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Books About Books: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I love all kinds of books. Obviously. I love books about historical figures, magic, and religion. I love books about complicated people and difficult decisions. I love books about murder and mayhem, about terrible times in history and the people that were caught up in them. I love books about Kings and Queens and Duchesses.

But most of all I love books about books.

Books about books and a love of reading are the very best. I feel like each of these books help people to fall a little more in love with reading. And when everyone loves to (and can) read, the world will be a better place.

Books about books are a pretty select genre, if you will. But the ones that are out there are marvellous. I’m thinking of The Book Thief and The Shadow of the Wind or The Distant Hours and The Thirteenth Tale. All of these books, the first two in particular, are about a love of books; books and stories that provide comfort and hope in times of strife and hardship.

I just finished The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows and and it is just such another of these books about books. One of the best.

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Juliet Ashton is a writer and in 1946 she gets a letter from a gentleman living on one of the Channel Islands, Guernsey, asking her about her love of Charles Lamb. It turns out that he has in his possession one of her old books in which she had written her address. He mentions that he never thought he’d get to be a reader but during the War, he was invited to partake of an illicit roast pig with some neighbours and the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was born.

Looking for a subject on which to write her next book Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the members of the Society and learns about what it was like for the Islanders during the War, occupied and completely cut off from all sources of news. All the children on the Island had been evacuated to the mainland and for five years, nothing was heard of them.

The characters in this book are a delight. There’s Dawsey, the man that writes to Juliet first – a quiet, hardworking man, who, because he never asks favours for himself, always manages to convince people to do things for others. Isola is a bossy, flighty thing, who has a treasure trove of letters from a well known author in her possession; when she finds out that no one in the Society thought to tell her about Jane Austen she is livid. I loved her. Little Kit is a tiny dictator whose mother was sent away by the Germans. All of the Islanders hope against hope that she will find her way back to them.

Juliet falls in love with all of them and with Guernsey and it’s only a matter of time before she goes to the Island to meet them all. The whole book is diary-style and this might be the only time I’ve enjoyed that. I was likely too distracted by all these unlikely readers falling in love with Wordsworth, the Brontes, Dickens and Austen. For this group of people, all but starving during the War, cut off from news, occupied by the enemy, reading was the one thing that took them outside of their reality.

It’s a wonderful book that will lift your spirits. I’m sad to have left them all on Guernsey but the time I did get to spend with them was a delight.

What’s your favourite book about books?

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My Books Vs. Library Books

Sometimes I feel sorry for my books. Not because they aren’t all awesome (all of my books are awesome) but because I don’t re-read them all over and over.

I’ve recently been spending more time at the library, choosing piles of free books in favour of protecting my bank account from further hemorrhaging. I’m normally all about buying new books but I haven’t worked in 2 months (don’t worry, I start my new job this week! Yay me!) and book buying is an easy expense to eliminate. In theory. It was actually really hard to get out of the habit of walking out of bookstores without a pile of new books!

There’s a great library in my area so I started going there. Nothing beats the feeling of choosing as many books as you want to take home with you for FREE. It can be such a high (for book nerds like myself)!

But it kind of made me sad for my own books. I was looking over the library copy of Brideshead Revisited, marvelling at the amount of times it’s been checked out and (ostensibly) read. (Did you know that the marker dots on the bottom are how many times a book’s been checked out?) If you believe, as Carlos Ruiz Zafon and I do, that

Every book […] has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens

then it’s almost a crime not to read one’s books over and over. Libraries clearly understand the souls of books and open their doors to anyone to come in and help the books out.

But I? I selfishly hoard my books and display them after reading them once (with a few notable exceptions that I re-read often). That’s not to say that I never loan out my books. I do. And I get great joy from choosing volumes from my collection for other people, in the hopes that they will love them like I did. But that joy turns to anxiety when those books aren’t returned to me in a timely manner. There are two volumes in particular that I’m not sure I will ever get back and it makes me crazy!

Will those books be loved like they should be in their foster homes?

I’m sure they will. But book hoarder that I am, I want them back with me to look at and rearrange. But am I doing the books any favours? Would my books be happier as library books? Even at the risk that they will never be looked at a second time? Brideshead Revisited has been read over and over, but what about those books that aren’t? The ones that are doomed to stay on the shelves gathering dust? There are some pretty obscure books languishing on library shelves. They would definitely be better off sitting on my shelves in all their glory.

I guess it’s a toss up. No clear winner.

Except me really.

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The Angel’s Game

I’m a Carlos Ruiz Zafon convert. I’m pretty sure that I’m at the point in my love affair with his work that I will read anything that he ever writes. I still have The Prisoner of Heaven (the third book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series) on my shelves waiting for me. The only thing keeping me from devouring it right now is that I know that I will be sad when I am done reading them for the first time. I’m trying to savour the experience. For once.

The Angel’s Game is the first book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. I read the second one first, completely by accident. Because I read them out of order, reading The Angel’s Game was a different experience. I kept looking out for characters that I might recognize from The Shadow of the Wind. It happens, but not too much because they are two completely separate stories. Kind of like The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons.

This time we follow David Martin as he discovers his talents as a writer, first creating penny dreadfuls that pay the bills and then working on what he believes will be his masterpiece. When that flops, a French publisher offers him an obscene amount of money to write a book for him. Martin, blinded by his own vanity, agrees and ends up in the middle of a completely warped Barcelona at the mercy of a psycho.

More or less.

Martin soon becomes completely obsessed with the story of his predecessor and tries to find out what happened to him 25 years earlier. When the people involved in that story end up dead, the police arrive to further complicate things.

I’m totally oversimplifying here. I haven’t even mentioned the mentor, the girl he loves, Senor Sempere the first or Martin’s delightfully obstinate assistant, Isabella. But I also don’t want to give too much away!

What’s clear is that Zafon loves books and stories and that makes me love him. While The Shadow of the Wind was a love letter to the physical book, told from the perspective of a book seller, The Angel’s Game is an ode to the story told by that person tortured by the need to tell it perfectly: the author.

I’m not sure that I totally understand how this one all worked out. There was a seriously sinister mystical element to this one that was missing from it’s sequel. But even though its resolution is somewhat of a mystery to me, I loved it. Someone else is just going to have to read it, understand it, and explain it to me.

Despite the fact that The Angel’s Game is a completely separate story from its sequel, I loved that at the end of this one it overlapped with the beginning of the next one. It offered a connection that I wasn’t expecting when I realized that the stories had nearly nothing to do with one another.

You should just read this series. It’s incredible. The covers alone are worth it – they all look like exquisite old books.

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The Shadow of the Wind

I just finished the most exquisite book, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

Have you read it yet? You must! Immediately.

If you love books and reading (which you must because here you are), you are going to love this book. It’s incredible.

OK so there’s this boy, Daniel, and when he’s about 11 his father, a bookseller (naturally) takes him to this secret place in Barcelona that only the very few even know about, The Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books!

Come ON.

What is this place? It is explained thus:

Every time a book changes hands , every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens. […] When a library disappears, a book store closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure it gets here. In this place books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands.

Do you want to run out right now and rescue a book? Yeah, me too.

Anyway, the rule is that the first time one visits The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, one has to choose a book and basically adopt it and ensure that it is well loved once more.

Are you dying?

So Daniel chooses The Shadow of the Wind by one Julian Carax and from page one he’s hooked and when he’s finished he tries hunting down Carax’s other work only to find out that, although Carax wrote other books, they are all gone. Someone has been systematically tracking them down and burning them. His copy is one of the only ones left.

Daniel soon becomes obsessed with finding out why. Why is someone burning the books? What happened to Carax?

His quest takes him all over post-Civil War Barcelona, a grey, awful, kind of scary place where the police are both friend and foe. The story takes us through the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s. It is terrifying and heart stopping and unexpectedly moving. The characters are incredible, especially the hobo that helps Daniel after he gets the crap kicked out of him by a music tutor.

This book made me laugh, gasp, cry and sigh with complete and total satisfaction when I was finished. It made me want to run out to the nearest used book store and save a book from being unloved. At the end of the day, The Shadow of the Wind reminds us that books? Are amazing.

Want to hear the best part? The Shadow of the Wind is part of a series! I’m not even kidding when I say I’m running out right now to pick up The Angel’s Game and The Prisoner of Heaven (which, serendipitously, was released yesterday). Also? Carlos Ruiz Zafon came up with a list of his favourite books about books which you can find here.