Monday, April 28, 2008

The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett

I finished Alan Bennett's novella The Uncommon Reader over the weekend. It was a lovely little fairy tale about why people need to read, and I enjoyed it immensely. Alan Bennett is one of my favorite British playwrights--he wrote The History Boys, The Lady in the Van, and The Madness of King George. In this story, he imagines what it would be like if the Queen of England suddenly began to read as a pastime.

It starts with the Queen visiting the mobile library van that is parked outside the palace, because she feels a sense of duty after her dogs have disturbed the van and its occupants. After borrowing her first books out of that sense of duty, she soon gets sucked into reading, and her casual hobby becomes an obsession. I won't give it away, but it ends with the country a changed place because the Queen has become passionate about books.

It's a slight story, but cleverly done, and I almost always love books about reading--it's always nice to have someone affirm the importance of books, reading, and writing in our lives.

I also enjoyed Bennett's conjecture about what it means to be Queen, what her priorities might be as a monarch, and how she would deal with people, based on her training, background and unique position in the world.

And there are some wonderful quotes about reading, writing, and the intellectual life.

When describing how uncomfortable the library at the palace was, how unsuited it was to curling up with a good book, and indeed, how inaccessible the books there were, the Queen thought:
No, if reading was to be done it was better done in a place not set aside for it.
Here's another quote I liked:
The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something undeferring about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included.
And here's another quote, one I had to smile at, as I remembered times I have been impatient with some authors, including Henry James:
She was not a gentle reader and often wished authors were around so that she could take them to task. 'Am I alone,' she wrote, 'in wanting to give Henry James a good talking-to?'
'I can see why Dr. Johnson is well thought of, but surely, much of it is opinionated rubbish?'
It was Henry James she was reading one teatime when she said out loud, 'Oh, do get on.'
So, this is a charming little book about the power of reading, and I have to recommend it to all of you avid readers out there. I also remember that Stefanie at So Many Books wrote a wonderful review of this book, so please check that out here.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Grammar Power!

There's a little car I sometimes see parked in my neighborhood with a great personalized license plate. It reads GRMR PWR. Now, I could be misinterpreting it, but I call it the "grammar power" car. It's an unassuming little vehicle, but I like to imagine it's the transportation for a grammar-correcting superhero. Maybe his name is "Captain Apostrophe". Maybe he's riding around town, correcting the grammar, spelling and punctuation on all the billboards and signs, keeping the public safe from split infinitives. Wouldn't that be great?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Booking Through Thursday--Vocabulary

Today's Booking Through Thursday question was suggested by Nithin:

I’ve always wondered what other people do when they come across a word/phrase that they’ve never heard before. I mean, do they jot it down on paper so they can look it up later, or do they stop reading to look it up on the dictionary/google it or do they just continue reading and forget about the word?

My answer is that it really depends on the book, on the word, and on where I'm sitting while reading! I usually don't look up words while reading unless I really can't get them from context. If I am struck by a particular word, often I'll write it down and look it up later. That's probably because there isn't usually a dictionary nearby. Every once in awhile a book begs to be read with a dictionary (or within easy reach. But that's pretty rare for me. And if I'm reading in bed, forget it--no way I'm looking anything up. Or writing anything down. So those words are just lost to me. My poor vocabulary, it's probably decreasing rather than increasing these days.

How about you?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sunday Salon

The Sunday

When I first decided to participate in the Sunday Salon, I thought it would be easy to find time to both read and write about it on Sundays. I mistakenly thought I read quite a bit on the weekends. But I've since realized how wrong I was! Last Sunday, for example, I only read The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Go Away, Big Green Monster!...though I did read them both at least six times. This weekend we have houseguests, so it's even harder to get a few pages in.

But I did manage to sneak away and read some of Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul: Memories and the City, which I got from BookMooch. So far I'm really enjoying Pamuk's very personal style. In speaking about his family's apartments, he describes the gallery of family photos kept by his grandmother. Once enshrined there, a family member's photo was never moved. His musings on the family photographs resonated with me:
My prolonged study of these photographs led me to appreciate the importance of preserving certain moments for posterity, and in time I also came to see what a powerful influence these framed scenes exerted over us as we went about our daily lives...(I) was pulled in two directions, wanting to get on with life but also longing to capture the moment of perfection, savoring the ordinary but also honoring the ideal. But even as I pondered these dilemmas--if you pluck a special moment from life and frame it, are you defying death, decay and the passage of time or are you submitting to it?--I grew very bored with them.
I'm not very far into the book yet, but I appreciate Pamuk's blending of memoir with the history of his beloved city. His gift for description makes the city come alive--and makes me want to visit Istanbul someday!

I was also inspired by Pamuk's writing about his city to include a photo I took of my own city. In it I'm parked along Hollywood Blvd, and the Hollywood hills are behind me in the mirror, veiled in a typical Los Angeles haze.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

National Poetry Month

As all my book-blogging friends know, April is not only the cruelest month, it is also National Poetry Month.

Like he did last year, my friend Greg is making a herculean effort to write a poem a day. He's posting his daily poems at his poetic blog, Gotta Book. And they're always funny!

Melanie at The Indextrious Reader has been posting about poetry this month. I've particularly enjoyed her choices!

Kate at Kate's Book Blog has a poetry challenge for the month--check it out! She says: The challenge is simply to post about poetry at least once in the month of April. The post could be a review of a collection of poetry, a broader meditation on the work of a favourite poet, or a detailed analysis of a single poem. Simply posting a poem doesn't count unless you go on to say something about that poem. The idea is to dare to be critical (as in analytical, not necessarily negative) and venture an opinion.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


This week's Booking Through Thursday question:

  • When somebody mentions “literature,” what’s the first thing you think of? (Dickens? Tolstoy? Shakespeare?)
  • Do you read “literature” (however you define it) for pleasure? Or is it something that you read only when you must?
I do think of the classics when someone mentions "literature", but I also think of contemporary literature--what my husband calls "serious fiction". I've heard literature defined as writings worthy of being remembered, and that strikes a chord with me. I guess I think of literature that way, as writing I have remembered, no matter what time frame it comes from. It may have been published last month, and I might consider it literature.

I read "literature" for pleasure all the time. I try to include classics in my reading, but I consider almost every novel and short story I read for pleasure to be literature. Occasionally I read what I consider "junky" fiction that I don't put in the "literature" category, however loose that category might be for me. By the way, my husband calls that junky fiction "airplane books".