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Thursday, January 31, 2008

What I'm Reading: January 2008

It has been cold and snowy here in Illinois this January. That and a vacation early in the month means I got through 6 books this month, cover to cover. I have decided to focus on the three shorter works I read. All are very different in scope, tone, and theme; however, due to their little number of pages, each could be easily consumed on one cold, winter night.

Michael Chabon has now completed his second cycle of following a large tome with a short novella. His latest novella, Gentlemen of the Road (or as he has been quoted as wanting to have titled it, Jews With Swords), is historical fiction set in 10th Century Khazaria, a mythical city of red headed Jews on the western shores of the Caspian Sea. The two main characters are both Jewish "gentlemen of the road," men who travel the Silk Road because they have nowhere else to go and no one waiting for them. One is a pale, German doctor and the other a "giant" black man. These two seemingly different men are inseparable. Their adventure involves bringing the heir to the murdered King of Khazaria back home and re-instating him onto the throne.

Although Gentlemen of the Road's plot is dependent upon the intricacies its 1oth Century setting, the novella is a true adventure novel in the style of mid-20th century pulp fiction. It was originally published in the NYT's Sunday magazine in 15 installments. Faithful to its genre, the story moves quickly and each chapter ends with a cliff hanger, and the main characters are almost too good and kind to be true. Therefore, those who enjoyed this novella tone and style may be happier trying a classic adventure tale such as those by Robert Louis Stevenson or Jules Verne rather than trying to find another historical novel set in the 10th Century. This novella has also been compare to Don Quixote, although, Cervantes is a bit harder to get through.

Award-winning British playwright Alan Bennett's new novella An Uncommon Reader is capturing American attention and is quickly becoming an underground hit (see this posting). The premise is simple enough. The Queen (post Diana's death) is chasing after her Corgis and discovers the library bookmobile part on her property. She investigates and slowly becomes obsessed with reading. We see her evolve as a reader and even move into writing. In between these plot details Bennett raises issues of class, the burden of being the Queen, and the British people's mixed feelings the Monarchy. The ending is also very satisfying.

Those who enjoyed last year's Oscar Nominated film The Queen will love this novella. For readalikes, I had trouble finding the right feel in any one book until I remembered P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves' novels . They are old but owned by just about every public library. These funny, British novels, filled with not too thinly veiled social commentary, still hold up over time.

Finally, I also read a short nonfiction work which I highly recommend to all librarians who work with leisure readers, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by French Professor, Pierre Bayard. Here, Bayard gets at the history of non-readers throughout examples in literature and film. It was an intriguing look at how people remember what they have read, and how they discuss what they have only skimmed or heard of. Bayard does seem to have his tongue planted at least a bit in his cheek here though. I mean advocating not reading books and writing a book about it. So to honor him...I listened to it.

Anyone who likes this book should look at Alberto Manguel's excellent A History of Reading.

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