Sunday, April 29, 2012

Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society

I've been a bit delayed in getting this post published, as I work through some family matters that require the majority of my attention. Also, I realize this book has been reviewed and hashed over on endless book blogs but it hasn't been on mine yet ;-) Enjoy!

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society, written by Mary Ann Schafer and her niece, Anne Barrows, may be dismissed by my male readers as average chick lit... but whoa nelly, you boys might find a nice read here yourself! This one is another quick read, probably just a day or two at most, but it's also one of those books that packs a helluva lotta story in such a short read.

authors of Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society

In the years immediately following the end of World War II, Juliet Ashton, an English writer / journalist living in the land of "bluestockings and shrews", is quite enjoying her life in bustling London, has a number of friends and a pompous American publisher boyfriend, Markham V. Reynolds (even his name makes the reader want to immediately throw suspicion his way). Juliet finds at least something mildly charming in Mark's pitifully unromantic attempts at wooing -- part of his problem being his "aren't you lucky to have me" put out there all the time -- but still has a voice in the back of her mind hinting that something is missing. Is Mark really the guy for her? Should she just delve in to that book she always wanted to write? Her days are filled with work and moments of reminiscing, recalling the golden days of pre-war England in her cute little flat she once had -- bombed during the war. 

The description of Markham, though I wasn't a fan of the character, was interesting to me in that it reminded me instantly of Brad Pitt in Meet Joe Black:

Then Markham V. Reynolds stepped forward, and the bubble popped. He's dazzling. Honestly, Sophie, I've never seen anything like him. Not even the furnace-man can compare. Tan, with blazing blue eyes Ravishing leather shoes, elegant wool suit, blinding white handkerchief in breast pocket. Of course, being American, he's tall, and he has one of those alarming American smiles, all gleaming teeth and good humor, but he's not a genial American. He's quite impressive, and he's used to ordering about -- though he does it so easily, they don't notice. He's got that way of believing his opinion is the truth, but he's not disagreeable about it. He's too sure he's right to bother being disagreeable. ~~ Julie in letter to her friend Sophie

Brad Pitt in Meet Joe Black  (1998)

She receives a letter out of the blue from Dawsey Adams, a sort of jack-of-all-trades  working as a pig farmer / dock worker among other titles, living on Guernsey, part of the Channel Islands just off the coast of England. He writes to tell her that he has a copy of a collection of works by writer Charles Lamb that had her address in it (this book has become his favorite). Dawsey, being so enthralled with the works of Lamb that he's read so far, writes to ask Juliet if she knows where he might be able to obtain more books by Lamb, since contact to the island is limited. Juliet answers his letter, he answers her response letter, and so on and so on til a beautiful friendship has developed through their sharing of events (mainland vs. island). Dawsey shares little anecdotes of all the people living in his community on Guernsey and before long, Juliet finds herself desperately wanting to meet them all. This leads to the idea of her traveling to the island to live there for a bit, gathering all the island stories together to be published. 

A handy guideline for readers: Google Earth map / interactive tutorial laying out all the places mentioned in this wee book: Guernsey Island book-related map

 The story starts in post - World War 2 era, but flashes back to war times, even prior to the war's outbreak as each character tells their own personal story of how the war affected them and their families. All the colorful characters living on Guernsey Island, offering up their stories, is a large part of what made this book so much fun to read. That and the palpable attraction and friendship building between Juliet and Dawsey even through letters! So what is the Literary & Potato Peel Society? It's basically a book club the residents of Guernsey Island put together as a cover to meet up past curfew hours, while not being punished for it by German soldiers. While the group starts as a cover, the members actually do become interested in the books they discuss. It's fun to see the bookworm tastes of each character develop. In fact, I desperately wanted to sit in on the meetings described! The story of the origins of the club was particularly fun for me when it's mentioned that one character blurts out a story to a German soldier about how the group was detained past curfew reading Elizabeth And Her German Garden, an antique book I have in my collection, actually one of the first I ever acquired! 

the book that started the Society...
This is the story of a late 18th century wife and mother who 
convinces her husband to let her leave her city life and set up 
house at their country home. She finds peace and sanity 
from life's stresses through the beauty in cultivating a lush 
garden. Very sweet, touching read. Also a pretty quick
 read. Free copy to download here

That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It's geometrically progressive -- all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment. ~~~ Juliet in one of her first letters to Dawsey

I don't want to be married just to be married. I can't think of anything lonelier than spending the rest of my life with someone I can't talk to, or even worse, someone I can't be silent with.  ~~Juliet Ashton

I don't know about you but my lessons on the Channel Islands during World War 2 were minimal at best. I had never even heard of Guernsey Island before reading this book, but now I really feel for this island of proud people (in the best sense of the word), thinking of the terror and grief that must have been an everyday hell after the Germans decided to occupy the island during the war. Curfews were set, people were made to live on war rations and coupons and fear. One of the most heartbreaking parts of this story involves a woman who is forced into an internment camp after defending someone she saw being blatantly mistreated by the German soldiers. That's as far as I'll divulge, but I warn you, be ready to have your heart break with the cruelty / unfairness of  life.

So this one will hold a permanent place in my library :-D. The love story feels real, the stories of the POWs are heartbreaking, and the voice of Juliet in her letters is adorable and funny. Not to mention this book has a built in history lesson on a little known area of England (ie.. who knew Victor Hugo once breezed through the area??) A sample of Juliet's humor (in another letter to bf Sophie):

Now, about Markham V. Reynolds (Junior). Your questions regarding that gentleman are very delicate, very subtle, very much like being smacked in the head with a mallet. Am I in love with him? What kind of question is that? It's a tuba among the flutes, and I expect better of you. The first rule of snooping is to come at it sideways --- when you began writing me dizzy letters about Alexander, I didn't ask if you were in love with him, I asked what his favorite animal was. And your answer told me everything I needed to know about him -- how many men would admit that they loved ducks? (This brings up an important point: I don't know what Mark Twain's favorite animal is. I don't think it's a duck.)

For those interested, I close with an actual recipe for Potato Peel Pie. There isn't one given in the novel, but I was curious so I looked it up and found this (variation on Potato Peel Pie but I chose this one because it just sounded tastier than some of the other, more traditional recipes I found):

Potato Peel Pie ***courtesy of Potato Peel Pie***

2 cups raw, grated potato skins (I added some of the white part to keep the texture somewhat tender), use mashed potatoes for filling
1/3 cup grated onion
1 egg, beaten
3 Tbs flour
sour cream (optional)
chives (optional)
butter (optional)
garlic (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a small pie plate. Mix grated potato peels with egg, onion and flour. Press the mixture into the pie plate and up the sides to form a crust. Bake crust for 20-25 minutes. While the crust is baking, cook potatoes, drain and mash. You can add your favorite mashed potato flavorings here i.e. garlic, onion, milk, butter, salt, etc. Fill crust with mashed potatoes and sprinkle with beetroot. Bake in oven at lower temperature of 375 for 10 minutes or until browned.

Let me know how it turns out!! :-D