Granny's Good Reads 

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

May 2018

 - Tuesday, May 15, 2018
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor is a novel unlike any other. It begins on a sombre note: ‘They gathered in the car park in the hour before dawn and waited to be told what to do’. This is the start of a desperate search for Rebecca, a missing 13-year-old girl, in the Peak District in the middle of winter. However, this is not a crime novel but an account of the rhythms of life in the village in the 13 years after her disappearance—including not just the people, but the foxes and badgers, the sheep and blackbirds, and the landscape itself. In the changing seasons of the ensuing years babies are born, the young people who knew Rebecca, including James who kissed her, grow up and go away, couples break up, and old people die. McGregor began by writing separate accounts of the village families, which he then broke up and rearranged, giving his prose a vivid freshness and the story a powerful cumulative effect. McGregor says he is ‘allergic to trying to make points in fiction’ and has an antipathy to ‘big drama’. Instead, he has given us a beautiful and memorable portrait of English country life.
 
A new volume of Zadie Smith’s essays is always a matter for rejoicing and Feel Free contains many of her best ones from The New York Review of Books, including a spirited defence of public libraries in The North West London Blues and an equally trenchant dissection of Brexit titled Fences. For a short time Smith also wrote for Harper’s Magazine on topics as diverse as the dour philosophy of John Gray and the very undour life of ‘Debo’ Mitford, the late dowager duchess of Devonshire. Other goodies are her NYR essays Joy, on the gap between joy and pleasure, and Find Your Beach on life in New York. My favourites are the essays about her English father and Jamaican mother, including the one about the maisonette that the family moved into when Zadie was eight and where her mother still lives. Like Alan Bennett she is unreservedly grateful to the England that gave her free health care and a free education, without which we would not have the Zadie Smith whose versatility and intelligence have soenriched our lives. 

Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve is about the transmission and reception, mainly in Western culture, of the Creation Story in the first two chapters of Genesis. As a prequel, he discusses the Babylonian creation stories before turning his attention to Genesis.  It’s a story that has attracted not just preachers, but artists like Dürer and Michelangelo, theologians like Jerome and Augustine, and poets like Dante and Milton. St Augustine is marked down for holding Eve responsible for the downfall of humanity and giving rise to the misogyny which subsequently permeated Christianity. Greenblatt’s discussion of Milton’s Paradise Lost is particularly delightful and includes a neat analysis of the small talk of the first couple who also, according to the poet, had sex in Paradise. Much later, Voltaire would ask what was wrong with people possessing the knowledge of good and evil, Mark Twain would ridicule the story, and Darwin would contend that we are more likely to have descended from ape-like ancestors than from a beautifully formed first couple, with navels, living in a Mesopotamian paradise. There are some nice photographs of paintings of Adam and Eve, including the famous one on the Sistine chapel ceiling—which John Milton may have seen when in Rome. Greenblatt concludes with a visit to Kibale in Uganda, where he observes chimpanzees lolling around in trees in their jungle home and apparently living without shame or self-consciousness. Are animals like these, he asks, our real pre-lapsarian ancestors? A thrilling and thought-provoking book.


Now for some light reading: Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel. In 1986 Christopher Knight abandoned his car, walked out into the wilderness in northern Maine and disappeared for 27 years. He had no plan and took no supplies but set up home in a secluded spot where he dwelt in total solitude through bitterly cold winters and mosquito-ridden summers. He survived by stealing food, clothes, sleeping bags and gas cylinders until finally nabbed stealing food from a summer camp for disabled children. He spoke to nobody, never saw a doctor or dentist, but spent his time reading stolen books, listening to a stolen radio and playing stolen video games. Knight was the fifth son of a close-knit rural family who never told the police he was missing and took him back after he’d served his sentence for stealing. An intriguing read, at the end of which it was hard to decide whether to admire ‘the Hermit of North Pond’ or label him an anti-social predator. Sonia