Granny's Good Reads 

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

July 2018

 - Tuesday, July 03, 2018
An Odyssey: A Father a Son and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn is not only a brilliant family memoir but also an excellent introduction to Homer’s Odyssey. Daniel’s 81-year-old father Jay, a former research scientist, asks if he can sit in on his son’s Friday seminar on The Odyssey at Bard College. When Daniel somewhat reluctantly agrees, Jay drives every Thursday from Long Island to Bard College and stays overnight in Daniel’s office, sleeping on the bed he made out of an old door for Daniel when he was a small boy. Though Daniel hopes that Jay will be seen but not heard in class, he quickly becomes a disruptive presence. According to Jay, Odysseus is not a hero, but a husband who cheats on his wife, a captain who loses his crew, and a sook who whines and whinges when things go wrong. Moreover, Jay asks, what about Penelope, the faithful wife at home in Ithaca, fighting off suitors and desperately trying to keep house and throne together with the pallid help of young Telemachus? The students soon come to like Jay, especially when he starts taking the train to college so he can discuss The Odyssey with them free from Daniel’s supervision. In the end, Daniel himself comes to see that Jay’s untutored perspective has led the class to a richer reading of the poem. A few weeks after the end of the seminar, Jay and Daniel go on a Mediterranean cruise to retrace the legendary journey of Odysseus. Daniel now begins to see the responsive side of a father who at home had always seemed aloof and wary of showing affection. There’s a touching moment when Daniel, who suffers from claustrophobia, has a panic attack in the cave of Calypso and Jay grasps his son’s hand but later passes the incident off by saying he’d only wanted to keep himself steady. When it becomes impossible for the cruise ship to get to Ithaci Daniel is asked to give a lecture on the legendary island of Ithaca, which he does by discussing two other poems, Tennyson’s Ulysses and Cavafy’s Ithaca. In the following year Jay has a fatal stroke and the family gathers at his bedside. One of his last words is ‘door’, the secret of the bed made long ago by Jay for Daniel, evoking yet another secret, that of the marriage bed made even longer ago by Odysseus for Penelope. I loved this book. 


My daughter said I should read The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf’s book about Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), so I did. What an amazing man he was! There are so many things named after him: an ocean current, a penguin and a hundred other animal species, a lily and three hundred other plant species, a Californian county and state park, mountain ranges in China, South Africa and Antarctica, a crater and a ‘sea’ on the moon, and 54 Alexandra, an asteroid orbiting the sun. He strongly influenced literary figures like Goethe, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Thoreau, while the young naturalist Charles Darwin had copies of Humboldt’s books beside his hammock on the Beagle. Unable to travel widely in Europe because of the Napoleonic wars, he obtained the Spanish king’s permission to carry out scientific research in Central and South America. With his botanical associate Aimé Bonpland and an impressive array of scientific instruments he explored the region bounded by Mexico, Venezuela and Peru extensively, traversing its rivers, observing its plants and animals and climbing mountains like Chimborazo—all the while measuring, recording and sending boatloads of specimens to Berlin. On his way home in 1804 he called on President Jefferson, for whom, despite his detestation of slavery, he had a high regard. The United States had just bought Louisiana from Napoleon and, acting on Humboldt’s advice, Jefferson made an even bigger deal with the king of Spain for what is now the State of Texas. Denied permission to explore in India, Humboldt, at age 60, joined the Russian prospecting expedition to Siberia which enabled him to explore the Altai Mountains and derive inspiration for Cosmos, the now all but forgotten masterpiece in which he attempted to synthesise everything he had learned about the environment—stressing through his concept of the web of life the interconnectedness of everything in nature. A prophet before his time, Humboldt warned of climate change, soil degradation and the destruction of forests a century before anyone else. Though his later scientific lectures in Germany were packed out and his funeral (he died at age 89) was the largest that Berlin had ever seen, he now seems sadly forgotten—as if, with his environmentalism grudgingly accepted, its author has disappeared from view. A notable exception to this disregard is South America, where his legacy is still treasured. Sonia