This week’s Best Book is 84, Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff!
The lass in question is Joan Lowrie, a miner’s daughter. She is a tall, strong, proud woman who has survived years of abuse at the hands of her father. At the beginning of the novel, she dresses partly in men’s clothing and works in the mine as a pit girl.
She attracts the attention of a young mining engineer, Derrick, and his friend Paul Grace, a curate. Later, Derrick finds her injured by her father and helps her, after which she promises to pay him back for his help. When Derrick has a dispute with Lowrie, who would like to revenge himself by ambushing Derrick, she follows Derrick home in the dark every night to protect him.
Grace himself is in love with the rector’s daughter, Anice. But Paul Grace is small and unprepossessing and doesn’t hold out much hope. He also has problems being accepted by the miners, who distrust clerics and think he is too small and refined to heed.
This novel deals with the difficulties of the miners’ lives and of their grievances against the owners. Although it sympathizes with them, it’s true that the only bad men in the novel are Lowrie and his buddies, as well as one son of an owner, who debauches a foolish girl that Joan befriends. It is in taking care of this girl’s child that Joan begins to want to learn more womanly ways and arts.
This novel provides some interest, but it is not one of Burnett’s best. The dialect can get old. Unlike the other books in dialect I’ve read recently, the dialect is not confined to minor characters, since Joan is from a poor background (although it’s easier to understand than Walter Scott’s Scottish dialect). The only relief we get from it is from the upper-class characters, Derrick, Grace, and Anice.
As I am reading the shortlists for a couple different awards, I thought it would be fun, as I finished a shortlist, to post my opinion of whether the jury picked the best book from that list. Of course, no one may care, but in some cases, I have felt that the best book on the shortlist was not the one chosen for the award.
Yesterday, I posted my last review of the books on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize of 2013. My reviews of these books have appeared sporadically starting in 2014 until now. Here is the shortlist for 2013:
- We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
- The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
- Harvest by Jim Crace
- A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
- The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
The Luminaries was the winner for 2013.
This may be an anticlimactic beginning to my little series, but in this case, I think the jury got it right. I put The Luminaries on my list of the best books I read in 2014. It is cleverly constructed and original in approach, but that does not make it any less compelling as a story. Sometimes I think that critics get so jaded that they go for anything original, even if it is not that enthralling to read. This book is great, because it combines a fresh approach with an intricate puzzle of a tale. If you are interested, you can read my original reviews at the links above.
Months after the Japanese tsunami, Ruth, of Japanese descent, finds a barnacle-covered package on the beach of the island in British Columbia where she lives. The package contains a Hello Kitty box with the diary of a young Japanese girl.
Ruth gets involved in reading this diary. The girl, Nao, tells a difficult story of having been raised in Sunnyvale, California, until her father lost his job at a technology company. The family was forced to return to Japan, where her father has been unable to find work and is suicidal. Nao, seen as an outsider by her classmates, is viciously bullied. Nao, too, is considering suicide.
The only bright spot in the girl’s life seems to be Jiko, her 104-year-old great grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun. Jiko has taught Nao a few of the fundamentals of Zen Buddhism, which help support her. Nao has stated an intention of writing about Jiko’s life, but she actually writes about whatever occurs to her, including the story of her uncle, a World War II kamikaze pilot.
This story is punctuated with scenes from Ruth’s quiet life on a small island with her husband Oliver, a biologist. Both stories dip into philosophy, Buddhist beliefs, and even a little magical realism. Ruth and Oliver become involved in Nao’s story and wonder if she committed suicide, if she survived the tsunami, and where she is.
At first I resisted this novel a bit. I probably wouldn’t have read it if it was not on my Man Booker Prize list. I wasn’t completely convinced by Nao’s voice, and I felt that the story was a way to sneak in lessons about Buddhist teachings. Eventually, though, I got sucked in and became just as interested in Nao’s fate as Ruth was.
However, in tackling its many subjects—suicide, bullying, the trash in the ocean, the nature of time, the tsunami, World War II, just to name a few—I sometimes felt this novel was all over the place. It is entertaining but kind of mind boggling.
I read The Iron Clew for The 1947 Club and what a blast it was! I was expecting a typical Golden Age mystery—heavy on the puzzle, light on motivation and character. What I got was something completely different!
Leonidas Witherall is blocked. He is the author of a series of adventure novels starring the fiery Lieutenant Haseltine. But now that the war is over, Witherall thinks that his usual villains are passé. The Nazis are beat, and the Russians are our allies, for heaven’s sake!
Mrs. Mullet, his housekeeper, advises him to move from espionage to mysteries. In no time, Witherall has invented a plot involving brown paper packages and a murder of a prominent man.
Witherall has been ignoring his own brown paper package. It is a report from the Dalton Safe Deposit and Trust Company that he is supposed to be reviewing before his dinner meeting with Balderston, the bank manager. But the muse is calling, so Witherall has just enough time to dress for dinner before going down to the hall to pick up the package. But it is gone!
Witherall hears a door closing and realizes that the thief has just left. When he sees no one walking away, he surmises that the thief is hiding in the yews at the front of the house. He tricks the thief into coming out and sees a lady in a mink emerge with a brown paper package in her handbag.
After he steals the package, he becomes the quarry in a rowdy chase through the neighborhood, to be rescued by Harriman, an old boy from his school-teaching days. This incident sends him on a rollicking adventure involving several brown parcels, a green handbag, a dinosaur footprint, a murder, a kidnapping, and a massive Massachusetts snowstorm. Leonidas is helped along by a plethora of young people and an old flame.
The plot of this novel is ridiculous. The writing is energetic and witty, the characters engaging. What more could you ask? This novel was a lot of fun!
The books spans 20 years, beginning in 1949. Helene Hanff, a freelance writer living in New York, writes a letter to Marks & Co., antiquarian booksellers at 84, Charing Cross Road. She has become weary of the shoddy books she is able to afford in New York and asks the booksellers to send her inexpensive secondhand copies of several works. She is duly answered by Frank Doel.
This correspondence moves from formal to friendly. Hanff knows that England is still under postwar austerity measures, so she sends the store employees packages of eggs and meat and other goodies. Soon the correspondence is joined by letters from Frank’s wife and other store employees.
This is a delightful book about friendship between people who have never met. Many of the letters are funny, and the book is particularly appropriate for book lovers.
Felix wants revenge. Years ago, he was at the pinnacle of his career, director of the Makeshiweg Festival, presenting The Tempest. He was known for his avante garde approaches to theatre. But while he was occupied with the play, he let his assistant Tony deal with the other points of business. In his turn, Tony plotted with Sal O’Nally, the Heritage Minister, to remove him from his job. Making matters worse, Felix’s young daughter Miranda had died a few years before.
Felix has been leading a retired life in a rustic cottage in the country. Several years ago, he took a job with a program at a local prison. Each year, he stages a Shakespeare play staffed and acted by the prisoners. It has become very popular, and the prisoners’ literacy scores have increased.
But Felix is mostly alone with only his fantasy daughter for company.
One year, Felix hears that several ministers, including Sal and Tony, will attend the prison on the day of the broadcast of the play. Their real intent, he hears, is to shut down the program, despite its success. Felix decides this year’s play will be The Tempest, and through the play, he will get his revenge.
I thought Atwood’s approach to this retelling was much more inventive than the other reworkings I have recently read, and I found the novel entertaining. Its revenge plot didn’t really grab me, though. I didn’t like Felix very much, although he gets more likable as the novel progresses. It was clever to combine the Caliban and Prospero roles into one for this book. Certainly, readers familiar with Atwood will recognize her acerbic writing style. Not to get to the point where I thought he was a real person, but I also thought his teaching methods were really creative, and the production sounded as if it would be good.