Tag Archive | humour

The Uncommon Reader – Alan Bennett

Imagine if the Queen had only discovered reading later in life? That’s the premise of Alan Bennett’s lovely novella, The Uncommon Reader. While taking her corgis for a walk, the Queen happens upon a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace. Intrigued, she boards the bus and meets Mr. Hutchings, the library’s driver and  Norman, a young man who works in her kitchen.  She feels duty-bound to select a book, but when asked what kind of book she likes her response is, essentially, that she doesn’t know.

She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby  and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies.

The Queen casts about, looking for something to borrow and discovers a name she recognizes.

“Ivy Compton-Burnett! I can read that.’ She took the book out and gave it to Mr.  Hutchings to stamp.

“What a treat!” she hugged it unconvincingly before opening it. “Oh. The last time it was taken out was 1989.”

“She’s not a popular author, ma’am.”

“Why, I wonder? I made her a dame.”

The Uncommon Reader is full of laugh out loud moments like this one and is, in fact, an utterly charming book. The Queen, despite a rather rocky beginning, turns into a voracious reader. She promotes Norman from the kitchen to a new position, a sort of personal assistant, and that causes all sorts of problems with other staff members.

For a while nothing comes between the Queen and her books. Like all devoted readers, she’s never without one and dinner party conversations invariably turn to the topic of what people are reading. Instead of being told about the books of authors she  meets, the Queen now wants to read their work.

“But ma’am must have been briefed, surely?”

“Of course, ” said the Queen, “but briefing is not reading. In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.”

The Uncommon Reader is a love letter to reading.

“Books are not about passing the time,” she admonishes Sir Kevin. “They’re about other lives. Other worlds.”

The Queen proves to be, at the end of the day, just like the rest of us who couldn’t imagine a life without books.

25/365

The Financial Lives of Poets by Jess Walter

Here’s a book I never would have chosen for myself in a million years, but which actually turned out to be better than I thought it would. The Financial Lives of Poets follows one week in the life of a middle-aged guy named  Matt Prior. Matt lives somewhere in America with his wife, two young sons and senile father. Matt used to be a newspaper business writer, but he took a buy-out so he could start a website which would deliver financial advice through poetry. It’s no surprise that it flopped. A couple bad investments and the economy’s belly flop later and Matt (and his family) are in serious financial trouble.

The plot of The Financial Lives of the Poets really begins when Matt hits the 7-11 to buy a gallon of milk. He’s not sleeping much these days – his mind is in a constant state of chaos trying to figure out how he’ll pay the bank the $30,000 plus he’s missed in mortgage payments, how he’ll keep his two young sons in private Catholic school and how, most importantly, he’ll keep their dire situation from his wife, a woman he loves but is sure is having an Internet relationship with an old boyfriend. At the 7-11 he meets a couple of low-level thugs. He ends up getting stoned with them and before you know it, Matt’s selling hydroponic weed.

Despite its serious subject matter, The Financial Lives of Poets is often laugh-out-loud funny.

Should anyone doubt that our miserable time here on Earth is just a sad existential joke, here is the cruelest thing I can imagine describing: my father (who is obsessed with sex, like a lot of dementia sufferers) – at seventy-one years of age, frail, balding, with a paunch that looks like it should wear its own pair of jockey shorts –  recently had ten days of crazy sex with a twenty-one-year-old stripper with long smooth legs and two big round silicone funbags, and the poor son-of-a-bitch doesn’t remember a thing about it.

Despite the often comical narrative, Walter tackles some weighty issues: how do people cope with the failing health of their parents, (Matt’s desire for his father to have just one moment of lucidity is heartbreaking); how do you save a marriage, why are we so concerned with having more stuff The Financial Lives of Poets doesn’t necessarily offer solutions, but time spent with Matt as he works through his problems is time well-spent. Funny and intelligent.