Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

This novella has a fascinating main character, who turns out to be more amusing than one might expect: the Queen of England. The book takes place in modern times, so it is the current Queen, not a historical queen of England. The story begins when the Queen discovers a bookmobile from the library on the palace grounds, there to serve some of the palace staff. She is disconcerted by its appearance, and feels that to make up for being unaware of its existence, she must borrow a book. As time goes on, she discovers she enjoys reading, and begins to dislike any of her duties that take her away from reading. Her staff becomes increasingly distressed at her seemingly erratic and daffy behavior, but they come to realize that the Queen is not losing it. She is discovering much about herself and the world, and she wants others to share in this discovery.
The book is funny, written by a British author who obviously is familiar with his subject. It is very entertaining to see how the people surrounding the Queen react to her increasingly engrossing habit - they react in ways that I definitely would not have predicted, perceiving her reading as being somehow elitist. As the Queen grows through her reading, she realizes that she perhaps wants to write. That maybe she even has an obligation to do so. The way this issue resolves itself in the end is definitely a surprise, and makes the reader themselves consider what their duty is when they read a book.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

Frank Lloyd Wright's name is one that is well known to me, although I do not know very much about the man himself. This book is about a time in his life when he was first becoming known in Chicago, where he meets Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a client. He designs the Cheney's home, but his relationship with Mamah does not really begins until a year or two later. Loving Frank is written from Mamah's point of view, in her voice. She was a feminist about whom not much is known, except that she was the translator for Ellen Key, a Swedish feminist writer. This book is written as historical fiction, even though it centers on these fairly recent, very real, historical characters. Horan uses the few writings of Mrs. Borthwick Cheney to give her a voice for this book.
Mamah and Frank's relationship is a difficult one, for many reasons. In the early 1900's, it was pratically unheard of for a woman to leave her husband for another man, at least for a woman in Mamah's level of society to do so. She eventually is able to get a divorce from her husband, Edwin Cheney, although Frank never divorces his wife Catherine. But even for a divorced woman, prospects are dim. Many people feel that the scandal of divorce is worse than the scandal of an affair, and Mamah continues to be ostracized. She is seen as an unfit mother, though she believes that it will be better for her children if she lives honestly with herself and with the world. The relationship creates problems for Wright, as the scandal becomes headline material, and his clients fall away. But through it all, they persevere in their love for each other.
It really is a fascinating love story, and the perspective it gives on Wright is very interesting. Like many artistic geniuses, he has shortages in other areas, most notably in this case is his handling of monetary affairs. There is also a sense that he is above the common man, and so not subject to their laws. He does not have to pay those who help him because they should be honored to work with such a great artist. For all his foibles, however, he is still a fascinating character, and Mamah loves him immensely.
**Do not read further if you do not want the end of the story told!!**
I cannot speak about this book without addressing the end of their love affair. I was shocked for days after finishing the book, although I suppose if I would have actually known the history, I would not have been. Mamah and her children, along with four of the workers at their home in Wisconsin, are brutally murdered by a deranged servant. Who knew that such a terrible thing had happened in the home of Frank Lloyd Wright? It is a sensational bit of history, one that many people may be aware of while reading the book. I was obviously not aware of it. As a result, I kept thinking, I can't believe that Mamah died that way. She truly becomes real to you as you read the book, and to find out that she was murdered is a terrible blow. Horan does a fantastic job of bringing the story to life, even this horrifying part of it. She gives life to a wonderful woman that many people of her time preferred to forget.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J Adler & Charles Van Doren

This book was originally published in 1940, and has since been reissued in many editions. The edition I read was released in 1972, although there are newer ones. The main changes are the addition of more contemporary examples, including books that the authors themselves have written.
How to Read a Book attempts to guide the reader towards "intelligent" reading. It is not a book about reading fiction, although that is covered to a small extent. The main purpose of the book is to teach the reader how to use books to become more knowledgeable. If used correctly, the techniques can lead the reader to developing their own course of study, and get the most out of the books that they read for that subject. The techniques are laid out very specifically, and are reiterated multiple times, so there is no worry that the reader may miss one. The highest goal in reading a book is analytical reading, which includes extensive note-taking and will give you a full understanding of the book. The highest goal for reading about a particular subject is syntopical reading, which allows the reader to first inspect and develop a bibliography, and then analytically read each book in the bibliography in order to become familiar with the subject of study. In this way, you allow books to become your teacher, and you need no other.
I did enjoy reading this book, although it took longer than it should have. It is very dense, and rather pedantic. I was very interested in what the authors had to teach, but sometimes I did not feel like slogging through their writing to get there. From what I have heard of newer editions, this does not get any better. It is a valuable book, and the ideas that they are teaching are very useful. It should be at least attempted by anyone who wants to become a more thorough reader.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

Out Stealing Horses begins with a first-person account of a house in rural Norway, in November. The narrator is Trond Sander, a sixty-seven year old man who has recently suffered through the deaths of those closest to him, and now simply wants to be alone. He lives with his dog Lyra in a house that no one else was willing to buy because of the work it required. He tells of his days in this house, while at the same time reliving a summer fifty years previous, when he was 15, and staying with his father in another cabin in a different part of rural Norway. That summer was pivotal in his life, for many reasons, and shaped the person he became.
Trond's voice in the novel is beautiful, and I enjoyed reading the book simply to "hear" it. It reminded me of Gilead (by Marilyn Robinson) in that way. It was restful to read. The story itself is intriguing. We only know the details of Trond's life in the winter that he is telling it, and in that summer of 1948. Of other parts of his life we only get glimpses. We know he was married and divorced, then remarried. He has two daughters. He had an older sister, who died around the same time as his second wife, three years prior to the telling of the story. But of these people, we only know them in there relation to Trond. We know the characters of the story of 1948 better than any of the others.
This is a beautiful book, and a very satisfying read. There is no reason to know more about Trond's life than that which he shares with us. It is a moving story.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

For the entire time that I was reading this book, I was wondering what it was about. It's about Vietnam, that much I can figure out. But at least while I was reading the book, I could not have told you what else was going on.
Of course there is a central plot line, and a group of main characters. The book is written year by year, following the different characters as their paths intersect. Two of the characters seem almost completely disconnected from the rest, in that their actions really have no bearing on what happens to the rest of the cast. These are two brothers, ordinary soldiers in the war, who have various troubles with authority. They both end up back in the United States, and in jail eventually. While they happen to be present for some of the plot involving the other characters, once they are in the US the point of their stories becomes less clear. The rest of the characters are all connected by the colonel, Francis Sands, and his attempts at using a double agent without CIA authorization in Vietnam. The colonel is the unknowable hero of the story. The other characters idolize, love, and fear him, in turns. He, and his nephew Skip, are the glue that holds the plot line together.
In the end, the book is about redemption, and what it means to atone for your sins, perceived or real. This doesn't become fully clear until the end of the book, when you realize that the "plot" wasn't what was really important. Tree of Smoke requires re-reading, to fully grasp what the author is trying to get across. There is so much depth, and so many layers, that are truly impossible to get at in the first reading, to do the book justice, it (or at least parts of it) should be read again and again.