Sunday, 18 April 2010

Book review: Helene Hanff's "Apple of my Eye"

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I discovered Helene Hanff quite a few years ago, when I was sent a copy of "84 Charing Cross Road" by a friend, Alan. My friendship with Alan is almost like our personal homage to Helene as - like her epistolary friendship with Frank Doel - we have corresponded for a number of years, but we have never met. I value my paperback copy of "84 Charing Cross Road," not because it is a first edition (it isn't), but because Alan has written in it, "Hoping our friendship lasts at least as long as theirs did." By my reckoning we are probably about 6 years off their record.

It is very fitting, in the light of this, that the main comment on my New York reading list came from Alan. He pointed out that New York is a vibrant, constantly changing city and that all my choices are books that are quite old (the most recent being Underworld). They are therefore about a New York that no longer exists.

This is a fair observation, and I could analyse the reasons for this. So I will.

Firstly - the purely practical; my choice was based on raiding my bookshelves for New York books, and those were the ones that I had.

Secondly - modern NY novels are to some extent shaped by the tragedy of the Twin Towers and, as a slightly nervous flier, this did not seem to be a good choice for airplane reading. It is right and proper to acknowledge the tragedy, which is probably the shooting of JFK for our generation (most people can remember what they were doing when they heard what had happened). We did see Ground Zero - currently a building site (this is the photo on this article, as seen from some seats where older men meet to play chess like they do in the movies).

Lastly, I probably cling to a romantic idea of the old NY that does not exist any more - the good-hearted gangsters of Damon Runyon, museums that don't charge an entrance fee (but just ask for a donation). There is probably a cyclical element to this analysis. I only chose from the books that I have on my bookshelf, and they represent my attraction to a romanticised, old-fashioned New York.

Which brings me to Helene Hanff - but in a good way. My airplane reading in the end was Helene Hanff's "Apple of my Eye" (not a big surprise - I think this was always going to be my top choice from the time I rediscovered it on my bookshelves).

"Apple of my Eye," was written when Helene was commissioned to write copy for a book of New York photographs. She was initially enthusiastic to be hired to write about something that she loves so dearly. This excitement was tempered by the realisation that, as someone who lives in New York, she had never seen the tourist sites. She sets out to rectify this with a friend, Patsy Gibbs, who also realises that she has not visited the places that New Yorkers take for granted. Patsy and Helene are also both scared of heights - which is unfortunate when so many of the New York landmarks are so tall.

This book was written in 1977 (and, I have just discovered, revised in 1988 - I have the earlier version). For obvious reasons, it should not be read as a guide book. However, it is a very entertaining read with a very easy, natural style (that probably takes a lot of work to cultivate). Helene Hanff is fascinated by history, and subjects Patsy to historical digressions that apparently bore her but fascinate the reader. There are mysteries along the way: why they are the only Americans on a bus tour of Harlem; an apparently disappearing plaque/tombstone in Trinity Church, and whether a bank in Wall Street ever replaced the stolen plaque that marked the position of the titular wall.

The thing that most dates the book is probably its most poignant detail - at the time of writing, construction was just being completed on the World Trade Center. As Helene Hanff died in 1997, she thankfully did not live to see the tragedy that would befall her beloved New York. I like to think she would be reassured that the city has resolutely refused to be beaten into submission.

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