Granny's Good Reads 

Sonia Lee is one of our most treasured customers and a voracious reader.

February 2020

 - Friday, January 31, 2020
My first Good Reads for 2020 are two coming-of-age novels: Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls and The Offing by Benjamin Myers. The first was recommended by my daughter and I bought the second because a reviewer mentioned it in the same breath as A Month in the Country by J L Carr, one of my favourite books. Set in 1997, Sweet Sorrow features 16-year-old Charlie Lewis—one of a gang of rough boys at the local comprehensive. Charlie’s parents have separated, his mother taking his younger sister while he stays at home with his depressed dad. After making a half-serious suicide attempt, Charlie sabotages his GCSE by walking out of some of the papers. At a loose end in the summer, he stumbles upon a local production of Romeo and Juliet, in which Fran Fisher, a high achiever at a private school, is playing Juliet. With the help of Fran’s coaching, Charlie reluctantly agrees to take the part of Benvolio. Fran is his first love, ‘the brief, blinding explosion of first love that can only be looked at directly once it has burnt out’, with Shakespeare a tentative second, and Charlie is transformed by both.

Myers’s The Offing is set in the aftermath of World War 2, when 16-year- old Robert Appleyard leaves his Durham mining village and makes his way to Robin Hood’s Bay. There he meets Dulcie, an eccentric older woman with whom he forms an unlikely friendship that profoundly affects their futures. Dulcie feeds him, gives him books, and puts into his head the surprising notion that he could possibly go to university. He looks back as a mature man on that life-changing summer. Dulcie had once been the lover of Romy Landau, a tragic German poet, and when Robert discovers Romy’s final unpublished collection, called The Offing, Dulcie is led to a posthumous message from the poet. The offing is ‘the distant stretch of sea where sky and water merge’, a perfect metaphor for Robert’s transition from adolescence to adulthood. Both novels are beautifully written and a joy to read.

Now two books about land. In Mallee Country (Monash U.P.) Richard Broome, Charles Fahey, Andrea Gaynor and Katie Holmes tell a story of contrasts. First of how the Aboriginal people of the Mallee cared for it during the 50,000 years before European settlement and then of the changes made by European settlers, whose sheep and rabbits were followed by the flattening and burning of the land to allow wheat to be sown, with the resulting dust storms, salination, mice plagues and so on. While reading this book I picked up Wearing Paper Dresses, a powerful novel by Anne Brinsden about the troubled wife of a Mallee farmer and their two daughters Ruby and Marjorie. Reading the two books in tandem was illuminating. The settling of the Mallee lands was an environmental catastrophe. It destroyed the land and many of the settlers, the poet John Shaw Neilson being one victim. The final chapter tells of attempts to rectify some of these ills and cope with global warming as well.

Wilding by Isabella Tree tells the inspirational story of how she and her husband Charlie Burrell transformed their 3,500 acre West Sussex estate Knepp from a failing farm to a thriving ecosystem by stocking it with grazing animals like longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies and fallow deer, stimulating new habitats and enriching the heavy clay soils with new life. The neighbours at first hated the straggly hedgerows and what they regarded as a proliferation of weeds but now they see a return of rare species such as purple emperor butterflies, peregrine falcons, turtle doves, nightingales and skylarks—all of which are declining in the rest of England. The Knepp project is now a leading light in conservation in the UK and serves as an inspiration to all of us. In the final chapter Tree says that global warming could be reduced if farmers stopped over-producing and if consumers stopped wasting food and learned to eat seasonal food grown locally.  

Anyone who is interested in words and enjoyed Between You and Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen, will love It’s Greek to Me by Mary Norris. As a girl Mary wanted to learn Latin but her Dad forbade her. While working as a copy editor at the New Yorker, she determined to recover some of the lost ground and learn Greek. Her benevolent employer came to the party and paid for her to learn both modern and classical Greek. In this book, which is thoroughly informative and frequently hilarious, she describes her college classes, her roles in Greek plays and her trips to Greece and finally to Cyprus, the birthplace of Aphrodite, where she skinny-dipped in the legendary pool of the goddess. She rejoices in language and has a lovely time imagining being Plato’s copy editor and translating one of his sentences as ‘WTF, Socrates?’ The book is full of such gems and I heartily recommend it. Sonia