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[752] The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street – Helene Hanff

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” A few years ago I couldn’t write anything or sell anything, I’d passed the age where you know all the returns are in, I’d had my chance and done my best and failed. And how I was to know the miracle waiting to happen around the corner in late middle age? ” (58)

For twenty years, between 1949 and 1969, Helene Hanff corresponded with Frank Doel, a London bookseller at Marks & Co; but it was not until 1971 that her fervent wish of visiting England came true. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is the chronicle of her long delayed visit to London, where she was met by late Doel’s wife, Nora and her daughter Sheila. Written in the diary form, this memoir is still full of exuberance and wit, although less all the literary references in her previous book.

The publication of 84 Charing Cross Road made it possible for her to make the trip to London, as the publisher, paying for the expenses, wanted her there to help publicize the book. Although the book didn’t make her rich, it got her hundreds of letters and phone calls from people she never knew existed. The flummoxed first-time traveler soon found herself to be a celebrity with a particular connection to London, and this account of her time in the city was colored and enlivened by that experience.

All my life I’ve wanted to see London. I used to go to English movies just to look at streets with houses like those. Staring at the screen in a theatre, I wanted to walk down those streets so badly it gnawed at me like hunger. . . . I wanted to see London the way old people want to see home before they die. (21)

Indeed, owing to her versatility and flexibility, she made friends everywhere she went. Among her tour guides to literary and historical landmarks were comedienne, painter, playwright, an Eton alumni, a professor and an English colonel. The book is full of travel anecdotes that are both humorous and witty. She was amazed to be called chic while a bohemian mess back home. She ended up instructing a bartender to make martinis her way. She pitched a fit at Oxford when her friends wouldn’t take her where she wanted to go and insist on taking her shopping—the last thing she wanted since she was on a tight budget and that all price tags read the same message “one less day in London.”

This book is a gem in the sense that reading has inspired one on a pilgrimage. It’s abound with trenchant comments comparing American and British culture.

137 pp. Avon Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[748] 84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

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” If you happen to pass by 84 Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me? I owe it so much. ” (94)

This book, just under a hundred pages, is Helene Hanff’s memoir that unfolds through transatlantic letters, dated from 1949 to 1969, between Helene and the employees of Marks & Co., a bookstore specializes in antiquarian and second-hand books in London. In all begins when Helene spots and responds to the books store’s ad in the Saturday Review of Literature, inquiring about several out-of-print and rare books. What ensues is a correspondence spanning twenty years between a literary camaraderie.

Apropos of a booklover’s haven, Marks & Co. is “the loveliest old shop straight out of Dickens,” (28) redolent of must and dust, with “shelves going on forever, up to the ceiling.” The primary correspondent is Frank Doel, a man in his late thirties who is extremely well-read and knowledgeable. He sends Helene old books of soft vellum and heavy cream colored pages, which she stores in orange crate bookcases in her cramped New York City apartment. In turn, Helene sends her literary friends parcels, including egg powder and a whole ham, as food is rationed in postwar England.

I personally cannot think of anything less sarosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book. (54)

The pages move quickly with Helen’s eclectic requests made to the bookseller. But what makes this slim collection of letters so powerful and captivating is the comradely touch. Business formality over time wears away, and Helene become like friends and family with the bookstore staff. Adding to the literary exchange are recipes for Yorshire pudding, personal photos, and handcrafted linen tablecloths.

Elaborated from these letters is her preference of eclectic taste. She prefers nonfiction over fiction, and it’s only to the strong recommendation that she gingerly tries Jane Austen. She has penchant for English non-fiction from the 17th- and 18th-century and memoirs. She dreams of traveling to the UK where she hopes to find “the England of English literature” and pays a personal visit to the endeared staff at the bookshop.

This gem of a book illustrates the love of books with a passion that overcomes social and physical distance. It also makes us question the current state of instant communication through texting. It is a celebration of written word, a common bond of humanity, which connects us all from generation to generation.

97 pp. Penguin Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]