Two charming reads

>> Tuesday, January 27, 2009

This is the word that came to mind when I read these two books: they were utterly charming. But they had other things in common, too, like the strange fact that I just couldn't put them down until they were finished, even though on reflection, they were hardly thrilling!

TITLE: The Uncommon Reader
AUTHOR: Alan Bennett

This slim book imagines what would happen the Queen (Queen Elizabeth, that is; on reread just before posting, it occurs to me that she's not the only Queen out there!) were to become a reader.

The naughty behaviour of one of her corgi leads the Queen to stumble upon a mobile library on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. Her sense of noblesse oblige, in turn, leads her to borrow a book, just out of politeness. The reading bug doesn't take long to strike her, and she's soon playing hooky to stay home in bed with a book and driving her equerries* nuts by asking innocent and bewildered members of the public what they're currently reading.

I think what I liked best about this book was how it humanised the character of the Queen, while not falling into clichéd "she's just like you or me!" territory. The character remains The Queen, someone shaped by experiences very far from those that shaped "you or me" (for instance, she doesn't get Austen, because those minute class differences that form such a larg part of Austen's novels are meaningless to her, dwarfed by the difference between her class and that of even the most elevated of Austen's characters). Only once she becomes a voracious readers, certain traits emerge in her character that I'm sure all the readers of this blog will recognise without much trouble.

Up to a point, that is. As the ending approaches, what emerges is the idea of wanting to write as a natural and necessary continuation of a love of reading. It seems according to the author, after a while, it's just not enough to read, it will necessarily lose its charm. The "necessary" bit was what bothered me somewhat, mainly because it was an instance in which I could detect the author's hand in the story, temporarily suspending my suspension of disbelief. Why? Because I think there is a tendency in many writers to consider readers as wannabe writers as well, and I think that's where this came from.

Still, that was just a small bit of what was otherwise a book that rang true. Even though nothing momentous happens (until the end, that is!), Bennet's voice and the humour wih which he narrates the little things makes them just fascinating.

* Equerry: an officer of the British royal household who attends the sovereign or other member of the royal family (I had to look it up).


TITLE: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
AUTHOR: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

This is an epistolary novel, taking place only a few years after the end of the Second World War. Writer Juliet Ashton spent the war writing humourous newspaper columns intended to keep morale up. That work has made her a household name, but she's now ready to try something else. But what? Inspiration seems elusive, until she receives a fortuitous letter from Guernsey.

The writer of the letter, a Dawsey Adams, has purchased a novel that once belonged to Juliet, and wonders if she knows more about the author and his œuvre (ah, those pre-Internet days!). Other details in the letter, however, capture Juliet's attention, and soon she's corresponding not just with Dawsey, but with the entire membership of his Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and learning the moving details of what it was like to live under German occupation during the war.

This is a book of two halves. The first is basically what I've described above: Juliet finding inspiration for her new novel in the recent history of Guernsey and becoming friends with its inhabitants through their correspondence. She also dreams of some day, hopefully soon, visiting her new friends. And in the second half, she does.

It's not that the second part is bad, but the first was just so much better! Learning about what happened during the war (like Juliet, I knew the Channel islands had been occupied, but hadn't really though much about what exactly that would have implied), but also learning about the people of Guernsey. There's quite a few of them, but each and every one of them came alive and became an individual being to me.

I suppose in the second half we continue learning about those things, but there's also Stuff happening, and that changed the whole feel of the book for me. Of course, I can't really complain, as that stuff involves a very nice romance, as well, which I did like very much!



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