We have just come back from a lovely relaxing holiday in the sun and below are my lazy thoughts on the books I slowly made my way through…
84 Charring Cross Road + The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street – Helene Hanff – (non-fiction)
This is the delightful collection of letters starting in 1949 and spanning 20 years between Helene Hanff a self described “poor writer” from New York and Frank Doel of Marks and co, second hand booksellers – 84 Charing Cross Road, London. Responding to an article she read, Helene Hanff sends her first letter with a list of rare books she is looking to purchase – Frank Doyle replies, sends what he has and this is the beginning of their amazing relationship. The contrast in writing style and probably personality is apparent, Helene is forthright, says what she thinks right from the start while Frank is formal and polite. Their letters are brief and based around the books but over the years, through their letters, Helene gets to know the other employees at Marks and co, as well as Frank’s wife Nora. Helene’s kindess, she sends regular care packages of post war rationed items such as ham, eggs and stockings is greatly appreciated and despite pleas to visit London and her best intentions, she never quite gets there so sadly is not able to meet Frank Doyle in person.
The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is written in 1971 and is Helene Hanff’s story of her eventual visit to London, the places she sees and people she meets. 84 Charing Cross Road has been published and she is being paid a small amount to travel to London to promote it. She meets Frank’s wife Nora and his daughters. Making the very most of her small amount of money and her exuberant personality, she spends her several weeks in London feeling like a Duchess, meeting intersting people and being escorted to many of the literary places she has read and dreamt about for so many years.
The Duchess of Bloomsbury is a lovely compliment to 84 Charing Cross Road, both volumes are quite short, the letters could be read in a hour or so… I learned afterwards that a movie was made with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins – I can imagine them both being fantastic and am going to look out for it.
The Post Office Girl – Stefan Zweig – translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg
The first story of Stefan Zweig’s that I have read – incredibly written and translated – it was like actually being in the shoes of the main character, living the story, feeling all the emotions, the brief periods of elation and especially the terrible despair – it was this despair that I was left with after finishing the book – quite an uncomfortable feeling.
The time period is 1920’s Austria – Christine Hoflehner is 26 yrs old and part of a generation that has lost much in the Great War. She has lost her Father and Brother, her energy and enthusiasm and hope for the future. Once part of a comfortable middle class family, she is now poor, toiling away in a rural post office during the day, nursing her invalid mother in the small attic room they share by night.
Out of the blue she receives an invite from her long lost rich Aunt and her husband to join them for a holiday in a luxury hotel in the Swiss Alps. Within hours she is transported to a new world, one beyond her wildest dreams, she is transformed and an instant success. She loves it.
With bated breath she counts: nine, ten, eleven, twelve. Midnight! Is it possible? Only Midnight? Only twelve hours since she arrived, shy, inhibited, and panicky, with a dried-up, paltry little soul, really just one day, half a day? In this instant, shaken to her very depths, this ecstatic human being has a first inkling that the soul is made of stuff so mysteriously elastic that a single event can make it big enough to contain the infinite…
Then it all comes to an abrupt end… the clothes, friends, parties, the feeling that anything is possible is gone and Christine is back to her former life at the Post Office. Only now what previously seemed dull but inevitable is now intolerable to Christine, she has seen what is possible with money and cannot conceive of carrying on as before.
She saves and takes a weekend trip to Vienna. Here she meets Ferdinand, who is in a similar position – having served at the front in Russia, he has come back to a hard life, little money, no qualifications, no prospects of a decent job – all this he feels has gone to the new generation who are reaping the benefits of his hard work and growing up with out the stresses of war and poverty. He and Christine see themselves as kindred souls and attempt to start a relationship of sorts – restricted by their poverty and the discomfort of having to meet in free outdoor places as the winter sets in.. It is here that the despair and hopelessness really sets in..
Stefan Zweig was an Austrian Jew who was forced into exile by the Nazis in the 1930’s. It was during this time that he wrote The Post Office Girl which was found amongst his papers after his death in 1942. Knowing this while reading the story just adds to the sense of despair and rawness – it is like reading part of the authors story at the same time.
Challenges: German reading, Lost in translation, What’s in a name, 2009 Pub challenge; Orbis Terrarum
Published: 1982 (English translation 2009 in UK)
Forget you had a daughter – Doing time in the ‘Bangkok Hilton’ – Sandra Gregory (non fiction)
6 February 1993
To my dearest parents, grandparents and brother
I am going to ask the hardest and very last thing from you all. I do not want you to forgive me, what I have done is not excusable and above all else I knew better than to do what I did… I have not been wise and I am asking you all to please forget that you ever had a daughter, granddaughter or sister. I know that this will come as a shock. I am so very sorry for the shame I have brought on you all…
In 1993, 24 year old Sandra Gregory was arrested as she attempted to board a flight from Bangkok to Tokyo. She was carrying 89gms of heroin and was eventually sentenced to 25 years in prison. The above is part of the letter she sent home to her family in England after her arrest. “Forget you had a daughter” is her story – from her childhood to her arrival in Thailand, a country she falls in love with but due to illness and unemployment ends up desperate to leave, how she met Robert Lock, a heroin addict who offered her £1000 (more than enough for her airfare home) to carry his “personal supply” to Tokyo. It covers her 4 1/2 years in Bangkok’s infamous Lard Yao (“Bangkok Hilton”) prison, the conditions she faced there and the things she needed to do to survive. She was then transferred to the British prison system which was not the respite she was expecting and brought it’s own set of problems. Finally after 8 years and the persistent campaiging of her family, she received a pardon from the King of Thailand and was released.
It is a very good book. Sandra Gregory tells her story in a way that does not blame anybody else for her situation. She accepts she has made a terrible mistake and that she must bear her punishment. She reflects later that the sentence was too long but never criticises the Thai justice system for the length of her sentence or the conditions at Lao Yard. She was also able to accept Robert Lock’s role in it all, his denying he knew her, his not guilty verdict and release from prison and his reoffending.
“In many ways, the prison was a show piece. Everything that could be reasonably said to be in good condition was simply for the benefit of both the easy working of the prison machine and the guards who worked there. Nothing was meant to be easier for the women…
There is a Thai expression – ‘Sprinkle the surface with coriander’ – that basically means ‘Create an impression that the whole is as pretty as the surface.’ ….The surface of Lao Yard was constantly sprinkled, metaphorically, with coriander. It was a reminder of the paradise that lay outside. Anyone seeing Lao Yard for the first time would think it was perfectly fine”
An interesting side note is that when she was transferred to Durham prison in England, home for the most high profile and dangerous women inmates in the UK, one of Sandra’s fellow inmates was Rose West, herself one of the UK’s most notorious convicts.
This book was a gift from my boyfriend. I asked him to pick a book for me to read with a relative in it’s title for the “What’s in a name challenge” and this is what he picked. Another book that I wouldn’t have picked for myself but well worth reading – a very honest and scary account yet one about hope and love also.
Challenges: What’s in a name 2
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson – translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland
I picked this book up from my local second hand book shop and am really pleased I did. I had heard of this series but was never overly keen to read them. I took this as my “action” holiday book and it was my favourite holiday read. At 538 pages it is a bit of a chunkster but it has a good pace and was intriguing enough to keep me turning the pages. I got through it in just over a day so it must have been engrossing.
Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist whose investigation into a corrupt industrialist has gone wrong. Needing to take some time out, he accepts the offer of Henrik Vanger, head of the powerful Vanger corporation to investigate the disappearance of his niece Harriet decades earlier. Vanger believes Harriet was murdered by a member of the family.
Lisbeth Slander is a security specialist with a rebellious nature, unorthodox appearance and a troubled past. She is very good at her job. Her reports contain information and a level of detail that astound her boss and clients. She joins the plot with an investigation into Mikael Blomkvist and things move from there.
There are three interwoven stories running through this book – that of Mikael Blomkvist, the Vangers and Lisbeth Slander. Lisbeth was gutsy and fascinating and definitely my favourite character.
It wasn’t a perfect read for me. There is quite a lot of detail to get through, especially at the beginning including lots of Swedish names and places but it’s not necessary to remember it all and there is a helpful Vanger family tree at the beginning. I also found some of the plot not entirely believable. The book is in four parts, each beginning with a Swedish statistic relating to violence against women. This is a strong theme throughout the book, in the individual stories and I thought it was a little overdone.
But I did really enjoy it and am tempted to rush out and buy “The girl who played with fire” straight away. Knowing though that there are only two more books and that’s it, I will try and wait a while…
Published: 2005 (English 2008)
Challenges: Lost in translation