84, Charing Cross Road

There is something delicious with books about books. Forget the metaness of it for the moment. It’s like reading a book by the one person in the world who gets you. A person who understands the mystery and romance and adventure that can be held between covers and 300 pages. I have always loved books that explore the reader, that gives the reader the sense that they are enjoying a story written by someone who should be their new best friend. I love all books of course; however a book that loves books as much as I do gets its own category. Literally. I have an entire shelf on Goodreads entitled books-about-books. It ranges from the scholarly explorations of reader response and histories of books and readers to fiction that lives and breathes book culture. There is nothing more disappointing than finding a book in that category that mislead you. That was supposed to revel in books and then just doesn’t (I am looking at you Time Traveler’s Wife. I tossed you against a wall and hurried to donate you for lots of reasons but your lack of book love when one of your main characters is a librarian was nothing sort of despicable to my mind). If you can find a book that stars a bookstore on top of readers and their books, you have hit the jackpot and that book must be savored. 84, Charing Cross Road is one of these gems.

From Goodreads

Helene Hanff is a struggling writer in 1950 New York City and laments the lack of easy to get English Literature. She finds her way to writing to a bookstore at 84, Charing Cross Road in London and so begins this epistolary novel in which Helene and Frank Doehl, the worker at the bookstore who responds to her orders, develop a close relationship over several decades. The novel is a quick read; I believe I read it in one evening but not because I was not savoring it. Helene and I might not share the love of the same kinds of literature but our love of books as a thing, of reading as an activity and of London as a place made me feel like I’d found a soul mate. This is a book that celebrates so many “endangered” communication methods – mail by post, packages literally tied with string, and books of the leather bound, beautiful paper variety. While I think books as objects aren’t quite as close to obsolescence as some people lament, they are a form of communication at a moment of crisis and I can’t help but wonder what Helene or Frank would think of where we are in the ebook debate.

After I had enjoyed the book one rainy evening, I discovered there had been a movie made starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. While the fact an epistolary novel was turned into a movie gave me pause, I was curious enough about how they did it to check the film out through Netflix. I am glad I did. Bancroft and Hopkins perfectly portray how I imagined the rather abrupt and ornery Helene and the very proper and upright, yet with that sneaking British sense of humor, Frank would be. I especially loved that the script very much used the letters in the book for the dialogue. Bancroft is especially strong when addressing her letters directly to the camera, as if she was speaking directly to Frank. Post-war London was depicted as both resilient and yet still recovering form the long years of war and deprivation which post war New York is both quaint and yet bustling – showing the major metropolis it would become so quickly in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a New York I think I would like better than the modern version.

I would recommend the book, it’s such an approachable read, but if you must, at least watch the film. It is a charming romance between people and books an ocean apart.

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The King’s Speech

From IMDB

Dramas aren’t usually the sort of movie I gravitate towards – I like to laugh too much. However, I am an anglophile if nothing else and so The King’s Speech has been on my to-watch list for awhile. I actually won a copy of it in a silent auction late last year but it got pushed out of the viewing rotation by Netflix and holiday movies. But, it was time to watch it finally and happily I had shortbread and chocolate in the apartment from Christmas gifts which seemed like, along with a cup of tea, the best snacks for a proper British film.

Now, what I am a sucker for is an inspiring story. Normally, these tend to be sports-focused but The King’s Speech is a fabulously inspiring story of a reluctant monarch with a stutter. I knew little about the story of George VI and his struggle with his speech – I knew less about his brother Edward and Wallis Simpson as I always found the story almost disgustingly romantic (odd for me right?). I am glad I never liked the story actually because after reading up on the history, they really weren’t all that nice it seems.

Anyway, the film follows the struggles of Albert trying to overcome his stutter to fulfill his public duties as a prince and later as George VI after his brother’s abdication. I loved seeing Albert’s relationship with his wife, Elizabeth, played delightfully by Helena Bonham Carter. I also liked seeing the glimpses of his relationship with his daughters. As the film explores, Albert didn’t have a happy childhood, overshadowed by his older brother and Crown Prince, so to see that he makes an effort to be a good father and involved in his daughter’s lives was kind of adorable. It helps that Albert is played by Colin Firth who, quite rightly, won an Oscar for his performance of Albert/George. In this final scene of the film when George delivers his first wartime speech, you want to stand up and cheer him on. Luckily for George, he does have his own personal cheerleader, his unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue played delightfully by Geoffrey Rush. The scenes in which Logue and Prince Albert do his many speech exercises are laugh out loud funny – I especially enjoyed the use of swear words in his speech therapy. It was a great way to lessen tension in some of the most fraught moments of the film.

I also loved the photography and set design of the film. I’m not one to notice things like this normally but I felt like the film just presented an atmosphere that was perfect for its story. Somewhat gloomy yet mellow. The lighting was often dim, the sets earth tones even when in the palaces of England. I liked the somber, close feeling that gave the viewer – as if I was a part of the family shown rather than watching the royals put on their game face for the world.

A witty drama with a great atmosphere – I think it’s a great mid-winter film to check out!

Always nice to visit with Jane

From Austenprose, excellent Austen site!

I came to Jane Austen very late. It wasn’t until high school that I sat myself down to read Pride & Prejudice once a friend gave me a lovely collected works of hers. And while I enjoyed it, I wasn’t quite caught yet. It wasn’t until my semester in Bath, taking a class on Jane Austen, that I become a Janeite for good. Something about her snarkiness, her brilliant observation of the small world she lived in, finally captivated me and I’ve been hooked ever since. I don’t often wonder why if I’m being honest. I simply found a kindred spirit in her books, a familiarity that just makes her a favorite author. I have my favorite book, my favorite character, and my favorite hero (All from Persuasion if you’re interested in knowing). But mostly, I adore her tone, her style, her complete knowledge of herself that let her explore in such a narrow field of topics some of the most interesting characters we have the luck to read about still today.

Reading Austen in the spring just seems to fit. Pride & Prejudice is nothing if not spring-like, full of possibility and hope, the belief that everything will work out in the end, even for Lydia and Wickham. In fact, her books all fit into seasons for me. Early spring is Northhanger Abbey with its creepy early spring gothic tone, Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility fit the spring renewal theme, the sense that the stories are only just beginning as we say goodbye. Mansfield Park and Emma have the sophistication of summer, the heat and oppression of the sun seem to lurk in the heroine’s journeys of those books. Persuasion, my favorite, is universally acknowledged as an “autumnal” book, a book of second chances and of people later in life, who have the knowledge of spring and summer to guide them to their conclusion. Fascinating isn’t it? No matter how often I read her works or read essays on her work or even watch a film adapted from a book I am struck by another facet to her writing that seems to change the game yet again.

Austen’s gravestone at Winchester Cathedral. Photo by me!

This spring I got around to reading the collection of essays aptly named A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen and the English geek in me thoroughly enjoyed it. Not only is it fun to read Austen, it is fun to read people talking about Austen, people who are far smarter and more observant readers than I am. As writers, they marvel at what a spinster from the country could do with limited experiences and knowledge. They puzzle over what makes her books last and finally conclude she was a genius, of the sort that come around once in a lifetime. On paper, she shouldn’t have succeeded and the fact that she did and still does hundreds of years after her death truly seems to astonish the essay writers in this collection which I enjoyed. You like to think that some people, however unlikely, can thwart the experts. In fact, I am sure Jane is still having a laugh about that somewhere. Some of the essays are definitely more of a scholarly bent, others more on a personal level, but all are trying to get at that mysterious ingredient of Austen’s that keeps us reading and none really succeed but I commend them for trying. And I commend Jane for avoiding detection once more.