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The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett

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Author: Alan Bennett / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 03 July 2008 / Genre: Modern & Contemporary Fiction / Publisher: Profile Books Ltd / Title: The Uncommon Reader / ISBN 13: 9781846681332 / ISBN 10: 1846681332

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      05.07.2011 16:34
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      A clever novella exploring what would happen if the Queen took up a new pursuit

      "No, Home Secretary. But then books, as I'm sure you know, seldom prompt a course of action. Books generally just confirm you in what you have, perhaps unwittingly, decided to do already. You go to a book to have your convictions corroborated. A book, as it were, closes the book."

      There are many books that are about books. Of course, many biographies have been written about prominent authors and literary criticism on fiction has been commonplace for centuries, but that's not what I'm talking about. There are many novels which have at their heart other works of literature, which, in many ways, makes a lot of sense. After all, the only thing that the author knows his or her readers have in common is that, if nothing else, they all read, as if not, they wouldn't find themselves reading this book. Something else that usually goes down a storm in any medium is the use of humour and any book that includes at least the odd witty remark is bound to be better received than one that is unwaveringly dry and serious. Stories that have a strong main character or ones that are based on a very well known real life figure are also products of the recipe for success, as readers like feeling that they've 'gotten to know' the protagonist of the story they're reading, even if it is in a fictional context.

      Therefore a witty book about literature whose main character is possibly the most well known name and face on the planet, Her Majesty Elizabeth II, was statistically never going to be a literary failure. Especially since it was written by someone as well renowned as Alan Bennett and has a clever title, I therefore had high hopes when I picked up 'The Uncommon Reader'. It was a book that I'd heard of before and that my mam had recommended, but it wasn't until I saw it in the 'foreign literature' section of my favourite bookshop here in Leipzig that I came around to reading it. There is a fairly sizable selection of books in English in this shop, it being next to the University of Leipzig building where most of the English classes take place, but generally only books that are classics, very good examples of literature or are on reading lists are sold here, so I counted its collection amongst the limited ranks as a good sign.

      'The Uncommon Reader' is a novella, in which Bennett imagines what would happen to the royal household and indeed the nation if the Queen were to develop a fondness for reading. When her corgis end up running around an unexpected side of the palace instead of through their normal door, the Queen comes across a mobile library van situated outside the kitchens and ventures inside. Partly out of politeness she picks up and checks out a book by Ivy Compton-Burnett and, due to her inbuilt sense of duty, once she starts reading it she finishes it to the end, despite her finding it rather dry. On returning the book she feels obliged to borrow a second book and then another, before very quickly developing a love bordering on obsession of reading. She soon spends as much time as possible with her nose buried in a book, taking one along with her on royal visits and the like, and soon loses her 'interest' in her royal duties. The royal household and staff, unsurprisingly, don't like this one bit and make efforts to stop her Maj from indulging in her new, unexpected hobby.

      An interesting concept, you must agree, and one that has been realised exceptionally well. This novella is, while not overtly silly, one that does not take itself particularly seriously and gently pokes fun at the higher classes and establishment rather than being any kind of criticism. It casts the Queen in a favourable light and, though I realise that the story is a fictional one, it did make me better disposed towards Her Royal Highness than I was previously. That is not to say that I have any bad feeling towards the Royal Family in any way, far from it, but this story did make them all seem more human and relatable than the Royal Wedding did, for example.

      As well as being enjoyable for its story and its witty and easy to read writing style, those with an interest in literature (probably most of the book's readers, I imagine) will also appreciate the literary references littered throughout the story. There are references to Proust, Jane Austen and Sylvia Plath amongst many others, but this does not make the story inaccessible to anyone unfamiliar with their works, as I am. Because my copy, although in the original English, is a German copy published by Reclam for non-native speakers of English, there are detailed footnotes on almost every page which explain (in German) who these authors are, often along with their most famous works and their dates of birth and death. I imagine that in the original such footnotes will not exist, as British people will need less information on cultural references as people who grew up and live elsewhere, but I definitely found it useful to read these notes from time to time when an author with whom I was unfamiliar was cited. My version also has a photo of the Queen herself on the cover, photographed peeking out from behind a pillar at the Royal Albert Hall in 2004. She wears a light smile and while it is not a comical picture in itself, this photo does subtly hint at the more human or cheeky side of the Queen's character that features in the book.

      In conclusion, this novella is marvellous and is one that I shall highly recommend to you all. Mine cost Euro5 euros but prices in the UK will vary, though since this is not a full length novel (mine is 160 pages with footnotes) it shouldn't cost much.

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        01.02.2010 17:37
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        One that Bennett fans will appreciate most

        If (like myself) you've never read any Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader represents a reasonable starting point that will help you decide whether or not you want to read his other books.

        It combines Bennett's eye for the odd and the mundane, mixed with a wry, slightly wistful sense of humour. The plot sounds like it should be either a satire or a farce. In fact it is neither, merely providing a backdrop for his usual musings on human nature. It sees the Queen accidentally stumble upon a mobile Library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. This leads her to discover the delights of reading for pleasure and as her passion begins to take hold, results in some unforeseen consequences.

        The first big advantage of The Uncommon Reader is that it is a very slim volume. This is not meant as a flippant comment, but as a recommendation and a compliment.
        The central idea behind the book is (like the volume itself) fairly slight and could not be sustained in a larger book, so the short story like approach suits the book and ensures it doesn't run out of steam. Secondly, as already noted, it does act as an introduction to Bennett's style and humour. At just 121 pages the book is a quick read and most people will get through it in less than two hour's worth of easy reading. If you enjoy it, it's likely to tempt you into reading more of Bennett's books; if you don't, you won't feel as though you have wasted too much time.

        Bennett's humour is certainly an acquired taste that won't be for everyone. His humour is very much based in the observation of the ordinary; it is character-based, revolving around the outlook of his characters and they way they interact with (and misunderstand) each other. His characters are very warm creations who, no matter what station they hold in life always feel like the man or woman next door. Yes, this even applies to the Queen in this book! Certainly, it managed something no other book, film or documentary has ever achieved: it generated some sympathy for the Queen (or, at least, Bennett's portrayal of her) in this long-time republican!

        Bennett's humour is very gentle in style. He pokes fun at attitudes, life styles or thought processes; he points out the absurdity of some ideas and opinions, yet is never openly mocking or malicious. He seems to approach each of his characters with a certain tenderness, and this affection transfers to the reader. The humour flows from his characters and the situations he puts them in, but is never silly or nasty.

        There is no doubt that Bennett has a way with words, a certain turn of phrase which can turn an apparently dull sentence into an amusing or pithy observation. His skill in using language is noticeable even in this short book and he is the master of generating smiles or laughter through a few carefully chosen words.

        That said, some will certainly enjoy it more than others. Mrs SWSt (a Bennett fan) read it before I did and was often heard chuckling out loud at some of the author's bon mots. I, however, was a little more restrained and, having witnessed her reaction, also left feeling a little let-down. Maybe Mrs SWSt's constant chuckling had raised my expectations to too high a level, but The Uncommon Reader did not make me laugh out loud. There were several sentences or descriptions that made me smile - but I never found it as consistently funny as Mrs SWSt clearly did. Other readers may simply fail to find the humour in it at all, as it can be very subtle.

        There were also times when I felt that the book was little more than one great big in-joke. A recurring running joke, for example about authors being gay felt like little jibes at the writing community or Bennett's own sexuality. Doubtless this is hilarious if you move in those sorts of circles, but it's not terribly funny for those of us with ordinary 9-5 jobs..

        The biggest stumbling block, however, is the price. The book is little more than an extended essay, small in size and only 120 pages. Yet the paperback edition costs £6.99. This is the same price than other paper backs which run to three or four times that length. Of course, I'm not for one minute suggesting that quantity guarantees quality, but £7 for such a slim volume is very steep. I'd venture to suggest that even Bennett completists might want to wait until they find this particular volume in a second hand bookshop or charity shop, casual readers certainly should.

        So, there we go. My first experience of an Alan Bennett book has left me... well, ambivalent really. I enjoyed it whilst I read it, but there was nothing to tempt me into reading any more of his works. It will certainly appeal to existing Bennett fans, but isn't necessarily going to win him any new ones.

        Basic Information
        -----------------------
        The Uncommon Reader
        Alan Bennett
        Faber, 2008
        ISBN: £978-1-84668-133-2

        © Copyright SWSt 2010

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          11.07.2009 15:56
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          An easy read to give you a brean from the weighter novels

          Uncommon Reader was one of those books that for some reason I just wanted to read. I'm not quite sure what drew me towards the book but something must have done because it's been sitting in my to read pile, which is getting larger by the day, for quite a while. I eventually got down the books ahead of it three days ago and because Uncommon Reader is only a short book managed to devour the whole thing in my lunch hour at work on Thursday.

          Like I have just mentioned this book is very short indeed, coming in at just over 100 pages and small pages at that. This however is in my opinion what makes the book so appealing as upon picking it up you are immediately aware that the read that follows will be a short one, perfect for a summers day in the garden or a car journey. Being short also means that the book doesn't waste time with unnecessary scene setting or details and gets right down to the story, which is very simple and easy to comprehend yet at the same time charming.

          Uncommon Reader tells the story of the most unlikely reader it may seem possible to imagine, The Queen. The book begins with the arrival of a mobile library in the Palace grounds, which her majesty comes across whilst walking her dogs. It is her sense of duty that first leads her to choose a book from the shelves inside but it soon becomes her need to read that keeps her coming back. The story catalogues the events that spiral because of the Queen's newfound hobby and the reactions of the staff that feel it is their duty to stop the hobby becoming an addiction.

          I have previously mentioned and subsequently demonstrated with the short synopsis above that this book has a very simple premise and that it is not in the least difficult to follow. This gives the book great appeal for me because once in a while it is really nice to read something that isn't challenging, doesn't put across complex ideas, political mind-sets or historically accurate events. Sometimes it is just nice to read a book that you can relax into and enjoy.

          From the start of Uncommon Reader it is made clear that the book aims to be entertaining and personally I think that it succeeds in doing this. The entertainment factor doesn't come from drama filled pages or unique and intriguing events but from the books mere simplicity, which carries the tale along. The end of the book however does give you something to think about, as the final page leaves the reader uncertain about what has actually just been proposed and in that way offers a slight twist to the seemingly easy-going novel.

          All in all I must say that I really enjoyed reading this book. It isn't complex like I have said many times in this review. The characters aren't marvellously constructed individuals that take on lives within your imagination but they are fun to read about and written into the story with wit and thoughtfulness. The storyline itself isn't dramatic or even very eventful but it pleasant to read and in many respects this is all I really want from a book. I'm not saying I don't like a driven plotline with twists and turns and tremendously well-written and believable characters but every reader needs a break from this and Uncommon Reader was mine.

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            14.06.2009 22:59
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            An interesting and engaging novella

            I have to be honest and admit that while of course I know of Alan Bennett, I had not read any of his work until I read The Uncommon Reader, which is one of the latest books set for the reading group I go to monthly. Bennett has had a very distinguished career, as both a novelist and a playwright, but somehow I've never actually read anything by him.

            The Uncommon Reader is a novella of only 120 pages. It is a simple "what if" story - what would happen if the Queen, having come across a travelling library at the palace doors, became engrossed in reading? I don't want to give too much away, but that is the main premise of the story which is written in the blurb on the back of the book. She discovers the joys of reading, and how it can transport the reader elsewhere.

            Bennett has written a charming story which is easy to read and to engage with. His writing style is impeccable, and perfectly suited to his subject matter in the language he uses. The Queen is portrayed as an extremely intelligent woman who has had life dedicated to public life with few personal interests. Now, in her older age, she finds something she enjoys for herself. Oddly, I found it very easy to engage with her - I say oddly because Bennett has clearly written her as the Queen, so not someone I would expect to be able to engage with. But she is a sympathetic character, quite isolated and so happy when she discovers her love of reading and strikes up an unexpected friendship with a kitchen boy.

            The other characters are also very well written. Her private secretary is the villain, trying to curtail her reading habits. We meet Prince Phillip in passing, and he is exactly as expected - there are none of the inappropriate remarks he is prone to, but he calls the Queen "old girl". Whether he really does this I don't know, but it seems perfect. The prime minister is never named, and is a fairly generic character - it could probably be any prime minister, although the novella was published during Tony Blair's time at Downing Street.

            Given the author and the subject, it is not unexpected that The Uncommon Reader is gently humourous. I didn't find there were any laugh out loud moments, but there were plenty which made me smile, mainly from the other characters around the Queen being continually baffled by her new behaviour.

            I thoroughly enjoyed The Uncommon Reader. It was a pleasant read, easygoing, gentle, and although admittedly rather predictable, I don't feel that this detracted from my enjoyment of the novella at all. I read this over two evenings, and had to convince myself to put it down the first night or I would have stayed up a bit too late to carry on! This is not groundbreaking literature, but I don't want that all the time.

            The Uncommon Reader is currently available new from Amazon for £3.49, which is a very good price although I borrowed mine from the library.

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              01.05.2009 07:38
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              A good read but as a Bennett fan I was disappointed

              There is no doubt that Alan Bennet's novella, "The Uncommon Reader" is a little jewel. In the two years since it was first published it has attracted almost universal critical acclaim and, for this reason I have been reluctant to review it because I seem to be rather out of step with the literati! For me this work may be a jewel but it's one which fails to sparkle as brightly as I had hoped.

              It's undoubtedly a great premise for a story. The Queen is walking her corgis in the Palace grounds when they scamper off route and start yapping at a Travelling Library parked by the kitchen doors. Embarrassed by their bad behaviour Her Majesty goes in to apologise to the librarian. She considers it might appear rude to depart without borrowing a book but she is on unknown territory as "liking books was something she left to other people ... reading wasn't doing and she was a doer" Therefore she seeks the advice of the librarian and the van's only other occupant Seakins, a palace kitchen hand. Eventually she departs clutching an Ivy Compton Burnett mainly because she remembers making that lady a Dame. When she returns the tome, she seizes upon a Nancy Mitford. "Didn't her sister marry that Mosely man? And the mother-in law of another sister was my mistress of the robes." She finds "The Pursuit of Love" much more to her liking, is quickly drawn into the pleasure of reading and thus embarks on a great literary adventure.

              Although regarded as "not pretty enough" by the palace retinue, Seakin is promoted by royal command to the position of an equerry whose sole task is to be the Queen's amanuensis. His initial choices are considered suspect by the librarian as they centre on his own penchant for gay writers but Her Majesty is not fazed. Reading J R Ackerley's account of himself she is not shocked by his sexuality but is surprised that "the Guards seem to be as readily available as the book made out and at such a reasonable tariff!" The reading programme takes on its own momentum and whilst the initial forays are quite indiscriminate, she gradually progresses to the classics and devours Pepys, Tolsoy, Dickens, Hardy, Turgenev,Trollope and even Proust with relish.

              The Queen revels in a dimension previously unknown to her. "I read .... because one has a duty to find out what people are like." The appeal lay in the "indifference" of such literature." Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included" and this was a new experience to one who was used to the deference of all. But it is also an experience edged with the regret that she has made this discovery so late in life.

              As the Queen's passion develops to the realms of obsession, the establishment become increasingly concerned. She is no longer so dutiful in pursuance of her regal commitments and becomes more unpredictable. Sometimes late for appointments, cutting short briefings with her pompous Private Secretary, Sir Kevin, breaking into an impromptu rendition of Philip Larkin's poem, "The Trees" at a planting ceremony and even, on walkabouts, questioning her subjects on what they were reading rather than the more normal enquiry about how far they had come? Her Majesty was "getting to be what is known as a handful."

              All sorts of ruses are used to separate her from her books, including the underhand removal of Seakins from the palace, but with little success. However when the Prime Minister gets annoyed by Ma'am giving him books to read and subsequently questioning him on their content, things have gone too far and the great and the good in Downing Street demand that a stop is put to such behaviour. Sir Kevin enlists the help of Sir Claude, an elderly royal aide, in breaking this addiction and the Queen is quite taken with the old retainer's tentative suggestion that she might take up writing instead. Thus begins her "scribbling" stage which if anything absorbs her even more than the reading. The story progresses to a conclusion which is actually quite inevitable in retrospect but one I have to admit I did not see coming.

              Bennett weaves a wonderful and very readable tale and must be admired for packing such a horde of treasures into just one hundred and twenty short pages. His style flows easily and engagingly along and is as witty concise and distinctive as ever. Anybody familiar with the writer's dramatic performances can't fail to hear his voice recounting her Majesty's experiences and the counter measures of her opponents in those rather languid, slightly quizzical tones rendered all the more endearing by the remnants of the northern inflections. There is also warmth and affection in the lines and a definite empathy with the Queen's isolation:-
              "I have to seem like a human being all the time but I seldom have to be one. I have people to do that for me."
              The affection in Bennett's portrayal of the Queen is matched by his obvious disdain for the sycophants around her whom he skillfully but gently satirises. Accounts of incidents when Her Majesty succeeds in ill disguised games of one upmanship with her Private Secretary or manages to highlight the ignorance of her Prime Minister are told with a certain relish.

              "The Uncommon Reader" is unquestionably an erudite, well constructed and memorable piece so why, on each of the three occasions I have reached its final page, have I felt a certain disappointment. It may be that the answer lies more in my expectations than in any shortcoming in the work itself and perhaps if I had come to it without any prior knowledge of the author, my delight would have been unqualified. But this is Alan Bennett who has entertained us for over forty years. From his "Beyond the Fringe" days with Peter Cook and Dudley More in the sixties to his latest play "The History Boys" in the noughties, he has traded on the mundanities of life to entertain with his distinctive brand of humour often born of pathos but never sinking into the morbid. He has attracted such epithets as "national teddy bear", "prose laureate" and "Oracle of Little England". It would be difficult, if not impossible, to approach any of his work without some preconceptions and expectations.

              It is difficult to criticise such an established literary figure with so many well deserved accolades but, for me, this is not Bennett at his best. It could be that he is less at home in this genre because his reputation is primarily built on his talent as a playwright. True he has written stories too but these are mostly autobiographical to some degree. However it seems more likely that is down to the subject matter. Choosing the Queen as his main protagonist is something of a departure for Bennett and quite a surprising choice considering he is known to have anti-establishment views and has turned down a CBE and a knighthood. It is not his first foray into the world of royalty; in fact the Queen featured in "A Question of Attribution" which was the story of the spy, Anthony Blunt, during the time he was Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures. However this portrayal of Her Majesty did not involve such depths of character analysis being more of a cameo role exploring the lady's dealings with Blunt. "The Madness of King George" also ventured into regal realms but this also had a factual and historical perspective. As a fictional account of a reigning monarch's perceptions partialities and ideas, "The Uncommon Reader" stands alone in Bennett's repertoire.

              The world of the elite may not be a milieu which is beyond Bennett's powerful imagination but maybe it is one in which he is not quite at home. His forte, as displayed in such offerings as "Talking Heads", "A Private Function", "The Lady in the Van", and even "The History Boys" is in what Michael Palin has referred to as "the small print of everyday life". Bennett excels in portraying the minutiae and banality of a world inhabited by the uncelebrated, the commoners, the pretentious, the misfits and the flawed. The very lack of consequence of such personalities (whether they are fictional or real) allows him to portray all their imperfections, eccentricities, deviations and aspirations unfettered by such constraints as must apply when composing a parody in which a living and very widely known monarch is the main protagonist. And this is what comes across, a somewhat restrained and oversimplified version of the Bennett most of us admire.

              Why Bennett chose such a subject is quite an enigma. It's tempting to think he was merely seeking a vessel in which to demonstrate his extensive literary knowledge but, as he appears to be quite unassuming without any need to impress, it has to be unlikely. Some commentators suggest it is a crusading work demonstrating the importance of reading but preaching just is not Bennett's style. Others see it as his lament on old age and a wasted life but he has already done this far more effectively in "The Lady in the Van" and in his writings about his mother's last years when she was suffering from Alzheimer's. As Bennett himself is something of an enigma in that he always refuses to be interviewed, it is likely we will never know what motivated him in this choice of material.

              Accepting it at face value, it is a charming and amusing tale of a lonely monarch whose life is enriched and transformed when she discovers the joys of reading. It is told with Bennett's usual panache and gentle humour and his eye for detail never fails. Unfortunately it doesn't have the depth or the insight of many of his works. It also seems to miss out on many opportunities for additional humour, for example the Duke of Edinburgh appears only as a slightly tetchy cameo and the other members of the royal family, even those like Charles with good comic mileage, do not figure at all. But it's not a bad way of wiling away a couple of hours as long as it is approached without any expectation of the heights to which Bennett can usually rise.

              "Books are wonderful aren't they? At the risk of sounding like a piece of steak, they tenderise one!"

              ~~Bibliographical Details~~

              Hardback
              Profile , 2007. ISBN-13 978-1846680496
              RRP £10.99 Amazon £6.04

              Paperback
              Faber & Faber/Profile, 2008. ISBN-13 978 1846681332
              RRP £6.99 Amazon £3.82

              Audio
              BBC Audiobooks, 2007. ISBN-13 978-1405687478
              RRP £12.72 Amazon £6.99

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                29.10.2008 10:38
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                A delight, for an hour or so

                As the Grand Old Man of British letters and unofficial Writer Laureate, it is fitting that Alan Bennett should have chosen the Queen as the subject of this story. Not that this is his first foray into royal subject-matter: the Madness of King George was a successful play and film. But George III is a dead and gone figure of history. The Queen is very much alive, and writing a fictional piece about a well known public figure is quite a different proposition. The result, however, is an absolute delight.

                The premise - and this is no more than appears on the dust jacket and summaries - is that the corgis wander off and the Queen, in hot pursuit, follows them into a mobile library parked at the back of the palace. Persuaded to borrow a book, one thing leads to another and she becomes an avid reader. It is the consequences of this new-found interest that form the focus of the story.

                The first scene of one and a half pages is worth quoting from as it sets the tone and lays the themes for what follows. No more quotes after this, though; I don't want to spoil it for you.

                The scene is a state banquet for the President of France.
                The Queen: "I've been longing to ask you about the writer Jean Genet." [Pauses for the national anthems]. "Homosexual and jailbird, was he nevertheless as bad as he was painted? Or, more to the point ... was he as good?"

                Unbriefed on the subject of the glabrous playwright and novelist, the President looked wildly about for his Minister of Culture. [...] The President put down his spoon. It was going to be a long evening.

                And I thought, it's going to be a lovely read. I like to think that Bennett got his inspiration from watching one of these state occasions and wondering what on earth they talk about. This opening tells you what's coming. Humour, of course. Witty, incisive, a light touch, but barbed. Not the humour of an angry young man flinging satirical thunderbolts at the establishment but finding its targets nevertheless. And the targets: royal protocol, expectations of royalty, fear and suspicion of "high culture", the power of books to change an individual. More themes for satire are added later: mass market fiction, politicians and civil servants, treatment of the elderly, and if there's a common link, it's that we make assumptions about people based on our expectations of them.

                That's a lot of content for a small book, and small it is. At 120 pages it's a novella in length but not format. From the opening vignette, to the final set scene with its long speech by the central character, the action proceeds episodically as if in a play, and there are some wonderfully comic set pieces The impact is also conveyed mainly by vocal interaction between the characters. No surprise there: it's as a playwright that Bennett is known.

                But how do you put words in the mouth of the Queen? The Duke might at first seem a more promising mouthpiece but he only gets a bit part. The point is that she is a completely blank page. We know everything of her, but nothing about her - a perfect canvas on which to paint increasingly complex swirls of ideas, emotion and growing self-awareness. At the same time the "voice", even if fictionalised, has to be authentic, and Bennett with his superb ear for dialogue pulls this off brilliantly. This is the author of "Talking Heads", a collection of monologues which ran on TV at the end of the 1980s, in which a single speaker by apparently innocent remarks about an everyday situation reveals his innermost thoughts. The Queen speaks in short sentences, very direct, at times quite tart, eschewing jargon and metaphor. There is inevitably some use of "one" although that phases out as she discovers her individuality. And it's not just the Queen; all the other characters are perfectly captured, characterised and indeed caricatured through their speech. No names are named, but it's always clear who is intended. We do not need to be told which Prime Minister is being referred to.

                But if the Queen is the main character, books are the stars of this show. Or, more specifically, reading books. "Books Do Furnish a Room" was the title of an Anthony Powell novel (which doesn't figure here) and that has been the Queen's relationship with them up till now. The distinction is frequently drawn between the ability to read and actually reading. Plus, of course, Bennett gets to have fun with selecting the books and authors with which to "furnish" his Queen. What would you choose, given a reading virgin Queen to select for? The picks are an eclectic mix but the effects he ascribes to the new reader are increased self-awareness, new depth of emotions and heightened sensitivity. Truly mighty pens indeed. Are we really the sum of the books we have read, or does it only work if we have not acquired these emotions elsewhere? As the Queen becomes more "normal" she becomes less queen-like. She crosses the divide into empathy and leaves monarchy behind.

                Book selection is a tricky business. Even if you don't buy into the idea that books have the life-changing effect they have here, your choice of reading matter still says a lot about you, and Bennett is openly derisory about popular choices such as Andy McNab and Harry Potter. Of course, although from impeccable working-class roots, and a professional Yorkshireman, he is nevertheless a huge intellectual snob. Even the vocabulary he uses, such as "glabrous" quoted above (= bald, to save you looking it up, as I had to) sets him apart from the average bestseller paperback writer. On the other hand, he is also fairly scathing about the literati and it's interesting that the Queen learns nothing from them. They are all too self-absorbed. Her early guide, before she finds her own way, is a kitchen boy who is universally mistrusted by the palace establishment, and who fits in with neither the palace nor the literary world. Who does that remind you of? And it's also a position the Queen is heading towards. That's what books do for you.

                Finally a memo to publishers. There is a credit crunch on, and a £6.99 cover price for a 4½" x 7½" paperback of 120 pages of largish print is a rip-off. It's so small I had difficulty finding it on my shelves when I wanted to look something up for this review. The last book of Alan Bennett's I read, a hardback version of Untold Stories, was so heavy it made my wrists ache, so there's no lack of material which could have been included to make a longer volume. One or two of his Talking Heads monologues would have sat very well with this story. Amazon sells it for £3.68, and I got it for £2.99 when it was a Times book of the week recently, but even so I would suggest trying your local library, if they still stock books.

                This quibble aside, it is definitely recommended. A short read, but a happy one!

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                In her new BBC2 series, Anjum Anand travels around the UK creating delicious Indian food that is light and healthy and bursting with flavour. Beginning with easy finger food and light grills, perfect for TV snacks, Anjum then goes onto visit a country fair in Dorset where she cooks Indian street food, creates a tasty lamb curry for some hungry firemen, and cooks up a seafood feast on the beach for a group of Cornish surfers. All the recipes from the TV series are included with chapters on Light snacks, Seafood, Meat and Poultry, Vegetables, Lentils and Beans, Rice and Breads, Chutneys and Raitas, and Desserts and Drinks. Anjum is passionate about using fresh, local and seasonal produce with all the ingredients readily available in supermarkets. Throughout the book, there are tips and techniques as well as expert secrets from some of the country's top Indian chefs.