Friday, March 5, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Author: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Edition: Paperback, 2009
Read: March 2010
274 pages
Rated: 3 1/2 out of 5

Society, so I shall call this book, takes place shortly after World War II. The book is a fictional account as told through a series of letters about and by Juliet Ashton. She is portrayed as a successful writer, who by chance, starts to correspond with people on the island of Guernsey. The letters are connected with people who are part of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. They go over life on the island during World War II, during the German occupation. Juliet is so infatuated, she goes over to the island for an extended time, leaving a lover to find love.

The virtue of this book is in the story telling. Shaffer wrote the book; her neice, Annie Barrows revised it after Shaffer could not complete it. The voice is Shaffer and it is a good voice. The device of using letters to tell the story allows for many voices and perspectives to play in. She sets the letters in date order so you need to follow several threads at once. Sometimes you needs to go back and find what a particular conversation is about though.

Part of the story is talking about three romances: a broken engagement; a one-sided engagement; and the real thing. You see Juliet being willful, but also confused; clear about her actions, but oblivious to her own emotions.

The second part is telling about peoples lives on the island. As said, these people have the opportunity to express what they felt living through the occupation of English terriotories by the Germans. Their strength and their friendships. How a book society bonded strangers together,to help them make it through the occupation.

One of the problems with writing a fictional book in a historical setting is getting the tone right while not making it stilted. A lot of time Shaffer does place the tone correctly. But at other places in the book, she is so 21st century. Such as when Sidney writes Juliet and says that he wished Juliet had aimed at a much more manly location with a hot teapot. That does not seem like something which a man would write to a women 60 years ago (pg 21). Or Sidney admitting to being a homosexual to someone who he just met.

Shaffer does a good job of building up characters. Such as Dawsey Adams. An early description is that he has a rare gift of persuasion—he never asks for anything for himself, but always for others. So others are always eager to do things for him. What a great characteristic this is. Again, on page 161, Juliet notes, “I begin to see, this is what he does—that everyone depends upon him to do it.” The “it” is being helpfuil, noting places where pepole have a need.

To me, the big wondering is, what did Shaffer/or Barrows have against Christinaity? There are places in the book which make a strong religious impression:

  • Reverand Simpless, while not Juliet's guardian takes an interest in her well being after her parents die. But nothing is said about his religion. Juliet does mention that while a friend would say something is coicidnce, Simpless would say it is Grace. But in the book's definition, Grace sounds more like a word for coincidence or throwing out energy. This really lacks any approach to the Christian context of Grace.

  • Shaffer comments about Anne Bronte's Aunt's religon, which was Methodist. She wondered how Bronte was ever able to write given the strictness of the Aunt's religion (pg61). Apparently Elizabeth Branwell was strick and religious. But she had a warmth for Anne Bronte. Going so far as leaving a comfortable life to bring up the Bronte girls.

  • This is followed by a letter from Adelaide Addison to Juliet. The letter said for Juliet to stay away from the Society. The whole letter seems like a characterture of anything Christian. But from a Christian viewpoint, it sounds like societal snobbery bathed in Christian expression (page 127)

A main character is Elizabeth McKenna. Juliet never meets her—she dies in a Nazi concentration camp. But all the members of the Society thinks very highly of her—probably thinks she is a saint. While not the opposite of Addison, she is a contrast. Someone who does good by nature. She saves others at the sacrifice of herself. She is kind, caring, calming. Juliet decides at the end of the book, she will write her story.

The final letter has Juliet finding love and getting engaged. She remarks that she always thought the story ends when the girl and guy gets engaged. But that is only the beginning. She is right. The dance to engagement is a prequel to the real thing. Like in Lewis' Last Battle, going through the gate of death enters you into a bigger land, not smaller.

How do you select your next book? Juliet suggests there are three questions to ask what looks like a knowledgable person, in her case, a clerk in a book store. This is taken from page 16.

  1. What is the book about?

  2. Have you read the book?

  3. Was it any good?
Of course, the last one is more of a preference of the reader. A person who detests romance books will not find books in this gendre very interesting. But this does get into the question of what makes a book good? In my case, does it cause me to either examine my world, makes me think, or written in a way to peak my personal interests.

Why does Juliet make the statement that she would prefer suitors in books than in front of her? (pg 121) What does it say about her character? In the rest of the book, she seems rather personable, even though we know her through letters. She does well at book groupings and in front of strangers. The two romanaces we know about, Rob and Mark, both are self-absorbed mean. See Mark's statement on page 154 about you make me happy, you never bore me, … it is all about him. The same with Rob's trophy's taking precendent over Juliet's books. What about her draws her to these type of men? But what about Dawsey? Is he another one of these?

This is a good book, one which I would not mind recommending someone to read. It reads quickly and flows nicely. Do not expect great truths to appear.
First Line:
Susan Scott is a wonder.
Maybe its because that I know Susan Scott—not this one—but this line really drew me in to wondering about who this Susan Scott is. Of course, the rest of the book is not about her. So this line is only a teaser.

Cast of Characters:

  • Juliet Ashton – main character. Successful writer. Attractive and intelligent.
  • Elizabeth McKenna- Died in concentration camp, so we never meet this character, except in what others write
  • Sidney Stark – Good friend of Juliet, but not a romantic interest.
  • Sophie (Stark) – Good friend of Juliet. Went to school. Juliet's confidant.
  • Dawsey Adams – First person on Guernsey to make contact with Juliet
  • Susan Scott-Administrative Assistant. Minor character, sets things right.
  • Isola Pheen. An eccentric personality. Single person. Shaffer seems to have an interest in Oscar Wilde. In Isola's possession, Juliet found 8 letters from OFOFWW, which turned out to be Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde had a sister by the name of Isola.

Notes from my book group:
What about this book drew you in?

Do you think this is a book which had a homing instinct for you? (pg 10)

What endears you to this book?

Will Thisbee describes what he would have missed if he did not belong to the Society. What would you have missed? (pg 102) Mildred in Fahrenheit 451 says that books are not people. Which has a better perspective? Why?

How do you evaluate a good? How would you recommend this book, based upon Shaffer's criteria? (pg 16)

For those of you who bought the book, is this a keeper? For those who borrowed it-do you buy it?

New Words:

  • golliwog: an animated doll in children's fiction by Bertha Upton †1912 American writer

  • antiquarian ironmonger: we call an antique dealer today

  • rag-and-bone man: the original recyclers. People who would go throug streets collecting rags,

  • fulsome: characterized by abundance

  • Pictish Ambush: An ambush where the Picts feigned a retreat, then overwhelmed their opponets in Scotland

  • prime: earliest stage, or the most active, thriving or satisfying stage

  • metier: vocation or trade, activity which a person excells in

  • German, meaning 'camp street'; It was the main street of the death camps.

  • Nosy-Parker: an officious annoying person who interferes with others

Good Quotes:

  • Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that bring them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true. (pg10)

  • Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books (pg 53)


Book References:

  • Charles Lamb, The Essays of Elia , also on Google

  • Charles Lamb, Selected Letters

  • Seneca, The Letters of Seneca: Translated from Latin in One Volume with Appendix

  • Thomas Carlye, Past and Present

  • Anne Bronte, Sir Roger de Coverly Papers

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Fahrenheit 451

Book: Fahrenheit 451
Author: Ray Bradbury
Edition: Paperback, 1953
Read: February 2010
190 pages
Rated: 4 out of 5

The classic book burning book. Pictures a time when firemen no longer put out fires, but start fires—particularly houses which house books. People have gotten mentally soft and complacent. Rather than work out a thought, they would rather be entertained; rather than seek knowledge, they rather have someone else think. As such, Bradbury understands our future, anticipating the effects of TV,video games and other electronic stimulation. We no longer live, but function.

Guy Montag is a fireman who is awaken by three incidents-an old man in a park; a young neighbor girl who opens his eyes to the world around him; and his wife over dosing on sleeping pills. He questions why people would want to die for their books when an old lady intentionally ignites her house, her books and herself. All of this causes Montag to awaken his sense of wanting to live instead of exist.

This leads him to being a fugitive, joining with a band of scholars who will be around to build a new civilization.

Bradbury's book is not a beautiful book. The prose are of a beginning nature. But his insight into our times is great. His ability to force us to deal with the importance of being alive in our thought is what makes the book worth reading. Book burning, while important, is not the main point. The point is the loss of thought, the loss of difference, the loss of individuality as we throw away everything which makes us unique. This gets replaced by brain-numbing chatter by fake families—on TV.

  • Kerosene is nothing but perfume to me. The modern mind, worshiping the tool. (pg 6)
  • Clairesse notices that Montag laughs when there is nothing funny, without knowing why he is laughing. I know of several people this way. Indicates a nervousness of being able to live within your own skin. (pg 8)
  • This is one of the best lines in the book—How like a mirror her face. Impossible for how many people did you know who refracted your own light to you? How much like God and how humble when you can shine other people's light back without knowing you are. (pg 11)
  • Montag recognizes his own unhappiness, his own dis-quietness. Then thinks, He wore his happiness like a mask and the girl had run off across the lawn with the mask. Sometimes a person comes along and we can no longer hide. They unmask us and show us for what we are. (pg 12)
  • In the story, there is a Mechanical hound which is a relentless killer. Montaq wonders, does the Hound think? Is the hound becoming alive? When the Captian says it is just mechanical, Montag responds that it is said because all which it ever will know is hunting, finding and killing. (pg 27)
  • Are our conversations meaningful? Do we ask questions? This is different than the current saying of Question Everything. Asking questions is a thirst for knowledge, a thirst for wisdom. But Question Everything indicates lack of trust, lack of respect. A lack of questions is another indication of lack of stimulation, or at least lack of meaningful stimulation. (pg 31)
  • That's my family. Mildred, Montag's wife says about the TV program. She is saying this to her husband who is sick. Substituting the safe fake for the real thing. How said, how safe. (pg 49)
  • Being bothered is uncomfortable. It is easier, safer to to avoid being bothered. How do we know when we are alive, unless we are bothered? (pg 52)
  • The Captain notes that even something as small as a zipper replacing buttons can have a profound effect. He more labor saving devices, the less time we have to think, to take a step back. Is progress always better? (pg 56)
  • The bigger the market, the less you want to offend. The small man can afford to offend. The large corporations, the successful authors wilt away, do not confront, do not offend. You no longer want to stir up controversy. Everything becomes vanilla tapioca. (pg 57)
  • Bradbury notes that people's chief goal is to be happy. It is not being right, it is not progress, but being happy. Implications are enormous. (pg59)
  • On page 73, Mildred, Montag's wife, at least in name, hits the problem of reading spot on. “Books aren't people. You read and I look all around, but there isn't anybody!” I think that I am having a dialogue with the author by reading his book. Even Mortimer Adler says that. But it tends to be a one-way conversation-the author presents his thoughts. I can question, react, think about what is being said. But this is not a conversation. The work is on my part, not something mutual.
  • Also on page 73, Montag says, “Why doesn't someone want to talk about it!? That is an impending war. As much as the talk radio shows are out there, we wave a tendency to scream at each other, not hear each other. We are not discussing; we bludgeon each other
  • .Mildred says, whats more important, the Bible or me (pg 76). I do not think Bradbury is making a religious point here. But I think the point could be made that Mildred did not even think of herself as much as Montag thought that a book could contain. Hy should Montag hold her in higher esteem than she held herself. Of course, Montag when he came to know the Bible might find that he was to love Mildred even more than she loved herself. Sort of ironic statement isn't? Of course, it is not every book which is as important as any other book.
  • We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren't happy. Something's missing. Bradbury understands that we individually and as a society need more than just money and things. We need to understand ourselves. We need depth to ourselves. We need a soul. What deepens us? (pg 82)
  • Faber, the retired English Lit professor who Montag turns to, says that there are three points that counts in Montag's search for understanding:
    • Importance of Books. Not so much in themselves, but because of the quality they posses. Good writers touch life often. They provide fresh and telling detail, of our lives.
    • Leisure. Bradbury differentiates between off-hours and leisure. He falls back that the purpose of leisure is to understand, to think. We are moving to a place where our time needs to be filled rather than emptied. Of course, a thinking people will be harder to govern, need reason. So instead of emptying our time to be filled with thought, we prefer to fill it with the “real”.
    • Action. Thought leads to action. It is the action which brings the thought to full blossom. Thought is not inaction, but action with meaning.
  • Bradbury calls the TV screens, idiot monsters. Not sure why. But my take on it is that the TV's were monsters because they made idiots out of people. Of course, today there are many more things which can made idiots out of us. By the way, even books, without thought, can fill in the void of thought.(pg117)
  • When a person know there is life outside of a cage, is it better to go on living? Even if the cage is very comfortable and satisfies everything which you would want? Montag realized that Beatty, his captain wanted to die. Beatty I think realized his trap, but could not kill himself. So he let Montag do the work for him. Is this what happens when we get too comfortable, we die? (pg 122)
  • I loved this phrase, the only man proving his legs! It came from a longer section where Montag is running away after murdering Beatty. All of the TV screens had been turned to his chase. Bradbury says He couldn't be missed! The only man running alone in the night city, the only man proving his legs! Strikes me as showing us what we devolve into mindless droids. Our bodies goes as well.
  • Interesting statement—Montag is looking for acceptance from the world, outside of the city. Even simple senses-a glass of milk, an apple,... (pg 143)
  • Everyone must leave something behind when he dies. (pg 150)


 This is a good read. It has excitement, it has good thoughts to think on. Its weakness is its prose. But this is a book I recommend. Even among the unbelievers-those who do not like to read—this should be a good read.

Notes from my book group:
  • A little too descriptive. Reminds me of someone who had a descriptive writing class.
  • Why the name of Beetle? Car, Helmet
  • pg 7. Does the girl make him aware of things others than himself? Is this true of any awakenings?
  • How long has Montag been saving books? Before Clarrise? Is this inconsistant with his profession? 20 books in the vent system?
  • Pg 10. Could this be a primer on evangelism?anhumility.other person. Definition of
  • Pg 11. Reflecting your own light by
  • Why the salamander?
  • Numerous legends have developed around the salamander over the centuries, many related to fire. This connection likely originates from the tendency of many salamanders to dwell inside rotting logs. When placed into a fire, the salamander would attempt to escape from the log, lending to the belief that salamanders were created from flames - a belief that gave the creature its name.[9]
  • Associations of the salamander with fire appear in the Talmud as well as in the writings of Aristotle, Pliny, Conrad Lycosthenes, Benvenuto Cellini, Ray Bradbury, David Weber, Paracelsus and Leonardo da Vinci.
  • Why so much suicide and violent death in a content and happy society?
  • pg 24. What was the mechanical hound sensing? The books? Changes in Montag? Or the sent of Clairisse?
  • Pg 25. The quote from GK on how we treat animals.
  • Pg29. Emphasis on sports—to take away our thoughts?
  • Pg 49. What is a family?
  • Pg 52. How long has it been since you have been really bothered? Why would bothersome things be ignored in a happy society?
  • Pg 56. Why does labor saving have unexected consequences? Zipper instead of button.
  • Pg 59. Is the pursuit of happiness supreme?

Good Quotes:
  • We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real? (pg 52)
  • That is the good part of dying, when you have nothing to lose, you run any risk you want. (pg 85)
  • Those who don't build must burn. (pg 89)