I have read a number of very good reviews of this book in the book blogs to which I subscribe. All the reviews have one thing in common. Everybody
loves this book and so do I!
Suko's Note book has an excellent review.
Age 30+-A Life Time of Books-has a very perceptive review as well as a list of other posts on the book.
I see no need for me to do another general review of the book.
I do want to talk about what I liked about the book. Some of the dialogue
of members of the society also affected me in ways that surprised me. One speaker made me ashamed of the man who I always considered the greatest English language poet of the 20th century and one speaker reaffirmed my negative feelings on a much admired ancient Roman thinker.
I learned a lot about life on the island of Guernsey during much of WWII when it was occupied by the Germans. I never knew before I read this book that 1000s of Eastern European slave workers were sent to the island to build massive fortications while starving to death. You really feel like you know what it must have been like to be on the island during WWII.
We see people past middle age that have never read a book for pleasure find great joy and comfort in the books they are introduced to by the island's literary society. It is never too late to get into the reading life. Sometimes all it takes is the right book deeply read. We see how books island residents survive some very harrowing times and accept the joy of the transcendent moments. In this marvelous book we experience both of these on one page.
We come to know and care about the people of Guernsey. We may not like it but we find it a little harder to hate all the Nazis also. We must accept the fact that the occupying commander is very much a reader as are numerous of his officers. The German occupation lasted nearly five years so there was interaction between the English residents and their occupiers.
I want to share a couple of particular things. Clovis Fossey is a middle aged farmer that served in the trenches in WWI. We should listen carefully to what he says.
"At first I did not want to go to any book meetings. My farm is a lot of work, and I did not want to spend my time reading about people who never was, doing things they never did".
He falls in love and asks the local book seller for a book of love poetry to help him in his courting. He is not much impressed with poetry until he comes upon the work of Wilfred Owens, a poet of WWI who fought in France just like Mr. Fossey did. Mr Fossey comes to appreciate the poetry of William Wordsworth and learns many of his poems by heart. One day a friend loans
him The Oxford Book of Verse-1892 to 1935, the poetry being selected by William Butler Yeats. To me Yeats is the greatest English Language poet of the 20th century. I have read in his work on and off for forty years. His lines will often come unsolicited into my mind. I knew that his politics was at best silly and and worse dangerous. His philosophical musings are incoherent. I always shrugged this off in the face of the beauty of his work. Mr Fossey has another view on Yeats.
"They let a man named Yeats make the choosings. They shouldn't have. Who is he and what does he know about verse?
I hunted all through the book for poems by Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sasson. There weren't any-nary a one. And do you know why not? Because Mr Yeats said-he said 'I deliberately chose not to include any poems from WWI. I have a distaste for them. Passive suffering is not a theme for poetry'.
Passive suffering? ...I nearly seized up. What ailed the man? Lieutenant Owens, he wrote a line, 'What passing bells for those who die like cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns'. What is passive about that, I'd like to know. That is exactly how they do die. I saw it with my own eyes, and I say to hell with Mr Yeats".
I felt ashamed for Yeats when I read this. Ashamed for the dishonest shallow venal vanity that was really behind his remarks. I wonder how he would have done during the war years on Guernsey. I began to wonder how much my liking of Yeats work maybe comes from my own vanity. I always sort of knew what Mr Fossey said but I never really felt it before
Mr Jones Keaton, another middle aged farmer (all the young men were gone to war) shared my opinion of Marcus Aurelius. I read his Meditations once in an
ancient philosophy class. He talks about how he tries to deal with the great trials and tribulations of his life. Mr Keaton does not accept this. He can see that Marcus Aurelius is head a of a slave empire as cruel as that of the Nazis. Millions die in chains while he mediates on the misery of his life. I was so happy when Mr Keaton spoke out.
"Marcus Aurelius was an old woman. -forever taking his mind's temperature-forever wondering about what he has done..was he right or wrong. Was the rest of the world in error? Could it be him instead? No, it was everybody else who was wrong, and he set matters straight for them. Bloody hen that he was, he never had a tiny thought that he could not turn into a sermon".
There is so much to love about this wonderful easy to read book. The production values are very good. It is very uplifting and moving without being maudlin at all. I endorse this book without reservation.