I set out to read a bunch of books in May, and I did so. Most are even the ones I meant to read. One can click through to my GoodReads to see all my reviews, but in passing I’ll talk about the two I didn’t mean to read, but read by accident: The Good God Pig, by Sy Montgomery, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.
I read the first because I felt that I wasn’t getting the complete story from E. B. White in regards to salvaging a runt piglet and letting it prosper, escaping the inevitable axe. For Sy and her husband, it means having a 750 lb. town garbage disposal slash confidant and friend, and I mean “town” to modify all of those nouns. It is interesting enough to see Christopher Hogwood live a life of pig largesse, enjoying a smorgasbord of slightly-worn treats delivered by everyone in the vicinity, day spas administered by the town’s children, and frequent break-outs and adventures; what makes the story so moving is how the big fellow came to mean so much to so many people–the author theorizes that this is due to Christopher’s good nature and joie de vive , and also that he is a kind of reverse-sacrafice; a single pig allowed to live out a natural life makes people feel better about the utter misery most pigs endure in their short bacony lives.
Montgomery’s life is also interesting; her love for animals has taken her all over the world, and she talks about it quite a bit when she’s not doting on her big pal. Despite her claims to the contrary, she also has quite a bit of love for her fellow humans, which becomes clear as she tells her story. If you like animal memoirs, this is a good one. Also, this will tell you most of what you need to know if you want to feature a pig in an upcoming writing project.
On Friday I suddenly had an itch to read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which I will henceforth call “GLAPPPS.” There are books, about one a year, that become a big deal socially, i.e., everyone is suddenly reading it and talking about it. I find that magical. It is wonderful for everybody to be reading the same book; for a book to be a shared experience the way TV and movies are. It was true of Kavalier and Clay a few years ago, and Life of Pi, and a few others. I rarely regret reading such a book unless it involves art historians and assassins, so I decided I’d purchase and read GLAPPPS and rushed off to get it Saturday morning as soon as the bookstore opened. Turns out I got their last copy, and they’d sold a dozen that day. Astonishing.
Anyway, no wonder it’s such a popular choice with book clubs; it’s about a book club, and the fellowship that develops around reading. Told in letters, the story is about a popular journalist known for whimsical pieces who’s considering her next project and by a stroke of fate begins corresponding with the residents of Guernsey, a Channel Island that was occupied for much of WWII. The islanders tell her their stories, and how their friends and their favorite writers helped them in the dark days of the occupation. They don’t all read the same books. For one fellow, Charles Lamb is always one the docket, it’s Seneca for another, while one reads only unnamed children’s books about dogs and another insists on reading from her own unpublished cook book (which passages torture the other half-starved members).
It’s a bit precious, true, with everyone writing wonderful letters, even if they are supposedly uneducated–and even the unlovely people are entertaining, such as the prissy, judgmental non-member who tries to set the record straight on the society by savaging the character of its members. Yet, I found this to be a wonderful weekend read, a good story and well-told, and a testament to the social nature of literature.
I said on Facebook that it reminded me of Wodehouse, and a friend who didn’t care for GLAPPPS but loves Wodehouse didn’t see the connection. I didn’t explain it well there, but I think it’s captured in Barrows’ end note, which explains that she revised a book written by Shaffer, her late aunt. Barrows says that the center of her aunt’s charm was “her willingness to be delighted by people — their phrases, their frailties, and their fleeting moments of grandeur.” That is, I think, what I was striving to say. That’s true of Shaffer, and it’s true of Wodehouse, however misanthropic he pretends to be when it comes to children and meddling aunts. You could say the same of Alexander McCall Smith, author of the Ladies Number One Detective Agency series and a few other authors. You might even say the same of Sy Montgomery, if you replace the word “people” with “animals.” There are dark scenes in this one, but the delightfulness of the people make post-war Guernsey a lovely place to spend a weekend.