Monday, November 26, 2007

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

A slim novella about falling in love with reading're the Queen of England.

Bennett is best known as a playwright, most recently for The History Boys (which in its cinematic version I just couldn't get excited about), and I sense this novella is in certain ways his own history of becoming first a reader and then a writer. But what makes it funny and charming is juxtaposing what is on the page--the story of a busy fussy woman who begins to read obsessively thus neglecting her other duties and forcing books on all the people around her who view reading quite suspiciously--with what is off the page--the public personality of Queen Elizabeth II. It's a clever, not necessarily conscious, nod to how much the individual reader brings to the experience of reading. The novella works modestly if you know nothing about QEII but it works closer to uproariously if you have the conception of her that most of the public seems to: stern, businesslike, stoic, proper. It's an interesting twist on the idea of using real life figures in fiction. Typically what we see is an attempt to make public figures more three-dimensional, to show their human flawed, vulnerable, and in the case of Henry James in Colm Toibin's The Master, sexual sides. But Bennett is not trying to create a more human QEII; he's not interested in realism at all. It's more in line with alternate history (like Philip Roth making Lindbergh president)...what if the Queen was a reader. And that allows him to write what is really an essay on: the effects of reading, both pro and con; the perception by others that reading is a hostile act (time given to reading often means choosing the company of a book over that of a person); and the way that writers are born. One funny bit has the kitchen boy who introduces the Queen to the work of Jean Genet removed from his position of influence by the prime minister's assistant by being offered a spot at the University of East Anglia to study creative writing.

A very quick, very light read that probably could have been something a good deal more interesting if it said more unexpected things about reading but fun all the same. I suppose an English reader might also see it as a comment on how democratic reading is and how undemocratic the monarchy is.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Among Other Things, I've Taken Up Smoking by Aoibheann Sweeney

A lyric coming of age novel about a young woman raised on an island in Maine who goes to Manhattan.

The first third of this novel is about a girl who lives alone with her father, who is completing a translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, on an island along the coast of Maine. As you might guess, there's a lonely feeling to the place, the people, and even the past. I was really hooked by the opening, and the strange character of Mr. Blackwell who first spends a lot of time with the family and then doesn't. Then the novel moves, with the narrator, to New York. And I was really excited to see what such a talented writer would do with a major shift in story. I was surprised but pleased by the thought that the novel was going to break out of what it seemed to be (a Howard Normanesque remote town remote people novel)....

And when I started to lose interest, I first thought it was because New York, grand city that it is, just doesn't have that fresh feeling. But really I was still invested in the main character, and the setting--which included a peculiar little research institute was handled just fine. The problem was the new characters. Mr. Blackwell and the narrator's father are replaced with a whole host of New Yorkers who are polite, articulate, recognizable, and ultimately pretty dull. There are some great revelations about the narrator's family history (things that are handled very subtlely and touchingly), but the current story loses all its intensity when the new cast comes in.

I've been thinking lately about lessons television drama has to offer a fiction writer (hey, tv's gotten really good lately! See Friday Night Lights for proof.) and here's an obvious one: the new cast has to bring something pretty great to the story otherwise we're going to resist them. Season Two's are always trying to intro new characters to give the writers new plotlines and novel writers often have a similar problem--how to keep the story going--to complicate the plot usually--a hundred pages in. New characters are a great solution, but only if they have their own appeal and their own agendas.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Back Soon

I'll be returning any day now, not least because the semester is winding down but also because I'm reading a really good novel...

In the meanwhile, check out some poetry in MIPOesias including my former student Sara Femenella and my former grad school colleague, cover boy Miguel Murphy.