Monday, August 17, 2009

Reading Journal: Island Reading 2009

Tomás O'Crohan, The Islandman (1929). Oxford.
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008). Random House.

Paul Gallico, Flowers for Mrs. Harris (1958). Penguin. Published in the U.S.A. as Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris.

On days when rain prevented me from getting up on the roof, I managed to do a lot of reading on the island. A few summers ago, I started a tradition of reading a book about an island, or islands, each summer. I started in 2004 with Shakespeare's The Tempest and Kathleen Dean Moore's The Pine Island Paradox. This summer I read two very different island books. The first was The Islandman, originally published in Gaelic as An tOileánach in 1929, a memoir of life on Ireland's Great Blasket Island by Tomás O'Crohan (1856-1937). A fascinating narrative of a difficult life—fishing, cutting turf, hunting seals, scavenging shipwrecks, evading tax collectors—on the harsh edge of the Atlantic Ocean. O'Crohan's Irish voice, both rough and wry, sparkles through Robin Flower's translation.

The second island book I read this summer was the marvelous novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Anne Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This was the loveliest and most satisfying novel I've read all year, and I can't praise or recommend it highly enough. The novel takes the form of a series of letters. On the island of Guernsey, in 1946, Dawsey Adams finds in the book shop a used copy of Charles Lamb's Essays of Elia with the name and address of its former owner written inside. Dawsey starts a correspondence with the former owner, a writer in England looking for an idea for her next book. From this correspondence flowers a rich and beautiful story about Guernsey during the Nazi occupation, and about the power of books to bring people together. I have to confess that there were times when it was difficult to read through the tears stinging my eyes.

The second most satisfying book I read on the island was Paul Gallico's Flowers for Mrs. Harris (1958), about a London char (cleaning woman) who saves up for a trip to Paris to buy herself a Dior dress. Like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, it celebrates the things that bring us together. Gallico is best-known, perhaps, as the author of The Poseidon Adventure, but Flowers for Mrs. Harris is something quite different. Mrs. Harris yearns for the beauty of a Dior dress—something so far out of reach for someone of her class—and ends up affirming the beauty of simple, honest human relationships. It's a simple story, and rather dated, but it was the perfect thing for a timeless island afternoon.

Hat tip: Justine Picardie on Flowers for Mrs. Harris.

Also read on the island:
Kate Douglas Wiggin, Jane & Mary Findlater, Allan McAulay, The Affair at the Inn (1904)
Penelope Fitgerald, The Bookshop (1978)
Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes (1913)


Tiffin said...

Wasn't the Guernsey book a dear story? And gosh, Paul Gallico - haven't read Mrs. Harris since the 60s! The Tomas O'Crohan book looks fascinating.

Penelope said...

I have read other books by Paul Gallico, who is certainly marvelous, but not this one. I will put it on my list! A light-read favorite that I have read a number of times over the years is his "Too Many Ghosts."

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .