Book bits

Three books about the heartland, a review of "The Uncommon Reader" by Alan Bennett, two books for young readers, and readers' picks.

Books about the heartland

She was in one herself and knew its impact. That's why journalist Kristen Laine decided to spend a year with the Concord High School Marching Minutemen in Elkhart, Ind., and then write American Band: Music, Dreams, and Coming of Age in the Heartland. The result is a winsome book that says much about the power of marching bands (more popular today than ever) but perhaps even more about life in small town Middle America.

It was 1880. She was a typesetter, living in Vermillion, S.D., and caring for her younger siblings. He was a journalist in Rapid City, Iowa, struggling to start a newspaper. His need for a typesetter led him to her. First she became a pen pal then, finally, his wife. Sunshine Always: The Courtship Letters of Alice Bower and Joseph Gossage of Dakota Territory, edited by Paula M. Nelson and compiled by Maxwell Van Nuys, offers an intriguing glimpse into 19th-century life on America's great plains as well as into the hearts and minds of a hardworking couple.

It was when he moved back to his tiny, struggling hometown in Virginia that Joe Bageant became aware of all he didn't really know about America. Deer Hunting with Jesus is his funny, sharp, irreverent look at small-town America and the class war he sees raging in its midst.

The Uncommon Reader

Author: Alan Bennett

"Yes. That is exactly what it is. A book is a device to ignite the imagination,'" says the fictional Queen Elizabeth II when her footman informs her that her reading choice might have been an explosive device. Indeed, in Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader, books prove to be the people's enemy as the queen becomes so absorbed between the pages that she eschews her royal duties.

It all begins when the royal canines inadvertently lead the monarch to the "City of Westminster travelling library, a large removal-like van parked next to the bins outside one of the kitchen doors." In her first meaningful literary foray, the queen will unknowingly choose her first title from a stack of literal discards.

Apparently the library's only regular borrower is Norman, a young kitchen worker with a penchant for old musicals. Norman and the van are back the next week when the curious queen returns for a new title. By the following week, Norman has moved from washing dishes to tending the royal library – and becomes the queen's de facto book supplier.

The more the queen reads, the more she regrets the many audiences she had with literati, wasted chances for meaningful exchanges. "Everybody's dead," she moans to her non-reading husband.

Lost in her literary reveries, books become the scapegoat of the royal household. Elaborate plots are attempted by the queen's staff in hopes of recapturing her attention, even surreptitiously whisking Norman off to the University of East Anglia, from whence emerged the likes of Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain, and Kazuo Ishiguro. "We've read those," Norman responds to his new posting.

Without a literary accomplice, the queen takes to writing her responses in notebooks. What she discovers is her own voice, "… that sensible, down-to-earth tone of voice she was coming to recognize and even relish as her own style." With "her faculties … never … sharper," the nearly octogenarian queen feasts on the fruit of knowledge and finds herself jolted out of her royally circumscribed life.

The staggeringly prodigious Bennett, an award-winning playwright ("The History Boys"), bestselling novelist, and memoirist, has fun with the writers and books the queen relishes (and doesn't). Avid readers will enjoy his playful erudition in this entertaining reminder as to why we read and write. Here's hoping the multifaceted Bennett never puts down his pen.

Cozy cold-weather reads

Autumn is on its way and with it come shorter days, colder nights, and falling leaves. For younger readers who wonder what happens to the animals when the weather grows cold, here are two delightful books that help to explain. The Busy Little Squirrel (recommended for readers ages 2 to 5) by Caldecott honor awardee Nancy Tafuri tells the story of a busy squirrel who must work, work, work to store up winter food – and finally settle into his cozy winter nest. Very Hairy Bear (ages 3 to 7) by Alice Shertle is the story of a shaggy, raggy, boulder-big bear who finds he can no longer enjoy his summer pleasures – but can look forward to a lovely winter's nap.

Readers' picks

Being familiar with the English Bloomsbury writers, I was curious about American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever so I bought the book and read it. What a revelation! Captivated, I moved on to the biography Margaret Fuller by Carolyn Balducci. She was a century ahead of her generation. Both are good reads. – Betty Brennan, Penn Valley, Calif.

The subtitle of Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann is "a sheep detective story" but the book is so much more. It's unique and wise and fun to read!

– Joan Ewing, Albuquerque, N.M.

I am a Vietnam vet and for years and years I never read anything about the war. Now some 30 years later I am reading more and more. The latest is Foxtrot Ridge by Mark W. Woodruff. The writing is as if done on the ground. I could feel myself there. That's good writing. – Ted Picado, Rialto, Calif.

We recommend No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin. My husband started reading it and telling me about it so I became interested and began reading it when he set it down. It is so deeply researched and readable. No wonder it won the Pulitzer Prize. Awesome! – Merry Ann and Ken Peterson, Seattle

Gretel Ehrlich first journeys to Wyoming to film the life of sheepherders. The Solace of Open Spaces beautifully captures the essence of Wyoming's wild and harsh terrain, the rugged individuals that work there, and Ehrlich's own reawakening.– Suzanne Barton, Wallingford, Pa.

I'm reading Where God Was Born by Bruce Feiler because I want to learn more about the Middle East. – Shirl Alix-Eck, Golden, Colo.

What are you reading? Write and tell us at Marjorie Kehe .

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