The Uncommon Reader — Review by Chris

Reading is a way to expand your mind, grow as a person and learn about the surrounding world. But what if you were the Queen of England, whose mind is expanded beyond that of the "commoner," whose world is the world? What can reading do for the Queen?

In The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett supposes that very thing.

Queen Elizabeth is a pleasant enough woman, not terribly self-aware and not really all that interested in becoming that way. She refers to herself in the third person, as "one." (Which makes sense — she is rather singular, isn't she?)

Then she has a chance encounter with a bookmobile.

Perusing the bookshelves with the Queen of England is fun and interesting. Her selection process is very unique. She knows many authors, but not as much from their books as from their encounters with her: who was knighted, who had an audience, who had brushes with other members of the Royal Family (famous, infamous or private). Like other heads of state, she has a library herself — and her musings on her own library are wonderful.

Reading makes people think. So, what would reading make the Queen Elizabeth II think about?

Reading makes people wonder. What do monarchs wonder about?

Monarchs have power. How does reading affect someone in that very precarious spot?

Monarchs, as a rule, do not change; they're in it for life, and most people assume that what they see is what they get — forever. However, reading does change people. Can a monarch be changed by a novel, a book of poetry? What does one learn about one's self in someone else's memoir? What does that mean?

Reading is fun. Can a woman who has been leader of part of the free world for five decades enjoy this activity? Will she be allowed?

Finally, many people wonder what Queen Elizabeth II carries in her handbag. I always wondered what was on her nightstand. This gives us a (fictitious) glance.

This lovely little book was a quick and delicious bite of fancy. One learns about personality, power, control, manipulation, appearances, heads of state and more. The progress is solid and logical, but not at all plodding or without surprises. Frankly, it's worth it all for the final scene, even the final sentence.

The author shows a kindness and affection for this fictitious monarch. There is no judgment (which I wonder would be possible for an American author writing about the sitting U.S. President). The perspective is third-person, so one has a glimpse of more than the mind of the monarch — which is like bonus after bonus. Bennett shows us how those closest to the Queen interact with her on a personal and professional level. How does one manage her? How does one converse with her — or do they? What goes through the mind of those who encounter the Queen? Read Bennett's book to find out.

I gladly recommend this novella. It will make readers think to themselves exactly what reading means to them — and will allow them to wonder what reading could mean to others, a delight in itself.


Memorial Day: Choosing to Remember

As I read stories of sacrifice and service this Memorial Day, I am humbled by the many selfless Americans who put their country’s needs before their own. I have the freedom today to choose how I live my life because others chose to serve—they stepped up to the call when they were needed and made the ultimate sacrifice. I owe them my recognition and my gratitude.

Among my many freedoms, I’m free to blog of bookish things. I thought it might be fitting to take a look at some of the many books that have ensured that I won’t ever forget those who have served and sacrificed for our country.

Where to start the list? I decided to break the list down by nonfiction and fiction and to try to provide books that span our country’s rich history. I drew from the favorites on our home library shelves for inspiration. Rather than weigh in on what I think of these books, suffice it to say that their inclusion on this list makes them a favorite of at least one in our household. Many are those the whole family has read and recommend. I’m sure I’ve neglected some others you think should be on the list, so please let me know what I should add.

So, this Memorial Day, you and I are free to head off to the newly opened pool, fire up the barbecue, and enjoy the start of summer. If I need a reminder as to why we have these freedoms, I’ll take along one of these:


A Proper Sense of Honor: Service and Sacrifice in George Washington's Army by Caroline Cox

Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation by Cokie Roberts

George Washington and Benedict Arnold: A Tale of Two Patriots Dave R. Palmer

The Lion in the White House by Aida D. Donald

The Spirit of Semper Fidelis: Reflections From the Bottom of an Old Canteen Cup by Rick Spooner

Shiloh: Voices from the Civil War Time-Life Books

Company Aitch by Samuel R. Watkins

Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam

Generation Kill by Evan Wright

The Civil War: An Illustrated History by Geoffey C. Ward, Ric Burns, and Ken Burns

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge

USMC: A Complete History by Marine Corps Association

Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose

BAT-21 by William C. Anderson

The Lost Battalion by Thomas M. Johnson, Fletcher Pratt, and Edward M. Coffman

On Hallowed Ground: The Last Battle for Pork Chop Hill by Bill McWilliams

Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War by Mark Bowden

Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson


The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

Books by Jeff Shaara:

Rise to Rebellion
The Steel Wave
Gone for Soldiers
Gods and Generals
The Last Full Measure
The Rising Tide
To the Last Man

Winds of War and War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk

Brotherhood of War series by W.E.B. Griffin
The Corps series by W.E.B. Griffin

The Right Kind of War by John McCormick

Men in Green Faces by Gene Wentz and B. Abell Jurus

Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

Slow Walk in a Sad Rain by John P. McAfee

1812 and Eagle's Cry by David Nevin

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Faded Coat of Blue, Call Each River Jordan, and Shadows of Glory by Owen Parry

Look Away and Until the End by Harold Coyle

Body Count by William Turner Huggett

Fields of Fire by James Webb

Battle Cry by Leon Uris

Flight of the Intruder by Stephen Coounts


Let's All Choose a Book to Read!

Okay, I know I confessed to communal reading last time, so this should come as no surprise, but I want to read a book with you.

In July.

(May is nearly over and I'm afraid June will be crazy.)

So, what would you like to read?

Some communities choose a book for multi-discipline consideration; the first year I was at George Mason University, every department read and discussed The Handmaid's Tale. I was thrilled because I love that book and it taught me an important lesson about narrative: namely, the narrator does not need to be omnipotent. I was used to 1984 and Brave New World, where everything was revealed, but in The Handmaid's Tale, the perspective is that of one of the handmaids. It was very liberating.

Fairfax, Va., has chosen The Uncommon Reader this year, a slim volume that supposes what might happen if Queen Elizabeth began reading. Bel Canto was a big hit with a number of communities in 2003. Harrisburg, Pa. chooses authors, rather than titles. The Library of Congress has a list of other "One Book" selections around the nation. Check it out and see if you're inspired.

Other volumes that can help you choose a volume is 1001 Books to Read Before You Die and either of the Book Lust books.

Carole's and my families will choose a classic for our next read; I'm itching for something by Dumas (though, in deference to Corinne, I can wait), and Robinson Crusoe was at the top of my list (but I'm trying to find the edition with W.C. Wyeth illustrations). We won't venture toward another book, however, until after the nuptials.

So, choose a book that sounds good. I have a few ideas (as always). Be ready, so when we start in July, we'll all have the book and be able to start on the adventure together.


Communal Reading: There's Nothing Like It!

We already have established that I'm a compulsive reader. Nothing is safe from my eyes. I would read an aspirin bottle over and over if it was my only source of reading material. (Perish the thought!)

Now, the question is, "What brings me joy when I read?"

I discovered it this weekend as I picked up the book Fluke. Carole reviewed it and loved it, and I thought I'd read it, too. I had just finished Julia's Chocolates and posted my revisit of the book to compliment Carole's review. As we talked about the books she had read that were perched around my house, I watched her peruse two books she was interested in starting: Under the Tuscan Sun and A Great and Terrible Beauty.

"Tell me when you start that one!" I said as I picked up the latter title from the pool table. "I'll start it, too, and we'll read it together." Then I sighed. "I miss that."

What brings me joy when I read: sharing.

Oh, I'm not that altruistic. The act of reading is very pleasurable for me and I'd do it alone. I have. But how much better to share the discovery of a book with a friend?

Carole and I anxiously await the next book by Jasper Fforde or Geraldine Brooks (to name just a couple of our faves). When we get the new book in hand, we choose the day we start, and that's when we crack the spine on the book. It's great to compare where we are and what did we think when — well, you get the gist. I love the conversations that begin, "Where are you?" No salutation, no lead — just the meat (or, for us vegetarians, the tofu) of the conversation.

There are times when one of us sallies forth into the water, then waves our companion into the water. There are times when one of us should. (Or not. Need I mention The Last Templar?) Then there are times when the sand and surf are perfect and we splash in together, jellyfish and horseshoe crabs be darned!

I love when Carole sallies forth. She waves me into some great treats. I love to do that for her, too.

I also love to toss in some unknowns ("It looked good" or "The jacket is intriguing" or "It won the Costa Book Award in 2007, and Geraldine Brooks has a favorable blurb on the cover"). One never knows if the title will pan out, or if the blurbs were more mercenary than honest. Sometimes she loved it and I couldn't find a hook. Other times Carole can't get past the sloth on page 50 (if it's big enough, who could?).

But as nice as the quiet, solitary read is, nothing quite compares to the phone call that starts in the middle:
"Oh, my stars, I can't believe how Jack finally told Mary about the painting!"
"I know!"


The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived—Review by Carole

Chris gave me this book for Christmas, and my family and I have been reading it aloud, a few pages a night. I always think it's interesting when someone makes a definitive list of something, such as best movies, best musicals, or best American novels, and puts it out there for others to read. It invites argument. Because no two people are going to agree 100% down the line.

That's why I found this endeavor so unique—The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived as agreed upon by three authors (Note: This link takes you to the complete list). The list is compiled by Dan Karlan, Allan Lazar, and Jeremy Salter. They actually explain how they came to determine their list and how they whittled down all of the fictional characters that have had a lasting influence on our culture into this finite list.

For the most part, I was on board with their list, but I often found their reasoning skewed by their personal politics, which is fine. It's their book—they can approach it any way they like.

The book is broken down into categories, such as Television, Literature, and Comics. We enjoyed some categories more than others. We were particularly engaged by Children's Literature, Folktales, and Greek and Roman Myths sections. Less so for Women's Liberation, Commerce, and Propaganda.

At the start of a new section, we would put forth our own ideas as to whom we thought should be included in the list. Many times we were on the right track, but sometimes our suggestions were not on the list at all. Described as "invented icons", these characters have left impressions on our society, according to the authors.

What's fun about the book too is the rather ludicrous grouping of names that otherwise would not be associated with one another. Where else would you find Mary Richards, Faust, and King Kong sharing space on a page?

The authors appear to have enjoyed the writing of the book as much as we enjoyed reading it. It's a good book to share as a family—it prompts spirited discussion, introduces you to characters you may not have encountered on your own, and makes you think about the characters that have influenced you personally.


Julia's Chocolates — Revisited by Chris

Carole told me Julia's Chocolates was good. She read me a little of it and I loved it.

She told you this book was good.

She wasn't kidding. This book is fabulous.

This book is so masterfully crafted, readers flow seamlessly between laughter and tears. And it's all because of author Cathy Lamb's characters.

The story is inventive and compelling, true. I stayed up until 2 a.m. last night in anticipation of Julia's encounter with Robert: when would it be? How would it be? Who would survive? Would any of Julia's family and friends be hurt? Would Dean? More importantly, how would the chickens fare?

However, the story is only half the story, so to speak. The rest is the people. Readers meet some really incredible characters, and it's easy to fall quickly in love with them. The other day, my co-worker Melanie talked about how some older women are fun and others are fussy and dull. I whipped out Aunt Lydia as an example of a spirited older woman, someone I wanted to emulate. (I may have fewer cement pigs, but I want that kind of spirit.)

I love Dean. I will now have to have two t-shirts: I (heart) Mr. Darcy and I (heart) Dean. Everyone wants a Dean, and some have found him. Or a Jerry, someone who wants his wife happy and will stop at nothing to do it, if only he is given the chance.

Then there are the villains, like J.D., a worthless so-and-so at best. And Robert — well, that's a no-brainer. I know women like Katie who stand by their men no matter what. I've probably been Katie. And I've probably been Lara and Caroline and Julia. I hope from time to time I've been Lydia, or at least a close fascimilie.

Lamb gave us clear heroes and villains (though I had to understand Lydia and Stash's relationship a little before I knew which side he was on). Are there men as patient and loving as Dean and Stash? As truly accepting as Jerry? As vile as Robert? (Wait, I can answer that last one.)

Can people change, like Olivia Cutter? Can people evolve like Julia? Can people persevere like Lydia? Boy, I hope so. Even if that's not the case, Lamb made it seem plausible.

In the end, it was a great book. It is not for the faint of heart — oh, no. There are unspeakable things that happen to the innocent that will break your heart. As Julia recounted her experiences with Robert, I read with only one eye, as if that would make it less awful. We won't even speak of the children. But it's worth it to read the good and the evil, if only to hear how Julia talks about sausage.

Read this book right now. Then loan your copy to friends. And wait impatiently for Cathy Lamb's next book.


When There's Not an Eye to Spare

Have you ever had one of these days, where you can't get a single moment to sink your eyes into that novel? You eye that magazine, wishing you could take a gander?

Then a single day stretches into two, maybe even three. Or more. (Perish the thought!)

What happens when you can't get to a book? What do you do?

Me, I take two steps: (1) I go to the gym and (b) I use the stair climber. If I use the elliptical machine, I am seduced by the television. Yes, every elliptical at my gym has a small built-in television — perfect for viewing "Cash Cab." Anyway, the little shelf in front of the television is insufficient for propping a book. (I've tried.)

So it's to the stair climber I turn on days when I simply must read. I'm on there for nearly an hour, so I can get quite a few pages under my proverbial belt on that torture device — er, machine.

However, there are weeks where even that is impossible. Lately, I've had weeks that involve travel, company, late nights at work and visits with family and friends. These are weeks where the workday lunch hour is otherwise occupied as well. These are weeks where the day lasts until I limp to bed, exhausted, waaaaay past my bedtime, followed by early mornings running (and there is no book built for that treacherous terrain).

Those are the times when the only books read are the books scattered about the house. Those are the fragmented times, the scatter-shot method of reading. I always have a few books in that state. Some books do not survive that kind of reading, and they're designated to the "focused reading" pile.

But this afternoon, it's a hardback on the stair climber. I tried paperbacks, but alas, they're impossible to prop open without monumental amounts of frustration (which cause the machine to get angry, beep and demand a reset — which in turn requires moving the perfectly settled book). Last week, I started Gentlemen of the Road (a quick read, but not one for the machine) and Unaccustomed Earth (good, but intense -- plan to read other books or stories between these stories).

Today I have 20th Century Ghosts, which most likely will give me more nightmares. Don't worry: David has been put on high alert. (There's no telling what will happen in the dark of the night with this imagination.) (Wait, that's not what — oh, never mind.) Maybe when I get home, I will get a in few pages of Julia's Chocolates to calm my nerves.

Wish me luck.


The Consolation of Philosophy - Review by Carole

The decisions we make set us on a trajectory that determine the course of our lives. I ultimately chose to go to college and study journalism, but I almost chose studying letters with the Jesuits—a classic education. I’m not sure what employable skills I would have gained in this pursuit, but I do occasionally wonder what schools of thought I would have been exposed to and how they would have affected my life. These seem like weighty reflections for a blog post, but as I read BoethiusThe Consolation of Philosophy, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I would have had a better basis for understanding him. I also wonder what Boethius would have thought of my trajectory comment in my opening line--I imagine we would have had a rather lengthy conversation about what is influenced by free will and what is predestined.

As it is, I’m amazed that we don’t find Boethius’ story more awe inspiring than we do. Considered to be a great influence on Chaucer and Dante, Boethius is little known today. In his own time, Boethius was a powerful and successful man. Having himself been a Consul of Rome in the latter days of the Empire, Boethius found great favor under Theodoric the Ostrogoth. Boethius’ two sons were named Consuls—a great honor to him. His reputation as a scholar and a philosopher made him a superstar in his time. The fact that we here in the West know anything about Aristotle is due to his translations.

But as often happens, he became embroiled in some political intrigue and chose the losing side in an argument. This led to Boethius’ fall from favor. He was imprisoned and then brutally executed.

During his incarceration for which he felt himself falsely accused, he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy. I’m not sure how I would react to facing my own mortality, but Boethius used the opportunity to examine all that he learned in his life to study why he came to be in his current situation. The book is a conversation between Boethius and his nurse Philosophy. Boethius is in despair and Philosophy comforts him.

“In your present state of mind, which this great tumult of emotion has fallen upon you and you are torn this way and that by alternating fits of grief, wrath and anguish, it is hardly time for the more powerful remedies. I will use gentler medicines.”

She proceeds to show him through a series of geometric theorems and proofs that his assessment of his situation is incorrect—he should not despair, he is in God’s hands, all evidence to the contrary.

I never thought of using geometry to prove anything other than the mathematical, but many times throughout the book Philosophy proves to Boethius that some philosophical idea, such as the notion of happiness, is true because the steps leading up to it are true.

I recently reviewed A Confederacy of Dunces, and I noted that the main character, one Ignatius J. Reilly, was fascinated with this book. I came across one passage that I think would have appealed to Reilly:

“For think how puny and fragile a thing men strive to possess when they set the good of the body before them as their aim. As if you could surpass the elephant in size, the bull in strength, or the tiger in speed! Look up at the vault of heaven: see the strength of its foundation and the speed of its movement, and stop admiring things that are worthless. Yet the heavens are less wonderful for their foundations and speed than for the order that rules them. The sleek looks of beauty are fleeting and transitory, more ephemeral than the blossoms of spring.”

I suspect now that John Kennedy Toole was himself a big fan of Boethius’ work, and he projected that onto his protagonist. The translation I read explained that this passage particularly referred to an understanding of the Ptolomaic understanding of the universe—a geocentric theory. Each planet rotated because of its contact with the orbit of the other planets. When I wrote about Dunces, I noted that Toole spun his story circles in such a way that I was intrigued to see what happened when those circles collided.

I was particularly drawn to certain concepts in the book, such as:
“If events of uncertain occurrence are foreseen as if they were certain, it is only clouded opinion, not the truth of knowledge; for you believe that to have opinions about something which differ from the actual facts is not the same as the fullness of knowledge.

The cause of this mistake is that people think that the totality of their knowledge depends on the nature and capacity to be known of the objects of knowledge. But this is all wrong. Everything that is known is comprehended not according to its own nature, but according to the ability to know of those who do the knowing.”

I don’t claim to understand all of the ideas that Boethius puts forth, but I was enthralled at the concept of a condemned man, who is left alone in despair, using his weighty thoughts and ideals to comfort himself. The fact that he wrote it all down is his gift to us—we too can be comforted by Philosophy, if we have the “ability to know.”