14 August 2008
Absorbing tale gets a guernsey
Dedicated apostles of the book maintain a little collection of volumes which they always buy whenever they see them cheap, and which they force upon often initially reluctant, but salvageable, people foolish enough to admit that they do not read books much. I have found another book for my list, even if it will take a few years for a paperback edition to be common in the second-hand shops. But that can be helped along by people buying the book now, ostensibly as a present for their mother or maiden aunt, but with a sneak read first.
People are able to be salvaged - for coming to love books at any event - by being pushed into a few good but slight books of the right type. We were often forced to read fine literature at school, but for many this was a chore and distraction. That the books were old and pronounced to be ''classics'' positively put people off. Such a pity, as so many people discover when, decades later, they come to read them - Pride and Prejudice, say - again and can scarcely remember them at all, except perhaps as film scripts.
Some others have been more diligent, particularly with cult books like the Harry Potter series, but came to find reading the series - with volumes which seemed to become thicker and thicker - so exhausting that they were daunted from ever engaging in such a project again. Neither reading as duty nor as marathon always inspires to see reading as fun, reading as addiction, and reading as essential pleasure. All stages well behind reading as complete addiction, with books as one's basic oxygen, and the cost of books the major expenditure of life, which is my problem.
The new find is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer, and I would as earnestly offer it to a 15 or 20 year old girl as give it as a Christmas present to any of my score of surviving aunts. It's well written, well plotted, a romance based on a smidgeon of history, mock serious but very funny, reasonably slight and able to be savoured at leisure.
It fits in with a group of similar books none of which would ever be on an earnest classics list but which have delighted people for several generations. If you liked Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons, or I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith, or The Loved One, by Evelyn Waugh, all books I have been pressing on young women for decades, you will love this. I also encourage gals to read Bonjour Tristesse, by Francoise Sagan, Devil in the Flesh by Raymond Radiguet, The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford, and Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. Or any of the Mme Ramotswe books, preferably in order, by Alexander McCall Smith. Or The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers, The Country Girls, by Edna O'Brien, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark, Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, or Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham.
Someone who has read all of these is ready to re-read Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, or, say All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West with a real sense of discovery, wondering how they made so little impression at school.
For teenage boys, I recommend True Grit, by Charles Portis (still seriously undiscovered as slight literature), Huck Finn, by Mark Twain (preferably read aloud), Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis, Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie, Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Kim by Rudyard Kipling, and Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Ideally, these should encourage interest in, say, Graham Greene, Robert Graves, and Evelyn Waugh, and then encourage even wider reading.
A good many of these books may never fit into a solemn canon; what one can say about all is that they can be read for a sheer pleasure which incites an appetite for more.
I'm a little surprised at myself for picking up The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, unrecommended and alone, though by now, several weeks out in Australia, it has already acquired cult status and is moving briskly. The title is arresting enough, I suppose, but for me the temptation came from the word Guernsey. I was having a mild mania for it after picking up and becoming absorbed in the Book of Ebenezer Le Page by Gerald Evans, a book 27 years old, one of the great, if generally unremarked classics of the 20th century.
Ebenezer Le Page is a native of Guernsey born in the late 19th century, whose only venture ever off the island was a trip to Jersey for a tug-of-war early in his youth. The novel tells of his family, life, and life on Guernsey into his late 60s. Nothing much happens directly to him at any rate though he lives through the world wars, the second of which brought German occupation of Guernsey and the other islands in the English Channel, the introduction of slave labourers and great hardship, hunger and misery. But ultimate liberation proves, he thinks, worse, because it brings tourists and progressively destroys the island community.
It's not an autobiography, though the author was a Guernsey man, a well-educated one quite well known as a critic in the 1920s. Like the GLPPPS, it was published only after the author's death. It has elements of A.B. Facey's A Fortunate Life, but never adopts any sort of naive and simple presentation.
The GLPPPS is based around a central part of the Le Page novel - the German occupation and its effects on the inhabitants. The heroine, a London journalist and writer looking for love and for a topic for a book falls over the trials of the islanders and becomes more and more absorbed, initially only by a prolific correspondence (the whole book consists of letters between characters) and ultimately by travelling there. Buy it, it won't hurt you, and you may well come to love it, which is to say, that you will need several copies, some to wish on your friends and relations.
~~~Jack Waterford is a local legend. This is another clipping I saved for future reference. Nothing like a good book list.