Monday, June 18, 2012

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Utterly Charming! You know, there are some writers out there who enjoy using words, and breaking enough grammar rules to keep things interesting. I think that especially in a book of diary or letter arrangement, grammar rules can be made a little looser. Whenever I read a book like this I want to dash off and pen a dozen witty, clever, interesting, happy, lively letters. I think my friends would tire of the copy-cat sentiment that would be produced by such a reaction, though.

Years ago I watched the movie of 84, Charing Cross Road. I didn't like it. Now I know why! Such a compendium was never, ever meant to be transferred to the screen – I don't care how many TV scripts the author wrote. Theses were letters, between a reserved English gentleman in a bookshop and a penniless girl writing from a New York apartment. Over about twenty years, Helene Hanff and Frank Doel wrote across an ocean as she sought books and he found them. Helene has a noisy sense of humor and a proclivity for uppercase letters when she is PARTICULARLY PEEVED. Additionally, her loving and vivid descriptions of the editions she secured are enough for any bibliophile to sigh, and the idea of an Englishman in a bookshop in England pulling books off shelves and wrapping them up and sending them off to America is something any buyer of old volumes would have to be envious of.

I was surprised by what great blocks of time were blotted out, silent between letters. There were obviously large sections of the correspondence missing, also. Reading the book feels distinctly like sitting in a somewhat noisy cafe and evesdropping on the very interesting conversation happening one or two tables over from you. You miss bits of it, and the bits you hear make you want to go over and barge your way into the conversation, making them start over at the beginning and repeat whatever you missed. Of course, you can't, not in either case – it would be terribly rude.

I picked this book up because my friend Teresa has made mention of it before and expressed her deepest admiration for the little book. On her trip to England last Spring she also stopped by the place where the shop used to be, and sent me a picture of a little plaque commemorating the spot. I am glad to have had the pleasure of reading it. It's very brief, lots of fun, and an absolute delight to either anglo- or bibliophiles, or both. 

I read the book in about an hour all told. Amazon has it for quite cheap!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard

Recently I've discovered the mixed blessing of Amazon and GoodReads reviews. Many of them serve the dual purpose of making me laugh aloud, and also groan with sorrow. Few and far between are the truly thoughtful reviews that give me some idea of a books high and low points, strengths and weaknesses, worthiness and readability.
Looking up An American Childhood, I found many of the reviews, both good and bad, asked the same question: why, Ms. Dillard, should we care about your incredibly ordinary coming of age?
Everyone in my book club, for which I had chosen this title, asked the same question.
During our discussion of the book, there were numerous times where someone would pipe up with a memory or a story of something they had done, or something that had happened to them as a child, or just something about what they were like when young. This was actually one of the best parts of our meeting, where everyone reminisced and shared stories about their own childhood. We weren't really discussing Dillard's life, no, but her own ordinary existence reminded us of our unextraordinary lives, and as we laughed and remembered we all got to know each other a little better. We could identify with Dillard's past, not because we grew up in Pittsburgh in the '50's, but because we grew up.
Similarly, her accounts of life as a five year old, a ten year old, brought us back to when we were those ages. She really has a way of recalling the way a child views the world. Many times she would describe a feeling she had or a discovery she made, and I would think yes! I remember that too! The whole book is interwoven with a theme of discovery, and when she describes a young child's gradual 'awakening' to the world around them and their place in the world, their own actual presence and humanness, it's very lucid. Another time she talks about her relationship to books as an escape - she could lie on her bed for hours consuming stories, becoming lost in them and desperately involved in every word.
Dillard described everything she experienced with wonder and amazement. From her parents she inherited an insatiable thirst for life, and it infuses her writing. One of the women in my book club posed the question (in a very nonjudgemental way), why is Dillard worth reading? and I think this is one of the reasons. She doesn't write from a Christian perspective, but a reader with that perspective can clearly see creation's beauty through her descriptions of nature, can be impressed by God's handiwork in human beings by our ability to learn, to reason and to grow. We also can take Dillard's enthusiasm and vivacity and, in our lives as worshipful created beings, give it meaning and purpose.

In the end, I think the reasons for reading about Dillard's childhood and reading Dillard at all are the same. She has a gift for writing. She puts things in a way that draws us in and makes us recall what she's saying in our own lives - she talks about growing up, and we remember growing up. She talks about throwing snowballs and we remember snowballs. She talks about family trips to the lake and we remember similar times in our own pasts. Her ability to wonder and be swept away by the beauty in life also serves as a reminder to see the beauty around us, to let ourselves be amazed by something as simple as a rock or a moth, and to hold on to our human ability to be touched by that wonder.

Dillard certainly can turn a phrase with her clean, imaginative style. She has a brilliant use of metaphor, also - in once chapter she describes a beetle she had added to her insect collection still working its legs, trying to walk off its pin, and chapters later she compares herself to that beetle, with just a couple of words harkening back to crawling while pinned in place. I really love Dillard's writing, and I enjoyed An American Childhood (mostly, as I said, because of the memories it brought out during our book club.) However, I don't consider it one of her best works - I prefer her shorter, essay-style nonfiction. Teaching a Stone to Talk is excellent, and so is A Writing Life. Her style doesn't work quite so well in the novel The Maytrees, but I want to read The Living and see what it's like.