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Hi everyone! Nicky again, with one of my reviews about books that feature mail!

Last time I wrote about books for the blog, I was enthusing over Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Documents in the Case, a mystery novel which relies almost totally on written evidence. This time, I’m talking about something completely different: 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff.

Cover of 84 Charing Cross Road

84 Charing Cross Road is actually non-fiction: Helene Hanff was a writer and screenwriter from New York, who entered into a 20-year correspondence with a bookshop on Charing Cross Road, in London. She corresponded at first with a man named Frank Doel, but her funny letters and generous presents (such as food parcels containing food British people couldn’t obtain at the time due to rationing) quickly endeared her to the entire staff and to their families.

After Frank Doel’s death, she decided to publish some of their correspondence, and this was published as the book 84 Charing Cross Road — which is the book Helene (you can’t call her by her surname after reading this book) is best remembered for!

Reading the collection, I couldn’t help but quote bits aloud to my wife, almost every other page! Helene’s letters are warm and witty, and while Frank’s replies are rather more reserved, you can see an odd sort of friendship developing between them. Here’s one of the letters where she teases him for taking a while to find her a book:

“Dear Speed—You dizzy me, rushing Leigh Hunt and the Vulgate over here whizbang like that. You probably don’t realize it, but it’s hardly more than two years since I ordered them. You keep going at this rate you’re gonna give yourself a heart attack.”

It sounds like the plot of a romance, but Frank Doel was happily married, and… well, I’ll warn you all ahead of time: he and Helene never met. Throughout the letters she refers again and again to a visit that she never manages — at least not until after his sudden death and the closure of the shop where he worked.

My copy (from Sphere, published in 2010) does include The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, a book which collects Helene’s journal entries from her trip to London. It’s a satisfying follow-up if you’ve got attached to everyone via their correspondence in 84 Charing Cross Road, because you get to hear a little more from Nora (Frank’s wife), and Helene’s joy at finally reaching London is palpable.

Cover of Going Postal

I found it a really enjoyable read — though I almost found it difficult to believe that these people really existed and really sent these letters! There’s something incredibly sweet about their 20-year correspondence, short as it seems from this rather selective collection. It’s quite easy to dip in and out of, too, if you’re looking for a short/easy read. I loved it, and definitely recommend it!

I’m still taking suggestions for books about mail and mail-related topics, so do let me know any new ones you’ve thought of! I love non-fiction as well as fiction, and I’m totally open in terms of genre. The next post will probably be about Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal… but I’m notoriously capricious about reading, so I’m making no promises!

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Hey guys, Ana here — maybe some of you have noticed that there’s a new person around in Postcrossing? Nicky (aka shanaqui) joined us a few months ago, helping us reply to your emails, moderating addresses and also writing some posts for the blog. They’re an avid book reader too, though the word “avid” doesn’t quite describe it… Nicky breathes books is more like it! 😊 With thousands of books on their bookshelves, we thought there might be a few there featuring letters, postcards or other mail-related topics… so we invited Nicky to write about those here on the blog. This is the first post of what will hopefully become a recurrent series, with regular suggestions for your own book queue or upcoming library visits. Enjoy! – Ana

Since we came up with this idea for a series of posts, I’ve been ransacking my shelves for books about the mail and also for epistolary novels—and stacking up my massive to-read pile with a few more, of course…

A view of just part of my book collection.
A view of just part of my book collection…

So what did I pick as the first book to talk about? Well… People who’ve heard of Dorothy L. Sayers usually know her as a mystery writer who created the fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey, and most of her mystery books revolve around Lord Peter. Fewer have heard of her epistolary mystery, The Documents in the Case!

Cover of The Documents in the Case

I wasn’t sure how exciting a mystery which almost entirely consists of collected letters and written documents could be. Confession letters are pretty common (in mystery fiction, at least!)… but it’s hard to see how that could make an impressive mystery. Writing lacks the immediacy of a room full of suspects! I didn’t really expect much, to be honest.

I’m a big fan of Lord Peter, though, and in those books there are some letters from a fantastic character (Miss Climpson). If you’re a fan of mysteries, I recommend those books as well! For the ones where Miss Climpson sends her gossipy, character-packed letters, try Unnatural Death and Strong Poison. In any case, that should’ve been a clue to me…

In The Documents in the Case, there’s just a bit of a frame narrative to explain the collection: the letters and documents (they’re not quite all letters) have been gathered together to show evidence for the crime. Almost all the evidence in the story consists of letters, and though nobody writes a confession as such, every single letter is a confession in its own way, laying bare the prejudices, beliefs and foibles of the characters. Here’s an example:

“Dear Olive: I have been much surprised and deeply hurt by Ronnie’s letter to me, which I enclose for you to see. I cannot believe that he would have written in that spirit of his own accord. I can only suppose that you and Tom have been prejudicing him against me. Of course, he is your child and not mine, but it is quite a mistake to imagine that, merely because of the physical accident of parenthood, you are, for that reason, divinely qualified to deal with a sensitive temperament like Ronnie’s.”

It goes on like that! Miss Agatha Milsom is quite a character, as you can tell.

If you think about it, our own letters are pretty revealing: I know I put something of myself even into my short postcards, chatting about what I’m reading and the area where I live. Sayers just takes it to extremes in The Documents in the Case, and reading it is a bit of a voyeuristic thrill. She said what?! He did what?! Doesn’t she realise…

It’s not all like that, though: there are also some rather sweet and funny letters. Sayers seems to take joy in portraying true companionship and joy, as well as the darker and more ridiculous sides of people. One of the characters, Jack Munting, writes several exuberant letters to his fiancée, and the murder victim writes a couple of letters to his son, all full of understated affection. Honestly, those personal letters might be my favourite part of the whole thing.

Cover of 84 Charing Cross Road

The mystery itself actually hangs on outside evidence, which is a little disappointing after the promise of all those letters… but it’s still very clever, the character studies are great, and I ended up enjoying every minute! It’s not the #1 mystery novel I’d recommend, but I think it’s worth a look.

To help me research for future posts, we’d love to hear more about the books you love which feature letters or anything mail-related! We’re hoping my next reviews for this blog will be Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road and Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, and I’m also planning to refresh my memory on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and a couple of other classics… but what else would you recommend, postcrossers?

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When life is busy and chaotic, settling in with a good book usually slows the world down and allows us to escape into imagination. When the book is a children’s story, we share the experience with another, whether we are reading to a child, or the child is reading to us. And when the book is about a topic near and dear to one’s own heart, the reading is all the more enjoyable.

There are many children’s books about the postal experience, and I have selected a few that are among my favorites.

Letters from Felix The first, Letters From Felix, by Annette Langen and Constanza Droop, features a lost teddy bear named Felix, who has great adventures as he tries to find his way back to his adoring human, Sophie. The book is not only a charming read, but also a visual delight. Felix writes letters to Sophie telling her where he is and what he sees at each location. And the book has the actual letters, in real envelopes! It is such fun to turn the page and find an actual letter your child can pull out and unfold and read. The letters always have an interesting tidbit about Felix’s current location and Sophie learns a little bit geography along the way.

The Day the Crayons Quit

In The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers, Duncan goes looking for his box of crayons only to find a stack of letters from the crayons. Each letter expresses a need, like more variety in life or maybe more respect. The red crayon wants to do more than just color hearts and fire trucks. Beige seeks to be more than just “light brown.” And pink, well pink is tired of being considered a “girl color.” Duncan takes the letters to heart and we get a very happy ending.

I Wrote You a Note by Lizi Boyd, Dear Panda by Miriam Latimer, Abuela’s Special Letters by Jacqueline Jules, and The Lonely Mailman by Susanna Isern, all tell stories about how letters connect us to the world around us in unexpected ways. The books are written for children but they will be enjoyed by anyone.

Mixed books Yours Sincerely, Giraffe

My favorite of all the books I read for this post is Yours Sincerely, Giraffe by Megumi Iwasa. This is the tale of Giraffe, who wants to expand his horizons beyond his native Africa and decides to write to anyone who lives far away. Lucky for Giraffe that Pelican has just started a mail delivery service. As the story progresses we read about Giraffe’s concern about the letter arriving, and then his anticipation of what might be in the return post. Postcrossers will recognize those feelings! Giraffe’s letter ends up with Penguin, who lives in Antarctica. As the letter exchange continues, the fun begins. Imagine trying to describe something that your reader has never seen. Giraffe tells Penguin of his long neck. Penguin has no idea what a neck is, but with the help of Whale, they try to figure it out. The back and forth conversation via letters is both funny and thought provoking. And when Giraffe finally goes to visit Penguin, and decides to dress like what he imagines penguins look like… well, my grandchildren found it quite entertaining!

What are some of your favorite postally theme books for children? Tell us in the comments!

PS – A big thank you to postmuse, who patiently read all these books to her grandchildren and then wrote about them for our blog. 😊

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Have you ever seen a book about postcards without any images of the postcards themselves? That might sound strange at first, as one tends to associate postcards with pictures… but truth is, the written content of the postcards is often just as (or more!) interesting than the images they show.

Journalist Jan Carson spent the year of 2015 coming up with short stories for postcards that she sent to her friends and family, one per day. What might have started as a random observation or overheard conversation around her town of Belfast, quickly turn into stories on the back of each postcard, as imagination takes over. The result of this creative endeavour is now compiled in a book called Postcard Stories, where the mini-narratives are interspersed with beautiful illustrations by Benjamin Phillips.

Postcard Stories by Jan Carson

Each story send us on a journey to a parallel reality — sometimes surreal, sometimes puzzling, and often just funny. Here’s one of my favourites:

"January 22nd 2015 – Belfast International Airport, Aldergrove

A man in the line for Edinburgh has three inflatable worlds in a plastic bag. He is stopped at the departure gate by an easyJet representative.
“What have you got in the bag?” she asks. It is seven a.m., too early for lipstick, but she is wearing a thick gash of it: bloody red.
“Three worlds”, he replies, and removes them one at a time, clamping them between his feet, because the world is shaped like a soccer ball and inclined to roll if permitted to do so.
“One item of hand luggage only”, she states mechanically, already eyeing up the next offender.
The man proceeds to demonstrate how, with great determination and a little pressure, the world (and all those back-up worlds to come), can be deflated and contained within an overhead luggage locker."

Just picturing that scene put a big smile in my face, and I’m sure anyone who has ever flown on a low-cost airline can picture it as well. The book is filled with 52 such little stories, a collection of Jan’s imagination and mementos that would make any postcard lover happy.

Now if only we could make our handwriting as small as Jan’s and fit those many words on our postcards… perhaps she gives workshops? 😊

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Dear Data book

Early last year we mentioned a project called Dear Data, in which two ladies across the Atlantic exchanged drawn infographic postcards every week, detailing one specific aspect of their lives. Things such as complaints they uttered or compliments they’ve received, or even very specific things like animals they saw or doors they went through were all counted and sketched into white postcards, and then posted to each other. They kept it up for a whole year, collecting data and turning the experiment into a weekly ritual of discovery.

The project was so popular that it didn’t surprise me to discover it was edited in a book format recently, and I think it’s even better to browse the postcards this way, in an analogue format equivalent to that in which they came to life.

The postcard images remain intriguing and unreadable at first glance, inviting further investigation in order to decode them. The legends on the back though are super detailed and often contain several layers of information to add to their complexity… it’s astonishing to realize how much data they must have collected over the year!

Dear Data - laughter week

The pages in-between postcards are also funny and often provide insights or little anecdotes into Stefanie and Georgia’s lives… like how they both discovered their love for Haribo gummy bears on week 17!

Slowly, throughout the book, you also realise how a conversation is happening between the designers through their correspondence, how they’re getting to know each other and thinking a bit more about their lives through the analysis that is taking place in real time.

All in all, Dear Data is a remarkable book, inspiring us to slow down and really observe what is happening all around… and then grab our pens to put all these interesting details into our postcards!

Spending time with data

PS – Sadly, it’s also very noticeable on the book how badly US machines treat their outbound mail… Why, USPS, why?! 😠

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