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4.4 out of 5 stars
The Uncommon Reader: A Novella
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141 of 148 people found the following review helpful
In chasing after her rowdy dog-pack one day, the Queen discovers them barking at a bookmobile, parked outside the kitchen at Windsor. Entering to apologize for the din, the Queen meets Norman Seakins, a young man from the kitchen whose primary interest is in gay books and photography. Feeling obligated to borrow a book, the Queen selects a novel, intending to return it the following week. Almost immediately, palace life changes. That night, with the president of France seated beside her at dinner, the Queen abandons her usual safe conversation and remarks, "I've been longing to ask you about Jean Genet...Homosexual and jailbird, was he nevertheless, as bad as he was painted?"

As the Queen expands her reading under the direction of Norman, she becomes less interested in day-to-day activities, even arriving late to the opening of Parliament because she forgot her book for the coach ride and had to have it brought to her. She no longer keeps to tried and true conversational subjects (the traffic on the road to the palace), as she converses with the public and meets honored guests, and she finds people becoming confused and tongue-tied. Dinner conversations no longer have the pleasant, easy-going atmosphere that once made invitations to the palace so memorable. When these issues continue for over a year, the Prime Minister determines to take action.

In this delightful novella, Alan Bennett (Beyond the Fringe, Talking Heads, and most recently, The History Boys), explores reading, writing, and their effects on our lives as he develops this imaginative and warmly humorous scenario. Though the eponymous "uncommon reader" is the Queen, her reactions to her reading (and other people's responses to her as a result of her reading) are so true-to-life and so plausible that Bennett accomplishes a feat rarely even attempted--he makes the reader identify with the Queen and root for her success as a bibliophile.

Bennett's humor depends on the fine line he creates between reality and absurdity, and his explorations into the absurd are so close to reality, or what we might wish reality to be, that the reader sees, ironically, the absurdity of reality itself. As he posits an alternative "reading lifestyle" for the Queen, he makes the Queen seem human--and connected with her (reading) public in new ways. Bennett keeps the humor low-key, evoking images which allow the reader to discover, unassisted, the ironies which are so hilarious throughout the novella. And just at the point at which the reader might wonder how Bennett will ever end this wonderful romp, he surprises us with an absolutely perfect ending, which takes place on the Queen's eightieth birthday. Like the dramatist that he is, Bennett knows exactly when to stop. And does. Mary Whipple
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59 of 60 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon April 6, 2008
It's good to be Queen, but it does have its drawbacks -- long periods of tedium in slow-moving vehicles, a relentless round of ceremonial duties, and a bird's eye view of everyday life. What better solution to these drawbacks than the pages of a good book?

The Uncommon Reader: A Novella is a quirky little book about Queen Elizabeth II and her discovery of the joys of reading. Pursuing her yapping corgis through the grounds of Windsor Castle, she ends up in the library bookmobile and checks out a book to be polite. From this beginning, guided by kitchen hand-turned-equerry Norman Seakins, she is soon deep in the world of books.

This new habit of hers is unpopular with the people around her. She's becoming too "remote," they say; Alzheimer's is suggested. Her punctuality and attention to formal routine are slipping. Norman is spirited away from her staff but she keeps reading.

Author Alan Bennett packs a lot into this compact book. Through all the palace intrigue, Mad Hatter's tea parties, and hilarious references to writers old and new, the queen keeps reading. Her point of view widens exponentially and she begins making notes -- and then writing more seriously.

There's a little treasure around every corner in this wry book. The final scene is pure theater of the absurd, and the final paragraph will probably make you laugh out loud. Highly recommended.

Linda Bulger, 2008
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37 of 41 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 21, 2007
For such a slim novella, "The Uncommon Reader" operates on many levels. Most obviously, it is a charming, comedic story. But it's also a meditation on the merits ... and the limits ... of books and reading as a means of opening one's eyes (as the book's subject might say) and softening one's sensibilities. It's about what an awakening familiarity with literature can do to a person, and also the havoc it can create for people who expect life to be led in certain familiar pattern. That's a lot to fit into a hundred-and-some pages, but Alan Bennett does it extremely well. Though I'd been somewhat familiar with him for some time, this is the first time I've really explored his writing. No wonder he's thought of so highly.

One of the things that most pleased me about this book was the sympathetic and affectionate portrayal of Her Majesty. With so many people evidently taking it for granted that the Windsors are all a bunch of cold-hearted nitwits, Bennett's Queen is -- if admittedly somewhat limited in the breadth of her education -- thoughtful, self-aware, eager to learn, and on the whole a most memorable personality.

I think anyone who enjoys reading and appreciates the power of books will enjoy watching The Queen's royal progress in these pages. But beware: the realization she eventually reaches (about writing as well as reading) is one I believe Bennett wants to lead every reader to, common or otherwise.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on October 8, 2007
I'd so like to have Alan Bennett sitting in an armchair in the corner of my sitting room, chatting away in his Yorkshire accent, filling the room with his finely-tuned observations of life ...
This is such a perfect gem, a novella you can whiz through in an afternoon.
Mr Bennett plays with the notion of what would happen to Queen and country should Her Majesty become a serious reader. And what would she read?
He's captured her personality and voice to a T, and you can hear those regal, brittle vowels in her conversations with Prince Philip, her New Zealander private secretary Sir Kevin, and her friend and sole fellow reader, Norman, whom she whisks upstairs from the Buckingham Palace kitchens to be her 'amanuensis'.
There's much that will make you laugh, but also more wistful passages in which HM regrets, in her old age, the decades of opportunities she has wasted in meeting so many famous and important writers, without having had the faintest interest in them or their work.
As he did so skilfully in Talking Heads, Mr Bennett pokes gentle fun at his characters and their opinions, and shoots barbs at the bizarre social mores of the British class system. But the wit is sharp rather than acerbic, born of intelligence and affection rather than any desire to be cruel.
I loved it - there has to be a movie. They should get Helen Mirren to play this Queen, she'd eat it up!
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on October 10, 2007
Two features especially distinguish this refreshingly wicked novella and deserve to be singled out from among those of its many strengths already mentioned. First, through satiric wit, its author adroitly exaggerates the Queen's and the rest of the House of Windsor's odd reality, including in the account its bootlicking or cutthroat staff members, and even its recent, non-literary Prime Minister, Tony Blair. What lies just beneath the surface of this recourse to the amusingly exaggerated is, in fact, the revelation of a harsher, more distressing everyday kookiness which is attributed to most of these characters. In other words, under the flower, an asp. Second, the author stuffs his tale with a host of epigrams, some just about worthy of Oscar Wilde. For example, when the now voraciously reading Queen Elizabeth turns at last to writing and defends her practice against the charge of singularity, she speaks of earlier Royals who've authored books, saying "my great grandmother Queen Victoria...wrote a book also...and a pretty tedious book it is, too, and so utterly without offense as to be almost unreadable." Such a high-spirited observation - and it is typical of many - rivals the quotable dialogue of the most successful manners comedies, resembling that of "The Importance of Being Earnest" in particular.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
This is the loveliest little book I've read since I discovered Helene Hanff's "84 Charing Cross Road" a million years ago. Using the Queen as his catalyst, Alan Bennett gives us this love story between a new reader and the world that opens to her through the magic of books. He could be speaking of any bibliophile, but because it is Her Royal Highness, the opportunities for wit and plot twists in this slim volume are multiplied exponentially. There were several beautiful quotes which I will be adding to my favorites list, and I recognized myself on every page as a person who struggles to find time to read and resents having the obligations of everyday life intrude upon that time.

Time spent reading is never wasted; furthermore, time spent reading The Uncommon Reader will be looked back upon with great affection.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 29, 2007
... as well as the perfect antidote to my last few weeks of reading: Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Graham Greene. After finally digesting those two huge "meals", this was like finding the perfect chocolate when one is feeling just a little peckish.

If you're an avid reader, you will empathize with the Queen as she embarks on her literary voyage, remembering how you, too, loved discovering "new" authors. (I'm even eager to tackle Proust once again!) And let's be honest; isn't it great to laugh now and again? You not only get all the above, but there's a suprise ending that speaks to the enormous inventiveness and talent of Mr. Bennett.

Beg, borrow, steal or buy -- but don't miss this!
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16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Blame it on the corgis. They discover a bookmobile parked near Buckingham Palace and get the Queen's attention when they start yapping. Since she is every inch a queen, HRH borrows a book, a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett even though she has previously left liking books to other people. Although she finds Compton-Burnett rather dry with the characters all sounding like each other, the fire has been lit. The Queen becomes hooked on reading; neither she nor eventually England will ever be quite the same in Alan Bennett's quietly humorous short novel THE UNCOMMON READER. The Queen discovers Jean Genet, Nancy Mitford, E. M. Forster, Emily Dickinson, Alice Munro, Proust, Charles Dickens, Dostoevsky. She has difficulty with Jane Austin because that writer is so concerned with social distinctions. She at first is put off by the verbosity of Henry James, something she has in common with any reader I have ever known ("'Am I alone,' she wrote, 'in wanting to give Henry James a good talking to?'" Later, however, James' "divagations she now took in her stride," opining that "'novels are not necessarily written as the crow flies.'" She even reads the memoirs of Lauren Bacall and is envious of her. In the beginning the Queen reads indiscriminately as one book leads to another, but she eventually becomes a very discerning reader.

Reading this little book as delicious as an English trifle, I was reminded of how gentle Mr. Bennett is with his velvety barbs and so different, for instance, from American writers like Molly Ivins or Calvin Trillin when they harpoon the current resident of the White House. There is much here to make you smile. The dogs, for example, destroy an Ian McEwan novel, "the James Tait Black Memorial Prize notwithstanding." Also in the past when the Queen is out in her kingdom meeting her subjects, before her obsession with reading, she would have asked them questions perhaps about what mode of transportation they used to get to their meeting with her. Now she asks what is the latest book they have read. Since they invariably answer that they have read nothing-- although one did say the Bible-- she produces a book from that handbag that is always on her arm-- now we know what she carries it it-- and gives to the surprised nonreader who later sells it on eBay.

THE UNCOMMON READER is quite a joy to read, from start to its surprising ending. Emulate HRH and purchase this British treasure or check it out from your local library.
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28 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on November 26, 2008
This one had been lurking for a while on my Mt. To-Be-Read, and last night I was looking for something to lightly amuse me on a very cold night. Being the inveterate Royal-watcher that I am, I knew that this was one novella that I needed to read, so I settled in with a good, stiff cup of tea and started to read.

Alan Bennett, a very successful author, takes on England's monarchy in this cheerful little tale of subversion and literary adventures. With spare prose, he poses the question of what if The Queen, England's current monarch and head of the Commonwealth, turned into a reader? And we're talking not of those many documents that she reviews in her special red boxes but novels? And as with readers who come to love their books, what if she turned into a passionate, compulsive reader?

Such is the premise here, when the Queen's troop of corgis take off after a van fitted out as a lending library. In an attempt to be polite, she checks out a book by Ivy Compton-Burnett. And she meets a young man who works in the Palace as a kitchen skivvy, Norman Seakins, who actually does read books. Gradually, the two develop a sort-of friendship, and Norman incurs the jealousy of palace staff, and the Queen's knowledge of literature grows apace with poor Norman's rise to becoming as it were, the Queen's Reader.

Soon enough, the Queen starts to resent her official duties as Monarch, preferring to spend her time reading -- and that natural corollary to being bookish, thinking about her reading. Some think she's getting senile, what with the notebooks full of her thoughts and scribbles, and the eventual chaos that erupts when the outside world learns that she's a reader. Books, not flowers, are being presented to her on royal walkabouts, and slowly there is a growing revolution growing in the palace.

This rather tongue-in-cheek story had me chuckling in spots, thoughtful in others, but at the end, disappointed. While I did enjoy Mr. Bennett's use of very clever prose, it was the ending that finally ruined the book for me. Too, Mr. Bennett seems to be taking a backhanded swipe at everyone who doesn't read, at least doesn't read what he likes, and especially at the institution of monarchy itself. By the time I got to the end of this one, I was heartily bored, and just glad to see the story end.

It's good for an hour or two of reading -- it's less than 120 pages in length, and printed in a small format -- but I won't be wasting any of my time on a reread. Somehow I think that Britain's Royals are not this vapid or befuddled, and while I do know that this is satire, it just didn't feel right or too believable.

Depending on your tolerance for the silly, or the weird, or mockery of conservative establishment, this might suit. Or it might not. One never knows.

Overall, three stars. Somewhat recommended.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 31, 2011
The Queen (yes, that's the Queen of England) unexpectedly drops into a bookmobile and unexpectedly develops a love, a passion for reading.

That's the whole plot behind this tiny novel.

And does she ever become a better person. She found, as she read more and more, that she could put herself into the place of someone else, that she could understand the feelings of others. "'At the risk of sounding like a piece of steak,' she said, `they tenderize one.'"

She grows to loath her other duties. Her meetings with the Prime Minister are tedious. She finds reading the opposite of briefings, she tells him. "Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up."

But no one likes her reading. Reading made others uneasy. A conversation between the Queen and her private secretary:

"'I feel, ma'am, that while not exactly elitist it sends the wrong message. It tends to exclude.'

`Exclude? Surely most people can read?'

`They can read, ma'am, but I'm not sure that they do.'"

In the end, the Queen turns to writing, but books have had their say.

A fun little story for those of us who love books.
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