Issue 7 Book Reviews

Issue 7 Book Reviews

Photo Credit: Julliana Santos, Managing Editor

84, Charing Cross Road – by Helen Hanff

Julliana Santos, Managing Editor

To quote from our dear Helen Hanff, “what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND.” To borrow from her wonderfully enigmatic tone (and endearing wit), get up and go read this book! I could not recommend it more. Now is the season for warmth, delight, a touch of whimsy, and a dash of falling-in-love. That’s what this book does – and all in the span of a short 93-page epistolary. I read it in two hours on the commute home. It was a lovely ride. 

In her short collection of correspondence between herself, a writer in New York City, and the staff at Marks & Co., a bookstore located at 84, Charing Cross Road, in London, Helen Hanff shares a narrative of kinship and joviality, forged in a deep love for books, and wrapped in small acts of continuous kindness. While the letters run from 1949-1969, and the book itself was published in the 1970s, one cannot help but smile along with the very relatable act of reaching out across oceans to send affection to another, relative strangers though they may seem. And here’s the greatest part of it all: these letters are real. One could call this an epistolary memoir, of sorts. The letters exchanged between Hanff and Marks & Co. during this period are probably edited here and there, but they are wholly engaging, exciting, and true, in the most heartwarming sense of it all. Do pick up a copy when you can so we may share the delights of reading such a book. I’ll leave you with Hanff: “I require a book of love poems with spring coming on. [underlined] No Keats or Shelley…well, don’t just sit there! Go find it!”

The Idiot – by Elif Batuman 

Madelaine Chrisanthidis, Staff Writer

I, like many other writers, elect to write about characters who are also writers. Elif Batuman is no exception, and that is why her novel The Idiot is a 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist — literary academics love to read books about themselves (and so do university students, to be honest). While the content of the novel was personally relatable, it was really the dry, witty humor that kept me hooked. 

Batuman’s semi-autobiographical literary debut, The Idiot follows Turkish immigrant Selin as she navigates her freshman year at Harvard University in 1995. Selin takes classes on subjects that she has never even heard of and eventually befriends an upper-year mathematics student named Ivan, with whom she develops an exponentially mysterious relationship. The two exchange emails — a hallmark of the emerging digital age and a previously foreign concept to Selin. 

The Idiot is a bildungsroman of the young female writer. As she navigates the confusion of university, her development into a writer seems like an inevitability. This fact is mirrored in the novel’s style, which is written in Selin’s first-person perspective. Her consciousness is filled with acute and exceptional observations: the hallmark of a good novel, and a good writer. Not to mention, her style only accentuates Selin’s character, as she is funny without trying. 

Since the novel’s release in 2017, Batuman has published a sequel titled Either/Or, which follows Selin’s sophomore year at Harvard and her continued self-exploration. Where her debut novel title is a reference to a Dostoevsky novel of the same name, Either/Or alludes to Kierkegaard’s first work of philosophy. This trend of references to the literary canon fully encapsulates Selin’s self-invention within the sphere of academic grandiosity. Perhaps readers can expect two more novels that document the junior and senior years of Selin’s undergraduate career. 
If you are a young writer looking for a novel that seems to understand you, or if you’re just looking for a protagonist who is also completely overwhelmed at their prestigious university, then The Idiot is the book for you. Good luck with your existential crisis!