Tag Archives: #books

“If you happen to pass by 84 Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me?” Helene Hanff

I’ve just read this delightful non fiction book and I absolutely loved it! It consists of the two-decade long correspondence and friendship between the reserved Frank Doel, an employee at Marks & Co. Booksellers at 84, Charing Cross Rd in London and the New York based writer and bibliophile Helene Hanff. She is an avid and enthusiastic reader looking for rare second hand books who doesn’t like the dirty, broken editions she can find on NY stalls so she prefers buying them overseas. From the start we can appreciate the contrast between her American informality and Frank’s British professionalism, but as long as the story goes she establish a friendship with him, his family and all the employees of the library and the correspondence becomes informal and heartfelt. We gradually see Helene becoming intimately involved in the lives of the shop’s staff, sending them food parcels during England’s post-war shortages and sharing with them details of her life and career.

I’m grateful that this book had been published in the 70s and that it’s a true story, a modern fictional writer would have inserted a love affair between Helene and Frank who was married and had two daughters, ruining the spirit of the book. Because the magic of this book it’s in its innocence. The rare and pure friendship established between people who live so many miles away thanks to letters.

That’s so relatable to me: I feel so unloved and underappreciated by everyone I live with, while I feel like I’m another person when I’m virtually or in person, with my overseas friends.

I recommend this read to all the book lovers, those who like to browse little bookshops or used book stalls and, like Helene, love “inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins”, like “the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned” and are fond of “second hand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest”.

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The Marks & Co book shop located at 84 Charing Cross road has closed, but the street, located in the Charing Cross district at the west end of the Strand in London, is still renowned for the variety of the second hand books shops and independent book stores. The biggest and most known one is for sure Foyles opened more than 100 years ago, but the main road and also the side streets are full of little gems.

The road is named after the homonym district, where, in front of the railway was placed one of the twelve crosses that marked the route of Queen Eleanor funeral procession. It is in central London, very close both to Oxford street and Leicester Square, so with countless of shops, theatres and places to eat.

A little curiosity: in the Harry Potter books, The Leaky Cauldron pub is in Charing Cross Road.

TRACK OF THE DAY: Friends will be Friends – Queen

 

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“Always there have been six ravens at the Tower. If the ravens fly away, the kingdom will fall” John Owen Theobald,

I read a smart book by Julia Stuart that has been published as “Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo” in the UK and as “The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise” everywhere else. I don’t like to sum up plots, because mine are only honest personal opinions and not reviews, I can only anticipate that it describes the life of the little close community living within the gates of the Tower of London: the Beefeaters (particular Mr. Jones and his wife Hebe), the mean Raven master, the Rev. Septimus Drew who writes erotica under a pen name and has a secret passion for the barmaid of the Tower’s Rack & Ruin pub. The novel is also set in the “Underground Lost Property Office” where Hebe works and That is a continuous parade of odd, unusual objects and weird people. All the characters are well rounded and sometimes absurd, but here it lays the best feature of the novel that is a hallmark of British humour: despite of the tragic event in the background (the death of the Beefeater’s son), the novel is enjoyable and interesting. Here and there you can read facts about the Tower or about its prisoners.

The parts describing the animals are really enjoyable, but my favourite parts were the ones at the Underground lost property office, not only because Stuart makes the history behind each lost object interesting and endearing, but mainly because I figured in my head the amount of the bizarre things that people may forget on the Tube trains. How cool is imagining the history behind them and how hard must be rejoining them to their owner, I think this job it’s more interesting that it looks.

And at last, a thing that I really loved about this book, is the hate that the people working in the Tower, have towards dumb tourists. I used to laugh and shake my head while reading, approving every single nasty comment.

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You know how much I hate tourist traps, so I can’t write any useful guide for Tower Hill, I only hopped off at the homonym tube station and had a quick look around the Tower of London before heading to Shoreditch that is a place where I’m more at my ease.

It’s worth a visit, anyway. I like to take unusual pictures, so I tried to capture the contrast between the ancient Tower and the shiny Shard. And, to be frank, the Tower Bridge is always a good model.

TRACK OF THE DAY: You’ve got time- Regina Spektor

 

 

“Self improvement is masturbation” Chuck Palahniuk

When I read a book of Palahniuk I do it with an open mind, without trying to reflect on what I’m reading,  taking every single thing as a part of his own creative process. If something seems senseless, I go on reading until every part of the puzzle goes at its place. I let the writer take my hand and bring me in his head. “Beautiful You” is one of those novels that can only be loved or deeply disliked. No need to say I loved it since I discerned it was a satire of the books I hate the most (the infamous trilogy of the 50 shades, please note that my disgust is mere jealousy toward something that made the fortune of its writer despite of the stereotypical characters, bad grammar, dull sex scenes and plain plot). The female character is an anonymous secretary who clumsy spills coffee on a fascinated, powerful millionaire who uses her as a guinea pig for his sex toys.

The whole book is a satire, not only on the 50 shades books: Palanhiuk talks about the classic men vs women battle, criticize the power of corporate companies and fashion brands, it emphasises the quest of the vaginal orgasm. He’s a master of satire!

The novel is full of clichés, I think he tried to demonstrate that despite of a predictable storyline, already known sentence structures,  clichés characters and banal dialogues, a good writer can make a great book.

Read it only if you’re going to take it as it is, sometime it’s delirious and sex scenes are more scientific than erotic; sometimes the plot gets weird and probably in the end you will say “What have I just read?”. So again, you’re going to love or hate it.

I’m not going to spoiler here its content, but if you leaf through “Beautiful You” in a bookshop, don’t let the beginning block you. The book starts with the female main character who seems to get raped in a court with everybody staring at the scene without helping her. It’s not an odd disturbing scene: it’s the metaphor of all of us being raped by consumerism and the society that looks at what happens without acting, as if it was normal.

TRACK OF THE DAY: I don’t need a Man- The Pussycat Dolls

 

“A lot of you cared, just not enough” Jay Asher

I don’t have Netflix and I’m not a TV shows addict (even if I’ve seen every single episode of ER at least twice), but it’s almost impossible to ignore what’s popular at the moment, due to the huge amount of posts on socials.

I read “13 Reasons Why” when the serie didn’t exist and when it wasn’t on fashion already, because my best friend suggested me this book. The story is about Hannah Baker,  a young girl who has committed suicide, but who also previously recorded 13 cassette tapes where she explains the reasons behind her act. Each tape is dedicated to  a single person who had a negative impact on her life.

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT

Even if I believe that most of the people commit not because somebody did something bad to them, but because they felt guilty of or uncomfortable with what they experienced, the book wasn’t bad nor triggering at all.

I didn’t like the show (yes, I watched it because I was curious) despite of admitting that its intents were positive and that it was meant to be useful and supportive for teens (ask for help if you feel depressed, you’re not alone, find someone to talk to, denounce bullies and rapists).

It looks like it’s trying to glamorize suicide, since in the book Hannah simply tells that she killed herself by taking a bunch of pills and her act is almost glossed over for the most part. In the show, she slits her wrists and it’s a very detailed scene that could disturb or be triggering to people who experienced or are still into self harming.

The show also tries to suggest a romantic involvement between Clay and Hannah, while in the book they’re no more than friends, I think this was made to lead the viewers to sympathize with the characters. It also gives a bigger importance to the functionality of parents rather than in the book, where they are mere extras.

One thing I like a lot about the show, was the soundtrack: 133 songs for all tastes from Selena Gomez (who is also the executive producer of the TV show and who is very active in social causes) to Vance Joy, passing through Joy Division and hear ye hear ye, The Cure. I was very happy to listen to “Fascination Street”, but there’s another song of theirs that I think it was perfect for the show and it’s “The Reasons why” (it’s also the title of a fan fiction of mine).

TRACK OF THE DAY: The reasons why- The Cure

 

 

“Ocean separates lands, not souls” Munia Khan

I’ve just finished to read “Just Kids” by Patti Smith, well, read is not the proper word since I literally devoured it; I love her prose, she is a poet indeed because she has the ability to keep the reader stuck on the page. There isn’t a dull moment, an unnecessary part, she presents people, places and situations through her eyes and you feel like you’re right there; her attention to details, clothes, smells or tastes, helps to have a clear picture of what she writes. This book is an autobiography and it’s centred mainly on her relationship with the artist/photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and their struggle to realize their dreams in New York. It’s an inspirational book, above all if you have artistic ambitions and it’s an honest overview on two cultural icons who trascend their times.

There are many reasons why one can find this book interesting, but what I loved the most is the kind of relationship between Patti and Robert. She promised him to write their story after his death (he passed away in 1989 after battling against AIDS) and she fulfilled this promise many years later with this heartfelt book. Their bond was so intense that it hold out against lack of money, it endured after both careers took off and despite of Robert’s homosexuality, it spiritually survived even after Patti got married and had kids. When Robert died, she knew it before anyone told her about it and I think that’s the best example how two souls can be deeply related besides time, distance or other relationships.

I believe in what Goethe called “Elective Affinities”, that somewhere there is our perfect half and that we can recognize them through simple details (same interests, a food you both like, a particular scent, a song…), you don’t need big things to say “You’re my person” to someone, you just feel it.

Unfortunately fate is mean and it often happens to meet the right one too late or that there are insurmountable obstacles to your happiness. There’s no biggest punishment than can’t be together with the person you’re destined to. But this is called life.

TRACK OF THE DAY: Ask the Angels- Patti Smith

“I wonder how much of the day I spend just callin’ after you” Harper Lee

Now I know: my worst enemy is memory. I’ve read three books in four days and they all were set in London, because I simply needed to go back there through the only mean I can afford: reading. But despite of the fact that the novels took place in the City, they were so different from the story I was trying to find in them. Maybe I should write it, my story, my London, my English love affair, but each time I try, thoughts and feelings want to come out all at once, leaving me speechless. And I’m sure there aren’t words able to describe what I feel and if they were, I’m sure they would contaminate what I’m trying to say. So, until I’m able to be totally sincere towards me at first, I will keep looking for my story in other people’s.

One of the books I read was “The ballad of Peckham Rye” by Muriel Sparks. The story revolves around the great influence the Scot character Douglas Dougall has on the people living in Peckham. He’s a sort of consciences shooker, we could say that he plays the role of the devil himself and acting this way, he earns friends and opponents. He gets to convince a young electrician to refuse his wife to be at the altar, the words “No, to be quite frank, I won’t” and the whole situation becomes a ballad in the local pubs and gives the book its name.

It was a pleasant read, but it didn’t thrill me that much, expect from reminding me when I visited Peckham all alone, in a late evening, without my guardian angels.

The first thing that stroke me after going out from the Overground station, was the big variety of odours: Peckham Rye is a sort of huge open air market whose most of the businesses are run or frequented by members of the UK’s largest overseas Nigerian community. There were no tourists in sight, so I didn’t dare taking pictures, I simply enjoyed my stroll, having the impression to be in Lagos, rather than in London. It was pleasant, but also a bit uncomfortable, since it was dark, I was in an unknown borough with no reassuring Underground sign. Then I took a train at Peckham station, but until I landed safely at Victoria’s station, I wasn’t sure I was in the right direction.

So, when my friends want to pull my leg, they talk about my Peckham experience, but they also promised they will take me there again so I could see the street arts, the parks, the art galleries and, if in Summer, we will enjoy a film at the rooftop film club and have a drink at Frank’s Cafe.

TRACK OF THE DAY: Lost on you- LP

“And the city itself was just a glow on the dark earth” Monica Ali

As I said before, I’ve just read “Brick Lane” by Monica Ali and I totally fell in love with it. I borrowed it from the library only because I liked the title (lately I’m only looking for novels set in London) and it was a positive surprise. It’s a choral novel even if the main point of view is Nazneen’s, a Bangladeshi woman relocated to London through an arranged marriage to a man nearly twice her age. The books tells her story, but also many other of the people of Bangladeshi origin she meets, with a look on what happens in her country of origin through what’s happening to her sister Hasina. The book is not properly set in Brick Lane, maybe “Mile End” would have been a better title, but if you’re familiar to that part of East London, there are many places that can be easily recognised. The plot is pleasant and interesting, characters are well depicted, the descriptions are vivid and the reader’s interest is always kept alive. I loved seeing the main character growth: at first she’s submitted to her husband, unhappy and prefers taking refuge into her past and happy childhood rather than taking pleasure in daily life. Then she learns English, she starts earning her own money, she gets a lover who helps her to see over the four walls of her apartment. In the end she realizes who she is and what she wants to be, so she gets rid both of her husband and lover and opens a sewing workshop with some friends of her and finally fulfill her desire to ice-skating even in a sari.

If you want to visit Brick Lane you have to hop off at Aldgate and walk for a 5 minutes. Besides the street art, the first thing that strikes the attention is the Old Truman brewery, once home to London’s largest brewery and now location to a hive of creative businesses like independent shops, galleries, markets (only at the weekends), bars and restaurants.

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If you keep walking along this long lane, you will find The Cereal Killer Cafe that sells over 100 different types of cereal from around the world. You can eat there and they have vegan and gluten free options.

Another well known place is the Beigel shop, open 24/7 whose menu is focused on beigels (not bagels, it keeps the yddish pronunciation) baked in the traditional Jewish style (it’s being boiled in water before baking, a step that produces its crisp crust and moist, chewy interior) with  a lot of tasty fillings. It also serves pastries, cakes and sweets as well as white, rye and black bread. It’s not expensive, but it has no gluten free option.

If you raise your eyes, once you pass under the railway bridge, you will see the 123 building that is a four-storey mini department store packed with recycled clothing.

And on the less known part of Brick lane, just crossed Bethnal Green Road, there’s Tatty Devine my favourite handmade jewellery shop, where you can find some original, playful, colourful, laser cut acrylic things. There’s another shop in Covent Garden, but I use to go there.

TRACK OF THE DAY: Brimful of Asha- Cornershop