Inveterate, incurable readaholic, who blogs about books and what's in 'em. If readaholism is a deadly disease, no problem. Couldn't imagine a better way to go.
This was the first time I’d ever taken Amazon.com up on one of its book recommendations. Privy to my reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (by spying), the folks at Amazon tried to hook me up with this book. I obligingly forgave the spying, fell for their gimmick, and was totally charmed by the initially perfunctory letter exchange between Helene Hanff and Frank Doel, which evolves gradually like a gracefully aged wine into a full-bodied friendship. Just as naturally, Hanff finds herself corresponding not only with Frank, but with his family and other Marks & Co. employees. I was thoroughly captivated by this easy read, but especially liked the story of the unfurling friendship, the mini history lesson I received, as well as the discussion of books Hanff wants that I’d never heard of.
With the letter exchange beginning just after WWII, 84 Charing Cross Road is naturally infused with history, both of the historical event variety and the equally important how-we not-so-long-ago-lived variety. I loved history in school, but must admit having had absolutely no interest in 20th-century history. Maybe I figured humankind should have learned to stop warring by then, and simply couldn’t stomach it. Consequently, my knowledge of this time period is altogether embarrassing. Still, despite my distaste for anything beyond the 19th century, I loved reading about England’s struggles just after the war in this book. I had no idea that rationing still existed three years after the war ended, or how the British handled the situation, and I liked learning about it.
Then, there’s the everyday lifestyle of a bygone era that’s nice to reminisce about if one is old enough to remember. If not so old, it’s still fun to learn a thing or two. For instance, when’s the last time you actually wrote a letter and mailed it…a real honest to goodness letter, not a greeting card. Today, we’re lucky if we even phone or email anymore. We Facebook and Tweet. In 1949, letters were THE way to correspond, and Hanff actually put dollar bills in an envelope and mailed it off to London as payment for books. I thought, she’s nuts. First, it won’t make it there with the money, and second, no way are the British gonna accept American dollars. Wrong! Ah, when life was simpler and somehow sweeter. I liked reading about these tiny, but really enormous everyday contrasts to 21st-century life.
Also, there are the letters themselves: each like a dance reflecting not only the writer’s temperament, but also the quintessential contrasts between American and British personalities. Hanff’s letters are a tango, a bold and brassy dance filled with in-your-face, sometimes sarcastic humor. In contrast, Frank Doel’s responses dance a formal, reserved British waltz. It’s charming to see how the two completely different ‘dance’ styles eventually merge and become one fluid movement of friendship and how the ‘steps’ find a matching rhythm as the friendship grows.
Lastly, I enjoyed reading on Hanff’s ‘antiquated taste’ in books, with many titles and authors familiar, but just as many I’d never heard of and mostly have no intention of trying to slog through. Truth is, compared to Ms. Hanff, I read trash. Still, it was a joy to learn of these obscure tomes and get albeit a VERY few ideas for my reading list. This book is a fast, fun, full of interesting info read that I heartily recommend.