Friday, September 9, 2011

Book Review - Helene Hanff's Apple of My Eye

Apple of My Eye by Helene Hanff
Published by: Moyer Bell
Publication Date: 1978
Format: Paperback, 144 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy
Helene Hanff is such a quintessential New Yorker that when the BBC wanted someone to present a little five minute piece on New York once a month on the Woman's Hour they looked to Helene. In the minds of the British, Helene IS New York. Plus, they have taken her to heart ever since 84, Charing Cross Road. So logically, when a publishing house in New York was looking for someone to write captions to accompany pictures taken of New York they too looked to Helene to provide her sharp wit to their venture. Whatever happened of the original venture is not mentioned in the book. There may or may not have been a book that resulted from her three months of writing. But instead we get the play by play diary of Helene and her best friend Patsy, a born New Yorker, who both quickly realize that, while living almost their whole lives in New York, they aren't in touch with the New York tourists who'd be buying this book would be. So the two of them set out to "write that down."

From the Statue of Liberty to the newly opened Ellis Island. From the Cloisters to the newly constructed World Trade Center, they troll through the island of Manhattan to see what the tourists would go to see, even if they are both terrified of heights and 107 stories is really up there. Intermingled with their experiences are little bits of history that Helene has picked up over the years, such as the fact that Wall Street really did have a wall, and that the cathedral of St. John the Divine is a combination of American know-how and European elegance, and every neighborhood thinks their deli is the best. It's also an interesting glimpse into Helene's opinions, her views on corrupt early industrialists who left gorgeous houses from the Morgan Library to The Frick. Also, Helene really dislikes anything happening to central park and her rage against The Met's expansions is a big theme.

This book is so interesting in that, for someone who has spent time in New York, you can see how much remains, but, especially with September 11th now 10 years in our past, something that is such a big feature of this book and of New York is now gone. I can't help but wonder what Helene would make of the changes that have happened to New York in the 15 years since her death. I'm sure her pride in New York would never waiver and she would have been in the forefront of commentators. I can't really see this book appealing to tourists though. It's such an intimate portrait. She goes to the great sites and attractions, but her writing style is of one who lives there and knows the terrain. Constantly referencing streets or subway stops, while repetitive at times, won't help a tourist, it was more confusing than anything, with the map at the back a kind of joke. It is the perfect gift for someone who loves the city and wants a kindred spirit to go on a journey with.


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