Thursday, January 29, 2009

Book Picks: Try a Little Potato Peel Pie

Is it just me, or is this winter longer than normal? Ice, bitter cold, and snowstorms have caused me to turn into a hermit the last few months. While I have accomplished a few--very few--projects around the house, I find it hard to get motivated to shovel the snow off my car and the driveway to go anywhere, and find myself becoming more and more lethargic. Dreaming of spring and gardening is a great diversion, but you can pore over seed catalogs only so long. Instead, on a cold winter's day, the perfect escape is to pour myself a hot cup of coffee or tea, settle into the comfy armchair with a blanket, and lose myself in a good book.

You might think being a former English teacher that I would read only the classics or critically acclaimed new novels. Far from it! I spent so many years reading and re-reading books that I had to read for class, that when I read for relaxation I prefer something that doesn't make me think too much. Oh, I will go back and read some of the great books I never read one of these days, but for now I prefer a lighter fare of mysteries and legal/forensic thrillers.

Two of my favorite mystery authors are Martha Grimes and Elizabeth George. Ironically, they are both American writers, yet the settings of most of their novels are in the UK, complete with authentic British touches, including characters who wear "jumpers" and sometimes eat "beans on toast." (I now know what a jumper is, but I'm still curious if beans on toast really is what it sounds like.)

Lying on my book table, waiting to be read next, is George's latest novel, Careless in Red. I'm eager to read this one, since her last two novels can only be described as depressing. With No One as Witness ended with the shocking and completely unexpected murder of one of the secondary characters. Her next novel, What Came Before He Shot Her, was a complete departure for George, as she focused on a new character, the young boy responsible for the murder in the previous book. His life story read something like a Hardy novel, as he was a victim of fate, abuse, and a poor environment in the worst neighborhoods of London. The novel was a well-written character study, as all George's novels are, but it was depressing. I'm looking forward to Careless In Red, reading about Supt. Lynley and his assistant Sgt. Barbara Havers solving their latest mystery and hoping their lives have returned to a semblancy of normalcy.

While I love mysteries and tend to read every book written by a favorite author, I have tried in the last two years to expand my reading and get out of my comfort zone, so to speak, every so often. From nonfiction like Obama's Dreams from My Father or Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes to modern fiction like Jane Smiley's One Thousand Acres, I am often pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy some of these different genre.

One of my more unusual choices that I finished reading two weeks ago was Stephenie Meyer's Twilight.

In case you have been living under a rock or have no interactions with teenagers, I'll tell you that this book and the three that follow it have developed a cult following, especially among teenage girls, that rivals J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. My thirteen-year-old granddaughter has read all four of the books, and earlier this summer was counting the days until the final one came out in August, then counting again until the movie "Twilight" was released in December. She owns all of the books, has read each one multiple times, and wears a t-shirt emblazoned with Edward's photo. Thousands--probably millions--of teens and young women are just as devoted. I decided to read the book just to find out what all the "fuss" was about. I knew some of the main characters were vampires, but I was surprised that the novel was a fairly innocuous love story between a human and a vampire. My granddaughter was disappointed when I told her my reaction--"It was okay"--but she was somewhat appeased when I explained that if I were a teenager once again I would probably love it. It's fast reading, but I wouldn't recommend it to adults unless you want to find out what your teenage daughter is reading.

However, a book I would recommend is the novel I just finished, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. When I saw the title in a list of recommended books, I was intrigued and checked it out of the library.

The novel is set in London in 1946, and Europe is still recovering from World War II. The protagonist, Juliet Ashton, is a 33-year-old author enjoying her first success as a writer, traveling around England on a book tour and trying to think of a subject for her next book.

One day Juliet receives a letter from Dawsey Adams who lives on Guernsey in the Channel Islands. He has found a copy of the essays of Charles Lamb that once belonged to her and asks her help in locating more writings by Lamb, since books are scarce on Guernsey. Juliet does more than just write a perfunctory reply: she sends a copy of another book of Lamb's essays and a book of Lamb's letters. She also shares some trivia about Lamb's life and encourages Dawsey in his reading:

"That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It's geometrically progressive--all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment."

Juliet is also curious about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to which Dawsey mentions he belongs and asks about its meaning. Thus begins a correspondence between Juliet and Dawsey and eventually other residents of Guernsey.

As she exchanges letters with other members of the Literary Society, Juliet learns that the Literary Society was formed spontaneously one night as an alibi for a group of residents who were out after curfew. The Germans had taken over the island and enforced strict rules and rations on the residents; breaking the curfew could have resulted in a severe punishment. To keep up the ruse, the residents continued to meet and actually began reading books in case their Nazi captors checked in on them. The "potato peel pie" was added to the name later when Will Thisbee insisted on refreshments at the meetings and concocted a potato and beet pie--food was scarce--with potato peels as the crust. Eventually, Juliet realizes there is a story here and decides to visit Guernsey to meet her correspondents in person. At first her intention is to write about the Society for a series of newspaper articles, but after she arrives on the island, she is drawn into the lives of these people and realizes their story is worthy of a book, not a brief news story.

The novel is written as a series of letters, which I usually don't enjoy. The letters are included chronologically, so that letters from several different characters appear before a reply to any of them can be made. This could lead to some confusion, but it doesn't; rather, it makes the storyline more realistic as well as hooking the reader into wanting to continue to read. I quickly found myself changing my mind about the letter format; the letters were entertaining and full of detail that revealed the traits and thoughts of each character, making it easy to empathize with them. The characters are neither two-dimensional nor stereotypes. Not all the Nazis are evil, and not all the natives are honorable.

And it is the characters who make this story. Juliet is a bright, compassionate young woman who writes with humor and feeling. In the very first letter to her editor she describes her problems with coming up with a new idea for a book:

"English Foibles seemed so promising at first. After all, one should be able to write reams about the Society to Protest the Glorification of the English Bunny. I unearthed a photograph of the Vermin Exterminators' Trade union, marching down an Oxford street with placards screaming 'Down with Beatrix Potter!' But what is there to write about after a caption? Nothing, that's what."

There is humor, too, in the reading choices made by some of the other colorful characters. Limited to books available, a pig farmer chooses the essays of Charles Lamb; a rather eccentric herbalist decides to read Pride and Prejudice; and two laborers nearly break up an old friendship over the writings of Marcus Aurelius and Thomas Carlyle.

Mary Ann Shaffer worked as an editor and a librarian before writing this, her first novel, and her love of reading and books is one of the themes in the novel. But the novel is about much more than reading, and it is not always humorous. Guernsey was occupied by the Nazis for much of WWII, and the residents suffered deprivation and witnessed acts of inhumanity that have deeply affected them. All of them have lost at least one person dear to them. For some, the wounds will never heal completely. But they are survivors, and while they recall some of their horrific memories for Juliet, they also remember poignant stories of kindness and heroics. A Nazi doctor secretly brings medicine for a sick Guernsey child. A resident takes in a nearly dead Todt, one of the prisoners of war that the Nazis use as slaves until they collapse from starvation. And then there is Elizabeth McKenna, whose story develops over the course of the book. A determined woman of unbelievable courage, she does what is right regardless of the danger to her. This novel is a story of the strength of the human spirit and the bonds that connect people.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was one of those serendipitous finds for me--a novel I had never heard of before, but am so glad I found. It was a delightful read, and I highly recommend you check it out to while a few of these gloomy winter evenings. In fact, I'd like to find another surprise like this, so I would welcome any reading recommendations that you might have, too.


  1. Rose, a good friend of mine just finished this book yesterday and highly recommended it to me! I'm going to put it on my list!

  2. Hi Rose.......yes we do eat beans on toast...and that is exactly what it is, beans on toast. They are a firm favourite with Riley and Poppi......and I love them a nation we do have some odd food combinations......
    I understand you being confused re: jumpers.....sweaters I suppose makes more sense....but jumpers it is for the british......

    As I said in your last post fiction is not really my thing. The only set of books I have read over and over again is 'Lord of the Rings'

    I did read Land of a thousand suns......I think that is the title and unfortunately I cannot remember the authors name. Now this book I loved, in fact I will read it again. The villa we stayed in last year had a library, I read it there.

    I to feel that winter has been long.....we had a wet spring, and summer. The autumn was not that good either......I just want to see the sun and to feel a little bit warmer......

  3. The perfect time to catch up on my reading! Thanks for the book suggestions, always looking for a great read. :)

  4. Very interesting. You had me wanting more just by reading your write up! I will look for this book. Thanks Rose!

  5. Joyce, I think you'll like it! The Mortenson book is still on my "to read" list, too; I just need to finish all the ones I have already checked out of the library first:)

    Cheryl, Thank you for the explanation of beans on toast! We all have some strange dishes--my kids used to like "beanie weenies," hot dogs sliced into beans. The "jumpers" I eventually figured out:)
    I wonder if the novel you're thinking of is "A Thousand Splendid Suns"? (Now I can't remember the title!) It's about the Afghan woman who is married off against her will. If that's the book, it's a great novel and so well-written, but didn't it make you furious how she was treated? He also wrote "The Kite Runner," which is one of my favorite books.
    The sun is shining here today,which makes the snow and cold a little more bearable.

  6. Racquel, I hope you enjoy it!

    Tina, I could have said so much more, but thought I was writing too much as it was:) It's a great book.

  7. Great reviews Rose. When we travel we listen to audio books that I would never in a million years pick up and read. Some of them are the Sue Grafton,Patricia Cromwell etc... I enjoy them so. I don't know why I wouldn't enjoy them in book form.

    I too think this winter has been long and cold. Yet the days are beginning to get longer. I can feel it. After this awful cold front goes through It is supposed to warm up. Who knows how long that will last.

  8. Rose,

    It is not you, this winter is longer and colder than usual...A gardening friend says that for once our perennials aren't budding too soon and won't be wiped out by a late frost...She is more thoughtful a gardener than me.

    The book sounds like a good read and I am putting it on the list of must reads! I am thinking about a good book to recommend...let me get back to you!

    Keep warm,


  9. Oh, those Martha Grimes &Elizabeth George mysteries are old favorites! I have old ones on the shelf Rose, but haven't had a new one in awhile.

    I'm now intrigued by the The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - heard of using potato peels to make vegetable broth, but the piecrust idea makes me think of the Potato Skins served as appetizers in restaurants.

    My mom came from a Chicago Irish family and she used to love beans on toast and try to get us kids to eat them.
    The beans couldn't be anything like pintos, or pork & beans from a can. They had to either be homemade Boston-style baked beans or some brand that came in a small pot-shaped glass jar.

    Your mental gymnastics are keeping us all warm!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  10. If you were an english teacher I think you will really enjoy the beautiful writtings this blogger writes almost everyday. I can't wait to read what she writes each day with beautiful photos that go with it... I hope you enjoy
    It has taken me away from the winter blues....

  11. Those books look inviting. I haven't read any of them.
    I recently read "But Inside I'm Screaming" by Elizabeth Flock in 2 days. I couldn't put it down though it was a bit disturbing!

  12. Rose, you have captured winter in words and images.

    I loved Dreams from My Father, Angela’s Ashes and A Thousand Acres. Good for you for reading Twilight – there’s a lot to be said for understanding the younger generation. I’m sure your granddaughter loves that you took time to read her favorite book. I’ve heard a lot of good things about that Potato book. I had been wondering what the title meant and your review was excellent. I hope you’ll review more.

    I agree with your post below – books are my favorite possessions too.

  13. Lisa, I've read almost all of Sue Grafton's and Patricia Cornwell's books; they're two of my favorites. The local librarian keeps recommending I try audio books, but I'm not sure if I would like them as much--I'm a visual learner:)

    Gail, Your friend is a true optimist! We just haven't had any warm, thawing days all winter, it seems.

    Annie, I'm thrilled I've found a reading soulmate! I prefer Grimes' Richard Jury series to her other books, but I will read anything she writes.
    The potato peel pie sounded funny rather than edible, but if I was starving I'd rather eat that than some things. Thanks for the info on the beans on toast!

    Lynn, I visit Nina's blog about once a week, but I should visit more often. You are right--her writing is poetic, and she has such beautiful images to illustrate it. Thanks for the reminder!

    Maggie May, Thanks for the suggestion; I'll check that one out.

    Sarah, Thank you. Yes, my granddaughter was pleased that I read Twilight and was more than willing to tell me what happens in the next three books, so I don't have to read them! I think this is the first book review I've written other than for my students as an example--it took a lot of thought! My hat is off to you for all the work you put into your reviews.

  14. Hi Rose,
    My son is 12, and asked for Twilight for Christmas. My daughter who is 20 said it's a 'girl's book'. My husband is the one who bought it for him, I wouldn't have. I am sure he hasn't bothered to read it yet. What do you think about that book for a 12 yr. old boy? I'm not really sure it's something he should read. Any thoughts? Thanks!

  15. That quote from Shaffer's work is the voice of the author-former-librarian, I think. One little thing in a book leading you to another makes me think of the old-fashioned library card catalog. I used to forget about time and get lost in those drawers of cards, going from one subject to another, one author to another, one period of history to another.... It's just not the same now with the computerized system. The search engines almost do the thinking for you, those clever algorithms and all. I am definitely going to be looking for this book. Thanks for the recommendation, Rose! Winter? What winter? ;>}

  16. Rose, oddly enough I've never read any of George's books. And you know how fond I am of mystery writers. I will start looking for them as I have read most of Cromwell's. As much as I love Harry Potter I doubt I will read the Twilight books. I'm just not into vampires.

    It was such a pleasure to read your very well written review of the Potato book. Any book containing a little history, great characters and a good story sounds wonderful.

    I have been reading Nelson DeMille's 'Cathedral'. After having read several of his others-'By the Rivers of Babylon', 'Gold Coast', 'Night Fall', and 'The Lion's Game' I am amazed at the diversity of his style and highly recommend them.

    This is what the world needs-more time to read great books!

  17. Two great blogs about do know I work in a library? The Stephenie Meyer books are SUCH a hit....unbelievable...yep...quick read. Still under snow cover here....I see you are as well...and we have a new governor.....we are just living the dream aren't we?

  18. My hubbie loves mysteries and true life crime. I use to be a big reader of fiction and then got so tired of it. Now I mostly read non-fiction but one fiction I dearly loved was The Secret Life of Bee's. I would highly recommend it. Oh and I did manage to read all 7 books of The Chronicles of Narnia this past summr. Loved it much too! I've not ever heard of the last book you mentioned but it does sound interesting. Thanks Rose and have a great weekend!

  19. Jan, I would be surprised if a young boy actually liked the book, because so much of it is a romance. As for being appropriate, I personally think it's fine for that age group--there's no sex or drugs, nor any strong profanity that I remember. Edward (the vampire) is actually quite a gentleman and a noble person. You might want to read the book, too, just to see if you approve!

    W2W, I'm still having trouble leaving comments on your posts! There are several blogs like this where it won't take my comments. Please know I am reading your posts and have lots of feedback--in my head:)
    When I attended the U of I, a huge beautiful wood-panelled room contained the card catalogue. I used to take my students there on a tour, and they were amazed by this room, which was bigger than our whole high school library! A room full of computers with databases just doesn't convey the same feeling.

  20. Beckie, I'll check out the DeMille books. I know you like Patricia Cornwell--have you read any by Kathy Reichs? You'd enjoy those, too.

    Neva, I didn't know you worked in a library--I bet the Meyer books don't stay on the shelves. So many of the high school girls where I now sub are reading them. Oh yes, it's a bright new day in Illinois!

    Susie, I think this book would appeal to many people. It's not a mystery, and has just enough history to it to please a non-fiction reader. The Secret Life of Bees is one of my favorites, too! Did you see the movie as well?

  21. Thank you, Rose, for letting me know about the comments. It's kind of strange since I have been getting some comments. Weeping Sore said she was having trouble with it too. I've removed the Playlist and changed the comment format back to the way it was, but there is still a problem. I contacted Blogger about five days ago and have had no response. I do have my new blogging e-mail address posted on my profile if you want to leave your comments there. I will keep trying to get this problem resolved.

  22. Oh, the winter has been very long. And we still have a lot more of it left. Sigh!
    So that's what all the vampire fuss is about. My 12 year old granddaughter wrote on facebook something about this Edward vampire character and I told her "how much fun would it be to sleep in a coffin all day?"

    Well, she informed me that that's not what this vampire does. He lives with his family. Hmmm - doesn't sound like the vampire stories I used to read. But I'm glad it's not so spooky or weird.

    Happy reading!

  23. Books, books, wonderful books ... will we ever live long enough to read them all ... The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a must read from all dear friends that have read it (honestly, top on my huge pile)! Thanks dear Rose ... (Hey Beckie ... if you enjoy historal novels on 'Cathedrals', you MUST read Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follet)... you will thank me and pass it on :)

  24. Rose,

    Thank you for putting the badge for the garden blogger meetup in Chicago this May, up on your sidebar. I really appreciate it.

  25. How strange! The potato peel pie book is the next book to read for my book club. I haven't started it yet but look forward to doing so even more now. Thanks Rose!

  26. I don't think that I would even have looked at a book with such a strange title, (Potato Peel and stuff) if you hadn't mentioned it. It does sound interesting, though

    I follow a fairly light diet, nowadays, when it comes to reading, I'm afraid. I do read a lot of Patricia Cornwell, but I have yet to read any Elizabeth George. I'm still struggling with a book I just can't get into and then I admit that I have 3 Agatha Christies lined up! Yes, I've read them all at one time or another, but I don't care!

    Baked beans are navy/haricot beans cooked in a tomato sauce. They are delicious on toast, particularly with a little melted cheese on top.

  27. W2W, I finally was able to leave a comment! Hooray!

    Wendy, Edward is definitely not your typical vampire:) He's quite the gentleman and built like a Greek god. I'm not familiar with the actor who played the role in the movie, but I thought the late Heath Ledger would have been perfect. After reading the book, I can see why all the teenage girls would love to meet Edward!

    Joey, Hope you enjoy the book! Funny you mentioned Pillars of the Earth. Beckie read it last year and recommended it, so I read it, too. I usually don't like anything that long--it felt like reading War and Peace:) But it was a great book once I got into it!

    Mr BrownThumb, You're more than welcome. And thank you for all your hard work in planning this--I am so looking forward to the end of May!

    Suburbia, This would be a great book to discuss in a book club. Hope you enjoy it!

    Mean Mom, The Guernsey Literary really quick reading. I like Patricia Cornwell, too; have you read any of Kathy Reichs? Her main character is a forensic anthropologist and similar to Kay Scarpetta. I think I almost like Reichs' books better--not quite so dark.

  28. Rose~

    The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society sounds like a gem of a book. Maybe a retirement career of reviewing books is in your future.
    Ah...wouldn't that be a dream, to get compensated for doing something as enjoyable as reading books?

    Thanks for coming over to my blog and leaving such a nice compliment about the butterfly dish! I'm excited about paying it forward, I chose the handmade PIF, but I imagine it could be anything one wanted to share.

    I enjoyed your blog today!

  29. Hi Rose - you asked if my snowdrop count was just my garden. It covers my front, side and back gardens plus the ones I guerrilla gardened into the public land at the side of the house :)

    Hope you're having a great weekend!

  30. No, it's not just you. I think the unusually cold weather, combined with the unsually high snowfall, has made winter go on for (approximately) EVER. My 23-year-old niece also read all four Twilight books and also lined up to see the movie, which she was disappointed by. I have The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society now on hold at my library; thanks for the tip, it sounds interesting. (And I had no idea the Germans occupied Guernsey!

  31. Karrita, Yes, getting paid to read books sounds like the ideal job for me! I like the idea of paying it forward; it's a good practice whether in blogging or life.

    VP, Amazing! And I don't think I have a single snowdrop planted here:) Something to remedy next fall.

    Monica, When you love a book, the movie is usually disappointing. I had no idea either that the Germans occupied Guernsey; in fact, I wasn't sure exactly where it was located before I read the book!

  32. Prairie Rose, I am a librarian and discovered The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society quite by (happy) accident. I have been recommending it to everyone, and so far everyone has loved it. That's a rarity! It's one of my favorite books.

  33. Hi Rose....well done....that is the novel....Yes it did upset me....but I think it is a wonderful insight into the lives that some poor souls lead.....purely because of their birth place and religion......

  34. JulenaJo, I just wanted you to know I've visited you before--and again today--and cannot leave a comment on your blog. For some reason, this happens to me on several blogs, and I don't know why. I'll keep trying! I see "Potato Peel Pie" is listed as one of your favorites, too:)

  35. I'll add this one to my list of "to read" books on GoodReads. And let me recommend a book to you that I just finished reading, "The Little Ottleys" by Ada Leverson, who was a friend of Oscar Wilde. She was a talented & witty writer.

  36. This is a good review!!! Do you want to join in on March 4? If yes, I'll send you the graphic and add you to the reminder email.

  37. I came back to find this review and I agree completely. How horrendous it must have been to make the decision to send your child to England before invasion!

    If we're talking light and very funny, I love the Janet Evanovich books about bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.


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