May 072011

Except for two piles of papers to come, summer is here. In its first few days, it always seems like this vast land of freedom, where and when everything is possible… Until time goes by too fast to be really accounted for… But I am still in the first days… Days when I feel I can spend hours doing inessential readings, for example. (Definition of inessential: not required by any current project / for other people the definition could be simply «for pleasure»). So this afternoon, I went through my pile of unread books (well, one of the piles…), and selected a couple. In the end I chose The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book I received as a Christmas(2010)  gift. The only thing I knew about it was that it had been a success when it first came out in 2008, and I remembered one of my friends mentioning it. From the first pages, I was hooked. Turning page after page, I was getting deeper in the story of Juliet Ashton and her correspondence, her accidental discovery of Guernsey and its fate  during world war II.  The island was occupied by the Germans, and cut out from the rest of the world, a prize possession of Hitler who took it as a first step towards victory on the British. That did not happen, and when the occupant finally relinquished the island, it left behind a decimated, starved population, as hungry for butter as for communication with the rest of the planet. Because of a volume found on the shelves of the second-hand bookshop, one of the islander gets in touch with Juliet, a writer who came to fame thanks to a column printed every week where she chronicled daily life in London under German bombing.

I’m only half way in the book, and I’m very attached to all the characters, curious to see the story unfold of course, but mostly interested in the account of the everyday. And I’m far enough in it that I start dreading the end, afraid to have to bid goodbye to all of them. I do not really care about the plot, I’m just enjoying the journey, the exchanges, the tiny stories, the mundane of the letters, the day to day chat. And one of the charm of book is that it is a book about books, a book about reading. The main character is a writer, who just had a book published – at first she is on the 1946 version of a book tour, having tea after tea in bookstores all over England -, a writer who does not know what to do of the sudden success of her first book, and whose main worry is what she’ll write next. Her friends in London are publishers – hers, a Londoner and childhood friend; an American competitor, a ferocious entrepreneur. In Guernsey her epistolary friends have in common the book club they created out of necessity, first a cover-up for a forbidden dinner, quickly transformed into  a community knitted together by books: while one is infatuated with Charles Lamb and his works, another one reads the same volume of Seneque over and over, and others share the joy they found in reading the Brontë’s novels at candle light, long after the curfew.
The book has a Helen Hanff taste to it, another book about books and bookshops, but it has more to it, in the sense that the sample of characters is wider and far more diverse, including some that would never have been in physical contact with a book if it had not been for the unfortunate circumstances of war.
To be continued…

Jan 292011

I have always chosen carefully what I would eat or snack on while reading. Long, long ago, I started reading while taking baths (there a is a science to keep a book dry, and there are some accessories out there to help).  Within hands reach, I would carefully stack a piece of cheese,  a couple of crackers, not forgetting something to drink. Today, a tea and a few cookies do the trick. For the pleasure to be complete, all details need to be worked out thoughtfully. And then, immersed in water and words, the outside world disappears, it is only me and the story, and soon enough, it’s only the story.
An enclosed space, that’s what the bathroom is. As a child, I was always imagining such spaces, and built myself tents in my parents living room. Officially they were to be houses for my dolls and myself, a family within the family… but soon, the dolls were pushed in a corner, “sleeping”, and I spent hours absorbed in the Mallory Towers or with  the Famous Five. Another refuge was my bed: hidden under the covers most of the time, with a flash light, so nobody would know I was sneaking a few more minutes, a few more pages.
Years ago, my life changed in many a way. I moved across an ocean, on the other side of a continent, and the setting, the language, the food became suddenly different. But books were still there. Even more than before, since I had henceforth access to two literary traditions, two writing tongues, two worlds. So I have kept reading. And found new snacks to go with my pile of books…