Week 6 (Blaga): 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff

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Reader: Blaga

Topic #3: Read a book about books

Book: 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff
Publisher: Sphere, 2007 ( Originally published by Grossman, 1970)

In October 1950, NYC-based writer Helene Hanff  approaches a small London bookstore (Marks & Co.), inquiring about some books. She is a “poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books,” she explains in her letter, “and all the things [she] want[s] are impossible to get here,” at least in a format affordable or satisfactory to her. So begins 84 Charing Cross Road, an epistolary memoir consisting of selections of the 20-year correspondence between Hanff and the staff of Marks & Co., chief among which is the bookseller Frank Doel (which, if you are wondering how to pronounce it, he helpfully explains rhymes with “Noel”).

For a work recording a 20-year correspondence, 84 Charing Cross Road is in fact quite short (less than 200 pages). It is not perfect – for example, some letters are missing (as is to be expected given the length of the period of time in which they were exchanged – a lot happens in 20 years!). The discussed material, especially prices of books, can also be a little confusing. Just as Hanff herself needs English pounds to be “translated” into dollars, for example, so we may need to translate 1950s/60s/70s values into modern equivalents maybe once to get a sense of how much everything would actually cost – after all, it makes no sense for a first edition of Newman’s Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education, dating to the 1850s, to cost $6 a hundred years later – except in 2017 this amounts to approx. $60, which is much more reasonable.

An interesting, albeit expected, perk of the book, is that it records historical events and circumstances.  For example, we get to learn (or, in my case, be reminded) through it that up until the mid- 50s food was still rationed in Britain (as a consequence of WWII). Hanff, knowing about the rations, sends her friends in London parcels of food with goodies such as eggs and ham for the major holidays until the rationing ends in 1954. The letters also discuss the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 (the first such to be televised, and both the staff of Marks & Co and Hanff take advantage of that).  In 1960, Hanff makes a joke about Nixon and Kennedy, reflecting on the famous election. These details are not only interesting for establishing a background or even for learning a little bit of history. Rather, the letters add more dimension to the historical events, reminding us that real people lived through and experienced them.

Hanff’s witty and quite candid voice and humor balance wonderfully with Doel’s somewhat more constrained voice, resulting in some hilarious exchanges, such as Doel remarking “I must tell you that one of the young inmates here confessed that until he read your letter he never knew that England had ever owned ‘the States.'” The warmth of their friendship is touching and one of the book’s biggest assets, the other one being their discussion of books. Hanff in particular produced some invaluable gems. For example, after reading Sir Richard Francis Burton’s translation of Catullus (whose poetry can be particularly racy at times), she exclaims: “This one got knighted for tuning Catullus – caTULLus – into Victorian hearts-and-flowers.” On another occasion, after successfully receiving Alexis de Tocqueville’s Journey to America (1831–1832), she announces: “He sits around looking smug because everything he said were true…”

My relationship with this book has been an interesting one, beginning with the moment that I discovered it. I was on a very brief visit to Oxford at the time, and decided to stop by one of their landmark bookstores – Blackwell’s – where this book happened to be neatly displayed. I had not heard of Hanff nor her work before this, but the book’s cover caught my attention, and its blurb convinced me to purchase it. It still strikes me as slightly odd that I, an American, bought in Britain a book about an American writer’s correspondence with a (sadly no longer existing) British bookstore. The actual contents of the book touched me on an even more personal level, however. At the time that I discovered it, I had been living back in the United States for a mere three months after spending a year in the United Kingdom while pursuing my Master’s Degree. Hanff never had the chance to visit the UK before 84 Charing Cross Road‘s publication, but, as evident in the book, she forged and maintained strong friendships there. Perhaps this is my own way of reflecting on the events in my life during the past year, yet the endless parallels I found in this book’s contents, 50 years after its publication, made me love it that much more. And although, like Hanff, I do not often buy books I have not read, there is no question that this was a correct choice. Between the humor, friendship, historical references, and love for books, 84 Charing Cross Road is a small, invaluable gem. I strongly recommend it.

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Week 5 (Sam): The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

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Reader: Sam

Topic #3: Read a book about books

Book: The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde (from the Thursday Next series)

The year is 1985 and England is in a difficult spot. There are the usual border tensions with the Republic of Wales, of course, but there’s also rioting in the street over the legalization of surrealism, as well as escalating hostilities with Russia as the Crimean War approaches its 132nd year. Officer Thursday Next of SpecOps 27–whose duties consist of investigating crimes against literature–has troubles of her own. Even a decade later, she’s still reeling from the brother she lost in Crimea. She’s crippled by loneliness, and yet, she has no idea how to build a personal life. Even her career seems to be stalling out. However, when Acheron Hades, the third-most-wanted criminal on Earth and Thursday’s former English professor, steals a device that can transport people into the world of books, only Thursday has the brains, the courage and the sheer stubbornness to protect England’s most beloved works of literature from meeting a terrible fate.

Although The Eyre Affair revels in the absurd, it benefits from a grounding in police thriller tropes. While the literature-obsessed England of Jasper Fforde’s imagination–controlled by a sinister mega-corporation and vulnerable to inexplicable holes in the space-time continuum–may be unfamiliar, this is a very conventional story at its heart. Thursday Next is a familiar protagonist: she has a cool head for detective work, but an itchy trigger finger in a firefight and an indomitable will to get the job done, whatever the job may be. If she’s going to defend the English literary canon and rescue her kidnapped mad-scientist uncle from Hades, she’s also going to have to fight the pencil-pushers in her own department, who are trying to rein her in. It’s like a story straight out of 1970s TV, and that’s just fine. Because the world itself is unfamiliar, and delights in surprising the reader even hundreds of pages in, it’s important that the reader has a recognizable narrative to follow and a protagonist that’s easy to root for.

The book has a brisk pace which I appreciate, but it sometimes comes at a heavy cost. With so many alternate-history details and science fiction elements packed into less than four hundred pages, passages that would benefit from a little more space get trimmed down to the barest essentials, becoming something more like summary. I would have been happy to spend another hundred pages with Thursday Next, and it’s obvious that Fforde could have used them. The denouement was particularly rushed, with Thursday steered rapidly from scene to scene to resolve as many subplots as possible without giving the reader time to really savor any of them.

Other than the appealing simplicity of Thursday as a protagonist, most of the cast is rather forgettable, serving their roles and leaving no real impression. In theory, several of them should be interesting, including Thursday’s clergyman brother and her vampire-hunting coworker, but neither of them actually do very much, and their presence comes off more like an excuse for tangential world-building than for any kind of drama. On a similar note, Acheron Hades is one of the most conceptually interesting villains I’ve ever seen in a book: a man so skilled in deception that his ability to lie transcends common sense. He can convince almost anyone to do almost anything, no matter how terrible. What’s more, he can even lie about his appearance, effectively disguising himself at will. And yet, in terms of his actual characterization, Hades is pretty unremarkable. A lot of his schemes would be just as appropriate in the hands of someone without his supernatural advantages, which feels like a terrible waste of his potential.

That said, The Eyre Affair sparkles with cheerful creativity. Alternate-timeline England is full of jokes that book lovers everywhere will appreciate, one of my personal favorites being how easy it is to start a conversation with a stranger on the true authorship of Shakespeare. The fact that characters can literally walk into books is also a great deal of fun. Although that element was used more sparingly than I would have liked, it culminates in a somewhat rushed but still spectacular climax. As a world-builder, whether it’s something plot-crucial or the most cursory of details, Fforde has a knack for coming up with something unexpected every time.

Final Grade: C+

Week 4 (Blaga): 1984, by George Orwell

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Reader: Blaga

Topic #7: Read a book published between 1900 and 1950.

Book: 1984, by George Orwell

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt , 2013 (originally published by Secker & Warburg, 1949)

What makes a classic a classic? There was a time when I thought that it was its age; after all, books that have achieved such a status generally come from bygone ages. The age of a classic, however, should rather be an emblem of its enduring significance. George Orwell’s 1984 is a fine example of this, for his discussion of power, language, and truth is universal – it applies to today’s reality as much as it did in 1949, when the book was published.

The novel takes place sometime around 1984 in Oceania,  one of three world states which “comprises the Americas, the Atlantic islands including the British Isles, Australasia and the southern portion of Africa.” Oceania is ruled by the Party, the regime of which is absolute: as the famous quote indicates, “Big Brother is Watching You” – and indeed its citizens are closely monitored as to make sure that they do not commit any crime – even in thought, for “Thoughtcrime does not entail death: it IS death.” The world that Orwell creates is nightmarish. The government closely watches one’s moves, teaches children to spy on and betray their parents, and makes sure that pleasure and free thought are not exercised.

The story’s protagonist is Winston Smith, a grumpy, middle-aged, middle-class Outer-Party member who lives in London, where he works as an editor at the Ministry of Truth, one of the four Ministries (The Ministry of Truth, the Ministry of Peace, the Ministry of Love, and the Ministry of  Plenty). His job is to adjust the written record.  Information is always tailored to the Party’s standards, facts changed in its favor, and all evidence to the contrary is destroyed, any memory to the contrary deemed a false memory or a hallucination. “Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else,” explains Orwell. The safety of written (or visual) records is false, as records can easily be destroyed or changed by those in power.

The question is not how possible can it be for someone to work in a ministry which concerns itself with propaganda and not be aware of what is going on. It is, rather, whether it is possible to be so dedicated to the cause that it would not matter. For Orwell, when faced with a choice between happiness and freedom, most would choose happiness, no matter the cost. It is a survival instinct. As Winston learns by the end of the novel, “Sanity is statistical. It was merely a question of learning to think as they thought.” It could be argued that he knows that from the very beginning; he certainly knows that any form of rebellion on his side will be unsuccessful and likely result in death. What he does not know, however, is that death is the least of it, almost a relief in fact, for before death the Ministry of Love proceeds to fully exorcise a rebel’s capability of thought and emotion, until only complete loyalty and – yes, love – for the Party remains.

The book has three parts: Part I, in which the setting is sketched out and Winston cautiously decides to break the law. Part II, in which Winston begins a forbidden relationship with a fellow Party-member and rebel, and grows bolder. He thinks for himself, analyzes all that is wrong with the Party’s regime, and wishes to help destroy it. Part III, in which Winston is held at the Ministry of Love. Orwell’s writing is very analytical – Winston’s thoughts and most of the dialogue within the book is a meditation on the human condition, on power, language, and truth.

Language is particularly key for Orwell, who discussed politics’ impact on it in an earlier essay, called “Politics and the English Language”. The principles he outlines in the essay are reflected in this novel, not only through the paradoxes he introduces (such as The Ministry of Truth being the one that engages in matters of propaganda), but  also through the fact that 1984  is very readable. Orwell’s observations are very much on point; he drives them even deeper by detailing them in a clear, precise language.

This is one of the most thought-provoking pieces of literature that I have ever read. It is dark and can feel hopeless, but its discussion of language, power, and human nature are worth considering. In the end, I think that it is something that everyone ought to read at least once, especially at a time of political turmoil and uncertainty such as the one we live in now.

Week 3 (Sam) The Man in the Brown Suit, by Agatha Christie

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Reader: Sam

Topic #7: Read a book published between 1900 and 1950.

Book: The Man in the Brown Suit, by Agatha Christie

Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2012 (originally published by The Bodley Head, 1924)

Of all the challenges to my philosophy of criticism, which emphasizes character writing, quality of prose and thematic depth, the Agatha Christie mysteries are probably the greatest. Some of my personal favorites end up with mediocre grades, because their aims are not to tell great stories, but to share interesting puzzles with the reader. Although I may need to rethink my methods in general, The Man in the Brown Suit doesn’t have this problem. In fact, this mystery/adventure story hybrid is now among my favorite Agatha Christies.

Anne Beddingfeld, recently orphaned and with eighty-seven pounds to her name (which isn’t much, even in the 1920s) embarks on a voyage to South Africa on the trail of a mysterious murderer, partly to get herself a job as a reporter, but mostly to satisfy her incorrigible hunger for adventure. Armed with her abnormally sharp wits and little else, she must navigate a maze of intrigue as each step leads her closer to both the truth and to terrible danger.

This is the most unapologetically cheesy book I’ve read in a long time and I adore it. It’s got clandestine meetings, elaborate disguises, diamond smuggling, budding romances between sharp-tongued women and broodingly handsome young men. The romance aspect to this book is particularly entertaining coming from Agatha Christie after all the time I’ve spent with her famous Hercule Poirot, who goes together with romance like oil and water. Anne has not one, but two different romantic interests, and honestly, you could make an argument for there being a third. At this point, it feels more like a dating sim than an Agatha Christie book! I’m not complaining though. This is just another bit of welcome melodrama in a larger-than-life adventure.

This is one of the earliest books of Christie’s that I’ve read, and it makes me wonder whether her prose lost a little of its magic as the decades rolled by. For whatever reason, The Man in the Brown Suit is simply a great joy to read. Anne’s narration is dripping with dry humor, but is still told with an effortless precision and eye for detail–this second part being important for a mystery story. I was smiling through the first few pages in particular, and quickly found myself rooting for Anne to discover the truth and get that newspaper job. As the story goes on, however, and the book becomes more about what’s happening and less about Anne’s role in events, her unique voice fades into the background. Still, the character manages to coast on the good-will she earned at the beginning, and the absence doesn’t harm the book in any fundamental way. While we’re talking about narrators, there’s actually a second narrator, in the form of excerpts from the diary of one of Anne’s travelling companions. Having a second narrator could have been messy and pointless, but ultimately, I’m happy to say it slips into the story seamlessly. It doesn’t hurt that the second narrator is another one of Christie’s funnier character, a lazy, overly-pampered aristocrat with a tongue just as sharp as Anne’s.

Although I had fun with the characters, and I enjoyed the cheesy, adventure-story stuff, ultimately The Man in the Brown Suit delivers on its mystery as well. The identity of the true culprit, a murdering, diamond-smuggling, arms-dealing menace known only as “the Colonel,” was an unusually sneaky puzzle. I grasped at several red herrings and only guessed at the truth a few pages before the reveal. I’d say they rank among my favorite Agatha Christie culprits, and off the top of my head, only the culprits from Crooked House and The ABC Murders outranked them. It’s not the most in-depth mystery, or the most cerebral one, but it has a hand to play and plays it well.

For those wondering, although the story takes place largely in South Africa, this mostly serves as exotic set dressing for a story that just wants you to have a great time. One should never begin a work of 1920s British literature expecting it to satisfy modern standards for diversity, but it’s still disconcerting to see native Africans and Dutch settlers, in the rare event that they appear, reduced to nothing more than pawns in a game played by smarter Englishmen and women. I won’t hold the book accountable for what amounts to a moral oversight by Christie, but modern readers should be advised that they might find the lack of diversity annoying.

Other than The Big Four, an intentional send-up of this kind of adventure story, I had no idea that Christie had written anything like this. It seems like a real shame to me that she didn’t do much in this vein again, because it’s wonderful.

Final Grade: B+