The Uncommon Reader

Alan Bennett has written a delightful little book – a novella – about what happens when an assumed non-reading person discovers books. In this case, the assumed non-reader is Queen Elizabeth II. The story unfolds when she is walking her Corgis on the ground of Buckingham Palace and they take her to an area unfamiliar to her. (It is a big place.) There is a bookmobile, and a young man is coming out of the bus with books in hand. The Queen (who is curious) asks what he is doing and he gives her a book to read.

She reads the book and the story goes on from there. She makes the young man part of her household staff and eagerly awaits his next offerings. There are twists and turns galore, and the Queen reads merrily on. Bennett does a nice job of describing how she is changed by both the act of reading and the content of the books. One of the most delightful sections is when he talks about her conferring knighthoods – OBEs and the like – on the authors in the latest honors list, and several are astonished when she asks them about the latest book of theirs which she has read. And she tells them what she thinks of it!

The book comes to a rather surprising end, but it is as delightful as the rest of the story. Do read The Uncommon Reader.

The Uncommon Reader

Ann Cleeves’ Shetland Mysteries

I recently read the last two of Ann Cleeves Shetland mysteries, featuring detective Jimmy Perez. Cleeves is better known for her series featuring the cranky Vera Stanhope, but these Shetland books are equally fine. (There’s a TV series for these as well.) It’s fun to think about the Shetland Islands in January. They’ve just finished the 2019 version of Up Helly Aa, a festival designed to break up the winter with lots of fire and a lot of men dressed up as Jarls (Viking lords.) You can see some of this year’s festivites at this link: Up Helly Aa

Jimmy Perez grew up on Fair Isle – famous for its sweater patterns – just off the main Shetland archipelago. His name is another nod to the history of these islands that bridge the Atlantic and the North Sea, as “Perez” got there from the Spanish traders that came up that far centuries ago. Cleeves’ stories weave the history of these islands into the daily lives of modern Shetlanders and the ways in which human evil and harship is present anywhere in the world.

I’m sorry she ended this series this year with book number eight, and I don’t think it will be a spoiler to say that the ongoing story through the books comes out okay in the end. It does. And that’s a reminder that these books really must be read in order. If you pick up one down the chain you’ll miss a lot and not quite understand it all. I picked up the last two after having read the sixth one a while before, and I had to go back and take a look a it to remind myself of what had happened.

So here they are in order. The two-word titles are evocative of the Shetland landscape. If you have not read these, you’re in for a treat!

Raven Black (2006)
White Nights (2008)
Red Bones (2009)
Blue Lightning (2011)
Dead Water (2013)
Thin Air (2014)
Cold Earth (2016)
Wild Fire (2018)



The Library Book

I really enjoyed this book by long-time New Yorker writer Susan Orlean. She takes the terrible 1986 fire at the main Los Angeles Public Library and tells a multi-latered story of libraries, municipal politics, criminal arson and theft, mental illness, and a love for books and reading.  I learned a lot about libraries and about librarians with their passionate devotion to the books in their charge and to the users of the library. The familiar 20th century story of women being discounted is another sad part of this narrative, as is the terrible history of books being burned out of fear.

Throughout the book, Orlean reflects on the power and function of libraries. She came to write the story remembering her childhood journeys to the library with her mother. At the end of the book, the author writes: A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you can feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off the shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage – the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect books and manuscripts and preseve them. It declares that all these stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past and to what is still to come.

Go to your local library and check out The Library Book!




Virgil Wander

I never was able to finish Leif Enger’s very popular novel Peace Like a River. It just never really captured my attention. So when my book group picked his new novel Virgil Wander for our January discussion, I waited until the 11th hour to download it on my Kindle and get it read. And what a read it was! I love this book!

The plot centers on the story of Virgil Wander, a young-ish man who owns the old theater in his home town on the North Shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota. He accidentally (maybe) drove his old car off a cliff into the lake, and he’s rescued by another person from the town. He’s in a coma for a while, and when he emerges he can’t quite remember things, including words. Add in the mysterious airplane disappearance a few years before of one of the hometown heroes, and the appearance of that man’s unknown father from Tromsø, Norway who happens to be a fabulous kite maker, and you have a wonderful story. I think the name of the book and the protagonist are totally intentional: Virgil for the Roman poet and the Iliad, and Wander for the way the book roams around through memory, story, relationship, and small town life.

The writing is wonderful, and perfectly evocative of all the wanderings. The women in my book group found the ending abrupt and hence a bit disappointing, and I sort of agree with that assessment. Sometimes endings are a little too neat. But these endings also make sense as arrivals home after all the wanderings of this wonderful novel.

virgil wander

Dear Committee Members

My friend Carol Hinderlie sent me this book  by Julie Schumacher a month ago. It is a hilarious and poignant story told completely through letters of recommendation. The protagonist is a college professor who is continually asked to recommend people. He has become rather famous for his quirky, sometimes rude, sometimes sad but always funny letters – or LORs as he labels them. The couple pages where he tries to fill in online forms from other academic institutions are laugh-out-loud funny.

The story that follows along through the letters has some obvious outcomes, but even when they appear you are sorry things resulted as you expected.

If you’ve ever written LORs (and I have written way too many!) you’ll find this book totally engaging and true to form! (Even the online ones.) But even if you haven’t written these letters, you’ll find this book a great read and a somewhat damning perspective on higher education in America today.’

Dear Committee Members

Great Reads about Reading

Here is  wonderful piece from my beloved Slightly Foxed.

The Book Cure

I wanted to call this ‘How Children’s Literature Saved My Life’, but the simple truth is that my life was never in any real danger. My imaginative life, however, was in grave peril. It hovered on the brink. This is the story of how it was resuscitated in the simplest of ways – by reading children’s books.

I have degrees in English literature and library science. I have been an English teacher and a librarian. My love of reading has shaped my life. And yet, a few years back, I almost stopped reading. When given the choice between turning on the television and opening a good book, I would invariably reach for the remote control.

How this sad state of affairs came to be is all too easily told, and I don’t suppose I am the only sufferer. I’ll bet it happens all the time. For you see, my life had simply become too full to read. I was working six days a week, I had three young children to care for, and that left little time for anything else. If I was lucky I was able to read two books a month – in a good month. Often I read only one. Strange as it may seem, the real crisis came when I joined a book club. You can begin to see the problem. If you only have time to read one or two books a month, it becomes irksome to have your choices dictated for you. They were excellent choices – critically acclaimed, prize-winning novels most of them – but they weren’t my choices. Reading had once been fun; now it was work. I began to resent these books. And so I stopped reading.

But the desire to read never entirely went away. I was handling books all day long in the library, and I found myself making lists of books I would like to read when I had the time. Needless to say, the lists got longer and the books remained unread. Then one day I was rescued from my melancholy by our Children’s Librarian. This was at about the same time that the fourth book in the Harry Potter series was due to be released, and J. K. Rowling was scheduled to do the world’s largest book reading at the Skydome in Toronto. I asked our Children’s Librarian what all the fuss was about.

‘You mean to tell me you haven’t read Harry Potter?’ she asked. I had to confess that I was totally ignorant of Harry Potter. I had no idea who he was. Had he written many books, I asked. She rolled her eyes and went to the stacks, where she found Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. ‘Here,’ she said, ‘read that.’

I did. I read it that night, after the children had gone to bed, in one long, delirious sitting. I devoured the book. I stayed up much too late and was exhausted the next morning, but I had achieved an epiphany of sorts. I had rediscovered my love of reading.

I had also discovered that the fault wasn’t really in me, but in the books I had chosen to read. With so little time to read, I had decided that my reading time could not be wasted on frivolous books. I would only read serious books, modern literary masterpieces. But the truth was these books bored me. I could only take so many consciously literary novels of childhood trauma or family dysfunction or the immigrant experience. I felt bad about it. If I wasn’t appreciating what was on offer, then it was obviously my fault, there was something lacking in me.

What I discovered on reading Harry Potter was that many of these acclaimed modern authors had forgotten one of the most basic premises of telling a story – they had forgotten how to tell a story. Literary artifice had gotten in the way of good plotting and character development. I also discovered that I was not alone in this assessment. Philip Pullman once said, in a speech when accepting the 1995 Carnegie Medal for his children’s story The Golden Compass, that in adult literary fiction ‘stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness . . .

The present-day would-be George Eliots take up their stories as if with a pair of tongs. They’re embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do.’

Hearing this was very reassuring. I devised a plan. I would make reading fun again. I would take a book cure, and I would begin by casting my mind back to my childhood and by rereading those books that I had discovered and loved and that had inspired my love of reading ever since. I began with The Hobbit and quickly moved on to Kim and The Jungle Books. With some difficulty I located copies of Walter R. Brooks’s witty Freddy the Pig stories: Freddy the Detective, Freddy Goes Camping, Freddy Goes to Florida. These were the first chapter books I had read on my own. They were better than I re-membered. I tracked down a copy of Ronald Welch’s The Gauntlet, a time-travelling fantasy about a boy who finds an old gauntlet which transports him back to the Welsh Borders at the time of the Middle Ages. I read and I read and I read, and a strange thing began to happen: the number of books I read each month began to rise, from two to four to twelve.

I found allies in my book cure. Once I told the Children’s Librarian what I was up to, she began to recommend titles that I had never come across before: Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, L. M. Boston’s Green Knowe books, Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising sequence. I began to branch out and try books that I had somehow missed in my childhood: The Wind in the Willows, Swallows and Amazons and The Wouldbegoods.

My daughter also helped. She had progressed beyond the picture-book stage, and we began reading chapter books together at bedtime. We started with the Little House books, books I’d avoided as a boy because, well, they were for girls. We found them fascinating. We moved on to the Chronicles of Narnia. These were more problematic. While we enjoyed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Horse and His Boy, we found The Last Battle simply baffling. Then we began to read the Harry Potter series together. We could hardly wait each night for the day to end, so we could begin a new chapter. We have now finished Harry Potter and we are debating where to turn next. Should we try Anne of Green Gables, Elijah of Buxton or The Secret Benedict Society?

Now don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that we should all give up on adult fiction. Children’s books exist in a fairly simple moral universe which doesn’t always reflect adult reality (although, to be fair, some children’s books are surprisingly sophisticated). I have gone back to reading books written for adults, but I am more discriminating now. I want substance over style. I am no longer afraid to give up on a book if I find it dull – even if it has won the Booker prize. I expect a good story.

If you are in the same situation as I was, if you have grown weary of reading, try my book cure. What were the stories you loved as a child, the ones you couldn’t bear to finish because they were so good? Track them down. Read them again. You may rediscover your love of reading.

KEN HAIGH, Slightly Foxed Issue 53