Alan Bennett: The Uncommon Reader

The title’s “uncommon reader” (Queen Elizabeth II) becomes obsessed with books after a chance encounter with a mobile library. The story (follows the consequences of this obsession for the Queen, her household and advisers, and her constitutional position.

The title is a play on the phrase “common reader”. This can mean a person who reads for pleasure, as opposed to a critic or scholar. It can also mean a set text, a book that everyone in a group (for example, all students entering a university) are expected to read, so that they can have something in common. A Common Reader is used by Virginia Woolf as the title work of her 1925 essay collection. Plus a triple play – Virginia Woolf’s title came from Dr. Johnson: “I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be generally decided all claims to poetical honours.”

In British English, “common” holds levels of connotation. A commoner is anyone other than royalty or nobility. Common can also mean vulgar, as common taste; mean, as common thief; or ordinary, as common folk.

(source: Wikipedia)


Donna Leon: suffer the little children

When Commissario Brunetti is summoned in the middle of the night to the hospital bed of a senior pediatrician, he is confronted with more questions than answers. Three men—a young Carabiniere captain and two privates from out of town—have burst into the doctor’s apartment in the middle of the night, attacked him and taken away his eighteenth-month old baby boy. What could have motivated an assault by the forces of the state so violent it has left the doctor mute? Who would have authorized such an alarming operation? At the same time, Brunetti’s colleague Inspector Vianello discovers a money-making scam between pharmacists and doctors in the city. But it appears as if one of the pharmacists is after more than money. Donna Leon’s new novel is as subtle and fascinating as ever, set in a beautifully-realized Venice, a glorious city seething with small-town vice.



Siri Hustvedt: The Summer Without Men

Mia Fredrickson, the wry, vituperative, tragic comic, poet narrator of The Summer Without Men,has been forced to reexamine her own life. One day, out of the blue, after thirty years of marriage, Mia’s husband, a renowned neuroscientist, asks her for a”pause.” This abrupt request sends her reeling and lands her in a psychiatric ward. The June following Mia’s release from the hospital, she returns to the prairie town of her childhood, where her mother lives in an old people’s home. Alone in a rented house, she rages and fumes and bemoans her sorry fate. Slowly, however, she is drawn into the lives of those around her — her mother and her close friends,”the Five Swans,” and her young neighbor with two small children and a loud angry husband — and the adolescent girls in her poetry workshop whose scheming and petty cruelty carry a threat all their own.

From the internationally bestselling author of What I Loved comes a provocative, witty, and revelatory novel about women and girls, love and marriage, and the age-old question of sameness and difference between the sexes.



Jo Nesbo: headhunters

Roger Brown, the main protagonist in Headhunters, is an intriguing guy. He is small: only 1 meter 68 centimeters – five and a half feet. Despite what some might view as an obstacle, he is extremely successful, very well-respected, and quite attractive to beautiful women. He has that certain “je ne sais quoi” – that extra-special something; the glitter in the eye, the wit, the sharp edge, the charisma. He is hands-down the best headhunter in Norway, and he knows it. His talent has led to stunning successes for some very fortunate corporations and has saved others from ruinous disasters.

Roger Brown is married to the stunningly beautiful and desirable Diana – definitely a sight for sore eyes but a very expensive woman to maintain. So, even though Roger makes a small fortune at his profession, he finds himself in deep financial trouble. He and his delightful and charming wife always manage to spend far more than even Roger is able to bring home.

So Roger needs to make some serious money on the side. Which he does. He has a second career where he is every bit as competent as he is in his “day” job. Roger Brown is an extremely adept art thief. In a sense, he has leveraged his job as a headhunter into this second, highly profitible career – Roger-the-Headhunter learns many things that are useful for Roger-the-Thief. And he doesn’t mind stealing from his clients, just as long as the chances of his being found out are minimal.

However, after breaking into the house of the ideal candidate for a very high-level position, he suddenly realizes he may have gone one step too far. Brown felt certain that the theft of the candidate’s Rubens would be the solution to his financial woes. The final solution, in fact. But in the house, he discovers something which leads him to believe that the relationship between him and his beloved Diana may not be exactly what it seems. Then, the next morning he finds his “partner in crime” dead in the front seat of his own car. Something is very wrong, indeed: The headhunter/art thief has now become the prey of a depraved but very smart and experienced man-hunter. If Roger is to come out of this in one piece, he will have to employ all of his considerable brainpower, wits and skills, and will need a very hefty dose of luck as well.


Virginia Woolf: Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway is not your typical day-in-the-life story, but it is a day-in-the-life story – a revolutionary one at that. It covers one day for Clarissa Dalloway (with some other central characters, too) as she prepares for a big party that will take place that evening.

Plot summary:

As the novel begins, Clarissa strolls through Westminster, her neighborhood in London, on her way to a flower shop. Along the way, a few big things go down: she runs into an old friend named Hugh Whitbread, an explosion comes from a diplomatic car on its way to Buckingham Palace, and an “aeroplane” does a little skywriting. (Wow, that’s way more than what typically happens to us on the way to get flowers.)

When she gets back from her errand, an old friend and former suitor, Peter Walsh, shows up unexpectedly. They’re happy to see each other, but there’s still some tension. Peter is clearly still in love with Clarissa, and she feels like he judges her for the decisions she’s made – among them marrying the conservative but loyal Richard Dalloway (instead of him). Numerous flashbacks – including one of Clarissa’s kiss with a girl named Sally – fill in the story as it happened years ago at her family’s country home, Bourton. Feeling desperate over his own unfulfilling life, Peter gets weepy and asks Clarissa if she really loves Richard. Before she can answer, Elizabeth (her daughter) interrupts, and Peter heads out to Regent’s Park.

We then move to the perspective of Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked World War I veteran who saw Evans, his friend and officer, killed in war. Septimus’ wife, Lucrezia, is trying to distract him as they wait for an appointment with Sir William Bradshaw, a mean old psychiatrist.

The third person omniscient narrator takes us back to Septimus’ life before the war: he was an aspiring poet, read Shakespeare, and loved Miss Isabel Pole. After the war and Evans’ death, Septimus becomes emotionally numb – he can’t feel anything. On a total whim, he becomes engaged to Lucrezia, whose home he’s staying at in Milan, Italy. Back in the present day, Septimus is driven deeper into madness, including some crazy hallucinations. Lucrezia is also miserable, homesick for Italy, and tired of taking her husband to various soulless doctors. Whereas Dr Holmes thinks Septimus is just “in a funk,” Dr Bradshaw diagnoses that he “lacks Proportion.” Neither acknowledges the fact that the war has impacted Septimus (which seems pretty obvious to us).

While Clarissa rests and prepares for the party, Richard has lunch with the impressively rich and British upper crust Lady Bruton. After lunch, Richard wants to go home and tell Clarissa he loves her, but he cops out and just gives her flowers instead. Clarissa actually cherishes the independence she has in her marriage, knowing that she could never have that with Peter. In the meantime, Clarissa’s daughter goes off shopping with her friend Miss Kilman, whom Mrs Dalloway hates. And by hates, we mean despises, loathes, and absolutely cannot stand.

Meanwhile, Septimus and Lucrezia wait at their apartment for Sir William Bradshaw, who is coming to take Septimus to a psychiatric home. The couple shares a rare moment of joy, but before Bradshaw enters the apartment, Septimus throws himself out the window and is impaled on the fence outside. He would rather die than have the doctor steal his soul. Yikes.

When Clarissa’s party begins, she circulates, making sure to pay attention to every guest – especially the prime minister (um, yeah, we’d do the same). Peter and Sally patiently await some attention from Clarissa as they talk about their memories of Bourton. A late arrival, Sir William Bradshaw, shows up with his wife, who announces that Septimus has killed himself. Clarissa is annoyed that Lady Bradshaw mentioned death at her party, but she is envious of Septimus’ ability to embrace the moment. Finally, she returns to the party and her appearance fills Peter’s heart with joy.




J.M. Coetzee: The Childhood of Jesus


After crossing oceans, a man and a boy arrive in a new land. Here they are each assigned a name and an age, and held in a camp in the desert while they learn Spanish, the language of their new country. As Simón and David they make their way to the relocation centre in the city of Novilla, where officialdom treats them politely but not necessarily helpfully.

Simón finds a job in a grain wharf. The work is unfamiliar and backbreaking, but he soon warms to his stevedore comrades, who during breaks conduct philosophical dialogues on the dignity of labour, and generally take him to their hearts.

Now he must set about his task of locating the boy’s mother. Though like everyone else who arrives in this new country he seems to be washed clean of all traces of memory, he is convinced he will know her when he sees her. And indeed, while walking with the boy in the countryside Simón catches sight of a woman he is certain is the mother, and persuades her to assume the role.

David’s new mother comes to realise that he is an exceptional child, a bright, dreamy boy with highly unusual ideas about the world. But the school authorities detect a rebellious streak in him and insist he be sent to a special school far away. His mother refuses to yield him up, and it is Simón who must drive the car as the trio flees across the mountains.



Siri Hustvedt: The Blindfold

Plot sumary:

Iris Vegan, a young, impoverished graduate student from the Midwest, finds herself entangled with four powerful but threatening characters as she tries to adjust to life in New York City. Mr. Morning, an inscrutable urban recluse, employs Iris to tape-record verbal descriptions of objects that belonged to a murder victim. George, a photographer, takes an eerie portrait of Iris, which then acquires a strange life of its own, appearing and disappearing without warning around the city. After a series of blinding migraines, Iris ends up in a hospital room with Mrs. O., a woman who has lost her mind and memory to a stroke, but who nevertheless retains both the strength and energy to torment her fellow patient. And finally, there is Professor Rose, Iris’s teacher and eventually her lover. While working with him on the translation of a German novella called The Brutal Boy, she discovers in its protagonist, Klaus, a vehicle for her own transformation and ventures out into the city again–this time dressed as a man.



J.K. Rowling: The Casual Vacancy

imatgeThe Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling begins with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a Pagford Parish councillor. Barry dies of an aneurysm at the carpark of the golf course’s restaurant on the eve of his nineteenth wedding anniversary.

The following morning provides glimpses into the townspeople’s reactions to Barry’s death. Barry held a seat as a Pagford Parish Councillor and was fighting to keep the neighborhood known as the Fields a part of Pagford. Prior to his death, he was working with the local newspaper to illustrate the positive influence that allowing the children of the Fields. He grew up in the Fields and knew that by attending school in Pagford’s good schools allowed him a better life that he would have had had he had to go to school in Yarvil. Additionally, the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic rents a small church to administer methadone to addicts that live in the Fields and Yarvil. Pagford Parish, specifically Howard and Shirley Mollison, no longer wants to lease the building to this tenant.

In the following weeks, an election is held to fill Fairbrother’s casual vacancy on the council. During the days leading up to the election, mysterious posts appear in the name of the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother on the parish website, which Shirley Mollison is in charge of. The messages are defamatory toward the candidates who are running: Simon Price, Colin Wall, and Parminder Jawanda. Although the people feel they are being attacked by other people in the town, ironically, they are being attacked by their own teenage children.

As the debate to keep the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic heats up and Miles Mollison wins the vacant seat, each family lives in their own crisis. Desparete to get out of her terrible living situation, Krystal Weedon runs away with her younger brother Robbie. While she is having intercourse, in the hopes of getting pregnant, with Fats Walls, her younger brother falls into the river and drowns. That Sunday morning, as many of the adults in town are out walking and contemplating their own melodramas, they saw Robbie, a toddler, wandering alone and dirty, but do nothing.

The only person brave and sincere enough to help was Sukhvinder Jawanda who jumps in the river to save Robbie while risking her life. Krystal Weedon now realizes that there is no way out of this life. Without her brother and feeling the guilt of his death, she chooses to commit suicide.

Howard Mollison has a heart attack the same afternoon that Robbie Weedon drowns and Shirley Mollison, after learning about his long-term affair with co-worker Maureen, plans to attack him with an epipen. He has a heart attack first and now she fears that he knew that she was going to attack him.

The novel ends with the funeral of Robbie and Krystal Weedon who comes from a family that changes the least in the story since they are used to death and tragedy. The other character’s contemplate their futures as they are reminded of the chaos that has ensued since Barry Fairbrother’s death.



John le Carré: Absolute Friends

78Plot summary

The book tells the story of Ted Mundy, the Pakistani-born son of a British army officer, who as a student becomes proficient in the German language. He joins a 1960s-era student protest group in West Berlin and becomes a lifelong friend of a West German student anarchist named Sasha. Having been brutally beaten by West Berlin police and ejected from Germany, Mundy fails at several careers; as a teacher at an English prep school, as a newspaper reporter, a radio interviewer and a novelist.

Eventually Mundy obtains a position with the British Council. Meanwhile, Sasha has defected to East Germany to become a member of the notorious Stasi secret police. On a trip to East Germany with a youth theatre group, Mundy and Sasha meet again. By this time Sasha has become totally disillusioned with the Communist Bloc and enlists the naïve Mundy to become a double agent. Sasha has access to state secrets and he recruits Mundy to help him smuggle them out of East Germany and deliver them to MI6, the British Secret Service. Their efforts contribute to the collapse of the GDR and eventual destruction of the Berlin Wall.

Later, Sasha and Mundy once again conspire in grandiose schemes to combat American military and industrial globalization. The two ideologues become pawns of the group they thought they were combating. They are framed with planted explosives by American and German security services, who brutally shoot them during a staged raid. After they are killed, they are portrayed as terrorists “with connections to Al-Qaeda“, in efforts to convince European governments to support the United States in its “war on terror”. After Mundy’s death, Amory, his controller from the British intelligence service during his espionage years, tries to publicize the truth, but slander by the British government results in his story being totally discredited.

(source: wikipedia)


William Faulkner: Intruder in the Dust


When Lucas Beauchamp, a dignified elderly black man, is wrongly accused of murdering a white man, he refuses to defend himself from what he sees as a malicious and racist society and it is up to 16-year-old Chick Mallison to find some way to save him. Chick Mallison’s first encounter with Lucas Beauchamp is far from any courthouse. Out hunting with some friends, Chick falls into an icy creek and is only saved by Lucas Beauchamp, who happens to live nearby. Chick is white and from a respectable southern family. Lucas doesn’t seem to care one way or the other. He simply rescues Chick and then takes him back to his home, where he feeds him and lets him dry off. Chick leaves with a profound awe and respect for Lucas’s deeply dignified self-possession.

Chick tries to pay him for his help, but Lucas refuses to enter into any scenario where he could be seen as being indebted to anyone else, especially someone from white society. But Chick has his own sense of dignity and honor, and feels overwhelmed by his debt to Lucas for saving his life. So Chick tries sending gifts. But when Chick sends Lucas a gift, Lucas sends him one back. Things kind of devolve from here as the back-and-forth dies down and the two go their own ways.

Then Chick learns that Lucas has been arrested for murdering Vinson Gowrie, a backwoods hick with disreputable friends and family who make no attempt to hide the fact that they intend to lynch Lucas for this murder. Chick doesn’t believe the charge. Lucas insists on his innocence but does little more to defend himself than ask Chick’s uncle, Gavin Stevens, to represent him as lawyer. Gavin is not a bad man, or even explicitly racist, but he assumes Lucas’s guilt from the start. Rather than craft a genuine defense, Gavin immediately tries to convince Lucas to plead for clemency and make a play for prison so as to hopefully avoid the gallows. In this way, Lucas’s reluctance to defend himself seems justified – who would believe a black man’s innocence when a white man is dead?

But Chick knows Lucas and he knows he would never murder anyone. Lucas is convinced at last that at least someone cares enough to believe him, and he tells Chick that if he wants to clear his name, he should dig up Vinson’s body in the cemetery. Lucas says the evidence there will prove his Colt .41 had no role in the shooting death, and thereby exonerate him. With his young black friend Aleck Sander and an old white lady named Miss Habersham, who was friends with Lucas’s dead wife, Chick goes to the cemetery.

They dig up Vinson’s coffin, but there’s a problem. The body in the coffin is not Vinson Gowrie. Realizing that this just might exonerate Lucas on its own, they all rush back to the sheriff to tell him the news. When they return to the gravesite, though, the coffin is empty. The sheriff has them search the surrounding area and they find two bodies: Jack Montgomery (this is the body Chick, Aleck, and Miss Habersham first found) and Vinson Gowrie. The sheriff realizes that Lucas is in fact innocent. He releases Lucas from prison and arrests Vinson’s brother Crawford, who is the real killer.

It turns out that Crawford and Vinson were involved in a lumber scheme. But Crawford wasn’t satisfied with his share and began stealing some of the lumber. Somehow Lucas found out. Fearing that Lucas might rat him out, Crawford killed his brother and framed Lucas for the murder. Jack Montgomery was another business partner of Crawford’s who attempted to use Vinson’s body as blackmail, and got killed for it. Crawford dumped Jack’s body in the coffin. But when he realized Chick had dug up the body, he hid it before the sheriff could come and find it. None of that saved him in the end, of course. The novel ends with Crawford committing suicide in the sheriff’s holding cell and Lucas going free, but not before he pays the doubting Gavin Stevens for his legal “services” – in a mountain of pennies.