The Uncommon Reader

Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader

I loved this delightful short comedy about the Queen, who in Bennett’s fertile imagination becomes an avid, even obsessive, reader following a chance encounter with a mobile library.  The Queen’s discovery of the pleasures of reading annoys the Duke of Edinburgh, terrifies her equerries, and begins to impact on her willingness to perform her public duties.  It’s light and seasonal – I read it over the Jubilee celebration, but underlying the farce are some serious issues – how in reading the Queen finds an outlet for her craving for ‘normalcy’, the tools through which to critique her own life and new ways to relate to her subjects.  I plan to read it again soon.

Joshua: A Brookyln Tale

Andrew Kane, Joshua: A Brooklyn Tale

Thank you to the author, who supplied me with a review copy of his book.

This unusual historical novel is set, as its name suggests, in Brooklyn, and describes the intertwined lives of Jews and blacks during times of racial tensions.  The main characters are a Jewish woman struggling with remaining within the religious fold, a black man who overcomes his disadvantaged background to become a successful lawyer and a complex baal teshuvah from a wealthy background.  Kane tells an engaging story – the book flows easily and hold the reader’s interest, and explores some important topics through its narrative, yet the story is fantastic, the characters are rather superficial and surprisingly, there are a number of technical inaccuracies.  And while a worthy attempt at a new genre of historical fiction, the work is too ambitious – the author tries to address not just inter-racial violence, movement in and out of faith communities, but also poverty, drug-abuse, marital discord, infidelity, infertility, religious extremism and bigotry.

The Suitcase

Sergei Dovlatov, The Suitcase

This short novel is a bitingly satirical look at life in Soviet Russia through an unusual lens.  A few years after emigrating from the USSR, the narrator discovers an old suitcase at the back of a cupboard; it contains the only clothes with which he had been allowed to leave the country.  Each chapter of the book is devoted to the circumstances in which he obtained one of the items in his suitcase, and offers an insight into the quirks of Soviet life, a long-forgotten relationship or a formative personal experience.  The stories are funny, irreverent and offer an insight into the life of a man who tries to play a corrupt system at its own game.

Beatrice and Virgil

Yan Martel, Beatrice and Virgil

This slim novel is a highly-unusual contribution to Holocaust literature.  It is a fictional biography of Henry, a once-successful author who becomes fascinated with a taxidermist and his shop packed with expertly mounted animals.  The Holocaust theme is initially explored through a dialogue between two stuffed animals – a donkey called Beatrice and a monkey called Virgil, who represent the lives and suffering of victims.  To say too much more might risk spoiling a gripping read: it’s a novel, but one that offers a controversial and disturbing new approach to an overwhelmingly painful real subject and its aftermath.

The Four Elements of Life

Roxana Jones, The Four Elements of Life (While I Was Learning to Become God)

I received a review copy of this book.  I found it very disappointing - in fact, I nearly gave up on several occasions, although I did eventually get through both volumes. While indeed oppressed by a controlling and mean husband, I found the story of Sybil's transformation to be narcissistic, and, in places, unintelligible. The text is poorly-written, meandering between sequences of short, underdeveloped phrases and long, over-complex sentences. While the first volume had its endearing moments (the middle part was quite enjoyable), I found the second with its focus on angelic interventions and the like, especially inaccessible. Sorry, but it didn't speak to me at all.