LEAVING IN LESS THAN TWO WEEKS.

It feels like I have simultaneously too much and too little time before I leave. There’s so many things to do and people to see before I leave, and time is moving fast and there’s not enough of it for everything, but at the same time I really just kind of want July 29th to come so I can start work, because I’ve been thinking about it and imagining how it will be since April, and I just want to find out already.

We only have four more shows for Twelfth Night, which in itself is another one of those weird feelings where it seems like we’ve been working on this forever and also like we just started (I guess that’s what short rehearsal periods do to you). This show has been an experience–both good and bad. The good: the people, and the play, and the size and consistent engagement of our audiences (especially the kids. We had a ton of kids laughing in the audience last night and it was the best). The bad: PUBLIC PARK. Interference from outside parties actually hasn’t been much of an issue for performances (probably because of official-looking set and lights and the number of people in the audience and the staff), but I gotta say guys, the set up and tear-down every night is wearing on all of us a little bit, especially since our storage is at the top of a hill and the set is at the bottom. I was saying to a friend yesterday, it’s like being on tour, except that we don’t actually go anywhere. I shouldn’t complain too much, because with all of us working it actually only takes about forty minutes tops to set up and thirty to strike, which is actually not much time. But I will be so happy to work on a show where I can set things and then they STAY THERE.

Lastly, let’s go back for a minute to Much Ado About Nothing:

Much Ado About Nothing

My favorite Shakespeare play. Made into a film by Joss Whedon. Let me tell you, to say I was excited about this when I first heard about it is a gross understatement. I was also not a little apprehensive, because when two things you love a lot come together, things could go really well, but if they go badly it’s that much more painful because you love both things so much.

Well, I needn’t have worried. Much Ado was AWESOME. First, it was really pretty, and the black and white film really worked well with the setting. But I have to admit that I wasn’t paying much attention to the scenery or the look as much as I sometimes do, because I was too busy being fascinated and impressed by how well this adaptation worked.

Adapting Shakespeare to modern day is something that people do quite often, but it’s actually really difficult to do well. There’s all kinds of lines that don’t make sense when taken out of the original context, and you basically have to go through and find parallels and ways to make it all fit. But this one really worked, in more ways than I can list here, from making one of Don John’s henchmen a woman (evil couple is somehow way more interesting than two evil dudes) to Benedick cringing when Claudio makes a racist comment.

My favorite part was, of course Benedick and Beatrice. Even though their plot is technically a side plot, they are the reason people like this play. Benedick and Beatrice make Much Ado the original romantic comedy, from the classic banter and bickering to being tricked into admitting their love for each other. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof were brilliant, of course (though I think Kenneth Branagh still wins as my favorite Benedick), but what I loved so much about this interpretation was that it made them such a believable couple. There’s a bit in the text that implies that Benedick and Beatrice have a history, and Joss took that and ran with it–the film starts with a scene (implied to be a while before the main action of the play) of Benedick leaving Beatrice in bed without a word, thinking she’s still asleep (spoiler: she’s not). It was so simple and so painful and it made all their subsequent interactions so much more interesting, because you could see that incident hanging between them.

My second favorite was surprising: Dogberry. I’m not a big fan of the Dogberry scenes, possibly because I always think of Michael Keaton’s interpretation (in the 1996 film) which I never really liked. But Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry was perfect: he was played as the clueless head of security with Verges (Tom Lenk) as his smarter subordinate trying to keep things going. I think it worked so well in part because it was played very understated and natural, but also because it was so believable–the guy in the suit is a bumbling idiot, and the guys under him try to figure out what actually needs to happen without contradicting the boss directly. Also, Nathan Fillion is  really really good at playing a doofus (see: Captain Hammer), which is funny considering he’s also really good at playing smart (see: Castle, Firefly, etc.)

I could go on with all the other things I loved (Borachio being in love with Hero, the really understated use of technology) but instead I will end with this conclusion: if you are into Shakespeare, go see this film. If you’re not into Shakespeare…go see this film. It really is fantastic.

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.

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.