Monday, September 01, 2008

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I know that "all the world and his wife and his daughter" have written rave reviews about this gem of a book but I have only just read it and I would like to say a few words about it, too.This won't be another review, just some observations I made as I was reading and enjoying the best new book to arrive through my letterbox this year.

Like everyone else, I loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I had to slow down when I got to the last fifty pages because I didn't want it to end. Then I wanted to know more about Mary Ann Shaffer and was saddened to know that she died before seeing her book published and receiving such international acclaim.

had a holiday on the island of Guernsey a few years ago and we were fascinated by the evidence of the German Occupation. However, although we learned a lot from the museums and books such as Charles Cruikshank's official history of the German Occupation, the reality of life for the islanders was difficult to conjure from facts alone. Dawsey, Amelia, Elizabeth, Isola and the rest may be fictional characters but their descriptions of daily life, the hardships and privations, the inventiveness, cameraderie and courage of quite ordinary people gave me a better understanding of the conditions in Guersey during the war years.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is well researched and well written but I wondered, as I was reading, if it had the authentic tone of the period. I am not the first person to have noted echoes of Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road in its style and form, so I turned to my beautiful Folio edition (HH would not have approved of a paperback) to re-read the letters from 1949.

Juliet's letters in the Potato Peel book are written in exactly the same tone as those of the very proper English correspondents from the bookshop in Charing Cross Road.The style becomes less formal and then familiar in both books. Mary Ann Shaffer got it exactly right.

I wondered next about the choice of literature for the members of the Guernsey Literary Society. Turning again to Helen Hanff, I found many similarities: classics, poetry and essays appear but no fiction until both Isola and Helen chance upon Pride and Prejudice. You may recall Helen Hanff's outrage on discovering, when she read a modern English translation of Chaucer's tales, that they were 'just stories. I don't like stories'. I wonder if Isola was based on her, certainly it would be difficult to decide which of them uttered the gem, "Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books".
I was a mere toddler (pictured here with big sister Catherine and our mother)when these books were being sent across to America by the proprieters of the boookshop in Charing Cross Road, or being discussed by the members of that Literary Society but I was surrounded by similar titles. I recall Selected Essays of Elia, Tales from Shakespeare, Carlyle's Past and Present and lots of poetry books, so perhaps they were part of every English home at the time.

Reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society has been most enjoyable, not simply because it is a good book but also because of all the distractions that followed on. I might not otherwise have had the pleasure of re-reading 84 Charing Cross Road, recalling my early childhood or that holiday in Guernsey.
My first sight of Guernsey as our tiny plane came in to land


  1. A lovely 'non review', M. I am simply going to have to read this, aren't I? Despite my resolve to eschew books which are the talk of the blogosphere. If you loved it, I know that I shall too! Never been to the Channel Islands, though my parents are huge devotees. Another destination for my TBV list!

  2. I'm sure you'll enjoy it, J. I'm turning into the stereotypical grumpy old woman where new books are concerned: hate plots and characters written to a formula; hate cowardly endings; hate books that have 100 too many pages; hate bad language. I'll be banned from the bookshops soon but this one I loved!

  3. J, I forgot to say that the Juliet in the Guernsey book is just like you.

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  5. m. another moment of synchronicity. Two things come to mind about your post. We watched "84 Charing Cross Road" last night. If I had seen it before, it was gone from my memory. Both my husband and I were enchanted. Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins were superb as the brassy New Yorker and the sedate Londoner.

    The first thing that popped into my mind was the letters were so like a blog in which disparate people came to know and admire each through a mutual interest without ever meeting and having their relationship reduced to the mundane.

    The other thing that struck us was how heroic and stoic the British were when years after the war ended, they were still without basic foodstuffs and clothing and yet their inbred courtesy and refinement never faltered.

    I loved the language of the letters and wish there was more like it in today's literary world where it won't be long before books will be written without vowels as txt mssgs.

    Although we were aware of it, not much was made in our media during or after the war of the German occupation of British territory nor the Irish connection, nor was much made of the number of Brits who favored Germany. We were reminded of the tension watching "Foyle's War."

    My husband and I are watching more and more British films and TV. He seems to be enjoying it and I wouldn't be surprised if pretty soon he switches from coffee to tea!

  6. e, I'm sure you would enjoy this book - the English is perfect.

    I was thinking along the same lines as you about the connections we make via blogging. I have made some very special friendships which will never result in face-to-face encounters but I hope will continue via email. I now have another 'virtual friend' in America, as well as you and Duck.

  7. Somehow I hadn't actually heard of this book yet (I really am out of the loop!) but now I'm looking forward to reading it.

  8. All my 'book reports' are observations. I will come back and read yours after I finish the book which I have just begun. Oh, how I love it. It prompted me to haul down off the shelf an old college text with Lamb's essays.

  9. cybill, nan, e, I know you will love it. Happy reading!

  10. Now that's what I call a proper review, M, so thank you. And now I'd better go and buy a copy.

    And thank you for the reminders about rationing. Whatever happened to all those old ration books?

    I do remember our American relatives sending us fabulous clothing parcels - lots of impossibly glamorous frocks for the mums and aunties and things like cute sundresses for the little girls in the family. Of course, we used to have sunshine in those days so had the opportunity to wear them . . .

  11. Yes, I remember sunny days. Perhaps we got them to compensate for the food shortages? No glamorous frocks from America for us though, just the odd side of bacon from Ireland.

  12. Glad you liked the book, M. It seems to have been universally loved by all. There was even a glowing review in The Telegraph last weekend and their reviewers hardly ever seem to like anything *or* review books that ordinary folk are reading. I even wonder if they saw it was setting blogland alight and thought they'd better get in on the act quick. Personally, I preferred your 'observations'.

  13. What a nice thing to say, Cath. Thank you.


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