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Finished Reading: The Uncommon Reader

12 Apr

What a charming Easter read!

I read the novella The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett this afternoon.  This tiny book takes an entertaining fictional look at the Queen of England and the subversive power of reading.  One afternoon, the Queen follows her corgis around the courtyard and comes across a mobile library.  She checks out a book (by Ivy Compton-Burnett) just to be polite, but as the days and weeks go by she finds herself reading more and more, memoirs and histories and novels.  She is helped by Norman, a servant from the kitchens who she meets at the mobile library and later promotes to her amanuensis.  (Norman looked it up in the dictionary the Queen now kept always on her desk.  ‘One who writes from dictation; copies manuscripts.  A literary assistant.’)  They discuss books and create longer reading lists together, following rabbit trails from one work to another.

As the Queen becomes a Reader, she ponders why she is so caught up in reading at this stage in her life.

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.  Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic.

The more she reads and thinks about reading, the more she questions the prescribed order of the world.  I won’t reveal more than that, in case you’d like to read The Uncommon Reader for yourself, which I highly recommend!

Finished Reading: December

11 Apr

December, a novel by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop, was another title that I noticed on a few Spring Reading Thing lists, and I had it on my library list this week.

This is a gripping, heart-breaking novel about 11-year-old Isabelle, who hasn’t spoken a word in nine months.  There was no pivotal event that sent her into silence, but now that she’s there she often feels helpless to break it.  Her parents are beside themselves trying to find a solution to this situation, taking her to psychiatrists, keeping her home from school, even planning a trip to Africa.  As they grope for some magic that will bring her back fully into their world, they fight and bicker, which drives Isabelle deeper into her silence.

Through the course of the novel – which takes place in, of course, the month of December, the family deals with the illness of their dog, new neighbors in the country, and Isabelle’s unreliable uncle.  The narration is third-person omniscient, so the reader gets to understand what Isabelle and both her parents are thinking and feeling, and the reality of this bewildering situation is deeply sad.

The writing is gripping and stunningly observant.  My teeth are still set on edge from the realism of the passage where Wilson, Isabelle’s father, is at the dentist.  I can just feel that scaler against my gums!

The hygenist holds up the mouth mirror and a hooked scaler to scrape the plaque.  “Open.”

Wilson opens.  This time, his lips don’t hurt him.  He stares at the hygenist’s eyes as she works.  They are an icy blue with a small ring of brown just around the pupil.  A blood vessel has burst in the corner of the left eye, bright red against the white.  This happens to him, too.  He watches the skin between the eyes crease as the eyes narrow and the scaler digs deep, it feels, beneath the gum.  He can taste blood, metallic like the tools, but warm.  The scraping of the scaler against his teeth is loud in his head.  Saliva gathers in a pool beneath his tongue.

“Okay.  Spit.”  Wilson sits forward and spits into the white plastic sink beside him.  He watches blood and chunks of gum swirl with the constant stream of water down the drain.  The hygenist hands him a small cup.  “Rinse.”  He rinses, spits, and sits back down.  “Okay, open.”

I enjoyed December, with its detailed imagery and loving characters caught in an unknowable silence.  I sunk into their crisis as I do when reading, for example, novels by Jodi Picoult.  I’m a little surprised that I was the first to check this book out of my library – it is stamped as received last June!  Have you read it?

Finished Reading: Hood

8 Apr

I saw Hood (The King Raven Trilogy, Book 1), by Stephen Lawhead, on several reading lists from the Spring Reading Thing, and it was on my library list when PisecoDad stocked me up on books for my recovery.  I started reading it this weekend, in desperate need of escapist fiction, and Hood rose to the challenge.

This is the first novel in the King Raven trilogy (the later volumes are Scarlet and Tuck) – a retelling of the Robin Hood legends, set in Wales in 1093.  It is filled with action, political in-fighting and plenty of magic and mystery, and it’s only in the final third of the book that Bran ap Brychan emerges as something like the Robin Hood we know (think master archer, fighting the rich to feed the poor, hiding in the woods to ambush the baron’s traveling party).

I enjoyed losing myself in the world of Hood, and I’m looking forward to picking up the other volumes in the trilogy when they make an appearance at our local library.

Finished Reading: A Long Way Gone

5 Apr

The other night I couldn’t sleep – I was having stomach trouble from the pizza we’d had for dinner – and so I hunkered down on the couch with pillows and blankets and a book.  I had started reading Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier earlier in the week, and read the rest of it in the middle of my sleepless night.

Although the book was desperately sad at times, the middle of the night turned out to be an amazingly engaging time to drink in this story.  The silence, the dark, the solitude all leant themselves well to my becoming deeply immersed in the story of a boy living and struggling to survive in Sierra Leone in the 1990′s.

For so much of the book, Ishmael was alone, or felt alone, and was often in hiding, in darkness, and in fear.  The book starts before he has experienced the war, and traces the time he spent hiding from the rebels and looking for his family, the time he spent as a forcibly recruited army solider, tracking and killing the rebels, and the time he spent in a center for the rehabilitation and “repatriatization” of child soldiers from both sides of the conflict.

It was scary, sad, and eye-opening.  But also hopeful, in the end, because Ishmael was able to survive and finally leave Sierra Leone, finish his schooling in New York, graduate from Oberlin College, and become a voice for children’s rights around the world.

I was very glad to have read A Long Way Gone, and many of the messages will stay in my heart.  Now, though, I’m turning to the most escapist fiction I have on hand, since this week also found us (as a community) facing a scary real-life situation in our area.

Finished Reading: Three Cups of Tea

2 Apr

Oh, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time was a good read.  It’s the story of a man named Greg Mortenson, who was living paycheck to paycheck and saving up his money to climb mountains.  He made a long attempt at K2 the year after his sister’s death, but there were problems at the top and he was forced to come down without summiting.  He was separated from his group and wound up coming down the wrong path, into a village called Korphe.

He stayed there a while, getting to know the people, and helping them when he could (he was a nurse in the States, and carried some medical supplies with him).  The thing that struck him most deeply was the way the children of the village held their school… outdoors, and only when the weather was at least slightly bearable.  “Doctor Greg” promised the village leader that he would return to build a school… and he did.

Three Cups of Tea follows his amazing journey – he knew nothing about building a school or raising funds, or even how to use a computer (he typed out a couple hundred letters on a typewriter rented by the hour).  There were several amazing moments, when things worked out just right.  An item was posted in a climber’s newsletter, and one man came forward to provide the $12,000 for the school.

Greg returned to Baltistan only to find that there was not a bridge sturdy enough to bring over the building supplies, something he hadn’t considered.  He had to leave and return again with funds and supplies raised to build a bridge, and only then could work on the school begin.

It was gripping to read his personal story and to see how one event built on another, until he became director of a brand-new organization, the Central Asia Institute, which works to build schools in the rural regions.  He was overseas when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 hit, and he had to continue with his business there even as borders were closing and tensions were high.  When he returned to the States, he had to defend himself to detractors here, saying that the only way to fight terrorism long-term is for the US to be understanding and compassionate, and to build schools so that the next generation can be educated, understanding and not fearful, and not hopeless enough to want to bomb their lives away.

Greg Mortenson’s story is inspiring because he’s the best kind of hero.  He didn’t come from anywhere special or have any particular advantages.  He simply made up his mind to do whatever he could to help the people he had met, and he did.

Finished Reading: The Zookeeper’s Wife

26 Mar

Besides the disturbing mention of blood clots, I found The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman to be as interesting and well-researched as many folks had told me, and the story drew me in and (except for p. 180) kept my mind off my current medical woes.

It’s the story of a family living in WWII Warsaw.  Before the war, Jan was the zookeeper of the Warsaw Zoo.  After the war set in, he and Antonina held a variety of different legitimate positions given to them by the occupying Germans, all the while using their empty, bombed-out zoo and its villa as a safe house for Jews escaping the Ghetto.  The amount of detail is fascinating, in large part due to journals that Antonina kept.

Besides providing an amazing safety net for at least 300 Jews over the course of the war, the family had an interesting villa life with their ever-changing Guests and an at-home zoo as well.  Photos are included of their son, young Rys, walking a badger in the garden and Jan cuddling with a lynx.  The animal stories are interspersed with the war & resistance stories and paint an amazing picture of a family who managed to thrive under incomprehensible conditions.

The Zookeeper’s Wife was part of my Spring Reading Thing 2009 challenge – PisecoDad picked it up at the library for me earlier this week.

Spring Reading Thing 2009

19 Mar

Over at Callapidder Days there is a spring reading carnival going on.  Since I love to page through the links and see what other folks are reading, I decided this time around I would post my own reading list for the spring!

I thought for a while about what challenge to give myself.  I’ve been doing well with my New Year’s challenge (an informal 52 in 52 challenge for books that are new-to-me and not specifically kid-related) – I’ve read 15 books so far this year (see my sidebar for a current list).  But I’m apt to pick books because they were given to me or because I ran across them somewhere.  There are so many great books on my TBR list that I don’t own, and they tend to linger there.  In the winter we don’t go out to the library much, and in the summer we’ll be living away from the library for a few months, so spring seems like a great time to have a library challenge.

So my contribution to the Spring Reading Thing 2009 is to challenge myself to read at least six library books in the next 12 weeks!  Here are six from my TBR list that I know are owned by the two libraries closest to me (though I’ll probably have to put holds on a couple of them in order to snag them):

1. Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson.  Yes, I think I may be the last person to read this (unless Sara hasn’t read it yet!) but I’ve heard that this true story of a man working to build schools is very inspirational.   (Finished, and reviewed here.)

2. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah.  Another true, sad, but inspirational memoir, I hear, this one about a boy who made it out of Sierra Leone.  (Finished, and reviewed here.)

3. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman is the story of the director of the Warsaw Zoo – and his wife – who sheltered hundreds of Jews and Polish resisters in their cages and animal houses during WWII.  (Finished, and reviewed here.)

4. World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler.  This one is a post-apocalyptic novel  – how do we reconstruct society after a breakdown?  I’ve heard great things about it.

5. Water for Elephants: A Novel by Sara Gruen. A novel about life, love and the circus – told in flashbacks by a man who worked with the elephants during the Great Depression.

6. The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton. A light novel about a group of mothers who meet and form a writers’ group in the 1960′s.  This one is being released in paperback in May, so maybe my libraries will pick up extra copies then.  (Finished, and reviewed here.)

Of course I reserve the right to substitute if something else catches my eye at the library!  PisecoDad found me Hood by Stephen Lawhead – I read it and reviewed it here.  I also had him check out December by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop – I reviewed it here.  On Easter afternoon, I read the charming novella The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, and reviewed it here.  Even more spring reading: I read The Book Borrower, Handle With Care, The Noticer and The School of Essential Ingredients – two of which were from the library – and I briefly reviewed them all here.  Let me know if you decide to join in.  I love to read reading lists.