The Best of January 2018

In 2018 I would like to dedicate more of my time to original writing—which means I want to spend less time writing about books. Musing on the truths found in books is still important to me, so I plan on reviewing the best ones. But otherwise I’ll just aim for a monthly round-up.

charing cross

84, Charing Cross Road—Helene Hanff

Long gone are the days of “pen pals” and delayed correspondence, when it took a week or more to receive a reply to a letter. Maybe it’s my imagination, but it seems as if writers took more care with their letters when they couldn’t expect a reply in the next few seconds. I wonder what we are missing by not putting more of our real thoughts to paper these days.

I plowed through the little book 84, Charing Cross Road, which contains the 1949-69 correspondence between American writer Helene Hanff and the staff of the London bookseller Marks & Co., in one evening. In 84, Charing Cross Road, a business transaction blooms into a heart-warming relationship between pen pals. The book is billed as a love story, but it isn’t one, at least in the way we would think of it. True attachment grows between Helene and the staff of the bookstore after Helene, in her warm and open-hearted way, sends a food package to the Londoners who are still living with post-war food rationing. Helene’s jovial, teasing tone cracks the “stiff upper lip” British writing style and words of love and friendship fly across the Atlantic for nearly twenty years.

Reading 84 Charing Cross Road was a reminder that thoughtfulness—in word and in action—goes a long way. We may never be able to foresee the ripple effect when we decide to give generously.

★ ★ ★ ★/5 stars

lusseyran

And There Was Light—Jacques Lusseyran

French writers (at least the ones that I’ve read) see the world differently, as if they’re looking on it from the inside out. In the case of Jacques Lusseyran, there was no other choice. Blinded by an accident at a young age, Jacques saw the inside of himself and developed the ability to “see” the people around him in varying degrees of color and light produced by his impressions. Armed with an unshakeable foundation of love from his parents and an almost insatiable thirst for knowledge, Jacques experienced very little in the way of handicaps in his life.

What came to define Jacques’ life was not his blindness, but what he did with that blindness in Nazi-occupied France. Jacques and a small band of friends organized a resistance cell in Paris, fueled by adolescent energy and anger at the inactivity and passivity of their fellow citizens. With his ability to see the light (or lack thereof) in other people, Jacques acted as the group’s final “filter” on who and what should be allowed to aid their efforts. Until they were arrested, these young people acted with a courage that is almost impossible to comprehend from this distance of time.

By far, Jacques’ greatest gift was not his ability to see “light,” but his joy. If I were blinded after seeing and loving the world around me, and if I were carted off by Nazis and had to know first-hand the atrocities of a concentration camp, I do not think I would know joy. Undoubtedly there were moments when Jacques knew fear and anger, looking on evil and death, but he found that when you fall to the bottom of these things—in the darkness at the very end of yourself—God is there. And if God is there, then all you have to do is live on. He found joy in knowing his utter helplessness, and he shared his heroic joy with the people around him.

★ ★ ★/5 stars

lilli

Lilli de Jong—Janet Benton

The story of Lilli de Jong is a simple one: what was life like for an unwed mother in the pre-modern era when extra-marital pregnancy was socially unacceptable?

Lilli de Jong is a young, unmarried Quaker from Germantown, Pennsylvania, in the 1880s. During a period of vulnerability after the death of her mother, Lilli indulges in a moment of passion with her father’s young apprentice. Before Lilli discovers her pregnancy, he moves to Pittsburgh in search of work and promises to send for her when he has enough money to provide for them. As the months pass, she doesn’t hear from him and despair sets in.

Lilli finds a place at a home for girls “in trouble,” which offers her the option of discreetly delivering her baby and giving it up for adoption before returning to her normal life. But while living in the home, she starts to wonder if giving up her baby will just be the start of a life full of lies. And then when her daughter is born, she can’t imagine giving her up. Against all advice, Lilli chooses to keep her baby.

Like dominoes, the consequences of this choice fall on Lilli hard and fast. She has a ruined reputation, so it will be hard to find work. She has no money, so it will be impossible to keep herself and her child in a decent home. The only work she is qualified for is that of a wet nurse, which means she will, in turn, have to send out her own child to another, cheaper, wet nurse.

The options available to women like Lilli during this time period were truly horrifying, and Janet Benton does a great job of eloquently bringing historical facts to life. Although it feels like everything that can go wrong does go wrong for Lilli, from sexual assault to the workhouse to absolute destitution, the novel is thought-provoking. Few nineteenth-century Americans were willing to show an unwed mother compassion, choosing rather to see her hardship as the natural consequences of her sin.

I hesitate to recommend this one whole-heartedly because there are a few graphic descriptions that I thought were unnecessary.

★ ★ ★ ★/5 stars