Saturday, 28 February 2009

The cycles of my bookshelf

I am sure people will understand the thoughts I am about to express. You can't call yourself a true bookaholic without experiencing this at least once!

Sometimes one reads in cycles. I don't mean consciously making lists on the same subject, actively seeking out works that will relate to the previous book and form a bridge to the
next; sometimes we finish a book, ponder what we will turn to next and without really thinking about it, choose a book that directly, or indirectly, relates to the one before.

This, I have realised, has just happened to me. Last week I finally read 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society', won last year, and absolutely loved it. The humour at the start, which slowly turns somber as the full extent of the Nazi occupation of Guernsey is realised. I love the fact it's told through letters, that strangers can reach across and touch one another. It's beautiful. I wish it happened more often.
I knew little of the Guernsey occupation, and neither does Juliet Ashton, although this is swiftly rectified. As I read it, I kept thinking that it was real, that it was the kind of book Jan Struther (of 'Mrs Miniver' fame) might have put together if she had had the opportunity.

I've been fortunate enough never to have had to live through a war, but it's still a book that resonates deeply with me, perhaps because of the simple love of literature that echoes from the letters. How Isola rants against the Bronte men ('
Dear Miss Ashton, Oh my, oh my. You have written a book about Anne Bronte, sister to Charlotte and Emily ... To think all five of them had weak chests and died so young! What a sadness. Their Pa was a selfish thing, wasn't he? He paid his girls no mind at all - always sitting in his study, yelling for his shawl. He never rose up to wait on hisself, did he? Just sat alone in his room while his daughters died like flies. And their brother, Branwell, he wasn't much either. Always drinking and sicking up on the carpets.'), or how one letter writer sums up the arrival of the Nazis with the simple Shakespeare line 'The bright day is done, and we are for the dark.' I want more books like that. Consider this a commission!

So, today (Friday), when I was scanning my shelves for something to take with me into town in case I got bored of writing (which I did), I bypassed all the books that have been gathering dust for years and went immediately for 'The Reader'. You see what I mean about cycles and links?
I've seen the film already. Indeed, I wouldn't have known of the books existence without it. Some people will tell you that the order is wrong. Books should be read before films are seen. And, to a certain extent, I agree with them, but it really does depend on the quality of both. Some books make fantastic films, but are an utter chore to read, whilst the reverse can also be true. In the case of 'The Reader', both are such gems, and use the visual in such distinctive ways, that I don't think it particularly matters which order the process takes. (However, I did find that a certain Ms Winslet's face popped into my head whenever I thought of Hannah Schmitz - although this is no bad thing!).

As I write this, I've only just finished reading the book and therefore am still digesting what I devoured in a little over six hours, but my primary feeling is one of beauty. I realise this is an odd choice of word, considering the underlying theme of the book, but as I said earlier, the use of visual in the novel is a very strong part of it, and you can't help but be drawn to the images being conveyed. The novel is not long, but there are a lot of ideas to take in, the notion of guilt, and love, and whether we are right to love people, even after their actions prove them to be false,
seem to be of real import to Schlink. It's not a novel I can easily dismiss in quick sentences, and at this point in time, I don't think I'm even going to try!

So, there we are - two different books on one similar period, both of which have come together to help inform my understanding on how writers deal with that big monster under the bed, Nazi Germany and the after effects the war had on everyone at the time.


Joan Mora said...

I loved Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, reminded me of a more substantial 84 Charing Cross Road. I saw The Reader, but I'll pick up the book as well. Thanks!

Have you read Jamie Ford's, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet? Yet another facet of WWII, the Japanese internment camps in the U.S.

oxford-reader said...

You're right, 84 Charing Cross Road is so similar ... I really ought to reread that!

I've not read the Jamie Ford book - I shall have to hunt it out, thanks for the recommendation!

farmlanebooks said...

I've just finished The Guernesy Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society too - I loved it!

I'm the opposite when it comes to book cycles - I tend to avoid anything I've recently read about. So although I do go in cycles it tends to be - classic, thriller, love story, war/tradgey, book in translation, then back to the beginning again! I get too depressed if I read about too much tragedy together, so need the cycles to keep sane!

Elaine said...

I was lucky enough to have a proof copy of the Guernsey book sent to me by Bloomsbury and read it in one fell swoop and then bored evryone rigid raving about it. So sad that the author died and no more to come, it reminded me very much of EM Delafield Diary of a Provincial Lady and if you have not read that one, you will simply adore it.

oxford-reader said...

Elaine, I LOVE Diary of a Provincial Lady ... Simon (Stuck in a Book) introduced me to her, and I've not looked back since.