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Book Review No. 4: The Uncommon Reader: A Novella by Alan Bennett

The Uncoomon ReaderTHE STORY

The author of the Tony Award winner The History Boys, Bennett is one of the most prolific writers of England. With his novella The Uncommon Reader, he writes about how the Queen, the protagonist of the story, develops an obsession with reading when one Wednesday her playful dogs (corgis) lead her to a traveling library driven by Mr. Hutchings. Inside she meets Norman, a young palace kitchen staff who loves reading, and promotes him as her amanuensis to help her with her reading list. After being engrossed by the novels of Nancy Mitford, Her Majesty subsequently finds herself feverishly reading works by a wide array authors from Jean Genet to Marcel Proust. Consequently, the Queen begins to acquire a new perspective on everything, much to the consternation of her equerries and private Secretary, Sir Kevin. The Queen, after showing signs of no stopping with her uncharacteristic and sudden growing passion for books and for writing down notes, has had her advisers terrified lest she might be suffering from Alzheimer’s.

REVIEW

In my life there are two things that give me, of equal measure, the greatest pleasure: reading and writing. And nothing gives me even greater pleasure than reading about books that talk about the love of books, and then being able writing about it. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (First American Edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007) is one such book–a book that celebrates books, writing, readers, and writers. In this book, Bennett’s protagonist, the Queen of England, becomes a passionate reader–a woman whose unique position in life does not afford her to have interests, but only to take an interest in things.

In the book, Bennett (the fictitious omniscient narrator of the book) explains that in royal circles reading is frowned upon because reading is seen as privately selfish, indulgent, and requires exclusive attention; that when one is royal, one has a duty to be selfless, patriotic, and accessible; and that there is no room for books, and most certainly, no room for a room–the library, study, or one’s own nook–where one can curl up and read.

One could detect a play on words in the novella’s title immediately. The Queen, if one is familiar with the British aristocracy, is not a commoner. After all, she is THE Queen–it couldn’t get more uncommon than that. The irony, however, lies in the fact that despite being a patroness of the Library of London and having hundreds of thousands of books in her own palaces and castles, the Queen’s obsession with reading began with a mobile library.

Queen Elizabeth II reading a speech for her subjects

Queen Elizabeth II reading a speech for her subjects

The book may be short, but the good thing about it is that it has a long list of references to extraordinary authors. For someone who hates being left out or being ignorant about books and authors that one ought to know, this book really makes you want to read about these other authors, too. The protagonist asks and talks about authors and writers such as Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, even Harry Potter (which she doesn’t like, of coure). 

In The Uncommon Reader, Bennett amplifies and solidifies my sentiments–that reading is shared, anonymous, and common yet private, elitist, and exclusive at the same time. In essence, what the book is trying to say is that reading, no matter how high or low one’s station in life is, is one activity everybody could share and enjoy. Bennett proves in this book that the Queen of England is also just like the rest of the world.

He paints the most eminent individual in all of England as a person who makes mistakes and feels jealous of movie stars like Lauren Bacall whom she thinks have lead a more colorful life than hers; as a person who thinks back on the past and sighs for not having met some people, especially authors, when she could have; as a person who is fallible, capable of envy, plagued with insecurities and regrets. too. He shows how the Queen, despite her old age, is not impervious to criticism from her own staff, and has also yet so much to learn about others through the life and experiences of the characters and the people in the books she reads. For someone who has lived a life on the grandest scale possible, Bennett effortlessly shows the unseen maternal and human side of his protagonist, the aging monarch–mostly ignorant of a life outside her own and entertaining thoughts of a life of ordinariness, anonymity.

A life outside the clutches of duty, responsibility, and royalty.

There is nothing common about The Uncommon Reader. For a royalist, a monarchist, a bibliophile, a writer, and an obsessive reader like myself, this book truly exceeds my expectations. Bennett’s characters couldn’t get any more human than in this book. My delusion of grandeur about being a British lord is now satisfied. Commoner though I am (well, everyone who doesn’t have a noble title is common), at least now, I can say that I have many things in common with the Queen of England,  the grandmama I never had, however fictitious my source of pride is.

Filled with charming, believable, and eccentric characters, and with a wonderful twist at the end, The Uncommon Reader is nothing short of beautiful. Whether you are common or uncommon, this book will surely delight you. Bennett’s a writer whose prose style is tantalizingly perfect. He is a consummate master of letters, and his deadpan, sly, and self-deprecating sense of humor translates gloriously on every page. They say reading is bliss. This book is just that–a truly blissful read.

Rating:

5 of 5 stars

Author Profile No. 1: Dominick Dunne, Novelist and Journalist

dominick-dunne 2PROLOGUE

I subscribe to the notion that rich people are more interesting when they do crazy things like murder, embezzlement, fraud, rape, or homicide; or when they act crazy or somewhat crazy like those with manic-depression, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and any philias associated with rich people. If you read back on some of my posts, it wouldn’t be hard to tell what my obsessions and thoughts are. Along with Dominick Dunne, I know two other authors also subscribe to this notion, Alan Hollinghurst and Louis Auchincloss.

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INTRODUCTION

I first saw Dominic Dunne‘s novel, People Like Us, at my favorite thrift bookstore, Booksale, three or four years ago. I was intrigued by the synopsis so I decided to buy a copy. When I got home, I started reading it. I devoured the book. I finished it in one sitting. Since People Like Us, I started collecting some of his most famous bestselling novels and collection of essays. Just like the first novel of his that I read, the others that followed didn’t disappoint. His novels and writings, in retrospect,  became my standard of good storytelling, beautiful writing technique, journalistic integrity, and literary restraint.

His name became synonymous with O.J. Simpson, William Kennedy Smith, the Menendez brothers, and John Sweeney — people who allegedly, in their respective order, murdered his wife, raped and accidentally killed a teenage girl, committed parricide, and murdered Dominick’s own daughter. Their public trials were regarded as the The Trials of The Century, and Dominick Dunne always had the best view — the front row seats in all of them. His fixation with famous people committing crimes made him a star reporter for honestly writing about his opinions about the trial and the defendants on his column at Vanity Fair, and for courageously voicing out his personal verdicts and judgments on TV shows and news bigwigs like CNN. As a result, this made him the the toast of Hollywood’s and New York’s movers and shakers.

HE WAS ONE OF THEM

His work gave him access to the highest of American Society and earned him the adulation of his admiring society lady friends and the contempt and disgust of his powerful archenemies whom he criticized and portrayed in his satires. Coming from a privileged family and a WASP background worked even more to his advantage, as the parties he was invited to required a sense of security in oneself and refinement innate only to those who were born groomed for a life of endless socializing and small talk with narcissists and people who had never been denied anything.

Whether it’s an expository piece about the trial of his daughter’s murderer, John Sweeney and his first-row seat experiences at the O.J, Simpson trial for Vanity Fair, penning a novel about rich people doing the unspeakable and the unthinkable, or writing his memoirs infused with anecdotes of his friendships with Hollywood royalty like Elizabeth Taylor and Diane Keaton, first ladies like Imelda Marcos, society doyennes like Betsy Bloomingdale, European aristocrats like Claus and Sunny Von Bulow, and arms dealer heavyweights like Adnan Khashoggi, Dominick Dunne’s writings are always terrifyingly entertaining and scathingly honest.

For writing to be effective and good, they say, you must write about what you know and read about. Without a speck of doubt, Dominick Dunne wrote not only about who he knows or what he reads, he also wrote about who he knows and what books those people he knows read — successfully and eloquently did just that. He had wined and dined with names equivalent to power and status: Windsor, Von Furstenburg, Astor, Woodland, Hutton, Reagan, and Kissinger; some he reputedly repeatedly maligned. (Well, don’t they all say that?)

PAYING THE PRICE FOR BEING A WRITER

So, the questions remains: Would they have trusted him had most of them knew he was going to write about them? Maybe yes, maybe not. Still, he had to do what any good writer would have done: draw inspiration from real life and translate them into honest words, and then write them down onto the eager pages of white sheets of paper.

He lost friends along the way,  gained the animosity of others. He was good at dropping names, and sometimes he dropped those names strewn together in sentences like murder, scandal, adulteress, and fraud. He knew he would someday pay the price.  And pay he did.

For telling things unfiltered through his bespectacled and filtered eyes, Dominick Dunne paid a hefty price.

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BOOKS BY THE AUTHOR

I have read almost all of Dunne’s books save for three or four more. Here are a list of his novels that I’ve already read:

1. People Like Us 2. An Inconvenient Woman 3. A Season In Purgatory 4. Another City, Not My Own 5. Fatal Charms And The Mansion of Limbo 6. Too Much Money 7. The Winners 8. After The Party

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BIOGRAPHY

DOMINICK DUNNE’s Bio (excerpt from biograhy.com):

“Dominick Dunne was born October 29, 1925, to a wealthy family in Hartford, Connecticut. He worked in television in New York and later produced films in Hollywood. After a battle with alcoholism and drug abuse, he began writing novels. He wrote about the trial of his daughter’s murderer for Vanity Fair and then covered other trials for the magazine, including O. J. Simpson‘s. Dunne died in 2009.”

Book Review No. 2: Empress Bianca by Lady Colin Campbell

PLOTEmpress Bianca

Bianca Barrett, the protagonist and daughter of a Welsh Surveyor and his Palestinian wife, becomes an “ambitious and mercenary” social climber and double murderess. Charming and well educated, Bianca marries four times and advances in wealth and social influence. With Bernardo, her first husband, Bianca has three children; they lose their son in a tragic car accident. After a divorce, she marries the rich Fredie whose family owns the Piedraplata commercial empire. Before it comes to a divorce, the second husband is shot and killed by a hitman who makes it look like a suicide. The killing is arranged by her lover, Phillipe Mahfud, and Bianca becomes the financial beneficiary. After a brief marriage to husband number three, – she had married him only to make Mahfud jealous-, she lastly marries Mahfud, a superrich Iraqi businessman and banker. When their relationship sours, the banker dies with his nurse in a mysterious fire in his apartment in the tax haven of Andorra. Bianca’s lawyers pay off the police and investigators, and the only justice that remains is in the court of public opinion.

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REVIEW:

Guilty or not guilty? Murder. A Beautiful Socialite Wife. Two Dead Rich Husbands. Billion-Dollar Fortune. Who could resist such a scrumptious story? I know I can’t. A roman a clef about the life of one of the richest women in the world, Empress Bianca is a novel that was banned for publication because of billionairess Lily Safra, the real woman the main character was based on, used all her resources and conceivable powers and stopped the novel from being printed and circulated for public consumption, more specifically, for the consumption of the international creme dela creme–the rarified social and economic circles of fund-raising socialites, and empire-building billionaires in which Lily moves.

To better understand why the book was so controversial, an excerpt from Wikipedia reads, in part: “Empress Bianca, the first novel by Lady Colin Campbell, was initially published in June, 2005. One month later, Arcadia Books, the British publisher, withdrew the book and pulped all unsold copies in reaction to a legal threat intiated on behalf of Lily Safra under her interpretation that the book was a defamatory roman a clef. After some changes the book was republished in the United States in 2008 by Dynasty Press.”

After reading the novel, I decided to get a copy of the autobiography of Mrs. Safra, Gilded Lily by Isabel Vincent. I must say that I am convinced that Bianca is Lily under the facade of fiction. But you’ll have to read both books to see what I mean. Well, fiction or nonfiction, as the case may well be, Empress Bianca is a novel that portrays the life of the fashionable set through the lucid prose of Lady Colin — the characters are relatable,  story wonderfully crafted and told. In fact, there is one character I could especially relate to — Bianca’s second husband, Ferdinand Piedraplata. He’s manic-depressive like me. It’s one of those characters with whom you can identify yourself with because you are him. It was as if Lady Colin was describing me and telling my story (well, except for the dead and supper rich part).

If you are someone who likes to read social headlines or wants to know what goes in and out of the world of social-climbing murderesses, Type A bankers, and mercurial entrepreneurs, you will love this book. Alluring, charming, and scathing, Empress Bianca incredibly captures the world of a woman who has risen from a middle-class background to the uppermost echelons of international society by marrying two fabulously wealthy men, and quite possibly, by killing them, too. She might have never been tried for the controversial deaths (or murders) of her husbands, but that does make her any less innocent? A tale of intrigue, mystery, and crime of epic proportions, Empress Bianca is an “unputdownable” pageturner that will leave you wanting for a sequel.

Is she truly guilty or is as innocent as she claims to be? You decide. Get a copy.

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

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