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84, Charing Cross Road

84, Charing Cross Road - Helene Hanff I just reread this for the millionth time, because I always reread this when I find myself reading a book that turns out to be eminently hateable. There are books I can rely on to make me happy, and this is one of them.

This is the book that taught me about the lean years in England after World War II was over. Food was rationed for years and years. Fresh eggs were small miracles.

Helene Hanff, a quirky, barely-scraping-by writer, began ordering books from a small bookstore in England in 1949 -- partly because she'd always loved England and desperately wanted a connection with it; partly because, thanks to the oddities of publishing at the time, it was cheaper to get used copies of the books she wanted from England than new copies of them here in America. Cheaper, and more magical:

I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest.

Hanff could be paralyzingly shy in person, but she was blunt and in-your-face-funny on paper. She was also deeply generous. And so her correspondence with the manager of Marks & Co Booksellers quickly blossomed into friendship -- especially when she started sending food parcels:

Brian told me you are all rationed to 2 ounces of meat per family per week and one egg per person per month and I am simply appalled. He has a catalogue from a British firm here which flies food from Denmark to his mother, so I am sending a small Christmas present to Marks & Co.

This present was shared around with all the employees of the small shop, who were properly grateful to, and intrigued by, this overseas benefactor. One of them decides Hanff is "young and very sophisticated and smart-looking," while another insists she must be "quite studious-looking in spite of your wonderful sense of humor."

Hanff corrects them on all these points -- she's just a self-educated New Yorker who loves good books and schleps around in "moth-eaten sweaters and wool slacks." And the letters -- book orders, recipes, recommendations and requests -- fly back and forth between the New York oddball and the fascinated Brits for nearly 20 years.

I love Hanff's writing, which is why I got genuinely angry with her scorn for fiction. "I never can get interested in things that didn't happen to people who never lived," she says proudly when explaining why none of her book orders are for novels.

UPDATE: I originally wrote this review when I'd just begun to read what I assumed was a reputable biography of Hanff. Said biography turned out to be so poorly written and lacking in credibility that I now regret having bought or read it. I reviewed it, accurately, as the worst book I've ever read, and I've read a lot of bad books.

This biography claims that Hanff's letters in 84 are reconstructions, created by Hanff when she got the idea for this book and based on the letters she'd kept from her friends in England. He says that none of the original letters she wrote survived, so she scrambled together something like what she might have written back in the day.

I have been unable to find any independent verification for this claim, and regret having passed it on as fact in the previous version of this review.

Hanff herself admits editing another autobiographical book, a diary she kept when she was finally able to visit England. So I wouldn't be at all surprised if she'd touched up her side of the correspondence in this volume.

It would be wonderfully ironic if the woman who made such a point of hating fiction didn't get famous until she started writing it.

But it's impossible for me to tell if that's the case, or if this collection is in fact a faithful representation of some wonderful correspondence that went to and fro across the pond years before I was born.

No matter what the case may be, I still love this book, because I can enjoy it for what it is: one woman's idea of a story from a long time ago.