Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

As much as I have read about the England and the monarchy, I really never thought about the reading habits of the Queen. Bennett explores this concept in a novella that is full of Briticisms and humor.  The Uncommon Reader is the Queen who, upon discovering a mobile library outside the palace grounds, chooses a book out of courtesy and becomes nearly obsessed with her new found literary pastime. She reads in her carriage on the way to the opening of Parliament and as she travels from palace to palace. She even feigns a "sick day" to be able to finish a book. Eventually, she and her staff realize how much time is being spent on the activity and try to find a new way for her to channel her energies.

This was a very quick read, only 120 pages. However, it was chalk full of great lines and situations. Bennett parades a number of authors and works through the Queen's library including Henry James, about whom she remarks, "Am I alone,' she confides in her notebook, 'in wanting to give Henry James a good talking-to?'" But The Uncommon Reader is more than a humorous look at the British. It is a testimonial to the power of reading: it changes lives, it allows one to expand horizons and to vicariously experience worlds far and near. A great read and perfect for a rainy afternoon. All one needs is a cup of tea to complete the experience.

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Beginning with Joseph Smith's discovery of the golden plates in 1820 that led to the establishment of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, Ebershoff weaves two compelling stories together that enlighten readers to the history of the Mormon Church and polygamy or celestial marriage. As Smith leads his followers west toward the new Zion, Ebershoff begins his focus on Ann Eliza (b.1844), daughter of Chauncey and Eliza Webb. Simultaneously, Jordan Scott, an excommunicated 21st century Mormon, learns his mother, BeckyLynn, has been accused of his father's murder in Mesaville, Utah.

I was fascinated with Ann Eliza's story as related through her diary and other historical accounts, including accounts by Brigham Young.  She was a strong and resourceful woman. She was coerced into becoming Young's wife; he said she was #19, but it was more like 27 or 28. As his treatment of her deteriorated and the other wives seem to get more preferential treatment, Ann Eliza plots her escape and eventually divorce. 

Surrounding murder of BeckyLynn's husband is a cloud of doubt. As Jordan investigates the evidence in an effort to free his mother, the reader gets a glimpse of modern day polygamy. The evidence does not add up to his mother committing the murder and enlisting the aid of another of the sister wives, a student researcher, and a hotel clerk. When we learn who the murderer is, the event is almost anticlimactic. 

The novel was interesting to be sure and the historic part much more compelling. It was another one of those books whose basis in fact sends one into the realm of history investigation. Ann Eliza is a fascinating character and one who bears further study. Add that to the list! Jordan's story on the other seemed perfunctory. The gay story line didn't really add to the narrative except to serve as a caricature of what is accepted and not in this particular branch of the LDS church. All in all the book was a good read and certainly prompted spirited discussion at our book club.