Tag Archives: nonfiction

One Pair of Hands

I decided to ease my way into nonfiction this year with Monica Dickens’s One Pair of Hands. Reading it was only partially in keeping my with 2013 reading resolutions, but it was something to start me on the nonfiction path (where I would hopefully continue until I found myself reading some piece of narrative nonfiction that my brother-in-law might enjoy).

But before I can even talk to you about the book, I must address the truly terrible cover gracing the US version of this memoir, which is unlikely to entice you to read the book. My sister is a graphic designer and I like to think of myself as having imbibed from her a sense of what is “good design” and so feel that, despite my lack of design embellishment on my own blog, I am qualified to say that this is an unequivocally ugly book cover:

image via Amazon

image via Amazon

So ugly, in fact, that I actually checked the book out over at Amazon UK, and considered getting the UK version instead, because the cover over there is considerably less offensive to my taste and design sensibility. I suppose since the publisher here in the US (Academy Chicago Publishers) has, mystifyingly, classified this book on their website as “Fiction & Poetry” rather than “memoir” or “nonfiction” (or even, given the subject matter, “Food & Cooking” — that’s an available category, too!), the cover only seems to exhibit the same shocking lack of judgment. (Um, #librarianproblems … right?)

screenshot of ACP "Our Books" page

screenshot of ACP “Our Books” page

Upon further investigation, I discovered that Academy Chicago was simply reusing the illustration by Dione Tegner used on the cover of the 1961 Penguin edition. Still, one asks oneself, why that illustration, and why with the orange border? It’s somehow less offensive on the 1961 Penguin.

Well, if ever there were a time not to judge a book by its cover, that time is now. One Pair of Hands tells the story of how, after being expelled from drama school, Monica (a great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens) eschewed the debutante’s life of parties and chose instead, on the sole experience of a few cooking courses, to try her hand at being a cook-general.

The ensuing stories of life in service, Monica’s various failures and successes and the unreasonable demands of many of her employers, are a hilarious glimpse of life below stairs, and rather more Gosford Park than Downton Abbey: you won’t meet a benevolent butler like Carson in these pages.

You will meet one or two fallen soufflés, the rare considerate employer and the more common inconsiderate one, tremendously amusing anecdotes, and one failed actress with considerably more self-confidence than I’ve ever had, who created a role for herself and brazened out the performance to its conclusion, which, all told, makes for highly entertaining reading.

84, Charing Cross Road

003It’s not often I say of books I’ve read that I wish they were longer. But that is exactly what I have to say about 84, Charing Cross Road. In this too-slim volume are the letters Helene Hanff, a struggling playwright in New York City, wrote to the Marks & Co. bookshop located at 84, Charing Cross Road in London, and the bookshop’s responses, mostly from one of their employees, Frank Doel.

What starts as a business correspondence in 1949 grows into a real friendship, as Helene’s wit and enthusiasm eventually overcome Mr. Doel’s British reserve and politeness. When Helene hears (through her upstairs neighbor’s boyfriend) of the rationing still going on after World War II in Britain, she starts sending the occasional care package of food for all the employees of the shop, which leads to some quite funny exchanges.

If you love books at all, it’s impossible not to appreciate Helene’s enthusiasm as she speaks of being “afraid to handle such soft vellum and heavy cream-colored pages” of some of the beautiful used books Marks & Co. sent to her, and how they shame her orange-crate bookshelves. Or how she was refusing to return her library’s copy of Pride and Prejudice until the bookshop could find copies for her.

This book made me long for an age when retrieving one’s post meant more than getting a stack of credit card applications, catalogs, and adverts placed almost directly in the recycle or trash bins. So many of us have given up writing letters, instead relying on social media platforms to keep us in touch with our friends, and frankly, this book filled me with a sense of what we’ve lost. There’s so much we can say with the space and time of a letter that 140 character limits and internet attention spans deprive us of.

Bottom line? I think you should read this book. You’ll laugh out loud, and I cried, too. And then maybe you should go write a friend a real letter.