A book about books

bancroftcharingcross
Anne Bancroft as Helene Hanff. Go see this movie right now.

A blurb on the cover of my 1970 edition of 84, Charing Cross Road, from the Saturday Review, calls it “a gorgeous little book about books.”

It is a gorgeous little book, the nonfiction account, told through letters, of an American woman’s long-distance friendship with the sellers at an antiquarian bookshop in London, beginning just after World War II. Helene Hanff was a writer from New York who initially wrote to the shop in 1949 after seeing their ad in the Saturday Review of Literature. She sent them a list of the books she most hoped to find (her “most pressing problems,” which included Hazlitt’s Selected Essays and a collection of Leigh Hunt’s) and received a polite reply that they would be sending her two of them and had begun looking for the others. She wrote back, immediately addressing the very polite British bookseller, Frank Doel (pronounced Noel), in a teasing way (“I hope madam doesn’t mean over there what it does here”), sometimes using ALL CAPS on her typewriter. It’s obvious she couldn’t help herself, New Yorker that she was. She wanted to bring out his more human side, and in time he shared it.

Helene keeps writing, looking for more books, and at some point she finds out from the British boyfriend of her young neighbor just how severe the food rations in the UK were at that time: 2 ounces of meat per family  per month, 1 egg per person per month, he told her, and this was after the war had ended! Shocked, she sends them food she chose from the catalog of a British company that imports things from Denmark, which is how the boyfriend has been sending his mother gifts of food. This is the beginning of the real warmth between Helene and Frank et al, though a true friendship had started—and continued, as she kept asking them to try to find “dear goofy John Henry” and some love poems, but “No Keats or Shelley, send me some poets who can make love without slobbering”—over the love of books, particularly old ones.

“It’s against my principles to buy a book I haven’t read, it’s like buying a dress you haven’t tried on…” Helene reveals, which I found to be a very interesting thing to say. Later, she writes:

I houseclean my books every spring and throw out those I’m never going to read again like I throw out clothes I’m never going to wear again. It shocks everybody. My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.

So yes, this is a book about books, and about reading. It’s also about the romance of bookstores, and the sweet, surprising communities that can form around them. 84, Charing Cross Road is interesting to contemporary readers, too, because it contains so many anecdotal reminders of just how different things were before the internet, and before air travel was as inexpensive and commonplace as it is today. When Helene first wrote to Marks & Co., the UK, still reeling from the war, seemed a very different and far away place. Over the 20 years of their correspondence, we see the gap between the UK and the US begin to close. By the 60s, Frank’s letters report on the hordes of tourists who come through London each summer, many of them Americans making a “pilgrimage” to Carnaby Street. “…I must say I rather like the Beatles. If the fans just wouldn’t scream so.”

Besides all that, though, this is a book about friendship—friendship of a certain, long-distance, partly-imaginary kind. In Helene’s letters to her “friends at 84, Charing Cross Road” she sometimes imagines out loud what the cramped, dusty, Dickensian bookstall must look like. She romanticizes them like crazy, but invites them to do the same to her, making herself into a charming caricature of the brash New Yorker. But Helene also talks about visiting them one day, and seems to mean it. Frank (as well as his wife Nora, in separate letters) and two of the women who work at the bookshop all invite her many times to come visit them, each offering to put her up in their flat or house for as long as she liked.

Year after year, she didn’t go. Money was always a concern. Though she had it pretty good in comparison to the deprivation the English people were still dealing with, she was living the writer’s life (a “freelancer’s” life, we’d say today), and had an unsteady income. Sometimes someone would like her idea for a TV show and offer to pay her a bundle for the script, but other times, she’d work for months on plays that no one wanted to produce. During the period that she was making good money writing murder mysteries for the TV series Ellery Queen, Helene entertained the idea of going to London for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. But then she needed to pay for a lot of expensive dental work, and she didn’t make the trip.

She was there in spirit, though. I love thinking of Helene “crawl[ing] out of bed before dawn on Coronation Day to attend the ceremony by radio…thinking of you all” because that’s exactly the kind of thing I would do. The idea of setting aside solitary time to “be with” someone else in my thoughts appeals to me deeply, loner that I am. Helene Hanff never married, and when I picture the single-lady’s apartment she describes in her letters, with its battered furniture and steady supply of coffee and books (and cigarettes and gin drinks as well, Helene admits; me too), I’m really picturing my own life, the one I had for years before I was married, and all its solitary pleasures.

Such as letter writing. I have a number of pen-pals, maybe around 20 people who I write letters to regularly, some of them for years now. I collect new pen-pals on a regular basis, too, usually through zines. Someone I’ll meet at a zine fair (or who I’ve sold my zines to, or traded mine for theirs) will write me a letter, and then we’re off and running! When I lived alone, sending and receiving these letters constituted a major part of my social life. Most of it, some years, if I’m honest. I have learned that there is a strong similarity between these kinds of friendships and the kinship you can find in books. A human connection is made, in a very real way, but from a distance, and in solitude. It’s a certain kind of person who seeks out this kind of connection—and who sometimes, at least in some ways, prefers it to time spent in another person’s company. I have been this kind of person; I bet a lot of writers have. It has something to do with the life of the imagination, for sure, but it’s a self-protective thing too. You can have a very close bond with a long-distance friend and still feel safe, intact, yourself.

By 1956, Helene announces that she’s been “socking money” away in a savings account, and if “TV keeps feeding [her]” she’ll make a trip to England the next summer. But then her landlord sells the building and she gets evicted from her apartment. She decides to buy one in a new building that hasn’t been constructed yet, and spends all her “England money” on the place and new furniture for it.

The eviction and the dental work were real, unavoidable drains on Helene’s finances, and besides that, I’m aware that in the 1950s, the average middle class person didn’t hop on planes and take trips whenever they felt like it. But it seemed clear to me, reading Helene’s letters, that she was always reticent about traveling to England, that it was something she liked to think and talk about, but maybe never took that seriously as a plan. You get the feeling—and in one letter, to an American friend, she admits to this possibility—she’d rather keep on dreaming about her English friends than meet them in person and have the fantasy spoiled.

SPEAKING OF SPOILED, THE REST OF THIS ESSAY GIVES AWAY THE BOOK’S ENDING. READ ON AT YOUR OWN RISK!

In the end, Helene never makes the trip she talked about so much. In October of 1969 she receives a letter from Frank, writing animatedly about tourists and Jane Austen and plans for Christmas (“we are all very  much alive and kicking,” he begins), and less than three months later she receives one from the secretary at Marks & Co., who has had to write to tell her that Frank died. His appendix ruptured, which gave him the peritonitis that killed him a week later. Anyone who reads the book would find this terribly sad, and I certainly did. Joe caught me crying on the couch after I finished it, as he has many times after I’ve put down a good, touching book.

But I’m still trying to decide how I feel about this as an ending to the story. The thing is, I kept wanting Helene and her English friends to meet in person, even though I knew all along that they wouldn’t. (I’ve seen the movie, with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, in which they DO meet, and later read about how that never really happened. The movie, incidentally, is also wonderful.) What I don’t understand is why I was wishing for this. Have I lost my capacity for wistfulness? I used to be comprised almost entirely of wist. And anyway, that’s the point of this book. You’re supposed to read it and feel that sense of longing for something that can never be. You’re supposed to enjoy feeling that feeling. It’s like nostalgia—the kind of melancholy that feels good.

I guess what surprises me is that I don’t like that idea as much as I have in the past. I don’t have much capacity these days for enjoying the space between aloneness and closeness, for feeling the pleasure of that friction. I don’t want to want things and not get them. I  want the people I love to be with me, and to never lose them. I want to do the things I want to do soon, and not risk missing out on them. I want life to be vibrant, and I want it not to end.

Maybe it’s because everything feels more immediate these days, with every piece of news sounding so dire. Bad people making bad plans. Everyone I know is upset, and at times it seems clear to me that we’re standing on the edge of something huge and dangerous. Like De La Soul sang back in 1996, “Stakes is high.”

I guess I could find it in myself to feel wistful and nostalgic for the times in my life when the world felt LESS scary, come to think of it, but feelings like that seem like luxuries now, and I ought to ration them out.

 

Advertisements

Adaptation

It’s Memorial Day, and since the weather report called for rain Joe and I did our outdoor stuff yesterday. Grilling, gardening, sweating, the whole bit. It was really chill. Now I’m installed on the couch, doin’ nothin’, which is a little TOO chill. Since I feel like a lazy slug I gave myself an assignment: I looked up movies on Netflix that are adaptations from books, watched one, and reviewed it for you. You’re welcome!

(Incidentally, if you want to search Netflix for this category of movies, you can look for them by using the code number 4961, “dramas based on books.” All the Netflix category codes are compiled on this website here. You’re welcome!)

nyc

Not Waving But Drowning

Since there’s a Stevie Smith poem by this name, I figured that’s what landed this movie in the adaptations from books category. But actually, the film is considered a companion piece to a shorter one by the same screenwriter and director, Devyn Waitt, called The Most Girl Part of You, which was adapted from a short story by Amy Hempel. That short film is included as a “prologue” to the main one, and it’s the one that should have been called Not Waving But Drowning, if you ask me. It’s about a teenage girl, Kate, and her best friend, a boy named Big Guy whose mother has just died by suicide. Big Guy copes with his pain by doing weird, self-destructive, kind of sexy things, such as chipping his front tooth on purpose and sewing Kate’s name into his hand, like a kind of tattoo.

The Most Girl Part of You is narrated by the main character, like many movies that are adapted from books. I tend to consider this a lazy choice, but it works well for this little film, in part because it’s only 15 minutes long so it feels more like a story than a movie, and in part because Hempel’s got some good first-person narrative lines that deserve to be preserved: “Big Guy’s hand catches on my dress. I don’t have to look to know that it’s the dry jagged skin from where he pulled my name out of the place where he had sewn it.”

In the feature-length film, the best friendship is between two teenage girls, Sara and Adele. They’re about to have their “revolutionary summer,” when they’ll leave their small town and move to New York City together. Between Adele’s Violent Femmes t-shirt and her parents’ “modern” kitchen with tall white cabinets and big fake plants, it seems to be set in the late 80s, but if that’s the case then there are a few anachronistic turns of phrase here and there, so it’s hard to say.

Sara has some trouble at home and decides to stay with her parents for a while, which leaves Adele, who’s a little wilder anyway, to try New York on her own. Sara starts her new job as an art teacher at an old folks’ home, which has a little more intrigue than you’d expect, thanks to the glamorous Sylvia, one of the only “half classy babes” in that joint. Sylvia wears silk robes and smokes cigarettes and used to be a painter, and is played by Lynn Cohen, who’s very good. (You might remember her as Miranda’s Ukrainian nanny from “Sex and the City.”) Meanwhile, Adele is in filthy New York, where dudes stalk her on subway platforms and her weird roommate won’t give her a key, so she has to sleep on the front step one night when he doesn’t come home. She makes a fun new friend too, but her friend, a beautiful young woman who lives in the building next door, hangs out with sketchy guys; not so good. Then she meets Adam Driver, and they have a lovely, if painfully awkward and totally realistic friend / love relationship that buoys the movie after it has started to drift.

The real love story though, of course, is between Adele and Sara, and by the movie’s end we’re left to wonder whether their friendship can survive the big changes in their lives. Throughout the movie, the plot-moving parts are intercut with beautiful sequences that have indie and electropop music swelling behind them—a bit like music videos—which makes the whole thing feel a little overcooked. But I’m a sucker for that sort of thing, especially when what’s being mined is the emotional lives of young women. The thing is, kids their age who have just grown up and are setting out on their own tend to romanticize their own lives as it is; a film that exaggerates this feeling doesn’t necessarily distort it, in my opinion, but highlights and enhances a lovely sort of melodrama that is already there.

The real strength of a small indie movie like this one, when all’s said and done, is that it has the same eye for detail that a good novel or short story does—like the way the girls’ eyes gleam, liquid, when they lie flat on the bed in the darkness and talk. In that sense, then, the film feels like a literary adaptation in the best way.

Here’s that Stevie Smith poem, for reference:

Not Waving but Drowning
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

 

To Stand and Deliver

I wrote about a nonfiction book called The Battle for Room 314 for the winter issue of Utne, which has just come out. (The book will be published in early February.) I don’t know if the magazine will post my review on its website, so I’ve decided to share it with you here:

When his work raising money for an education nonprofit left him feeling only somewhat fulfilled, Ed Boland quit his job mid-career, got a teaching degree, and went into the trenches as a ninth grade history teacher at a struggling public high school in New York City. After a year, he wrote this book about it. There are so many stories of big-dreaming middle class teachers (who are usually white) toughing it out in poor, underserved, and sometimes violent city schools (whose students are overwhelmingly black and brown) that it has almost become a genre unto itself—and one that could easily be unpalatable if handled poorly.

Happily, Boland is modest, likable, and realistic about, well, reality. He knows that “Being a whitey with a savior complex isn’t going to help [my students].” Problem is, it’s hard to know what will. Boland devotes whole weekends to making creative lesson plans, and he has diverse educational experience to draw from, as both a former Catholic school kid and a Yale admissions officer. But in a chaotic environment where most students are performing way below their grade level, he finds it hard to tell whether he’s making a difference.

A gay man in his forties with clear memories of the way feminine-seeming boys were bullied in his own high school, Boland also harbors dreams of helping his gay students who are being tormented by their classmates. But he soon finds that connecting with them—indeed, with most of the students, most of the time—is a tricky proposition, and his attempts to do so are often met with anger and rejection.

As an author, Boland has a charming way with words that makes the book entertaining to read, even laugh-out-loud funny—as when he shamefacedly admits to understanding only “Sesame Street Spanish.” As his story unfolds, it becomes clear that his snappy approach isn’t just stylistic, but actually goes a long way in making the dire situations he describes easier to read about. The plain facts, when presented in stark language, are shocking: The public schools of New York are more racially segregated than in any other system in the United States, Boland reports. In his “worst” class, the one he focuses on in the book, he teaches a girl who worked on the street as a prostitute in the seventh grade; another girl whose homeless mother had pulled her out of a worse school in order to tutor her on the subway for a year; and a few students who are already members of drug rings and notorious gangs. Getting kids with problems like these to sit still and pay attention to a lesson on the Silk Road is a tall order.

Boland describes his students vividly—so vividly, in fact, that one wonders with a wince if any of them will read the book—and he concludes his story with an update on all of them some years down the line. The results of his experiment in teaching are dispiriting and absolutely beautiful, in turn.

Zine fest in Brooklyn

petes2

Not to be confused with the Brooklyn Zine Fest, which is a larger and much more hectic event, Pete’s Mini Zine Fest will be taking place tomorrow at Pete’s Candy Store, a really charming little bar in Williamsburg with a garden out back, which is where I always set up my table. We plan to get there early so we can claim a space out there and get a beer, then get ready to shoot the breeze with zine folk all day. I’ll have both of my books for sale, as well as a poetry book I made with Joe last year, a series of postcards I’ve been making out of found photographs, and a few cute $1 zines. If you’re in the area, come say hello and buy some zines!