Friday, September 25, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Maybe I should call this posting "The Third Monday Barnes & Noble Book Club," because it is this name that brings me to the one above. You see, I belong to The Third Monday Barnes & Noble Book Club in Layton, Utah, and it is in that context that I read the book, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Let's face it, that's not the most virile title for a macho guy --- not that I am, necessarily, and not that there'd be anything wrong with it either way.

Anyway, I have to admit the name of our reading group isn't nearly as classy as The
Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is,
though. Truthfully, we are just as humble, though --- possibly more so, but probably a whole lot less experienced with life's travails than the characters in the book. Suffice it to say, however, that we have mostly confined our book club snacks and drinks to items purchased at the snack bar at B&N. However, at Christmas time --- don't tell anyone --- we do sneak in treats. (Carol's traditional homemade fudge and caramel, for instance, can't be beat.) We've never had, or, for that matter never needed to have, a potato peel pie or anything like it, though. Times are different now, in a free world, than they were during WWII under occupation, as in Guernsey.

To a man and woman, we all enjoyed Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows's book about life on Guernsey Island during the Nazi's occupation in WW II. That accord doesn't happen frequently in our book club, and it isn't as if everybody had only kudos for the book, but everybody, on the whole, enjoyed it very much.

Generally, when everybody likes a book being discussed, there's typically not a whole lot to discuss. Not with this one, though. We went on and on, without any stain or stress, contention or strife, as we have had with some of the other recent selections we've read.

Now, let me say some things that I thought stood out in this book.

First of all, let me mention the setting. On a clear day, you can see the coast of France from Guernsey Island, at least you could back then. Yet, as close as Guernsey Island is to France, Guernsey is allied with the British Empire. For me, its setting satisfied all my expectations: the backdrop was unique and, for most in the book club, somewhat obscure, giving it a natural mystique. Now, it wasn't just set in Guernsey Island; it had a dash of London and a sprinkle of other European places, several allusions to America, but mostly, it was just Guernsey Island. As to its historical background, we have the immediate aftermath of WWII, and the characters trying to unpack the meaning of their experiences during the war, especially the tantalizing piece most readers in our group were totally unfamiliar with: the occupation of the Guernsey by the Germans. The cultural attitudes, shaped by the characters' firsthand experiences with war itself, and, for the occupants of Guernsey Island in particular, the experiences of a Nazi occupation enhanced and informed, as well, the overall setting of the book.

Second, its characters. Everyone seemed to love them. Not only that, but everyone seemed to suggest that the characters, though unique and interesting in and of themselves, were not anything like characters we see so often in the mass media, whether on some sitcom on television, or hear about or see on the local or national or even international news, or some guest of David Letterman's. Not an extremist among them, like the literary creation, Robert Langdon, or the impossibly quirky Stephanie Plum --- even if we love those characters in their own right. But these were people we could more easily identify with, who seemed like us, who were thrown into circumstances above and beyond what most of us --- if not all of us --- have experienced or are likely to ever experience. Not celebrities, but just regular, plain folks, trying to cope by finding flavor, by creating a potato peel pie and eating it. And reading. Most of all, by reading. And writing. Communicating. For these characters all write letters and, hence, reveal themselves in a most natural and timely way. That's what people did then. Before telephones, email, blogs, tweets, and texting. But these are letters that are written mostly by more literary-type folks --- folks who love words and their dimensions, who've taken the time and made the effort to not only read but to meet and discuss what they've read.

Let me mention some favorites among the characters. First and foremost, the protagonist Juliet Ashton, a wistful youngish woman --- Isn't she 32? --- who's ready for romance, and who's coped with and helped others cope during World War II by writing columns to bring smiles and laughter to them, but who, thereafter, has decided to move on to something more serious and fulfilling. The book is about Juliet living beyond the war, and trying to satisfy her desire to bring to life the stories of those who found other ways of dealing with stress and strain of war.

Dawsey Adams, the farmer, who loves to farm but also loves to read, especially the essays of the loveable, but long-gone, Charles Lamb. Over against Dawsey, there's the buffoonish and boorish American, Markham V. Reynolds, Junior. What a hoot! There's the religious fanatic, Adelaide Addison, who does her self-righteous part oh so well. Isola Pribby. Sidney Stark. And on and on. And on. Well, truthfully, I grew to know and appreciate them all.

Some memorable lines:

  • Men are more interesting in books than they are in real life.
  • . . . he was a bit too King Lear about the whole thing.
  • . . . scarce as hens' teeth.
  • Am I in love with him? What kind of a question is that? It's a tuba among the flutes . . .
  • No flowers or vines can cover over such memories as these, can they?
  • Adelaide lives on her wrath.
  • . . . she is a woman too good for daily wear.
  • . . . he doesn't have two words to rub together.

One of our members listened to the audio recording of this book, and she loved it. She said that any problem with a lack of uniqueness of the syntax and language of the characters in their letters, as some members conveyed and some critiques have mentioned, was taken care of by the audio work. So you might want to check that out, too.

Anyway, four stars. I'd give four-and-a-half if I could, verging on five.

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