Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Book Report/The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
fiction, 2008
finished, 9/11/08

This book was a July 25 Friday Finds. Since then, I have seen many, many mentions of it all over the internet. And I was thrilled to find out it is selling well in my local independent bookstore.

What can I write about this book that is different from all the other reviews out there? Well, I haven't read many of them, so I may indeed repeat something that has already been said. I preferred to wait and read all the accounts when I finished the book. I really, really like to come to a book ready to be surprised and delighted. I read just enough about the story so that I thought it was for me, and I was right.

I left a comment the other morning on An Adventure in Reading in answer to "where is reading taking you this week?" saying "in Guernsey with the letter writers," and it struck me how very many people would know exactly what book I meant. I've not seen anything like this since Jan Karon's first Mitford book. I'm amazed at the groundswell of appreciation and real love for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And how I love that title!

Very, very briefly, it is a story told through letters written in 1946 between a writer in London, and the members of an unusual literary society on the island of Guernsey. If you want more details, you can find them in other book reviews, but just in case you are like me, and don't want to know too much, that's where I'll stop. You may read a long excerpt here to help you decide if you'd like to read it.

In the book, Juliet Ashton writes:

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.

Let's see, what are the "leads" from this book? Well, first and foremost, the essays of Charles Lamb. When I first read of them, I got up and hauled down off the very top shelf one of our college Norton Anthologies. It is sitting open now, waiting for me to spend some time in its pages. Second, Pride and Prejudice. Do I dare admit I've never read it? I have a copy which belonged to my late aunt, so I really should begin. Third, I might give Wuthering Heights another try. The last time I read it, I was living in a dorm, and didn't think much of the writing or the story. And if I weren't already entranced with Agatha Christie, this line about Miss Marple would have lead me to her:

...she is a lady detective in fiction books, who uses all she knows about HUMAN NATURE to figure out mysteries and solve crimes the police can't.

As I read about Lamb's sister, I jumped up and came to the computer to look in my Book Ideas folder. I just knew her story sounded familiar. And I found it - from the old, beloved, much missed A Common Reader catalogue:

It was the action of a madwoman: on September 22, 1796, 31-year-old Mary Lamb, sister of the essayist Charles Lamb, murdered their mother with a carving knife. Though Mary would spend the rest of her life in and out of madhouses, she also enjoyed calm and happy stretches living in "double singleness" with Charles, her days occupied with reading, entertaining a circle of friends (William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge among them), and writing the popular "Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare." Susan Tyler Hitchcock's "Mad Mary Lamb: Lunacy & Murder in Literary London" is an accomplished, compassionate telling of a most unusual life-story.
Mad Mary Lamb by Susan Tyler Hitchcock

There is an internet page about Guernsey, much like the encyclopedia pages I delighted in as a child. I didn't always know what things like textiles and commodities were, but somehow the words were magic and other-worldly to me. I loved reading all those statistics.

And here is a newspaper site. For a little island, there sure are a lot of cars. After living in this book, in a perhaps idealized, or at least a long-ago Guernsey, it was kind of a shock to read the current news, and see that a lot of years have passed since 1946. I don't think I could bear the cars or the population. BBC News reports that "Guernsey has 62,000 people, which is 900 people per square kilometer, more than twice that for England - which has been named the most crowded country in Europe."

There are several you tube videos, here - sort of like home movies, but still a fun look at Guernsey today, one of them a little drive in the rain accompanied by James Blunt on the radio. :<) Click on the right side arrows to go through them. A couple things I wondered about as I read along in the book: 1. if young women reading the book will name a new baby, Dawsey. I think it would work for a boy or a girl. I'd never heard it before, and I quite love it; and 2. if Guernsey will become a reader's mecca, as Yorkshire did after the James Herriot books and Savannah did after Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I certainly found myself longing to visit, but I'm quite sure the Guernsey I want to see is 62 years old now. I have loved many books over the years, but I have been in love with only a few. Like an older person thinking love has passed her by, I didn't think there would be any others to add, but there you go. I'm definitely in love again with one of the most beautiful, interesting, warm, informative books I've ever read. You may ask, what are the others? In alphabetical order by title:

Around the House and in the Garden; and Paths of Desire by Dominique Browning
Bachelor Brothers Bed & Breakfast by Bill Richardson
Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield (Juliet's humor reminded me of the Provincial Lady's)
Hens Dancing; and Summertime by Raffaela Barker
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther
My Dear Aunt Flora by Elizabeth Cadell
The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith
The Mrs. Tim books by D.E. Stevenson


  1. Nan, I was already feeling grateful to you this week for introducing me to Cordorouy Mansions - and now this (I don't really see many reading blogs apart from yours, so it had escaped my notice). So thank you.

    And thank you for the list of books at the end, with some familiar favourites and some completely new. Now, given that you and I have pretty similar tastes in books - DO, please, put Pride and Prejudice near the top of your pile. I've read it so many times I know bits of it off by heart. And when I was young, I adored Wuthering Heights; I think I'm going to re-read it, but I'm not sure I'll like it second time around (first time, I remember being quite unable to put it down).


  2. Imagine my surprise when I saw your post today! You said before that you don't keep up with many of the new books out there, but this is certainly a new book, and it is certainly creating a buzz.

    I must say that your review - with it's history and additional links - is the best I've read on this book so far. I wasn't sure if I should follow the crowd and read this one, but I'm thinking it would be a good idea.

    One question though - is it based on a true story, or is it completely fictional? I've asked other bloggers but haven't gotten an answer yet.

    Oh, and you simply MUST read Pride and Prejudice. It's one of my all time favorites, and it STILL makes me laugh out loud every time I read it.

  3. Isn't it great how one book leads on to so many others? I've still to be persuaded to read "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society", but after this post I can see I'll be missing out if I don't.

    Charles and Mary Lamb have intrigued me for several years now - I have the Essays and "Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare" - still unread. Peter Ackroyd's "The Lambs of London" is very good - not biography but combines fiction and literary history.

    Do, do read "Pride and Prejudice" - I haven't read it for years but it sticks in my mind as a really enjoyable book. And I read and re-read both that and "Wuthering Heights" as a teenager - like Joanna I'm wondering if I would still feel the same now.

    Sorry this is a long comment but you have raised so many interesting points - of your list of books you have loved I can echo that I love Mrs Dalloway, but haven't read any of the others - more books to look out for!

    I've been away visiting my son (now living in Edinburgh) - so much to write about and to catch up with on the blogs.

  4. Hello there and thanks so much for your mention of my MAD MARY LAMB. I, too, miss A Common Reader tremendously --- what a wonderful sense of joy and intelligence in that catalog. I did want to point out that Peter Ackroyd's LAMBS OF LONDON, mentioned by another commenter, really does mess with history and turns things all around about Mary and Charles Lamb, whose lives were so fascinating in reality that I don't know why anyone would want to rewrite them. MAD MARY LAMB does my best to tell the true story, especially from 1796, the year when Mary Lamb killed their mother, to 1815, the year of her last published writing, which was the only writing she did for adults, an essay called "The Politics of Needle-work." You and your blogmates might enjoy my more recent book, too, FRANKENSTEIN: A CULTURAL HISTORY, also published by W. W. Norton. Cheers, Susan Tyler Hitchcock

  5. It's in my Amazon shopping cart. I peeked at enough of your review to know you liked it, but I wait to savor your full thought when I've read it.

    I'm so glad to see you include Mrs. Dalloway on your list. It's probably my favorite. I get so drowned in her language.

  6. A fellow librarian just recommended this to me the other day. Sounds like something to add to the (sigh) humongous list of get-to's...(reading for one's profession is both a joy and a despair as I have all these "grown-up" books I want to read and yet all these middle grade novels and picture books I need to (and often want to) read! So many little time :)

  7. You wrote a wonderful post about this most popular book, Nan! It had a typical Nan-spin on it. Love it! I just could not imagine that you, of all people, would not love this book.

    I raved at my book club about it and told them we will read it for January 2009. One member had shown up with it in her hand in order to tell the rest of the group about it.

  8. I am really looking forward to reading this one. I am glad you enjoyed it so much. Great review!

  9. I've seen many reviews of this, but yours I'm going to bookmark. Thanks for all these great links! I'm going to stay away from them until after I've read the book. And I even have one book you mentioned - Mad Mary Lamb - though I haven't read it yet.

  10. I was sure you would love the Guernsey book, Nan. I agree with you that Juliet is like the Provincial Lady. I was also reminded of '84 Charing Cross Road' but with a Helen Hanff minus the dorothy Parker, if you know what I mean!

  11. I'm so glad you enjoyed this gem of a book!! I've had such fun recommending it to customers. It's such an easy sell, especially to those who have read 84, Charing Cross Road. I've sold both the book and audio versions. I'd love to hear how the audio rates. I may just have to get it and give it a listen myself.

    As far as your list, I would have to agree with:

    Around the House and in the Garden by Dominique Browning
    Bachelor Brothers Bed & Breakfast by Bill Richardson
    Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

    Marvelous, marvelous books! Did you ever read Birdbaths & Paper Cranes by Sharon Randall? I think you'd enjoy this one quite well.

  12. Joanna, I am so enjoying my few minutes each day with Corduroy Mansions - hope you are too! I will read P&P, I promise, but I tried WH again, in an audio version read by Patricia Routledge (whom I love) and I just couldn't stand it. :<) Guess, I'm not so different from my college self after all!
    Heather, thank you for your really nice words! I do believe it is completely fictional. Not one account I've read has given any hint of there being a 'real' component. And to you, I also say, yes I'll read P&P. :<)
    Margaret, don't ever apologize for a long comment - those are my most favorite. It feels like real conversation. I'm quite sure you will enjoy the Guernsey book. Pretend you've never heard a thing about it. :<) I hope you read what the author of Mad Mary Lamb had to say about the Ackroyd book.
    Susan, I was so surprised to see your comment. I really do want to read your Mary Lamb book. The idea that she was so beloved in friendship by so many people, while being "mad" is intriguing. I'm so glad you wrote it.
    Pamela, I do so love Mrs D. I don't know how many times I've read it. Have you ever listened to it? I love the sound of all those words. I believe the one I heard was narrated by Virginia Leishman, but I see there is one read by Phyllida Law, whom I just love, and think would be great.
    Susan, I just put everything aside, and got lost in this book. It was like it was the only one in the world, I loved it so.
    Kay, I love that 'nan-spin' - I wonder what it is? ;<)
    Literary Feline, thanks so much. I think you'll really like it.
    Tara, what a nice thing to say. I love links that bring alive a book - that add to my knowledge of the subject or setting. If you think of it, let me know when you read Mad Mary Lamb.
    Monix, I knew exactly what you meant!!
    Les, I don't remember you reading Mrs D. Do you have a review somewhere? I'd love to read it. I haven't heard of the Randall book- will check it out.

  13. I read Mrs. Dalloway several years ago. I'll dig up my review later this week and email it to you.

  14. What a GREAT review! I am coming to it nearly 2 years later! I, like you, don't like "spoiler" reviews, so I tend to avoid reading book reviews of books on my "to read" list . . . and so I may have even passed this by/ scanned it too quickly on purpose - when it was a live post. I can't wait to explore your links here. Thanks for reading my little review. I try to never write spoilers. I get a kick out of all the things you and I tend to have in common.

  15. Nan, I'm so tickled you came back to read this! I hope all the links still work.

  16. When I first saw this post I added the book to my huge list of "books to be read," but only just got around to reading it recently. It was my very favorite read of 2012, and I can't stop recommending it to friends. By the way, my list is so long thanks, in part, to you and your blog. I'm forever adding books you recommend. Can't thank you enough, Nan!

    1. Aren't you just the best to come back and tell me this! Thanks so much. Makes me feel great.


I'll answer your comments as soon as I possibly can. Please do come back if you've asked a question.
Also, you may comment on any post, no matter how old, and I will see it.